Do They Know It’s Christmas?

In Palm Springs, the answer is yes.

I spent the Yule with Daryl and David and I’d like to think I had a hand in getting their trees decorated. But then I like to think a lot of things.

My visit in November was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of decorating. It took them another three and a half weeks to finish.

***

The Last Temptation of Me

Happy Christmas Y’all

Nothing says Christmas more than splashes of vibrant color.  So here are some highlights from the portraits Charley Brown did in the early 1980’s.

A couple of them were featured in the New Museum exhibition, Extended Sensibilities, held in October 1982.

Enjoy the yule. (p.s. all artwork used without permission.)

 

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Office Parties

I'm a huge believer in natural poses
Cocktails on the corporate dime

My road to corporate America began in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. I got a job as a clerk there and after a few months was transferred to their law library.

The librarian was a wiry little leather queen named Bob. He lived his sex life 24/7 and made no attempt to filter private affairs out of workplace conversation. He could just as easily say “the 27 Bryant was 15 minutes late this morning” as “I had a fist up my ass last night.”

The library was a big, open room lined with books where the attorneys sat and read. While I’d be shelving or checking in periodicals, Bob would be on the phone at his desk gossiping about his latest orgy or making arrangements for the next one.  For everyone to hear.

One time he was talking to a friend about how he’d blacked out the night before. He’d failed to wear the proper protective equipment as he mixed up a batch of homemade poppers in the bathtub.

Bob took me under his wing and wanted me to succeed. He told me the only way I’d make any money was to get into the corporate sector. I started going to the monthly law librarian lunches with him. There I made connections.

Cocktails on the corporate dime
I’m a huge believer in natural poses

I ended up at a prestigious international law firm where I worked for 30 years. It was like being part of a family, a family who retained the services of Dr. Kervorkian when elderly overhead got in the way of partner profits.

Before the bean counters took over, the office Christmas Parties were truly exercises in 1980’s corporate excess. Tons of food and liquor, live music, great venues and everyone in their finest.

Of course “finest” was a relative term when it came to the secretaries from the outlying suburbs. They made such a production of their Dynasty dresses, Flock of Seagulls hair do’s and heels they could barely balance in. It was painful to watch their discomfort.

They seemed to think if they dressed in this special way there was a way they had to act too. And they weren’t sure what that was. It’s a feeling I got over the first time I was in drag: it’s a look, it’s not who you are.

I actually felt sorry for them being so self-conscious. Thankfully, their unease was only temporary and natural instincts soon prevailed. You’d hear the urgent rustle of puffed qiana as they spotted the mounds of cocktail shrimp and made a beeline for Seafood Island.

The midnight rambler; everybody got to go
The midnight rambler; everybody got to go

Not many of my friends were interested in attending office parties with me but I could always get David to go. One of the many things I loved about partying with him was he knew how to make an exit. He’d just say “let’s go” and we’d vanish. No seeking out the host for thank you’s or long good-byes to friends. We were there and then we were gone.

One year at the Christmas Party we made a swift exit and decided to head to the Castro. We’d had cocktails and qualudes so trying to recall the drive over in the rain was a blur of disparate images: cement mixers, white-hot lights, piles of sand bags, windshield wipers working overtime, City Hall golden dome, and a thud.

Miraculously, we found parking right in front of the Midnight Sun (or at least we thought it was a spot). We got out of the pink and white Nash Rambler and noticed it was covered with sand. Except for the path of the wipers, it was completely coated in a layer of silt.

David and I stood there not knowing what had happened. So we just laughed and went into the Sun for a nightcap.

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Life of the Egg Nog Party

In 1971 egg nog was something Richard Nixon and distinguished diplomats sipped at Georgetown parties. Not drug addled, wafer thin, gay hippie boys in Bloomington, Indiana.  That contradiction alone was enough to inspire my first big Christmas party.

The egg nog parties became an annual tradition. The first two were in Bloomington then five more after I moved to San Francisco. The last one was held in 1977 at a friend’s basement shop on Commercial Street in Chinatown. Nog was made available but also lots of champagne. So I rented about 8 dozen coupe glasses from Abbey Rents. By the end of the evening only one dozen remained.

It was the height of the punk era and destruction was the name of the game. Someone started it innocently by accidentally dropping their glass in the corner of the stairway. It was answered with a couple more throws into the corner. Soon it was a barrage, a constant din of shattering glass as every available coupe was hurled onto the pile. When no more glasses could be found, empty bottles were bounced off the walls.

I was left to clean up this heap of broken glass and repair the divots that had been taken out of the plaster. No dummy, I realized I’d lost my deposit on the glasses. But it had been entertaining so I rationalized it was cheaper than hiring a band.

Still, I didn’t have the courage to face Abbey Rents and asked David to take the survivors back on Monday. Even he, who can talk himself out of any situation, was at a loss. “What do I tell them?”

“Just say the buffet table collapsed.”

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John’s Grill

At the Kremlin, 1985. I thought it would be great kitsch to have the photo on those tacky Walgreens xmas cards. The sad thing was some of my friends thought I was trying to be poignant.
The Kremlin during the Cold War, 1985. I thought it great kitsch to put this on tacky Walgreen’s prefab cards. Sadly, some of my friends thought I was trying to be poignant.

It’s hard to convey to those who didn’t live through the 1970’s what the counterculture was like and the residue it left behind. It wasn’t really as strident or militant as anti-liberal revisionists would have you believe today (damn that Hanoi Jane.)  There was just an overall rejection of middle class, nuclear family values and religious doctrine that had never been allowed to be questioned. Basically, we were blocking out the mainstream.

Life was subterranean and we made our own rules. Until it came to the holidays. We weren’t about to squander a day off and a chance to party.

Be it Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Valentines or Arbor Day, the resulting fetes were pretty much the same. Only the decor changed. Virgin births and body resurrections were left to others while we focused on bacchanals that were a hell of a lot of fun and completely devoid of meaning.

It was with this tongue in cheek attitude that Kathy and I began our annual Christmas date. In 1977 I had my first real private sector job and we planned to meet after work. That alone had many of my friends thinking it was a goof. Me? In corporate America?

Those friends also thought it kind of dumb that we were getting together for something so mundane as looking at decorations and shopping. Our generation didn’t do that. But really it was just an excuse to take a qualude and have a martini. We enjoyed that first date so much we repeated it the next few Christmases.

Our routine was to meet in front of Frank Moore’s on Union Square because we both loved his shoes (Kathy: his cuban heels; me: his vintage stilettos).  We’d drop the lude then ooo and aah at the department store windows. When it was time for drinks and dinner we mock-honored tradition by choosing that film noir institution, John’s Grill.

As our stomachs matured and lost their cast iron lining, we couldn’t take John’s cooking after those first few years. But that didn’t stop us from popping in for a cocktail before heading off to dinner somewhere else. Which we’ve done every year except one.

Kathy moved to Los Angeles and was not in town for our date in 1984. Her life there was nothing but trouble: with her relationship, with her job, with housing, with her general well-being. She had problems. After a year she moved back to San Francisco.

I tried to be conciliatory and supportive when she returned but I felt compelled to point out that misfortune might not have befallen her had she not skipped the annual date. Although still not one for immaculate conceptions, I’m not above an occasional  mystery curse.

Last night we had our annual drink at John’s and, for the first time ever, cameras were allowed on the date. There’s a possibility that one or both of us may not be living in San Francisco next Christmas but we’ve vowed not to let tradition die after only 37 years. Neither of us can afford another 1985.

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The complete saga, From the Beginning

Life at Christmastime on Jones Street

Actually there has not been much yule life in the Jones Street apartment since the mid-1970’s.  After David and Muni moved out next door, then Jeffrey, I was here by myself. And I didn’t need more than a Barbara Mandrel Christmas Special to get me in a festive mood.

I didn’t put much energy into San Francisco Christmases because I went home to Indiana every year. And there I overdid it. Here is a video tour of the Hoosier residence from a couple years ago. It’s a little long, 8 minutes, but packed with holiday charm.

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The complete saga, From the Beginning

From Our House to Yours

Season's Greetings. The landlord thought that posting this xeroxed piece of paper would solve the homeless and trash problem once and for all.
Season’s Greetings. The landlord thought that posting this xeroxed piece of paper would solve the homeless and trash problem.

Probably the most difficult thing we do this time of year is decide which photo to use on our holiday greeting cards. I am blessed to have so many to choose from this Christmas.

It has been exactly one year since our landlords Vince Young, Leslie Young, and the Young Family Trust dba as 946 Jones LLC tried to evict my upstairs neighbor Jim and me. It was an owner move in eviction which was illegal because I was a senior.

My landlords and their counsel knew this but, as with most eviction profiteers who count on people not knowing their rights, sometimes the intimidation alone is enough to get someone out. When I officially notified them of my protected status they withdrew those evictions.

They then said that they “had no choice” but to evict everyone in the building under the Ellis Act. Vince Young wanted the building to move in his elderly father, his caretakers and other assorted cousins and relatives.  He told the other tenants he had to do the Ellis evictions because I had failed to cooperate in the first round. Nice touch blaming me for his greed.

Despite the existence of five empty units, over the last year there have been no signs of Vince Young, Leslie Young or any other assorted Youngs moving in. Nor has there been any construction on the new elevator he said they would be installing to get the father to his third floor unit.

My guess is the elevator isn’t in yet because the construction workers couldn’t get their equipment past the garbage in the doorway.


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The complete saga, From the Beginning

Life with the Boys of Williams-Sonoma

Before I came out in 1971 I had no idea what life as a gay man would be like. There were no clues in the media or popular culture for me. I thought I’d just be lumped together with child molesters, rapists and social deviants–much the way the Republican Party still thinks today.

Then I came out and immediately met other kids who were intelligent, attractive, funny and normal. It blew my mind (as we were wont to say).  There was a collective sense that we’d been duped by society and there was nothing wrong with who we were. And we let the world know it.

Not everyone took such a direct approach and during the 70’s there was still a Golden Arches defensiveness to it all. An attempt to achieve strength in numbers and coax people to come out.  And a sense of defeat when someone who couldn’t handle it went back in the closet or got married.

Thankfully, that is all behind us and today we are probably on a pace to outstrip McDonalds. I alone can proudly claim over one billion served.

At Williams-Sonoma in 1975 it was such a relief to have a job surrounded by my kind. A real life situation where being gay was not an issue to discuss but a reason to party.

We got paid every Friday and would head across the street to the Starlight Room at the top of the Sir Francis Drake. There we would take advantage of their daily doubles (two for one cocktails) and spent most of our paychecks.

In nicer weather we’d take the ferry over to Sausalito. We drank in the hotel bar and would have so much fun we’d miss the last boat back to the City. Then we had to either figure out nonexistent public transportation, take an expensive cab ride, or find an overnight host. None of those options was easy in the sleepy fishing village.

Our most extravagant outing was a weekend pool party in Sonoma. It was so exotic and undiscovered at the time. Wine country was still a retreat for the locals and had yet to be Disneyfied for the rest of the world.

 

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Male Order Fulfillment

Every few Christmaes I still purchase one. No abnormal fragrances to report.

During Christmas in 1975 Mark got a job as supervisor with Williams-Sonoma’s burgeoning mail order business. Chuck Williams had started his Sonoma kitchen supply/hardware store in the late 1950’s then opened a second store in the City. In the early 70’s he began a holiday catalog that steadily grew in popularity.

The mail order operation had been seasonal up until then but they were making plans to go year round. Mark was in charge of running it from the basement of Mike Sharp’s antique store. Mr. Sharp was Chuck Williams’ partner and their stores were just a few doors apart on Sutter Street.

With Mark’s unerring eye for talent the staff was almost entirely gay men. And when he saw there was piecework involved he immediately thought of me.

.

Mark supervising. Wondering what the fuck I was doing with a camera when I was supposed to be working.

The basement working conditions were primitive to say the least and, with the exception of downtown Bangladesh, I doubt if they would pass any governmental inspections today. But none of us really cared. We were happy to have a paycheck to fuel our partying and pay the rent (in that order).

Many holiday catalog traditions began in that basement, most notably the bay leaf wreaths. Mr. Williams had a supply of California bay leaf branches stashed on the small brick patio behind the building. We started every morning by counting the number of orders for the day then cut the branches and tied them up to form the wreaths. They had to be shipped fresh so they were always the first things to go out.

One day in the middle of our morning handicrafts someone noticed an aroma that was not bay laurel. We all agreed something was wrong and went to check our patio supply. Somebody’s dog had pissed all over our bay leaves. Wreath production took a hit that day though, regrettably, some may have slipped out to a few Beverly Hills grandees before we could catch them.

Our ringer for the EEOC. Ginny was the only female on the basement staff.

In 1975 Williams-Sonoma was not well-known and had a small, selective following. Many were from Hollywood and we would call out famous names as we packaged items for them. One was for Betty White who ordered a Valrhona slab. Our imaginations ran wild wondering what that chocolate would become in the hands of Sue Ann Nivens, The Happy Homemaker.

Celebrity chefs were still a decade away but Mr. Williams knew all the culinary stars of the day. People like Elizabeth David and Julia Child were constantly dropping into his store. When James Beard came to town he made a point to visit the mail order operation daily.

Mr. Beard was a huge, rotund man who would slowly negotiate the handful of basements steps to the landing where he would plop down to entertain us. From his perch he chatted us up as he ogled the young male flesh below.

He was charming and funny as he told stories of Manhattan back in the day. He’d seen Laurence Olivier on stage in the 1930’s and described how beautiful he was. He said the audience had been packed with gay men “and there wasn’t a dry seat in the house.”

James Beard’s eye candy. Fellow staff members at my Holiday Egg Nog party.

The catalog had a lot of good things in it but contained some silly ones too. Like “Le Stop,” a metal round you placed in a pan to prevent things from boiling over. Whatever happened to just watching it? (Note to self: patent gadget called “Le Watching.”)

To relieve our tedium we gave people nicknames based on catalog items. The haughty Marketing Director upstairs was “Corn Dolly.” Our name for James Beard was “The Rolling Mincer.”

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