:: Article

Hanging out in San Francisco’s Mission District

By Jonathan Woods.


Damascus, Joshua Mohr, Two Dollar Radio 2011

Place into a cocktail shaker one dive bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, add an eclectic collection of down and outers, toss in some out of control Iraq war vets, shake and pour into a chilled martini glass. What you get is Joshua Mohr’s entertainingly eccentric and humanistic new novel Damascus.

Our introduction to the bar named Damascus comes in the form of No Eyebrows, a lawyer with terminal cancer, who wanders in off the street looking for solace and a drink and comes under the ministrations of Shambles, “the patron saint of hand jobs.” Shambles, operating out of her “office” in Damascus’ unisex bathroom, earns her rent and drinks money giving hand jobs to random bar patrons, $20 with a condom, $40 without.

Damascus is owed and operated by Owen, whose cross takes the form of a facial birthmark in the shape of Adolf Hitler’s mustache. When a young child on the street points out that Owen looks like Hitler, Owen becomes pissed off, then resigned. Mohr writes: “No matter what he did, Owen was doomed to reel through the rest of his days, reminding everyone of the Holocaust.” For a bar owner Owen is possessed of a too trusting, too easy-going personality. This description sums up Owen’s personality and life view perfectly:

“I want to meet a woman,” Owen said. “An old woman. With baggage. One who has a lot of flaws and won’t dwell on mine. And not too pretty. But she’s nice. And might consider having sex with me a couple of times.”

Add to the Damascus mix: (i) Byron Settles an alcoholic ex-marine paratrooper who, on his first jump into Iraq, mangled his knees, thus ending his military career before it began, and (ii) Owen’s lesbian niece Daphne and her artist friend Syl, who together convince Owen to let Syl hold her antiwar paintings exhibit/happening at the bar. Sly dreams of balancing on the high wire without a net.

Mohr’s eclectic band of blunderers are, like each of us, seeking some form of human connection to give meaning, if not purpose, to the crazed and chaotic world in which we exist. Seeking someone like Shambles to jerk us out of our deadly daily routine if only for a few moments of pleasure, someone to provide a harbor from the storm of inexplicable horrors that befall us.

And against all odds when each searcher in Damascus dares to take a chance on another human passing though, dares to go out on an emotional limb, he or she finds a hand however transitory to hold onto, for Mohr is a believer in life. For No Eyebrows, Shambles is the first person to touch his tumor-ravaged body in a long time. And Shambles finds in No Eyebrows a reason to break her rule of no touching by the client. For Sly the art show event at Damascus is the dream of a lifetime, until all hell breaks loose. Owen and Byron enter upon a short-lived but meaningful friendship. And for Owen and Daphne the arc of the story is life changing.

In Damascus writes Mohr: “The barstool were like urinals: you never sidled right up next to someone unless there were no other slots available.” Keeping you distance from another human is the general rule. But as Mohr’s ensemble tale unfolds, his characters find the means to reach across the void toward each other, if only for a few fleeting moments.

Mohr’s writing is robust, stylish and clever without being overly literary or precious. When Owen adopts the disguise of a Santa suit to hide his Hitlerian birthmark, suddenly its Xmas in October:

…nearly all the men and women of Damascus instantaneously regressing into children as they laid eyes on him. Even for those who did not come of age celebrating Christmas, Saint Nick’s presence was an antidote, however temporary, for apathy.

The normal blotch of angst that the bar wore like too much rouge was suddenly blended with a deft and savvy hand. The mood among the disillusioned more jovial. Charisma flashed and stuttered in a few sets of eyes, like static on malfunctioning televisions. The same ol’ drinks tasted divine…

Hell, we can go ahead and just say it: people actually seemed happy.

A rich earthiness also pervades Mohr’s tale. One of Shambles’ drinking pals comments over a few to many pops: “Just once I want to have sex with a guy whose cock is so big he has to claim it as a dependent on his taxes…Or so big he can ride it down a snowy knoll like it’s a toboggan.” To which Shambles, bringing us back to reality, replies: “I’ll settle for one who doesn’t make me feel bad about myself.” And here’s the description of one of Syl’s bedroom adventures:

It was too surreal for Syl to keep secret: how in the midst of another one-night stand a couple of weeks back, the man looked up at her as Syl bounced on top of him, her flat chest, circle-rimmed glasses, short stringy brown hair, and he said: “You look just like Harry Potter. Holy smokes, it’s like I’m nailing Harry Potter, and it’s totally turning me on, man.”

Mohr’s story unfolds like an oncoming tropical storm edging closer and closer until it finally arrives in a climax of destruction. But, though one person dies and others wreck havoc, Mohr’s tale is comedic, not tragic. Despite their dark sides, we empathize with each character. Even the war vet bad guys are not pure evil. Mohr’s tale moves with the speed of a thriller, twisting and swooping like a Mobius strip.

By early on telegraphing the nail-biting ending of his tale, Mohr keeps us turning the pages. The sympathetic nature of Mohr’s characters does this as well. We want to know what’s going to happen to them. Occasionally Mohr transitions us amusingly and momentarily back to a reality larger than the passengers on the deck of the Damascus:

There were other things happening in the world, of course…A computer programmer in Delhi, incredibly sleep deprived and jacked on a pot-and-a-half of coffee, could have sworn his laptop whispered to him, “Maybe you should go outside.” A housewife won a chili cook-off in South Carolina with a recipe she’d enhanced with cannabis. In Sao Paulo, a young woman fought off an attacker with jiu-jitsu…In Arkansas, a nine-year-old boy “borrowed” the neighbor’s sedan and took police on a high speed chase covering three states.

And always Mohr’s story is grounded in the milieu of the Mission District, a meandering street scene of drunks, street people, artists, hipsters, gays sunbathing in Speedos, pot sellers, fathers, children and dogs. The ghosts of Charles Bukowski and Richard Brautigan may whisper in the background of Damascus but Mohr speaks to us with a unique and original voice. He is the new millennium street poet of San Francisco’s Mission District.


Jonathan Woods divides his time between Key West Florida and Dallas Texas. His collection of noir crime stories Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem was a featured book at the Texas Book Festival and won an indie 2011 Spinetingler Award for Best Crime Short Story Collection. “The product of a truly twisted mind, and I mean that in the nicest way,” said Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, winner PEN/Hemingway Award. His crime novel A Death in Mexico will be published by New Pulp Press in May, 2012.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 20th, 2011.