Wednesday, August 13, 2014

I’d Really Like to Write

A memoir.

Yes, I know how trite that sounds. Every Tom, Dick and Daddy thinks his own life is bio-worthy. Certain things we’ve done may feel singular, unique to our own life experience, but that’s not always the case. More essential is how well the story is written.

For instance, when I watch the TV show “Biography,” it’s not always the subject who breathes life into the story,  but the engaging description of that life. A good script transforms common experiences into rare and interesting occurrences. I often wonder if I could pull it off.

Some years ago, I started jotting down memories of the years I worked three different jobs on San Francisco’s Kearny Street. Someday these random thoughts may congeal as a coherent work, despite how incoherent I was at back then.

It starts on…

Kearny Street
(“Kerny,” not “Carney,” or “Keerny.”)

Names have been changed to protect the innocent, the guilty, and those who may still be dangerous.

Kearny isn’t very long, not as San Francisco thoroughfares go. Not unless you tack on the miles of Third Street that provide Kearny’s south of Market origins—in which case it may be the longest.  One would need to start at Third’s humble beginnings down at the southern end of the city, towards Candlestick Park, but that’s another story. Even there, it’s a borderline street.  

West of Third you’ll find trucks loaded with metal and plastics. There sprawl the warehouses, the welders, the fabricators and the body shops near their attending junkyards.  Tough, hard business, tackled either with efficiency or by trial and expensive error.  To the east, even tougher Bayview and Hunter’s Point, sinister places inhospitable to strangers, as well as those who have to live there.

But we’re  looking at the other end, the downtown mile from Market Street, where Third becomes Kearny, right to where it hits Columbus and takes a bounce straight up the hill through North Beach. When I first hit San Francisco in the late 60s, the Transamerica Pyramid was still a dream waiting to punctuate SF’s skyline with its upside down exclamation point. The accordion-like Bank of America was just being built. There were people living at the infamous International Hotel who weren’t yet considered squatters.

Standing at Kearny’s six point intersection, the corner of Columbus, Pacific and Kearny… The stink of sweet fried grease envelops me as I loiter in front of the donut shop.

 The view down one-way Kearny is an active, moving palette, not quite bustling but always in flux. Always moving. A hurried river of traffic pours toward me, not braking at all for the soft right-of-way left at Columbus, heading toward the Golden gate Bridge. In the middle of the block, an ancient Chinese man zens his inscrutable way across the wide channel. Wispy grey mustaches float suspended in the strong breeze. He pays no attention to the speeding cars approaching him, honking their horns. Masses of shiny metal yelp to a nose-diving halt mere inches from his frailty.  The stooped figure reaches the other side of the street for possibly the millionth time in his life without once altering his momentum or acknowledging the drivers’ anger. 

That green patinated copper clad Victorian over there? That’s American Zoetrope, right across Kearny. Francis Coppola’s offices. You’ll see Smokey Wong’s Pagoda gas station a half block down. I paid ten bucks a month to park there in the late seventies when I worked as chef at the Albatross Saloon, right where I’m standing, right where it all comes together. At the time, Coppola was in production for “Apocalypse Now”.  Everybody from the crew hung out at the Albatross when in town. 

There was a basement club across the street from Smokey’s where a guy could sit at a bar and buy watered down tea for young Philippina girls. Most of  them didn’t speak English.  They just nodded and said “yes”.

Slowly turning a three-sixty, you’d see the Transamerica Pyramid looming at the end of Columbus, awaiting a countdown to launch itself to the stars; Nestled at its base, Clown Alley, the gaudy burger joint. And that’s a half block past the Purple Onion where stars-to-be from Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac to the Smothers Brothers and Steve Martin all had beginnings that took them from OD’s and alcoholism to the hippest of American pop.

If you were there at the right time, you might catch a glimpse of Sammy Low, a huge, eighty-or-so year old heroin ‘ounce man’, dressed all in black, from sunglasses and hat to wingtip shoes. All the junkies hated Sammy because he refused to sell five-dollar bags. Maybe that’s why he lasted on the street for so many years.

In the middle of that block on the left is Mario’s barber shop, where I could get a line of coke with my haircut, instead of the lollipops he kept for kids.

Mario would talk your ear off if there wasn’t a young chippie hanging around to cop his own lollipop in the back room. Or in the tricked out purple van he kept out front. The young age and…let’s call it exuberance of some of his girlfriends made me concerned about even being in the shop with them. Often I would go for a haircut (and a line or two… got lots of haircuts those days. I doubt he made money on me) then have to go back to work unshorn. A plastic clock face in his window stating he’d be back an hour ago, indistinct noises emanating from his shaky van.  
The Lusty Lady lies just up Kearny. Last of the old-fashioned peep shows. I think you can still pump tokens into a machine with one hand while naked girls dance and talk to you through an open window. If you stop pumping tokens, a shade closes, but I understand that if your other hand isn’t also pumping, the girls will think you’re a nark and they’ll be without… Verve? …The down side is that the booths are so small it’s hard to avoid touching the walls.

Skinny junkies and ragged street people lurch between tourists, financial district types, secretaries, and us. Speed freak eyes, frozen in the donut shop window, look as glazed as the sugar-fried carbs their toothless gums mash into something vaguely digestible. “Peggy’s Used Furs and Leathers” twenty feet up the hill to my left, fried grease with sugar on top to my rear, the Albatross between, right at the tip of it all.

My second day in SF, somebody took me to Peggy’s, telling me it was one of the places I just “had to know.”  Peggy and her old man made sure the hippies of the Haight were clothed, warm hosts for San Francisco’s parasites for many years.  Some called it “Peggy Flea’s.”

Looking north on Columbus, the after hours coffee house, Tosca, and the alley leading to Speck’s (another venerable but well-hidden saloon) would be visible across from Henri Lenoir’s Vesuvio Bar and Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books.
Henri, well into his seventies when I knew him, was the last of the guys able to pull off wearing a beret, according to columnist Herb Caen.  Always the charmer, Henri was never without a pretty girl on his arm. I remember one babe I had to ID on her first visit to the Albatross. …Sophia. … I called her Sophia so-fine-a.

Further up Columbus, you’ll spot Carol Doda’s huge neon sign of perpetually blinking nipples, as well as Big Al’s, both at the corner of Broadway.

Closer in across Pacific is Mr. Lung’s,  if you just wanted to get drunk. No frills. I’d see Lung hauling in cases of liquor early in the morning. He’d unload them from the trunk of his car so the revenue people wouldn’t have a record of what was coming in the back door. I’m sure he bought just enough from the distributor to keep from under the long nose of the law.


So that’s the start. The Albatross was the last of my three jobs on Kearny. My idea is to take this conversation on a walk down the street, starting with anecdotes about the Albatross, then heading towards Market and ten years into the past, commenting on the street and experiences I happened upon along the way.


  1. This looks promising, Daddy X. I know of several other erotic writers (Carol Queen, Patrick Califia first come to mind) who usually provide local colour with the sex scenes by setting their plots in specific locations in San Francisco, sometimes in a bygone decade. You could take the reader on a guided tour through the neighbourhood, but if you write a book, you would need to decide whether to focus on an individual life-story.

    1. Yeah, it would be about my life. This part is about setting the scene. I'll have to look up some of Carol and Califa's work for comparison and for ideas. Thanks for that tip. Jean!

  2. If Morgan Freeman would be your narrator it would be a hit. Seriously though, in time, a memoire like this seem to find a longing among readers for more colorful times. I'm reading a book about the travels of a great-great aunt through the Middle East in the 1930's. Sadly it was a very different place, one no one remembers any more. If nothing else your story will keep memories alive.

    1. What is the title of the book you're reading, Spencer? One of the best adventure stories I've read is "Lost City of the Inca's by Hiram Bingham Junior that tells the story of the discovery of Machu Picchu in Peru.

  3. I love it, Daddy! And I think it would sell. You could add hand drawn maps, and photos of then, and now.

    It seems not so much a personal memoir as a (slightly nostalgic?) verbal recreation of your life, times and environment.

    1. If only I had the time and energy to do the necessary research. If this continued, as I told Jean, more of my own experiences would be involved. This kinda sets the scene.

      But who knows?

  4. You should definitely write a memoir about that period. I love what you've got here, although on quick reading I have a little trouble telling the "then" parts from the "Now."
    Hey, you should also use the background for mysteries, erotica, whatever. (Now I'm ashamed not to have read much of your erotica, because you've probably already done just what I mentioned.)

    1. Hmmm- seems to have lost my reply, so let's do it again:

      Yeah, Sacchi- This needs some help on tense. I know this keeps going back and forth, but it's just the early stages at this point. You can see some of my work in the ERWA Gallery and Treasure Chest.

  5. I like the idea of structuring it as a walk down the street. That's challenging for chronology and continuity, but I think it's such a cool way to organize it that I want you to do it anyway.

    Also, I think I'm not the only one who's fascinated by the sort of jobs you had on this street. I like it!

  6. Thanks, Annabeth. We'll see if it ever comes off.

    Kearny has changed a lot since then, but I'll bet a walk down the street would bring back the memories. Maybe I'll do it with a tape recorder some day. My other two jobs on that street weren't so exotic as the Albatross, but I got to know some fascinating people.