“Venturing into areas
previously unknown can be
a raw challenge to the senses.”
“No, it be you—huggy hug!”
“Been too long, Eugene—you’re looking fantabulous,” Sydney beamed, as they spun out of their embrace like ice queens sticking a 10.
“You lookin’ simply scrumptious, honey…”
Bearing unready witness, looking askance, otherwise standing silently aside: I hadn’t a clue what he saw in her at the time, but was certain I looked even more out of sorts my own self. Grizzled, rumpled, road tar nose to toes, yet here I was, arm-in-arm with Ms. Superlative, who had rallied from the close quarters of our Interstate-80 incarceration—black leotard and red ski jacket no less dozed in, still and all a diva at her premiere. Sydney led me like a guide dog down Polk Street from the Balmy Palm, where we came upon…Eugene. An Afro blood in tangerine and turquoise jumpsuit, he’d bounded over to us from behind a tin foil faux Kwanza tree like Ziggy stardusting Mick Ronson center stage at the Palladium.
“Sooo, how’s every little thing at the Institute, Eugene?”
“Oh, I’m not toolin’ with no schoolin’ no more…” A pink aegis pin shone above his left patch pocket, the name, Pinkertons in bold script just below it.
“But your figure classes…no more modeling?”
“Hell with school, honey child,” Eugene air-kissed her, smiling obliquely my way. “All that matters these days is that you be lookin’ good. Speakin’ of lookin’ right, how goes it with you and Mr. James Winslow…”
“James and I are history, Eugene,” she sighed, wiping a sly, dry tear from her eye. “Europe’s been my muse lately—you know how it is…”
“Too, too tragic,” he squeezed her shoulder, sneezing to the side, then scoping, sizing me up and down. “So it’s back into the studio for you.”
“Isn’t it always,” she replied wistfully. “Oh, this is Kenneth, he’s…with me…”
“Nice to…” At that point, I could have been a mail storage box, gratefully so.
“Puleeezed,” he hugged her once more, winking my way. “Mister straight and true now, is it? Guess we can’t be too purrr-snickety these days, now can we…” He then scooted off toward the honking of a lookyme Riviera’s car horn, and the makings of a driveby tryst. “Gotta run, ciao-zy! Later for youz two…”
By all appearances, the further down we walked, the further down Polk Street got—down, but certainly not deserted. Tops dropped, windows cracked, tape decks blaring: traffic snail cruised in both directions, a feisty parade of four-stroke motorbikes buzzing between and around trolling Fiats, Ghias, Mustangs, the odd Valiant and occasional MGBs. Nevertheless, a chill gust kicked up near Sacramento Street, tossing candy wrappers and weekend edition newspaper pages like Nevada tumbleweed, carrying along the eau de cheesy garlic from a corner souvlaki pizzeria, setting store signs swaying like tin pan metronomes. That signage ranged from gyros and liquor stores to musty second-hand shops, high-laced platform booteries and greasy bacon-and chiliburger grilles. Clearly, here was no Main Street, USA; this was no pristine Pearly mall.
“That’s my dear friend, Eugene. He’s a regular crosser chameleon, really gets around,” Syd said, turning us away, down Polk. “Eugene’s been an illustration student at the Art Institute…on partial scholarship. So he’s doubled as a figure model on the side, posed for me lotsa times, and I for him…”
“You…have,” I said, noting that I hadn’t seen so many guys together since army boot camp, and even there, not so many guys like these.
“Sure, for his whole class sometimes, too. It’s all part of the artistic process—creative vision, collaboration, liberation…know what I mean?”
“Well, yeah—not that, exactly, but I get the gist…”
“No gist, genuine innovation, what art is all about,” she said, with a sweep of her arm. “Seeing things differently. You’re not afraid of that, are you?”
“Hey, no way—why would I be…”
“You tell me,” she scanned me, head to Vibram boot heel. “Because that’s not the vibe I’m getting from you at all.”
Across Sacramento Street, Polk’s storefronts ran more to bounteous flower shops, big hair salons, glam and leather boutiques, if not skin and leather bars. Not fringy cowboy buckskin so much as Brando-on-a-wild-Duoglide black sort of hide, along a mane drag with some heavy bends in the road. Outside Kiko’s Bar, all the young dudes were brandishing the news, passing around the doobs, crooning to deafening dance beats with defiant, devious attitudes—all under a smiling sliver of a mild mid-winter moon over Suffragette City, a Queen’s latest ‘News of the World’ promo disk counter-tracking out of a mid-block velvet lounge.
“So, what do you really think of PolkStrasse, flash?”
“I don’t know, this whole scene seems kinda bizarre…”
“Well, your bag is sociology, and here’s some big-league sosh for you.”
“Sorry, not quite my area of expertise,” I said, being rattled to the bone, trying to keep clinically cool about it, putting on a straight, stoic face in the face of this movable, ritualistic sextravaganza.
“Oh, get your head out of your classrooms, professor. There’s a whole real world to scope out around here.”
Vintage New York Dolls, Kool and Donna Summer, Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’ and Iggy’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’ amped forth from glitter meat markets to either side of Polk, reverbing off open-air cattle stalls and ubiquitous mirror balls. From each pick-up window came the furtive and flirtive catcalls, wolf whistling and hound dogging, met with chiding lines, roving winknods and lusty eyelocks, drowning in stiff waves of hair gel and spiked cologne—reefer and fruity liqueurs filling the air from there.
“Mucho action, huh,” Syd continued, leading me along—pushing, prodding, testing my tolerance, or limits thereof. “PolkStrasse’s always on like this.”
“It’s on something, all right—given the grab ass and rubbing limbs,” I said, a smoochy, hand-holding item Cadillacing past us in matching suede and chains. “Lotsa hovering around like vultures…”
“Oh, loosen up, will you? Just showing you what for. So get in the groove—that’s the way it flows here on rainbow lane.”
“Think I’ll take a pass…” I grew more perturbed at the leering, naked stares, all these joy boys on parade—like the overheated leather flame winking from the doorway of an antiquated bookstore. “Have never come across such a case of normative…variance like this.”
“Afraid it’s contagious,” she asked. “But keep up with gobbledegook like that, Farmer John, and you’ll get yourself plowed under here for sure.”
A slim young blade in tight pink tanktop and gym shorts blew kisses to us, Richard Simmons-style, from atop a covered trash bin as we passed one of the last legit, old-line businesses from better times, before Polk Street took its lascivious dive. Charring Cross Coffee and Tea Shop had been importing bulk beans and leaves from the world over since the turn of the century, its display windows chock with antique scales, grinders and brew pots. This was a venerable, veritable museum of caffeine through the ages, with a roasted aroma to snap eyes open and crank brains over a block away. Little wonder we bopped in to grab a quick, resuscitative pop. Alas, this local institution was perking along against the neighborhood’s march of history. And there was no starker proof of that than the bawdy outfit right next door.
“How does it feel to be in the minority, flash? So out of your lily Boulder comfort zone—or are you?”
“What do you think,” I reminded myself that I was just dropping off a load. “But no big deal, I’ll be hitting the road back soon enough.”
“Not before we mosey down into Polk Gulch a spell,” she snuggled up to my warm sheepskin sleeve. “Saddle up, pardner, for a walk on the wilder side.”
“Christ, what’s your story, anyway?” I anxiously wanted out, yet found myself sociologically aroused by Lovelock sensations, while intrigued by these peculiar tribal norms—as though morbidly surveying a crime scene fatality out the corner of my eye. “Where are we headed now?”
“Oh, shush up…this is San Francisco.” Turf boosted, Syd asserted her singular territorial primacy here, but not without a faint trace of her own fear and dread. “We’re talking freedom of expression here.”
“No, we’re talking utter deviance here,” I replied, hair and hackles raised—betwixt, befuddled, never having experienced anything like this sordidly festive scene before. I was feeling outnumbered, overrun, unable to shake the ambient ringing, fight off the low-level anger that I shouldn’t even be here, a lower-grade fear that I clinically should—Bloody Friday Belfast all over again, even more so this time around. “What say we hit it back to the car…”
“Relax, flash, and stretch some—a little shock therapy will do you some good.”
“Shock…or shlock?” I glanced down, avoiding the catty stares and size-ups of a couple of chatty teeny hustlers. Apparently lubed on poppers and Harvey Wallbangers, they boogied their wares out front of side-by-side hummus take-out and heady smoke shops, next door to a standing room, disco-juked gin mill.
“Un je ne sais quoi, darlin’,” shouted down a middle-aged rascal from the bay window of one of the three-story mock Victorians lining either side of Polk Street.
“Et je ne sais quoi encore,” yelled another vixen from the fire escape of a more plainly modern architectural mixed breed, cross-talk largely typical along this strip—the both of them looking more than old enough to know better.
“Oy, think of it as putting your egghead theories to the test, professor. You afraid of challenging your ivory tower bigotry head on?”
“Hey, don’t you worry. Like you said, I’m into the social sciences…no bigotry here, OK? I know who and what I am…”
“Then you should have no problem in here, am I right?”
Rue L’Amour was the Gulch’s premier adult book and flick store—consenting adult, that was, stated so on the door sign—with depth and breadth splayed graphically across its front window displays, leaving little to even the most fevered and fetished imaginations. In through the funhouse doors, bookracks were a half-dozen rows of gratuitous obscenities. And the high rear counter with the chain-smoking resident moneychanger glued to security monitors in a ‘This Bud’s For You’ visor seemed de riguer—the type of coughing barker who couldn’t cut it any longer on Broadway, and was four months arrears at the SRO hotel. Rue’s chromy two-way mirrors were as paranoiac as the next sexporium. Even the backroom bijou rumbled with a swell of typical preverts hiking up their drawers and snorting in and out of Passion Playhouse’s heart-shaped portal.
No, it wasn’t Le Rue’s front cover or first glance that exceeded the MDR of grossitivity; it was the inner contents. Electrically speaking, there were too many plugs and not nearly enough standard sockets. Indeed, there were barely token U/L-approved sockets, and those were largely fig-leaf garnish, pandering to any lingering shred of old-fashioned straight and narrow buried deeply in its clients’ alter libidos.
So beyond all the conventional tricks and angles, Rue L’Amour positioned itself uniquely in the porn arena with the latest market segmentation: men only, mano-a-mano—even more precisely, young, white, curly-haired men built either like linebackers or lead guitarists from certain British seaports—many of whom preferred ewes, Afghans, steeds and one another to any #9 dreamboat or Layla on earth. These books, mags, rags and tapes uncovered the young boy beat with stunning saturation. More specifically, the few women depicted were but incidental cheerleaders at a cockfight, pinned in the far corner like a hardware store calendar of rural New England.
Le Rue’s S&M leatherette must have been from some big-and-tall shop. Its dildos came mostly in baby blue, surrounded by pegboard display racks of Boner Bracelets, erection creams, power pumps, crocheted cock socks and draw-string scrotum sacks.
“Enough of this,” I steamed—provoked, though unsure whether morally or physically, hoping for the former. I’d always had a problem with emporniums of any kink or predilection. The knot of Catholic conscience would grip my cranium the moment I turned risque page one—as though Sister Theresa were flogging me with her catechism ruler and the iron cross of her rosary beads. But this place was more like a right cross, a kick to the nonverbial groin. “I’m heading out…”
“What’s your hurry, buckaroo,” she said, deep into the gala holiday issue of ‘Adam’s Angle’, turning the four-color magazine’s fold-out around faster than a bumper car steering wheel. “Feeling threatened again…coming to grips, are you—a little male panic setting in?”
“Threatened nothing…I can just do without the raunchy plumbing manuals, thank you.” My eyes veered toward an ink-bearded Anita Bryant wall poster with a red circle line sur-printing it.
“Excuse me, but this isn’t run-of-the-mill pornography,” she said, with ‘freeze, sucker’ in her eyes. “It’s harmless, and a lot of this borders on art, you’ll see.”
“Some porn does happen to be art, I’m telling you, sex it art. This is every bit as pure as the biblical Madonna or any Da Vinci—which is maybe why I find it so appealing…”
“More like appalling—c’mon, you don’t really buy that, do you?”
“Oh, don’t I? Listen, Mister Hung-up, the human body is a beautiful thing, whatever it’s doing. And a sociologist worth his sheepskin should know such things… one who fancies himself a photographer, yet.”
“Beautiful, even in the barnyard sense, I suppose,” I snapped, shrinking from their images on one of Rue’s fish-eye security mirrors. “OK, you’ve made your point. Live and let live, all that jazz. But I think I’ll stick with my Colorado case studies and abstracts…it’s safer and saner that way…”
“No, live and learn—it’s called tolerance, professor. That’s why everybody should spend at least a year in San Francisco.” She rifled through the sexcessively graphic magazine, then tossed it at me, shrugging toward the counter clerk, not above checking herself out on the chromey two-way panel. “God, you sound like such a Republican sometimes!”
“Hey, this has got nothing to do with me,” I gently smoothed the mag’s cover, replacing it on the shelf of luridly revealing skin and fetish rags, face down, only to follow her out Le Rue’s blush red, S-baffled front doors.
“Where’ve I heard that before…”
We rejoined bobbing, throbbing foot traffic, debating whether to head up PolkStrasse or down. But our attention was quickly drawn to a mid-street situation brewing two car lengths deeper into the Gulch. Apparently, the flare-up centered around a fat broker john and his baby-faced boy toy, coming to unmet terms of engagement through the open window of a sawbuck green Mercedes 450SE.
“Nuff said,” I grumbled. The sound of ‘Afternoon Delight’ caught my ear, theme song to a passing red-and-white checkered truck. Manned by a crew of waving volunteers, it had CarnaVan stencilled on the side panels, as well as subhead slogans suggesting some sort of dirt-cheap stewpot food operation catering to street minions citywide.
“So maybe PolkStrasse is getting a bit raw around the edges,” she gaped about the broader spectacle with hungry, road weary eyes. “Guess that’s why Castro’s the new gay land of milk and honey. That’s where their classier action is hanging more now.”
“Like City Hall says, hands off—just hold back and keep a lid on things,” snapped a nearby S.F.P.D. officer to his partner walking the beat. Both were standing off in observer mode, caught between copping to and copping out, not looking at all happy about it.
“Yah, sarge, it’s like with our damn baby blue squadrols nowadays,” said the other uniform, palm slapping his nightstick. “What the hell good’s gonna come of that…”
“I think I’ll have the Nude…no, the Monte Carlo!”
“Just make mine a regular…”
“Aww, add a little spice, get more adventurous in your old age, professor. Try the Stripper, or the Cannibal—how about the French Connection?”
“Thanks, but I always do the jumbo regular back at Tom’s Tavern…”
“Jumbo? Then go for the amazing Liberation—avocado-bacon-pomegranate—medium rare. C’mon, flash, on me…”
We had fought a minor headwind back up Polk Street, cutting over to Van Ness as the Strasse turned ever friskier, but not without checking on my overloaded Volks Squareback enroute, bumper to bumper, glovebox to tailgate, most everywhere in between. That breezy resistance and a modest incline left little breathing room for further debate on the ‘sex is art’ score, much less a sidewalk tutorial on the comparative virtue of the biblical Madonna vis-à-vis Marilyn Chambers—or Jack Wrangler, for that matter. The only thing Sydney and I worked up along the way on erstwhile Auto Row was a powerful appetite, carried over from a lunchtime foray into the fructose-caked orchards of Nut Tree Village, seemingly days and I-80 miles ago by now.
Van Ness Avenue offered forth Sub sandwich franchises, pricey steakhouses and bodega-style liquor/convenience stores on both sides of its broad, bushy median-split north-south lanes. Tantalizing as the prime rib and sirloin aromas were, however—even as gassed and famished as we had found ourselves—there were no lame cracks about eating a horse. Not when we could trot across heavy avenue traffic and feast on what was better known to be Hippo.
“All right, then—what say the Stroganoffburger,” I relented, going global, figuring she figured it a due over hauling her demanding ass all the way out here. “Well done, with fries, OK?”
“With a side of your magic French Fried Mushrooms,” she nodded to me for pre-approval from around a mammoth, circus cartoonish menu, instructing a wet-combed, red-vested waiter who stroked a razor-thin moustache that made John Waters look like Dennis Hopper. “And a couple of boysenberry shakes, you game?”
“What can I say…your call,” I shook my head toward the stagy waiter who, having vainly sung the praises of their Bippyburger Special (i.e., with jack cheese, cranberries and tapioca), was scribbling and Hippo-gliding back over to the huge copper-hooded kitchen counters, center room.
“Oh, but make mine strawberry-banana, hon,” she called to the waiter, flipping through the extra wad of traveler’s cheques she’d plucked from one of her suitcases when we stopped by the car. “Oh, look over there—yeep, be cool about it. Can you believe who that is?”
“Wait,” I wrestled the unwieldy red and white menu back to my Hippo logo-illustrated placemat. “Can’t see over this blasted thing…”
Where once stood a Mohawk gas station and abandoned Safeway, now thrived this circus-carnival of a hamburger wonderland, which had fed the gourmet imaginations of ground-round devotees from all around the Bay since the early 1950s. Hippopotamus offered upwards of sixty burger specialties that In/Out and the Golden Arches couldn’t begin to cook up in their wildest deep-fried dreams. Huge Streakerburgers, Cannibalburgers, Grassburgers of the headiest kind filled those billboard-size menus.
All such beefy creations were served in a fanciful bigtop mis en scene, to a delicious zoo of aficionados—ranging from opera and symphony patrons to celebrities to tourists to Hashburger hippies, suburbohemes, birthday partiers and après student types like us—basically anybody who relished where this fresh-faced meat met the street. Sydney gadded me into the floodlit pink and orange palace, under Hippo’s wavy crème awnings, glad-landed us a cozy table near the front, beneath a portrait of the founder riding his favorite pachyderm.
“There, third booth over from that Cubist-style portrait of the Hippo—which I painted, I’ll have you know…” Her eyes widened. She explained that large spotlit oil rendering had been her first San Francisco commission—brush strokes for gourmet burgers and shakes. Her ‘Hipstert’ was an already beloved pachy of overlapping brown-white rectangles and circles hidebound against a flour-textured field of sandy green, crimson tophat on its head, square snout locked around a single red rose, cerise ascot overwrapping its tail. “What think you?”
“Unreal.” I hiked myself up some for better view, denim squeaking against the pink naugahyde tucks and rolls of our window booth seats, which otherwise overlooked the teeming Pacific Avenue side parking lot. What more could I say, without betraying my aesthetic inadequacies? Better to move on… “Really, so what else?”
“It’s O.J., silly,” she whispered, pointing across room with cupped finger and hand. “Holy Moses, I think he’s with Elliot Gould.”
“Wonder if he’s still doing the football TV gig.” But I was more taken with Hippo’s colorful cartoon décor. Posters, long wall murals, framed illustration comic strips, display panels stuffed with T-shirts, caps, bibs, balloons, keychains and assorted other souvenir bric-a-brac—all under a red/white striped canvas tent ceiling, calliope carnival music piped over the prating crowd. “Or jumping over rental cars…”
“I read where they’ve just wrapped up shooting a sci-fi conspiracy flick called ‘Capricorn One’. Now…right over there—kicking back, chowing down just like everybody else…only in San Francisco.”
“Yeah, but what I really can’t believe is that Hippopotamus logo everyplace, so ass-end smiley with the red bandana and bow-tie on her tail,” I glanced about the sprawling room as our theme-humming waiter delivered our fried mushrooms and shakes. “Or those little girl Hippos muralled everywhere else, and little boy Hippos in red spotted neckerchiefs… jeesh, there’s one with a chef’s toque and everything…”
“You should see the bathrooms here,” she straw drew some milkshake from a tall logoed glass. “Hippo head’s grinning when the toilet lid’s down, mouth’s wide open when the lid’s up. They’re over near that sign for the Monkey Inn—Hippo’s even got a hot little singles bar going back there.”
“Naw, I’m OK, can hold it in for now,” I tried out a fried mushroom, while keeping an eye on the Hippo salt and pepper shakers, let alone the Hippo creamer.
“Yoy, in the corner booth,” pointing with her fork as she stabbed for the appetizers. “Herb Caen and Mayor Moscone. Bet they’re doing the Bearnaise and Welsh Rarebitburgers. I mean, you’d figure they’d be at Ernie’s or LeCentral. Can just imagine what juicy tidbits they’re feeding each other over that sangria pitcher…”
“Probably carving up some Republican, huh?” I flapped out my Hippo napkin, the waiter arriving with our double-grilled burger platters…whoa, humongous…
“Republicans? In San Francisco?! You must be joking…”
Care for more?
Chapter 17. Awakening in a closet, coming
out to a breathless money call, he finds leaving
San Francisco can be no mere walk in the park…