Ghosts of San Francisco Past: Castro

The Castro SF

The streets of the Castro are covered in Pride flags. The roads roll up and down steep hills and the cars navigate them despite the fact that there seems to be nowhere to park. As I walked along the sidewalks, peeking through the windows of trendy shops, coffee and pastry establishments, bars, and small restaurants, I looked down and noticed small concrete memorials to LGBT celebrities past: Sally Ride, Barbara Jordan, Virginia Woolf, Oskar Wilde, Tennessee Williams. I wondered how many stepped over their memories, their ghosts, without noticing.

There are gay people everywhere. Big beefy men walk the streets, holding hands and and keeping dogs on leashes. Older gay men open store fronts. A lovely black lesbian couple make conversation on the subway. Men sit across from each other at tables sipping coffee, looking up and noticing other men walking by with casual interest. Eyes constantly wander. There are smiles on every face. Asian, Latin, African American, white, men and women of every shape, size, color, and age, in tank tops, jeans, suits, and dresses. And everyone smiling, shopping, eating. The sun shines down on all equally in this moment, another that will soon be passed.

I watch the posters advertising local shows and events. Shirtless men holding beers advertising happy hour; four women in drag as the Golden Girls advertising a holiday special; a drag queen in a cradle advertising a show called ‘A Gay in the Manger’; beautiful men in togas advertising a Bacchanalia festival. I overhear conversations about holiday party plans, see Christmas trees and lights in third story windows, and see bags of wine and booze being rushed up flights of stairs while bags of garbage are being rushed down them.

I stop in the newly established LGBT history museum and look at the two small rooms of displays. I spend most of my time on a computer where a feature allows me to select a ‘random obituary’, and I push the button nearly five dozen times. I see newspaper clippings about funerals from 1989, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2006. Nearly every one I see is a man dead of AIDS. Some have no photos. Some use aliases. One is about an Olympian athlete, one a doctor, one a flight attendant, one a drag queen and performer, one a Viet Nam veteran, all dead from a senseless epidemic. Several of the obituaries close with pleas to donate to local AIDS research organizations to help find a cure. There are only two outliers: an elderly man who had AIDS yet died of cancer, and a black lesbian who was shot in the head in a random drive-by shooting while her partner held her.

I walk a mile in the other direction, up to Corona Heights, and I ascend several flights or old wooden stairs, climbing and climbing. I arrive at the top, then climb on top of a big rock, and I look over the city. The ocean melts into the land on one side, and the Earth curves in the distance. The homes there are beautiful, ornate, enormous. I turn to the left and see rows of homes with no space between them and no yards. An ocean breeze blows against my face, chapping my lips, and I think of the homeless woman in pigtails and childlike makeup who sat on a street corner with a pink blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she made kissing noises at passers-by, and the man who was dressed in a Spongebob Squarepants onesie, the one who held a cardboard sign that said he’d been recently diagnosed with AIDS; he’d written in black marker the web address for his own GoFundMe page.

I climb back down and walk the streets again. I can’t get the obituaries out of my head. I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like back then, to be part of building a community like this. Now, gay neighborhoods are commonplace and have spread through cities. They have gentrified. Now, gay clubs are filled with straight people. But then, to be a part of building a safe place where there were no other safe places. To see these men and women walking the streets, finding jobs and families, building homes and lives. And then to see it all threatened, compromised, and washed away by AIDS, by violent attacks, by oppressive laws. The rushing thoughts inspired me and saddened me at the same time.

I walked past no less than six shops specializing in sexy underwear, sex toys, lube, and vintage porn, then I came across the Human Rights Campaign’s office, and realized it is based in the original Castro Camera shop, the one where Harvey Milk lived and waged his campaign for election before his assassination. That felt right, felt just somehow. Many may not know the history, but they know the name Harvey Milk. He’s been canonized, he’s become an icon, and to see that structure still standing for equality gave me a sense of hope, of history.

I sit to reflect, with Turkish coffee and a pastry with a name I can’t pronounce, and I think of history, of all who have come before who are only remembered by the lives they touched. I think of the stories I have to tell, and how hard it is to make a living at that yet how it’s the only thing I seem to want to do lately. It overwhelms me sometimes, this need I seem to have to honor ghosts. Yet it fulfills me in ways I never thought possible.

Later, I purchase tickets to see the movie Misery in the Castro, a film decades old about an obsessed crazy woman. Kathy Bates is brilliant in it, fully convincing with her syringes, sledgehammers, and dirty birdies. The theater is nearly 100 years old, with textured walls, old movie posters, carved ornate fixtures, and high ceilings. A man plays a pipe organ where the previews should have been. I look across the crowd and see several dozen people here, in this old building, paying full price to see a movie from the past. The Castro has sing-along nights, silent films, black and whites, and still the people come to see it. They are entertained by the past, in an old space. The love the stories.

And that fact, their joy, that finally quiets the ghosts for a time.

 

 

 

 

Tenderloin to Castro

tenderloin

After a pleasant flight to San Francisco, my boyfriend and I took a long Lyft ride into the city, sharing the car with another couple, two lawyers from Los Angeles, in town for “my middle school best friend’s baby shower!” The flight had been relaxed and comfortable, the plane only about 1/8th full, giving everyone plenty of space to spread out and relax.

We had pre-arranged a place to stay in the Tenderloin, an area on the north-eastern side of San Francisco, weeks before. It was described as a comfortable condo in an up-and-coming neighborhood. It was only later that we had learned from friends that this was one of the more dangerous areas of town. The Lyft driver let us off in front of the entrance to our condo, a gated doorway nestled in between an Chinese laundromat and an ethnic food store of some kind. A man in bandages sat on the sidewalk outside, a woman in a wheelchair was bundled up in tattered blankets, and a man with no teeth eyed our suitcases suspiciously.

Our host met us at the door, jogging down the block toward us from his work like some kind of super model. He was tall, lithe, and black, well-dressed with an incredible smile. He was also very straight. He greeted us with enthusiasm, said his name was Taye, and showed us into his tiny condo. He lived here, he explained, and worked at a start-up company down the road, one that was launching a new merchandise-sharing app. He liked to rent his condo out to guests and then go stay with his fiancee at her place. He showed us how to use the shower, invited us to eat the food in his fridge, and then rushed off back to work.

The condo was small. A kitchen counter with appliances, a sofa bed, a window, and a small enclosed bathroom. But this was San Francisco, and the place would do. The boyfriend, however, felt nervous in this neighborhood, and wondered if we would feel safe coming and going at any time of day. I wondered how I would spend my time in the 2 hours after I woke up and before he did without a different room to move into. Those early morning hours can be both a blessing and a curse for me.

After a few minutes, we realized how cold it was in the condo, and noticed there was only one blanket on the bed. I messaged Taye quickly about it, and he responded quickly that the heater was broken. He said that if we get cold, we were welcome to run the oven at a high temperature an just open the door, that it could warm the place up. I told him I didn’t feel safe doing that for three full days, then he recommended that I rent a heater. His start-up company liked to connect people with each other. I would just need to provide him with my Email address and full name, then download an app, and he could get a heater lined up for me that could be delivered in 1 to 4 hours, and I quickly responded that I would not be doing that.

The boyfriend and I had a good laugh for a bit. The last time we traveled together, to Minneapolis, we had an extremely negative experience with Airbnb. We had paid for a room and the host had never shown up, and it had taken the company several hours to get us new accommodations, ones that turned out to be extremely inconvenient. But between the sketchy neighborhood and the very cold room with no blankets, I decided to call and complain. The suggestion to run the oven, and the instruction to download an app, it all just suddenly felt very weird.

Airbnb took our complaint, and noted that the listing online had indeed advertised that a heater was in the room, something that I felt shouldn’t have to be requested at the prices we had already paid. They then reached out to Taye, giving him a deadline to call back within. Taye then called me, wondering why I was calling the company when he had been trying to help. He said he would order the heater for us, fine, we just had to wait there for it for 1 to 4 hours, and I told him we wouldn’t  be willing to do that as we were on vacation. He then frustratedly said he would find a way to get it there. Then Airbnb called back, saying Taye hadn’t called them back and that they were changing our reservations.

It happened quickly after that. I sent Taye a message explaining what had happened, and I left 10 dollars on his counter because we had used his shower. I felt bad right away, he was going to be out the money we had already paid, and likely fined by Airbnb for not having a heater. (The oven, the app, I reminded myself, but I still felt bad.) Suddenly we were being moved to a nicer area of town, our unpacked bags being put into a new Lyft to the Castro. Rushing away from Taye’s place, I felt like I had stolen something and needed to get out of the store before the employees noticed. We rushed hurriedly out the door, dreading the possibility of seeing him.

Before we arrived at the new accommodations, I received a series of frustrated messages from Taye. He said he hadn’t done anything wrong, that he had gone out of his way to bring us a heater because we had complained, and that he had entered the apartment to find a ‘measly ten dollar bill and a note’ waiting. Initially, I felt terrible and awkward, but soon we were being introduced to Jose, a kind man who lived with his husband and rented out his beautiful basement apartment. There was coffee and snacks, a huge beautiful bathroom, a comfy large bed with pillows and blankets, and a living room where two giant stuffed bears sat on the couch. It was inviting, spacious, and comfortable, like a home away from home should be.