The Demon of Union Street
This is a true story:
I pulled up in front of Powell's bar at Union and Powell in North Beach at my usual time to pick up the relief bartender that I took to Mill Valley a few nights a week. It was a good ride. I wasn't a fan of the usual two o'clock drunks so picking him up at 2:15 a.m. and carrying him on a nice sober ride across the bridge for a quick twenty-five dollars was a good deal. Besides, I could do a doob on the way back while enjoying the scenery.
I was working the night shift in San Francisco out of Veterans cab No. 205 in 1980. My name is John.
My rider, Peter, wasn't there that night so I assumed he was sick, but he didn't appear for the rest of the week either. On my night off I went in and spoke to Vince the owner to see what happened.
"Oh, I had to fire him, he was stealing" Vince said, "What da ya have?"
I liked Vince; he was kind of crusty if not a bit scary. He chased me out of the place once with a baseball bat for besmirching his race (Italian; if you can't make fun of Italians in North Beach, then where?). He let me back in a couple of weeks later when he cooled down lucky thing too because it was my neighborhood pub when I lived on August Alley around the corner.
"How about a martini? Dry."
He said that he heard Peter was working at Dusty Roads on Union Street in the Marina.
Actually I think that Dusty Roads at that time was called Margaritaville or maybe it was the other way around. Anyway, both signs were up on the outside. It had originally been some kind of foo-foo bar owned by a wealthy Persian (are there any other kind?). The Persian spent the largest amount of money in San Francisco history (at that time) to remodel the place in about 1976. I think it was $1,000,000, a paltry sum now. The bar was in the ell of a turn-of-the-century Victorian at the corner of Union and Octavia, about a block short of the Union Street club district. Location is everything in business, and this place had none (business that is). However, maybe it wasn't location after all.
At about ten o'clock I pulled 205 across the street and parked. You could find parking in San Francisco once in a while in those days. I could've parked directly in front but it didn't look good for a cabbie to be seen drinking on duty, not to mention it was illegal.
I removed my badge from my chest and climbed the long stoop up to the door on the second level and entered. The place was empty except for Peter the bartender!
"Hey Peter! Did'ju scare 'em all away?"
"Hey John, how's it goin'? I was going to call your dispatcher and tell you where I was now. Have a drink?"
Their specialty was margaritas; they had a huge metallic margarita machine behind the bar, must have had a 1,000-drink capacity. However, ever since a bout of tequila-itis in Mexico as a young man (I vomited from Ensenada to San Diego) I've avoided any concoction made from that vile brew.
"I'll have an Irish whiskey and water, thanks."
The interior of this place was beautiful: a full-length solid wood bar, nice furnishings and artwork, and TVs everywhere. It was my first experience with the phenomenon that came to be known in our society as the sports bar. Directly behind the bar was the behemoth that made the margaritas; it looked more like a coffee roaster to me, with a large cylindrical tankard atop a square base with a melon-sized aperture holding the ice chopping blades where the mix came out.
"What's the deal here, Peter why aren't there any patrons?"
"Well, the owner, an heir to Johnson Company [band-aids and notions], bought it as a hobby and it hasn't caught on yet."
"Yeah well good luck to him", I said "because no place has made it in this location that I can remember. Where's the bathroom?"
Peter pointed to the open back room. "Through the game room and to the right."
I walked on back. The game room had a jukebox, pinball games, computer Pong and a number of TVs, including a rare (at the time) big screen set. I noticed that no one else was in that room and that a particular show was on the tube. The restroom was great by bar standards, better than my whole apartment and cleaner too. It was wall to wall and floor to ceiling marble or some other semiprecious stone. Upon entering, I felt an immediate pall fall upon me. You know that feeling that you're not alone and that the person who's nearby is a danger to you? I looked around constantly and hurriedly pissed at the stand-up urinal; I couldn't wait to get out of there but I didn't know why. When I came back through the game room I noticed the TV was now on another station and I thought that odd as no one was watching.
"How come you changed the channel?" I asked when I returned to the bar.
"I didn't," said Peter. "Why do you ask?"
"I just thought you did." I didn't press it. "What time do you want me to pick you up?"
Because business was slow in this bar he could leave earlier, which was good for me as I could take him home to Marin and still be back for the main part of the bar rush. It was a better deal than before. In fact, I could time it to where I took my "break" at the bar during the slow period after midnight. Most normal people had gone in for the night by then, leaving only bar rats, skanks, whores, pimps, freaks and fags left on the move. The best fares at bar time were the bar employees themselves, usually sober and good tippers.
I took him home that first night then arranged to get him on a regular schedule.
The next night I came in; it was the same as the night before, dead as a doorknob. As we were drinking at the bar the silence was suddenly broken by the yelling of the words "freak out!" from the game room as the jukebox inexplicably came to life. I jumped out of my stool and Peter laughed.
"What's that?" I asked excitedly. It was the start of a popular disco song by Chic.
"Ha, ha, ha! You shoulda' seen you jump!" Peter laughed.
"That's not funny, how'd you do that? Do you have a remote control?"
"No, it's been doing that all night."
Naturally I had to use the toilet before we left so I hurried back there. In 1980 I was a big, healthy, twenty-eight year old man and had been driving a cab for two years at night. I was no wus, but somehow that bathroom scared me. Someone was staring at me in there and they were close, right behind my head.
In subsequent visits to the bar I met a patron named Marilyn who lived in the neighborhood and worked in the gift shop on the first floor. She was a nice looking girl but smoked, which usually made them off limits to me but she had a full rack so I thought I'd make an exception, at least temporarily. I was in no hurry so I let her soak up my rugged good looks, uncommon wit and boyish charm for a week or two. I had plenty of time to make a move, if I chose to.
The management had tried to repair the jukebox to no avail, it was still playing "Le Freak" at will. TVs were changing channels on their own and pinball boards were always lit up and ringing. The phenomena gained in strength and intensity as the night drew to a close.
The owner was beginning to get annoyed with the goings on there even though he never witnessed them himself. They always ceased whenever he entered the room and began again when he left. The jukebox had been serviced and found to be in working order, as were the other contraptions in the game room. What really made him angry was that both front and rear doors were unlocked and all the lights were on when he opened in the morning. I knew Peter was shutting off the lights and locking up, I saw him do it. The strangest thing was the rear door it was never used and had a heavy chain wrapped around it with a padlock that only the owner had a key to. It was impossible for Peter or anyone other than the owner to unlock that chain.
One night as I was sitting at the bar alone with Peter a series of strange noises came seemingly from behind the bar. They sounded like a combination of whistles, bells, chirping, whirring and other unidentifiable sounds. The noises would follow Peter down the bar; wherever he went, they went. I still thought he was pulling pranks on me but he invited me behind the bar to see for myself. There were no radios, tape players, wires, speakers or any other manmade devices creating those noises.
"I want you to make my rounds with me before I close" he said. "The boss is claiming I'm not shutting down and locking up at night. I need a witness."
I followed Peter toward the rear and as we walked the noises from the bar now moved into the walls and became louder and louder as we progressed. By the time we reached the kitchen I had to cover my ears with my hands it was so loud. The noise clearly emanated from the walls near wherever Peter walked. Peter had me check the padlock on the rear door, like a magician before performing a trick. (See? Nothing up my sleeve.) He then flipped the switch on the fuse box and the whole place went dark while we hastened out the front by way of a flashlight. I couldn't move fast enough.
The following night, I came in on my break. Marilyn was there, too. Peter said that the owner had arrived in the morning and found everything lit up and unlocked. He was at his wits' end. It was about midnight and the owner was long gone home when the noises from the bar started along with the jukebox and games in the rear room. No one else was present. Because of the situation, Peter decided to begin unplugging all the TVs and electronics before leaving.
He unplugged the first one, then stood there agape it was still on! I came behind the bar and looked for myself, held the limp cord in my hand and moved the TV to look at the back. There was no other cord, no battery, no way to power the device yet it was still on and tuned to a rerun of "Hawaii Five-0"!
"Holy shit!" is all I could mutter.
I sat back down with Marilyn. The noises continued to grow louder as the minutes moved on, a repetition of the previous night. Peter had already drained and cleaned the margarita machine. I had seen him do it. It involved draining all of the leftover margarita mix into a large bucket and then cleaning the blades while running clean water via a hose through the tank. The whole process took some time and filled several buckets of fluid. You knew the tank was clean when the water ran clear. The machine was definitely clean and empty. We sat there talking over the din of the phantom noises, watching a TV that was not plugged in when all of a sudden the noises stopped and the TV and jukebox went off. The front door had opened and up the steps came the owner unexpectedly. While Peter went in the rear to talk with him, Marilyn and I whispered about how strangely it had become silent just when he came in. Did it (the phenomenon) not want the owner to know about it? While we were whispering the owner quickly reappeared from the rear and headed out the front. At exactly the moment the front door closed the TV came back on, the noises again started behind the bar, bells jingles and whistles emanated from the pinball games in the game room, Chic yelled "Freak out!" from the jukebox and most disconcertedly, the empty margarita machine behind the bar vomited gallons of greenish fluid from its orifice with an unearthly sound.
Our mouths dropped in shock as the unknown green substance shot out a full four feet, striking the top of the bar and splashing our faces. Peter stood off to the side laughing hysterically and denying any trickery. I had to believe him as I had seen with my own eyes that the machine had been emptied. Marilyn and I escorted each other to the bathroom to clean up. We didn't want to be alone back there, so we used the same facility. In the game room pinballs were shooting and flippers operated by unseen hands as the bells and whistles rang up the scores. The electronic ping-pong was volleying back and forth and flying saucers were being destroyed en mass on the Space Invaders game. Who or whatever this player was, he was good he had beaten my best score by tenfold or more. The TVs were changing channels at will and the jukebox, now disconnected from its power source, was playing "Le Freak" over and over again.
We locked up and left as always, fully expecting that it would be open and lit when the owner arrived in the morning.
The following night I was working as usual when the dispatcher called me.
"205 over? Vet 205 over?" John Moss's voice squeaked over the air. John was the weekend dispatcher. We called him "Mouse", not just because of his name and physical stature but also his squeaky gay voice. Mouse was so light in his shoes that he had to wear lead underpants to keep from floating away.
"205, pick up Peter at UOP Emergency." (University of the Pacific, now called Pacific Medical Center).
"Who?" I responded.
"It's a personal. Peter at the ER", said Mouse. (Personals were orders where the caller requested a specific driver. Nowadays drivers have cell phones making these redundant.)
"ER for Peter" I repeated.
As it was summer it was still light at eight o'clock. I raced the short distance to the hospital and found Peter in the waiting room, his finger bandaged.
"What happened, what are you doing here?" I asked excitedly.
"You're not going to believe it John. Take me back to the bar, I'll tell ya about it."
As we drove down the hill to Cow Hollow he told me that the margarita machine had "attacked" him by cutting the tip of his finger off while cleaning it. Thank God it wasn't too bad.
"Did you have it shut off?" I asked.
"Of course I did, there were witnesses, it just came on when I put my fingers in it."
I dropped him off and said I'd pick him up later. When I did see him again he said that there was a new bar policy: the machine must now be unplugged before cleaning.
"Good idea," I remarked.
The following night I dropped by the bar and discovered that the day bartender had been taken to the hospital he had lost his entire finger in the demon-possessed machine! Witnesses said that it was unplugged when he stuck his hand inside to wash it.
"It came on without warning, without being plugged in. It was impossible but we all saw it", said one of the waitresses. "The boss ordered it shut down until further notice."
"I guess so after having two employees lose two fingers in two days. That's got to be some kind of Work Comp record; wait till CalOSHA hears about this," I remarked.
The very next night I showed up at the bar at my usual time, and as always only Peter and Marilyn were there. Peter was laughing and Marilyn was, though smiling, in hysterics and tears.
"You just missed it! A white cloud appeared in front of the margarita machine and then was joined by a bright red ball of light! I went behind the bar and touched the red ball, it "exploded" and shot up through the ceiling ," explained Marilyn hurriedly.
Peter closed up as usual. Marilynn was too scared to go home alone so rode with us to Marin and I brought her back. She only lived one block from Dusty Roads, less as the crow flies, perhaps forty yards. She was still too upset to be alone so I chivalrously offered to stay with her a while. It was only about midnight and I had four hours left on my shift.
While Marilyn changed into something "more comfortable," I tried to light a fire in the hearth. It gets chilly in San Francisco in the summer. There was plenty of kindling, paper, dry wood and matches but I couldn't get it started, not so much as an ember. Marilyn came back, looking good, with a bottle of wine, two glasses and two pillows. She threw the pillows on the rug in front of the fireplace and gave me the wine opener while she tried lighting the fire.
"Here, you do this, I'll do that."
The bottle opened easily but she had no more luck with the fire than I did. We tried continually while we drank those first few glasses to get that fire going. After about an hour we gave up. We lay on the floor enjoying each other's company, forgetting momentarily about the events of that night. After a while we took a break from what we were doing and just stared into that empty hearth. We began speculating what it was that was causing the phenomenon at Dusty Roads. Marilyn said she thought it was an unhappy ghost. At that exact moment a roaring noise came from the hearth while a huge flame flew up from the wood! In an instant there was a perfect full fire burning in the grate as if it had been there for an hour. No slow build up, just a perfect flame in an instant. We had used no accelerant, no fluids or gas. We hadn't tried to light it in an hour. It was clearly an impossibility.
Marilyn became frightened and asked me to return the cab and come back for the night. She was so scared to be alone that she came to the garage with me, which made me popular with the guys.
Whistles, catcalls and the usual man-talk greeted us.
"Hey! Whalen's got a front-seater!" (cabbie talk for getting lucky).
"Guess she don't know he's gay" said one of the fat slobs as he threw the dice across the floor. "Craps!"
"Yeah, I'm going home with a hot busty babe while you guys throw craps. I'm the gay one."
The next day Peter was fired; his boss had to have a scapegoat. I started spending more time with Marilyn. She began hearing noises and other strange activity at her apartment, the same kind as at the bar. It had followed her home. After a month of this she moved out in fear, but only about a mile away down by the Lombard Gate. Evidently this was far enough that the demon didn't follow.
We drifted apart shortly after that; our relationship was doomed from the beginning by her smoking. Dusty Roads went through some more owners and name changes, I don't know what it's called today, but I do know it is a failure. Perhaps the current owner will read this and bring in an exorcist or find some other arrangement that makes the demon happy with his/her circumstances.
Ever since then, I've refused to pick up any passengers in that vicinity. I don't want to inadvertently take anything unwanted home with me.
Copyright © John Whalen