Ghosts of North Beach: The Clockwork People of Jackson Square
If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over-frisky,
Why did He burn His churches down,
And spare Hotaling’s whiskey? Charles K. Field
The clockwork people of Jackson Square come out every night into the Barbary Coast, performing their mechanical duties, running through the same night over and over again, seemingly stuck in a loop. Of course, I use the term ‘people’ loosely. They were people, and are now a motley collection of ghosts, spirits, haints, haunters and demons. Their haunt is as old as the city, and no matter how the area has divided up into different districts, and blocks that were once the center of crime and debauchery are now mainly, but not entirely rehabilitated. The old Barbary Coast is now but a memory and the district is now scattered between Chinatown, Nob Hill, North Beach and down towards the now genteel, but once desperately lawless blocks of Embarcadero and the docks, where the sailors would drift in and out, along with the laundry of the City’s men who believed their shirts would be better washed if they were sent directly to China on a slow, three month long journey to be cleaned in Chinese laundries, rather than trust the tiny population of women with their shirts and unmentionables.
It is one thing to know in a vague historical sense, that this area of prostitution, dangerous bars populated by captive bears, gamblers, cut-throats, side shows workers and hustlers, once existed, but another thing entirely to watch 13th August 1883, replay itself night after night.
The nightly routine of the clockwork people of Jackson Square is far removed from the more sentient activities of the rest of the ghosts of North Beach. The ghosts in Jackson Square are locked into exactly the same motions at the same time, every single night. They leave buildings and enter them again as if locked into an eternal dance. The same piece of washing falls from the same line, hung from the same window. The same puddle splashes the same leg of the same man as he drunkenly winds his way down to the docks. Even the animals and are stuck in the same positions, flying the same routes, eating the same meals, and suffering the same sad ends and doomed beginnings.
Sally Seedly and I walked to her home on Jackson Street, on the block that now just about belonged to the Financial District, instead of the Barbary Coast and Chinatown, but back in 1883, was apparently the center of murder, intrigue and debauchery. The great and ugly TransAmerica Pyramid poked a hole in the night sky just off in the distance, the water of the Bay shadowing it as we headed down Washington, as it steeply fell towards the Bay. Washington is lined by late 19th and early 20th century houses, mostly now apartment buildings from what I could see. Most of them smart, but some shabby with greying voile curtains and windows full of old steel signs and stuffed animals. The street was quiet. Not a ghost to be seen.
“Have you ever been down to the historic district at night?” asked Sally airily. The night air was cold. We had walked most of the way from the playhouse down towards the Financial District in silence. Occasionally commenting on someone to be avoided, live and dangerous, and lurking in the shadows, but tonight at least, the dead seemed more dangerous than the living.
“Never. In fact I don’t think I have ever been to that part of town. If I want to walk to the Bay I go via Polk Street and tip out by the Ghirardelli Building. The name put me off to be frank: The Financial District. It sounds boring and unfriendly and full of stuffed suits with bad attitudes.” Sally laughed. “I like to think of it more as The Barbary Coast, the Old Place. The Historic District. There are plenty of suits around in the daytime, at least in certain parts, and plenty of money flowing through there, but it has a different flavor at night. It is actually very beautiful, and some of it as old as the City itself.”
Sally seemed almost amused, almost eager as we wandered downhill towards the Bay. Washington intersected with Mason, and Sally pulled me down towards Jackson Street. “Close your eyes!” she commanded. As we stepped into Jackson it felt almost like climbing through a cobweb, or else pushing through a thick gelatinous barrier. She dragged me, eyes closed, holding onto her for dear life through the unseen barrier. “Sally! What is happening!” I shouted as the sucking sound resolved in a loud pop and an appalling stench filled my nostrils. “We got lucky! It has never opened up before when I take someone with me, not living or ghost!”
“Ghost?” I asked as she guided me through the scraps of cobwebs and thick atmosphere that remained from the big breakthrough. I didn’t feel very lucky. A sense of foreboding filled my bones, and a panic rose in my chest. “Wends, don’t panic ok. It is only here for a few hours like this, then they go back to their clockwork lives.” Somehow, I had never been along Jackson at nighttime. It was not my part of town, and though it was near the bookshop and the haunt of the Grateful Dead Society, Jackson was just not a road I used.
“Open your eyes,” Sally whispered. It took a few moments for my brain to comprehend exactly what was around me. Jackson Street in 2022 had disappeared entirely. Some of the buildings were the same, the others at first gave a faint impression of the modern structures being present, the modern bricks and mortar were but an afterthought, a memory, a promise, and the ones that stood before me were there, real, solid. I reached out and patted the side of a wooden shack rubbing my knuckles across it hard. A graze appeared on my hand and a little blood trickled down my fingers. “Sally! What is this?” I asked in panic, but Sally was too busy opening a door to our left, with a big old wrought iron key. “It’s safer if we blend in,” said Sally, neatly skipping questions like how, and why and what was going to happen next. “Welcome to 4.35pm, August 13th 1883!”
Sally grinned. “How!” I asked, half stunned, and half irritated that we were not sitting in a brightly lit 2022 front room, drinking coffee and watching a stupid movie on a reassuringly modern asinine flatscreen tv, with the sound up high. “I needed to explain everything to you, but figured you either wouldn’t believe me, or else would run for the hills. Showing you is easier than telling you. It only lasts like this for a few hours. Here, put this on!” Sally passed me an uncomfortable looking dark blue dress with a floral sprig pattern, with a long boned bodice, a modest bustle, lace collar and long sleeves, along with a paper wrapped bundle of undergarments and stockings. She was already half into her dress, a plain black garment, with black lace and a looser silhouette. She was already wearing 19th century bloomers under her modern clothes. “Turn around!” As she hooked me into the dress, she hummed a song that felt familiar, yet I could not quite place it. “What is that song?” I asked her. I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair she replied. You probably heard Bing Crosby sing it. It works better than Oh Susannah, bad things happen when I get dressed humming that song. Her slender legs were quickly encased with silk stockings, and she was buttoning her buttons up to the neck.
Outside the stench of the street was overwhelming. It stank of rotten cabbages, human waste and unwashed bodies, mixed with a faint metallic tang of blood. Sally stood in front of a large ornate mirror, that if it was able to be dragged into the modern day, in the pristine state it was in, would surely sell for a small fortune. I considered trying to drag it back to 2022, but resolved to look for something lighter, like some gold nuggets. Sally had a neat black straw Tyrolean style hat in one hand and a large hat pin in the other, and was attempting to pin it into place. She pushed a shawl into my hands, and grabbed a long slim cherry wood cane. “Come on!” She said firmly. “We don’t have much time,” and with that she hauled me out of the door and into the street.
Jackson Street’s modern façade had completely faded as I put foot onto the street, holding onto Sally’s arm for dear life. It felt like stepping off a cliff into thin air with a thousand foot drop. My breath came heavy and ragged, and I felt a wave of nausea rise in the pit of my stomach. “Up or down?” asked Sally. “Nevermind. It doesn’t make a jot of difference!” Her eyes glinted and she had a slightly unhinged look playing across her face. “It doesn’t matter what we do, it all happens like clockwork, just the same way!”
The street was shrunken and reduced. Most of the buildings were no more than shacks, small and wooden. They were little more than roughly put-together shacks. A few were made out of brick, and of these I fancied I recognized the bones of at least one that had made it to 2022. Sally held onto my arm and I held onto her like a life raft. “Keep an eye on this stove shop, then watch for a cart that is carrying chickens to be slaughtered that will pass by in…5,4,3,2,1..”
A man bumped into another man who was pulling along a scruffy dog on a piece of string. Before anyone could take offense and apologize, the dog broke free, and ran up the road, running into the path of the horse. The horse reared up and bolted, upsetting the cart. The portable cages, containing the live chickens spilled onto the cobblestones, some of them escaping. An entire crate of apples, that had been covered by a piece of red, yellow and white gingham and had been sitting next to the driver, spilled onto the floor, some getting crushed under the hooves of the terrified horse. An old man tried to grab the reins of the horse and an apple at the same time, but slid on apple pulp and fell onto the floor with a thud. The dog grabbed a long link of sausages and ran off down the street barking. His owner, a florid faced gentleman, in a dark bowler hat, starched white shirt, and an armful of arrows, designating presumably some kind of military or legal duties, ran off after the dog shouting. Sally and I pressed ourselves against the side of the shack that advertised that it was selling stoves and fireplaces. She looked back at her stopwatch, silently counting. Across the road, in front of a saloon, replete with swinging gate style doors, two men fell out in the street brawling, while chickens ran, dogs barked, and nobody noticed the driver of the cart wedged under the back wheel. Sally clicked the stop watch twice more, to reset and start it again, pulling me over the road towards the brawling men, just in time to dodge the explosion in the stove and fireplace store, and the chaos that ensued along Jackson Street.
As we burst through the doors of the Jumping Flea, two shots rang out. Then a third and a fourth. A large gentleman with a face like a boiled ham, pulled us behind the bar. “Ladies! What in the Lord’s good name is going on out there!” He grabbed a shotgun, from a shelf under the bar and strode out towards the door. Sally leant over and whispered in my ear. “This is the default sequence of events. Without me doing anything to change anything, this is what happens. A sudden silence reigned over the street and bar. A few scared faces poked out from behind tables. A red haired woman dressed only in a boned frilly purple corset, stockings and a loose kimono, feather boa round her neck, eyes heavily painted in kohl and red eyeshadow, brilliant red lipstick smeared across her mouth, came clattering down the stairs, lazily pulling a drunken, soporific man behind her. “Knock out drops….”whispered Sally. “The old dose and rob the john thing. Been going on since time immemorial I suspect, or at least since now…” As she reached the bottom stair a scream arose from the upstairs portion of the Jumping Flea. “Georgia Mary,” Sally explained, “is upstairs with her throat slit.”
Sally pulled me towards the door, “This is what I’m trying to stop. Look up that alleyway.” I peered up the road down a dark space between two shacks. A small Asian girl staggered out onto Jackson Street, holding her neck. Blood was sheeting down her black collarless shirt, and fragments of bone and brain spilled onto the cobbles. As she fell forwards, I saw a brief glimpse of shadow and a unrecognizable figure emerge into the chaos and run quietly up the road towards Washington. “Someone caved the back of her head in with a hammer. They dropped the hammer in that alleyway. They also took the time to slit her throat.” Sally looked at me as chaos ensued around us. “I’ve tried everything to stop it, to change what happens. I can’t save Georgia and I can’t save Ah. Tears filled her eyes. I can’t even save the fucking dog.” We started to walk down Jackson the opposite way to the disaster, and murder and fire.
We had not got far when a team of horse-drawn fire carts and teams of men with buckets of water passed us by. A man leaned out of a building and shouted “You didn’t get Hotalling’s Whiskey last time around, and you won’t this time!” I fancied I could smell melted chocolate in the air, as we headed down a small cobbled street, full of charming buildings. Horse-head wrought iron bollards stood outside a stable building more solid and well-built than a lot of the shacks up the street. It was the wild west for people who were not up for dustier climes and regular shoot outs. San Francisco, for all the crime, the whore houses and urban suffering, was almost a center of civilization. I leaned over to Sally, and whispered in her ear, “Sally, what happens if you try and leave San Francisco?” Sally stepped over a pile of steaming horse apples and delicately guided me down Hotalling Place. “I’ve never got far beyond Jackson Square. Come see.” She strode towards the end of the street and was repelled back by an unseen force, as if she was bouncing off a trampoline, and discretely returned to me. The shoreline was far closer than I was used to it being. Signs of massive filling and construction extended into the distance. The final building on the road was yet another saloon, with a huge sign hanging outside, painted with a white horse, one delicate hoof in the air and a naked lady upon his back, it read The Prancing Pony in curlicued black lettering. I stood outside under an unlit gas streetlamp, staring at the procession of people long dead, but here young and vital and alive and felt rooted to the spot with adrenaline and fear. “Come on! We will have a drink and by the time the clock strikes 6pm, we will fade back into our time! I promise it is easier on the way out, it barely hurts. It is like heading on the down-slope of a rollercoaster. “Sorry, Wends. I was over enthusiastic. I should have saved this for another day, but I was so excited to be able to share this with someone. I wanted you to believe me.” The tiredness and stress of the evening, and Maria and Joey’s murder must have been playing across my face. If Sally hadn’t been so sweet, if I didn’t understand what it was like to live through something extraordinary and be desperate for someone to believe me when I said it was real, then I might have been angry at her, as it was I was simply wired with fear and exhausted. “It’s a real nice place…well nice for this part of town. You will love my great great granny Iris, she runs this joint. It’s not even a whore house..I mean, not really….not for here. A large middle aged woman with arms like giant boiled hams, and a face that was more pillowy than defined, a clean white apron tied around her comfortable middle and a simple calico dress with pretty sprigs of pink flowers on a background of brown cotton, a shock of black curly hair poking out from a severely tied bonnet and a smile that could melt ice, opened the door and grabbed Sally in a bear hug. A thick Irish brogue came from her mouth. “Oh my darling! Sally! It’s Sally! Come in, come in! She grabbed me in a thick syrupy hug and stroked my hair. “Who is this one?’ She ran her hand over my shorn head. “You escaped from jail or something?” I allowed myself to be swept in on a wave of hospitality and maternal concern. “It will grow back, my darling. It will grow, you need some brewer’s yeast!” Iris fussed around, produced a bottle of whiskey from behind the bar and poured out three large slugs. “Hotalling’s best,” she announced. Nothing less for my Sally. Now, what is your friend’s name?” Without thinking I replied, “Wendy” and offered a limp handshake. Iris looked back at me puzzled. “What’s that you say? When-Dee? I never heard the like!” In some far reaches of my brain I dragged up the memory of a tiny fact my dearly departed mother had told me, about my name being coined for Peter Pan in the early 1900s, and only being a rare family name before that, and recoiled in horror. The dangers of time travel! “Miss Laura Wendy,” I continued. “W-e-n-d-y. I am a widow.” There. I had said it. The phrase I had failed to say in the last few years since The Accident. Iris made a clucking sound with her tongue, “Mining accident?” There was something about this now long dead woman, who was flesh and bone and alive instead of in some ghostly form that made it easier to speak. Everything was the same, yet everything was different. I could get used to the freedom of 1883. I took a sip of whiskey, and held onto Sally’s hand. “Carriage accident. My two children died as well.” Sally looked at me with a mixture of shock and pity, as Iris filled the cups up to the brim once more. “Holy Mary Mother of Jesus! The pity of it!” Iris took a long pull of amber liquid and grasped me to her bosom. “Such is the fate of many of us. Were you riding west? You look like you might have been heading out west not so long ago.” Sally started shaking her head at Iris in the kind of way women do when they are trying to warn another woman to back off from a particular line of questioning. Iris, got up from the stool and smoothed out her apron. “Will you girls be staying the night? I can go ask Clay to go and get the beds tidied up for you. You will have to share, but Sally will tell you, it is perfectly comfortable and warm upstairs. We don’t run a house of inequity here, do we Sally!” Sally looked at me and tipped her head to one side. “What do you say, Laura?” I don’t know what persuaded me, but sleep seemed like the only thing I wanted in the world. I nodded my head, and after another couple of shots was headed upstairs, with a story-book candle in my hand, and a freshly folded gigantic white nightdress on top of a leather bound bible in the other. Iris wouldn’t hear of my not accepting both of those things, and kept on making that quiet clucking sound like a particularly motherly barnyard hen.
Sally was already in the room, unpinning her hair and putting her earrings onto a dish on the dresser. The room was plain but clean, and the bed was enormous. Religious icons covered the walls, and a disturbingly explicit carved cross showing the crucified Jesus was nailed above the bed. The room was warm, and a fire had been freshly stoked. “Candle there on the dresser, we will blow it out shortly. Don’t worry, I live here in the ‘forward time’, we will wake up in my bedroom at home. Sally climbed into the bed, and I stood there stiffly. “Come on silly! I thought you were tired! We will talk all of it over in the morning over coffee and croissants.” With that, she grabbed my hand and pulled me onto the surprisingly softly plush mattress, and slid between the fresh white sheets. “Unfold that blanket, if you don’t mind!” I shook the blanket from its folds and laid it over her, undressed, blew out the candle and hopped in next to her. The bed was terribly high. Sally put her head on my shoulder and kissed me on the cheek. I slid my arm around her, and began to cry. “You cry if you need to, Wends. It has been shit,” (she crossed herself half mockingly, half in fear of Iris bursting into the room to hit her with a bible) but it is going to get better. We have each other now.” I lay very still, her head on my shoulder, her hand over my waist, until I could hear her gentle snoring, and soon felt myself drifting off into an inevitable and involuntary deep sleep.
I almost didn’t dare open my eyes when I woke up in the morning. I couldn’t feel Sally sleeping next to me, and the room was silent. A few distant voices broke through, but nothing to tell me whether or not I had returned to when I belonged.
Upon walking towards the noise I discovered that everything was how it should be. 2022, baby.
A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place
There is only so much to be said to a new friend who has dragged you into the past kicking and screaming, after watching a grotesque and lethal revenge tragedy unfold in front of me. All the world might be a stage, and us only the players on it, or some such theatrical jazz, but enough was quite enough. Enough shenanigans, enough passion plays, enough of all of it, and especially enough of Death. I could feel myself slide towards the big ditch, emotionally, mentally, physically, and none of it was going to be ok. None of it ever was. I spent the next two weeks eating valium and ignoring the ghosts of North Beach and their furtive moves and overwhelming demands. Brando had turned up and seeing I was deliberately looking right through him, simply went away again, his head hanging low. Sally called me a few times, and knocked on the front two twice, but I ignored her too. I threw myself into work, writing this little piece and that, sticking to the mundane, the surface world, the here and now, not the hereafter and what once was. There was nothing else for it.
Everything fades, everything dies, and that which is alive and vital and new and at the very edge of the universe, soon gets buried under it. Time is a flood that nothing can withstand. There is no high ground, there is no escape from the eternal carousel. Those painted animals and gaudy carriages go round and round, and the same music plays the same old tunes, strewing happiness and devastation in unequal quantities. The tantalizing possibility that time is, in fact crystalized, not set in stone, but existing somewhere, continuing, eternally happy, or sad or tortured, is too much to bear.
It is one thing to throw yourself upon the mercy of an unwritten future, but quite enough to be left to the mercy of the past. The past has no chill, it has no ability to have anything like mercy. It is what it is. Chaotic and neutral, or ordered and evil, or even scattered and diffused and left to be blown away on the wind. All that wasted time needs to be gathered, like so much dandelion fluff, and piled up to be plucked when it is needed. Time is indiscreet: there is always too much or not enough of it. I am either left bored and passing time, wasting it as if it is an infinite commodity, or else I am left scrabbling round for scraps of it, to see if I can patch together a single hour, a day, a night more of something that looks and feels bearable. I would that I could stretch out those perfect moments into something longer. Spin them into a thread that I could make last forever.
(….and this is as good a place to cut it off as any I suppose. I hope at least someone enjoyed reading my doomed exercise in trying to write a fiction novel! Not The End…but end-ish)….