“LET ME PRETEND to be generous,” I said, as we slid our trays up to the cashier. I forked over $15 for turkey sandwiches and coffees, pleased by how cheap it was, and that no tip was necessary, since we were in a cafeteria.
We took a seat at one of the tiered tables, overlooking the spacious ground floor. In Clifton’s cafeteria, with its streams, grottos and fake redwood trees, one could get a good cheap meal in uniquely enchanting surroundings and escape the madness outside for as long as one wanted. It served as a precious sanctuary for downtown dwellers, workers and scufflers. In the quarter of a century I’d been frequenting this establishment it hadn’t changed at all. It was comforting to know that it would always be there. But it was beginning to look as if its timeless and unhurried days might be numbered. After 75 years as a family-run business it had been bought by the sort of developers who delight in giving facelifts to venerable old downtown haunts in the name of preservation. I didn’t like the sound of it at all.
“They say they’re not going to change anything,” said my charming dining companion.
“They’re going to build a Tiki bar on the third floor, that should change it significantly.”
We ate self-consciously, engaging in our first and possibly last intimate act together. She waited until her mouth was sufficiently clear of food to speak.
“I’ve never been on the third floor,” she said.
“Why can’t they build their fucking Tiki bar somewhere else?” I said. “They can’t leave anything alone. Everywhere has to be turned into an imitation of itself and made accessible to the young people who are taking over. They wouldn’t be moving down here if the frontier hadn’t already been opened up. The pioneers have long been and gone.”
But I stopped myself, for fear of alienating her. After all, she’d just moved downtown herself and was living in a remodeled skid row hotel, working at a coffee house, and painting.
And what did I really care? I just wanted everything to stay the same, to bask in the diminishing radiance of perpetual decay. I took solace in it.
“They’re bringing in a new chef,” I said. “They’ll be serving the same sort of food, so they claim, but in smaller portions, which means higher prices. A whole new crowd will be flocking here, thinking that they’re having this ‘authentic’ experience, not realizing that it’s a version that’s been stripped of its authenticity. It’s all very tasteful, but I’m satisfied with meatloaf, canned peas and jello served on a brown fiberglass tray, not some haute version of comfort food.”
But I stopped myself again, running damage control against potentially rampaging bitterness. Maybe she wasn’t into that sort of thing.
“What can you do?” she said, having swallowed.
“Nothing, it’s the way of the world. Nobody cares. Nobody’s going to do anything. I’m not going to do anything.”
Then: silence. Which meant I had to keep volunteering information or firing off questions. But there was no flow, they hit a wall, and out of nervousness and a desire to impress, I rattled on.
“The last time I was here there was a toilet attendant in the men’s room.”
“It’s a strange job,” she said.
“It’s ridiculous to give somebody a dollar for handing you a paper towel.”
“I doubt anybody grows up wanting to be a toilet attendant,” she said.
We’d met at an art opening several days earlier. She had been standing at the time, attired in tight pants, and I had been riveted by the musculature of her legs; her whole body seemed to pulsate with sensuality. When we spoke, which happened quickly and naturally, there seemed to be an immediate connection, of which there was now little evidence.
Now she was wearing leggings and she was sitting down. I still couldn’t stop looking at her. If the conversation was stilted, I didn’t mind: I was comfortable with the silence. The apparent lack of curiosity, so typical of today’s young people, in her case seemed more a case of delicacy and reserve; she had a muted quality about her; but there was a weight to her vagueness, a presence behind the appearance of absence; and on this occasion I was grateful that she wasn’t asking questions: it meant that disconcerting admissions of age and failure needn’t be addressed.
“They’ve already knocked out a partition down there,” I said, referring to the bakery counter in the lobby, which was now clearly visible, no longer separated from the interior. “It’s unfortunate. There’s more light coming in.”
Out of the blue, she asked a question: “Do you have family?”
“They’re mostly dead. How about you?”
“Dead, or disappeared.”
This was encouraging. I tended to get along better with people from unhappy families.
“My father. I went looking for him. I put everything else on hold. I didn’t paint or write for a year.”
This was discouraging: women with absentee fathers were an unhappy category unto themselves.
“Poetry. A lot of it. I don’t care if it’s any good, I don’t show it to anybody.”
“The world would be a better place if more poets adopted that policy, not that the world would notice either way.”
She laughed. It was hard getting laughs out of her, and rewarding when they came, owing to their infrequency.
“Did you find him?”
“Yes, he was living in Wyoming with another woman, and I wasted a whole year of my life looking for him.”
“I’ve got you beat, I wasted ten years of my life.”
“On loose living. At least ten years. Well, I suppose it depends upon how you define waste.”
But she wasn’t interested in defining waste.
You could see them entering below, surveying the place with looks of wonder: newcomers, marveling at the decor. There would be more of them when the new management took over, with the shift to a younger clientele who would view this downtown institution as a bizarre novelty. Why did I resent them? Because I didn’t want everybody else sharing my pleasure in the places I held dear, that I had found on my own long ago. There were few enough such places left, and they were disappearing at an alarming rate.
We ate our sandwiches slowly, and after we finished them there didn’t seem to be much point sitting there anymore. She had never been on the third floor, so we removed the velvet rope at the bottom of the stairwell and walked up to that darkened area of empty tables and flock wallpaper known as the Red Room. This, presumably, was the future location of the Tiki bar, though there were no signs of construction yet.
I caught sight of myself in one of the full length mirrors. I didn’t look too bad: I could pass for forty.
We stopped at the wishing well on the way out, and admired the large faded back-lit photographs of California nature scenes: a feature that seemed unlikely to survive the change of ownership, as it possessed no conventional kitsch value.
Once out on the street, on a noisy, dreary afternoon, she suggested taking a walk. We headed west along 7th. I pointed towards a basement, once home to a cavernous Salvation Army store, and rued the fact that there were no more thrift stores left downtown, now that the Goodwill on Broadway had closed, a recent casualty of the real estate boom. I mentioned that I had once found a stack of Sun Ra records there. But this failed to impress her, as she had never heard of Sun Ra. I felt the divide that separated her hope from my hopelessness.
“There used to be loads of cafeterias around here,” I said. “There was one over there called Wayne’s.”
That would really date me, if she looked it up, but there was unlikely to be any record of it anywhere. Who remembered Wayne’s? I had never heard anybody mention it. I remembered the zigzag lettering on the plastic sign outside and the jukebox, upon which I repeatedly played George Strait’s ‘Amarillo by Morning.’ It was possible that she may never have even seen a jukebox with actual records on it.
A lot can change in a quarter of a century. It had taken a long time for the character of downtown to change, although it still looked much the same on the outside, the reverse of my dilemma. It was nice being able to come up with all these stories about the pure old days, but I didn’t want to have to admit to how old I was. I had to be at least 20 years older than her, but, thankfully, she wasn’t asking questions.
“Change doesn’t necessarily mean progress,” I said. “Some things peaked at a certain stage, and there’s no point building upon them. Architecture, clothes, automobile design should have been suspended decades ago. But architects and designers dictate otherwise. Take the Kindle, for example, a completely useless innovation. Can it really be considered an advance to be able to read a book on a flat shiny screen. Can you imagine, if the Kindle was the standard for reading and the book was suddenly invented: something tactile, pages that you could actually turn, with a jacket design. What a marvelous improvement it would seem. The Kindle is a gigantic step backwards.”
As we walked she became more talkative. I forget what she said.
“There used to be another Clifton’s right around here, the Silver Spoon,” I said, looking around for the sign. It had been up for a long time after the business closed but it must have finally been taken down and replaced by the sign for the Whiskey Bar, a young man’s reinvention of an old man’s bar, where the bartenders called themselves mixologists and far more brands of whiskey than anybody could ever need or name were available at inflated prices.
“Fifteen years ago,” I said — I had been about to say “twenty” but caught myself as fifteen still seemed reasonable. Then I changed it again: “Ten years ago,” I said, which was still realistic, “there was no drinking culture among young people on this side of town. Now the old so-called dives have all been turned into ersatz dives that cater to this ever-expanding population of young people who are learning how to drink, learning how to smoke, learning how to hold their cigarettes properly. The old people don’t have anywhere to call their own anymore.”
It occurred to me that I was one of them.
Since we were in the neighborhood I proposed that we visit a bar I had heard about that was situated in the rear of a modest old hotel on Flower Street. It was, apparently, only open in the afternoons. It was accessible through an entrance in the alley behind the hotel.
We had the entire place to ourselves. But then, three o’clock on a Monday afternoon isn’t exactly a peak hour.
“Let’s keep up the pretense of generosity,” I said. She ordered a Jameson on the rocks, and I seconded it. The portions could have been larger. I considered tipping the bartender only a dollar, but didn’t want to be thought cheap, and laid down two.
“I wonder how long it will be before they ruin this place,” she said, as we sat down in a curved Naugahyde booth in the large dark empty room. She seemed to be catching on.
“They can’t leave anything alone,” I said. “In this progressively more digital world, everything has been discovered, picked over and ruined. There’s a desperate hunger to unearth anything left that’s supposedly authentic, which isn’t much.”
The bartender had disappeared. The jukebox played songs at random at a pointlessly loud volume. ‘London Calling’ came on. “The Clash are my favorite band ever,” she said, moving in closer so that we could hear each other.
I could remember when that record came out, but I couldn’t tell her that: she might wonder what I’d been doing for the last thirty years. I could have regaled her with tales of my days in the punk trenches, first campaign, when as an idealistic adolescent I caught the Clash in their prime, but I held back. Of course, she might not know when their prime was, but that was a chance I didn’t want to take. It was a shame to have to sacrifice bragging rights on the pyre of vanity, pathetic really.
“I thought they shot their wad after their first record,” I said. Even introducing this much suggestion of sex into the conversation felt uneasily loaded, although that, obviously, was what I wanted from her, and presumably she can’t have entirely ruled out the possibility either, as she was prepared to spend her Monday afternoon sitting in a bar with me.
“That’s the problem with political bands,” I said, staring under the table at her remarkably firm thighs. “As soon as they become successful they lose touch with the conditions that gave rise to them. Their second albums always stink. It was the same with the Gang of Four.”
“I like them too,” she said. “But I came to them backwards, I guess I heard the newer stuff first.” She paused. “I suppose I should get going and prepare for the meeting.” She had already mentioned this early evening business meeting a couple of times.
“I love old hotel lobbies,” I said, as we exited through the lobby, and went on to mention the King Edward Hotel and its adjoining bar, the last of the old skid row joints.
“A friend of mine took me there,” she said. “When he went to the restroom a crackhead tried to kiss me and drag me outside.”
I wondered if she often had this effect on men, as I had felt like doing exactly the same thing when I met her. This afternoon, perhaps to my discredit, I had managed to restrain myself.
“I’ll give it six months before it gets taken over,” she said. “People in their twenties go there during art walk.”
So perhaps she wasn’t in her twenties any more. I wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“It’s inevitable,” I said. “It’s right around the corner from the gentrification area. The boundary keeps getting pushed back, now it’s Los Angeles Street.”
I remembered the days when one never saw a respectable civilian east of Broadway. All those late, unlamented, irreplaceable sties: Jack’s, Craby Joe’s, the Golden Torch — their like would never be seen again. There were no disreputable watering holes to slum in anymore.
We stood on the sidewalk, waiting for the light to change, apprehensive about jaywalking, now that fines had been quadrupled.
“I almost moved in there,” she said, as we passed the Hotel Bristol, a renovated fleabag above the Golden Gopher, a one-time wine dump that now catered to USC students. Unable to stop myself, I reeled out a story about how I used to visit an old man who lived there, whom I had met when he was sketching on the street. I used to bring him art supplies. This useful anecdote showcased my sensitivity, generosity and refined aesthetic judgement.
A familiar melancholy drifted faintly through me as we walked, the feeling that this was the last time, that my good fortune at still being able to occasionally attract the attention of desirable young women would have to run out soon, that this might be the last time, and I was going to blow it again.
My bicycle was chained to a pole outside Clifton’s. The difficult business of parting had to be dealt with. I weighed the options. The prospect of pushing the bicycle along beside her as we walked up the crowded sidewalk seemed potentially awkward, to somehow place me in a subordinate position. Alternatively, I could walk the two blocks with her to the street that she lived on and then walk back to the bicycle. But, as she pointed out, they were long blocks. Or we could simply part here, outside Clifton’s. I opted for the latter. I put as much feeling into our parting hug as I was capable of, but it was still lacking. I wasn’t much of a hugger. If the quality of my hug was used as a gauge to determine my aptitude in the sack, then I would surely be discounted.
This story doesn’t have an ending. Why should it? Nothing happened. I never saw her again.
All right, if you insist. Here:
Watching her walk away, that ass… disappearing.