(Referencing Richard Brautigan’s novel, Trout Fishing in America)
It’s commonly believed that more than 20,000 people are buried under Washington Square Park, used as a cemetery and home to freed slaves in the 17th and 18th centuries.
“They always take three.” — North Beach poet George Tsongas, on napkin behavior in the Caffe Trieste in North Beach
* * *
I’m passing time, waiting for that foolish Trout Fishing in America Shorty, on a green bench in Washington Square Park, a Puccini’s steaming café latte in a brown bag close by.
Four pigeons under my bench flowing on the shadow river-bed of the past,
streaming with us
Out on the grass inside the cement parameter is a flood of art booths, sunbathers, and strollers.
In front of me a puppy squats to shit on the grass — pulling up
the pup is given a big hug by its owner,
something learned today
People basking on the emerald grass, some lying on towels read, eat, or rise up to throw footballs, Frisbees, and super balls while the art lovers stroll in time, these waders in the circle
free like pirates, daring in the sea
Sitting on this bench along the cement path, the sun pours down in L.A. profusion and bottles of water are uncapped everywhere. “Water,” said Native American Yellow Wolf, “is a medicine” to the collaborator on his autobiography, a wise man
telling his story his way
Wheelchair-bound Trout Fishing in America Shorty, now, he’d look over there across Washington Square up at the Church top and say, “If those spires on that Sts. Pete and Paul was waterfalls, and that big gold cross up there was real gold, I’d think Christianity was wonderful, man —“Spite the climb.”
Shorty’s basking his leather
Out there across the lawn six twenty-feet tall spear-shaped trees fawn over Columbus Avenue, making up a little grove inside of which a statue of Ben Franklin steps. A young Chinese couple nearby, he shirtless, she with shoulders bared, picnic, while pigeons swoop over at fifteen minute intervals like squadrons of Blue Angels. The woman is sawing at an arugula and hibiscus salad —from the Marina, she says—from a private garden? Safeway? the Buena Vista? I don’t ask, we
ask too much, dare too little
On this side of Washington Square, on the Union Street sidewalk, there’s a horseshoe-shaped toilet kiosk — on top pigeons wait for the Coit bus with the rest of the birds — “Fare’s too steep, let’s fly” the bellwether bird cries, and they do, flapping their way down Union. Across the street a flag on the roof of the Park View Hotel peers down over shuttered windows, on the ground floor a big sign in the window, NAILS, in red neon, sitting inside its blue neon rectangle; a striped barber pole, like the old ones that used to abound here, guards the door,
candy cane security
In the afternoon breezes dark purple-flowered bushes behind me begin blowing their petal kisses all over the place. When Trout Fishing In America Shorty finally does get here — a Resurrection of the Faithful — there’ll be Hell to pay, and more Hell. I can just hear him:“Get the hell out of my Park, gimme my legs back, you bastards!” he’d shout. He’ll lock that wheelchair, then swig from his pint of brandy with an eff-you off-my-ass salute, alienating everybody around like he always does, those twenty-thousand buried ghosts below the ground backing him up
on the path
A new gang of pigeons flaps their wings to stay in place above the toilet — no paying customers enter, no wheelchair access — all the able-bodies know they can walk over to Murio’s Bohemian Cigar Store, or to Green Street or Ferlinghetti Way, unlike The Big Short, through time a
martyr of the Park
The five-petaled blossoms now blow my way in profusion in the hot afternoon breeze, threatening to bury my clothes and hands — caramelized by big buttery flowers sticking on a green bench.
Would Trout Fishing In America Shorty like this modern globe lantern on a post at path’s edge, or scorn it? “Whaddaya think this is, the god dam Champs El-ee-zee?,” he’d question.
Is the willow there to weep only?
Across the Square Lillie Coit has her own statue honoring the firemen of the city, paid for out of her bequest. Ms. Lillie drank, gambled, laughed, and drove her carriage like a banshee; single or married she was reckless as a lost lunch and serious as a bag of eggs. A message on her statue: To Commemorate the Volunteer Fire Department of San Francisco 1849-1866. Big booted toes hang out over the air — a brawny man in stone rescuing a robed woman from her burning room;
all in our Hall of Flames now
Over on Filbert Street around 4:30, there’s always one or two tourists pointing cameras up at the Church spires, and that gold cross, genuflecting to the myth of Joe and Marilyn, that solid touristical hit, those top notes, and looking at the sky above
this old Potter’s field
And Millie the Flower Lady, well over 80, walking up Columbus Avenue on the Hotel Boheme side, dark blue hoodie pulled over her frugal ears. Private Millie crosses at Green Street, stops to look in the window of Z. Cioccolato, “The Sweetest Spot in North Beach.” Millie knows the G spots of the Beach, in the seventies she sold her flowers to bar patrons, Spec’s to Vesuvio, to Moonys, Columbus Café, Gino&Carlo, everywhere. She hawked roses to drinking class noses, and she’s still stepping out. Shorty and me, we watched her dancing one Friday twilight in Grant Street Saloon to the music of Lisa Kindred’s blues band. Shorty turned his wheelchair round and round, fast as he was able, muttering like a fever, “I’m dancing Millie’s dance,
legs be damned”
Over at Murio’s Bohemian Cigar Store where a regular coffee runs three-dollars today, there’s plenty of gentrification to go around. Shorty’s yelling over at me, “No wheelchair access!”— as
if I could do a thing about it
“Just as well,” I yell back to him, where he’s still sitting in the Park like Sitting Bull, strong and unmovable. “It’s not the North Beach you once knew my friend — Au revoir, Shorts,” I add, blowing him a golden kiss. Shorty’s furious — the kids still pull his wheelchair around and around and
he can’t reach to stop them
At the last I call out loudly to Trout Fishing in America Shorty, his hat pulled down to shade his eyes where he still sits sunning atop the paling ghosts, “How will it all turn out, Shorty?!” But already he’s vaporized,
laid out upon the Valhalla table,
his speckled skin now stardust brown,
hazed hands frozen at the bottle
(Penny Skillman's prose can be found on Amazon Kindle ebooks, her latest is a Wimpy Woman's B-Brand Adventures Close to Home, a magazine- length meditation on San Francisco's modest doings, by the author of Temp Girl.)