The parking enforcement officer was licking her chops, getting ready to phone in ground support in the form of a municipal tow truck.
When the man calls a tune, I dance. With gusto. So I dash for the driver’s door, wheedle out an “I’m sorry” on my way by, hop in and lower the passenger window. This is that I see:
The old man with blazing eyes of lunatic blue, a veritable John Brown of the Embarcadero, screams the following admonition: “Cougar Hot Springs, 50 miles east of Eugene. It’s heaven on earth!”
I’m trying to get the hell out of here before the parking gendarme changes her mind, but he holds me transfixed. It’s not a recommendation. It’s a decree.
“Get yourself fucking there!”
A command. From whom?
“Some people say I’m the son of Satan!” he had intoned a few moments earlier. “I believe I’m God fucking almighty!”
I’m fairly sure he’s playing a part, and not completely crazy, but he seems just serious enough to give me pause. For some reason, maybe a deep-seated misanthropic bent, nothing gets me going like homeless madmen.
I turn the corner, leaving the Embarcadero and Thomas May behind, and my heart sinks. It sounds like I’ve got an empty case of beer cans dragging from the rear bumper, like I just got married or something. What the fuck?
I’m having a hard enough time fighting my brittle memory and trying to recall the salient points of my conversation with Thomas May – Giants fan since ’57, cat lover, cannabis connoisseur, Lutheran minister, Republican prophet, burned-out hippie, friend of the powerful and downtrodden – and now I’ve got to worry about this six-wheeled monster breaking down on the streets of San Francisco with rush hour approaching and an army of tow trucks on the prowl.
What did he say? I struggle to remember, but the ominous clank, clank, rattle, clank, rattle is a little distracting. Maneuvering a 21-foot behemoth through urban streets without creasing someone’s bumper is work enough. Clank, clank, clank. Rattle, rattle, fucking rattle.
What did he say?
A couple minutes ago, he was berating me. Never sell yourself short, he said, cobalt eyes threatening to pop right out of their well-worn sockets.
I allowed that, being fairly familiar with the peculiar ins and outs of being me, I had damn good reason to sell myself short.
He said the fact I was standing on the goddamn Embarcadero snapping photographs of his face – a wonderfully compelling face telegraphing myriad histories and countless clues – was proof I wasn’t actualizing my talents.
Thomas May, if that is indeed his name, grew up in Camden, N.J. Both of his parents, he said, were born in 1895. My maternal grandfather, David Stokley, was born in 1895, right across the Delaware River in Philadelphia. I figured we had found common ground. You oughta be a Phillies fan, I said. Meekly. He said he’d been to Connie Mack Stadium as a kid, but …
The clank, clank, clanking crashes in again from my rear guard, short-circuiting the reverie. Did I mention that there’s no fucking place to park in downtown San Francisco on weekday afternoons? Tow-away zones to the left of me, tow-away zones to the right, stuck in the middle, hope dwindling. No parking 3-7 p.m. No parking 4-6 p.m.
This steel trap is going to brake down in the middle of the financial district, and I’m going to skulk away like Carl Spackler after the golfing preacher was felled by lightning.
I had dropped Becky and Max at the Embarcadero, because Max was hell-bent on taking in San Francisco’s Railway Museum. I’d join them after I found a parking spot.
That proposition was becoming dicier by the minute.
They’re not fucking around, either. I pass two tow trucks in the process of delivering maximum punishment to minimal offenders.
What the fuck did he say?
The boy on his left shoulder, Brandon, fished a roach out of his pocket. He’s down from Whistler and Mount Baker, headed to the Further Festival in L.A., Huntingdon Beach for surfing. The itinerant kid smokes a peace pipe with the wizened veteran. All is well.
I’ve driven four or five or maybe eight goddamn blocks and I peer down at the gas gauge. Oh for fuck’s sake.
Needle to the left of E.
Thomas May said he came west in 1966 to live with his brothers in Marin County. One worked for Greyhound, in computers. Did Greyhound even have computers in 1966? The other worked for an airline, I think. They became big-time drug kingpins. Wanted by Interpol, FBI, KGB, James Bond, just about everyone. Said he never smoked marijuana till 1972.
That’s suspicious right there.
How is it possible he made it through the Summer of Love and the rest of the kaleidoscopic 1960s and didn’t become a freak until Watergate?
Maybe he is a Republican.
I forgot about Baby. His cat. Travels in a basket affixed to his cart, which is festooned with all manner of Giants regalia. The black and orange have blown up by the Bay. Nothing sells like success. He’s even got a “Let Tim Smoke” T-Shirt draped over the back of his seat.
Said he got a big spread down in Santa Cruz. He’s tight with the gangsters and the cops. Hippies, too.
On the weekend, he’s in God’s court. Said he can bring the fire and brimstone like Timmy Lincecum can bring the heat. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
Clank, rattle, clank. I keep driving like, with apologies to Robert Johnson, I have a hellhound on my trail.
No gas. No parking. No peace of mind.
What the hell did he say?
He got a foreign policy, too. Said “he’ll never let” the troops out of Afghanistan. Said he gonna keep them there till they’re tortured for every last one of their sins. He said it. I even asked for clarification. Still don’t know what he meant.
Was he fucking with me, or was he crazy as a shithouse rat?
Clank, clank, clank, the ominous rattletrap cacophony pierced my ears at every revolution of the wheels.
So far on this brief excursion, we’ve blown out a rear tire passing a semi truck on the way up an Oregon mountain, endured several cameos from the “check engine” light, and managed to ignore strange turning sounds.
Now: Clank fucking clank, rattle fucking rattle.
Several twists, turns and colorful invectives later, I stop at a light in Japantown and ask a nice young couple if they might direct me to a gas station. The woman gives precise directions, and in a minute or two I’m at a Shell station, corner of Steiner and California. A quick consultation with Google maps shows I was roughly 2.5 miles from the Railway Museum.
Thirty-five dollars doesn’t come near to filling the tank, but it should get us through the day – if in fact the cranky behemoth keeps running. Here in northern California, the old-fashioned gas and service station, which I had taken to be an extinct species, thrives in the 21st century. So while wedged into the narrow confines of this fueling depot, I wandered over to an open bay and confessed my woes to an affable fellow named Doug, a mechanic who looked to be in charge.
He said he couldn’t do much, he didn’t have the facilities to work on such a leviathan, but he graciously took time to inspect the undercarriage. Nothing. He offered to take a look while I took a turn through through the lot. A diagnosis: Turns out a plastic cover on the right, rear wheelwell had cracked and was rattling harmlessly with each turn of the wheel.
“Not as bad as it sounded,” he said with a smile before offering me a thumbs-up signal of goodwill as I slid the behemoth back onto California.
Thank you, Doug. You’re a prince among men.
A couple of carefree turns amid no longer worrisome clanking later, I pulled into a space alongside a parking meter on legendary Fillmore Street. I didn’t have any idea how far it was back to the Railway Museum, but I turned my wheels to the curb, put on my sneakers, bid adieu to Lester and began jogging in what I hoped was the general direction of the waterfront.
Sparing the reader the twists and turns and false starts and dead ends of my circuitous journey, I reached the Embarcadero about 45 minutes later, dodging a trickle of passengers than turned into a swollen stream around Fourth and Market. In all, running like a crazed rat in a downtown maze, I’d turned a 2.5-mile jaunt into a 4-mile expedition.
Two hours after I left their company, I rendezvoused with Becky and Max at the Railway Museum. After taking a ride on conductor Max’s cable car, we set out up Market on the return journey.
Up next: occupying Wall Street, San Francisco division