The long walk downhill from the Tenderloin to North Beach is not the worst walk in the city. It is mostly downhill, and much of it, if not scenic, is at least good for watching people go about their little lives. I stopped at Café Trieste for my usual Americano, and as I stood outside, stashing my wallet in my backpack and wondering if I should have also got a cannoli, a man on a scooter glided along the sidewalk singing Maria. Maria…I just met a girl called Maria….and just as he announced that things would never be the same now that he heard her name, he pulled one foot up on the board of the scooter and glided sleekly towards me.
He sang freely and loudly, as if rehearsing for some big performance, his voice carrying in the clear afternoon air despite the sounds of the city trying to overwhelm it. The word Maria, carried off into the distance and bounced off the hard baked blacktop, glass fronted buildings, the people and their momentary embarrassment for him. It was then that I saw her, that everything changed in an instant. The hot coffee turned to ice in my hands. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I felt this urge to run and keep on running and never stop, yet I was rooted to the spot. A ghostly figure was trailing behind him. She was barely there, her almost-solid figure scattering black and grey sparks as she ran, her gold necklace that spelt out the name “Maria” whipping around her bent and broken neck as she chased him down Van Ness.
His Maria is a spirit in his wheels, a voice in the wind, a haint who longs to take the object of her affections back into her cold arms and keep him there forever. I see her trail after him, desperately trying to keep up with the singing man on his scooter. His Maria unpins her black braided hair and walks awkwardly, legs twisted as she moves disjointedly, hanging her limbs like rotten fruit on a tree, ripe far past the picking. His Maria will change his life, sure enough. Nothing will ever be the same, not now. She chases him doggedly as he glides and sings a love song to a name that once was hers. Maria: a name she will not let go of. I wondered if he was trying to remember her or else exorcize her; he didn’t even seem to see her. He didn’t hear the unequal beat of her dragging left foot, or the wail of her voice as the ghost of the big truck slammed its brakes on a little too late, every day at 3pm down Broadway.
The man scooted past me, as I pressed myself up against the wall of the old café not able to flee, failing to turn my head or shut my eyes. All that was left was to force myself through the dire inevitability of Maria scuttling past me, her twisted broken face and limbs propelling her along chasing the object of her desire, her need – the man singing her song.
Maria, unseen by the afternoon dreamers, the café sitters, the shoppers and the scoffers, the schemers and the North Beach haunters, slowed only slightly as she passed me. She was not quite in this world, nor completely of the one that lays beyond the veil. Her lolloping gait slowed a little, she twisted her head around unnaturally to see me better. The blood, black and ghostly
had clotted in her mouth and dried in her eyes. “Holy hell,” I whispered, but Maria didn’t hear me. Instead, she hissed in my face, furious in her untimely death, her long lovely youthful limbs broken and ghostly, keeping her remaining energy, her spirit moving in fits and starts. “Maria! I just met a girl named Maria!” The man sang clear as a bell, proclaiming his adoration for Maria for everyone around, whether they wanted to listen or not.
On a streetlight in front of the café a flyer fluttered at the edges in the San Franciscan breeze. “West Side Story. Am Dram production. Three Nights only. Tickets $5 at the door.”
His Maria did not know or care. I doubt he even knew her when she was still breathing, nor that he could see her now she was dead and gone. I wished I could not see her either, nor all the sad and lonely faces running through their clockwork patterns up and down the streets of North Beach reminding me of my eventual fate. They stared out of windows and went through the motions in the bars and strip joints of the old Barbary coast strip scene of historical debaucheries and present-day hustle and bustle. It was nothing more or less than a museum to its own fame and fortune and bohemian creativity that was imprinted into the stone and glass of the buildings.
Maria was different. Maria was fresher. She had not yet morphed into a ghost of a ghost of herself. The years had not burnt out her rage, nor seasoned her desolation. It would not be long before she would fall into step with the others, running through her own little rituals and program of daily mundanity. Perhaps the dead were not so much unlike the living after all.
Give her a few years and she will be just like me. Walking into coffee shops and pretending to embrace the things we loved when we were living and scared of the dead whose souls were still aflame and burning with life, while ours had become dulled and reduced as the decades ticked by. There was no way out that I could see. Not for any of us. We all get there in the end, ready or not, the Great Lessening is just waiting to embrace the souls in its meat grinder grip. We all turn dusty in the end.
I first met Lucinda on a late summer’s morning. She was sleeping outside my window with a whole raft of stuff and yelled every second that she did not have a crack pipe in her mouth. Her collection took up a good seven foot of sidewalk, blocking the front door and garage of the house next door. She had broken toys and filthy clothes, the contents of at least three trashcans all compacted to make a platform to sleep on, a traffic cone, twenty bags of her own excrement, and in her hand a fresh steaming hot cup of coffee from Café Trieste. It was strange to see this agent of chaos sit on the top of her mountain of filth and corruption enjoying a cup of Italian roast a fresh, crisp white take out cup.
Not even the dark roast could drown out the stench of feces and sweat, unwashed body and emptied out trashcans. I kept the windows closed and held my breath as I walked past her. It was not that I didn’t have compassion for her. It was not that I hated her because she had failed life, or at the very least life had failed her. It was not even that she stank, that I had to climb over mountains of used needles and shit to get into my own apartment, or that she demanded I give her my phone, my purse or my shopping every time I tried to get past her. It was that she didn’t let me sleep.
The shouting and screaming, the violent and high decibel conversations with people who were not there, and people who she attracted there, kept me awake and kept me from working. Every time I tried to settle down to concentrate, she would be yelling curses and threats that were impossible to block out.
At night it was worse. The tirades amped up into twelve hour long scream and threat headbanging performances. I would put the blankets up over my head and knock back a couple of drinks in the vain hope of sleeping, but I would never look outside. If she saw my face up in the window on the second floor, her head just below my window, she would launch into throwing filth up at my window. I called the cops: they didn’t care. I called homeless support teams to no avail. I tried everything I could think of.
Then one night I cracked. She was yelling about how she was going to fuck the devil, tear the legs off dogs and murder the next fucker that messed with her, as she spat and yelled and smashed everything around her. Still no cops came. I went to the window and opened it a crack. “Can you, for the love of all that is holy, just shut the fuck up!” I yelled down at her. Her head twisted round unnaturally as her attention was drawn my way. Her eyes were two black holes leading down to a black hole soul that I could almost see squirming and shifting in front of my eyes. “I want a cup of coffee,” she replied evenly. “I want a cup of Italian roast, no milk, no sugar…and an almond croissant.”
“I can do a cup of coffee and an apple turnover.” I replied, while some part of my primordial basic brain told me to close the window and never think of doing this again.
“Then that will just have to do.” She seemed to have decided to reach an entente that she could live with. I felt the vain hope that I might get some sleep.
“Just buzz me in, and I’ll come on up then!” She sounded almost cheery. I don’t know why I didn’t say no. I have no idea why I didn’t insist on taking it down to her with one hand on my pepper spray and my heart in my mouth. I don’t even know why, when she hovered by the door of my apartment rooms, that I said the words, “Please come in.” It felt as if I had no choice, as if something whose will was stronger than mine was putting the thoughts into my head and I had not enough will to repel them. The words that came out of my mouth were words I wanted to say, but I had no idea why I wanted to say them.
“Come on in.” I said again, more firmly this time, as if I wanted nothing more in the world than to have this terrifying woman-thing in my apartment. “If you insist,” she replied with a smile, and walked over the threshold. I led her down past my bedroom to the front room and put the coffee on to brew.
I turned around to find her standing in front of me with a smile on her face. “My name is Lucinda; it is so good to meet you.” She started to giggle. It was a laugh that provoked horror not amusement, a mocking taunting laugh. Her eyes were so dark, so enticing, I could not look away.
She grabbed my wrist and brought it to her mouth. My own words formed in my head. They told me to fight, to run, to hide, to leave and never return. The words told me to get out, get away, to not let her filthy mouth close over my skin and flesh and veins. Unfortunately, my body refused to respond.
It is not so bad really, living out here with Lucinda. Apart from the bloodlust, life really is not that different for the ultra-alive than it is for the normally living. We live, we laugh, we play tricks. We eat. We cry. Lucinda is a good mistress. I got lucky that she thought I made good coffee. I think that was the biggest surprise really, that I could still enjoy the taste of coffee, almost as much as the taste of blood.