Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
October 6, 2009
So there I was, just a poor little country boy from the Colorado wilderness, standing on a San Francisco street corner on a bright sunny Sunday morning, suitcase in hand.
Since buses don’t run all that often on Sunday mornings, I had plenty of time to gaze at the crowds strolling by. And, although I was thinking about other things, I slowly began to realize that the passing throngs were not ordinary in any sense of the word.
What first caught my attention was the high number of men strolling hand in hand. Well, it was San Francisco after all. In fact, the first gay couple I noticed were two young, strong, good-looking guys who just happened to be walking right behind a sadly unattractive, staggeringly overweight straight couple. The contrast was striking. Chalk one big point for the gays.
Then I realized that, even for San Francisco, the concentration of gay men was surprising.
Then I focused on what they were wearing: lots of heavy black leather, an odd fashion choice, I thought, on this warm sunny day.
And then I started paying attention to exactly what they were wearing. Yikes! (As we country boys say in the Big City.) There were bare-chested muscle-men wearing tiny leather mini-skirts and dog collars. There were men in tight leather pants, naked from the waist up except for crisscrossed metal-studded leather straps. And there were men wearing crotch-less, bottom-less leather chaps with only tiny leather thongs underneath. I saw one of them look back over his shoulder and down, craning his neck, apparently checking out his own bare butt – and I guess he liked what he saw, because he sauntered on down the avenue.
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And I couldn’t help but notice that they all looked supremely happy.
I don’t usually think of heavy black leather (in whatever cut and style) as a clothing choice for those who pass their days smiling, but the men who passed me that Sunday morning were almost uniformly gleeful.
The next day, I saw in the local paper a story that explained that what I had been watching was the crowd on its way to the 26th Folsom Street Fair, billed as “the world’s largest leather event.”
The Folsom Street Fair, sponsored in part by The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (“a leading-edge Order of queer nuns”), reportedly draws some 400,000 people. Which explains why I had so much trouble finding a hotel room that weekend.
Before I go any further, I need to recount one vignette from that same newspaper article: A young man, trussed up in all sorts of leather and metal bondage gear, walked up to a refreshment stand, took the horse bit out of his mouth and asked, “Are your plastic cups compostable?” Assured they were, he accepted an ecologically correct cup of water and trotted back to his master.
Several months ago, I wrote about a trip to Tunisia and Morocco and how we very definitely knew we were in the middle of an alien culture. Men in crotch-less black leather chaps are perhaps the exact opposite of Islamic women whose robes and veils conceal everything but their eyes – but now, once again, I was in definitely alien territory.
But while Tunisia and Morocco were almost uniformly Islamic, San Francisco is most certainly not uniformly gay. It is not uniformly anything. But it is, if not uniformly, then very widely, alien.
As I rode the bus through Chinatown, there was again no question that I was in alien territory. All the shop signs, even the street signs were in Chinese. Crowds of Chinese men and women jammed onto the bus. Loud conversations in Chinese filled the air. They pushed and shoved and stepped on toes. Their behavior would count as shockingly rude in most of this country, but it was clearly in line with what their culture considered appropriate.
I think of the United States as “my” country, but this was very definitely “their” neighborhood. My rules and expectations didn’t count.
And there were other “alien” aspects of San Francisco.
The surprisingly, painfully, large numbers of homeless, and quite clearly crazy, people on the streets was certainly alien. For all my “Colorado country boy” pretense, I was born in New York City, so I know about homeless crazy street people. But in San Francisco, there are so many of them that sometimes you feel like you are surrounded by an army of walking wounded.
And then, perhaps oddly, there was another alien aspect to San Francisco: Everybody was so damn friendly.
With more than 16 million visitors a year, San Francisco is, to a large extent, a tourist town. And we all know (don’t we?) how hard it can be to remain cheerful when you’re dealing with tourists in a tourist town.
But the people who dealt with me were amazingly happy and helpful – even the woman at the information booth at the train station who had to come out of her booth to help me after I got my ticket jammed upside-down in the turnstile. I humbly apologized for my stupidity and she just smiled and laughed and said, “Hey, it’s my job security.”
So they’re friendly and they’re crazy and they’re foreign in culture and very foreign in sexuality. And yet, for all that, somehow not really alien. Certainly not as alien as Tunisia and Morocco. Perhaps it’s the diversity of the alien cultures here, as opposed to the sweeping monolithic strangeness of those North African Islamic countries. What, after all, is more American than a wild diversity of weirdness?
And maybe it’s because I have been visiting San Francisco – and loving it – for 40 years. And all that strangeness has begun to feel like home.
Home away from home, of course, for this Colorado country boy.
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