We had no street fairs in my hometown in Wisconsin just church rummage sales. My first was the Grant Avenue Street Fair in North Beach in 1973 jammed with people of all ages enjoying espresso and pastries in tie-dyed clothing. It was a world unlike any I’d known with men in leather pants and women in long dresses draped in feathers smoking dope. The Beat generation had spawned a new way of life, and I felt this was my chance to see it up close. Watching everyone for clues I felt hip, or as hip as Midwest guys get, and it was there I met two men who looked too good to be gay. Bill was tall and blond with a broad forehead and a strong body; Jim was incredibly handsome, darker with a smile that had me in its grip instantly. They looked like they belonged in an Ivy League social club and not at all what I was expecting of gay men. They became good friends and sex partners staying with me when they came to the city and gave me the finest introduction to life as a gay man. Working as gardeners in San Mateo they also did a lot of volunteer work in the City. Bill hired me to work at STOP AIDS. By 1995 both had passed I hope to a faerie land of rich food and beautiful men.
Street fairs reminded me of olden days I’d seen in movies where the farmer smiles as he talks about growing tomatoes and the handsome older guy gives his fudge a special richness. With no Cellophane, no Styrofoam, just paper bags or string bags the fairs had enough baubles for sale to keep relatives happy for the next six Christmases. Artisans spent late nights making silver bracelets and pendants. I’d never wear them but because they were made with love I bought them. Early streets fairs were a way of showing off. Showing off your newest denim vest or leather harness, your naked butt or your glorious muscles. You could dress as the tradesman you watched as a kid unloading packages at the train station or the fuzzy headed professor who taught you to love geology.
The Castro Street Fair in 1974 was a first, and I watched a glorious collection of humanity liberated from years of denial strutting around half naked. For the first time we could be gay in public, and unless you’ve lived with the restrictions that dictated life in the 1950’s you can’t know how freeing that was. People were selling everything, and each booth was a surprise. I bought a leather bound book to record my new life and began a friendship with its maker that has survived to this day. Why we survived is unknown, but we’re still here and still positive. The opening entry in that journal was written after meeting Tom Scott:
“A confidence too fragile for the energy that drives it. In a hurry, silver arms.”
I was soon too busy meeting and playing with men to keep track of them all. The book has one entry from a trip to the Navarro River with Clay Grillo where I took psilocybin mushrooms for the first time and saw God.
Much of what I loved about those first street fairs has given way to mass marketing. Except for a Polish sausage I don’t buy anything because what’s for sale was made overseas by machines or by women who are paid pennies not dollars, and what we cherished as organic has been mechanized. Much as I’d love to recreate the incredible optimism of the early 1970’s in San Francisco, Burning Man captures that same spirit of freedom. If I could tolerate five days in a tent with a lot of sand I’d be there getting stoned and running around naked because losing myself for hours is always good for my soul.