HE IDEA WAS TO LOOK FOR A JOB, and I did, for a little while. I put on my good jacket, stuffed some resumes in my bag and hit a couple of the bookstores in the city, the few that were still around. I didn't know how to do anything other than work in a bookstore, and I barely knew how to do that. No one was hiring, of course, and no one gave me any reason to hope that they would be anytime soon.
I quickly grew tired of it and paused at a taqueria on Polk Street. I bought a beer and sat at one of the plastic sidewalk tables and watched the people walk up and down. I pulled my notebook from my pocket and jotted down some phrases and halfheartedly worked at a few poems. After a second beer I decided to move on. I was walking on Bush Street and realized I was heading in the direction of Ellen's place. I looked at my watch and wondered if she'd be home. I bought a cheap bottle of red wine at a corner store and walked across the street to her building.
It was famous for being a hangout of the beat poets back in the day.
I wasn't sure of Ellen's apartment number. I looked at the directory but didn't see her name. Most of the names were missing or outdated. I tried 307 and a man's voice told me to fuck off. I tried 309 next and eventually heard Ellen's voice asking, what? I told her it was me and she buzzed me in. I was scared of the elevator in the old building and walked up the three flights of stairs to Ellen's apartment. Her door was slightly ajar, the sounds of an old Johnny Cash record drifting out into the hallway. I knocked on the door and then pushed it open enough to get inside.
Ellen was in the middle of her studio apartment working on a large painting. The canvas was on the floor and she was crouched above it. Her apartment was small and messy, strewn with art supplies, clothes, empty bottles, filled ashtrays, records, and cassette tapes. The ragged mattress that she slept on took up about a third of the room. Ellen spread some yellow paint on the canvas and looked over at me.
"Hey," she said.
"Am I bugging you?"
"Naw. What are you doing?"
"Looking for a job."
"Ah. Have a seat."
I sat down on a wobbly red chair in the corner and opened my wine with the little corkscrew on my keychain. "Do you have a glass?" I asked.
"Wine's for poets and pussies," Ellen said.
"I am both of those," I said.
"Right." Ellen went to the little kitchen area and opened some cabinets. She came out with a glass for me and a pint of Bushmills for herself. I poured myself a glass of the wine and she went back to her painting. Ellen was a painter as well as a poet. A lot of poets I knew liked to say they were painters, but Ellen actually had talent and sold her stuff from time to time.
"You working tonight?" I asked.
Ellen worked three nights a week at the Lusty Lady, a North Beach nudie club, one of the better ones. "Did you hear about David Schiller?"
"No, what?" David Schiller was also a poet. He'd been part of the North Beach scene for years and ran a weekly open mic reading at a cafe on Pacific St. when he wasn't in jail or just simply lost somewhere.
"A couple of days ago he exposed himself to some girls on a bus."
"Yeah, he said it was a part of the poem he was reciting. But they arrested him anyway."
"No reading this week, then?"
"I guess not."
I sat in the ragged chair, drank my wine and watched Ellen paint. Her stuff was pretty good, at least I guessed it was. I was never sure exactly what it was all about, but it usually gave me a good feeling. I sometimes thought about pursuing the visual arts myself, but then I thought about buying the supplies and the brushes and all and it seemed too much work and trouble.
"Put on some more music," Ellen said after the room had been quiet for a few minutes. I got up and went over to her turntable, removed the Johnny Cash record and returned it to its sleeve. I browsed through the randomly arranged records on her bookshelf and put on a Tom Waits album. I looked through some of her books and then stood by the large window that looked down on Bush St. A man and a woman stood on the sidewalk arguing. I guessed it to be a whore and her pimp. The man had a cane and the woman was drinking something from a bottle inside a paper bag. The man slapped the bottle from her hands into the gutter and I watched the contents spill out. The woman cried.
The Lives of The Poets continues...