Anita Cabrera- August 13, 2021

IN THE SHADOW OF NEON NIPPLES

She shoved a chubby index finger into my face. “You’d better be careful, honey. Nothing good can come from this.” That was before she became “Lady Eleanor,” when I found her repulsive, as if subject to the force that repels the like poles of two magnets.

When we met, I was not yet thirty-years old and she already had grandchildren back East, a divorce under her belt, and a head of thick, white curly hair that she accessorized with scarves in loud patterned fabrics. She made an unreasonably wide mouth look even wider with bright orange or red lipstick and had a bellowing voice, as if she’d swallowed a baritone. She liked to talk. And laugh.

She went by Eleanor then. We belonged to an anonymous organization where desperate people used only first names, drank coffee, and told the truth about their lives in order to save them. Eleanor may have been older in years, but in sobriety-time, she had only six months more than I. And despite my weakness for grandmotherly types with heavy New York accents and chunky, costume jewelry, I avoided her. I appreciated her chutzpah, the way she shared wisecracks and opinions equally. I just didn’t want her telling me what to do.

I had recently moved back to the country and landed in San Francisco with no savings or family within 3000 miles. My folks were both long dead and I needed a plan. I rented a room in a Victorian in the Mission District, around the corner from 1010 Valencia, a storefront where meetings were held at all hours of the day and night. And I got a job serving cocktails at an after-hours jazz club in North Beach, Jazz at Pearl’s.

I didn’t love cocktail waitressing, but I needed money and it was a start. Besides, bar work suited my nomadic, intermittent college-student lifestyle. And I had no compunction about breaking the law by serving booze after hours. Where I came from, buying alcohol until 4 a.m. was not a crime. I had worked and lived in cities all over that didn’t impose puritanical, paternalistic laws on their citizenry. One undergraduate class on the philosophy of law made it clear that San Francisco’s 2 a.m. alcohol curfew was an affront to personal liberty. There was nothing wrong with skirting an arbitrary law that infantilized adults. Besides, serving booze after hours was good money.

No one offered me a soapbox, but I got up on one in those anonymous meetings when I talked about the new job, because while the 12-step program mentions nothing about being law-abiding, it does insist on rigorous honesty. After the closing circle when everyone held hands, Eleanor came straight for me. She was shorter and rounder than I was, but bigger in every other sense of the word. She held up an index finger up and shook it for emphasis. “Darling, you watch yourself.” Each time I saw her, she replayed the warning.

I didn’t want to hear what Eleanor or anyone else had to say about my working at the club. I was broke and needed to pay rent and buy food. Besides, while I didn’t pretend to know a lot about jazz, I liked it. I had snuck into a Stan Getz concert rehearsal in Madrid, had met Billy Cobham once and kissed Count Basie twice. I had driven up to the Newport Jazz Festival to hear Nancy Wilson and down to the Blue Note in the Village to hear McCoy Tyner. I hung out at Yoshi’s in Oakland when it was still a converted single-family home, and had been foolish enough to swap a t-shirt featuring original Miles Davis art that I picked up at the Greek Theater for a flimsy cotton dress I wanted more in a beach town in Mexico.

But mostly what I liked was how the music made me feel, or better yet, felt me. A slow, mournful sax solo could caress my darkest, ugly lonely, while a trance-inducing, inspired improvisation could pulse right through my skin. The standards, the scatting, the smoke, and the sweat — I loved it all. And because I had been largely nocturnal since my teens, working into the wee hours of the morning serving booze in coffee cups, sometimes to jazz greats who had knocked off from their regular shows and came by to jam the night away, it was a fine job. No matter what Eleanor or anyone else in those meetings thought.

Jazz at Pearl’s was in the heart of North Beach, across from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Art’s Bookstore, catty-corner to Vesuvio’s, and two doors from Tosca’s Café. It was in the shadow of the Condor Club where Carol Doda’s infamous neon nipples used to blink “hello” high above the skyline, and close enough to the Matador and Hungry I that those strip club bouncers would come in before or after their shifts, or I would grab a coffee there before mine.

Don’t get me wrong. We may have been smack in the center of some of San Francisco’s greatest monuments to music, comedy, literature, and hedonism, but the work was drudgery. Pearl counted every penny going in and out. To keep a jazz club operating without a cover charge, you had to squeeze the two-drink minimum out of every customer and push the appetizers, which were mainly frozen finger food microwaved or deep-fried in the basement by our intrepid chef who had no culinary training but was washing dishes when the former cook walked off the job. And we waitresses were Pearl’s henchwomen.

If we failed to collect the two drink-minimum, Pearl said we’d be responsible for the lost revenue. And should a table of customers walk out without paying, she said we would have to pay the entire bill out of our own pocket. Legally, a business couldn’t force servers to cover tabs they were stiffed on, but we were all breaking the law to begin with. We didn’t know if Pearl would follow through on her threats. I kept vigilant over my tables.

When I ran into Eleanor at meetings, she would ask about the club, how the job was going. She kept up on jazz concerts around town, knew about different singers coming through, asked if I’d heard them. I gave short, curt answers. She still never let pass an opportunity to chastise me about Pearl’s. I learned more about her, though. How her ex-husband had left her to raise three kids alone, and how two of her grown daughters did not speak to her. She said she understood. She had numbed herself for most of their lives, had not been there for them. Why should her kids respect her when she had never respected herself? She was learning to forgive and love, herself and others. Said she wanted to make up for lost time. She seemed less brusque, but even so, I kept a cordial distance and made sure not to stand near her at the end of the meeting. I would rather not have to hold her hand during the Serenity Prayer.

The four, burley middle-aged white guys in polo shirts beneath their sport coats came in around 3:00 a.m.. The club was hopping, and we were having trouble keeping up with the unexpected predawn rush. I answered their questions about what they could get at that hour, thinking nothing of it. They ordered double to cover the two-drink minimum. The night was sultry, an aberration from the usual cool San Francisco summer weather. The club’s windows were open, and the whole joint was swept up in the house band’s rendition of Birdland, the room hurtling towards an orgiastic crescendo. I brought them their drinks, dropped the check, and ran to take care of other tables.

I was waiting at the bar a few orders later when I noticed that the four guys were gone. I stopped what I was doing, grabbed the check off their table and ran out after them. They were easy to spot down the deserted block. I caught up to them. “Hey, you forgot to pay.”

They were not even mildly apologetic. I was relieved they were quick to oblige. “Oh, right. How much do we owe you?” One of the guys reached for the check. I was outnumbered on an empty city street in the wee morning hours. But I didn’t want to be stuck paying their tab. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, figured they were a little drunk from a long night out. The fellow handling things paid me in cash, adding a decent tip.

The next night, two of them came back and arrested me.

I didn’t register anything when they came in and talked to Pearl. Then Pearl called me off the floor and told me to come downstairs with her and the two men. Pearl excused herself. One of them explained that they were citing me for serving alcohol after hours. That technically, they were arresting me, that I would have to appear in court on the date indicated on the ticket. 

“Wait, what do you mean? Are you cop cops?” How could I have missed it — four big clean-cut guys like them? I wondered if it was because I had gone after them to pay. What if I’d just given them their drinks on the house? Was this what Eleanor had tried to warn me about?

“Alcohol Beverage Control.” The one who had paid the bill was in charge. “You are under arrest. This is a citation. Do you understand?”

“If you’re arresting me, aren’t you going to read me my Miranda Rights?”

“You can retain representation or come by yourself to the courthouse on the date indicated.”

“But I want my Miranda Rights.”

The ABC cop handed me the citation. “Sure. You have the right to remain silent…”

After they were gone, Pearl assured me the club’s lawyer would take care of it; she kept her word and I was grateful. But we stopped serving booze in coffee cups after 2 a.m. and the money trickled off. I gave notice and moved on.

I moved on to different meetings, too. I was happy not to run into Eleanor, could not bear her gloating or saying I told you so. I did not want to give her the satisfaction of being right. I bartended in rock and blues clubs in the Haight and Tenderloin. And I managed to stay sober. But the business quit me before I was ready to quit it. I had been skating on a slippery landscape, where overdoses, ambulances, and cops were part of the scenery. I had lost a few sober bartender buddies who had relapsed, or worse. Not to mention other casualties from the rooms. And as much as I wanted, the bar-scene didn’t fit my changing lifestyle, and vice versa. I got an admin job in a law office and went back to graduate school.

I was at a convention when I ran into Eleanor that last time. The speaker was a veritable superstar in our circles, his story in the Big Book one of the most quoted, a regular spiritual embodiment of love and acceptance, of looking at what it is in ourselves that needs to be changed instead of trying to get everyone and everything else aligned to our expectations. The auditorium was moved to tears, the thousand or so attendees awash in an explosion of love.

People were gathering coats, filing out between the rows of folding chairs. There was no way not to recognize Eleanor. She still wore bright lipstick, but her hair was shorter, close cropped, more contemporary looking. “Eleanor! I would know you anywhere.” I gave her a long hard hug, let her pull me into her broad, grandmotherly bosom. I smiled as wide as she did. 

“Oh, honey, I am so glad you are here. How I worried about you. The things I remember you getting into.” She held me at arms’ length to look at me fully.

It was only then that I understood. You stay in the rooms for a few years and you lose people, even those who don’t test fate by hanging around places that make it hard to stay sober. You watch people go out and not come back. Those of us still holding on, in one piece, most of our teeth intact, knew we’d been blessed, something you might not understand at the beginning. Eleanor may not have cared about my breaking the law as much as my taking chances with sobriety. I could have been one of her own daughters. “Eleanor, you look radiant. Are you still in San Francisco? Why haven’t we crossed paths sooner?”

“I moved back to New York, closer to my family, the grandkids.” We both grinned more than called for, still pumped up by the contagious exhilaration that had swept through the crowd. “And I go by Lady Eleanor, now; I’m a jazz singer.” She lowered her face and batted her eyes, in a pantomime of false modesty. “I’ve been performing in little clubs around town.” She made a dismissive wave with her hand, in pure diva style. “Nothing big, but I love it.” 

This time, I would not close my eyes to her brilliance. We were both beaming fools. Why should it surprise me? She was a natural. Lady Eleanor was a jazz singer. Of course, she was. She’d always been. 

A. Cabrera‘s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in The New Guard, Brain,Child Magazine, Colere, Acentos Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Best Travelers’ Tales 2021 Anthology, Mer, Deronda, and other journals. Her short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and adapted for stage by the Bay Area Word for Word Theater Company. She writes, teaches, dances and ride bikes in San Francisco, but not always in that order.