tagRomanceWharf Rat

Wharf Rat


"I got a girl, named Bonnie Lee, I know that girl's been true to me. I know she's been, I'm sure she's been true to me."

Wharf Rat

Grateful Dead, 1971

Music by Jerry Garcia, Lyrics by Robert Hunter


As I think back to that night, I still can't believe we fought over something that trivial. Nevertheless, I got mad, stormed out of Amy's apartment and started walking.

We were going to go out for the evening, and I wanted it to be special. It was Valentine's Day, and I had something I wanted to share with her. We'd been dating for over a year, and I believed we were meant for each other.

Then she came out of her bedroom wearing a dress that a previous boyfriend had bought for her overseas. It was actually exquisite, but it rubbed me the wrong way. This was supposed to be my night -- our night -- and I was irked that she would wear something someone else bought her.

I know, it was childish. But in a moment of madness, my latent jealousy reared its ugly head and I stormed out, "to clear my head," I told Amy as I slammed the door to her apartment.

I thought I'd just walk down the street a way, cool off, then go back. But something drew me further and further, toward the waterfront. Amy's apartment wasn't all that far from San Francisco Bay, and for some reason the tangy aroma of the salty sea beckoned me.

I was sitting on a bench by one of the piers, staring into the bay, listening to the sea sounds: the ringing of the buoys, the gentle lapping of the water on the shore, the cries of the gulls. A wet, chilly fog was starting to roll in and somehow it fit the mood I was in.

I was thinking dangerous thoughts right about then, about whether I really wanted to invest any more time in a relationship that seemed to have such ups and downs. I for sure wasn't going to apologize, because I didn't feel like I had anything to apologize for.

She'd been the one who'd done me wrong, by bringing up a reminder of the one that came before, the rich slicker with plenty of money, but very few morals. He'd treated Amy abominably, ran around behind her back, gambled with her money and dabbled in drugs.

Amy and I had met at Berkeley, where we had the same advisor in the same field of study. We had some classes together and had become friendly. But we hadn't dated until our paths crossed a couple of years after graduating, and I learned she'd finally ditched the asshole she'd been seeing at college.

She's the only child of parents who are fairly well-to-do, and while I wouldn't call her spoiled, she sometimes has a hard time seeing things from the perspective of others, doesn't take into consideration the feelings of others.

As a result, we sometimes don't see eye-to-eye on some things, and we are both just stubborn enough that when we do disagree, we tend to not want to compromise.

Don't get me wrong, we love each other very much, but right at that moment, I was wondering if I loved her enough to accept her as she was, whether I could change her attitude or change mine.

I didn't hear the old man at first. He sort of shuffled up toward where I was sitting, then suddenly there he was. I jumped a little, startled at his abrupt appearance.

"Say, sonny, you got a dollar to buy an old man a cup of coffee," he said in a rasping voice.

I swept my gaze over him, and I have to say I was fairly repulsed. He was a scrawny thing, about average height, but gaunt and stooped from the years. He was shabbily dressed in what looked like Salvation Army clothes that had been slept in repeatedly.

His hair was gray, tangled and unkempt, he had a full, scraggly beard and he had a ripe aroma about him that suggested sweat, grime and liquor.

He was a bum, a wharf rat, one of those nameless, faceless people the tourists never see unless they come out in certain areas at night.

But there was something in his eyes, a profound sadness, eyes that I could tell had seen more than their share of heartache. They were quite cloudy, and I guessed he probably had cataracts that had long gone untreated.

Nevertheless, his eyes seemed to touch me, because I reached in the pocket of my jeans and pulled out a couple of ones.

"Here you go, old man," I said.

He pocketed the bills, then pulled a paper-wrapped bottle out from the inside of his worn jacket. He tilted the bottle up and took a big swig, then put it back where he'd had it stashed. He fixed me with an unnerving stare then sat down on the bench next to me.

"Sonny, you look like you got problems," he said.

"Yeah, I've got a girl, Amy," I said, and I told him what had transpired earlier that evening.

"I know she's been true to me, and I love her," I said finally. "I'm just not sure what I want to do right now."

He pondered my story, then looked over at me again.

"You got a little time, dontcha?" he said. "I want to tell you about the consequences of walking out on a good woman. Maybe you can keep from makin' the same mistake I did."

"Sure, I guess," I said. "You want to walk over to the diner over there and get that cup of coffee? I'll buy."

The fat lady behind the counter looked at us with some amazement when we walked in the diner. There were a couple of other people in there, stevedores from one of the warehouses, but I'm sure nobody had seen a pair like us, a young, fairly well-dressed fellow in the company of a wino.

She came around and got us our coffee then left us alone.

"OK, old man," I said. "You said you had a story to tell. I've got nothing but time."

"My name's August West, and yours is...?" he said.

"Paul, Paul McSwain," I said. "Pleased to meet you Mr. West."

"Ha!" the old man cackled. "I ain't no mister. Just call me August."



I was born here in the city, and the docks and wharves have always been home to me. My folks ran a bar that catered to sailors and stevedores. Of course, it's long gone now. I think they put up a hotel or something there. Progress, you gotta love it.

It was a rough place at first glance, but there was hardly ever any trouble. My father was one of these guys that everybody liked and my mother was hell on wheels. Between the two of them they kept the peace in their place.

I guess growing up around drunks rubbed off on me, because I started drinking when I was a teenager, and I been a drunk ever since.

I know this life I'm livin' is no good, but I'm too old and too pickled to quit. I'll prolly wind up dead in the gutter some night, but that's jus' the way it goes.

Well, that's not quite true. I was pretty smart in school and I did graduate, but I wasn't smart enough or rich enough to go to college. I was drafted into the Army, but I didn't pass the physical because I had flat feet. Lucky me, huh?

I was around during the hippie days, but I wasn't much on that sorta life. Oh, I'd go to the park on Sundays and listen to the bands, but I had a job workin' the docks and them boys didn't take a shine to any longhairs.

Anyway, it was on a Sunday at Golden Gate Park, and I was listnin' to the Dead when I met her. I wasn't crazy about a lot of that hippie music, but I liked them, because I knew Jerry Garcia from back in school. He grew up in the same neighborhood I did around the same time I did.

I was just watching the kids dancing around and enjoying the music when I saw her. My God, was she gorgeous.

She was maybe a little taller than average, slim with long brown hair and she was wearing this dress that was quite sheer and I swear she didn't have no underwear on. Her little boobies were just a-jigglin' like two cats in a Kroger sack.

But when I got a look at her face, well I was done for. She had this radiant look, big brown eyes and a smile that just lit up the whole park.

I had to meet her, so I went up to her and told her I liked the way she danced. She smiled at me and asked me to dance with her. As we danced, I noticed her checkin' me out, and she must've liked what she saw, 'cause when the show was over she invited me to her place.

She had a little flat on Clayton Street, a couple of blocks off Ashbury. We got up there and the first thing she did was pull out this doobie. I'd smoked pot before, a long time before. Hell, the crowd I ran around with in school, we were doing it long before it became hip.

Well, we got stoned and got to know each other. She worked in the book store at USF, and she was very smart, very well-read. Now I may have grown up in a bar, but my father was a literate person and he passed along a love of reading.

We just talked about books and great characters, then we got hungry and went down to grab some grub. I don't know what it was, but we were really takin' a liking to each other, and when we got back to her place, it was just turned dark. We smoked another doobie, and it made me hornier than a dog with two dicks.

We was sitting on the floor, Indian-style, listening to some music, when we just sorta looked at each other and slowly came together. We kissed deeply, our tongues working together. I could feel the heat from her body as our hands roamed over each other.

Now I wasn't no virgin, and neither was she, but this just felt different from any of the other girls I'd been with. For one thing, she was a damn sight prettier than anyone I'd ever had before, but it was also what I felt. It was like I'd found the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.

It didn't take much to get her dress off -- there wasn't much to it -- then she slowly stripped me and we ended up on her bed.

We kissed hard as our hands roamed over our naked flesh, and when my hand reached her pussy, I felt the flood of her arousal. She was hot and wet, with a pretty pussy framed by a lush bush.

Unlike most of the hippie chicks I'd met, she still shaved her legs and armpits, for which I was glad. Never could get used to the Earth Mama look. That right there told me she was different.

Just about the time I started to work a couple of fingers in her juicy pie, I felt her hands softly caress my cock. She slowly, softly jacked me into complete hardness, while I stroked her pussy just as slowly.

Finally, I bent my head down and licked her tits. Like I said, she didn't have big ones, but they sure were fine, just plump enough to grab onto. I sucked both of her nipples, and I heard her moan in lust, so I knew I was doing something right.

We just sort of slithered around on her small bed until I was staring right into her pretty cunt. I got her on her back, spread her legs and dove in. I licked all up and down her slot, as I straddled her head and let my dong drop onto her mouth.

She didn't hesitate, but slid my cock into her mouth and began to suck me slowly. She took about half of me into her mouth, until I was poking gently as the entrance to her throat. Then I pulled back and slowly fucked her face, while I worked my mouth on her trembling pussy.

I had her legs pulled back and into the air as I ran my tongue up and down and in and out of her creamy cunt. I kissed her lower lips and sucked on her little clitty, and she pulled my cock out of her mouth and squealed as she came hard on my face.

She wasn't shy about asking for what she wanted next -- what I wanted next.

"Fuck me, August!" she cried out. "Fuck me good, lover."

Oh, man, was I ready. I scrambled around to between her legs, and they were open, wet and waiting. She had this look on her face, this look that just beamed out to me, drew me in. I put my throbbing pole to her slit and pushed it on in.

I need to stop for a minute. The memory always hurts me when I think about that first time. Sex was never more beautiful for me than that first time with her.

Anyway, she felt so good as I fucked her, slow and easy. We was in no hurry, because I felt like I had the rest of my life to please her. She clasped her hands behind my neck, her legs around my back and drew me to her, and we kissed again, with passion as our bodies worked together.

I felt the sweat of lovers breaking out all over our bodies, and that just gave me an extra charge. I was starting to get closer and closer to coming, but I wanted her to get there with me. And I could tell by the look in her eyes that she was getting there.

She was giving out little sounds, little gasps that told me I was hittin' the right spots, and I could feel her body moving under me in jerky motions.

Oh yeah, baby, she was real close, and just about the time her body stiffened then started twitching hard, I let it go and shot a huge series of cumshots deep into her pussy. We were laughing insanely as I filled her up to overflowing while we kissed deeply.

Finally, we was done, and I slumped onto her body then rolled to the side.

"Wow," she said. "You were great! I've never come like that before."

Well, that was the beginning of the best nine months of my life. We started hanging out together, and the next thing I knew I'd moved in with her. I told her I loved her early and often, and she said the same to me. She told me she'd had some boyfriends, but she'd never felt about anyone the way she felt about me. Said I was her first true love. I know she was mine.

Booze was my downfall. I still liked to drink a bits, and every so often I'd get pretty ripped. She didn't like it much, and I tried to give it up, but it kept calling me back.

We'd been living together about nine months when this guy moved into the apartment downstairs. Peter Brooks.

I didn't like him much from the start. I didn't like the way he looked at her, kind of like a wolf. He had this cockiness about him, and I should have sobered up enough to deal with him.

He started hanging out with us, and he pretended to be a buddy I could drink with. We'd get a couple of bottles of wine, and she'd hit a few joints and we'd get a good buzz going.

One night, I got pretty drunk, and me and her argued about it. It wasn't nothing major, but I got mad at somethin' she said and stormed out the door, kinda like you did tonight, sonny.

Peter saw me leave, and followed me, and we got real drunk at this bar. Next thing I remember, there was cops everywhere, I had a bunch of cash and a pistol on me and I was arrested for armed robbery.

Of course, it was a set-up. Ol' Peter waited for the right moment, then got me out of the way, but good. I couldn't afford a decent lawyer, and I got sent up for 5-to-10 at Folsom.

She stuck with me for awhile, but after a year, the visits tapered off, then the letters stopped coming. I was in for four years before I got out for good behavior.

I went looking for her, and I wasn't surprised when I learned she'd married Peter. It didn't last very long, from what I heard. I kept up with her for awhile, while she married some rich fucker and went to work for the city library system.

Then I lost track of her as I got deeper and deeper into the bottle. I'd work a few odd jobs here and there, and I was in and out of jail, either on drunk and disorderly charges, or vagrancy, or some other shit I didn't do. I made a good fall guy.

Seems like half my life I've spent doin' time for some other fucker's crime. The other half I done spent stumblin' around drunk on burgundy wine.

But I never should have got drunk that night and walked out on her. I really didn't mean to leave her like that, but I did and that son of a bitch took advantage of my mistake. I been payin' for it ever since.


"What did you say her name was?" I asked August as we sat together on the bench.

"Bonnie Lee," he said wistfully. "Bonnie Lee Moran, best damn woman I ever knew, and I threw her away for fucking burgundy wine."

We'd had a couple of cups of coffee before the diner closed up and we were shooed back outside. By this time, a misty drizzle had started and I was getting soaked to the bone.

I had this sense of panic rising in my throat that told me I needed to get back to Amy to tell her I'd been a fool to rush out like that.

But I waited to see if there was more to August West's story. He uncapped his bottle, drained it in one big guzzle then threw the bottle against one of the other benches with a strength and vehemence that belied his present state. It smashed into pieces with a crash that jolted me back to reality.

"And that's it?" I said.

"Tha's it," August slurred. "Sonny ... Paul, go back to her. Go back to her now. Tell her you're sorry, tell her any damn thing you can think of, but go back to her now. If you love this woman, and I think you do, you'll run -- don't walk -- back to her. And don't you ever leave her again. For any reason. I cain't change what happened to me, but you can. Fix it now, or forget about it. I wish I could..."

And he finally lost it. This blind, dirty old man wept into his gnarled, gritty hands at the love he'd had and thrown away.

I stood up and put a hand on his shoulder.

"Thanks, old man. Thanks, August," I said. "I won't let you down."

He just sort of waved me away as I took off back up the street. It was getting late, about 11 o'clock, and I realized that it had been four hours since I'd left Amy's place. Was she still there? Would she let me back into her life? Would she accept my apologies for running out on her?

I couldn't stand the panic that was threatening to overwhelm me and I started running. It wasn't easy running up and down the hills that stood between the wharf and Amy's building. I finally had to stop a couple of times and catch my breath, then I stated back again.

Soon, I was back in front of Amy's apartment building. I looked up at the window of her apartment that overlooked the street and saw it was dark. My stomach plunged at the thoughts of where she might be, if she wasn't home. Had she gone out without me?

Amy's apartment wasn't accessible from the street. You had to buzz whoever you were visiting and they had to hit the button to trip the lock to the outside door, once they determined who it was over the intercom.

I rang the buzzer to Amy's apartment and waited. No response. I buzzed it again, and this time I heard Amy's sleepy voice, the sweetest sound I'd ever heard.

"Paul?" she said. "Is that you?"

"Yes! Please, Amy, let me in," I begged. "I'm so sorry for what happ..."

I didn't get a chance to finish, because I heard the buzzer that indicated the door had been unlocked and I'd been granted entrance.

I took the stairs two at a time to get to her second-floor apartment, and Amy was dashing out of her apartment about the time I got to the top. We met in the hallway and came together in a hug that was almost a death grip.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" Amy cried. "You came back! Oh, God, I thought I'd lost you. Where have you been? My God, you're soaked to the bone."

Her words were all tumbling out in one frantic stream of concern as she guided me back into her apartment. It was warm and comfy inside once she got the door closed.

We just held each other tight, and as I looked in her eyes, I realized they were puffy, like she'd been crying.

"Oh. Paul, please forgive me, I'll never wear that dress again," she said. "Please, just don't ever leave me like that again. I was worried sick. God, I thought you'd left me for good. Please, Paul, I love you so much, don't ever leave me."

"Shhhhhhh," I soothed. "I'm sorry I got jealous about the dress. I shouldn't have. It's really a pretty dress and you look good in it. I was stupid. Forgive me, please."

It was about then that she realized that I was still shivering in my wet clothes.

"Poor thing, you're soaked," Amy said. "Come on, let's get these wet clothes off of you and get you dried off and warmed up."

Amy helped me shed my clothes, and when I stood there naked, she opened her terry cloth robe, drew me in and wrapped it around us. We kissed then, feverishly, each of us trying to express our feelings in one mad rush.

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