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11. San Francisco, Here I Come!

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I found a place to live in Concord, another suburban town not far from Pleasant Hill, in the home of a lovely woman, a classical pianist who happened to be paraplegic. Shortly afterward, I came down with a nasty flu. It was never diagnosed, but I’m certain it was the Russian flu, which had hit the U.S. in epidemic proportions. I was still cooking for the fast food restaurant, but had no sick leave, no health insurance; there was no way I could afford to stay home. I still remember how weak and blurry-eyed I was, as I fried hash browns and made club sandwiches. I must have been spreading germs around like crazy. It was horrible. At one point I schlepped myself to the emergency room and sat there for five hours waiting for someone to see me. The doctor eventually looked at my throat, prescribed aspirin, and that was that. I got a bill for $120, which I never paid. This is a main reason why I believe in universal healthcare for all Americans—especially since I’m writing this as the coronavirus pandemic devastates so many low-wage workers, many of them with no way to pay for medical treatment.

That damn flu wouldn’t go away. It dragged on and on. It was winter, cold and rainy in Northern California. I was feeling very down and sorry for myself. The house had a little gas fireplace. After work, sick as a dog, coughing and sneezing, I’d sit on the floor by the fire, hugging my knees, rocking back and forth, shivering with fever, bewildered and confused. Oh lord, I thought, why is this happening? Just make me well, please! And then it hit me, a thought of complete clarity like a lightning bolt: You have to move to San Francisco and come the fuck out of the closet. You’ve been avoiding this your whole life. That’s why you’re so sick.

At long last, I got the message. Keith and I piled my few belongings, including about a million plants, into his pickup, and he drove me to my new home, in the City by the Bay, San Francisco. The year of our lord 1980 was just beginning.

* * *

Shortly after I’d come to California in 1978 to live with Maxine and Keith, I’d applied to graduate school at John F. Kennedy University, a tiny, progressive school in the hills of Orinda, just on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel from Oakland.

I’d been accepted into their graduate Transpersonal Psychology program, which was founded on principles established by Carl Rogers, whose concepts of humanistic psychology had a certain spiritual aspect. I envisioned myself as a psychotherapist helping people overcome their personal difficulties by becoming more humane and empathic.

For tuition, I secured a loan for $30,000 from a local bank—a lot of money in those days, the equivalent, today, of $100,000. I went to visit the campus a few days before the semester was to begin, to learn the ropes. I had an appointment with the Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology, Dr. Hatha Surenda. Looking for his office, I stopped someone on campus to ask the way. This person instantly took my hand and read the lines in my palm. Odd.

I found Dr. Surenda’s office, located in a trailer. I was prepared to meet a person of Indian descent—subcontinent, that is. Instead, a curly-haired Caucasian greeted me. He bade me make myself comfortable. I looked around and there was no chair—Norwegian wood! The good doctor sat in lotus position; I snuggled up to a big cushion. After a little chit-chat, I told him he didn’t look Indian.

“Oh,” he cheerily replied. “I’m not. I’m from The Bronx. I was born”—and he told me his birth name, which was Jewish.

“Oh! I’m Jewish and from The Bronx too!” Small world. “What neighborhood?”

Dr. Surenda’s face tightened. “I am not that person anymore. I have put my past behind me.”

I don’t remember anything else about that conversation. There was another aspect to this: I’d been steadily making friends in the East Bay and in San Francisco, young people my age, and an inordinate number of them had degrees in psychotherapy. But instead of working as therapists, they were house painters, carpenters, waiters, cab drivers, or on unemployment. The Bay Area, it seemed, had a serious oversupply of psychotherapists.

Did I really want to go to a wacko school where people read palms and a Dean was ashamed of his past? And then graduate into a saturated market, unable to get a job—and be $30,000 in debt?

So I canceled my JFKU admission. Instead, I applied to, and was accepted, into graduate school at San Francisco State University, as an industrial-organizational (IO) psychology major. I had absolutely no money, but found a place to live from an ad on the school’s housing board. It was in a small house in the city’s Sunset District, not far from SFSU, in the dreary, foggy neighborhood called Top of the Hill. The rent was only $15 a month. The catch: there was electricity only in the bedroom. And no heat. A hotplate next to my bed was all I had for warmth and cooking. The landlord wanted the house occupied that winter so people wouldn’t break in.

My IO major lasted exactly as long as our first departmental get-acquainted meeting. The speaker told us that our job was, in effect, to keep workers docile so they would not rise up against the bosses. Wow. To a child of the Sixties, that was not the way I had envisioned myself, keeping the masses mollified with soothing talk, while their employers exploited them. I changed my major to poetry–fancied myself a future Walt Whitman, and actually did open mikes for a season under the nom de plume Harry Stevens. (Harry is my middle name.)

So I’d finally made it to the gay mecca, San Francisco! But coming out of the closet was very, very hard. I knew that the center of the city’s gay life was the Castro District, a long way, culturally and physically, from SFSU and the Sunset District. But I was literally scared shitless of even going there. I did pick guys up out on Ocean Beach quite frequently and bring them back to my cold, dark little shtetl, but I could not drive anywhere near the Castro without breaking out in a sweat. I knew how ridiculous that was. I wasn’t proud of it. But unless you’ve gone through something like that, you have no right to judge.

Still, something had to be done; the situation was unsustainable, and I was ashamed by my temerity and fear. One day I attacked it frontally. I took a pen and pad of paper and went to a coffee shop on Castro Street. Sat down with my cup of java and a pastry, took a deep breath, and started to write. Writing has always been my balm, the way I figure stuff out: still is. I took note of my feelings, of what I saw around me, of my reactions to what I witnessed. Wrote, wrote, wrote. Guys were walking down the street holding hands, kissing, laughing. They were happy, not miserably repressed like me. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the “Castro clone” look, where everyone looked like they were members of the Village People: skin-tight jeans, often stuffed at the crotch with sox or cucumbers; crew-cut hair; muscle shirts; bristly mustaches, and so much leather it looked like an entire generation of cows had been killed to outfit a neighborhood of butch queers.

But it was enough to help me get over the terrible fear of being among “my own kind.” Shortly afterwards, I came out, with great relief, to everyone I knew, with the singular exception of my parents, in retirement in South Florida. That would come later.

And then, with the formality now accomplished of becoming an officially, publicly gay man in San Francisco, I proceeded to make up for all the long, barren years in the closet. I jumped into gay life with Abandon with a capital “A,” as in “Abandon all caution” or (more direly) “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” And why not? I was nearly 34 years old. I was cute (or so I was told) and had a good body. I was, in short, marketable. After a lifetime of being, by force majeure, secretive, I finally found myself among people who not only were unafraid to be out, but celebrated it. The opportunities for sexual expression were vast. Every day was Christmas, every night Valhalla in San Francisco’s erotic, exotic wonderland. There was no downside. You had to watch out for STDs,, of course, but the worst that could happen if you got sick was you’d get a shot of penicillin and it was over. Right?

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