J ust after dark, Donnally parked a battered Caprice station wagon along the tree-lined southern edge of Golden Gate Park. He shrugged a surplus navy peacoat over his work shirt and put on a tattered Oakland A’s cap to give him the appearance of a man just a couple of missed paychecks into homelessness.
He slumped his shoulders in feigned defeat as he walked across the amber-lit street and passed by a collection of homeless men and lurking parolees. He entered the corner liquor store and bought two pints of E amp;J Brandy as bribes to make friends in the park with people who might know Charles Brown, and slid them into his coat pockets.
Two tattooed skinheads bracketed Donnally as he stepped back onto the shadowed sidewalk, as though they were cowboys cutting a cow out of a herd for branding. The shorter of the men kept his hand inside his unzipped jacket. The taller gripped Donnally by the left elbow and leaned into him, urging him down the sidewalk.
“Stay cool, man,” the short one said, without looking up. “It’ll be over in a minute and you can walk away.”
Donnally slumped even lower as they pushed him into a driveway leading toward the closed underground garage of a two-story Victorian.
“Just don’t hurt me.” Donnally said, as they descended. “I got kids.”
Donnally stopped halfway down and looked at the taller of the robbers, then tilted his head toward his front right pocket.
“Take the wallet, man. It’s everything I got.”
The two skinheads glanced backward. Donnally followed their eyes. A homeless sixty-year-old Asian man was watching them from behind an overstuffed grocery cart parked on the sidewalk across the street.
The shorter man pulled a Buck knife from his jacket and pressed it against Donnally’s side while the taller reached into Donnally’s front pocket and worked the wallet out. He thumbed through the two hundred dollars, then smiled at his partner as he took out the cash.
He turned back to Donnally. “Where’s your ID?”
“Hidden in the park. I got warrants. I don’t want to make it easy for the cops.”
The shorter skinhead snapped the Buck knife closed, slid it into his back pocket.
“No hard feelings, man. Just business.”
“I know,” Donnally said, as the skinheads strolled back up the driveway. “Dog eat dog.”
As the two turned the corner back onto the sidewalk, Donnally heard the taller one laugh and say, “That asshole sure ain’t gonna call the cops. Last thing he wants is to share a cell with us.”
Donnally reached into his sock, pulled out his cell phone, and called his old partner at SFPD. He described the two and said, “Swing by and see if you can ID the guys and get some photos, but don’t arrest them for a couple of days. I’m working on something in Golden Gate Park and don’t want to get burned. I’ll explain everything later.”
Once he was certain that they’d returned to their posts by the liquor store, he walked back up the driveway and across the street toward the homeless man, now standing next to the station wagon.
The man lowered the hood of his grimy green parka, slicked down his black hair, and then looked up as Donnally approached.
“Tough break,” the man said.
Donnally saw that he meant it. He nodded, and then leaned against his car.
“It’s all I had,” Donnally said.
The man peered up into Donnally’s eyes. “When you lose your job?”
“About eighteen months ago. Baker’s Yeast over in Oakland. Unemployment ran out last summer.”
The man smiled. “Mine ran out five years ago. I learned to live without it. You got a name?”
“They call me D.” Donnally stuck out his hand. “You?”
The man pulled off his knitted glove and held up his right hand; two fingers were missing.
“Saam Ji. Three Fingers.”
Donnally shook the remnants of Saam Ji’s hand, then reached into his coat pocket and withdrew one of the bottles of brandy.
Saam waved it off. “Got a meeting with my probation officer early tomorrow. He’s got a nose like a bloodhound.”
Donnally unscrewed the cap and took a sip.
“Saam Ji. That Cantonese?”
“How come you’ve got a Chinese nickname, but you don’t have an accent?”
Saam Ji squinted up at Donnally. “You a cop or something?”
“I used to be a janitor over there at Gordon Lau Elementary in Chinatown until-” Donnally held up the bottle and shrugged. “Until this got in the way.”
Saam Ji offered a weak smile of sympathy. “Yeah. I know how that goes. I’m not fresh off the boat. I was born in Cleveland.”
Donnally pointed at Saam Ji’s hand. “How’d that happen?”
“Let’s say I lost them gambling.”
“Over at Lucky Chances in Colma ten years ago. I was a pai gow dealer. Gambled in my free time. After I got in too deep, some gangsters took me across the road into Home of Peace Cemetery. Beat the crap out of me and stomped my hands.” Saam Ji sneered. “Home of Peace, my ass.” He held up his three fingers. “I wasn’t much good without all ten, so I couldn’t get hired anywhere else.”
Donnally searched his jeans pockets and pulled out a balled-up five-dollar bill. He unfolded it and inspected it under the streetlight, then looked up and down the street. “There a McDonald’s around here?”
Saam Ji pointed east. “In the Haight.”
“Show me the way and we’ll share whatever ninety-nine-cent stuff they got on special.”
Saam Ji smiled. “Thanks. I haven’t had a burger in months.”
Donnally made a show of inspecting the bill and smiled back.
“Let’s call it my last supper.”
A half hour later, Donnally and Saam Ji were sitting at a metal table outside the McDonald’s across the street bordering the east end of the park. Saam Ji’s grocery cart was parked on the sidewalk ten feet away under a streetlamp.
The teenager behind the counter had packed their orders for takeout without their asking.
The five dollars and another fifty cents Donnally pulled from his coat pocket went further than he expected. Four burgers and a small bag of French fries.
“Why’d you come to the park?” Saam Ji asked, sticking a fry in his mouth. “You got a car. You can stay wherever you want. Police are always hassling us around here. You go into the bushes to take a shit and when you come back, a city crew has hauled your stuff away.”
“I was staying over in Berkeley by the marina for the last month,” Donnally said, “but there are too many psychos around.”
Saam Ji grinned. “You mean worse than the guys that robbed you?”
“Not worse. Just unpredictable. Hard to get a good night’s sleep. And I used to know a guy who lived up in the Frontier.” Donnally pointed toward the most isolated and jungled area of the park where the hard-core homeless lived.
“I thought maybe I’d look him up.” Donnally smiled. “He’s a little unpredictable, too, but I’m friends with his brother.”
“What’s his name?”
“Charles, but people used to call him Rover.”
“Rover… Rover…” Saam Ji squinted into the distance, then looked back at Donnally. “A black guy?”
“Yeah. About six feet. Fifty years old or so.”
“I think I know who he is but he hasn’t been around for at least a year, maybe two.” Saam Ji smiled, his teeth yellowed and caked with French fry residue. “It’s hard to tell time when you’re not punching a clock.”
“Any idea where he went?”
Saam Ji wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his jacket.
“He couldn’t make it in the Frontier. Couldn’t stand being alone. He was always looking for attention.” Saam Ji’s eyes narrowed, then he squeezed them shut. “Let me think… let me think…” He opened his eyes again. “Noe Valley. That’s it. Noe Valley. I saw him over on Twenty-fourth Street by the bakery. Must’ve been a couple of months ago.”
“Expensive territory.” Donnally chuckled. “He come into an inheritance?”
Saam Ji shook his head. “He’s what they call a mascot around here. A guy yuppie people in the neighborhood feel sorry for. They give him money and food.” Saam Ji’s face turned grim. “I couldn’t live like that. It’s humiliating, and you always have to be ready to fight anybody who tries to move in on your block.”
“Was he doing okay?”
“Hard to tell. You know he’s crazy, right?”
“Off and on.”
“He’s mostly on. If you catch up with him, look at his hands. He punches things. Trees. Newspaper racks. All scarred and scabbed up. And paranoid as shit.” Saam Ji laughed. “I think that’s why all them white women are always giving him things. He acts like a scared puppy.”
Saam Ji looked around, then stood up.
“Thanks for the dinner. I better get to my spot in the park before somebody else moves in.”
“I’ll walk back with you.”
“Better not. It’s not good to be seen in the park with a cop.”
“Or something like it.” Saam Ji winked. “You could’ve taken those two skinheads in a heartbeat.”
“Then why’d you talk to me?”
“First just to see what you were up to. And now that I know it’s about Rover, I’m glad I did. He’s really gonna hurt somebody someday. Probably a woman. It’s just a matter of time. And it’s not because he’s crazy.” Saam Ji gestured toward the park. “Lots of crazy people out there. Almost all of them are harmless. But Rover sometimes looks at women a certain way. Gives me the willies. I was glad when he left the park ’cause I would’ve felt guilty if he did something. Shit, if I wanted to be responsible for other people, I wouldn’t be living on the street.”
“Has he done anything so far?”
“I seen him in the bushes with some women, ones like him, but I never saw him hurt anybody.” Saam Ji shrugged. “I figured if they’re all crazy, it’s kinda no harm, no foul.”