The main drag of Richmond stretched on in a masked haze. I zig-zagged the avenue. I had little chance of hailing a cab in this wasteland, but hoped by crossing back and forth I could avoid contact with any of its denizens. I ran out luck. At a dark intersection several teenagers wearing baseball caps surrounded me.
Hopefully they will thrash you for writing, masked haze.
My mind raced as I thought about the fat bank deposit under my belt. With the seeming ability of everyone to read my thoughts, I needed a strategy to keep these louts distracted. I sputtered off a story of my wild day in Richmond. The youths encircled me. Half of them had yellow caps with black stripes and the other, black hats with yellow stripes. I talked baseball, real fast. Pittsburgh Pirate hats I see. Those ’79 Bucs. There was a team. We are family. I told them I was a reluctant Orioles fan – took me ten years, the Senators left in ’69 - and hated losing the Series like that, up 3 games to 1 only to have Pops Stargell bring his lads back with 3 straight to take the title. Not that I had a problem with a mostly African American team winning the World Series. I'm no racist, no sir. I prattled on like that. Puffs of Afro hair spilled from the hats; their eyes bore a dull sheen like teddy bears on a revenge mission.
I tried my old standby, “I’m a writer. I own a writing agency. Do any of you guys need help with your homework?” They broke out in laughter at that one. Like a demon chorus line they moved in unison, snapping their fingers in rhythm with the chains attached to their belts rustling in time. They formed the circle tighter with black hats left, yellow hats right.
I heard a noise like a metal drawer full of marbles slammed shut, then abrupt silence. From the darkness at the edge of the circle a tall lanky figure emerged. The circle parted at the top, the newcomer stood in front of me. He was hatless with curly hair surrounding a square face with soft brown eyes. He jerked his head and the ball capped boys receded.
"Mr. Walters, did I hear you say you are a writer?”
I was still petrified. I didn’t know where those hats went.
"Yes," I said.
"Don’t worry, those guys won’t hurt you. I don't need that money.”
So he was the kingpin, the leader of the pack. Didn’t I see that in a movie, gangs in baseball caps?
"Pardon my manners. I’m Michael,” he said softly. “I write some things too. I get awful writer’s block. Troubles me greatly, it’s keeping me up at night.”
"You are not alone,” I said.
"What do you do when you can't think of anything to write?”
I was greatly relieved, "Well, one thing I do is focus on an experience and then spin a tale from it. Or you could just write down your impressions of something that happened to someone else. Say for instance, you had a friend who was unfairly named in a paternity suit and you write about it as if it happened to you. Something like that.”
"I see,” he said intently.
"Take the story and beat it into your story.”
I felt safe in this guy’s presence. The people we encountered as we traversed the avenue treated him like royalty.
"For instance, Mike, you could take the events of my night and make it into a very scary story. Think about it: a spooky old house, two vicious dogs, creepy people. You know, just take that stuff and write it your way.”
My clothes were torn, face scraped and pale from drink and drug. and I was walking stiff-legged like a zombie, but he seemed to be listening. “If nothing else, it was a thriller,” I said.
"Thriller,” he repeated. “Thank you. Here comes your bus, Mr. Walters. Cabs are hide to find out here,” he said politely. I thanked him and shook his somewhat scaly hand. A city bus whooshed to the curb; the front door folded open. The flip-disk reader on top yellow-flashed: Jack London Square.
I fished my five out of my pocket. A jovial driver waved me off. “He got this for you,” he said smiling through the closing door. I followed his gaze and saw Michael as the bus separated from the curb. The lanky well-dressed writer kept pace with the slow bus even though he appeared to be moving backwards. “But, please,” continued the driver wrinkling his nose, “step to the back.”
I stiff-walked to the rear - got me a three-seat all to myself. Conversation hushed and mothers clutched their children a little tighter. I watched a Juicy Fruit sign jiggle in its aluminum frame as the bus stop-started up to San Pablo Avenue.
After a few more stops on San Pablo the bus was empty of other passengers. The driver deadheaded to the Square. I literally hopped off at the large stop at the edge of the square. I saw the bus driver in the white light of the bus spraying air freshener.
I sat on a bench and with a piece of newspaper I found on the ground. I cleaned what crud I could from my person. My lonely status and predicament reminded me of that character in London’s To Build a Fire, bacon buns and matches, those little things. Like a cab.
I hobbled to a hotel across the way. A doorman wearing a maroon uniform with gold epaulets directed a brisk traffic of cabs and cars in the circle in front. I would catch one after they discharged a fare at the hotel. Hacks don’t like an empty ride back to base.
You're so proud of your six month cabdriving career.
There was outside seating for the hotel’s restaurant. Swirls of laughter and bright talk eddied into the street. I kept my head turned as I walked by a low black fence.
"Damon,” a familiar voice called. By Christ, it was Crimson. I had been fooled so many times by whoever was pulling the strings in this puppet show that I did not respond. She called again in a wine-tinged merry voice. “Don’t be silly. Slow down there.” She wore a white wrap over a black cocktail dress. Her eyes shone brightly under a small white hat decorated with small baby blue feathers.
"Oh my, whatever happened to you? You’re a mess!”
"A mess!” I shouted in a voice hoarse from too much vodka and pot. “You set that Jay Clover on me. I don’t what the two of you are cooking up, but I’m a little tired of all this shit.”
She urged me forward away from the diners. Her sea blue eyes darkened and she spoke softly, clearly, “I told him to assure you that nothing had happened to Mr. Clover. He’s your age; I thought maybe you could be friends with him. You’re all alone out here.”
"Miss Crimson, I’m a writer, as you know. I know the difference between is and was. Jay was way too friendly.” I was matching her volume and tone now; her eyes had done their job.
"I’ll admit that there’s more to the story, Damon, but not tonight.”
"Is that Clover you’re with? If so he’s lost about two hundred pounds in a remarkably short period of time.” I rarely pass up an opportunity for sarcasm. The man at her table a thin tanned debonair chap sat swishing a cocktail and trying not to steal glances over the fence.
Jealous wretch. We thought you were writing about that other woman.
"He’s the candidate. I have to get back. I’ll have Eddy drive you.” Before I could protest she was knocking on the window of a long black Cadillac.
A red haired driver in a white shirt slapped a book on the seat,Democracy in America. He straightened, snubbed out a smoke and rolled down the window. I could the guy was small, but he looked tough - one of those cocky Irish tyoes. Shouldn’t the little prick get out of the car and show some respect, I thought.
"Eddy, be a dear, and take Mr. Walters here to The City. I’m going to be here another hour or so. Help him in any way you can.”
"Okay, It’s your time.”
"Of course, Eddy, of course. Thanks millions.”
"Good-bye. We’ll be in touch soon,” she trilled to me.
"I’ll see you tomorrow.”
”If you’re lucky,” she smiled over her shoulder and sauntered back to her table. Something in her sway said the candidate could count on her vote – at least on this night.
"What do you think? Free bird isn’t just a song to kick tap sales in biker bars. A fine example of 1930s femininity.” Eddy said as he leaned back in the seat watching the pert woman’s retreat.
Oh great I get a wisecracking bantam to boot.
"I’m working my way through school. School, you should try it. Helps with verb confusion among other things.”
"And Walters,” the red top continued, “you’re not getting in my limo with those clothes.” His door opened slowly in time with the trunk that rose. “We keep some rags back in here for the occasional short notice driver.” He threw a pair of double-knit black slacks and a wrinkled buttoned collar white shirt.
I dressed quickly on the dark side of the Cadillac with traffic inches away. I fished my wallet, the crumpled five-dollar bill and a half pack of Marlboros out and dumped the clothes into a waste barrel. There was a stilted party life on the square; party inside, armed guards and servants circling outside.
"You look ready to wait tables, ‘cept for broke glasses and that you look like you lost a fight with a bag of sandpaper.”
”She’s staying here?” I said in a tone that surprised me with its edge.
"Take me to Sutter just off Market.” I said as I settled into the backseat.
"That’s the Castro, huh?” the bite was back.
I caught his eye in the rearview and held steady, "That’s right.”
He slid the Cadi in behind my car. I had pulled out the deposit and held the fat bankroll in my hand. The Irishman became more attentive. He opened the door for me like a real limousine driver. I snapped off a fifty. I thanked him. I shook hands with him slipping him the five from my pocket. The Cheese taught me that one.
When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness – de Tocqueville wrote that.