B Side

Back in 1975 the civic center district of San Francisco was not the sparkling center of all things government it is now. The Plaza, with its chugging rows of fountains and pools gleaming with pennies, had the same manicured rectangle of grass, but it was littered with candy wrappers, cigarette butts and aluminum pull tabs. With a keen eye, the odd hypodermic needle leapt out at you. The homeless camped in the park but were called hippies. It’s cleaned up in forty some years. The malingerers got shunted up to Larkin Street where they now pitch tents kitty corner from the gleaming, state-of-the-art Asian Museum. This was for Patty and me one of our old stomping grounds.

To ditch or not to ditch? That was always the question of the day for Patty and me. We sucked down a cigarette on the Bay Street side of our junior high. My arguments against cutting school were always half-hearted. Who liked sitting in a hard chair all day? Actual life made for a better education. If I proposed the movies, Patty would smirk, code for “I’m in.” We were escapists of the first order. A triple feature was the ultimate. If we had weed, even better. 

A block from the rotunda of city hall were a clump of movie theaters on the south side of Market Street. It was the movie district, and X or XXX films were the money makers, but a few hold outs like the Strand and UA offered up PG fare. There were times when we’d panhandle four blocks west on Geary Street in the theater district. We’d lug our earnings from the theater district back to the movie district. It was trickle down economics at work. 

If we weren’t broke, we’d hop the 19 Polk and get dropped at the Plaza, then head south a block. Once we reached Market, if the street wasn’t choked with trolleys and buses, we could see straight down to the Embarcadero, to the Piers. If we squinted, we could see a glimmer of sunlight off a small square of the bay. Pedestrians rushed along the sidewalks. A few meandered. The crowd was buttoned up or buttoned down. Suits and ties. Or mini-skirts and love beads. San Francisco was slow to move on from the 60s.

One day we caught Sparkle on a double bill. The movie followed a girl group, Sister and the Sisters in 1958 Harlem. The plot braided three stories. But it was Sister we followed, our eyes tracking her every move in that cave-like room, fingers and shoes sticky with confection. We sat mesmerized, tensing up as she was lured in by the brutish Satin. We emerged from the theater, blinking in the sunlight, preparing ourselves for our reentry into the real world.

“Sister sure was pretty.” The street was buzzing with traffic, so I raised my voice. 

“Yeah, she’s sexy. Why are we so flat-chested?” Patty cupped her palms under her breasts. 

“It doesn’t matter. Even when we grow some, we can never be like her.”

“Speak for yourself.” Patty hiked up her yolk-sized bumps of cleavage.

She looked disappointed.

This was San Francisco in the 70s. You could stroll the streets flowers painted across your bare chested and not a head would turn. Still, I was paranoid. I didn’t want anyone staring at us. As if to prove my point about being nothing special, when I scanned the crowd, no one was.

We hiked the three block to the bust stop. The narrative piece about Sister dying half way through the film never came up. Neither did the question of why we were so fascinated by her. Aside from the obvious — her beauty. Our movie reviews weren’t exactly sophisticated. And neither were we introspective. Now this bit of worship stood out in my mind as one of the first signs.

  The following week we descended on Tower Records in North Beach, a mega-store one block from North Beach. Once we got close we were met with the smell of fish, the odor drifting in from Fisherman’s Wharf — the vats of steaming crab and brackish water of the bay. I bought the album Sparkle with my allowance. Aretha Franklin glowed on the cover, wrapped in white and encircled by a metallic silver frame. We fought over who’d hold the album on the bus ride, each of us tugging at a corner of it. 

At Patty’s house, we leaned out her window smoking, listening to the songs. “I Get High,” Sister Williams’s lament about her descent into heroin addiction made me shutter. The line “woke up this morning, looking back over the darkness of my life” nailed my very own experience. There was that black cloud feeling of mine coming through this tune. We borrowed two white slips from her mother. Patty had a pair of elbow length gloves she kept in her dresser.  During the A side she was Sister, I was B side. We gestured the moves we remembered from the movie, fishtailing our arms and wagging our hips.

“I don’t see why I can’t be Sister all the time. You can be Dolores.” Patty refused to give up the gloves.

We both stared down at the record player needle stalled at the end of A side.

“It’s my album.” I tugged at the gloves.

Her face arranged itself into an expression of mock hurt. I relented. I was more like Dolores anyway, the shy, self righteous sister.

The only thing I understood about Sister was how she got her signals crossed. She couldn’t distinguish love from cruelty. 

Going Deep

To say something goes deep or runs deep, you mean that it is very serious or strong and is hard to change. As in “his anger and anguish clearly went deep.” The phrase “go deep” has been cropping up in my writing circles. In this case it means something different. It means to plum the depths of your emotions. It is the trumpet call to explain more fully — in feelings — why I’d want to pursue getting Patty’s cold case solved, let alone write about the experience. “We don’t understand why you’re doing this,” is a close paraphrase of what people say. Or “are you guilty about something?” 

I told the instructor of one group that only law enforcement understood. That wasn’t completely true. My cousin, an artist, has never asked me to provide a motive. I asked that same instructor if she had some motive in mind already, practically begging her to tell me what readers expected me to say that I hadn’t already. She expressed an understanding of how close I was to Patty, that our tight friendship was motive enough. And yet. The subtext during our next conversation was “go deeper.” It’s true more than a month had gone by since we last spoke about it, but that was long enough apparently for the question to arise once again. “It’s still not clear,” she said.

If I claim it is just my doing a good deed, it is not satisfying. I wonder how much of our culture of oversharing is responsible for the expectation that if you’re writing about your life, you are expected to turn yourself inside out? 

The instructor had just finished reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, and agreed that she had gone deep. We are all not as brave as that. 

If I claim I am a fixer, a rescuer, it is not satisfying. I am trying to come up with a take on it that resonates with today’s reader. Are we not a psychologizing people? It is one thing to admit that maybe I was attracted to other teens because I believed I could rescue them back when I was too young to give the behavior a name. But to attribute my trying to get someone to look at Patty’s cold case to fixing is a stretch.

Every writer that is chronicling the true details of his or her life has to decide to what include and what to omit. It is not as though I am consciously skirting an admission, only thinking about what I owe the reader and what I owe myself. 

Whose Story Is It Anyway?

During a conversation with a person critiquing the chapters I’ve written so far, the subject of whether or not the Vance family supports my efforts to get Patty’s story out came up.

I didn’t start to write this story in order to reopen old wounds for the family. As far as I know her two brothers and her son are the only immediate family still around. The last thing I’d want to do is add to the trauma they’ve already suffered. I recently discovered there is a niece of Patty’s, her brother John’s daughter. My intent is not to bring up any uneasy feelings for her either.

Anyone who cared about Patty would want attention drawn to her case. I have to say that I doubt much attention is a result of my blogging about a book I hope to write. The dream is that the book itself might lead to someone coming forward — a witness to the crime — not that the book leads to any sort of embarrassment or shame about Patty and her life choices. Yet there are pieces of her story I thought needed to come out because perhaps they might trigger someone to remember her, or to recall that they witnessed her tragic murder. 

I was recently speaking to a writer friend of mine and she asked about the details of the case. She kept coming back to the fact that there MUST have been witnesses. The chances that no one was around in that generally busy neighborhood in San Francisco at that time of night are minuscule was the way I interpreted her point. Perhaps I’m not being realistic, but I’m anticipating that there will be a larger audience for my book than there is currently for my blog. If word can get out, maybe there will be some movement on the case.

Part of why I feel this is my story as well as Patty’s story is that I’m using this opportunity partly to crack open what exactly happened to us and between us. I was one bad decision away from leading the same sort of lifestyle she led. Yet I didn’t. There was more than one occasion when I considered what it would be like to make the “easy money” involved in sex work. Just like the gambler who never talks about his losses, it seems no one I’ve known involved in the business wants to talk about the downfalls. The conversations are always about how difficult it is to turn down the windfall that comes from selling sex, or partaking in the presumably less risky off shoots of sex work — dancing and porn. 

My thoughts were often about the pitfalls. The same impulse that made me shy away from taking up hard drugs kept me from chasing the easy money. I pictured the worse case scenarios and could never make the plunge. If I fast forwarded my life on drugs, I’d imagine myself homeless, or left with only half an arm. I thought if I injected intravenous drugs it would inevitably lead to infection and amputation. If I spun out a reel of my life as a prostitute, there was always a scene in which I was beaten and raped. I was just too damn scared to venture down either of those paths.

There is much talk about how women are forced to prostitute themselves for economic reasons. I can’t help think that there were other options for Patty. But I also know that this was likely her mindset. Sure, she wasn’t living in a developing country having to feed a brood of children. But she was a young mother who struggled with drug addiction in a town that was somewhat expensive even back in the 70s. Likely such was her skill set that she didn’t feel she had a ton of options. All this is a long-winded way of saying that she probably felt desperate, that the drugs got the better of her and she wronged people she would never have wronged. I don’t judge her and am hoping others won’t either. She was a good person who got caught up somehow in behavior that likely ended up sealing her fate.

This book is partly about the meaning of friendship, of forgiveness, of compassion. Also what betrayal meant to our relationship. Is writing this book and blog I’m committing the ultimate betrayal? I hope not. I hope I’m not in denial about my motives. I’d like to think my motives are pure. My apologies to her family if that’s not the way they see it. 

Medical Examiner’s Report

I was floored when this week I got an email from the Albuquerque Medical Examiner’s office saying that they’re going to review Patty Vance’s autopsy report. I submitted it along with a request that someone in their office might summarize it for me back in October. I was being patient mostly because they’re doing it as a courtesy, and I know that you can’t get law enforcement response times of this sort in a speedy fashion.


I was explaining to some of my fellow writers about how I’d become convinced (after watching a whole slew of true crime television shows) that my friend’s case could too be solved with the magic of DNA technology. Ideally, within a thirty minute time period. All sarcasm aside, during my journey trying to get SFPD to take another look at Patty’s case I’ve come to be dispelled of this notion. DNA is not magic. 

Detective Daniel Cunningham, the detective working on her case, informed me that the strongest aspect of his case was not DNA at all, but the interviews that he’s conducted with the person of interest. This is completely in line with an article I picked up on National Geographic website. Contrary to what the CSI series would have you believe, it is actually witnesses coming forward and not DNA testing that is solving the majority of cold cases these days.  

According to a new Journal of Forensic Sciences report, researchers took a first systematic look at cold cases and concluded that old-fashioned police work and fresh witnesses were the keys to solving these murders.

“Unless you have a good reason, particularly [evidence from] new witnesses, there is little reason to reopen a cold case,” says study leader Robert Davis of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. “Cold case investigations are largely an exercise in making people feel good without new information.”

Cold case squads might prioritize cases with higher odds of leading to a conviction in their review of old cases, he suggests, rather than working through the files chronologically.

In the study, the team looked at the factors linked to successful convictions in 189 cold case investigations from the files of the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department. The homicides dated back to the 1970s, but most had occurred in the past two decades.

Of those reopened cold cases, 24 percent ended in convictions and 24 percent were cleared by “exceptional” means, instances in which the culprit was already dead, in prison, or had gone missing. The rest remained unsolved.

What made for a cold case conviction? New witnesses helped resolve 63 percent of the cleared cases, the survey found. Often an ex-girlfriend or ex-friend of a murderer came forward years after a crime. DNA matches figured in only 3 percent of the cleared cases. “The worst reason to reopen a case was because of family pressure, if you want a conviction,” Davis says.

“But at the same time, there is a wider issue of not enough resources being given to do these investigations in the first place,” Adcock adds. “We have a lot of resources being poured into finding DNA hits for crimes, which doesn’t leave investigators with the time they need to do more thorough investigations.”

In other words, he suggests that cold case investigators might turn up those ex-girlfriends or ex-friends of killers if they had more time to pursue them.

That is a concern, Davis says, because some prosecutors and police officials have worried about a CSI effect (named after the popular police-drama television series) that may affect murder trials. Jurors may have come to expect complex forensic techniques to solve cases, instead of the often messy real-life details of investigations that center on interviews with witnesses.

“If anyone ever wanted to do a show about a real-life homicide investigation, I can guarantee it would be a lot less exciting and conclusive than a TV show,” says Davis.

The Devil You Know

My friend was murdered in 1980 as the result of being strangled from behind. I dismissed the idea that it was a john after finding out that Detective Cunningham (the cold case detective) suspected that it was a revenge killing. Now I’m thinking that there’s no reason why those two things are necessarily mutually exclusive. What if she had a regular, someone who grew to trust her. Cunningham said that Patty had a reputation for stealing from people, and said that my story about how she’d robbed my mother corroborated that.

So, when Cunningham said that he believed the perpetrator was enacting revenge for Patty having ripped him off, I assumed that she’d gone to his house and stolen whatever she could find of value. That was her MO when she fleeced my mother. But maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. Maybe Patty pocketed some money when the guy was asleep, or taken his wallet somehow. Or maybe I’ve seen too many movies that included a scene like this.

On Giving Up

Kris Barbrich, of the SF Medical Examiner’s office, advised me to keep going up the chain of command if I wasn’t satisfied with the response I was getting from the cold case unit. I was tempted. A problem arose when I wasn’t getting the result that I had become attached to — charging the perpetrator. At some point I equated being told that the SFPD wasn’t going to charge said suspect with not being satisfied with their response.