Our Lady of Darkness

Chapter 14

An hour later, a pleasantly grave young man in the Recorder's Office at City Hall informed Franz that 811 Geary Street was designated Block 320, Lot 23 in his province. "For anything about the lot's previous history," he said, "you'd have to go to the Assessor's Office. They would know because they handle taxes." Franz crossed the wide, echoing marble corridor with its ceiling two stories high to the Assessor's Office, which flanked the main entrance to City Hall on the other side. The two great civic guards and idols, he thought, papers and moneys. A worried woman with graying red hair told him, "Your next step is to go to the Office of Building Permits in the City Hall Annex across the street to your left when you go out, and find when a permit to build on the lot was applied for. When you bring us that information, we can help you. It should be easy. They won't have to go back far. Everything in that area went down in 1906." Franz obeyed, thinking that all this was becoming not just a fantasia but a ballet of buildings. Investigating just one modest building had led him into what you could call this Courtly Minuet of the Runaround. Doubtless the bothersome public was supposed to get bored and give up at this point, but he'd fool 'em! The brimming spirits Cal had noticed in him were still high. Yes, a national ballet of all buildings great and small, skyscrapers and shacks, all going up and haunting our streets and cross streets for a while and then eventually coming down, whether helped by earthquakes or not, to the tune of ownership, money, and records, with a symphony orchestra of millions of clerks and bureaucrats, papermen all, each intently reading and obediently tootling his scrap of the infinite score, which itself would all be fed, as the buildings tumbled, into the document-shredding machines, ranks upon ranks of them like banks of violins, not Stradivariuses but Shredmasters. And over everything the paper snow. In the annex, a businesslike building with low ceilings, Franz was pleasantly surprised (but his cynicism rather dashed) when a portly young Chinaperson, upon being properly supplicated with the ritual formula of numbered block and lot, within two minutes handed him a folded old printed form filled in with ink that had turned brown and which began "Application for Permit to erect a 7-story Brick Building with Steel Frame on the south side of Geary Street 25 feet west of Hyde Street at Estimated Cost of $74,870.00 for Use as a Hotel," and ended with "Filed Jul 15, 1925." His first thought was that Cal and the others would be relieved to hear that the building apparently had a steel frame - a point they'd wondered about during earthquake speculations and to which they'd never been able to get a satisfactory answer. His second was that the date made the building almost disappointingly recent - the San Francisco of Dashiell Hammett... and Clark Ashton Smith. Still, the big bridges hadn't been built then; ferries did all their work. Fifty years was a respectable age. He copied out most of the brown-ink stuff, returned the application to the stout young man (who smiled, hardly inscrutably), and footed it back to the Assessor's Office, swinging his briefcase jauntily. The red-haired woman was worrying elsewhere, and two ancient men who both limped received his information dubiously, but finally deigned to consult a computer, joking together as to whether it would work, but clearly reverent for all their humor. One of them pushed some buttons and read off from a screen invisible to the public, "Yep, permit granted September nine, 1925, and built in '26. Construction completed Jun - June." "They said it was for use as a hotel," Franz asked . "Could you tell me what name?" "For that you'd have to consult a city directory for the year. Ours don't go back that far. Try in the public library across the square." Franz dutifully crossed the wide gray expanse, dark green with little segregated trees and bright with small gushing fountains and two long pools rippling in the wind. On all four sides the civic buildings stood pompously, most of them blocky and nondescript, but City Hall behind him with its greenish dome and classic cupola and the main public library ahead somewhat more decorated, the latter with names of great thinkers and American writers, which (score one for our side) included Poe. While a block north the darkly severe and wholly modern (all glass) Federal Building loomed up like a watchful elder brother. Feeling ebullient and now a bit lucky, too, Franz hurried. He still had much to do today and the high sun said it was getting on. Inside the swinging doors he angled through the press of harsh young women with glasses, children, belted hippies, and cranky old men (typical readers all), returned two books, and without waiting for an okay, he took the elevator to the empty corridor of the third floor. In the hushed, rather elegant San Francisco Room a slightly precious lady whispered to him that her city directories went up only to 1918, the later (more common?) ones were in the main catalog room on the second floor with the phone books. Feeling slightly deflated and a bit run-around again, but not much, Franz descended to the big, fantastically high-ceilinged familiar room. In the last century and the early years of this, libraries had been built in the same spirit as banks and railroad stations - all pomp and pride. In a corner partitioned off by high, packed shelves, he found the rows of books he wanted. His hand went toward the 1926, then shifted to the 1927 - that would be sure to list the hotel, if there had been one. Now for some fun - looking up the addresses of everyone mentioned in the application and finding the hotel itself, of course, though that last would take some hunting, have to check the addresses (which might be given by cross streets rather than numbers) of all the hotels - and maybe of the apartment hotels, too. Before seating himself he glanced at his wristwatch. My God, it was later than he'd thought. If he didn't make up some time, he'd arrive at Corona Heights after the sun had left the slot and so too late for the experiment he intended. And books like this didn't circulate. He took only a couple of seconds coming to a decision. After a casual but searching look all around to make sure no one was watching him at the moment, he thrust the directory into his deep briefcase and marched out of the catalog room, picking up a couple of paperbacks at random from one of the revolving wire stands set here and there. Then he tramped softly and measuredly down the great marble stairs that were wide and lofty and long and broad-stepped enough for a triumph in a Roman film epic, feeling all eyes upon him but hardly believing that. He stopped at the desk to check out the two paperbacks and drop them ostentatiously into his briefcase, and then walked out of the building without a glance at the guard, who never did look into briefcases and bags (so far as Franz had noticed) provided he'd seen you check out some books at the desk. Franz seldom did that sort of thing, but today's promise seemed to make it worth taking little risks. There was a 19-Polk coming outside. He caught it, thinking somewhat complacently that now he had successfully become one of Saul's kleptomaniacs. Heigh-ho for the compulsive life!

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