Thursday, September 01, 2005

PART 2 of Work in Progress

This is a continuation of this post from last week. I shall be out of pocket for a bit, so feel free to actually read any of this whenever your job gets insufferable.

We pushed through the rain toward the bay, back to Broadway. The Chinatown trash, stacked in messy piles all along the curb was starting to topple under its own rain-soaked weight and fall into the gutter to migrate down Grant. We moved with it.

We entered the first open bar to seek refuge from the trash and weather. It was a stately place, with a long well-carved bar that covered half of the entire left wall. The ceilings were somewhere near twenty feet up, and were covered in pressed tin plaques with highly ornamental brass chandeliers looming below. The walls were a tasteful red, with stained bead-board running a good three feet up from the wooden-plank floors. Barstools and tables dotted the entry with a pool table and juke box in the rear. There were perhaps ten people drinking merrily at the bar, and the bartender greeted us as we walked in. “Come on in out of the rain and warm up!” She wore a cheery, dimpled smile and her face was daintily framed by locks of curly brunette hair. She was petite, and she was the only one behind the bar.

Two shots of whisky were in order, just to get the flavor of death from our mouths. It took another beer to completely cleanse the ill taste of that evil Ng Ka Pi from our palates. Once that was taken care of, we set our minds to conquering the pool table in the back. Red felt, full size, with top-notch pool cues. There were already some balls on the table, but there was no one back there but one lone fellow who was lazily flipping through the selections on the juke box. He had a slight build, average height, draped in an oversized team jersey with bright-white K-Swiss kicks. He seemed thoroughly busy with music selection, and uninterested in the pool table. So I pulled out the racking triangle and began to herd the balls my way.

“What the fuck are you doing man?” The juke box was not his only interest. He was obviously miffed, but he was not aggressive in any way. Being drunk enough to forget that some questions are purely rhetorical, I continued to pull balls while I answered.

“Oh, we’re here from out of town. You know, came in to play some pool. Why? You want to play or something?”

“We WERE playing.” Hm.

I continued to disregard him, as if he was just being a nuisance. I have no idea why I continued that way, but I did. “We? Who else are you playing with?” As if he could not possibly be playing alone, with a severe psychological disorder where his personalities would play each other for control over his conscious self. Or something like that.

“With Steve, at the bar. He’s getting drinks. We were playing a game here.”

Oh, I see. Semantics and shit.

Steve walked up to punctuate the last comment. “Here’s your water Carlos, you fucking fag!” Steve had obviously been drinking as much as we had. Either that, or they were related. An even further possibility was that Carlos was indeed homosexual, and did not mind being slighted for it. Actually, I was up in the air on the whole matter. I just wanted to play pool.

Carlos looked over at me, as I continued to rack the balls. “I’m drinking water because I don’t want to get all fucked up before we ship out tomorrow. Steve’s crazy.”

Ah, Navy. Made sense. Steve dove right into sloppy-handed introductions, which are my specialty.

“Hey man! What’s up? I’m Steve, just here to play a little pool and get a little pussy before we go to Japan tomorrow.”

He was significantly taller than his counterpart. And much more professional in his appearance. Early twenties, black shoes, fitting jeans, untucked polo shirt, nice gold watch and a buzz cut to match Carlos’s.

We all exchanged introductions. For the next hour or so we played games of pool. Carlos remained sober and aloof while Steve, Vance and I traded rounds of shots until we were slobbering drunk.

Periodically we would step out into the night to catch a smoke. Each time we went outside, we met up with an older gentleman named Charles, who was obviously a member of the rather large population of homeless in the area. Mid forties, heavy-set African American with graying hair, heavily stained clothing, and the crustiest set of lips I have ever had the displeasure of watching as he rambled on and on about himself. Between requesting cigarettes he entertained us with stories about his past, and all the amazing things he was supposed to become before an unspecified injury caused his pain killer addiction.

“I used to throw these barbeques back in the day. Danny Glover used to come over just for my ribs. They were that fuckin’ good man! Danny goddamn Glover, I’m tellin’ you!”

His stories always involved famous people hanging out with him in weird situations. He would sit with Tom Hanks during church. He and his cousins were in a high school play with Magic Johnson. Or John McEnroe would stop by his place to watch videos from time to time. I pressed him on the whole Danny Glover claim, just to see how far he would push it.

“Danny Glover came over to your house for barbeque? Did he ever live here in San Francisco?”

He stuck to his guns like a champ. And even though his defenses were as empty as the initial claims that required them, I really had (have) no reason to doubt his sincerity in believing the lot of it.

“Oh yeah man. My barbeques were famous. They came from all over. It’s in the sauce, you know. Like the best crack you ever had! Sharon Stone, Robert Redford, Eddie Murphy, all them used to show up for my Sunday ribs. I was THE KING! Danny used to call me all week to make sure I was still doin’ it. ‘Yo Chuck, you still doin’ the ribs this Sunday, ‘cause I gots to get me some of that!’ And I’d say ‘you know it Dee!’ ‘cause we were tight like that, back in the day. You just DON’T KNOW man.”

He was right. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about most of the time. I was flammable drunk, and he was spilling lots of strange stories about tangential relationships to rather famous people. But I kept pretending to listen.

As the night progressed, and our trips out front to smoke and talk shit with Charles happened with increased frequency, he got bored with convincing us of how many famous people he used to feed, and decided that we should all sing some songs.

Because he used to be in choir with Lionel Ritchie, or some such nonsense.

“You know what? You know what you guys need to do?”

Steve and I had no idea what would be said by this man. “Nah, Charles. What?”

“You got beautiful young voices. And beautiful young voices have to SING!” And with that, he raised his hands up in the air and turned slowly while drawing out “SIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING!”

Then he stopped to face us, motionless. “Beautiful voices must be heard. It’s your DUTY.”

With such a fantastic presentation, how could we not? Three smokers, sloppy drunk out in front of a bar at two in the morning, in the rain? The only thing we were missing was the incoherent off-key butchering of some rail yard bonfire tune.

He started by deducing who was what. Vance and I were tenors, Steve was the soprano, and Carlos was told he was bass before he muttered a single word. It did not even make sense that Carlos was out there because he certainly did not smoke, and he was sober enough to have the sense to keep dry inside. But there he was, the reluctant bass in a corner choir, led by a homeless addict.

Under Charles’s arm-waving direction, we destroyed the same two bars of “Chain Gang” in between dodging back inside for more shots. Eventually, Vance was asked to stop because he really could not hold a tune, and Carlos wised up and kept inside where it was warm and soul-free. So there we were. The three of us. Steve, me, and our crazy director, shouting at the top of our lungs down Broadway, bellowing the deep pains of the imprisoned by way of slave-song.

My memory of the session is filled with overwhelming emotion. I honestly thought we were good, and was honored to be part of something beautifully irreverent. It was inspiring, even it sounded atrocious.

I was so impressed with what I thought was his talent for voice training, that I invited him into the bar for a drink.

“Fuck it Charles, let’s go inside and get a whisky man! It’s cold and I’m thirsty!”

Charles hesitated at first, but then agreed with a grin. “Ah, yeah. Yeah! A drink’d be nice!”

I figured he was a recovering alcoholic, and that was the reason for his staggered response. He must have been overcome by our wonderful performance and wished for a single celebratory drink to mark his success as a street-trio director.

Straight to the bar I went and ordered four whisky cokes. The bartender, with her curls dangling down, did not register my order. Her eyes were fixed on the door I just staggered through. Steve was struggling at the entrance with Charles, I could see jittery motion from the corner of my eye. The mood in the bar had obviously taken an uncomfortable turn, and I was having trouble understanding what was souring the situation. The bartender, still staring at the door where Charles and Steve continued to fumble with each other, asked me with a flat tone, “did you invite him in here?”

I turned to follow her eyes and saw Steve with a look of irritated shock on his face, hands up in a non-threatening manner, stepping back from a slowly disrobing Charles. “Goddamn it’s hot in here WOMAN,” he bellowed while tugging at his shirt.

“I, uh, yeah. He’s in here with us.”

She set her vibrating eyes on to mine. “I don’t want his ass in here.” Then she leaned forward and whispered “he threatened to…”

“I’LL KILL YOU BITCH!!!” Charles was visibly angry, but not moving a whole lot. Just sort of shuffling in place, not but five feet from the door. Steve moved toward him with the obvious intention of calming him down.

The bartender, matter of fact, “that’s why we don’t let him in here.” Then she yelled out over my head. “You get your fucking ass out of here Chuck or I’ll call the cops again, and they’ll fuck you up even more!”

I had no idea what was going on around me, but it was not pretty. Suddenly, all the patrons at the bar rose from their stools and made two menacing steps toward Charles. Steve put an arm on Charles’s chest and stood between him and the drinking mob. “Whoa! I got him, no problem here folks! We just came in for a drink! No trouble here!”

Charles was not making things any easier.


We were obviously in over our heads. It was time to reverse the damage we had inadvertently done. “Forget the drinks, we’ll get him out of here. No problem.”

“You do that.” She was more irritated with the whole exchange than she was intimidated.

Steve, Vance and I shuffled Charles back through the door while Carlos watched with his hands in his pockets, and the booze crew returned to their seats at the bar. Charles continued to hurl threats and slurs back over his shoulder as we pushed him back out into the night. He bolted from our grips and made his way down the street, still yelling about police brutality and the potential murder of a certain “bitch bartender whore!”

He was right about the duty to sing when you have a beautiful voice. But he was not so clear on what one should do if their voice is less than pleasant. I suppose he was too close to the problem to have formed useful advice for that end of the spectrum.

We shrugged it off, had an awkward smoke, and re-entered the bar to continue drinking. Apologies were made, stories of Charles and his drunken disasters were told, and then last call punched us in the collective, limping liver.

Out on the street again, we said our goodbyes and good-lucks. Vance and I made our way back to the hotel, falling down on and spreading the garbage that littered the slimy surface of Grant St. I do not remember entering our hotel room, but I have splintered memories of jumping on the beds, knocking over a side table, and kicking my luggage like a football across the room (presumably to get it through the window and down into the street, which was rather distant from brilliant, but whatever).

A beautiful voice should indeed be used. Lucky for us, such beauty is in the ear of the beholder.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh sing me a lullaby. Didn't you use to sing "Debbie Gibson" songs? Yes, no, maybe? (snicker snicker). Funny how alcohol makes things better. It's weird.

brother nick