Chapter Eleven (Farmer’s Market)
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After my ambivalent date with Ginny Good, I kept working at Kinney’s in San Bruno until my gorgeous white Lincoln finally fell completely apart on the freeway and I had to get a job I could walk to. The job I got was at Kay Bee Toys in the Hillsdale Shopping Center. That was where I was working when Kennedy got shot.
Anyone who was over the age of six at the time remembers what he or she was doing the day Kennedy got shot. I was having lunch with Ralph Wood in Farmer’s Market, the food court at the Hillsdale Mall. We were over by the Mexican concession. Ralph was drinking a cup of black coffee. I was scraping the last of a scrumptious side order of shell macaroni and tomato sauce into a warm, buttered tortilla when we heard the news. A pimply-faced kid in a SF Giants baseball cap at the table next to us turned the volume up on his transistor radio. Other radios went on. The more radio voices there were, the fewer real voices we heard. A crowd gathered around the portable TV at the Bavarian Hof Brau. Ralph and I just sat there. We hadn’t been talking much to begin with.
Ralph was tall and skinny and ten years older than everyone. He looked like a bird. He made his living as a thief. He cocked his head, trying to hear the news above the crackles of static coming from the kid’s cheap black and yellow radio. “…earlier this morning, in Dallas, Texas…”
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“They don’t know, man. Shut up and listen.” He snapped at me, biting the words between his teeth like a vulture.
We weren’t exactly friends. We just hung out with each other. My mother liked him. She was always trying to get him to eat some food, for heaven’s sake. He never did. That used to hurt her feelings. Ralph had no chin and a long, thin nose that had been broken so many times there wasn’t anything left inside it to break anymore. It was like Playdoh — like if you squashed his nose over to one side it would stay there. He wore thick glasses with black rims. When they got broken, as they often did, he taped them together with black electrical tape or, in a pinch, with flesh-colored Band-Aids.
The way he slicked back his hair was the last straw. His hair was black and spiky and always seemed to be trying to stick up in a ridge along the top of his scalp. He was a bird; an angry, intense, scavenger bird of some sort — a raven, say, or a buzzard — with watery, magnified, red-rimmed eyes that always seemed about to pop out of their sockets. This was especially true when you got him on the subject of Henry Miller. Ralph loved Henry Miller. He worshipped and adored Henry Miller. He had stolen every book Henry Miller ever wrote, some of them hundreds of times over. I don’t think Ralph actually read any of the books; I think he just liked what he’d heard about Henry Miller — that he lived in Paris, fucked a lot of cool chicks and didn’t take any shit off anyone.
Well, I take it back. Ralph may at least have skimmed a copy of The Books in My Life, but only to find out what other books were worth stealing. What Ralph liked about books was giving them to people for presents. He used to break into his friends’ houses and leave stolen books all over the place. My mother caught him one Christmas Eve. She woke up and found Ralph crouched in the living room, arranging hard cover copies of Death on the Installment Plan, Naked Lunch and To the End of the World in a semicircle around the darkened tree — scared the Bejesus out of the both of them.
Ralph wasn’t a healthy person. He didn’t want to be a healthy person. He cultivated ill health. He wanted to look like a bird. He wanted to look like the guys who wrote the books in Henry Miller’s life. He wanted to look like Celine and Beckett and Burroughs and Bukowski and Blaise Cendrars. He never ate and never slept but just wandered the aisles of all night grocery stores, slipping paperback copies of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn into the deep pockets of a floor length herringbone coat.
Well, either that or he drove around in his faded tan Corvair, getting into fights. Ralph got into at least one fight every two or three weeks, year in and year out. He picked fights on purpose, for no apparent reason. He went out of his way. He’d drive up and down the Peninsula at three in the morning, just to pick a fight with someone he’d heard was a good fighter — Spike in Millbrae, or Tony Rapaglia up in South City, or Jojo Chaplinski down in East San Jose.
And Ralph wasn’t a good fighter. He was a bad fighter. He had good form; that was about it. He was too tall and too skinny and too unhealthy to be a good fighter. With him it was philosophical. He’d go screeching up to wherever the guy lived and blow the weak horn of his Corvair and shine his spotlight into the guy’s windows and yell his name and get out of the car and stand on the guy’s lawn, bobbing and weaving like a cross between Ichabod Crane and the Marquis of Queensbury — until Spike or Tony or Jojo came out and popped him one in the mouth. Then Ralph would prop himself up on one elbow, feel around in the grass until he found his freshly broken glasses, fit the pieces painfully down over the bridge of his freshly broken nose, shake his head admiringly and compliment the guy. “Good punch, good punch,” he’d say, and that would be the end of it. Well, until the next time.
Which is what I mean about philosophy. Ralph didn’t exactly enjoy getting the crap kicked out of him every two or three weeks; it was necessary. He simply wanted to have whatever bad could possibly happen to him to just hurry up and happen and get itself the hell over with. Years later, he got strung out on morphine for the same reason. He wanted to become the biggest junkie in Northern California so he could go over to England and take the same cure William Burroughs took. He stole morphine from Veterinary Hospitals up and down the El Camino and succeeded in becoming a pretty good-sized junkie, but never made it over to England, never took the cure. The last time I saw Ralph, he had imaginary flukes in his veins. He was sitting on his couch, busily stabbing a needle into his forearm, trying to kill them, one at a time, trying to impale one of the wiggly little critters on the end of the needle long enough to squash the life out of it between the yellow nails of his thumb and forefinger.
Everything I know about him after that is apocryphal. I heard from Dick Joseph, for instance, that Ralph’s father died and he got back to Ohio just in time to sabotage the casket. His father’s body fell out onto the steps of the church. Ralph sued the funeral home and the casket company. Next I heard he was in the Ohio State Penitentiary for insurance fraud. Then I heard he was dead.
I had a hard time believing the one about him being dead. He would have been a hard guy to kill. What could have killed him? A gun? A knife? He was made entirely out of chicken gristle, for God’s sake. A bullet would have bounced off. A knife would have bent. Cancer, maybe. Cancer can kill anyone. Or maybe I just have a hard time believing anyone’s dead.
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But, back when black coffee was still his drug of choice, Ralph Wood was just the guy you wanted to be hanging out with when you heard the news that Kennedy got shot. Not because he could put it into perspective, no, anyone could put it into perspective — what Ralph knew was how to capitalize on it. He was deep in thought, biting the inside of his cheek.
“You know what this means?” He looked over the rims of his glasses at me and slicked down his quivering coxcomb.
“Johnson’s President? Jackie’s a widow? John-John’s an orphan?”
“No, man. Jesus.” His eyes popped farther out of their sockets. “Get serious. It means it’s going to be a good time to pick up chicks, that’s what.”
“You think?” I said.
“Sure. Chicks are gonna be sad that Kennedy got shot, man. Sad chicks get all vulnerable and shit. They want someone to come along and comfort them.”
So we went off to do that. We walked over into the Emporium and strolled up and down the wide ceramic aisles between the cosmectics department and the lingere section, stopping sad, vulnerable chicks to see if they might want to be comforted.
We didn’t actually succeed in picking up a single sad, vulnerable chick, but we did try. Ralph thought Henry Miller would have done the same thing under the circumstances. Guys are idiots. Chicks are idiots. Henry Miller’s an idiot. How the human race continues to thrive is beyond my ability to comprehend.