It was April Fool's Day and an older blond in her late thirties had shown up at Vesuvio's Bar, down on Columbus and Broadway. From Australia, she said she had spent the previous two years as literary secretary for legendary anti-Vietnam War poet, John Irons. As the days and weeks passed, she became one of the regulars at our nightly North Beach watering holes, and it wasn't long before she was coming on hot and heavy to my friend and sidekick Alex, who at the time was being vociferously gay. The non-stop barrage of paradoxes this presented on a nightly basis, with this striking golden-haired blond from "down under" sitting at his side each night in Vesuvio's, hanging on his every word, was no end of amusement. There was Alex, going on and on like Mayakovsky in full voice and all manner of theatrics about this or that body, this or that bath house, and this or that blow job, and all the while we all knew this blond ex-Irons secretary was hotter for him than August in L.A..
The evening side-show of Jetta Islip and Alex went on for a period of weeks, becoming a daily source of both comic relief and black theatre, as Alex became embroiled in the crossfire of his own hormonal angst. His obsessions had thrown him into a state of over-stimulation, resulting in some of the best street theatre available in the city. Over wine and Irish whiskey, you could hear our howling until closing time up and down Columbus Avenue, all at the unfortunate expense of the Aussi blond who seemed to be impervious to our bawdy sarcasm and raucous late-night provocations.
One night amidst the usual theatrics, with a large group of us sitting at a small table near the front door of Vesuvio's bar, I suddenly felt bare feet moving up and down the sides of my boots, then up and down my straight-legged jeans. Surprised, and not knowing from where this display of affection was coming, and looking up from my drink, I found myself looking right into the big blue eyes of Jetta Islip, who was sipping her drink from a straw with a Cheshire smile as if she were enjoying a joke she was privately having with herself. When I looked over at her for a second time, she was looking right into my eyes. The mischievous grin had gone and had been replaced with a look of conniving seriousness, so focused and direct it sent shivers down my spine and at the same time a sharp heat into my bowels. The testosteronic thoughts that raced through my mind, at light speed, in those first few seconds I wouldn't have been able to begin to put down on paper. But suffice it to say that if her intentions had been to get my attention, she had succeeded. Yet, the ramifications of this covert conversation sans mots were as troubling as they were alluring. While I knew by the burning behind the zipper in my jeans that we were of like mind, the price of that skin-fed collusion was a risky one. It was only as we all walked out into the street after the lights had gone off in the bar behind us at closing time, and she asked me if she could give me a ride home, that I knew that the die had been cast. I knew because I was saying "yes," and she was already moving toward her car.
This was Trouble with a capital T. I knew it as she drove me down Columbus Avenue to my seventy-bucks-a-month hotel--a den of iniquity and residence for the down-and-out of North Beach: junkies, hookers, and old bikers who had lost their wheels. As she drove up and parked along the side street by the hotel, the sexual tension on the inside of the car was so dense I thought it would explode--like too much air in a blue balloon.
"Is there something you want to ask me?" she said, bursting the silent tension as she pulled up to the curb and put the gear shift in park. It was like someone reaching down my throat and pulling the words up out of the pit of my stomach: "I'd like to get to know you better," I said with almost no hesitation. And just as quickly she came back with: "If you're not too tired, I can come in for a little while."
The next thing I knew, we were in our birthday suits rolling around on what had passed for the past several months as a bed. This wasn't sex, this was a kind of feral football, horizontal hopscotch, a hormonal fox-hunt... Even though it was my bed, this was her turf. And the woods were on fire!
After the flames finally died down, and after she had left, I lay there in my room for a long while in a physical state of stunned reverie; yet my mind could hold on to only one word: trouble. I knew that there would be hell to pay.
Jetta made no attempt at hiding from me the fact that she was a private investigator, as I pried into her life, lying there a week later in her bed, in her house on Portrero Hill. The lure of wild sex with my first older woman was more than I could resist, and I think she sensed that as, in the days that followed our first encounter, we were spending more and more of our time in bed. Her bed. And the fact that she led such a covert life only added more fuel to my hormonal fire, already raging out of control.
Just as I had imagined, my unchecked indulgence had caused a jealous reaction in Alex, and within a matter of days Jetta had driven a wedge between me and the rest of the group. It was as if I had suddenly been transmogrified into some sort of snitch and was no longer worthy of trust, much less their attention or their time. It became painfully evident, also, that artistic relationships are easily as fickle as the domestic kind, and I was learning this lesson the hard way. But my sexual chakra still had a tight reign on my priorities, and for the time being I wasn't going anywhere that was very far away from this woman's bed!
It wasn't long before I was going along with her on "stake outs" as part of her PI work and our dates. A sort of intern/assistant I became as I found that I enjoyed, immensely, the element of deception and the undercover tension involved in digging up dirt for her clients--which usually meant spying either on cheating husbands or their cuckolding wives. In this intern's ruse, I became a census taker, a pizza delivery boy delivering pizza to the wrong address, an encyclopedia salesman down on his luck, the Fuller brush man, a heavy-breathing telephone deviant, a hidden-tape-carrying 7th Day Adventist, or just the "get away man" sitting on pins and needles in an idling parked car a little ways down the block.
Having, it seemed, no real sense of self-preservation, this edgy business of private investigating was like a game from childhood. And like the young boy who had dreamed of running away from home to join the circus, this was better than being in the center ring! "Being paid to be a peeping-tom!" I would think as I sat in the dark behind the wheel of her idling little red car, feeling proud of myself. Not at all suspecting that, all the while, the one really being watched, was me.
I was sitting in the Trieste Cafe, as was my habit most mornings during those years in North Beach, when I heard the phone ring over the rolling waves of conversation in a rather large room. I looked up from my au lait and saw Giuseppe waving the phone high in the air from behind a counter stacked with sheaves of warm brioche, croissants and sticky buns. In his Sicilian attempts at speaking American, Giuseppe was shouting at the top of his lungs, Tomma, Tomma, teleephoneaa. Where you? Teleephoneaa. Tomma. Tomma... It was Jet, calling me from Los Angeles where she was working on one of her domestic cases. She had been gone, now, for over a week, supposedly digging up dirt on some rich guy's adulterous wife. During this time I had spent a great deal of time digging up her fenced-in backyard making it into a landscaped garden--in anticipation of moving in and beginning a projected long life of cohabitational bliss.
By this time, more than a couple months had gone by since I had begun my treasonous turncoat affair with Jet, and Alex had forgiven me, largely due to Jetta's personal intervention and the fact that he was now deep in the midst of a potentially felonious affair with a fifteen-year-old from Chinatown. So, we were all just one big happy family again with Jet and me being accepted back into the cadre and hanging out together with the group in the bars until closing time each night.
"Iiaammeh Pphrroignaamnt," I heard her say as I took the phone from Giuseppe. The connection was bad, and I couldn't make out what she was saying. I understood "This is Jet." And "I'm in L.A." But the next sentence, which she repeated at least three or four times, came across to me, standing there behind the counter of the Trieste with the espresso machine hissing like the brakes of a side-railed train, like inaudible Swahili. "Iiaammeh Pphrroignaamnt," she said for the fifth time. And again I answered, "What?" Then for an eerie second, everyone's conversation seemed to stop at once, while, simultaneously, the room took a long sip from a collective coffee cup. It was just enough time for me to hear her this time. "I'm pregnant!" she said very calmly, but with a certain impatience in her voice. "I'm pregnant and I'm going to have an abortion. I thought you would want to know." "Pregnant? Abortion? What are you talking about," I answered, as my knees began to buckle beneath the weight of the phone and I felt myself slowly being eaten by the floor. "Abortion? Let's talk about this," is all I could manage. Then the noise in the room started up again, reaching crescendo within a few seconds, and again I was struggling, both to hear what she was saying and to keep my stomach out of my throat where it had lodged itself rendering me mute.
I think the next sixty seconds was spent with Jetta carrying on an angry feminist harangue against men in general and me in particular. My pleas for a forum and my forced attempts to be understanding were of no use. Her mind was made up. Somehow in the midst of this impossible conversation I had become the "bad guy," and the tone of her voice, even though I could barely hear it, was anything but needy. She was not reaching out to me for comfort, she was merely delivering the bad news. This news was like a knife. And on the other end of the phone, she was twisting it deeper and deeper into my chest.
I knew she was supposed to be back in San Francisco by the end of that week, and when the end of a week spent wracked with the pain of uncertainty finally came, I called her at home. She went on and on about how there had been unpleasant complications in the abortion procedure and that she was resting at home to try and heal up from the whole ordeal. "Doctor's orders," she said. My offers of support to come over and be of some help during her recuperation were met with a kind of checked hostility. "No," she said, "I don't want any company. You've done enough already. I can get through this alone. I'll call you when I want to see you. Goodbye." Standing there in that phone booth on Grant Avenue, my uncertainty began turning into guilt. The knife in my chest had turned into a guillotine, and a sharp blade was falling down from the land of love toward my neck.
In the days and weeks that quickly followed, I sent flowers, wrote letters, and tried numerous times to get through to her by phone. No one ever answered. To the letters there was no reply. My guilt was growing. My heart was little more, now, than a gaping wound. It was Sunday, and I made my way over to Vallejo Street and jumped the first cable car that came by, to get to Portrero Hill.
It was a gray day in early fall. Grey like the steps leading up from the sidewalk to the front door of her bright red house. A bright red house with a garden in the back, growing, which I had never seen. The front door was open. I knocked, rang the bell once or twice, then called out her name, listening to the word "Jet" echo and bounce around the rooms in the back of the house. No one answered. No one came to the door. Desperate, and with my good southern manners used up from weeks of silence and torturous waiting, I opened the screen door and went in. I walked quickly to the back of the house and the door leading out into the garden that I had tilled, landscaped and planted several weeks before, thinking I would find her there with her large red dog amidst flower beds, tasseling corn, full-grown tomato plants and hearty beds of spinach. But although the corn, tomatoes and the rest of the garden was there as I had pictured it, looking beautiful if a little unkempt, there was no sign of a convalescing Jet, with dog, anywhere to be seen.
After calling out her name again several times with accompanying "hellos," I made my way back through the house toward the front door. As I passed by the bedroom where we had spent so much of our time in the months prior to her exit for L.A., I looked half-heartedly into the room from the hallway for any signs of my former presence--flowers, open letters on a nightstand, a love poem framed on the wall above the bed. Instead of any of these might-have-been mementos, there in the middle of the floor was a large suitcase, opened up and spilling out clothes. After weeks and months of playing Watson to her Sherlock Holmes, I couldn't resist the temptation of going into the room and looking closer at the yawning suitcase stuffed with tell-tale goods.
The first thing I noticed was a pair of oversized black shoes. This was a man's suitcase! And amidst the white shirts and ties, the undershirts and shaving kit, there were a number of technological devices, some of which I recognized from my under-cover excursions with Jet. There was a mini-cassette recording device, mini-cameras, small hi-tech, pencil-sized flashlights and a number of other small black boxes containing equipment with which I was unfamiliar. Beside all the electronic paraphernalia, there were file folders stuffed with papers, and a manila folder which looked to be full of photographs. I couldn't stand it. A large man, with a suitcase full of surveillance equipment was staying there in her house. And was camped out in her bedroom. With her?
I went for the file folder first. Materials lists. Formal forms filled out in detail. Pages stamped "Confidential." Lists of names. All this in the first folder. I was attracted, for some reason, to the names lists, and so picked one up at random and began scanning it from the top. Five names into the list, I began to recognize familiar names. First, some that were just vaguely familiar. The names of a few people I knew only casually whom I had possibly met at gallery openings, or by chance in various cafes and bars around the Bay Area. Then , about halfway down...the word BEATITUDE, in all bold letters, leapt up off the page and hit me right between the eyes with a roundhouse right hook! Right under the word BEATITUDE in all caps, there was Alex's name. And under Alex's, mine! And after my name, the names of all the members of our literary group, as well as the names of ten or twenty of my closest friends and associates in and around North Beach. But the list didn't stop there. It included names of people I knew intimately or knew of--well known writers, artists, activists, politicians, magazine and newspaper editors, film and televison actors. A virtual Who's Who of the northern California counter-culture.
A cold chill ran up my back as I reached down into the suitcase and fished out another file filled with formal paperwork. I began reading the page which sat on top of the sheaf from the file. It was a surveillance report done at a recent rally I had organized and MC'd in Union Square for a nuclear safeguards initiative called Proposition 15. Speakers from California state government as well as a high profile list of poets had taken part in this large rally in downtown San Francisco to call attention to and solicit support for this nuclear industry safety initiative. The report in my hands was a detailed account of the event, including a list of names of speakers as well as others in attendance... I scanned through the other report forms in the file. More of the same. Literary events. Parties. Demonstrations. Publications. In all, the whole file looked like what I would have expected to find in locked boxes at CIA Headquarters in Washington, DC. My face was turning red, and I was feeling a little faint as I picked up the manila folder with the photographs. There I was, in the first one, sitting around a table in Vesuvio's with six or eight of my closest friends and associates. Then, there were photos of all the events referenced in the "Reports" files. And finally, pictures of me in various states of undress taken right there in the very room I was standing at the moment--in Jet's house on Portrero Hill. I had seen enough!
I left in what might be described as a "blind rush." As I all but ran down Portrero Hill toward the nearest cable car stop, the whole picture began to form in my mind. And the picture was very clear. Jet was not just a "private investigator" making a living doing surveillance for wealthy businessmen or rich young heiresses. She was a full-blown Double Agent, and had been spying on me! On us. On the whole San Francisco literary scene. Having no doubt been sent there by the FBI or CIA to infiltrate the political arm of the renaissance and to get the goods, as it were, on who was involved and just what it was that was going on.
Suddenly the events of the past few months made perfect sense. Her sudden appearance. Her sexual aggressiveness toward both Alex and myself. The phone call from L.A.. The false pregnancy. Her disappearance from my life... For several months I had been the target of an undercover investigative operation orchestrated by a major covert, agency. And at times probably, even though unknowingly, helping out!
I aged a lot during that summer and fall. And it wasn't until several weeks after my Portrero Hill discovery that I saw Jetta again. She walked into Vesuvio's late one Friday night, quite drunk, on the arm of a woman quite a bit younger than herself--pretty, but looking very "butch." They both sat down at the table near the door where I was seated, as usual, with six or seven North Beach poets and publishers. Discomfort doesn't begin to describe what my body was going through as she and her friend sat down and ordered a hot coffee and whiskey drink from the on-duty waitress. The next thing I remember was that hot drink coming at me from across the table, separated from its ceramic cup, uniting with my bearded face. I sat there in relative shock for several seconds, with the coffee, Irish whiskey and cream dripping from my eyes and beard. As much as I wanted to pick up the nearest glass of liquid, and any liquid would have done, and respond in kind, I refrained. Instead, and much to my surprise and perhaps, naively, to my credit, I turned the other cheek to catch the second cup of hot whiskey drink aimed at my chest.
"The first one's for the pain I had to go through, and the second one's for the baby you killed," she said, with a kind of fiery femi-nazi anger in her eyes. Everyone at the table just sitting there in a state of surprised disbelief.
I had long since explained to everyone what I had discovered sitting in Jetta's bedroom floor that gray Sunday weeks before. So they knew where that hot whiskey missile that caught me flush in the face was coming from. And my ability to suppress any macho male impulses and reciprocate by duplicating her staged anger had earned me a few brownie points in the process.
From across the table and through the large glass window in the bar, I watched as Jet
walked up Columbus Avenue with her friend, arm-in-arm, toward Broadway and into the
heart of North Beach. It was 2 o'clock, and the lights were going off and on in Vesuvio's
signaling "last call" for drinks. We ordered a quick and final vin rouge, all around, before
making our way out onto Columbus Avenue--still bustling with typical late-night traffic--
and up Grant Avenue toward home. I never saw the Aussie blond again.
THOMAS RAIN CROWE Tuckaseegee, NC was born in 1949 and is an internationally published and recognized poet, translator, editor, publisher, recording artist and author of twelve books of original and translated works. During the 1970s he lived abroad in France, then returned to the U.S. to become editor of Beatitude magazine and press in San Francisco and one of the "Baby Beats" and where he was co-founder and Director of the San Francisco International Poetry Festival. In the 1980s, after returning to his boyhood home in North Carolina, he was a founding editor of Katuah Journal: A Bioregional Journal of the Southern Appalachians and founded New Native Press. In 1994 he founded Fern Hill Records (a recording label devoted exclusively to the collaboration of poetry and music). Almost immediately, he formed his spoken-word and music band Thomas Rain Crowe & The Boatrockers--who have performed widely and produced two CDs that have garnered acclaim by the likes of Pete Townshend of The Who and Joy Harjo. In 1998 his books The Laugharne Poems (which was written at the Dylan Thomas Boat House in Laugharne, Wales during the summers of 1993 and 1995 with the permission of the Welsh government) was published in Wales by Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.In the same year, his ground-breaking anthology of contemporary Celtic language poets Writing The Wind: A Celtic Resurgence (The New Celtic Poetry) that includes poetry in Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Cornish and Manx was published in the U.S. and launched in Dublin, Ireland in 1997, and his first volume of translations of the poems of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz, In Wineseller's Street, was released. As a translator he has translated the work of Yvan Goll (10,000 Dawns, White Pine Press, 2004), Guillevic, Hughes-Alain Dal (Why I Am A Monster, Tarabuste Editions, France, 2006), Marc Ichall and Hafiz. In 2002 a second volume of his translations of Hafiz (Drunk on the Wine of the Beloved: 100 Poems of Hafiz) was published by Shambhala. For six years he was Editor-at-Large for the Asheville Poetry Review. His memoir in the style of Thoreau's Walden based on four years of self-sufficient living in a wilderness environment in the woods of western North Carolina from 1979 to 1982 (Zoro's Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods) was published by the University of Georgia Press in the spring of 2005, and is the winner of the 2005 Ragan Award as the best book of nonfiction in the state of North Carolina, the Philip Reed Award for environmental writing from the Southern Environmental Law Center, and was a finalist in the Independent Publishers Book Awards for Regional Non-fiction. He currently resides in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, where he writes features and columns on culture, community and the environment for the Smoky Mountain News. His literary archives have been purchased by and are collected at the Duke University Special Collections Library in Durham, North Carolina.
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