His artist friend, whose name you’ve forgotten, has a gallery next door to this “queer” bar, the one you’ve stumbled into at 1 a.m. on the night of your 30th birthday because you were drunk and felt like dancing and this was all that was open on a Wednesday.
The artist is going to paint Columbo, and this makes Columbo proud, because it will make him sort of famous, at least to people who walk down Fifth Avenue in downtown San Diego and look into the window of the gallery once the portrait is done. It will make him sort of immortal.
The artist says Columbo has “a lot of stories in his face,” and it’s true. Columbo is a scrappy and sinewy 54 years old, with cataract eyes and skin the color of molasses and white stubble like grains of sugar.
“I’m from Brunswick, Georgia, by the shore, where the sand is like sugar,” he says to you at the bar after you buy him a straight-up whiskey along with your fourth screwdriver of the night.
You tell him, again, that you want to dance. You’re suburban, white, wearing a miniskirt and a tight black top that came from an Express store at a mall back home in northern Virginia. You’ve only lived in San Diego for a week, having made the long drive from Virginia, having gotten laid off from your job there and thinking you could start a new life here, and it’s your 30th birthday, and damn it, you want to dance.
The wanting to dance is why you left the first place you went to tonight, which was more of a right place for you. It was a hip nightclub where you'd watched two alternative-rock bands, and a shy guy your age named Stan had approached you and you'd hung out with him and his cool friends. They'd all had work the next morning, but you don’t have a job in San Diego yet, and besides you hadn’t wanted your buzz to go to waste, especially on your 30th birthday.
So when Stan had yawned and gone home, you'd turned to his friend, the roadie-looking short tough one in the black T-shirt and tattoo sleeves. He'd seemed like he’d know a place you could go to dance.
He'd suggested “a gay bar” or “Fifth Avenue,” and this place you've stumbled into—hiccupping and tottering in a zigzag down the sidewalk in your trendy bondage-looking high heels—is both.
Outside you'd met Bear, an obese man in a wheelchair who later confessed to you that he’d gotten his nickname not because he was fierce, as he’d like to have most believe—but because he was soft, like a teddy bear.
And of course you’d met Columbo, who was standing with him, whom you'd instantly assumed was homeless in his shabby clothing and with his con-artist mien. You'd told them that you'd wanted to dance. And so Columbo had crooked his elbow and lifted his arm and said, “Okay then, let’s dance,” and he'd led you inside.
That you’d taken his arm and gone in there—was that smart? It was what you'd done.
Inside, you had felt like you were in a Tom Waits song. The bartender was gay, stern, judgmental. The artist was enormous and wore a beret, like a kid in an elementary-school play acting the part of “artist.” The people at the bar had said he was a “pop artist,” portraits of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, that he was “the next Warhol.” The artist had seemed not sure whether to trust you, not sure you weren’t some kind of voyeur or tourist, telling you he had Columbo’s back—as if Columbo were the vulnerable one.
And there'd been the artist’s date, Syd, an “esthetician” her card said, a “skin-care specialist” who said you were “gorgeous.”
And the tall, red-wigged transvestite walking around, proud and quiet and mysterious, like part of the décor.
At the jukebox in back, Columbo had needed help keying in “Michael Jackson” on the screen, but you grew up using computers and figured it out right away. After pulling up the Michael Jackson song list, you'd suggested “Billie Jean” but he'd wanted “Thriller,” so that’s what you'd danced to.
He was gentlemanly, not sleazy and grinding like the young guys you’re used to at clubs, and it was like dancing with a wacky great-uncle, down to the Old Spice smell.
“When my ex-wife and I used to dance like this, everyone at the bar would get quiet and watch,” Columbo said and taught you moves, strange jerky bent-over things you’d never have thought of yourself and will not incorporate into your regular dance repertoire.
Now, back at the bar, Columbo looks into your eyes.
“I’m a hustler. I sell something, and it ain’t marijuana. I sell cocaine. I hate it. But I do what I have to do to survive. You don’t hate me, do you?”
You insist that no, no, of course you don’t hate him—after all (you don’t say this), you’re a liberal white suburban girl who minored in Sociology, who loathes malls and longs to live in a Tom Waits song. Of course you don’t hate him.
You can’t finish your fourth screwdriver, let alone the fifth that someone offers to buy you because it’s your birthday, and Columbo offers to walk you a few blocks to where you can catch a cab. You take his hand when he offers it, and as you walk, he introduces you to street people. You gape at them like a tourist.
At a street lined with slumbering homeless people, Columbo hisses, “Robert!” and a man pokes his head up from a sleeping bag.
“This is my friend, ___. She’s cool. If you see her around and I’m not here, make sure she’s okay.”
You shake Robert’s hand and tell him good-night and he rests his head back down on his pillow. The whole open San Diego night is his public bedroom.
And there's Jamaica, wearing sunglasses at 2 a.m. and sinister. And two more men, one pushing a shopping cart of all his possessions, the other loping beside him. They check you out in your miniskirt and give Columbo a sort of psychic thumb’s-up.
“I’m a hustler.”
Columbo asks if he can “borrow” 20 bucks, and you’re drunk and bleeding-heart liberal and suburban and white and so you say, “Of course! Where’s an ATM?”
Columbo says, “Watch this—I’ll take your 20 bucks and make it into 40,” and you’re not sure what this means, if he’s going to demonstrate a well-executed drug deal right in front of you or what. You stand back as he talks to two men passing in the night, but he never does make it into 40, and you don’t get your 20 back.
You get into a cab, and Columbo asks the driver to take good care of you, as if Columbo is the boss of the streets here at night and everyone has to listen to him, including cab drivers. The driver nods but seems amused and patronizing to Columbo.
In the cab, your buzz wearing off, you feel self-conscious with the cab driver. You laugh and shake your head and say: “What a weird night. I don’t really know that guy. I just met him tonight. I don’t really know him or anything.”
“Will you come see my picture when my friend paints me?” Columbo had asked you. “Me and Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Won’t that be somethin’?”