No 164 - 2001
My name is Frank Bennett and I’m an investigator. It was Sunday, 8:00 am and I was reading the paper. The cover story was about the finding of bacteria from Mars. I became intrigued by another story on page three. It concerned an Asian male in a motorized wheelchair who had been robbing yuppies in downtown San Francisco. They called him the ‘wheelchair bandit’. He’d cut off the dot-com types in doorways, pull a gun, rob them and then speed away. The stunned victims reported that the wheelchair moved surprisingly fast. Police speculated that the perpetrator might be a previously injured Chinese gang member.
Across the street an elderly white man sat in a wheelchair eating an ice cream bar. He wore a filthy jacket, the hood up over a baseball cap. He held a cup and shook out a ching-a-ching-a-ching. I gave him some change. ‘God bless you,’ he said. I asked what he thought about the bacteria from Mars news story.
‘There’s bacteria all through space,’ the old timer said, ‘and some responsible for these new diseases here on Earth.’
I asked what he thought aliens might look like. He was thoughtful for a moment.
‘They look just like you and me and they walk among us.’
I asked why he was wheelchair bound.
‘Let me show you,’ he said pulling up a pant leg. The leg was hideously swollen.
‘Have you heard about the wheelchair bandit?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, but I ain’t talking,’ he said and turned away.
After passing on three other wheelchair candidates since they were all talking with other people -I spotted a black woman who rolled her chair manually down the street. She was missing one leg. She wore a pea coat and had a rag tied around her head. She looked stone crazy. She stopped rolling, closed her eyes and sat there soaking up the sun.
‘Enjoying the sun?’ I said approaching. She looked up at me, her eyes glazed but suspicious.
‘Do you mind if I ask a few questions for a report I’m doing?’ I queried and handed over some change. I asked if she’d heard about the bacteria from Mars. She shook her head no and I wondered if she could speak.
‘Do you think there’s life on other planets?’ I asked.
She shook her head no again.
‘Have you been wheelchair bound for long?’
She shook her head no again.
‘Have you heard of the wheelchair bandit?’
She gestured down the street.
‘Where exactly?’ I asked and forked over a five.
She closed her eyes and said, ‘See Ross at the turnaround. He knows.’
At Powell and Market Street where the cable cars turn around, sat a man in a wheelchair who fit her description of Ross. His cup sat in an unlikely spot in-between his legs. His hair was long and he needed a shave and a lot of dental work. He wore a ratty leather coat, dirty pants and red cowboy boots. His pants were hiked up and exposed skin that was deeply scarred. Behind him some pigeons pecked at a mass of pale vomit that the sun had baked into a flaky consistency. I handed him a dollar bill and introduced myself. Yes he was Ross and he would be glad to answer my questions. He hadn’t heard about the bacteria from Mars, but had heard about abductions and UFO sightings and believed in both.
When I asked about his wheelchair history, he told me he had once weighed four hundred pounds, had lost half the weight after a radical diet but was stricken with diabetes. Ross said he had almost died in the hospital and that he’d had a glimpse of the ‘Visitors’. When discharged a Burmese cat had followed him home. ‘And to this day,’ Ross said with a faraway look, ‘we’ve only communicated telepathically.’ Ross switched topics and spoke nostalgically about a trip to Las Vegas. He showed me that his cup advertised that gambling city. The sad look deepened and he looked close to tears.
‘I understand you know the wheelchair bandit?’ I blurted out.
Ross still looked like he was going to cry. ‘Are you FBI?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said and handed over my card, a ten and he brightened some.
Ross scanned the area around the turnaround.
‘You didn’t hear it here,’ he said out the side of his mouth. ‘He’s not no ex-gang member. He’s not even Asian. He’s an old Russian guy and he has this head mask see, real life like it is. No one knows, but he told me one night when he got plastered. I don’t know his real name, but we call him Papa.’
‘Where can I find him?’ I asked excited.
‘He spends a lot of his time in the bar at Joe’s. He drinks most of the day, then starts eating around fourish.’
At Joe’s, in the back, ‘the wheelchair bandit’, or ‘Papa’, was parked at a small table. He was an older and distinguished looking man. He wore a nice suit and tie. A Hi-ball and a water back sat in front of him. Closer I could see a wildness in his eyes. He gazed into his drink. The noise in the bar comprised of some sports event showing on two TVs. I took a seat across from him and he looked me over. I introduced myself and offered to buy him a drink. He accepted. Already half drunk he began a tirade about how the homeless should unite and plan their battle strategies. Perhaps he would lead them I thought. He confided in me that he believed the dot-com pods were from another world entirely. When I mentioned the bacteria from Mars he got more excited. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘and you know the swine are behind it all. That face on Mars too, some kind of future advertising.’
Two policeman had entered the room. They patted their holsters and approached the table.
‘Okay Bennett. Come along with us,’ the fat red faced cop said.
‘Yeah Frankie, we’ve got some of your friends outside,’ a ghostly cop added with a degree of menace.
As they led me away I wanted to scream but Dr. Hypo and Mr C. were there at the entrance and began strapping me in. I just hoped they’d cleared out all the blue beetles from my room. And I hoped they’d let me keep writing my reports. The wheelchair bandit knew about the dot-com Martian bacteria conspiracy. Others must know, as well!
Johnny Strike was the founding member of the San Francisco punk band Crime. He has written a novel called The Partials. His Moroccan story “The Ghost of Brian Jones Speaks to the Villa Delerium’ is out in Headpress 21. He is currently working on a new music project called The Johnsons.
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