A week ago I was waiting for a friend to pick me up and my landline rang. No one ever calls me on that phone, it’s almost always robo-calls or marketers. I’ve kept it because it was tied to the front door entry system. Since that no longer works I probably should get rid of it.
I answered it that evening because the caller id was a cell number. A man asked for me, I asked who was calling. He gave a name that was common enough to have been a made-up marketer but it was also one of someone I’d known in the 70’s. That’s who it turned it out to be.
We had completely fallen out of touch and none of our mutual friends seemed to know anything about him. It turns out he’s lived in New York the last 35 years and worked in the publishing business. He told me he was surprised my number still worked and that my voice sounded the same. I assured him that nothing else had changed either.
He said he still enjoyed his copies of White Arms Magazine and googled the title recently. His search led him to my blog which he was reading.
We talked about people we knew in common and I got him caught up on any news I had. Many of them had died which he knew nothing about. When I asked if he remembered Jim who I collaborated with on the magazine he said, “oh yeah, he died in an automobile accident didn’t he?” I laughed.
In one of the White Arms issues Jim decided he wanted a more affected, pretentious nom de plume. So he wrote that Jim had died in a car crash and that Rene White would be taking over as editor.
At the time some of my more political friends thought the term “White Arms” could be construed as pretext for something racial. But Jim said the name came from the sheaths of blank paper that made up the magazine. And how they would circle the world in an unpredictable way.
When we were putting it together I was always questioning what we were doing, wondering what the benefit would be. Jim told me not to worry about results, to concentrate on being creative and doing things. The consequences would take care of themselves.
Jim would have been thrilled that his car crash story had legs. And that White Arms still has reach.
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.
(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.”)
Nothing has happened on the eviction front. My attorney told me the one year notice period actually ended on Wednesday so yesterday was the first day they could have served me. They didn’t.
They might serve me today because the five days I have to respond includes weekends. The deadline would then be next Wednesday which gives us only three business days to prepare the response. Except it’s already done. So we wait.
The games lawyers play.
Next weekend is the Chinese New Year’s Parade. I’ve only been to one in the 40 years I’ve lived here.
In 1977 my friends Juan and James had a hair salon on Commercial Street. They wanted to be good neighborhood merchants so they signed up for an entry in the New Year’s Parade. They asked several of their clients to be on their float whose theme was “the most beautiful women in San Francisco.” They asked me to be on it too.
Jeffrey found a satin 1950’s oriental cocktail dress with a bubble skirt. To make it puff out required proper undergarments but we had no money or resources for crinolines. So we stuffed it with newspaper.
In the 1970’s the general population was still coming to terms with the concept of people being “gay.” They hadn’t begun to grapple with the idea of “drag.” So my appearance was something of a novelty. What first or second generation Chinese-Americans thought of me I’m not sure.
I do remember our float being stalled at the intersection of Kearney and California for a while. Directly in front of me stood two cops who both caught sight of me at the same time. They looked at each other in disgust and silently shook their heads.
After the parade we were walking up Grant Street headed for the party at the salon. There were a bunch of teenagers setting off fireworks and yelling at us. They saw me as an easy target and started throwing their firecrackers. I just ignored them as their munitions bounced off the fortified skirt.
As we approached the salon Brian was sitting on the front stoop. We had mutual friends at the time and knew of each other but had not yet met. As my stilletos clicked down the ancient brick street he yelled out, “Oh! It’s my favorite party person!” No more prophetic words have ever been spoken.
Going for that light matte finish
Putting on my white kid opera length gloves that I charged on my Mother’s I. Magnin account. What I put that poor woman through.
You can never get the hairline right without a lace front but this one isn’t too bad.
Braced for the elements. And any object throwing youth.
Always time for the fans
Beauties of all ages on our float
Hair ornament is Van Cleef & Arpel. Dress is St. Vincent de Paul
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.”
Posing with the debris, including that which was wrapped around my ankle
Madonna and child invite, 1975
Fragment from an unknown year
Art deco motifs were the rage in 1974. Among other things.
The 2nd annual was 6 weeks after the pink suit triumph. So we slapped some green and red on the theme and called it Christmas.
The 1976 film roll invitation
The spool of film invitation, 1976
The last egg nog party, 1977
David and me on the trash heap of egg nog memories
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.
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.
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.”
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.
In 1976 Jim published the final edition of White Arms Magazine devoted completely to me. It was called the B-Centennial Issue.
We decided it needed some photos featuring gravesite drama so I packed up a bunch of friends and we headed to this fabulous cemetery in Oakland. An afternoon of bereavement hilarity followed.
Grandmother used to take me to antique auctions when I was a kid and at one there was this beautiful 19th Century silk crepe widow’s veil. I asked her to buy it for me because it reminded me of the assassination. During the photo shoot I held it in place with a black beret–just like Jackie.
Leading the national mourning
I received special catechism. My priest was from an obscure Orthodox Catholic sect.
Channelling Liz in Butterfield 8
Preparing to receive his holiness
Although a tear may be ever so near
I thought we ordered the carrera
Yet another vision for Father. I looked forward to the laying on of hands.
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.
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 punk club 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 costume 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 to her stupid questions.
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.
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.