Dorian lived upstairs from the Green Street Mortuary, in North Beach. He was caretaker there, cleaning up around the bodies downstairs, late nights and early mornings. The rest of the time he was blowing mouth harp out on Broadway, with the likes of me and Jimmy, or practicing alone, sitting on his bed, upstairs over the death chapel, truly lost in the blues.
He’d come to the states from Australia, and his skin was a whiter shade of paste, but he took his blues music very seriously. He was “living the blues,” and that was the sole purpose of his journey. Dorian loved all the great harmonica men, Little Walter, Big Walter, Jimmy Reed and Lazy Lester, Sonny Terry, too and he had a huge collection of their work on homemade cassettes that he’d listen to for hours, trying to play along.
The living quarters above the funeral home were bare bones. Dorian had a room with a bed, and he shared a bath and kitchen with several other boarders, including an Irish-American cabdriver named Mike, and an old toothless original beatnik named Louis, who sold codeine number fours for fifty cents a piece to kids like me.
There was a spare room, and I moved in, with Dorian’s okay. It was empty, with only some carpet on the floor, and twobig bay windows without curtains that looked out on the street. No one seemed to mind when I came back every night and crashed on that floor in my sleeping bag. Dorian had even given me a key.
Jimmy was another musical pal. He came over, knew a good thing when he saw it, and immediately split. He was back within the hour, carrying everything he owned in a cardboard box. He’d been kicked out of his other place. The price was right at Dorian’s, so he moved in too. He was the same age as me, and had only recently taken up the guitar, but he was an amazingly quick study. He could get his head and hands around some very complicated patterns.The only thing he couldn’t do yet was make ’em sound like music. He’d be all over the place, out of tune and out of time, but it was still impressive. We’d been learning by osmosis, watching the unsung North Beach music heroes, soaking up the blues and ragtime finger picking styles.
The two of us had even spent some time going over the stuff with some of the older musicians.Then we’d sit up in the mortuary and work for hours on whatever songs we ‘d learned that week, songs with names like “Charlie James” and “I Belong To The Band.”
Jimmy called everyone ”pal,” and was street smart in sort of a dim-lit way. He’d heard all the reigning hipsters spin their tales, knew their disclaimers, the retorts, the slippery verbal repertoire of the full-time musicians and street addicts he’d grown up around. His parents had both died, and he’d been raised by his big brother Jerry, who played bass in some well known West Coast rock bands, so he was known and tolerated, even welcomed in, by the local rockers. It was a little brother situation. He had a homemade tattoo from his spell in Juvenile Hall, that said “Mom” in sloppy blue letters. He liked to brag that he was a hothead, a badass fighter, but he seemed pretty mild most of the time. I liked him.
I’d made a bunch of money in a couple lucky sessions on the street, and loaned Jimmy a hundred bucks. He’d spent it on percadan and skunk weed, and now both of us were dead broke. It’d been raining for days, with no hope of letting up, so the busking income was completely cut off, and we were going hungry.
He said he had a Social Security check coming, so, when I found out he was going to walk to City Hall and pick it up, I decided to go with him, knowing that was the only way to make sure I’d get paid back.
We left our guitars stashed in the upstairs room and headed out.
It was a long way across San Francisco, over to Polk Street, through the Broadway Tunnel, and even farther, South, to City Hall. We trudged in the rain, and the cold, stomachs gnawing, but hopeful, already spending the money in our heads. We’d have a big meal over at Steve’s Restaurant on Sixth Street, maybe score a bag of grass, and get some Heinekens—that’s what Jimmy is rappin’ about, his scene, the good life. A couple of comic books, and we’d be set to go on home to the mortuary and kick back.
After the cross-town trek, we finally got over to City Hall, entered off Polk Street and walked into the great, domed, wide open lobby, with its marble floors and giant pillars. It sounded like an indoor swimming pool, the murmur of voices echoing, as little groups of people in business dress stood about in the civic space and chatted, conferred, confabulated.
I was wearing a pair of terrible, black and green-striped bell-bottoms, high water style, with a faded blue cut-off sweatshirt, and an oversize red and black, hunters-plaid winter overcoat. My shoes were worn, brown Hush Puppy desert boots, several sizes too large, and my feet moved around inside. All of this couture was courtesy of the hand-me-down street economy. My hair was down to my shoulders, a tangled mane that hadn’t seen a brush for over a year. Jimmy looked a little slicker than me, but not much. His hair was riding in sort of a distorted Afro-Cuban formation, he had on a black lightweight man’s jacket, a grey t-shirt, blue jeans, and a pair of black Keds. It all might’ve looked alright if it hadn’t been his sole motif for the last month. I felt conspicuous, like we were a couple of wet dogs, coming in from the rain. I don’t think Jimmy was too worried about it though—he just wanted his money, he needed to get his hands on that check.
We made a beeline straight for the Treasury Department, which was all the way to the back and left of the lobby. We walked through the double glass doors, and it was like a bank inside, with rows of clerks behind windows, and, in back of them, numerous workers at desks piled high with official documents and accounting books.
We waited in line, absently watching the others ahead of us all hassling with the man, but I didn’t think too much about it. I was just happy, dreamily anticipating the life-enhancing feel of some new silver and green in my cash pocket.
Jimmy got to the head of the line and immediately there was a problem.
“Sorry sir,” said the man behind the glass, “we don’t have the release form for your check yet; it hasn’t come in from Otis Street. They have to clear it over there and send it in.”
“There must be some mistake!” said’ Jimmy. “They told me it was ready, that everything was taken care of.”
“Sorry, sir. Please step aside. Next!”
Jimmy had to step away from the window. I was dumbfounded. What did it mean?
“Look, man, this guy’s full of shit. My worker told me this morning on the phone, everything is supposed to be cool. It’s not that far, let’s just walk over to Otis Street and see her. I’m sure she can get it together.”
So we headed back out into Civic Center, under low clouds, wet from grey drizzle and the splash of passing busses and cars. I felt the cold breeze whipping up underneath my clothes, getting its icy fingers all over me. It was enough to make me wish I still owned some fruit-of-the-looms.
In that kind of cold you just have to just put your head down and fade away as you go. We worked our way down Polk, walking past Market and out Mission; we didn’t say much. It was grim, that’s all, and we wanted to make it ASAP, ’cause there was still time to get the check today, before closing.
The building on Otis looked like the last brick outpost on the frontlines of a siege. Here were the Welfare, Foodstamps, Social Security and ATD offices. People were jammed in like clowns in a phone booth; the hallways were cold, dark, and lit with fluorescent brown light that made everyone and everything appear distant. Jimmy’s worker’s name was Janis, and she was just a few years older than us. You could tell with one look as she passed by, that Janis was hopelessly buried under an insane caseload, totally overworked, beseeched nine to five, five days a week, by the most troubled and poverty stricken people imaginable. She looked stressed.
Jimmy took a number and we waited.
We watched the minute hand of the clock run a slow lap before Janis was ready to see Jimmy. There was about forty-five minutes of the work day left, and the traffic in the building was starting to thin out, when she appeared at her door and waved us both in.
Her office was tiny, just a cubicle. Jimmy sat down and started to explain the situation; he was actually tearful, and I was surprised to see him like that. He usually tried to come off as a tough guy. It almost looked like he was gonna start crying, as he told her how the man withheld his check. She was very sympathetic, warm, nodding her head; you could tell she really was concerned for him.
“Go back to City Hall,” she said, “and by the time you get over there, I’ll have it taken care of, you’ll get the check. It’s just a mistake. I’ll let them know.”
Cool. So we hit the exit, retraced our footsteps, back down Mission, over Van Ness, across Market, on to Polk Street, and into City Hall. We made straight for the Treasury and waited in line again. There were just a few customers ahead of us, and soon we were back at the window, with just moments to spare.
The man took a look at his ledger, or whatever it was, and peered back up at Jimmy through his thick horn rims. “Sorry, Sir, the paper work on this hasn’t come through. I can’t release the check without the correct paperwork.”
“There must be a mistake!” wailed Jimmy. “Didn’t they tell you? We’re starving! We’ve been trying to get this check since this morning! Please, just call over to Otis. They’ll straighten it all out!”
“I’m sorry sir, there’s nothing I can do,” the man said, as he closed his window and walked away, leaving us there.
Jimmy was furious, and I could tell he was on the edge of completely losing it, his eyes bugging out, his whole body trembling, but somehow he got himself under control.
I was disappointed, but numb.
It was a long, wet, cold, dark, and quiet walk back to the Mortuary. It seemed like it took hours, since we were so low on energy from hunger. My head was pounding, the world had transformed into a droning torture chamber. We needed food. What a fucked up day!
“Oh well, it’s bound to get straightened out by tomorrow,” said Jimmy.
Back at the funeral parlor, the guys were pretty cool. Dorian was strangely reserved. Louie and Mike the Cab fronted us a couple of bucks, and we made it down the block to Coit Liquor, where we bought some beer nuts, and a little package of Philadelphia cream cheese, all of which we devoured in about 30 seconds, sitting in the doorway of the pad.
Exhausted, we just slept on the floor of the front room in our clothes.
The next morning it was raining again. First thing, we headed out the door right into it, and back all the way, through the tunnel, down the avenues, across the town, to the offices on Otis.
This time we didn’t have to wait so long. Janis was sorry and said the man had it wrong, he should have released the check, but she promised to take care of it herself, to make sure that everything was cool.
She sent us back, with a release form to show the man.
Before we left, Jimmy turned and looked at Janis, and announced in a dead serious, even toned voice, “If I don’t get that check today, you’re gonna read about what happens in the newspaper.”
Paperwork in hand, we went back to the Treasury, and through to the front of the long line. I felt as if I was watching from a distance; it seemed like a dream.
Jimmy got to the front and spoke to the man in the glasses. He was still unwilling to release the check.
“But I have the release form right here” said Jimmy.
“Sorry, sir” said the man. “The form lacks the correct signatures. It needs to be signed by the case-worker and the section administrator. I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t release the check.”
“You sonofabitch!” shouted Jimmy, and he started shaking, crying, losing control of himself.
“Sorry, sir! Sorry sir!” the man cried.
Then Jimmy reached through the window and placed his right hand behind the man’s head, while with his other hand he reached up and began smooshing the release forms in the man’s face.
I’ll show you ‘Sorry sir,’ you motherfucker! You see these forms? Take a closer look!” And with that Jimmy scrubbed away with the paper, wiping it all around in the man’s face, knocking the guys glasses off.
“Jimmy, stop!” I shouted. I could see the security guard coming for us from the doorway. He had his billy-club out.
The man was trying to twist away from Jimmy, and he had his hands under the counter, feeling around, trying to hit the Treasury’s emergency alarm button, while all the time getting the face treatment.
I pulled Jimmy away from the guy, but then the cop got a grip on him. Jimmy was crying and shouting “I want my check,” and I was burbling at the cop, “It’s all a misunderstanding, he didn’t do anything! We’ll leave. Let him go!” But he wasn’t gonna let Jimmy go,he thought this was a robbery in progress or something.
I got in between him and Jimmy, and Jimmy broke away and started running. The cop chased him, then turned suddenly and came at me, so I took off too, running through the vaulted lobby of City hall, heading for the front door.
A couple men in suits, who’d been standing reading newspapers at the other end of the floor, threw their papers down and started running towards us, shouting. Undercover treasury cops were coming out of the crowd, from all over. They thought we were crooks. I saw another couple T-men coming from the other side of the lobby. I was running for my life.
Jimmy’d already made it out the door and into the street.They cops were angling to cut me off at the door, but I kept picking up speed, really going full tilt now. I came right out of my Hush Puppies, so I just kept going in my socks, eluding one of the Treasury cops, ’til I made it to the street myself, and hung a right. There was Jimmy up ahead, running his ass off, too.
The cops were right behind us, a bunch of ’em, yelling “stop or we’ll shoot!”, but I couldn’t stop, I didn’t have it in me, I was too fucking scared. I just had to get away from these guys and this whole ridiculous situation before it killed me.
We ran and ran, a couple of blocks, Jimmy right ahead, the gang of cops coming up behind waving guns and yelling. It looked like we we’re gonna get away, but as we cut through a gas station, a black limousine pulled up at about a hundred miles an hour, right across my path, and slammed on the brakes. Two burly undercover men in black suits and shades, jumped out and grabbed me, the one behind me twisting my arm up hard against my back, then slamming me down across the hood of their car, the other one handcuffing me as they mashed my face into the steel.
“It’s all a misunderstanding…” I started going for that one, but I gave it up. These guys didn’t hear a thing. It was like I was an animal or something. I got the feeling they wanted to take me somewhere and kill me.
Another black car pulled up and cut Jimmy off the same way. Two other cops handcuffed him, and then they led both of us straight across a little alley and into a building that just happened to be right there.
It turned out to be a mental institution.
The cops spoke to a white coated man behind the desk, who nodded, and seconds later we were led to a cell, thrown in still handcuffed, and the door was slammed shut.
The cell was tiny, dark, and empty, so we sat on the floor with our hands cuffed behind our backs and waited. Every so often someone opened the grate on the cell door and looked in, and Jimmy would start to beg “Please! Help! It’s all a mistake! Let us out of here! Please help us!”—crying as he pleaded, but the window would slam shut again, and it was plain that no one was listening.
I was clear eyed, shut down, observing.There was nothing to do but wait. It was cold in the cell, and I was shoeless and wet. Jimmy and I didn’t speak, there was nothing to say.
It was hours later when the door finally swung back. Two blue uniform city police officers, one a black man and the other white, stood looking at us. The white cop gruffly asked us some questions, then they stepped back out again and the door was shut again.
A few minutes later the door opened again, and the black cop came in and told us to rise. He removed our handcuffs. Then he said, “You can go.”
I was dizzy, dazed, shocked by the light, and so glad to be out of there I felt like I was gonna fly. It was the end of the day. A light drizzle was coming down, as we walked up the alley and back to Polk. As soon as we got around the corner we started laughing and swearing, recounting the chase.
I wanted to see if my missing Hush Puppies were still lying in the street in front of City Hall. Sure enough, there was one of’ ‘em in the gutter right out front. I put it on and then, a few feet away I found the other.We started back, walking home for a third time, broke and hungry, ragged and dirty, but sort of happy, full of light, glad to be free.