In the 80s, when she was still drinking and cocaine was plentiful, Pat and I used to frequent piano bars in San Francisco.
The Mint on Market Street near the Castro was our favorite, a magical showcase where every night was a surprise. The piano player was a bearded mustachioed man who nevertheless enunciated so clearly that I could watch his lips and learn the words as he sang. Pat already knew the words to the songs in the Great American Songbook. She was seven years older than I, a generational difference in her mind. I had come of age in the 60s listening to rock and roll. She had come of age in the 50s listening to what we now think of as the American standards–songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer.
Prematurely gray, Pat was always seen as older and was often mistaken for my mother and I her son. More than once we were confronted by department store clerks telling her she could not bring her son into the women’s dressing rooms. At Macy’s Pat yelled through the door, “She’s not my son. She’s my lover.” That worked.
Cocaine allowed us to drink and still stay awake till late when singers from Broadway shows would often join us at the Mint. When a star or a known accomplished singer would come in, those of us around the piano would make way for them. The singer could choose any song (the piano player knew them all) and we would transition from a chorus to an audience.
The piano player stayed in a key fit for tenors, which made it hard for me to sing along. I’m not really a soprano and couldn’t quite reach the higher octave. But Pat, who sang tenor in a mixed gay and lesbian group, the Vocal Minority, was in her element. She has a lovely tenor voice—low for a woman.
The Mint was a center of culture for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, formed in 1978. There were a lot of them—100 had shown up for the first gathering—and they frequented the Mint often, making our musical experience especially rich.
Cocaine also made me talkative and I enjoyed chatting up guys at the bar. Piano bars still held a vestige of the previous gay generation, men who had had to hide their sexuality to keep jobs and live in the straight world. They seemed less exuberant than their younger brothers, quieter and more formal. They still spoke in gay code. They might refer to themselves as “friends of Dorothy,” but the words gay and homosexual were never spoken. You might find working class guys–a painter or gardener–sitting at the bar. I loved learning their stories.
One night I struck up a conversation with one of the younger guys, a well-dressed man in his thirties. I began asking him about his life. What drew him here? He said his lover had been a singer with the chorus and that his lover had died the month before. I kept asking. He kept answering. I learned that not only had his lover died but his three best friends had all died recently. I asked for details and he delivered. Maybe he was grateful to have someone to tell this to. I hope so. But for me it was too much to take in. So much tragedy all at once! What does one do with this news? I put my arm around his shoulder and thought to myself that I would be a bit more cautious asking questions in the future. I needed to protect my own heart from this clutch of pain.
In San Francisco in the 80s and 90s the “wasting disease” framed our culture. One of the singers in Pat’s group, a young man in his twenties, had been diagnosed with AIDS and had died only two weeks later. Castro had become the street of sorrows. Fragile men walked with the aid of canes and were pushed in wheelchairs. The local gay newspaper, the BAR, published the names of the dying weekly. We anxiously scanned the pages for our friends’ names. I learned that our favorite piano player, the guy with facial hair from whom I had learned the words to so many songs, had died. His name was Frank Banks and he hailed from Albuquerque where, as a teenager he had become pianist at the First Baptist Church. He had moved to San Francisco in 1974.
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus has over the years lost more than 300 members to AIDS. In 1993 they took a photo with the seven still living members dressed in white shirts and the others with their backs turned to the camera, representing those lost to AIDS. In the 80s and 90s the chorus became a place for gay men to grieve together the loss of their brothers. Today the chorus still lives and continues to entertain audiences in San Francisco and around the world.
The Mint was one of many gay bars in the city owned by lesbian businesswoman Charlotte Coleman, who opened her first gay bar in San Francisco in 1958. It evolved into a karaoke lounge in the 90s and it’s still there. But I never went back. I knew it just wouldn’t be the same without the piano and Frank Banks, the piano player.
We never returned to the Mint, but Pat has never stopped singing. The Vocal Minority folded after all the men in that chorus died. Since then Pat has sung in several community choruses and a lesbian quartet called Out On A Clef, but never in another mixed gay chorus.
We both feel lucky to have been part of the flowering of gay culture in San Francisco and particularly at the Mint. It was the best and also the worst of times.
That’s real as in real estate. When I first moved to SF from Seattle in 1976, I lived with two other women in an apartment on Chattanooga Street in the Noe Valley neighborhood. My bed was on the floor of a closet and I paid $85 a month rent. Noe Valley then was a working-class enclave with a bustling main street (24th St.), a couple of great dive bars and a brunch place where on Sunday mornings you could see who had spent their Saturday night together. We hooked up at the laundromat across the street. Not surprisingly, things have changed. My cousin Richard, who has lived in the neighborhood for decades, just sent me this email.
The property next door to me (939 Sanchez Street) was owned by a San Francisco native plumber (Harold Christiansen) since the early 1970s. He paid 21K for it in 1971. After retiring, he wanted to move to a more suburban area with his long-time companion (Lisa) so he sold it in 2016 for 1.9 mil. It was a very narrow lot, only 27 feet across and it was very run down. The new owners planned to demolish the old house and build their dream home. They were a young techie couple with a 1 year old. He (Ran) was a brilliant Israeli immigrant who had just sold a start-up to Facebook for 68 mil and she was a pretty Irish-American woman (Sasha) who kept the family organized, grounded, and socialized. Little did they realize what a huge ordeal it was to work with the San Francisco Planning Commission to demolish an existing building and build a new one, especially a really big one, sarcastically called a “McMansion.” It would take over 3 years from start to final approval.
But they persisted. They introduced themselves to all the neighbors and endured the feedback sessions where the neighbors whine and complain about every minute detail of the proposed new building. Many neighbors feared that a very tall building would block their light or that people would peer into their windows. Plus the Planning Commission has endless rules about new construction. They want new buildings to blend into their neighborhoods, nothing too bold or ostentatious. Their new plans were scaled back several times. Still, the new building would be 4 stories, 4700 sq ft, 5 bedrooms and 6 bathrooms, maybe a mini McMansion. And all this on a lot that was only 27 feet wide. A quick google search indicates the average size of a newly built US home is 2,687 sq ft.
But then POW BOOM. Ran had taken an executive position with Lyft, the Uber alternative, and they were transferring him to New York City. So all that work and planning had come to naught and he and Sasha were left with a rundown piece of property with a huge property tax burden. So they decided to sell the property, hoping the approved building plans would lure a new buyer who would want to live in their dream home. But, really now, would a new owner be willing to pay over 2 mil for a small piece of property and then spend an additional fortune to build someone else’s dream home? Not too likely. And on top of that, Ran’s transfer to NYC came just as the pandemic was striking and no one knew what would happen to the real estate market. The house went on the market Apr 2020. No one was interested. They changed real estate companies in Jan 2021, opting for Sothebys.
And then, BINGO, they had an interested buyer a month later. He was Kieran Woods, owner of Woods Family Investments, LLP. Kieran is from Ireland. He is a contractor with 35 permanent employees. He will build Ran and Sasha’s dream house, beginning this coming week, and sell it for a profit. The closing date was 5 Mar 2021. Selling price was 2.75 mil.
And what will be the next selling price? I’ll send you a follow-up email in a couple of years.
BELOW: 1) is the current line-up on Sanchez St. 939 is the small house with the white van in front. My house is the large green one. 2) is the architect/artist’s rendering of the proposed new building at 939.
Who knows why people requested a contracting company named Wonder Woman Electric? Sometimes it was just to see women working as electricians; we were exotic. Sometimes it was because people preferred to hire women to work on their houses. We did exploit the stereotype that women are easier to work with, cleaner and neater (we made a special effort to keep our worksites clean). Sometimes we worked for general contractors who knew our work and hired us as a subcontractor. In that case, the building owner, who might never have hired women, would be shocked to see us on the job. And sometimes the client thought they could pay us less because everyone knows women are worth less than men. Sometimes they thought our labor should be free and they didn’t have to pay us at all.
Wonder Woman Electric found its clients through word of mouth mostly. I joined the collective in 1977 and immediately began to form stereotypes of clients. The working class folks who lived in the Mission and Excelsior neighborhoods of San Francisco, the ones who were scraping up the cash for the remodel or just to feed their kids, always paid their bills on time. You had the feeling that the bill got paid even if dinner was rice and beans for the next month. It was the rich clients who tried to skip out on paying. This amazed me. It didn’t take long to realize that rich people as a class generally had no regard for the value or skills of tradespeople. They believed we were looking for any opportunity to rip them off. Lawyers were some of the worst. One guy ran a business advising rich people how to avoid paying their contractors altogether. How did they get that way? I tried to understand the psychology but finally gave up. Why fight with these people to get paid? Maybe it was best just to avoid them.
But we were listed as a licensed electrical contractor in the San Francisco phone book so we got calls from all over the city. Much of our work was residential and in poorer parts of town, but occasionally a commercial job or a job in a wealthy neighborhood would come our way.
We were delighted when Wonder Woman signed a contract to do the electrical remodel of what would be a new restaurant, the Hayes Street Grill. We knew that the owner of the new restaurant was a locally famous food critic and we looked forward to working for a female business owner. The job included an electrical service upgrade for the building, which meant digging under the sidewalk to run a rigid pipe to the power company’s street box and installing a 200 amp commercial main disconnect.
Our founder, Susanne di Vincenzo, took the lead on the job. She was smart with a degree in physics from Columbia, and she knew how to read the electrical code. She had learned the electrical trade in the slums of New York rerouting electricity for a Puerto Rican squatters’ movement. At that time, if you were female, the above-ground avenue toward learning the electrical trade was closed to you.
The building was a three-story wood-frame Victorian with a steep gabled roof, a residential building that we workers would convert into a restaurant with a commercial kitchen, essentially replacing electrical, plumbing, heating and air movement systems—the guts.
Upgrading the electrical service would be the biggest job, but we would also be pulling new circuits for big kitchen equipment and a new lighting system. Much of our work would involve bending and installing electrical conduit in the unfinished basement, then drilling up through the floor to the kitchen. On jobs like this there are often no plans. The contractor designs the electrical system and then builds it. You get the manufacturer’s technical requirements for each piece of equipment, then calculate the size of the wire and conduit needed.
We started with the service. Jean, Sylvia and I crouched in a three-foot high corner of the dirt crawl space where the service pipe would enter the basement as Susanne gave us a code lesson on figuring the required size of a commercial electrical service. Part of this job would be disconnecting the existing service conductors and temporarily reconnecting the new wires live, a dangerous prospect. But we were glad not to have to do it while standing on a 30-foot ladder, the usual procedure. Electricians are more likely to die from falling off a ladder than from electrocution.
Normally there’s no reason for the electrician to climb on top of the roof and I can’t remember why I had to get up there but at one point I found myself straddling the peak. I was creeping along as carefully as I could, watching the sheet metal workers installing the big air intake and exhaust structures that ran from the kitchen to the roof on the outside of the building. Those guys had safety harnesses but I didn’t. Wonder Woman Electric had no harnesses, nor any safety equipment (I used my own respirator to protect my lungs while working in attics and crawl spaces). Instead, we should have taken job safety more seriously. In the three years I worked with the collective we had two serious fall accidents that could have been prevented if we’d had a safety program.
On the roof I tied a piece of wire around my waist and secured it around the brick chimney thinking it might break my fall. Just then the lineman’s pliers I was carrying slipped out of my tool pouch and bounced with dramatic effect off all the surfaces on the way down to the bottom of the light well forty feet below. It was suddenly easy to imagine losing my grip and tumbling to the ground. But it was a good thing I didn’t fall; that wire could have cut me in half. It was just one of the stupid things I did as an electrician that could have killed me but didn’t.
I think it was here that I began to understand the concept of Machisma, the female version of Machismo. Female construction workers all know that men in the trades think taking risks on the job is somehow connected to their manhood. Risky behavior is what separates the boys from the girls in the minds of the macho guys. The construction companies’ owners probably loved the macho attitude, as they didn’t have to worry about providing personal protective equipment to their workers who thought concern for safety made you a pussy. In some ways the female version was worse—it was self-inflicted. We felt we had to be better than the men in every way, and not be afraid to take risks on the job. The five-woman crew of WWE enforced the macha credo by bucking each other up and sometimes by taunting each other when faced with a frightening task. We also helped each other in risky situations, probably more than the men did. But I was working alone on the roof. My macha attitude melted away as I imagined myself following that hand tool down to the ground. I managed to complete my task and climb down without mishap but I was shaken.
It was our policy to write into our contracts a payment schedule based on work as it was finished. We set the main service and waited for a scheduled payment stipulated in the contract. No money came through. Why, out of all the subcontractors on the job, were we not getting paid? We never met the owner but she had no problem with our work as far as we knew. She did have partners in the enterprise and perhaps they were more than silent partners. Perhaps it was one of them who deigned not to pay us.
Susanne was the “forema’am” charged with dealing with the owners and she had to go through a general contractor. So when the first payment did not materialize after several weeks, Susanne pulled us off the job and cancelled our permit. We had not finished the electrical service, a technical part of the job that requires a contractor’s license and knowledgeable crew. The power company, Pacific Gas and Electric, would not connect the service to their grid unless it had a green tag signifying it had been permitted, inspected and signed off by the City.
Some time later that payment came through, we figured because they learned they had to pay us in order to get the inspection and green tag. In the basement we discovered that the owners had hired an unskilled electrician to finish the interior job, apparently because they thought our bid too costly. He was likely unlicensed and had done the work without a city permit. No inspector would have let this sloppy work pass. It was done in conduit (a requirement for commercial work) but this guy had never learned how to bend pipe. He had run conduit all around the basement using poor workmanship not up to our standards or basic code requirements. We worried that his work would reflect on us, as one permit had been issued to us. We also worried that his poor work could cause a safety hazard in the restaurant. The purpose of the electrical code is to address safety.
How could we register our discontent? We decided to use indelible ink to write on all the conduit “WONDER WOMAN ELECTRIC NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS WORK.” When the owners saw our handiwork they were not happy but they probably figured no one would ever go down into that unfinished basement. We got our final check for the service installation and vowed never to work for these people again.
The restaurant opened in 1979 and today remains a destination for affluent opera goers. No doubt the poor pipe work is still there. I wonder if our remonstrations were ever painted over. And I wonder about the integrity of the interior wiring in the walls. Did that unskilled electrician who didn’t know how to bend pipe know how to do anything else? Did he have a license? Did he pull a permit? Was his work inspected? Did he get paid?
Sitting in my favorite chair in the living room of my newly remodeled condo, I heard the violent breaking of glass. It sounded like someone was throwing bottles on the sidewalk with great force. I couldn’t see anything out the front window so I put on shoes and went out there. That’s when I saw […]
Sitting in my favorite chair in the living room of my newly remodeled condo, I heard the violent breaking of glass. It sounded like someone was throwing bottles on the sidewalk with great force. I couldn’t see anything out the front window so I put on shoes and went out there. That’s when I saw flames shooting from the next-door neighbor’s window, broken by the intense heat.
The year was was 2009. After nearly a decade of work restoring and remodeling the three-unit building where I lived for 38 years in San Francisco, it nearly burned down that day.
I had brought my cell phone and immediately called 911. Someone had already called and the fire department said a truck was on the way. It seemed like it took forever but later I learned it had taken two minutes to come from our neighborhood firehouse at Holly Park.
A woman in a bathrobe emerged at a run from the ground level of the house next door. She had been in the shower when she smelled smoke. We knew that many people lived in the house. The owners of the single-family dwelling had divided it up into plywood cells with doors and locks, which they rented to Chinese immigrants, most of whom spoke no English. We had no idea how many people might be in the building.
After rehab, my house on the left
I should add at this point that I hate firemen. Not firewomen, only the men. And not the firemen of color. Only the white men.
Whenever we have occasion to honor firefighters, which is lately often as the West has been burning up every year, I stand back and think to myself, I hate these mofos.
When I tell anyone I hate firemen, the reaction is always shock. “But there are some good men.” And to this I say yes I know but they’ve gotta prove it to me, just as I had to constantly prove to my male coworkers over and over at work in construction that all women are not stupid and weak. In the meantime I’m sticking with my prejudice, formed by years of interaction with woman-hating racists in the San Francisco Fire Department. I may never get over it.
My hatred has roots in the decades-long fight to integrate women and people of color into the department, formed by listening to the stories of female firefighters who had to live in the firehouses where they were hated, denigrated, physically attacked and whose lives were in danger from the men they worked with.
The idea that firefighters are heroes to be worshipped not only had an unfortunate effect on the culture at the firehouses, inflating already overinflated egos. It also made opposing the white men more difficult. They used the positive stereotype to their advantage, calling on the testimony of citizens whose lives and property had been saved.
Before women fought their way in to the SFFD, men of color experienced a racist culture and lack of safety in the department. The first black firefighter entered the department in 1955 as the result of a lawsuit. The San Francisco fire fighters union, local 798, and its international affiliate, possibly the most racist union in the country, waged a campaign to keep minorities and women out of the department. Once they got in, the union and the white men did whatever they could to make their lives miserable. Swastikas, confederate flags, death threats, excrement in boots, tampering with safety equipment, discriminatory entrance exams were some of the tactics. Robert Demmons, a black firefighter, sued the department for discrimination and the lawsuit later included women and other men of color as plaintiffs.
Although agitation to include women in these well-paid jobs began in the 1970s, the first women did not enter the department until 1987. In the lawsuit, women were lucky to draw a judge who saw that breaking the gender barrier required strong measures. In 1986 US District Court Judge Marilyn Patel issued a consent decree requiring the department to hire ten percent women. The SFFD resisted the decree but they had to comply. The ten percent goal for women was met in 1997 and the decree lifted.
The person who files the lawsuit, whether in the trades or other professions, usually ends up dead or blacklisted, a martyr to the cause. Bob Demmons, who became president of the Black Firefighters Association, went to work every day thinking he might be killed. Several attempts were made on his life. We affirmative action activists thought Bob would end up as our martyr, but instead he was appointed chief of the department in 1996 by Mayor Willie Brown. The department was still a mess and Bob worked closely with women and other men of color to change the culture. He knew he would have only a short time before the union and racists got him removed and he moved as quickly as he could to bring in and promote more women and minorities. I think Bob did more than any other individual to make firefighter jobs available to women. He’s my hero.
We women did have a martyr, Anne Young, one of the first four women to be hired as firefighters, the first lesbian and also the first female lieutenant. Anne became the public face of women and so she endured the worst harassment.
I first met Anne at the Women’s Training Center gym in San Francisco where we both worked out. An electrician, I was involved in the fight for affirmative action, agitating to get women into the construction trades and other male-dominated jobs. She was 18 and already clear about her life goal. She was training to be a firefighter. Anne took entry exams at fire departments all around California and she landed a job at the Daly City fire department where she did well. But Daly City is small, with very few fires and emergencies. She set her sights on the big city of San Francisco.
Anne was smart and strong and she already had experience working as a firefighter. She easily passed the entrance exam and became one of the first women to enter fire college. Harassment started immediately. The day that the first women graduated, before they even started working as firefighters, white men were picketing out in the street, saying that women had taken jobs from them.
Bob Demmons and Anne Young began to collaborate. They both wanted a department that reflects the percentages of population that it serves, that could speak all its languages, that would have women helping women. By that time most of the calls were medical emergencies, not fires.
At the time women first got in, San Francisco’s 41 firehouses operated like a fraternity house row. Pornography was everywhere. Men watched porn on TV in the firehouses, which were scenes of hours-long cocktail parties and drinking contests. Bob showed Anne the granite wall with all the names of the firefighters killed in the line of duty. He pointed out names: “He was drunk, he was drunk, he was drunk.” They were dead because they were drunk at a fire.
Female firefighters constantly had to choose. Did you go along with the culture and drink with the boys, or follow the rules which disallowed drinking, and risk isolation? One woman drank with the boys and passed out at dinner. She was terminated, and the female firefighters support group failed to offer any support. They didn’t want to be associated with her.
Many women took the entrance tests and failed to pass. Many were terminated while on probation. One woman who made it in later committed suicide. The ones who stayed tried to be invisible, to not buck the culture. The other women in the SFFD did not necessarily support Anne.
As in construction, I don’t fault women for how they choose to survive. We’ve developed many survival strategies. You have a choice of joining the culture or objecting. The women who tried to be invisible and didn’t stick their necks out, who put up with the harassment or tried to be one of the guys, generally survived. Anne felt she couldn’t go along to get along. She felt pressure to make a choice every single day at work to represent every woman, represent every queer.
In the 1990s, before public shaming on the internet took hold, white male firefighters and retirees attacked females and minorities in a publication called the Smoke Eaters Gazette. They actually put in writing their horrible lies and distributed the paper to everyone in the department. We never learned who wrote and published it.
Anne was a union member, but when she found out the union was using her dues money to oppose affirmative action, she resigned from local 798 and joined the Black Firefighters Association, a slap in the face to the union and the white men.
A watershed moment came in 1988 when the women in the SFFD and Black Firefighters Association drove a fire truck in the gay parade, a first for the department, known for its homophobic culture. Anne Young was driving the truck. Cheers went up from the crowd. The black firefighters stood with the gay community politically in that moment. It took some courage for the straight black men to march in the parade. I was watching from the street and I cried. People on the sidelines were yelling, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, racism has got to go.” The guys were crying. Everyone was crying. It was an historic event.
Anne did well on tests. She had taken and passed many. When the lieutenants’ test came up she was urged to take it by the lawyers and the BFA (the consent decree was still in force). The chief of the department called her in to his office and told her she could have anything she wanted if she didn’t take the test.
In retrospect, she said, taking the lieutenants test and promoting was a mistake, the beginning of the end of her career. As a new lieutenant she worked a different firehouse every day. Some days the entire crew would call in sick, sending a clear message they didn’t want to work for her. Death threats were common. But when men on her crew tried to throw her off a roof, that was her breaking point. They could have gotten away with her murder. Firefighters fall off roofs. No one would have known she was pushed.
After that, Anne kept going to work, but she felt she could no longer do her job competently.
I’ve seen this happen to other women in male-dominated jobs when the everyday level of stress becomes too much for the body to bear. Your mind tells you to go to work but at some point your body rebels. You get sick or injured and you can no longer go to work. After she was nearly killed, Anne had what she called a nervous breakdown. One day she just couldn’t get out of bed. I think this was her body protecting her from harm.
Anne filed a lawsuit and there was a trial where she was called upon to paint the SFFD with a broad brush of discriminatory treatment. She didn’t get to talk about how much she loved the job, working with a team, saving lives. It had been her dream and she was really good at her job. She wasn’t able to focus on the good men who helped her. But, on the whole, even the good guys had refused to stand up for her and risk retaliation from the bad actors. They enabled the harassers.
Three years after filing suit, in 1995, Anne won the lawsuit and was awarded $300,000. But her career as a firefighter was finished. She lost her income, she lost her house. Trauma had infected her like a disease.
I thought of this history as I stood on the sidewalk and watched the house next door to mine burn. When the first fire truck arrived at the scene, the first firefighter who jumped off was a woman I recognized, Nicol Juratavac. She was working as a lieutenant that day. Among the firefighters were several women and men of color. One, a Chinese man, was the only person able to communicate with the next door building’s residents. Then a car pulled up with another woman I recognized, Denise Newman. She was working that day as a battalion chief. Of course, by that time in 2009 the chief of the department was a female, Joanne Hayes-White, appointed by Mayor Newsom in 2004.
Along with a congregation of feminist activists, I had shown up at city hall the day her appointment was announced. Newsom appointed a female police chief as well, which gave us all high hopes that the asshole culture could be turned around. And I do think some progress was made. Hayes-White stayed on the job for 15 years, long after Newsom had moved on up the political ladder. The SFFD women often clashed with her, but in general her policies and promotions were female friendly. Heather Fong, the police chief, hung in for ten years before the white men and the police union were finally able to run her out.
Wringing my hands and worrying that my newly remodeled building was about to go up in flames, I was grateful for the SFFD. And I had an epiphany: decades of fighting to make the department reflect San Francisco’s diverse population had paid off. The fire department had been integrated.
Now, a decade later, many of those first women have retired from the department with generous pensions. Some of them struggle with PTSD from years of harassment. Yes, the culture in the firehouses has changed for the better, but discrimination and harassment are still present. Anti-affirmative action laws passed in the 1990s make targeted recruitment illegal and make it difficult for California public safety entities to maintain the minimum number of women and minority employees that had been required by SFFD’s consent decree. There’s no guarantee that the department will not revert back to its old white male culture.
However, the new chief of the department, appointed in 2019, Jeanine Nicholson, a lesbian cancer survivor and also burn survivor, gives me hope that the department has changed for good. Still, I haven’t forgiven those white men.
I thank Bob Demmons, and especially Anne Young who sacrificed her career so other women could become firefighters. They were truly change makers.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
At ten o’clock they called us all down from the scaffolds where we were finishing the tops of the columns of the Pantheon. All was ready for the next stage–arches and the first valance of the great dome. To duplicate in concrete the shapes of the original Maybeck design, a crew of plasterers & carpenters had worked for months on the huge forms.
We gathered in the covered building that is now the Exploratorium, to help get the first form out into the yard where the crane could attach & lift it. It weighed many tons, in an awkward, trapezoidal shape. No combination of forklifts or dollies was thought possible to make a safe carry, so…they took us back to a time before tools. Fifty of us ranged evenly around the form, waiting for commands–dusty men in ragged white overalls, hard-hatted in the old style resembling World War One helmets. Putting on gloves, testing the grip edge, preparing as if it were a track & field event. The initial swagger of the field carpenters damping down to admiration for what the ‘inside’ crew has built.
Howard, the Foreman, got our attention. On my say-so, you’ll all lift at once. If we get it up to our waists, then let’s set it back down slowly. This is just to get the feel of it. Then he said LIFT–everyone grunted and strained…and nothing happened. It felt as if you could never budge it. Howard said to keep an even strain, not a jerk, and after a few seconds we felt it slowly rising. An eerie thing. It seemed to take all one’s strength, everyone’s, to break the inertia. But once it began to rise, it felt light enough to throw. Howard asked us how we were doing. Everyone said fine. Said let’s go! And he thought and then agreed: All right! So… you have to walk at the same pace…take small steps.
And then, another sensation of the Many Tons. At first we could not move. I tried to step but the Form was staying put. I had to step back again, then strain against it as if shoving an elephant into her stall. But then there was that Shift as the current of our strain woke the monster…and we each managed to take a first step, in extreme slow motion. Now the Form seemed to wantto move. It accelerated a little, and one felt as if one had no choice now about the speed. Howard yelled out to keep an even strain.Men in front were pulling, and on the sides they were walking in an angled fashion…and it seemed all at once like the most exhilarating thing that ever happened to you! Like being gods, or dreamers in unison! A nervy camaraderie pulsed around the rim in our grip. For me, a moment of reverie: this is something to always remember. What people can do in union! The Shakers, the Egyptians, harvests….
I think everyone was euphoric like that for a bit, and our momentum had increased until it was that of a serious hiker. Howard warned us that the turn coming up would mean the pivoting side should slow down. We all tried to gauge what that would mean for our own effort…but there was no way to command it, and we were having that same problem of inertia…we could not make the thing slow down orturn. It was going too far in the original track; we could see that the radius of the turn because of the great size of the form was already being exceeded.
I was straining with all my heart against the direction with no effect. Then there were some frightened yells as the men closer to the doorway began to think they might be crushed. Howard ran along the left side urging us to push harder. Someone on the far side had fallen as the speed changed, and then there was a near panic as that edge began to dip down…until some slid over to cover.
At last, the turn achieved its own momentum. The edge farthest from the pivoting zone was really picking up speed. The pivoters were almost standing still and the outer edge was moving as fast as a man could run…and run they did, one leaping clear as the form’s edge grazed the door walls, and all of us had a rush of dread as if seeing the iceberg scrape alongside our Titanic. The magical communal energy had ‘gone too far’; some of us were about to get mangled. Our fate was sealed as a team…abandoning the Form meant a lurching crash.The last ones holding on would die….I already felt the test coming over me; I was nearing the end of my stamina at this intensity of strain. It felt like my muscles would pop or rip and they were screaming at me to stop.
There was a staccato din of shouts to HOLDON! And…we did in fact hold on…the turn finally slowed itself, we passed out into daylight, and Howard ordered us to come to a full stop. Helpers came to arrange the lagging under the form, and we stood speechless, grinning across at each other in the exhilaration and relief. The barehanded, natural childbirth mass movement…had made it out the gate. We set it down and floated up to the scaffolds of the Pantheon…and back to work.
Eric Johnson, the author of this story, is a letterpress printer and founder of Iota Press and also North Bay Letterpress Arts in Sebastopol now with a dozen active printers. We met because I was researching the life of his mother, Miriam Dinkin Johnson, a daughter of one of the iconic Communist chicken farmer families of Petaluma. I was delighted to learn that Eric is a carpenter and storyteller too.
We had been powerless tenants, evicted with no recourse, and then we became agents of displacement. There was no in between.
My collective household of four lesbians had found a place on Castro Street, one of those original Victorians with high ceilings and elaborate wood trim, an abandoned coal fireplace and a parlor whose big sliding doors opened to double the size of the room. It was rumored that the apartment had come up for rent because the previous tenants had been busted for selling weed and were all in jail. We embellished the story to claim that the famous Brownie Mary had lived there. She may not have lived there, but she had certainly been there in spirit. It was the seventies; the Castro was becoming a gay men’s mecca. During our time there a housepainter engaged to paint our building ran a brothel turning tricks in the building’s storage room. He painted that building for months.
We fondly remember political gabfests at shared dinners, Seders in which we sang all the way through, inventive costumes at Halloween parties (in the year of Anita Bryant I came as a lesbian recruiter). For a time our costume du jour at home was simply a vest, a way to show off a billowing bush and legs as thickly furred as animal pelts (we were hairy and proud!). We danced and sang along to Stevie Wonder and Lavender Jane Loves Women. There was much laughing and also much crying. Passionate love affairs abounded. Hearts were opened, hearts were broken. Creating a new culture calls for invention. We tried out nonmonogamy, polyamory. We felt we were on the cutting edge of a cultural transformation.
When the gay male couple from New York, or maybe LA, bought the three-unit building in 1978 they immediately evicted us. We had no recourse; rent control was still a few years off. We found a smaller apartment on 29th Street just off Mission in the neighborhood we now call La Lengua. Our landlords were butchers, brothers who ran a shop on Mission right next to what later became Cole Hardware. Weirdly, the buildings on 29th Street and Mission Street were connected. Our apartment always smelled like dead meat, like something had died in the walls.
We liked the spot—right behind the Safeway parking lot and across the street from the Tiffany gas station. Pauline’s Pizza was just across Mission and Mexican restaurants like Mi Casa proliferated. I bought my work clothes at Lightstone’s; the post office was right next door. The building’s ground floor held a printer’s shop (it’s now a pot club) and the second floor was just a big meeting room that was rented by Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE) which allowed other organizations like Tradeswomen, Gays for Nicaragua, Lesbians Against Police Violence and the Briggs Initiative opposition to meet there.
My collective of four politically active dykes—me, two Ruths and a Pam—was happy. We cooked and ate together and invited interesting people to share dinner. Jews and militant atheists ruled. I learned about Jewish culture. The Christmas tree was relegated to a bedroom. It was bliss, except that with visiting lovers and pets (one a gigantic great Dane) and parents and friends the place was just too small. Finally we decided that we either had to pool our money and buy a bigger place or split up the collective. Ruth M decided to pull up stakes and live with her lover and so my lover Nancy became part of our collective.
We were earnest idealists; we were gay activists; we had just lived through the horrors of the Moscone Milk murders and Jonestown and the election of Reagan. We were committed to live ethically and, even in the midst of what felt like political chaos, we fervently believed we could change the world, ending US imperialism, racism, police violence, and discrimination against women and gays. We were part of a collective movement that emphasized cooperation and consensus decision-making, a radical departure from capitalist organization that resulted only in winners and losers.
We listed our requirements for the new house. Ruth had to have a garden. I desperately needed a garage to store my electrical contracting tools and supplies. We had to be close to public transportation. We didn’t want a fixer upper; no one had time for that and I was the only skilled tradeswoman. We were committed to collective living and we also fantasized about eventually dispensing with private property. What if we could donate the place to a land trust so that our dream of a lesbian nation could live on into future generations?
We negotiated a contract. What would happen if one of us died or ended up in jail or for some reason couldn’t make her payment? How would we sell and buy shares in the building? What if we needed to make repairs or improvements? We listed all contingencies. We were good at processing—we were lesbians!
We imagined a larger single-family house, one with four real bedrooms, but then when we found the three-unit place on the south side of Bernal Hill our imaginations blossomed. We would no longer have to share one bathroom and one kitchen, but we could still cook and eat together whenever we wanted. Instead of negotiating for time to call each of our telephone trees on our shared phone, each could have her own phone.
The listing price was $135,000, an incomprehensible amount. A hundred thousand then felt like like a billion now—you couldn’t get your head around it. Still, we dug deep and came up with the down payment, only because Pam was able to borrow money from her family. Then we wrote up a new contract to repay Pam by the month. We got pretty good at writing contracts.
As soon as we took possession in 1980, our place in the property hierarchy changed. We became agents of displacement. All three of the units were occupied. Each of us had to evict tenants before we could move in and none of us could afford to pay both rent and mortgage for long. Oh the contradictions! I talked with the couple in “my” unit, offering to help them find a new place. Our exchanges were friendly and civil, and they soon found new housing. But Ruth couldn’t even get the tenant in “her” unit to open his door, though she could hear him spewing expletives from the other side. She resorted to lawyers and eviction notices.
We weren’t the first lesbians to move to Bernal Heights. Political activist Pat Norman and her large family lived up the block. A lesbian couple had settled just around the corner on Andover. But there were four of us, and with friends and lovers coming and going we were hard to ignore. People in the neighborhood noticed. Homophobia took the form of nasty notes left on car windshields, DYKES graffiti on the building. Two neighbors who grew up on the block, guys about my age, made it clear they understood what we represented—a lesbian invasion. Years later, when our relationship had grown friendlier, one of them confided, “We were watching you.”
As much as we wanted to live collectively, the house on Richland restricted collectivity. Having separate apartments led to fewer shared meals, less knowledge of each other’s daily lives. I retreated into the dreaded merged lesbian couple relationship. After a few years the original members began to sell their shares and move out while others bought in. At the cusp of the 80s our world changed. That frantic hopeful creative collective time was ending.
But we are still here. Since the birth of our dyke-owned dream, we have aided the lesbian colonizing of San Francisco and particularly Bernal Heights. With each refinancing (too numerous to count) and buyout, our property underwrote the purchase of new female-owned houses. When we started, four single women buying property together was rare and suspect by financiers. Tenants-in-common was not a typical way to hold property. Since then it’s been adopted by the real estate industry as a way to make buying of increasingly expensive property possible for groups of unrelated individuals.
We were agents of change, the leading edge of a new wave of homeowners in the Mission and Bernal Heights. But change is not new to our neighborhood. As one of the authors of a small history of Bernal Heights, I researched its historic demographics. Irish squatters displaced the Mexican land grant Californios. European immigrants made homeless by the 1906 earthquake and fire moved earthquake shacks here and built new homes. Southern Italians colonized the north side of the hill. Germans, Swedes and Italians built churches here for ethnic congregations. Mexicans and blacks found a neighborhood free of racist covenants and restrictions, although Bernal was not outside redlining boundaries. During the economic downturn starting in 2008, big banks (locally based Wells Fargo gained our enduring hatred) evicted scores of homeowners, most of them people of color. Now houses on this block are selling for millions and the techies are moving in.
The life we built is changing. Pat Norman retired, sold her house and moved to Hawaii. My long-time friend on Andover, the first lesbian I met in the neighborhood, sold her house and moved to Oakland. And now I’m selling the apartment where I’ve lived for 37 years in order to colonize a neighborhood in Santa Rosa. Our particular experiment may be ending, but the neighborhood is still full of dykes.
In Bernal Heights, lesbians found an affordable generally accepting environment. At one time I heard that the neighborhood was home to more woman-owned property than any neighborhood in the country or in the world. Who knows; that may still be true.
Ruth S was the first to live in the top floor apartment after our collective household of four lesbians bought the three-unit building on Richland Avenue. She confided that in big storms it felt like a boat on the sea. You could get seasick with the rocking.
I’ve now lived in all the flats—A, B and C—and I can testify that Ruth was not exaggerating. One afternoon, lying on my bed in the far southern reaches on the lowest floor of the four-story building, I could feel a gentle rocking. It might have rocked me to sleep had I not been worrying about its source. There was no wind. I could see the blue sky from my window. Later I asked my partner D, whose bedroom was on the top floor in the far northern corner, what she thought might have caused it. Sex, she answered rather sheepishly. “We were having sex.”
As amusing as this was, to have knowledge of my house partners’ sexual habits by just lying on my bed in a distant part of the building, it concerned me greatly about the constitution of our home. Was it going to fall down? And if so, when?
With this question in mind, I invited one of my building inspection coworkers to come by and have a look (I didn’t tell him about the sex). I just felt there was something terribly wrong with the way this building had been constructed. What could the problem be and how might we fix it?
Of course he had no idea. The walls had long been closed and I didn’t at that time have the energy for a big project that included opening walls and inspecting structural members. But I had at various times opened pieces of walls to pull in low voltage wiring or to try to parse out what the builders might have had in mind.
I first moved into the lowest unit, apartment A, in 1980 with my lover Nancy. We noticed immediately that the kitchen floor’s angle was far steeper than, say, the angle of repose for raw eggs. Whenever we dropped anything liquid it would run so quickly from one side to the other that the cook would have to dive to the floor in order to catch it before it disappeared into the framing.
The interior had been finished, but badly. We could see that the previous owner had covered the kitchen with quarter inch sheetrock, painting it all a bright yellow so that no one would notice. The sheetrock covered the window trim, making you wonder what he had been trying to hide. Nancy was a carpenter and I an electrician. We couldn’t stand not knowing what was behind the quarter inch. And we wanted to even out the kitchen ceiling, which had a mysterious soffit hanging over the entrance door. One Saturday while I was away at a tradeswomen meeting, Nancy demo’d the soffit (it had seemed like a simple quick job) and I returned to a kitchen full of rats’ nest material and rat poison boxes from the 1920s. We could only guess that a previous owner had built the soffit around the rats’ nest to avoid cleaning it up. After that we did not open walls with such abandon.
But later I did have to open the kitchen wall. Investigating a short, I opened electrical boxes trying to figure out where the kitchen outlet was fed from with no success. I finally pulled off a piece of the quarter inch sheetrock thinking I’d find a pipe or a piece of electrical cable leading to another outlet. Instead I found that someone (clearly not an electrician) had run not cable but two wires stapled directly to the wooden original kitchen wall and then covered the whole mess with the quarter inch sheetrock. The wires disappeared under the sheetrock. Where did they go? There was no telling. This discovery horrified me. No electrician or anyone concerned with fire hazard would ever have done such a thing. It meant that we could hang a picture on the wall and short out a circuit or start a fire. But there was nothing to be done then. I patched the sheetrock and made a mental note to never hang a picture on that wall. It wouldn’t be till 20 years later that I would have the money and gumption to open the walls to see what was really inside.
After closing up the kitchen wall and vowing not to think about the wiring, Nancy and I lived together in Apartment A for a couple of years before experiencing a devastating breakup involving our mutual best friend who lived across the street. Nancy was the first of our original collective of four to be bought out.
We all had thought long and hard about all the possibilities of home ownership, drawing up a contract that spelled out how collective members would be bought out and how new owners would be chosen, how much monthly “rent” would cost and the amount of homeowners’ dues. We even consulted a lawyer from which we learned that contracts drawn up between people are whatever the people agree to. In other words, the lawyer was no help. What we failed to understand was the concept of equity as it relates to real estate. Our idea was that each member’s equity was equal to all the money she had put into the pot, including monthly mortgage payments. None of us had owned real estate. We didn’t understand that most of the payment went toward interest on the loan. So we ended up buying Nancy out for more than her actual equity. But it was a good lesson. We became real estate mavens.
Then I moved in to apartment B. At the culmination of a lovely housewarming dinner, I turned on the coffee maker and all the lights went out. The electrician’s house, my friends laughed, like the unshod cobbler’s kids. That was the start of a long journey of discovery that would shock my electrical sensibilities and make me wonder why the building had not burned down in an electrical fire long before my time here.
Wires live inside walls and ceilings and so without opening up walls it would be very difficult to understand what was going on, but I could surmise that the apartment was served by only a single circuit. That in itself was troubling and there was no way of knowing the quality of workmanship or the condition of the wiring. At least the old fuse panel had been replaced with a circuit breaker panel so the wires were protected from overload. I wasn’t prepared to start a construction project on my home at that time in the early 80s. That would have to wait until after my retirement as an electrical inspector. My job as an inspector required me to explain to other home owners and business owners that their faulty electrical wiring could cause a fire. Every time I said, “If you don’t fix this problem, a fire could result,” I would think to myself, “My own home could burn down!” I didn’t know the half of it.
Over the years collective members sold their shares, others bought in and sold out until I was the only one left. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I had the time and inclination, and also a partner who wanted to get her hands dirty, to begin to open walls and really see the structure. What we found was worse than anything I’d imagined: no studs in half of the third story apartment, bearing walls cut off at the garage level causing the building to sag in the middle (the answer to the raw egg question), a monstrous electrical fire hazard.
As we deconstructed the building, we kept wondering why it is so oddly shaped, why construction methods differed from floor to floor and room to room, why floors were different heights in adjacent rooms, why floor and ceiling joists sometimes went north and south, sometimes east and west, why when wall coverings were removed we could see sky through cracks in the exterior walls.
Then one day when I was standing across the street looking at the building I had an epiphany. Our home was never a plan in some architect’s mind. It was a collection of buildings set on top of one another, cut off, pushed together, raised up, and without benefit of removal of siding, spiked together with a few big nails. Suddenly all the mysteries we’d catalogued made sense. Our four-story three-unit building had probably begun life as a homesteader’s shack in 1893, the year of the newspapers that had been pasted on interior redwood walls as insulation. We read the San Francisco Call as we uncovered the walls. 1893 was a very interesting year.