Tangled in Blue

Cops & Killers: A Mini-Memoir

El Dorado Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

No one can tell what goes on in between the person you were and the person you become. No one can chart that blue and lonely section of hell. There are no maps of the change. You just come out the other side.

Or you don’t.

̶ Stephen King

The Cadillac crawled along next to me, whitewall tires spinning so slow I could trace the circles that contained them. The window stayed down. The vice cop’s hand rested on the passenger seat in an open invitation for me to get busted.

I shook my head. “No, no, no. You got the wrong girl,” thinking how much I really was the right girl.

Apparently “no” was not part of Mr. Cop’s vocabulary. He inched along towards a red light as I propelled myself forward. Greenlight. He stepped on the gas, slipped around the corner, and circled back next to me.

“Look, you got the wrong girl,” I shouted.

He patted the seat again. His head stretched off the stem of his neck, leaning so far toward the passenger door that it looked ready to fall off his shoulders and topple into the gutter.

“Well, can I at least give you a ride somewhere?” he asked in defeat, then pushed the door open and beckoned me into his lair.

I stood next to the car but refused to get in. I lifted a bottle of Welch’s grape juice to my lips and gulped down the purple juice in a signal meant to say, “I’m innocent.”

***

Flash light (flash light)

Day light (day light)

Spot light (spot light)

Red light (ohhh, hooo, red light!)

Everybody’s got a little light under the sun

̶ from “Flash Light,” Parliament (1978)

When I faced the reality of what I had to do to survive – sell my young, “innocent” body on the streets of a city where men were hungry to buy it – some primal inner worker and survivor kicked in and made up a lot of rules that I strictly followed to ensure I’d make it out alive someday. Or so I liked to tell myself.

The day-to-day work I performed required devising new and improved ways to elude vice cops, not go to jail, and not end up dead. I had to straddle the fine line between not looking like a consumer object and actually being one.

Safety was largely about pace – knowing where to go and how fast to move while there. Pace involved assessing the timers on traffic lights and using them to my advantage. When the signal turned green, I’d slow my feet to the precise speed that guaranteed arriving at the intersection just as the light turned red. Pausing at the corner because the law required me to to, I strategically displayed my wares before I had to move on again.

Survival was also about choreography, costumes, and speed. My body absorbed danger until it was hardwired into my bloodstream. Threats were everywhere. They seeped through cracks of the sidewalk and flashed off rearview mirrors passing on the street. My clothing choices chosen as a cloak of protection. I dressed own to erase the “whore” right off me, keeping me out of the eyes of cops and killers. Wearing jeans, tank tops, and flat boots, I looked so innocuous that trolling johns often hesitated, doubting I was legitimately illegitimate, before they scrolled down their windows to ask me, “Are you working?”

Yes, I was working. At age 15, I was performing the hardest and most dehumanizing labor ever. I was working to make money because money kept me alive. I was working to avoid getting thrown into jail. I was working hard to not get killed and dumped by the railroad tracks. I was working hard when I was moving. Working hard when standing still.

I was working hard when I stepped into the liquor store at Geary and Jones to buy a Twix and a bottle of grapefruit juice. The candy bar and drink afforded me multiple opportunities to exhibit my merchandise without being too obvious standing at one of the most strategic corners in the Tenderloin.

(Flash light. Red light. Neon light. Ooh, stop light.)

Red. Green. Red. Green.

I was playing a game of color, speed, and light. Not just traffic lights, but daylight.

I tried never to work at night. The dark hours were the dangerous hours. I preferred to work the lunch crowd on weekdays and avoid weekends and evenings at all costs. Working while the sun was still shining somewhere under the fog, I stayed relatively safer and enjoyed the added benefit of being distinctly separate from the Night Whores.

The girls who worked the night men terrified me. They were the embodiment of everything people expect when they think of prostitutes on the street. Bodies cinched inside tight mini dresses, slabs of ass hanging from the bottom fringe of skirts, lacquered toes curled over the edge of platform shoes, rabbit hair matted on too short jackets, these girls were poster children for debauchery. On close inspection, they weren’t girls or children at all, but instead shells of women they could have been if only . . .

Battalions of Night Whores slithered out of their pimps’ Cadillacs. Standing on corners, they shouted at cars and waggled their tongues, tits, and butts. Their Get Oout of jail free cards, crumpled and torn from heavy usage, lay in wait inside their pimps’ wallets.

These Not Girls intimidated me and scared the fuck right out of me, not because they would do anything to hurt me but because I desperately never wanted to be one of them.

***

Let me be clear about this. I don’t have a drug problem. I have a police problem.

̶ Keith Richards

I definitely was not a Night Whore the day I snared El Dorado. Dark had begun to move in. Buildings socked the streets in shadow as the sun slowly sunk on the other side of the city. It was time to cast my line.

We had been playing Cat & Mouse for the distance of two blocks before I decided to call it quits for the day. Clearly, the man had no intention of quitting until my butt was on that leather seat.

I rubbed the glass lip of the bottle over my bottom lip as I studied the cop’s face through the window. Mirror sunglasses rested on his forehead above Puppy Dog Eyes imploring me to please go for a ride.

“What d’ya say?” he patted the seat again. “You shouldn’t be walking around this neighborhood.”

(Really?)

I shrugged my shoulders and told him I was going up to Broadway to the Mabuhay where I went nights to drown myself in the sounds of early punk.

“Let’s go,” his mouth curved into a white-toothed smile.

I slid into his car and shut the door. We climbed up Nob Hill and dropped down to the other side. “Why’re you going to that place? What goes on there anyway?”

I study the faux wood grain on the dash, zig zagging my finger back and forth across the lines.

“Like how that feels?” he asked and patted the dash. “The Biarritz is a beauty,” he beamed.

“The what?” I had no idea what he said or what language he was speaking. Sounded like barf to me.

He lifted his head high and breathed, “Eldorado Biarritz. Cream of the crop. Best Cadillac ever made.”

“Hmm,” was all I could muster. A memory from my Not Distant Past was scratching at the corner of my consciousness.

“You didn’t answer,” Bad Cop reminded me.

I stared back at him.

“What goes on in that place? You like it with all those freaks?” He was pointing at the Mabuhay Gardens. We had arrived.

After a big fat serving of silence, I gave him an answer. “People like you are the freaks. Maybe you should try it for yourself.”

He laughed, scribbled his phone number on a piece of paper, and passed it to me. “Call me, sometime,” he said.

I climbed out on Broadway and watched his car slip down the street, neon lines bouncing off the shining hood saying, “Hey look at me! I’m an El Dorado Biarritz! I’m one huge Cadillac success, and I am going places!” Then, I remembered . . .

***

When I saw a Cadillac Eldorado for the first time, it wasn’t going anywhere. It held permanent residence on a side street in the Western Addition.

The Western Addition in the 1970s was still a hotbed for black radicalism, a center for the Black Panther Party, the welfare rights movement, and emergent civil rights groups . . . it was a community in crisis, reeling from decades of fighting with the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) over the fate of the community’s housing stock and its once-thriving business district.

The neighborhood struggle was set off against a backdrop of rising downtown skylines, symbolic of the influx of corporate-backed development capital flooding into the city, which was angling to flow rapidly into the village-like neighborhoods. Simply put, the Western Addition/Fillmore District community was locked in a battle for the right to exist in San Francisco.

̶ Rachel Brahinsky from Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-1978 (City Lights Books, 2011)

As a third-generation native San Franciscan and daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of ironworkers, teamsters, and longshoremen, I come from a San Francisco community nearing extinction: the blue-collar working class. Maybe that’s why the Western Addition felt right at home to me despite my fear of being shot. That the neighborhood was also home to some notable firsts in my life also helped. It’s where I first saw housing projects and consciously understood they were housing projects for the first time. It’s I ate my first soul food. It’s where I first witnessed real life segregation and the anger it breeds.

People who have never lived in San Francisco (and many who have) don’t know the Western Addition exists. Cable cars don’t run in the neighborhood. Brahinsky does mention how the streets are fraught with racial/class divisions ripe with (justifiable) anger and the potential for violence.

Geary Street had become a “Mason-Dixon Line” dividing a working-class and largely African American lower Fillmore from the generally white and increasingly wealthy Pacific Heights. [Brahansky, 2011]

Brahinsky mentions racial tension but neglects to mention one important thing. In 1977, you did not walk into the Western Addition if you were white unless you wanted to be carried out on a stretcher. If you were white and wandered into the neighborhood, your chances of getting shot were quite great, or so I was told by people who hailed from the very place. The exception to this rule was being a white girl on the arm of her black pimp. She would be exempt from being shot. That is exactly who I was and where I was walking when I experienced another first in the Western Addition: I caught my first eyeful of a Cadillac El Dorado.

I was hanging onto my pimp Richard the day I ventured to other side of Van Ness for soul food. Opened by San Francisco gospel legend Emmit Powell I don’t remember how many of us piled into the car or what kind of car we were driving the day our clan from a Tenderloin residential hotel decided to Powell’s Place for soul food. To get there, we crossed Van Ness, a main thoroughfare that bisects the city and parked under the Central Freeway. Located on in Hayes Valley, a neighborhood I eventually learned was also called the Western Addition, Powell’s was in the very heart of 1970s black San Francisco. The food tasted like a home I never had and made me a fan of soul food for life.

I climbed off the heap of bodies in the back seat and stepped onto the sidewalk, clinging to Richard like cheese on toast. Whether I’d really get shot for being white or not didn’t matter. Tales of racial violence and bloodshed shared with me on the drive to the restaurant were believable enough for me to be anxious. I’d seen race “wars” while attending school at Vallejo Junior and Senior High. Blood-smeared hallways. People wielding bats, sticks, and guns and fighting in parking lots. Two boys ̶̶ one black, one white ̶ lying on the sidewalk with crushed foreheads and bleeding lips. To my young ignorant, and undereducated mind, Hayes Valley was synonymous with “Stay the fuck out unless you want to be dead.” I was not letting go of Richard’s arm.

The absence of light didn’t help. In 1977, the freeway hadn’t yet been demolished by the Loma Prieta earthquake. The 101 dumped its guts smack in the middle of Hayes Valley. Standing under the cement and iron atrocity, it felt as if the freeway had sucked the sun right out of the sky. Its pall hung over Hayes Valley.

We were just down the street from the projects when Richard pointed to opposite direction. My eyes caught a shining chrome grill glimmering in tiny pieces of sun that found their way through shadow and fog..

“See that car?” he asked. I looked and nodded. “Guy who owns it comes out and polishes it every day. Doesn’t miss one ever. But he don’t drive it cause don’t got no gas. And got no money to get any.” Richard shook his head in deep reflection over this tragedy. Then he looked down at me and patted my blonde poodle doo. “Mmm mmm. Doesn’t have a sweet little investment likes I got.”

We both stood studying the car. Behind it, rows of dirty pink apartments with tiny slats for windows were stacked on top of each other. The color pink was horrific, like poison bubble gum pulled from a toxic mud hole. My mouth dropped wondering what this abrupt architectural shift meant. The buildings looked like pink jails. “That’s the projects.” Richard nodded. “Don’t ever want to go there.”

He didn’t have to worry about that. I had never seen buildings that scared me more. I was terrified by the utter despair, negligence, and bad history that seeped from them and joined the freeway in its effort to suck the neighborhood into darkness.

I just now, in 2021, spent two hours trying to find information on the projects, including history and photos. It was almost impossible to find anything of substance. It’s like the city of San Francisco erased nearly all references to the projects in its attempt to hide its racist past. Public knowledge of the pink projects would scar the clean (white) face of urban RE-renewal that that has replaced them with less damning models. I did discover that when the bulk of San Francisco’s housing projects were built in the 1960s that the ones in the Western Addition were the only ones that allowed blacks though officials deny the policy.

I jerked my head away from the nightmare pink housing and sought refuge in shards of light bouncing off the hood of the car Richard was telling me about. “Not going nowhere,” he was saying again. The car’s spirit was trapped inside its sleek empty body. The Eldorado stared at us through dead headlights. The Cadillac emblem sat proudly perched at the tip of the hood as if it was enough to get the car going. It wasn’t. “Edorado,” Richard said with an “Mmmm” of approval. Then we turned our backs and left the car for collard greens and pork chops.

Working our way through the crowded restaurant, everyone in Powell’s seemed to know Richard. They nodded their greetings toward him, fist-pumped, back-slapped, and high-fived. Richard’s arm was so tight around me that I couldn’t breathe. Felt like I was going to choke up a lung. I held on tighter, the presence of guns on laps under tables closing in on me. Maybe.

***

I wasn’t naked, I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.

̶ Gypsy Rose Lee

“El Dorado,” I thought as I traced the Cadillac emblem on the dash and named the cop after the car.

It had been exactly two weeks for me to arrive at “sometime” and call him. Now, I was back in his man cave of a car. He crested Pacific Heights, the wealthy white neighborhood that looks down on the Western Addition. The car tipping forward at the top of the hill, its hood seemed a mile long. We slid into the garage of the glistening modern building. It was not pink. At times, it seemed to be made of glass and blue shag.

El Dorado pulled into a parking spot, turned off the engine, dropped his keys in his lap, and sat there. He didn’t open the door, nor did he seem to be thinking of getting out of the car. His eyes glazed over in reverie. He spread his fingers and stroked the back of my leather seat.

“The Eldorado Biarritz,” he preened with his fingers now fondling the steering wheel.

“Real leather,” he nodded at the material cover the disc. “Did you see the porthole windows?” he asked raising his brows toward the back seat. My eyes followed his in agreement.

“You know what color this is?” he purred over the front of the dash. “Demitasse brown, just like my morning coffee.” And then with his hand back on the seat, “And this tufted sierra-grain leather? Buckskin Firemist.”

I nodded, beginning to think I had mistakenly called a car salesman and not a vice cop. Then he shook his head at me. “Let’s get out of here!” We left John Travolta and his white bell bottoms in the car with the high-tech AM/FM radio. Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin and we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.

Every woman in the building seemed to be in the elevator with us as we rode up, up, up to Eldorado’s penthouse apartment. Every single one of them smiled at the Dirty Cop, vying for his attention. Awkwardness draped over my body like a cast iron cloak of shame. A working-class runaway girl with an 8th grade education, I was completely out of my element standing in that elevator with a vice cop and a crop of blue-haired society ladies. My mouth gaped like a guppy gulping for air. I caught myself and clamped my lips shut.

El Dorado opened the door to his apartment and pointed me to toward a sofa as long as his car. I plopped down in the corner and absorbed the sea of blue surrounding me. The last threads of twilight stretched over the bay outside walls of glass twinkling with reflections of boats on the bay. Baby blue paint covered the walls that weren’t made of glass or mirrors. Pale blue carpet stretched wall-to-wall, its shag perfectly cleaned, fluffed, and groomed.

Perched right at the top of Pacific Heights, El Dorado’s apartment – like the car he drove ̶ was all about show.

Mr. Cop disappeared into the other room and resurfaced with a bottle of white wine. He poured us each a glass and lifted his for a toast. I held my glass to his and uttered something entirely stupid which I cannot remember and am grateful for that.

Eldorado dropped to the sofa and scooted right next to me. He pushed his face towards mine, looked me in the eyes, and asked, “Wanna get high?”

I’m not quite sure what I expected when I climbed into his car that first night, but getting wasted with a vice cop was not on the top of my list. When I say wasted, I do mean wasted in the full, complete, meaning of the word, as in We lay waste to ourselves.

I sat in silence; my eyes glued to El Dorado as he emptied his pockets on the glass coffee table. Vial of hash. Rainbow assortment of heroin balloons. Vial of hash. Handful of loose valium pills. El Dorado went straight for the main catch of the day and loaded each of us with a nose full of heroin.

I didn’t even know you could do heroin with your nose, but I wasn’t an SFPD vice cop like El Dorado. He knew everything there was to know about drugs, and he always had plenty of them. He loved his job. He took pride in indulging his vices by confiscating drugs off pimps and dealers. He worked hard to sweep scum off the streets. He was single-handedly taking care of the Tenderloin’s drug problem by stashing the drugs he confiscated right up his nose.

Eldorado shook his pack of cigarettes, and a tiny metal pipe fell into his palm. He unscrewed a tiny glass vial and pinched some hash into the bowl. Holding a lighter to it, he inhaled deeply. With a half-smile, he released a cloud of smoke and passed the pipe to me.

High as kites, we’d sank low into the sofa, crushing the crushed velvet a little bit more. Night closed in, dropping its dark behind my eyes. The heroin in our noses merged with the hash we sucked in through our mouths.

The room turned to liquid. I dissolved into vapor. My body sunk deep, deep, deep into the crushed blue sea of the extra-long, extra-soft, extra-baby-blue, extra-crushed velvet sofa.

El Dorado’s head moved in on me, slowly growing larger than life. His mouth opened then closed over mine with a perfect seal. As his tongue pushed its way towards mine, he sucked the air right out of me and took my thoughts and my mind with it. I fell deep. I wobbled to the bed, dropped, and became nothing.

On the other side of the city, my father’s guns hung from racks in the bedroom closet. Their barrels aimed at deer heads mounted on the back wall. Somehow, at the young age of barely sixteen, I was putting together the pieces. Naked and loaded in bed with a vice cop in a penthouse apartment he bought with lies, I had finally reached the bed inside the back of my head. The bed tangled inside the black sheets that wrapped my heart with darkness. The bed of the man who left me when I was two. The man who never looked back. The corrupt vice cop turned Las Vegas mafia. I’m talking about Al. My biological father. I had invented a placebo, and his name was El Dorado.

***

So now I’m going back again

I got to get her somehow

All the people we used to know

They’re an illusion to me now

Some are mathematicians

Some are carpenter’s wives

Don’t know how it all got started

I don’t know what they do with their lives

But me, I’m still on the road

Heading for another joint

We always did feel the same

We just saw it from a different point of view

Tangled up in blue

̶ Bob Dylan from “Tangled Up in Blue”

1991, a voice calls me from the other room. “Kim, you got to see this,” it shouts.

“What?” I ask with slight annoyance.

“This,” my boyfriend is pointing to the television set. Oprah is talking to a middle-aged balding man with remnants of soft curly brown hair crowning his head. The man is talking about the Zodiac Killer. Oprah asks him how he could go from helping runaway girls on the streets to hunting down a serial killer.

“It’s all the same thing,” the man said. “Taking down the bad guys.” The man is a San Francisco cop. He looks out of the TV, his eyes staring into mine, and I stare back.

“El Dorado,” Oprah says, clapping in praise. The audience stands to give the vice cop turned homicide detective a standing ovation. A year later, he is in the news again, this time under suspicion for killing his partner. He eventually gets off the hook. That’s a good thing because he probably wants to help more runaway girls on the streets.

My boyfriend says, “I thought he had blue eyes.”

“They’re blue to me,” I answered.

El Dorado will always be a powder blue man. Pale blue like the sky over the bay after the fog lifts. Blue like his crushed velvet penthouse apartment. Blue like the color of his eyes even when they’re red.

Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.