Sunday, 7 September 2014

Castro delights

The day started with breakfast on North Beach. Omelette, little diced potatoes and two pieces of toast with grape jam. It's a tradition I rarely deviate from when I'm in this country. It works. It sets me up for a day of hardcore walking. And hardcore walking we did...

First stop was Macondrey Street, which fans of Armistice Maupin's seminal Tales of the City books might recognise as the real-life Barbary Lane, home of the irrepressible Mrs Madrigal. Really, the street is exactly as Maupin describes it; wooden steps snaking up through a series of lush gardens, wooden houses poking up through the trees with top floor rooms looking out over San Francisco Bay towards Alcatraz. Perfect. Really. Of course the bohemians no longer live there. They were long-since priced out of the area by wealthy computer gurus. You can always rely on the gays and the bohemians to make an area desirable for the bankers and entrepreneurs!

We walked down towards City Hall via a corner shop which sold ice cream, which, for an added 50c, you could have dipped in melted chocolate. My ice cream melted rather speedily, all over my fingers, then down my T-shirt and onto my camera, but the discomfort of the clean-up operation was worth every second.

City Hall was closed. It's a Saturday today. We were a little disappointed because we wanted to see the statue of Harvey Milk. Instead we sat on the steps, found some free wifi, and listened to Milk's prescient "if I should be assassinated" speech, which he recorded on a tape a week before his actual assassination. One of the oft-quoted lines from the recording goes something like, "if someone puts a bullet through my brain, I hope that bullet destroys every closet door in the country." And to some extent the bullet which entered his brain did just that. Chilling. Deeply moving.

The Harvey Milk pilgrimage continued up at the Castro with a visit to the LGBT museum, which displays the blood-stained suit that Milk was wearing when he was assassinated. It sounds deeply mawkish, but round these parts the man is every bit a saint, and there was something about the way that the suit had been so carefully laid out in dark lighting that made it an important, treasured, dignified exhibit, rather than a nasty piece of exploitation.

Castro was full of its usual selection of brilliant oddballs. I was high-fived by a man wearing a chain-mail yashmak and stopped by a trannie Madam standing outside a bar who said, "oh my God, a bear." She then looked across at Nathan: "Can I be in the middle? For just a few hours?" So I'm a bear? How ghastly! Nathan says I'm to start embracing this identity. I'd rather stick pins in my eyes!

Later on, we were accosted by a lovely chap called Jamie Otis, who, essentially told us his life story whilst sitting outside Starbucks. Jamie was dressed all in white, with rather smart matching glittery earrings and sparkly nail varnish on the fingers of one of his hands. He told us that he was 64 years old, and that he'd been to London in 1971 where he'd bought a little poncho from the King's Road which never made it back to the States. He'd spent most of his life living on the streets, and at one point in a forest. He didn't explicitly say it, but I'm pretty convinced he'd been a rent boy at some point. He was obviously extremely attractive in his youth. Bright, piercing blue eyes, sandy hair, and a very good bone structure. Sadly, years of poverty, and probably drugs, meant he no longer had any of his top teeth. But he was a charming man, with a kind energy, who, with a set of false gnashers would have looked ten years younger than his years.

He lives in some form of care-in-the-community hostel run by Indians "you know, the ones with the dots on their heads... They don't charge me any money. It's very strange." He proceeded to show us his drawings; most of which were of flowers all done with psychedelic luminous marker pens. Some of them had little cartoon stickers attached to them, "funny little doughnut girls", he said. The experience left me feeling very sad. He had a cell-phone, which isn't connected to anything, but he says he likes to play the games on it, and likes it when the alarm rings. There but for the grace of God go we all.

We decided to explore the streets on the hills above the Castro. Nearly every house in this part of town displays a rainbow flag, or a trans flag, or a flag denoting that the house owner is into leather. Yes. All these flags genuinely exist!

We found a little play area where two highly-polished concrete slides snake down a particularly steep hill. The sign on the playground said "all adults must be accompanied by a child," but because no actual children were around, we decided to have a go. And much fun it was too! Nathan decided that he'd play the mentally subnormal card if any angry parent stopped him and told him off. Like they'd bother in San Fran! Everyone here is way too laid back to get angry. Dope is legal in this city... You can grow your own, as long as you don't grow more than 99 plants! Everywhere smells of pot! Everywhere!

Later on we climbed higher still to another one of those crazy lanes which are essentially just wooden steps winding their way through over-grown gardens. My favourite of the ones we visited was the curiously-named Saturn Steps, where we sat on a bench and made friends with a fluffy grey cat called Buzz who decided she wanted to sit on Nathan's lap.

We drifted back into Castro and through the Pink Triangle Memorial to gay people who died in the Nazi regime. A haunting picture was displayed of a group of frightened men wearing pink triangles over their striped Auschwitzy pyjamas. It's been a day of realising how lucky we are to be able to enter the States on our honeymoon as legally married men. In fact, we entered the country on a single customs form and were almost embraced by our otherwise po-faced customs officer!

Nathan became the cat who ate all the cream when we walked down Castro Street and found an enormous knitting shop, lined from floor to ceiling with multi-coloured yarns. He was very restrained. I was proud of him. He only emerged with a single ball. The shop itself was full of men. I was a little perplexed until Nathan pointed out that we were in the Castro... and then the penny dropped!

We spent the last of the daylight hours in Delores Park, which had taken on something of a "be-in" vibe with thousands of young hipsters hanging out, practising their Hoola-hooping and circus skills, and dancing to music which was being pumped into the park by DJs sitting at decks. Kids played on the swings in the centre of the park. Others had picnics nicely set out. Everyone seemed to be having the greatest time. One little Chinese man was walking about with a trolly, recycling everyone's bottles! One thing I'll say about San Franciscans is that they seem to like to hang out in big groups with no sense of divisions within age, sexual or racial groups. They feel like a very social group. Part of this is plainly to do with the climate and the slower pace of life, but I also wouldn't be surprised if the whole Summer of Love thing hadn't left it's mark.

We went back to the Castro again and instantly realised that Nathan's iPhone had vanished. Fearing the absolute worst, we retraced our steps, all the way back to the little patch of grass we'd been sitting on in the park some thirty minutes before. Nothing. The same latino family who'd been sitting behind us were still there, so Nathan asked if they'd seen his phone. Negative. And that was that...

A minute later one of the group called him back; "what kind of phone?" she asked. "An iPhone" said Nathan. She proceeded to open a bag and pull out Nathan's phone. "My kids found it," she said. I think the fact that she'd switched the phone off made it pretty clear that until she saw Nathan, the phone was not destined to be returned to its owner, but seeing his troubled-little face plainly made her take pity on him. Crisis averted.

Back in Castro for the fiftieth time we witnessed two camp young queens trash-talking at each other. Quote of the day has to be one of them screaming at the other; "shut it, bitch, you ain't got no power!"

The ludicrous nature of this interchange was immediately replaced by the absolute joy of seeing a 'cellist, sitting on a balcony above the street, playing unaccompanied Bach suites to those passing underneath.

And such is the contradiction which makes San Fran the most eccentric, rich, beautiful, strange, laid-back city I've had the pleasure to visit. One which I shall be sad to leave tomorrow. One to which I hope to return sooner than 14 years from now.

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