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Once a poet: memories of old San Francisco


I moved to San Francisco in 1979 with great hope in my heart. Finally, at last, my expedition across America had ended at the furthest point from where it started, New York City. San Francisco represented aspiration. I didn’t quite know what I was looking for (aside from sex) but whatever it was, I knew I would find it in the cool, grey city of love.

There was a free little periodical they used to give away in bookstores. I forget the name, but it was for poets and fans of poetry. People could submit poems for publication, and it also listed all the open-mike poetry readings, which were very popular back then. Every neighborhood had a bar or restaurant that held weekly or sometimes bi-weekly poetry readings. I’d always dabbled in poetry. It seemed a very romantic thing to do. San Francisco was still famous for the Beats; the city fostered creativity. I began writing. One day, I did my first reading, at a restaurant in the Haight. I felt very sophisticated.

I took a nom de plume: John Stuart Solvay. I thought it sounded more glamorous and literary than “Steve Heimoff.” The “Solvay” came from the Solvay Conferences on Physics, a series of international symposia that started in 1911 and are still held to this day (or were, before the pandemic). I was a huge, amateur fan of modern physics: quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology. Physicists such as Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg were my heroes. I decided to honor them.

Solvay Conference, 1915

Memories of my short-lived poetry career returned to me yesterday as I was clearing my house of stuff I’d accumulated for the last 40 years, in preparation for the big remodeling that commences Feb. 1. In a moldy cardboard box on the top shelf of a closet I still had spiral-bound notebooks of my poems. I sat in my big chair and perused them. Mostly bad stuff: derivative, pretentious. I was at my worst when I wrote bad T.S. Eliot and Whitman. But some of it wasn’t too bad, especially those poems, or parts of poems, when I described my street life in San Francisco in those days when the Gay Liberation Movement was flexing its muscles (through muscle T-shirts) and half the population of the city, it seemed, was young, gay and handsome. Those were the pre-AIDS days, when having sex was revolutionary and fun, with no consequences to be paid except, possibly, a dose of the clap; and even if you got gonorrhea, a simple injection would send it packing.

There was and still is a part of San Francisco called The Tenderloin. It’s always been low-rent, gritty, dangerous. It was a gathering place for young hustlers, down-and-outers, drug addicts, alcoholics and people like me, who were none of those things but enjoyed the company of those who were. It was San Francisco’s version of O. Henry’s New York, which he called “Baghdad-on-the-subway”; San Francisco was Baghdad-by-the-Bay. I was fascinated by the young Black, White, Latino and Asian kids in The Tenderloin, grifters most of them, menacing and usually high, but sweet once you got to know them. Sex for them was not complicated. It was something they did with guys they liked, no strings attached, no followup, just the joy of the moment. From a poem called “Turk Street”:

…Now it is still light—

“Hey man, Columbian?” – “No thanks man,

But thanks” – we are brothers too.

Maybe later ceremonies will confirm that.

I liked the diversity of the men I met in The Tenderloin, who were so different from the friends I’d had all my life.

Later, longhair w/ backpack asking for bread—

“Where you from man?” – “Reno, man,

Just got in” – no name – instead, just company,

Relaxed against a car,

Telling tales of things near & far.

After a while many of the faces were familiar. I was not really part of the scene, dropping in from my more orderly life of university and work on an occasional basis, but many of the boy/men of the streets never left The Tenderloin. I liked recognizing and greeting them:

Fate now wears T-shirt and rumpled jeans.

That face—yes—“Fuckface!” “Huh?”

“It’s me! Remember?” Yes—last month

he ripped me off, but I strip-searched him

and as his friend, the cook from Sisters of Mercy, said,

“He is not evil.”

I think, also, I was rather proud of myself for being able and willing to “slum” among the rejected and downtrodden, me, the middle class Jewish boy whose relatives would never think of going to The Tenderloin, who would sneer and tsk-tsk on seeing such riff-raff. A part of me would rather have hung out with Fuckface and Reno than with the clean, proper representatives of the straight world, with its artifice and games. I could not tell my family or my friends from university of my unusual attraction for this demimonde—they would have thought it weird, and I enjoyed keeping it my own little secret.

Drugged, spinning wildly, I find the street,

The lights now brighter.

Reno offers me a beer,

And I buy another, give Reno a buck

When he runs into the market – “Hey man, good luck!”

Nothing ever came of my poetry interlude; John Stuart Solvay faded into the old orange-covered notebook I now have in front of me for the last time. Shortly I will place it in the recycling bin, along with the other poems, short stories, reminiscences. It will hurt, like sacrificing a limb. The hurt is good.

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