Somewhere in the fog a tugboat listed to port and raised the right gunwale as its fog horn let out an extended pea-soup moan. The Oaks Hotel squatted by the San Joaquin River and sniffed the faint aroma of salt as the muddy water met the East Bay. A cold sun burned through the pasty curtain and lit the top of the high, arched Delta Bridge that pointed toward Sacramento.
Herbie and his wife, Mildred, bought the Oaks Hotel in the 60's with money from a government settlement that followed the Port Chicago explosion on the East Bay in 1944. Two loaded ammunition ships blew up on a July evening and killed over 300 people. As they sat and listened to the radio in their living room the evening of the blast, Mildred and Herbie rocketed across the room in a jet-stream of broken window glass. Herbie came to, and crawled toward their son's bedroom. He peered into the room—the explosion had smashed the crib against the wall. His son lay in a crumbled bundle.
Their son, home and Port Chicago disappeared in a second. Mildred's bad back, Herbie's limp and their shattered eyesight remained. They arm-wrestled government lawyers in court for 15 years before the settlement. The hotel would be a retirement investment.
Benjamin Thompson built the two-story Oaks Hotel during the 1920's Wall Street boom and he added the bar after Prohibition's repeal in 1934. Ben's boasted the first neon bar sign between Concord and Stockton. The sign squinted through the fog and Herbie smiled—Ben s Corner, it blinked.
The first evening the sign lit up, Ol' Pumper, a blue heron, landed on it, did a pirouette, and dropped his used lunch of baby frogs and swamp grass on the apostrophe. Ben bought a 20-foot ladder and wiped the mess off his proudest possession. Pumper came back the next day—and the next—to deface the apostrophe. Son of Pumper, Pumper II and Pumper III continued the tradition. Ben gave up. "Damned slough-pumps just don't like apostrophes." Customers liked the sign to read Ben s Corner.
Oaks Hotel sat beside the San Joaquin River that flowed west from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and a little east of the confluence of the Sacramento River. The two rivers formed the boundary of the California Delta before they rolled into the East Bay. The hotel became home base for a sport fishermens' paradise, and it prospered. A small ferry crossed the San Joaquin and sent travelers on their way to Sacramento.
Herbie wondered why the owners had it on the market in the 60's. He found out when the Delta Bridge curved over the river in the 70's—no more ferry traffic. Cars sped across the river. As more people moved onto the Delta, waste showed up in the rivers. Coupled with agri-pollution, the fishing fell off and fewer people stayed at the Oaks to get an early start. The natural bouillabaisse of the East Bay went under for a third time.
Herbie could make out Sour Sam huddled at the entrance to the bar. Sam took pride as his first customer of the day. He owned a bookstore on North Beach in San Francisco in the 50's but sold out during the Hippy take-over in the mid-60's. "The Beats were literary—then Frisco got occupied by junkies and queers," he snorted, "I dumped the store at the right time."
Everyone said "Frisco" on the East Bay—much to the chagrin of snooty San Franciscan visitors.
Sam bought a used trailer house two blocks up the hill from Ben s Corner. Trailers circled up against reality under oak trees in the Oaks Trailer Park. Mother Goose Martin presided as the wagonmaster. Mother stumbled out of Ben s when Herbie closed down at midnight,—1 a.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday—but she'd be back the next afternoon at 4:00.
Herbie loved Ben s. The first thing he'd do when he opened is dust-mop the hardwood floor. That's why Sam waited by the door—he'd help Herbie move the two tables and eight chairs, then help put them back when Herbie finished mopping. As payment, Herbie set him up a Budweiser.
The backbar belonged in a museum. Hand-carved by German craftsmen from cherry and walnut wood, it came around The Horn on a clipper ship to San Francisco in 1870. The bar waited in a warehouse during Prohibition until Ben bought it for $100 in 1933.
Herbie took pride in the lighting. He ordered special, red-tinted bulbs at the Antioch Hardware for the three lamps that hung down from the bar's elaborate overhang. In the evening Ben s greeted patrons with a warm glow. Slow hours -- when she relieved Herbie—gave Mildred time to polish the bottles and glassware behind the bar. She turned to Sam, who sat and read yesterday's stock page in the San Francisco Chronicle.
"It was a beautiful day today, Sam."
"It won't last."
Italian and Portuguese fishermen settled in the East Bay after the Gold Rush of 1849 and they remained the predominant society until the Dust Bowl days of the 30's. That's when the Okies moved in and sought jobs in agriculture.
Alvin Cooper sat at the bar next to Sam this gloomy afternoon. His kinfolk had arrived in 1934 in a gasping, rusted Moon pickup truck with a homemade, plywood shell on the back—canvas water bags on the door handles, washtubs on the side and bedsprings on top. Alvin rode all the way from Junebug, Oklahoma in back with Bertha the goat. Like most of Herbie's customers, he lived at the trailer park under Mother Goose's lustful eye. Alvin loved to tell folks at the bar, "We was so poor, if I didn't wake up with a hard-on Christmas mornin' I didn't have anything to play with."
He never strayed far from Oaks, but one Saturday evening he did drive fifteen miles to Lodi and "got pritty drunked-up" in the Izzit Inn. That's where he met, and fell head-over-testicles in love with Maudie-Mae. Herbie only had one run-in with Alvin in the ten years he knew him. He lurched in one evening with Maudie-Mae in tow and demanded Herbie accept Food Stamps for beer.
Ben s Corner became a family, and Herbie the father. They came to him for solace, advice and a loan 'til the first of the month. But the mother-figure wasn't Mildred—Mother Goose filled that role. One afternoon she stood with Sam at the door, waiting for Herbie to open.
"Yer early today, Miz Martin," Herbie said. He never called her Mother Goose like the patrons did.
"Maudie-Mae watched the local noon news—there's an interview from the yard at Vacaville an' she thought she saw my Bart in the background. I always wanted to see my boy on big-screen color TV."
Ben s boasted a 36-inch color TV for the news and ball games. Bart Martin, Mother Goose's oldest son, partook of a hard-seven years at Vacaville Prison for child abuse and a drug conviction.
"Local news don't come on 'til 5:00."
"I know. I know. But I'm so excited—my Barty on TV!"
The news story Maudie-Mae saw involved an interview with a convict whose lawyer sought an early release due to a court procedural error. The three patrons and Herbie waited for Bart's screen debut but he didn't show.
"Don't be disappointed," Herbie said. "Sometimes they have different local stories on at 6:00—I bet you'll see him then."
"He won't be on," Sam grumbled.
They yawned through the national news and waited for Bart's repeat performance. Mother Goose stared at the screen and when the prison interview came on she craned her head toward the set. The interview happened up-close, but in the background sullen, blurry shapes milled around. She jabbed her finger at the screen:
"THAT'S HIM!—that's Barty. Didja see him? He's on TV!"
"That wasn't him," grumbled Sam.
Mother Goose took a Kleenex from her purse and daubed at her eyes.
"I saw him," Herbie said. "That was Bart all right and he looks mighty fit."
In October a car screeched to a stop in front of Ben s Corner and two young men minced in.
"Oh, Brucie—isn't the light in here dee-e-vine?"
"Why, yes it is—it's so—it's so—so—Rembrandt."
When they bought the Oaks Hotel, Herbie promised Mildred they would sell it and retire in 20 years. After the fishing trade diminished, Herbie closed the hotel and kept the bar open.
"I'm not shakin' farts outta bed sheets for no five bucks a day," Mildred said, "my ol' back can't take it anymore."
Herbie said,"It's time to sell 'er."
The young men came back again and again. They made Herbie a generous offer. Last week they waltzed in with a building contractor and an architect. Eight rooms occupied the second floor with two bathrooms and a linen closet. The first floor housed Ben s, a lobby and a boarded-up store.
"We have to bring all the wiring and plumbing up to code," Wayne, Brucie's friend, said. "We'll gut the building, except for Ben s—it's so precious—oh, we'll bring in some ferns and rubber plants and maybe change the name to The Randyvoo,"—Brucie giggled—"and turn the top floor into four suites with three queen-sized beds per suite."—Brucie shivered—"The lobby will be a lecture/music hall—we have a string quartet lined up for weekends—there's a darling friend in The City who'll turn the old store into a boutique and health food outlet. It'll cost a bundle. It's so-o-o exciting."
"Money's no problem," Brucie said, "we'll advertise it in the Chronicle as a weekend hidey-hole."
Wayne giggled . . .
Sour Sam helped Herbie with the tables and chairs on Thursday afternoon, then sat at the bar and nursed a Bud.
"Shuttin' down on Monday?"
"Paperwork's all done and the boys will be here early to pick up the keys."
"Then what-in-hell do you think we'll do—come in for white wine and a blow job?"
"Maybe you can water the ferns for a free beer."
"Yeah, some kind of a fag-import. Yer a bastard for sellin' out, Herbie."
"Look, Sam, we only live a block from the trailer park. We'll get some picnic tables and a used fridge—we can sit outside nine months a year. Hell, Mildred and I have a big yard. I'll set up a bar. It ain't the end of the world."
"We won't sit out—it'll be terrible weather."
"In that case, we have a big house—I'll pick up some chairs, people can kick in what they usually spend at Ben s and we'll get beers. Don't worry about it."
Herbie sighed. "We're family at Ben s" -
"Dysfunctional," Sam interrupted—"and I don't intend to run out on you, but hell, don't recall adoptin' anybody, either."
"You know Mother Goose and Bart, when he gets out, will be lost. What about Alvin and Maudie-Mae—and me?"
"Dammit, Sam—there's a bar two miles away in Brentwood."
"Too many Mexicans."
Saturday evening hosted Ben s Farewell Party. The heavy fog dampened everything except the party-goers' spirits. The boys from Frisco spent the afternoon hanging crepe-paper streamers and filling balloons from a helium tank.
"One can't have too many balloons at a party," Wayne said.
"They're lovely," Brucie said.
Sam came to the door at 3:00, peeked in and turned to leave. Herbie hurried outside a grabbed his arm. "That looks like a damned carnival in there."
"Maybe it is a carnival of sorts, " said Herbie. "Come on in—we need a clown."
Mother Goose arrived at 4:00 and Maudie-Mae and Alvin soon after. The boys brought their cohorts from San Francisco, a country music trio—The Meadow Muffins—and catered food. The over-21 population of Oaks came and went during the evening. Everyone told Mildred and Herbie "they had a swell time and sure hated to see 'em go."
"We aren't goin' far," they said in unison, "about a block up the hill."
Sour Sam, Mother Goose, Maudie-Mae and Alvin hit it off big with Wayne, Brucie and their friends. The Meadow Muffins played Hank Williams and Buck Owens songs and everyone danced, laughed and drank free beer. "Those boys from Frisco aren't half bad," Sam murmured out of the side of his mouth to Herbie. "Funny, too."
'Round about midnight the party slowed down and revelers put on coats and trudged out the door into the murk. Sam and Alvin helped Mildred and Herbie clean up. The boys took the keys to Ben s Corner and said they'd be in Sunday to bring some plants, finish the cleaning and make a dump run.
Herbie said he'd like to stay behind a minute and lock up. He looked at the backbar for awhile, then muttered to himself, "Hafta show them where I keep the red bulbs for the overhead lamps—they'll want to keep it lookin' like Rembrandt."
He went out and pulled the front door shut until the lock clicked. The Oaks Trailer Park crowd chatted and chuckled as they wobbled up the hill.
The boys from Frisco did change the name of Ben s Corner to the Lotus Room, and they had the sign-hangers clean up the old sign. Wayne, Brucie and the sign men loaded it in the back of Alvin's pickup and drove up to Herbie's house. Four picnic tables sat in his backyard. The men figured a way to string the neon sign between two large oak trees and then ran a power line to it from Herbie's back porch. The trailer park group bundled-up and came down in the evening to marvel at the acquisition.
"Like ol' times," Mother Goose said. She honked her nose.
"Probably burn yer damn house down," Sam added.
Herbie built a fire in the barbecue pit and his backyard hummed with chatter, punctuated by bursts of laughter and giggles, from the overjoyed visitors. Wayne and Bruce brought wine and quiche and the sign furnished an elegant glow to the occasion, long into the night.
Mildred and Herbie slept late the morning after. Herbie showered while Mildred fixed the coffee. "It's a beautiful morning—let's have coffee out back."
"Beautiful morning—but it won't last." He imitated Sam's voice.
They sat at a table and Herbie leaned back to admire the sign. He jumped to his feet: "I'll be damned! DAMMIT!"
Mildred stood and laughed. Earlier that morning the grandson of Ol' Pumper IX found a branch above the apostrophe -
Direct hit . . .