written by: George C Glasser
Harry was an enigmatic fixture in Frisco’s North Beach scene – one of those innocuous people that everybody knew but didn’t know anything about.
When Harry ran into a casual acquaintance, it was usually while having a cup of coffee at Cafe Trieste; he’d engage in casual conversation, but never mentioned anything about himself.
All anyone ever knew about Harry was that he worked in his little North Beach storefront and lived in the outer Mission District.
That day, as usual, Harry locked up at five on the nose and started for home.
He always walked down to Market Street stopping off at one of the Financial District bars for a couple of gin collins and to take advantage of free hors d’oeuvres before he headed on home.
Harry figured for the price of a couple of drinks, he saved himself the inconvenience of cooking and washing up afterward.
Winter in Frisco can be depressing, and there was a steady drizzle dampening his clothes until the chill seemed to penetrate to the bone.
About the time he hit the heart of North Beach — Broadway and Columbus — that time of day, things were starting to liven up on Broadway.
The neon lights performed their usual dazzling show. Blinking marquee lights seemed to splash onto the rain-slicked pavement, slither across the street like mercurial serpents, and sparkle on raindrops clinging to passing cars.
The whole street scene seemed to be choreographed to the arbitrary, dissonant background sounds – metallic clatter, sirens, various pitches of motor car horns, and the bass-like rumbling tires on the street – the usual rush hour street noises.
Along Broadway, Harry passed the sleazy operatic barkers that appeared in strip joint doorways – billing themselves as ‘silver-tongued devils’.
Clad in garish polyester attire and stylish, knock-off shoes, they called out singsong riffs several decibels above the muffled music exiting dimly lit curtained entrances, and above the ambient street noise.
They pitched the occasional, curious passersby promising vicarious gratification deftly couched in Tin Pan Alley-like rhymes. It was simply rehearsals in preparation for the usual evening crowd of prurient players and lascivious voyeurs.
Harry always found it curious as they worked the sparse groups of early-comers with the same cocaine-induced furor and sleazy persuasiveness as they did the bristling Friday and Saturday night crowds.
Like predatory fish, they snatched their prey into the dens from passing groups of drunken sailors, soldiers, and curious tourists.
Standing in the rain, Harry observed the gaudily dressed barkers cleverly hustling a scattering of somewhat reluctant but persuadable customers in the door for live sex shows or a free peek at some naked women.
Harry thought, “It’s just another late afternoon in North Beach. Same stereotypical actors playing the same roles.“
Harry dropped in a store along Broadway for a pack of smokes where one could take in a porno hot loop in a private booth for two bits, pick up a quart of milk, buy a dildo, a loaf of bread, and a can of corned beef.
Harry always had an image of some patrons from a 1960s underground comic character called “Dirty Dawg.” Those guys would cash in a buck for four quarters and slink off behind a tattered curtain into the backroom room and watch flickering hot loops through what looked like stereoscope goggles.
He always found stopping in the store amusing, not only because of the novel variety of products but also because the clientele intrigued him, which ranged from hookers and junkies to affluent businessmen. Higher-class women seemed to avoid the store.
Being well known as a fixture in the street scene, Harry caught glances of acknowledgment from the barkers, winos, and massage parlor girls as he passed silently like an extra paid to walk across a movie set.
Sometimes, Harry felt like an anonymous walk-on player to fill space in a scene that would build into a frenetic show to entertain the after-work regulars and sex-starved tourists.
To Harry, it was all sadly reminiscent of a long-running stage play, a play in a shabby theatre that had seen better days, always the same, only the actors, and sometimes, the roles changed.
As usual, Harry dropped into one of the New Montgomery Street bars. It was happy hour and there was a full buffet of hors d’oeuvres. Making his way through the crowd, Harry went to the bar and bought a brandy to cut the chill permeating his body.
It was the usual crowd – all the effervescent young executives engaged in usual semi-inebriated mutual back-slapping sessions – boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls posturing and preening looking to get a lucky hit and cop a ‘one night stand’ –- looking to fill an emotional void in a drunken night of passion forgotten or buried in the next day’s quest to drive ahead in pursuit of the acquisition of power, money, and the amenities that came with those elusive and empty ambitions.
The losers of the after-work, happy hour games were destined to head out to another bar or disco in search of an evening’s gratification or go home, snuggle up with a bottle of booze, and drink themselves into a state of obliterated nirvana.
Harry always enjoyed eavesdropping on bits and pieces of floating conversations as if attempting to capture elusive radio signals bouncing off the ionosphere in some obscure, abstract dream – the type of dream that taxes your memory and haunts you throughout the day, and sometimes, days on end having touched upon an uneasy reality.
The conversations were all about little or nothing of relevance – just words strung together by lonely people attempting to fill their meaningless existence with catchy and pathetically humorous quips to elicit some sign of recognition from their equally emotionally desolate peers.
The fact was that they couldn’t hide the desperation through plastered on cosmetic masks and plastic, pre-rehearsed, picture-perfect smiles.
The truth of who they were was slowly revealed as happy faces began to melt at the onset of varying degrees of intoxication.
Stepping into the hustle and bustle of the restroom where three or four people stuffed into a stall weren’t involved in mutual urination or masturbation as they snorted, sniffed, piled out almost in unison, and once again, mingled with the cacophonous barroom crowd.
Harry felt somewhat dismissive, yet ironically, like a judgemental voyeur, repulsed, yet envious that he was not invited or remotely a part of the superficial, transitory scene.
Next, a transvestite hit on Harry, smiling sweetly, and vainly attempting to conceal the desperation manifesting in his teary eyes, he gathered up some courage, and said, “I like them beefy and tough – just like you.”
Harry glanced back and walked into the barroom noticing an obnoxious group of people abandoning a female companion. She lay, head resting on her arm in a drunken stupor, alone amidst the empty remnants – beer bottles and glasses – and atop scattered cigarette butts and napkins sopping up spilled drinks.
With an almost forlorn, morbid curiosity, he gazed at her feeling some sympathy, but also disgust. She lifted her head achieving eye contact with Harry offering a sadly seductive smile.
Harry passed on the elusive invitation, went to the bar, and ordered another brandy when someone stumbled and fell into him clutching his shoulder for balance.
Turning, once again, Harry found himself looking into her eyes and recognized her from an ad agency he did some model building work for in the past.
She smelled of Shalamar, stale tobacco, and scotch. Her eye makeup was smeared, and he thought she looked like a drunk raccoon as she said, “You’re coming home with me tonight.”
The bouncer came up to Harry and said, “Is that drunk broad giving you a hard time?”
Harry took another look at her and said, “I know her, I’ll see that she gets home alright. Would you get a cab for us?”
By that time, she passed out again on Harry’s shoulder, and the bartender said, “We’re getting ready to ban her and the assholes she runs with. They come in here every night and get shit-faced. They always leave some slobbering drunk passed out at their table. They need to get some help, they just don’t know when to quit.”
Trying to find out where she lived was impossible because she was completely incoherent.
While they waited for the taxi, Harry started going through her purse attempting to find something with her address on it. Rummaging around, he came across several bottles of prescription drugs like Valium and Dexedrine along with a plastic bag containing Quaaludes, several joints, and a vial of cocaine.
Harry was amazed she wasn’t dead because it was evident she did, at least, have had a little taste of all the drugs contained in the purse on top of drinking herself into a state of oblivion.
Eventually, Harry found her driver’s license buried in a wallet.
Before the taxi arrived, she started retching and vomited all over herself. Harry went back into the bar, grabbed a towel, and managed to clean her up a bit.
The taxi driver wasn’t too pleased with having a drunk in the car smelling like a blend of stale cigarette smoke, Shalimar, fresh vomit, and scotch. As he rolled down the window, he glanced at us in the backseat, and asked, “Where to?”
After living in the city for so long, Harry was aware that the address on a piece of identification didn’t mean that the person lived there anymore. People tended to move around a lot.
Arriving at the address on her driver’s license, Harry asked the cabbie to wait until he was sure it was the right address.
The key to her flat worked. He unloaded her and paid the cabbie off.
The flat was a nice place up on Telegraph Hill with a great view of the Bay Bridge and Oakland Hills. It was also evident that she had several roommates, but no one was home.
Harry figured they were at some club looking to get laid or snort the night away with a cocaine-sugar daddy. That’s how things generally went with that crowd.
Her name was Ellie.
Harry undressed her and dumped Ellie in the shower knowing it was just a vain attempt to sober her up a bit.
The whole situation was an objective experience. Ellie was very attractive, and naked, even more so. But watching her crumple into a drunken heap at the bottom of the shower left Harry cold. Ellie just lay there numb and unfazed by the cold water rushing over her body. He thought, “Having sex with Ellie would be like having sex with a warm corpus.”
Harry went out and rustled around the kitchen. He made some tea and a sandwich for Ellie.
Ellie was in a semiconscious state when he helped her out of the shower, dried her off, and wrapped her into a dressing gown.
He managed to get her to eat, but Ellie wanted to start drinking again and have sex.
Harry humored and cajoled her into the living room and onto the couch. There, she passed out again.
Putting on his jacket, Harry, for a moment, turned and gazed at Ellie’s oval face buried softly into a pillow. She appeared so innocent. Before exiting, Harry looked back again, quietly slipped out the door, and went on his way.
Glancing at his watch, Harry realized that the whole incident played out in a little over an hour, but it seemed like a year. Then, he got a sudden urge for some Salvadorian food. Harry was hungry. He missed out on the happy hour hors d’oeuvres.
Walking toward Market, Harry mused to himself, “I’ll bet she won’t remember a thing tomorrow morning.”
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