Who Wants to Kill Stanley Janek
by Richard Jay Goldstein
1967. San Francisco. Grumpy old Stanley Janek found crumpled up in a dumpster just off Pierce at Sacramento. Not far from where he lived, on California near Divisadero.
One big .44 caliber hole in his chest, lots of blood. Money in his pocket. Drag marks from street to dumpster. Identifying the weapon no problem, because it was lying in the dumpster next to him, a Smith & Wesson Model 329 revolver. The serial numbers were intact and thegun was traced to a gun shop in Texas, then to an owner in LA, from whom it had been stolen several years before. No doubt it had enjoyed a lot of travel around the black market since then. Of course there were no prints on the gun, and the cylinder was empty.
Stanley crumpled up in the bloody trash, skinny white man, scrubbrush beard, dressed in his usual painter’s overalls, stiff with interior latex and exterior enamel and cheap black poster paint. And blood. One odd thing. The old putty knife he usually carried in the leg pocket of his overalls was missing.
The police dumped the case into the cold file like Stanley was dumped in the dumpster.
But I knew five people, besides myself, who might have wanted to shoot Stanley.
In the beginning, there was the paint crew.
We were an odd bunch, hippies, or beatniks, old radicals, crazy poets.
There was Victor Bartalan, the crazy poet, the boss because he started the crew and owned all the gear.
There was me, second youngest, wannabe story-teller, not good atseparating reality from fiction.
There was Jay Stiglitz, a couple of years younger than I, political activist, radical commie, constitutional scholar.
There was Fred Jones, esthete, serious actor.
These four white.
Diego Hunter was black, a giant, six five, two fifty.
We specialized in fancy Victorian restorations, five colors, six colors, you name it, rebuilding decayed gingerbread, turning hulks intomansions. Inside, outside. We worked out of a disreputable old panel truck with ladders piled on top, a keystone cops paint crew, madcap beatniks, clowning on teetering scaffolding, slinging ladders around, declaiming poetry from rooftops, swilling chocolate milk and gobbling Hostess fruit pies.
But we did good work.
Stanley Janek was a pain in the ass. We put up with him because he could paint like the devil, and had no fear of heights. Or anything. And he was a fucking genius.
Stanley was married to a plump beauty named Anna. Long, strawcolored hair, big midwestern grin. Funny and uninhibited. Once we were all sitting around in Mr. Otis, a bar in North Beach, long gone. Anna got up to pee. When she came back Diego said, “You sure got some nice legs, Anna.” Anna punched him on the shoulder, said, “Oh right, give you half a chance, my legs are the first thing you’d push aside.”
Married Stanley and Anna were, but he hardly ever saw her. She lived in their apartment on California Street, and he lived mostly wherever was handy, friend’s couches, friend’s floors, friend’s cars, bus station chairs, hotel lobbies. He’d come home when he was exhausted or terribly hung-over or needed cash or everybody had thrown him out.
And he came home when the muse was upon him and he needed to paint.
He painted houses with us, but Stanley was also the other kind of painter, an eccentric artist. There was a big empty room in his apartment. When he was hopping manic and itching to paint he would get a roll of butcher paper, unroll twenty or thirty feet, tack it up over three walls of his empty room. Open a big can of black poster paint and start at one end. Two or three or four days, no sleep, coffee and beer, bennies if he could get them, donuts. Lightning from his eyes, beard twisting like seaweed, mad scrawlings with brushes, filling all twenty or thirty feet of butcher paper, a wild labyrinth of faces made of other faces, and tortured mythic landscapes made of writhing creatures, and tangles of siren women with naked breasts like eyes and demons raging between their legs, and Lovecraftian cities crawling with bizarre deities. Mad genius and plain madness. Breathtaking brilliance.
When he’d filled the whole length of paper he’d crawl into bed and sleep for days. When he awoke he would tear down the paper, tear it to pieces, burn it, toss it in a dumpster.
Once Jay Stiglitz ripped a few feet off one end of one of these
paintings while Stanley was sleeping. To save. When Stanley saw that a piece was missing, he badgered Anna until she told him who did it, then threatened to kill Jay if he didn’t give it back so it could be thrown away.
“Fucking punk,” said Stanley. “If I wanted to paint something thatdeserved keeping I’d do it. But it’s all bullshit. Nothing’s worth saving.
Art’s for doing, not having. But you’d never understand that, college punk.” Stanley called pretty much everyone punk, except Victor.
Stanley did give every penny of his house-painting money to Anna, there was that. She also had some paintings hidden away that Stanley had done years before. Mind-blowing oils, riots of color. Same mad intricacy. After he was killed Anna sold them for a lot of money.
Stanley’s little funeral was in the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio, because, oddly enough, he had been a Marine in the Korean War. It was raining, foggy. As we walked over the sodden lawns I asked Anna who she thought shot him.
“Not me,” she said. “But I should have. Long time ago.”
I met Victor Bartalan at Mr. Otis. Victor was big, not as big as Diego, but harder, thick cro-magnon skull, ex-semi-pro football player, a brawler. Once there was a big fight out on Green Street in front of Gino & Carlo, which was and is a working man’s bar. In the middle of itsome guy snuck up behind Victor and hit him over the head with a beer bottle. Victor whirled around, pissed off, not unconscious or even stunned, blood running down his face. Growled. “Did you hit me?”
The guy turned pale, hid the bottle behind his back, shook his head, ran for his life.
Victor could walk a fifty-foot wooden ladder around as if it was made of cardboard. One time he stepped back off a scaffolding plank two stories up, to admire his work. Landed on his back on a pile of drop cloths, laughing.
Victor was the crew crazy poet, real poetry cred, studied with Theodore Roethke up in Seattle. Maybe the best poem Victor wrote then was called Five Known Drunks, about us.For some reason, Victor always showed new poems to Stanley.
Who knows why.
“You could be a real poet,” Stanley said once, “if you knew any goddamned thing about language.” Tossed the poem on the floor. “Allyour goddamned lines start with little words. I. If. You. When. The. Bunch of crap. Who gives a shit about punk-ass words?”
“Shut up, Stanley,” said Victor. “What do you know about poetry anyway?”
“More than you. Used to get drunk with Brother Antoninus and Robert Creely. And goddamned Ezra Pound. Buy me another beer.”
Stanley borrowed money shamelessly from Victor. Stanley borrowed money from everybody. Never paid it back.
Victor lived in the Outer Richmond, had a beautiful wife and two young daughters, and always had a few guns in his house.
I was at Victor’s house when we heard about Stanley being shot. I asked him what he thought.
“Whole city’s full of people who would have cheerfully killed Stanley,” said Victor. “I didn’t do it. Could’ve. Might’ve. Maybe should’ve. But didn’t.”
Jay Stiglitz I knew from high school in the San Fernando Valley in LA. He was a year behind me. We reconnected in the Bay Area, when Jay was studying political science at Berkeley. Berkeley then a hotbed of political activism. Jay deeply into the Free Speech Movement, Young Socialists, Civil Rights. Went to Mississippi with CORE in ‘64 to register
voters. He and some co-workers were almost killed by rednecks. When he came back he bought a gun.
“Nonviolence is an important tactic,” he said. “I believe in it as a political tool. But there’s no way I let some pinhead kill me if I can kill him first.”
“You’re full of shit,” Stanley told Jay. “You’re a punk and your politics are punk. Bunch of free speech weenies. The IWW, the labor movement, that was the last politics with balls.”
Jay often offered to debate Stanley on any political topic.
“Waste of time,” Stanley always said.
I went over to Berkeley after Stanley was shot, to talk to Jay.
“Stanley didn’t know anything about anything,” Jay told me. “He was totally full of hot air. He could paint though. Sure, I would have blown him away if he ever actually threatened me, but he never did.”Fred Jones was an actor. A perfectionist and literary snob. We met him when he performed Krapp’s Last Tape in the city, at the Sutter
Street Theater. He liked Beckett and Ionesco and Shakespeare.Once we were all perched around on a scaffolding, working, an apartment building on Potrero Hill, immersed in the ambient dark smellof roasting coffee from nearby roasters. Suddenly Fred’s voice rolled out. O that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew….
He did it often, Waiting For Godot, The Balcony, Pantagleize, Lear. Fred intimidated Stanley. Fred’s art was so impeccable, even Stanley had a hard time mocking it. He called Fred punk, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Fred’s wife was Rochelle, another actor, a comedienne, master of slapstick. Fred and Rochelle were both tall and skinny — Fred gangly, Rochelle willowy.The Joneses lived on Cole Street, overlooking the Panhandle. They got along with Stanley as well as anyone, fed him pretty regularly. But one night Stanley began to berate Rochelle. Maybe it was his way of flirting.
“What are you doing with this punk?” Stanley asked her. “He doesn’t know the first thing about theater. Shakespeare is over-rated obsolete elitist bullshit, and Beckett and those French assholes are a bunch of fairies. But you got real talent.”It ended with Fred telling Stanley to leave, which he did.Later I sat with Fred downstairs at Wooey Looey Gooey, in Chinatown. We munched ten-cent pork buns. I asked him about the murder. “Would you have shot him, if you could’ve?”
“Maybe I would have, just in that moment,” he said. “Who can say what they would or would not do at any particular time? But I would’ve had to have had a gun, and I’d never own one.”
Diego Hunter grew up in Denver. Learned to play piano when he was a kid, from his father. His parents wanted him to become a classical pianist, but he liked jazz and that’s what he played. Probably could have made a living playing music, but what he really wanted to do was act. He wanted to be a movie star.
He headed off to Hollywood when he turned eighteen, but missed and wound up in San Francisco. He was working as a bouncer at the Condor Club in North Beach and acting in local stage productions when we met him.
Diego was massively strong. Perfect for the paint crew. When he got a little drunk he liked to put VW Beetles on the sidewalk, if he came across one parked. He’d heave one end up and over the curb, then the other end. Somehow he never got caught, and we never stuck around to see what the owners did when they found their car on the sidewalk.One time there was a hard-to-reach spot on a house we were painting. Diego dangled Fred over the roof edge by his ankles to get it,Fred upsidedown, calmly painting. Diego idolized Fred, wanted to be able to act like him. Diego was sometimes unlucky, had a inept side, which sometimes got him into trouble. Once we were painting the outside of a big
expensive house on Twin Peaks. Diego spotted a grand piano inside. He tried the door, it was unlocked, snuck in, began to play. Played like an angel. Tracked red paint all over the pristine white carpet. This inept quality caused Stanley to hassle Diego unmercifully. But Diego had a sweet and tolerant nature, never seemed to let it get to him.
But then Diego fell in love with Anna, Stanley’s wife. He used to visit her, play for her on her out-of-tune old upright. She loved the attention, and it was easy for Diego avoid Stanley, because Stanley almost never came home. They became lovers, Anna and Diego. We all knew this, except Stanley. Until Diego made the mistake of visiting
her when Stanley was home painting. Stanley went after Diego, punching and kicking, a chihuahua attacking a lion. Diego held him off until he could slip out the door.
“You come near Anna again, I’ll kill you,” yelled Stanley.
Diego turned around on the stairs. “You hurt Anna, and I’ll come back and kill you,” he said.Stanley didn’t hurt Anna, but came home even less often. Poor Anna. I wish Diego had run off with her.
So I had to ask Diego about it later. We were at Tad’s Steakhouse downtown, where Diego could fill his big tank cheaply. “Stanley had it in for you,” I said to him. “Are you glad he was killed? Would you have shot him, if you’d had the chance?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Diego said.
What about me?
When I met Victor I was just out of the Navy, separated at Treasure Island. I stayed on in San Francisco. The city worked some strange magic on me. I came to think that what this city was for was being drunk and hallucinatory in, and looking for edges in, and walking where I shouldn’t walk, hoping that danger would find me, and I’d get even more wild and write stories nobody ever dared to write before.
Five Known Drunks, my anthem.
The last time I saw Stanley before he was killed was when I threw him out of my place. I was living with lovely Adele in a downstairs apartment on Waller Street, near Buena Vista Park. Stanley came knocking at 3am, waking us up. He was drunk of course. I got up, made him coffee, listened to his bullshit.
“You’ll always be a punk,” he said. “You want to write deep stories, but you got to suffer if you really want to write, and you don’t know shit about suffering. Art is the human heart in conflict with itself. That’s Faulkner, which you’d know if you ever read anything worthwhile. But you’ve never had any conflict, you spoiled Jew punk.”
So I snapped. Got up, grabbed him by the front of his overalls, puppeted him to the door, opened it, pushed him out. He flopped onto the sidewalk. I slammed the door. Could hear him shouting punk, but I went back to bed.
And I’m pretty sure I didn’t shoot him.
I went to a party one evening in a fancy apartment on Russian Hill,a genteel affair, lots of ties and high heels. Odd little hors d’oeuvres. White wine. A meeting of the Church of Satan, mild sadism and cursing to follow, led by Anton LeVey himself.There was a woman dressed in a long colorful skirt, layers of paisleys, in her fifties, bright in a room full of gray and white. Of course I gravitated to her.
“My name is Zurina,” she said. “I am a medium.”
“I’m Richard,” I said. “I’m a large.”
She didn’t smile. “You do not believe?” she asked.
“I don’t know. So far, no.”
“Very well.” She looked closely at me, touched my arm. “I sense that there is a mystery you would like to explain. So I would like to invite you to a séance. Just the two of us. I will show you what I do.”We made a date and I got directions.
Then Mr. LeVey appeared and we all took turns cursing people while he gently spanked a naked girl with a cat-o’ nine-tails.
The following week I took the L Taraval streetcar to Zurina’s place out in the Sunset. It was a house just like all the houses around it, sheathed in pinkish stucco, touching both its neighbors, a tiny lawn in front.
Inside, Zurina’s house was a cave of exotic hangings, thick rugs, fat candles. Pictures of mystic teachers on the walls. Zurina brought a pot of herbal tea, tiny china cups. The fragrance of the tea was like cedar and mushrooms and lilac. We sat on cushions before an altar of crystals, polished stones, twisted roots. We sipped our tea in silence. A strange languor began to weigh my arms and legs.
Zurina struck a Japanese bowl gong. The sound seemed to go on a long time.
“It is a death,” Zurina said suddenly. “The mystery that plagues you.”
“Yes,” I said. “It is. Yes.” My head spun slowly. What tea had that been?
“It was a friend,” said Zurina. “Who died.”
“Yes.”She covered her eyes with her hand. “A murder. You are afraid someone you know did it.” She didn’t wait for me to answer, which was just as well. She lit a tightly tied bundle of sticks and leaves. It smoldered like incense. She placed the bundle in a metal tray. Sweet smoke poured out. Zurina picked up a feather fan and fanned the
smoke toward herself, toward me, inhaled deeply. Her head drooped, her eyes closed.
She spoke. It was her own voice, but slow, slow and deep. Far away. Or was it me who was far away?
“I’m Stanley Janek,” she said. “Chilly. Walking. Drunk again.
Who cares? Fillmore Street. Turn on California. Cold night. Where’m I going? Home? No. Don’t need hassles with Anna. Turn on Pierce.
Maybe sleep in Alta Park. No, too cold. Shit. Sidewalk’s hard.
Everybody so fucking stupid. Sacramento Street. Late. Nobody around. Who’s that? Some punk, nobody I know. Ask him for a cigarette. Hey punk, got a smoke? Gives me the finger. Fuck you punk. He wants to punch me. Stupid dick. Take out my putty knife, right here in my pocket. Wave it in his face. Little dick’ll piss right in his pants, think it’s a real knife. Shit, he’s got a gun. Watch it, punk, or I’ll….Jesus, I’m shot. Christ, damn, crap—falling. Hard sidewalk.
Said that already. Putty knife gone. Cold. What the fuck. Anna.
Zurina stopped speaking. I was paralyzed. Smoke swirled around us.
After a few minutes Zurina stirred. “That was it,” she said.
“How did you know his name? His wife’s name?”
“That was him. His last thoughts while he was still alive. You still do not believe.”
“I don’t know what to believe,” I said.
She waved me away. “You know how to find the door? There is no charge.”
I stood. Dizzy. Started to leave, turned back. “Would you talk to the police, if they asked?”
“I do not do that,” she said.
I found the door. And that was that.
Later Victor, Jay, Fred, and I had a drink at Gino & Carlo, in memory of Stanley Janek who got shot for no goddamn reason at all. Diego wasn’t there. He’d left for Hollywood to become a movie star.
Later still I heard that Anna had taken the money she got from selling Stanley’s paintings and moved to Hawaii.