By the time I got to San Francisco, the Mission District was no longer an Irish stronghold of the city. They had gone to the suburbs, leaving a few reminders behind — a couple of shops with Irish names, a few pubs, and a handful of tall churches.
Sunniest place in town, the Mission was densely populated. It was a muddle of old Victorian houses, laden down with Hispanic family upon family, interspersed with bohemians and aging beat poets, punks and junkies. A funky place, it was the only area in the city where you could be excused for wearing sunglasses after midnight. Spanish was the lingua franca, taco and burrito the take-away of choice. It was un-American and unpredictable, and I wasn’t sure for a while if I was culture shocked or just felt unsafe. Low rent, sporadic crime, there was a constant pulse of action: Dazzling murals, car alarms, sirens, paramedic blue noise of misfortune and the music of night buskers.
Mission Street was the main drag. Brash and dingy, the pavement was crowded and smelled of rotten fruit sometimes. More times it smelled of fish, or cheap Asian food someone had dropped. Cars hooted constantly, low cruisers with tinted windows, booming bass, and white walled tires. People shouted, trucks collided, tempers frayed. Everything was hot — the sun…the Rolex watches peddled by the men in LAPD t-shirts…bootleg tapes from Mexico, hawked by women in tight jeans. Cop cars cruised swift as sharks, did u-turns in mid-traffic to follow prey. And in the midst of this mayhem, young Guatemalan girls sold red roses and Jehovah Witnesses handed out free copies of the Watchtower. Virgins and villains, we were all fugitives in the Mission and there was camaraderie between us. After a while there, I knew all the dives, the thrift stores, the pawnshops and the cheapest markets.
Occasionally I’d have breakfast at Zorro’s Cantina, a small bar cum restaurant off the main drag near Shotwell and 20th. It wasn’t far from where I lived, and the grub was cheap and honest. It stayed open till 4am on the weekends and was introduced to me by my friend JC, an Irish fiddler who dropped in sometimes on the way home from sessions. The clientele was a mixture of Hispanics, scattered bohemians, a sprinkling of hookers taking a break from the action on Capp St; the occasional pimp, men on the prowl, more on the take, and fellas who looked like petty drug dealers. Nobody bothered anyone else in Zorro’s. We could be lawyers, CEOs or any white-collar workers that you’d find in an upscale bar downtown, taking a break from the fray outside the door and minding our own business. And the Latino waitresses always smiled like angels at both saints and sinners.
Over time, I got to know some of the regulars by sight and we’d nod to each other. Once or twice dealers muttered,
“Cosmos tu, amigo?”
“Bueno, bueno,” I’d say and move on down the tables, somewhat pleased that they didn’t think of me as a ‘gringo.’
I never saw any trouble in Zorro’s, but I knew it was a hot spot and shit could happen there at the drop of a fork. Once I saw a make shift grotto of flowers and candles and photos a few doors away, in memory of someone who’s life had ended at that spot.
“Hello stranger, tu guasta bing-bong?”
She grinned, I was flummoxed, didn’t recognize her in hooker guise until she said,
“It’s Erin, the cop.”
“Oh fuck! Jesus you gave me a shock.”
“What brings you here?” she asked.
“Huevos Rancheros for $3.50. A bit of people watching.”
“Material for one of your stories? Can I be in one of your stories?”
“Maybe playing the harp, but not dressed like this.”
She told me she was doing a spot of work for the vice squad, posing as one of the Capp Street hookers. Busting the ‘johns’ or clients who came propositioning sex. There was always back up around, in case anything went wrong.
“Like,” she said, “see the guy at the counter with the ponytail? He’s watching us in the mirror. He thinks I’m gonna hook you.”
A few months later I was in Zorro’s and I saw her beside a guy who didn’t look like an undercover cop. I figured he was a ‘john’ so I passed on and settled at nearby table, my back to the wall. I had a full view of Erin and the man. It suddenly struck me that he was Irish. He had to be: the hairstyle — grey backswept curls and neck shave; the green plastic windcheater and white open neck shirt. He sat side-ways on the chair, head twisting, eyes darting around the place like a bird. He was a Paddy all right; I could see the freckles on his face, between the broken veins that came from long nights of lonesome drinking and years toiling on building sites. Not often you saw his likes in the belly of San Francisco’s barrio. Nowadays the only Irish down around here were the few invisibles like myself who lived by imagination. He was an exotic fish in these warm seas, and Erin was playing with him.
I ordered the usual huevos rancheros, flour tortillas and coffee. The Irishman was asking Erin questions and I couldn’t get his accent until she asked what part of Ireland he was from.
A Corkman in the wrong end of town, at half-eleven on a sunny Tuesday morning. I think it was for my benefit that she engaged him in a conversation about potatoes, and chatting her up must have reminded him of the old ballrooms of romance in Ireland. She wanted to be courted. And he just wanted out of there, have a spin around the block and get the business done. But she was asking questions about spuds and hurling. Now she was calling him ‘sweetie’ and stroking his hands. A waitress smiled at him, pen poised over a notebook. He ordered a Coke to get rid of her. Erin called after her and said she’d have a beer. Then I heard Corky ask,
I don’t know what Erin said, but I heard his reply.
“I’d have a week in Haw-Wah-Wee for that. Hah?”
“It’s worth it,” she said, “and I’m hotter than Haw-why.”
She leaned closer to him and caressed the back of his hand. He stirred in the chair, like he was doing neck exercises. I wondered if he’d go for it, and would she bust one of our own? Would she cuff him when the money changed hands? It would make a great song for the Saw Doctors. I could imagine Leo Moran singing it…
A lot of whispering went on and eventually he wilted and muttered,
“Okay. Okay. Sound. Sound so.”
He turned in the chair and clicked for the bill, which came on a red plastic plate weighed down by two white mints
“Where do I pay?” he asked rising from his seat.
“Just leave the money on the plate, honey,” Erin said.
He took out his wallet and rooted for notes. Unexpectedly, the mid-day Angelus pealed solemnly from a nearby church. The restaurant staff blessed themselves and to my utter astonishment, so did Corky. He closed his eyes, bowed his head and put away his wallet. Somehow in those twelve peals, God got a foothold. In the hum of the last chime, Corky blessed himself and fled from Zorro’s like a flash of lightening.
I looked at Erin and shook my head. She shrugged as if to say,’You win some, you lose some.’ Final score: God 1, SFPD 0.
Books by Eddie Stack