During the 70’s I lived for several years with a guy on Castro Street in SF. Like me, he’d been thrown out of his relationship. We found a ‘railroad flat’ between 19th and 20th.
The SF gay scene was just shifting from Polk Street, eventually to become centered at 18th and Castro. We were in the heart of the action, one of only two ‘straight’ apartments in the building. That fact was liquid and changed as people came and went. ‘Came’ being the operative word. Of course, the ever-changing roommates and I considered ourselves anything but ‘straight’.
The neighbors were fun. A common airshaft served two buildings, making it easy to know who was getting laid and who wasn't.
Next door lived a little Sicilian guy who played a quite accomplished piano. When he played, we’d turn off the stereo at our place and just listen to his great licks through the wall. Mostly show tunes (of course). He and his buddies would often get together and sing. Choral style. Even though that wasn’t our thing, it was cool to hear the six or eight men singing together. “Some Enchanted Evening” comes to mind, as does their exploration of possibilities of overlaying harmonies within “Go Away Little Girl”, both intricate and engaging. The only time anyone ever complained was at the tail end of a wild night, about 5AM, we hear from next door: “Twenty-six miles across the sea… Santa Catalina is a’waitin for me…”
That guy threw the best parties! (we partied pretty hard too) He and his friends had events frequently, virtually redecorating the place for each gig. Once, they lined the entire apartment in flesh-pink Mylar. Walls and ceiling. He named his place the “Café Shi-Shi”.
We retaliated by calling our place the “Café What It Is” and put James Brown’s foldout album cover “Revolution of the Mind” in the front window. That’s the one featuring a sweaty-looking Brown behind bars. Some kind of karmic clairvoyance going on there.
But it was all in good fun. We liked each other. We went to his parties and he and his friends came to ours.
Once, a guy from another apartment crashed through a stairwell window during a party, falling to the concrete a story below. He lived, but hopefully learned a lesson. Such as those lessons were. Hard to learn. Concrete hard.
Another, younger group of guys lived upstairs, but their ongoing party approached a constant state of fevered excitement. We’d hear them chasing each other (lots of squealing) up and down the long hallway right above us. One early morning a flood came down into our place and I went up there to investigate. Their water heater had burst. While there, I noticed they had crisscrossed wooden slats above the long hallway to create something like a false ceiling, in turn creating a void they’d stuffed with mannequins, masks, wigs, broken dolls, bandaged artificial limbs, crutches and various other creepy and esoteric items.
What a cool neighborhood. Harvey Milk’s shop became our local camera store. Cliff’s Variety sponsored a little stage at Halloween, featuring a few dozen kids, parents, costume contest, skits, etc. The famous (now infamous) Castro Street Halloween bash grew to eventually overflow onto the main drag of Market Street, spreading in every direction over the largely residential area, drawing crowds in more recent years estimated at 100,000.
Momma X still tells the story of a time she was visiting. There was a homophobic friend staying for a few days. Guy was 6’2”, well-muscled, red-haired and beautiful. He wouldn’t go to the local laundromat without little 5’2” 110 lb. Momma X along for protection.
Momma and I were kinda off-and-on during those years, dividing our time between SF and the wild contrast of the Mendocino coast. Much of that time we weren’t living together. Momma had just come through years of fending off death from a chronic illness and we both needed a break. After all, we had gone to high school together and neither of us had had any time to be single. Wheeeee!
Luckily, this was all pre-AIDS.
The contrast with the Mendocino coast wasn’t as drastic as would be expected. Surely there was no shortage of drugs. Or whacky people, for that matter. The 70’s were the height of the “Back to the Land” movement, when many of the city freaks went out to what passed for wilderness and lived like pioneers. Oh my. Pioneers indeed! The woods will never be the same.
There were communes up and down the ridge we lived on. We never actually joined one, but they all had their niche. There was the “Lesbian Goat Farm”, so named by themselves, one of the first ‘out’ gay groups up there. There was also ‘Buck’s Land’ (not the guy’s real name) a notorious scumbag group. Likewise “Skunk Hollow”, where a murder was committed on the dirt road leading to a little group of shacks a couple of miles back. Up the road, the Christian commune made no bones about disciplining their kids by corporal punishment. Some of the women who lived there got the same treatment for perceived indiscretions.
And oh, the indiscretions! No matter how widely people are dispersed, it makes no difference in the speed at which gossip will travel. Husbands and wives would get home after being out all night, and their mates would know who they’d been with, where they’d picked each other up, and where they’d engaged in the chutski.
(That one I know by experience.)
Out in the country, although the parties may have been fewer in numbers, they made up for it in enthusiasm. Get enough of those displaced city hippies in a field with a flatbed truck and a few musical instruments? and there you have your party. In Fort Bragg, the biggest town around (and the greatest heroin addiction rate in the state) there was a sign painted on the side of a building facing the railroad station: “Ft. Bragg— Not much here, but it rains a lot.”
During inclement winter weather, the tribal stomps moved indoors, invariably some century-old wooden structure. How the buildings shook with the mountain men (and women) carrying on like dervishes—out of frustration, poverty and nothing else to do.
Booker T Jones lived up there and would do a concert every few years, and there was never a shortage of local wannabe bands of widely varying quality. Some, like “Cat Mother” were great. Most were something less than.
In 81, Momma and I abandoned our vagabond ways and settled where we are now, but those roaring 70’s were perhaps the most fun times of our lives. We’re much more comfortable now, but we consider it an absolute privilege to have lived with the optimism and abandon of those days.