The Rogue Voice


February 01, 2007

Sketches of San Francisco: The cruise

‘He doesn’t look like he’s ever missed a meal, and I bet you he drives a Cadillac, but did you check that half-assed toupee he wears?’

‘Fortunately, there’s very few around like me — monastic Luddites who buy nothing but the bare essentials.’

Sketches of San Francisco
The cruise

By Talmadge Jarratee

Zelda managed to drag me to Fisherman’s Wharf, where she talked me into taking a cruise in the bay. We had an hour to waste before our boat embarked, so Zelda got to shop at the tables set up by individual street vendors along the promenade at the wharf. Jewelry and sunglasses and accessories. T-shirts and sweatshirts and ballcaps. Photos and watercolors of San Francisco landmarks like the Golden Gate bridge, Colt Tower, the Palace of Fine Arts, etc. These tables are run by mostly Asians, old hippies, and scabrous New York City escapees.
After briefly observing some street entertainers—break dancers, pantomimists, sax tooters—all drawing lively crowds, we lingered at a table manned by a vendor in a baggy silk shirt. He was so heavy as to have breasts, and swarthy with darting, slyly appraising eyes, yet he feigned a nonchalance about selling anything, as if he could care less if Zelda was interested in his brass jewelry. From askance, though, he sized her up as she tried on a shiny bracelet. A wise shopper, she knows quality, has slender arms and wrists envied by most women. The vendor did in fact remark that the bracelet looked good on her tanned wrist. As he showed her another bracelet, I asked: “You from New York?”
“The city, yeah,” he said, eyeing me up, sensing instantly I was not going to buy anything. Having been in the Army, and vacationed in the Big Apple, I was aware of certain traits of New Yorkers: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Long Island, Staten Island, the Bronx, Queens; they were all slightly different in accents and gestures. There was something about the way a Bronx street guy took out his money clip and paid for something.
“Lower eastside?” I asked.
He stiffened. “Born and raised. You from there?”
“Naw. But I been there.”
Zelda always frowned and sighed in exasperation when I started conversations with strangers. I informed him I’d been down to the huge bazaars on the lower eastside and bought a red pimp hat during my week of wandering the city, eating and boozing from noon until the bars closed at four in the morning. This dude wore a bracelet, chain around his neck, a beautiful watch, and three rings. He finally asked me if I saw anything I was interested in buying.
“Nah. I don’t buy stuff I don’t need, I’m a monastic Luddite.”
“If everybody’s like yoose, the world ends. Everybody starves.”
“You’re right about that. Fortunately, there’s very few around like me—monastic Luddites who buy nothing but the bare essentials.”
“You should treat yourself once in a while, my fellow New Yawkah. It’s good to have something nice.”
“Yeh, then if I die there’ll at least be one good thing for the vultures to fight over.” Zelda made a disgusted face. “My mother, who has closets of nice things, agrees with you that I should have nice things,” I went on. “It disturbs her that I drive old cars until they quit and then buy new junkers. And clothes? My theory is, clothes are not really broken in and comfortable until they’re on the verge of disintegration, so I stock my wardrobe from thrift stores.”
“You should listen to your mother," he encouraged, “What? You wanna look like a junkman when you don’t hafta? Mothers are always right.” He shook his head sadly at my apparel. “A nice shirt, and maybe you make this beautiful lady happier, eh?”
To get me out of the man’s hair, Zelda bought a bracelet, the New Yorker feigning casualness about the sale. We said our goodbyes and headed to the pier to buy tickets for the cruise. The big, boats rocked quietly against the quay. Tickets for the cruise were $36 for two, my treat. We had a little more time to waste, so strolled along the wharf. All the little shops and cafes and ice cream parlors and restaurants were overrun with camera-clicking tourists babbling in various languages, posing for one another, the Americans, of course, standing out easily as the fattest and most clueless. We stopped for overpriced ice cream and then overpriced coffee and finally returned to wait in a long queue by a railing to get aboard our cruise ship—a one-hour excursion, thank God.
As the line began moving, everybody had cameras out and ready for action. A man in a maritime uniform took our tickets at a gate. The boat was basic steel, painted white, a couple decks, crude, functional for human cattle. Inside, off the entryway, was a small snackbar, deserted, manned by a uniformed black man who looked bored. Zelda led me up to the top deck, where there were rows of seats in the sun. The boat was perhaps 90 percent full. We sat together. I squeezed her hand, and she smiled, showing me her bracelet, “It’s not so bad, is it? Maybe you’ll enjoy the cruise.”
“We’ll see.”
“Well, try. At least we’re doing something…new.
We shoved off, pulling away from the pier and righting ourselves in the bay. As we headed toward the distant bridge, a recorded voice came on over loudspeakers placed strategically throughout the ship, a male voice that was a monotone attempting enthusiasm—like a first grade teacher trying to impress distracted toddlers. We were welcomed to the “Bay Cruise” and then the voice commenced a canned flow of information about the bay and history of San Fancisco. It appeared that the cruise line’s marketing strategists figured most everybody aboard this tin can knew absolutely nothing about the city (an Indian couple began taking notes), or much of anything else short of pictures, which everybody was indulging in as we steamed past Aquatic Park. The area in which we sat had Americans, Europeans, Asians, the Indian couple. When Fort Mason was commented upon and pointed out, a volley of clicks followed.
The perspective of the city and its distant cluster of buildings was an inspiring, majestic panorama from the bay.
“Isn’t this nice?” Zelda smiled. “Doesn’t the sun feel good? Don’t you love the view?”
“Do you realize we’re possibly the only people on this tub without a camera? That should tell you something.”
She flashed me a sly, shy look and withdrew one of those two-dollar throwaway cameras from her purse. The canned voice now oozed with inflection as it informed us of all the ships in port during the goldrush (many abandoned by people from as far away as Australia) and then segued smoothly to point out the Presidio as we headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Passing the familiar marina was boring, so I left to wander around, catching glimpses of Sausalito, Tiburon and Angel Island. The wind blew harder and I took my hooded sweatshirt off from around my waist and put it on. The bay became a little choppier as we approached the bridge, which loomed above us, a gigantic, intricate structure. I passed through the snackbar area, where the black attendant sat by himself on a bench, slouched back, eyes closed, listening to his head phones. His tip jar was empty, so I dropped a buck in it.
I emerged at the front of the ship and stood behind a bunch of Latinos seated at the bow, enjoying the whipping breeze and bright sun. The narrator began intoning the difficulty of building the bridge, how long it took, what went into it, how many men died during its construction, how many cars went across it in one day and how many had crossed it since its opening. As we cut under the bridge, the ship rocked and I held onto a siding until we passed back under to re-enter the bay. Our narrator segued into some significant information involving Ft. Baker, on our left. Then we headed for Alcatraz, the highlight of the cruise.
I rejoined Zelda as we approached Alcatraz. She had her camera out. As we passed closely by the “The Rock,” there was the usual bevy of vital information about its history, famous convicts who’d served and died there, escape attempts, etc. Alcatraz was an impressive, sinister, desolate place, so close yet so far from San Fran proper, the cold currents and sharks, of course, gobbling up those who tried to escape. Tourists led by guides relating the same old stories seemed to crawl serpentine around this rock and like ants swarming a white layer cake.
We headed back to the dock. As we drew closer, people began bunching up near the exit. I struck up a conversation with a thickset, broad-beamed, middle-aged couple in front of us. They wore San Francisco hooded sweatshirts, one red, one grey, like those hocked at the sidewalk tables. They were from Indiana. Where? I asked. Michigan City.
“Oh sure,” I said. “Near Benton Harbor.”
“Yes!” enthused the woman. “You know the area?”
“Yeah. I hitchhiked through there years ago, and went up the peninsula. Lots of beautiful, monster sand dunes.”
“Yes! You do know the area.”
We were drifting in now, only a hundred or so yards from land. The woman told me that she and her husband had both worked for the post office all their lives and were now on vacation. They’d been to Disneyland, Universal Studios, Hearst Castle …they were set to retire soon, had bought a mobile home down in the marina in Michigan City, on the lake, so they were practically “Boat People.” I asked them how they liked San Francisco. They thought it was definitely “different,” but beautiful and, “Oh, so expensive! How could anybody afford it?” The husband asked me. “How does anybody afford to live close to the water like we do in California? They want a million for shacks!”
“You have to live like a monk,” I said, and Zelda shuddered, turning away from me. Both the Indiana people wore University of Indiana ballcaps. “If you’re not a damn millionaire, you gotta shop at Wal-Mart and eat cabbage.” We bumped into the pier, gently rocking, and tying down. “San Francisco,” I said, “is a luxury. I run a homeless shelter in Santa Cruz, so it isn’t easy affording this place, but we do it anyway, because you never see stuff going on like you do here.”
As we disembarked, the couple paid their goodbyes and we were back in the flux of humanity, headed toward our motel off Van Ness. On the way, we passed the table of bracelets and jewelry manned by the New Yorker, who looked insufferably insoucient as two people tried on chains.
“There’s your friend, Zelda,” I said, pointing. “He wears the finest jewelry, he doesn’t look like he’s ever missed a meal, and I bet you he drives a Cadillac, but did you check that half-assed toupee he wears? I wonder what his wife thinks of it?”
She ignored me, refused to talk about it. We purchased some popcorn and sat down on a bench in Aquatic Park and fed the pigeons. We were pretty satisfied with our afternoon. Such a brilliantly sunny, midweek day, especially for us, for our trip of two days. Then a shockingly loud voice rented the tranquility and we turned to see a group of what appeared to be around thirty junior high kids straggling down the pathway from Fort Mason. One very fat and heavily overcoated black kid was bellowing the same phrase over and over again:
Zelda clasped her hands over her ears and squeezed shut her eyes.
ALL his friends, black and white, even the girls, giggled as they followed him along. Joggers and bicyclers and strollers swept past, paying him no heed, most of them swathed in headphones.
I grabbed Zelda’s camera and clicked off a shot of the boy before he disappeared from view, headed toward Van Ness, his booming refrain gradually fading away, and Zelda removing her hands from her ears and opening her eyes.
The pictures never came out. §

Talmadge Jarratee is a recovering alcholic who runs a homeless shelter in Santa Cruz.


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