Thursday, July 10, 2014

Postcard from 1970s San Francisco

Saloon Time with Sylvia Syms & Friends

In the spring of 1977, I found a job as a busboy at La Piñata restaurant on Union Street. The food was good, but they didn’t serve hard liquor, so it was rarely packed. The place was owned by a gay couple, Harry Linder and Armando Rodriguez. Armando’s mother, Antonia, did the cooking. He used to say it was the kind of food his family ate on special occasions, not everyday food. Having worked there, I always want shredded beef in my tacos and thick chips made from real tortillas. That’s the real stuff.

Armando went by the stage name Armando Jones ever since he had been a teenage ice skater of some renown. Harry had picked Armando up when he lived in a Berkeley boardinghouse, and they were lovers until Harry passed away in 2002. Sometime in the 1950s, they opened their first restaurant in San Francisco at 1701 Polk Street. Later on, they opened the place at 1851 Union Street, perfectly timed to ride that street’s popularity in the 1960s and 1970s.

With their wealth, they moved from a suburban house in Terra Linda to a large house on three hillside acres in Kent Woodlands in Marin County. Their housekeeper came over and said, “Well, you boys didn’t tell me you all were moving into a motel.” That home was a shrine to 1960s high gay camp, replete with oil paintings of long-dead nonrelatives, low tufted couches, golden sheaf cocktail tables, a swimming pool, and at least one bedroom devoted to storing the stuff they bought and didn’t know what to do with. And there were cocktails, lots of cocktails.

A golden sheaf cocktail table

Also a vintage brown Mercedes 280SE convertible that they drove on special occasions. They had a smaller Mercedes for daily commuting. Harry would drive Armando to the front gate of the restaurant and then wait on the busy street until a spot opened up. He had the best parking karma in the world.

A Mercedes 280SE like Harry and Armando's

Armando had perfect white teeth and perpetually tanned skin, and he loved wearing bling, real bling, diamond and gold bling. With a big silk scarf over his balding head and an unbuttoned shirt, he was a gay character from central casting, but still loveable. Harry, who always stayed blonde, managed the money (and everything else that needed managing). Armando’s dream was always to be a star, first an ice-skating star and then a saloon-singing star. Many nights we would sit around, get drunk, listen to records, and then listen to him sing. I think he drank to sing.

I was 18, in my second semester of San Francisco State, when I got the job because I wanted to earn money more than be serious about going to college. School wasn’t out at 19th and Holloway; it was the city itself. The city cost money. (SF State certainly didn’t.)

My first night working at La Piñata, I met a stunningly handsome wiser older waiter named Michael Ray Nelson who became one of my best pals, and for a time a kind of older brother. He was 28 or so, and back then, a decade felt like a generation. He knew how to nudge me to behave when I was immature. In his deep voice, he would just say the drag name Armando had given me, “Kenneth Anne,” and I knew I had gone too far. (My first drag name given to me as a teenager in a gay restaurant in Berkeley was “Kenneth Louise.” But when Armando met me, he said. “No, no, no. You are not a Kenneth Louise. You are a Kenneth Anne.” And it stuck.)

Michael Ray in his San Francisco apartment

All these years later, I think what Michael Ray loved about me was my relative innocence and intense curiosity. He didn’t want me to lose it. We drank and smoked, and he introduced me to Billie Holiday records and jazz. He helped me hear the sadness and the optimism. I was building my own gay circle. Probably not the soberest or sanest one, but my own.

After the restaurant closed for the night, Harry and Armando went to see saloon singers and even caught a few in their net. Most notably the young local Wesla Whitfield and the legendary New Yorker Sylvia Syms. I no longer remember who introduced Sylvia to the “boys,” but she always spent time with Harry and Armando whenever she came to town. She didn’t drink, but she did like to smoke pot. And argue. She loved her Bob Mackie gowns, Louis Vuitton dog carrier, and first-class plane tickets, but most of all she loved to argue for the underdog and her view of the world.

Flyer for Sylvia Syms show
at the Mocambo in 77 or 78

Michael Ray, Harry, Armando, and I would climb into the Mercedes and drive off to the Mocambo, the club at the edge of the Tenderloin on Polk Street that glowed for a few years in the late 1970s. On that little stage, we heard Eartha Kitt, Carmen McRae, Julie Wilson, Sally Kellerman (yes, Sally Kellerman!), and even Mabel Mercer in some of her last performances.

But it was Sylvia Syms’s sparsely attended concerts that we attended the most. Nearly every night during her runs, we would catch her last set. Even then, her emphysema meant you could hear her struggling for breath. But as she said, she wasn’t so much a singer as an interpreter of songs. I learned what that meant from listening to her and the other ladies.

Her last performance in San Francisco was at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room in 1983. The Fairmont’s publicity machine placed articles in the local press, but couldn’t fill the venue. In her suite, she tried to put on a brave face despite the empty room, but she never performed here again. Sylvia Syms was a New York phenomenon.

Once when she came out west, we went to see Annie, since her friend Harve Presnell was playing Daddy Warbucks and had given her some front-row balcony tickets. When we sat down, the man dressed in full leather next to me asked, “Is that Sylvia Syms?” He said that in New York, they called her “Moonbeam Moscowitz,” which was the name of Whitney Balliett’s 1974 profile of her in the New Yorker. (He wrote about her again in October 1978 and when she died.) The profile is a great piece in large part because most of it is just Sylvia talking. And she loved to talk and talk. “Sylvia Blabbermouth,” she told one writer. She spun great tales.

She often spoke about Mr. Sinatra. He was very kind to her, helping her when she ran out of money or got in a jam. She would tell the story about how one night, seeing Rex Reed in the audience, he told Sylvia, “I don’t like some of your friends.” Not one to back down, she nodded towards his thuggish companions and retorted, “And I don’t like some of yours!” She could get away with it.

She was friends with all kinds of stars. I remember stories about Tony Bennett, William Shatner, Totie Fields, and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, and about how she lived in Harry Belafonte’s old apartment on East 63rd Street. She was everybody’s favorite nearly famous saloon singer. In 1981, my friend Michael Ray and I ventured to New York to hear Wesla Whitfield make her NY premiere at Michael’s Pub. Sylvia had helped pave the way for Wesla with some of her contacts. It was a disaster because Wesla lost her voice. I don’t think Sylvia ever forgave her.

Over the years, Sylvia and I exchanged letters, and she was always encouraging me to follow my passion—that was the path. Given how hard her path was, I listened. Sometime in the 1980s, Harry and Armando sold their Union Street property for a lot of money and reopened on Larkin Street in the Civic Center, this time with a stage for Armando. He still wanted to be a star more than a restaurateur. Like Sylvia, he sang to empty houses.

But the Civic Center location didn’t catch on like Union Street. Maybe it was their timing, but the restaurant and the dream of being a nightclub act faded. Michael had fallen out with Harry and Armando and had several screaming fights with Sylvia. She had fallen in love with him (he wasn’t the first gay man to receive her affections). And there was Michael’s addiction to speed, which I didn’t recognize.

Michael Ray Nelson and artist
Adrianne Worzel in 1981 in New York

I moved to Los Angeles for a few years in the late 1980s. Michael Ray and I had our own falling out after I accused him of robbing me for drugs. He came to LA to reconcile and tell me he was getting better. He had a few good years with another La Piñata alum, Jon Bohm. On Olvera Street, he bought me a touristy ceramic chapel as a symbol of his enduring love. I still have it.

I saw him a few times after I moved back to the Bay Area in 1990, but his health failed. He had worked at Zuni for several years, and the restaurant delivered dinner to his home every night. He died on March 11, 1992, at the age of 44. I don’t know if he and Sylvia ever repaired their rift.

A few weeks later, on May 3, I clipped a picture of Sylvia from the New York Times, wishing I could show Michael that the old broad was still going. The caption under Sylvia’s picture read, in part, “Ms. Syms can also be heard at the Algonquin Hotel through May 30.” She lived only seven more days. She didn’t finish the gig, her first in the Oak Room. She told me once that she wanted to go out singing. And she did. She collapsed after her set and died. Who doesn’t want to go out singing?

More information:

Sylvia Syms singing "My Ship":

For two songs sung by Armando:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Missing Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray died more than a decade ago. But he seemed such a modern man. Intimacy and distance at play simultaneously.

A few weeks ago, I was in one of my favorite bookstores, City Lights in North Beach, and came across the Journals of Spalding Gray. The book was published in 2011, but somehow I had missed it. If someone had asked me when Spalding Gray died, I would have said, “Three or four years ago?” If that person had asked when I had last seen him on stage, I would have said, “Ten years ago?” I saw him perform one of his last monologues, It’s a Slippery Slope, in 1999 at the Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus. He committed suicide in early 2004. My sense of the timing of personal history is often way off. I think that’s why Gray kept journals, so he could have them as a resource for his monologues. A wellspring of recollections so he could get it right, or intentionally wrong.

Like so many other lazy folks of this era, I don’t keep a regular journal, but rather a Facebook photo diary. This is my resource. But it doesn’t go back any further than 2008, and Facebook probably owns it and can make it disappear at a moment’s notice. Very Orwellian. I am not sure all those photographs have helped me write a single post, letter, or review.

I loved how minimal the stage was for Gray’s monologues: a desk, a chair, a glass of water, and his notebook. If I am remembering correctly, which may not be the case, I found it all a bit narcissistic. Although he often changed his monologues as he performed them, I ordered the print version of It’s a Slippery Slope to see what it feels like 20 years later. And it is much as I remember it. He reveals his shortcomings, his need for mothering, his affairs, and the ecstasy of finally learning to ski. Like so many awkward kids, he didn’t feel like he was the master of much, except his ability to garner recognition. Skiing was his own very personal victory.

Although Gray’s monologues were self-centered, they were fantastic stories wonderfully told. Now with YouTube, almost anybody with a webcam is monologist. But are they storytellers? He could take the quotidian and make it memorable, personal.

I remember sitting in the audience thinking that he was revealing material that I would want to keep private if I were him. But as his journals suggest, he was expert at revealing just what he wanted—there were several layers left. I’m reminded of that famous Pauline Kael line about the movie Hannah and Her Sisters: deep on the surface. (Kael didn’t like Gray and panned the movie version of Swimming to Cambodia.) He must have made many missteps, where he revealed something he was later not so sure about.

His bisexuality was one of those areas of confusion. On stage, he answered a question about having an affair with a man by saying he had not. But elsewhere he had written and spoken about it. He worried incessantly about AIDS and the chance that he might have caught it from one of his affairs with men. He liked to have sex with men from time to time, but he wanted to live with and be taken care of by women.

In May 1973, he wrote the following in his journal:

“Then during this period I went to a homosexual bath club in Amsterdam and was ‘picked up’ by this German photographer who was vacationing in Amsterdam. He was very aggressive and he made love to me like this beautiful woman. He took time with me with all this incredible foreplay so by the time he began to fuck me I was wide open and had this very intense climax. It was not a very private place and people were watching. This seemed to bother him but it did not bother me. In fact, it made it…intensified it for me.”

In another passage and monologue he writes about giving a blow job “…and I found that I was choking on what felt like a disconnected piece of rubber hose.” I had to laugh at that.

Spalding Gray was depressed and anxious much of his life. In June 2001, he suffered a serious head injury in a car accident in Ireland. Pieces of his skull were embedded in his brain. His personality changed, and you can read it in the journals, which he still kept. He obsesses about having sold a house in Sag Harbor and buying one he hates nearby. He talked about suicide throughout his journals, but the pain at the end is palpable.

The last entry reads as follows:

“When they took me into the hospital, they said, ‘So what prevented you from jumping?’ And I said, ‘It was fear.’ Not thoughts of what I would miss, but just plain out-and-out fear. And that’s…that’s what has people in institutions. The people that are in institutions are the ones that are afraid. Afraid of suicide. Or can’t figure out how to do it, just aren’t clever enough.”

He drowned in January 2004, probably after jumping from the Staten Island Ferry.

In 1981, he wrote, “Wanting to overcome death. Suicide is power over death in that you do it.”


More information:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Notes on Edmund White and Paris

Edmund White

I want to write about queer issues more, but I am hesitant about becoming a confessional blogger. My own gay life might only be interesting if it were heavily fictionalized!

Queers have been in the news in the last few months because of the Winter Olympics and President Putin; idiocy in Nigeria, Uganda, Indiana, Arizona, and Kansas; wedding rights; and—finally—something useful from Attorney General Holder. Putin’s homophobia practically turned the Winter Olympics into the Gay Olympics. Google did a good turn and transformed its logo into a sympathetic rainbow. The Canadians made a funny and suggestive bobsled video. Even the word “bobsled” sounds slightly erotic.… Nigeria will be condemned in the court of world opinion. As will these ignorant national and state governments.

What is everybody so afraid of? The truth. Some forbidden pleasure found in a Boy Scout camp decades ago, a stirring during a wrestling match, or a burning buried deep. As so many friends joke, “Putin is so gay!” But it is a long road from a boarding school romp to suppressing one’s entire sexuality. I am drawn to the writers who write about their path on that continuum. I think that’s what Edmund White’s last novel, Jack Holmes & His Friend, was largely about.

Edmund White has just released a new memoir covering his years in Paris, entitled Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. Let me say I love Edmund White. I have heard him read, and he seems like the perfect dinner guest. But I only really like about every other book. I love him for what he represents to us middle-aged gay guys. First, he gave us permission to be out, and second, he wrote freely about all kinds of ways of being gay. He’s an erudite man who can write about hustlers, shrinks, parents, and yes, celebrities. This new book feels a lot like dozens of dinner party anecdotes dictated to a secretary and polished up later. He can’t seem to decide if he wants to recount his years in Paris, his friendship with Marie-Claude Brunhoff, or the celebrities he met and supped with. In one of his best chapters, he describes staying in Marie-Claude’s summer house and shares the daily activities to explain what it’s like to summer in France. His friendship with Marie-Claude stands in contrast to the long list of more famous and more infamous interactions. Indeed, I even ordered a rare catalog of her exquisite collage boxes entitled Les Théâtres Immobiles. When he explores the challenges and modest victories of living in France among good friends, I found the book transporting. When the laundry list of celebrities starts falling off the page, I got a little bored.

Given how often White mentions Marcel Proust, I thought it was time to read the short biography that White published in 1999. That moved to the top of the pile on my desk at home.

Some of his earlier books are among my favorites. It was so liberating to read American books that were so openly gay. The cover of A Boy’s Own Story (later the subject of litigation, of course) made muscle T-shirts exciting throughout my 20s despite the fact that I didn’t have big muscles. I reread the book after several decades. It is, as White has said, “polished.” While it’s still sexy, I could savor it more now rather than rush through it the way one did through early or clandestine sex. Some of the passages are so beautiful, so seemingly simple, while others foretell the ending. Being gay doesn’t mean we don’t betray others or ourselves.

His earlier work States of Desire: Travels in Gay America profiles a friend of mine and moved all of us closer to coming out. Not long ago another friend of mine told me that giving him that early book was very helpful as he came out. (Yet another friend said he had an affair with White, but I daresay that wasn’t so unique an experience!)

In 1991, I attended a gay writing conference at the old (and now demolished) Jack Tar Hotel and saw Edmund White cruising me. (It was well over 20 years ago now!) After reading most of his books, I can tell you that’s like watching him take a breath. But we take flattery where we can!

The novels Caracole and Forgetting Elena were like long weird dreams. And the big biography of Genet was exhaustive and exhausting. His more traditional novels are sometimes hard to distinguish from his memoirs. His has mined his own life, and a rich one it has been.

A few days ago, I saw a friend who visits Paris every year, and she talked about making a new friend at a concert in Napa because they were both wearing the same dress from a tiny obscure shop in Paris. She asked me if she should read the book. Yes, if you love Paris, it will remind you of the time you’ve spent there. Even though my reaction to the book was mixed, it did help me decide that we should revisit Paris this summer and feel what he wrote about all over again.


Further reading: