The Tenderloin

FROM South Of Broad by Pat Conroy

Sunday falls upon us not as a day of rest but one of drowsy, melancholy, or, at best, enforced leisure. Since I was a child, God’s day has felt anxiety-fraught; the Sunday afternoon willies always leave a handprint on the middle of my stomach. I go to an early Mass and get back to a household gathered around the breakfast table. Opening the Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, we turn to Herb Caen’s column and read his piece, “The Queen of Sheba.” He is as good as his word, and his whole column praises the heroic efforts of the sex goddess Sheba Poe to locate her twin brother, Trevor, who has disappeared into that stricken underground world of AIDS.

Sheba opens a huge package of circulars that had arrived from L.A., featuring a photograph of Trevor in his dazzling prime that touches me to the core. “I hired a Boy Scout troop to put these up all over town,” Sheba says. “It’s a beautiful photograph. He looks just like me, don’t you think?”

Outside the limo driver honks three times. “Murray is going to ride us over to Powell Street,” I say.

“Why don’t we just stay around here and get drunk by the pool?” Sheba asks. “I hate when the Toad makes us go on field trips.”

“It’ll be interesting,” I promise.

“What’s on Powell Street?” Fraser asks.

“A surprise,” I say, “but one I promise you’ll like.”

On Powell Street, Murray rolls his eyes when he hears I am forcing my friends to take a cable car ride through the city to Fisherman’s Wharf. I think there might be a mutiny among my friends, who groan as they depart the luxurious limo and join a crowd of camera-laden tourists awaiting the arrival of the next cable car. In the storming of the cable car, I barely make it onboard, grabbing on to a back railing and hanging on for sweet life. The crowd is high-spirited as our car labors up the hillside. When we reach the summit of Powell Street, I look out toward the white-capped bay alive with the pretty slippage of sailboats and yachts. But I feel an uncomfortable danger when I realize that I do not have enough room to change hands or find purchase with my dangling right foot on the step I balance on. It is only after we pass through Chinatown, which smells like wonton soup and soy sauce and egg rolls, and begin a headlong dive toward the bay, that I have fears of my bright idea of a cable car ride turning life-threatening.

In the middle of the steepest lunge back down the hill, with the cable still humming beneath the streets like some living thing, I hear a woman’s voice screaming out in fury. Even worse, I recognize the voice: “Get your goddamn hand out of my purse, you smelly son of a bitch!”

The crowd, the gripman, the conductor, and I all freeze. She screams again: “Are you deaf, you worthless bastard? I told you to get your goddamn hand out of my purse and drop my goddamn wallet. Quit pretending you don’t know who I’m talking to, bozo. Let me be more specific: get your goddamn black hand out of my purse. That narrow it down enough, asshole?”

Sheba Poe’s voice is as unmistakable as any in movie history—breathy, sultry, iconic, and, at this disturbing moment, unstrung. When the cable car reaches the next intersection, almost every rider leaps off, sprinting in all directions in helter-skelter flight from the drama Sheba has unleashed. The passengers who remain onboard have known one another since high school, except for the largest black man I’ve ever seen: wild-haired, frantic, six feet five inches tall, three hundred pounds.

“Little woman,” he says to Sheba, his voice gently controlled, considering the circumstances, “you gonna get yourself hurt if you don’t hush your mouth and lower your voice. I can’t get my hand out of your purse because you got it so tight around my wrist.”

“Let go of my goddamned wallet and I’ll loosen the purse, you smelly black son of a bitch.”

“I’d lose the references to smell and color,” Molly suggests in a soft Charleston accent.

“Uh-oh,” the big man says, emboldened. “I believe I found me some cracker-girls a long way from home. You cracker-girls could get hurt when I pull a knife out of my pocket, which is what I’m about to do to improve Miss Goldilocks’s manners.”


Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 10:23 PM  Leave a Comment  

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