© copyright 2013 by Sara Jacobelli
She knew she had to get away from Sammy. She just didn’t know how.
(Fiction) San Francisco, mid 1980s
“So the landlord tells Billy to get rid of these people, see, he didn’t want them in the building, and Billy, he’s smoking so much crack, see, you know what he does? He burns them out, burns them out, burns the fucking place down.” Sammy passed the joint, laughing and coughing at the same time. “Well, not the whole building, but he burned them out of the apartment.”
“Sammy, do you really think that’s funny? I mean, was anyone killed?” Sofia took a short hit on the joint and passed it to Dixon. Dixon looked oblivious, as usual.
Sammy flipped through his vinyl collection and selected some Coltrane. “Yeah, that’s kind of a fucking problem. It WAS funny, but turns out that one of the tenants was there, sleeping or some shit. Billy thought nobody was home.”
Dixon’s eyes opened wide. “What the fuck you talkin bout, man? Dude, I’m hungry. Let’s go eat somethin.”
Sammy opened the door and Dixon followed him down the stairs. Sofia called after them.
“Sammy, did someone fuckin’ die in that fire?”
“Nah, nobody died. I don’t think the guy died. He got smoke inhalation or some shit. But it’s still arson and Billy’s on the run and it ain’t good, see. There’ll be arson investigators or some shit. Probably cops, too. They’re gonna connect me to Billy, see. So if any cops come by—“
“Yeah. Just say I don’t know nothin’.” Sofia closed the door. She turned the stereo up, looked out the front bay window at Valencia Street. She loved living in the Mission District, loved the hood. But she knew she had to get away from Sammy. She just didn’t know how. She lit a cigarette, listened to Coltrane.
Sofia knew they were cops by the sound of the knock. Cops always knock in this loud persistent I-have-a-right-to-be-here way. She looked through the peephole. Two detectives, a man and a woman. Just like TV. Sofia remembered what all the old time North Beach dealers told her. Grab your keys. Open the door just enough to slip outside. Lock the door behind you. Remember, if they could get a warrant, they’d already HAVE it.
She did just that. The woman smiled. The man looked at her sternly, a father to a daughter. A teacher to a student.
“We’re looking for Samuel Ruggerio. Is he home?”
Sofia looked the guy in the eyes. “Nope. And I’m going for a walk.” She brushed past them and headed downstairs.
The woman didn’t say anything. The guy yelled down the stairs. “We just want to talk to Sam. He’s not in any trouble.”
They followed her. Sofia went into the Checkpoint Diner downstairs and sat at the counter. Mae set her up with some hot tea. “Mae, I’ll pay you later, OK?”
“Sure, Sofia. No problem.” Mae looked suspiciously at the two cops who followed Sofia and sat on either side of her. “Menus? You want menus?”
They waved her away. Mae looked pissed. “You must buy something. No free sit.”
The woman touched Sofia on the arm. “I’m Detective Berkowitz. Here’s my card. Sofia, we’re just trying to help. He’s Detective Martino.” She smiled again. She looked more like a social worker than a police detective.
Sofia didn’t say anything. She stirred sugar and milk into her tea.
The woman cop looked around the diner. The décor probably hadn’t changed since the 1940s. “Uh, is the food here any good?”
Sofia laughed. She wanted to say, Are you kidding? The food’s fucking terrible but we all love Mae. But she remembered ole Ray Ray in North Beach and Cookie Bob in the Castro. Long time weed dealers. Ray Ray was dead, and Cookie Bob was dying of AIDS. Never talk to the cops, kid. Even about the weather. Or the Giants. Or the 49ers. Once they get you talking, they’ll get to ya.
Sofia stood up. She hated to leave her steeping hot tea. The flavor was just right. She looked at the guy. Fortyish. Some gray flecks in his hair. Deep brown eyes. He was kind of cute, but it was wrong to even think a cop was cute. “Bye Mae, thanks.”
Sofia left the diner and headed to the Bart station on Mission Street. She walked fast, turning only once to look back. The cops were gone. She used a phone booth at the Bart station to call Sammy. They had worked out a system of codes to use on his beeper. When it came time to punch in a phone number, she tapped out 54. Like the old TV show, “Car 54 Where Are You?” Sammy thought his codes were achingly clever.
So Sammy would know not to come home. At least for a few days. The cops were looking for him. Sofia would have the cluttered studio apartment with the Murphy bed all to herself. Maybe she could get some books from the library and study for her GED.
Sammy was only gone a few days. Sofia didn’t bother to ask where he was. And the cops never came back. Sofia figured San Francisco cops had more to do than to bother with Sammy.
No one knew what happened to Billy. Or the guy who got hurt in the fire. But tonight, they were celebrating not getting busted. They went to that place in Chinatown with all the booths hidden by curtains. The one in the side street where you had to know about it, and climb upstairs to get to it. Everyone would eat and smoke joints. The waiters would say, “Here your office,” and Sammy would say, “Yeah, my office alright. “
Sammy met clients there and sold them weed while he, Dixon and Sofia ate Chinese food. Sofia got tired of Dixon following Sammy everywhere, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. Sammy always had some loser guy following him around, running errands for free weed. Sometimes he’d have two or three of them trailing behind him, a poor man’s entourage.
After the last client left, a nervous middle-aged nurse named Allison, Sammy and Dixon really gobbled their food.
“I’m taking the GED next week,” Sofia said.
“The what?” Dixon asked, his eyes popped out more than usual. Sofia knew he was on more than just weed. Crank, probably. Although Sofia had never seen a crankster eat as much as Dixon.
“What’s the point?” Sammy asked. “I mean, whaddaya even NEED a GED for?”
Sofia dug into her Kung Pao shrimp. “Well, you can take classes at City College for free. And I thought—“
“Lemme try some a that.” Sammy scooped some of her shrimp onto his plate. “I took college courses in Chicago, when I was on probation. Film courses. And my student film was the best, see. We even got busted by the cops once. Busted for filming without a permit. And they put us in the local film fest too, see—“
“Yeah. I know.” Sofia knew the story by heart.
Dixon lit a joint. The smoke wafted up to the ceiling.
“Dixon, can’t you at least wait til we finish eating?”
Sammy laughed. “I love this place. You can do anything behind these curtains. People probably get it on on the tables.”
“Oh. . . gross. I hope they at least wiped the tables off before we came in.” Sofia slurped her steaming hot tea. “Anyhow, I’m taking the GED. If anyone cares.”
“Cool.” Dixon nodded his head to tunes only he could hear.
“Well, the point of my story is, see,” Sammy continued. “I took a semester and a half of college, and I’m not exactly USING it now. Except, perhaps my education makes me more acceptable to some of my yuppie-type customers, see.”
The waiter peeked through the curtain. “You have nice business dinner in your office, yes? Time for fortune cookie.”
Sammy laughed again. “Thanks.” The waiters liked Sammy because he tipped generously.
Sofia stood up. “I have to go to the bathroom. I just hope I can find our booth again. I don’t want to peak through the wrong curtain, in case anyone’s screwing on the table.”
Dixon laughed. “She’s so funny. Wait, Sofia, we gotta read our fortunes.”
Sammy read his, crunching loudly on the fortune cookie. “You will achieve great success in business. Wait. How did THEY know?”
Dixon opened his fortune. “Mine says, You are a seeker of truth and knowledge. Man, that is so deep.”
“Yeah, you’re a deep one, Dixon.” Sofia bowed before Dixon. “O Wise One. You’re as deep as David Carradine in King Fu reruns.”
Dixon looked blank. “Who’s David Carradine?”
“What’s yours say?” Sammy tried to grab Sofia’s fortune.
“No, stop. I want to read it. It says, You are a true friend.” Sofia stuck the small slip of paper into her jeans pocket.
“That’s it? BORING!” Sammy looked disappointed.
“Yeah, that one’s boring.” Dixon nodded in agreement with Sammy.
Sofia went to the lady’s room. Behind the locked stall door, she took out her fortune and read it again. “You will get a fine education, write many books, and travel the world.” She didn’t want Sammy to see it. If he never saw it, he’d never be able to take it away from her.
Photo Credits: “San Francisco By Night: Mission Street,” by Franco Folini. CC ShareAlike License.
“Out of fog Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco in fog,” by Wikipedia. GNU Free Documentation License.
“Car 54 Where are You?” was a popular sitcom about bumbling cops. It aired on the American TV station NBC from 1961-1963.
“Kung Fu,” was an unusual western drama series starring David Carradine. It aired on the American TV station ABC from 1972-1975.
As for John Coltrane? There’s no excuse for not knowing who Coltrane is.