By Laurie Parker
Christine Walker locked her apartment door and called out good night as she passed her landlady’s son Santiago and his ‘posse’ working into the night as always, even on Christmas Eve, auto-mechanics able to transform a seemingly ruined carcass into a gleaming road trophy in a matter of hours. This time the Zamorra brothers and their cousins had turned a twenty-three year old 1962 Volkswagen Beetle upside down and hoisted it between two racks of bricks. It looked to Christine like a huge helpless bug on its back: pinned down and humiliated, as the teenaged boys stripped it of useful parts, giggling fiendishly with the thrill of the violation.
Santiago’s mother, Araceli Zamorra, stood in her basement window washing dishes and waved cheerfully as Christine tramped past. Araceli was a mystical woman, who told Christine often that she was included in her daily prayers. Araceli said she knew the reason her tenant had chosen to live alone with no phone, working all the time: she was hiding from something she’d run away from. Christine liked Araceli but had remained silent. She smiled at her now, lovely, framed in her window by bunches of hanging peppers, and waved back.
Rounding the corner Christine darted into the liquor store to purchase her nightly pack of smokes. Every night for two years, and the belligerent young woman behind the counter had never smiled, never spoken, still furious at the white girl who sought to belong in the neighborhood. Christine arched her back, unconsciously stuck out her butt in imitation as she walked away.
Cars streamed past the intersection, Army Street at rush hour on Christmas Eve not anywhere anyone with a car was going to stop. A group of kids from the projects ran past pulling a stolen Christmas tree in a broken laundry cart. Firecrackers, set off indiscriminately for every holiday in the Mission, exploded every few minutes.
Suddenly an ambulance shot through the red light and pulled up in front of SF General, where it sat for a full minute before the medics got out, wiping their mouths with their sleeves, still chewing as they unloaded their patient into Emergency.
The hospital was closed except for the emergency room on the ground level. Floors two through seven had been shut down by the Reagan Administration in its welfare reform campaign which eliminated public health hospitals. The patients on two through six had dispersed throughout the city, but floor seven, the psychiatric ward, had emptied straight onto the street, its inmates taking up residence in the storefronts, on bus stop benches, and in the street gutters curled up amongst the clotted trash. They didn’t have the fortitude to move farther than a block or two away, gazing half blind through filmy eyes, confused by cold and flu, degraded by constant headaches, hunger, and medication withdrawal.
Although Christine had become used to encountering ‘street people’, what she saw now across the road stopped her cold. It was a genuine monster: hairy, burnt skin, race indistinguishable, a female cyclops with one cold blue eye centered in her forehead, the other a sightless slit that had slipped down her face to where the cheekbone should have been. A hideous iguana with enormous misshapen breasts, she sat like a toad in the rain, sheltered inside a filthy knit poncho.
Christine tentatively approached the woman, pulling out the $10 bill in her pocket. “Excuse me,” she started. But the poncho quaked open and the iguana woman erupted with an angry roar: “Leave me alone, bitch!” Christine backed up slightly and the iguana woman spotted the bill. Like an immense snapping turtle, her hand shot out and snatched it away, disappearing it into the folds of her great belly. She spoke in a hoarse voice. “I’m sorry, honey, people bother me a lot. I wasn’t prepared for you.” “That’s ok,” Christine said, “Merry Christmas.” “Ho”, the iguana woman replied. And she closed back up inside her shell.
Christine walked away, now penniless, hoping she could borrow from her friends Jules and Keiko tonight after work. She looked back at the shape piled on the bench and noticed a purplish bare foot poking out from beneath the poncho. She remembered the first time she’d seen anything so frightening and sad: her mother had driven around the block again and stopped to help an old man throwing up in the gutter next to the train station.
In Christine’s memory of the old man he was in black and white: he looked like a figure from the Beat Generation, gaunt, the collar of his thin black coat turned up, like Jean Paul Sartre or Antonin Artaud. What had struck her at the time (she’d been eight years old) was the elegance with which the man vomited, somehow discreet. Bums were few and far between back then, and for the first time she’d realized how alone a person could be. It was the year her mother had died. She was twenty-seven, pale, beautiful, and quiet.
For years after she’d witnessed her mother taking care of the old man, Christine’s eyes would well up with tears whenever she saw people alone, particularly eating at tables alone, and especially on holidays. Now there were homeless people everywhere, rummaging leftovers out of the dumpsters in her alley, nothing at all discreet about how and where they deposited their bodily fluids.
Arriving at the movie theatre where Christine worked, she set about unlocking the massive padlocks, pulling aside the iron gates. No matter how many nights she opened the theatre, she always felt a wave of panic when she turned her back on the street, fumbling with the locks at twilight, exposed and vulnerable. Locking herself in, she stood breathing to calm herself for a few minutes. She loved being alone in the theatre, loved its smell, loved its air of expectation.
She flicked on the house lights and turned on a pre-show music cassette. She danced by herself wildly in the lobby for a few minutes, then cartwheeled down the theatre aisle, jumped up onto the stage and let out a horror movie scream as she pulled the heavy curtains apart. “I’m all alone and I don’t give a fuck about anybody!”, she shouted out to the absent audience.
She checked the bathrooms, kicking open the stalls like a police detective. She imagined finding a corpse splayed out on the toilet, heroin needle dangling, or a sweaty pervert with a knife. “All clear”, she said out loud, “only a criminal lack of toilet paper.”
Next she checked the poster cases to make sure they hadn’t been jimmied. She’d had to reorder “Scarface” a dozen times, “The French Connection” and “Manhunter” each five times, and she’d given up completely on “The Godfathers”, “The Wild Bunch”, and “Taxi Driver”, for which she had resorted to making hand drawn posters with magic markers. Recently someone had even stolen Godard’s “Weekend” and Kurosawa’s “Dodes ka’ den”. ‘Not much chance of a poster thief tonight’ she thought. Although Christmas Eve could be a surprisingly busy night at the movies, Christine knew tonight would be slow. A couple of filmed operas: Powell and Pressburger’s “Tales of Hoffman” and Bergman’s “The Magic Flute”, which would attract only the most diligent of cineastes from the Castro side of Noe Valley.
‘Tomorrow will be interesting’ she thought, as she unrolled a huge French poster and placed a stack of books on each corner to flatten it out. She relished the thought of seeing what kind of person would show up for Louis Malle’s harrowing six hour documentary “Phantom India” on Christmas Day.
“Phantom India” had changed Christine’s life the first time she’d seen it, five years ago. At sixteen she’d been miserable at home with a preoccupied father and beautiful, hostile stepmother. The power struggle had led to Christine’s exile. A few weeks before school started her father arranged for her to move into an apartment downtown and she commuted to the eleventh grade every day by city bus. She hadn’t expected to be so scared and lonely. With enough credits to skip her senior year of high school, she’d thought of herself as self-sufficient, mature, capable. She left her friends behind; they were busy self-destructing with drugs and alcohol or bulimia anyway.
For the first few weeks she’d slept almost all the time she was in the empty apartment, waking up to cook some green beans for dinner, taking a bath in the middle of the night to get warm. After a while she got to know her neighbors. At first they’d knocked on her door tentatively. Emilio, an outrageously beautiful transvestite, landed a new man each night. “At least I know I am wanted,” he said. Across the hall was JoJo, a Texas cowboy swing dancer who abhorred sex of any persuasion but combed the after hours clubs like a vampire, searching for the perfect dance partner. And the den mother: Patty Moran, a tall, lavishly tattooed forty year old with blue-black hair, who had abandoned her life as a real estate agent, suburban wife, and mother of two to become the owner of a punk rock head shop on the ground floor of the building. Slowly emerging from her state of shock, Christine had ventured out into the neighborhood: the needle exchange, the free clinic, the food stamp office on Cathedral Street. She attended student recitals at the Peabody Institute and the 50c dance classes at The Theatre Project. It was the first time in her life she’d really been alone. She stood on the street corner with no plans, biding her time. Wandering over to the train station she sat and watched as people went away, returned home.
She thought the apartment had been intended as an elaborate punishment, and that she’d be moving back home when her parents felt sure she’d learned her lesson. But instead, they were happier without her. They came downtown and took her to breakfast on Sunday mornings, and dropped her back off with kisses and waves. She felt helpless as her status shifted from family member to relative.
In the springtime, a few weeks after her seventeenth birthday she discovered a weekly documentary film series in the basement of the art museum. “Louisiana Story”, “A propos de Nice”, “Que Viva Mexico”, “Tagore”, “Cuba, si!”, “I am Pablo Neruda”. Christine felt her body tingling, awakened in the darkness. She was glad to have an excuse to skip the prom to attend the last film in the series, “Phantom India”.
Already heightened with emotion, she was transfixed by the film. It was an epiphany: the stark beauty of the dying lepers, lips dry, eyes deep with the knowledge of god; she smelled the holy stench of the temples, the musky incense mingled with monkey shit. Her face burned with shame as she comprehended the burden of Hindu caste, one’s station in life, one’s predestined lot in life, unshakable until death.
Four castes, said to have come directly from the body-spirit of Brahma: from his mouth, the Brahmin priests; from his arms, the Kshatriya soldiers; from his thighs, the Vaisya artists, and from his feet, the Sudra farmers. Beneath his feet came the others, the Dalit, literally without caste. Their stillborn lives were so filthy with worthlessness that if one of their shadows fell across a person of caste, he would be polluted by it.
She watched, absorbing the order of the world. The pretty upper caste women in their beautiful saris and jewelry picked their way carefully through the human trash on the street, not bothering to look down. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, parents and children walked straight past them as if they were invisible. She imagined the depth of their exile. “I shall not be redeemed”, read the subtitled voiceover, “a mere shadow cast from my body is untouchable.”
Until then she had still been waiting, doing her penance, blindly assuming that eventually she’d be allowed back into her family. As she watched, she made up her mind all at once to leave.
After her graduation ceremony the next month she joined her father in the audience. He patted her on the head. “Oh well” he said, and laughed. She hugged him, and kissed her little sisters, whispering a promise to come back for them when they were old enough.
When she arrived in San Francisco a few weeks later, Christine was overwhelmed by the sunlight. The brightness, the whites and blues, the sharpness of the shadows and the crispness of the air terrified her. So she slept during the day, sous chefed, cleaned office buildings, and stocked produce at night. She spent the rest of her time in the cinema, coming back to life in the dark. Eventually the owner fired the manager and offered her his job. She graduated from college, moved five times in four years, turned twenty-one; never went back. It had been five and half years since she’d spoken to her father.
A few months after she’d gotten the job Christine had asked Jorge the booker in the main office if he would schedule feature documentaries at off peak times, and these series had proved successful beyond expectation. One Sunday over twelve hundred people showed up at 10 am for the Holocaust epic “Shoah”. Which had paved the way for a Christmas day screening of “Phantom India”.
She had no doubt that there would be walk-outs, offended New Agers who expected lovely scenery, incense, and Rumi, not close ups of decomposing lepers, the appallingly unsanitary use of the Ganges, and the institutionalized cruelty to the subhuman Dalit.
Christine imagined herself listening patiently tomorrow while a stressed out Marin County Rajaneesh couple wearing matching Rolexes along with their wooden beads and orange kaftans explained why they thought the film was an inappropriate choice, and now they wanted their money back. She decided that she’d direct them to the Palace of Fine Arts to see the IMAX film on Tibet narrated by Robin Williams instead.
She spun the combination on the safe and counted the money into the cash drawer. She sang as she restocked the candy, embellishing the lyrics of the jazzy jingle with a personal touch: “Goobers and Raisinettes, Goobers and Raisinettes, this is why I went to college, so I could stack boxes of: Goobers and Raisinettes, Goobers and Raisinettes.”
She slid across the shiny floor and unlatched the top and bottom locks on each of the twelve doors. Then came the moment she loved the most. Opening the power box she hit all ten switches at once, illuminating 7200 carbon arc bulbs simultaneously. From the street, teaming with Christmas Eve shoppers, a cacophonous “Oh!” sounded. Across the road the French-Vietnamese restaurant owner waved at her. She knew people were proud of the beautiful old theatre, its vintage sign a beacon of the Mission. It made Christine feel important. Next door, at Guadalajara del Noche, Miguel the maitre d’ nodded hello to her as he dimmed his lights and cranked up the salsa music.
Fourteen people came to see “Tales of Hoffman”; only five stayed for “The Magic Flute”. Christine was nodding off behind the popcorn counter when Rupert, the film critic from the Bay Guardian showed up wanting free good coffee and a Lindt bar. “Buy it yourself, slacker” she told him, but gave it to him anyway, marking the candy bar off on the ‘damaged inventory list.’ He poured some Courvoisier into her paper cup. “So, did Tomas ask you out?” He leaned over the counter and kissed her. “Your bum, by the way, looks very fetching in those trousers.” “I don’t like him anymore” replied Christine, “he came up the street when I was in the garage with Santi the other day. He comes in and starts talking motorcycles and doesn’t even acknowledge me. Then he turns around and looks right at my body and says ‘She’s very attractive’ to them, like I wasn’t even there. He’s repulsive.” “Well darling, he’s on his way over here” said Rupert, “I just saw him at PunJab, so you better put some lippy on, and a little glitter on those eyelids. I’ll watch the counter for you.” Christine flew into the office and closed the door.
When she returned she found Rupert tête a tête with Raoul, one of the cops that the main office put on the payroll to provide extra security for the theatre. There had been a couple of knife fights in the balcony, and once, a shooting just inside the stage exit door. All the cops were chauvinist pigs but Raoul was a little better than the rest. He was crooked as a corkscrew though, and Christine could tell by their body language that Raoul had taken some drugs off a street kid and intended to partake of them with Rupert.
They offered her a line, but she turned them down, not wanting to encourage Raoul. He had already asked her out twice and saying no was awkward for her; he seemed to take it personally even though she blamed it on the fact that he was married.
They left in Rupert’s Alfa Romeo, and Christine opened the street doors to let the cold air in to wake herself up. Raoul’s squad car was parked in front of the theatre. Tomas wouldn’t come in if he thought a cop was there, and she was grateful to be relieved of her anxiety. Tomas was the type she would not be able to refuse, the type that would move in with her and quit his job.
When at last the groggy opera fans filed out, Christine counted the paltry stack of cash, turned off the sign, and nodded to Pad the projectionist as he slinked off down the dark street. Her enormous key ring clinking loudly, she opened the night deposit slot and tossed in the canvas bag. Eleven o’clock, still time to catch up with her friends, she thought. A long walk though, and cold.
Christmas Eve at La Rondalla, the one night of the year you might get a chance at the pool table. Jules handed her a margarita, leaned over and kissed her on the mouth quickly before Keiko turned around. He slipped a twenty into her leather jacket. She wanted to kiss him back, with open mouths, for a long time.
Keiko sashayed over to Christine, all lit up, and threw her arms around her neck. She had red and green glitter on her cheeks and forehead. The two girls swiveled around the dance floor until they faced the mariachis. The musicians played “Feliz Navidad” as if they were on amphetamines. Keiko bounced up and down, a crazed New Wave rocker in a dive Mission bar on Christmas Eve at midnight. A smiling cowboy handed the girls each another margarita. Christine caught sight of Jules, cleaning up at the pool table. He had moved on to straight Mescal, a salty lime cradled in the space between his left thumb and forefinger. This was already starting to feel like a mistake.
Christine downed her drink fast and headed for the bathroom. Keiko jumped up and raced ahead of her, laughing as she pulled Christine in and locked the door. She unbuttoned Christine’s shirt and turned her around to face the mirror. “Look at those cute tits! God, you have such pretty tits!” She leaned over and licked a nipple. “Oh, god, Chrissie, I just feel like eating you up!” She fell forward onto Christine’s stomach, laughing. Holding Keiko up with one hand, Christine quickly buttoned her shirt with the other.
From across the room she saw Jules sway precariously, just before he lost his balance. The cowboy and a couple of his friends helped her get them into the car. “I go with you,” he said, “Help carry.” “It’s ok, no, I can do it,” Christine said. They stood at the door and watched as she jerked away in Jules’ old Austin. “Idiot punks,” she heard one say, but the cute cowboy winked at her.
Christine pulled her friends up their steps, holding onto each of them by the hand, two sexy somnambulist children, and pushed them onto their bed. “I’m taking your car. I’ll bring it back tomorrow before work.” Jules smiled and nodded, pulling her toward him for a sloppy kiss. She decided to leave them a note instead.
The temperature had dropped. Christine tuned the radio to “Zentropolis,” a program which she knew had come on at 1am. The heater blew cold air in her face. The car engine quit at 16th and Army, nine blocks from Christine’s house. She pulled her hair over her face and put on Jules’ black fedora, tried to walk like a guy.
The first time they drove past, a ratty blue Econoline van coming off the freeway, she ignored them; but when they turned around, Christine started to run. She could see the liquor store light still on, a few blocks away. They slowed down, paced her run. “Fuck off,” she screamed. They were not from her neighborhood, big jocks, maybe from Oakland or Berkeley. They pulled over and all jumped out at once. Three high school boys a few years younger than Christine, all tall and strong. She lost the fedora, her boots coming down hard on the cold sidewalk. She made as much noise as she could. “Help! Help! Santiago! Carlos! Help!” Too far away. One of them caught her and threw her face first on the ground. “You run fast.” He dug his knee into her back as he caught his breath. He picked her up, ready to push her back to the van, but she bit his hand hard and got away.
She made it to the liquor store, and could see the mean woman in the back room, turned away from her. The door was locked. Christine banged on it screaming, “Let me in, open up, help me!” The woman turned around and mouthed “We’re closed.” “Call the cops!”, Christine screamed, “Call 911!” Then, they were all three on top of her, punching her in the chest and stomach, pinning her arms, pulling her head back, holding a glove over her mouth, dragging her back to their filthy van.
She could hear Mystic Portal’s voice coming from the Econoline’s radio, tuned to the same station she’d been listening to, introducing “X City”. 2am. She knew the liquor store girl wouldn’t call the cops. She remembered a story she’d heard about a woman who had convinced her rapist to use a condom. She worried about the blood she might have swallowed when she bit the guy’s hand. Mystic opened with a reggae version of “I Wanna Wish You A Merry Christmas”, the same tune she had heard in the bar, “Feliz Navidad”, but slow and groovy. One of the men opened the back door of the van and pushed her in. Christine closed her eyes, let out a muffled howl.
Suddenly something cracked very hard over the guy’s shoulder, throwing him back. Christine heard a ghastly roar. The other two guys whirled around, and were bludgeoned to the ground. Something broke, teeth or bone.
Then someone pulled Christine out of the van, fast, with extraordinary strength, superhuman. The iguana woman. Turning her around, she pushed Christine away; gasping for air, hissing in a raspy voice, “Go! Now! Go!” Christine ran around the corner, glimpsing the giant poncho disappearing behind a dumpster just as one of the men stirred on the ground. “What the fuck was that?” he shouted.
Christine locked her apartment door behind her and crouched down, hiding, unable to move for a long time. Finally she crawled into her living room. A votive candle flickered on the coffee table.
Araceli had left her a Christmas gift. A piece of red cardboard wrapped in cellophane containing a collage of lucky items: a hand painted picture depicting the festival of Guadalupe, a horseshoe covered in lavender ribbon, shiny red and green confetti, and glued in the middle a cold blue eye made of polished glass encased in silver. At the bottom, Senora Zamorra had copied a word in English, beautiful letters in quavering black ink: ‘savior’.
Christine slept through most of Christmas day, woke up an hour before show time. Santiago walked over with her to see if he could get the Austin started. He had a quick look, poured in some gas and fired it right up. She had forgotten that Jules’ gas gauge was broken. She parked the car, dropped the keys in Jules and Keiko’s mailbox, and called a cab from the corner coffee shop.
Her taxi was the only car on the street. The liquor store would be closed till four o’clock in observance of the holiday. The van was gone. She looked around for the iguana woman, maybe lurking in a doorway or camped out at the bus stop. No one in sight.
A short line of people were already waiting in front of the theatre. Two excited film students, a girl Christine’s age with her parents, a trio of hipsters each carrying a book under his arm: Kafka, Camus, Burroughs. At the end of the line an earnest looking woman wearing a turban held a bag of take out from Pakora’s, a new Indian restaurant on Church Street.
Christine unlocked the gates, threw the switches, smiled as the lights came on. She sold the tickets and poured the coffee. When the woman in the turban came up, she said “Merry Christmas” to Christine, and asked how she’d got the nasty scrape on her cheek. “Fell on the sidewalk” Christine answered. She was shaking. The turbaned woman touched Christine’s cheek gently for a moment and Christine had the impression that she’d said a silent prayer.
Kneeling down Christine pulled the movie guide out from under the counter and recommended the IMAX film on Tibet instead. “It’s not on for another hour. You have time to make it.” “Thanks”, the woman in the turban replied, “but I’m in the mood for India today.” Then Christine told her about the movie she had come to see. About the sadness, the filth, the sick and lonely Untouchables. “Maybe not such a Christmas-y film….” Christine’s voice quavered. She quickly blew her nose, lit up a cigarette. The woman in the turban decided to stay anyway. “Thanks for telling me, though”, she said, smiling back at Christine as she walked to her seat.
©2002 Laurie Parker