Remembering All That We Have Lost

“Gay Man Stabbed in Heart Survives,” read the front-page headline in the BAR, a gay newspaper I picked up while strolling on Castro Street.

Then I looked at the picture. It was my old college roommate Larry Johl. I recognized him immediately from his long very blond hair. As students at Washington State University we had lived together in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective in Pullman, Washington, a little town near the Idaho border. That was in 1973-74 before we had each decamped to the gay mecca of San Francisco. We had been in touch, and I had once been to his apartment on Broderick Street, furnished tastefully in deco style with castoff furniture and cheap (but not cheap-looking) window treatments.

My portrait of Larry in 1973. Apparently he did study.

Our get-together in San Francisco in the late ‘70s had revealed that Larry worked at a boring, low-paid office job in some bureaucracy. He described himself as a snow queen, meaning that he preferred to date black men. I later found out that snow queen was the term used to describe black men who prefer white men. The subculture’s term for white men like him was grunge queen, but I think he probably didn’t use it because of its racist overtones. He had a cute, angelic-looking boyfriend whose picture graced his bedroom chest of drawers.

I should note here that Rosa Luxemburg, whose giant portrait graced our dining room wall, was a Polish revolutionary socialist theoretician who was assassinated in 1919. Our hero. Margarethe von Trotta made a film about her https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLo4TuBRN6U.

When I thought back to our collective living arrangement at Rosa’s, in a huge house with 11 others, I remembered Larry had a thing for black men even then. It was Larry who introduced us to the music of the gay icon Sylvester. How did Larry discover him? How did Larry discover gay culture? It seemed like he had emerged a full-blown raging queen from his tiny desolate hometown of Soap Lake, in the eastern Washington desert, the middle of nowhere. He told me that as a kid he’d been a big fan of Elizabeth Taylor and had filled secret scrapbooks with her pictures cut from magazines. Perhaps he’d been a queen from birth, living testimony for the argument for nature over nurture.

Rosa Luxemberg Collective. Larry’s in the middle top row. I’m middle bottom row.

Larry didn’t come out to us at Rosa’s but we knew. He personified all the stereotypes—limp wrists, lilting voice, and the neatest room in the house. In the collective, Larry was the roommate most concerned with beauty and fashion. He bought hair products by the case, it seemed. His hair really was strawberry blond. But it did look bleached, so perhaps he bleached in secret and then tried to mask the consequences with product. One time when we were on a road trip, all piled into a VW bus, Larry got out to smoke a joint and lit his hair on fire. Which must prove something about product.

Our Welsh roommate Keith couldn’t believe Larry’s wealth of information about popular culture. “He never reads. How can he know so much?” It was true. We seldom saw Larry studying. How did he pass his exams? He seemed much more interested in music. One semester he spent his student loan money on a stereo. I guess after that he depended on the kindness of strangers, or the kindness of friends.

Larry was central to our countercultural and political activities. He excelled in tasks organizational. His specialty was the media blitz. With our dissident friends, we had formed the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism in response to a student Christian crusade. The Jesus freaks’ slogan was “One Way” and they’d proselytize holding up an index finger. It was annoying as hell. Our slogan became “No Way,” our sign a zero made with index finger and thumb. During registration week when students poured into the student union and all the organizations set up their wares at the entrance, Larry sat at our table and showed slides of all the churches in town, a tape of Elton John’s Burn Down the Mission playing continually in the background. Then, when we staged a debate about the existence of god, Larry took on media/outreach and managed to fill the auditorium to capacity.

Our button. I drew it backward. Duh!

We were desperate to change the direction of national politics, refusing to pay the federal phone tax that funded war and staging die-ins at ROTC functions. The FBI came knocking at the door after Larry sent a threatening letter to president Nixon. I don’t believe he was arrested. He had only put in writing what we were all thinking.

I think my brother Don would say Larry brought him out of the closet. Don didn’t live with us at Rosa’s but he visited frequently. In those days our sexual identities weren’t so clearly defined. We all experimented with gay as well as straight sex, although in retrospect the women seemed much freer than the men. The women swung like kids on a new play set, while the men tended to gravitate to one corner or the other of the sandbox. Neither Larry nor my brother Don was ever interested in women at the orgies we sponsored. They would carry on afterwards dishing male anatomical details, which I invariably missed.

After I saw his picture on the front page of the BAR, I called Larry. He was out of the hospital. He told me he had been cruising Buena Vista Park at 2 a.m. when he was attacked and stabbed. His attackers then tried to pull off his leather clothes. He was saved by a punk couple who got him to the hospital just in time. He had lost almost all the blood in his body. The gay bashers were never caught.

I asked Larry what he intended to do next. He said he was just going to live life as he had, maybe with more passion and vigor. “I could get hit by a bus tomorrow,” he told me cheerfully. He figured all the time in the future was free. He had been spared death, for the time being.

By that time in the early 80s we knew about AIDS but there was no test available yet and of course there was no treatment. Gay men were just dying. You would see your friend, a young man you sang with or worked out with, looking healthy and vibrant. Then he would get a diagnosis and two weeks later he would be dead.

When I asked my brother Don to tell me his memories of Larry, he remembered that they had seen each other in the late 80s. By that time Larry must have known he was HIV positive. He told Don that when he died he wished to be cremated and he wanted someone to distribute his ashes from a window of the 24 Divisadero, the bus that took Larry from his neighborhood in the Western Addition to the gay bars in the Castro. He said he wanted all the queens to prance behind the bus and stomp him into the pavement with their platform shoes.

Memorials were posted at the corner of Castro and 18th. This one is for Dennis Peron, the marijuana activist.

I never saw Larry again, and when I tried to call, his number had been disconnected. I couldn’t find mention of him anywhere. I was pretty sure he had died of AIDS. The BAR had been printing obits for gay men since 1972, but it never published his. Did he, like many gay men, go back home to die? That was hard for me to imagine. Did he die alone or did he have a network of friends to care for him? Was he one of the ones who perished within weeks? Don and I felt negligent, that we had not come to his aid when he was dying. I sure hope someone did.

Eventually I found a notice of his death in the Ephrata, Washington paper, a slightly larger small town near Soap Lake. He had died in 1990. He was 39. But there were no details and so I just had to imagine his last years and days. Also in the Ephrata obits I found a Carl A. Johl, born 1914, who died in 2009 at the age of 94. I guess Carl was Larry’s father.

Some of the Rosa Luxemburg Collective roommates reunited again after 35 years. I had to come out to them as a lesbian. Then it fell to me to explain Larry’s fate to this assemblage of straight folks. I fear I failed.

At the reunion Bob shows off a Rosa T-shirt

Lesbians and gay men lived in different universes, different cultures, which we were continually inventing back in the 1970s and 80s. As a close student of lesbian feminist culture, I had no trouble discoursing on its development. But I was instantly aware that I didn’t really know the culture Larry lived in. How to explain his cruising escapades and his obvious sluttiness? The story seemed to suggest that he was responsible for his own demise, at least as I imagined my straight comrades might see it. We were a progressive bunch who believed in free love and revolution, rejecting nuclear war and the nuclear family. Still, I sensed disapproval in their shocked emailed responses.

The Castro was the scene of celebrations and demonstrations

Or was it something like envy? Larry had found himself in San Francisco and he was finally free to live an openly gay life. I think he was happy. Perhaps he and I were two collective members who succeeded in transcending the conventional lifestyle that we countercultural dissidents had all worked so hard to reject.

The 24 Divis is a crosstown route that goes from the rich white neighborhood of Pacific Heights clear down to the poor black neighborhood of Bayview-Hunters Point. It was the bus that for decades carried me from my neighborhood in Bernal Heights to the Castro to gay bookstores, bars, demonstrations, and film festivals at the Castro Theater. My wife and I often stop for a beer at Harvey’s just to cruise the crowd on the corner through its big windows.

With my wife Holly at Harvey’s. The pics on the walls are from pre-AIDS times.

The scene is still vibrant and colorful, but there are times, especially in winter, when walking in the Castro I see the ghosts of the young men who died of AIDS and then I’m overwhelmed with grief, so very aware of all that we have lost.

This story originally aired on the MUNI Diaries podcast, hence the references to the 24 Divisadero bus. I had such a hard time reading that last paragraph without breaking down crying. I share this grief with an entire generation of people who lived through the AIDS years. We have not forgotten.

Joan Weir: The Only Girl in the Welding Shop

In 1972, a junior in high school, she had already taken all the drafting classes her Los Angeles school offered. She’d been working with her father building a car so she took her father’s advice and enrolled in the welding class. The teacher said if she could fire up a torch she could stay in the class. It was a test no one else had to take. She was the only girl.

Joan production welding light poles for the Bay Bridge, 1976

She took the class and got hooked on welding. The first year she excelled so much she was teaching the other students how to weld. By her senior year she was shirking all her other classes, spending days in the machine shop building projects. That year she won a national award from the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation for TIG welding brass but she didn’t graduate high school. Joan Weir was a welding phenom.

That summer she got her first job. It was piecework building motorcycle accessories. She said, “They needed someone who could TIG (tungsten inert gas) weld. That was new technology back then. It’s an electric spark that comes out of a piece of tungsten, where you can weld ferrous and non-ferrous materials and it’s like a fine art because it’s a smaller weld you’re making.”

Again she was the only female on the job. “I was welding in a metal building where it was well over 90 degrees. I remember lifting my welding hood to find that my sleeve was on fire. I looked down the line and all the guys were just watching. They weren’t helping me. They just wanted to see me take my shirt off. Of course I had a T-shirt on underneath so it was so ridiculous.”

I first met Joan Weir in the late 1970s. With our mutual friend, Cheryl Parker, we bonded as some of the few early tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cheryl and I got into the electrical trade and Cheryl had attained the rank of Chief Building Inspector in the city of Richmond, California when she died of ovarian cancer in 1992. In 1976 Joan and Cheryl had traveled with a convoy of tradeswomen and their supporters to Los Angeles to petition the state government for affirmative action goals and timetables for women in construction apprenticeship.

L-R Cheryl Parker, Joan MacQuarrie, Joan Weir

“It was a great moment because we were standing up and talking about what we were experiencing and each one of us had a different story. We got the state of California to enact goals and timetables.”

I think of Joan as a Renaissance woman. She has been a general contractor, a carpenter, a plumber, a glass blower and many other things. But Joan is primarily a welder. She lost her career and nearly her life after being set up to blow up.

In 1980 Joan was working for US Steel in Pittsburg, California as a maintenance welder. To get the job she took a welding test.

“My test was so perfect that they could not refuse to hire me so their recourse was to put me in the ugliest location, which was the cold reduction department,” she said.

“It was located in a building a mile long. We had four mills that ran consecutively. The steel was brought in in large rolls and was run through each mill to make it thinner. Each roll was a ton maybe two tons at the very end. It was called cold reduction because heat was not being applied. Rollers compressed each sheet as it went through. Water and oil were the lubricants. Next-door was an acid dip where they would roll the big sheets of steel through acid to clean them. As a maintenance welder I led a team of two millwrights and two steamfitters. And jointly we would move on a weekly rotating basis from working days, swing, and graveyard shifts.

US Steel plant, Pittsburg, CA. Credit: Wikipedia

We kept the mill running 24/7. These machines were put under a lot of pressure and they would break. The millwrights were in charge of keeping the mill running and the pipefitters would fix any of the piping, which was typically hydraulic whether it was water or air. My job as the welder was to weld any metal part that broke and I also built anything that they would need to install.

It was up to the welder to determine the time length of the repair and if it exceeded three or four hours then they would shut down the mill and all the workers on the mill would be sent home. So it was imperative to not have that happen because the union required that if the worker had already worked four hours then they would get full pay even if sent home. That would cost big bucks. I must admit I always enjoyed saying ‘Nope send your guys home. It’s gonna take at least five or six hours to repair.’

The environment at the plant was extremely unsafe. Cranes carried the large steel rolls over people’s heads. Workers died on a regular basis from the hooks breaking or the roll getting loose. Large forklifts with large extended poles on them carried the rolls along where workers were walking. And because of the extreme noise you could be walking, turn, and not realize that a forklift was right there on top of you. People were hurt on a number of occasions while I worked there.

At US Steel in 1980 it felt like we were working back in the 30s and 40s. Workers were constantly being harassed in many different ways and if you were to go up against management you were likely to end up hurt or killed. That was known. That was just a given.

After the accident Joan learned glass blowing

The United Steelworkers union covered everybody so if you had a problem with a co-worker the union couldn’t side with one worker or another so it didn’t feel like you had representation–especially as a woman.

I was the only woman welder in the plant, the whole steel industry in Pittsburg. I led a team–two very supportive pipefitters and then two millwrights who were not supportive. This one individual who was a short guy, white, Mormon, had a real issue taking orders from a woman. But I was the team leader and I got paid more.

The atmosphere in the cold reduction department was tense, unsafe and the work was really demanding. Also the air quality was really bad because we were stuck inside a building that had lots of water and oil mixed into the air we were breathing. We would get inside a mill, literally placing ourselves inside this big machinery, going down into the bowels of it. I never felt very safe going there because I knew this guy didn’t like me. I never expected him to do me physical harm but I worried that he might cause an accident.

Joan in her shop at her present job at the vineyard

A firefighter was required to stand by while I was working, as my clothing would catch fire on a regular basis because of the oil that was constantly coating us. We got used to welding this way. You’d turn, stop welding, ask the fire guy to shoot you with water, he’d douse your clothes and you’d go back to welding again.

One night I was working graveyard so it was a small crew throughout the building. I was welding something up in my weld shop and had to go get some material and I came back to find this guy using my welding hood and welding on my bench. I shouted to him because of the loud machinery and he stopped, he put up the hood, and he back-fisted me. He hit me across my face so hard that I landed against my welding tanks and my hardhat split open.

Two of the other guys on my team came to see what happened. I was injured so the supervisor was called. He sent me home and he let my attacker stay on shift. I was told to come back the following morning for a meeting with the shop steward and the guy who physically attacked me. The shop steward just said that this was something we had to get over.

At that point I contacted an attorney and they told me to take whatever sick time I had and to get off site because it was not safe for me to be there. So I took my week’s leave and then I started calling in and saying that the environment was not safe for me to work in.

Birthday present
A Rosie the Riveter hood

When I showed up for work again it was swing shift on Easter Sunday. There was an emergency. A pipe had bent and needed to be repaired. I had a new pipefitter working with me so we didn’t know each other. First I asked him if he had put the safety blocks in the line because this was a high-pressure hydraulic two-inch line. Then we climbed down the sheet steel that was in the way, down into this pit and I’m up to my knees in oil and hydraulic fluid. The pipe is above the hydraulic fluid. I’ve got my firefighter up above the pit and the pipefitter is down in the pit with me and we get ready to weld it up. I light my big oxy-acetylene rosebud torch to heat the pipe and all of a sudden somebody turns on the line, pressurizes it and there’s an explosion.

My head is literally right over the pipe when it explodes. I don’t realize I’m burnt all over my head with second and third degree burns. I scramble back up the torn up steel next to me to get to my acetylene set up to turn off those valves because I’m afraid of backfire in the lines. I see the pipefitter is burnt so I grab him to get him over to the safety shower and the safety shower doesn’t work. I see a water fountain and I get him to the water fountain and I get his hands into the water and he says ‘you’ve got to get yourself water’ and at that point I start to recognize how burnt I am.

We’re brought into the lunchroom. After 45 minutes or an hour, they finally get us to the hospital, which is unable to provide critical care. So they bring me back to the cold reduction plant. At that point my eyes are shut, I can’t see. My face doesn’t have skin on it.

Nobody responded or cared how badly I was hurt. The head of the department was there and he said that I should go home. They told me only to show up for a safety hearing the following morning. Then the guard, an African American man, looked at me and said ‘I will take you home.’ He risked his job going off shift leaving early to drive me home. When I got home my partner took me to Alta Bates hospital burn unit where they kept me for a week.

She still builds

My lawyer and I went to a hearing with the EEOC. My face was still recovering from the burns but the hearing was simply about being hit by a co-worker on the job. It wasn’t about the explosion accident.

EEOC would have found in my favor but the EEOC officer asked me if I was going to take it to federal court and sue US Steel and not knowing any better I said yes. I didn’t understand that it would take five years to even get to court and I was going up against a major corporation. It would cost me and I was unemployed. So they found against me because they said if they’d found for me I couldn’t take it to court. So I lost my suit. And that ended my career in welding.

OSHA never found out about the accident. About a year later I was volunteering for Tradeswomen Inc. with Madeline Mixer at her Women’s Bureau office in the San Francisco federal building. Madeline took me down the hall to talk to the head of OSHA who was upset with me that I never contacted them. I didn’t know that I was responsible to contact them. So nothing ever happened to US Steel.

I never learned who turned the pressure back on. We all understood that US Steel was known for killing or maiming workers who complained. And that’s the way the industry ran back in those days.”

Teresa (L) and Joan at the Rosie the Riveter contest in Richmond

For many years after the accident, Joan looked like a reverse raccoon, her face red where the skin had burned off and white around her eyes, which had been protected by plastic safety glasses (they melted). Today, 39 years later, you can’t see the burns unless she points them out. Joan still loves welding and she uses her many skills at her current job working at a vineyard in Sonoma County. In her spare time she teaches beekeeping and building trades to women and girls. She lives in Santa Rosa with her wife Teresa Romaine, a retired painting contractor.

MUNI Diaries: 14 Mission Drama

Dear Readers, this is the transcript of the story I told at the MUNI Diaries Live event at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco. What a blast! It was the first time I’d been to a live show, although it’s been going on for 11 years now. Check them out on munidaries.com and listen to the Muni Diaries podcast where I can be heard telling more MUNI stories.

Have you ever had a young person stand up to give you a seat on the bus? Show of hands.

OK, a few of my boomer cohort is here. Were you looking around thinking the seat was meant for someone else? Like oh no, not me, I’m not old? Did you take the seat or refuse?

See, I think this is a good indication of how we feel about aging.

Me, I’m all about owning old. I’m old and proud. And I’m taking the damn seat. I deserve the seat. Standing up on the bus is hard when you’re old.

So my bus stop where I get on the 14 Mission or the 49 Van Ness is at Richland Avenue. It’s in Bernal Heights at the end of the Mission and just before the Excelsior. You can usually get a seat going down town. But try to catch the 14 at 7th and Mission. Or anywhere downtown. Finding a seat is not easy and most are already being sat in by old people. With shopping bags.

One day I got on the 14 to come home. The bus was packed. No young person got up to offer a seat (it doesn’t happen that often). Then I spied one spot on the far back bench. This was one of those buses whose back seat was just a plastic bench with molded depressions for seats. The empty seat was right between two very large men who overfilled their own seats leaving a narrow slot.

I squeezed in. I’m taking the damn seat.

Now I think of myself as a big woman. That’s my self image. Big and strong. But when I sat down between these two gigantic guys I felt like a pickle slice in the middle of a double cheeseburger.

As soon as I sat down I could smell that one of them had really bad BO but I couldn’t figure out which one. I felt barely able to breathe sandwiched in between these two huge guys. But I thought to myself it’s only BO and I can survive it. BO is natural at least. Not some new men’s scent made from toxic chemicals.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

So I’m taking little shallow breaths of air through my mouth and then holding my breath in between. And I’m keeping the damn seat.

The guy on my right was awake, staring straight ahead. No ear buds. No eye contact. Handsome, brown skin, square head, buzz cut. I thought he looked like a construction worker. I used to work construction and I can usually tell a construction worker by their boots. I’m not talking about those new unlaced Timberlands the hipsters wear with their perfectly ripped blue jeans. Construction workers’ boots are dirty. I can usually even tell their trade by the detritus left on their boots. I pegged this guy as a painter. I asked him where he lived and he said Daly City. But I could see he didn’t want conversation.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

The guy on my left was a bruiser. He was a black guy missing most of his front teeth. He was wearing a baseball cap and drinking from a can. He had several bags of groceries sitting next to him so he was taking up the whole rest of the back bench on the bus. He had frowned as I sat down and didn’t offer to move over or move his grocery bags to give me some room.

I asked him what he was drinking. It had a red and black label and it took me a minute to realize he was drinking beer on the bus. He said, “It’s Miller.” And then I could see that it said Miller on the label but it was some kind of Miller I’d never seen. He said, “It’s high end Miller.” The six-pack sat on the seat next to him.

I asked him where he lived and he said Daly City. Nobody can afford to live in San Francisco anymore. I sympathized. As the bus made its way up Mission Street we talked about development in the Mission. Skateboarders did tricks on the steps of the old armory. Folks hawked their wares from blankets on the sidewalk outside the navigation center near 15th Street.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

His name was Kenny. He said he was 55, originally from Philadelphia. He had been shopping at the downtown Target store at the Metreon. I said you take the 14 Mission down to San Francisco from Daly City to go shopping! He said I really like riding on the bus and being able to sit back here and drink my beer and get kinda drunk and nobody bothers me. Then he said well nobody would bother me anyway. I’m 280 and six foot three.

Kenny told me he worked at the new UCSF hospital in Mission Bay. I never found out exactly what he did. It did seem that he had some contact with patients in the hospital. He confessed that he’d been having some emotional problems lately.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

Kenny wanted to give me something. Take a beer he said. I demurred. At 24th Street a preacher with a bullhorn harangued passersby in Spanish.

Then I was trying to breathe the air in Kenny’s direction because I finally figured out it was the other guy that smelled so bad. And then Kenny could smell it too and so he started talking loudly about the guy and how bad he smelled. This made me a little nervous because, while I’m a big strong woman, I’m not 280 and six foot three. And I’m in between them. Was Kenny trying to start a fight?

Also it made me feel bad about the BO guy. So I tried exercising my empathy circuit. I learned about it from Josh Kornbluth. You know the monologist? He is making a series of videos about brain science called Citizen Brain. Americans are losing the ability to empathize, but Josh says we can turn it around. It’s just about trying to understand how the other person is feeling.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

So I’m thinking that the BO guy is a construction worker and is coming home after work. He can’t help it if he has BO. I could empathize. When I was a construction worker I came home on the bus. But I never smelled that bad. Except there was that one time when the electrical crew I was working with refused to come close to me because of how I smelled. I was trying to beat a cold by eating raw garlic. They said it was coming off my skin. Have you ever had a crew of construction workers tell you to your face you stink? I have. I gave the BO guy a sympathetic look. Still staring straight ahead.

But Kenny wouldn’t let it go. He wanted to prove to me that it wasn’t him, that it was the other guy who smelled. He said loudly, “You know my mom never let me smell like that. She told me when I was 14 that I had to always take a shower and use deodorant every day and of course I couldn’t smell like that working in the hospital because it would not be tolerated.”

I could see he didn’t think I believed him. But I wished he would change the subject.

Then he did something pretty weird. He pulled out the front of his size quadruple X T-shirt to expose his belly and underarm. “Come on. Smell me,” he commanded. I must have looked surprised. “No really,” he said. “It’s not me.” He was holding out the T-shirt, beckoning. What could I do? I wanted to reassure him and I wanted him to stop talking about the BO guy. So I bent forward, stuck my head under his shirt and took a whiff. In fact he did smell pretty good in there, kind of like soap. When I emerged from under the shirt I was laughing so hard I had trouble maintaining my composure after that.

Kenny offered me the beer again and for a minute I imagined what fun we could have riding MUNI back and forth to Daly City and drinking beer in the back of the 14 Mission.

But I was tired of trying not to breathe. Glad to get up and leave when my stop came. But a little sorry to leave my new friend Kenny. He said, “To think that I didn’t want you to sit here.” I said, “Why didn’t you want me to sit here?” He said, “Because I like to do my man-spreading thing on the back of the bus.”

As I was getting up he flashed me a big smile. He said “Hey hey hey” and held up his fist. We fist bumped.

I was still laughing. I was thinking I was glad to be old and glad I took the damn seat.