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."