By Pete Moss
We walk into the Silver Crest and it's deserted. We have a seat at the counter. There's nobody behind the counter. The old man that runs the joint is in the kitchen banging some pots and pans.
Spela spots the jukebox and strolls over. Then she squeals with delight and feeds in some quarters.
Soon some weird music is playing. Some kind of Balkan dirge.
The grouchy old cook comes out of the kitchen. "Who is play music?!" he demands.
Spela looks at the old man. He looks at her, then Spela says something in a language I've never heard. It sounds like a question.
Then her and the old cook are jabbering away in whatever exotic tongue they both know.
Spela comes and sits at the counter by me and introduces me. I assume she's introducing me; I can't decipher her lingo.
But the transformation that comes over the old man is amazing. Who knew he could even smile let alone laugh out loud and chatter like a monkey.
After several minutes he and Spela come to some kind of agreement and the old cook goes back in the kitchen.
Another tune starts on the jukebox, this one much more lively.
"Wow!!" says Spela. "What are the chances? I mean Grigori is from nearby Sarajevo!" Then Spela names a town which is all consonants and which I know I will never remember or be able to pronounce correctly.
"There's all kinds of people in San Francisco," I say. It's the only thing I can think of to say, and it happens to be true.
But then Grigori is bringing us a plate with what looks like potato pancakes rolled up and with a dipping sauce. Also a bottle of liquor appears. Grigori pours shots. We hold up our shots and toast, Spela and Grigori making a guttural noise. "Salud," I say.
The liquor is like liquid fire. It must be 150 proof. I just about gag. Spela tosses it off without any visible effect.
The potato pancakes are really good though, and the dipping sauce is garlicky and has another flavor under the garlic that I can't name.
But now another dish has appeared. Kabobs, lamb, with onions and I don't know, cubes of turnip.
There's another sauce for the kabobs, and another shot of the strong liquor, then more dishes. The only one I recognize is dolmas, though they're not like the dolmas you get in Mediterranean delis around the city.
Much more flavorful and the grape leaves are crisp. The filling is greasy and silky smooth and has allot of paprika in it. The paprika is far stronger than the stuff you get at Safeway.
More tunes come on the jukebox. Spela and Grigori jabber and chew and drink. More dishes keep coming.
Spela cries, Grigori cries, then Spela laughs and Grigori laughs, then they cry again and eat and drink. Grigori and Spela sing along to the next song that comes on.
Then the sun is coming up.
I'm pretty buzzed.
Finally the feast is over. Spela and Grigori are hugging and blubbering and chattering in their consonant loaded language.
We walk somewhat unsteadily out to the van. Pedro is still conked out. I tumble into the bed and Spela tumbles next to me.
"So, Grigori says you must go and live in your new house that Donnelly left you. You cannot let this YoYo person run you off."
"Right now? I'm not really good to drive."
"Of course not right now. But as soon as you are good to drive."
"Wait a minute, what were you doing telling my personal shit to that old grouch?"
"He is a very wise man, and he knows a thing or too about being displaced. When the Nazis came they killed his whole family and stole his father’s plum orchard. He escapes with nothing. Only a 10 year old boy!"
"Well shit," I say. What else can I say. Compared to the Nazis, YoYo is a mosquito.
The next thing I know I'm waking up. The sun is high in the sky. Inside the van is blazing hot. I'm sweaty and thirsty.
I reach for the water jug and take a long, long drink.
Spela is awake now, and so is Pedro. Everybody wants water. I open all the windows in the van.
We exhaust the gallon of water pretty quick. Spela goes into the Silver Crest to refill the water jug.
Pedro wants out of the van. He jumps out and yelps in pain as he lands. Then he whimpers as he lifts his leg to pee on the tire of the van. I have to lift him back into the van.
Spela returns with water and pours some for Pedro. He laps it up.
I fire up the van. I want to get on the freeway, get a breeze flowing through. Blow out all this stinky stuffy air. My head hurts and my guts are churning.
"What was that liquor?" I ask.
"Slivovitz," says Spela. "Do you have any aspirin?"
"In the drawer," I say. Spela goes in the drawer and finds the pouch. She spills out two aspirin and swallows them.
"Do you want any?" she says.
"No thanks," I say. "There's only two ways that really work to avoid a hangover. Either you never start drinking or you never stop."
I put the van in gear and pull out onto Bayshore Boulevard. And we don't get a block when we're lit up by a cop. I pull over. Turn off the van. Put my hands on the wheel. I look in the mirror and relax. It's Ricky.
I've known Ricky since were crazy teen-age bike messengers. Back then he had an enormous natural. You could spot that huge black cloud flying between cars from 3 blocks way.
Later in the '80's Ricky got a Gheri Curl. Now, getting on 50, he shaves his head bald.
"Ricky," I say. "How you doing?"
"Pete," says Ricky. "Seems we had some shots fired over by where you like to park up behind the produce market. Found a gun in the street. And say...look here..I do believe that's a bullet hole in your van."
Ricky walks back along the van. I get out and sure enough there is a neat round hole in the side panel of the van. "Maybe it's a bullet hole, maybe it's not," I say.
"Fair enough," says Ricky. "Although I hear your life has been pretty exciting the last few weeks."
"You know I been protecting you all these years?"
"I know and I appreciate it."
"You almost never got a 72 hour notice, no parking violations. Didn't cite you for no insurance when you were short a money in the recession"
"I said I'm grateful."
"I can't keep protecting you forever, Pete. There's new young cops coming up. They don't know anything about the old days, how we fools o' those cars on Montgomery street and South of Market. Those Bad Brains shows we saw at the Farm. Hell, they call South of Market, SoMa!"
I make a gagging noise.
"I hear you inherited a house over in Oakland," says Ricky. "My advice? Move on in!"
"And leave San Francisco?!!!?"
"It's only across the Bay, Pete. Not like....Bakersfield."
"Leave San Francisco?!!?" It's hard to get my head around that one.