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The Oakland Firestorm: 30 years ago today


Today is the 30th anniversary of the Oakland Hills Firestorm, a disaster that impacted all of us who live in the inner East Bay.

I remember the day well. The fire had actually begun on Saturday, Oct. 19, but the Oakland Fire Department showed up, squashed it out, and thought it was over. In fact, most of us didn’t even realize there’d been a fire that day.

It was the next morning, Sunday Oct. 20, that the merde hit the fan; the fire flared up again, only the winds were much more ferocious. I had gone for my workout at the downtown Oakland YMCA and was leaving around noon, when I noticed the sky was turning reddish-brown, and ash and cinders were raining down. I heard sirens everywhere. When I got home, in those pre-Internet days (no Twitter to turn to), I switched on the T.V. to see what was happening, and KTVU was reporting on the fire. I went up on my building’s roof (I’m in Adams Point) and there it was, a huge column of smoke that seemed at least a mile wide. It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen; and, of course, back then, we had very little experience with wildfires in the Bay Area.

My cousin, Maxine, was then working as Planning Director for the East Bay Regional Park District, which is exactly where the fire seemed to be. It being Sunday, she wasn’t in the office, but was home in San Mateo. I called and told her her parks were on fire. I gave her the details, as I understood them: the fire had jumped Highway 24. It had jumped Highway 13. It was roaring towards the Claremont Hotel, towards Montclair Village, towards Piedmont.

“Are you going to evacuate?” she asked.

“No. The 580 freeway is between the fire and my neighborhood.”

“But didn’t you tell me the fire has already jumped two freeways?”

Well, I hung up, packed my valuable papers, got the cat crate for Mr. P., and was ready to leave town!

Fortunately, at around 5 p.m. that Sunday, the wind shifted from offshore (fueled by the Diablos) to onshore, which brought cooling winds and fog; and the firefighters (who by that point numbered thousands) were able to establish their perimeter and let the fire burn back upon itself. I reported on all this in a December, 1991 issue of the East Bay Express, for which I interviewed firefighters for their own stories. The firefighters, who included a Battalion Chief, guaranteed me that, had the wind not shifted, it was likely that downtown Berkeley, Montclair, Piedmont and possibly even downtown Oakland would have burned.

A few days after the fire, Marilyn and I drove up Broadway Terrace to survey the damage. (The National Guard had not yet shut down the fire zone to non-residents.) Our tour lasted only about five minutes, before we were hit with a wave of guilt: What the hell were we doing, sightseeing among the carnage? So we turned around and got out.

The first time I saw the Firestorm Tile Mural Memorial, at the Rockridge BART station, I broke down in tears. It still chokes me up, all these years later. For me, personally, the Firestorm had a much greater emotional impact than Loma Prieta had. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I knew those hills like the palm of my hand. I had run just about every square inch of them, at the North Oakland Sports Center, above the Caldecott Tunnel, up Tunnel Road and through the woods along Skyline. For many years afterward, whenever I took BART into San Francisco, there was a point in West Oakland where you could see the remains of the collapsed Cypress Structure, with rebar sticking out from torn concrete slabs, straight through to the Hills, with the vicious scars of destruction; and I would think, “These are two of the worst disasters in the history of America, and you can see them both right here.” I still think that, even though the scars and the freeway are long gone. Some things, you just can’t forget.

My wine books and papers are going to U.C. Davis


The U.C. Davis School of Viticulture and Enology has asked me to donate some of my wine books and personal papers to them for permanent archiving or display, a request I’m pleased to comply with.

I have about 300 books of various kinds, assembled from the late 1970s until about 2010, when I pretty much stopped acquiring new ones. The U.C. Davis people asked me to identify which of my wine books have been the most influential on me. Here’s the list I sent them:

World Atlas of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Gorman on California Premium Wines, Robert Gorman

California’s Great Cabernets, James Laube

The Wines of America, Leon Adams

Which Wine? Peter Sichel and Judy Ley Allen

Alexis Lichine’s New Encyclopedia of Wines & Spirits

Hugh Johnson’s Story of Wine

Gerald Asher on Wine

The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud

The Official Guide to Wine Snobbery, Leonard S. Bernstein

The Romance of Wine, H. Warner Allen

Notes on a Cellar-Book, George Saintsbury

California Wine, James Laube

The Great Vintage Wine Book, Michael Broadbent

The Wines of California, Roy Andries de Groot

The University of California-Sotheby Book of California Wine

The Wine Atlas of California and the Pacific Northwest, Bob Thompson [inscribed]

Vintage: The Story of Wine, Hugh Johnson

Secrets of the Sommeliers, Rajat Parr and Jordan Mackay

The Complete Wine Book, Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel

The Signet Encyclopedia of Wine, E. Frank Henriques

The Pocket Encyclopedia of California Wines, Bob Thompson

Drink, Andre Simon

Great Winemakers of California, Robert Benson

Wines, Julian Street

ABC of America’s Wines, Mary Frost Mabon

The Father of California Wine: Agoston Haraszthy, Edited by Theodore Schoenman

The Fine Wines of California, Hurst Hannum and Robert Blumberg

The Wines of Bordeaux, Edmund Penning-Rowsell

The Harry Waugh Wine Diaries: Diary of a Winetaster, Winetaster’s Choice, Harry Waugh’s Wine Diary 1982-1986, Pick of the Bunch

I’ve treasured all my wine books, but these have been the ones that most inspired and impacted me, and to which I have returned, again and again, to savor.

Among my papers are tasting notes assembled from roughly the same period, 1979-2010. They number about 10,000, and do not include some 50,000 wine reviews I did for Wine Enthusiast.

I kept every scrap of paper containing every note from the start.

I had no idea why, or what I would do with it all, only the thought that they were somehow worth keeping. (Maybe I had visions of Michael Broadbent’s “Great Vintage Wine Book” dancing in my head!) There were some grand tastings, that’s for sure. Among the more memorable were:

  • a vertical of Joseph Swan Pinot Noirs, 1972 through 1981, at Chez Panisse, for which Alice Waters prepared salmon with Champagne butter and grilled lamb with fava beans and potatoes
  • a Taylor Fladgate vertical going back to 1948 (very great wine)
  • the 1991 vintage in Germany, covering about 400 wines; that tasting severely burned away the enamel on my teeth!
  • An April, 1993 vertical of all seven “great growths” of Bordeaux, including the 1947 Cheval Blanc. This was with Bill Newsom, the late father of our Governor
  • Speaking of Gov. Newsom, I also have the reviews from a half-year of tasting with him to select the wines his new Plump Jack wine shop would offer. Young Gavin drew up the charts in his own hand; the notes themselves are in my handwriting.
  • A Leoville-Las-Cases vertical, 1928-1988, conducted by the renowned collector, Dr. Overton, at the old ANA hotel in San Francisco
  • The 1991 vintage from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti
  • A fascinating tasting of the five First Growths of Bordeaux from both the 1990 and 1982 vintages
  • A Gaja tasting, always a treat. This was primarily the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages.
  • A “California mountain wines” tasting, by Andy Blue’s old Bon Appetit tasting panel, which held such monumental tastings back in the day. I will always remember this particular one because it taught me an important lesson. I had tasted the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon (this was in winter, 1990), and wrote, “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined note. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or the wine is gone.” Unable to make up my mind concerning such a famous wine, I turned to two of my colleagues. Jim Laube said, “91 points, hold 5 or 6 years,” while Andy Blue entirely agreed with me that the wine was over the hill. The lesson I learned: even professionals can disagree. Trust your own instincts.

Take me out to the ball game


Jose and I went to see the Giants play the Dodgers yesterday at Oracle Park. This continued a tradition stretching over many years of us going to a game or two each season, although last year, for obvious reasons, that tradition was interrupted.

Going to see the Giants is a always a highpoint of my summers. Ever since I was six or seven years old, living three blocks from Yankee Stadium in the 1950s, I’ve loved going to ballgames. My father, who was an ardent Giants fan until they moved to San Francisco, used to take me to see them at the old Polo Grounds; we’d walk over the bridge crossing the Harlem River into Manhattan. Whenever the Giants played their greatest enemies, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the tension was palpable.

So yesterday’s Giants-Dodgers game was the place to be. Both teams are doing well in the National League West, the Giants in first place, the Dodgers in second. The Giants have a lot of young players; even Jose, who keeps up with these things, didn’t recognize some of them. The weather was baseball-perfect: mild, about 70 degrees, with fleecy white clouds scudding in front of a hot sun. The boats were gathered in McCovey Cove, hoping to scoop up a home run ball.

We had good seats, on the ground level, about seven rows up from the first-base line.

Jose had brought two of his grandsons, ages six and nine. This was their first-ever professional baseball game, and it had also been their first time on a ferry boat: they’d come over from Larkspur. I told the younger boy, Max, that something very special was going to happen in the seventh inning.

“Will they squirt water?” he asked. He thought the giant scoreboard had some kind of contraption.

“You’ll just have to wait and see.”

At the seventh inning everyone rose, and 35,000 people lustily sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I’ve been singing that song at ballgames for 65 years and I still love it.

Many people weren’t masked. I had thought that, with the delta variant, they would be, but no. I was, and so were Jose and the kids.

But people were just so happy to be outside, at Oracle Park, on a beautiful day. Probably most of them had been vaccinated, and they felt that, having done their part, they didn’t have to mask. That’s the conversation going on now in America.

It’s hard to describe the happiness of being at a baseball game. People may have worries and cares, but they’re set aside for those magical hours. Everybody cheers for the same things and groans when things go south. The organist plays his silly little tunes and we all clap along. Somebody starts to chant: LET’S GO GIANTS and suddenly thousands of others join in. But “we don’t do the wave,” as one woman seated behind me explained to her friend. The camera catches up with someone in the stands—a kid wearing a Posey shirt, a young woman dancing—and their face goes up on the scoreboard, 40-feet high. People laugh, cheer, eat hot dogs and garlic fries and ice cream. (Max insisted on letting his melt to soup, and then he drank it through a straw.)

Oracle Park has completely transformed this part of eastern San Francisco, in a good way in my opinion. It made me think of our current struggle in Oakland to have a new A’s stadium built on the waterfront. A lot of people in Oakland would say that Oracle Park has destroyed the old neighborhood. Where before there was lots of cheap housing and auto body shops, now it’s multi-million dollar condos and expensive restaurants. Is that “gentrification,” or is it a healthy upgrade?

Anyhow, the Giants beat the Dodgers 5-0, and everybody was happy (except for a few Dodgers fans).

The Old Man and the Boy


“INCOMING!” yelled Stevie Resnick.

I looked up just in time to see 3 or 4 fat brown paper bags come hurtling down at us from above. Laughing, we covered our heads and scattered out of their way. The bags smashed down harmlessly, bursting at the seams and splattering shit all over the sidewalk, like scat bombs in an X-rated cartoon.

In the past, all Old Man Gouck would do was stick his compact, red-faced head with its bristly crewcut of white hair out from his window and curse at us, his dark eyes radiating anger we could feel five floors below. 

“You goddamn kids! Shut the hell up, you damn brats!”

But lately, he’d escalated his war against us, loading paper bags with his own excrement. The first time he’d actually caught us unawares, and Donald Brotman got pelted. It was disgusting, the way the slime ran down his shoulder and bare arm.

After that, whenever we played in front of the building, we assigned a Gouck spotter, one of us whose task was to keep an eagle eye on the old grouch’s window.

That day had been Stevie’s turn. He’d done his job well; no one was slimed. But the sidewalk was a fecal mess. We’d have to wait for rain to wash it away, or for Norris, our building’s black super, to hose it down.

So we decided to play across the street, in the park.

“What an asshole,” muttered Donald.

“Yeah, what an athhole,” lisped Bobby Alexander. He was a bit of a sissy. But this was the 1950s, when young boys didn’t yet know about the vagaries of human sexuality, like they do today. So even though Bobby preferred Mah Jong to stickball, and tended to avoid our more strenuous adventures, we liked him well enough, and let him hang out with us.

We were waiting for the light to change when Big Paul said, “That old fool’ll get his.” The rest of the afternoon, we spent throwing a football around. Except, that is, for Bobby, who just watched.

Old Gouck lived alone. He was a mysterious geezer; I can’t ever recall seeing him outside his apartment, although I suppose he must have left it from time to time.

This was in the South Bronx during the post-World War II years of the Fifties, when our Dads — ex-GIs, now factory and office workers — were impregnating our Moms at a prodigious rate, with the result that Baby Boom kids like us were being manufactured like cans of soup in a Campbell’s factory.

I had a million friends I’d known since we were toddlers. Despite the reputation for violence the South Bronx subsequently acquired, in those days it was peaceful, except for the occasional Gouck attack. On summer evenings, the old Grandmas set up beach chairs on the sidewalk and gossiped, their Russian-Yiddish accents salting the warm, sultry air. Our Dads sat on the front stoop and talked about the Yankees, proprietarily if they won, sullenly if they didn’t — the Stadium was only three blocks away, and I can still hear the roar of the crowd when, on a hot August night, Mantle sent one into the bleachers. After our Moms finished cleaning up the supper dishes, they too came downstairs, wrapped in shawls, sometimes knitting for still more babies on the way. And we kids played on the sidewalk, pitching pennies or playing hide-and-seek behind the parked Buicks and Chevvies that lined the tenemented streets for mile after mile after mile, all the way up to Westchester, and beyond.

Young boys love mysteries, and to old Mr. Gouck were attributed many tales that intrigued us. Ours was a crowded, gossipy neighborhood, where stories were told and retold over and over, all the while growing in outlandishness, like in an old-fashioned game of Telegraph. Gouck had been, it was said, a spy; a private eye; an assassin; a soldier of fortune; an inventor; a scientist; a Nazi. Somewhere during the course of his exotic travels, we heard, he had come into a fortune in gold, or money, or precious jewels, which he kept hidden in his apartment. The specifics changed over time, depending on who was telling the story.

My friends had their own theories. Stevie Resnick claimed the fortune consisted of thousand-dollar bills, stuffed into the mattress of his bed. Donald Brotman said Gouck had coffee cans filled with diamonds and rubies and sapphires. From Norris, who lived in a flat in the rear of the basement, we learned Gouck had a king’s ransom in gold coins he kept in a wooden chest.

We fantasized from time to time about getting into his apartment and helping ourselves to the booty. But Gouck was always there, and we didn’t know how to get in, or what we would do if we did and he came raging at us. So it remained a fantasy.

One Spring day — we were 9 years old, and it was during a warm Easter break — Bobby Alexander, Big Paul, Stevie Resnick, Donald Brotman and I were playing Boxball in front of the building. I remember how the little cabbage caterpillars were hanging by the hundreds from fluttery silver threads that dangled from the branches of the mimosa trees. 

Now, Boxball could be quite a noisy sport. Two players faced off across two big sidewalk squares, trying to hit a nickle with a bouncy, ham-colored Spalding hand ball. The play-by-play is fast and furious, and if you throw in 3 or 4 other boys, screaming from the sidelines, you can imagine the ruckus that can be raised.

So it was usually Boxball that got us in trouble with Mr. Gouck.

But that day there were no Gouck alerts. It took a while for this to sink in, but then Stevie said, “Hey, y’know what?”

“What?” Bobby asked.

“No Gouck.” 

“Yeah!” buck-toothed Donald agreed. “He’s usually yelling at us by now.”

“Or throwing doody,” Bobby said. He still used baby words like that: doody, poop your pants, pee-pee.  

We played a little more and I think we were probably noisier than usual. After a while, bored, we sat on the front stoop, chewing bubble gum and talking.

“Maybe Gouck’s dead,” Big Paul suggested. We all shuddered and giggled at the thought of old people dropping dead in their apartments, their bodies rotting away until the smell forced someone to call the cops.

“Yeah!” Donald cried. “He’s probably on the floor, with ants crawling up his nose.”

“Eew,” said Bobby, the most squeamish among us.

“And rats eating his ears,” Donald went on, enjoying the attention. “And worms–”

All of us cracked up, even Bobby. The picture of old dead Gouck seemed suddenly the funniest thing in the world.

“I wonder who’ll get his treasure,” said Stevie, eyes bulging behind coke-bottle glasses.

“How much d’ya figure it’s worth, anyhow?” Donald said, addressing his question to Big Paul. Big Paul was our leader, the best athlete, the strongest and handsomest, the most daring, the boy with the dazzling smile you wanted to like you the best.

Big Paul ran a freckled hand through his thick wavy red hair. “Dunno,” he reflected. “A lot. Maybe a million.”

“A million!” oohed Bobby, his eyes widening. “That’th tho muth moolah.”

“I bet that’s more than your Dad makes in a year!” said Donald to Bobby, whose father was a chiropractor, and whom we figured was the richest of all our Dads.

“You think he has relatives?” said Stevie.

“Old man Gouck?” said Big Paul. “Nah. You ever seen anyone visiting him?”

We all agreed we hadn’t.

“The only person I ever saw visit him,” I said, “was Rudy.” Rudy was the young Italian guy with the greasy pompadour of black hair who worked as a soda jerk in Feldman’s drug store, and also ran errands for the other stores on the block: Lehrer’s grocery, Fox tailor, Lee Chinese laundry, Dave’s butcher shop.

“Let’s ask him!” Big Paul said. We ran around the corner and piled into Feldman’s drug store, where, just as we’d expected, Rudy was behind the counter. He was a handsome, juvenile delinquent-looking guy who looked like Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. Like Sal, Rudy carried a pack of Camel cigarettes rolled up in the short sleeve of his white T-shirt. On his veiny left bicep he had a tattoo of a slinky mermaid coiled on an anchor. I was quite attracted to Rudy, and I liked the way his white soda jerk’s pants fit so snug around his hips, but this was many years before I’d sorted all that out.

The store owner’s wife, Mrs. Feldman, a short, wrinkled old bag with heavy makeup, who always suspected us of shoplifting (which we did frequently), gave us a disapproving look when we came running in, five loud, troublesome kids she (who famously had no children) obviously despised. We took our seats at the counter.

“What’ll it be, boys?” Rudy asked.

“Cherry coke.” “Cherry coke.” “Root beer.” “Egg cream.” “Me too.”

“What’s a Me Too?” Rudy cracked.

Rudy started to mix everything up when Big Paul said, “Hey Rudy, you ever deliver anything to old man Gouck?”

Rudy was loudly squirting seltzer from the machine. “Gouck? The old guy in–?”

“5-B,” Big Paul said.

“Oh, sure, sure,” Rudy said. “Lotsa times.”

“What kinda stuff?” Donald asked, although this was beside the point.

“What kinda stuff? Oh, I dunno. Groceries from Lehrer’s, meat from Dave’s. He’s a lousy tipper.”

“You go in?” I asked.

“Inside his apartment? Sure.” Rudy set down the glasses on little paper doilies in front of us on the marble counter.

“What was it like?” asked Big Paul. We all started slurping our drinks noisily through straws, seeing who could make the most obnoxious sounds. Mrs. Feldman give us a dirty look.

“What was it like?” Rudy had a way of repeating questions before answering them. “I dunno. Just regular-like, I guess. Kinda hot. He keeps the heat way up, even in summer.”

We took this in. I don’t know if we were all thinking the same thought at that moment, but I was, and I was reasonably sure Big Paul was, too, for I knew how his mind worked.

“You ever see anything strange?” I ventured, in my best imitation of Sergeant Joe Friday interrogating a suspect on Dragnet.

“What d’ya mean, strange?” Rudy asked.

“Like, valuable?”

Big Paul shot me a look. “Oh, somebody said he had all these, uhh, paintings,” I said.

“Paintings? I don’t think so,” Rudy said, wiping down the counter. “On the walls? Maybe a calendar.”

We finished our sodas, paid the dime apiece, and left. I shoplifted a Spalding ball on the way out.

We crossed the street and went up into the park on the sloping east side, leaning back on our elbows on the soft green grass. This was one of our favorite places to just talk things through and plan our next adventure.

“Hey, Bobby, did you know you can pick your friends and you can pick your nose but you can’t pick your friend’s nose?” said Big Paul. 

“Speaking of boogers how about this?” Donald said, turning toward Big Paul and flicking a finger at him. Big Paul flinched, and everybody laughed.

The conversation drifted in this harmless way for some time. I knew we were eventually going to return to the subject of Gouck, but I was in no hurry to rush things. These moments with my pals, in the sweet luxury of a warm afternoon with no school, were among my favorites. I was aware of their specialness, of the pure pleasure of making them last as long as you could.

The bees were droning, and the bright yellow forsythia was in bloom. My thoughts leaped ahead to summer and three blissful hot months of hanging out with my buddies, and just being able to be a kid with no responsibilities, until the school year started again.

We lapsed into silence. Bobby Alexander gave a little snort. Big Paul, the wise guy, looked at us, put his finger to his lips, and mimed “Shhh.” He wriggled over to where Bobby was, flat on his back on the grass, asleep. Big Paul leaned over him, hocked his throat, and drooled a string of phlegm onto Bobby’s fly.

“Hey Bobby!” he called out, shaking him by the shoulder. “Bobby! Wake up! You peed your pants!”

We all cracked up. Bobby blushed, but he was used to being the butt of our jokes, and we liked him all the more for the fact that he could take it and laugh along with us.

It was Big Paul who first mentioned Gouck.

“Maybe he’s not dead, after all,” Big Paul said. We all knew who “he” was.

“What do you mean?” Stevie said. “If he’s not dead, then why’s he so quiet?”

“Maybe he’s gone,” Big Paul suggested.

“He never goes anyplace,” Donald objected. “He’s got no friends or family.”

“How do you know he doesn’t?” I asked.

“How do you know he does?” Donald shot back.

“Didn’t you thay he doethn’t?” Bobby asked Big Paul.

“I think,” Paul said, “he went away for a while. I think he’s got relatives in the country, maybe Jersey, and they invited him to stay with them.”

We considered the possibilities. If he’d gone to visit relatives, or was dead, either way, he couldn’t protect his apartment.

“We gotta get in there,” Big Paul said.

There. It was uttered. I’d known it in Feldman’s, nursing my egg cream, but I knew it had to be Big Paul who said it, because he was our ringleader. Nobody could refuse the suggestion of an adventure if it came from Big Paul. 

“How’re you gonna do that?” Stevie said, not convinced. “I bet he double-locks his door. All old people do.”

“Maybe he keepth hith keyth under the doormat,” Bobby said helpfully.

“No, you doofus,” said Big Paul. “We don’t need keys. We can get in from the fire escape.”

“Ithn’t that dangerouth?” Bobby frowned.

I didn’t exactly disagree. Gouck’s fire escape was 70 feet above the concrete sidewalk. The railings were low, and there were spaces between the metal bars big enough for a pet — or a child — to fall through. Mom and Dad had raised me with few rules, but one of them was never, ever, under any circumstances go onto a fire escape, and I had accepted that advice unquestioningly. What Big Paul was now suggesting sent a chill up and down my spine.

“Ellen Marcus lives right above him in 6-B, right?” Big Paul was talking fast now. “We can wait until her parents are gone, then she lets us in, and we climb down from her fire escape to his.”

“We’d have to do it at night, so no one sees us,” I said. My desire to please Big Paul was stronger even than my fear.

“Right. And even if he locks his window, I know how to open it.” Big Paul explained how a Puerto Rican kid at school had showed him how to jimmy open a window with a carpenter’s file, which Paul’s Dad just happened to have.

So we made our pact. Standing in a circle in the deepening twilight, we held out our hands, palms down, and stacking them one on the other, solemnly agreed to do it as soon as an arrangement could be made with Ellen Marcus — break into Gouck’s apartment, and steal his treasure.

* * *

It was my job to talk Ellen into it, but that wasn’t hard. She was a pal. We’d used to spend time together when we were younger, 6 or 7, her mom dropping her off at our apartment, or my mom bringing me to hers. Ellen got me into dolls and what we would later think of as role-playing. She was a little crazy, a tomboy who was always up for anything. 

Turned out her parents were going out that Saturday evening, and since Ellen was mature for her age, they didn’t mind leaving her by herself. It was I Love Lucy and Gunsmoke night, and her parents knew she’d be glued to the T.V.

We guys met up in the lobby, then raced up the stairs to the sixth floor and her door. I rang the bell. Ellen opened it instantly, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans and a dark brown Micky Mouse sweatshirt. Her face was flushed with excitement, and her eyes had a feverish glow. She carried a big silver flashlight.

“What’s that for?” Big Paul asked.

“For when we sneak in,” Ellen said. “So we don’t have to turn on the lights.”

“Who said you could come?” Big Paul said. 

“I thought–”

“No girls!” Big Paul said. I thought Bobby Alexander looked a little scared, and he was real quiet, too. Donald seemed frightened, but determined not to show it. Stevie Resnick, who always was the first of us to cry if something didn’t break his way, was excited. “Lemme go first!” he clamored.

“You can follow me,” said Big Paul, as if there’d ever be any question about who led. He took the file from his back pocket and passed it around. It was about a foot long and ridged on both sides, with the edge narrowed to a sharp chisel.

We’d taken the precaution of wearing dark clothes to minimize the danger of anyone spotting us on the fire escape. Now, as Ellen led us single-file to the kitchen through the foyer, we seemed like something out of a war movie, Stalag 17, maybe, soldier spies behind enemy lines. My breathing was sharp and rapid, like I’d been holding my breath underwater. I was uneasy, yes, just a little. But I wanted to please Big Paul, and to show him that I was the bravest of us all, besides himself.

When we got to the kitchen, Ellen opened the window. Big Paul kind of shoved her aside. He looked out, and up, and then down. I felt the breeze come in, cool and moist.   

Big Paul turned back around and faced us. Keeping his voice to a whisper, he said, “All right, here’s the plan. Me, Stevie and Donald go down first, in that order. Kenny, you follow us, but just halfway; stay on the stairs, to keep watch.”

“Aw, Paul,” I protested. I didn’t want to bring up the rear, I wanted in on the action.

But he ignored me. “Bobby, you stay up here with Ellen.”

“I wanna go too!” Ellen objected. “It’s my flashlight and my fire escape.”

“Don’t be a doofus,” Big Paul said. “I said no girls. Besides, you have to stay up here in case your Mom calls.”

“She won’t!” Ellen insisted.

Big Paul was having none of that. “How do you know? She might. If you don’t answer, she’ll think something’s wrong.”

This was so logical, Ellen could think of nothing to say.

Big Paul lifted one leg, hoisted it over the sill, and with a silent leap was gone, like a raven into the night. Then it was Stevie Resnick’s turn.

He hesitated.

“Hey Stevie.” I heard Big Paul hiss after a while.

“It’s your turn,” Donald said to him, uncertainly.

“I don’t wanna go,” Stevie whined. “My Dad’ll kill me.”

“RESNICK!” Big Paul was whisper-hollering from the night. 

Stevie Resnick is such a pussy, I thought.

“I’ll take your place,” I told him. I nudged beside Donald and leaned out the window and said, “Psst, Paul.”

“Who’s that? Kenny?”

“Stevie chickened out. How ‘bout if I take his place?”

There was a moment of silence. Donald, Stevie, Bobby, Ellen and I looked around at each other. Then Big Paul said, “All right, but make it fast. Sheesh!”

I armed myself up over the sill and onto the fire escape, trying not to look all the way down to the street. I could see Big Paul below me, halfway down the ladder that led to the fifth floor and Gouck’s window. Big Paul was staring up at me, his eyes glinting where the moonlight hit them.

Big Paul climbed silently the rest of the way down, followed by me and then Donald. He crouched by the window, spreading both hands on it, one under the top sash, the other on the middle pane. He gave the window an upward tug, and it slid open.

“Guess we won’t need that file,” he grinned.

Big Paul hoisted himself in. I did the same, and then Donald. It was immensely hot inside, like an oven, and the air stank of old grease and rotting meat. I heard the buzzing of flies.

“Phew,” said Big Paul.

We stood there getting our bearings, breathing in the fresh night air that spilled in from the open window. 

“Kenny, you stay here. Donald, c’mon with me.” Big Paul and Donald disappeared through the door, leaving me alone in the kitchen.

There was just enough light to be able to make things out, and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see more. A Formica table with some dishes and cups. A crust of toast on a plate, an opened tub of margarine. A framed picture of a haloed Jesus on the wall. There was a big empty can of Savarin coffee on a counter, but it contained only pennies, not diamonds or emeralds.

The sink was filled with pots and pans, and the faucet was dripping, making slow, metronomic plonks where the drops fell into an over-flowing saucer. On the white-tiled counter, black spots moved in random, rapid zig-zags.

Cockroaches! Startled, I involuntarily jumped back, and felt my heart tighten in my chest.

“Kenny!” It was Big Paul, in the next room.

I turned and ran out of the kitchen, toward a circle of yellow light that was bobbing up and down and side to side.

In the living room, Big Paul was shining the flashlight on a wooden chest the size of my Grandma’s dowry trunk, the one with the silks and satins she’d brought over from Russia. Donald stood beside him, still and silent as a wax dummy.

Big Paul was smiling in triumph. “I bet this is it!” he gasped.

Visions of gold bullion filled my mind. Like every other boy, I’d grown up on pirate stories. I’d seen Treasure Island — in fact, with Big Paul and Stevie Resnick — at the Earl Theatre, just the summer before. I remembered the scene where young Jim Hawkins opens the chest on the beach, and his eyes flare at the cache of gold coins gleaming under the tropical sun. And then, how his excitement turns to horror when a shadow passes over, throwing the coins and himself into darkness: Long John Silver, with one eye and a murderous, toothless grin.

But the chest was locked. Big Paul worked at it with his file, chinking at the sides, trying to pry it open, stabbing the hasp with the point of the chisel. All to no avail. After a few moments, he stopped, to get his breath, and figure out what to do next.

“Hey, where are you guys?”

It was Ellen’s voice, from the kitchen.

“Kenny? Paul?” Bobby Alexander, too.

“Shit!” Big Paul muttered. The others filed into the living room. Even Stevie Resnick had come. We were in a huddle standing around Big Paul, who was down on his knees on the carpet. He had put the flashlight on the chest top, so that the light shone from under, making his face look skeletal and demonic.

“Why’d you guys come down?” he said. He was upset. “I thought I told you to stay upstairs.”

“We wanted to be part of the fun,” Ellen explained.

I looked at Big Paul. Suddenly, something didn’t feel right. 

“I’m going back up,” I said, and started to turn to the kitchen, when I heard a click that was so loud it shattered the night like the crack of a bullet.

We all froze.

“Someone’s at the door,” Stevie Resnick whispered, in a voice that was barely more than a breath.

More clicking sounds, metal on metal.

Suddenly all hell broke loose. The six of us rushed toward the kitchen. It was every kid for himself, with me in the lead, then Big Paul bypassing me, shoving me out of his way. We were a wild clutter of bodies, elbows, knees, all scrambling toward the kitchen window, like some ungainly creature with twelve legs and twelve arms and a single desire: to escape.

Big Paul and I were at the window. He punched me hard in the bicep, so I let him go first. Then as fast as I could I leaped out onto the fire escape and, clutching the metal stairs, began hauling myself up. Behind me I heard the other kids, but I really didn’t see anything, just was aware of them fear-filled and moving fast, in a welter of sobs and gasps and shouts. I heard someone cry out and then it trailed off and away, and I figured it was Stevie Resnick, losing it as usual. Then I was back at Ellen’s kitchen window.

I scampered up onto the sill — Big Paul was there, and he pulled me in. I took my place next to him as, one by one, the others climbed through: Donald Brotman, his sides heaving like he was going to throw up, Ellen, wild-eyed and laughing like a madwoman, Stevie Resnick, his eyes moist and red. He no longer had on his coke-bottle glasses.

We all stood there breathing heavy for a moment. Then Big Paul said, “Where’s Bobby?”

Then we heard a scream. It was an unearthly, high-pitched howl, like the cry of a victim about to be torn alive in a monster movie. But we were in no movie. The scream was coming from outside, from down below, in the street. “He’s bleeding!” the voice wailed. “Help! Police! Someone call an ambulance!”

* * *

I remember, from this vantage point so many decades later, some indelible images: The howl of the sirens, the flashing red and blue lights of the police cars, the big white ambulance pulling up in a squeal of tires. We kids had rushed down to the street immediately upon realizing that Bobby must have fallen off the fire escape.

A policeman interviewed me. His name was Sergeant Crawley (funny how the name, so irrelevant, sticks in my memory). My parents were out front by then, too, along with what seemed like hundreds of people. The block was mobbed with activity: flashing lights, sobs, loudspeakers, hushed whispers, crackly police radios, parents calling their children’s names, frightened kids looking for their moms and dads.

I knew I was in big trouble but there was nothing I could do about it. Mom took me by the wrist and told me to come upstairs with her and Dad now and go to bed, we’d talk about it in the morning. I said, Just a second. I wanted to say ‘bye to Big Paul, and wriggled my hand free and darted away before either of them could stop me. I’d seen him over by the mimosa tree on the corner, talking with a cop, Big Paul looking not so big after all, but frightened and deflated. Somehow I couldn’t let go of the night and everything that had occurred in it without one final assurance from Big Paul. Or maybe it was I who finally wanted to reassure him.

I was moving toward him when I felt cobwebby stickiness all over my face and something burned my eyes. I’d walked right into the caterpillars hanging on their silk threads from the mimosa tree, like tiny insect bombs. Bringing both hands to my face, I tried to brush the stuff away, clawing at my lids, scraping my cheeks, spitting. When I could see again, Big Paul was gone. The medics were loading a gurney into the back of the ambulance, the lifeless body on it covered with a bloody sheet.

I turned around and went back to my parents. We took a crowded, silent elevator up to the third floor and our apartment, where I sank into a dreamless sleep.

* * *

Bobby Alexander’s parents moved out of the building shortly after that, and we never heard from them again. We did learn what had happened to old man Gouck, though.

It turned out he’d been dead after all, of an apparent heart attack or stroke, stretched out on his bed, in the very next room from where we kids had been. Norris had been alerted by Dave, the butcher, and Mr. Lehrer, the grocer, that the old man hadn’t bought any food for more than a week. Norris had gone up to 5-B to inquire. He’d knocked on the door a couple times — this must have been right before we came through Gouck’s window. When there was no answer, Norris had taken the elevator back down to his basement apartment, where he kept the extra keys to everyone’s units. Meanwhile, we had snuck in.

Then Norris came back up and put the key in the lock. The sound that had spooked us had been him jiggling with the dead bolt. While we were scampering back down the fire escape, and Bobby was falling off it, Norris was discovering Gouck’s body.

So there were two dead people that night, one old, one young.

* * *

I never saw Donald Brotman again after we both went to college, although I heard he moved to Buffalo and became a pharmacist. Ellen Marcus married young, had kids, and died of a brain hemorrhage when she was only 34. Big Paul, after a tryout for a Yankee’s Double-A team, settled for teaching gym at a high school in New Rochelle; I heard from him a few years ago. He was retired, living in Boca Raton, and playing a lot of golf. Stevie Resnick was the most successful of us, a bigtime tax lawyer who, it turned out, once represented Donald Trump. I have thought, too, and tenderly, of Bobby Alexander, of a life cut short for no other reason than his earnest desire to be one of the boys.

We never found out if Gouck’s treasure really existed. Sometime after that awful night, a white box truck double-parked in front of the building, and two beefy men with a hand cart loaded it up with everything from Gouck’s apartment. When they drove away, they took with them the mystery.

As for me, I went on to my career as a wine writer. But I never forgot Gouck and Bobby. They, or their ghosts, have followed me through the decades, the young boy looking for his place in life, and the old man who just wanted peace.

* * *

Remembering Eugene, who died thirty years ago


I met Eugene in a Folsom Street bar in the Spring of 1982. We did it that night, which wasn’t unusual for the place and time. What was different was that we wanted to see each other again.

Our first proper date was at a club on Upper Market, just northeast of Castro Street. It was a classy, retro joint, out of Hammett: up a flight of stairs, with soft music, dim lights, thick carpets, mirrors and a big long bar. We sat at a little table and had beers. A lot of beers. And talked and talked. And then we went back to my place.

Later, in bed, very late at night, Eugene asked me to tell him a story. I always liked that aspect of him. Although he was seven years older than me, he had a childlike quality of innocence, although he certainly wasn’t naïve. Cousin Maxine called him “the nicest man in the world.” He was polite, laughed easily and happily, adored his friends, and was, mirabile dictu, sane. After we’d lived together, in Bernal Heights, for some years, his rheumatoid arthritis, which he’d had all his life, grew worse, and he began taking Percodan for the pain. The pills made him grouchy, never to me, but toward his tormented body. His job didn’t help: he was a “speedy,” a Special Delivery driver for the U.S. Postal Service. For eight hours a day he lugged 40-pound gift boxes of Hawaiian pineapples and other heavy crates up front-door stoops and it took its toll.

Our work hours were opposite to each other, which limited our time together, but we managed to do a lot. There was a Chinese restaurant on Mission that served, oddly, pesto pizza which we loved. We’d drive out to Ocean Beach and take walks in the dunes, or go to the movies, or visit his friend, Barbara, whom he called Babs, in her little flat on Telegraph Hill, and hear about her latest affair. We went to Yosemite a couple times, and once to Waikiki, and one time to South Tahoe, where my father’s cousin, the late comedienne Joan Rivers, invited us to her show in a casino and received us backstage. Eugene’s folks lived in a trailer park in Calistoga, and we’d drive up there too.

Eugene had the sweetest relationship with them. He loved his stepmom but his biological dad had a special place in his heart. His dad was already in his eighties and physically shrunken so that he had an elfin quality. Eugene would walk down the sidewalk in front of their trailer park on a hot summer day and his dad would race ahead and hide behind a tree and “scare” Eugene at the last moment. Eugene loved that; it cracked him up.

After five years I got a job in Oakland and moved there. The relationship never actually ended, it just sort of slowed down. We remained friends. One day, in 1991, his friend Calder called to say Eugene had died. Something to do with his lungs, due to the rheumatoid arthritis, I was told. To this day I keep his photo on the bookcase in my living room. Together with Gus, my late dog, Eugene was one of the two living beings that loved me most in my adult life, and whom I loved.

Oh, the story I told Eugene? It was about a monkey king. It was improvised, which a proper story should be. Eugene held me tight at the end and kissed me.

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