324 Baker Street, San Francisco, the past
The lavender sunrise at the end of the acid trip reveals the living room to be France, causes the pale knock-kneed living room table to shyly show her young Parisian schoolgirl legs. Someone wedges a pair of black Mary Janes under two of her feet and everyone giggles, heaped up together under a mess of feather duvets.
Five people come home from the Japanese Tea Garden. A yellow ginkgo leaf is caught in someone’s long red hair. Someone tapes their fortune-cookie slip to the fridge.
Someone with a fresh tattoo moves slowly around the back yard, picking acrid little blackberries.
On the roof, someone has been asking the sky for an answer since noon. Someone is exulted with mania; stacking up beer bottles; pissing behind the chimney. Someone whose lover has died puts a cassette of African music in the boombox and dances, singing very softly.
Someone makes toast triangles. Someone records their grandmother telling everything she can remember about living in the shtetl before the Cossacks came. Six people dye eggs.
I’m in San Francisco, home of my past. My ruined city, blighted with yuppies nibbling at its moist center like rats.
The bathroom in the Amtrak station is ripe with the stench of homeless women who aren’t there.
S/he staggers past me and my chattering friends, wig askew, his/her face buried in hands, sobbing. I should stop to say, “Are you okay,” meaning “You’re not okay, and I care.” In Massachusetts I would stop. On the hooker’s beat of Polk Street in San Francisco I don’t, which is a good reason to have left.
In Chinatown, the lion dancers exploding their firecrackers in shop doorways, cymbals crashing. The lions are wearing transparent plastic rain ponchos.
Seen in passing, on the burnt remains of a pier, an old and faded sign in the shape of a hand which points down to the water. It reads:
YOU YOU ARE
Staying with a friend
In the Lower Haight, people make whistles and bird-calls which mean “drugs for sale.” This morning as I was making coffee, the street was like a rainforest, ringing with trills. Now, at four o’clock: explosions of manic laughter, screeching tires, hyena yelps, shattering beer bottles.
I watch out the window as a raccoon canters past the hal’al butcher and hooks a left at the billiards hall.
My hostess and I are driving back from a movie in her new black BMW. I say, things have changed here. Now everybody is talking on a cell phone all the time. They don’t even see where they are. And everybody has a fancy car! She frowns, annoyed, and her cell phone rings.
324 Baker Street, San Francisco, the present
My feet begin walking themselves toward Baker Street. Watchful for muggers and bad men, I walk by my secret landmarks. By the pickled toads in the display window of the witchcraft supply store and then by the Church of John Coltrane; by the overturned milk crates of old-timers who nurse gin bottles every afternoon, by, by. At a stoplight a black woman with a curdled face struts in stiff-legged circles, spastic elbows ajerk; a pack of white dudes in gleaming leather jackets shoulder out of one bar and into another. A current of energy whisks me along, the wake of the past.
I walk by New Star-Ell Liquors, where I was once mugged on my way home from a nightclub. I’d been blissfully stoned, my hands rococo with curlicues of fresh henna. I recall the night a woman came into that store bellowing drunkenly for help, her bloodied white clothes hanging in strips like surrender flags.
For the last two blocks I get the same cozy almost-home feeling I always used to. The fog is making buffalo clouds, roaming out over the rooftops, skirling around the eucalyptus trees of Golden Gate Park, stampeding past the bright moon.
The entryway of 324 Baker Street has been painted over; a neutral scheme of beige and grey has blotted out the shambolic hippie purples. I settle on the front steps and gaze, as I always used to gaze, at the calm lighted windows of the Russian retirement home. For nine years I would sit on this stoop when I had no place else to go. Waiting forever to be forgiven after a terrible fight. Or waiting forever for a cab. Or waiting forever for this woman or that woman to come. Unable to sleep, staring first at the BAKER ST sign and then the FELL ST sign forever.
Just as they always used to, the Scary Blue Building People are slouching lurkily, even darker shadows under the dark shadows of the tree on the corner, waiting and waiting and waiting.
This one thing is different: little particles glow around me like golden motes, a furze of light. My old building is haloed in leftover molecules of time.
Psychedelic guitars wah-wah. Someone on psilocybin mushrooms vomits aces diamonds clubs hearts into the musical air, doubled over laughing in the w.c.
Someone brings a bough of blossoms for Chinese New Year. Purple finches raid the plum tree that hangs over the fence in the Nice Yellow Building People’s yard.
In the kitchen, three people play badminton using wooden spoons and a wad of balled-up tinfoil. Two people in tipsy vintage dresses try to follow the leftfoot-rightfoot instructions for the cha-cha on the back of Arthur Murray’s Music for Dancing.
A cat leaps onto the windowsill. Someone pours more coffee. Someone’s ex spends the night on the couch. Someone who’s been blind since birth goes into Downward-Facing Dog pose in the middle of the kitchen. Someone flounces into a beanbag chair announcing, “I’m pretty sure I crashed at your house once in the 1960’s.” Someone paints the hallway floor green with gypsy red roses, like a Romany canal boat.
Friends coming bearing flowers, bearing secrets, bearing unbearable sorrows. Someone weeps, is comforted. Everyone is reading everyone else’s fortune.
Steam curls from a pot of pasta. Someone is singing “I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl.” Someone is rummaging to find the best knife for carving a pumpkin.
These moments are eddying around the front steps, whirling up like smoke over the roof and floating back to the sidewalk. The building has become a lighthouse. The building has become a sanctuary.
I want to curl up in the doorway and sleep there until daybreak. I think about the homeless man and his puppy who camped there for a month in 1997. Everyone brought him beer, dog food, sandwiches. They snoozed together in one fat sack throughout the long days.
I feel myself fading into a doze like a child being carried. I draw my drowsiness to me like a shawl.
Eventually the stone stoop makes my bones ache with cold, just as it always used to. I wrench myself up and go buy a pack of gum at New Star-Ell Liquors, which has made many recent improvements.