map San Francisco Streets, an excerpt from Illuminations on Market Street

by Benjamin Shepard

Published in Issue No. 257 ~ October, 2018

“My whole life was a series of fade-ins and fade-outs…”

Stephen Vizinczey, In Praise of Older Women, 1966


The first time I saw Julie, she was walking onto the elevator at the gym in the financial district. We were both going up. Leaning back against the wall, her brown eyes seemed to come right at me, connecting with mine. She paused; I glimpsed at her, and she looked down. A smile crossed her lips. In recent days, I had felt invisible. But something was happening. I looked back, and she was looking straight at me. I was going through the roof. Some say eyes are a message from the soul. But I didn’t know what hers were saying. It was like looking out at sea: enigmatic, mercurial. Nonetheless, I felt warm and fuzzy. With olive skin, brunette hair, and a dizzy California demeanor, she was all I wanted. Eros whirled. I knew at that moment that I would try to figure her out. I’d spend the next year trying to know Julie.

There had been others whom I had obsessed about. But this was San Francisco. It was a place and a time to become something else, unencumbered from the past.

I loved living in San Francisco. Maybe loved is a strong word. I liked many things about the fabled town: its bawdy cinema noir feel, the wide open ethos of its hustlers strutting, making common cause with scruffy anarchists, and bohemian expats who’d just come back after hitchhiking across Cuba, telling stories about it all while hand-rolling cigarettes. The city teemed with radical ecologists, lesbian novelists, Buddhists running publishing houses, runaways hanging in street corners, drag kings performing, Beatniks writing, opera-goers looking glamorous, Castro clones cruising, and village people walking the streets of this peninsula separated from the rest of the country and the Pacific Ocean. Nicknamed the Baghdad by the Bay, the city had famously all but ignored prohibition, serving alcohol throughout the era, becoming home to a cavalcade of drinkers, saloon keepers, and vagabonds.

New York was money and Washington power, but as Joe Flower said, “freedom sips a cappuccino in a sidewalk cafe in San Francisco.” The city was teeming with beauty—exquisite, never-been-so-lonely beauty. Everyone had a story, usually little to do with where they were escaping from and more about where they were going. I was ambivalent about letting go of all that had happened before I got here. There was my childhood in the south, where we’d lived for generations and generations. And like many, I romanticized the place but needed to put it somewhere else, somewhere in the back of my mind. So I spent most of my afternoons off work sitting in my room writing about the people I’d known and going out with friends – a group of fellow Southerners I’d met my first summer in town. In between, the city felt strange, familiar, and for a little while there, like home.

Everyone reinvents themselves here, or so I’d heard. My story was certainly not in need of reinvention, at least not like that. After all, the very act of reinventing begins with creative deconstruction. The passion to destroy is a creative passion, as everyone who went to City Lights Bookstore and picked up Mikhail Bakunin’s books knew.

In the years before moving to San Francisco, I romped between Los Angeles and New York, Germany and Italy, New Orleans and Princeton – as far away from the Texas where I grew up as I could get. By the time I got to San Francisco, I had traded my travels for a room with a couch, a job search, roommates, and the uncertainty of the early 1990s recession, before the internet boom and bust.

I had fallen in love with the place in 1989, on a trip to Santa Cruz the weekend of the Loma Prieta earthquake. I was moved by the way people responded, offering each other cups of coffee in the wreckage. I left the trip dreaming about the Grateful Dead and the punks, the Red Woods, a couch on the beach, and the elegant gay men in tuxedos attending clandestine secret societies straight out of Christopher Isherwood novels. Over the years, I came to mythologize the secret histories of the place, its Cockettes, dropouts, free clinics, and tales of those a creating an alternative to everything that was and had been in the old USA. People leaned on and listened to each other here, even as their city was crumbling. And I wrote about it all in a blue notebook. With a century of isolation and anxiety, protests and revolutions coming to an end, we were all trying to keep our heads.

“The mark of a great film is a sound that sticks with you,” Dad’s college roommate from 1956, Thomas, explained to me. “I first heard that sound in Blue Angel when I was a small boy,” he said. Tom was the first person I’d known to die of AIDS, a year before my arrival in San Francisco. He had lived with us during my sophomore year in high school in the mid-1980s. Tom was more interested in the movies than activism. “Not a day has gone by that the humiliated schoolmaster’s cry has not rumbled in my head,” he had said. “That’s the scream of a broken man whose world had lost its absolutes. We are all the grandchildren of that scream.”

San Francisco was filled with such screams. But no one seemed to hear them. Tom’s stories trailed through my head as I walked the streets, with signs about AIDS posted everywhere. Public health promotions read: “Safe Sex Is Hot Sex!” and “Tweaking out of control can be a drag.”

I thought about the screams of the dying century: the bomb in ’45; the McCarthy hearings; Stalin’s terror; Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the mass starvation in the 50’s; what became of advisors exploring a South East Asian civil war; riots and police violence in the 1960’s; Pol Pot’s Killing Fields in the 1970s; Nixon resigning; the deaths of the Black Panthers in Oakland and Chicago; Gay Liberation; the White Night Riots; and then AIDS. Somehow, amidst the screams, people still found a way to be human here—to go to discos, cook meals together in communal houses, trip acid on the beach, create gender-fuck burlesque shows, and take to the streets with furious calls for something better, shouts that couldn’t be quieted. I was in awe of it—all that history—that panorama of bodies, all those struggles. But the strife behind them felt like it was slipping into oblivion, being erased. Memory and amnesia seemed to plague us.

But maybe sometimes forgetting was good.



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Benjamin Heim Shepard is an AIDS and environmental activist who lives in Brooklyn. By day, he's involved with campaigns to keep NYC from turning into a giant shopping mall; by night, he writes, teaches, blogs, and goes to union meetings. Shepard is the author of the studies Rebel Friendships and Sustainable Urbanism; this is his first novel.