Peter Case

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Chapter 9 Night in North Beach, 1973

BROADWAY AND COLUMBUS 

The streets were teeming with celebrants. It was Saturday night, San Francisco, the second week of August, 1973 and about 9:30. An hour before, I was alone on the corner of Broadway and Columbus, right across from City Lights Books, singing “When a Man Loves a Woman” for no one, when a fist came out of nowhere and caught me upside the head: What the fuck, man! I looked up to see that my assailant was young and haggard, raging mad, glaring, ready to hit me again: “You signifyin’, motherfucker?!” I had no idea what he was going on about. A few feet behind him waited an old lady. He went back to her, took her arm, and crossed the street. That shook me up a little, but I decided to shrug it off.

Tourists flooded the sidewalks; sailors on leave came in small groups. Some rockers joined us. The strippers crossed the street, showing up for work at the Condor Club, the Roaring Twenties, and the Garden Of Eden. Carol Doda walked by, saying “Hello boys,” crossed over, and disappeared through the curtain of her club.

Nick, the cop, was making his rounds, slowly swaggering like John Wayne, blue cap at a rakish angle, holding his gun belt, looking for trouble. If he didn’t find any, he let me know with a glance that he was willing to make some. At the sight of Nick, old Harry the wino dodged into the alley, with his buddies. They came out a few minutes later.

Danny showed up. “You better stay out of the fucking case, Harry, if you know what’s good for you,” he said, good naturedly.

Harry laughed, “Don’t worry ‘bout me, Danny.”

Eric was leaning on a parking meter, watching the traffic, trying absurd come-ons with passersbys, like the barker across the street: “He knows every song! If he doesn’t know your favorite song, he’ll play another one with the exact same notes in it, in a different order!”

We started “Memphis, Tennessee,” playing and singing in harmony, doing the break like the Lonnie Mack version. I started singing in the phone booth on the corner, using it as a visual prop while Danny played slide against a parking meter. Somebody yelled “Mak Show!”  A crowd gathered. A girl was passing the hat. Drunks were dancing, arms waving in the air. “We’ll make some money tonight,” said Danny.

Across the street was the Swiss American Hotel, the beat up sign out front advertising “no vacancy, daily and weekly rates.” The sidewalk in front, under the awning, was getting crowded, as the residents came out for the night air. A young dude sporting a goatee, in a sharp suit and a newsy, was making some sort of cryptic angular hand sign, towards the street, then he split, dashing back into the hotel. Next, a very tall, elegant, African-American man, in his early 30s, slender, dressed in a beautiful white linen suit, emerged from the Swiss. He crossed the street, purposefully coming towards us with great smooth, rhythmic strides, weaving through the jammed-up traffic.

“It’s the Professor!”  Danny and I chorused in greeting.

“Good evening, gentlemen, good evening.” He took his place off to the side,  pontificating polished doubletalk in a profoundly deep and sonorous voice. We knew he’d be “tapping the till” as soon as he figured it was worthwhile, and then he’d head across to the Garcia Vega store for a bottle and some smokes, and we’d all share.

“It’s cool just as long as he asks” said Danny.

“Hey man, it’s fine with me.” I agreed.

It was like a New Year’s Eve party out there that night, but I couldn’t tell what people were so happy about. We were doing Elmore James’ “Sunnyland Train” with Danny on slide. On this one my voice was cutting through it all, loud enough to stun ‘em, and I knew you could hear it over the traffic, probably for blocks away. I’d sung it a dozen times already that day. I’d just learned it, and it was still full of juice.

The only time I felt alright was when I was playing this stuff. All the rest of the waking hours I was a wreck. We switchd to “Secret Weapon,” the Lazy Lester number. I was playin’ harp and singing. A car pulled up on the corner, stuck in the traffic. I recognized the driver. It was Malkas’, from Buffalo, with a passenger I’d never seen before. They rolled down the window.

“Hey Peter!”

I just kept playing, ignoring them.

“Are you Peter Case?”

“No, man, my name’s Clifford…Clifford Gifford,” I shouted back.

“You play harp and sing, just like a kid I knew in Buffalo!”

“Weird.”

They drove off shaking their heads.

Paddy wagons were pulling up in front of the Swiss, cops jumped out and pulled people in. We saw our busking pal Sitka Pat getting handcuffed, being thrown in the back of the wagon with some hookers. Harry ran by. “It’s a sweep!” Me and Dannny nodded at Eric, packed up quick and crossed over Broadway. We headed up Grant Avenue, through the mob, to the Coffee Gallery. A drunk on the corner was angrily shouting something about Nixon as we walked past. A group of Asian kids came up to us. They were from China, spoke no English, and talked with sign language. We began to get it: They were a table tennis team and wanted to buy some marijuana.

They started following us up Grant to the Coffee Gallery, which was packed like a rush hour train car. We worked our way up to the bar and ordered. A bluesman named JC Burris was on stage in the showroom, blowing harp, playing possum bones, and rockin’ the house. We all got our drinks and scrunched through the crowd, tryin’ to see and hear JC. A friend of ours, the great southern picker and singer Tom Hobson was there in the crowd. He told us, “There was just a brawl, the ambulance came and took a guy out who’d had a chair busted over his head. I think he might’ve died.” While we were hearing this news, I heard a splashing sound: A guy a couple feet away had pulled out his cock, and was pissing on the floor, right there in the middle of everything, in plain sight. The bartender jumped over the bar with a club, hit the pissing drunk, knocking him down to his hands and knees, then he grabbed the drunk by the tie around his neck and walked him out of the place, through the crowd, like a dog.

The revelry didn’t slow down for an instant. I felt like the whole bar was levitating, spinning, loud with music and people yelling, and it all began to swirl. Down at the end of the bar by the door, W.C. Fields came in, in a great stovepipe hat, an old tailed jacket, with a giant red nose, and a woman on each arm. ‘Yasss, yasss. Drinks for everybody, go away kid you bother me!’

I don’t remember what happened after that.

The next morning me and Eric decided to drive his Green Toyota Corolla down into Mexico. It was time for a break.

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