Polk Street

  • by Cleve Jones
  • Tuesday November 22, 2016
Share this Post:

When I remember San Francisco then, it is always in fog. Cool and grey softly shrouding the hills, or wet and cold and whipped by the wind down Market Street. There were sunny days, of course, many of them, but few people wore flowers in their hair anymore, and it seemed that the city had drawn over itself a mantle of mystery and darkness.

Boys like me, with no jobs, no classes to attend, and nowhere else to go, hung out on Polk Street. Or, if we needed some quick cash, down on Market Street in front of Flagg Brothers Shoes, where the daddies drove by.

The city was filled with boys like me. Boys from all over, all colors, all backgrounds. We'd come to rock and roll, we'd come to be gay, we'd come to join the revolution.

Other boys chose LA; they bleached their hair and wore gold chains and went to auditions. Some boys went to New York; they wore Yves St. Laurent and went to law school or did real theater. But in San Francisco we wore button-fly jeans, stapled our poetry to the telephone poles, read about socialism and anarchy, danced at the Stud and Hamburger Mary's, and after the bars closed we gathered at the Haven on Polk at California for omelets (and anything else you might want to score in the men's room in the basement). And if, as dawn approached, you hadn't yet found a bed to sleep in, you'd drink coffee and walk the foggy streets.

You never knew what you'd find coming out of the fog. Psychotic people sometimes, shaking their heads and arms and cursing at the sky while they walked past the regulars: the hookers, addicts, leather men, and drag queens, the dealers, the cons and the cops.

Or from a passing streetcar you'd see the lithe silhouette in the dark doorway, in painted-on pants with the impossible bulge at the crotch, and you'd whisper to your buddy, "Look, over there �" that's Peter Berlin." Or out of an alley in a swirl of mist and smoke would emerge the ruby-lipped, Rasputin-bearded Jesus Christ Satan, Crown Prince of Arcadia, in his long smelly robes with the little dogs, ferrets, or rats peering out from the pockets beneath his cape.

Or you'd turn a corner and run into Cosmic Lady. If you made eye contact she'd begin her rap, a sort of stream-of-consciousness update on the state of the galaxy, including, inevitably, her admonishment, "Rent's due on the planet, folks, rent's due."

If you were lucky, out of the fog would come the perfect boy: angel-faced, full soft lips, with a big cock and a room to sleep in, and breakfast and a shower in the morning.

If you were not so lucky and turned the wrong corner, the bashers would be there with baseball bats �" screaming "kill the faggots" and ready to do it. Call the police and they'd beat your ass, too.

Sometimes you slept in a park or on rooftops. If you were cute or hung, older guys would give you money, or pay for dinner and hotel rooms. Sometimes they would let you move in for a while and give you a room of your own and regular meals. Sometimes they were assholes, but usually they were nice enough.

I got Tom's address from a young feminist named Karen back in Phoenix who was pretty sure it would be cool for me stay with him when I got to San Francisco, though she hadn't heard from him in a while.

Tom's apartment was in a large Victorian apartment building on the southwest corner of Sacramento and Larkin, just a block up from Polk Street, near the northern edge of the Tenderloin. When he finally opened the door I saw a tall skinny guy with shaggy dark brown hair and dark circles under his eyes. He muttered something about not hearing from Karen in months, but motioned me in and down the musty hallway. He had a small studio, just a room with a sink, stove, and refrigerator at one end, and a water closet and shower at the other. No furniture at all, just sleeping bags on the floor, a transistor radio, and lots of mice.

It was almost three a.m. and I was hungry, so I walked down to the Haven restaurant and ordered the cheapest item on the menu, a cheese omelet. When I reached the head of the line and paid the cashier the place was full, and I looked around for an open seat. The only one I found was across the table from a beautiful black guy with jewelry on his fingers and around his neck and hanging from his earlobes. Hesitating, I hovered briefly over the chair.

The queen looked up and smiled. "Don't be scared, child, I don't bite." I started to sit, and he licked his lips and said, "Unless you want me to."

I reached out my hand and said, "Hi, my name is Cleve. I'm from Phoenix, where are you from?"

He smiled back and took my hand. "Nice to meet you too; I grew up in LA." He arched his eyebrows. "Have you ever heard of the Cockettes? My name is Sylvester. I sing. Have a seat."

It rained hard that night, and I lay on the floor of Tom's apartment on Sacramento Street, willing the mice away and listening to "Funeral for a Friend" from Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album, turned down low on KSAN, as I thought about the day's events.

In the early hours just before dawn, with the radio silent and Tom slightly snoring on the floor beside me, the rain stopped, I could hear the foghorns at the Golden Gate and fell asleep at last.


The above is an excerpt from When We Rise, a memoir by San Francisco LGBT and HIV activist Cleve Jones that will be published November 29 by Hachette Books. Look for more about Jones and the book in next week's Bay Area Reporter. Jones will be doing several local appearances, including December 3 at 5 p.m. at Strut, 470 Castro Street; December 4 at the Howard Zinn Festival and December 6 at Book Passage (Ferry Building location) in San Francisco; December 7 at Kepler's in Menlo Park; and December 9 at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center.