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San Francisco: 1972

CastroDistrictSanFranciscoIn 1972 the venerable magazine The Saturday Review was bought and transformed into a trendy weekly and moved out to San Francisco. Most of the staff members were young New Yorkers—and we didn’t really get San Francisco. What follows is a brief excerpt from City Boy, a memoir about the 1970s and mostly about New York which Bloomsbury is bringing out in the fall.

At the time, San Francisco was almost bucolic. The Beatnik era was over though the City Lights Bookstore was still flourishing. Italian immigrants were present everywhere. My watch repairman was Italian and I’d speak to him in his language. There were pastry shops offering big cannolis covered with red and green sprinkles. On Telegraph Hill there was an old Italian restaurant that had booths with doors that closed for ladies, a holdover from the period just after the earthquake. Hundreds of vagrants were in the Tenderloin, attracted by the good weather and the liberal public welfare laws in California. San Francisco was not then a rich city, not as it would become after the start-up of the high-tech industry. Rents were cheap but salaries were correspondingly low. Educated young people with Ph.D.’s in art history were willing to work for two dollars an hour as check-out clerks at the supermarket. Of course there were rich retired people who’d moved in from all over the West because it was a beautiful and cultured metropolis with Victorian houses. It was also the financial center of the West. There was a harbor but it had missed out on the recent containerization revolution and lost business to other ports such as Seattle.

To us New Yorkers San Francisco seemed eerily quiet, the streets empty, the lights doused after ten o’clock, the restaurants full of health food and skinny blond hippie waiters on tranquillizers. The air seemed thin, as if we were very high up instead of at sea level. The light was as delicate as a blonde’s eyelids—and just as defenseless. We would wander through the Golden Gate Park and look at all the plants we couldn’t name, the splendid exotic flowers that seemed too tropical for this chilly climate. We were heavy-smoking, grimy, soiled, fast-talking and abrupt, and everyone out here seemed weirdly characterless and “nice,” as if they were newly-hatched. Climbing a hill would leave us winded.

The famous gay life was just starting up in the Castro, but most of it was still centered, as it had long been, around tacky Polk Street. Except it wasn’t visibly “centered” anywhere but rather went on behind closed doors, in gated patios or in small, scattered neighborhood bars pulsing sadly like scattered pods promising eventual life.

We were worried that we were missing out on something by not being back in our own dirty, impossible, exciting city. As editors we complained that all the good stories originated in New York and that all the good journalists lived there. Although we tried to honor the notion of re-orienting the magazine to the West Coast, we couldn’t find much to write about in San Francisco. David Bourdon, our art critic, did one story (my suggestion) on Richard Diebenkorn, a genuine San Francisco artist and one respected in New York. He also wrote about the quirky humorous ceramicist Robert Arneson, who was recognized by the international art market. If we had to do something on weaving, it shouldn’t be about local looms but rather about the great fiber artist innovators, Lenore Tawney and Claire Zeisler. But the idea that we could single-handedly elevate San Francisco novelists (well, there was Herbert Gold . . .) or composers or painters (there’d been the Bay Region figurative painters of the 1950s, but who since?)—all that seemed impossible. Of course there were some poets of importance in Bolinas, but our bosses weren’t too keen on devoting much space to them.

And we worried about our own careers. What would happen to us if and when the magazine folded, as seemed inevitable? Would we just be forgotten? Were we in danger of falling off the edge of the world? We noticed with anxiety that even natives in San Francisco referred to their city as being “out here.” I’d struggled to get to New York from Illinois and Michigan and now it seemed as if I were going backwards. And then my novel, Forgetting Elena, was about to come out, but of course I wouldn’t be in New York to “promote” it, whatever that consisted of. The cover art arrived in the mail for my “approval.” I disapproved of it—a color drawing of a seashell weeping a single tacky tear—but as it would turn out, that made no difference. If I’d been in New York, would they have paid more attention to me? Probably not.

One night we walked to the foot of Russian Hill and attended a midnight performance of gender-fucking bearded drag queens, the Cockettes. The audience was in makeup and glitter and bits of finery as well. Everyone was very high on LSD except us, who were sullen and drunk. They were all weeping and laughing uncontrollably and singing along and responding to tiny, nearly invisible gestures, or to inaudible words as if they were listening to the bizarrely eloquent but perfectly banal peepings of Kafka’s mouse-diva Josephine. There was terrible silent-movie overacting that the public devoured with delight. At certain points various actors straggled purposelessly across the stage in dirty organdy skirts and torn stockings, their eyes more mascaraed than a Kabuki actor’s. There was an unpatterned traffic jam of personnel onstage who no longer suggested coherent pictures for the audience. As at the Kabuki there was a cult of personality surrounding several transvestites, in this case long-legged, terminally skinny black or white speed freaks. “Oh, Marsha!” someone would cry from the audience. “Betty, girl, we love you!” We were totally puzzled. We weren’t on acid. We didn’t know these people. “Amateur hour,” someone in our cynical group muttered. I suppose we felt vindicated when the Cockettes bombed in New York soon afterward, though the fact that New York critics agreed with us, a New York audience, was merely tautological. If the Cockettes had truly been Japanese dancers and we’d had to wear interpreters’ headphones and read a monograph on them, they might have had better luck, and might been just as foreign to our Broadway-trained sensibilities.

Also, it seemed to us that everyone there was doing yoga and reading Krishnamurti, gardening and obsessing about the presentation of his or her macrobiotic diet on an artfully misshapen, partially glazed Korean kiln-fired plate. They were turned inwards, dedicated to self-cultivation, and we were turned outwards in vigorous competition with other people. We didn’t care what we ate or how our chakras were lining up. We were hungry for fame. We wanted to be noticed. We wanted to have high-flying careers. Out in San Francisco people spent their afternoons installing wind chimes in their trees or stretching. We didn’t stretch, though we lifted weights at the gym in order to make a more formidable impression on potential sex partners. Nor did we integrate sex into a larger, holistic pattern. We were abysmally genital and wholly localized. Californians were squeamish about eating meat, some of them not only vegetarians but raw vegetarians. We thought that they were so overwhelmed by their lives and so inept at living them that they believed everything might work out if they could control what went into their mouths. We knew what we wanted in our mouths: steak and cock.

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Edmund White has written several novels, short story collections, and travel books, as well as biographies of Jean Genet, Marcel Proust, and Arthur Rimbaud, countless periodical essays and reviews, and a previous memoir, My Lives. City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and 70s will be available from Bloomsbury in September. He teaches writing at Princeton and lives in New York City.

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