“A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
— Charles Baudelaire
Of all the lousy laundromats in all the god-forsaken corners of the city, she has to walk into mine, Wendt thought as he looked up from the battered copy of Finnegan’s Wake. She wore a ratty knitted hat decorated with a large plastic daisy pulled down over her ears causing the shoulder length salt and pepper hair, stiff with dirt, to protrude like angry feathers. She hadn’t bothered with her dentures again. A dirt streaked transparent plastic raincoat covered an overcoat and two tattered men’s shirts over a badly soiled bright yellow angora sweater on top of a housedress with a bright tropical flower print. Her dingy white tennis shoes had enough holes to qualify them as sandals. She carried her belongings in two common white plastic supermarket bags. She stopped at the change machine and checked the coin return. Then the soap and bleach dispensing machine, and finally the pay phone. She gave a cursory glance into the large metal garbage cans at either end of the double row of washers. She bumped past as he drew in his knees and then stopped to stare at him over her shoulder.
Wendt shifted his weight in the uncomfortable blue plastic chair and returned her stare.
“You somebody I should know?” She had shuffled closer so that now she stood almost touching his knees.
“Mother, is that you?” She was redolent with the scent of eau de dumpster and a splash of spoiled citrus.
“Smart ass. I seen you before.”
“I am a man about town.” Wendt marked his place with a finger and looked up into the muddy yolks of her eyes.
“I mean your picture, I seen your picture.”
“In the post office?”
“No, no, not there. I’ll remember. I always do.” A serene calm fell over her wrinkled, blemished and bruised face as if she were traveling to a distant place where that memory resided. Then her expression went slack and she brought Wendt into focus as if he’d just appeared before her. The book in his hand caught her attention. “Whatcha reading?”
“I knew him.”
“Were you at the funeral?”
“I never go to funerals. I won’t even be at mine.” She cackled the classic cackle of the classic old hag. Must be something that comes with the lifestyle, Wendt mused. And now that they were friends, she didn’t feel shy about asking for a loan. “Spare some change?”
Wendt had seen it coming. He made the helpless gesture with his hands. “I used all my change doing the laundry.” His smile was insincere.
“How about a twenty then?” Her demeanor was suddenly lucid, intense and focused.
Wendt laughed. “You caught me at a bad time.”
The old woman turned away from him in a maneuver that required many tiny steps until her toes were no longer facing him. “It’s never the right time for you,” she replied shuffling off to where she became a baggy silhouette in the bright daylight of the doorway to the laundromat.
“Well, Jimmy,” Wendt said, addressing the tome in his hand “looks like it’s just you and me again.”
The bartender at the Red Hen on Geary was a young Filipino guy by the name of Bruno. Wendt always addressed him as “Mr. Brown” as in “Mr. Brown, one more” and pointing to his empty beer glass. While Bruno refilled his glass, Wendt consulted the obituaries in the daily paper. The Irish were in a dead heat with the Chinese. John C. O’Connell, born in 1928. Johnny, we hardly knew ya. Chester Lim, born in Fresno ninety-one years ago. Chester, baby, congrats on a long and prosperous life. Productive too. Seventeen grandchildren, untold great grand and great great grandchildren. Way to keep the Lim line alive. Margaret “Peggy” Grady, nee O’Leary, native of San Francisco, a fun loving gal and active member in St. Jude’s Auxiliary. Milton John, fifty-four, after a courageous battle with cancer. Didn’t say what kind. Bet there were a few snarffles in English class roll call. “John, Milton?” “Present.” Lost on everyone except the English teacher. Wen Pai Li, Robert Mackenzie, Gilda Rukowski. Patricia “Patty” Nelson, nee Francis, born 1922 in Napa, moved to San Francisco as a child, attended Mission High, graduate of Berkeley, married Peter Nelson, moved to Larkspur, and in her later years, lived in Palo Alto with her only daughter, the renowned physicist, Eugenia Trebabi. No mention of grand kids. Mitochondrial dead end for you, Patty, sorry.
Bruno placed the full glass at Wendt’s elbow and picked up the paperback. “Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.” Bruno had graduated from State with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Sociology. He’d wanted to be a cop but he was just a hair too short. As it turned out his education made him perfectly suited for his present occupation. “I heard that this is like one of the most difficult books in the English language.”
Wendt looked up from the paper and reached for his beer. “It’s in the top ten. I like it because you don’t need a bookmark. You just open it up to any page and start reading. It’s not one of those books you’re gonna read from cover to cover. I mean you can, but what’s the point? It starts at the end and ends at the beginning. Great reading for the laundromat where you’re gonna be constantly distracted anyway.”
The door to the Red Hen allowed a narrow rectangle of daylight into the dim interior and an amorphous silhouette detached itself from the outside and entered.
Bruno wandered down to serve the customer. He was a regular. “Hey Wendt!” he called out as Bruno placed a beer and a shot in front of him.
“Hey Sleepy!” Wendt called back. He flipped through the pages of the daily and scanned the calendar of events. Gallery opening for Ronald Hymen at Turtle Island Gallery. An address down on Battery. Reception for the artist, 6 to 9 PM. There would be some sort of arty buffet, and of course, wine. And someone there that might loan him a couple of bucks. He flipped the paper and searched the real estate listings with a frown.
Bruno had wandered back down. “Bad news? Or just constipation?”
“Naw. Man, I can’t believe what they’re asking for rent these days.”
Bruno shrugged. “It’s the city.” That said it all.
“I gotta find a cheap place to rent, and in the city.”
“What’s wrong with your place over on Balboa?”
“The owner’s selling. I’m going to have to move out.”
“Jeez, that’s too bad. What are you paying now?”
Wendt hesitated knowing the reaction he’d get. “A hundred bucks a month.”
Bruno’s brown face was placid with incomprehension for a moment and then contorted, eyes shut, mouth wide open showing perfectly white teeth and purple gums as he expelled the laughter. “A hundred bucks!!? A hundred bucks?!! Man, you can’t even get a flop in the Tenderloin for a hundred bucks. A week. A hundred bucks?!! Welcome to the real world, pal! A hundred bucks! Man, that’s rich.”
Wendt was a little chagrinned. “Yeah, I know. That’s what I was paying when I moved in a dozen years ago. I might have to find gainful employment.” Then they both had a hearty laugh.
“Seriously, though. You’re a well-known poet, a published writer. You should be able to find work.”
“Writers are a dime a dozen, poets are a penny each. And reputation is not income.”
“You could do one of those readings, you know, charge at the door. Get some musicians to back you up like that other poet guy does with the one surviving member of that band from the sixties.”
“Yeah, but how often can you get away with that? After a while it gets pretty old. And the public is fickle. The people I appeal to are old farts and intellectuals and the odd college student whose attention span is that of a gnat’s. Gigs are not gonna pay my rent for long.”
“Yeah,” Bruno had to agree.
“I’ve always lived on wits and luck. I still got my wits, but maybe my luck’s starting to run out.”
Bruno shook his head, “I can’t believe it, a hundred bucks a month. How did you ever swing a deal like that?”
Wendt took a deep drink from his glass. “It’s a long story. The short version is that the house used to be a student commune bought as an investment by the parents of one of the students while she was attending State. I happened to be screwing one of the students at the time. Not the one who owned the house. Well, after a while the kids graduated and went their separate ways. The owner had a sperm bank kid and stopped renting out the rooms.”
“Except to you.”
“Yeah, she kinda liked the idea of a celebrity living under her roof. Though there were times when she probably regretted it.” Wendt drained the beer. “Well, I gotta go pick up my dry cleaning.” He indicated the empty glass. “On the tab, ok?”
Bruno made a face. “Ok, but you’re at the limit. And you know how the boss lady feels about that. Pay it down when you get a chance.”
Wendt nodded and hefted his laundry duffle over his shoulder. “I’m getting paid for my column on Monday so I’ll have some cash.”
Sleepy, a short man in a greasy ball cap came by his name from the fact that he had large lidded eyes resembling those of a gecko. “Sleepy” was probably better than “Gecko” as it didn’t sound so much like an ethnic slur. “I read your column every day, Wendt.”
“That’s good, Sleepy,” Wendt said with his hand on the door plate, “but it only comes out once a week. That’s why the paper it appears in is called a weekly.”
“And it’s all bullshit. Who gives a fuck about art galleries and poetry and all that other intellectual crap? Why don’t you write about something that people care about? Like the lousy bus service or the homeless problem or how the Chinese Government is buying up the city. I could write the bullshit you write.”
“Yes, Sleepy, and therein lies the difference, the insurmountable gap between could and did. You could write that bullshit, but I did write that bullshit.” With those final taunts of faux-wisdom Wendt pushed out into the traffic noise and glare of early afternoon Geary Blvd.
At the intersection Wendt turned and walked up the block to Clement. He skirted the knot of housewives pausing over the fresh produce display out front of the corner market. He waited as a BMW hesitatingly poked out into the intersection and then strode across in the company of a clot of pedestrians.
Past the beauty salon and the florist shop the large yellow and red sign on the building front read Empress Cleaners. Large plate glass windows flanked the glass door. A wall of plastic sheathed clothing hung from an automated track behind the counter. Wendt recognized the scent of cooking oil even over the prevalent chemical odor of dry cleaning chemicals. No one seemed to be around. Then a short man who looked like an aged Tin-tin, had Tin-tin aged and had he been Chinese, parted the plastic foliage of dry cleaned apparel. A gray streaked shock of black hair swept across his two-story forehead, cowlick like a bent blade of black grass. His gray loose fitting shirt was buttoned to the collar and covered the khaki slacks to mid thigh. He eyed his customer suspiciously. “Ah, Mr. Wen.”
“Ah, Mr. Wang.”
Wang held out his hand expectantly. “You have clean?”
Wendt extracted the billet from his wallet and handed him what appeared to be accidental origami.
Wang unfolded the claim and examined the red printed number. “This old,” he stated.
Wendt agreed. “Could be. A month, maybe.”
“Month? Thirty day no responsible!” Wang crowed.
Wendt tried to smile. This had become a too familiar routine. “Mr. Wang, you are an honorable man. I have been your customer for many years. Never once in all that time have I ever lost an item or been dissatisfied with your service. Your patience is that of the Sages. As a poet I esteem your worthy ancestor, the poet Wang Wei.”
“No Wang Wei.”
“No Wang Wei?”
“Wang Hsu, Wang Lin, Wang Zhou, Wang Dai, Wang Lo, Wang Chung, Wang Pa-jen, Wang Jiong, Wang Mei, no Wang Wei.”
“How about Wang Dang Doodle?”
Wang consider the name a moment. “Maybe Wang Dang, no Doddle.”
“Again, I appeal to the wisdom of your culture that honors literary men and poets. I am a poet in the tradition of the great Li Po.”
“Li Po own market?”
“No, Li Po the poet.”
“Own grocery corner Anza.” Wang stated positively.
“A different Li Po, one who lived long ago, in China.”
Wang shrugged. “Not know.”
“Well, how about Han San?”
Wang shook his head.
“No ring bell.”
“Mei Yao-ch’en maybe?”
“How about Tu Fu?”
Wang’s grin spread to expose a few misshapen discolored teeth. “Du Fu!” he exclaimed and then launched into a lyrical recitation that was both strange and melodious to Wendt’s ears.
“Yes, Tu Fu, a poet, like me,” Wendt pointed to himself for emphasis.
Wang snorted derisively. “You no Tu Fu, Mr. Wen, you tofu. White,” which he pronounced ‘why’, “and no tase.” Wang laughed uproariously and walked to the back of the establishment repeating in Chinese what he had just told Wendt and was joined in laughter by unseen others.
Next Time (11/21/14): Wendt has a Tarantinian moment before heading out for a night of hustling in North Beach.