Thursday, October 20, 2011

glory days

The Miracle Mile of Folsom Street was anchored on the west at 12th St. by Hamburger Mary's and extended east to around 5th St. and included the parallel streets and alleys in the South of Market.  In the 1970s the area was mostly dark empty industrial warehouses no longer necessary after container shipping moved the industry over to Oakland and made the dockworkers, the stevedores and longshoreman no longer necessary.  The shot-and-a-beer bars that seemed to be at every street corner no longer had customers.  Bars that could be bought cheaply with no neighborhood residents around to complain about anything.  Anything at all.  At night the little pink neon FeBe's sign above its doorway at the corner of 11th shined dimly, a last outpost before the pitch black expanse of a wide, desolate Folsom Street that stretched down the decreasing number streets toward the bay.
Hamburger Mary's was on the corner of 12th and the Stud was mid-block on the other side of the street.  On any given night an eclectic and inebriated mix of tall drag queens wobbling in heels, swarthy men in metal-spiked leathers, disco divas waving boas and moustached Castro clones would pass each other crossing Folsom between the two establishments.  Mary's initially had a disco, Cissy's, in the larger space adjacent to the restaurant area but the food became so popular that disco died and was replaced with tables.  Dancing moved exclusively across to the Stud, a mutually beneficial separation.  One night there a dancer leaped up under the uv light, twirled in the air and when he came down went completely through the rotting floorboards into the basement.  Folsom St. in the '70's, no rules.
There was a short burly guy who drank at Mary's during the daytime that stood out even there because he always wore the same custom leather outfit: chaps, vest, jacket, fingerless gloves and little cap.  The hides had been bleached and then dyed a pale yellow which gave the look that a banana popsicle was squating on a barstool.  He was president of the Golden Showers Association, the kind who keeps buying a guy beers and tells the guy not to go the the bathroom because he wants to get him home with a full bladder.
The bar at Mary's was in the second back room and as it was a hassle to get to the bathrooms in the adjacent section on busy nights the bartenders would stand just inside of a curtained supply area at the end of the bar and surreptitiously pee into an empty gallon wine jug.  Whenever the jug filled the guy in the yellow leather outfit would take it for whatever they did at golden shower meetings.
The further east down Folsom that one ventured the more black leather and macho posturing became de rigueur.  Names of the bars and sex clubs evinced a musky ethos of maculinity: Boot Camp, Barracks, Ramrod, Brig, Caldron, Catacombs.  A place could have a clawfoot bathtub in the middle of a room, plywood partitions with mouth-sized holes cut out at waist-level, rooms with slings and padded tables, men in uniform, men in jeans shirtless, men in nothing.  A thick metal collar around the neck of a bartender attached to a heavy chrome chain tethered him to the back wall.  A bartender is taking random swigs from a mayonnaise jar by the register during his shift and when asked replies that it's his lover's urine, keeps him hydrated in this stuffy, airless room.
And the bathhouses.  Some people stopped in for a little warmup sex before going out to cruise for the night, other people stopped in for the whole weekend, breezing by home on Friday to pick up clean clothes for work Monday, checking in at the baths and spending the next three nights there, ordering food delivered, pizza, Chinese, maybe a towel as modest attire.
There was a green chalkboard next to the main desk where people could write a name and room number on entering plus some additional information, physical attributes, etc., e.g. Doug, twelve inches, or blond surfer, or a Cowboy Butt, sometimes the always popular ``have drugs,'' but more often ``request drugs.''  Passing the chalkboard on their way in Joey and friends would reach up, change a 'u' to an 'e' and add a 'y' so that everyone entering after them would see that in such-and-such room they'd find ``Cowboy Betty.''
The baths were a regular routine for Alex, many weekends he never saw the outdoors, and in late 1982, when gay cancer had become GRID and when five people he knew of had died Alex went to see a doctor.  He was healthy but felt like something was stalking him, no 32-year old should know that many people who had died in that short of a time.  Not in America in a peacetime.  After checking him over the doctor said there was no sign of KS and said that there was not a lot known and said maybe he could get Alex into a study at UCSF.  The main epidemiologic correlation at that time seemed to be number of sexual partners and the doctor asked Alex about that, how many he thought he'd had.  Alex was sitting in his underwear on the paper strip that covered the exam table in the little room staring down at his sock feet.  He raised his head and moved his eyes toward the ceiling as one does when counting.  After a bit he looked at the doctor and answered, ``You mean today?''

uring Sunday brunch lull at Hamburger Mary's the bartender went out back by the dumpster to take a couple puffs off a joint with some of the kitchen crew and when he returned a waiter came up with a glass of white wine and set it on the bar.
"Customer says this tastes funny."
Bartender looks at the glass, "Where'd you get this? . . . I didn't serve this to you."
"You weren't here so I went behind the bar and poured it from that jug by the curtain back there."

Sunday, October 2, 2011

the mission

Rock Against Reagan, Dolores Park, October, 1983

As  he crossed the 16th Street BART Plaza one mid-afternoon a couple glided past him from behind, both a bit pudgy, pasty, with unkempt hair, the guy in faded coveralls, the girl in sweatshirt and jeans.  So nondescript that if Joey hadn't overheard a snippet of their conversation they would have registered about as much as the shadow of a small cloud passing high overhead.  Two people that were purposely invisible, that did not want to draw attention to themselves.
The guy asked, ``So how long were you in for?''
``Three months.''
His voice took on a snide edge, ``Guess you cleaned up, huh?''
``Man,'' she said, ``King Kong didn't hit that hard.''
The BART plaza: people selling drugs, people buying drugs, people selling sex for the money to buy drugs, always at the periphary of your vision, you just had to not look to see it.  In the early evening Oakland hookers would be coming up out of the BART terminal to join the locals on Capp St. where all night long cars would circle the five or six blocks of The Track, most of the trade being done out of the vehicles.
When smokable free base cocaine began vying with heroin for the drug dollar in the 1980s the dealers at the Valencia Gardens projects at 15th stenciled ``Buy Crack Here'' in large letters on the concrete sides of the buildings so you would know.  Frisco Choppers was across the street, ``In the Ghetto,'' as the logo on their T-shirts said.  And ``Thank You for Pot Smoking'' as the sign over their cash register said. 
In the late 70s/early 80s some punk venues sprouted around Valencia, a West Coast mirror of the Bowery/East Village in NYC: the Deaf Club, the Tool & Die, Target Video; in 1980 a synthesizer band The Units even put out a song, ``The Mission Is Bitchin.''  The swell that had begun with hippies moving into the Haight more than a decade before and then carried into the Castro as gays arrived was now flowing into this western edge of the Mission District.  That wave receded when the scythe of the epidemic came down (imagine being able to see over a dozen 'For Rent' signs in windows during a casual 30 minute stroll around the intersection of Castro and 18th) and it was almost twenty years, as Y2K approached, before the tide rolled back.

oey lived behind 4 Wheel Brake at 17th and Mission in this era and one sun filled afternoon when passing Clarion he had idly stared a bit too long at four guys huddled a ways into the alley.  One of the four moved away from the group and stopped in a doorway to stare down at a little packet he'd obviously just purchased.  A guy saw Joey watching, turned fully to face him and advanced, ``You looking for something man?''  It took Joey a second to realize the guy wasn't challenging him, the guy was sincere, that if there was anything Joey wanted this guy was going to do his best to provide it.
Some years later, in August, 1990 a 29-year old Irish SFSU student, Paul O'Meara, had his cab pull over to the Wells ATM at the northwest edge of the 16th St. BART plaza to get cash.  It was just dusk, about 9 p.m. and four men loitering there put him in a chock hold with a baseball bat and pulled him around the corner and beat him to death.  At least six people witnessed this.
Because of the high crime rate around Mission/16th and because of the number of customer robberies at that ATM the bank had months before begun inactivating the machine each evening at 8 p.m.  Thus Paul O'Meara had next to no money on him when he was killed.
Area merchants had long clamored for a greater police presence so the SFPD set up a kiosk in the plaza apparently meant to frighten off criminals.  It sat there for many months about the same size and about as imposing as a State Fair corndog stand, it never seemed to be staffed and eventually it became grimy and collected wind blown trash around its base and at some point the police kiosk disappeared.  Six witnesses, no one was ever arrested or charged with the crime.  An Irish bar in Noe Valley had a benefit one Saturday afternoon to collect money so that Paul's body could be returned to his family in the Old Sod.

n the early 1990s bodies of Capp St. hookers began showing up in vacant lots by the water in China Basin.  Not unsurprisingly this spread a pall over the street workers but hey, a gal's gotta earn a living.  The increased police presence after those murders moved a sizable portion of the business to the other side of South Van Ness Avenue.  Eventually they arrested a guy already out on bail for sexual assault of Capp St. hookers because a 19-year old girl Jack Bokin thought was dead when he dumped her in the Bay had survived and identified him.
Lisa worked at the Rite Spot on Folsom when this all was going on and she was walking there in the dying light of early evening.  She was outfitted in the short skirt and combat boots style girls wore at that time which seemed to emphasize her cherubic cuteness, her big smile.  A friend happened to drive by and he honked and pulled over, bending to reach across the front seat and roll down the window.  Lisa went to the passenger side and leaned in and they chatted a bit but she had to get to work so said bye, her friend drove off and she continued walking.  Before she got to Folsom this black gal popped out of a doorway, tight pants, spike heels, very red lips and said, ``You was right not to go with him!  I been round here a long time and they's plenty of weirdos—I can spot 'em!  That there guy was sure one!  You done the right thing not to go with him.''
Then the black woman stepped back a bit to bat her false eyelashes and assess Lisa, ``You new here, I ain't seen ya' before.''  After she looked Lisa up and down the woman smiled and gave her approval of the street: ``You gonna do O.K.''

uring daylight hours hookers made the stretch of 17th around Thrift Town into their little cloister.  They would stand on one of the street corners between Capp and Hoff and announce themselves by making a flamboyant show of lighting a cigarette, taking a drag and then swinging their arm in an extravagant arch while exhaling a long smoke stream up into the air.  A censer to ward away the evil spirits: ``No officer I'm just here waiting for my boyfriend, ain't no crime in that is there?''  These were the ones that needed money early, dayshift here was end of the line, the decrepit seeking the desperate no matter which way you looked at it.
Joey was on his way home one afternoon and notices this young girl walking ahead of him stop on the sidewalk and hunch over briefly to light up.  She didn't have that girl next door look, not for the girls in this neighborhood, she looked like some nerdy innocent kid maybe come over to check out the bargains at Thrift Town.  Joey considered saying something, a little word to the wise, if one of the gruff Mexicans propositioned her she'd probably collapse in fright, but what was he going to say?  As he passed by she looked over at him and smiled as if she could sense his concern.  The innocent looking nerdy girl said, ``Hi, . . .  want a date?''