Chapter Thirteen (Stockton Street)
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The day after Ginny and I spent the night talking our heads off on Clayton Street, I ditched Marnie McCracken, quit my job at the toy store without saying anything to anyone and moved up to The Navarre Guest House on Stockton Street next to the south end of the tunnel between Union Square and North Beach — just down the hill from the historical plaque marking the spot where Sam Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was shot and killed. I washed dishes and waited on tables in exchange for room and board.
When I wasn’t working or over at Ginny’s, I wandered around downtown San Francisco — North Beach, City Lights, Chinatown, Macy’s, the Emporium, the St. Francis, the cable car turnaround at Powell and Market, the Tenderloin, Maiden Lane, Lefty O’Doul’s, the burgeoning topless joints, you name it. A few of the guys I used to know in San Mateo came up now and then — Thulin, Ralph, John White, Murph. In fact, the first time Ralph Wood ever smoked dope was in the elevator at The Navarre Guest House. There ought to be a plaque.
Thulin got us the dope from some beatniks up in North Beach; Thulin got everyone his or her first dope. Ralph and I ended up on the floor of the elevator, laughing ourselves silly. We couldn’t stop. Even when it wasn’t funny anymore, it was funny that it wasn’t funny anymore.
John White had been one of Elliot’s friends at Hillsdale, before I got there. He was an actor. He was always playing some different character or other, always taking on new roles — Lee Marvin in “The Killers,” Rod Steiger in “The Pawnbroker.” He was always anyone but himself. Oh, and as for Murph, he’s my brother-in-law. He ended up marrying my sister Nicki. They met at Ralph Wood’s apartment by the railroad tracks in San Mateo. I told her I didn’t want her hanging out over there. She hung out over there anyway.
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But the main thing about the Navarre Guest House was that it was where Ginny and I finally got around to consummating having become boyfriend and girlfriend — in the squalid little roach-infested room they gave me in exchange for washing dishes. It wasn’t nearly so romantic as it would have been with all those candles blazing back at her apartment on 45th Avenue, but it was where we were.
The room had a single small window looking out into a box-canyon of sooty brick walls. The mattress still had the impression of the dead body of the disabled World War II Vet who’d lived there for decades before I moved in. He’d also been an alcoholic. There were cigarette burns and whisky circles on the windowsill. The smell of his deadness mixed with the smell of the thriving nests of cockroaches in the walls.
She sat on the edge of the bed wearing a pair of faded, tight-ass Levi’s. They buttoned up the front and were loose at the waist. I unbuttoned them one button at a time while she pulled her white gauze Mexican peasant blouse over her head. She unclasped her bra and tossed it and her blouse over toward the chair on the other side of the room. I pulled her pants and panties off, both at the same time. She got under the covers. I got undressed and got under the covers with her. We tried to make ourselves comfortable and got as romantic as we could get around the edges of the indentation the dead guy’s body had made in the mattress, but we weren’t able to get very comfortable or very romantic, either one. At that point it was more philosophical than anything — like Ralph Wood picking a fight with Jo Jo Chaplinski — something we just had to do and get the hell over with. We were in a big rush. She had a date with Tom Piper. We had to hurry. We hurried. We got it the hell over with.
Then the phone rang. Tom was in the lobby. Ginny freshened up in the bathroom down the hall. I walked with her to the elevator. Every Wednesday she and Tom went to the symphony. Tom was one of her suitors from San Francisco State. Their relationship was Platonic. She had all sorts of suitors. She was charming and cute and smart and had a really extra nice ass, as I’ve said.
Hank Harrison was another of her suitors from school. He had a big nose and little eyes and never quite fit in. Later on, when everyone else was wearing buckskin jackets, Hank would be the guy in the seersucker suit. He was sort of semi-famous in the sixties and seventies — first as manager of The Grateful Dead, back when they were still some little jug band down in Palo Alto calling themselves the Warlocks, then as the founder of LSD Rescue, which, according to Hank, became The Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. He wrote a book or two, too. Now the only thing famous about Hank Harrison is that he’s Courtney Love’s father.
I can’t begin to remember all the guys who had the hots for Ginny back then. There were lots. The guy with the spindly goatee who had answered the door at the house on Clayton Street was another one — that Bud guy. He was also a Baha’i. Ginny liked spiritual guys.
Ron Silverstein was another one. He was an older guy with a bunch of doctorates who taught philosophy at St. Mary’s. He had also converted from Judaism to Catholicism because it was so god damn mystical. Ginny especially liked that. He had her all talked into thinking she was Heloise and he was Abelard. She was a pushover for all that dark, secret, forbidden love stuff…and there were still all her so-called ex-boyfriends waiting in the wings: Jim Moss and the garbanzo bean guy and Charles and that whole college kid contingent. What she was doing with me, none of them knew.
All I distinctly recollect of the next few months is Ginny reading The Alexandria Quartet out loud to me on the roof of the house on Clayton Street while I rubbed Coppertone into the perfect small of her muscular back. Ginny thought she was Justine. Tom Piper was Nessim. I forget who I was — Laurence Durrell, I guess. She had high hopes for me. She loved finding herself in the characters of books and thought I was going to make her one some day. I loved rubbing her back while she read to me. That was the only education I ever got. It was the only education I ever wanted. The backrubs never stayed confined strictly to her back.
Toward the end of June, Ginny started getting antsy about me saying I was going to be a writer. I mean, here she was, the belle of the ball, with all these substantial guys chasing after her, and it got harder and harder for her to justify why she’d chosen to be with me. Who could she say I was? What could she say I was? A dishwasher? A waiter? A former cart boy at a toy store? An ex-shoe salesman at Kinney’s? No. She had to think I was a writer. That was what I’d said I was, after all. That was what I’d told her I was. She was all set to be Zelda Fitzgerald. I wasn’t doing my part. I had to get a move on.
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Somewhere around in there I made it easier for Ginny to convince herself that I was at least going to be a writer someday by taking off to go get things to write about. Around the first week of July or so, I hitchhiked down to Mexico, over to New Orleans and up through Mississippi to New York, thinking I might find some stuff to write about along the way…so I could write some god damn books and get rich and famous like Scott Fitzgerald and Ginny could be Zelda to her heart’s content.
In Tijuana, I got thrown in jail along with some guy I’d gotten a ride from. We’d left his car and his wallet on the U.S. side and had walked across the border. He had a lot of money and a nice car — a little yellow Porsche. He was worried that his car might get stolen or he might get robbed. A cab driver was showing him pictures of naked Mexican girls. Plain clothes Mexican police arrested both of us. I was just standing there, not doing a darn thing. I barely got a glimpse of any of the pictures. We ended up in the Tijuana jail. There was feces all over the floor.
A drunk Marine from Camp Pendelton grabbed a drunk Mexican by the back of his shirt, picked him up from one of the benches and threw him into the shit on the floor. Then the drunk Mexican got up and grabbed the drunk Marine by the back of his uniform and threw him into the shit on the floor. That happened a few more times. They were both so wasted it looked like it was all in slow motion. As soon as the Mexican got comfortable on the bench, just as he was about to pass happily into oblivion, the Marine managed to pick him up by the back of his shirt and throw him down into the shit again. I leaned against a wall and watched.
After a while one of the guards let me out and walked with me down to an interview room. There were kids sticking their hands out toward me from between the bars of their cells — big-eyed Mexican kids who looked like they hadn’t done anything wrong, either. A Police Lieutenant threw my comb into a trashcan and turned me loose. I walked back across the border, found the guy’s car, got his wallet from under the seat, and went back to the Tijuana jail and bailed him out. He was grateful. I could have left him there. I had his car keys. I had his wallet. I could have taken them both and split. I didn’t. Whether that was worth writing about or not, I didn’t know.
I liked being on my own, being free — having no money and only what clothes I was wearing, standing in a hot desert as it was starting to cool off, with no cars coming from either direction and a huge orange moon rising above the horizon. The sun went down. The moon came up. A prairie dog barked. Nobody expected anything. I had no one to worry about but myself.
In Yuma, Arizona, I shoveled horseshit from one pile of horseshit to another pile of horseshit to make some money to get something to eat. In Texas, a trucker put his hand on my dick. I was asleep. I’d been having a dream about this cute little Mexican chick at the diner where I’d spent most of the money I’d made shoveling horseshit. She was going to come with me to New Orleans, but didn’t. Whether that was worth writing about or not, I didn’t know. Maybe so.
In Jackson, Mississippi, three guys in a red pickup thought I was a freedom rider. I wasn’t. They were members of an organization called “Americans for the Preservation of the White Race.” One of them held a shotgun under my chin. He held it steadily, like he’d done it before. I told them in my best Southern drawl that I was on my way up to Memphis, looking for work. I was all for Negroes being able to eat at white restaurants and drink from white drinking fountains and go to school with white kids and not get themselves lynched every five seconds, sure, but the way I figured it was that Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy were doing a fine job of fixing all that. I simply did not see how getting my head blown off would have helped. The guys in the pickup dropped me off at the north end of town. That might have been worth writing about, but I doubted it.
In New York, some guy dropped me off near the World’s Fair. I took a look at the big brass sculpture of that empty world that was supposed to be the symbol of it all and noticed a lot of pigeons pecking at the cement. Their feathers were iridescent in the sun. It was hot and humid.
I stopped off at Washington Square, got whacked on the shoe by a cop for lying on a bench, and heard Bob Dylan singing in the basement of a brick building. People were lined up going down a stairwell. You had to pay money to get in. I didn’t have any. A guy on the sidewalk told me Dylan stole everything he did off of Woody Guthrie. I told the guy, “No shit.” I knew all about Bob Dylan from the communists on Clayton Street.
I wondered what was going on back in San Francisco. I missed Ginny. Was that worth writing about? Fuck if I knew. Fuck if I know. Who knows what’s worth writing about? Not me. I know that for a total fact.
The next morning, I called Ginny collect from a Chock Full O’ Nuts that was next to an advertisement for “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” in which Donna McKechnie’s name appeared in small print. I thought about giving Donna a call, but that would have been sort of stupid, so I called Ginny instead.
“I’ve been somewhat…promiscuous,” Ginny said in that inimitable way she had of making it sound like it wasn’t her but some naughty next door neighbor girl who’d been fucking everybody and his brother while I’d been gone. She was schizophrenic. She and that naughty neighbor girl did everything together. And if it wasn’t that little slut, it was someone else. Ginny was never alone. She always had imaginary playmates. She talked to herself in different voices and read books out loud to herself — wait, wait, here’s what I mean. Here’s another part of another letter:
“How absolutely wonderful I feel today. Alone. Sitting in intense chaos with piles of poetry books all over and getting very hung up on T. S. Eliot — my God — here we are, me and Dylan and T. S. and Edna and Emily and Wallace. We are having a PARTY! We are! Have you read, beside all the serious decay poems, “Practical Cats?” The neighbors must think I’m off again because they (cats) have got to be read out loud — so they are being — and there are parts which if aloud must be allowed to be loud and then when they are, laughter is provoked so must be evoked — Loud — hee, hee, HA HA HA — like that. So what the neighbors hear is cats, loud and huge laughing cats. I love and am good.”
Loud — hee, hee, HA HA HA — like that. Ha! She used to laugh so hard sometimes she squealed. She peed her pants. Then it was so funny that she peed her pants she squealed again and peed her pants some more. Fuck. Where was I? She’d been “somewhat” promiscuous.
“Somewhat?” I asked.
“Like, with who?”
“Oh, dear. Just Jim, I guess.”
“Jim Moss? I thought you didn’t want anything to do with him anymore?”
“I thought so, too. Oh yeah, and Bud. I forgot.”
“The guy who lives there? I thought that would be a bad idea?”
“It probably was. Oh, and Ron Silverstein, of course.”
“What do you mean, of course?”
“Well, that was pretty inevitable, don’t you think?”
“I’m not sure. I was blacked out some.”
— — —
I hitchhiked back to San Francisco as fast as I could hitchhike. I had visions of the love of my life up on the sunroof with Jim Moss — his shiny black hands rubbing squirts of Coppertone down the small of her back and up the sides of her sturdy rib cage.
“Oh, yeah, and Bud.”
Bud’s goatee tickling the tips of her pretty nipples got me through Kansas.
“Oh, and Ron Silverstein, of course.”
Visceral visions of her and Ron Silverstein grabbing at each other like animals, tearing each other’s clothes off, like Heloise and Abelard finally released from their vows, got me through the Rocky Mountains in no time flat.
“I was blacked out some.”
Holy shit. That could have meant most anything. Pictures of Ginny and a bunch of Vedanta swamis and Buddhist monks and Catholic priests all in one great big huge sweaty, heaving, mystical pile of naked flesh frolicking up and down the aisles of Grace Cathedral sped me the rest of the way to San Francisco.
While I’d been in New York, my parents had moved up to Oregon, to Ashland, Oregon — where I am now, where I’ve finally quit playing golf long enough to sit down with my little stack of letters and things and say this stuff.
Ginny wasn’t in San Francisco when I got back. She was visiting her aunt in Laguna Beach. No one was around when I got back. I was on my own.
Sometime during the next week I got a job in the Industrial Relations Department of the State of California, rented an apartment on Bush Street and got married to a woman named Sabine. It was a fake marriage. A newspaper vendor I knew from the Navarre Guest House introduced us. Sabine was from Austria on a tourist visa and needed to get married to an American in order to stay in the country. I needed to get married in order to stay out of the army. They were drafting people right and left by then. Staying out of the draft was a full time job. I did all kinds of things — getting married was just the beginning.
I called Ginny at her aunt’s house in Laguna and asked her if she thought it would be okay if I got married. She said, “Sure.” Ginny didn’t want me going to Vietnam any more than I wanted to go to Vietnam.
The ceremony was at City Hall. The newspaper vendor was our witness. Sabine kept his change machine in her purse. I kissed her on the cheek when the judge said I should. She was pretty cute, too, but it was all strictly business. Nobody wanted to go to Vietnam. Well, except for Elliot, I guess, and he had reasons of his own. He had reasons of his own for everything he ever did. Reasons I never understood. Reasons to this day I don’t understand. Reasons I’ll never understand.
The multimedia version has music by Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Mississippi John Hurt and Carl Orff, but this voice only version ain’t bad all on its own. Watch it and see: