A Subterranean Purgatory

by

Mitchell Near

When I was a boy, I took the bus to school. I had no other choice. Too far to walk; too far to bicycle. Both my parents worked long hours, Dad as an airplane mechanic at the regional airport and Mom as a legal secretary. My sister and I were mostly on our own. Our home was a bungalow in San Diego. Little rooms. I did have my own room, but I could barely fit in my model airplanes.

I made my trek to Everett Williamson Middle School on a prototypical yellow school bus with bad suspension and questionable companions. The worst of them being Joe McCleary, six foot three inches tall, two-hundred and twenty-five pounds, blonde crew cut, green eyes, too dumb to know he was dumb. Joe knew his destiny was to be star quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, to lead his team to the Super Bowl and win that ultimate victory. Joe would yell, “Shaddup, Jeremy!” to me when I mumbled lines of dialogue from ‘The Maltese Falcon’ aloud in the seat behind him.

That was thirty-three years ago. Now, I own a Tudor style, four thousand square foot mansion with a three-car garage, plus plenty of room on the driveway for yet more cars, in the Forest Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Inside the garage is a boring Lexus sedan for my wife Jennifer and then there are my two vehicles. The first and foremost being a powder blue Porsche 718 Boxster with a folding soft top. The second, when I need to share the space with clients or family, being a metallic gray Audi A4 Titanium.

I haven’t seen the inside of a bus since being taunted by Joe McCleary. In high school, I switched to a ten-speed racing bike and quickly upgraded to a clover green Triumph Spitfire in my junior year of high school. That sleek auto accompanied me to UC Berkeley, where I got both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in business.

I started out as a financial analyst at Chase Bank and worked my way up the corporate ladder. I’ve since jumped out of that ship to occupy a more elevated role as senior vice president at Lewis and Jacobson Investment Bankers. If you want the best advice possible about how to grow and hide your precious money, then contact us. We follow the letter of the law, but that’s about it. Forget about the spirit of the law. That’s out the window. That’s for chumps who believe in playing by all the rules. Chumps who live dull lives, pay all their taxes, even when there are legal alternatives to doing so, chumps who take the bus or the subway to work, chumps who drive Toyota Corollas on weekends, chumps who vacation at public campgrounds, chumps who work out at the YMCA, chumps who think a good restaurant is the Olive Garden.

Me, I like to enjoy life. I’ve earned it. And last year, I earned a ten-million-dollar bonus. My daughter, Yvette, is attending Harvard medical school studying plastic surgery. That will certainly be remunerative. My son, Jeremy Junior, is finishing up at Stanford business school, a chip off the old block as the saying goes. He’ll make a bundle.

Jennifer and I jet off to Paris twice a year and go on gastronomy tours of all the regions of France. We recently sampled black truffles from Périgord. Amazing taste! Hints of Oak and dark chocolate. And the wines! I love the red Bordeauxs. Pairs beautifully with filet mignon.

But, what I enjoy more than anything, is tooling around at high speeds in my Boxster. I even ship it around the world when I travel. I know this car. The touch of the steering wheel, the subtle give of the brakes, the pull and push of its low center of gravity. And not only do I enjoy racing around France or Holland or Germany, I take great pleasure in racing around San Francisco. The hills are a gas. I’ve even tried the Steve McQueen thing once or twice after checking that no cops were visible in the vicinity. You know, Steve McQueen, Bullitt, the old cop movie. 1968. The car chase. Frank Bullitt is barreling up and over the hills of good old San Francisco and even gets air borne after cresting a few of the steepest hills. Amazing! So, what the hell, I tried that a couple of times. What a gas! I got the Boxster off the ground and some old bag lady tramping up the hill on the sidewalk gapes at me with her mouth wide open and spittle sliding down her chin. I did have to take the Boxster into the repair shop after that. I haven’t attempted that little trick again.

So, a few weeks back I’m late for work. I back the Boxster out of the garage and driveway and proceed out of the ‘hood up to Portola and upper Market Street. I’m zipping now, hitting the green lights, not too much traffic at ten am. Then, I pass Castro street and out of the corner of my right eye, I spy a bicyclist. He’s wearing rainbow colored lycra tights, he’s got a purple bike cap on and a black jersey covered with ads from Bianchi and Pinarello Italian road bikes. The guy is pumping his legs up, down, up down. What the fuck! He thinks he’s Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France coming into the home stretch.

And then, he edges out of the bike lane. Asshole! I see that he wants to pass an old guy on a three speed who’s probably commuting to his desk job, but if you’re on a bike, you’re supposed to stay in the bike lane! Hey, I used to bicycle. I respect them, as long as they stay in their place. Live and let live. Com si com sa.

Jesus, he’s getting close to the Boxster. I just had her polished and tuned yesterday! He’s edging closer. I’m in my lane. I’m following the rules. The jerk edges closer, looks to his left and flips me off! That’s it. I didn’t do anything wrong. I flip him off and steer the car just a bit toward him. Just to scare him. That was my only intention. Then boom, the asshole is down on the road. I didn’t touch him. He’s yelling, screaming, gets up, points at me. He stands up, hobbles around a bit. Not seriously injured. Not my fault. Then, the cop shows up. He was right behind me, okay two cars behind me. He saw the whole thing. Officer, I never touched the guy! He bicycled right out of the bike lane into the traffic lane. What am I supposed to do? I what? I steered into him. Why, never. I would never do that!

He writes me a ticket. A very expensive ticket. Reckless driving it says. He talks to the bicyclist who then limps away while shaking his fist at me and cursing in bad Italian. The cop says, “See you in court.” Then waves me on. I drive slowly to my office in the Transamerica building. I park in my private parking space in the underground garage. I get out of the Boxster and check for scratches. She looks fine.

Three weeks after that unfortunate incident, I end up in the Superior Court of California. My attorney, David Goldberg, is there with me. He recommends I plead nolo contendere, no contest. Judge Jackson, a woman with short black hair and streaks of gray, fleshy bags under her eyes and lines radiating around her mouth, stares down at me. “Since you’re pleading nolo contendere, there will be no testimony from the officer present at the incident. I’ve read his report and that is sufficient. Do you understand the gravity of the situation, Mr. Keller?”

“Yes, your honor, I do.” I answer.

“I see you’ve collected a number of speeding tickets.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“Mr. Keller, driving is a privilege, not a right.”

I look up at her from my seat and twirl my silver pen between my thumb and forefinger.

“Okay, Mr. Keller. Count yourself lucky that no one was injured in the incident. I’m fining you five hundred dollars and suspending your license for thirty days.”

“But how do I get to work?” I blurt out before David elbows me in the ribs and tells me to shut up.

“Good question,” she says and consults a sheet of paper in front of her. “In this particular case, given the degree of arrogance I perceive and after due investigation of my options, I’m going to add one more requirement to the judgment against you.”

“And that would be?” David asks.

“Mr. Keller will not be driving his car or any other car for said period, and he will not be allowed to hire a car to drive him. He must take public transportation, or I suppose he could walk or bicycle to work, but I seriously doubt he will make that choice.”

“With all due respect, Judge Kamon,” David answers, “but I do not believe the law gives you that option.”

“I know you can’t keep up with all the new laws, counselor, but there is a new law, passed back in January, that does give me the option to add this requirement at my discretion.” She waves the piece of paper she had been studying.

“May I approach the bench, your honor?”

“Yes, counselor.”

David walks up to the judge’s bench. She hands him the paper and he proceeds to read it. He walks back to our table.

“Can she do that?” I ask as he grabs his briefcase.

“Yes, she can Jeremy. I’m afraid she can.”

A few days later, I find myself walking to Forest Hill subway station. I’m in no hurry, banker’s hours you know, ten a.m. is plenty early enough for me to be camped out in my office. It’s June and the fog slides past my face in dewy tendrils. I’ve got my blue pin striped suit on, a dark blue fedora atop my head and a slender, black Armani briefcase in my right hand. I stroll down Ventura Avenue past a red brick house with a large multi-paned window overlooking the street. A white-haired man with two small dogs greets me with a hearty, “Good morning!”

“Morning,” I reply and step up my stride, no time to converse with the geezer. I know the way to the station. I do like taking walks in the ‘hood. I also mapped it out on Google. I stride up to the street above the station and walk down the path through the small park behind it. I walk around to the front and into the station. So far, so good. The walk was pleasant enough.

I buy a transit card, proceed through the turnstile and down the long set of stairs to the platform. Water drips down the dank walls and a slight smell of urine wafts into my nostrils. I feel as if I am descending into Dante’s inferno. My punishment as a modern sinner begins.

There’s about thirty people waiting on the platform. Seems sort of crowded for 9:30 a.m. The guy next to me looks normal enough, about thirty-five, business casual dress, good haircut. I ask him, “What’s up with the crowd?”

“Usual Muni shit!” he says with one lip curling up a bit as if he’s just crunched a bite of an African Devil chili pepper.

“What’s the usual Muni shit?” I ask.

“Did you just move here?”

“No, but I decided to try a new way to get to work, maybe save a bit of money.”

He looks me up and down. “I don’t think you need to save any money.” He pauses a beat. “The usual Muni shit is they’re late. They don’t provide any reasonable information about when the train will be here or why they are late. That’s the usual Muni shit.”

“Oh, I see.” This guy may be weirder than his looks imply. I give him a quick nod and walk further up the platform.

I stand and look out over the tracks below. I see a couple of small rats scurrying between the tracks, making their way toward the West Portal station. I glance up at the electronic signs hanging over the platform. “No Predictions,” they spell out in red electronic letters. I take out my phone and open my Wall Street Journal app. I get yesterday’s news. It’s not updating down here in the netherworld of the San Francisco Muni underground.

I look up from my phone. My fellow commuters stare at their devices or off into space, a couple of old Chinese ladies sit on the stone bench behind me and jabber in Cantonese.

I look down the tunnel toward West Portal. I see lights coming this way! I hear the clanging roar of steel wheels on steel tracks. Okay, I think, that wasn’t much of a wait. Then, from the amorphous, hidden speakers secluded somewhere in the tunnel, I hear a robotic, faintly female voice announce, “The inbound train will not be stopping.”

“What the fuck!” I mumble. The train barrels past me, the artificial breeze created by the passing train slightly displaces the perfect angle of my blue fedora. I readjust my hat.

Okay, I’ve got a couple of books on my phone – ‘The Art of War for Venture Capitalists’ and ‘Robot Wars.’” I tap on ‘Robot Wars.’ Apparently, in the year 2153, a future version of Sam Spade is caught in the middle of two groups of robot armies fighting for the control of California. Sort of like the Dodgers versus the Giants, except the robots aren’t demanding huge salaries for hitting a baseball.

I start reading. Apparently, Sam Spade has reincarnated as a new version of a San Francisco detective. You’d think he might want to try a different profession, or a different city. My wife thinks she used to be part of the court of Louis XIV at Versailles, a lady-in-waiting, wearing too much makeup and seducing moronic French courtiers. I suppose that’s possible. Me, I’m more likely to have been a 19th century London banker with one of those cool top hats and a walking stick with a carved gold parrot finial.

I’m deep into the story. Spade has infiltrated the Los Angeles robot army and is gathering intelligence for the San Francisco robot army. Are the robots too stupid to know he’s not a robot? Or, maybe he is a robot! Okay, this is amusing, for a while.

“One car M train for Embarcadero in two minutes,” the Muni voice announces. About fucking time! Why only one car? The train pulls up to the platform. It’s crammed with commuters. The doors open. There’s barely enough room for one more person. I stand in place, not sure whether to get on. Others on the platform have no such qualms. Several commuters rush past me and shove themselves on to the train, pushing other riders further into the train. Jesus! We’re not in Tokyo!

The doors close as the two guys closest to the door squeeze in even further. The train takes off and I’m left standing there with my mouth slightly agape. I close my mouth. I look around. At least I’m not alone. About a dozen of us still remain on the platform. This sucks. I’ve got a client coming in at 11 am. My phone now says 9:46 am.

I hear the disembodied voice, “Two car L train for Embarcadero in one minute.” I look down the tunnel toward West Portal. I see the lights approaching. I hear the clang of the wheels. The train pulls up to the platform, the doors open, I walk into the train car. It’s half empty. I stand in the center area, my briefcase in one hand, my phone in the other. The doors close. We travel into the tunnel, lights on the tunnel walls flashing by as if in a video game arcade hall of the 1990s. Then, we stop. The train halted somewhere underground between Forest Hill and Castro street stations.

I glance to my left and right to gauge the reactions of my fellow travelers. They continue as before, staring at their phones, slumped in their red, plastic seats with eyes closed, a few jabbering away in Chinese, Russian or English. I see repressed anger, frustration, acceptance, like the seven stages of grief. I suppose the next stage is death on the underground. Perhaps a team of manly men from the San Francisco Fire Department will be rescuing us just before we asphyxiate from mysterious gasses. Or the firemen will never show up and anthropologists from the 23rd century will dig up our earthly remains and long defunct smart phones.

Our train lurches forward a few feet. Stops. Lurches forward a bit more. Stops. Then, a miracle. The train starts up and proceeds at a rapid and smooth pace. We slide into Castro Street station.

A smattering of commuters awaits the train. The doors open and they walk onto the train, grabbing a seat or a strap handle or a metal bar above their heads. A young man ambles to the center of the train and plants himself across from me, leaning against the waist high grab handle behind him. He nods at me. I nod at him.

He looks a bit like my son, Jeremy. Tall, a bit over six feet, wavy red-brown hair, parted on the left side and falling to his shoulders, a narrow face with wide brown eyes, a straight nose and thin lips, a strong chin and a sharply trimmed goatee outlining his lips and chin. He wears black jeans and a blue dress shirt. He pulls out a book from his messenger bag.

A book! A book made from paper and glue. A book with a cover. A book that speaks of four hundred years of printed books. I glance at the title – ‘The Glass Bead Game’ by Herman Hesse. Blast from the past! I read that very book when I was a sophomore at UC Berkeley. I’m not sure I understood it, but it was interesting. And, the very sexy girl I was dating suggested I read it. So, I read it.

The kid looks over at me. “Herman Hesse,” he says. “I’ve read all his books three or four times. They open up new worlds to me.”

“That’s great! Believe it or not, I read the very book you’re reading when I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley.”

“Awesome! I think Hesse’s future world speaks of preserving the best of humanity’s cultural and spiritual wisdom, rather than focusing on the trivia of everyday life.”

“I agree wholeheartedly on that.”

The kid smiles and nods his head. “Reading anything interesting on your phone?”

“Sci-fi. Future robot wars. A bit trashy.”

“Hey, no judgment made. Sounds fun and who knows where AI and robots are taking us.”

“You remind me of my son,” I blurt out. Why the fuck did I say that?

“You remind me of my father.”

Okay, this is getting positively Freudian. Better change the subject. “Where you headed today?”

“To the music conservatory. I’m studying music composition and conducting.”

Our train slowly proceeds toward Van Ness station.

“I’m getting off here,” the kid says as we finally pull in to the station.

“Best of luck to you,” I say. “I expect to see you conducting the San Francisco Symphony one day.”

He flashes a big grin. With a wave of his hand, he is gone.

A woman takes his place. She slides into the center area, leans back a bit against the holding bar and stares at her phone. She’s about thirty-five, slender, with waves of black hair falling to her shoulders. She wears blue eyes and a blue dress. The dress is conservative, hiding her cleavage, hiding her knees. But, she’s sexy, and she knows it.

She glances up from the screen of her phone. “Great hat,” she says. “You look like a well-dressed version of Sam Spade.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I say. “The Maltese Falcon, that was my favorite book when I was a kid.”

“Why?”

“It made me feel tough and smart. You need that when you’re a thirteen-year-old boy.”

She put her phone in her blue purse. “You need that when you’re a thirteen-year-old girl.”

“I’m sure you did.”

“You headed to work? Banker’s hours?”

“Exactly. I’m an investment banker at Lewis and Jacobson.” I open my briefcase and extract a business card and hand it to her.

“Jeremy. Jeremy Keller. Senior vice-president. Very impressive.”

“And you? Are you an independent business woman?”

“Exactly.” She reaches into her purse and hands me a business card.

“Lisa Mandotti,” I read aloud. “Catering for the stars.”

“We’re all stars, by the way.”

“Exactly.” I put the card in my breast pocket. “I’m a gastronome myself.”

“A gastronome! We’ll have to get lunch sometime.”

“That would be great!” I smile, but not too widely.

She smiles back, without displaying her teeth.

“Civic center station,” an anonymous female voice intones.

“My stop,” Louisa says.

“Bye for now.”

“Bye,” she says with a quick wave and departs.

She was sweet, and so was the kid. After that shaky start at Forest Hill Station, this is going well. Two stops to go and it’s 10:20. Hopefully, I’ll be sitting at my desk by 10:45 at the latest. Definitely, a bit on the slow side, but, hey, it’s a new experience.

The standing space across from me is empty for now. I stare at the wall of the subway car. I see the boy who read The Maltese Falcon and imagined himself morphing into Sam Spade, a man who could handle both danger and dames. I see the college kid at Berkeley hanging out at Moe’s Books on Telegraph, eyeing sexy young college girls for potential dates. And also eyeing, and reading, every book Dashiell Hammett ever wrote. That college kid wore a grey fedora and wrote short stories about shady characters who sometimes did good things for not so good people. Okay, maybe those short stories weren’t great literature, but they weren’t bad either. The kid realized he’d need to make money and he took some business courses. He aced them and proceeded to graduate school in business and a Master’s degree.

He met a bracing young woman while browsing at Black Oak Books on Shattuck. She was beautiful and sexy and fun. She loved all things French and introduced him to French food and French fashion. He took her on his own Dashiell Hammett tour of San Francisco, showing off the Flood Building at Market where Hammett worked as a Pinkerton detective, strolling past the Geary Theater where the sleazy Joel Cairo had tickets to see the Merchant of Venice, and then to the Palace Hotel where Sam Spade, when he had the cash, ate a sumptuous lunch.

Okay, okay. Why am I tripping down memory lane? Must be something about this subterranean purgatory. Ah, the train doors are starting to close. And in slips, at the last possible moment, a trim gentleman. He strides quickly through the doors before they close and over toward the center of the car. He stands before me.

He’s about six feet tall and about sixty years old. He wears an impeccably tailored Italian grey pin striped suit, a grey fedora with a single blue feather on the left side, and holds a black leather briefcase in his right hand. He stares straight at me. “Good morning,” he says in a smooth baritone.

“Good morning,” I reply.

“Do you know why I’m here?”

“Looks like you’re attempting to get to work, same as me.”

“Perhaps.”

I guess I’ll humor the old guy. He is well dressed, could be a future client. “Why are you here?”

“To be your guide.”

“My guide? To what? Fine suits? I prefer English suits to Italian. Fits my job.”

“And what may that be?” he inquires with arched eyebrows.

“Investment banker.” I hand him one of my cards. He glances at it and places it in his jacket breast pocket.

“Are you satisfied with that role?”

“Pays well, very well. It allows my wife and me to travel the world in style.” I smile.

“But what about the work itself?”

“It’s challenging. Keeps my brain occupied.” I pause for a few seconds. “Are you my guardian angel? Like Clarence Odbody in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’?”

“Well, in a certain sense, yes I am.”

“My wife put you up to this. Didn’t she?”

“I’ve never met you or your wife before.”

“Aha. She was always one for practical jokes. She knew I’d be riding the rails of the netherworld today.” The train crawls forward toward Powell Street Station and then stops.

“Let’s say your wife did put me up to this. She has your best interests in mind. She wants you to experience your truest fulfillment.”

“I see, she did put you up to this. She’s on the board of SF Playhouse. You must be an actor she hired to get my goat. Just like her.”

“I don’t see any goats. I don’t believe they’re allowed on Muni,” he says with a deadpan expression.

“Funny. Very funny. Well, yes, I do find my job fulfilling. I assist my clients to maximize their wealth. This requires me to plumb the depths of the world financial system, to master, as best I can, the myriad legal financial opportunities offered in a world market. Quite fascinating. And, my clients are happy, appreciative and pay well.”

“I see, but didn’t you once want to be a writer?”

“I’m going to kill Jennifer.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”

The train starts up and proceeds toward Powell Street Station.

“Well, yes, I did harbor some literary pretensions when I was at Berkeley. Thought I’d be my generation’s Dashiell Hammett. I hung out at Moe’s and Black Oak Books. I penned a few stories, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to make a living that way.” I looked toward the train doors as they opened at Powell Street Station and imagined making a dash for them. I could walk down Market to Montgomery, not that far, but then Jennifer might arrange for another practical joke. I’d better see this one through.

“Did you publish any of those stories?”

“One. In the Berkeley Fiction Review. Called ‘The Regents’ Extortion’.”

“Write anymore?”

“Sure, I managed to write a dozen or so before business school took over my life. I collected a sizable pile of rejection slips and got on with my education. Jennifer and I were planning to get married, to start a family. We needed to be realistic about how to create a good life, for her and me and our future children.”

The train doors closed and we glided into the tunnel toward Montgomery Street Station.

“And how did that go?”

“It went great. My daughter’s at Harvard Med and my son’s at Stanford business school. Great kids. Both of them sharp and motivated. Now that they’re out of the house, Jennifer and I travel to different regions of France every year. I own a Tudor style home in Forest Hill. The kind of home a struggling writer would never own.”

The old guy lifted up his fedora with his right hand on its brim, and ran his left hand through his silver hair. He replaced the fedora atop his head. I half expected to see a halo appear when he removed his hat.

“Perhaps,” he starts, “you can craft some new stories. Put pen to paper, or keyboard to screen, again. Pursue something different, something in addition to your banking career. Add your voice to the world.”

Our train pulls into Montgomery Street Station. My old friend tips his hat to me and quickly departs out of the train doors. I walk out the train doors a few moments behind him. I see him amble up the stairs and he is gone.

I walk north on the east sidewalk of Montgomery Street. I pass the arched entryway of the Mills Building and see a tall man with a dark grey fedora pulled down to obscure his eyes. Perhaps Dashiell Hammett, or his alter ego, Sam Spade, is investigating a case.

I could spare five minutes. I walk into the lobby of the Mills Building. The man in the grey fedora has disappeared. I amble past the barber shop and the ice cream palace. Perhaps I’ve slipped back in time.

There’s a series of photographs displayed on the long walls of the lobby hallway – photos of Dashiell Hammett and the places he, or Sam Spade, may have haunted. I stop in front of one of them. It’s black and white. Hammett wears a light-colored suit and matching fedora. The sunlight, or the photographer’s flash, cast a somewhat sinister shadow of his head and torso on the wall behind him. The image intimates the ominous creations occurring within his mind.

The Mills Building embodies San Francisco history. Completed in 1892, it survived the great 1906 earthquake and fire. Perhaps there’s a story here. A story of different eras intersecting. A story of a writer, and the characters born of his imagination. The two merging on paper; the two merging in the world we occupy for a short time.

Mitchell Near resides in San Francisco. Along with his interests in writing and literature, he is a student of art, architecture and music. He is also a committed urbanist who loves walking in the great cities of the world.

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