POISON AND ANTIDOTE is nine interrelated stories of the artists, the musicians, the writers, waitresses, and druggies who negotiated the shark-infested waters of 1980's SAN FRANCISCO a la HENRI MURGERE, JAMES JOYCE, MORRISSEY and FLIPPER!
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Poison and Antidote
By Lee Foust
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Lee Foust
All rights reserved.
No, I won't open my eyes. I'll roll over, settle back in, and get comfortable again. I won't be delivered; I'll try to go back to sleep. But I probably won't be able to, now that I'm this awake.
Let the eyelids lay; keep 'em forced shut — seeing the orange, the red of the sunlight through the curtains — there isn't any reason to be right now, despite daylight. There's no point in turning over, either, only to have to settle back in again. Still, this now: thoughts I can't help but see, unavoidably —
Always, from this morning on, whenever I walk out into the streets, I'll grab any interesting face I find by the nose and pull the features forward with my left hand. Then, when the skin begins to separate from the sinews and the web of muscles behind it, with my right hand I'll raise my hatchet high and slice downward from the forehead, pulling the face away from the skull by its nose, taking the startled expression up into the air and stuffing it into my burlap sack.
In the evenings, when I return home, I'll paste the faces — trimmed around the edges so that they resemble masks — in rows upon the white walls of my kitchen.
My mother, being afraid of strangers, doesn't approve of my collection. She throws her head back, her nose into the air, and says, "Must you bring those things into the apartment?"
My collection of eyeless expressions remains incomplete, though, without mother, so I've reserved a space above the stove for her disapproving face. Someday she too will stare out over the pots and pans, her dried skin coated in the ever-falling dust that's glued to her features by the greasy fumes from the frying pan below, labeling my life a failure with her unshutting eyes.
These days she asks me over and over, "When will you ever grow up?" And is afraid — being always afraid of death — that someday I really will.
The first thing you need to do is case the neighborhood, check out the streets in the area, walk around between the buildings — imagine yourself passing by these same sights every day. You have to be lucky too. You have to imagine yourself coming home to the apartment, wanting to go back, night after night, yours for better or worse. You don't want to be driven out sooner than you feel like going. You have to be prepared for what it might do to you, how it might make you feel. You have to love it a little before so you don't hate it later.
The place I was looking at that day was down South of Market, in the old industrial part of town — which is a kind of schizophrenic neighborhood, too, having little bits of the other parts of the city in it as well. I was walking around and under the freeway that skims above the cross streets — it's too low down here to have any buildings beneath it — and then arches up to become the Bay Bridge further along, cutting through the even-numbered piers on this side of the Ferry Building. I was figuring out the topography of the neighborhood, its low warehouses and typical San Francisco-style three-floor Victorians, the old established wholesale businesses leaning up close to the sidewalks, jumped-up new factory outlets behind renovated Art Deco façades and minimalist parking lots, a few grimy liquor store/corner markets, and the occasional deli for the local employees to lunch at.
Of course the bars: the anonymous final resting places of derelict alcoholics on Fifth Street between the dirty magazine newsstands, the pawn shops, the window-barred liquor stores, and the boarded-up storefronts of failed businesses; the scattered gay and lesbian nightclubs fanning out toward the Mission District, hip and cliquey. There's the disco-pounding Stud, nude-dancing Clementina's, and the leather bikers' enormous S.F. Eagle. The Eagle had a sign out that day, "Slave auction tonight!"
These underground spots would pave the way for what was to become the club-going center of San Francisco in the late '80s, but on the day that I'm talking about there was only the silly discothèque with the swimming pool, the Oasis, and a brand-new, hip, postpunk art-school restaurant called the Billboard Café. Above all these nondescript warehouses poked the one edifice in the whole neighborhood that could challenge the freeway for height, the pink stucco church at Tenth and Howard. The shrine next to it — behind the low stone fence and the well-groomed lawn, with the Madonna and child nestled in a Plaster of Paris cave, also pink — always reminded me of the eighteenth hole in a miniature golf course.
I decided, that day, that I liked the South of Market and that I did want to live there. It's one of the real parts of the city, a whole landscape that just happened over time and completely by accident. Other parts of San Francisco have been made, claimed, and then cultivated by one demographic or another, like the Haight-Ashbury by the hippies or the Castro by the gay community, but nobody had ever cared enough about the South of Market or the Mission or even Downtown really to make them over completely.
I walked along, looking closely at everything and seriously considering the neighborhood for the first time, trying to imagine myself living there through the summer, the fall, and the rainy winter — I was wondering how it would change with San Francisco's subtle seasons. In my baggy pants and thrift-store overcoat, walking in the fog past the old buildings, wet and gray, I remember the day like a scene from a '40s film noir. I probably looked a little like Sterling Hayden, all tall and loose as I am, or maybe, being alone and eyeing everything so suspiciously, I came off more determined, like a desperate Richard Widmark character. Inside myself, though, I was feeling cool and glib, like my hero, Robert Mitchum.
The wind was cold, and it made me walk faster after a while, although I knew that it would eventually blow the fog away — thinking about that was already cheering me up. I pushed my hands against the seams of my overcoat's pockets and felt myself grinning excitedly as I found the street where the apartment needing a new roommate lay in wait for me and I went around the corner. It was a beautiful and tragic back alley, quaint and decaying; it dead-ended underneath the freeway in a parking lot cul-de-sac, a wash of trash blown into a sagging cyclone fence bordering the uneven blacktop.
Anticipation grew as I counted down the numbered cross-streets along Folsom Street to the tiny alleyway where I would be meeting my prospective housemates. You know how it is when you're house hunting — you guess it's that building up ahead, the one with the great big windows, or the one across the street with the enormous stoop, Corinthian columns, and ornate woodwork dappled by the only shade tree on the block. You're expectant or disappointed as the apartments vary from cramped modern cement jobs to well-painted Victorians with high ceilings and bay windows. I mean, style is important; it's the mood that the place puts you in that counts most the first time you see a place. I pegged the site of my appointment, disappointingly, almost as soon as I rounded the corner. I knew its type: a sprawling turn-of-the-century affair — probably built in a hurry as earthquake relief housing in '06 — more long than tall, a shitload of tiny units crammed inside. The building started at the dead end of the alley but stretched about a third of the way along the block toward Folsom. Somebody had painted it yellow.
Once there had been four open-air stairwells, two doors to a floor, two floors to the building, old Western movie boarding-house style, but the stairs had been too secretive, dark, and inviting for this secluded alleyway, so the landlord had put protective cage-like metal gates over their entrances at street level. A panel of buzzers hung by each gate; one of them corresponded to the address I had in my hand.
I stopped and looked quickly around and decided that this wasn't such a bad block. I liked the randomness of everything in the SOMA, as it was only beginning to be called in those days, the neighborhood's openness. Garbage isn't as conspicuous in its wider, more commercial avenues as it is in the narrower, tree-lined streets in North Beach or up on Russian Hill. And the alleyways that crisscrossed the area were quiet and cool; they didn't scare me like the noisy Tenderloin sometimes did, with all of the frenetic resentment and opportunity-seeking stares of the malingering, self-proclaimed con-men, drunks, and whores. Anyway, the grime in the air is the same all over the city, even if the black dust maybe settles a little thicker on these derelict back alleys that probably never get cleaned. At least there's a place for the drunks to piss: in the parking lot down at the end of the street, instead of their having to do it in your doorway. It was ugly down at this alley's end — sterile, cemented, and blacktopped, looped around by that defeated fence and some tangled-up barbed wire, nothing growing in the shadow of the freeway. You almost couldn't hear the traffic up above, even though you were right underneath it.
SOMA was, at that time, according to the hippest intelligentsia, the up-and-coming part of town. There were already a few artists' lofts, renegade after-hours clubs and the Billboard Café, and more cool stuff would probably follow. Things were going to be happening here, and if I could get in on the scene right as it was about to explode ... Also, it's the last part of the city to get the fog.
I didn't hear anything when I pushed the buzzer — once white, now smudged with greasy black newsprint fingerprints — so I knew right away that the apartment was up on the second floor. I felt bad about the interview being on a day like this; the lumpy summer clouds, remnants of the nighttime marine layer that caresses the city with the darkness, were still loping by just overhead, pressing down on the squat buildings of the area. I watched the gray globs moving inland, away from the city toward the bay, and knew that I liked places a lot less when I saw them on overcast days. But, then again, I'd seen some pretty ugly places look at least cheerful because of a sunny day, so I suppose it all evens out in some weird, unfair way. This place was starting to feel bad already, but I was determined to give it a fair shake.
There were so many things to be considered then, and it was hard to make a lot of firm decisions about the future. I was afraid of doing something wrong because it seemed suddenly to matter more if I did. It was like a test of myself somehow, of what I could do alone.
I heard a door open above, the sound of scampering feet coming down the stairs, and then a face blinked into view and looked out at me from the shadowy stairwell behind the bars. It was Christ, a typical hippie look: blue eyes against dark skin in a bony face with a beard of sorts. "Twenty-three A?" he asked, with a Latinate "Ah" sound for the letter A. I nodded, and he said, "Follow me," motioning with a single finger, turning his slightly stooped back on me to remount the stairs, his skinny arms dragging him along the handrails. I followed, his leather flip-flops slapping in my face as we climbed.
The roommate referral service had advertised my prospective housemates as Enrique and Miguel, and I was already having visions of sharing a South of Market loft with a young Picasso and Juan Gris, of pitchers of sangria and intense aesthetic conversations lasting 'til dawn, presided over by dark and passionate canvases leaning against the walls. Instead the film was in color now, unpredictable as a Godard or a Fellini, crazy and mannered, from the early '60s but definitely pre-Beatles — without irony.
The apartment was a cramped mess. Some loud and completely uninspired hillbilly rock-and-roll or Claptonesque dreck came from a department store stereo on the floor of what passed for a living room — really just a wider section of the hall. Other than the stereo, the room held only an imitation leather recliner and a knee-high stack of old Playboy and Penthouse magazines.
My guide showed me to the soon-to-be-empty bedroom, which was way too small for my stuff and had only a single dirty little window high up in one corner, letting onto an internal air shaft (or, as we usually call them on the West Coast, a light well). After glancing at the cell-like room, I followed Jesus back into the kitchen at the dead end of the hall and there he picked up where my buzzing of the doorbell had interrupted him, making soup using a Styrofoam Cup O' Noodles mix as a base.
I sat down at the table where he was working, chopping and mixing various ingredients. Behind my guide's silhouette, two enormous and frail-looking windows let in the flat gray light that came from the still solidly cloud-covered sky. The view was vast: a sharp, silvery, bran' spankin' new warehouse and a vacant lot filled with tall reeds and cattails. I found out later that this shadowy space between the buildings was the easiest and most frequented spot for shooting heroin South of Market, that it was San Francisco's own Needle Park.
"I am from Italy," Jesus told me. "I am the one moving out, moving up to Oregon." We had passed one of the roommates in the hallway, as he'd come out of the shower, and I'd introduced myself. This was the Enrique of the apartment's listing. While the towel-covered figure went off to his room to get dressed, the Italian told me that Enrique ran the household and shared the front room with his younger brother, Miguel.
Now we began chatting about working and living in the country versus the city, Jesus having much trouble finding the English for what eventually came out as, "I don't see how you can live all the time in the city. Is crazy, crazy." I asked him where he'd grown up and he'd told me in a "small village," as he chopped up much garlic and onions for his soup. "Real Italian soup," he grinned, enjoying grinning. "You like garlic?"
"Mmm, very much."
"It is, you know," he shook his knife at me, "the oldest antibiotic. Antibiotic — but natural. If you get a, a cut, on your arm," he held out his arm, nodding and gesturing toward it with the knife, "and you rub garlic or onion on it, it will stop the infection. I learn that in India."
"What were you doing in India? Working? Or just traveling?"
"Working? No. Is impossible to work there. Well, possible," (grin), "but ... I do some business, mostly I was there for travel."
He chopped his garlic and onions leaning over, his spine curling under his tank top in all his deliberate concentration. I marveled at his Summer of Love outfit: the sandals and tank top, bell-bottomed pants that hung too low, a little wooden cross on a loose string of beads dangling in front of us, off of his neck. There was a patch of colored cloth holding the cross to its string of beads.
"Are you from the city?" he asked me, having apparently adopted the local habit of calling San Francisco simply "the city."
"No, not originally. I grew up out in the suburbs, but I've lived here for about two years now. Why are you leaving? You're going up to Oregon, you said?"
"Oh, well, I was before in Mexico, and before that in Guatemala."
"Did you work there?"
"Yes, a little, but the Mexicans work for very little, so I came here," he chuckled, "for the American green." He rubbed two fingers together with the grin still grinning and the blue eyes now widening out of the dark, bearded cheeks below the curly black halo of his hair. "Green American money." And we snickered together.
"I know what you mean." I still had punk-rock slogans on my T-shirts, but I'd been unfaithful lately I knew. Things were changing; I was getting older. It was gray, slow, and airy in that back room: walking into it had been like watching a long Sven Nykvist tracking shot from a Bergman or later Tarkovsky film. Now it had settled into a typically symmetrical Antonioni long shot depicting the alienated decadent face to face with the humble country peasant, the busy worker standing and working, the idle artiste sitting across the table watching him. If I'd thought about it, I guess I would have felt a little bit embarrassed. Still, we lived in the same shit neighborhoods in the same town and worked the same shit jobs to survive, so what was there to feel guilty about?
Excerpted from Poison and Antidote by Lee Foust. Copyright © 2015 Lee Foust. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
POISON AND ANTIDOTE, 1,
1: GROWING UP, 3,
HOUSE HUNTING, 5,
2: DAYS IN BLACK AND WHITE, 15,
JOHNNY'S PARTY, 17,
3: LOOKING AHEAD, 41,
4: A DREAM, 73,
TROUBLED RECOGNITIONS, 75,
5: AFTERWARD, 89,
THE MORNING OF THE DAY, 91,
6: THE REVELATION, 95,
WITH PAUL AT THE BEACH, 97,
7: THE IDEA, 115,
DEVIN WANTS TO MAKE A MOVIE, 117,
8: A CERTAINTY, 145,
TESTAMENT OF FAITH, 147,