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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The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com

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.

Next: Happy Christmas Y’all
Previous: Life of the Egg Nog Party
The complete saga, From the Beginning

Gimme Danger Little Stranger

My first drag age 6. I was pissed I didn't get to be Zorro. Until I learned I got to wear make-up. I never looked back.
My first drag, age 6. I was pissed I didn’t get to be Zorro. Until I learned I got to wear make-up. I never looked back.

The Halloween night I won the contest at the ‘N Touch I stumbled home at 2 a.m. I could hear my roommate snoring so I tiptoed down the hall to my room.

I was half undressed when I heard someone stirring. This cute little Aussie boy opened my door wearing just underwear and a smile. Apparently roomie had passed out mid-coitus and Down Under had been left unfulfilled. We started making out and fell into bed.

As I pulled off the rest of my clothes he said, “leave the pantyhose on.”

I said, “nah, I’m not really into that.”

He immediately asked, “can I wear them?”

I said, “sure.” A good time was had by all.

Attitudes toward drag were changing. Ten years before I had started out innocently enough as an androgynous waif trying to look like Mick. It shocked the Indiana locals. That look was augmented when my friends and I began to mock old school drag.

The older queens’ goal in drag was to pass. My generation’s was to challenge. Old school gays were often filled with self loathing and seemed to accept that violence was a necessary evil in or out of drag. My friends and I were having none of that.

One of my all-time favorites. We put my hair up into an impromptu French roll for Mark's birthday.
One of my all-time favorites. We put my hair up into an impromptu French roll for Mark’s birthday.

There were always stories of gay men being beaten up and, in particular, a carload of drag queens being shot at coming out of the Waffle House late one night. (Bloomington is 20 miles from the home of Indiana’s KKK.)

I was assaulted one afternoon just walking down the street. Wearing appropriate (for me) mid-day attire, a car of frat boys sped by calling me names and hurling a pumpkin at me. I was too quick, they missed.

What had been shocking in Bloomington was not so much in San Francisco. Charles Pierce, Goldie Glitter and the Cockettes had the local population somewhat inured. In the mid-70s drag’s new antagonist became the gay community itself.

As the gay rights movement became more middle class there was a feeling that male femininity needed to be purged from the image. Drag queens gave gay people a bad name.

The faux-butch lumberjack look became the antidote to the queeny hair dresser stereotype. This hyper-masculine uniform looked good. Until the guy opened his mouth.

One last drag, 1995. Backstage at the Rococo Club waiting to get dressed.
The last drag, 1995. Backstage at the Rococo Club waiting to get dressed.

In 1976 I was invited to an A-list party in Pacific Heights for someone leaving to study at the Comedie Francaise. It was going to be a pretentious and boring affair which I didn’t want to attend.  The dress code would be strictly Macy’s Lifestyle.

But I was friends of the host and had no choice.  I hadn’t planned on drag but at the last-minute I decided to act out and slapped on eyeliner,  some Red Red, a wig and a dress. I was a disheveled but appealing  mess. My signature look.

My arrival was like Scarlet at Miss Melly’s birthday, the entire room was in stunned silence. This was not the place for that.

In a kill or be killed moment I spotted a friend at the far end of the room. I calmly walked towards him ignoring all the eyes that were on me. Ernie greeted me with a big bear hug. Slowly the party warmed up again.

An hour later the ice had melted in the room and in the bourbon. A drunk hunk in his Castro flannel shirt, hiking boots and handlebar moustache cornered me. With a sense of urgency he asked, “What size are those heels? A 10? I think I can fit into them.”

My party for the Library's Gay & Lesbian Center raised $5,000.
My party for the Library’s Gay & Lesbian Center raised $5,000.

Five years after that I was in the Midnight Sun talking to this cute kid 10 years younger than me. He was so excited, he’d just come up with a drag name and was getting ready to dress up for the first time. Drag had become an accepted gay rite of passage.

I held a few drag parties in the 80’s but AIDS took its toll on my mailing list. And my closest friends. I had done best when I was someone’s muse but, truth be told, I was never quite sure what I was doing. It wasn’t as much fun on my own.

The torch had been passed to RuPaul’s generation. Miss Paul took that flame and turned it into an oil rig fire.

Today I love watching Drag Race and queens like Alaska Thunderfuck (who I adore and want to marry. Or at least boink.) I wasn’t as accomplished as they are at producing a look but I’m satisfied with what I did.

I did drag when drag was dangerous.

Next: Reviving a Classic
Previous: Life of Giving Thanks
The complete saga, From the Beginning

 

The Curse

My vintage midriff tee. Unofficial and unlicensed by the NFL. The best kind.
My vintage midriff tee. Unofficial and unlicensed, the best kind.

I was back east and couldn’t attend the World Series parade on Friday. I’m extremely bummed I missed my shot at a pair of Mad Bum jockeys.

These championship celebrations always remind me of the best one: the first Super Bowl win. What helped make that one so great was, after years of mediocrity or worse, it was so unexpected.

I watched halfheartedly the first part of that season since the Niners always fizzled out in the end. As they kept winning I started talking them up to David on our Sunday evening trips to the Midnight Sun. He didn’t care about sports but as momentum built he sensed a moment in history and became a fan.

After the Clark catch we wondered where we would watch the Super Bowl. We wanted to be out in public but the only gay venue with large screen television was the Sun. Gay men were apathetic sports fans at the time, we weren’t sure they’d even show it.  We took our chances and went over to the Castro at halftime. It was on and there was a decent crowd.

We drank Cape Cods because the color matched the Niner’s uniforms. After the thrilling victory David and I went out into the street. The crowd of 50 began to grow exponentially. We went into the package liquor store for a pint of Hennessy, then into the Star Pharmacy for all the value packs of toilet paper we could carry. We started tp-ing the intersection. Soon the mob caught on and every available roll in the Castro was hanging on the cross-wires at 18th.

The crowd was now thousands deep. Cars couldn’t get through and Muni, though a little more persistent, gave up too. The driver on the last bus just stopped. He emptied everyone off, locked the doors and abandoned the vehicle.

The vacated bus was a challenge I couldn’t resist.  I squeezed through the pneumatic doors and started dancing alone up and down the aisle. The crowd rocked it back and forth. I sat at the controls and got the wipers going. Then the lights flashing and plenty of horn. I realized it was electric and didn’t need a key so I started it and put it in gear. It lunged about 2 feet. I thought “danger zone: drunk, thousands of people, heavy equipment–not good.” I shut it off, opened the doors and the masses streamed on.

David and I went on to other neighborhood celebrations like the bonfires in the Mission and the Broadway crowd in North Beach. It was such an odd feeling,  kids who would have beaten me up any other day of the year were high fiving and hugging me that night. The next morning we each woke up with one of those aluminum crowd control barricades in our apartments. We weren’t sure how they got there.

David. The best PR in town.
David. The best PR in town.

We told our friends about our wild night. David’s version, however, had more legs since he emphasized I “stole” a Muni bus. So effective was he that 20 years later people still asked me, “did you really steal that bus?” As if I’d taken it on the 49 mile scenic drive. I knew better than to trample on a good image, I would just shrug and smile.

Last year I finally asked David what he’d said. He replied sheepishly, “oh, that you drove it to the end of the block.”

***

I once told my friend Carl about my game day superstitions. Not watching a batter and the guy would get a clutch hit. Scrubbing the bathroom and the Niners would pull out a last-minute victory. He was skeptical, “you really think you have that much power?” Yes, I think I do.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 42 years. Before I moved here neither the (San Francisco) Giants nor the 49ers had ever won a championship. In the past four decades we’ve won 5 Super Bowls and 3 World Series. If I lose my apartment in the City and am forced to move away, well………

Next: C’mon Ride That Booty

Previous: Life at Home, Alone

The complete saga, From the Beginning

Winning Streak

Captain Jack's Hospitality Team: Blossom, Bridget and Chatty Cathy
Captain Jack’s Hospitality Team: Blossom, Bridget and Chatty Cathy

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.

The bar at Buzzbys
The bar at Buzzbys

Then in 1975 the first great gay dance bar opened, Buzzby’s on Polk Street. It was a small space 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 and she told him bluntly, “you’ll never win it without B.” So he called me and we started working on it.

Your Nostalgia 77 Winner
Your Nostalgia 77 Winner

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 an monolith of energy you fight. 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.

Outrageous Beauties
Outrageous Beauties

***

The Jackie Obsession

 

Graceless Lady

Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore
Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore

After we left Bloomington, Jim immersed himself in Zine culture. He was most influenced by VILE and Egozine. And by the Dadaists through his correspondence with people like Anna Banana, Ray Johnson and Lazy Nickles. He decided he wanted his own magazine.

He called it White Arms. The title represented the sheaths of paper that made up the magazine and the unpredictable reach they would have around the world.

His first edition combined local Fort Wayne art, poetry and prose. He also published my journal of a cross country trip I’d taken in a Lincoln Mark IV. Future editions evolved from including me to being solely about me.

One of the high points of  life in my early San Francisco days was the mail. Every couple of weeks I would get a package from Jim containing long letters, stories, magazines, cassette tapes or photos. I sent the same back to him. He said he waited for the mail “like some wait for god.”

White Arms was primitive and raw. Our primary pre-computer age tool was the xerox machine which we used whenever we could scrounge up enough dimes. If we had a really good idea and could come up with more money, we’d do something on a high speed press. Otherwise it was pretty low grade.

When we were together in Fort Wayne, we used the time to strategize at Henry’s, do photos, or make guerilla theatre appearances that could be turned into material for the magazine. Our stories were based on truths, half-truths, and untruths. If it fit the image we printed it.

The November 22, 1976 Edition
The November 22, 1976 Edition

My drag name was B. I was so famous they named the second letter of the alphabet after me.

Whenever I made an appearance or was photographed I could come across as soigne or remote. But get me involved in a conversation and the crude mannerisms mixed with the mouth of a Longshoreman quickly destroyed the image. I loved to keep people guessing.

Unlike some drag queens I had no desire to be a woman. I just wanted to capitalize on the fact that I could look like one. I was young, androgynous, skinny but fine boned, and had good skin. It did not take much in those days to get me looking good. But I had no falsetto and no act. A friend’s six year old daughter once told her, “when guys get in drag they start acting funny and silly. But when B gets in drag he doesn’t change.”

It took a couple years of coaxing but I finally convinced Jim to visit me in San Francisco. Rather than a brief vacation he turned it into a major expedition. Greyhound offered a 30 day Kennel Club Pass that allowed unlimited bus travel. He took his time traveling via Austin, Taos, and Santa Barbara, stopping to see his new Zine friends who he hoped to interview.

When he got to San Francisco we did all the sightseeing basics. Things you only needed to do once in your life, like Fisherman’s Wharf, and those you had to do habitually like Castro Street

Hanging at the Hound with Tacky Jackie
Hanging at the Hound with Tacky Jackie

The night we went to North Beach we drank French 75s at the Savoy Tivoli. Afterwards we walked the flatter streets back to the Financial District. Muni was on strike, there were no buses and I wasn’t going to climb that hill.

At the base of California Street I stuck out my thumb. A black stretch limo pulled up and asked where we were headed. “Just to the top of the hill.” They said hop in.

Our host was Mayor Alioto.  He talked about all the headaches he was having with Muni and the fits the dig on Market Street was causing him. I was usually confrontational with authority in those days but Jim said I remained the model of decorum telling him, “these things take time. It will all work out in the end.” In my own humble, megalomaniac way I may have saved BART.

Jim stayed with me a couple of weeks then headed off to Guerneville and Santa Cruz. He returned to the City then it was time to go home to Indiana. He bought another Kennel Pass and made plans to travel via Oregon, Boulder, and Iowa.

On the day he left we had an awkward face off. We stood for a moment struggling to say goodbye. Then KSAN played Wild Horses. We looked at each other and laughed. He took off.

***

The Story of Jim

Life on 17th Street

My first month in San Francisco, just trying to fit in. Obviously I hadn’t made it to Vidal Sassoon yet. 

   

Next: Rotted Plums
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The complete saga, From the Beginning

Contact: ellistoellis@gmail.com