Original Fiction By Thomas Shess
When the beige five-story 1920s brick building died an inglorious death, early in the next century, few missed its passing.
It occupied a busy corner of North Beach, a historic Bohemian neighborhood that’s the postage stamp on an envelope named San Francisco.
A week later, an insurance investigator combed through the ashes of the corner saloon. Sifting through collapsed and burnt debris still damp from firehoses pumping water into the building’s gutted old soul of a basement, Lois Van der Maaten determined the initial spark came from the bar's stove.
It was no arson job. Tucked below street level in a cove spared by the inferno, the Allstate rep perused the stacks of long-stored items and pulled out an intact black and tan suitcase. It reminded her of something her great-grandmother once owned, which had been passed on to thrift-store generations yet unborn.
The working brass snaps opened, revealing a treasure trove of vintage 1970s black and white photographs. Wrapped in a green felt bag was an AE 1 Canon 35 mm camera—a relic from a disco dancer’s tomb.
Disco only because a vinyl 33.3 record of Donna Summer’s Greatest Hits, lay bent and warped by the intense heat that had turned the tiny alcove into an oven. Later, she marveled aloud to the owner of the building—a thirty-something real estate hoarder who came from the Balkans, a son of war refugees, in the 90s—about the time capsule she’d discovered in the basement.
“Hell,” the dark-haired man said, looking at a few of the photos, “I don’t know any of these people. You want it, you can have it—wait, I’ll take the camera—maybe I can pawn it off on e-Bay. Never know.”
The suitcase ended up in the trunk of her car for several weeks. Its existence there eventually annoyed Lois, as it kept getting in the way—taking up room needed after a couple of multi-bag grocery store visits.
One mid-Saturday morning with only one plastic bag to carry, she lugged the found suitcase up to her flat on Fillmore Street. This winter day was rainy—that irritating sort of rain that slants into your face like little spits: the kind you feel walking on Ocean Beach in a storm. She loved storms and the feeling of the grainy wet slop at surf’s edge between her toes. A vivid romantic at heart, Lois was still single.
She was walking along her second-floor hallway when upstairs neighbor Christopher Oriol emerged carrying two white plastic bags of trash for the hallway dumpster closet. “What else is there to do on such a gloomy day?” the older man said.
She knew him to be a writer who’d lived there forever. He was always smiling—probably a real charmer as a young man, she thought. Like the suitcase, Chris wasn’t casting-call material this morning: his sparse white hair gave him an off-duty Santa Claus mien.
“Chris,” she said, “I found an old suitcase filled with photos. They seemed to have been taken in San Francisco, many of them in one bar. Come over for coffee and we’ll go through them.”
“You’re the bar and restaurant writer—you tell me.”
“Well, as you can see I’m dressed to greet the Queen.”
“Come on. It’ll be fun. There’s names written on the back of all the photos.”
Chris Oriol cleaned up nicely. He brought over a baguette that was still fresh and strawberries he meant to eat last week.
Lois, who was easily twenty-five years younger than the writer, she looked ten years younger in her casual clothes than she did dressed up in her daily insurance garb.
Sleek in a pair of black silk trousers that could be pajama bottoms, Lois, barefoot, had slipped on a black sweatshirt with no logos or messages across her nicely defined bosom.
Her auburn hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail.
Soon, they both stared at the old suitcase.
“May I?” he pointed to it.
“Of course,” she said with a smile, and gestured him to the small divan. The musty valise was open on her coffee table and he began sifting through images—most were of people—that hadn’t been seen since the 1970s. “I’ll put together our brunch.”
She ignored Chris's offerings. Instead she created a buffet on her kitchenette table of orange juice, toast, jams, grapes, slices of mild cheese, including a beaker of pour-over coffee that filled the one-bedroom flat with the aroma of a small café.
For a full hour, Chris said nothing. He nibbled, nodded and jotted notes in a tablet he pulled from his tweed blazer, with a pen from a pair of starched denims. He’d pull photos five at a time as if he were playing gin rummy. Finally, he spoke. “This is all amazing. Truly. It’s quite a collection.”
She came in and sat beside him. “Can you tell who the suitcase belongs to?”
He held up two W-2 tax stubs that he’d unearthed from a musty interior pocket. “These are made out to Sonny James. They must be his photos," he said.
”She leaned in. “Which one is him?”
The writer was in his element, “I know him from way back. He’s not in any of the photos. But he definitely took shots of the Who’s Who of the 70s. We hung out at the bar where most of these photos were taken. He was an editor. A big drinker and a lady’s man. All hat and no cattle.”
“Sounds like you knew him well.”
“Not really, I wrote for business publications back then. He was a city magazine type. Maybe San Francisco Magazine. But the photos were taken in the Washington Square Bar & Grill. I didn’t know him. He was busy with the girls. He’s got a lot of photos of women here—all young…”
Lois put her hand up to her face. “God, not kiddy porn…?”
“No, young women in their twenties. Most of them fashion shots."
“Any shots that might be interesting to me?”
“Yes, look here,” he picked up a stack of photos he’d set aside. “Did you know the “square” as they once called it—next to Washington Square?”
“No, I’m a mid-western girl via Brooklyn, New York.”
“Okay, here’s a shot of Richard Hongisto. He was Sheriff of San Francisco. He dressed like Wyatt Earp when he was out on the town. He’s standing at the bar next to Richard Brautigan, a poet. Together they look like they were part of the shootout at the OK Corral.
Authors Danielle Steele and Herb Gold are in a couple of shots. That’s him with the bar’s PR guy, Glenn Dorenbush.” Chris pointed, “Even the famous Chronicle columnist Herb Caen didn’t escape Sonny’s camera.”
They continued for half an hour more, “Here is a shot of Charles McCabe. He was a daily columnist, a mood writer, who wrote essays. He always drank his whiskey neat in a tumbler—filled to the top. This one is Ron Fimrite. On the back it says sportswriter with Sports Illustrated. The woman with him is Susan Salter, a writer with the Green Sheet or maybe the Examiner? Probably they were an item. There’s lots of shots of bartenders. I recognized Seamus Coyle, Mike McCourt, and Neil Polishname.” He laughed. “I know, it’s terrible, but no one could remember Neil's last name.”
“Is the bar still there?”
“No, no. Long gone. I don’t see anything with a date later than the 70s.” Chris smiled, “My God, that’s Joe Martin when he was running for District Attorney. First term. He’s posed with two cops: Eddy Igoe and Tommy Gresham. Police based at Green Street station back then walked beats, like night watchmen. The cops who had the late shift would always come by the bar.”
“Why would all this be stored in that basement?"
"My bet says old Sonny skipped town and the landlord tossed his stuff in the basement, in case he could hock it back to him someday. I've seen a lot of that."
She picked up another image. "This shot of the bar is across the street from the building where I found the suitcase. Catty corner.”
“That would have been the old Powell’s Bar & Grill. I don’t think it survived into the 80s. But I do remember we used to go back and forth between the two bars. The Square was more popular and on weekends we couldn’t get to the bar, so we’d wander over to Powell’s. Same crowd of regulars for both joints.”
“Did you ever see Sonny at Powell’s?”
“Once. He was working behind the bar with his buddy John Wald, who owned the joint. Told me he was working off a big bar tab he couldn’t pay.”
Chris looked into the sleeve attached to the inside of the suitcase lid and pulled out another handful of snapshots. “More photos of the softball team. It was a hobby of the Washington Square owners to sponsor teams that traveled to play in New York, Paris, Dublin, and Moscow. God, seeing the faces takes me back. I knew most of them at one time or another.”
Lois bent over and looked into the lumpy sleeve.
“What’s this?” She pulled out a small heavy-duty cardboard box. Inside was a 9mm Lugar-style handgun. "Sonny, Sonny, what's with this?" Chris mumbled, "Our friend has another dimension. It’s Russian, look at the brand writing. It has to be a souvenir from Moscow—maybe Sonny made the softball trip.”
“Who sponsors a traveling softball team?”
“Folks with more money than brains. The Square was the hottest bar in town for more than a decade. You can accumulate quite a fortune from San Francisco drinkers,” he said.
Lois kept searching. She pulled out an envelope that was sealed, addressed but unstamped. “It’s addressed to Penny James in Seattle.” Chris kept flipping photos to read the names handwritten on the obverse side. “This blonde was the weather girl on one of the TV channels.” He showed her another of two men. No name on the back. “Guess who this is?”
“I’ve only been in town a few years.” “George Moscone posing with owner Ed Moose. Moscone was Mayor before being assassinated at City Hall in 1978," Chris added.
“Assassinated? Wow.” Lois used her letter opener to open the envelope. “Look! There’s at least ten hundred-dollar bills.” She read the letter. “Oh, Chris, this is sad. He’s sending the money to his daughter saying it’s all of his savings and telling her to put it in the bank for college. Why does anyone mail away their life savings?”
Chris thumbed through several dunning letters. Sonny was in debt and he was being hounded for repayment. “Maybe he was going to use the gun on himself.”
“We can google him and learn where he is.”
He shook his head, “I don’t know if I want to know. It’s become a grave,” he said.
“Here’s a photo of Sonny himself with a stewardess. And, here’s a shot of her uniform on his bed. These are all very amateur shots. Not even interesting.”
Lois wasn't smiling, “I’d have to be over the top drunk to take off my clothes for a camera. Or…”
“Or?” Chris asked.
“Be in love with the guy. Trust him. Do it for a lark? Or, if someone handed me a fistful of money with a quart of Jack Daniels.”
“How much cash is enough?” Lois glanced through the nude photos. “They’re not doing anything weird. My guess is our friend was a voyeur. Trophy photos. But if a legitimate photographer wanted nude pictures of me, I’d do it for a thousand dollars. But nothing sleazy.”
“On second thought. Something like that never ends well. You can’t put a price on self-respect," she said. "Let’s change the subject.”
Chris nodded and dropped the photos in his hands into the suitcase. Share and tell time was over. “Well, you’re a thousand dollars ahead—not bad. What are you going to do?"
She answered find Penny James and give her the cash?”
"Good luck, that was forty years ago.”
Chris glanced at one photo that had fallen on the table. His face reddened.
"What? What?" Lois asked.
Chris stood up holding a photo. “That son of a bitch.” His expression went from surprise to confusion to a flash of anger. Chris handed her another nude photo. An attractive woman posed astride of whoever took the photograph. “That was my girlfriend. We broke up. Never got a good reason why. What the hell?”
“You got to be kidding. Did they know each other?”
“She worked for a PR firm most of her career. And he worked in media. Their paths had to cross." Lois raised her eyebrows, “I guess we can file that under Oops.”
"Not what I wanted to see I'll tell you that, " he said.
Under her breath she whispered “small town” and excused herself to the restroom to stifle a laugh at his expense.
She didn’t see Chris much after that. He got drunk one night and knocked on her door offering her $1,000 for sex and to hell with the camera. She slammed the door in his face, having learned not to tell anyone what she’d do for ten C-notes.
Since then, he avoided her. The friendly spark and hallway banter she’d known before was missing.
His situation that arose from the old photo still made her shake her head.
Curiosity got to her one night after a bad date when she was too wired from late night Irish Coffees at her favorite Italian joint on Columbus Avenue to go sleep. She did an internet search and learned Sonny James leapt to his death off the Golden Gate Bridge in early September back in 1979.
The obit writer didn’t include a list of survivors.
So far, she hasn't found Penny James on the "net" and the found money is still in the suitcase Lois had sealed and made into an end table for her bedroom.