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SF’s Castro: Then, and Now

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Old friend Andrew and his wife, Jan, are out here on the West Coast visiting from Massachusetts, so I thought I’d bring them to the Castro District, which they’d never seen. “The birthplace of the world’s gay rights movement,” I described it. I feared, briefly, Andrew wouldn’t care; as a straight man, he’s supportive of gay rights, but he was never a stalwart in the struggle, and touring the place where Harvey Milk’s camera shop was, or the bar when I went on my first date, might have bored him. Even so, the Castro, and Upper Market in general, is an fascinating neighborhood, spread up and down the scenic hills; and since Andrew is a building developer, with an interest in architecture, and Jan loves urban gardens, I thought they would like it. Anyhow, it had been years since I was last there, and I wanted to see how my old neighborhood was faring.

When I moved to San Francisco, in 1979, I was terrified to drive through the Castro. I’d take torturous detours just to avoid it. I was still deeply in the closet; my dalliances with other gay men were strictly on the DL (a term I didn’t know back then). In my private secrecy, I was completely intimidated at the thought of out gay men openly living their lives without shame or fear.

This went on for months. Eventually, I sat myself down and said, “Self, this is ridiculous. You can’t go on avoiding the Castro. You’ve got to plunge in and confront what you’re afraid of.” So I drove over (I was living in Noe Valley), found a parking spot, and walked to a coffee shop on Castro, off 17th Street. I’d brought with me a pad and pen; ordered some coffee and a pastry, found a little table by myself, and began meticulously recording my thoughts and feelings.

I’ve always used writing for the purpose of understanding myself, of objectifying and concretizing my feelings to better make sense of them, and to memorialize for re-examination at a later date. The mere act of writing soothed me. I no longer have those notes, but I’m sure they included observations of the local fauna, and my emotional reactions. This was still the era of “the Castro clone,” muscular, gym-toned young men with short-cropped hair, neatly-trimmed mustaches, ultra-tight jeans that left nothing to the imagination, and skin-tight T-shirts. I’m sure I saw men kissing and holding hands, brimming with self-confidence, with not a lick of shame. I, sadly, was still locked into self-loathing.

Yet within a year, I was living in the Castro, at the top of States Street, just off Castro Street itself. I had sunk effortlessly into San Francisco’s burgeoning gay culture: not just the bars of the Castro District, but the clubs of South of Market, the dens of the Tenderloin, the bizarre street culture of Polk Street. I met men out on Ocean Beach, along trails in Golden Gate Park, at San Francisco State University, where I was going to grad school and working fulltime. It was a heady time: I was aware of the historicity of what we gay men were doing in San Francisco, but more to the point, I was having the time of my life, making up for all the long years of being in the closet and depriving myself.

One day—it must have been sometime in 1982—I read an article in one of the free gay bar rags about a “gay pneumonia” in Los Angeles and New York City. That was the beginning. Before long, the same gay rag was running obituaries of gay men who had died of the disease: dozens each week, with heartbreaking photos. The Castro began looking like a movie set: young men limping on canes, withered away to skin and bones, faces blotched with purple. Fear swept over San Francisco like a wave: no one was free from it. We all had to adjust.

In the event, I never got AIDS. But a lot of my friends did. Many died. I volunteered for Shanti Project, to do my small part. The carefree days of the late 1970s and early 1980s ended as abruptly as if an asteroid had crashed into the city. I moved out of San Francisco, to Oakland, in 1987, for a new job and a new life. Over the last 33 years, I’ve visited the Castro probably fewer than a dozen times. There’s been no reason to go, except for nostalgia. So I was really looking forward to my visit with Andy and Jan.

We walked up and down Castro Street with all the rainbow flags, and I pointed out the historic places and the personal places that meant so much to me. We climbed steep States Street to my old home, at the top just off Roosevelt, and then further up into Ashbury Heights, where I lived in a wonderful home on Upper Terrace, with a spectacular view (on a clear day), of the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes. I paid $285 a month rent back then—now that home is probably worth $3 million. Ah, so it goes.

There are many downsides to aging, but one of its glories is the treasury of memories one accumulates. Yes, I’m sure the hard times tend to get erased, so that we remember mainly the good ones—but how wonderful it is to recall youth, and friends, and falling in love, and excitement, and adventure, and the discovery of new passions, and—not least of all—the beauty of the hills above the Castro and the extraordinary city of San Francisco.

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