Hypno-ambulists of San Francisco

26 May

The city called “The Paris of the West” was made motionless and still by the thick night fog rolling in from the waters of the Pacific. In 1941, the Outer Sunset neighborhood of West San Francisco still contained remnant traces of its former identity as Carville, then as Oceanside. It had become a middle class, residential area with a suburban atmosphere to it, having lost much of its Bohemian, Jack London aura of an earlier day.

This cool autumn evening, it was unusual to find pedestrians out on the streets of this foggiest sector of the entire Bay region. The opaque, seemingly impenetrable wall of cloud threatened some kind of uncanny suffocation and hazard to easy breathing. Yet one brave soul, a middle-aged store clerk, was on his way to a nearby store to buy himself a pack of Chesterfields. His steps along the south sidewalk of 34th Avenue, between Taraval and Ullua Streets were carefully slow. He could see no traffic anywhere about, nor any fellow walkers.

The hands that stretched forth and took hold of him by the neck had metallic strength to them, seizing their victim like an irreversible clasp. There was not sufficient time for conscious thought on how to defend oneself. It was in only in a few seconds that the no longer breathing body fell onto the cement, an invisible object shrouded by fog.

Without sound, the living one strolled away with assurance, as if it were bright, clear midday.

Not till early the next morning was the asphyxiated corpse discovered and reported to the San Francisco police.

Pete Drang had an apartment in the most dangerous neighborhood in the city, the Tenderloin. The building he lived in on Post St. was across from where over a decade before Dashiell Hammett had written “The Maltese Falcon”. This soft underbelly of 1941 San Francisco was a district of pool halls, prostitution, gambling, boxing gyms, and corruption.

The emaciated, gangly writer of unpublished novels only dwelled here out of economic necessity.

But for over half a year, he had experienced a total creative drought. He had rare moments when he could do something on his typewriter, but these were now scarcer. Nothing that he attempted had any acceptable result.

In his painful desperation, Pete turned to what he would have once termed mumbo-jumbo.

From artistically inclined acquaintances, he had heard about a mesmeric practitioner who promised to inspire new life to flagging talents in the arts.

In abject despair, the frustrated novelist asked for more information about the man called Art Michaels. Was he trustworthy and effective, or did he just take the money of gullible intellectuals? What was his record in restoring collapsed creative careers? It seemed wise to be careful and cautious, decided Pete.

Michaels was an older man, Pete learned, who was a resident of the Sunset District of western San Francisco. He had lived there since before the World War, when abandoned street cars had been used as residences and commercial buildings. Michaels had earned enough as a traveling hypnotist to buy a small stucco house when he retired.

A telephone call had resulted in an invitation to visit the mesmerist at his address in the Outer Sunset District. Pete became excited as he rode to this first appointment with the man by city streetcar. How would it go, and would he gain any professional benefit from the session? It is a big gamble for me, the novel writer told himself.

The tiny stucco cottage of Michaels was located on Santiago St., not far from where Pete had read in the morning newspaper about a body with its throat choked had been found a little before dawn. That is not a thing worth mentioning to the man I am about to meet, he decided. Not a pleasant subject to bring up with a complete stranger like Mr. Art Michaels.

A young man opened the front door as soon as Pete rang the front buzzer. “You must be the writer named Drang,” he said coolly. “Come right in. My name is Frank and my father has been waiting for you.”

Once Pete was in the shadow-filled hallway, the tall son led him toward a small study filled with bookshelves in the rear of the one-storey cottage. The visitor walked into the indicated room and Frank walked off to the front.

A surprisingly large man with a solidly black moustache and dark curly hair sat at a roll-top desk, examining the writer with his cloudy gray eyes.

“You must be the novelist, Pete Drang, with whom I’ve spoken over the phone. Come in and sit down, please.”

The room, stuffed with books and periodicals, seemed to have a musty smell to it, thought the one seeking help from the mesmerist. Once he was seated in a wooden chair, it was Pete who spoke first.

“I have no idea whether you have ever treated someone with my problem, often referred to as writer’s block,” said Pete with conscious trepidation. “My coming to you may turn out to be fruitless, but I owe it to myself to try out any method, even the least hopeful ones, Mr. Michaels.”

The hypnotist smiled with self-confidence. “I would not have continued the way that I have had there been no successes or victories for me in this work. But a confession is owed to you, sir. I have never tried to deal with a problem such as yours. In all my case experience, I have never had to fight against an inability to write fiction as once done before. Your difficulty is unique, unlike anything I am familiar with.”

“You are pessimistic about overcoming my professional inertia, then?”

“Not at all, my good man,” declared Art Michaels with a wide, radiating smile. “I am confident that you can be put back into action. In fact, I am eager to start helping you at once. Do you know much about hypnotic suggestion, Mr. Drang?”

“Not at all, sir. Only what the average person on the streets might have somehow picked up. What is written in the newspapers or in books, or what is mentioned on the radio or in movies. My knowledge on hypnotism is limited.”

For several seconds, the hypnotist stared in silence with his bright gray eyes at the stymied writer. Finally, his lips began to move and he slowly pronounced a pointed question.

“Are you ready to enter a trance for the recuperation of your creativity today, at this very hour?”

“Yes, I certainly am,” replied the eager Pete. “What do you want me to do?”

All of a sudden, Art Michaels rose straight out of his chair and stepped briskly around his desk until he stood inches away from the startled novelist. “Do not be afraid of what is going to happen to you,” he murmured soothingly. “I want you to relax so that you enter a state that is not the same as sleep, but deeper and different from it. You are about to enter into yourself, the areas that are never prominent or focused upon in everyday life. I am only your helper and guide, aiding you in the discovery of the abilities and talents that have fallen into the forgotten shadows for a brief time.”

The calm, sonorous voice of the mesmerist succeeded quickly in placing Pete Drang into a hypnotic trance.

After realizing that his trance was over, the hypnotist and his subject shook hands. Art then called loudly for his soon to appear and show their visitor out. “You should come back in about a week, we will figure out at that time how much progress we have made on your situation. Whenever you feel that you can do it, you should try to write something that you feel should be said.”

The two grinned at each other with trust and confidence. Pete thanked the older man for his effort and treatment. “I hope that my old capacity comes back to me,” the latter said from the heart.

Frank Michaels appeared when his father called out for him to come. The son accompanied Pete to the front door and directed him to the nearest street car stop from where one could return to the center of San Francisco.

In an elated mood, the writer returned to his apartment on Post St. in the Tenderloin.

Pete did not experiment at his typewriter until early the following morning, fearing the risk he was taking. A night of undisturbed sleep renewed his mental energy after what had occurred to him with the prior day’s mesmeric trance. This has to be tried, sooner or later, the now anxious novelist said to himself.

Whatever the outcome turns out to be, the time for the attempt has arrived, Pete realized.

He sat down, placed a blank sheet of paper in the Corona, and waited with his dark brown eyes nailed to it.

What was going to be brought out of his mind, through his fingers, onto the white page?

Only a few seconds were enough to communicate the fact that nothing had changed for him. His gift of past years was still absent. His mind remained devoid of inspiration. He was completely empty.

After a quarter hour of frustrating inertia, Pete rose from the typewriter and left the apartment. He needed fresh autumn air and physical movement. Several hours of purposeless walking past single-room hotels, jazz clubs, theaters, and restaurants followed for the disappointed Pete Drang.

Thick fog has never been the prerequisite for street murder in San Francisco. Neither was a lack of human movement and activity. A killing that brought no shouting or commotion from the victim might draw no witnesses whatever.

The section of the Tenderloin’s Turk St. between Taylor and Mason was notorious in 1941 for illegal drugs and illicit sex. Daytime was quiet, while nights were busy. An impersonal stabbing with an unseen knife and a sudden fall onto the poorly-lighted sidewalk might attract no attention until a number of hours had passed.

A police cruiser, a 1940 Chevrolet sedan, stopped and an officer climbed out to see what the strange clump laying on the sidewalk a little way past an alley was. The surprise discovery of a body stabbed several times in the stomach area brought the focus of attention to another major crime in the Tenderloin.

“This will make it in both the Chronicle and the Examiner,” grumbled one of the men in the squad-car as the pair waited for a city ambulance to haul the corpse to the San Francisco morgue.

Pete Drang managed to drift through a week of disappointing experiments with himself, but he found himself devoid of any original ideas on what to write about. Indecision and ennui built up into deepening disgust with himself. Would he ever escape the slough he was in? His self-doubt became voluminous. He looked forward with impatience to his next meeting with Art Michaels. Was he past the point of having any rational hope left?

The day for his appointment came and the writer who was unable to write again took a streetcar to the Outer Sunset District and the little stucco cottage on Santiago Street. Once again, it was the son who answered at the door and let him in. “My father is hopeful about your condition and is expecting to hear of successful recovery when he talks with you,” smiled Frank Michaels, leading the visitor back to his father’s study in the rear.

Art watched in silence as the subject of hypnotic treatment and adjustment entered. He pointed toward the chair where Pete had sat during their previous session and the latter occupied it once again.

“Has your writing capability returned,” asked the hypnotist at last, staring intently at the writer’s expressionless face.

“No, I am sorry to report that it hasn’t. This is an enormous disappointment. My hopes rose sky-high last week when I was here. What chance is there that it will turn out the same if I attempt this all over again?” He fastened his shadowy brown eyes on the older man.

Art looked down at his desk top’s ink pad. “It happens at times that the first trance does not take hold, so that repetition has to occur. Don’t worry about the lack of first-time results. With some persons, it may take several tries before the goal is accomplished. That is not worth worrying about, not at all.

“Are you ready to enter mesmeric trance once again, then?”

“I am,” meekly answered Pete, replying with a small degree of reluctance which he made an effort to conceal.

The other slowly raised himself to a standing position.

“Let us then begin. Look into my eyes and try to relax your mind and body. Prepare to slide into a trance, as you did before.”

Pete did as he was commanded and soon fell into a state neither fully sleep or consciousness.

Art rose to his feet and moved around the desk, coming within a foot of his hypnotized subject. In a low, melodic tone he spoke words that he had composed in his mind the first time he had contact with the writer.

The session rolled on as if on a written script, the mesmerist talking to his troubled client as if they had been intimate friends for a decade or more. Only a few minutes were needed for Art Michaels to complete all that he had prepared to carry out with the person named Pete Drane.

A quick snap of the fingers was all that the operator needed to bring the man in a trance back to full everyday consciousness.

The novelist shook his head as if trying to wake himself up from a long, deep sleep that had in reality not occurred at all.

“We are finished, my friend,” grinned Art. “You are free to leave and return home. My son will take care of the expenses accumulated for these two conferences we have had, and we shall see you here again a week from now. I hope that you can return to your former productivity in your profession as a creative author. I shall be deeply interested in what progress you can make in the next seven days.”

Pete rose, shook hands with the mesmerist, and left the study where he had gone into trance.

It was as he walked from the front door of the Michaels cottage toward the sidewalk of Santiago Street that the recently hypnotized novelist noticed the presence of the son, Frank, standing by the avenue as if waiting to talk with him.

Pete was the first one to say something.

“I wish to pay you the fee for my sessions with your father,” he said with a smile. “It is important to me that I don’t end up owing a sum for the time and effort that has been devoted to me.”

The tall, extremely spare young man seemed to grimace as if bothered by something unnamed.

“That can wait, for now,” muttered Frank in a soft, secretive tone. “There is something more important that I have to tell you, Mr. Drang. It has to do with my father and what he is involved in. You have no idea what he is capable of carrying out with his mental powers. I want to warn you about how he can do harm to those he claims to be treating for problems.

“My father has for years practiced upon me and caused…certain bad effects that complicate all of my life.” He stopped temporarily as he studied the expression of surprise and confusion on the other’s face. “I can’t talk any more right now. But be very careful about going outdoors in the city at night.

“That’s all that I wanted to say to you before you left.” Having finished, Frank skirted around the astonished novel creator with writer’s block and entered the cottage in a hasty, worried manner.

Thoroughly perplexed, Pete walked on to the nearest streetcar stop and waited to get back to his Tenderloin flat.

What was the strange young man talking about? he wondered the rest of the day.

The worried writer postponed any attempt to find out whether his creative powers had been restored. That test had to wait until the next day, he decided. His nerves felt sharply excited by the session with Art and the subsequent words he had heard from the hypnotist’s son. Hours of reflection brought him no answers to the questions now occupying his stream of thought.

It was long after Pete had fallen asleep in bed that another crime of the San Francisco night occurred.

The major newspapers, the Chronicle and the Examiner, had raised fears for personal safety among the general reading population. There appeared to be fewer people out on the streets that evening, even in the Tenderloin.

A third unexplained, seemingly motiveless killing, happened to the north of the Outer Sunset District, at Golden Gate Park. A woman employed at the DeYoung Museum as an art display specialist was leaving the large Fine Arts Building with its 1890’s pseudo-Egyptian Revival style of outmoded cast concrete ornamentation.

The middle-aged spinster could not have known that there lurked a dangerous attacker in nearby bushes, waiting for a suitable victim to exit the museum.

In seconds, the choice of selection was made. A quick attack totally surprised the woman devoted to art preservation. Her murder resulted from a severe wound to the back of the head, done with a simple plumber’s wrench found in many San Francisco households.

Her body lay bleeding in the pathway she had taken until discovered by a park employee a little before dawn the following morning.

The following morning, Pete listened on his small radio to NBC’s “News of Europe” and learned that a German submarine had sunk the U.S. destroyer Reuben James off the coast of Iceland and that 100 Americans had lost their lives. Then he listened for a quarter hour to “Don McNeill and the Breakfast Club”. On a report on San Francisco news, he learned that a gruesome murder had occurred in Golden Gate Park to an employee of the deYoung Museum.

Time has arrived to see whether this writer can write once more, Pete told himself as he sat down at his typewriter. He waited expectantly, gazing down at the fingers of his hands. The seconds passed, turning into minutes. Would any words of value radiate out of his mind? Was his old gift gone for good, never to be reborn?

Only when he was sure that his imagination was still sterile did Pete rise from the chair and rush outside to walk and breath some fresh autumn air.

After a number of futile attempts to think out characters and a dramatic plot line, the writer gave up and remained mostly idle till his next appointment with the mesmerist. The week was a frustrating, unpleasant one for one unable to perform in what he considered the major aspect of his life. On the assigned day, he took a streetcar to the Outer Sunset District in a mood of discouragement and apprehension. His personal difficulty seemed to be irreparable.

His thoughts attempted to escape the futile trap they were in by turning attention to Frank Michaels and his relationship to his father.

What had caused the son’s dread and enmity towards the hypnotist?

The idea occurred to him that Art Michaels may have tried to overly control and restrict the young man through the use of his mental influence. There was an imbalance in the ties between the two.

With his mind full of such concerns and considerations, Pete took the streetcar that ran as far as where he wanted to go in the Sunset District.

Pete climbed out of the long electric vehicle with its overhead wires and made his way to his hypnotist’s residence. He gave a start when the son, Frank, exited through the front door before he was able to reach it.

The young man seemed to be shaking allover as he spoke to the startled visitor.

“I have to warn you before my father becomes aware that you have arrived so early, before the scheduled conference with him. I must reveal and warn about the danger that threatens you.”

“What kind of danger?”

Frank stepped a bit closer to the novelist. “The danger that comes from my father’s trickery and that has already ruined my own life. His powers are enormous. Even worse, he believes that his abilities are unlimited and that he can make a person do the impossible.

“You know about the recent street killings here in the city? He ordered me to commit those crimes by placing me in trance. I was helpless to resist his evil orders and had to obey them.”

“That cannot be true, Frank. Even I know that mesmeric influence cannot make an individual commit any act that the mind and conscience forbid be done. A person will always refuse to do what goes against his character and nature. Everyone should know that fundamental truth about hypnosis.

“No one, even your father, can make someone else contradict what is deep within them.”

Frank made a pained grimace. “But my father is different, because he has developed himself far beyond anything ever attained by any other hypnotist. He is one of a kind and unprecedented.”

The two looked with anger at each other, until Pete spoke.

“Let me go in and see him,” he muttered. “I will not tell him anything about what you have just told me.”

Art Michaels, standing up, shook hands with the writer who had lost drive and content.

Pete realized immediately that the mesmerist knew that the last trance had not produced the hoped-for recovery of writing ability for the man under treatment.

“Sit down, please,” said the older one. “Our wishes may not have come true in the week that has passed. But none of us involved in this form of therapy should ever surrender or stop trying. Please, relate to me how effective our last attempt to renew your creative spirit turned out to be.”

Pete looked down at the desk top and the piles of papers on it.

“It was a fiasco, from start to finish. I was unable to find any theme to write about or begin to construct a plot of any kind. I tried and tried, but there was no result. My brain seems to have dried up and turned to stone.

“So, I must ask for your candid opinion. Is my case a useless one to work and strive for? Should I cease having any trances at all? It may be that I will never write anything of value or substance again in this life of mine. Are my writing days over for good? Am I wasting my time on a mirage that could end up as a nightmare?”

Pete, staring at Art, waited nervously to learn what his hypnotist might advise.

“It is wholly up to you, my friend. No one else can or should decide for you. The choice made has to be a totally personal one.”

“I will need time to think over all aspects of my situation,” declared Pete, beginning to rise from his chair. “It is best that I leave at once and that we have no hypnotic trance set up today.

“I will send you word when I know what path I will be taking.”

That evening the writer considered what he might have done differently.

Should he have asked to undergo a third hypnotic trance? He could foresee no chance that it might work on him.

The troubled son, Frank Michaels, had not been around when he rushed out of the house and headed for the streetcar stop. What could he have said to that confused, probably disturbed, young man?

All along, his possibilities had been few and highly limited.

Pete decided that since he felt exhausted, he should go to bed early this particular evening.

He had barely fallen asleep, when a pounding sound on his apartment door disturbed and awakened him.

Could it be at this hour? he considered with no tangible answer. Once out of bed and on his feet, Pete hurried to the entrance with ominous curiosity about who could be raising such noise.

He discovered two uniformed policeman and a large man who looked like he might be an investigative detective.

“Are you Mr. Peter Drang?” inquired the latter.

“Yes, that’s me. Is there a problem, officer?”

The plainclothesman frowned. “Your name has been given to us by a primary suspect we have at headquarters. He is Mr. Frank Michaels, and we are holding him for the shooting of his father, Mr. Arthur Michaels. The arrested suspect says that you were a client of his father, a hypnotherapist, and are familiar with the method that he uses on people who seek his help. Is that correct?”

Pete gulped and nodded at the same time. “Come in, please. I want you to tell me how this awful event occurred. Was there a quarrel, an argument between the two of them?”

The three men entered and the primary investigator went on.

“Michael told us a fantastic tale about his father having hypnotized him and caused the three recent street killings through the means of his son. It sounds like some crazy, insane dream. Do you know anything concerning the subject at all? Frank Michael says that he informed you about the power that his father exercised over him.”

Pete looked down at the carpet in his parlor. “He mentioned his fantasy and I ignored it. The thing sounded like nonsense, like some nightmare he was recalling and describing to me.”

“It turned out to be more than that, much more,” said the detective with a sorrowful and cynical grimace.

At that moment, the novelist understood that whether true or not, Frank Michaels had been behaving under the strong impression that his father, the mesmerist, was commanding and inspiring all the crimes he may have committed on recent nights.

Did what was true or not true make any difference in whether this final tragedy could have been prevented by a third party like the incapacitated writer named Pete Drang?

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