Ron "Dante" Myers

The Monkey Block

I. Where East Meets West

At a San Francisco poetry workshop in the early ‘90s, Carlo shared three
simple steps for writing a poem: 1) Look up, write what you see; 2) look
around, write what you see; 3) and look down, write what you see.


.   .

Leaving the cellphone zombies in the deep steel and glass canyons behind,
I gumshoe upslope on California Street on paths once trod by the
Continental Op and Sam Spade. After thirty years, is there any Friday
night electricity to be found in this a rapidly mutating city? Anticipating
the rare Merry Prankster reunion at the Bop Museum in North Beach, I
turn into an isolated city park bathed in inviting twilight. There, I sit on a
bench to collect my thoughts and meditate in the comfort zone of a green
urban sanctuary: spine straight, shoulders back, tip of the tongue touching
the palate…lightly.

Unable to still my mind, I look up to observe the aged wooden sign on the
red brick steeple of Old St. Mary's Cathedral, emblazoned with a dire
warning to Whoremongers in the rough-and-tumble Barbary Coast, circa

      Son, observe the time and
      fly from evil!

On another bench near to me, a staid nuclear family huddles in a theatrical
diorama, frozen in a Trinity. Their overly modest, show-no-ankles Sunday
attire seems straight out of a flickering black and white teleplay of another
day—Donna Reed, Route 66, or maybe even The Twilight Zone. Like
displaced Evangelicals wandering out of the desert into the Babylonian
city, they bear witness to their muted passion, reading aloud timeless tales
of dying and resurrecting sun gods from cuneiform tablets of red clay.

Then, a film montage of historic trivia unreels in the hungry recording eye
in my mind: in the early 1800s, just down the continental slope from here,
once flourished abundant bird life in reedy marshes of Yerba Buena cove—
the bounty of the Yelamu tribe. In those days, the sea goddess Oeesha still
waded in ocean tide pools with starfish and anemones. Low on the
horizon, vast Condor wings eclipsed the rising sun.

The largest building of the Yelamu, the subterranean roundhouse, stood at
the center of the village. Inside, in the middle of that house, stood a stout
oak trunk shaped like a “Y” with two branches piercing the smoke hole in
the roof. Inside the Siberian sweat lodge nearby, pungent sage smoke and
steam rolls like clouds inside the dome woven from the abundant marsh
reeds. In those hot clouds, a medicine man raises the mana or ka—a man’s
invisible spiritual energy—by waving the mottled feathers of an Eagle-

Having discovered this present-day Eden, self-flagellating monks burned it
to the ground. For their own salvation, the Yelamu were spirited away to
the picturesque mud brick pueblo of Mission Dolores, with its sacred
grotta and blue rose garden of winged skulls-and-crossbones.

Within two generations, no Yelamu remained to pass on their ancient rites,
Coyote trickster tales, and astral mysteries. So what became of the
Yelamu? A good friar recorded a few fragments of lore from the last
Mission Indians. Perhaps their spirits crossed the narrow bridge of
obsidian knives to reach the land of the dead on the Farallon Islands.
Perhaps they climbed up the ribbon of the dancing hunter Kuksu: up
through the roundhouse smoke hole to the Sky World. From there, they
took a turn onto the over-arching Spirit Road, like numberless light-filled
seeds cast into the stone vault of a cobalt night sky.


.   . By 1853, business bustled in the expanding village of Yerba Buena
Cove, now called San Francisco. The hardy exotic Anglo-Saxon stock that
invaded from the east took root and thrived—displacing the former
Spanish overlords and whatever Mission Indians still survived. Clapboard
buildings and boardwalks lined the Barbary Coast district along
Montgomery Street, which still bordered that crescent-shaped cove. And
in that cove, General Henry Halleck constructed a giant raft built from
felled Santa Cruz redwood giants and the hulls of abandoned ships. This
raft became the foundation for a grand Greek-revival edifice, like an
ancient ship temple of the healing god Aesculapius, at the birthplace of
Rome on the Isola Tibera.

Enter the stage of the Barbary Coast: Lt. George Derby, Gen. Halleck’s aide
de camp, a topographer and the first California humorist. To boot, he was a
dashing local Apollo of sorts, well worth a cameo appearance in this tale.
He used Squibob and John Phoenix as his pen names and influenced the
writing style of Samuel Clemens—and even Mark Twain. Up until this
very day, Lt. Derby is the patron saint of the Squibob Chapter of E Clampus
, a fraternity of pranksters from California’s Wild West days.


.   . Tonight, by some unknown anomaly of space and geometry of time, I
felt the presence of Squibob and Carlo Marx by my side—like conflicting
messengers of Apollo and Dionysus—from time to time, and place to place
to place…


.   . Now buried under the pyramid at the corner of Montgomery and
Washington Streets, for decades the Montgomery Block was the toniest
address in the city. But, after a long heyday, it devolved into a sanctuary
for a long list of names from art history and other obscure Argonauts of the
post-Gold Rush demography. Even the odd expatriate like Oscar Wilde
and Robert Louis Stevenson made cameos in this long-running play. It is
alleged that San Francisco Renaissance poet and reluctant “father of the
Beats” Kenneth Rexroth memorialized the pet name for the old “Monkey

In the 1860s, Samuel Clemens met the real-life Tom Sawyer in the
expansive sanctuary of the Turkish baths. In the 1940s, nearby in Jackson
Square, Frida Kahlo, the “Queen of Montgomery Street,” reigned with
Diego Rivera from their art studio love nest. In their backyard, Ralph
Stackpole’s “bone yard” of unfinished sculptures thrust up from crescent-
shaped remnants of primordial sand dunes.

Windblown into the shape of lunettes, these dunes once stretched across
the peninsula from the ocean to the bay, deep into the coastal floodplains
beneath the surrounding cluster of hills of the San Miguel mountain range.
To the Ohlone tribes in the east bay, those twin peaks, that fog-shrouded
spit of land where the sun sets was a wild place haunted by ghosts.


.   .During construction, the floating edifice was ridiculed as “Halleck’s
Folly.” The calloused hands of Irish and Chinese immigrants built the
Monkey Block in the marshy graveyard of ‘49er schooners scuttled after
sailors deserted the harsh life of the sea to pursue easy gold glinting in cold
Sierra foothill streams. With walls filled with red bricks and three-feet
thick, the Monkey Block raft rode out the big quake of ’06 and stood as a
firebreak that saved the “bone yard” and all of Jackson Square from one
more infernal apocalypse. But the sturdy fortress couldn’t save some of its
own: one poor soul lost his studio of 2,000 paintings in one day—or so the
urban legend goes.

“Bagdad-by-the-Bay” sometimes can be a trickster even to its own
immigrant song residents.


.   .For a century, this grand edifice breathed like a living thing in the
imagination of a city slowly awakening to the pulse of its own
cosmopolitan heartbeat. But the fat lady sang the Swan song for the
Monkey Block in 1959, when it stubbornly yielded to a brutal mania for
urban renewal, and the erasure of urban history. Now, most of its colorful
Dionysian residents are forgotten except by obscure academic archives—
like Tonalist painter and dandy ringleader of the Coppa round table,
Xavier Martinez; fiery French landscape artist Jules Tavernier; the devil’s
own wordsmith Ambrose Bierce; Apollonian radical Jack London—and
many others who sailed a different tack in life, often out of a dire necessity.

Around the turn of the century, these local luminaries held subterranean
court in the Coppa trattoria surrounded by fantastic murals name-checking
kindred spirits with similar internal upheavals of a restless philosophical
animal nature—Nietzsche, Shakespeare, Dante, Plotinus—and other early
disrupters of cultural DNA. And, above these Forefathers, walking on the
top border of the mural, a long march of black cats circumnavigated the
room like the ritual procession of an Egyptian Goddess.

The giant pet lobster in one panel of the mural most likely convened these
meetings of the local avant-garde. Or maybe it was Emerson’s Platonic
Idea of an Over-Soul who had some hidden hand in the proceedings. In
any event, some guiding spirits inspired a fire in their acolytes’ souls to
know the truth of things and to know thyself, like ancestral Roman
household deities of the hearth like tribal Penates and ancient Lares
watching over Xavier’s round table of initiates, a local oracular navel, a
modern outpost of a dismantled Delphi—an odd place in the world even
for these misfits.


.   .Now, all of those strange imaginings recede to whence they came, and
I am back on the bench in St. Mary’s square. There, I summon Carlo and
Squibob to help triangulate tonight’s geo-mythic Barbary Coast survey.

As above, so below (as hermetic mystics say) and there, high in the darkening
eastern sky, the Summer Triangle rides on the timeless tide of the Milky
Way. Feeling warmer against the fog now, I debark on Grant Street
through an egg-shaped 5th dimensional portal opening to reveal an
isolated fragment of grand imperial China. Though postcard-perfect now,
it began as a fetid ghetto built on top of those desolate windblown sand
dunes shaped like silvery lunettes.


.   .Buzzing electric neon gas of the art deco Bodhi Bar sign: a joint where
Dashiell Hammett must have taken a dive or two, at least in the film noir
montage in my mind. The large cinnabar arch looms like the engulfing
mouth of a Stone Age cave temple, pulling me inside with a strange
magnetism—but no lifelike charcoal figures of Aurochs stampede the

Now, sitting down at the horseshoe bar, and a bit out of place, an auburn
man with a manicured goatee and enigmatic, noble face. A rust-hued suit
readymade, like the splendid shoes and bowler hat. Dark eyes turned my
way, and widened with an instant of recognition. A transference of
something subtle, even molecular, had taken place—like a mundane strong
force interaction of mesons and baryons. Like the dance of quarks and
particles that make up all existing matter as well as the negative spaces.
Suddenly, the room began to spin and accelerate with the power of a
cyclotron, with the pace of an infinitely expanding cosmos wishing to
know its own outer limits. Then all faded to black…


.   .Beneath the Barbary Coast boardwalks, beneath the threshold of
waking dreams, I awoke, groggy, to a subterranean city tunneled into
caves where ephemeral floating clouds of mountainous islands filled with
grand towering palaces and colorful stepped pyramids flickered with heat
lightning in dark skies of expatriate opium dens.

And, from an underworld of even deeper caves, the muted screams of


.   .Back in the mundane world of reality again, I shook off the inter-
dimensional space dust, and recalculated my GPS bearings. On the
Chinatown curbside nearby, several troupes of sweet weathered faces of
Chinese lyre players vibrating the air with rich alien beauty sounds of
atonal contrapuntal antiquity. Up a side street climbing the Nob Hill slope,
a narrow chiaroscuro canyon deep in light and shadow. There, a miniature
Imperial palace stood sharply etched against the penumbra of the setting
sun, three flags snapping in the westerly gusts above a roofline of bright
nested gondolas of cinnabar and gold.


.   .The next starry node on the Navigator’s Triangle was this timeless
sanctuary, la grotta del Vesuvio. Tonight, it’s unspoiled by conspicuous signs
of high-tech upward mobility. In the place of Aurochs, framed Beat
memorabilia stampedes across the cave walls as I slouch towards the
climax of this mystery play. I hoist a "Sal Paradise" or three, in anticipation
of some much-needed bliss: renditions of Sal’s early Bird-inspired bop
prosody recited by remnants of Dean Moriarty’s electrified prankster tribe
as a nervous city makes merry staring deep into the new paradigm of a
a televised everyday abyss…

  The Sal Paradise

  Tequila   Rum
  Orange juice

  Squeeze of lime
    So Sub Limine!
      O sublime!


.   .Here’s to Halleck’s Folly. Here’s to reforestation. Here's a 50th
anniversary Summer of Love kiss for ye Pranksters, Merry or

Old St. Mary's Park is
      a bright star on the Navigator’s Triangle
      a philosopher’s flying island of
      arcane knowledge surrounded by
      a sea of mystery swirling
      around an axis
            bold as love
                  to kiss
        shrouded in fog blind
        to the forest of steely monoliths
        where many jacks search
        for gold but


.   .
II: The Dead Trees Still Speak
The blue chip bankers, top-drawer lawyers, silver kings, and goldsmiths
gradually vacated to the steel-framed skyscrapers of Hearst and other blue
rosebud cases sprouting up like new spring growth near Market Street:
another iteration of the new immigrant city searching for its multicultural
identity. The grand floating temple of the Monkey Block was abandoned
to artists, writers, sculptors, dancers, singers, orientalists, average Joes, neo-
orphics, assorted eccentrics (you get the picture), and other social misfits.

There, in those deep alcoves of the Inferno-proof walls, up to 75 budding
artists could nest like Homo erectus in their sheltering African savannah tree
sculpting torsos of Adamic red clay, writing rule-breaking poetry,
sketching fleeting visions, or escaping entirely from the material world into
another heightened world of colorful abstractions and strange biomorphic
surrealisms. Some images were captured in one medium or another, but
many other fevered daydreams were lost to the Akashic records for
unknown future brothers under the night vault of sacred constellations
created around campfires projecting simulacra of the mythmaking human

Sometimes the spiraling cosmos can play tricks even on its own primal

.   .“Go west young man and grow up with the country,” Horace Greeley
once said. But take care, young Jacky, not to get cribbed by the painted
ladies on Maiden Lane or have your heart shanghaied by a dandy in a
scuttled schooner converted into some weird Oriental saloon. But when
grappa, Pismo Punch, and wormwood absinthe starts to flow in your veins,
play tricks on your mind, and tarnish your Hummingbird soul, you can
sweat it out in the purifying Turkish baths where gold-hearted firemen
mingle with wild-hearted misfits, spinning tall tales of the fall of Adam in
the rolling, consoling mists.


.   .III. A Sworn Affidavit

Carlo Marx and Squibob hereby witness, and certify in absentia and ex
officio: I, your unreliable narrator, swear on a stack of Akkadian tablets of
red clay, on the tall tales of Wild Man Enkidu and Good King Gilgamesh:
that’s how that evening really went, more or less (except for some lacunae
regarding the offstage main Prankster beatitude event) —at least that’s
how I fragmented it back together under a lapislazzuli sky adorned with
small crystals and three silver lunettes. And if any of this is even remotely
true, may a floating island of ancient Argonaut lore spirit me away to the
mountain wise men from the East of an earlier day once called Sumeru.

Ron “Dante” Myers

June 2–August 20, 2017

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