This year I participated in #PitLight, a fun, upbeat, authors-only social media pitch event for books we’re working on (or want to work on, or perhaps should be working on). There are a number of different pitch events, usually Twitter-based (though I’ve mostly abandoned Twitter thanks to its current ownership), in which authors try to get the interest of an agent or a publisher for a completed manuscript. #PitLight is totally different: open to incomplete works, no agents, no publishers, just authors encouraging each other’s creativity. I love that idea, and wanted to be a part of the fun! It’s organized, promoted, and overseen by Amanda Woody, and their work to do this is incredibly appreciated. Thank you, Amanda!
So, here’s a little snippet from the first draft of my #PitLight book, The Last Scene of a Strange Career, the fourth Emperor Norton novella. In this scene, Iris, a modern-day genderqueer witch living in San Francisco, has traveled back in time to 1885 and is visiting a gambling establishment in the Barbary Coast district of the city. For decades, the Barbary Coast was the most notorious neighborhood in San Francisco, and possibly of any city in the United States. Also, let me emphasize, this is a first draft. I haven’t even read this through once myself, so it’s going to have errors and all kinds of problems.
Iria stepped out of an alleyway and onto Pacific Street, and their ears filled with the sounds of conversation, exuberant shouting, reed organs emanating from cabarets, and the cat calls and uninhibited invitations native to a red-light district. Iria had read about the Barbary Coast era of San Francisco, when the northeastern corner of the city became a lawless district of gambling dens, brothels, unlicensed bars, and flagrant violence, but nothing prepared Iria for seeing it in person. A pimp in shirtsleeves and work pants held up by suspenders stood against a lamppost with his employees on either side. “Oy,” he called to Iria in a thick Australian accent, “a fine gent like you wantin’ companionship, right?” The man slapped one of the women on the ass and laughed. “Come to th’right place.”
Iria ignored the man and turned to walk away. They had come to the Barbary Coast in search of a token of commerce, not the commerce itself. But now Iria knew what Norton had meant when he said Pacific Street—in Iria’s time, Pacific Avenue—had been the sort of district to which Etta Place would be drawn. It wasn’t that the Barbary Coast had a lot of illicit commerce. No, Iria realized immediately, the district had only illicit commerce, and more of it than one person could ever possibly quantify. Just the sound of various barkers, pimps, and bouncers shouting over one another to advertise their establishments’ wares nearly overwhelmed the senses. Iria wished they’d thought to wear earplugs, then laughed at their own desire. What would these people think, to see a person in ear plugs ask to play a game of cards?
Sales pitches of every variety floated into, over, and through each other:
pretty waiter ladies
best drinks at
cheap grog sailor
cards, dice, luck is a lady have her sit on your lap
Iria tried their best to tune out the cacophony of invitations and turned their attention inward. They walked slowly, letting the Barbary Coast wash over them, and felt around for the threads of magic in the air.
Ah, Iria thought. There it is. As Madge had put it, the synesthesia of magic working. Their hearing totally blanketed by the mundane, Iria experienced the tug of magic as a scent instead: the smell of silver and nickel on Iria’s hand after counting out their loose change jar every month, the bland brush against the nostrils of a bank lobby that smells like air conditioning and ozone, the burnt tang of a Starbucks moving in down the street from a local shop.
Iria’s nose led them right up to the door of a place with no sign, no barker, no bouncer, no sales pitch. They pulled the door open and worn wooden stairs led down to another door: flat metal, with a slot at eye level. Iria strained to listen and heard nothing, but their nose practically pulled them forward and down the steps.
At the bottom, Iria knocked on the metal door. The cover over the eye slot slid back, and a man with a large face and an equally large voice spoke. “Whatcha want, eh mister?”
Iria held up a cloth sack and shook it so the coins inside jangled. “Looking for a game of cards and perhaps a drink.”
The slot closed, locks turned on the other side, and the bouncer opened the door wide to Iria. “Money’s always welcome ‘round here,” he said, and he nodded in the direction of the interior. Iria stepped in, their eyes adjusting to the darkness. Perhaps twenty four-top tables sat in tidy diagonal rows around the room. Most had two or three people at them, their faces and hands illuminated by overhead lamps hanging from chains.
Iria looked to the bouncer and then back to the room. “Any particular system for choosing a table?”
The bouncer gestured with a thumb. “Walk up and ask.”
Iria hmphed. “Anyone in particular you know is friendly to playing with strangers?”
The bouncer chuckled and lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Sure. Last table in the back left corner. Always an empty chair at that one.”
Iria didn’t love the sound of that, but they nodded their thanks and started making their way across the room. Occasional murmurs of bets, antes, calls, drifted up as they walked past, but otherwise this was the opposite of the environment outside. Whereas Pacific Street had been one long shouting match trying to get people to buy something, this room practically hummed with the silent tension of a few dozen people trying with all their acumen to hang onto the money in front of them.
In the back corner, Iria approached a table where two gentlemen sat alone, wrapping up a hand. They both wore obviously expensive suits: one in a long, dark frock coat over a vest and a white shirt with a high collar, the other in a shorter morning coat with its narrower lapels and rounded hem. Both wore black bow ties and both had short hair and a mustache. The morning-coated loser threw down his cards but not without an expression of good humor. “You take me every time, it seems. I hope I won’t cause offense when I say Lady Luck has a shine for you.”
The person across from them, reaching forward to collect the pile of chips and loose money in the center of the table, grinned with sparkling eyes. “That she does, friend, that she does.”
Iria cleared their throat while standing a few feet back from the table. “I heard there might be an open seat here?”
“Your next victim,” the loser said to the winner of the game before he stood. “Perhaps this is my opportunity to quench this terrible thirst.”
The winner glanced up at Iria and something positively electric shot through Iria from head to toe. The person looked like a finely dressed gentleman of the era, but something in his eyes, something in his bearing, something in his wicked grin, something about the texture and coloring of the mustache, gave Iria pause. Iria thought of that old term they hadn’t heard in forever: gaydar.
“There’s always an open seat at my table,” the winner said. “Coit’s my name. Yours?”
Iria hesitated. They actually hadn’t really thought this through. Hell, they barely managed to dress the part: it had taken visits to a coin collector shop in the Haight in 1967 to scrape together enough battered 19th century pennies, nickels, and coins to add up to a couple of useful dollars, then another to a secondhand store to find a suit that might work in the 1880’s. Even then they were counting on dim lighting and the effects of alcohol to do some of the lifting for them. “Jones,” Iria said.
Lilian Hitchcock Coit smirked openly and cocked both eyebrows. “Well, Jones, good to meet you. Have a seat and let’s play some cards.”