El Dorado Part 1: Girl Bait & Glass Eyes
San Francisco, let me beat my feet
Up and down Market Street
I’m gonna climb Nob Hill, just to watch it get dark
From the top of the mark
− Judy Garland, “San Francisco”
I woke wincing, my body naked and tangled in a sea of baby blue. Fog-filtered sun flooded the room from the north-facing wall of glass. The bay stretched in a sparkling gray sheet straight from the edge of the windows to the mouth of the Golden Gate. The surface of the water caught every shard of sunlight and sent the beams straight into my eyes, blinding me in the white light of San Francisco morning.
Paralyzed in the bed of a vice cop, I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. I pulled the satin sheets to my chin, but my grip didn’t hold. My body slipping and sliding from under the sheets, every sixteen-year-old inch of me was caught in the searing glare of sunlight spilling from the windows. I never felt so naked in my life. My eyes winced and scrunched tight, setting off explosions of multicolored glitter. I clenched myself into a knot in silent rebellion against the reality morning dished up for breakfast.
“Lazy bones,” El Dorado hollered.
Water was running in the bathroom and gurgling down the drain.
“Time to get up!”
The water shut off. I peeled my left eye open a crack and peeked out. There he was.
El Dorado stook naked at the end of the bed. His body glowed in a halo of morning sunlight as he wiped it dry with a crisp white towel. His body was like a model of a man’s body, a doll body, supremely unreal in its perfection. Evenly bronzed with a 1970s tan, gently furry with a soft coat of curly brownish blond hair covering every inch of his baby soft skin, he was like a toy or a picture from a magazine come to life. Like those men in ads for Cadillacs and cigarettes I’d see in my dad’s PLAYBOY magazines.
I studied every inch of this man standing in front of me in the unforgiving morning light, and I found nothing to forgive. El Dorado was flawless. Unmarked. Not one single scar left a trace of history on his smooth skin. This seemed strange to me, that a vice cop’s body could be so perfectly unmarked by violence.
He snapped the towel at me. “Lazy bones!” he said and snapped it again.
He put a joint to his lips and lit it, inhaling as he strutted over to the wall of glass. He slid open a door and exhaled a long cloud of smoke blending into the fog outside. Then he stepped outside the door and planted his bare feet on a ledge no deeper than 12 inches.
His arms reached over his head and then over the rail stretching out towards the bay. Seventeen stories high, perched on top of Pacific Heights, El Dorado greeted the morning with raw glory. Standing bare ass naked above the city, he released a series of “ahhs” and “mms” from the tiny balcony of his penthouse apartment that was way above a cop’s pay grade.
El Dorado was on top of the world. Or at least, he played the role with perfect precision.
I closed my eyes again and pictured my biological father’s ceramic whisky decanters on the other side of the city. His collection awed and terrified me: harlequins, harlots, clowns, and dogs. One monkey would piss a shot of whisky straight into your glass if you fed it a dime.
SNAP. The white towel was having at me. “Up, up, up!” shouted El Dorado with a smile. “I have to get to work. Don’t you?”
He turned the shower on for me and tossed me a fresh towel. After my shower, I peeled on yesterday’s clothes, and we hit the road.
Riding the elevator down, El Dorado studied me but said nothing. I wanted to crawl inside my skin and hide. He opened the passenger door of his 1976 Eldorado and ushered me inside. I slid into the pillow tucked leather seat and stared blankly out the window as he maneuvered the car out of the garage. With the hood a mile long, the car slid out of the garage like a shark on the hunt. We turned the corner onto Van Ness and began our descent into the guts of the city.
We crossed Market Street and headed north a few blocks until El Dorado pulled up to a guard station just inside a long stretch of chain link fence. He reached down, grabbed his badge off the seat, and showed it to the guard. They exchanged “good mornings” and quiet laughs. The guard leaned into the car, eye-balled me, and then nodded at Eldorado who nodded back.
Eldorado navigated the car past rows and rows of black & white patrol cars, unmarked undercover cars, and then more black & whites. He slid the car up to a gas pump, got out, and began pumping gas. Apparently, even vice cops who drive Cadillac Eldorados get gas at the station just like the black & whites. There’s no hierarchy in cop gas. A cop is a cop, and in San Francisco, cops have their own private gas station, so I learned my first morning with El Dorado.
I sat in a surreal state of fear. I was in the belly of the beast, surrounded by nothing but cops. Eldorado didn’t seem to be bothered by this at all. He acted like it was the most natural thing on the planet as he leaned in the window and said, “Back in a minute.” Then he turned and vanished.
Time stood still. Black & whites rolled in. Black & whites rolled out. Cops walked here. Cops walked there. They walked alone and in pairs. I began to sweat unnaturally. I couldn’t figure out why I was there. Was Eldorado trying to please me, bringing me to the station to add to my Cop Fuck Fantasy, or was he just showing off his latest prize? I’ll never know.
Eldorado finally emerged carrying two Styrofoam cups, one in each hand. As he worked his way across the lot, he nodded greetings to his fellow cops while I sat pinned in his car like a prize butterfly tacked to his leather seat. If I was his prize, my reward was a single Styrofoam cup of lukewarm black coffee straight from the police station coffee pot.
“Here you go,” he passed me the cup. “Bus stops just outside the gate,” he pointed as he opened the passenger door to let me out.
I stepped into the morning with my cup of coffee and my empty pockets. El Dorado turned his back and vanished into the sea of black & whites.
I stared straight ahead and didn’t utter a word as I walked past the guard and through the chain link fence. The Baywood Motel, the place I called home at the time, was just a few blocks up the street at 9th and Harrison. With no Eldorado to ride in now, I was on my own, heading toward the motel where I would change my clothes and ride the bus up to the Tenderloin to work the streets for the lunch crowd. I didn’t want to miss the lunch crowd. That was my bread and butter, my night’s rent, my survival.
I moved forward in a hazy daze, disconnected from my legs. Floating somewhere up in the fog, I watched my body move, legs walking, hand clenching the Styrofoam cup as if my life depended on it, eyes blinking away the stinking reality of South of Market in 1978. I had caught my fish, and then I let him go, or he let me go, or we just went . . .
Vice Squad: A police squad charged with enforcement of laws concerning gambling, pornography, prostitution, and the illegal use of liquor and narcotics.
− Meriam Webster Dictionary
The first use of the phrase Vice Squad was in 1905, six years after my grandfather was born on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco in 1899. The first of the Nicolini’s to be born in the United States, my grandpa worked as a vice cop for the San Francisco Police Department and spent his life keeping the streets safe from crime and corruption. Well, that was the myth anyway . . . Growing up with a retired cop grandfather and an absentee ex-cop turned mobster biological father, I heard the words “vice” and “cop” frequently and sometimes together, but I had no idea what a “vice cop” did. To me a cop was a cop. There were no variations. You either were a cop or not a cop.
My grandfather was a retired vice cop who gave birth to my father Al, who grew up to become a psycho vice cop turned mobster. He also became the man who used his police revolver to play Russian Roulette with my mom for kicks until he left her and me for the tits and glitz of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
Al was long gone when I visited my grandparents at the house where Al once lived. My Grandpa spent his days watching sports on TV in his bedroom jabbing his fingers in a fury at the new remote control that Al sent from Las Vegas. My grandma had a brand new Zenith remote control TV in nearly every room of her house. She even had a small one in her upstairs bathroom. Some of the TVs lived their entire lives without ever seeing an electric socket and being turned on.
At least twice a year a long thick snake of smoke worked its way down the hall from Grandpa’s bedroom to the kitchen. Grandma would glimpse the smoke curling around the corner of the kitchen door, and she’d mutter the only cuss words that ever came out of her mouth: “Dammit to Hell.”
My Grandpa had a bad habit of falling asleep while holding a lit cigar in his left hand. (His right hand was reserved for assaulting the remote control.) The cigar inevitably fell out of his hand, landed on his chair, and caught the whole thing, including his own leg at times, on fire.
“Dammit to Hell,” my grandmother would cuss, rushing down the hall with a pot of water and a towel. She tossed the water on the fire, doused her husband’s head while she was at it, and then followed the shower with a violent batting of the remaining flames with a kitchen towel.
The following weekend, I would find my grandpa sitting in a new chair with his cigar smoldering in one hand and remote control glowing in the other. A few weeks later, the smoke snake would return, and my grandma would again have to give her husband and his chair a cold shower and towel beating.
Eventually my grandmother got sick of replacing the chair, so it had a giant burnt black cave in one side which grew blacker and deeper with each new cigar fire. That char hole was forever a place of great mystery and horror in my childhood. I just knew if I fell inside, I would never get out.
I always liked the idea that America is a big facade. We are all insects crawling across on the shiny hood of a Cadillac. We’re all looking at the wrapping. But we won’t tear the wrapping to see what lies beneath.
̶ Tom Waits.
As a young girl working the streets, I rode around in a lot of cars with a lot of men. But there was no car quite as fearsome as the Cadillac Eldorado. It was more than a car. The Eldorado embodied the men who encapsulated the two sides of the law that were forever tattooed into my genetic code – vice cops and mafia swindlers.
Living on the streets of San Francisco in 1977-78, I experienced the underbelly of the city during an era when waste meant success and wasted meant freedom. Sometimes it was hard to figure out where and what the free in freedom actually was, but I never had a problem finding the waste or the wasted.
The Cadillac Eldorado, the largest car ever produced by GM, was like the City’s spectacular four-wheel mascot of waste. Over 18 feet long with only two doors and sporting white wall tires, pillow tucked leather seats, and a hood that that stretched halfway to China, the Eldorado was about size, not speed. The car was made to impress. Pimps, politicos, mafiosos, DA’s, drug dealers, self-invented playboys, cult gurus, and vice cops gravitated to this land yacht. These men saw the car in Playboy Magazine, and they needed to have one. Obsessed with desire, they would go to great lengths to get one – driving themselves into poverty and/or prison in the name of a car.
Faces hidden behind large mirror sunglasses, teeth clenched, and fists curled round the leather covered steering wheel in a white knuckled grip, Eldorado men prowled the streets and alleys, hungry and looking to feed. They scoured the city on their ceaseless search to fill appetites that would never be satisfied while the Bee Gee’s blared through the car’s 8-track AM/FM car stereo.
Whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother
You’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive (ohh)
Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me
Somebody help me, yeah
Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me, yeah
I’m stayin’ alive
̶ from Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” (1977)
The Cadillac Eldorado and my body’s history merged into the fast lane of my life. Born on the Fourth of July and named after Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), I shot into this world at high speed and never stopped revving. My mother claimed that I was born with two red skid marks emblazoned on my chest from the high acceleration rate of my entry into the world. Personally, I think I was just trying to get far away from her as fast as possible.
I have never owned a Cadillac, but Eldorados have owned me. The car’s spectacularly long body is molded into my life and body memories of the late 1970’s as securely as the luxury car’s V8 engine was welded to its chassis when the car was churned out of Cadillac’s Detroit factory.
The land cruiser and I were born and bred to be commodities. We were designed and manufactured to make men feel powerful and successful through acquisition. Slice through the Cadillac’s tufted leather and vinyl seats, and you’ll find a girl like me stitched into the car’s history. I was the reality that lied beneath the Eldorado’s diamond tucked wrapping. Listen close enough, and you could hear my voice inside the dashboard singing, “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me, yeah.”
The first evidence of human’s wearing a prosthetic eye was recently uncovered in the southeastern part of Iran. The woman, carbon-dated back to 2900 BCE, was discovered wearing a rudimentary ocular prosthesis worn outside of the eye socket. This crude, hemispherical form was made of clay and covered with a thin layer of gold. Tiny holes were also drilled into both sides of the eye, through which gold thread passed to hold the eyeball in place. Archaeologist believe that this woman was a priestess, possibly using her prosthetic eye to convince others that she had occult powers and could see into the future.
from The History of Prosthetic Eyes, Ocular Prosthetics, Inc.
Rising from his chair like some kind of mythical beast, my grandpa seemed so tall his head would scrape the ceiling, tall as the buildings my ironworker stepfather built downtown. When he did rise from his chair, he rose tall and never stooped as he navigated his cane down the long narrow hall to the kitchen where my grandmother stood fuming and cooking.
Though my grandmother seemed forever enraged with him, my grandpa still was my hero, not so much for being a cop but for the mark being a cop left on his body – his glass eye. I’d visit my grandpa in his bedroom and beg him to show me his eye. “Please, Grandpa, can I hold your glass eye. Please?”
He’d lift a finger and thumb to his head, fiddle around a bit, and then pop out his eye and pass it to me. “Lost it in a shootout,” he told me every time, but I never learned more than that, never knew who was shooting what and why. But I knew the feel of my grandpa’s glass eye. I held it hungrily, rolled the oblong ball in my hand like a wobbly marble. A marble that held great secrets and powers. The marble that took down bad guys.
To add to the hero quotient, my grandfather didn’t just have one glass eye. He had two – one eye for popping into his empty socket after he brushed his teeth in the morning and a backup eye he kept in a velvet covered ring box.
“Can I see the other one too?” I always asked, and my grandfather would point his cane to the bookshelf above his bed where the little velvet box resided. I took it down, took the eyeball out, and had one eye in each hand. I never wanted those double-fisted eyeball moments to end. I had the power of the world in my hands, and if I held the eyeballs hard enough, maybe, just maybe, I could fend off the bad guys in my life.
He was a hard-headed man
He was brutally handsome, and she was terminally pretty
She held him up, and he held her for ransom
In the heart of the cold, cold city
From “Life in the Fast Lane” by The Eagles (1976)
By the time I met the cop I would come to call El Dorado, I had been living on my own in the city for nearly a year. I was warned against him by a San Francisco Tenderloin Veteran named Dusty Rhodes. Dusty was a lean piece of man. 70 years old with skin dark as black leather, Dusty leaned to one side when he walked, dragging his limping leg behind him. A mahogany cane with an eagle’s head resting atop its handle helped keep Dusty standing. He leaned into the bronze head to help his rickety legs keep his rickety body upright.
Dusty always kept his cane loaded with 80 proof cognac, preferably Hennessy which Dusty always turned to plural as in, “How ‘bout you run down the liquor store and get this old man a taste of Hennessys?” Plural made sense given the owl head had a purpose and that purpose was to guard the secret chamber hidden under his scrunched and furrowed brow. The chamber happened to be exactly the right size to hold two travel sized bottles of brandy.
Excuse me. I’m sorry. I meant to say Cognac. Dusty was a classy guy who would never take brandy over cognac unless there was absolutely no other choice. Each day before he stepped outside his door, that man starched and pressed his own clothes, head to toe. Dusty refused to set foot in the world outside his windows looking anything less than sharp. Sharp as the creases he ironed into his linen pants and sharp as the knife tucked into his sock underneath his perfectly shined brown leather Florsheim ankle boot.
It was just one week past my sixteenth birthday when Dusty first showed me the brown Eldorado rolling through the Tenderloin on its four immaculate white wall tires. Dusty was taking me and his bad ass girl Filipina girlfriend Jan for a spin to show off his brand new used 1969 Cadillac Coupe Deville that he got for 900 bucks. We were cruising around just because we could, so we could feel like we were going somewhere even if that somewhere was just around the block.
Dusty was living the high life when he spotted the low life turning in front of us in his brown Eldorado so long that its nose nearly touched the top of Nob Hill. We followed the car up Leavenworth.
Dusty grabbed a pint of Hennessy from between his legs and gulped down half the bottle. “See that car, there,” Dusty hissed. “That’s a motherfucker dirty cop behind that wheel.”
He lifted the bottle and gulped own the rest. “You stay away from that car. Dirty cop done shoot me, took my stash, and left me for dead in a laundromat before he come back an hour later to throw my ass in jail.
Dusty rubbed his leg where he was shot. He said it felt like the bullet was still in there. Now I knew how Dusty got his limp.
“He’s out here working vice fishing for girl bait,” Dusty cautioned.
That would be me. I was 15-year-old girl bait. I studied the El Dorado closely. Its red taillight blurred to a smear as the brown shark crested the hill. Its white walls turned to pink in the fading sun as the car turned out of sight.
filed the Eldorado’s image away in my head. I had no intention of forgetting it or leaving it alone. I heard the words corrupt vice cop and could only think of one thing.
On the other side of the city, my biological father’s guns hung on racks next to deer heads in the back bedroom closet. Somehow, even at barely sixteen with an 8th grade education, I put together the pieces. In an instant, this bad vice cop rolling up Leavenworth became the bait, and I was the one fishing for the man who left me when I was two, the man who never looked back. I’m talking about my biological father Al, who left me for Las Vegas where he dropped the “cop” out of “corrupt vice cop and just stuck with the corrupt and vice parts. I had no intention of letting the Eldorado get away.
Get three glass eyes;
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not.
− William Shakespeare, King Lear to the Earl of Gloucester, Act IV, Scene 6)
I was impressed by the seal of the Office of the President of the United States on the letter more than the name who signed it. I was 13 years old in 1975. Nixon had been shoved down my throat at school. His face was everywhere. His voice broadcasted from the am car radio; his head bobbed inside the television screen; his scrunched and hunched body plastered the newspapers that landed on our doorstep every morning. To me, the Gerald Ford letter was such a letdown. It felt like a fraud, like my grandfather was cheated out of something. He deserved better than Chevy Chase! He deserved the omnipresent larger than life Richard Nixon! Well, he didn’t get him.
My grandmother hated the man she married so much that she had her own separate bedroom room built on the top of the house, so she could get as far away from him as she could. Being a devoted Catholic, divorce was not an option. The best she could do was keep as much distance as possible.
Shortly after my grandfather died, I left home and never went back. I worked the streets my grandpa once policed. I hooked up with the mafia he once jailed. Working the Tenderloin to survive, sometimes I’d spend a few bucks at the flower stand by the Powell Street BART Station. I’d buy some flowers for my grandmother and ride the train across the city to bring them to her. We’d sit at her kitchen table, and that’s where I learned so many things.
I learned that my hero vice cop grandpa was a brutally violent man who beat his daughter to suicide and turned his son into a monster. I learned that my grandfather was a vice cop with some vices of his own that made his job particularly appealing to him and that made my grandmother’s hatred for him grow and burn in a swirl of Bel-Air cigarette smoke that could never be extinguished.
Can you see?
Can you see the real me?
Can you see?
Can you see the real me?
The real me, the real me
The cracks between the paving stones
Like rivers of flowing veins
Strange people who know me
Peeping from behind every window pane
̶ from The Who, “The Real Me” from the album Quadrophenia (1973)
I was working Leavenworth and Geary area trying to make my night’s rent at the Baywood Motel the day the brown Eldorado cruised next to me. The window rolled down and a man’s arm stretched across and patted the passenger seat, gesturing for me to climb into the car (and get busted). There was no mistaking who was behind the wheel. I ignored the car and the man driving it, pretended I didn’t notice what was happening. But I knew exactly what was happening, and I cast my line out and dangled it in front of the bad vice cop who shot Dusty in a laundromat. I wasn’t about to be the bait, but he was my big fish. I had every intention of hooking him and reeling him in.
End El Dorado Part 1. Part 2 coming soon! You can follow the whole mini-memoir in CounterPunch.