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Road Noise




  Staccato flurries of noise ricochet off the walls — two drunks from the bar lighting off thousands of firecrackers at the front door, packs at a time. The whole place is thick with the smoke and smell of gunpowder as this has been going on for hours already. The smell is so strong it overpowers the normal Chinatown aroma of fish and incense. Red scraps of paper shrapnel from the exploded firecrackers cover the sidewalk, the floor, the bar, and the top glass of the pinball machine. Red paper is everywhere, like an ugly worn carpet.
  The noise of the explosions mixes with the surreal song of a Chinese violin issuing from the jukebox and with pinball bells and dings as Brian negotiates the traps and bumpers to rack up another free play.
   Unlike a lot of businesses in Chinatown, especially on Grant Avenue, this place doesn’t cater to the tourist trade. It’s not a tourist bar. Actually, I’m not sure whose bar it is. I’ve never seen more than maybe ten people in here at a time. And with the booths in the back and all, the capacity’s gotta be around 100. Chinese clientele primarily. A few non. Locals mostly, workers, thick rough hands and sweatstained shirts.
   And the place is old, a lot older than my nearly forty years. Since it opened I doubt it’s ever been remodeled, or even seriously cleaned. I remember walking by as a kid, looking in the open doors and thinking it looked gloomy and forbidding, yet magical and compelling. Forever the fascination of Chinatown.
   Outside, typical San Francisco — gray and moist. But no matter the temperature or weather, like always, the front doors are propped wide open. Like a television screen, it lets me watch all the activity, locals rushing about shopping or socializing on the sidewalk, police on the beat, and the tourists drifting by. They rarely stop in. If they do it’s always brief.
   It’s going from damp to a steady drizzle. The perfect kind of day to sit here and let the afternoon slip gently by.
   The perpetually open doors allow a dim gray light to seep in. But it does little to brighten the room. No direct sunlight ever hits this side of the street. And no windows. Even at noon on a sunny day the place feels dark and pleasantly melancholy.
   A huge silk lantern hangs from the ceiling. But its aged delicate skin is now spoiled by enormous holes that reveal the single bare bulb burning weakly inside, like blue veins ghosting through geriatric flesh. The former bright red of the silk has faded to weak dirty pink that carries washed out designs of once mighty dragons and fu dogs. The only battles they fight anymore are those lost to the dark water stains overtaking them from all sides.
   The room hovers in a faded glow of mute light — weak red from all the silk and paper lanterns. Always on, there’s a television over the bar. Today it’s tuned to some kind of Chinese newscast nobody’s watching. A red cave-like shrine fills the corner — Golden Buddha sits inside looking serene and well fed, with candles and incense burning all round him. And on the long wall, strategically situated among the glasses and liquor bottles, is a dwarfish figurine of Li Po. The great Tang poet wears his customary jug-wine, toothy smile under his long, drooping mustache, and I imagine his spirit is somehow pleased that a commercial dispensary of alcohol carries his name, whether or not 99% of the clientele has any idea who he was.
   Tommy’s leaning over the bar reading a newspaper, ignoring the T.V., the firecracker explosions, the activity outside, and us, except when we ask for another round. And $500 says Tommy isn’t his real name, but that’s how he introduces himself, at least to those who don’t speak Chinese. He’s courteous to us, but not friendly. Fine with me. I don’t come here for conversation. The initial draw was the irony of its being named for an alcoholic poet, a poet, most of whose best work is about being drunk.


With wine I sit
absent to Night, till
(Fallen petals
in folds of my gown)

I stagger up
to stalk to brook’s moon:
The birds are gone
and people are few!


  And since the place is usually empty and the front door always open, the air is surprisingly smoke-free, breathable. But mostly, except for Chinese New Year, Li Po is unusually quiet.

  The day slips by. First day of this year of the Dog, 4692.

  Maybe that’s it — the primordial psychological currency of a new year, Chinese or otherwise. Eliades’s eternal return. The powerful notion that with the simple flip of a calendar page comes the possibility of a metamorphosis.

  Still at the Captain America pinball machine, over his shoulder, Brian offers, “Time for something heroic.”
   Brian. Professor Emeritus Taylor. Along with a tendency to speak in wonderfully poetic, as well as cryptic and obscure analogies whenever he expounds on any topic even remotely philosophical, his skill at pinball is legendary.
   He’s able to carry on conversations, order drinks from the bar, and watch the foot traffic go by on Grant Avenue while still maintaining perfect pinball concentration and dexterity. Fifteen minutes sometimes to exhaust all the possibilities of a single ball. He works the machine until he gets bored, then leaves all the free plays for the less gifted to squander.
  “. . . . Like Alexander climbing that ladder at Jalalpur, or his victory at Gaugamela. . .handsome Achilles avenging Patroclus on the Trojan Plain. You know, Heroic.
  “Besides, the decision’s already been made. Whether you know it or not, everything’s been already decided”
   Maybe he’s right. Lately I’ve been thinking of it as a kind of existential critical mass — a coincidental conspiracy of circumstances.
   By themselves no one of the circumstances would have the power to overcome the inertia that has descended upon my life, everything would remain as it is — at rest, stagnant. But as a united force they are an unassailable reality compelling me toward change, substantial change. A simple variation on a now contemptuously familiar theme won’t do.
   And to the degree it’s all been already decided, I suppose the process began many months ago on the loading docks at Dean’s. The job had become unbearably predictable, tedious. Some days I never left the yard. My entire morning and afternoon would be spent pulling trailers out of the docks, putting trailers in the docks, moving wagons from the load line to the empty line, or even more stimulating, shuffling pallets from one dock to another — mile and a half in a ten hour day.
   And hanging around those docks all day I used to watch the England trucks pull in to bring us their freight. I’d stand there and imagine all the places those trucks, those drivers, had been in the time I’d been nowhere. And as though my imagination weren’t pain enough, the sticker on the doors of each England trailer taunted me with the promise that with one phone call, I too could “Be part of the England team,” rolling thousands upon thousands of miles, earning “Top Dollar”.
   And I certainly wasn’t making any money at Dean’s, or at least not enough. I ended each of my weeks just as the last, broke.
   Romantic life was similarly frustrating and unrewarding. All the women had suddenly disappeared from, or abandoned my life — usually with good reason.
   And predictably, along with the professional, financial, and romantic difficulties came a constricted social existence. If, like the endlessly reiterated expeditions of deer, cattle, or other herd animals, the courses I followed down Russian Hill each day of my life left so many observable trails, there would’ve been only two. In a city as rich and interesting as San Francisco my movements had become restricted to a single pair of equally worn paths. One I followed to Hunters Point for work. The other took me to Grant Avenue toward Li Po and the Saloon.
   Hell, it wouldn’t have been so bad if I’d just gotten more time on Grant. But, like the rest of the laboring class, I lived for the weekend: five to get two.
   Eventually, having reached that critical moment, I gave notice on my apartment, said good-bye to everyone at Dean’s, and took Chigiy up on an offer to stay at her place while I contemplate my next move. Money’s nearly gone now, overwhelming restlessness has set in, and it’s time to. . .go.
   So sitting here studying the shiny ceramic likeness of Li Po, the itinerant, the wanderer begging his existence and turning the struggle and adventure into poetry, that number keeps flashing in my dark mind with annoying, red neon brilliance: “1-800-453-8400” — Travel, Adventure, Escape.

   The time it takes to exhaust the possibilities of a couple more pinballs passes. Brian turns and sits on the stool next to mine. Without looking at me he orders another round. A long gulping pull on the bottle then, with shrugged shoulders and raised eyebrows, to me, “So — what shall be your manner of heroism?”
   After a moment of reflection I walk over to the pay phone on the opposite wall. I’d memorized the number as, one after the other, the England trucks would back into the dock at the Egbert Street yard. The big sticker on the back of each trailer, “Drivers needed. Call Now — 1-800-453-blah, blah, blah.” Toward the end, each time, I’d recommit the number to memory, tell myself it was the way out.
   I pick up the phone and dial. A cheerful answer, “Good afternoon. C.R.     England.” As in C.R. England and Sons, Salt Lake City, Utah. One of the largest “Over the Road” trucking companies in the country.
   Amid the noise of pinball bells and exploding firecrackers, I’m connected with a woman in recruiting named Ursula. I describe my work history and personal predicament, attempting an explanation of critical mass, then emphatically declare that I’m ready to head for Salt Lake. She wants to send me an application. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or address. I’d really like to work for your company, but if it can’t happen immediately, I’m gonna have to get another local job.” “Well, ah. . .I don’t know. We’re always looking for drivers like you, but normally. . . .Ah, just hold on a sec, okay? Maybe we can work this out. Let me, lemme go talk to somebody real quick.”
  A couple minutes later she comes back on the line with excitement in her voice. She asks for phone numbers of past employers and some questions about my driver’s license. I tell her, “No tickets, no accidents, no drug convictions. I’ve got the Haz Mat card, doubles and triples endorsement, tanker endorsement; hell, I have all the endorsements, and I can pass a drug screen.” Even more excited she says, “Well, just give me all the information and tell me where I can reach you later today. I think we’re gonna be able to do this.” “You can reach me right here, at home. You know, where I’m staying.”
   With all the noise, she’s alarmed to hear I’m at home and asks if everything’s alright. “Oh yeah, everything’s fine. The landlord’s just doing some remodeling on the kitchen. Here, I’ll give you the number.” She promises to call back within an hour.
   45 minutes later the phone rings. It’s Ursula. “Well, all your references sure check out. Everyone I talked to had great things to say about you. They all said you are hard-working and resourceful. We’re anxious to have you with us. Can you be here Monday morning at eight, here in Salt Lake City?” “No problem.” Then to reassure herself, since this type of hiring practice is obviously out of the ordinary, “But you’re telling me that you have a clean D.M.V. printout, right?, a 10 year printout?” “Yep.” “If you get here and you don’t have a clean D.M.V. sheet, we’re just gonna have to send you home.” “No, I understand — completely. Everything I’ve told you’s true.” “Okay, no D.U.I.s, no nothing, right?” “No nothing.” “No felony convictions?” “Nope, no felony convictions.” “And you can pass a drug screen?” “I can pass a drug screen.” “All right, good. Get out here as soon as you can. We need drivers like you.”
   Back on my stool I look over and see Li Po smiling benevolently at me from the wall. Pleased with what I’ve done, he nods approvingly, but asks:

“Did Chuang Chou dream
he was the butterfly,
Or the butterfly
that it was Chuang Chou?

You strive and strive,
but what do you seek?”

  Brian’s back at the pinball machine. “So that’s it,” I say, “I’m hired. I’m going to Salt Lake City to pick up a truck. I’m going over the road again.” “Really?” With that he abandons the machine and takes up the stool next to mine once more. Looking straight at me, “Really? You’re fleeing the jurisdiction? And this arrangement was managed entirely over the telephone?” “Yeah. I gotta be there by Monday morning.” “Remarkable. And what sum of gold shall be your reward?”
  “You mean what am I gonna get paid? I don’t know yet. It all depends on how many years of experience they’re going to give me credit for. But they’re gonna gimme a new Freightliner with a 70 inch, condo sleeper, a Cummins N14 with a 13-over and cruise control. Man, it’ll be like living in a motor home. It’s gonna be better than I’ve lived in years.” “Ha! That’s all you care about, huh? The money’s of no concern?” “That’s all I care about. It’s gonna be my home. Besides, they gotta pay me something, which will be a hell of a lot more than I made sitting here on this stool today. Anyway, all I really want is to be out in it. You know, out there.”
  “So what, once more you’ll smote the gray seas with your oars; shear through the night until the young Dawn spreads out her finger tips of rose, that sort of thing?” ”Yes, exactly!” “Well then, I suppose congratulations are in order. And now that you can look forward to regular compensation once again, maybe you can buy me dinner for once. Let us reconveine our celebration at Wo’s, shall we?”
   In the front door, through the kitchen to the stairs, and up to the third floor dining room, our usual rear table. Brian wanted to sit on the side with the view through the balcony door. He wanted to watch all the movement below on Washington Street. Normally I would’ve fought him for the spot. But my thoughts were elsewhere.
   So a final feast to celebrate my impending departure: Shrimp Fried Rice, Broccoli Beef, and Lemon Chicken enjoyed over six bottles of beer and our typical, relentless chatter about just about everything.
   We left Wo’s and headed up the hill toward Stockton Street. “Well, if you’re really going we absolutely must have one last drunk to send you on your way.” Which we did by hitting every bar and liquor store between Wo’s and the Sutter Stockton Parking Garage.
   Out in front of the garage he says “Well I gotta go back to my life now, you know?” “Yeah, I guess I gotta go to my life now too.” And as he turned and moved off down the walkway the direction of his car he looked back and as always said, “Nevertheless, hello!” (an enigmatic quote from a long ago T.V. program) then turned back around and disappeared into the garage.
   I stood there at the south portal of the Stockton Street Tunnel, right where Miles Archer was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Stood listening to the echoing rush of cars, and the electric motor whoosh of a 30 going by toward Union Square. Stood trying to figure out how I was gonna get to Salt Lake City. My options were limited. England said they’d reimburse my travel expenses, but that still meant fronting money I didn’t have. Greyhound was looking like my only reasonable choice.
   Suddenly it flashed, “I’ve gotta tell Tony I’m going!” He’d left a message saying he was in town for the week. I ran across the street to the pay phone at the bus stop and called the Overflo. Nancy asked who was calling then shouted for Tony. After a minute or two he gets on the phone and in his musical, Maori accent, “Where the hell were you all weekend?” “Never mind that, I’ll be right over, I wanna tell what I’ve decided to do.“
   I had a few with Tony, told him the whole story beginning with the day we ran into each other down at Pier 80 a month ago. Seeing him in that big road truck, fresh off of a long journey. I admitted how jealous and anxious and restless it had made me. He laughed. “I figured you’d get the bug again one of these days.
  “So, how you getting to Salt Lake?” “Looks like Greyhound.” “No way! You’re coming with me. I gotta load of yeast, out Fleischmann’s in Oakland. It’s going to New Jersey. I’m leaving Saturday morning. I’ll take you. You can ride with your buddy again. We’ll leave about ten or so, take our time and enjoy the ride.”
   We shook hands on the deal and I headed the three blocks down to O’Farrell Street — walked home feeling the lightness that only the escape from a great burden can offer. Walked home, or to where I’m staying, appreciating the newly discovered significance and beauty of the drizzly evening turned rainy morning. The chill stream soaked my hair and ran down my face and back. Soothing. Calming. A quick moment to reflect. A moment to enjoy and remember. An unusual and appropriate hush had fallen on the Tenderloin. No cars. No hookers. No drunks. No dealers.
   I started saying my mental good-byes to San Francisco, still feeling the sulfur in my nose and throat from the firecrackers at Li Po. Walked in the front door of Chigiy’s place, eager to tell her the news. Nobody home. Typical. Like I said, “. . .most with good reason. “

  Saturday Feb 12th: struggled out of sleep, picked up my bag, left a long note for Chigiy, and headed for the Overflo.
   Soft rain — so delicate it seemed to float rather than fall. Just enough moisture to wet the roads. Made the cars hiss as they went by. Windless. Quiet. Peaceful. Perfect day to travel.
   Took my time on the walk. Enjoyed the morning. Had donuts at Belle’s. Said more mental good-byes.
   At the Overflo there was a story about Tony having gone to a friend’s house for some unknown reason. What I heard didn’t make much sense. Very mysterious. No matter. I knew he’d eventually show. Besides, I could see his tractor sitting down on Hyde Street, so I knew he hadn’t left. Figured he had something to take care of. And it really wasn’t any of my business what it was. I settled onto a stool and waited, which eventually made me anxious. I mean, another Saturday morning sitting in a bar, with or without Tony.
   The morning crew had already pulled in, probably just after 6 a.m., opening time.
   Saturdays are brighter at the Overflo. The Monday through Friday, day job people roll in early. Makes the place more lively, the mood a little higher.
   And unlike a lot of the lightless whiskey dungeons in the city, the Overflo has large windows on two sides. Even on a cloudy day it’s bright and almost cheerful in there.
   Sneakers squeaked on the T.V. — college basketball. Loud, spirited chatter pealed through the room even though it was early. Everyone seemingly happy. But still, I felt uncomfortable: fogheaded Saturday mornings spent in the company of drunks, one of the reasons I was ready to leave. But I figured it’d be the last round for a while and decided to enjoy it. After a beer or two, then a couple more, Tony showed up and said, “Come on. We gotta stop by my place.” He had to pack the last of his stuff and say good bye to his wife. She gave us some fruit and fried chicken to eat along the way. I flipped through Peterbilt pamphlets while Tony went about his business. He’s getting ready to buy a new tractor and the sales literature was all over the apartment. I looked at trucks while he and his wife sniped at each other — palpable tension between them. They tried to hide it, but not very well. No drama, no histrionics, just a nondescript acrimony that anyone who’s ever been in a relationship can feel as easily as a dog senses fear. Few words between them, no hostility, no affection either until Debra asked, “So how long you think you’ll be gone this time?” This time, with a thinly veiled, mocking sarcasm. “Same as last time I guess, till I get back.”
   The packing finally done, good-byes were offered and we headed down the stairs. As soon as we hit the street I asked what was going on between the two of them. I mean, they’d never been the perfect couple, but I’d never known the marriage to be troubled. It surprised me to see them so unloving the last day they’d be together for at least six weeks. “It’s those big trucks. She hates those big trucks Bro,” was all he offered, which is a common tale from OTR guys with wives, or girlfriends. He said everything had started to deteriorate the day he left Dean’s and went back over the road.
   Tony had already pre-tripped and aired up the tractor earlier in the morning. Unlike me, he’s an early riser. Actually it surprised me that he wanted to leave as late as ten o’clock. Knowing how much I like to sleep in, it was probably out of consideration for me. Or maybe it was out of consideration for himself. He knows what a pain in the ass I can be when I’ve had to get up early. He learned that lesson repeatedly all the mornings we met before dawn at the Dean’s Refrigerated.
   We threw our stuff in the sleeper and headed down Third Street to the Americold yard to get his wagon. Ron lets him leave it there, in the part he shares with Americold.
   Ron Dean — our former employer. Dean’s Refrigerated Trucking. A good guy to drink with, but hell to work for, always screaming, throwing fits and tantrums. The guy’s blood pressure must be somewhere near quadruple digits. He hated to see Tony leave last year, which put him in a real bind when I left in January. Now it’s just Rafael and Leonard. He’ll have to go through the grueling process again. Always the search for good drivers. But he must not hold a grudge: he lets Tony leave his wagon there, and he gave me a sparkling recommendation at England.
   We hooked onto the box and pulled back onto Third, on our way to Salt Lake City.