As Al gradually became more adjusted to his demanding schedule, he found that one of the things he enjoyed the most was his early afternoons. After going to bed at sometime after five in the morning, he would usually arise at about noon and quickly drink a large mug of strong black coffee. Thus fortified, he could anticipate the afternoon stretching before him, demanding nothing but that he enjoy himself until four o’clock arrived.
So each afternoon, armed with $20 from his tip jar, Al would wander the streets of San Francisco, choosing a different section of the City each day. Whether it was warm and sunny or cool and rainy (for the winter weather was just beginning to settle in), he took a great delight in observing the variety of people and places which surrounded him.
One afternoon he might be found in Chinatown, eating eggrolls and steamed pork buns and jabbering with the counter lady in perfect Cantonese (for he found that he could pick up a person’s language through his thoughts). The next, he might be in the Mission District, working his way through a super burrito while talking to the taqueria owner in the street Spanish of the Mexican community.
It was on returning from one of these daily jaunts at about four that he saw not only the usual crowd of middle-aged alcoholics waiting for him at the entrance to the Last Resort, but Suzie as well.
“Hi!” she greeted him warmly. “Margie told me you wanted to see me. Something about a job?”
“Thank you for coming, Suzie,” he replied. “I may indeed have a position for you if you’re interested.” She nodded her head eagerly to indicate that she was. “Then would you please wait for me in my room while I have my session with these gentlemen? It will take only two hours or less.”
“Sure thing, no problem. I got nothin’ else to do anyway. I’ll just read the paper while I wait.” She dug into the rear pocket of her grimy jeans and brought forth a tattered Bay Weekly.
He led her to the back room, where she nonchalantly sprawled out on the cot, seemingly as relaxed and at home as if it were her place and not his.
His session with the Attitude Adjustment Hour Club that afternoon was concluded rather more quickly than usual, though he did seem to have an inordinate interest in the details of Norman’s new job. He gave them their requisite two drinks each and, exhorting them to give their all for Al and country, turned them perfunctorily out into the street. It was only 5:30, but the cheerful club members did not seem to notice.
After closing and locking the steel security gate behind them, Al went back to his little room and tapped lightly on the door. “Suzie,” he called out. There was no answer. He opened the door and saw she was still lying on his cot, now fast asleep. He removed the tattered newspaper from her face and tapped her gently on the shoulder. “Suzie,” he said again softly. “Wake up.”
Quick as a flash she curled herself tightly into a fetal position, crying out, “No! Go ‘way! Leave me alone!” in great distress.
Al shook her gently again. “Don’t worry,” he told her soothingly. “It’s only me.”
This time she woke up, uncurled herself, sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Oh, it’s you, Al,” she said more calmly. “I guess I must have been dreaming.” She stretched her arms toward the ceiling, yawned and arched her back. “I thought I was sleeping in the alley and some guy was trying to rip me off.”
She stood up, yawned again, and then said more cheerfully. “OK, I’m all yours. So what do you want me to do, scrub the place down, sweep the floors, wash the windows? Whatever you want, I can do it. I can even paint a little.” She frowned up at him in a defiant manner. “But it’ll cost you! I get two dollars an hour and you have to give me the supplies. I don’t work cheap, you know!”
“No, Suzie, you’ve got the wrong idea,” Al reassured her. “It’s nothing so menial as that. What I need is a relief bartender. You would have to work a minimum of one night a week, on Mondays and possibly some other nights as well. The hours are from eight at night until two in the morning, not including setup and cleanup time. For this I will pay you fifty dollars for every day you work, in cash. And, of course, you may keep all your tips.”
Suzie’s lower jaw dropped in astonishment. “Al!” she said in a hushed tone. “That would be just so cool!” She frowned again. “But there’s just one thing.” She stood up on tiptoes and whispered in Al’s ear as he bent his head down slightly to hear her. “I just remembered. I don’t know the first thing about bartending.”
Al straightened up again. “That is just what I told Mr. Duckworth when I started this job. I myself have only been here a little over a week, you know. But it’s easy, Suzie. First, let me show you where everything is.”
An hour later Suzie still was not getting it.
“I thought all you street people were familiar with alcoholic beverages,” complained Al, after she had failed yet again to discern the difference between a margarita and a daiquiri.
“That depends,” frowned Suzie, the unaccustomed concentration causing furrows to appear in her usually smooth, unlined face. “Street liquor’s one thing, and bar liquor’s another. I mean I can tell you the exact difference between Schlitz Malt Liquor and Old English 800. Or why Mad Dog 20-20 is better than Night Train. But I just don’t get these fancy drinks. They all look and taste pretty much the same to me. I ain’t even heard the names of most of ‘em.”
“Oh, Suzie, Suzie, Suzie!” said Al in mock exasperation. He put his hands on his hips and drew himself up to his full height of six-two, towering over her by at least a foot. He looked down at her with a steely gaze. “I think that in your case we will have to use the ‘Al’ method of instruction.” With his finger he beckoned her to come closer.
She looked at him apprehensively and backed a few steps away. “What’re you gonna do now, Al? I don’t go in for no kinky stuff.”
“This is just a little something to help you remember things,” replied Al reassuringly. He touched her lightly on the forehead. “Like what we did when you had the headaches.”
Suzie’s face brightened and she hopped up onto a barstool, cheerfully swinging her legs like a schoolgirl. “Sure! Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” She closed her eyes. “Do your stuff, holy man,” she said playfully.
“This time,” said Al, placing the fingers of his right hand directly between her eyes. “I will do all the work.”
About a minute later he removed his hand from her face.
“Wow!” She twisted her neck from side to side. “Now I’m awake!”
“Al right, Suzie, tell me the difference between a margarita and a daiquiri.”
“That’s easy!” she said quickly. “Margarita—tequila, triple sec, lemon-lime juice and a salt rim on the glass. Daiquiri—rum, light or dark, and difference kinds of fruit juice, like strawberry or peach—usually blended with crushed ice.”
“Good,” he replied. “Now, what’s the difference between a martini and a manhattan?”
“Martini,” she recited, rolling her eyes up at the ceiling as if the answer was written there. “Gin or vodka, dry vermouth, usually with olive or a twist, on the rocks (with ice) or straight up (without). The drier the martini, the less vermouth. A manhattan is the same as a martini, only with bourbon instead of gin or vodka, and a cherry instead of an olive or a twist.”
“And a gibson?” he asked casually.
“That’s a gin martini with a cocktail onion instead of an olive!” Suzie clapped her hands in delight and spun around on the bar stool.
“By George, I think she’s got it!” said Al to no one in particular.
He turned to Suzie, who was still twirling and humming happily to herself. “Now—” He put his hands on her shoulders, stopping her in mid-twirl. “Now that you’re thinking like a bartender, we have to dress you like a bartender. Do you have any good clothes?”
She looked down at herself in dismay. “These are my good clothes,” she said ruefully.
“I thought as much.” Al picked up the phone behind the bar. “Tell me,” he asked her, “do you like shopping? If you don’t have to pay for it, that is?”
“Sure,” she replied. “What girl doesn’t?”
He punched in a phone number. After a short pause he spoke into the receiver. “Hello? Is this The Madhouse on Page Street? Good, is Simona there? Yes, Simona Wing. I’ll wait.”
Simona was indeed there. She was in her room, assiduously painting her toenails, when Bear knocked on her door.
“You in there, Simona? Some guy on the phone for you.”
“Rats!” she replied, putting down her polish and swinging her legs carefully over the side of the bed. “I hope it’s not a job. I don’t need the money just yet.” She stood up and hobbled down the hall on her heels to the pay phone in the hall. She picked up the dangling receiver and said into the mouthpiece, “Yes? Simona Wing here.”
“Simona,” said a smooth voice in her ear. “This is Al, from The Last Resort. I’m so happy to find you at home. And how are you this evening?”
“Just fine, Al,” Simona answered automatically, wondering what was going on.
“I want you to know, Simona,” he began, “that the few times I’ve seen you, I’ve become quite a fan of your wardrobe. You dress so distinctively, yet tastefully.”
“Uh, thanks, I guess,” replied Simona, wondering what he was getting at. Was Al gay and asking for her advice about a drag costume?
“Are you doing anything tomorrow during the daytime?” he continued.
“Um, no, I don’t think so. Uh, what’d you have in mind?” she replied, her heart beating a little faster. Was Al straight and asking her for a date?
“I wonder if you could do something for me. I have a girl here who needs work clothes for a bartending job. A lovely girl, young, pretty. She needs something conservative, businesslike, but flattering to her face and figure. I trust you know what I mean. Would you take her shopping tomorrow if I give you a hundred dollars plus some money for your time and expertise. Would that sum be sufficient to purchase a nice outfit?”
“Sure,” answered Simona curtly, back down to earth again. “I get my stuff mostly at thrift stores and garage sales and then fix it up so it looks nicer than it really is. For a hundred I can get her three or four really nice outfits and still have some left over.”
“Wonderful!” was his response. “What time should I send her over to The Madhouse?”
“Oh, anytime around noon is OK, I guess. Just leave it to me. By tomorrow night I’ll have her looking like a million.”
“Thanks, Simona. And, as I believe the saying goes, I owe you one.”
He hung up the phone. “Job, clothes…” he mentally checked his list, then turned to Suzie. “Where do you live?” he asked her.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Any place I can,” she replied truthfully.
“How would you feel about having a permanent place to live?”
“That would be totally great!” she said excitedly. “But I don’t have any money.”
He looked at the clock on the wall behind the bar. It was nearly seven. “Just enough time,” he muttered to himself. To Suzie he said abruptly, “Come on, let’s go find you a place to live. Don’t worry about the money. Just leave everything to me.”
They walked out into the November darkness and headed north towards Market Street. At First and Market they quickly caught an outbound 31-Balboa bus which took them up Market to Turk and Taylor on the edge of the Tenderloin. There they got off and walked the few blocks to Eddy and Leavenworth. They entered a small, dingy gray building grandly called the Hotel Olympia and walked across the threadbare carpet past a few elderly pensioners who were snoozing in chairs in front of a flickering black-and-white television.
They approached the desk and waited there for a moment while the man behind it finished distributing mail into various numbered slots. In a short while he turned around, saw who it was and said in a startled voice, “Why, Al, what are you doing here?”
“Hello, Norman,” replied Al in a friendly manner. “I was so interested in hearing about your new job that I came down to see how it was going.”
“Great, Al, just great! Since I stopped drinking all the time and got this job, I feel like a human being again for the first time in years! And I have you to thank for all this. Anything I can ever do for you, Al, just let me know.” He shook Al’s hand vigorously and looked at him respectfully.
“As a matter of fact, Norman, now that you mention it, there is a little something you could do for me. Or rather for this young lady.” He indicated Suzie.
Norman looked at her for the first time. Suzie gave him a wave of her hand and smiled at him winningly.
“Sure, Al, anything,” said Norman again. “Need a room for you and your ‘girlfriend’, do you? Would that be by the hour or for the whole night?”
“No, no!” snapped Al impatiently. “Nothing like that! This woman,” he said with dignity, “is a new employee of The Last Resort, and as such, she needs a permanent place to live. Tell me, Norman,” he looked directly into his eyes, “what is your normal occupancy rate?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Norman, trying to avoid Al’s gaze but failing. “Maybe seventy-five, eighty percent. Why do you want to know?”
“So you always have rooms available?” pursued Al, ignoring his question.
“Sure,” said Norman with a shrug. “There’s lots of hotels like this around this area and this place ain’t exactly the Hilton. But we do OK. Our rooms are clean and safe.” A hint of professional pride was in his voice.
“How much by the month?” asked Al.
“Well, that depends on how big a room you want, and how nice of a view. But mostly they go for four hundred to six hundred a month.”
Al was still holding Norman’s eyes with his own. Now he leaned over and spoke softly into his ear. “Here’s what I want you to do. Give her the best room you have. Her name is not to be listed in any of the hotel records. If anyone asks specifically for the room you have given her, say it’s being remodeled or something.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills, peeled off several and handed them to Norman. “Here’s two hundred. Put it in your pocket. I will give you the same amount, in cash, every month that this arrangement is necessary. How many other desk clerks does this hotel employ?”
“Just two other guys. Rodney, the day clerk, and some relief guy that works when we have days off,” replied Norman, quickly pocketing the money.
Al peeled a few more bills off his roll. “Give this to them, and explain our arrangement. If they have any trouble with this, call me immediately and I will take care of it.” He looked at Norman even more intensely. “Do we have a deal?”
“Room 601,” he replied in a business-like tone. “Large bed, good mattress, couch, two chairs, television, private bath with shower. Here’s the key.” He handed it to Al who in turn handed it to Suzie.
“I believe this is yours,” Al remarked.
Suzie had been watching the conversation between Norman and Al more or less disinterestedly, her eyes wandering about the hotel lobby. Now, however, she grabbed the proffered key tightly and gave a little cry of disbelief. “I don’t know what to say!” she said, fairly bubbling over with excitement. “Wow, my own room! I can’t wait to see it!” She skipped over to the elevator and pressed the button several times but, unable to contain her impatience, began bounding up the stairs, Al following close behind.
They quickly reached Room 601 and Suzie opened the door. Inside, everything was as Norman had said. She threw herself down on the bed and then began jumping up and down on it like a child.
“Wow, Al!” she exclaimed, bouncing off the bed onto the floor. She stood up on tiptoes and threw her arms around his shoulders. “This is so neat!” she enthused. “I could just kiss you!”
“No need for that,” he replied, hastily disengaging her and stepping back a pace. “Just remember what you have to do.” He began to tick the items off on his fingers. “Tonight, go back to that wretched alley and remove any possessions you consider worth keeping and bring them over here. Tomorrow, go to Page and Fillmore about noon and ask for Simona Wing. She will take you shopping. The address is 578 Page. I’ll write it down for you so you won’t forget. That gives you a few days to settle in and do whatever you want. But next Monday,” he cautioned her sternly, “come to The Last Resort at seven-thirty in the evening and be ready to work until two-thirty in the morning. I’ll be with you that night to make sure you have no problems with the job or the customers. After that, any night you work, you’ll be more or less on your own. Although, I’m sure Mr. Duckworth will be giving you the benefit of his vast experience. But no matter. I’ll introduce you to Mr. Duckworth on Monday. He’s the owner of the bar,” Al explained. “I’m the manager and you work for me.”
She listened to his admonishments with good humor. “Sure, Al, anything you say.” Then she went back to bouncing on the bed. A few minutes later she started playing with the TV. So intent was she on her new possessions, she didn’t even hear Al leave, closing the door gently behind him.
Chapter 20 >>
© Cantara Christopher 2001, 2022