Caleb Mitchell sat in the darkness of the O'Farrell Theatre in San Francisco one day last month, enjoying a lap dance from a woman with long jet-black hair, watching intently as her buttocks swirled into his lap. The nineteen-year-old was pretty smooth about the whole affair. His two teenage buddies who tagged along were also in the club, where they'd self-consciously separated themselves in the don't-think-we're-gay seating pattern. Unlike Caleb, both wore faces that revealed an internal mix of confusion, fear, and glee.
Caleb is comfortable inside the O'Farrell Theatre because he was raised here. His father, Artie Mitchell, opened the place with Caleb's uncle Jim in July 1969, the Summer of Love. The Mitchell brothers pioneered the Bay Area pornography scene, made millions, lived high, then crashed hard--famously hard. In 1991, Jim drove to Artie's house in Corte Madera and with a .22 rifle shot his kid brother twice in the chest and once in the head from a distance of three feet. Uncle Jim's lawyers argued successfully that the shooting was an accident, a drug intervention gone "horribly awry." He served three years for voluntary manslaughter and returned to work after his release.
Tonight at the O'Farrell, Jim is most likely upstairs making his weekly visit, tending to his books. Downstairs, Caleb is receiving his $20 lap dance. The Bee Gees tune "You Should Be Dancin'" fills the club, and the woman with the jet-black hair is now whispering a ghost story into Caleb's ear. About three months ago, she tells him, she was walking backstage when out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of a black-and-white figure, like one from an old photograph. Focusing her eyes, she recognized the figure as Caleb's dad. Artie didn't move or offer a message; he just stood there, looking pissed off.
A few hours later, the woman tells Caleb, another dancer saw the ghost of Artie Mitchell. And she wasn't the only one. On Sunday afternoons, when the theatre is mostly empty and the staff is working on a skeleton crew, weird, unexplainable things have happened. Doors have closed by themselves, curtains have dropped, and on windless days, letters from the marquee outside have suddenly fluttered away into the San Francisco sky.
The stories don't seem to faze Artie's son. Caleb listens with a "whatever" smirk, which is just about the only thing to indicate that Caleb Mitchell is still a teenager. His Van Dyke beard and widow's peak put a few years on him and make him look a lot like his father. Caleb walks with a stride that is all business, with the kind of seriousness that embalms those who've lost a parent at an early age -- particularly those who, from age eight, used sentences that began, "When my uncle murdered my dad ... " From there, the world tends to assume a violent hue.
Once the dancer extricates herself from Caleb's lap, he stands up and moves to the back of the seating area to greet a few longtime employees. Some O'Farrell staffers knew Caleb when he wasn't allowed to play downstairs. Since the killing, and the lawsuits and settlements that followed, Caleb is no longer allowed upstairs. A big round bouncer named Bear sees Caleb all grown up, waddles over smiling, and throws a fake punch before shaking the hand of Artie's boy.
"I hear you're a big brawler now," Bear says.
"Yeah," Caleb says, adding a bashful laugh.
"Helluva a way to make a living," Bear says, "helluva way to make a living."
"Yeah," Caleb says. "Yeah."
Artie Mitchell's son is a no-holds-barred fighter. Caleb is the US bantamweight champion for the International Fighting Championship, a league based in Southern California that promotes fights at Indian casinos. He is 4-1, his only loss coming last December in Hawaii, where he was nearly choked to death in front of three thousand spectators.
The sport is simple: Two men step into a metal cage and battle until one gives up. Competitors wear nothing more than biking shorts and thin leather knuckle gloves, and there are only three rules: no biting, no eye-gouging, and no stomping on a man's face when he's on the ground. Even these are recent requirements, added to appease the sport's critics and ensure "fighter safety." The fights, critics and fans agree, are bloody spectacles.
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