A Disturbing Realization

As most of my readers already know, I lived in San Francisco for approximately sixteen years, encompassing my late 20s through early 40s.

The other morning, while laying awake at 4 am, memories of San Francisco started bubbling up. I don’t know if it was my age/hormone level at the time I lived there, or whether it is something about The City itself, but going over my memories of San Francisco I came to the disturbing realization that the vast majority of those memories—okay, pretty much all my memories of life in San Francisco—revolve around getting laid or trying to get laid…under the guise of looking for true love, of course.

Of course I worked. I made friends. I went to movies and plays. I took photos, made art, read books, acquired new skills, spent way too much money on way too much stuff, and explored the natural beauty of the Bay Area. But it seems all that was nothing more than background noise amid the unrelenting need to connect.

I would like to think that I fell into that lifestyle over the course of several years, but if I’m being totally honest, I have to admit it started almost the minute boots were on the ground.

While I did date and had several serial boyfriends, the smorgasbord of carnal delights and availability of potential sexual partners literally anywhere in the City is no doubt why so many refer to those 49 square miles as “Disneyland for Adults” and none of those relationships actually lasted. “Cruisin’ the Streets” is more than just an old Boys Town Gang song. You could connect with someone on the subway, waiting for the bus, on your lunch hour downtown, walking home after work—and either go right to your/their place, make plans to meet up later, or duck into an empty stairwell for a quickie; literally anywhere. Buena Vista Park, North Baker Beach, “the whispering bushes” and the southern convenience station at the polo field at the western end of Golden Gate Park, the Hyatt Embarcadero, the 1808 Club, the Shaklee building, the Russ Building, The Playground, the Sir Francis Drake, Mike’s Night Gallery, the Sheraton Palace…

You get the idea. There was a lot of action going on in The City. All. The. Time.

Inspired to start keeping a record of my life in San Francisco after seeing Prick Up Your Ears about a year after my arrival there, my journals read like an embarrassing, depressing erotic novel, full of saucy but ultimately empty encounters, littered with the names of men of whom I now have no conscious memory.

I can’t help but think that in the wake of 9/11 and the added security everywhere that followed, most of those locales have long since been locked down, but I know how industrious and creative horny men can be, and despite the authorities’ best efforts, trysts will still happen somewhere.

Before I moved to San Francisco, when my friend Kent (who had arrived about six years earlier) once related how he stopped to have sex with some guy he met while on the way to a date with another, I was appalled. I could not understand how such a thing could happen, much less that anyone would actually partake. Note I said before I moved there…

While that particular scenario never happened to me, it was apparently not that uncommon, and I had plenty of other equally lascivious encounters during that decade and a half to make up for it. To this day I’m still amazed that I made it out alive, somehow remained STD/AIDS free, and didn’t end up with a police record.

Hard To Believe It’s Been Thirty Years

1645 Folsom Street, #7. My first—non-shared—apartment in San Francisco. September/October 1987.

It wasn’t perfect, but it was one of those places I immediately think of when I hear the word “home.”

At the time, the area was still very much industrial/commercial in nature. The building was a half block from Hamburger Mary’s and just around the corner from the SF Eagle. At $745 a month, this one bedroom plus den stretched my budget but I loved it. #7 overlooked the extremely shallow paved back yard (that was never used by anyone). It had a good southern exposure, even though the equally tall buildings completely surrounding the yard sometimes made it feel like it was at the bottom of a light well. It also had an easily accessible roof deck where you could throw a lounge chair and catch some rays or the wonderful views at night.

About eighteen months after I moved in, #9 opened up on the top floor, and I jumped on it. It wasn’t quite as big as #7 (no separate den), but it was bright and airy, had a charming—if non working—fireplace, and a decent view of Twin Peaks if you stood in either of the bay windows.

The biggest adjustment moving upstairs to the opposite side of the building was the noise. Sleep was impossible with the windows open for the first few nights I was there because I was now facing Folsom, and even then it was a busy thoroughfare. But when the winter rains started sound of drops hitting the pavement and the woosh-woosh of cars passing on those wet nights more than made up for it. Parking (or lack thereof) continued to be a problem; I can’t even begin to tell you how many hundreds of dollars in $10 overnight street-cleaning parking tickets I racked up. But this was still home, and after I struck an arrangement with one of the business owners a few doors down to rent a parking space in their lot for $25 a month, the parking problem all but disappeared.

Then there was the stove in #9. It apparently hadn’t received a proper cleaning since it was originally put in place from the looks of it. I made the mistake one night of lifting up the range top, thinking I’d only have to wipe up a few spills under the burners, but I ended up spending the entire evening—with a putty knife—scarping off god knows how many years of accumulated gunk. But it shined thereafter!

This is where I was living when the Loma Prieta quake hit in 1989. The building came through with nary a scratch, but it pointed out the disadvantage of living in that particular area; probably because of its zoning and demographics, it was one of the last areas of The City to regain power. Even so, if I hadn’t made a very poor decision some months earlier and asked an even poorer decision of a romantic partner to move in with me, I might’ve stayed much longer. As it was, we transferred the lease into his name and I moved out in 1990.

1645 today…or at least as of last April, courtesy Google.

Down The Rabbit Hole

When I’m not otherwise occupied at work, I’ve found that an excellent way to make time pass in the blink of an eye is to get on Google Maps/Street View.

I spotted this photo over on Shorpy the other day. It was labeled, “Card Alley, San Francisco, February 1936.” I’d never heard of Card Alley, so I figured it was either one of the multitude of half-block long streets that dot downtown, or it was no longer in existence.

The former proved to be the case, because I hopped on Google Maps and found it almost immediately, Surprisingly it still looks very similar.

Once in San Francisco, however, I started exploring. First it was all the places I’d lived. (It looks like many of the buildings had changed ownership because they were actually being kept up now.) From there I started visiting all my old haunts, my workplaces (the small architectural office where I worked 8 years is now a vacant lot adjacent to a condo complex), my daily commute (I actually walked that much?!?). And from there I moved out of the city proper to visit a few of my other favorite places: the Marin Headlands, Sausilito, and then points further afield.

I found myself awash in a curious mix of emotions, a lot of which I can’t even find words for. Obviously there was sadness, a sense of loss tinged with regret at having never done all the things I’d wanted to do (because there was always next week, next month, next year)…but there was also joy and that feeling of “home” I always experienced when I was there. I’ve always said San Francisco was a very jealous mistress, but one that would welcome you back in a heartbeat with open arms should you stray and then return.

I think that’s one of the reasons I haven’t gone back since my departure in 2002. I fear that Siren will grip me and demand my return to her bosom as it did the last time I left. (Granted, that was only an absence of about six months, not fifteen years, so my fears may be groundless.)

And—perhaps most fortunately for me to resist that siren song—as I noted even while living there in my 20s and 30s, is that it remains a city of and for the young…and most recently, a city of the insanely wealthy young, a demographic that I decidedly do not fall into. I remember balking at having to pay $1300 a month for a one bedroom apartment with off-street garage parking and a view of downtown on Twin Peaks in 2002. Nowadays, $1300 might get you a mother-in-law studio apartment in the back of a garage in the Outer Sunset.—if you’re lucky.

But it was still a fun little virtual visit and I plan on returning for further exploration the next time I’m sitting at work with nothing to do and waiting for the day to end.

5,253 Days

That’s how long I lived in San Francisco.

The other day I realized that I’ve now probably been gone from The City longer than I actually lived there. Some calculations verified that suspicion. I’ve been gone—and haven’t even been back for a visit—for 5,367 days.

Based on two prior attempts to leave The City’s siren call, when I returned to Phoenix in 2002, I had assumed it would be short term; a port to weather the economic storm that gripped the country post 9/11. But then something happened. I actually grew to like it here.

And then cancer diagnosis arrived. I came out of the ordeal a changed person; I looked at the Mark who existed prior to the diagnosis and wanted nothing more to do with him—and by extension the city that had contributed so much to who he had become.

To be honest, the intervening years have produced an occasional pang of homesickness when I stumble across a particularly stunning photograph of The City, but it passes quickly when I realize how circumstances brought me to the beautiful life I have now with Ben and that San Francisco has very much become a city for the young and obscenely wealthy; two demographics to which I definitely do not belong.

I Almost Didn’t Recognize This

…which is surprising considering how much tenant improvement work we did in the small, 5-story building at the center of the frame over the span of the 8 years I worked for H&M in San Francisco. And then I realized that I’ve nearly been gone from The City as long as the total number of years I lived there and now I’m wondering how much longer 30 Van Ness is for this world since it’s now being surrounded by newer, shinier neighbors.

Scenes from San Francisco, 1993

I still find it amazing that for all the years I lived in San Francisco—inarguably one the most photogenic cities in the United States—I have so few photos of The City itself. Again and again I used to say, “I really need to grab my camera and just start walking the neighborhoods,” but like going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium—something else that kept getting put off “because it’ll always be there”—one day I woke up and realized I no longer had the opportunity.

But every so often I did get out…

Unintended Consequences

One of the unintended consequences of scanning my dad’s photo albums is discovering that I have about twenty years of my own photos that have never been digitized. I realized this while trying to locate some of Dad’s photos that I knew I’d pulled from his albums over the past couple years and never put back.

I didn’t really find what I was looking for, but it prompted another scanning project that I started last weekend.

I’ve already started posting some of my favorites.  I’ll continue to do so as I make my slowly through the mountains of photos I took.

As always, you can click on any of them to get full size.

Where Are They Now?

I have several “iconic” photos in my collection from the 16 years I lived in San Francisco.  Among them are these two that I shot in the late summer of 1987.

This beautiful young thing used to often be seen at the corner of Castro and 18th playing her Casio keyboard and caterwauling into the night while trying to sell her cassettes to passers-by. I was quite surprised to find her downtown one day—and during daylight hours no less—so having wanted to get a photo of her for quite some time, I took the opportunity presented by a crowded sidewalk and grabbed one of her unaware…

This lady was a fixture downtown from 1987 until I left San Francisco (for the first time) in 1995. One Saturday afternoon I ran into her after she had been thrown out of a Subway Restaurant. Having witnessed the altercation while I was eating, when I finished I walked outside found her sitting a few hundred feet away. I walked up to her and told her I’d seen how horribly she’d been treated by the staff at Subway and asked if I could buy her lunch. She readily accepted the offer and the two of us walked back into the shop together. The sales clerk said, “I told you to get OUT!” at which point I looked at her and said, “She’s with me, and I’m buying her lunch. Do you want me to take my money elsewhere?”

She got her lunch.

Several days later I ran into her again, and she recognized me from the previous encounter and thanked me once again for the meal.

I often wonder whatever happened to these women…

SO True!

This was one of my first observations about San Francisco upon moving there in the 80s. Apparently nothing has changed. Doesn’t anybody work in this town?!?