In Memoriam: The Paradise Lounge

Today, the old Paradise Lounge in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood was demolished. One of the night clubs that peppered 11th and Folsom back in the 80s and 90s, the Paradise also housed Poetry Above Paradise, a reading series and open mic organized and run by Jennifer Joseph, also the founder of ManicD Press.

It was always lively and so impressed me at the time that a scene in my novel, Sleepwalking in Paradise (Numina Press 2014) takes place at just such a reading.

Here is the excerpt. I hope it conveys just a sip of the flavor from that long lost yesterday of my youth…

*** *** *** ***

Sunday night.

Tommy entered the Paradise Lounge through the Eleventh Street door and climbed the stairs to the rooms set aside for poetry and pool. For a moment, familiar butterflies danced in his stomach, a flashback to the few occasions when he’d come here to read his own attempts at verse. He automatically calculated how many beers and games of pool the cash in his pocket could buy.

Tommy smiled. The money in his pocket tonight, unlike in the past, could buy a round for the whole room. His days of being broke were long gone.

Upstairs was a cloud of tobacco and clove smoke, plus the oversweet notes of spilled beer. Most of the light in the room came from the spotlights aimed at the small stage. Ample excess light bounced off the back wall to illuminate the small round tables that crowded the floor.

The place was packed. He should’ve come sooner.

Tommy found the sign-up sheet at the end of the bar. All the slots were filled but he quickly spotted the name, in the familiar, looping, uppercase scrawl that he’d hoped to find.

Greta Gdansk.

***

Earlier that evening, Tommy had been fidgeting on his sofa, failing to zone out with a rented video. Carlotta was off on an overnight Valley Grrrls! event in Half Moon Bay. Unmoored by distraction, Tommy’s mind turned again and again to Johnny Ray, who wouldn’t pick up or return his calls.

Tommy assumed that he’d been less than diligent in charging the cell phone. Where was Johnny? What was he doing? And why hadn’t Nurse Steve reported in yet?

Tommy wished that Carlotta were home. On Sundays, they usually cooked a big meal together, kicking around the kitchen for hours, snacking on cheese and olives, drinking wine, and talking about everything and anything.

Johnny, Johnny, Johnny. What had really happened in the park? The more Tommy thought about Johnny’s story, the crazier it sounded. But something must have happened. Something. . .

There had to be other witnesses. Someone more reliable than Johnny and not so quick to attribute everything to an angel. Johnny had said there was a whole encampment. Where could Tommy begin, short of canvassing the homeless near the park?

A familiar tingle ran up his spine. He was getting close.

Tommy flipped through the rolodex in his skull. The first promising card — smudgy, frayed around the edges, and reeking of cannabis — belonged to his old anarchist pals from Pies Not Bombs. He wondered if they were still around. No doubt the New Economy had taken its toll on their ranks, banishing some to cheaper digs in Oakland, transforming others into espresso-sucking Web designers.

Then Tommy remembered Greta Gdansk, a locally renowned street poet he’d interviewed for The Dog’s occasional literary supplement.

Greta was what they used to call a ‘street person’ before the term became just another synonym for ‘bum.’ Colorfully dressed in her perennial Grateful Dead gypsy style, Greta would stand on random corners in the Haight and Mission, reciting her bits about street life in the magnificent city.

Quaint, perhaps, but once upon a time Robin Williams himself had been a street performer in San Francisco. Like Williams, who’d studied at Julliard, Greta had emerged from academia — Columbia University, in fact.

Her early work earned her a place in Twenty Young American Poets 1972, no small honor. Unlike many working poets, Greta eschewed teaching as a career and instead devoted her life to chronicling life among the street people. She scraped by on random grants and chapbook sales at readings, street fairs, and local book stores. She was successful, if success can mean being widely published and never having to say you had a day job.

Of course, the Seventies were a long time gone. The Grateful Dead had moved to the wilds of Marin County and Robin Williams had become Mork from Ork and Mrs. Doubtfire. Greta’s bright gypsy garb had faded into sooty rags, just as the colorful street people around her had devolved into the faceless homeless. Her bio photo in Twenty Young American Poets 1972 showed a hardy Viking beauty, but over time she’d come to more closely resemble a chiseled Russian refugee, a psychedelic update of the Ellis Island stereotype. Squat, round, and kerchiefed.

The last time Tommy had seen her, her left leg had been encased in a bulky General Assistance brace, an old injury having developed into a chronic condition. He remembered the awful scraping sound the brace had made as she dragged it across the floor.

Had Greta been in the park that night? If not, she might at least be able to direct Tommy to someone who had. But where to find her now? Tonight?

Open readings were her lifeblood, so Tommy hopped down to the corner market and grabbed the latest Dog. Standing on the corner, raked by the wispy tendrils of evening fog, he rifled through the Events listings.

Nostalgia washed over him. The format had not changed that much over the years — the same fat, circus-poster typeface for the headings — but now the listings included Web sites and email addresses.

Being Sunday night, there were fewer readings than usual. Being San Francisco, that still meant at least a dozen were scheduled. As soon as Tommy saw the name of the club, he knew where to go.

Like every Sunday for the last ten years of so, most of the hardcore locals would be gathered upstairs at the Paradise Lounge.

Tommy checked the time. If he hurried, he could get there before it started.

***

Tommy scanned the crowd. He didn’t see Greta, but she’d probably be at a table up front, her books on display. The room was too crowded to wander around, but things would thin out after the break. Half the audience was there to support a friend who was reading; they’d leave as soon as that duty was fulfilled.

Once upon a time, Tommy had been among the hopeful readers himself. Alas, remarkable as his writing talents were, they did not extend to verse. Sure, it looked easy, like anyone could go up there and, with the right inflection, make a Betty Crocker recipe sound like Ginsberg’s best. But then Tommy came across the likes of David Lerner and Alan Kaufman and Kathleen Wood, the true poets who used to rule Café Babar and the Paradise. He’d slunk away in shame.

Tommy bought a beer and settled in. He’d find Greta during the break. Hopefully, she’d remember him. He’d given her a nice write-up.

The open reading portion started. Not a good night, like a special event for Poets from Hell. The regulars heckled the worst readers (“Too long!” “Next!”), prompting the emcee to remind them, in her kindergarten teacher voice, how hard it was to screw up the courage and read in public. Mercifully, the format limited each reader to one poem and one poem only.

Finally, Greta’s name was called. Tommy had been right about her getting a table up front. Judging from the way she moved, her leg had gotten better. Much better. In fact, she fairly leapt upon the stage. Her color was good and her leg brace nowhere in sight.

After so much bad poetry in so short a time, Tommy was ready for something good, and Greta seldom failed to deliver the goods. Her terse lines, unpretentious and unadorned, usually depicted a gritty street scene. A failed request for spare change, a circle of winos sharing a bottle of cheap wine, the sensation of booze in an empty belly. No sentimentality, no social message, no ennobling of the base. Only simple observations in simple language, the last line always hitting home like a haiku sucker punch.

She adjusted the mic stand to her short stature and calmed the crowd with her cool, unswerving gaze.

it’s here
stop escaping through the top
of the your skull, stop floating
nameless among the stars

this is the place
a plate of food for the hungry
a human hello for the faceless
a smile for the toll keeper

it’s here
take a fistful of dirt
squeeze it through your fingers
let its broken glass cut you
let your blood feed the ground

it’s here, this place —

try some
if it makes you choke,
learn to sip

you’re the one who’s starving

The crowd remained silent, not sure if she had finished. The regulars exchanged blank and questioning stares. Even the emcee looked confused. This was hardly Greta’s normal fare.

Greta liked it, though. She held her head erect with that I-know-I’m-good look on her face. But as the crowd failed to respond, her smugness sagged. Irritated, she repeated the last line. “You’re the one who’s starving!”

She jumped off the platform with a dancer’s grace. The emcee took the mic and announced the break, to be followed by the featured reader, some eco-warrior from Portland.

People moved off to take a leak, grab a drink, shoot some pool. A good portion grabbed their coats and headed for the stairs. The here-to-support-a-friend crowd.

Against the tide, Tommy pushed his way toward where Greta sat holding court at her usual table. Two stacks of chapbooks were fanned out. A napkin with magic-marker read: $6 each 2/$10.

The moment Tommy saw her up close, he knew. The leg, the healthy glow. Johnny’s words echoed in his soul.

You know these people, Tommy, you know them. The Rainbow Woman.

Of course.

“Hey, Greta. How’s it going?” Tommy picked up a chapbook, flipped the pages.

She looked at him blankly, as if he were a salesman, but then her face brightened with recognition. “Young Mr. Delacroix. Tommy the D. How you been?”

“Good memory. That was a while ago, almost three years.” Tommy gestured with the chapbook and reached for his wallet. “Two for ten, huh? Sounds like a good deal.”

She accepted the two fives. Tommy grabbed a copy of the other chapbook.

“So, Tommy, still working at The Dog?”

“Nope, now I’m working for the Man! Bah-dum-CHEESH!” He mimed the rim shot. She didn’t laugh at the joke. Tommy wondered why he kept trying. “I got a day job at a tech company down on the Peninsula.”

“Sorry to hear it.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Tommy shrugged and leaned in. “So, you seen Johnny Ray lately?”

Her eyes sharpened, then glanced away. “Johnny Ray? Not lately.”

“That’s funny, cuz he tells me he’s seen you.” Tommy leaned down and locked her gaze. “And I mean, with his own two eyes.”

She didn’t blink. “That’s so?”

“Yeah, that’s so.” He leaned back. “So, can I buy you a drink?”

She declined. Not that she’d given up drinking, she explained, but rather had stopped seeking oblivion.

“I don’t want to be clouded any more, Tommy. I don’t want to miss a single moment of the rushing energy that is life, that is being alive. My vision has been cleansed, restored, no less so than Johnny’s physical vision.” She paused to sign a chapbook for a buyer.

“So you were there that night, then?”

Greta smiled. “Tommy, you don’t need to come on with the nasty cop attitude. And you already know all the answers, don’t you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know I was there. You knew it the moment you saw me. And you know what happened with Johnny, because he told you. Excuse me.”

Another buyer, bills in hand. With practiced flair, Greta opened a chapbook and scrawled her name on the title page.

“I believe him. I do. It’s just that, well, I’m not sure — ”

“How much was fact and how much fantasy?” She chuckled. “I’ve been asking myself the same question, but then I look at my leg. Was it all a dream, those years of infections and braces? Of course, The Man healed more than my leg. That’s just a side effect, really. Incidental to a more profound change.”

Greta told him that The Man had been appearing in the park for years. She’d heard rumors about a mysterious figure who would come and go like an angel, but it had only been in the last year that she first saw him in the flesh. Since then, his appearances had become more common, although no one knew when or where to expect him.

“But you don’t think he’s really an angel, do you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Really?”

“Really, Tommy. Angels don’t have beard stubble. He has a beard, and you know how men shave their necks, trim along the bottom here?” She ran her fingers along her gullet. “He had stubble there. Razor burn. And sometimes a pimple or two.”

“Sounds like you got a pretty close look.”

The stage brightened and the room lights dimmed. The break was over.

“Who is he, Greta?” Tommy watched her reaction — a sudden flush and tightening of her face — and he knew she knew. “What’s his name? You know him, don’t you?”

The emcee was back behind the mic, not five feet from Tommy.

“Come on, Greta. Tell me his name.”

Greta smiled. “Oh, come on now, Tommy. You know him better than I do.”

“What? Who?” What was she talking about?

“You need to go now.” Greta pushed Tommy’s chapbooks across the table. “Don’t worry. I already signed them.”

Tommy looked up. The whole room was waiting for him to sit his ass down. He walked back to the bar and ordered a double tequila with a Red Stripe chaser.

He needed to collect himself. Regroup. Greta had confirmed Johnny’s story but opened up a dozen other mysteries. Whom did Tommy know better than she did? She must have meant Johnny, but it sounded like she meant The Man in the Park. And how long had this been going on without word leaking out?

Tommy corrected himself. Leaking out it was.

The eco-warrior started. Tommy couldn’t think over his amplified voice, so he retreated into the billiard room. The only players, two guys in beaters with crew cuts and lots of tattoo ink, looked at him briefly before returning to their focus to the physics problem presented by the balls on the green felt.

Tommy chose an empty booth with good light. He picked up one of the chapbooks. Greta’s monochromatic image smiled from the cover, her head wrapped in her trademark scarf, pirate style. He thumbed the book open to the title page with her autograph. She’d scrawled something else there. Tommy shifted the book around until he found a decent patch of light.

“The next thing Johnny asks you”

That was it. A fragment with no punctuation. The next thing he asks. . . what? Tommy checked the other chapbook. It, too, had more than an autograph.

“Say Yes!”