by Joshua Hennen
As a companion story to the article entitled "San Francisco Drag Show gets Rowdy Melee ensues," I decided to give a more or less sequential account of my experiences in downtown San Francisco the night before the drag revue. So here it goes....
That October evening was warm and pleasant, a perfect temperature to explore downtown San Francisco. I had been told that a transgender bar on the corner of Polk and Post Streets held a midnight show every Friday. Since it was my intention to visit a drag revue the following night for a story for Hennen's Observer, I felt that this show might give some additional material to write about.
The corner of Polk and Post Streets is called the "the gulch." The reason for this moniker is easily understood when one goes there at night. It is the traditional hangout for prostitutes (straight, homosexual, and transgender), as well as drug dealers and other undesireables.
As the sun had already set, I decided to reconnoiter the establishment, Diva's Bar and Lounge. At roughly nine o'clock in the evening, I sauntered in to gargle a gin and tonic and to see how the "land layed." After establishing myself on a high chair at the long bar that ran nearly the length of the narrow room, I met Jeannie. She was a light-skinned, black transsexual woman who wore an open backed dress with a front that tied at her neck. Needless to say, it didn't cover much of her ample breasts. Her hair was straight, black, and bobbed. I confirmed with her that the Midnight Show would take place as scheduled and then ordered a drink. Now I took the opportunity to examine my environment.
The room was long and narrow, as I said, with a bar occupying one of the long walls. On the patron's side of the bar and against the wall behind me were constructed cushioned benches for relaxation. How many men had lounged sensuously with trannys and prostitutes in those darkly lit niches, no one could tell. But the seating seemed to be expressly built for that purpose, although no one currently occupied them.
The ceiling was low and painted black; I assumed that this was to give the place a darkness that helped privatize the many corners and benches. On one side of the room, closest to the doorway through which I had entered, was a square of wood flooring that served as a stage and a tinsel curtain behind that.
Behind the bar was the most impressive liquor collection that I had ever seen. Every kind and brand of alcohol was readily available to lubricate the patron's predilections. This fact would explain the purple, neon sign suspended above the bottles that read, "The Motherlode." I believe that my heart leapt while considering the adult beverage cornucopia.
At the far end of the bar an old white man was being chatted up by a young, attractive hispanic woman. Probably a hooker, I said to myself. My suspicions were confirmed when I could sense that she was looking over at me with hopes that I would make eye contact and give her a trick, as the old man seemed disinterested. I knew better and kept my head down.
After finishing my drink, I could see that very little was going on at that hour so I resolved to step out and explore the city. At that moment, a black man entered wearing jeans, a white button shirt, a large cowboy hat, and a bolo tie. He stood next to me and spoke across the bar to Jeannie with familiarity. He made comments about her dress and how it showed off her body, etc.... I believe at one point he said, "The way you wear your dress in the front makes you look sexier." She appreciated the complements and adjusted her dress so that even MORE of her breasts were available for the visual delight of her flirtatious friend.
Having already paid for my gin, I stood up to leave. Jeannie came and asked if I had any more questions. My response was, "Do you have any more answers?" She blinked repeatedly while wearing a stunned expression and then smiled slightly so as to not offend me and walked off.
I was soon galavanting the sultry streets of San Francisco and taking in the Friday night atmosphere. Post Street was dead, so I turned a corner and walked down a bisecting thoroughfare. This area showed some life. Many of the apartments overtop of the street level shops had their windows open for ventilation with some people suspending their wet undergarments on clotheslines rigged on the inside of the windows.
I rounded another corner and saw one of many signs advertising a massage and a private hotbath. These establishments seemed oddly placed; many were less than a city block from family oriented diners and movie theaters. As I contemplated this, a group of bums across the street who were sitting and leaning against a building burst into a jolly round of laughter. Even the bums know it's Friday night, I thought. It had never occured to me that they keep track of time.
I was soon accosted by a young, white man who was not more that thirty years old and already soliciting passersby for change. He had an aluminum cane with a rubber stop on the end. I didn't escape his attention as this exchange ensued:
"Hey, man. Can ya' spare some change?" I walked on, not even acknowledging his presence.
"I'm hungry. Can't ya' spare some change for pizza, coffee, or marijuana?" He was now behind me and his voice was fading as I kept walking away.
"Of course, marijuana would be last on the list, unless the pizza was spicy. I don't like spicy things. But I do like...." At this point his distant ramblings were no longer decipherable.
In a darkened spot on a nearby street, I stopped to look into a storefront where lights were still on. Even though a heavy metal gate had been pulled down to protect the store, an older, heavy set Asian man sat inside. He had fallen asleep while sitting upright in a chair facing the front door. He was no more than three feet away from me. He must have been guarding the place, I thought. I grabbed the metal gate and shook. It make a loud clanging noise which caused the devil's eyes to shoot open. I chuckled and continued on.
Next, I walked past a dark alley and saw in the distance that a police officer had pulled his cruiser over and was interrogating a man who was sitting on the sidewalk. I couldn't hear anything, so I leaned against a telephone pole and watched. The officer didn't appreciate the attention, I soon surmised. This thought was logical because when he saw me, he started walking briskly in my direction, as if I was to be his next victim. I didn't wait to find out.
Not long after that, I found myself walking along a sidewalk with small trees planted in it at regular intervals. City planners will sometimes do this, leave circular holes in the sidewalk near the curb to plant small trees. But what happens when a car hops the curb and nearly pushes a tree over? I wondered this as I looked at just such a specimen. It was at a perfect 45 degree angle to the ground. A fitting metaphor for what happens to some people in the city, I reflected. Some people get "pushed over" and no one bothers to try to correct them.
I soon discovered an example of this type of person. It would seem that there are two types of people in the city: the fully conscious and the oblivious. The oblivious have long ago ceased to even recognize the presence of other people or their own surroundings. Those people live in a strange and haunted world. But there is a third category, an intermediate stage between the two previously mentioned. The woman of whom I speak was old, shabbily dressed, and topped by short, frizzy hair. She was shuffling along the sidewalk, seemingly oblivious. But upon coming within four or five feet of me she fell back with quiet surprise and said under her breath, "Oh." She mumbled something and then walked around me. It was obvious that she recognized me as a person, but lacked the presence of mind to acknowledge me properly, one human being to another.
The time was drawing close for the midnight show, so I started back in the direction of Post Street. Along the way, I passed an older man and woman sitting on a curb between two cars, smoking a crack pipe. Well, good for them, I thought to myself.
What I saw next set the stage for the rest of the night, however. Walking up a hilly sidewalk I could see approaching me a tall, skinny legged, white woman with blonde hair walking next to a short, bald-headed black man with a muscular physique. Since her clothes reeked of that "prostitution look" and since the man walked at a distance of about three feet from her side, it was obvious what was going on.
Once within speaking distance she said to me, "Hey, Gorgeous! Where ya' goin'?"
My response was curt; I didn't break a step and said, "Around the corner."
"Do ya' want some company?"
Post Street had changed in the few hours that I had been gone, I discovered. What was once a more or less desolate byway was now a gauntlet of hookers and pimps. Every pickup line in the prostitute playbook was used, including but not limited to:
"What time is it?"
"Hey, can you give me directions?"
One particularly desperate woman started singing some sort of slow love ballad. I was not impressed as I spoke not a word and stepped with purpose to the "safe haven" of Diva's Bar and Lounge. Again, the mood had changed in that establishment in the few hours that I had been gone. No longer an odd curiosity to me, it took on very unsettling overtones. There were perhaps ten hookers in the place and most assuredly all of them were once men. I attracted instant attention as a potential customer of their services. Understanding this quite clearly, I carefully avoided eye contact and made a straight line to the barseat that I had previously occupied.
A new bartender, Kipper, served me a beer that was promptly consumed. Being only one of four men (and the best looking one at that), the "women of the night" sought to attract my attention by any means possible. For instance, three or four of them gathered behind me and pretended to talk amongst themselves while one pawed at my back. Upon turning around (which even I felt obliged to do), the women just stared at me like concrete lawn gnomes. Perhaps I was supposed choose which I liked best. But unaware of the customs of "johns," I shook my head and turned around to again nervously contemplate my empty beer mug.
After that aborted attempt the women dispersed, although one of their number gave it another try. She hopped onto a barstool next to me with a bag of potato chips in her hand. I didn't look at her but sat quietly. Undeterred, she munched the chips very conspicusously, hoping to draw my attention. Num... num... num....
Well, she too had no success in beguiling me and soon went somewhere else. The man to the other side of me, however, seemed to be acclimated to his habitation. There he sat on a barstool, pecking on the screen of an electronic bargame. He was shaped like a penguin and when I saw him walk later in the evening, he waddled like one also. His head was perfectly round and balding, though stubbornly clinging to a ring of gray fuzz. In the middle of that corpulent face was a long, roman nose with a deep hole on one side. I wondered if he had been fished from the San Francisco bay and gotten the hook stuck in his beak. With plain, tan slacks and coat, he was a creepy figure to me but was well known to the staff and so they appeared not to mind him.
It seemed that the entertainment would never begin when finally a voice was heard from a speaker located near the stage. At first, I couldn't tell who was speaking since the place was becoming crowded. Crowded, incidentally, with prostitutes who came to see the show. It was from this that I learned that these people tend to support each other. In fact, they whooped and hollered and tipped the performers more than the few men in the establishment.
But back to the story, the speaker announced in a low, gravelly voice that the show would start shortly and dropped a few sarcastic and lighthearted jabs at some of the patrons and prostitutes. Because I was sitting on the other side of the room near the back and the stage was at the front, I couldn't make out who was doing the talking. I remember thinking to myself, that guy must smoke like a chimney to have a voice like that. Maybe it's the same guy who was earlier milling about behind the bar and who was probably the bar manager. His goofy, white hair was coiffed in the back to look like a duck's ass.
When the people around the stage dispersed, I saw clearly that no man was speaking but a woman (or more properly, a transsexual). Her name was Tiger Lilly and she was the guest hostess. Being of Asian extraction, she sported a huge lotus flower tucked behind her right ear. I believe that her long, black hair was real, although these days one can never really know for sure. If I recall correctly, she wore some sort of elegant floral print dress that nearly extended to the floor.
After setting down the microphone, she fluttered her way around the bar, chatting with regulars and making small talk as a way to pass the time until the show could start. Soon she was hovering over my shoulder and then turned her head to speak to the penguin.
"Who's your friend?" I could tell to whom she was referring when she shot me an amorous look.
"Oh, he's here for the show." This, after never speaking to me. Maybe he didn't want to disappoint Tiger Lilly.
"What's your name, handsome?" she asked me.
"Joshua," I said as I could feel a lump developing in my throat.
"I haven't seen you here before."
"Yeah, I'm from out of town."
"Oh, really? Where?"
"Well, I'll make sure you have a good time here in San Francisco." She winked and stepped away, lightly dragging her hand across my back. I knew then that if I were not careful, I might wind up being the unwitting prey of the "Tiger."
And of course, the commencement of the program was far too slow for my liking, because it allowed the hostess to weave comments about her new found obsession into her monologues. I believe that remarks were made to this effect: "I'm gonna take the man from North Carolina home with me," and "We're gonna break the bed tonight!" With every insinuation, I think it not unlikely that I slid down in my seat, little by little. And for those of my readers that may think that she was joking, rest assured that this was not the case.
Finally, the long awaited show began in a lurching fashion. I was greatly relieved to no longer be verbally harassed, since my tormentor was the first to dance to some tune that I don't remember. She gave a lackluster performance which was followed by several others.
For instance, there was Ikasha, a tall, black woman with a bare, overdeveloped abdominal section. She wore a sports bra, capri pants and tuxedo coat with tails, all in purple. To top that description, like sprinkles on an ice cream cone, just add greasy hair pulled back into a pony tail.
And then Juanita Valdez took the stage. Juanita was a mountainous white woman with a deeply pocked face and plenty of rouge. Her wardrobe was frumpy, consisting of a floral print moo moo whose fabric may have one time been the cloth that covered a sofa. This notwithstanding, the music greatly excited the four or five men and roughly 15 transsexuals present. One by one, more prostitutes sauntered in from the street to take in the show.
At this point I decided, or rather, my body decided that it was time to return the beer that I had ealier drank. Before pushing away from the bar to stand up, I shot a quick look at Tiger Lilly to see if she were watching me. She wasn't.
Because I was situated toward the back and near the restroom, I didn't have far to go. To my amazement, there stood in the hallway to the men's room a woman standing, her legs two or three feet apart, with her upper body parallel with the ground. She was fluffling her long, curly black hair. I stood there (at a comfortable distance), waiting for her to finish because I couldn't pass anyway. Erecting herself, she looked at me with a fake, Marilyn Monroe style seductiveness and said, "I have a dick."
Perhaps she thought this statement would drive me into a sexual heat. Unfortunately for her, it had the opposite effect as I scampered past the blockade to the restroom. Standing at the urinal, I became slightly concerned over my predicament. Tiger Lilly was relentless, the crowd was becoming thicker, and some of the hookers were becoming more aggressive (the hallway encounter demonstrated as much). My only thought was, how can I get out of here and escape Tiger Lilly's notice?
In a quandry over this seemingly intractible situation, I carefully made it back to my seat. The odds were against my easy departure, unless the hand of an unseen god removed me from there.
But to my surprise and astonishment, I finally had a break! As one of the performers was dancing, I saw Tiger Lilly round up some of the other women and advance towards the front door. They were stepping with purpose; where they were going and what they had in mind to do, I did not know. I waited a few minutes and when I was sure that they were gone, I stood up, shoved my hands into my coat pockets, and walked briskly to the door unmolested by my absent admirer. Within minutes I was in the safe confines of my rental car, wondering how I made it out of that lion's den in one piece.
*****My lead story "San Francisco Drag Show... Melee Ensues" referred to Tiger Lilly's comments to me at a show the following night at a different location since she performed in both places. During her first performance at that second show, she faced my table and said directly to me, "I'm saving my pussy for you!"
Concerning the conversation she had with me later that evening when she sat at my table:
"Have you ever been with a transsexual?"
"No, I haven't," I said, humoring her.
"What are you doing after the show?"
"I have to leave on a 5:00am flight."
"Do you have time for a quickie?"
"No, but it was nice meeting you."