“A man of letters is the enemy of the world.”
— Charles Baudelaire
A cab had double parked out in front and the cabbie, a narrow man in a leather vest and leather cap, sauntered through the tables to the doorway of the enclosed part of the bistro. He bobbed his chin and large dark framed glasses at Wendt shouting into the bar, “Call a taxi?” A drunk in a powder blue sports coat stirred his grey head and looked blankly at the cabbie and then got up from the stool. He appeared to be gauging the distance to the cab and wondering if he would make it.
The cabbie approached Wendt’s table, ignoring his passenger. He extended a hand blotched with color.
“Digger, good to see you.”
Digger had once been a poet. He was from New York. He’d been a poet in New York. He had come to California to be a poet in San Francisco. It hadn’t worked out that way. Instead he got a divorce and started driving cab. He wasn’t a poet anymore. He was a painter, a water colorist.
“Lemme ask you something, Wendt.”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Remember a guy by the name of Chuck Lazar?”
“Man, that’s a name I haven’t heard in a while. He was with that group of poets in Oakland in the late ‘70’s, right? They had a magazine. Fabulous, or something. The editor was that tall Frenchman who looked like Marcel Duchamp. What were they called, the California Pretenders?”
“Well, I don’t remember all that. I just know him as the guy who took off with my ex-wife.”
“Oh right, that, too.” Wendt had completely forgotten that side of the story. Digger’s wife had gone off with Lazar and holed up in a warehouse studio in Oakland and did nothing but fuck. Then the story was that he got bored with that and went back to Ohio to live with his mother. “What about him?”
“My ex called me up a couple of nights ago to tell me he died.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s too bad, recently?”
“Naw, last summer, July.”
Wendt grunted. “That’s two more new poets we can account for.”
The drunk had sideswiped an empty table and a chair had overturned. Digger left to tend to business.
Another dead poet. Wendt felt like he was being spammed by the Dead Poets Society. Please donate your body (of work).
You could always tell the military guys, even out of uniform. They were the ones with the close cropped hair, wide eyes and loud mouths. They said things like “look at that!” and “let’s go there,” and “damn!” They draped themselves in players’ jerseys, and usually not the local brand, or ill fitting team hoodies. They were mostly drunk and ran in packs of 3 to 6, blocking the sidewalks with their gawking. They were headed for the topless joints up the street, and later when they were drunker and stupider, Chinatown. Wendt watched one such group pass by the front of the bistro, one of the young men towering above his cohorts made even taller by the large black Stetson perched on his pale head. This was the West after all.
He watched a young couple at a nearby table stand and don their coats, the man briefly glancing at his watch. The woman spoke on her cell phone. They exchanged glances, stepped down to the sidewalk and out between two parked cars to flag the passing cab.
It looked like Murray at the wheel by the leather beret and the medallion pinned to the front. Wendt had caught Murray’s cab more than a few times before and knew him to be a strange duck. He claimed that the medallion was apotropaic, to ward off the evil eye since being a cab driver you came into contact with a lot of people and some of them could give you the evil eye. Which, of course, was total bullshit. The medallion had an intricate lacquered design that if looked at closely revealed the portrayal of a hairy vagina. It was interesting enough that someone sufficiently curious, mainly a woman, would want to look closer and receive a shock. It was Murray’s equivalent of a joy buzzer. He’d come to the city during the great loon migration of the sixties and had accepted the personae of the prankster after numerous transpersonal experiences aided by whatever psychotropic was available. He still lived on Oak with some of the very people, a commune known as The Coy Okies, he had joined up with when he had first arrived. Since then he’d developed into a first class mindfucker.
They were standing at the railing when he first noticed them, three he knew and the other a fresh face. They approached him like a delegation, Enny, Meany, Miney, and Mo. The one in front, a short man who shaved his head, Paul Ruiz, a North Beach poet, claimed to be the Picasso of poetry, not because of his writing style, but because of a slight resemblance to the aged painter. It might not have occurred to him that at his age Picasso still had a full head of hair. With him were Stoddard Leary and Michael Brezon who liked to be called Michel. Brezon claimed to be a surrealist but in actuality his style was mostly comic book lists of prepositional phrases.
“Carl, so good to see you,” Ruiz proclaimed with collegial bluster.
Wendt returned their nodded salutes. “Gentlemen? I assume. Have a seat.” He moved his wine glass within easy reach. Now the games would begin.
Stod sat next to him, the skin of his stubbled lank cheeks graven with deep creases as if his face were eroding. A bird’s nest of tangled sandy and grey hair perched atop his narrow head, the bags under his eyes like the folds of mauve drapery. “This is James Schue, he’s a documentary film maker!”
Fresh Face was indeed fresh faced. He affected a certain look that Wendt couldn’t quite place. It was retro in a style that had never lost cred with certain types, the rough workman’s checkered shirt, the dark workman’s chinos, the work boots. It was rugged and outdoorsy except that this kid’s outfit had not been worn anywhere that might have been considered outdoorsy or rugged. A shock of dark hair had dropped across his forehead. Wendt reached across the table and shook his hand. “Jim? Carl Wendt.”
“Uh, James. Carl, wow, great to meet you!” Fresh face turned into bright face. “I love your work!”
Wendt always felt a little uncomfortable when presented with such gushing proclamations. They made him uneasy, as if someone had just said I fucked your mother, or your daughter or your son. Or even your wife, though that could often be expected. It was too close, too personal. It was as if someone were talking about something of which they knew nothing, something that only he knew. But he got over it. “Yeah? Thanks, I get that a lot.”
Michel and Peter had dragged over chairs to ring the small café table. This had attracted the waiter and he stood by, attentive.
“You boys buying?” Wendt asked, voicing the waiter’s query.
Everyone turned and focused on Fresh Face who acted as if there were no question about it, of course he was buying. He indicated the group at the table. “Whatever they’re drinking, and I’ll have an iced tea.”
Wendt took in the sincere good natured expression of the fresh face. Stranger in a strange land, he mused, and then it came to him. Jack Kerouac. That was the look he was affecting, a young Jean-Louis.
Stod had anticipated his trajectory. “Guess who he’s making a documentary of.” His grin showed the gap of a missing eyetooth.
Wendt took his time. “Well that’s a hard one. Let’s see. He’s being escorted around by three North Beach poets. Let me ask you this, Jim, have you been to the bookstore?” He indicated up the street with his thumb.
The film maker, bright as a carbon arc, nodded his chin eagerly. “Oh yeah, we were filming there earlier today. I interviewed Lawrence.”
“Oh yeah, but the light in there is really bad. But we got Frances Fitzpatrick to say some things.”
“Pompous asshole.” Michel interjected.
“Kyle McKenzie, too. The Scottish poet.”
“He’s not Scottish, he’s from Dubuque. We were at Iowa at the same time.” Stod insisted.
“He was kind of out of it. Wanted money before he’d talk on camera, and then he got really abusive. I don’t think we’re going to be able to use any of that footage.”
“And then you ended up with Larry, Moe and Curly.”
Bright face dimmed into a forced embarrassed smile. “They’ve been extremely helpful.”
“Yeah, fuck you, Wendt,” Michel spit in a fit of faux Gallic pique.
“Merely a term of camaraderie and endearment. And at least they’re a household name.” Wendt could see that Stod was getting impatient and about to blurt. “Ok, if I had to guess, and this would be a wild guess.” He paused. The waiter set out their drinks, replacing Wendt’s empty with a full. “Jack Kerouac.” He was greeted with a gallery of grins. And almost as if in unison the four poets hoisted their drinks in salute. “To Jack.”
“Carl, James would like to interview you as well.” Ruiz looked up from his drink. “If you’d consent.”
“For a documentary on Kerouac? I was barely out of high school when he died. What do I know? I read him. I never met him.”
“But you’re of the first generation of writers to be influenced by him. Besides, most of the writers of his generation are dead. . . .”
“So you go to a secondary source.”
“And those alive don’t have anything new to add. . . .”
“I don’t know what you mean by new.”
“Sounds like the makings of a legend.”
“Oh yeah, that’s why I’m making this documentary. I think he’s a great American writer, the greatest.”
“Ok, I’ll do an interview. But, like McKenzie, I want the money up front.” And as if to allay the shuttered suspicion, added, “you’ll get your money’s worth.”
A group of conservatively dressed young men and women passed by singing hymns, the repent brigade out to save more souls and condemn sinners, but also an excuse for vicarious titillation. They were topless joints after all.
Jim Schue paid for another round. Wendt agreed to Wednesday, around noon. Shue gave Wendt his card. Wendt didn’t have a card. Nor cell phone number. Or cell phone. The young film maker frowned. He’d barely touched his ice tea. Wendt assured him he’d be at the Red Hen at the appointed time, but would need half up front as a guarantee. The three poets brought their drinks to their lips to hide their smiles. You had to hand it to Wendt, and the next time they ran into him, he would be obliged to spring for a round.
After a pregnant silence, the young man broached the subject of the interview fee. And after a deliberate moment, Wendt explained that his standard fee was a hundred dollars, and then paused in consideration of Stod’s eyebrows furiously pushing the folds of his forehead upward, adding that that was the amount of the advance, but since it was about Kerouac, his own personal hero, he would accept seventy five. The film maker rolled his eyes to the left in a quick calculation before agreeing. And then Wendt explained that he’d have to have the remaining one hundred twenty-five before they started the interview.
Next Time (1/23/15): Competing poetry claques engage in a stare down while vying for the best tables at Enrico’s.