Issue #55, May 2001
It is a special hell when you roll down from a plentiful flat to an empty hole. In San Francisco, empty bottles, some broken, some intact, lay around like carcasses, waiting to be shattered and hopefully recycled. The nothingers of my city gathered around those bottles the night before when all were full of life and vigor... and hooed and rayed, and slammed about as if it was there last night sleeping on the sidewalk. They smoked crack from spark plugs broken from the pistons of parked motorcycles. And the next morning the only evidence that they ever existed was strewn across the sidewalks and into the street.
I make it a special point every morning on my way to bagels and coffee to partake in this eyesore and stench. This realness is best experienced early morning before the trash crews have made their rounds. The blankets, the shopping carts full of goods, cardboard boxes, and makeshift pillows and the rest of the measly possessions of the nothingers. The city's prissy beautification campaign, created by yuppies, has assigned a special crew that have been pulled out of the prisons to make these streets seem clean. They wear orange jump suits and swoop down from some ungodly perch and sweep and gather and toss it all into the back of a dump truck with unmarked California exempt plates. The nothingers can only watch as the last of their possessions are pried from them by gloved hands. These demonic angels dressed in orange, paid only with a morning out in the sunshine, reek havoc on the simple lives, and later lick the sidewalks clean with their greasy tongues. But even after the crews have done their twice-overs and the sweeper truck has made its dramatic round, the sidewalks are still far from sterile. You can still smell the urine, the shit that's a little too big to be dog, the stains. You can never forget the presence of the nothingers. I know there are many who wish we could throw them away... walking human trash, but the Constitution only allows us to strip them of possessions that are too trash-like to ever be construed as valuables.
Chessmaster Dave hit the bottle hard several times before I met him again. When I knew him he was a registered nurse, with a chess pad and a fridge full of Heinekens and Ho Hoes. I barely recognized him. He had developed a survivor skill, he had hit bottom enough times that he was confident he could bounce back from any calamity like a ball against concrete. His appearance was no longer sharp, his health had deteriorated, and he had lost his license to nurse. He was living in a halfway house in the Haight, an alcohol recovery unit he was lucky to find. He had a recovery girlfriend, and a 4th floor room with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. He came by several times and we played chess like old times. He had not lost his chess skills. I would drink Jack Daniels in front of him, and I could tell the bug was eating at him. He was a few steps away to becoming the human trash that littered my city's sidewalks.
I loaned Chessmaster Dave my '76 orange Dodge van with shag carpet. He would use it to get him and his girlfriend to classes where they would teach chess to young kids. I figured I was doing a good thing for Chessmaster Dave and the kids he taught. He really seemed to enjoy sharing his chess knowledge, and kids appreciated his sincerity.
Then one Friday night, Chessmaster Dave showed up at my front door, my orange van sprawled out on the sidewalk like a wounded elephant. I could not help but notice the large end-to-end scratches in the orange paint. He had vodka on his breath and he came staggering his way through the door bantering on about his suffering and demanding to play chess with me. I was not thinking of chess. I was thinking of my beautiful van dragged across some wall, its bumper, its paint, even its black-walled tire....all cruelly scraped. Possible city department telephone numbers raced through my head. I longed for some human dump somewhere where people even close to nothing could be dragged kicking and screaming, where they could not uglify the stuff we everythingers have worked so hard to accumulate.
Then the familiar tang of human sympathy came over me. This poor man had just lost his girlfriend, and had hit the bottle after two years of sobriety. Losing love and then hitting the bottle is a normal human plight. But when it occurs just a few suitcases from nothing it's like a thirsty riptide, swallowing all who are without propelling devices. Dave was ready to propel himself back to the AA house in my van since I refused to play chess and drink with him ... and I was determined to strip the van keys from his clutches. I ended up trading him my half empty gallon bottle of Jack Daniels for the keys. I did my civic duty and tried talking him into going to a coffee shop and sobering up before confronting a houseful of Alcoholics Anonymous militants. But Chessmaster Dave was convinced he could make it up those stairs. "I am a Chessmaster ... I will be like double 0 fuckin 7 going up those stairs."
Chessmaster Dave spent the next four nights in jail. When I bargained with him for the van keys we both forgot that his room keys were still on the chain. It did not take long before poor Dave, stranded outside his room, was detected by the raging alcohol haters. He was immediately told to take his two suitcases and hit the streets. When he protested, the police were called and, one outstanding warrant later, Chess Master Dave spent the weekend in jail ... time enough to ponder all his blunders.
My city provides just enough for the nothingers so that they don't die. They patrol the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent them from jumping. They give them a warm cell and food for a few days when they misbehave, medical care when they fall over, and elaborate turkey dinners on major holidays. The exit of the nothingers will have to be a slow deteriorating collapse, before they are thrown to the human trash depot which is the city morgue, where their weathered and blistered, needle-punctured, bruised, and reeking corpse will be lit up in a one last hoorah ball of flames.
I was not prepared to take on a down-and-out spirit-addicted Chessmaster, although if positions were reversed Chessmaster Dave would surely take on me. I ignored his incessant knocking the day he got out of city jail Hell. Through my upstairs window I could see him crashed out on the sidewalk, his suitcases by his side.
It was his suitcases that broke me. Chessmaster Dave was 43 years old, and in his life all that he managed to accumulate and not lose was contained in those two bags, battered and weather-worn. Chessmaster Dave was still an awesome chess player, and for this reason I still had awesome respect for the man. I could not stomach the thought of those demonic orange angels swooping down on him, grabbing from his clutches those two suitcases, and throwing them into the back of that hell-bound dump truck. Angel of mercy that I am, I gave him the door keys to my newly-battered orange van. A place for him to shelter his stuff from the various hoodlums, and a soft carpet to rest his chess filled head. Occasionally I look down from my window on that wretched street to make sure my van and Chessmaster Dave are still there ... that my city has not towed away my van, Chessmaster Dave and his suitcases to City-Tow-Yard-Hell.
The clean freaks of my city's civic system know how to dispose of all down-an- out devices. They've got tow-trucks for the vans, sweeper trucks for the garbage, coroner wagons and cop cars for the nothingers. For trash they can't recycle they have entire islands of trash plunked into the bay and planted with grass for our kids to play on. The morgue has three churning smokestacks above it. Chessmaster Dave has come dangerously close to their vises ... and I am rooting for him.
As for me, a word to all city rogues: I sleep with a baseball bat at my side. I will come swinging at any city vehicle that tries to take away my stuff. That includes my TV, my van, and my Chessmaster Dave. But one thing is for certain ... the one thing which no demon will ever strip is my chess skills ... a special possession to which only Chessmaster Dave can fully relate.
Eric Hicks is a UC Berkeley graduate who rebounded from being a high school drop out thanks to chess. His program Academic Chess now teaches 40,000 elementary kids a year in over 200 public schools, utilizing stories, songs, and dances Eric enjoys writing.