I’d like to write a story about these pictures I found but I don’t even remember them being taken. Just a quite evening at home with my best friend, the bottle, circa 1977.
One of my all time favorite spins on a celebrity PR crisis was when nude photos leaked of Vanessa Williams and she lost her Miss America crown. Her defense was she thought they were “only shooting silhouettes.”
I never liked wearing wigs and, as you can see, they were often treated as an afterthought.
In the span of three years I lost three of my closest confidants to AIDS. Brian was the last in 1991.
We were not partners but we were both hypersexual so on occasion, out of necessity, we’d shag. Though we were never mushy. We loved to cause trouble and we were good at it.
The pictures of him passed out are from 1982 on the night I returned from my first trip to Europe. My friend Giorgio had given me two beautiful bottles of ancient Chianti. He insisted they were purely ornamental, they’d gone bad years ago.
Brian never met an order he couldn’t defy. We drank them both that night.
Trouble with a capital T
Treasure Trail? More like the Trans-Siberian Rail Line
Under the watchful gaze
Succumbing to noxious chiantic gases
Preparing a meal for our vegan friends
Brian didn’t have a sincere bone in his body. Well, maybe one. 1987
Trying to fit in at a Republican fundraiser
The torch was accepted by a new generation of Americans
A rare moment without guile. Or was it.
Hiding from the cops on the fire escape. My ass/his face. As God planned it.
Brian and David on my birthday. Daylight was often low energy, things would perk up at cocktail hour.
Buzzby’s was the first great dance bar in San Francisco. It was also the first gay bar I remember that wasn’t hostile to admitting women. If they weren’t wearing open-toed shoes. Ann Getty was known to frequent the place so I’m sure they made an exception for her custom Vivier’s.
I had drinks with my upstairs neighbor Jim a week ago. We hadn’t seen each other since he moved out last June. We met at the Cinch on Polk, one of the last gay bars standing on the Strasse. Jim and I didn’t know each other in the ’70s but it turns out we had shared many of the same Polk Street experiences.
We talked about how ground-breaking Buzzby’s was, how it changed the whole scene. He told me stories about his best friend Steve who was a DJ there. DJ’s really were the heart of this dramatic new club life. He remembered his friend as a brilliant sound mixer way ahead of his time musically.
Before discos came along hits were made on the radio largely by the payola and sleaze associated with the record business. After the club DJ’s took charge, songs became popular on the dance floor then made it to the airwaves.
Disco would eventually become a mutli-billion dollar business and probably was as corrupt as the radio days. But in the 70’s you felt it first in the clubs. As Jim said, “Steve always knew what was coming before it actually happened.”
Soon after Buzzby’s the Trocadero Transfer opened and become the ne plus ultra of dance venues. The largest space in town with the most modern equipment, it was usually only open Saturdays. It became infamous for its theme parties like the first White Party I’d ever heard of. The head to toe white dress code was strictly enforced while wall sized ice sculptures decorated the room. The staff all wore “iced hair.” For Easter, they flooded the dance floor with hundreds of lilies just as dawn broke. Halleluh, Halleluh.
The Trocadero was really an event that you anticipated and planned for. Buzzby’s was available nightly, there for the taking whenever you needed it.
Gay Pride Float 1976
Looks a little dangerous in platforms, thank God they weren’t open-toed.
A helpful dancer offering a patron a cocktail stirrer
Mark sent me a link to a New York Magazine article about a tony bay front cabin in Provincetown. The pictures conveyed all the sterile lifelessness of a very talented decorator. But we remembered it when it funked.
In the summer of 1972 Mark and two other Bloomington friends decided to work in this quaint little artists’ (wink wink) colony. In July three of us joined them at Captain Jack’s Wharf, a beaten down place that slept two but held six that week.
My friends’ first jobs were at the fish processing pier a hundred yards down the street. They lasted only a week. The constant waft of putrefied sea life lasted all summer.
My favorite memory is of the nights at Piggies, a ramshackle little dive bar on the outskirts of town. You could dance there. The crowd was a mix of gay and straight, half-naked because there was no AC. Sweat flew to a constant onslaught of James Brown. It was a love shack if there ever was one.
Dancing in public was such a weird thing in the early 1970’s. My generation wanted to shake it but there was no place to go. In San Francisco you’d hear that you could dance at a certain bar on a certain night or that this one place had a jukebox if things didn’t get out of hand. But rumors abounded of police busts, mafia connections and liquor licenses being revoked. Discotheque was a 1960’s word, disco had yet to be invented.
Then in 1975 the first great gay dance bar opened, Buzzby’s on Polk Street. It was a small storefront we all crammed into. It was soon followed by Oil Can Harry’s at Ellis and Larkin.
Oil Can’s was huge and always crowded on the weekends. Attendance would fall off during the week, however, so they would often do promotions. One Wednesday they did a Nostalgia ’77 contest.
The trend of the day was for the 1950’s: Grease, Sha-Na-Na and Happy Days were on everyone’s minds. Not me, I wanted my Carnaby Street back. That night I wore a red vinyl mini-tunic, an asymmetrical bob wig, and go-go boots. In a sea of circle skirts, saddle shoes and pony tails, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I won.
In 1978 I met Brian. He talked to our mutual friend Kathy about entering The Outrageous Beauty Contest at the Fab Mab. She told him bluntly, “you’ll never win it without B.” So he called me and we started working on it.
With “outrageous” the theme, the elements of judging included: swimsuit–me in a mesh two piece with picture hat walking my poodle Brian; musical–I played the Hallelujah Chorus on a toy piano in a Bishop’s miter while he sang; and cooking–Brian did a Julia Child impression making a sauce then called for his assistant. I appeared in an outfit of tiered spaghetti and he dumped the putanseca over my head.
Our finale was Jack & Jackie. He laid on the catafalque with his exposed brain matter (doctored tripe) while I stood behind him in the pink suit reciting poignant passages from the Inaugural Address. We won.
In 1979 Ted Kennedy was planning to run for president. For Halloween I went as “Joan, the next Kennedy widow.” I wore a sleek black suit and a blonde fall which looked sexy even though no one got who I was. Brian and I went over to the Castro to hang out for a while then decided to head back to Polk.
There were no cabs so I took off my stilettos and walked the two miles in my stocking feet. At the ‘N Touch we saw some kind of competition on stage and heard a big crowd. Brian said, “put your shoes on, we’re going in.”
A drag queen was hosting a contest and pulling audience members up on the stage. She didn’t have much presence and came across as a control freak more interested in rules and regulations than in entertaining. She spotted me and called me up.
I’ve been on stage many times and live for that indefinable moment I am now going to try to define. It feels like a surge where individuals in the audience meld into a monolith of energy you fight. You’re simultaneously petrified and fearless. It’s not an a+b=c thing that can be programmed. It just happens sometimes. And when it does it’s better than any drug I’ve ever done (which I’ll save for another post.)
It happened that night at the ‘N Touch and all I had to do was slither and goad. The crowd loved it. After I did my turn I crossed the stage for the “interview portion” of the competition. The MC clearly resented my popularity and I only made things worse by being flip with my answers.
I found Brian afterwards who said “you’re going to win this.” We stayed and had a drink as the MC’s dreadful patter brought down the room. The electricity I’d felt on stage quickly dissipated into general mulling and indifference.
Finally she started naming the winners, corny best this and best that awards. Then the countdown began with fifth runner-up. When she got to third the crowd had had enough. They started chanting and stomping in unison “We want blond-ie! We want blond-ie!” It got so loud it drowned out the hapless hostess.
Brian dashed to the Ma and Pa store next door and returned just as I was pronounced the winner. He had a couple of bottles of cheap bubbly that he shook violently. As I took my victory lap on stage I popped them to spray the audience. Everyone went wild. Except the MC who shouted, “That does it! Get off the stage! You’re out of the competition!”
So what. Who needs titles when you have hearts and minds.
In the mid-70’s after we had left Bloomington, Jim started a novella about me called Image of Veta. He never let me read it and said he never finished it. I did see it laying around once and it looked to be about 20 pages.
I thought it was lost but in searching for something else I found two pages of it.
This is what Jim wrote about those first few months (click to open).
For years San Francisco’s best kept secret was its summer weather comes in September and October. The tourists have since caught on. The Wal-Mart whales still show up in July in tank tops and cut offs. In the 56 degree fog they’re a sight that never ceases to amuse. But October is no longer our own private Idaho.
These warm Fall days always remind me of the Loma Prieta quake. With the World Series in town again those memories are reinforced.
In 1989 I left work at 5:00 hoping to get home in time for the opening game anthem, probably the most inspiring of all the anthem genres. I walked out, turned left on California Street and saw this cloud coming from the Fireman’s Fund building. I thought it was on fire so I crossed the street. In the middle of California I heard this horrid rumble beneath me. It was mortar dust not smoke coming from the brick building, we were having an earthquake.
I ran for cover under the metal canopy of a Wells Fargo ATM. I stood there with a dozen strangers waiting for it to end, focusing on the street light in front of me. It swayed endlessly in a 20 degree arc like an upside down pendulum. Then it stopped. We all stood there for a few seconds and I took off up the hill.
When I got to the top at Stockton and Pine I turned back to survey the scene. For all the chaos that was going on it seemed so still. The traffic lights were out but cars were observing the etiquette of four-way stops. The Financial District was being unusually un-type A, playing nice and cooperating.
I walked one more block and ran into a woman with a platinum helmet of hair. It was Ann Richards, the Texas State Treasurer. At the time she was best known for her keynote address at The Democratic Convention; a year later she would be elected Governor. It was just she and I alone on the corner of Pine and Powell. We looked at each other then moved on without saying a word.
When I got home my kitchen cabinet doors had all swung open and anything that had been on a south wall had fallen. Except for no power, the rest of the apartment was just as I left it.
I improvised a meal with my friends Jane and Walter from down the street. My gas stove seemed to be working so we risked another ham and eggs fire and grilled hot dogs. We didn’t think we could use the water. We drank our stashes of beer which we would have hated to lose to lack of refrigeration. They were supplemented with any other spirits we could find.
The next morning we walked around the ghost town of Union Square. There were no cell phones at the time and phone service was spotty so you had to kind of piece together what was going on with your friends. After 24 hours, unless you had heard someone was in trouble you assumed everyone was okay. There wasn’t much to do but wait and wonder.
Two days later we did hear of a friend whose house was on a slight 45 degree angle and had been condemned. Finally, something useful to do. David and I took his pick up and helped him move.
That night at 3 am I was awakened by my TV blaring and the lights coming on. It was over. Until the next time.
As the disease and the heavy doses of AZT ravaged Jim, it was to the point he could no longer manage. He was moved to the Garden Sullivan Hospice. The dementia was getting much worse so our visits were mainly me filling the air with words hoping he’d pick up on some of them. There were so many absurd hospice moments I wanted to laugh about with him but I couldn’t get through.
One afternoon I was there and a person in his ward had just died. Two scruffy women were wrapping the corpse in black plastic and tying it with rope not bothering to close the curtain for privacy. There was a grizzly earnestness to what they did, a 19th Century workhouse feel to the scene. “Call the fishmonger’s wife! She’ll do it.”
Another time he was thirsty. He reached for his water bottle but picked up the urine container instead. I quickly grabbed it, “no, no! not that one!” Did the attendants even notice these things? Why would they place them so close together? Maybe they were Hindu and considered this an accepted practice.
On one of my last visits I let him do the talking. He thought he was looking at someone’s family portrait and he went down the line explaining to me who each person was. When he got to the imaginary guy on the end he said, “now that one, that one’s fuckable.”
Jim would not have wanted a memorial service but one of his newer friends Rachel was insistent. She lived a few doors down in the Day of the Locust complex. They had become friendly because she wrote poetry too. She was a needy and sensitive lass though I’m not sure how well she wrote. But Jim could rise to the level of the competition. With someone talented like Randy Shilts he could be brutal, with the neighboring naif I’m sure he was encouraging. Most importantly, her visits had added routine to his dwindling personal life.
I kept putting her off hoping to wear her down. I knew she would make any service more about Rachel than Jim but she wouldn’t give up. So I finally relented and agreed on a Sunday afternoon in Golden Gate Park. We would meet in front of the DeYoung at 2:00.
I thought of calling in sick or just not showing up but I forced myself to go. I drug my feet the whole way. Leaving the apartment late, taking unnecessary transfers on Muni and walking very slowly the final blocks, I arrived at 2:25 hoping it would be over. They were all waiting for me on the steps. We decided to go sit in a grove over to the right of the museum
I didn’t know any of the ten people there except his artist friend Steve who I liked. We engaged in light conversation as we walked towards the trees. In the distance there was a hippie minstrel playing guitar and singing Imagine. A nice coincidence even if it was a bit hackneyed. Jim would have liked the live music echoing in the bandshell amphitheatre. As I continued chatting with Steve I thought ‘wait a minute, that’s not Imagine, it’s Wild Horses.’ I felt a jolt. The song was not that popular, no one but the Stones ever sang it and even they rarely performed it. But now?
After 1968 closed, Jim moved out and we didn’t see much of each other for five years. We made a couple attempts at reconciliation, like when Marilyn was in town, but we didn’t really speak. Then in 1985 he called and told me he had AIDS. It was not a time for holding grudges, I became part of his life again.
I knew his temper and feistiness would play to his advantage. Dr. Conant, who was my doctor before the crisis began who became a leading AIDS expert, told me the ones who seemed to fare best were those filled with piss and vinegar.
Jim’s therapist advised him to join a support group which he resented. At one meeting he sauntered in 20 minutes late with an open can of Bud. In her best touchy feely tone the leader said, “now Jim, I think you know what you’re doing could be considered an act of hostility.”
Over those five years we were apart Jim had hung out mostly with the leather crowd south of Market. He had a string of affairs including one with the author Randy Shilts. I’m guessing the competitiveness over writing must have lead to some interesting resolution in the bedroom. He felt Randy was wasting his talent on his newspaper column and once asked him, “so you’re content just writing ad copy for Macy’s?”
One Saturday night during our estrangement we ran into each other at Febe’s on Folsom Street. It was the oldest leather bar in the City and Jim’s favorite hangout. I was feeling the Cape Cods I’d had at the Stud a couple doors down and started running off at the mouth about how Aretha’s elaborate stylizations were ruining her music. Jim was laughing very hard, either because what I said was funny or because he was nervous and I was embarrassing him in front of his friends. That attempted reconciliation didn’t go very far.
The artist Chuck Arnett was one of the co-owners of Febe’s and had done several murals south of Market. He had befriended Jim and his artwork inspired him to write a play, Circle of the Serpent. It concerned a motley group of gay men whose disperate lives intersected in a dive bar. Kind of an Edward Albee version of Cheers. This time Jim was content just to be the playwright and left the production and direction to others. It was staged upstairs at the Ambush and it had a much better result than 1968.
As Jim’s energy continued to fade, it surprised me what he could accomplish with only two or three good hours a day. Besides writing the play, he maintained an extensive journal, and moved himself to three different apartments before finally ending up in one of those “Day of the Locust” U-shaped buildings in Oakland.
I went to see him at Kaiser when he had a bout of pneumocystis. As I watched him struggle to breathe I wondered if my visits did any good and if his other friends ever came to see him.
I’d only been there ten minutes when he was getting drowsy. I decided to make it a short stay. His back was to the door so he couldn’t see people entering or leaving. I tiptoed out, got to the door when he bolted upright and yelled “Chris!” He thought he was alone. I sat back down and waited until the meds knocked him out.
No one took better care of their own or raised more money than the leather community in response to AIDS. But there remained a segment obsessed with sex and drugs. If you were not available meat you were not of much use. I got the feeling that’s who Jim hung out with since I never met any of those friends.
The City is abuzz with another World Series and it is fun to be here when that happens. I’ve been a baseball fan since Mazeroski’s home run broke my 10 year old heart. The national past time of my youth, however, probably doesn’t even beat out NASCAR these days. And Norman Rockwell images of little Johnny scrounging together $2 for bleacher seats have been replaced by ballparks filled with corporate expense accounts.
Today Johnny probably couldn’t afford the $82 seats, $50 parking, $19 crab cakes and $14 beers (if there is no pouilly fuisse to compliment the fish). And don’t forget the tiny container of flaccid garlic fries ($7). Those are regular season prices, who knows what they’re gouging fans for in the postseason.
I still enjoy the game though and will hang on every pitch in the Series. But because I cut the cable last spring I can’t watch it on TV (I was tired of paying $180 a month just for Fashion Police.) I will follow it on Yahoo Sports.
Yahoo’s primitive feed tells the story with minimal text and graphics. I like the moments when I hear the neighbors yell then ten seconds later I read what all the commotion was about. On the night they won the pennant I could tell from the noise on the street they’d done it. But it took almost 20 seconds before I read about Ishikawa’s walk off homer.
It’s made me realize that instant information really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It also reminds me of the ’85 season when they lost 100 games and I first became a Giants fan. Laid up with a bum ankle that summer, it was just the radio, the sparse play by play of Hank Greenwald, and my imagination.
Not having a TV or radio means I’ll miss the incessant analysis of Krick and Krup during the Series. It also means I can tune out the treacly human interest garbage that’s endemic in sports broadcasting.
The worst schmaltz offenders are the college announcers, like their pandering on the Penn State child molestation case. They are obsessed with the poor football players who are being penalized, “through no fault of their own,” because of the sanctions on their school. “No fault” other than that they chose a corrupt program that had been under suspicion for years.
They want us to feel bad for this bunch of late teen frat boys having the time of their life boozing and fornicating on campus. Sadly, they are being denied the opportunity to play a game. No mention on how we’re supposed to feel for the group of pubescent boys sexually molested by a member of the coaching staff. They carry a lifetime of emotional scars because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and ABC Sports looked the other way in support of a winning program and higher ratings.
When one of Bob Knight’s players was praising Jesus after a big win, proclaiming it God’s will, the Coach observed, “then God must have wanted the other team to lose.” If we were to adapt Knight’s thinking there is probably another side to the inspirational death interview that is a mainstay of sports programming.
“So your Dad recently died, how has that affected you?”
“Hasn’t really. He was a nasty drunk. Abusive to my Mom and us kids. Shot my dog on Christmas once.”
“Really? What’d he die of?”
“Cirrhosis. It was a slow, agonizing death. We watched him writhe in pain those final months. The screaming and obnoxious demands. Could barely stand to be around the jerk. We were all kind of relieved when it was over.”
“So no parting words from him, nothing inspiring to take away from it?”
“Wow. Sounds like a pretty selfish guy, thinking only of himself.”
“Looks like your record number of interceptions and poor performance this season can be attributed to your Dad’s cowardly death.”
“Only thing I can think of.”
“Hang in there, maybe someone you’re closer to will kick soon and get you back on track.”
When my upstairs neighbor Jim was in the final stages of moving out last June we decided we couldn’t ignore the store-room we shared downstairs any longer. We spent an evening pulling out stuff, laughing and tossing. And marveling at a couple of discoveries we made like his Tahitian grog bowl and this picture of me.
Mark and Charley did this as the centerfold for the 1968 program. I had the original framed with all the printers marks intact and gave it to my friend Brian. He wanted to redo it and glam it up, take off the markings and put it in a glitzier frame. I wouldn’t let him. I liked exposing the process.
As natural as the image may seem, there’s a lot that goes into making a legend. It’s not as easy as it looks.