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One Winter Near San Francisco

by Charles C. Cole

I was out of sorts. I had dropped out of college after Christmas break and was living with my sister in an efficiency apartment in Sausalito. The weather was amazing, while my friends back in Evanston were having so much winter that some daring students jumped out of second story windows cushioned by historically high snowbanks.

Northern California was an exotic world. Some houses were built on stilts! There was an amazing “over-life-size” bronze replica of Rodin’s The Thinker at the Legion of Honor, outside! The so-hideous-they’re-beautiful ubiquitous plane and eucalyptus trees were unlike anything I’d seen growing up in the northeast. And I’d never been exposed to so many wilted people sleeping on the grass downtown in broad daylight; the homeless appreciated the mild weather, too.

I walked to my dishwasher gig at The Trident, a restaurant on Bridgeway on the water. At the time, it seemed all the men were struggling musicians and the women were aspiring models. They were all gorgeous. Rumor had it to get good hours one arranged a satisfactory drug deal for management. Quaalude was the flavor of the month. I occasionally witnessed sandwich bags exchanged, and “saw nothing”.

For whatever reason, this one manager wouldn’t let the wait staff go home until all the dishes were cleaned and reshelved. We served a delicious French onion soup. As you can imagine, the melted cheese stuck stubbornly to the pretty ceramic bowls. One night this imposing fellow, built and dressed like a B-movie motorcycle villain, came into the kitchen. “How long is this going to take? I got things to do.”

“A while longer, but I’m getting there,” I offered.

He grabbed a stack of bowls, maybe fifteen, and walked out to the end of the dock, dumping them into the bay. “You’re welcome,” he said.

On my quiet hike home, I was missing my sense of purpose, longing for my friends on Lake Michigan. I paused at a bench looking out at the bay and softly sang Frank Sinatra’s “My Kind of Town”: “Each time I roam, Chicago is calling me home.” In the day, sometimes an itinerant harbor seal would muster a cluster of photo-snapping tourists. Tonight, I was alone.

After midnight. A man approached me, practically dashing across the street. “Old Blue Eyes! Nice!” he enthused. “Are you a professional? You must be.” He wasn’t filthy, just unkempt: homeless. With his lovely singsong voice, he clearly had been raised in Ireland. He stood a little too close. I was keenly aware that I still had a few blocks, uphill, to get home.

“Just missing some friends,” I allowed.

“Chicago? Never been. Nope. Ireland, Heathrow, then California. You a tourist?”

“Just visiting.”

“Staying nearby?” Direct.

“With my sister, in an efficiency. My bedroom’s the living room. She’s got one of those dressing screens for a room divider. No privacy.” I didn’t want him to follow me.

“I don’t even have that. An efficiency nor a sister nor the divider thingy. Is she nice? I bet she’s nice.”

“Not that nice. I’ve heard of people sleeping the night in the police station,” I suggested. “I could walk you there. It’s the opposite direction.”

“You’d do that?”

“And I’ve got five bucks.” I passed him the money, making sure he saw the wallet was now empty. “This way.”

I instinctively found a hurried pace, while my acquaintance lagged a bit behind me.

“Is it far? I’m a special kind of tired,” he called out. “I may need to rest my mother’s son’s bones, if you get me.”

“I’ve got an unopened packet of Oreo cookies in my pocket. Better than nothing.”

“A lot better than nothing! Sugar high, here we come!” he said, clapping his hands and rubbing them together in melodramatic anticipation. “More than I’ve had all day, maybe two. Are you giving them away or are we sharing, like wee mates on the teeter-totter?”

“They’re all yours.” I waited for him to catch up.

He looked about. “A bench! A bench! My kingdom for a bench!” He was clearly fatigued and put a hand on my shoulder to steady himself while he caught his breath. I stiffened.

“It’s all good,” he said, noticing. “I’m no threat to you and yours. I could offer you something fun in exchange for the money, but I don’t think you’ve a mind for it.”

“We’re almost there,” I said. “You just need to rest.”

“We both know I need gobs more than that.”

“It’s a start.”

“Is it? Or would it be the end? Strange things happen to people like me in places like that. They go in and they never come out. They just disappear. I should have joined the priesthood when I had the chance.” He looked to the heavens and shook his head.

A decision settled over him, and he backed away a couple of steps. “You’ve been a fine friend, stranger. Don’t let nobody tell you different. But I think we’ll be parting ways.”

“Are you sure? We’re almost there.”

He ripped open the Oreo package and stuffed a sandwich cookie into his mouth. “Cats pajamas!” he hooted. “It’s as good as the first time I lost my virginity!” And then he hopped on one foot and screeched out: “Caledonia! Caledonia! What makes your big head so hard?”

He pointed off in the distance. “Tell you what, I’ll get a head start, go off this way, as quick as my feet will carry me, and you go back the way we come. That way you know I’m not following you like a stray cat. All right?”

“Take care,” I said. Off he shambled for maybe eighty feet, then he starting humming something unrecognizable. I went home.

I looked up his vaguely familiar she-done-him-wrong song at the library. Many blues artists had done covers, even the legendary James Brown. The lyrics that jumped out at me: “She’s long, lean, and lanky and ain’t had nothing to eat.” Yep, that fit.

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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