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Above the Neon (April 30, 1997)

Twenty-eight years have led me to this room up in the old hotel, above the neon. The manager, Mr. Chen, gives me the grand tour; communal kitchen, bathroom down the hall, no guests after ten, leading me across carpet seeping second-hand smoke toward my door with a busted knob, telling tales of his gout as he works the dead bolt; flicking on the light switch. And the floor is all motion. Scurrying. The rug is a dead dog; beaten, stepped on, kicked. Spot of blood near the hand sink. Religions pictures tacked to walls, paint peeling; past colors revealing themselves like age rings of an oak. Furniture found on sidewalks; dresser, night stand, lamp. Medicine chest. Something constructed out of boards and tack paper. The bed is a rectangle of tuberculosis. Air reeking of sleepless nights. Mr. Chen opens the blinds and struggles with the window. I see the word TEVERE in white on rusted brick colored metal, a large H with broken tubes and an arrow pointing towards the pavement running vertical to the rest of the letters O-T-E-L. A bay breeze and mist of fog rush in like maids behind in their schedule. Past the broken sign sits the holy trinity of North Beach; Tosca, Trieste, City Lights. Not to mention Washington Square Park, Coit Tower, Chinatown. You can't beat the backyard. I could live here, I say watching a swatch of carpet breathe, I just have to invest in a very thick pair of thongs.

I help Mr. Chen carry the dead man's mattress to the hall. Doesn't bother me. I wear dead men's shoes and dead men's hats. I'm sure people did worse things in my room than die. We pass an installation of twisted air vent and exposed wires; ode to Terry Gilliam. I peek into the shower room; cement, curtainless, lost location site from Midnight Express. Every wall we pass is sepia toned with cigarette smoke. So are the countless handmade signs requesting no smoking in English and Chinese. Somebody's not listening. Airborne grease accumulates near the communal kitchen consisting of an electric stove swimming in peanut oil and a sink. It serves over 80 residents. There is also an ancient Sears washer/dryer; kitchen doubling as laundry room. I find the dryer doesn't dry clothes with heat but out of determination. Friction. More like a slow salad spinner. The only way I'll use this room is if I get real hungry, and buy one pot and case of Top Ramen.

We pile the mattress and other furnishings into “the room of discarded furniture.” Dust motes auditioning for the slant of light breaking though a cracked pane. Never a little girl's laughter. Never an easy breath. Never a sing of eternal spring. Not even in jest. I create a play in my mind in which furniture, like elderly immigrants cast into an asylum, speak on the purpose of their lives. Heavy accents. Foreign tongues. The insight and insanity that comes with obsolescence. I spy a particle board bookshelf, schizophrenic with the personality of a thousand dead trees, whispering to itself the horrors of the Masonite sawdust piles north of Ukiah. I ask Mr. Chen if I can use it. “Why?” he wants to know, brushing back in swoosh of newly died hair over his bald spot. Books, I answer. He laughs like a 40s movie stereotype, the cackle that haunts a hundred common housewives strung out beneath the city streets in the opium den catacombs of Chinatown. Somewhere in his creative dentistry and nicotined fingers is a warning, reminding me of a Martin Amis line, “You can't go slumming anymore, slums bite back.”

But aside from my fantasy of luring friends here to create the next Chelsea, none of this is foreign. I lived in a Chinese tenement building in New York City looking east on Elizabeth Street onto the Bowery and a welfare hotel. I've just switched Scorsese for Coppola. I was lucky there, my apartment was the only one in which the bathtub wasn't next to the front door, in the center of the kitchen. I didn't live with my entire family, some still stinking from the hulls of freighters. And there was no bogey “pots and pans man” lurking the halls like the tower torn down near the Stockton tunnel my uncles used to reside in with my aunt and cousins. Still, I'd wake to fights over beer money and high powered dominoes. Gun shots. Roaches wriggling across my toes, holding conventions outside their hotels, baited to this epitaph of bricks for the same reasons as me; smell of ginger and bok choy, curry and green onion. Location, location, location.

I was also raised in and around my father's grouphome with murderers, thieves, perverts, and addicts. I'm not frightened by the clothing, habits, and language of the disenfranchised. My people. My family. Myself. Reared on a steady diet of craziness and voyeurism, I've developed a nose for danger. My new home doesn't smell of danger, it smells of poor people. Derelicts, old timers, immigrants. SSI checks. A few who can't get it together but managed two weeks all at once and now sit in their rooms watching t.v., staring at cracks in the ceiling, listening to the radio, chain smoking, clock ticking away safety time until they have to hit the streets again and hope for the next windfall. Or kind winds. I can see that each time they fall, the climb up the stairs is steeper from pavement to tenement; to four walls and a roof over your head. A place to cop, shoot up, review your days; blur waking hours with memory. Nod, rest, dream.

Sense memory has me playing cribbage at my grandfather and aunt's apartment, nicknamed “the Ashtray” because of all the Winstons smoked with one window slightly cracked. Hot boxing. Walls exact replicas of their lungs. Grandpa had a skillet of coagulated grease he heated and threw Wonderbread into when he was hungry, sprinkling it with powdered sugar after it sopped up Wessonality like a sponge and browned to a golden crisp. Fried bread. Scots have been abusing themselves with more than a bottle long before Burns. All Scottish food being created on a dare. Reading James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, possibly all Scottish life.

But as night covers the sky like a blanket full of holes, I make my empty gestures beneath its soft weight; sitting in the window of the Hotel Tevere, smoking cigars and squeezing ghosts from my accordion, wondering if this was the sill Lenny Bruce jumped from. Below the traffic keeps tempo, tourists shuffling past; promise of pasta, pork buns, Anchor Steam. Good night kisses. A friend yells my name from the sidewalk. He's laughing up at “the portrait of the artists as a young cliche.” I grab my jacket and hit the stairs, passing Mr. Chen on the way, who is smoking in the hall. “The City That Knows How,” I tell myself, feeling like the proverbial blind squirrel who's found an acorn. Glowing. Tonight I've crossed the Golden Gate from Marin to come home once more to the city of my birth: San Francisco. Neon flickering.

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