Something I’ll never forget happened that first year in San Francisco. We moved from Arizona in 1987, and found a 1930s house in the Outer Sunset, not close to the beach but not far enough away to be out of the fog. Jean brought in convention business for the Palace Hotel downtown, while I lucked into marketing at a computer magazine on the Peninsula. We spent our free time exploring restaurants and bars, often chasing Mexican food with shots of tequila slammed with 7-Up. Tequila: the best time I never remember.
Half the attached stucco homes on our short block housed storefronts on the first floor with their proprietors living upstairs. The watery-eyed locksmith next door drank too much — through pointy teeth. His CB radio overpowered our TV; his disembodied cackle coming through whatever we watched. Every time we heard that demented, pathetic voice, Jean would shudder and say, “God, he creeps me out!” He creeped me out, too, but I told myself he was harmless. Why did he have to be a locksmith, for God’s sake?
Even worse, he had a German shepherd that he kept chained in his dirt backyard. We tried to make friends with that dog — because he always barked at us and we felt sorry for him — but it never happened. We spent hours debating whether we should report his owner to the SPCA, but the locksmith loved that dog in his own warped way and we feared the authorities would just put the dog down. When it rained, we convinced him to bring the dog inside his shop, which looked like an earthquake had hit that day.
Nothing scared Jean except the locksmith. She rode the streetcar to and from work and claimed, laughing, that the only thing wrong with public transportation was the public. She walked two blocks to and from the N-Judah line early in the morning and late at night, in the winter darkness and the summer fog. It didn’t bother her at all.
I flew to Phoenix one weekend to visit family, leaving Jean on her own. When I answered the phone at 2 am Saturday morning, I could hear my mother’s sleep-addled voice also saying, “Hello?”
“Marie? It’s Jean.”
“I got it, Mom.”
“Don’t ever leave me here alone again!”
Jean’s voice sounded panicky… and boozy.
“Why? What happened?”
She’d gone out with co-workers to our favorite Mexican place near Moscone Center. They almost shut the place down; she knew it was time to go when she started playing the spoons on a stranger’s head. (Sprinkling and licking salt off his neck earlier was just a sign of a good time in progress.) She caught the last streetcar and walked from the stop to our house. The fog was so thick it muffled any sound — she could barely hear her own footsteps — and she couldn’t see past her outstretched arm.
“I couldn’t get the door unlocked! And I wasn’t that drunk! I could hear the locksmith on his CB radio and then it was quiet. I guess he heard me trying to get into the house.”
“The next thing I know, he’s standing next to me! ‘Need some help?’ he asks me. He’s obviously trashed — slurring his words — and smells like a dive bar. ‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘I’m just being clumsy,’ but he reaches over to take the key and HIS HAND IS ON MY HAND! Crap, Em! I AM SO FREAKED OUT!”
“OK, but you’re talking to me on our phone, so you got into the house and he didn’t rape or kill you, right?”
“Shut up! HE CAME IN! He unlocked the door and WALKED INTO OUR PLACE! I just stood outside, looking in at him — I didn’t know what to do! He said, ‘You can come in now,’ and I just stood there! He said, ‘Here’s your key,’ and I said, ‘Thanks,’ and I walked in past him — I had to brush against him because he wouldn’t move! He just stared at me, and HE WOULDN’T LEAVE! Then I got pissed. I stared back at him and said, ‘You’d better GO.’ So he mumbled something and left.”
“So he was drunk and has a crush on you.”
“Em! That’s disgusting!”
“Yeah, but it’s probably true.”
I felt anxiety crawling up my skin.
“Tilt a chair and jam the back under the doorknob if it makes you feel safer.”
I know she did it and it didn’t really help.
After that, we avoided the locksmith more than usual. When we did see him, he looked awful, like he had a degenerative disease… like he was dying.
About a month after Jean’s encounter, she took a late train home. A guy sitting a few rows ahead of her kept talking to himself, tying and tightening an imaginary knot in the air in front of him. She watched to see if he made a move to get off at our stop, but he didn’t, so she did through the door behind her.
She walked quickly through the light rain. Twice she thought she heard footsteps, but when she stopped… nothing. I heard her messing with the door and then a loud slam and a thud. I ran from the back of the house faster than I’ve ever run and jerked open the door.
Jean lay on the sidewalk, gasping for air. The locksmith threw himself at a man I’d never seen before, who punched him in the face. The dog roared and tore at the door of the locksmith’s shop.
When the locksmith fell, the man’s hateful eyes turned to me. I backed away against the building and opened the door to the shop. The dog tore that man apart.
The locksmith never completely recovered. The police said we were lucky to have a brave, selfless neighbor with such a fierce, protective dog.
Jean and I don’t ever talk about it. Atonement isn’t always possible.