By: Brian Shinnick
The clock settles on 10:45 when I realize how thoroughly engaged I am in this conversation about animal cruelty and veganism with this redheaded chick and her fraying cowgirl hat. I don’t want to talk about this anymore. She has bright bright red hair and very broad shoulders and I begin to remember I’ve been drinking a long time and this can’t be San Francisco and where the hell is San Francisco and…yes, those we’re all the thoughts I was thinking.
This girl, Daniella was her name, takes a big gulp of her vodka and drops the glass heavily back onto the bar and says, “And do you know how they make foie gras? Well they strap a duck to this—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know how they make foie gras. Everybody knows they make baby ducks eat their mama ducks and then…ya know the uh, math quiz.”
She shakes her head, “Wait, no. They strap the—”
“Daniella, where are you from?”
“And what are you doing here?”
“I just had to get the hell out of Ohio,” she sighs looking back into the bottom of her vodka. “Then again I was just a little baby dear and ended up lost in The Tenderloin for a few months.” She taps her foot waiting for me to ask.
I bite, “What’s The Tenderloin?”
Daniella gets excited, “Ohhhhhh boy, you’ve never heard of The Tenderloin? You really are from out of town.”
“You’re from Ohio.”
She plants her hands on the bar excitedly, “I’m saving you from murder right now! The Tenderloin is over near Nob Hill.”
“Where Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts live?”
“What?” She dives right back in, “Nob Hill, like, where all the shops are and stuff and it’s, like, awful. Awful neighborhood. It’s, like, crack houses and crack pipes and everybody’s on crack and they’re all stabbing each other. It’s, like, whoa. I just saved you, boy,” she says nodding her head like a war vet who’s seen some shit.
“I’m from Chicago,” I note. She is still nodding her head waiting for acknowledgement so I give it to her. “But thank you for telling me, I doubt I could have sensed if I was in a bad neighborhood on my own.”
“Yeah, it’s cray,” she announces.
“So what is it you do out here?”
She is loud. She pushes the energy from her mouth like a woman of the sky trying to blow along a sailboat and she says, “Ohhhhhhh boy, I’m a dancer,” and she rubs her hands down her sides and shakes her hips on the stool.
I cock my head and lift an eyebrow, “Heh?”
She points over her shoulder and out the window, “I work at the Hustler Club.” I look out the window and across the street to a dilapidated black building with a scraggly blue awning out front. I could see I the red sign above it flashing Hustler.
“Well, how ’bout that,” I muttered crossing my arms and bobbing my head with a slight hint of interest.
“Look around. There’s a ton of people that work in one of the clubs on this street,” she chuckles a bit.
I look back outside and notice the prim rosed path of gentlemen’s clubs surrounding me. Where the Fügelsang am I?
I nod, “Hmm,” and become extremely upset and bellow loudly with my bleeding throat, “WHERE THE HELL IS SAN FRANCISCO? Is this it? Am I here? Is this where I’ve brought my mother?” The breakdown set in. The booze finally caught up. The anguished senses of hyped-up-movie-that-started-turning-into-a-letdown sank deep in my stomach. I closed my eyes and shouted for whiskey, shouted for gin, shouted for fluid relief. Where are you? Where are you? Where am I? Where is the jungle? You can only run halfway in before you’re running out.
A cool, foreign hand grabbed the one I was pressing against my face in anguish. My eyes remained closed.
“Let’s go,” the voice whispered.
My eyes stayed closed as my tongue and lips moved, “Nahhh. Nope. Negatory. I gotta get to San Francisco. Ma’s gotta go to wine country tomorrow. I gotta go with her.”
“Come on, you idiot. Where are you from?” the voice laughed. I opened my eyes to find a different young woman holding my hand. I looked around for the dancing redhead; she was nowhere to be found. Wonderful.
This woman, who is she? Who am I?
“Get me to San Francisco,” I tell the woman holding my hand. We walked out the front door of Vesuvio into the night and down an alley where she smirks, “You never said where you’re from. You look like a guy who calls a lot of places home though.”
“Chicago,” I say scratching my forehead looking at our hands holding one another’s. “Why are we holding hands?”
She laughs and says, “Because you’re lost. I’m guiding your way.” Her eyes flashed softly from behind the brown hair that was swinging in her face and continued, “You’re my lost Chicago puppy.” Sarah was her name and she spoke only a little as she pulled me around, weaving between the haloed-city lights. She was not from this place of San Francisco either, I could tell, but I did not ask where she’d come from or why she’d led me away from that place.
We entered into a small, eight-person diner that hadn’t had an inch of fashionable upgrade in sixty years—Sam’s Pizza & Hamburgers. There is a short, presumably Latino, possibly Italian man with a thin mustache behind the counter flipping burgers while another portly man in a grey t-shirt and gym shorts takes orders. I’m quiet. Reserved. Sarah orders two cheeseburgers and two beers and a fry for us.
She bites on a ketchupy fry and raises her eyebrows in humor, “What’s your name?”
“Brian,” I say between a glug of beer.
“And what are you doing here, my lost puppy?”
“You brought me here, Sarah.”
She laughs, “No, you idiot. San Francisco. What are you doing in San Francisco?”
I shrugged my shoulders and said, “My mom wanted to go to wine country.” She smiled at me and I at her. “It’s her birthday. She’s been good to me this year so I wanted to take her.”
“Ahhhh, so you’re a mama’s boy, huh?”
I ordered another beer before answering, “Every son with a half-way decent mother is a mama’s boy.” She stayed silent with a smug grin on her face. “Yes,” I begrudged, “I’m a mama’s boy.”
“So much so that you wanted to come all the way from Chicago and spend all this time with her?”
I hesitated, “Just because we came here together doesn’t mean I love travelling with her. It’s hard. It’s hard for me to travel with anyone. Anyone. I’m a minimalist and she’s over the top. She likes hotels and I like hostels. She doesn’t think about what can only be done in this place and I’m over here looking for the truth. It’s not easy. But I know that I learn something about someone else’s soul when we journey together, and I always learn more about who I am, who I want to become. We don’t get to any place alone, spiritually or geographically. Not really anyways. You’re feet may have carried you but your soul is just a collection of everyone who’s impressed it.”
“Damn.” Her eyes pulled back a little. ”Deep,” she said.
“Yeah, I’ve been in the midst of a breakdown for about an hour,” I admitted. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s refreshing.” She was being honest, I could tell. We sipped our beers in silence a little while. I said thanks for getting me out of the other bar when she did and she said it was just good timing. She told me she’d been traveling the west coast since her brother died a month ago. I told her I was sorry for that. We understood each other I suppose. So we walked a little.
“Come finish my trip with me,” she told me laughing, but I knew she was serious. “Portland tomorrow then B.C. for a week then who knows. We’ll just run I guess.”
“Sarah,” I shook my head, “I gotta go to wine country with Mama Bear.”
“You’ve been with her a few days, right? Just come with meeeeee,” she charmed me along. Her smile. That smile. Dancing backward down the street in her white sweater, she stopped at a street lamp and said, “Please?”
I sighed and laughed and explained, “I owe it to her. It’s been a long, tough year.”
My feet stopped chasing her backward dance beneath the streetlamp and I knelt down. She laughed and asked what I was doing. I rolled my pant legs up past my kneecaps and showed her. Ribbons of pain and scar tissue streamed down and around legs that had been sewn and surgeried back together many times over. A large patch of rough, leathered, scar lay on the inner calf of my right shin. And she knelt down beside me looking close, in her own bit of understanding.
“Really tough,” I said.