The House on Waller Street
It is a long road from Amarillo to San Francisco. We drive north to Taos and south to Tucson. We are not interested in being direct, we are interested in direction, in directionality, to giving a shape to this existence and journey that we’ve now committed miles by the thousand to over these weeks.
“Where do you think we will live?”
“We are living, right now.”
There is a way that Henri has a way with my words. This isn’t our first time down this road, where his train of thought links with mine.
From Tucson to Flagstaff, and we smell the smoke of burning pine for miles outside of town on the way in and on the way out. It’s hours, or a blink, when we finally hit the coastal highway, and we look west to watch the waves break until they disappear under the dark and we pull the car off the road.
“You did a good job today,” Henri tells me. “Driving, I mean. I’m not sure I could have kept my mind in it.”
“Or around it,” I said. He appreciates when I attempt a spoonerism.
At Santa Cruz we stop and swim. We have a man take our photo on the beach. It costs a quarter and we get a polaroid, put it on the dashboard.
“I suppose that is the last photo of us,” Henri says.
“The very first and the last,” I say. Our mood has hit the right pitch.
All we know is a house on Waller Street. Look for the pointy one with gargoyles guarding the porch, is what a friend of Henri’s told us before we headed north. If you don’t find me there, you’ll find someone.
We drive aimlessly first, circle the city, from Golden Gate to North Beach, out to Hunter’s Point The evening comes and we head to the center of town. This we roughly know, but we have no map. What we have remaining is two crisp twenty-dollar bills in Henri’s pocket, my rucksack with our clothes, and the traveler’s checks I managed from a savings account I closed out. Whether we liked it or not we were here to stay.
The streets were thick with music, and everyone seemed to be in a costume. Even Henri, who typically played it cool, adjusted his shirt and checked his hair in the mirror.
“Wow,” he kept saying, as we rolled down Haight to Waller.
There were people everywhere but almost no cars. A group with two guitars and a jug sitting on crates watched us park in front of the pink house. They stopped playing and looked at us over their sunglasses and out from their scarves and bandanas.
“You guys looking for shelter?” one of them asked.
Henri and I looked at each other and back at them. The guy who spoke, tall and, oddly, in a bow tie, smiled and added, “If so, you’ve come to the right place.”
“We’re looking for…” I start.
“I’m friends with Jesse,” Henri says.
The guitars and jug look at each other again. They look at the women who are standing with them.
“No, man, you’re not,” Bow Tie says. “You’re friends with all of us. Go in and find yourself a cup.”
Inside the house, we saw Lawrence of Arabia, Queen Elizabeth, Napoleon… the costumes were unlike anything we had seen during Halloween in Texas.
“Is this really the place?” Henri asked.
“This has to be the place,” I told him.
Before us appeared two cups.
“Beer?” It was Abraham Lincoln.
“Just beer?” Henri asked.
“Yeah man,” said the beard. “But let’s go.”
Henri and I drank the beers and walked from the front room of the house, through the hallway and out to the backyard. There was more music there, a synthesizer up on milk crates, two women behind the keys, and a backyard floating with costumed dancers.
“You guys hungry?”
We were. A hamburger in New Mexico, tacos in Flagstaff, Cokes in Reno—we hadn’t eaten much on the trip. Whatever he was offering food-wise, we hoped was free.
“Starving,” I offered.
We walked through the backyard fence onto the street, which was warm with exhaust and the beer had started to make us sweat.
“We’ll head to the Avalon,” Lincoln said, “and we can grab a cone on the way.”
Henri and I exchanged a look.
We took a left on Van Ness and the heat and hill grew. The line outside the Avalon on Sutter was more of a crowd than a line.
Drinking in the street? I thought. But then we got closer…
The crowd wasn’t holding cups of beer but cones of ice cream.
“What kind of party is this?” Henri asked The Great Emancipator.
“You’ll see,” he said.
“I’m not sure I’m—” Henri started.
“No, you’ll see,” he said, with a cool certainty that kept us walking.
Two men were handing out cones from a red and white striped van. There was a line, but no money was being exchanged. We three cued up behind a group of girls, made our way through, and we were handed our small candy cones with bulbous white sweet cream already dripping down the sides.
“Eat up,” said Lincoln. “Then we’ll go inside.”
The cones were gone in an instant, and then we lingered and shook hands and hugged everyone our fearless leader knew on our way into the hall. Inside, another striped setup, and we grabbed another cone.
There was a stage, but was there a show?
We saw the crowd moving to make way for the mimes. Then we heard it, the low synthesizer, tones that signaled when the mimes would move, and the crowd would part—that’s when we realized it—
Everything was moving as one…
All of a sudden, Henri and I both had a taste for another cone, so we walked back toward the front of the hall. When we approached the line, we looked ahead, anticipating the cones. I felt an overwhelming sense of well-being, that we had arrived and found this place, this moment.
“Hey, man,” Henri said. “I think we’re in the wrong place.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, wondering if our paths had left one another, if the night was now moving in two different directions.
“They don’t have ice cream here anymore, man. Bummer. They’re giving out flowers…”
I looked at the hands of the people turning and leaving the lines, tulips, daisies and lady slippers falling over their cones and cascading down their hands. I had never seen the colors like this, illuminated in the dark.
“It’s okay, Henri, I told him, putting my hand on his shoulder. The flowers will taste very good, I’m sure.”