With Jim Bowie in San Francisco

In San Francisco today the summer wind is frisky.
I park my car and stroll toward Embarcadero
as the Bay Bridge glistens in the distance.

Jim Bowie is keeping me company. He bobs
along on my left shoulder, sprightly guide
through the rough and tumble urban jungle.

While I ramble along Jim openly admits
he wasn’t much help at the battle of the Alamo.
But he was bedridden then, in an advanced stage
of tuberculosis when the Mexicans laid siege,
unable to put up much of a fight.

I boost Jim’s ego a bit by reminding him
that for valor and battle skills he had few equals
in his time. Although many a tale spun about him
was nothing but purple prose, nevertheless today
he’s widely portrayed as a hero.

As we near the waterfront I point out to Jim
a bundle of new skyscrapers built to the south
of Mission Street, slick structures highlighting
mint green windows that reflect sunlight down
on motorists who negotiate a packed freeway.

Bowie confides that he feels a little guilty about
having done business with the pirate Jean Lafitte.
From that two-faced scoundrel he and brother Rezin
bought slaves that were shanghaied on the high seas,
then sold them on the black market for huge profits.
I try to console Jim, as he was certainly no prophet,
so he shouldn’t be rankled by such recollections.

Bowie snickers, which indicates his appreciation
for my empathy, as I amble through a bazaar
where vendors peddle various handmade crafts
under tents in front of the vintage Ferry Building.

Excitement mounts in Jim as we begin our journey
down the waterfront. He has heard of late about
a woman murdered at dusk on one of its many piers
by a man who was released five times from prison,
and he promises to protect us from such an attack.
We reach the Exploratorium, an architectural
wonder that was built on one of those piers
a hundred yards or so out, above bay waters.
I offer to pay Jim’s way in, but he isn’t interested,
not especially technically oriented. Some credit him
with inventing the deadly Bowie knife, but in truth
the first one was fashioned by a blacksmith,
which Jim then adopted and made his own.

Renown came Bowie’s way when the story spread
about a monumental one-on-one battle he had
with a ruffian who’d lodged a sword in his chest,
whom he then disemboweled with that famous blade.

We follow trolley tracks, stop for a rest, and look up
at Coit Tower atop a high hill above North Beach.
The bay breakers pretty mellow, slap gently on yachts
and assorted fishing boats as I ask Jim why it was
when Sam Houston urged he and Travis to abandon
a defenseless Alamo they all stayed, none cut and ran.
What was it that made them stand and fight
to the last man in a hopeless contest, knowing well
they would get slaughtered? Was it hubris? Stupidity?

Sometimes you have to lose a few battles in order to
gain an advantage, he replied, and further explained
they had to hold Santa Anna back to give Houston
time to collect and train an army. So they sacrificed
their lives, lost the battle to win the war. I responded
I can only hope that future conflicts during which
priceless lives are destroyed will be great causes
that propagate worthy nations seeking justice for all.

Arrived at San Francisco’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf
we pause near Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in front of
Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, an opportunity
to relax and reflect some more. I take Jim back
to when Santa Anna sent a courier to meet him
outside the Alamo, before the battle had begun.
The courier suggested they surrender, and vowed
that prisoners would be spared. But wily Jim
knew full well Santa Anna had decreed
that all Texian revolutionaries were pirates,
subject to execution upon apprehension. Bowie
couldn’t be fooled. He knew they would be slain,
so refused and galloped away.
Jim Bowie had a lot of pirate in his blood. He was
a swindler par excellence. Early in life he became
quite adept with a knife, but also showed a talent
for doctoring land documents, then selling property
to which others held title. When his welcome wore out
in Louisiana, he headed for Texas, hoping to snatch
as much land as he could. Once settled there
he didn’t waste any time in arranging a marriage
with the daughter of a Mexican land baron through
lies, claiming he had vast holdings that he didn’t.

Jim shouldn’t be particularly proud of the fact
he abandoned his American citizenship, then swore
allegiance to a foul Mexican government, and even
converted to Catholicism in attempt to glut himself
on personal gain and glory. His plans panned out
quite well, that is until Santa Anna mandated
that all Texians must surrender their weapons,
leaving them defenseless against his aggressions.

That was the last straw. It’s when Bowie’s infamous
temper was ignited. He revolted along with the colonists
against that egregious decimation of their liberty.

During early skirmishes of the maiden revolution
Bowie led bold men in ambush and raid,
proving himself fearless and fierce in battle,
after which history affirms his status at the Alamo.

I walk with Jim across the street, over to where
Alioto’s, Tarantino’s and Fisherman’s Grotto,
staples for many decades, line the wharf. I indulge
in a crab sandwich and sumptuous prawn cocktail
as Jim rests content on my shoulder, quite like
those fat harbor seals that on occasion I watch
lounging on the beach, well away from the waves.

 

Virginia City Boom and Bust

In the feathered canyons of my innermost mind
I’m inducted into the tribe of man, a clan distinct
from billions of what we humans consider wholly
inferior animals. But those animals equally entitled
to claim this planet. All of us in the same big ark,
all rowing on a ubiquitous allegorical ocean.
We can’t get off this ark inasmuch as it seems
there’s no going back, can’t harvest the past
from river beds with dredgers, drill and chisel it
out of solid granite cliffs, and don’t even sense it.
And yet we live this past with every single breath.

The past was fused to me the other day when
I ambled across the street, mainly curious
as the sun was setting over the Pacific–clouds
brilliant burnt orange glowed above the ocean
about a mile down the road. On the side street
between Palm and Carmel I came upon a church
long ago abandoned, its windows covered with
rusty chicken wire to prevent theft, a small blocky
stuccoed structure with a bold cross atop the roof.

Beside the church driveway an apartment house
where upon the second level deck a birdcage
that housed twin parakeets stood in full sunlight.
The parakeets beautiful with flaming red crests,
bodies mint green and chartreuse. They cheeped
like maniacs, hopped perch to perch—their wild
anxiety billowing above high voltage wires,
pronouncing boom or bust, heaven, lust, steeped
in language other than what man understands
such as one hears when the soul is set adrift.

They set their souls adrift, the filthy swindlers
who controlled silver mines in Virginia City’s
maiden days, when with due process null, often
claims were solidified by fisticuffs or bullets.
Those bosses were rough and ready, determined
to get rich no matter the obstacles, so employed
thousands, paying phenomenal wages in order to
extract vast fortunes from surrounding mountains.
From silver veins and ore they made silly millions
and lived in utmost opulence amid their mansions.

Eric Burdon sang there’s no place left to go but
San Francisco. Yet I know that city all too well,
every district photographed onto my brain cells.
So in deference to a past during which I strolled
Virginia City’s slanted wooden sidewalks with
my dad, I head instead for that once rowdy town
where stakes were high as was the mortality rate,
hoping to avoid what could be an untimely fate.

I’m prepared, have read rumors that poltergeists
roost in the rafters of Virginia City’s past, and yet
am steady as I drive up the coiled road from Reno,
enter town and pull over to the dusty graveyard.
Here laid to rest many victims of the ominous fire
of 1875, one that engulfed 2000 buildings within
a span of five hours. And the Yellow Jacket mine
fire, which raged through miles of shafts for days,
suffocated or cremated 47 men. Unsettled ghosts
of those victims are said to sometimes hover above
the graveyard at night, especially when the moon
casts just the right light that their opaque images
shimmer in the sky. Most renown of these ghosts
is Julia Bulette, a high-class madam and city angel
who was strangled to death just to steal her jewels.

 

Thomas Piekarski

Thomas Piekarski

Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly. His poetry and interviews have appeared widely in literary journals internationally, including Nimrod, Portland Review, Mandala Journal, Cream City Review, Poetry Salzburg, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Boston Poetry Magazine, and Poetry Quarterly. He has published a travel book, Best Choices In Northern California, and Time Lines, a book of poems.

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