Work in Progress
The Dead Don’t Remember You: A Vincent St. Michael Novel
The moment Eleanor evaluated her, she knew there was something wrong.
Vincent St. Michael told her when she was hired to never say “observe,” but “evaluate.”
So, the new comer was strange. Not to be trusted.
Eleanor ushered her into St. Michael’s office and introduced her as Mrs. Crocker.
Eleanor took a corner chair and pulled out her tape recorder.
Mrs. Crocker faced St. Michael, who was seated behind his desk.
“As I explained over of the phone, it’s about my son,” she said.
“He’s been away for some time…and now he’s coming back, although I don’t know exactly when. I’m afraid that he’s mixed up with some bad company.”
“What do you mean by bad company, Mrs. Crocker?”
“Well, you know, people who would influence him…to do bad things.”
“Was he always a bad boy?”
“No. But he was troubled. Never really had a chance. His father left us when he just nine.”
St. Michael pulled out a notebook and gave Eleanor a knowing glance.
“I am a private investigator specializing in events related to the maritime industry,” said St. Michael. “So why are you here?”
“My son worked on passenger vessels, Mr. St. Michael. “And then on the docks. My attorney said you might be able to help us.”
St. Michael put down his pen and paper, and asked Mrs. Crocker to address the tape recorder with her story.
“OK. My son, age 18 gets his lottery draft notice seven years ago. It’s number 113 in 1969, so he’s not going to college, and he has no other deferments, and he gets the impulse to travel until they call him up. He surfs…pretty good, I’m told. So he thinks this will be a bright idea until he has to return to the Mainland from Hawaii. Did I say that he left for Hawaii? Well, he did. Not knowing anyone there or with anywhere to stay. He just bolted. Found a job with a shipping company and Good Bye.”
“May I interrupt? He finds a job on eastbound cruise vessel to the Islands? Doing what?”
“As a bar-back for the bartender, supplying him with ice and replenishments. That’s what he wrote me.”
“He found work at Pearl Harbor hauling crates off vessels piecemeal. Not a union position. Casual labor. Then someone offered him a job working on skyscrapers being built in Honolulu.”
“So he’s a strong young man?”
St. Michael lights a cigarette.
“No. Just compact. They thought he would like to take on an apprenticeship to be a highrise ironworker. Mostly with a death wish. Very risky job, but good pay. And brotherhood. He opted out of that on the first day. Petrified in the elevator. Barely made it out on the beam. He worked his shift, though, and then transferred.”
“To what? asked St. Michael.
“A foundation man. He found his calling. Liked to pour and smooth cement. Terra Firma.
“So how do you know this, Mrs. Crocker?”
His friend described this for me…although he didn’t have many friends. Maybe he’s an acquaintance.”
“Would you kindly name and describe this…acquaintance?”
“He has an aristocratic bearing, though I don’t believe he has much money. His name is Bernard Braxton. Charm to spare, and a popular contest surfer in the Islands and Southern California. They met at some party.”
“Not met through surfing?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Ben didn’t like big waves or competition. As I mentioned, he is uncomfortable at great heights.”
Eleanor rose from her chair and put a thick dossier on St. Michael’s desk. This was the Ben Crocker file put together just before his mother’s arrival.
“That should be all,” said St. Michael. He stood up and guided Mrs. Crocker toward the door.
“You may leave Eleanor with a check for this visit, and we’ll discuss our fees later if we proceed with the investigation.”
When the two women left, St. Michael opened the file. It contained several photos of Ben, including one shot of him surfing at Fort Point, beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. That photo was blurred. Another posted picture by his car showed that he had a good build, pleasant smile. Well groomed. There was a high school diploma and transcripts indicating that he was just an average student.
A separate envelope contained shipping documents for his working passage on the Stateside vessel, Aloha bound for Honolulu. It was for one-way passage, with no assurances of continued employment.
Several letters and post cards were included, tied together with some burlap strings. They had the scent of coconut cologne and hashish. Cheap hash. Cheap cologne. And then something else caught St. Michael’s attention. The soiled and torn receipt from The Hotel Dam Ran Vey. A smudged thumb print on the lower corner may have contained blood.
Next on the agenda was a walk down to Longshoreman’s Hall. This was a stroll St. Michael enjoyed taking from his office in the Ferry Building. The fog would be rolling in at dusk and San Francisco’s natural air conditioner would be in full force by evening. He’d stop at a couple of watering holes on his way through North Beach, and then take his usual ringside seat before the preliminary bouts got underway. Posters advertising the main event graced many storefronts and even a few churches. The featured fight was to launch local favorite, Jack O’Malley, on his professional career. Vincent St. Michael was not widely popular with many of the longshoremen, but the union bosses and shipping company executives always greeted him warmly. He rarely talked shop at these events, but sometimes it could not be avoided.
“My nephew is looking for work in the PI business,” said one fight regular. “Can you help him out…even as an intern?”
“You know my agency only hires women.”
“Yeah, why’s that?”
“For a variety of reasons,” said St. Michael. “Reasons you might not understand…but that’s the firm’s policy.”
While he was never comfortable explaining this rule, it was based on painful experience learned over the past few years. Men were not as observant as women, nor as patient. The women he employed came from a variety of backgrounds, but with one thing in common: most were damaged goods.
Divorced, or unwed mothers, for example. Others were closeted lesbians. Some not so closeted. One or two others may have been sexually abused when young, and had a natural suspicion of all men. This was especially valued at the St. Michael Agency, since most dockworkers were of that gender…unless convincingly disguised by a hormonal transformation.
The raging hormones here at Longshoreman’s Hall were in full throat tonight, noisily greeting the first lissome “card girl,” stepping in beneath the ropes of the ring. St. Michael recognized the blonde from one of the strip clubs. She might one day in the not-to-distant future being asking him for job, too.
Then the two novice boxers came out of their respective corners to push each other around in an uninspired first round. The second round ended suddenly for the guy in white trunks, who was knocked cold by a phantom uppercut.
During the break, St. Michael was approached by one of the SF police detectives working fraud-related cases.
“We understand that Mrs. Crocker paid you a visit today,” said the sergeant. “If she knows anything about her son’s whereabouts we’d like to have you share it with us.”
“Client confidentiality, Sarge. You know the drill. We had an introduction, that’s all.”
“So she’s not exactly a client yet?”
“She doesn’t fit the usual profile, but we might be able to help her. What do you know about Ben?
“A troubled kid. Actually trained with us at the Police Athletic League when he was younger. Had some potential as a lightweight. Started hanging out with the wrong element, though. Surfers, dope addicts. Guys like that. Lost interest in boxing and faded away. He’s also a draft dodger.”
“President Ford has issued a proclamation offering amnesty. Maybe Ben did not get that memo.”
“The amnesty comes with certain conditions,” said the sergeant. “Namely that those involved agree to reaffirm their allegiance to their country and serve two years working in a public service job.”
“Then he can become a cop?
“Not if he’s a conscientious objector, he can’t. At any rate, we’re not granting him any kind of protection until he makes himself available. There are more people looking for Ben than you, me, and his mother. Lots of angry dangerous people.”
He tips his hat. “See ya, Vince.”
The sergeant went over to the other side of the ring to sit with a group of other uniformed officers. A new card girl stepped into the ring, announcing Round One of the second preliminary bout. This was slightly more entertaining, as both fighters were seasoned professionals. A technical knockout in the 7th, and the main event was up next.
Jack O’Malley was known and liked by this crowd. A North Beach local, he trained at Newman’s Gym in the Tenderloin, and never lost a Golden Gloves match as an amateur. His father was a bartender, as were all his uncles. Jack was known to have had a few drinks too many when he wasn’t training for a fight, but he always managed to stay out of trouble.
“This is his first ‘marquee’ fight,” someone behind Vince announced. “Jack ain’t ever been in there with a seasoned professional.”
Which was true, except that his opponent was nearing the end of his career and had every reason to just show up and find a nice soft place to fall down. The purse wasn’t much for victor or vanquished, but O’Malley might be more motivated if he truly believed this was a stepping stone for him in the fight game. St. Michael remained skeptical, as he had seen too many melodramas to believe this was On the Waterfront revised.
Contenders were in short supply in this “coulda, woulda shoulda” world of defeated dreamers.
A Marine Color Guard was summoned by the announcer as the boxers were being introduced. This was a group of four fresh-faced lads. Two were carrying national and Corp colors, flanked by two others bearing regulation rifles. St. Michael rose to his feet truculently, and bowed his head in a attitude of reverence and resignation.
A tired recording of the National Anthem droned from overhead speakers, and “God Bless America,” was called out at its conclusion. Not everyone in the crowd was standing. The war in Vietnam had met its inglorious end two years earlier, and many of the longshoremen were opposed to its mission from the very start. Some of the more Left Wing guys had, in fact refused to work vessels destined for Southeast Asia, even if they were just carrying humanitarian supplies.
The referee goes over his instructions with the two fighters, who glare at one another before returning to their corners. When the bell rings, powerfully built O’Malley comes out throwing haymakers and hooks. He’s not one to jab much. Nor can he slip a punch. His opponent just takes it, losing on points up until the fifth round. That’s when the crowd discovers what St. Michael had suspected all along. The Irishman has a glass jaw. Even before he hit the canvas, it was lights out. The ref and fight doctor rushed to the fallen idol to remove his mouthpiece and inspect the damage. His eyes had rolled to the back of his head, and a stream of dark blood puddles beneath his head. A priest climbs through the ropes, too.
Just in front of St. Michael, two women weep. One is O’Malley’s mother, the other, his fiancé. As the fighter slowly regains consciousness, the announcer overstates the obvious: the bout has ended with a knockout. A scratchy vinyl recording of “Oh Danny Boy” is now filtering through the speakers.
Twenty minutes later, O’Malley is on his feet, head bandaged, being gently escorted out. A good natured group of Boyos try to console him, but the boxer will have none of it. His eyes are starting to blacken and he’s suddenly become very old.
As St. Michael is finishing his beer, he feels a soft tap on his shoulder. It’s Eleanor.
“Thought I’d come by to give you a lift in my car,” she said. “It won’t be good for you to be walking home from here.”
“One of these longshoremen left a message on the office phone saying you might be followed by someone we’ve had fired. Remember the crane operator who claimed he’d been injured on the job back in July?”
“The one who two days later is spotted hauling a case of boosted scotch into his apartment?”
“Yeah. That’s the one. He’s made some threats that we might wish to take seriously. I spotted him in the parking lot with his biker friends.”
Eleanor’s vintage green Jaguar is parked near the gate, just beyond a phalanx of gleaming Harley Davidson choppers.
“You not riding that ‘rice burner’?” one of the bikers growled at St. Michael.
“It’s not Japanese,” he answered. “It’s Italian. And I’ll race you any day you wish.”
Eleanor squeezes his arm, and whispers, “Not here Vince. Not now.”
Once they get in the car, he rolls down the window and lights a cigarette. Then he passes the pack over to her.
“Still trying to quit?”
“It might be a good idea for you to do the same,” she says.
St. Michael keeps his eye on the side view mirror, but it does not appear that they’re being followed. As they wind their way up Telegraph Hill, Vince asks Eleanor to contact Mrs. Crocker’s attorney in the morning.
“I can’t figure out why this guy sent her to our agency,” says Eleanor. “Missing persons is hardly our specialty. He belongs to the World Trade Club. Would you like me to arrange a meeting for you two there?”
“Sure. But make it for late afternoon. The cocktail hour. I may need to be fortified.”
The car comes to a stop, and Vince begins to get out when Eleanor asks one final question.
“How do you feel about helping a guy who evaded his military duty when you conducted yours with such valor?”
“Naval intelligence was a desk job in Saigon. Very quiet duty.”
“But you were in combat during the Tet Offensive. I’ve seen the decorations, Vince.”
“That wasn’t combat, dear. Just a big street fight. And the Navy was giving out medals afterward to anyone who survived the assault. You should know that Mrs. Crocker’s lawyer – the one that referred her to our agency – was my commanding officer. Captain Porter. Now there was a hero. I owe him…big time. And I’m sure we both don’t blame Ben for trying to stay out of that war. No one should have gone. It was one very bad party.”
What he didn’t have to say was that a man did not have to serve in Southeast Asia to have “a Nam experience.” Ben may have had his own in version in Honolulu, and he might still be paying the price.
The next morning St. Michael is up with the sun. His apartment has eastern exposure, and is filled with light. Vestiges of fog remain close to the ground, but this promises to be a pleasant autumn day…what San Franciscans call their “real summer.”
He takes the elevator down to the garage where he keeps his production factory cafe racer, the 900SS Ducati. This motorcycle is no “rice burner” – or risotto burner for that matter – and he keeps it in mint condition by lovingly attending to its every need. After wiping it down and letting the engine purr for a few minutes, he adjusts his goggles and pops in his ear plugs. Then he takes it down the steep winding driveway to Café Trieste for his first coffee.
The goggles are an affectation, as he does not wear a helmet. The ear plugs are essential, as his hearing was damaged during the war. Two days of relentless shooting in close quarters had made St. Michael deaf for a while. Now he can’t abide the irritating volume of everyday life on the streets. The roar of choppers – both helicopters and Harleys – drive him mad. Nor does he care much for skateboards; basketballs; or car alarms. Peace at the café was what he was seeking.
And there was fellowship, too. The Trieste Motorcycle Club was convening that morning, as members fueled themselves on dark roast coffee before heading east for the Vacaville Raceway.
The place is filled with cops, too. He overhears them discussing the Golden Dragon massacre, which took a few blocks away in Chinatown. The attack happened just last month, and left five people dead and 11 others injured…none of whom were members of the rival Wah Ching gang.
“The Hop Sing Tong members were also hanging out when the gun play started,” said one cop to another. “You just don’t expect something like to happen at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning.”
St. Michael knew that the Joe Boys were getting their weapons from Vietnam via Hong Kong. They favored the .45 caliber Commando Mark III rifle and .38 caliber revolvers. These were not used in combat…but by street gangs in Saigon.
“The Columbus Day Parade are going to keep you guys busy,” St. Michael says. “But I understand Chinatown is going be pretty quiet for a while.”
Quiet was something St. Michael could use, too. There was talk of introducing Fleet Week in the City as an annual event. That would mean the incessant roar of fighter jet planes in the skies above San Francisco as the Blue Angels demonstrated their prowess and acrobatic exercises.
He overheard a discussion at one of the tables about Ocean Beach “breaking big” that day, and considered for a moment a drive down the coastal highway. The tourists would be out en masse headed for Half Moon Bay, however, and he thought better of it. Instead, he’d motor over the Fort Point and check out what the locals were doing with the swell. Cranked with a double espresso, he fired up his bike and was off.
A phalanx of Japanese motorcycles were parked beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, as were several pickups and muscle cars. As usual, packs of mongrels wandered around the waterfront looking for food and mischief. Waves were indeed massive, and wrapped around the point in menacing order.
Surfing at a place like this is a tribal experience, and those who had not been welcomed or initiated were quickly driven off by the leaders. The young men comprising this particular tribe – and they were all men – were masters of the left break. Either you drop in and embrace a “goofy foot” stance or take the sinister side by turning your back to the face of the wave. In other words, there was no right turn. And the drop was steep today. A moment’s hesitation, and you’d eat it for sure. Evidence of such consequences could be seen on the shoreline rocks where several boards lingered badly damaged.
This was entertaining, St. Michael reckoned. Not compared to the thrill of a motorcycle chase, but good fun. Violent, too. The territorial imperatives of the sport meant that you had to fight – and fight well – to defend your place in the takeoff order.
One tall rugged long-haired blonde demonstrated this several times. He took off on any wave he wanted with abandon, and was never challenged.
“Braxton!” one observer called out. “You be one baaaad Mukka Hai.”
When Darcy returns to her apartment in the Sunset district by the sea. Her twelve-year old son is casually doing his homework while passively listening to rock radio in the background.
“Hi Mom. What’s up?”
“Nothing, dear. How was school?”
“All is cool, Mom. But Mr. St. Michael called and asked me to tell you to meet him at Fort Point as soon as you can. He said bring your camera and stuff. I can make dinner for myself if you are going to be late, but Mr. St. Michael said to hurry.”
By the time Darcy arrived, it was dusk and most of spectators had drifted away. Fewer surfers remained in the water, too, as the waves had become much more difficult to manage. Incoming container vessels were creating wakes behind the swells, and the outgoing tide made paddling out even more of a trial.
“Glad you could make it, Hon,” said Vince. “Train your camera on the big guy with the orange trunks.”
“He looks like one of the Chippendales,” she quipped. “He can’t be a longshoreman.”
“This is different case,” he said. “I’m doing an MP investigation as a favor for our insurance adjuster. Should be pretty straight forward once we learn a little more about this guy. You sit here and take some snaps while I walk to his car and see what I can learn.”
“That’s great, Vince. Why don’t you get his phone number while you’re at it. I could use some companionship this weekend.”
St. Michael returned to his bike, and wheeled it closer to the wall. He stopped a young man emerging from the white water with his board tucked beneath his arm.
“You had a couple of nice rides out there,” said St. Michael. “Under very gnarly conditions.”
“At least the kooks can’t fuck us up in this slop,” he said. “Keeps the intruders out on the shelf where they belong.”
“Who’s new guy out there? He doesn’t look like much of a kook.”
“Yeah, he’s alright. His friends call him Baron. Comes from The Islands, I guess.”
The surfer peeled off his wetsuit and stepped gingerly out of it, shivering now in his torn madras boxers. St. Michael noticed that the surfer’s knees were bleeding and one of his toes looked broken. The submerged rocks here were just another one of the many hazards to be avoided.
“You might need some first aid, young man,” said St. Michael, as he directed his gaze to a Red Cross hospital vessel steaming out past Sausalito.
“Where do you suppose that that ship is headed?” asked the surfer.
“Philippines is the most likely destination,” replied St. Michael. “A magnitude-7.9 earthquake hit Mindanao last August.”
“Yeah, we were just talking about that. Braxton says there was a Tsunami in the Moro Gulf generating monster ways,” said the surfer.
“And killing about 8,000 disbelieving people who were unwilling to obey authorities directing them to higher ground.”
“Braxton says they’re angry with the government, too,” the surfer said.
St. Michael remained quiet, reflecting on how The Philippines was involved in the Vietnam War, supporting vital civil and medical operations during his two-year hitch.
“Someone’s always angry about something,” he said, shaking his head, and reaching for a cigarette. St. Michael then cast a glance at Darcy for the high sign. She beckoned him over to the car and unrolled the passenger window. The smell of stale coffee and day-old doughnuts permeated the air.
“This Bernard Braxton is hot stuff,” she said.
“He drives a Ford Mustang II Silver Ghia Edition carrying an entourage of gorgeous chicks…not just beach bunnies, but Playboy bunnies. Blondes, redheads…high-end groupies.”
“And were you discreet while making these observations?”
“I couldn’t get too close to arouse any suspicion, Vince, on account of the gook gangsters,”
“About half a dozen punks riding those Jap motorcycles. They appear to be body guards. They speak in code and Mandarin slang.”
“That’s nice work, Darcy. You get a little commission for coming out here this evening. Much appreciated.”
When St. Michael returned to his apartment, he left a message for Eleanor.
“Please give the Marine Exchange a call to check the manifest on a Red Cross hospital ship sailing outbound from Oakland early this evening. Also, it’s destination, please. See you and the rest of the crew at the office at nine. I’ll bring St. Honore cake from Victoria’s Pastry if you make the coffee. Thanks, doll.”
Across the room was his drum kit. He took out his sticks and eased into a soft snare and symbol rhythm drill that kept him from more damaging twilight pursuits. When the cocktail hour had been extended, St. Michael placed Thelonious Monk on the turntable. He left the room dark, too, and poured himself a large tumbler of single malt scotch, sans chaser.
The telephone rings at dawn.
“Is this Mr. St. Michael?” a women’s soft voice asks.
“Yes, it is. Who is calling?
“Please hold on, the District Attorney wishes to speak with you.”
“Your missing person’s case has been solved,” Vince. “The boy’s body – or what was left of it – was found by the Coast Guard floating in the Potato Patch at about 3 a.m.
“And you think he was carried out there by the tide at Fort Point?”
“That’s a weak theory, Vince, as there was no board found. And it gets worse. Homicide detectives think you may have had something to do with it. A fellow named Bernard Braxton tells them that you were on the parking lot until early evening. He describes you as “a midlife crisis on a motor bike.’”
St. Michael snorts and releases an explosive cough.
“Any truth to that??
“What part are you asking about? Yes, I was there. Midlife crisis, I don’t know…this crisis of mine has been going on for some time. As you know we took an interest in this Braxton, as we felt he would lead us to Ben”
“Well, he certainly has, but with an airtight alibi. What about yours?”
“One of my girls – Darcy – joined me at Fort Point to document the scene with her camera and tape machine. We didn’t learn much, except that Braxton fancies himself as a romantic figure. Nobility in exile…that kind of thing. He’ll have his own midlife crisis if he lives that long.
“Tell me about Ben. What’s the autopsy suggest?”
“We’re still working on that. The Guard believes he fell from the bridge. His wet suit kept his organs from exploding, but he lost his head. Almost looked like a seal or small sea lion.”
“So how did you identify him?”
“Tattoo on his forearm. His draft number. A lot of these guys do that in case they’re stopped by the shore police. Another tattoo celebrates his stay in Honolulu. That’s enough questions, Vince. Meet me at the coroner’s office at 10 a.m. We should have a better idea of how this happened.”
“Yeah. You might want to get a lawyer.”
Vince hung up the phone and raised it again to call Porter Legal Services.
He was greeted by an answering machine and he left a message:
“This is Vince, Captain. Your client, Betty Crocker, (or is Crackpot?) has left us both with a mess. Her son was found floating in the Bay last night, and Homicide wants me down at the station for questioning. I’ll have more details for you upon return…that is if they don’t lock me up.”
Then he checked in with Eleanor at his own office.
“Your Uncle Pat called,” she reported. “Says he heard rumors about our Ben Crocker case. He wants you to come by as soon as your through with the police.”
“Thanks, darling. Please leave word with the girls that our morning meeting has been postponed. Tell them to carry on with their assignments, and we’ll reschedule something tomorrow.”
“Will do, Vince.” A pause. “And please be careful. We’re getting some suspicious phone calls here lately about Mrs. Crocker.”
“OK, first things first. Do a deep background check on Ben’s mother. Her first name, for example. We’ve been calling her ‘Betty’ just because we thought she might be cook’in up a story. Put together a file on her, but don’t share it with Darcy or any of the other girls until I’ve seen it.”
The coroner’s office is adjacent to the downtown jail and municipal court house. While there’s plenty of parking for motorcycles, next to the police parking lot, but Vince is careful not to leave his bike too close.
“The medical examiners are through with the boy’s body,” said the chief coroner, a former school teacher Vince has come to despise for his lack of personal hygiene and professional decorum. His long hair was flaked with dandruff, and his finger nails were crusted with dark enamel.
“We won’t have death a certificate ready for a few more days, but we know that the victim did not die from the fall.”
“What was it then…drugs?”
“No, he was beaten to death. Even without the head, we can see that blunt instruments were used to crush most of his internal organs. He probably had his head bashed in, too.”
“Whoever did this wanted us to believe that the fall had ripped off his head, but we see that it was severed at the upper neck by a saw…probably an electric power number. The edges are too jagged to indicate anything else.”
“Do you think we might find the head washed up on the rocks or on some beach?”
“Not likely. That’s generally the first part of any corpse that’s entirely eaten by the fish. The eyes, the fleshy parts of the face, the brain. All are quickly devoured by denizens of the sea.”
One of the examiners knocked at the heavy metal door and it open with a slight creak. He was wearing a blood splattered apron, a hairnet, and blue hospital slippers.
“You want to come in a see the body?” asked the coroner.
“No, I’ve seen my share of corpses,” Vince replies.
“Oh, Yeah. Vietnam. I almost forgot.”
“Most everyone has.”
The elevator ride down featured muzak from the late 60’s. Just then, Johnny Cash was singing “A Boy Named Sue.” It’s a about a father running out on his wife and son, and then being discovered in a bar where by his son who tries to punish him for the girl’s name. But they reconcile after the fight, and the boy realizes that his Dad did him a favor by making him a tough guy.
This song was a big hit with the Saigon embassy staff after the Tet offensive. They all felt like tough guys for a while after the offensive was repelled. But a gathering storm was brewing. Vince got out just in time.
Vince wonders about Ben’s father. When did he take flight? And why? Maybe Darcy can dig up some dirt that answers a few more questions.
“I beg your pardon,” says a police woman at the door. “How long do you plan on remaining in the elevator?”
Vince steps out, seemingly in a trance. He stays in the lobby for several minutes before gliding toward the building’s exit. His head is throbbing, filled with the sounds of machine gun fire. The motorcycle will make this go away, he reasons. The Ducati is fired up, and he pulls out into traffic without even casting a glance in either direction. A car racing from behind sounds its horn. This sounds like incoming artillery shells. He accelerates through an amber traffic light and races toward the Bay. The sounds of the urban battlefield are receding as his head ache begins to abate. The steady engine hum of his café racer is working its magic and bringing him closer to reality.
“A seven-year hangover,” he muttered. “The worst hangover I’ve ever had.”
Once on the Embarcadero, he throttled through all the gears, bringing his bike to blur vision. He weaved in and out of traffic, leaving all in his wake, and only slows down slightly before approaching the Golden Gate Bridge.
Uncle Pat will know what to do. Uncle Pat will have the cigars and cognac I need. Uncle Pat will lay it all out for us to understand. Because that’s what Uncle Pat does. He understands.
“Vincent, my boy, what brings you here at this unannounced hour?”
“Just passing through, Uncle. Thought I’d check on you.”
“Bullshit, Vince. But come in and make yourself comfortable. A drink?’
“You’ll have to forgive the condition of my abode,” said Patrick St. Michael. “Did a bit of entertaining last night.”
He was wearing cashmere trousers, and a burgundy velvet smoking jacket. A spotted silk ascot and black suede slippers finishes off the look. He moves to the liquor caddy and pours two deep drams of amber liquor.
“Excuse me for a moment, Vincent, but I promised to return a phone call before you arrived. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Make yourself at home.”
Scattered about are copies of past issues of Working Waterfront, the tabloid Patrick St. Michael writes for. Vince picked up a few and begins to peruse his uncle’s advice columns. The introduction always amused him.
Annals of Advice: Uncle Pat Agonistes is the “Oracle of the Ferry Building.” He is a fixture of some renown at the San Francisco Ferry Building’s exclusive men’s club, “Embarco Arms,” discreetly housed in the Giralda bell tower. Access to this sanctorum is by private elevator which goes to the apex – a 1,000-foot wood-paneled space comprising three separate chambers: the game room, the library, and the saloon. A regulation billiards table graces the game room, along with tables for backgammon and chess. The Library houses signed first editions authored by Bay Area writers. The saloon is an honor bar featuring premium wine and spirits. Cigar and pipe smoking is permitted in all three rooms…as is drinking. There are few rules here, although discussion of business is discouraged. Here, shrouded in a blue haze of tobacco, “Dear Uncle” holds forth on all matters pertaining to proper men’s wear, protocols, diversions, entertainment, and manners using the response “Pat Answers.”
Dear Uncle: With no membership fees, quarterly assessments or any formal by-laws, what else makes “Embarco Arms” unique?
Pat Answers: When you have grown to reach my age, you will realize that most of today’s clubs are really too all-inclusive to qualify as traditional bastions of good fellowship. Given their operational expenses, they must play host to weddings, holiday celebrations, and private parties to just remain solvent. For my money, it makes more sense to spend time in an intimate space like Hawk’s Lair, where one can pretend to be at “The Drones,” (of Bertie Wooster’s era) and feel perfectly comfortable doing so. Furthermore, one is never interrupted by the pounding of little feet.
Dear Uncle: You raise an interesting point. Nearly everyplace these days strives to become “child friendly.” Can you advise us on how to avoid these wee tykes?
Pat Answers: Strange, is it not, that there’s a great body of literature out there on how to avoid giving birth to children, but very little on how to flee from them once they are around? In the old days one could be safe by simply avoiding parks, playgrounds, school yards and the like. But now kids are everywhere, including cafes, restaurants, markets, and most sporting events. Regarding sport, we advise sticking to thoroughbred horse racing and prize fights. Pool halls and card rooms are also quite safe. As for culture, you must realize that opera, ballet, and symphony performances are subject to some risk, whereas, nightclubs and dive bars are your best bet. Finally, always avoid any entertainment billed as “fun for the whole family.”
Dear Uncle: How much exercise should one take upon stepping off the ferry? Many passengers carry gym bags and yoga mats and boast of getting a “work out.”
Pat Answers: While we are reluctant to recommend anything that smacks of self -improvement, we find nothing wrong with advice about a good walk. You needn’t invest in any new clothes or equipment for such an endeavor, and doctors we have consulted insist that the benefits of walking are substantial. Furthermore, you are unlikely to perspire when walking at a leisurely pace, and that speaks volumes about body odor and personal hygiene.
Dear Uncle: I don’t like to carry shaving utensils with me when I travel…so messy.
Pat Answers: When visiting a city: Find a barbershop offering a razor shave. Get a close shave, and rely on your electric shaver for the rest of the trip. Also, have your shoes shined to a high polish at home. Bring a a cloth to buff out the abrasions while on the road, as finding an adequate professional is unlikely. Even at the best hotels.
Dear Uncle: I’m always in search for a premium hotel where I can get a good night’s sleep. I try to get a room away from the ice machine and elevator, one that is high above the busy street noise. Any tactics I may be missing?
Pat Answers: First, look for hotels that say “children of 10 an older are welcome.” This usually means that even adolescents are not desired. Spurn any hotel that labels itself as “pet friendly.” Barking dogs can keep you up all night. You might also wish to visit an audiologist have custom-fit earplugs made. These don’t cost much, and they really do muffle the racket.
Dear Uncle: Been asked out dates, thought I’d go but what for? Awfully lonely without her…don’t get around much anymore.
Pat Answers: Many believe that the best way to recover from a painful breakup is get back in circulation. I disagree. Learn from past mistakes, and be a tough catch. Keep turning down those romantic overtures. Let them ache with anticipation and leave them wondering what might have been. So much more satisfying than playing the role of a sap on the rebound.
Dear Uncle: I am in a car pool to the office. I hate it. One person is a terrible driver. Another has bad body odor. The other is a blabbering fool. It’s my turn next. I don’t want any of them in my car. What do I do? A desperate misanthrope needs your advice.
Pat Answers: If these people are mere colleagues, and not supervisors or superiors, ditch them. Ditch them now. Any excuse will do, but I suggest saying that you have contracted a highly contagious virus…or long medical condition. This not only puts a stop to driving these cretins, but also having to suffer them in their own vehicles. As for myself, I never offer a ride, nor ever take one. Keep the radio off, and just enjoy the cocoon. It’s a sacred private space. Arrive at your destination refreshed and pretend to enjoy your corporate society once you have arrived.
When Patrick St. Michael emerges from the back of his house boat, Vincent confronts him.
“Uncle, when and why did you contrive to create this persona for the column?
“Well you have to have fun, Vince. You take life too seriously. Always have. When your parents died and left you for me to take care of, I never thought you’d turn out to be such a square.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think many other people would describe me that way. I’m a bohemian – like you – to most.”
“Lie down on the couch, my son. “Get some rest, and we’ll talk in the morning.”
Dear Uncle: What books are on your bed stand?
Pat Answers: I don’t read in bed, nor do I smoke there. But before retiring, I light up a cigar, and go to the library. Lately, I’ve been absorbed in an old favorite: “From Here to Eternity.” The tragic hero is a bugler and a boxer who makes one bad decision after another. He’s determined to be a soldier, but lacks military discipline. A bit like my brother’s dear son who joined the navy and served in Vietnam. He’s a drummer who also knows a little something about martial arts. Now that he’s back home, we are still guessing how his civilian life will pan out. He’s a bookish lad, too, although I know for certain that there’s no bed stand in his North Beach crib.
St. Michael heads for Porter’s office, and recognizes Mrs. Crocker’s car parked outside. The building’s security is nowhere to be seen, nor is there any doorman. Rather than take an elevator, he chooses the staircase.
Once outside of Porter’s office he hears voices a woman’s voice pleading with him “to be reasonable.”
Then there’s the scraping of furniture on the hardwood floor. The sound of breaking glass. Then what at first sounds like a violent tussle. But it’s not what it seems. It’s angry, all right, but angry lovemaking. They are in sexual congress on the desk, with Mrs. Crocker giving commands and then softly voicing her approval. Porter is silent…as he always is. The rutting is soon over. Mrs. Crocker is panting, and groaning. It’s a con job. Porter must know it, because he’s moved off to the back of the room to smoke a cigarette.
The “ping” of his Dupont lighter is the clue. Vince hears it again when he lights up Mrs. Crocker a few moments later. The telephone rings, and Vince spins around to make his exit. He’s going to walk his motorcycle down the driveway before turning on the ignition and use stealth in getting away.
When he gets back to the office, it’s dark and cool. Eleanor has yet to arrive for work, but the message machine is lit up and pulsating with news.
Rather than listening to any of that, St. Michael calls Porter.
“Hi ya, Vince.”
“What’s up with the Crocker case?”
“Well the kid’s dead, so I guess you’re out of it.”
“Yeah, but the police think I’m part of the episode.”
“That’s a problem, alright. What can I do to help?”
“I’d like you to speak with Mrs. Crocker, if that’s OK.”
“Sure, I can manage that. But she’s still grieving for her loss.”
“C’mon Captain. We both know that people mourn in different ways. She may be perfectly fine with your concern and a few questions. Pretend you like her, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m a married man, Father Vince. Thanks for the advice, and I’ll play along. We’ll see if she wants to press on with this murder investigation. We’re all better off is she doesn’t. Our police want nothing to do with it, as they have plenty of other concerns right now…principally an Asian crime wave.”
Porter need not have reminded St. Michael about this, as both men knew that Nam gangsters figured into this one, too, though the papers were making it out to be just another rumble between Joe Boys and the Wah Ching – two Chinatown gangs.
St. Michael was headed over to The Jade Dragon that evening to jam with the house band. Maybe there’d be fresh news about the troubles.
Winnie Fong and her mother Queenie were among the last “boat people,” St. Michael helped bring to the U.S. Both women were veterans of the night club scene, so it was not that tough to set them up in San Francisco. Queenie ran the place, and Winnie was the featured singer.
When St. Michael showed up, he spotted a copy of Maxine Hong Kingston’s latest best seller, “The Woman Warrior.”
“Who’s reading this? he asked Queenie.
“No one, yet,” she replied. “Some white boy left it here on his table last night. Very drunk and nasty white boy. Handsome, though.”
St. Michael knew about the author and her anti-war activities in Hawaii a few years ago. She sheltered deserters and draft dodgers, and made no secret about her sentiments. A tough cookie.
He pulled out a cigarette, lit it, and asked: “Did this handsome boy ask for me?”
“Now that you mentioned it, yes. But he had business with some Joe Boys, too. That was his main area of concentration.”
St. Michael began ordering scotch and soda. He tossed off three during the first hour, before calling over the bar maid to clear the empty glasses.
“Dead soldiers,” he observed…perhaps a little too loud.
Winnie came over to sit with him.
“Any more of those, and you won’t be able jam with us,” she said. “Your losing your rhythm, em oi.”
“We must remember the dead.”
“Why,” asks Queenie. “The dead don’t remember you.”
St. Michael suddenly recalled when he first met Winnie and Queenie on the red-roofed Continental Hotel. Rockets were being lobbed in from Saigon’s outskirts, and they knew then that the city would soon fall. Captain Porter came over to share cognac and cigars. Was he scared? No sign of it, or even too much concern.
“OK, Queenie. Just one more Johnny Walker
Red and I’m done. Here’s to fallen comrades.”
“What’s that mean…fallen comrades? You think you must remember the dead? Mr. St. Michael, the dead don’t remember you.”
She repaired to the small bandstand in the corner and sat behind the piano. She grabbed a piece of notation paper and began scribbling down a quick composition. St. Michael grabbed his sticks and sat behind the drum kit. When Queenie began to sing, he did soft brushwork on the cymbal.
Remember the dead, but why?
We are all going to die.
And when it’s your turn to take the cue
Who will remember you?
For all the world’s a stage, my friend
Each of us taking a curtain
It’s how we conduct ourselves in the end
That reallllly matters…that’s certain
The dead don’t remember you
And who can blame them?
The dead don’t remember you
Why try to shame them?
They’re dead and gone, and that’s my song
The dead don’t remember you
St. Michael leaves the bandstand and returned to his table. A detective approached and introduced himself.
“We should be friends,” he says. “We really are in the same line of business.”
St Michael puts his cigarette out, exhales a long line of blue smoke and replies, “You might even say we speak the same language.”
“Pig Latin. Eavelay emay alonway.”
“OK pal, but here’s some news that may keep your gook girlfriends out of trouble. The Joe Boys are getting their weapons from Vietnam via Hong Kong. They favor the .45 caliber Commando Mark III rifle and .38 caliber revolvers. These were not used in combat…but by street gangs in Saigon.”
“And you think Winnie and Queenie may be involved?”
“Let’s just say we’re keeping an eye on the place.”
“And what’s that got to do with me?”
“Saint Michael is one of the angels presumed present at the hour of death,” said the detective. “Traditionally, he is charged to assist the dying and accompany them to their particular judgment…where he serves as an advocate.”
“You know your scripture, detective. You might also remember that Michael the Archangel is the patron saint of mariners, military personnel…and police officers. But I’m not here to protect anyone. These girls and I go way back, and we look out for each other.”
St. Michael scrapes his chair as he backs away from the table. He tells the cashier to put the detective’s drink on his tab, and heads for the beaded curtains at the exit.
Just then, a group of six or seven angry young men wearing tight black leather jackets brush by him. They all scowl at him, keeping their hands buried deep in their pockets.
Winnie’s combo suddenly shifts its music to a disco beat, and someone turns the lights down low.
The screeching of tires outside the club draws everyone’s attention. A cloud of white smoke envelops the car speeding up Washington Street. St. Michael recognizes it as the muscle machine belonging to Braxton. It runs a light on Grant as it fishtails toward downtown.
The club’s valet shook his head as he looked at St. Michael.
“Crazy white guy…no offence boss. If he’s messing with the Joe Boys he’s really going to have trouble.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“He just dropped off them fellas from the Wah Ching gang. You better not go back in. Can I get you your car?”
“No, but you can call me a cab.”
“OK. You’re a cab.”
“Very funny. Now hail that yellow over there for me.”
“Who you calling yellow, citizen?”
St. Michael placed a five dollar bill in the valet’s hand and walked across the street to the waiting Yellow Cab.
The smoking tires from Braxton’s peel-out had faded into the damp night’s blackness, replaced by gray steam rising from the street’s manholes. Neon light was reflected in the small pools of grease congealing in the gutters adjacent to some of the seamier Chinatown markets and restaurants.
“Take me to Coit Tower, driver. I can walk to my apartment from there.”
“Care to give me more precise address, drummer?”
“No. That’s OK. I might be followed. And besides, how did you know I’m a musician?”
“I see you carrying your sticks, Man. “Only real drummers do that.”
“Well, it’s a hobby.”
“That’s good to hear, because it sure is a lousy living. I should know. I tried it with the bass before driving a Hack.”
St. Michael was trying to see if anyone was behind them, but the driver’s huge Afro obscured the rearview mirror. He did not want to make mention of this, nor did he dare suggest that the reggae music on his radio be turned off.
“Here’s your stop, mister. The fare is on the meter. And don’t you be telling other cabbies that you might be tailed. Makes us real nervous, under the present circumstances. But you are cool. No one’s been tracking us.”
St. Michael’s tip was generous, and he stepped out onto the curb with a sense of relief. He was within a hundred yards of his gated courtyard. He’d put on some soup for dinner and pour himself a generous dram of scotch before checking in with the office. The paper on the porch contained the usual alarming headlines, including a story about members of The Death Angels and Zebra Killers still being at large. Racial tension had never been so high.
“Me and my big mouth,” St. Michael mumbled to himself.
Dear Uncle: Any thoughts on “Dive Bars?”
Pat Answers: When we were young cosmopolitans it was perfectly fine to frequent dive bars. Shoot the breeze with the locals; shoot a little pool; feed the juke box. But after middle age arrives, it’s best to avoid these joints. In fact, we don’t sit at the bar at restaurants or hotels any more. We don’t find the prima donna bartenders amusing, and there’s always the risk of encountering the desperate bar fly. Best to find a table with bar maid service and remain alone. And if you plan on having more than one drink, move to another establishment, before you become a bore.