Below is a cutting from an unfinished novel set in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. It is the story of a young widow who has moved west to rebuild a shattered life. This scene is her first day exploring her new hometown.
Her wardrobe was distinctly Midwest Rust Belt plain. It was excessively Earth-toned for a young attractive blonde in California, but she perked up her look with a vibrant scarf and some jewelry. It would do, she thought, as she opened the front gate, set to meet her new neighborhood.
Taking her time, not wanting to miss anything, Marlee window-shopped and ambled into the eclectic commerce of Haight Street.
She considered the latest Rave fashions on the rack at “Housewares”, all to the driving techno-beat from the in-house disc jockey. The iguanas in the window didn’t seem to mind.
She laughed out loud as she looked through the Anarchist Collective Bookstore. Their display of pamphlets and political screeds loudly denouncing the capitalism at which they were so dismally failing. Signs trumpeting a “Half-Price Sale” and “Clearance” were everywhere, alerting the three lost-looking teenage browsers that they too could join the Revolution at a discount.
Showing that The Haight sold more than recycled bad ideas and hipster fads, there was “Kids Only.” A light filled shop that catered to the families in the neighborhood with plush toys and dolls sweet enough to melt the heart of any six year-old and probably Mommy and Daddy too.
Marlee also saw the casualties of The Haight’s decades long war with the mythology of drugs. Young men and women, some of them really children yet, stumbled up and down the sidewalks with tombstones in their eyes.
“Spare change” was the mantra. Most were runaways or throwaways living on the street or in nearby Golden Gate Park. Their daily objective being to get the cash to buy a slice of pizza and a sufficient dose of heroin or crack or crystal meth to get them through another fearful day and night. If the money was tight the pizza would wait until tomorrow.
This part of her new neighborhood bothered her, but she knew that her spare change would only end up, eventually, in a zippered body bag.
She quickly adopted the long-time resident’s defensive stare that set her apart from the more vulnerable tourists. See the young druggies, but do so with disdain. Today was to be a day for happy exploration. She decided to not be drawn into anything that would ruin that idea.
At the “Haight Street Grocers” a sidewalk display of fruits and vegetables fanned out with colors as vivid as any tie-dye in the window of the nearby T-shirt shop.
Passing on her many opportunities to buy shiny black leather and metal studded clothing; she ended up at Stanyan Street. Here the urban gave way to the bucolic wonder of Golden Gate Park, a horticultural masterpiece of nature with sand dune defying greenery that extended all the way to the ocean.
Marlee crossed from the world of the hip, the hopeless and the California dreamers and entered a more gentle land where manicured lawns, rhododendron groves and lawn bowlers dressed in white lowered the adrenaline level of life.
She was enjoying the feel of the sun on her face. She knew that she would be pink in minutes. Sunscreen was added to her mental shopping list.
In a city of surprises she was getting used to the unexpected. Just a two minute walk from one of the busiest streets in the city she found herself sitting on a wooden park bench listening to children squeal with delight as they swooped down a corkscrew sliding board and scaled a three-dimensional plastic maze.
The centerpiece of the playground was a carousel with hand carved and painted fantastic animals going around and around to the tinny music that comes from only the best carousels. It was a glorious piece of 19th century America still enchanting the children of the 21st. Marlee hugged the slender neck of the grinning giraffe as she whirled inside an eddy of flashing lights and laughing babies. This was a very good day.
She chose the opposite side of the street for her return trip down Haight Street. She saw chilly tourists renting inline skates and bicycles for a high-speed zip through the Park. She resisted the barker’s pitch, from a chubby girl dressed in black, to step into “Cold Steel” for a piercing of the soft tissue of her choice. The list of possible sites made Marlee feel very “Ohio.”
“It must be a California thing,” she thought.
Seeing the bounteous display of produce at the Haight Street Grocer for the second time across the street, she couldn’t resist the huge Navel oranges or the pencil thin fresh asparagus. It would be perfect with her Eggs Benedict for Sunday’s meal with Dennis Thayer. After all, she did promise him a brunch.
Even though she was just a block from home, she decided to stop for a cool drink. She didn’t want this excursion to end.
“The People’s Cafe”, near the corner at Masonic Street, was large and airy, with tall sliding windows that made it an inviting oasis and a prime location for idle time people watching.
Marlee looked over the large menu board mounted high on the wall behind the sparkling display case that teemed with decadent pastries.
The cafe was only half full this time of day. The tables were populated mainly with locals, sipping coffee and chatting. Off in the far corner sat one bearded neighborhood denizen, madly scribbling another novel that no one would ever read. It was almost the cliché of a San Francisco Coffee house.
“And what can I get for you today?”
Marlee lowered her gaze from the menu and into a pair of gentle gray eyes that sparkled like dusty diamonds.
“What would you like?”
“Oh, something cool and refreshing, I think.”
He smiled and his words came to her ears with an almost lyric quality.
“Ah, there’s nothing better after a morning in the cosmic heat of The Haight.”
Small lines formed at the corners of his eyes. His lashes made her think of a dozing cat. She noticed a small cleft in his chin and wondered if it made it hard for him to shave in the morning.
“I’ll tell you what, you have a seat and I’ll bring you something that will cool the fire on your brow and fuel the passion in your heart.”
She found a table by the window, but instead of watching the passing parade she found herself staring at the barista with the beautiful eyes.
“He is delicious, isn’t he?”
“Excuse me?” said Marlee. The interrupting voice broke her trance. “I’m sorry. What did you say?”
Sitting at a nearby table was a woman who had been pretty ten years ago.
“Luco – He’s gorgeous, isn’t he? But put your tongue back in your mouth, Dearie. He may flirt with you and whisper slivers of his poetry in your ear, but he’s not a man for the long haul. Trust me. I know.”
“I’m sorry, but what are you talking about?” People in Cleveland didn’t just talk to strangers like this.
“She’s saying that she’s upset because I never asked her to spend a month making love on the beach in Baja. Am I right, Marjorie?” The barista wiggled a finger in reprimand as he smiled tenderly at the woman. She deflated under his gaze. Obviously, she still carried around a long-term, and unextinguished, torch.
Marlee looked up into the smooth face of the man with the gigawatt smile. He had a large pastel blue cup and saucer in his hand.
“May I join you for a moment? I made this for you. It’s my personal favorite – espresso, steamed milk with a shot of amaretto, and a single clove, for luck.”
He didn’t wait for her answer as he slid into the empty chair across the table from Marlee.
This warm spot of male light was Luco Reyes, a 15th generation Californian. His family had come to the New World with the first wave of Spanish explorers. He reflected the lineage of the Grandees along with the gifts of other visitors to the Pacific coast, including the Imperial Russian Dynasty.
Just shy of six feet tall, he wore his jet-black hair cut short for convenience. He was not a man who fussed over his looks. He was the man who was there in the mirror the first thing in the morning.
His face was lightly tanned, a healthy glow laid on a complexion the color of tea with just a drop or two of cream.
Luco Reyes kept himself physically fit, but not like a 7-day-a-week gym jockey. Underneath his chambray shirts he had the spring-loaded muscularity of a Middleweight boxer. His body answered with the fast reflexes and easy confidence that didn’t require “muscle shirts” to advertise their presence.
He had the quick wit and romantic heart of the poet that he was. He wrote at night in his flat on Stanyan Street above a bicycle shop. From his windows he had a view of the entrance to Golden Gate Park and the playground and carousel beyond. His poems were long and dynamic, with sensuous imagery and a desperate sadness.
At the cafe he flirted shamelessly and fell in lust hourly, but rarely let it go further than a wink, a smile and the occasional nibble on a very willing earlobe.
As Marlee had just discovered and the woman in the corner could not let loose of: one simple flex of his shoulders or a smiling moment in his focus and you knew that this was a man who could make your eyes roll back in your head and let you forget to go home and feed the cat.
“I hope you like it.”
to be continued