Center of the Universe (60)
Confessions of a Call Girl
Part I: William Holden Trips
What makes this place so fascinating, this gas station for the soul in a universe of a small town, so worth the 90,000 words I’ve expended over the last 2.5 years, are the trajectories. And by trajectories I mean the disparate forces of fate, destiny, chance, serendipity, fluke or whatever you want to call the machina — or deus, if you’re so inclined — that catapulted a North Korean refugee onto the banks of Fairfax Creek next to a gringo from Sheboygan and then tossed in a Lady from Shanghai. Accident, in other words — like the elevator doors open, and there’s William Holden.
“‘And he smiled at me,” she says, with a beatific smile. “Smiled at me!”
Just as well that I have to explain to the wet-behind-the-ears the who, what and where of William Holden. Where he is, since 1981, is nowhere, gone, earthly ashes, shaken over rocks, stirred with a few billion gallons of Pacific seawater. What he was before that was a movie star, but at a time the concept was changing through the efforts of guys like William Holden, who straddled the heroism of yore and anti-heroism of today, becoming the proto-post-modern star: the good guy who’s like a bad guy. The hustler in Stalag 17. Lost writer of Sunset Boulevard. Cynical POW of Bridge on the River Kwai. Drifter in Picnic. Tarnished idealist in Network. Because I’ve always loved Holden, too, I wish I could report he was a straight-up good guy in real life, but I’m not sure. I mean no judgment when I say he was a boozer and ladies’ man — and certainly not when I point out, with full props, that he was paramour of the goddess Hepburn. But he was also bff to Ronald Reagan, best man when that execrable avatar of American con-artist-ism got hitched to “Just Say No” Nancy, avatar of uptight bullshit about fucking and getting high. And in 1966, in Italy, you could argue Bill finally took the anti-hero shtick too far with a drunken escapade that led to his conviction for vehicular manslaughter.
Speaking of trajectories.
Speaking of accidents, William Holden’s towering trajectory would reach a lugubrious terminus when, at the tender age of 63, wasted and alone, he stumbled on a rug in his ocean-view Santa Monica condo — most modest of his three homes — and struck his handsome head on the corner of a bedside table. His handsome corpse was not discovered for four days. But I have a sense, a perverse one perhaps, that explaining Holden — whose last flicker of consciousness, I don’t doubt, summoned a glancing encounter decades prior with an impish Asian stewardess — is halfway to explaining Flo, in a fractured, non-alcoholic way, if not these ass-backward times, if not the whole mixed-up, shook-up universe.
At least, I want it to.
Flo is certainly post-modern — maybe even, in her defiantly independent trajectory, a prototype. Though I’d hasten to point out that, in stark contrast to Bill, she doesn’t drink. Well, not really. One recent Saturday, she confessed — more sheepishly than I’d have expected — that, the week before, she’d taken home the remainder of a bottle we’d left and downed a glass to overcome her insomnia. Which didn’t work. And she never drinks, or almost never, not because she’s a prig — far from it. Not being a prig is one of my favorite parts of Flo’s persona.
Rev. Kang’s favorite part of Flo is her heritage. “Ask her,” he will say with a chuckle, “about her background.”
She describes herself as a “mongrel.” Her grandfather was Portuguese, and maybe something else — “No one knows,” she says. Her father was born in Shanghai, her mother, of a Japanese father and Russian mother, in Nagasaki. Flo was also born and raised in Shanghai. She speaks with a mildly British accent that, all demurrals aside, is most assuredly mixed with something else. She divides the members of her family into those who “look Asian” and those who don’t. As a rank gringo, I’d submit Flo falls somewhere in-between — maybe a little to the “look Asian” side. But I’m not sure what it means, ethnologically, that her white hair is curly. Except that, combined with her diminutive stature, it adds appreciably to Flo’s most defining aspect: she’s an imp.
The baby of five, an afterthought, Flo is 12 years younger than her nearest sib. But I won’t tell you her age, which I was surprised to learn — or figure out — because, when it comes to Flo, the number doesn’t matter. That is, everything she is and does makes it irrelevant. I will tell you, however, that her sister died a few years ago at 101.
If intergenerational friendships are often fraught with Splenda-infused condescension — younger to older — as manifest in dumbed-down punchlines and exaggerated attention to tedious blather, there’s never been any of that with Flo (in either direction). Never any need. From the start, I noticed — at first, out of the corner of my eye — that she got all the jokes, even the most absurd, obscure, post-joke jokes. When I started to probe, making her part of the joke, teasing, testing for boundaries, she never missed a beat, readily taking any handoff — whether a riff about Gary being her current boyfriend, her water glass being full of gin or her former boyfriend being William Holden.
Her comedy is in her face. Her resting expression is innocence verging on acquiescence, until she imperceptibly flicks the switch, unspooling, with a comedian’s timing, a dazzling repertoire of apt and amusing reactions: cupping her mouth in convincing shock, fluttering her eyelids in false-modesty, fake-primping her white curls. Or, for instance, while we’re at Sorellas doing the first interview, shading and un-shading her eyes in a remarkable blend of shame and indifference after a passerby tut-tuts — mock-tut-tuts — at her for sharing a table with me when she’s supposed to be true to Gary.
Of course, that’s another part of her charm. She is true to Gary. She may not be his real girlfriend or wife, and she’s definitely not, via Gary, my mother (especially not with Gary six years my junior). But there’s no mother truer, especially in this bumpy patch he’s going through. Now, on top of inviting him to the crab feed at the Novato Senior Center and Szechuan at the Asian mall in El Cerrito, she’s picking up moving boxes and driving him to CVS for his meds (Gary’s taken care of himself through his 50-some years about as well as the rest of us, plus a couple years ago there was the cancer). She’s also constantly bugging his friends about helping find him a new car, apartment, job.
“I feel so bad,” she says, in a tone that suggests, like most great comedians, she’s well acquainted with the down-turned smile. “He’s so overwhelmed.”
Do I even have to mention where we met Flo? Same place we met Gary. She was the mysterious solo diner at the two-top nearest the piano, a jazz buff, devotee of Wendy, but practically a groupie for Robert Ellis, the Beethoven-maned master of improbable patchwork medleys, improvised opera buffa and nonstop sweat-drenched sets. Often she was hardly eating — sipping a teacup of hot water between slurps of the soup-of-the-day — just grooving. And over the endless nights, as we were grooving nearby — with considerably less decorum and substantially more volume — I couldn’t help but notice the mystery lady. The stylish mystery lady, I might clarify, in loose, patterned tunic, decorated black leggings and red puffy-vest, who seemed to be grooving to our grooving (or at least not complaining). And I’m sure I asked Soy who she was. And I’m sure Soy said “Flor.” And at some point I think I asked “Flor” if she wanted to sit with us — in fact, I’m sure I demanded it. Later I found out she was just Flo (no r) and doesn’t want me revealing her full given name. Which is kind of like Flor, but with an i and maybe an a.
But I knew from the git I had to write about her.
Flo walks to the restaurant — without company or, mostly, cane — and afterwards walks home. In the dark, in the rain, doesn’t matter. When I offer to pick her up, she insists, No, no, no, I like to walk. When I insist on driving her home — but, making my way through the back room, get to fooling with Steve’s standup bass — she takes the opportunity to disappear without a word. I think the walk — four blocks, one uphill, followed by sixty-some uphill steps — is her exercise, but it’s also her privacy. Her mystery. Because open as she may be, Flo is closed. I think the turning point for our friendship was when she came to the house last October for Roni’s presentation about California’s baffling 2018 election ballot. So I think I can say we are friends now, but I can’t say I know her. Which is another reason I wanted to try.
It’s an antiquated habit from j-school and an early career regurgitating the pronunciamentos of rock stars, that I think that non-fiction has to be composed, in part, of interview. I’ve tried to shed that habit for this saga, giving myself leeway by qualifying the blog as “more or less true.” I’ve never done a formal interview with Rev. Kang (though I spent months retooling his memoir) and have yet to get around to grilling Dave Bergman, the retired pocket-trumpeter. But then, as noted in one early post, cool-jazz, LA-slick Dave is in some measure just my fantasy of Dave. Yes, I did an interview with Sonia early on, but only because she’s the shy, back-of-house sister and I needed a pretext to engage. I just don’t see interviews as a big part of this. And certainly not long ones — five hours around the VoiceMemo app — but I didn’t know where to start in parsing Flo except everywhere, everything, from the beginning.
“Bor-ing!” she insisted. I’m not so sure.
Her Portuguese grandfather got a job on a merchant ship and eventually worked his way around the world to the former Portuguese colony of Macao. “Was he running from something?” Flo asks flatly, rhetorically. “The police? The army?”
“A wife and family?” I venture.
“No one knows,” she replies, in what would become a familiar refrain. He may or may not have married a Macaonese woman. (Repeat refrain.) A few years later, he turned up 800 miles away in that Boomtown by the Huangpu, Paris of the East, New York of the West and Sin City nonpareil for British, French and American colonizers. Shanghai. Where, again, he raised Flo’s father.
Her father first married a Chinese woman (at least, Flo thinks she was Chinese), but she died in childbirth. That child, a girl — who “looks Asian,” says Flo — survived. Flo’s father waited 20 years to remarry, and his eventual bride, Flo’s mom, turned out to be younger than his daughter.
“My half-sister didn’t like that,” says Flo, “and it caused friction in the family.”
Flo’s father had done alright in (Flo thinks) the import/export business, and his new family, including the five children — four girls and a boy — by Flo’s mother, along with a cook, were installed in a three-story Tudor-style house in a Chinese neighborhood at the intersection of the Bund and Suzhou Creek. Life in Shanghai was grand — or grand as could be in an occupation. But after Flo’s father died — when his youngest was just five — things tightened up, and her mother had to take in boarders. A decade later, with the household still struggling, Flo, a dutiful more-or-less-Asian daughter, would drop out of high school to get a job. In the meantime, the war between China and Japan had gone global.
Raised on war movies where the violence was all-enveloping, it has always surprised me how much normalcy there can be away from the front. Flo reports that, on weekends and after school — Catholic school, by the way, staffed by French nuns — between air raids and air raid drills, there was much playing in the streets of wartime Shanghai: tag, bike riding, rollerskating and, as they careened towards puberty, boys and girls eyeing each other, not entirely knowing why. Some of them. Her mother was leery of the Russian boys, just starting to take notice of little Flo, because some of the Russian mothers, fallen on hard times, had established a bordello down the block. It may not have been coincidence that up the block from the bordello, next to Flo’s house, was a colonial mansion to which Japanese army officers were dispatched for rest-and-recreation. Flo, who was raised speaking English, but, thanks to her mother, understood some Japanese, recalls a woven, wicker fence around the compound, through which she would hear soldiers inside denouncing the frolicking Anglophone children as “spies.”
“Little kids!” she exclaims, chuckling. “Spies!”
And despite widespread deprivations, especially as the war went bad for Japan, “I never ever went hungry,” Flo says.
“But,” she adds, wagging a finger to make sure credit is given, “I’m sure my mother did.”
For all the normalcy, Shanghai was still in the midst of a terrible war, occupied by a deeply hostile power. You would be reminded of it daily, Flo says, walking by the front door of the r&r facility. If you didn’t bow to the two sentrys — even if you were a tiny girl — they would stomp forward menacingly, brandishing bayoneted rifles, barking in Japanese, until you did.
“Do you know about the Rape of Nanking?” Flo asks me, referring to the infamous savagery invading Japanese visited on the civilians of that city. “We knew they could kill any one of us in a minute.”
Then there was the time a passing Japanese sailor stopped across the street to watch the kids play and motioned to a couple of the boys. With a conspiratorial smile, he pulled a black-and-white photo from his pocket and turned it toward them. It was a woman, one of the boys told Flo. She was laying on the ground, her dress pulled up so you could see her “private parts.” A Japanese soldier, Flo continues with supressed agitation, was stabbing a bayonet to her “privates.”
Then she tells me about the dots.
Under the supervision of a Japanese officer, every household had to prepare a shelter plan in case of air raids. Considering the Chinese residential architecture of the day, most family shelters were like the one in Flo’s house: a heavy dining table, dragged to the center of the building and surrounded by sand bags. When the planes approach, the officer instructed, go there. But Flo’s brother was an aviation buff (and, at the same time, it seems, a smart-aleck). And while mother, Flo and the cook scrambled under the table, brother bounded up to the third floor, which was surrounded by windows, throwing one wide to cheer the American warplanes as they made their way, at top speed and roof-top altitude, up the Huangpu River toward Suzhou Creek, before hanging a hard left to bomb the factories of the interior.
Later, out on the Bund on her ride to school, Flo herself would see the approaching planes. “They’d start out as dots. Little dots you could barely see, and then you’d realize it was the bombers.”
Not surprisingly, her brother’s enthusiasm for the American attackers, heard throughout the neighborhood, did not go down well with the Japanese, and the officer stopped by the house to angrily rebuke — but not, in the end, impale — mother and son.
(Continued in Center of the Universe 61 — Part II: William Holden Goes Down)