Sunday, December 02, 2012


There’s a gentleman I used to chat with on occasion in the building I lived in. When I first met him, I was getting into the elevator in the lobby as he came whizzing downstairs behind me. I turned to look to see who it was and I was a little shocked at his appearance. But, only a little. Sometimes a homeless person or two from the area found their way into the building. It has a large basement that’s accessible from a back door near the alley behind it. They get in and sleep near the boiler, turn tricks or smoke rocks with their friends in the laundry room. After a few encounters with him, I realized he wasn’t sneaking in. He was letting himself in with keys and going to the same floor I lived on.

He definitely looked homeless. And even a bit scary. His wild, stringy, hair and rotting, teeth gave him the appearance of a withered, screaming skull wondering San Francisco’s Tenderloin. He always wore the same thing: A dark, down jacket with cargo pants and sandals. But even with his somewhat shocking appearance, visiting with him was always a pleasure. No one in the building besides me would have anything to do with him. But with me, he was always well spoken and engaging.

One evening, I walked into the lobby to see he and the landlord talking by the elevator. “It’s just beyond me how someone could knowingly leave the door open on the 6th floor. You guys have handicapped people living here. It’s cruel!” he told the manager. He then saw me, smiled, waved and trotted up the stairs and out of site. The manager recognized me and started grinning. “You know that guy?” He asked me. I told him I did and that we talked all the time. “Dude, that’s Maxon Crumb. Robert Crumb’s brother.”

It turns out my friend was Maxon Crumb, the youngest brother of artist Robert Crumb. An artist in his own right, he worked with Robert on his first comics when they were growing up. He’s lived in that same building now for over 30 years and has been able to make a living from the occasional commission or collector. After learning of his true identity, I lurked around the lobby and outside of the building for the next few weeks, hoping to bump into him again.

During one of those nights, I walked past the Thai food place near our building where I saw my good friend Pete tapping at me on the window from inside. I forgot that he had told me he’d be in town with his friends from L.A. He waved me in to join them so, I put off my stalking for another night and went inside.

The table was lively. Pete held hugged me with one hand and pointed to each of the guys at the table and introduced me to them one by one. I honestly don’t remember most of them but, it was one friend I remember most. His name was Oscar. He was amazingly fat and well dressed. Like an obese Don Draper. After taking my hand and saying “hello” he wasted no time getting back to being the center of attention. “So, anyway, there I was at the Roxy, surrounded by drug dealers, and my sister comes out from the bathroom...” This is all I remember from his story because no sooner had I sat down then I noticed woman sitting, facing us from the other side of the small restaurant. She was holding her menu in front of her and I could see that she had only two huge fingers. An fat, elongated thumb and pinky. She was pretty. Looked a little like Audrey Hepburn, but with claws. A waitress brought her a plate of spring rolls and a drink. I tried not to watch her, but I was curious. How does she eat?

As I watched, Oscar’s story progressed. Everyone at the table chortled and sipped their drinks. But I was still studying the woman across the room. She had taken one of her claw-hands out from under the table and quickly picked up a roll. It waved from side to side as she tried to steady it with her other claw. And, in a moment that is best describe as a freakish, coincidence, the roll dropped from her hands and into a small dish full of sauce - just as Oscar was finishing his story. "... So I said, ‘Shut your hole honey. Mine’s makin’ money!” The table erupted in laughter just as the women’s spring roll dropped into the dish and splashed sauce on her blouse.

Everyone at the table slapped their sides and rocked back and forth in their seats, laughing so loud that it attracted the attention of the woman I had been studying. She wiped her blouse and looked at us. Scanning my table, our eyes locked and I knew then that she thought that they were laughing at her. I quickly turned back to the guys. From the window behind her appeared flashing lights from an oncoming fire truck and ambulance racing up Larkin street. The bright lights caught an image walking towards us from across the street, I recognized the wiry haired silhouette immediately. It was Maxon. He ran towards our side of the street, bags in hand, rushing ahead of the oncoming emergency. Most of the people turned to see what was going on outside, including the woman I was now trying to avoid. That was my chance to escape so, I excused myself and went for the door.

With the lights and sirens blazing out front, I ducked out onto the sidewalk. I looked back to see if the claw-woman was still in her seat. She wasn’t. Relieved, I scanned the gathering crowd for Maxon, hoping I could save the night by catching him as he went into our building. As I looked through the people ahead of me, I felt someone grabbing my arm. It was her. The claw woman. And she was looking for a fight.

“Hey. What’s up?” She was about my height and pushing her face into mine. “So, you and your friends think you’re pretty fucking funny, huh?” I tried to say “No” but could only shake my head. “Funny. You’re not laughing now are you, faggot? You and your pussy friends like to laugh at me in there when you’re all together, but you’re just a scared fag-bitch when you’re alone with me.” I tried to pull away and explain. “Look, you have this all wrong. They were talking about something totally unrelated to you and your...”

“My what? Say it! Say ‘Your HANDS!’ Say it!”

Her two, giant, deformed fingers slid down my arm and reached over and around my wrist. They reminded me of that last scene in the 1950’s film version of “War of the Worlds” when the aliens hands, which looked exactly like hers, pulled themselves across the floor of the downed UFO. It was now obvious to those watching that we were having a situation about her hand and that I was the instigator. She shook her head at me in disgust, let me go and walked back inside to her table. I sulked away toward the crowd, holding my sore wrist in embarrassment.

The fire truck and ambulance were parked in front of the building across the street. The EMTs wheeled out a woman on a stretcher. There was an oxygen mask on her face and her arms were flailing to and fro. She was wearing a pink sweatshirt that was pulled midway up her torso, exposing her large, white, belly underneath. Every time she reached up to pull it down, an EMT would grab her hand and put it back at her side. Feeling her embarrassment, I put my hands in my coat pockets and shoved down towards my belt. I wanted to help, but still rattled from my claw lady encounter, I decided to stay put. Then, out from the crowd, sprang a familiar face. It was Maxon. He ran up to the poor woman on the stretcher, pushed the EMT’s hand aside and pulled her blouse back down over her belly revealing a print of a giant lobster wearing and chef’s hat with “Joe’s Crab Shack” emblazoned across the top.

Saturday, November 05, 2011


My family never made a big deal about Thanksgiving. My father and mother would fire up the grill regularly with their friends, regardless of the time of year, so the idea of everyone getting together and cooking a lot of food on a Thursday in November just didn’t seem that special to us.

Even so, when I find myself alone on that particular day, I do feel as though I should be somewhere eating lots of food with others. And that is how I found myself in San Francisco last year — walking around with my hands in my pockets, trying not to look like someone who knows they should be at home eating canned cranberry sauce with loved ones.

Near my apartment in the Tenderloin, by a construction site where a new building was being put up, I spotted a young couple smashing thick electrical cords with bricks. They were both blonde, tan and rather healthy looking. They didn’t look hard and dirty like most of the street kids in the area, which told me they must be new in town. As I approached them, the young guy looked up at me while his girlfriend kept hammering away.

“Hey, what’s up? Dude, if you help us out, we’ll split the money with you after we take the copper from these to the recycling plant. They offer bank for this stuff!” I noticed he was missing all of his front teeth. Not that uncommon in my area of the city, but particularly sad in this instance; he was rather cute. “So what do you say? It’s Thanksgiving, man. Let’s cash this stuff in and feast!” We both smiled and chuckled a bit, as he handed me a brick. I took it in my hand, got down on my knees and started pounding. What the hell? Why not?

“We need to get this wrapped up fast. She grabbed this from the construction site. It’s hot. If the cops see us, we’ll get nailed. So hurry!” the cute guy said.

I picked up the pace as his girlfriend turned to me and smiled. She was missing one of her front teeth as well, which made her look like a sweet, blond-haired jack-o-lantern. I noticed her reach up and adjust a hearing aid in her left ear. It made a slight, feedback sound each time she hit the wires. The guy noticed me looking at her. “Yeah, she’s partially deaf. Her hearing aid goes off all the time. It’s broken or something. Her name’s Carrie, I’m Todd.” I introduced myself and we all got to work.
After a few minutes of pounding, I noticed their pile of copper was far bigger than mine. I felt bad and started working faster. Then Todd looked up and over me; his eyes widened in fear. “Shit, the cops! Let’s get out of here!” Carrie was still pounding as Todd and I each grabbed one of her arms and ran into the construction site. We hid behind a large stack of drywall and waited. Carrie’s hearing aid was still whistling and popping from the sprint. Todd placed his hand over her ear to muffle the sounds then put a finger to her lips, whispering to her, “Shhhh.” I was panicked. I couldn’t see where the police were but could hear the dispatcher coming from their radio.

“We have a 211 in progress. Polk and Eddy.”
“10-23 standby.”

As we sat quiet and listened to the police call in, we heard someone shouting. I turned and saw a large, black woman at a bus stop, holding plastic KFC bags and waving at us to come over. Todd knew who she was. “Oh, right on! It’s Mama! We got to get over there. She’ll help us out!” He motioned for me to hold Carrie’s hand and follow him. Her hearing aid was screeching feedback as we ran. We were just a few yards from the bus stop when I could see the woman clearly. She wore a vintage olive green dress; all made-up like the Mad Men girls, with two bags of KFC — she’d also forgotten to shave her arms and chest.

As I sized up her drag, she waved us over and began to scold my two new friends as she led us around to the other side of the bus stop, presumably to keep out of sight of the cops. “Now look here, I don’t know what you two are up to, but with the cops around, it can’t be good!” She was visibly irritated with them and tried in vain to keep her voice sweet as she laid into them. She too was missing almost all of her front teeth, which gave her a lisp. So the angrier she got, the more spit shot out from her mouth and onto the bags of chicken she held. We stood quiet for a moment as Mama looked around for the police. “Well, I think you all got lucky this time. They’re gone,” she said. “Why don’t you two bring your friend upstairs for some Colonel. We’ll have a lovely, little chicken dinner for Turkey Day!” She giggled at me and raised the bags of food up underneath her chest, creating a large, round bosom. “My name is Monique, sweetheart. You can call me Mama.” I introduced myself and she led us away, following her in single file like a row of ducklings.

Mama lived in a small studio apartment above a garage. It was right out of Victor Victoria: Lots of old art deco lamps, heavy wooden furniture and chaise lounges. Magazine clippings of Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren were framed and hung everywhere the wall could take a nail. She laid the KFC on a small card table in the middle of the room when the kids reappeared from the small kitchen in the back with place settings. Todd hadn’t said a word since she rescued us. The atmosphere was quiet and unnerving. Mama pulled up chairs and invited me to sit with her while Todd and Carrie set the table.

“Tell me something about yourself. You seem out of your skin. Things not going well for you during the holidays this year?” she asked.

“I’m okay,” I told her. “I’ve got my problems, that’s for sure. The city hasn’t really cut me a break since I got here.” She perked up, smiled and touched my hand. “With all the services for folks being cut left and right, it’s something awful, but I have no fear. God will provide. He always does. You know, I have a story.

“When I was very young, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This was before LBJ, so there was no Medicare — we were on our own, baby. My folks let it go as long as we could until my legs started to get rubbery. Someone told them to take me to this old lady outside of town that might be able to help. So we drove to her house and she came outside to meet us, as if she knew we were coming. She was holding a bottle of bees. Bees!

“My folks held me down on the hood of our car and she pulled out one bee at a time with her bare hands and got the damn things to sting me. I was screaming and crying. I went there twice a week to get stung for a quite a while, then you know what? One day I woke up, got out of bed and started getting ready for school. It was 15 minutes or so that I realized I was okay. I was normal again! My legs worked just fine! I ran down the hall to tell my momma and she started bawling. That woman’s bees cured me! Every time I hear they’re going to cut my benefits or when my feet get numb in the mornings, I just keep reminding myself of that wonderful day.” As she told me her story, I could see by the far-off look in her eyes that she was making the whole thing up. Perhaps it was just for my benefit. It was a very sweet story; it made me feel appreciative.

The table was set and we all sat down to eat. I love KFC and she had pretty much everything they offered. Todd and Carrie sat silent while Momma told me her take on the state of the world, her singing career and the man that got away. Like most queens she’d seen it all, and her company ended up being just what I needed. Some minutes later, the conversation turned back to me. “So what’s your deal? Why you walking around the TL on Thanksgiving?”

I hate talking about myself, so just rolled my eyes and shrugged my shoulders. She broke in with some final wisdom.
“Look son, no matter how bad it gets, there’s always something to be thankful for. Look at me! I’m old, my feet are going and no man wants to take me to a movie. But ya know what? The good Lord left me this...” She opened her mouth and pointed to her single, front tooth and laughed. “He left me this, so I could eat the corn on the cob for Thanksgiving.”
Artillery Magazine: Killer Text on Art