Saturday, September 10, 2011

great wall

Jerry phoned Dan at work when he got the results of his blood work, ``Good news, T-cells are still up, don't have to start AZT.''  So that evening Dan brought a gift home: ``We're going to China,'' waving a glossy color brochure.  Even knowing that Jerry was your basic homebody Dan had placed the deposit to join a group tour, it was early 1989 and mainland China had only recently begun allowing Americans into the country.  This was an opportunity he felt they should not miss.  Left unsaid was, ``While you can still travel.''
``Can't we just go to Grant Street for an afternoon?  Take a ride on the 30 Stockton?  We'd be home in time for dinner.''
``Jerry, I can't believe you're this parochial, you know how many people would love to make a trip like this?''
Jerry did not know how many people would love a trip like this but he knew of one who would not.  He also knew when he was trapped.  Finally he grumbles ``Alright, but I'm taking a fork.''
Their group meets with a tour liaison at the Air China terminal of SFO International, they were easily the youngest members and the only male couple.  Jerry leans to Dan, ``Don't look over just yet but two old dykes are staring this way, I think they're gonna want us to be tour buddies.''
``You always think people are staring at you,'' Dan mutters as he bends to fumble with a carry on so he can scan the women.  Jerry continues, ``And  they're wearing Birkenstocks!  I simply refuse to be associated with anyone that wears Birkenstocks.''
On the flight Dan flips through the brochures once again, hoping to pique some interest, reading out loud, ``Tien An Men Square, Peking Duck, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the Great Wall—come on, you're going to love it, look,'' shoving the brochure over, pointing to the picture: ``Guilin, we're stopping there, we'll see this, look!''
A large part of their stay was in Beijing  (Jerry: ``When do we get to see Peking?'') and they noticed some peculiarities beyond the total mindwarp just of the mass of human beings.  If they stood on a street corner for more than a few minutes people began congregating around them, men in black pajamas that would stand in some proximity and just stare, to these people fair skin, blond hair was the spectacle.  (Jerry: ``If I flap my arms do you think they'd scatter like pigeons?'')
More than a few times as they visited various ancient and oriental sights (or as described by Jerry, ``Yet another place older than Jesus.'') a native Chinese would approach them and begin asking a sequence of questions in English that would tend towards the awkwardly personal.  The pattern was something like this,  Are you from America?  What city are you from?  What do you do for a living?  How much money do you make?  Are you married?  How many children do you have?  With a pause between each question.
Others in their tour group had similar experiences and eventually their guide said that these Chinese were practicing their English, these were standard question and answer routines used in a language class (Jerry: ``I wonder what they ask the lesbians— 'Can't you afford better shoes?' '').  At any point they only needed to say to the Chinese person, ``You speak English very well,'' and that person would thank them and leave happy.
The day they visited the Great Wall and were standing with other tour groups in a curved open stretch near a rampart Jerry nudged Dan and nodded towards two young, elegantly dressed Japanese males that were crossing from one parapet to the other.  ``You think they're gay?'' and on noting that the two Japanese had looked over at them while talking to one another he added, ``Wouldn't it be funny if they were asking the same thing about us right now?''
About then a Chinese man intruded, standing in front of them with a big grin and he started the routine, ``Are you from America?  (pause)  What city are you from?''
The two young Japanese males had moved close enough to overhear the interchange and when Dan answered, ``San Francisco,'' he saw them look at one another knowingly and smile.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


Cindy is hurrying down the sidewalk from the Savoy Tivoli on upper Grant where she's had a quick drink before opening the box office.  As she waits to cross Broadway under the tall sign of Carol Doda Topless she hears the barker on front of Big Al's next door giving his spiel to people passing by, couples that giggle, young sailors over from Alameda, rocking a bit with his jive, ``See it right in here folks, Topless, Bottomless, LIVE! NAKED! SEX! On Our Stage, we got it all."  A pause as he glances over at her, ``Hey Cindy, how's it going?" then he continues, ``That's Right Folks,  Completely LIVE,  Completely NAKED, Completely SEX we got it right here on our stage.''
She's heading down to the Little Fox Theater on Pacific to prep the box office for the 8 o'clock show,  ``legitimate'' theater, different from the ``live naked'' theater Cindy just passed. The marquee over the entranceway informs that  ``Snoopy, the Musical'' is now playing.
She unlocks the main doors and then the door to the ticket area, her little kingdom.  A thick glass window with a low opening faces the street, a large calendar hung on the wall with scribbles in almost every numbered boxed, a wood rack slotted for each performance holding the tickets sold for that night, three-ring binders holding the accounting tallies for past nights, and shoved in the corner a small refrigerator.  She sat on the stool and unwraps the salami and cheese from the Molinari's.
Stage hands and cast drifted in, most stopping to say hi and inquire about any phone messages, fan letters (dream on), job offers.  Cindy had eaten about a third of her sandwich when the house phone rings, it the producer in the main office upstairs and he asks her to run down the block and get his suit from the dry cleaners.
``Sure, no problem.  Maybe you need your car waxed too? I got plenty of free time,'' muttering ``Asshole" as she hangs up.
To make sure her sandwich would still be there when she returned she covered it with a paper napkin on which she'd scribbled, ``Don't eat this, I spit on it.''
She returns from the errand, hangs the plastic shrouded suit behind the door, pulls her stool back to the ticket window and reaches to the sandwich.  Under her words on the napkin someone had added, ``So did I.'' 
Bit later she sees Tim down the street coming in to work, his gangly saunter, hands and feet too large, waiting for the rest of his body to grow into them.  Just a big puppy, no wonder he was cast as Snoopy.  He exaggerates the movements for her as he bounces up to the customer window, leans into round metal voice slot and whines:  ``Is this show any good?  I don't want to spend my money if it's one of those shows that's full of really crappy acting.''
``Well, most of the acting is great, but there's this one, the guy that plays Snoopy, who's a real drip.  We think he must be having an affair with one of the producers.''
``Not what I hear! I hear he's just dreamy!  And did you know that today is his birthday?  The young thing is currently accepting gifts---cashmere, cash, drugs, any and all of the above.''
Cindy grins at Tim across the glass partition, ``If Miss Birthday Thing is one year closer to being the old queen everyone says she is, she sure shouldn't be announcing that fact.''
Tim heads backstage as she punches the house phone, "He just got here but he'll be in the dressing room for an hour. We'll need the gift at least twenty minutes before curtain.''
Over the next hour people come to the window to pick up their tickets before going off, out to make an evening of North Beach, drinks, dinner and a show, maybe more drinks.  She didn't notice when the streetlights came on,  only vaguely aware it had become evening.  Somewhere up above there must be stars, the easy peace at day's end, but down here her workday was just beginning.
``Excuse me,'' a voice interrrupts.  She looks up at a handsome tanned face and a confident grin on the other side of the glass, heavy starch blue button down shirt,  a groomed successful look, preppie, maybe young stockbroker.
``Hi, I'm Carl, here for the birthday. I'm not late am I?''
It came out automatic, the oldest line in the book, ``I don't know, what time were you planning on getting here?''
She phones upstairs, ``Your gift is here.''  Dana comes down, smiles approvingly as she and Carl are introduced and as the two move into the lobby Dana looks back flashes a little thumbs up.  Cindy shakes her head watching the young man and mutters, ``Why is it that all the good looking ones—it's just not fair.''
The typical rush just before curtain, a line of eight or ten, people starting to get anxious, but no mistakes, no missing reservations. Tonight the evening report would have to wait, she wrapped the cash and charge receipts and put them in the safe uncounted then locked up the little room to join the others on the back row of the theater.  It was, after all, Tim's birthday.

[Act One]:
The curtain opens to an enormous doghouse stage center, chin high to the cast emphasizing that they are children and the audience is viewing a cartoon panel.  There's Snoopy reclining across the top.  Members of the Peanuts gang drift in and perform song routines that Cindy usually hears as background music each night while she finishes her report.  At some point Snoopy clambers down and crawls inside his house while the others continue the cartoon bickering and the singing.

[Act Two]:
The cast performs a few more rollicking numbers that lead to Snoopy's next cue, something like ``Oh no! It's the Red Baron!''  A pause while the onstage group looks to the doghouse. The pause extends and the Peanuts gang turns towards one another quizzically.  So again, louder, ``The Red Baron!''

From her last row seat Cindy could see audience heads leaning to one another as it became obvious something was amiss.  Once more, ``It's the Red Baron!''
Snoopy finally snakes from the doghouse, with a distant grin and a gaze to the back row where he knows his gang will be sitting.  The cast onstage keeps from making eye contact so that there won't be a communal break down into convulsive laughter.
Cindy slips out, back to the box office to finish her report.  At intermission Carl the birthday gift pokes his head in the door on his way out,  ``I thought I'd had weird requests before, bondage, dungeons, Nazi uniforms, Cub Scout uniforms, licking boots, but after this they'll all seem pretty lame."

polk street

he Tenderloin/Polk Gulch area was the traditional gay section of San Francisco, the bus station, YMCA, nocturnal types you'd find in seedy pockets of most urban areas where the old apartments still had Murphy beds and places rented by the week.  Teenaged runaways selling sex, serious drug abusers, full time transvestites.  These were not those suburban clones that had begun showing up in the Castro in the mid-1970s, pampered baby-boomers with their day jobs and pretense of being so butch, everybody a top.
You'd see young males leaning nonchalantly against fire hydrants on Polk in the early evening, facing the cars that slowly cruised past, thumb notched into top of their jeans, finger pointing down at the crotch.  Old queens buying dinners for a new arrival, who's your daddy.  In a quiet restaurant five men in their 50s, white haired business types casually dressed around the large table in the center of the dining room talking and toasting with one sullen young boy seated among them staring down at his plate.  After they finish eating and pay the five get up and leave while the boy stays in his chair alone in view of the entire room.  No busboy comes to clear the table and the boy does not move.  After about enough time for a cigarette the restaurant doorway opens slightly, a forearm intrudes and gives a little wave and the boy gets up and walks out.
A little B&D never humiliated anyone, right?
The street styles changed during that decade from hippie to disco to punk but the overarching look always had that gritty inner city edge, trashy and tawdry.  Even as late as 1975 it was Polk Street, not Castro Street, that was blocked off on Halloween with a stage and drag queen MCs.

cott was the night bartender at the Mule in this era. He came on at 6 p.m. shift change and arriving first evening on the job George the day bartender laid out the law as only an old queen can:  ``You be on time every fucking day, honey.  I got a second gig I can't be late to, you're not here at six I'm gone, anything that happens it's your fucking ass, OK."
Over the months the job settled in a predictable work routine, last call at 2 a.m., lights up at 2:20, usually to a packed house, stunned looks in the sudden glare as the music is cut, ``Drink Up Girls! Hotel/ Motel Time!"  At 2:30 a.m. close the door to all but a few friends.  Same minor skirmishes each night to get the Last Call Connie's out, they just whine to stay a bit longer.  ``Good Fucking Night!"  And same major battle each night with Trixxi, with two X's she's quick to tell you, trannie who arrives around ten, dumps her handbag out across the bar and for the next few hours frantically arranges the scattered contents, staring down as she babbles constantly, saying to no one in particular things like, ``You can't call me Miss Potato unless you know me."  Sure Trixxi, sure. Time to go home or wherever it is you go. Tweak somewhere else.
All finally gone.
Scott keeps his never empty glass of scotch & soda set to chill down in the ice bin while he finishes up, always knows where to find it.  Once the bills are separated, each denomination counted, banded in packets, recorded  and locked in the wall safe his workday was truly over.  Now he can party, the real Happy Hour begins here at three in the morning. 
He arrived one day to have George mention that when he'd opened he found the previous night's take neatly bundled and set down in the ice bin and found an almost empty highball glass securely locked inside the wall safe.  ``Careful you gonna be you're own best customer,"  George smirked as he marched out with a haughty toss of his nose.
After a few months it was all Scott could do to be showered, shaved and dressed, usually in the clothes piled on the floor, and get in by six.  He developed an ability to shut off the alarm about twenty seconds before it began to clang and then dream that he was fully clothed, brushing his teeth, almost ready to head off to work, smiling, happy because he would be a bit early for a change.
Then eyes pop open, heart pounds up to inside eardrums, stomach gorges up into throat as that dreamy smile contorts into Oh Shit!  Scott rushes around the apartment, pants right where he left them, saves time, proud of this bit of forethought.  In a cab he'll be heading to work as the 9-to-5 crowd is heading home.  Suckers!
So once again on this day Scott awakes to see the daylight seeping from the edges of the window shade, rolls over, looks at a silent clock through a half open eye--it reads 6:03!  Fuck, fuck, fuck as he bolts upright!
He's got head tilted to hold the phone between shoulder and ear sitting edge of the bed, bare feet on the cold floor as he lights his first cigarette, hears the distant continuous ring, imagining the scene in the bar:  George has just given each member of the day crew a free shot as he clears out and now the room is full of drunks and there is no one behind the bar, no one in charge; it's his ass!  Immediate next call is to the cab company, shaking his head, fucking answer the phone!
Scott waits on the steps of his building with another cigarette, tastes like a vacuum cleaner bag has been dumped in his mouth.  The cab pulls up and Scott skews the half finished butt into the curb as he climbs in, telling the driver that he'll double what's on the meter if the guy races.  He lights his third and leans back, exhales, feeling like he's run a marathon already today.  This has got to stop, he needs to begin going home right after work, get up earlier, during the daytime, maybe hit the gym, check out the museums, maybe visit the library and actually read instead of cruise . . . well yeah, since he probably won't have a job after tonight there will be plenty of time for all those things.
The driver is doing a great job, accelerating at yellows, rolling before a red turns green, switching lanes abruptly to advance.  Lucky, there sure doesn't seem to be a lot of traffic out, the cabbie crosses the center line to pass a slow moving, road hogging street sweeper, the burr sound as it stirs around the grime.  Then the same maneuver again a block later, a garbage truck in front of an apartment building.  The realization comes slowly:  Street sweeper? Garbage truck? They're not out at six in the evening, they only operate at . . . Oh God!  How could he, it's still morning!
Scott closes his eyes, opens them again, yep that's still a garbage truck out there.  Hung over and stupid, why can't he just be one or the other?  He's too embarrassed to tell driver to turn around so they pull up to the padlocked bar where he pays the man double the meter as promised.  The sidewalks are all but deserted at this hour as he crosses to the door and unsnaps the padlock.  Odor of stale beer and drying mop water greets him, the strangeness of an empty, quiet barroom.  He flips on the lights and goes to make a pot of coffee.  Of all the dumb things he's done in his life this has got to be the hands down winner.  Congratulations moron: folks, we got a winner!
He sits at a bar stool on the customer side, sipping the coffee and holding yet another cigarette as the adrenaline shakiness drains away leaving a profound fatigue.  Trying to think of who he knows that might have a little meth.  He'll need it if he can't sleep when he gets back home and has to be back here for real in eleven hours.  He empties the pot into the sink and cleans so when George arrives in a few hours nothing will seem amiss.  Then he phones for a cab to get him and his aching head back to his apartment, watching through the curtain until the yellow savior arrives.  The driver half turns to glance over his shoulder briefly as Scott slides to the center of the seat and gives the address. 
Just before they begin moving Scott sees the guy's eyes in the rearview mirror watching him and realizes he's got the same cabbie that brought him.  Scott leans his head onto the seatback and shuts his eyes as he reaches for his cigarettes and he hears the driver say, ``Fucked up didn't you."

Saturday, September 3, 2011


In the late 1970s  Cindy managed the box office for a small local theater production at the Hippodrome Theater on Broadway across from that Filipino restaurant where bands would play at night after the restaurant closed.  On Sunday there is an afternoon matinee in addition to the regular evening performance, so much for the day of rest, she has to be up, out of the house and at work by 2 p.m. instead of the normal 5 p.m.  But it is always slow, relaxing, with a few hours break in between performances. Undisturbed time to tighten up the loose ends of the week. 
Which is what Cindy is doing now when she becomes aware of Allen standing in the box office doorway behind her.  She glances over when he says, "Use a little makeup and curl that hair you wouldn't be bad looking at all.  Might even have a shot a me some night."
She turns back to her work, I doubt that I'll ever be that drunk so you can quit dreaming."
``Think about it."
`` If I thought about it I'd probably be sick."
Allen asks if there's any mail, any messages as if he's expecting something, told no he leaves to get ready for the show.
Half hour later her assistant Dana arrives, announcing as she enters, ``Today's the day.'' She flourishes a square pink greeting card envelope, ``The coup de grĂ¢ce."
Cindy extends an arm, ``Hand that over,'' takes the envelope and pulls out a folded note.  Slides it under her nose, ``Mmmm, gardenia, nice touch.''  Opens note, letters in broad ink pen with wide feminine flourish read:

  I watched the show twice this
  week and as usual you were wonderful.
  And as usual the whole time I couldn't take my eyes
  off you.  We need to stop playing
  games, we need to meet.  Tonight I will
  wait for you on the patio at Enrico's after the show.
  You'll recognize me, I'll be the girl sitting with the red carnation.

Cindy shakes her head, ``So Mr-Gods-Gift-To-Women will be told this little love note was left during intermission tonight?''
``That's the idea.''
``How many is this?''
Dana thinks, ``Not sure, we mailed the first two so he picked them up here, then Larry left a couple in the dressing room, saying they were given to him by some attractive girl.  And then this one that he'll get tonight.''
That evening just before showtime Allen pops into the box office in character, this is a big no-no to be in the front of the house but he has to check one last time, ``Any messages?''
Cindy turns, casually laying her arm over the pink envelope and tells him no, then after he's out of hearing says, ``We'll be seeing you later.''
She can hear the onstage patter while in the box office, it's a bit before final curtain; she's finished her report and is closing when Dana and Larry come down from the producers office,  ``Let's get going, it's about time for Allen's big performance.''

Brian is washing glasses behind the bar at Enrico's during a lull and idly scanning the action out on the table section of the covered terrace.  Only a few regulars and the cocktail waitress ever come back into this area, the hip people watching is all out front. He grabs clean glasses that have dried and turns to stack them along the shelf.  Behind him he hears Cheryl mutter ``Ordering.''  He frees his hands and turns.
``One white wine, one Pernod and Coke.''
About to turn he stops and stares at her, mouthing back those last three words as a question. ``They're French,'' she says as way of explanation.  He shakes his head and pours the drinks.
A waft of anise as Cheryl hoists the tray, he watches as she marches off, tray in the air, exclaiming "Viva la France!"  It's bad enough that she's so hot and has a boyfriend but she embellishes everything she does with such a sexy flair.
Outside every table is occupied and a clot of people stand along the sidewalk waiting for a free spot.  Cheryl set the drinks down in front of a couple, white wine goes to the guy while Pernod/coke sits sideways in a tight pullover, horizontal navy and white stripes emphasize her breasts.  Shakes her head to adjust a great pouf of that Bardot sex kitten hair.
Maybe he could forgive that gal for her beverage choice.
An awkward bustle is occurring at the entranceway as three people push through the sidewalk cluster and onto the terrace.  It should be obvious there is nowhere for them to sit.
``Ordering.'' Cheryl standing there with her tray.
Next time he looks up the three have fanned out and are moving among the tables, the way the Hari Krishna do. The way gypsy children did in Spain.
Last summer in Seville he sat at an outdoor cafe and watched this enormous gypsy woman in billowing layers of tented purple and orange skirt undulate along the plaza surrounded by a swarm of kids, a moveable playground.  Look at me! the spectacle said, a street spectacle, a vacation story.  Cameras flew up at every table.  The children chased one another in a swirl among the chairs, giggling, jostling one another through the seated tourists, begging money, distracting their marks.  The youngest always lagging behind, playing catchup, a Disney movie played out in real life.  One kid careened off a table and Brian pulled him up by his forearm, laughing, ``Watch out there tiger.''  The gamers would flock back in a circle past mom where they secreted whatever they cadged among the folds of her skirts. 
After the colorful whirlwind flowed away down the Rambla Brian went to light a cigarette and couldn't find his Zippo.
rom his viewpoint in the back bar area the movements of the group on the patio appeared to be a choreographed pantomime, a backlit set piece framed by columns and potted palms. The customers sat silhouetted with the three newcomers drifting lazily among the tables. He goes back to washing glassware.
``Ordering.''  Brian looks up, wet soapy hands holding a glass, shifts attention to Cheryl setting her tray on the bar,  ``Vodka/tonic, White Russian.'' 
He pours the drinks, quick squeeze on the lime to drop the green lump into the highball glass, then half-and-half flowing in tiny avalanches over the ice cubes and the dark Kahlua, makes change, and watches Cheryl saunter back outside, tray hoisted steady, that great ass slowly rocking.  The group of three has now settled into the first table of his empty bar area and have shifted the chairs so they all sit with their backs to him to face the patio.  Cheryl pauses by their table, bends and listens, then returns to the station.
Before she can speak Brian nods toward that table and asks, ``What were those people doing out there on the patio?"
``They gave a flower to all the girls,"  she says, then beams that chipper smile of hers, ``See I got one too."  Cheryl tosses an arm up into the air with a flamenco finger snap as her other hand lays the red carnation into her hair, like the Andalusian girls.