On Returning Home To San Francisco



San Francisco, you brittle old tattered whore city like elderly Zsa Zsa Gabor with real diamonds, you still put on a glittering front for your customers seen from the Bay on Sausalito Ferry approaching you at nightfall.

What is that far off roar I heard but hopeful schemers at Montgomery Street cocktail party of insane tearing? I heard you all from far out on the Bay coasting past the Rock, I heard crowds of young millionaires in black Italian hipster clothes clutching leather handbags filled with dreary dream money and heartless hope as Bentleys passed into the fog.

Down on Broadway I saw hard barkers under hard lights with hard faces, heard hard DVD porn blow-out specials 8 hours for $19.95. I saw Zsa Zsa decayed to tits and ass displayed at bargain rates and free looks encouraged under the glare as washed up out of time hippies huddled on Kearney Street stairs waiting for this night to pass with one guitar but no one who could play.

I heard fast-talking North Beach restaurant shills, pasta shills, pasta shills, who long ago took down their pants for one thousand dollars now they hustle tourists through the door for cold cold calamari at bargain rates on the cold sidewalks of North Beach today above the Scarbary Coast.

Over Russian Hill on Polk Street I heard hard nightmare laughter spewing from open bar doors while hard homeless wretches echoed same hard haw haw jiving, dancing and paper bag drinks on the curb and puddles of vomit spread along the sidewalk turning pink in the dawn.

Oh city of toilet paper wads under the eucalyptus and sodden doughnut boxes in the bus stop shelter, city of drunken wakes for departed neighborhood libraries, city of rotting art under the mudslide, of shameful ignorant laughter in the starving night.

I love you so much, old whore.


Wendy’s Garden

I’m not sure poetry and blogging mix. I know when I’m reading other people’s blogs they have about fifteen seconds to grab me. Hey, I’m a busy man. You’ve got to rivet me to my chair or I’ll be running off to see what Aprilbaby said today.

But poetry doesn’t work that way. Oh, I know – there’s the occasional Milk of the Bayou, a poem that smacks you in the face like a cold fish (think Sylvester the Cat here) and there you are, transported into a Roadrunner cartoon when you meant to spend quality time catching up on the G8 conference.

But regular poetry works slower. She’s shy. You’ve got to court her. You’ve got to print out that poem and take it into the garden and sit under a tree with a glass of lemonade and all the time in the world. Let the words trickle down like beads of moisture on your lemonade glass until they start to mean something.

Well, who has time for that? Might not hurt to try, though.

Hey, stay with me another twenty seconds already. I rummaged around and found Allen Cohen’s memorial poem for Wendy Norins, the girl who was the inspiration for Sylvie Potemkin in my novel-in-progress, The Syndicate of Eternal Friendship….

I got a funny feeling this morning, finding it in my back files and looking back towards the San Francisco of my youth – those years that created me. Am I the only one of my time and place left with memory intact? Why am I still here when so many who shared that youth have gone down to Davy Jones’ Locker? There must be others left – but where are they? I want to call Allen Cohen to talk about 1736 Page and after — but he’s nowhere to be found. He’s down waiting for the Ferryman.

Sometimes I feel like I’m marooned on a distant planet somewhere at the edge of the Milky Way – sending out little digital signals. Is anybody there? Is there anybody else out there? Oh well, guess I’d better go build up the fire…

Elegy for Wendy Norins, August 26, 1994
by Allen Cohen

It is the hot night of our lives.
Our bodies limp in their misuse.
Our souls though, that inner body,
statelier than mansions, gardens
lush and orderly with serene ponds
and tropical thickets.

Many beings and so much bitterness and beauty
inhabit our labyrinthine souls.
We have tended and grown each plant.
Nurtured each being that has entered there.
There are many secret places
that no one has yet seen,
some we have yet to explore.
Everyday we are adding
gorgeous flowering plants
and making new paths
and silent spaces.

And I think of you dear heart
and your wondrous pained soul.
How it ached and yet made room
for so many to find nourishment there!
In my memory I see you at 16 or 17
with an unearthly beauty, as if there
were four or five angels within you,
each pulling and lifting you
in a different direction
with each awkward breathless step.
It was a deep and mournful joyousness
that lived within you, strange
(I don’t think I romanticize here)
how every man wanted you
in order to heal their broken souls.

And you were a hippie maiden of the wind
until you finally settled in your body
and it began to corrupt your innocence
and the pain and the escape from pain
drove the angels of youth out
leaving you alone and empty.
Your destiny to reinvent your soul
To climb the ladder of light again
to let the air and rain
water the growing Eden within you.
With each act and thought
a deep compassion grew.
When such beauty born
and beauty reborn
departs our shattered world,
a vast mysterious crater
is created in the mind.
We look down into it
remembering you, looking
for the gardens of you,
stretching to reach across
the mystery of your departure.

Photos by Patrushka, except the fish.

When The Candy Was Free

You know what I hate? People who hardly know each other jumping into bed together. I’m not against it for religious reasons. In fact, I’m not even sure what family values are — but I think they have something to do with the Care Bears. No, it’s because of my best friend John T.

Back in the late Seventies, John and I were “writer-producer-directors” for a big public relations firm in San Francisco. And over time we grew to be tight friends. We shared a lot of interests. He was a wonderful photographer and a classically trained pianist. He was gentle and funny and he had a warm heart. Truth is, over the years we worked together I came to love him like a brother.

John and his boy friend Todd were regular dinner guests at our big old house on Seventeenth Avenue and the evening always ended around the piano howling out Beatles songs or Cole Porter ballads or Christmas carols if the season was right. I won’t forget the time Patrushka attempted Creme Brulee for dessert, but the melted sugar topping got way too sticky and glued John’s mouth shut. The table fell apart from laughter.

John was a pal, and pals are hard to some by and I still miss him. Love is forever.

All because John couldn’t pass up a good orgy. He used to regale me with his sexual exploits. I learned a lot about the San Francisco gay community and its bathhouse, gloryhole culture. He once said living in San Francisco was like being a kid in a candy store and all the candy was free.

We used to go on the road together and I was amazed at his ability to spot and meet and pick up a gay cashier or waiter at the hotel – all with a look, a glance. He told me once he had been driving down Highway 101 up in the country somewhere and he had sex with a guy who passed him on the highway. They just exchanged looks and that’s all it took. They both pulled over and jumped out and got it on in the field and then jumped back in their little sports cars and off they went. Yahoo! Life in the free candy store.

He laughed about it and I laughed too. I guess I could have gotten all moralistic with him but I never thought of it, and it probably wouldn’t have made any difference anyway. That was the way it was in the gay world in San Francisco. Nobody had ever heard of AIDS.

Actually, the word was starting to get around. I remember one bluesky Saturday morning in 1982. We took the kids over to John and Todd’s Potrero Hill flat and jumped into their hot tub in the backyard. We had a great time as usual, but underneath I worried. Could AIDS get passed on through water in a hot tub? Should the girls be in here? Looking back, I’m glad I ignored the thought. Those guys weren’t long for this world and I’m glad for every moment we had together.

So, the next year I took a job on the east coast and, after that, I only saw John and Todd when I flew back to the City on business. I’d always drop by their flat to see what was up, and John wasn’t looking so good. He never would cop to having HIV, but I saw him preparing little vitamin protein supplements to spread on his cracker. We never really got down to what mattered – we’d just talk about business and trade east coast vs west coast work stories and talk about if the multi-image slide show business would survive.

John and Todd usually stayed with us when they were on the east coast and we managed to stay in touch, but less and less. Then one evening Todd called to tell us John was dead. He caught pneumonia and died quite quickly.

The fuck.

John’s parents came out from Pittsburgh. I guess the flat was in John’s name because they sold it and evicted Todd. They blamed Todd for everything. After a few months, he left the City. There was someone in Long Beach who said he’d take care of him.

God bless those guys. They’re both dead now because John couldn’t keep it zipped. Why couldn’t he just stay home with Todd? Was it really that hard to do? Excuse me, gentle reader. But do you see why I have a personal dislike of promiscuity?

Instead of a dear friend I get to see whenever I go to San Francisco, I just get another stupid fucking grave to put flowers on. I’ll just have to miss his sweet smile and gentle ways till I get to heaven. I wouldn’t want to go to any heaven that didn’t include John T.

So while we’re changing the world around here today could we please eliminate AIDS too?

Joan Baez Again

It’s been almost exactly one year since my first love letter to Joan Baez appeared at the Pondering Pig. Now Hector at The Walrus Speaks has put up another Joan Baez video, this time of Diamonds and Rust, her sweet and heartfelt ode to Mr. Dylan and to lost-love nostalgia in general. And I find I have a few more heartfelt thoughts about that key figure and soul sister of my generation.

But you’re probably getting bored listening to me go on and on about Joan Baez. Why doesn’t he write about somebody with blond hair, like Shakira? Or Christina Aguilera. Now they’ve got blond hair! That Joan Baez, her hair is as gray as the Pondering Pig’s! Grayer even! And I’ve never seen her even try to belly dance.

Actually, it would be interesting to ponder the current music scene and report back to other graysnout pigs such as myself. But I am the least likely of pigs to take on such a task. I don’t even own a television set, so how could I watch the MTV awards?

Show your support! Take up a collection so the Pig can properly ponder Shakira! You’ll be amazed at my unexpected insights.

Actually, I am maybe a little too puritanical to really get into Shakira and her contemps. All that blatant on stage sex kind of embarrasses me. Makes me feel like I shouldn’t be in looking at this private moment.

Joanie took a different route. In her rise to showbiz success she portrayed herself as an enemy of violence, as a friend of farmworkers, as someone who might show up at anti-war demonstrations and peace marches and just sing for free. In fact, not only did she portray herself that way, she actually WAS that way. What a publicity coup!

She was more, well, more Sixties. Just the music. Just the achingly pure voice. Just the one guitar. No bullshit please. There is more to sing about in this life than my hot blood and my breaking heart.

Actually, when I think of Joan Baez, I get a lump in my throat. It’s weird, I know. Maybe you have to be from my time and place. For instance, I will never never forget the day in November 1978 when San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone and our outspoken gay rights Supervisor Harvey Milk were both shot down in San Francisco’s City Hall by a bitter and hate wracked man whose name will never again be spoken by this pig. Shot down in cold blood just ten days after news had broken about the massacre at Jonestown. Ten days after our own little homegrown cult, the People’s Temple, took the Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Cam, our graphics artist at work, listened to the radio while she worked, so she heard the news first. We all stood around her radio to hear Supervisor Dianne Feinstein speak over the air. “”Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot . . . and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”

I stood numb on the 1 California bus all the way home. Staring out at the streets of my gone gray city, smelling the dirty overcoat of the Chinese guy standing next to me, looking blankly at the elderly black lady with her Bible in her hand — just like the woman who used to collect down at Seventeenth and Geary for the Jim Jones People’s Temple. The one who was probably lying dead in a morgue in Guyana right now. No weight has ever lain heavier on my shoulders. My city, my city, my broken city of sorrow and death.

At home that evening, Patrushka and I and our seven year old daughter Hannah watched the little black and white TV in mourning. Patrushka was ready to give birth so we weren’t standing with the candlelit crowds in the Civic Center. We just sat in our darkened living room on Seventeenth Avenue feeling that stunned and dark feeling. What more evil could happen to hope? (John Lennon’s assassination was still a year away.)

KGO-TV’s camera swept across the 25,000 grief strained faces, gay and straight, black, white and Asian, there to hold up their little candles, to listen to forgotten heartfelt, extemporized speeches, to be together, who knew why? Because the rolling sky was on fire.

What I can never forget was the moment Joan Baez came out of the crowd, tuned up, and, standing on the City Hall steps, began to sing “Amazing Grace.” And through that little portable TV speaker on Seventeenth Avenue we heard again her blessed angel voice of hope and healing and truth. I grabbed on and held tight. I guess it wasn’t much in the great scheme of things, but at that moment, it felt like a whole lot. What I heard was – ‘the light’s not out yet, the light’s not all the way out.’

God bless you forever for that, Joanie.

Patrushka gave birth to our daughter Kirstie the next day. She came out screaming. Full of hope. And ready for joy.

Thanks to Uncle Donald’s Castro Street for the vigil photo. His site is worth visiting if you remember or would like to know more.