Go Ahead and Call It Frisco, What the Hell Do I Care

The avant garde does not always age so well.
The avant garde does not always age so well.

The problem with being part of any vanguard is that, if you do your job properly, there’s eventually no van to guard. But the world doesn’t owe you a living for getting it right. Excellent instincts should be reward enough. Still, it is hard to watch what is happening to this city.

In the beginning the Beats begat the Free Speech Movement which begat Haight Ashbury which begat The Castro which begat the AIDS Crisis which begat the Y2K bubble that burst which begat communal non-office office space. Somehow, the spirit has changed. If history teaches millennials anything it’s that a CEO telling you something is cool usually means it isn’t.

In retrospect, my generation happened upon a gold mine when the bourgeoisie fled the City for the pre-fab dry wall and concrete driveways of the suburbs. What they left behind were Victorians and pre-war apartment buildings that were pretty much intact. Though we did not have the money to decorate them properly there was still something dramatic about having an India print covered mattress on the floor under a 12 foot ceiling.

Today’s influx also sees the value of these properties but it’s more of the investment opportunity kind. They no more than move in than they start waiting for the opportune moment to flip. We were just looking for a place to live.

My friend Thom always had a novel take on things like going for walks after a big storm because the air smelled clean. When he found a place in Hayes Valley, however, I thought he was nuts.

In the 1980s it was a neighborhood of abandoned store fronts, junk stores, drug dealers, muggings and police harassment. Some could see the potential, like the Punks and Goths, but nothing seemed to make a go of it over there. I had friends who opened an apparel store on Hayes called Dog Meat that only lasted a few months.

When I first visited Thom’s apartment I could see the appeal. High ceilings, well proportioned rooms, crown molding, and plenty of light from the rounded windows in the turret. It was a wonderful apartment. Getting to and from it was the issue.

Thom was hassled daily, mocked and yelled at on the street. He tuned it out and thrived on the neighborhood telling me he once bought some crack and smoked it with a guy in an alley. He just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  (And no, he did not become an addict.)

One night walking home after the bar closed he was mugged. They took everything on him and beat him badly. The police responded but nothing ever came of it. When I saw him a few days later he was severely bruised, his eye was swollen shut, and he was still stitched and bandaged up.

Thom didn’t walk home late at night after that but neither did he move out. I think of his face today when I’m walking down Hayes Street with my $5 scoop of fast frozen ice cream, admiring $95 Japanese baby booties in the window.

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Tina and the Spoken Word

My stylized version of Tina, 1981. Probably the only thing we had in common was that fringe flew.
My stylized version of Tina, 1981. Probably the only thing we had in common was that fringe flew.

Gary and I were friends in Bloomington and we both moved to San Francisco about the same time. He told me recently that one of the reasons he moved here was to see good music. It wasn’t the reason I moved but in retrospect it has been one of the great benefits. I’ve attended hundreds of performances over the last 40 years.

Among the best was Patti Smith in 1976. It was my first month in this apartment and she was on my block, at the Boarding House around the corner on Bush Street. It was torn down in 1980 so they could put up luxury condos (sound familiar?) I was also at Winterland for the Sex Pistols the night of “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated.”

Along those lines and two decades later I saw Loretta Lynn in Santa Rosa. She had a cold and did the whole set seated in a chair. At one point she talked to the audience and apologized, “I’m just sorry you folks had to pay to see this.”

One of the most startling performances I ever saw was Tina Turner at the Old Waldorf around 1979. I was going to say electrifying but she’s always that. She went well beyond her norm that night.

She was in her fallow period, after Ike but before Private Dancer, and she was playing smaller clubs to pay off her debts. I was doing my part to keep her name before the public by performing her numbers like Heard it Through the Grapevine (from her 1969 Live at Basin Street West) or Contact High (from Come Together). They were kind of obscure, not sure how much help I really was.

At the Old Waldorf she did Proud Mary. The 15 second introductory speech on the record became a three minute (pleasurable) ordeal in person. Her basic premise was “I know what you want but I’m not giving it to you.” It went on and on, she wouldn’t let go. I’ve never seen a crowd, which was frothing at the mouth, teased and controlled like that.

That version of Mary is in this clip from 1982. It’s a couple of years later so the patter sounds a little more set, not raw and fresh like the night I was 20 feet from her. The clip captures her wonderfully incongruous, Bell’s Palsy facial expressions. What it doesn’t capture is the tension that was in that room. Everyone wanted the big payoff, the uptempo finish and the dancing. Like a skilled dominatrix she edged us for an eternity.

One of the few embarrassments in Tina’s career was a 1960’s single called A Letter from Tina. It’s a junior high school-ish recitative about how much her man means to her. She is completely devoted and acknowledges that when things go wrong it’s her fault because she hasn’t taken the time to understand him completely. Obviously it was written by Ike.

Some of my favorite moments are the awkward transition from spoken to sung verse in “you control every movement.” It could have been a commercial for Ex-Lax. Then she has trouble with the word heartily in “I trust you heartily.” It sounds like “I trust you hardly” which may have been a subliminal message to her husband. Finally there’s the sign off, “yours, lifetime.” You know she means it.

If your heart has a warmth for the perverse like mine does, please click this link for A Letter from Tina. She can make even bad material memorable.

(p.s. I thought of Tina’s Letter because I had to write one to my landlord about the entry system not working and started wondering if the art of correspondence was dead. It took everything I had not to end my letter “Yours, lifetime.”)

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The Great Un-Quashed

 

The old Hall of Justice on Kearney Street: the stuff of childhood fantasies.
The old Hall of Justice on Kearney Street: the stuff of childhood fantasies.

My Motion has been denied. We did not achieve Quash.

I spoke to my attorney on Friday and Judge Ronald Quidachy ruled against us on all of our issues. Some of them have been raised in other cases that are still being appealed. So things could change if the Appellate Division reverses one of them. And we will be filing our own appeal as well. The battle is lost, the war goes on.

In the 1950’s there was a television show called Line-Up that was the San Francisco answer to LA’s Dragnet. The reruns were recycled in the 60’s as San Francisco Beat. I don’t remember too much about the shows other than the semicircular windows. They served as the back drop for the office full of gum shoes hammering away on Royal typewriters in a Pall Mall haze.

Those arched windows made an indelible impression on me. They were huge and looked like they went to the floor. How cool to work in such a dramatic setting. I was hoping for such an office when I went to work for the San Francisco District Attorney in the 1970’s. Alas, all the new Hall of Justice could offer was an interior closet with no natural light.

My job as clerk was to accompany the Assistant DA to Municipal Court every morning. In the afternoons I would wait for delivery of the next morning’s docket, tractor-fed printouts two feet wide and weighing about five pounds. I would pull the files for the few cases that had them. Most only had the original police report which wasn’t of much use .

There could be 200 or more cases called every morning and we went through them at a blistering pace. 90% were answered with “continuance” “so stipulated” or “no objection.” A handful required an appearance by the defendant that could last a couple of minutes. When I saw them coming on the list I would slide the file over to the DA for her to quickly review–probably for the first time.

My moment to shine came when someone failed to appear. If they were on probation I would point to the far right column. The DA would rise to say “Bench Warrant.” I felt so empowered. I wasn’t exactly an Officer of the Court because I’m not an attorney but I was probably functioning on the Meter Maid level. Despite this power surge, I really hated putting people in jail.

I thought the proceedings were intentionally abstruse to keep the Court bureaucracy humming. Sometimes I just wanted to tell the defendant to fill out Form 5A-j and they’d be in the clear. The judge could have easily said the same thing. Instead he would hound the defendant about not having proper representation and not to come back without it. I guess if a dine and dash goes horribly wrong you need someone well versed in 5A-j law to keep you out of the electric chair.

This employment mill feeling existed amongst the attorneys as well. They all attended the same law schools and were intimately familiar with each others’ firms. And the firm the judge came from. They depended on each other for their livelihood. To have an adversarial system you need two sides so, although the money side almost always wins, occasionally the plebeians prevail to keep the game going.

I also think it’s why so much legislation is vaguely or poorly written. It gives the attorneys something to argue about.

In the pursuit of justice and keeping the legal profession afloat I hope the courts throw a little of that nuance juju my way.

***

The Eviction Story

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

 

Halston Wept

The Derby Hats were nothing Roy would have produced in his Bergdorf salon but in the land of Walmart shoppers you have to give them credit for trying. And I do.

(Click any photo to open slide show.)

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When You’re Sitting Back in Your Rose Pink Cadillac

Belt is vintage Gucci. Shirt by Prada; suit by Jil Sander; tie based on Degas. Styled by me.
Belt is vintage Gucci. Shirt by Prada; suit by Jil Sander; tie based on Degas. Styled by me.

My earlier misgivings aside, I was able to accept my friend’s invitation and make a last-minute trip to the Kentucky Derby. I didn’t have a winner in the Derby but, in an earlier race, my trifecta wager that included Judy the Beauty paid nicely.

The Kentucky Derby is probably the only major sporting event that goes from sweetly sentimental to louche abandon in five minutes or less. There’s not a dry eye or a lumpless throat in the grandstands when they sing “My Old Kentucky Home.” Then, a couple of minutes later, it’s a sea of pumped fists and a chorus of drunken “fuck yeas!” as the winner crosses the finish line.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have attended a handful of Derby’s and I’ve always worn my lucky Gucci belt. I bought it in 1973 when their only US store was in Manhattan. It cost me two months rent but I had to have it.

I’d only worn it once or twice until 2001 when I attended my first Derby. Monarchos was the winner that year and I had him. (As a bet, Jeez). I’ve since worn it to every Derby I’ve been to.

Which should serve as a good lesson to you kids out there: sound fashion investments pay life-long dividends.

Next: Halston Wept
Previous: Parallel Universes
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