Seven walks down Grant Street, the tourist high street in Chinatown. San Francisco has the largest Chinese neighborhood in the United States: it was established in 1848 and averages 62,100 people per square mile. Generation upon generation piles up on the sidewalks, curbs, and tenements. Napkins, receipts, cigarette butts, and the occasional plastic bag dances in the wind or hangs along gutters and roll-down shop doors. Plastic bags are illegal, but some vendors, especially food vendors still use them. I can only guess as to the number that still exist hidden in the corners of all the shops of Chinatown.
A shrewd businessperson doesn’t waste any precious resource. Paper bags are expensive. The greatest density of cigarette butts hide from the commercial glee of eager tourist desires just off Grant in blind alleys, on door stoops, and under the fewest parking spaces in the city per capita. The streets of San Francisco are swept every two weeks. At night, all the shops are closed except for restaurants, tea joints, and bars. Shop hours are generally 10 to 8 for the tourists, but depending on demand, most owners are flexible. A sale is a sale, and if slow, employees are expensive overhead.
Few tourists are this deep in Chinatown this late at night. The two bars on Grant fill and wane with the season, but are never so steady as to open when no one is buying. With the arrival of the party bus in the lustful late night adventure pre-40-somethings, a converted school bus or professional coach, the Li Po has changed significantly in the last 2 years. The management put in a more formal entrance behind the Wall of China façade, and employs a doorman in a security uniform to check IDs and enforce etiquette.
Seven has known Renaldo for about a year. He’s friendly enough and uses sign language to tell those in the know rather or not tonight is a good hang time. He’s friendly and Seven always buys him a box of cigarettes or 12-pack during the holidays. Seven is a stolid fractioned of holiday grace. It keeps the liquor of information flowing. A PI never knows when he’s going to need a favor or a bit of privy to push a case a long. Doormen, escorts, bartenders, waitresses, and even the occasional beat cop may have the key to a random lock, or rumor, or data; even if she doesn’t have a clue about the big picture.
“Slow night,” Reni says as fist bump and hands shake. “Mostly local Viet’s, drunk. Not gambling much.”
The Li Po is a 70’s Asian cave with all the prerequisite bric-a-brac of a colonial China. Its green and red interior, back bar shelf, fuzzy wallpaper, and tassel lamps are the stuff of idealized pornography. The jukebox is at the door. A temple adorns the bar at the far end and the stools all have backs. The lights are always low and around the corner end of the bar are a couple of booths. Like many elixir establishments in SF, the restrooms are in the basement. Two televisions have been added in the corners above the bar and a different sport or team usually plays on each.
“Maybe that’s just what I need?” Seven answers as he stands in the entry way just beyond the glass and metal door. It’s a new feature to for better drunk-crowd control and flow. You can no longer see inside from the sidewalk, but must enter to find out what’s or whose going on or not.
“I don’t know, Seven, we’re suppose to get the douche-bus later with 20 or 30 college bros and sasses.”
“I don’t need that.” Seven shakes his head and high fives Reni on his way out. “See you later.”
“Be good and be gone, man.” Reni says and Seven turns his head back with a smile. Reni is showing his white whites and gold heart, and he winks at Seven.
The door closes and he looks to the Buddha Lounge across the street and on the corner of Grant and Washington. No one is standing outside smoking; perhaps it is slow as well. It’s been a couple of weeks since Seven hung out in there or seen the bartender, Marcus. Half way to the corner, I can hear dice cups slamming onto the bar counter top, and then Marcus’s laugh. He must be winning tonight. The house always wins in the long run.
Seven walks by the door and peers in from the corner curb across the street. The bar is half-full and Marcus looks up to see him. He smiles and slams a cup on the bar top. He always notices. Seven can never get through this intersection without the bartender seeing him.
I walk in, and the bartender shouts hello over the cacophony. He is playing a group of five on the end of the bar closest to the door. Liars dice is all about the bluff. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Marcus is that his tell is no bluff. The house always wins in the end. A player may string him over several cocktails, but Marcus always reels it back by the end of the hours.
The Buddha is a dive bar with little pretense. Ornamentation is not even forethought in a place named after an oriental god of eliminating material desire. It is the most appealing thing to me about the belief system. Experience life, as it is, not whatever you wish it to be. The bar runs the length of the room with a bar height, half bar top on the opposite wall. A painting of a dragon takes up the entire space above it. The bar curves to the wall at booth ends. The deep end is a refrigerator case with extra ammunition for the patrons, a couple of case of domestic beer and a few Mexican. On the shallow end, neon signs and Chinese horoscope stickers cover the front window. The jukebox is next to the door. It’s a new internet box, but not all music is available; it must be a contractual issue. I miss the old mechanical; it was limited, but all songs were one price. The new box is market driven, and some artists demand twice the price for a spin. When I come early before Marcus’s shift, I usually DJ, and tonight, if it doesn’t have a queue, James Brown always cheers my hips. Behind the bar is a wall length mirror and cabinet case below for the elixirs, the painkillers, and the soft focus boudoir eyes. No extravagant or super specialty liquors dwell here, except a plum brandy for the tourists. Regulars don’t come for a mixology. I come the Buddha for what ails me, I come for reflections and light conversation, the empty narrows between the every day; I come here to drink and pluck the jukebox. I don’t play dice. I know too much, and probability has never been on my side.
I choose a stool next to the rollers at the door. Marcus turns his cup over, and everyone checks his or her dice for the next wager. Before they can answer, he spins around and picks up the Jamison. I shake my head yes. He pours a double jigger, neat, and fills a tall glass of water. He sets it on the bar and taps it, “this one is on me,” and smiles his Buddha smile. He returns to his game, and that smile flattens to a bluff.
I sip the whiskey and look at the other patrons. I recognize a face at the opposite end of the bar. It’s my favorite Lieutenant Inspector Cochran. She speaks to an older gentleman on her right, and I don’t think she has seen me. Steve Miller, Fly Like an Eagle, fills the air and I check out the other patrons. I recognize the faces, but not the names. Hum, short hair, a few mustaches, occasional tattoo and mostly collard shirts. The Buddha is full of blues tonight.
Marcus leaves the back of the bar and heads to the door for a smoke. I get up to join him when pause and leans over to my left ear. “Be careful.”
I shake me head up and down in agreement and return to my drink. San Francisco police officers generally do not enforce Yerba Buena clouds or personal possession, but no need to poke the dragon. The dice cups next to me are silent as one couple gets up to join Marcus for a smoke and one of the other women heads to the cage door at the back of the bar. The restrooms are down stairs, and the bartender must buzz you though. I know where the buttons are, so I reach over and feel for the switch.
I listen and look to the door, when Emily Cochran’s eyes catch mine. She recognizes me with indifference. I sit back on the stool and take another sip. The music stops. I take my wallet out and pull out two singles. I walk over and put the first dollar into the slot and it comes back out. I try again with the same result; so I switch dollars. The jukebox takes the second one, so I try again with the first. It accepts it.
Two dollars is seven credits. I choose Radiohead, Karma Police, and Neil Young, Down By the River. First cost two and the 2nd one credit. . I choose some Clash, Spanish Bombs, and jump the curb with US3, Cantaloupe. I want to break my mood. I have one credit left, so it’s James Brown, Sex Machine. I don’t know if the lawmen will like the last two, but it’s hard to say no to the Godfather of Soul.
I sit back at the bar and look around. Marcus returns from cigarette stories and I throw back the last of the Jameson. I place twenty on the bar and he comes to my glass first with the bottle.
“You OK?” He asks as he pours, and I look into his face, sigh, and shrug my shoulders.
“I’ve been better.”
“Hum,” he shakes his head and carries the bottle to the other end.
Cochran pushes her shot glass out the edge and he fills, then all the others follow in sequence, as he makes his way to back to me. Jameson and I are in good company. He winks and tops up my glass. He takes the Jefferson and returns with two fives, and four ones. I sit them on the bar, edge under a coaster.
I take a sip and look to the gentleman sitting on my left. He looks at my face for a moment and turns away. I don’t know if he recognizes me or not, but if these people are mostly cops, they probably know about me. The dice game starts up again.
I take the deck of Tarot cards out of my coat pocket and shuffle them. I cut the deck and Marcus returns to investigate. I offer him the choice, and he taps on the right cut. I put it on top and set the deck on the bar. I choose the top card and flip it over on its back.
“New job?” He asks. “You know, we not allow any gambling in here.” He laughs as a dice cup slams onto the bar.
“Hey Marcus, what do you have?” The player on the third stool to the door shouts.
“No. Just a hobby.” I answer and smile at him.
He returns to his dice game, and calls out “fives.”
I feel several eyes on the cards. I look to the left and the gentleman sitting next to me is starring at the Three of Swords. I look back down at the deck, draw another, the Five of Cups, and sit it on the right of the first card. I look up to the mirror and stare at the reflection sitting next to me. I sigh and draw a third card. I place the Queen of Wands, inverted, next to the last.
“I believe that is a three card read, the past, the present, the future.” The gentleman on my left says.
I turn to him puzzled, and before I can say anything, “yes my ex-wife was into that crap.” He lifts his beer to drink. I watch him intently.
“Do you read?” I ask.
He wipes the moustache over his upper lip, and shakes his head, “no. I remember some of it. My Ex. opened a table on Polk Street. It was a damn money pit.”
I look up, towards the other end of the bar and Emily is starring at us.
“Madame Confusion was her stage name. The cash was good, but a vice officer cannot be married to a bunko artist.” He adds, “I almost lost my job. She got raided, then IA caught her in an affair with another officer.”
“Shit.” I respond. I take another drink from my whisky.
“Shit is right, a real cluster fuck.” He tips back and finishes his beer.
“Can I buy you another?”
“No, no, thanks. Maybe another time.” He says. “The funny thing, she didn’t see them coming.” He laughs out loud.
“They never do, I imagine.” I reply.
He looks over the three cards again and says, “my advice to you is to let your emotions take their course.”
“As I remember, the first card indicates that you have lost something, perhaps love. The second card is also about loss, and morning or dashed expectations. The future, the third card is about new starts and moving on, but since it is inverted; you may not be ready yet.”
“Thanks man, I owe you one.” I lift my glass, “I would have had to look all of them up.”
“De nada,” he says and shakes my hand. “I’m Javier.”
“I know who you are.” Javier interrupts me. “Don’t fret it. Life moves on and memories are just shadows blinded by the light.” He laughs. “Like the song, wrapped up like a douche…” Javier chuckles.
I laugh with him, “still vice?”
“No, no, thank God.” He says over his shoulder as he stands. “I’m just a uniform now, and that’s enough for one lifetime. AMF.” He pats me on the back, turns, and walks through the door.
“Later.” I shout as his back, and Javier shakes his head up and down, ands twists his wrist in a back of the hand wave.
I tip my shot glass back, and pick up a couple of dollars off my stack at the bar. I face them, spin them around in my hand, and rap the edge on the bar.