“A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
— Charles Baudelaire
Wendt balled up the hot dog wrapper and made a basket from where he was sitting on the stool. He exchanged glances with the young Asian girl in the blue, green, and red hat behind the counter. “Nothing but net!” He slid off the stool and sauntered out to the mouth of the alley and looked up Broadway to the land of large bare breasted women. He strolled to the open facade of Enrico’s and took a round marble–topped table in the corner of the terrace. He mentally accounted the remains of the twenty. Five fifty for the polish dog. A small price to pay for having refused to accompany Lady Di and her troop of baboons. He couldn’t decide what irritated him most about her, her money or her personality. That left enough for a six dollar glass of house wine, maybe two. A quick survey revealed groups of couples chatting easily over appetizers and white wine in a takeoff pattern before soaring off to a higher, greater evening. A few of the regulars had occupied their vantage with a view to the street.
Mahoney, in his iconic beret, bristle brush of a white mustache red nose and flush veined cheeks, eyeing the passing humanity. Olive, his skinny shadow of a female companion, ramrod stiff and a gaze that indicated that she was probably somewhere else. Cal, the overdressed Italian wannabe old time gangster, and his water glass of vino. It was a little early for the rush of younger regulars and tourists. A black man in a beret and a heavy overcoat sipped a small glass of red wine at the table next to his.
The waiter arrived. “Un petit vin rouge.” The waiter had heard it before. “House, ok?” Wendt nodded and stared for a moment vacantly over the heads of the customers and thought in a loosely yet semi-urgent way that he needed to act on his impending eviction. He searched his memory for a likely name, someone who might be able to assist him. The list was short. His ex-wife Sheila and her husband Jerry Pawl, Irma and Philippe, Tom Presley, and Aaron Shone. If that was the best he could do, he might have to panic.
“Excuse me.” The black man from the next table addressed him. “I couldn’t help hearing you order un petit vin rouge.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Bud Powell, right?”
Wendt smiled. Someone who finally got it. “Yeah, Bud. You into Bud?”
The man rose from his table and walked over with the help of a cane. “Mind if I join you?”
“Any friend of Bud’s is a friend of mine.” Wendt held out a hand. “I’m . . .”
“I recognized you from your picture in the weekly. Your column, Gone With The Wendt.”
“Right, Carl, and?”
The man sat down in the chair opposite. “Roy, Roy Banks.”
“You play, Roy?”
“A piano bar down on Market. The tourist trade looking for the Beatnik past.”
The waiter arrived with Wendt’s drink. Roy indicated that it was on him.
Wendt raised his glass in appreciation. “I gotta warn you, they’ll be by here later this evening.”
Roy laughed. “No worry. My daughter’s coming up from San Mateo to take me out to dinner. There’s a Chinese place over the way, reminds me of the old restaurants I used to go to when I lived in New York. No tourist frills, just good food.”
“You hip.” Roy saluted him with his glass.
“To Bud,” Wendt raised his in return.
Roy chuckled again and shook his head.
“And jazz,” Wendt added.
Roy shook his head again and smiled, “You cool, man, I don’t often get with someone I just met. But I can tell we’re in the same groove.”
Wendt nodded. “So you were in New York?”
“Yeah, early 70’s, the whole loft scene, Cecil, Archie, Sonny.”
“That was good music.”
“Oh, yeah, still is, but it’s tough to get that kind of cohesion with cats out here, everybody’s so spread out, you know, it’s very. . .West Coast.”
“Yeah, I hear what you’re saying. I was in New York around the same time, by the way. Thought I’d make it big as a poet if I went to the big city. That’s where the action was.”
“That’s right, you’re a poet, too. I thought you just wrote that column in the weekly. But now I remember, yeah.”
It was Wendt’s turn to laugh. Now here was someone who had no inkling of his supposed reputation as a literary figure. None of the usual assinine assumptions would apply.
“I read your column on Black History Month, by the way.” The waiter had come up and Roy indicated another round. Carl stared at the grape residue at the bottom of his glass. His white man’s Negro fantasy was about to be demolished. He was going to be called on his own presumptions and suppositions no matter how scholarly and neutral they tried to be. His editor had admitted that the Black History column had received mixed reviews. The usual haters, but mostly the whines and yashoulda crowd.
“You said a lot of things that even some black folk don’t know. I don’t want to say that you got it. Because you don’t get it unless you lived it. But as far as that goes, you get it more than most of the well-meaning white folk I know.”
Wendt shifted in the metal café chair and gazed at Roy in anticipation. Now he was going to get it. The waiter returned with their red wines and removed the old glasses.
“You said something that I felt was exactly correct, and that’s where jazz is the way that we can integrate the cultures, for a love of the music. On the other hand, I thought that the title of the piece was a little over the top. ‘White Like Me’?”
Wendt shrugged. “Sometimes I overplay the ironies, yeah.” He put the glass to his lips and Jeremy was standing there, arms clutching a spiral notebook across his chest. Jeremy was a short wiry man who looked like Woody Woodpecker on crack. He had read a book on Beatniks and had come to North Beach to be a far-out poet, but instead had become just another sidewalk casualty. That didn’t keep him from writing obsessively. In addition to the clutched spiral binder, the ratty bag slung over his shoulder contained more creased and folded sheaves of paper and pages, his entire oeuvres to be exact. He was the messenger you wanted to shoot because his message was always such a downer, a virtual wet blanket, but then what can you expect from a post-apocalyptic messianic narcissist? This time wasn’t going to be any different.
“Morgan Tilson committed suicide, d’ya hear?” he announced perkily. “They found him this morning!”
Roy’s look had suddenly become guarded and he reached for his cane.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Jeremy? And who the fuck is Morgan Tilson?” Wendt was only a little annoyed, the grape having a rosy palliative affect. Where had he heard that name before? Then it came to him. He was one of the poets at the Inter Zone Arts reading the previous evening. “Ok, wait a minute, I remember now. He bit the big one, huh? How?”
Jeremy eyed Roy suspiciously. Roy glared back. “His lover found him this morning. In his apartment over there off of Sanchez. In the bedroom with an empty bottle of pills by his naked body on the floor. Somebody said in front of a full length mirror, but I’ve never been there so I wouldn’t know.”
Wendt recalled the previous night after the reading, drinking at Shepard’s, and he had noticed the poet he had assumed to be Tilson, a good looking guy with long hair pulled back in a tight drug dealer pony tail. He’d been really wasted, and not in a happy way, at a table with a gang, a couple of handsome specimens and the usual dorky gay intellectuals.
“Any idea why?” Wendt didn’t really care, his curiosity was impulsive.
“I heard that they found a note. But somebody else said that it was just a long poem.”
Wendt nodded. “That sounds about right. A poet starts out to write a suicide note and ends up with a long poem.” He addressed Roy. “It’s like a sickness.”
Roy had relaxed his guard as it appeared that Wendt knew the homeless bum. He savored the red taking a measure of Jeremy.
“Dad!?” The black woman in her late twenties in a conservative pale green suit coat and matching skirt, coif carefully piled on top of her sleek black hair, appeared a trifle alarmed. Her father was seated with what appeared to be a white haired wise guy and talking to some street rat.
Roy brightened and struggled to his feet. “Ah, Darlene. Carl, this is my daughter, Darlene. Darlene, this is Carl Wendt, he writes that column in the weekly, Gone With The Wendt. He’s a poet, too!” he said as if that were an important revelation.
Darlene smiled politely, but not convincingly. “Dad, have you been getting drunk.” It was as much concern as it was censorious.
“No, honey, I am fine! I just had un petit vin rouge with a fellow Bud Powell aficionado.” He let his daughter hook her arm under his and then turned to leave. “We will have to continue this conversation at a later date,” he said and handed Wendt his card. “My email address is on there, drop me a line.”
Jeremy plopped into the chair Roy had vacated. “It’s crazy, all these poets dying in the last couple of months, it’s like there’s a serial killer of poets.”
“A serial killer of poets? Jeremy, poets are an endangered species, they’ll die off on their own accord. Besides, I thought you said it was suicide.”
“That’s what they say it is, but, I mean, come on, it’s the cops. They never speak the truth.”
Wendt stared into his glass. They speak the ultimate truth, not that he wanted to explain that to Jeremy. He knew he was going to hate himself for encouraging him. “You think there’s some kind of conspiracy between the police and a serial killer to murder poets?” He grinned perversely. “It does have a certain ring of truth to it, though.”
“Right, right, that’s what I’m talking about. Like that kid drove his car into a brick wall going 100 miles an hour.”
“A poet did that?” Even Wendt felt a sense of shock at the image of the impact, then, “Well, poets shouldn’t be allowed to drive, anyway.”
Jeremy had leafed through the pages of his current spiral notebook. “Eric, no Ian Blake, Blake, you know, like the famous poet.”
“Yeah, I know that, Jeremy.” Wendt mulled over this new bit of information. He’s never met either of these poets, but here within twenty four hours, their names were linked to death, and peripherally, linked to him. Tilson was the poet whose reading he had skipped, and Blake was the young poet who had dedicated a poem to him, something he wouldn’t have known if he hadn’t met David, Courtney’s boyfriend. He was getting contact paranoia from Jeremy. “You’re keeping track of the dead poets, too?”
“I have a theory.”
Wendt groaned, sorry he had even started his conversation with Jeremy.
“Every time a poet dies, two more are born.”
“I thought that was fairies.”
“Some poets are fairies.” Jeremy was crazy but he wasn’t stupid. “And of course if the poet is famous or he’s published a lot of books, then more than just two poets are born, five, sometimes six!
“But, Jeremy, even if only two poets were born every time a poet died, the world would soon be overrun with poets.” That was a disturbing thought.
“Exactly, that’s why they’re killing off the poets, they’re afraid that they’ll take over.”
“Take over the government?”
“No, no, poets should never be in government. Unless maybe in China. But Mao was a poet, and look what happened there. No, poets’ll just be taking over, you know, the population.”
“Like being on welfare, or in the university, which is only distinguishable by degree, or clerking in bookstores, or selling Tupperware or walking the streets.”
“Yeah, yeah, Wendt, you know what I’m talking about!”
“Now that’s a really scary thought.”
“The thing is, some people are born poets and don’t even know it!”
“But their feet show it.”
“They’re long fellows.”
Jeremy did not miss a beat. “Yeah, right, and they’re also vaguely dissatisfied. Anyone who is vaguely dissatisfied is not living up to their poet-tential.”
“You might have something there.” Now he was agreeing with a fool.
“I was born as a poet on the day Allen Ginsburg died. I saw it on the entertainment news and I went out and bought a book on Beatniks and read all about them. I quit my job and drove out to California. To be a poet!”
Wendt laughed. “A noble occupation, don’t let anybody tell you any different. But aren’t you worried that they might target you next, if as you say, they’re out to get poets?”
The gleam in Jeremy’s eye was more than just drugs. “I have the perfect protection.”
“Which would be?”
“No one knows who I am!”
“But what about the poems that you sell to people on the street? I mean, the people who buy them think you’re a poet. Maybe one of them is a poet serial killer.” Wendt almost immediately regretted planting that seed.
“That’s the beauty of it! No one takes it seriously. To them it’s just some bum’s scribbling. They don’t even suspect that I’m a real poet!”
The waiter had come up to the table and was giving Jeremy the hairy eyeball. Jeremy knew the routine. “I gotta go.” He packed up his notebook. “I’m a persona au gratin here,” he said as he hurried off the terrace.
Wendt indicated his empty glass and nodded. The waiter understood. Wendt was going to pay for this one. He peeled off each bill as if it weighed a ton and set the glass of wine just out of reach on the table. It was going to have to last.
So far his social drinking had gone well, having to pay the minimum for his liquid refreshment being his ultimate goal and part of the game he played with himself. It gauged his likability, his popularity, his presence in the world of friends and strangers. He had vowed to live by his wits and shun the accrual of worldly goods. He was an epicurean monk in a silk Armani jacket. Even that incongruity had been gifted him by an admirer, a widow he saw occasionally, who lived in Pacific Heights. The suit coat had belonged to her late husband. He filled out the shoulders in the same way, she’d told him. His black leather casual toed Florsheims were the only extravagance he allowed himself. And the silk socks.
One of the young women at a table on the other side of the terrace had been glancing over her shoulder at him. She was a pretty blonde in a white sleeveless top, a shimmering sequined jacket draped over the back of her chair. She turned away when she saw that Wendt had noticed and said something to the woman sitting next to her who tried to casually glance in his direction. He’d been recognized. They giggled. And found out.
He could have gone over and introduced himself, confirmed their suspicions, but he was preoccupied with the thought that he would be losing his low rent city cave. He knew from his friends and acquaintances who had jealously derided his housing arrangement that he wasn’t going to be able to replace it. He would have to compromise. He could either continue to hustle, make the minimal effort to get by and rely on the goodwill of friends and people who would be willing to accommodate a brilliant and nationally known poet, though the latter attribute had faded some over the last decade or so as he had not kept up his dues in LUCKY, the Literary Union of Charlatans, Kooks, and Yahoos. He was still brilliant though, and that and a couple of bucks could get him a latte, at the very least someone to treat him to a latte. His other choice was to get serious, get back in the flow, and reconnect with everyone he’d ever insulted and undoubtedly kiss some ass, eat some crow. In that case he could maybe afford a room or a tiny apartment in the neighborhoods, or Noe Valley or the Outer Mission. But he’d have to put himself out there. And he hadn’t done that in some time. He had done the minimum and had been free to work on the monster, as he thought of it. Maybe it was time to let the monster out of its cage and let it do the work. Now that was an idea.
Next Time (1/9/15): “Everybody’s out on the street, fleecing pigeons on a whim, but when Wendt the Excellent gets to there all the pigeons gonna run to him.”