From somewhere near the sushi restaurant, the sound of a car horn advertised either an intruder or a jangly set of vehicular nerves.
None of the young twenty-something beautiful people at dinner deigned to notice; it would have meant admitting that their gustatory delight might not be more pressing than the peace of the neighborhood, and, quite frankly, they did not care.
Let the locals suffer a bit; this fish was to die for!
Soon a cinder block put an end to the car's misery.
The sushi-eating masses heard the thump, and most of them assumed that an accident had taken place at the next intersection, if the sound registered at all. Several were too busy talking with their mouths full to even consider what might have happened, and, in any case, it did not concern them.
It had been a brand-new car. The dealer plates indicated as much.
One of the people in the restaurant would have a bad weekend.
His expensive blonde date would have to uber home.
She'd send him a bill later.
Mr. Badger had not been noticed by humans when he cinder-blocked the vehicle, none of the nearby residents had bothered to look outside. They were happy that the noise had come to an end, and did not really care why or how. If they had known that the person who had parked did not even live on this street, they would've sincerely applauded the casual destruction; they usually had difficulty finding a spot within less than three or four blocks of their apartments.
The small stocky figure moved briskly up the street, toward the top of the hill. In the haze, he appeared to be merely a short individual with a fuzzy outline, few people would look close enough to realize that he was an urban wild animal. The pipe lent a human-like quality in any case, as did the snazzy hat.
When the fog rolls in, visibility fades; very few individuals will wonder at the moving shadows beyond the streetlights.
From his perch on the roof, Mr. Crow had seen the incident with the car and the cinderblock. He envied his friend's dexterity and leverage. Much as he would have wished to drop cement on a loud car, all he could manage was a jar of Bonne Maman damson preserves.
It was, in fact, his jar of Bonne Maman damson preserves that had set off the alarm. He should have let it fall on the pavement instead, but he had merely wanted to bust it open, not smash it utterly.
The aforementioned deficit in dexterity and leverage had made it impossible to enjoy his purchase.
The next time, he'd ask the clerk to loosen the lid before he left the store.
Damned jar still wasn't open! He would never get his sweetness!
It had just bounced off the hood, then rolled down.
Disconsolately, he picked up the thirteen-ounce jar, and sped off up the street to find the badger. Who might be willing to twist the top, and perhaps even agree to prepare a few slices of buttered toast.
The wild woods ended at the top of the slope. He found Mr. Badger behind the row of buildings, comfortably hunkered out of the wind behind a low brick wall with grass growing out of the top and sides. The beast was busily twiddling with his pipe, running a cleaner through the shank and blowing into it to remove ashes and scraps of tobacco. When he saw the crow, his eyes lit up and his snout twitched. He grunted a friendly greeting.
They were old friends; both preferred the same patches of shrubbery and unkempt areas behind the apartments.
Mr. Crow mentioned his quandary, and Mr. Badger immediately agreed to provide the muscle. And, indeed, there would be toast! And melted butter! It would be a little feast, and he'd even make a pot of tea!
Of course, he'd have to wake up the household rats.....
Mr. Crow was baffled. What household rats?
"Well", Mr. Badger explained, "since they tore down the old church at Larkin and Clay, I've been living underneath the school between Washington and Jackson, just below Hyde."
This still didn't explain 'household rats'. What was up with that?
"There was a colony of brown rats already occupying some of the space, and as long as I scared off the neighborhood felines, they were happy to provide access and share their territory. They still worry too much, and consequently tend to sleep as close to my quarters as possible."
"Making toast is sure to rouse them."
Mr. Crow found this a little disturbing; he'd long been accustomed to think of rats as flightless pigeons, and he detested the pigeons. Although he was not averse to stealing a fresh egg or two. Or three.
So delicious, and it kept the population in check.
Mr. Badger assured him that aside from being hooked on cigarettes, and chainsmokers to boot, the rats were harmless, and perfectly well-behaved.
And they had never even bitten any of the school children.
Despite, at times, extreme provocation!
Kids could be so irritating!
Apparently the racket the little tykes made kept the rodents up all day. Mr. Badger wasn't bothered -- he could sleep through a bombardment if he had too -- but the necessary change in their habits had not been easy on the rats, and they kept sending indignant letters to the editor about it.
Good thing that their handwriting was far too tiny to read.
Otherwise it would've let the cat out of the bag.
About their occupancy of the premises.
Right underneath a school.
Anyhow, prolix missives on stationery the size of a fingernail simply look like smudged confetti to the unsharpened eye, and the once esteemed San Francisco Chronicle nowadays employed near-illiterate graduates of third-rate journalism programs, instead of the curious Harvard men of yore.
Newsprint media was a dying breed; who the heck would care what cheese-eaters scribbled in their ire, or how well they expressed it?
All their eloquence ended up in the garbage.
As it turned out, the rats were a thoughtful bunch, and pretty intellectual. They made full use of the school library after hours, and particularly liked the reference section. Even in daylight they could often be found on those shelves, quite undisturbed, because all of the students simply looked for answers on the internet.
The Encyclopedia Britannica is a boon to small creatures.
Why, there's just so much wonderful stuff inside!
High concepts, fascinating articles!
Because the rats kept discussing Satre, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger, in those irritating rapid-fire squeaky voices, Mr. Badger and Mr. Crow left them near the hearth with a plate, and went out to enjoy their tea and toast at the far end of the playground, where the wall holds back the slope. From the streets on either side of the school property there came occasional noises -- cars parking or residents returning home late -- but no one noticed them in the darkness, the neighborhood cats did not disturb them, and there were no pigeons roosting overhead.
As they chatted, two old ladies with walkers went up one of the streets. One of them thought she recognized Mr. Badger, and nodded at him. It was a case of mistaken identity, because he wasn't who she believed he was, but she had met him years ago when she was still a little girl, and he remembered her.
He had returned her little red ball to her when it rolled through the basement window of the church. She had visited him often after that, until she went to grammar school and eventually forgot.
She had been a really sweet child, with a wondrous imagination.
Eighty years later her dreams were still full of badgers.
Mr. Crow also recognized her; she had growled at pigeons once, when she thought no one was watching. He had thought that very amusing, and liked her for it.
He promised Mr. Badger he'd keep an eye out for the old lady.
One should always keep the local old folks in mind.
They are what defines the neighborhood.
When they went back to wash the cups and saucers, some of the rats were arguing heatedly about existentialism, while others were cheerfully singing the Philosophers Song and quoting Monty Python.
Insane and irrepressible creatures, those rodents.
And actually rather likable.
Later, as he bid Mr. Badger a good night and thanked him for his hospitality, a posse of rats asked him if he wanted to join them on a raid of the local liquor store. They had run out of cigarettes entirely, and craved several packs of Camel Filter Kings. Was he interested?
No, he wasn't. He only smoked once in a while.
And then only cigars. A thoughtful habit.
But thanks for the invite!
On Hyde street, garbage trucks trundling past, softly in the middle of the night. A little further on he smelled bacon-wrapped hotdogs being grilled by a Mexican at the corner just outside the Wreck Room. He landed and joined the small line, ordering 'uno, por favor, con todo'. One, with everything. He had no intention of actually eating the bun, but he really loved the combination of 'byproduct' sausage and crispy pork strips, especially with those dangerous chiles en escabeche.
None of the bar patrons noshing on their own dogs bothered him. They knew better than to start something when the other fellow had a beak.
Late night boozehounds in San Francisco are a savvy lot.
Besides, they admired the Goth thing he had going on.
When he flapped back home later, he wasn't aware of the yellow smear of mustard on his forehead. It made him look dissipated.
Like he had had a jolly good time.
Which was true.
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Labels: Hyde Street, Talk-story