Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Oh the Indiscretions

by Daddy X

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.


  1. I envy you your time and experiences in San Francisco in the 70's. I've often voiced that opinion to friends - wouldn't it have been great to have been part of all that? One cynical friend made the remark that I was probably alive today because I hadn't been part of 'all that'. He might be right, but the fantasy lives on.

    1. Right, JP. We were very lucky. We lost several friends and acquaintances during the first crush of victims. Nobody knew what was happening. Momma was tested and so was I after one of her lovers died from AIDS.

  2. Oh, my, I loved to travel the Mendocino coast in the late 60s and browse around the town of Mendocino itself. The scene was getting toward what you describe, but I was only able to see it around the edges. Many years later--the 90s, probably--I visited the area again and was greatly disappointed by the town. There are areas around western MA today that have that old vibe more than Mendocino did by the 90s (again, just from the limited viewpoint of a travel.) I have the impression from things I've read that for the last few decades the Mendocino back country was the domain of marijuana farms patrolled by armed guards. I suspect that they had their own notable parties.

    1. Chances are that the only way you'd encounter illegit marijuana farms would be if you're a wilderness hiker. Or a marijuana thief. Many people grew, but it was mostly folks growing for themselves or supplying friends. The bad guys weren't that many and kept pretty much to themselves. Of course, everybody is protective of their crops. It would be hard to get in trouble unless you were asking for it. The economy of the area has greatly improved because of the industry bringing in so much capital.

      Of course, the noisy wheel gets the grease. And the publicity. When a massive illegal operation is located, it's big news.

  3. I spent a fair bit of time in the Castro in the summer of 2010. I loved the names of businesses ("hand job" for a pedicure place, etc). But it didn't feel as vital as what you describe. As always, I'm jealous!

    1. Yes- Today's Castro is like a greater yet lesser version of what it was back then. The neighborhood took such a hit in the early 80's it just came back as a cartoon version.

    2. Great description, Daddy X! That has been my impression from visiting the Castro in the 2000s.

  4. I'm with J.P. So jealous. I've never been to CA, and the places you named are just names to me.

    I had an AIDS scare also, when pregnant with my first child in '87. Doctor called my husband at work, being unable to get me, and only told him that "one of my tests" was not right. I worried intensely, since I'd never had an AIDS test before that. Turns out it was my blood sugar that was high. Phew!

  5. Fabulous memoir, Daddy!

    You seem to have lived through events that are legend for everyone else.

  6. Very cool. As a child, I lived in the Bay Area (Menlo Park) for a year in 1962-63, but that was before the hippie era. In the later 1960s, I had a vague plan to leave home after graduating from high school, and I wondered if I could get into my dad's old alma mater, Stanford University. Then my parents moved us to Canada in 1967, I had to spend an extra year in high school, and hitchhiking to California across an international border didn't look feasible. It's always interesting to read about those days from those who were there.

  7. Wonderful descriptions. I wo u ld have loved san Francisco. That would have been my natural home. Envy you.


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