I’m writing this during a gentle rainstorm that has elicited delight among denizens here in Santa Rosa. Our weather station says it has brought a little less than an inch of rain. We are humbled when we think of raging floods elsewhere in the world but of course what we worry about at this time of the year is fire. Word is that the rain has dampened our biggest California fire, the Mosquito Fire, which has burned 75,000 acres in the Sierra foothills and is now 35 percent contained. This rain may not put an end to fire season, but we hope, as the fall equinox approaches, it marks the beginning of the end. This year the autumn equinox takes place on September 22, when the sun crosses the equator making night and day of equal length in all parts of the earth.
In Japan the equinox symbolizes the middle way between the seasons. This week will mark the start of Higan, a seven-day Buddhist celebration and national holiday in Japan during the fall and spring equinoxes. The origin of the holiday dates from Emperor Shomu in the 8th century. Higan means the “other shore” and refers to the spirits of the dead reaching Nirvana. It is a time to remember the dead by visiting, cleaning, and decorating their graves. The red spider lily signals shūbun, the arrival of fall.
Buddhist psychology is neither a path of denial nor of affirmation. It shows us the paradox of the universe, within and beyond the opposites. It teaches us to be in the world but not of the world. This realization is called the middle way.
If we seek happiness purely through indulgence, we are not free. If we fight against ourselves and reject the world, we are not free. It is the middle path that brings freedom. This is a universal truth discovered by all those who awaken.
The middle way describes the middle ground between attachment and aversion, between being and non-being, between form and emptiness, between free will and determinism. The more we delve into the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites.
When we discover the middle path, we neither remove ourselves from the world nor get lost in it. We can be with all our experience in its complexity, with our own exact thoughts and feelings and drama. We learn to embrace tension, paradox, change. Instead of seeking resolution, waiting for the chord at the end of a song, we let ourselves open and relax in the middle. In the middle we discover that the world is workable. From the book The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield
Here in Sonoma County at fall equinox we celebrate the end of those super hot days of summer. There was a day in August when we set a heat record of 115 degrees here.
We may still get some 90 degree days, but the withering heat is behind us and the cold of winter is yet to come. No more flex alerts! We look forward to enjoying the outdoors in this mild season.
Like all Californians we are conserving water during an ongoing drought. Our vegetable garden is not as robust and productive as in wetter years, but native plants thrive. Favorites include native Epilobium in bright reds and pinks, eriogonum (wild buckwheat), and a purple native aster given to us by a neighbor, still blooming happily without water! Birds of all feathers converge on our garden to eat the seeds of spent wildflower blooms.
I think of summer solstice as the start of the dry season here in NoCal, but in ancient Egypt it presaged the start of the wet season when the Nile River began to flood.
Nile Valley civilizations acknowledged and celebrated the solstice, when the sun reached its highest point in the Northern Hemisphere, as the most important day of the year marking the African new year.
Celebrations commemorated the longest day of Ra, the sun god, as well as the rising of the star Sirius, which heralded the Nile flooding and divine blessings on the land of Egypt.
The ancient Egyptians recognized the importance of Sirius (one of the stars of the constellation Canis Major) as the brightest star in the sky, as well as the birthplace of the goddess Isis. They called this star Sopdet. The celebrations for new year’s day began at dawn when Sirius appeared on the horizon as the shining morning star emerging from the darkness of the underworld.
Goddesses were involved too. The great triad of goddesses, Isis, Hathor and Nut, was intimately connected with this “divine rebirthing” of Egypt each year, as depicted in detail on the walls of Dendera Temple in upper Egypt, built by Cleopatra. Traditional beliefs held that Isis was mourning her dead husband, Asar (Osiris), and that her tears made the Nile rise.
This festival is one of the oldest in Egyptian history, celebrated from archaic times all the way through to the Roman occupation of Egypt. Ancient Egyptians aligned the Great Pyramids so that the sun, when viewed from the Sphinx, sets precisely between two of the pyramids on the summer solstice. Here on my block we stand out in the street to watch the sun set over the Coast Mountain range.
How will I be celebrating the solstice? Well, my weather app says it’s forecast to be 100 degrees here in Santa Rosa on Tuesday June 21, so my daily walk will have to be early in the morning. After the longest day of summer solstice, the days will gradually get shorter until the winter solstice and the shortest day of the year. Some part of me is looking forward to shorter, cooler days, longer nights and the coming of winter. Now we just have to get through fire season.
Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, has become one of my favorite holidays. Credit should go to the influence of Mexican culture.
I couldn’t remember when I first started celebrating Day of the Dead, at this time of the year when the veil between the lands of the living and the dead thins and we celebrate the lives of our ancestors and others who have died. I asked friends and family when we first learned of this holiday. No one could really remember. It just seeped into American culture when we weren’t looking.
Now the holiday is a cross-cultural experience. Though it originated in Mexico, it is commonly celebrated worldwide, especially throughout Latin America. Day of the Dead is a joyful celebration of life and death that originated thousands of years ago among Aztec, Toltec and other Nahua people. They believed that death is a cyclical part of life and that when someone died, they would go to the Land of the Dead. This tradition differs vastly from Halloween in its life-affirming tone and its rejection of death as a finality. In a modern culture whose chief way of responding to death is denial, the addition of this celebration to American life seems much needed.
I was lucky to live in San Francisco where Rene Yanez and Ralph Maradiaga had launched our local version of the celebration in 1972. Day of the Dead evolved into a gigantic procession up 24th Street, the Latinx district, on November 2. The Mission Cultural Center would sponsor events and we gathered to erect altars, or ofrendas. My Old Lesbians group one year made a beautiful altar for our friend Tita Caldwell, who had been active in our Occupy Bernal organization in 2012. San Franciscans gather at Garfield Square Park (perhaps we should rename it Frida Kahlo Park) to walk through the park and view the altars. Rene describes the history here: https://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=Day_of_the_Dead. In the interview Rene refers to Posada (Jose Guadelupe Posada Aguilar), the Mexican artist who created illustrations of la calavera catrina that have become ubiquitous symbols of this holiday.
Now I live in Sonoma County where we have many options for celebrating Day of the Dead. Our Sonoma County Museum and our art district have exhibits. The town of Petaluma sponsors events all month, ending with a candlelight procession at the fairgrounds that has been going for 19 years. This year the town of Windsor is sponsoring its 6th annual event. Every town now has one. These events are led by Mexican and Latinx people, who make up the largest ethnic group in Santa Rosa at around 30 percent of the population.
October is Latinx Heritage Month. This month we also remember the murder by a deputy sheriff of 13-year-old Andy Lopez October 22, 2013. Andy was walking in his neighborhood when sheriffs spotted him carrying a toy gun. Erick Gelhaus fired eight shots that killed the boy. No charges were filed against the shooter, he returned to work and was later promoted before retiring. A civil suit filed by Andy’s parents resulted in a $3 million settlement.
Sadly, Andy’s murder has defined the relationship between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and its citizens, especially the Latinx population. In the seven years since the shooting, people have staged multiple protests, organized to build a park at the site of the shooting and pressured the county for more police accountability. This year we met at Andy’s Unity Park in the Latinx neighborhood of Roseland to remember Andy.
Holly and I celebrate this season by making clay catrina sculptures for our ofrenda on the fireplace mantle and telling stories about our friends and family who have died. I like to walk by our altar and commune with the figure of my mother who is sitting in an armchair reading Esquire (from a 1940s picture). Holly’s dad sits in a recliner nearby and her dog Mattie lies at his feet.
What do I say to Mom? She was a news junkie who kept a close watch on world events. She liked to imagine what the world would be like in 50 years. I tell her if she were alive today she absolutely would not believe it.
Here in Santa Rosa, in an era when small cities often have none, I’m pleased we have a decent local newspaper, the Press Democrat. I usually agree with their editorials, and when I don’t I write a letter to the editor. Here’s my latest.
You came out on the wrong side of project labor agreements in your October 12 editorial. Yes, our tax money is being used to build community structures we all will enjoy. But it seems to me you are promoting union busting and lower wages for the construction workers who build our public spaces. A PLA is a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement with labor organizations that establishes the terms and conditions of employment for a specific construction project.
One difference between union and nonunion construction is training. My career as a union construction worker has allowed me to live a middle class life. In my union, apprentices must graduate from a five-year apprenticeship program to work as journey-level workers.
How do nonunion construction workers learn their trades? You may not know that (free) union apprenticeship programs–certified by the state and run by both unions and industry–teach workers necessary skills.
Building trades are skilled trades. When contractors employ unskilled workers to do skilled work they take the chance of mistakes that could cost lives down the line.
Let’s not scapegoat workers in the race for bigger contractor profits.
Happy fall! Lately I’m being told I’ve gotten lazy with pagan holidays. I’m focusing too much on the Celts and should expand my cultural reach.
I confess I do love the Celts. But of course the autumn equinox has associations with harvest time in many cultures in the northern hemisphere. In China the Moon Festival takes place on the full moon closest to the equinox. This year the full harvest moon was on September 20. I am visiting cousins in Gig Harbor, Washington and we celebrated by watching the glorious moon rise over Puget Sound just to the left of Mt. Rainier while on a zoom call with my brother Don. A thoroughly modern pagan celebration!I
was introduced to Chinese philosophy in a class about Chinese medicinal cooking led by West County neighbor Briahn. What an eye opener! A whole different way of looking at nature and the earth. Each of the five phases or seasons of ancient Chinese philosophy carries associations with specific things. Not only spring, summer, fall and winter, but also the cardinal directions, colors, sounds, organs in the body, fundamental elements such as wood, fire, earth, metal, and real or mythological beasts.
In Chinese tradition, the autumn season is associated with the color white, the emotions of both courage and sadness, the sound of weeping, the lung organ, the metal element, and a white tiger. Autumn is also connected in Chinese thought with the direction west, considered to be the direction of dreams and visions. To the Chinese, nature means more than just the cycling of the seasons. Nature is within and around us, in all things.
This summer I’ve been communing with nature by watching the night sky on clear nights. At the Ides of August I missed the Perseid meteor shower because smoke from fires in the Sierra mixed with fog to obscure the sky in Santa Rosa. But the clear sky has returned periodically.
I developed a bit of an obsession with the night sky and when I told neighbor Pam, she lent me a book by her husband, Jerry Waxman, who before his death in 2009 had been an astronomy professor at Santa Rosa Jr. College. It’s called Astronomical Tidbits: A Layperson’s Guide to Astronomy and it’s a perfect book for me, a layperson if there ever was one. Astronomy is explained and stories told in short short chapters, just right for my short attention span.
Jerry was forced to retire from teaching in 2003 after being diagnosed with Multiple Systems Atrophy (MSA), a disease like Parkinson’s. He worked on the book the last two years of his life and Pam got it published. Pam told me Jerry’s doctor speculated that toxins in the environment caused the disease. He was a runner who daily ran through vineyards coated with pesticides. The doctor said farmers, too, have higher evidence of this disease than the general population.
Jerry’s death is a reminder that living in a semi-rural agricultural area does not save us from industrial pollution. I’ve wondered about the effects of pesticide exposure on my own health. I grew up in Yakima Washington in the middle of an apple orchard when DDT was sprayed liberally and crop dusters flew over with regularity. My mother had what would now be called environmental illness. She died at 70 after years of suffering from COPD.
I know that those crop duster pilots showed signs of memory loss in studies. Did exposure to pesticides affect my memory? I’ve suffered from memory problems all my adult life (although as a little kid I was a whiz). At some point I was helped by seeing this as a disability, although the cause remains a mystery. One way I have coped is to learn to let things go when I can’t remember. Another is to focus on just memorizing one thing at a time.
Stargazing this summer I have focused on the summer triangle because it contains three stars that are the first to come out after dark. The triangle is an asterism, made up of stars that are part of three different constellations. Vega, the brightest star in the northern hemisphere, is the very first star I see and by now in September it is high in mid-sky. Seeing Vega blink on is comforting in this age of turmoil. The earth is still turning, my star is still there. The other two stars are Deneb and Altair, though I keep forgetting Altair. Gotta let that go. Then I will memorize it again tomorrow.
Here is another cool thing I learned from this book while reading about meteor showers. The best time to look for meteors is between 3 and 6 a.m. because we are on the side of the earth that is rushing forward in space! It’s called the leading edge. Jerry writes, “Earlier, around 9 p.m., the observer finds him or herself on the trailing edge, the backside of the Earth. Just the way your front windshield has more dead bugs than the rear windshield, so the leading edge of the Earth gathers more meteors.”
Now on a clear night when I awake at 3 or 4 or 5 a.m., I go outside, sit in a zero gravity chair and look up. Even if I don’t see any falling stars, it’s exhilarating to think that I’m on the edge of the Earth that’s rushing into space! And it’s humbling to remember that I’m just a tiny speck on a little planet in a minor solar system.
Lunasa or Lammas is the first of three fall Celtic harvest holidays, celebrated on August 1. It marks the halfway point between summer solstice and fall equinox. Amidst the joys of harvest, this year Lunasa brings with it anxiety. We worry about fire and toxic smoke, about covid, about drought.
As we move into harvest season this year a historic drought confronts us in the West, with Sonoma County at the crux of the crisis. The city is asking citizens to cut back water use 20 percent and we have exceeded that. Lawns are turning brown all over town. Now at the end of July two major water sources, Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, are dangerously low.
Fires burn throughout the state. The smoke hasn’t reached us yet, but East Coast cities are suffering from the smoke of over 50 major fires burning across 10 western states. The smoke caught up with us in Sacramento while visiting Holly’s brother this week. The air had been fine when we woke up, but smoke from the Dixie fire rolled in fast, creating that familiar orange sun and low visibility. We donned our masks and headed for home where the air quality was still good. But there’s no reason to think we will be spared here in Santa Rosa.
Our Sonoma County harvest festival season will be again impacted by covid. This year the Gravenstein Apple Fair is being reimagined as a benefit concert. We bought tickets with the hope that we’ll feel comfortable wearing masks in a crowd. The Sonoma County fair is happening in reduced form but they cut out our favorite part—the hall of flowers. You can still go on rides at the midway and eat fair food but I think we’ll skip it this year. Maybe we will get to the Sonoma County Harvest Fair scheduled for October
The delta variant is more virulent and more contagious. This virus has affected me more personally than before. The 42-year-old son of a friend is in the hospital on a ventilator dying. We have gotten word that his lungs have been too damaged to survive. He and his wife just adopted a baby. He was not anti-vax, just suspicious enough to put off getting vaccinated. His family and friends are devastated.
Travel plans have again been cancelled. Holly and I had planned a trip around the South but that’s now the last place we want to go—where the fewest have been vaccinated and numbers of covid infections and deaths are rising. Though we have been vaccinated we are learning that we could still be carriers.
In my summer solstice missive I told about newborn fawns and a fire in the neighborhood. Here’s an update on both. About the fire I must issue a correction. I wrote that it was started when someone threw a cigarette onto a yard that had just been landscaped with bark. It turns out that rumor was false. The fire was started when PG&E’s electric lines hit against each other in the wind, causing sparks that ignited the bark. The power company came out and put plastic insulators around the wires, an easy fix.
The fawns have been seen around the neighborhood. They live here in the place they were born. But sadly I’ve just heard of an epidemic among deer that is killing fawns. Someone posted on Nextdoor that three fawns had perished in her yard. The disease is a virus that had a big outbreak in the mid-90s among deer and came back again last year. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has confirmed outbreaks of cervid adenovirus 1 —CdAdV-1 — as the cause. Deer fawns are at greatest risk, with high rates of mortality following infection. Yearlings and adult deer are more resistant but deaths do occur in those age groups. The virus is not known to affect people, pets or domestic livestock. Anyone who observes a deer exhibiting symptoms, or encountering a deer that has died from unknown causes, can submit the information to CDFW through the department’s online mortality reporting system.
Despite all this worrying, we are doing well. Our garden, while not as lush as last year, is surviving on less water. Holly has planted dry land natives like Epilobium, yarrow, buckwheat and verbena and they look great right now.
Happy Juneteenth, a new federal holiday! And happy Summer Solstice! This week we celebrate the opening up of California and Santa Rosa from covid restrictions. I’ve taken off my mask to eat at a restaurant, I saw a movie at the Summerfield (In the Heights—it was great), and I flew on a plane to visit family in Washington. Holly and I took a road trip to Pismo Beach and we hosted friends for lunch in our house. The awfulness of 2020 is starting to fade, but we must strive to remember lessons it taught us about resilient viruses and fragile democracies.
Two exciting developments took place in our neighborhood in May. The first was the birth of two fawns in Linda’s yard across the street from us. I was out in the front yard when Linda called me over. She had been getting her newspaper when she saw the doe and fawns. The mom left for a bit to forage, but she came back later to fetch her kids.
The second thing was a fire. On a windy day I was visiting with neighbor Pam when we looked up to see clouds of smoke blowing by her windows. When we ran outside to see what was happening, the street was already full of freaked out neighbors.
“I’ve got PTSD from 2017,” yelled Renee. Our block was evacuated when the Tubbs fire bore down on the neighborhood.
Fire trucks were already at the scene extinguishing the blaze that had combusted in Howie’s front yard which had just been landscaped with bark mulch. Apparently a passing driver had thrown a cigarette that ignited the mulch. This set us all worrying that mulch might be the wrong landscaping material as, like good citizens, we replace our water intensive lawns. And so for us on Hyland Drive fire season began in May. It gets earlier every year.
Because she grew up here and is now in her 60s, my partner Holly has taken on the character of an old timer. Lately she’s been telling me that when she was growing up the wind didn’t blow as much as it does now. She also said it was always foggy in the summer; she remembers freezing her ass off at swimming lessons before the sun came out. She ran into somebody recently who also grew up here who corroborated her theory. Perhaps for climate change updates we should just ask old timers what the weather was like when they were growing up.
Fire season with its smoke and toxic air has caused us to depend on a plethora of apps for air quality. We like purpleair best because it uses air quality monitors installed by citizens. We got one and so we can look at the map and see what the air quality is right in our back yard within ten-minute intervals. People also install them indoors. The purpleair map usually shows people’s indoor air to be worse than outdoor.
Nowadays there are lots of online resources to check air quality, smoke, temperature, rain and thunder, clouds, waves—just about anything we can imagine. My favorite discovery this year is windy.com. The visuals are so cool. You can change the screen to show different aspects, but my favorite is wind. Here are some things I’ve learned from the visual image: It’s a lot windier over the ocean than over the land. The wind tends to hug the coast and it can travel either north to south or south to north. Once I watched while it changed direction! Also the app gives you ten days of previews. Our westerly wind tends to blow through the Golden Gate and then travel north unless it’s really windy. Then it can come right over the Coast Range, which generally stops it.
The offshore wind is another animal altogether, coming from the east. Diablo winds propelled the Tubbs fire in 2017 that burned 5200 homes here. Like the Santa Ana winds in southern California, our Diablo winds originate inland usually in the autumn when hot dry weather creates the worst fire conditions. The term Diablo wind first appeared after the 1991 Oakland firestorm in which the wind came from the direction of Mount Diablo in the east.
As fire season starts, we find ourselves in the middle of a historic drought. It’s always something, right? We citizens are doing our best to reduce water use, collecting shower water in buckets, letting lawns go brown and reducing irrigation to our gardens. Californians are practiced at this. I remember the first time I saw this sign in a bathroom: IF IT’S YELLOW LET IT MELLOW. That was in Sonoma County at a friend’s house during the drought of 1977.
Enjoy the longest day of the year. After June 21, the days shorten and nights lengthen. Rain will come with the darkness and I’ve got to admit I’m looking forward to that.
The Celts were a bunch of tree worshippers and their pagan holiday of Beltane featured a May Bush, decorated and shown off around town. The Celts celebrated the holiday with big smokey bonfires into which the May Bush was sacrificed at the end. Beltane, May 1, marks the Gaelic start of summer.
Our celebration was fireless and smokeless and we didn’t get around to decorating a May Bush, although I love the idea and think we should adopt it. But we celebrate by appreciating the flora and fauna in our garden and neighborhood. This spring we’ve been particularly appreciating our birds.
This is our fourth spring living and gardening here at Hylandia, and we’ve watched the behavior of our local birds change over that time. Now we see that some birds just visit our garden and some live here year round, becoming family of sorts. They no longer fly high over our yard, but swoop fast and low over our heads.
In the midst of our human pandemic the birds experienced their own pandemic, an outbreak of salmonella especially prominent among flocks of pine siskins. They migrated here because of a bird irruption, the greatest irruption of these birds on record, according to Audubon. The pine siskin is a finch that looks very much like a goldfinch, brown striped with yellow markings. But they were easily identifiable because they looked sick. Dying birds lay on the ground in our garden and the neighborhood.
On the advice of the Bird Rescue Center we took our feeder down, but now the pine siskins have moved on and Holly has put it back up. The fickle finches have returned to the feeder. They don’t live here, but they don’t migrate either. They roost elsewhere and only come in for eating and bathing. Robins occasionally drop in for a bath and jays are regular visitors.
Crows built a nest at the top of the big oak tree in the next-door yard and so we had crows visiting our garden often for about a month. By mid-April the chicks had fledged. The crows have disbursed now but for a time the crow noise was deafening. Baby birds don’t look babyish at all. They sometimes are even bigger than their parents. But you can tell the fledglings because they flap their wings asking to be fed. And very often we see adults feeding them. For the first time we saw crows coming down to our fountain to drink and bathe and just check out the yard.
The crow noise must’ve also inspired the mockingbirds around here. One was singing all night for a few weeks. He would stand on top of a telephone pole–mockingbird territory. Then he would do an acrobatic dance, jumping up in a somersault before coming back down to the top of the pole, singing all the while. Mockingbirds are loud but not boring because they sing lots of different songs. They have learned the song of the titmouse: sweetie sweetie. They’ve also learned the sound of car alarms although their version is more songlike than the actual alarm. Leave your windows open and they might keep you up at night.
We were delighted that the titmice chose our birdhouse to nest in this year. Once the nest was chosen the male’s call began to sound threatening and kind of rough, unlike his usual sweet song. He aggressively patrolled the yard, now his territory. Some people think crows in the garden scare away little birds, but nesting titmice and crows cohabited well here.
Oak titmice are year-round residents of the yard and so are California towhees. Here is something we have discovered this year: towhee sex is is violent and it happens in midair in a fast flurry of bodies and feathers. The birds make weird grunting sounds that we never hear from them otherwise. Their usual call is a boring and sometimes irritating cheep cheep cheep that can go on for hours and is loud enough to wake humans. Chimneys and rooftops are their territory. They scratch the ground, chicken-like, which to me is rather comforting.
Ok, I must admit a slight irrational prejudice against the towhees. More than once I’ve mistaken one of them for a rat in the garden. They move in a devious way like rats, scurrying with heads down. And they’re a similar brown color to the rats that live here. I do know this unfortunate resemblance is not their fault.
We have learned the beautiful songs of the Bewicks wren this spring but we’ve only seen one and assume it’s the male. He likes to eat lettuce planted in straw bales in the garden, and he sometimes comes to the feeder for suet. We have been anxious for him to find a mate, settle down and live with us.
Mourning doves visit most often in the morning and evening at dusk. We know that their nests can be found in unlikely places. In my San Francisco garden the female laid eggs in a depression in a flower pot on the back stairs. We could see everything. Sadly, so could the crows; the eggs were stolen. Here in Santa Rosa we haven’t seen them nesting, though our neighbor Linda told us they nested on her electric meter last year.
One day I watched an elaborate dove mating ritual. There was wing flapping and feather ruffling and head bobbing and something that looked like passionate making out where they would grab each others’ beaks and hold on while moving back and forth. It went on for a while. Then another time they just did it with no ritual at all. The couple, it turns out, only has to court once. They are a pair for the season.
Lately we’ve been delighted to see a pair of hooded orioles taking baths in the fountain. They do migrate south for the winter but have nested in the last two seasons in a bottle brush tree in the neighbor’s yard.
Bird behavior is so very varied, often we can’t even confirm our observations by looking these things up in our bird books or online (I couldn’t find anything written about towhee sex). But we are having great fun learning by observing.
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.
Al and I first met when I walked into the open door at Summit pump station. He was kneeling on the concrete floor painting one of the pump motors that supply water to the city of San Francisco. When he saw my figure standing in the doorway he jumped back, like I was there to assault him. That gave me a little jolt of power—that a man might be startled by me. Yeah, I thought to myself, I’m a big strong woman and men flinch at the sight of my form. But there was a safety issue. The pump stations are situated in remote parts of the city. And I wasn’t supposed to be there. Or, in reality, no one knew where I was at any particular moment. As the one electrician responsible for all the stations, I kept my own schedule, responding sometimes to complaints or work orders and sometimes just checking to make sure the electrical equipment was working.
“Hey,” he said, squinting at me in the sun glaring through the open door. “Who are you?”
“I’m the electrician. Who are you?” I answered. But I knew he was a stationary engineer. Painting motors is part of their job.
The corps of engineers worked out of the Lake Merced pump station where they reported to the chief engineer, Joe. I thought I’d met all of them at one or another pump station. But Al was a retiree just filling in for a coworker who was in rehab. I figured he was about three decades older than me, a small redhead still with a good bit of hair left. He reminded me of a leprechaun—little and cute. We liked each other immediately and over the course of a few months we became friends. Not the kind of friends who see each other outside of work. But we would share personal information that we might not share with others.
There was one other engineer I was tight with, Jesus, and he would sometimes meet up with me and Al at lunch break. Jesus was transitioning from male to female and had been taking hormones for a few months. He had saved up enough money for the operation and was in the process of scheduling it. Al told me Jesus had announced to their fellow engineers that he now wanted to be called Rosa.
“How did they react?” I asked, thinking that must have taken some courage.
“They looked at their hands and didn’t say anything,” he said. “Just some snickering.” Knowing that he was planning to transition, his coworkers had ignored Jesus and refused to talk to him. Now that he was Rosa, the treatment would be no different.
Jesus told me he had known he was really female from the time he was a child in Mexico. A generally happy person with a positive attitude, Rosa was positively delighted to finally be female, to be herself. I thought she radiated serenity.
I wish I could say the transition was seamless for me, that I found it easy to switch from Jesus to Rosa, but I found it difficult. I had gotten to know this person as Jesus and now it was like I was having to start all over again. The pronoun thing confounded me. Back in the day we feminists had pushed to rid the English language of male and female pronouns, but the idea never took hold. I dearly wished for those genderless pronouns whenever I screwed up, but Rosa was forgiving.
I was suspicious of most of the men at work. Let’s just say they didn’t welcome me, the lone female, into the fold. I tried to give them as little information about myself as possible, assuming it would be used against me. I knew that I could not be friends with these men. But I had begun to feel differently about Al and Jesus.
I learned that Al was married to a French woman, that they had no children. I learned that he had been around the world as a seaman. Like many of the engineers, Al had learned his trade in the Merchant Marines. I knew some things about the Merchant Marines—that the celebrated San Francisco Communist Bill Bailey had been one and that he was not the only commie. I knew that the mariners had performed a vital service in World War II, risking their lives to supply materiel to the fronts. I knew that, while they weren’t part of the military, the merchant navy had suffered a higher casualty rate than any branch of the military. Their boats were always being torpedoed. Then, after the war, they were attacked and denied any benefits because they were all branded as communists, which of course most of them were not. They were just civilian patriots willing to risk their lives to protect the lives of others.
I knew enough to gain some trust with Al before asking but I had to ask, “Were you a Communist?”
All I got was a wry smile, enough to let me know I should stop asking questions.
But that was enough for me. I call myself a communist with a small c, more of a new leftist. I’m always delighted to meet up with the old commies, for whom I have great regard. They don’t always want to admit past affiliations. Most of the Reds were disheartened by knowledge of Stalin’s murderous legacy. Many were hounded for years by Hoover’s FBI. Jobs were lost and lives ruined.
Now it was 1985, the depths of Reaganism, which made all of us minorities jumpy and skittish and gave our detractors permission to be openly hostile. The AIDS epidemic was ravaging San Francisco’s gay men’s community while Reagan refused to even acknowledge the disease. Women—feminists–had come under attack along with anyone who didn’t fit into the back-to-the-fifties scenario. Immigrants, transgender people and communists too. Maybe that’s why the three of us gathered, just to know we weren’t alone.
Jesus, now Rosa, had begun presenting as female, letting her hair grow and wearing women’s clothes. But she didn’t really look that different than before. We all wore work clothes. My work outfit consisted of boots, canvas work pants, a T-shirt with a flannel shirt over the top, and when it was cold a wool-lined vest or jean jacket. A hard hat was not required on this maintenance job and I didn’t have to wear a tool belt. I carried my hand tools in a leather tool bag. And I drove a truck painted Water Department colors, Kelly green and white, in which I carried wire, pipe, benders and all the other tools and material I might need. Rosa, when dressed in work clothes, looked like me.
Rosa was the first transgender person I got close to, but I was not completely naïve. Ire had been raised in the tradeswomen community when we learned of a transgender female carpenter in our midst. She had transitioned after working as an already skilled male carpenter. She was getting work while we were frozen out because we were women. The contractor got to count her as an affirmative action hire. It didn’t seem fair. Then there was a continuing dustup in the lesbian community about a transgender sound engineer who worked for Olivia Records, the women’s music company. She had been trained while still male. We women wanted to do everything ourselves, but we didn’t have the skills because we couldn’t access the training. It’s possible that when the engineer, Sandy Stone, was hired, there were no other female sound engineers. Some lesbians were quick to attack the individual, but most of us understood that our real enemy was the system that discriminated against women.
At lunch one day Al told us some war stories. He said he had survived a torpedo attack where some seamen had died. I tried to imagine his life on those ships. I’d heard the gay historian Allan Berube’s lecture and slide show about sailors and soldiers during the war. They were all having sex with each other, especially the sailors. I knew Al wasn’t gay but I suspected he’d participated in gay sex.
I had allowed myself to relax a little with Al and Jesus. I came out to them. We talked politics. We all hated Reagan. I had started to feel comfortable with these guys.
Then one day while Al and I worked together he confessed that his wife no longer wanted to have sex with him and he was super horny. Did I want to have sex with him? It wasn’t as if men at work had not come on to me before. This was the typical way they did it; they would complain about their wives and that would be the opening. But I was shocked to hear this from my friend Al. I’d been solidly in the friend category I thought. Suddenly I was in the gal toy category. Or was it the whore category? Weird.
I said, “Al you know I’m gay. I’m not attracted to men.” Which wasn’t entirely true. I’d lived much of my life as a practicing heterosexual.
“Well, maybe you have friends who might want to have sex with me,” he said. And for a moment I actually considered the question. I definitely had horny friends. But who might want to have sex with Al? What would his personal ad look like? “65-year-old leprechaun seeks sex with any female. Age not important. Nothing else important.”
Then I was grossed out thinking my friend Al wanted me to pimp out my women friends. Then I was disappointed that our friendship was not what I had thought it was.
“So you only have sex with women?” Al asked.
“Well yeah. That’s what being a lesbian means. Maybe I’m not as sexually fluid as you. I know what y’all did on those ships.”
No response except that wry smile again.
That interaction changed my relationship with Al, but he may not have even noticed. Like many men he lacked a certain amount of sensitivity. On the other hand, his size and his politics—his minority status in the world of men—engendered more empathy than most.
So now I started thinking Al was like all the other guys. I stopped feeling so safe around him. Not that he might attack me. No, I was pretty sure I could take him in a fight. I was bigger and I practiced karate. It was more that he didn’t value me, didn’t see who I really was, and so might not understand the need for discretion. I did know that just because someone is or was a Communist does not mean they are not sexist as hell.
For a while I didn’t cross paths with Rosa. I still saw Al out in the field and he would fill me in on Rosa’s transition. The surgery had gone well and Rosa was back at work. She was happy, even as her coworkers continued to give her the cold shoulder.
“I’m having trouble re-learning Jesus’s name,” I confessed. “I’m just not good at it. I get all confused with the pronouns and I keep saying him instead of her.”
This time Al’s response was sharp and I realized he must be doing his best to protect Rosa from harassment by the other engineers.
“She is Rosa now,” he said, “and you’ve got to call her by her name.”
It was an admonishment and I took it seriously. Al was worldly wise and maybe had known other transgender people. He knew how to be an ally. Could I really be learning something from this old white guy?