Michael Oborn's Next Book

 JACK SMITH
The Sports Reporter We Didn't Know.

The San Francisco Chronicle Years
The Seattle Intelligenster Years

 THE YEARS BETWEEN THE CHRONICLE AND THE SEATTLE PI


     The six foot hulk of brooding features flipped the collar of his brown leather, flight jacket up against the cold, damp night air. 

     “The Plymouth still there?”  Gus, the bartender, asked.
     “Keep my Times.  I’m not done with it,” Jack said.
     Jack’s religion, the New York Times crossword puzzle.

     He listened as the cylinder in the dead bolt clicked over into the locked position behind him.  San Francisco ordinance.  Bar’s closed at two A.M., opened at six.

     Navigating from the blind side of social niceties, Jack paired the necessities of life down to a narrow few. The big nuisance, since the Chronicle fired him, where to hang out for the four hours called for by the City ordinance. 

     The tour de force went something like this; one thirty A. M. a casual glance around the bar, evaluate the possibilities. Tonight? Not even a maybe. There had been no women in the bar at closing time, from which a couch might be bargained . . . if the cost wasn’t too high.

     He treated everything that way.  Any plans, beyond today, were distractions inviting expectations that ultimately evolved into disappointments, etc., etc.. Hard lessons.  Most people don't see the game. They play life too close to the vest.  If you don’t swing away the best you can hope for are base hits.  Jack drank that way too.

     He put his back to the chill and started walking. Not unusually cold for September, but cold enough.  His hand jammed into a set of car keys. 

     The car, a 1960 Plymouth sedan, had been towed away. Complaints from the neighborhood; the unsightly flat tires, all the parking tickets stashed under the windshield wipers.  No sweat, he had never bothered to transfer name ownership, anyway. With a large back seat it had been a good car for a four-hour layover one day to the next. 

     He walked until he came across a 1961 Plymouth and tried the keys.  They went in easy, but no banana.  Extra weight.  They made a dull thud in the leaves at his feet. 

     The polar night air was making itself impossible to ignore.  Call someone. Who?  All the welcomes worn out.  Bleak on bleak. Yet, if there was anything Jack detested it was self-pity. A four hour walk was the last resort.  So it was the warehouse again, before his gonads climbed into his chest and the hangover started.  That was the trick, to close his eyes before the nervous system began to scream for its medicine.

     The alley door was locked, which was unexpected.  He had left it unlocked yesterday or was it the day before?  Moving the garbage dumpster was easy.  On wheels, he only needed a few inches to squeeze behind. Lowering himself down into the window well was a matter of falling right and landing lucky.  He figured the sooty, rain stained plywood that had been used to cover the window was as old as he was. Easy to pull loose. The spiders had been busy. He brushed them out of his hair and felt his way to the stairs and to the upper street level of the warehouse.  The dry, musty smell didn’t seem as thick.

     “I’ve seen better dugouts,” he mumbled as he reached the last step. The moonlight coming through the clearstory windows helped as his eyes adjusted.

     The cardboard was gone. The place had been cleaned up and new pallets of some kind were stacked along the north wall.  This would never do.  Nothing to brace up against the cold.  Last time the cardboard had done the job and he’d managed a couple of hours sleep. Jack felt around the new waist high pallets. Plastic wrap, several layers thick.  Great, all he needed was something sharp. A utility knife lay next to a chain on a long narrow workbench anchored to the back wall. Pushing through, he forced some of the bundles around and crawled in under the wrapping. The plastic over him, and the dry paper goods below, a sense of warmth lulled him to sleep.  A light blissful snoring. His head lolled off the edge of the load. Exhaustion guaranteed sleep.

     A shaking motion. Wake up Sargent. You past the station. It's a court marshal this time. The Major's eyes were hard, piercing. Fear squeezed his heart awake. Old war nightmares died hard. No court marshal. Talked himself out of more scrapes than most see.

     Dark still, Jack waited until his eyes told him where he was. Going back to sleep, out of the question. He oriented himself to the task before him, effecting a vertical posture.  Between racking neck pain and throbbing head he rolled to the floor. His eyes were dry and gritty and he felt his old companion, the rat, gnawing on his gut. Get moving, that was the tricky part, overcome the lethargy of yesterdays anesthetic.  In this bleak, crossword puzzled world, what did you expect – a free New York Times, a bottle without a hangover? 

     Jack couldn’t imagine starting the day even, rested. In fact, that was the premise on which he pecked out his life, testing himself against the inconveniences that marked his days.  He couldn’t remember when he hadn’t been out of time and step. Talking himself out of trouble was standard fair, a subtle charm that worked most of the time.  As he stepped out of the warehouse the smell of the cold sea air triggered memory.

      Nine years old, he would make the long hike to the San Francisco Bridge, work his way along the rocks, and hang out near the water edge until the Marines or the Military Police would spot him. 

     “What are you doing here, kid?”

     “I gonna kill Japs,” always endeared him to the soldiers.  Sometimes they would take him to the mess hall with them, before putting him in a jeep to take him home. Routine. He hoped, the drunk, his father, would not be there.  With the Marines he felt cared for, protected, and at comrade with men. Thus began his love affair with authority. The soldiers were always his friends, their goal identical to his.

It was the same later with the San Francisco police when he woke up in jail.  At release, he always thanked them and offered to buy them a drink. “Anyone going my way?” As sports writer for the Chronicle – the guy that covered their beloved Raiders – it was a protective gesture.  At least that’s the way he saw it.

“Gotta cover the game this afternoon.”

It always got him a ride.  Guess who ended up buying the drinks?

     Inside a boys world, there had been a transfer of sovereignty.  From a drunken father and a depressed mother, authority that could be respected was outside the home.  For the rest of his life the police, the coaches, the teams, the army, the VA  Hospitals and the Editors of the Daily’s he worked for, all were seen as intimates.  He pushed them away and pulled them in.  In his own subtle way he wowed and wooed them all into the tight circle of family he needed approval.

      Yesterday, Dooley, his old editor from the Chronicle, used him for an excuse to have a couple. After putting the paper to bed and before reporting home to the wife he drove by Gus’s tavern.  Dooley was okay.  At least with him the conversation wasn’t guaranteed anesthesia.  Of course, Dooley brought up rehab again and Jack was considerate enough to show him how he felt about inpatient treatment.  His projectile retching seldom posted a clear warning.  Actually Jack was somewhat infamous for this unannounced vomiting. Besides Dooley and one of San Francisco’s elite beauties, Barbara, only Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the National Football League, had been similarly blessed.  With regard to Rozelle it was classic Jack.  As he was being haled closer to the inner circle, he extended one finger, the usual signal that he was about to ask a journalists question, and promptly spewed the partially digested contents of locker room champagne and pizza all over Mr. Rozelle’s $2,000 suit.  But for Dooley this made it the second time.  The first was over a year ago when Jack was still at the Chronicle.

     The AM bartender called in sick. Gus doubled back. At six ten he unlocked the door.  At six twelve Jack came lumbering down the street.  All week he had been the only customer until seven.  He crawled up on the stool and opened his jacket to let the warm in.  Didn’t owe Gus any money, but had counted on his good nature more than once.

     Jack was not one to quibble about the meaning of life.  All the big mysteries boiled down to one, inviolable rule – always pay your bar tabs. The rest was wasted words.  Gus put two shots of bar bourbon in a tall glass in front of Jack, two napkins instead of a coaster.  Jack didn't touch it.  Gus was not the only bartender to perform this ritual with him.  After Gus set the glass down he went in the back room.  Over the next thirty seconds at each swallow the rat, that had been gnawing at his stomach, jumped into the glass and Jack stuffed it back where it came from.  Three times he swallowed the revolting contents of the glass.  Trick was to keep your hands cupped tightly around the glass funneling it to your face.  By the third try the rat was sufficiently anesthetized to stay down.  When Gus returned he had the money for the cash register in his hands.  Jack’s eyes were veined and red, his voice smooth and steady. Jack’s day was made.