When I arrived in San Francisco in the early 70s and I had been involved in the Civil Rights struggles in the South; my generation was ending a senseless war in Viet Nam and gay men in San Francisco were changing the way America thought about sex, their optimism was heady. I wasn’t released from the shackles of conformity by San Francisco; being made love to on a San Francisco waterbed by a naked man of staggering good looks opened me to life.
I wish every gay man could have the experience I had in San Francisco in 1971. Most won’t believe it happened. The feeling started in my gut amazed that San Francisco even existed and it got warmer as it took over my entire body, and then I exploded into a thousand stars ricocheting across the Milky Way. When I arrived in 1971 was a bright Ivy League grad and a father. My first boyfriend Clay Grillo introduced me to the city’s smorgasbord of beauty and wonders. He didn’t change who I was, he changed what I was and I stopped counting the times I told myself, my life couldn’t possibly be this good.
Castro Street in 1971 looked much like it did at the end of World War II. The Old Spaghetti Factory was a must-see for visiting foodies and nearby Hibernia Bank had a clock that hung over the sidewalk that kept time for the neighborhood. Cliff’s Variety was a regular stop for the families who worshiped at Holy Redeemer and the store built a stage in front at Halloween for a children’s costume contest. The Castro Theater frayed at the edges ran second-run movies and smelled of stale popcorn. The block between 18th and 19th had second hand furniture stores, one was a maze of armoires and the other dusty with jewelry and art remains. Paperback Traffic had just opened, and it was the beating heart and brain of the community, a place where ideas shimmered like diamonds and phone numbers were exchanged. Star Pharmacy at the corner of Castro and Eighteen was a favorite cruising spot and Jackie the cashier knew our names and called us her “boys.” Next to it Toad Hall had just opened and on Sundays it had a line around the corner where the thousand gay men who arrived every month stood in amazement, as I did, that there could be that many gay men in the world.
The air of what was then known as Eureka Valley churned with excitement as each of us swam in a malty milieu of man smells grander than my wildest dreams. I was raised a Unitarian, so I arrived in Baghdad by the Bay with no Catholic shame or Jewish guilt, but I’d fought my gay urges hard in college and struggled to live as normally as my straight friends in graduate school and the Peace Corps. San Francisco would let me be me, but it took an understanding wife, a terrific son, and Volvo station wagon to give me the confidence I needed to the take the leap and come out. In that instant, twenty seven years of mold fell around me and I took off, free as a bird. Everywhere I looked I there were smiles, I walked through a neighborhood of smiles and as strangers, the smiles were eager to know each other and we had to learn the art of cruising. None of us knew how to be gay and we quickly discovered that sex was the most expedient and joyful way to teach each other how to be gay. A naked man has few secrets, and the men I went home with taught me about their different cultures and their attitudes about everything from religion to sex. Being with the men I slept with in bars parks and beaches taught me how to sustain an intelligent conversation and make tender love. They taught me how to cook a healthy meal naked and they introduced me to the delicious cuisines of cultures I knew nothing about. Their apartments that ranged from one straight out of Architectural Digest to one with caged lizards were a Dummies for Home Decor. With a family of beautiful men I passed through the looking glass and was living the impossible dream. To put it another way, my older brother breathed football, my father breathed football, my school breathed football, and so did my city and my state Wisconsin but in San Francisco I breathed cannoli fog and lust.