At ten minutes before ten o’clock on a morning absent of fog, a worn-out, wood-sided cottage began rolling down from close to Russian Hill’s top. The uncommon sight of a house moving down the street stopped the tourists who’d just stepped off the cable car. They leaned forward, their rectangular digital cameras raised, though they didn’t have a clue why this strange thing was happening. But they were in San Francisco after all, on vacation from cookie cutter suburbs in Ohio, Tennessee, New Jersey and Illinois, where nothing of much interest ever happened. Several women were already thinking that this little old house rolling down the hill on some sort of flatbed truck would make a great story, along with the cable car ride up a street so steep, it made their hearts throb in their throats.
Further down the hill, a crowd of a different sort had gathered. These were working men, mostly dressed in navy blue nylon windbreakers, with their union local stitched in white, over diagonally zippered pockets that carried half-smoked packs of cigarettes. These men knew about the cottage, why it was being moved and where the truck towing it was headed.
The cottage moved past and made its way to the bottom of the hill, where the road leveled off and the cottage rolled out onto busy Van Ness Avenue. A truck went slowly in front, carrying a bright yellow sign that read WIDE LOAD. A second truck and sign followed in back.
At the end of Van Ness, where a jumble of streets made it hard to know which way to go, the cottage on its flat-bed truck made a wide right turn, traveled under the overpass, and then headed onto the freeway going south.
The owner of the cottage had been known by only one name, Flynn, and by the way he walked. Like a seesaw. No one knew if Flynn happened to be his first name or his last, and the answer didn’t matter to anyone. Some said he’d lost a leg in the war. No one could be sure which conflict. Others figured the leg had taken a beating in some labor unrest or another. Not a soul made the effort to find out.
You see, Flynn was a genuine character. A fixture of a former time. He seemed to be a guy some writer or movie director had made up. He had, as one woman close to his age liked to say, Paul Newman blue eyes. Besides the eyes, Flynn was tall and strong. His wide, often rosy round nose was shoved to the left and appeared to have been broken several times. He talked like someone from Boston’s rough South Side, with a raspiness cultivated by unfiltered cigarettes. When he told stories about his time in the Merchant Marine, stopping for adventures at exotic ports, or his work organizing the men who loaded ships along the waterfront to fight for better wages and working conditions and getting beat up on this or that picket line, more than a few people thought he sounded like Popeye.
Though Flynn never married, he rarely lacked for attractive feminine company. Women liked hanging around him because he seemed exciting and, when he wanted, could be a romantic guy. Of course, he didn’t let anything or anybody tie him down. Strangely enough, his lovers found this quality alluring. Still, the minute a lady friend pressed too hard, Flynn was gone.
Flynn liked to say that the working stiff had always gotten the short end of the stick and that’s why he had to keep poking it into the big shots. For a while, no one wanted to listen but Flynn kept on about it anyhow. He figured, eventually, folks would come around. Soon as things got hard.
And that’s what happened. The economy tanked, as Flynn figured it was bound to, because he’d studied Lenin and Karl Marx. Folks in Hollywood thought they’d better take advantage, make a movie to give the public’s anger a safe outlet. One famous director’s sister who lived in San Francisco told her brother he should make a film about this guy. An old union organizer, she said, who walked tourists up and down the waterfront, telling them stories about San Francisco’s wild old days, when working men were something to be afraid of.
The director decided to commission a script and see what he thought. But he first needed to secure the rights to Flynn’s life.
He called one morning, when Flynn was nursing a hangover.
“What d’ya mean, my story?” Flynn asked over the phone. He had uncharacteristically bought himself a cordless phone because, even at the age of ninety-four, he preferred moving around to staying put.
“Your life story,” the director said, his voice turned up too high. Flynn assumed the director imagined him hard of hearing. “A movie about you.”
“Well go ahead and do what ya’ please,” Flynn shouted back. “Idn’t that what you big shots always do? Ain’t nobody here stoppin’ ya’.”
The director tried offering Flynn more money than he’d originally planned to propose. Flynn said he couldn’t sell. It would be like prostituting himself. Money had never much mattered to Flynn, even though he’d spent his life fighting so the working man would get paid a living wage and overtime, plus benefits worth getting a busted rib for.
Flynn didn’t give in but that exchange got him thinking. Maybe he should write the story of his life.
The freeway on that perfectly clear morning was jammed, as always, though the traffic moved, and that was something to be grateful for. Drivers were so busy cutting in and out and maneuvering to get into the right lane before the exit that they failed to notice a funny looking cottage heading down I-280 along with them. The drivers in the little caravan moving the cottage and accompanying it had a certain route they were required to take, which they followed to the letter. Oyster Bay Boulevard came up and the driver of the lead truck flicked on his signal.
Soon after the cottage had passed on its way down from Russian Hill, the working men on the sidewalk walked to their cars and headed toward the freeway. Because they could make better time than a flatbed truck carrying a small house, the men were already at the site next to a concrete foundation, waiting for the cottage to arrive.
Not a week after hearing from the Hollywood director, Flynn got another unexpected call. This time from a local developer.
“I’d like to make you an offer on your property,” Bob Richardson, the developer, announced.
Without a second’s hesitation, Flynn informed him, “It ain’t for sale.”
This wasn’t the first time a guy with money to invest had made Flynn such a proposal.
Flynn pressed the phone’s red button with the fat pad of his gnarled thumb and set the instrument back in its plastic receiver. He didn’t comment, as he usually did, piece ‘a crap from China, because the call had gotten his dander up.
That didn’t happen to be the last he was to hear from the developer and Flynn had a pretty good idea it wouldn’t be. The developer had tried not to make too much of Flynn’s little piece of earth, since he wanted the place for a pile of money less than it was worth. Flynn had been fighting the big shots practically since he was old enough to walk. The old longshoreman, union organizer and rabble-rouser knew precisely what the developer was up to. The guy figured that at the age of ninety-four, Flynn had no doubt parted with his smarts. But as Flynn mumbled to himself after setting the phone down, a man would have had to go bonkers not to know how much that developer wanted his property.
To confirm the fact, Flynn walked across the old wood floor that moaned like an old dog in four separate spots and stepped out the front door. Unlike the other houses on all sides and up and down the block, Flynn’s did not have a front entrance that opened onto the sidewalk. Instead, when he stepped out, he found himself facing the side of the building next door. And that was the comical thing about this developer salivating over Flynn’s property. It wasn’t really so much.
That is, until Flynn walked down the path, which at this time of day was in shadow. Once he stepped beyond the building next door, the whole world came into focus. That million dollar view, Flynn had enjoyed bragging about. But, in fact, with the crazy climb of real estate prices in this city, it was now more like a ten million dollar view. And that’s what the developer was after.
Flynn couldn’t imagine giving this place up, even though he found it harder and harder to climb the three flights of steep steps up from the store or when he went to grab a cup of coffee down on Union. It was a completely fogless day and the bay shimmered blue all the way to the horizon. Flynn loved this town. Sometimes, as now, Tony Bennett’s old tune about leaving his heart here drifted through Flynn’s mind.
Still, he couldn’t help but get angry that this city, San Francisco, had turned on him as it had done. It was almost as if he’d been betrayed by one of his beautiful lovers. Seemed like everything now had been spiffed up for the folks who could afford it. All the old haunts where a working stiff could get a hot meal and a cup of coffee had closed, replaced by restaurants a guy like Flynn didn’t even have the wardrobe for. Every week, Flynn heard about old tenants getting tossed out of their apartments, so the slumlords could turn the buildings into condominiums and make a bundle.
Flynn wanted to hold onto the San Franciscohe had known. In the old days of strikes and marches, when the working men’s cottages, small square houses slapped together with found materials, climbed the steep slopes, all the way up here to the top of Russian Hill. Every one of those worn-out, much loved cottages had been bulldozed, to make room for the big, fancy houses that covered these hills. That is, all but one. All but Flynn’s cottage.
The developer had taken to sending his lackey over to bug Flynn, after Flynn quit answering his phone. Flynn hadn’t bothered to install a doorbell, since in the old days when working men used to come by, he just left the front door wide open. The developer’s guy in his brown leather jacket meant to look old pounded on the wooden door until Flynn figured his knuckles must have been stinging. Flynn sat inside at the tiny, two-person white enamel table, where he ate and didn’t bother to hide.
Many of the men waiting there as the cottage came around the bend and into sight, remembered the days when cargo was lifted by hand, not machines, and loaded onto and off of the ships. A longshoreman prided himself then, on his strength, endurance and skill. As the lifts slid under the cottage and the motors hummed, the men couldn’t help but remember those days when they were young. The work was grueling and dirty, of course, but afterwards a man felt he had done something. That first cold beer at O’Reilly’s down at the pier tasted like nothing so much as heaven’s rain. On rare nights when the fog waited out by the Golden Gate and the water and sky were blue enough to cause heartbreak, a man couldn’t help but feeling that there was no better life than the one he was living.
As soon as they’d lifted the cottage onto the foundation, the assembled crowd erupted into applause. By that time, the group had grown to several hundred. There were even reporters and cameramen from two of the local T.V. stations, along with one from the national network.
A union construction crew proceeded to bolt the cottage down. The men joked with one another, smoked, and a few talked about the Giants’ season prospects.
An older woman with a long gray braid stood off to the side. She was holding onto the arm of a younger woman who resembled her. They watched as the crew finished bolting the cottage, waiting for the workers to step aside.
Not a week after the director called, Flynn started writing his life story. Nobody had paid him a dime and he didn’t expect this. He just wanted to write. He liked to think the reason was to educate the masses. But in truth, he wanted to relive the past times.
What a tyme we had, Flynn wrote now, not caring if the spelling of his words was slightly off. He knew men had been killed and others roughed up but in the end it was all so glorious when they shut the entire city down. Flynn had been telling these stories for years in his talks, walking the tourists up and down the waterfront, pointing out spots. At those times, he had to pretend the restaurants on the piers, places so fancy he wouldn’t dare step a toe in, were the warehouses where men hoisted crates, by hand no less, and then hefted them out onto waiting ships.
That was the thing he tried to write and it made him sad and angry and a little confused at times. The world once had a place for the working stiff, he wrote down. And then he surprised himself by writing, I don’t want to be old.
He sat back, craving a slug or two of whiskey so much he could practically taste it on his tongue. That and a smoke. He couldn’t have either one now or he might have another stroke. He’d been lucky the last time, the doctor said. A second one’d kill him.
Before the stroke, Flynn used to hold court at DeNapoli’s, a dark bar on a side street in NorthBeach. Oh, sure, the tourists came in there to get a taste of old San Francisco, as the tour books promised, but a few of the old guys still hung around. Someone or other would set Flynn up with a whiskey and then keep it coming, so his mouth wouldn’t get dry. He’d tell about the general strike, how the cops had shot those boys, and the next day, they marched up Market Street, and there were marchers all the way from the waterfront through downtown. Then they called for the general strike. The next day, the entire city was shut down. Not a trolley car clanged up Market.
Some nights, Flynn had trouble making his way back up the hill to his cottage. He tripped over his size fourteen boots and wove from one side of the sidewalk to the other. Under the influence like that, he’d remember the great old days. What hurt to the point of making him cry was recalling how intensely he felt life then. The fish smells along the waterfront. The boys all standing out there in the fog. Pumping signs. ON STRIKE! Everyone singing union songs like Which Side Are You On? and moving on to the Communist anthem.
Those nights when Flynn was making his way home from the bar, fog had already settled in thick over the city. He liked to stop after the first set of steep stairs up from Union and turn around, listening to the foghorn bleating every couple of minutes out by the Golden Gate and watching the lights on the bridge give off their eerie yellow glow. He’d remember nights they stayed up drinking, the boys pooling their change, and then sending one of ‘em off to buy another bottle. Talking. Talking. Arguing about the world and politics and strategy. Those nights, Flynn sent his women home.
The developer took his time, digging through the county permit records. Richardson was delighted when he found that Flynn’s cottage, like the shacks that had been demolished, was built without a single permit and never brought up to code. Not only that. Even small as it was, Flynn’s cottage bled over the property line of the building next door. The structure – and this excited the developer most – was encroaching on its legitimately permitted and constructed neighbor.
The developer suspected that Flynn wasn’t going to go away without a fight. He couldn’t help being aware of the appeal the old guy still had. Richardson had lived in San Francisco his entire life, born and bred, as he liked to say, which made him special, since so many of the city’s residents had come from elsewhere. The newcomers loved the idea of San Francisco, the myth of its wild, rowdy past. The bawdiness of the waterfront and all of that. They liked having old guys like Flynn around, giving the place a certain character it had lost, when the housing prices took off.
Flynn didn’t bother to open the first notice when it came in the mail. He’d been having a bad week. What started with a sore throat had worsened into a hacking cough and terrible rattling chills and bone-wrenching aches.
If any of his old pals or women were still around, one of them would have coaxed Flynn to the doctor. But everyone who’d ever meant anything to him had died. And so he got worse, the fever ripping through him, soaking the sheets and then chilling him, until he started shivering.
The second notice arrived in the afternoon, when Flynn’s temperature peaked at a hundred and five. It came from a bureaucrat in the county planning department, without a thought for its recipient. John Anderson was the bureaucrat’s name and he had written to inform the owner that his structure was illegally encroaching on the neighboring property and he needed to bring the home into compliance. Anderson gave Flynn thirty days to appeal, which Flynn would certainly have done if he’d been able.
By some miracle, Flynn recovered. He did not want to credit prayer, though he’d resorted to silent pleas to God at his lowest points, despite having sworn off Catholicism when hardly more than a boy. Any other man his age would have died. He was thinner now and looked more like the elderly man he’d become, stooped and shuffling. His legs were weak and felt like they might not hold him up, when he went back and forth to the bathroom. The truth was that Flynn could have used some assistance now, a cane or a walker. Something he would never have done.
The second notice sat on the table unopened, along with the first. Then a third and final notice slid through the mail slot to join them.
Flynn was able, finally, to eat some stale saltine crackers and canned tomato beef soup. Each day, he slept a bit less. He hated to admit what was becoming more apparent – that he might not make it another year.
In between naps that lasted an hour or more, Flynn sat down at his chipped enamel table to write. Even with his body giving up on him, as it appeared to have done, there was nothing wrong with his mind.
It became the happiest time of his day, when he sat down to write. In the mornings, he would brew a pot of coffee and pour himself a cup, take a sip or two or three, sit far back in his chair and wait for the memories to surface. The caffeine was like a fuel pumping through his veins, and then, suddenly, he’d see the boys, Harry and Mac and the Irishman, what was his name? Flynn would lean down over the table and tell about the time they were striking over on Pier 23 and the goons showed up in black trucks. Pulled up and hopped out and started bashing heads. Blood streaming down their faces and the boys refused to give up.
In between the times he wrote, Flynn slept and ate a little, though his appetite had shrunk. He wouldn’t have said that he thought his time was short but he felt an urgency to get down the best stories of his life. Of course, he had never been a patient guy or one to take his time. And maybe that was the toughest part of being old and as he’d decided, almost useless.
His left hand cramped up before he was ready to quit. He’d broken that hand, along with the right, several times in fights. Mornings when he woke up, the hand was curled, frozen like a claw. At night before he fell asleep, his fingers and palms ached and throbbed.
He didn’t let any of this stop him. The pages with his stories scribbled across piled up. The arrests. The trials. The nights in jail. And, oh, the blessed relief when he walked out.
The reporter from one of the local T.V. stations, a slim pretty Asian woman, stepped into the cottage first. She had her cameraman get way too much footage of the interior, though the reporter knew they would end up using very little of it. The inside looked as if nothing had been bothered, even with the lifting of the house off its foundation and moving it a good twenty miles.
No one paid any attention to the gray-braided woman, who waited for her turn to enter the cottage. She counted the years in her mind and then counted a second time, to make sure the number was right. Though she frequently acknowledged to her daughter that her life seemed to have flown by, she couldn’t help but be surprised that she hadn’t been inside that cottage for half a century.
Of course, Flynn didn’t leave the women out of his stories. And, yes, there had been a special one. Ann Marie. Half Mexican and half Irish, with long black hair and, what Flynn could never get over, emerald-colored eyes. She was a dancer, doing stuff Flynn couldn’t understand on a wooden stage in her bare feet. But he loved watching her body in those form-fitting costumes.
Flynn thought about her now, leaning over the railing and gazing out at the bay. She was like a woman you’d expect to see in the movies.
He wouldn’t have admitted it then but now he could say that, yes, he enjoyed showing her off. In fact, he wrote that she made him feel important, though after reading the words on the page he considered striking them out. His face grew warm as he recalled the way men looked at her and then over at Flynn, the men grateful for the chance to get a glimpse of her.
When they went out, she wore long swirling dresses and scarves. Flynn liked to think that she kept her body hidden just for his eyes. He pictured her lying naked beneath him, her small breasts and tiny waist. She’d take her clothes off, all those layers, one by one, while he watched.
I should have married her, Flynn wrote now, and quickly brushed the tears away from the corners of his eyes.
She’d moved some things in, a few dresses, a pair of boots. There’d been no place to hang her dresses because Flynn didn’t have a closet. Ann Marie ran a clothesline across the room and Flynn cursed, every time he ran into one of her dresses.
Little stuff like that, he wrote, got him hot. But mostly he felt that she was cramping his style. There wasn’t enough room in his life for her.
The afternoon she announced that she was pregnant with his child, he told Ann Marie, “I’m just not the type.”
Flynn was fast asleep when the guy from the county tacked the condemnation notice on the cottage door. If he’d been awake, Flynn would have heard the tap-tap-tap as tacks were pounded into the wood with a hammer sized perfectly for the job. As is always the case with bureaucratic functions, the notice gave a date by which the county planned to tear the cottage down.
Three days passed before Flynn stepped outside. The fog was so thick, he couldn’t see a single building beyond the ones on each side.
He walked slowly, not thinking about anything except putting one foot in front of the other. For some reason his breathing felt hard. Each time he took in air, something stood in the way of the breath getting into his lungs.
About a block away from the market, which was his destination, he had a terrible craving for a clean shot of whiskey and some friendly company. The faded blue workshirt he had on was soiled but Flynn didn’t give this a second thought. He’d been living for so many days now in the world of his stories, where he was young and strong and even handsome, he believed anything was possible. So he shuffled past the market and down an entire extra block to reach DeNapoli’s bar.
He made it as far as the front door. His legs folded under him, right before he hit the ground.
The funeral procession stretched up and down Market, from the waterfront through the Financial District, past Nordstrom’s, almost to City Hall. Members of the longshoremen’s union Flynn helped create marched first behind the hearse carrying his coffin. The Mayor, wearing a wide-brimmed black fedora, and the Congresswoman, a black lace veil pinned back off her forehead, came after. Firefighters playing those mournful bagpipes followed, adding a solemn sound.
The Examiner reporter noted later that this was the largest funeral procession in thirty years, since the one for the mayor and supervisor, who’d been gunned down in their offices. And at a time when everyone thought the labor movement had died, the reporter wrote that union members were out in force – restaurant workers, longshoremen, teachers, custodians and cops.
When they reached the waterfront, the president of the longshoremen’s local got up on the temporary wooden stage. The bagpipes went silent.
“Flynn O’Halloran,” he said. Longshoremen at the front, who knew Flynn had fought Franco in Spain with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, responded with a rousing, “Presenté.”
Then, the president told the crowd, “Flynn would be happy to see all of you here today.”
After that, he made a pitch for money.
“The city is planning to tear down Flynn’s cottage,” he informed the crowd.
The longshoremen in front of the stage let out a resounding moan.
“Our union is leading an effort to save the cottage. This will take money. We’ll be passing the hat for your donations.”
Flynn had never spent much time wondering what death would be like. He’d come close too many times. Perhaps, he’d begun to believe he was invincible.
No one knew for sure if Flynn had foreseen his death. But that was the number one topic of discussion following the funeral, when mourners gathered at DeNapoli’s to pay Flynn their final respects.
You see, he left a will of sorts. Handwritten and signed. Left it sitting on the enamel table next to the four-inch stack of pages that contained, as he explained in the will, the best parts of his life story.
Flynn had not only dated the will but he noted the time. 12:30 p.m. It made sense, Harold Ryan, the head of the longshoremen’s local, said to a young union brother whose name he couldn’t recall.
“Flynn was a working man nearly all of his life,” he said, elaborating on his comment. “A working man lives and dies by the clock.”
Ryan held up his beer glass. With the end of a knife, he tapped it hard.
“Hey, quiet everybody,” he yelled, and then tapped the glass another couple of times.
“Let’s all raise our glasses for a toast,” Ryan said, his voice booming as if he were speaking through a bullhorn.
“To Flynn O’Halloran,” Ryan shouted.
The crowd echoed the dead man’s name several times.
As eerie as it might sound, Flynn signed the will twenty minutes before his body was found. He gave himself just enough time to make it down the hill to his favorite bar.
The cottage, the balances in his checking and savings accounts, his worn-out table, chairs and bed, and souvenirs from his world travels were left to the local union officials, to do with as they saw fit. The four-inch stack of papers Flynn had faithfully filled with the memories of his life he gave to his favorite lover, Ann Marie. If Ann Marie was no longer around, the writings were to go to her oldest child. Flynn apologized for not knowing the child’s name or whether the child was a son or a daughter.
Ryan finished his beer and turned toward the bar. He noticed a woman standing next to him for the first time.
“I’m Harold Ryan,” he said and reached his right hand out. Though she was old, her hair gray and the skin on her face wrinkled and dry, Ryan noticed that she had astonishingly beautiful green eyes.
The woman nodded and smiled. She did not introduce herself to Ryan.
“Did you know Flynn?” Ryan asked her.
“Yes, I knew him,” she said and turned her head away to face the door.
Ryan took this as a hint that the conversation was over.
The old woman waited until the crowd around the cottage thinned, and even then, hesitated to go inside. The woman’s daughter led her over to the water, which began only about a hundred yards from the back of the cottage. The woman could see how salt from the bay had dried and crusted over the ground, making it look ancient. When she gazed out toward the water, it made her glad to see the sunlight dancing on the small light waves.
Unbeknownst to the woman and her daughter, someone had opened the windows in the small cottage. With so many people and on such a sunny day, the tiny house had grown warm and the air inside stifling.
The breeze picked up over the water, as a bank of fog sitting further out began to roll in towards shore. A gust pushed through the window, grazing the white enamel tabletop and lifting a handful of pages up.
White papers blew out the window and dropped. The next time the breeze came up, the pages were carried out onto the water.
The old woman and her daughter did not go inside. They stood next to the bay and watched, as the pages of a life drifted out toward the horizon.