The Castro in the shadows

Hello, readers – especially to you followers I do not know, who have somehow found my little corner and signed up to tag along.  This post is just for you! Well, everyone else too – but, I want to play tour guide this week. I have no idea where you live – perhaps you know San Francisco, perhaps not – but this week’s exploration is a chance for you to visit a corner of my world.  Come stroll with me through a neighborhood like perhaps your own, and yet, unlike any other – world changing, in a way, at least at one time – and still revered and treasured, though at the moment a little tattered and bruised.  And still shining through that shadow of COVID.

The Castro has a long history of being home to various ethnic and cultural groups – at one point, it was known as “Little Scandanavia”, and was not the original core area for San Francisco’s emerging gay/lesbian population.  But, in the 70’s, with a variety of factors contributing,  bars and their patrons began moving from the Polk Street area to the Castro, and it became known as the “gay capital” in many ways, particularly after Harvey Milk began his campaign for political office from his camera shop.  There are many wonderful documentaries and websites for you to learn about that heritage – it is somewhat less vibrant today, again for many reasons even before COVID.  But, my stroll this week to buy a birthday gift for family gave me a chance to see how this once, and still, magical few blocks is changing – like us all. 

Today the Castro is revered in the LGBTQ community world wide as an early refuge, a symbol of freedom and standing for rights long denied.  Now, Harvey’s old camera shop is a retail and community center for the Human Rights campaign (although some were aghast at that idea, it has proven to be a reminder of his presence); it would be rare to see anything other than a Democratic campaign event here or anywhere in SF.  Harvey’s restaurant, formerly the “Elephant Bar”, displays posters for the upcoming presidential election; victory parties are already planned ….

Like all of San Francisco, politics are fervently expressed in the Castro everyday.

Nightlife and retail are the lifeblood of many urban communities, even more so here.  The bars are limited to serving alcohol outdoors, with food – so the restaurants, with a slightly increased capacity now that SF has moved into the “least restrictive” color coded compliance zone, partner with bars as well as serving their own customers.  By building “parklets” in the streets – some more extravagant than others – in theory, visitors can comply with mask and distancing rules.  We do not attend these locations – to us, it is not important – but they are well populated, and probably going to be around for quite a while – their version of the new normal.  But the shops still carry unique products that even reflect the current COVID focus that casts its long shadow over all. The heads in one window display made in SF pride masks.

There are businesses that are closed forever – one long time, ahem, adult shop among others; but new businesses waiting to open, oddly enough a second ice cream shop, near the famed “Hot Cookie” bakery, where a wall of photos of customers wearing the namesake briefs welcomes visitors to buy a “butch bar” or a more than suggestively shaped cookie to enjoy. 

Cliff’s variety store is exactly that – a little bit of everything, plus some you never knew about! It’s a mainstay of the neighborhood, with a long history of its own – customers line up to enter now, but on this early morning access was easy.  I kept my visit to enjoying the Halloween display, featuring some very creative garden gnomes. 

Speaking of creative, this local small independent gym was one who adopted the “outdoor training” approach when all else was still verboten – I was impressed with their logistics to providing a complete workout experience.  We used to go to the chain gym down the street, which is now reopened indoors – but, we have modified our attendance to another, non-Castro location which the chain opened, featuring an outdoor tent filled with equipment.  Business owners are struggling to stay open, daily, weekly – following restrictions, hoping customers will be faithful, and adapting – while they can.  

The term currently in use may be different – I think recently it was “un housed” – or something similar.  Perhaps there is another term this couple might use for their classification, but, for the moment, on this weekday morning, they find shelter in a nook of the entry to the GLBT Historical society museum, up the street between “Harvey’s” restaurant and two of the remaining gay bars.  This museum, small but well curated, would normally be a spot I would recommend visiting – but for us, for now, we are content with our virtual visits, and supporting the society and other causes financially until, one day, we feel the reward of a visit outweighs the risks. 

Our “gayborhood” represents more than business – in some ways, it is a Mecca. I recall my first visit as an out gay man in 2012 – I rode my Indian motorcycle up specifically to be in the Castro. Among the traditions – the memorial to lost loved ones, which began during the AIDS crisis early years by posting pictures and other tributes on the walls of the Hibernia Bank (long gone, but this corner still referred to as “Hibernia Beach”). And, not far away, the community “bulletin board” – empty, but formerly filled with event flyers and posters for all kinds of things that you don’t find in Kansas city. The “angels” above still circle, waiting for those days to return.

A couple of blocks up Market – perhaps not the traditional “Castro” but one of my favorite little spots, Giddy’s candy store has a few Halloween treats available.

Yummy treats at Giddy Candy – imports from around the world, always fun!

Once upon a time, Halloween in the Castro was a major street party, but that ended before my arrival and long before COVID, due to public safety concerns – the costumes were, of course, fabulous in their day. Some may appear this week ….

From years past – Halloween in the Castro – no social distancing back then!

Our last stop, for now. The famed Castro Theater, which I referenced in my column last week about the slow return of films to our cultural menu, is completely walled off – the organ, presumably heard occasionally but only by a few, was in the process of being replaced by a new, sophisticated model.  It almost doesn’t matter what the first movie to be shown when those doors open is – it will be crowded, and those in attendance will gladly sing along with the traditional “San Francisco, Open your golden gates” introduced by Jeannette MacDonald in that MGM epic of 1936.  Of course, that depicted a city torn by earthquakes and fire – and then, rebuilt. Ours is facing a different onslaught – but renewal can come, as it did more than a century ago. What will that look like – and who will take up the challenge?

Take a peek at what Castro theater lovers treasure!

Our world will look different a year from now. The future is something we can create – you, me, all of us – can build it. Your neighborhood may have seen changes already, as well. The Castro may look very different in a decade; this is just a moment in a stream of constant energy and life. For many of us, our local places, whether routine or world famous, are still – sacred, in a way. A part of our hearts lives there, even after we move on. But what gives our communities life is the spirit of those who are there today (and tomorrow), building, creating, celebrating, sharing, loving – giving. You may not have a drag queen on your main street USA, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shine. Let our hope shine. The shadows will pass, others will come – we must hold on, to one another, and build, today. And we will.

Beyond the stars on a magic carpet

This week I was freed. 

We’d been exposed to COVID courtesy of a visiting home repairman whose brief stop to pick up a check led to receiving a call less than 48 hours later, courtesy of SF city health. We were to quarantine with testing and daily monitoring by phone for two weeks. Happily, our initial tests were both clear, and again just before our ultimate release.  I chose to celebrate by daring to indulge in an experience few else were pursuing these days. 

I’m calling to your memories. I’m asking you to think back as far as you can — a moment long ago when you sat with a roomful of mostly strangers, and the lights dimmed to darkness, and the room hushed as everyone around you became quiet.  Perhaps you heard a fanfare, the curtains opened – revealing a shiny silvery screen, and beams of light bringing to your eyes a vision. 

No one reading this today was present 125 years ago when, shortly after Christmas, two brothers created a public gathering that transformed the world. Louis and Augusta Lumiere charged one franc each to 33 Parisians to watch less than 10 minutes of silent film.  They had not invented the film process but did create their unique mechanism for projection to a paying audience.  This very first commercial film screening soon resulted in their opening a chain of local “cinemas”, and in time to the world. 

Moments from a century of film magic, in less than 5 minutes

Although I do not think it was my first movie, my first movie memory was going to the old Corona theater in 1966 with my older brother, I was 8, he was 10 and the scenes of the fire engulfing the forest ignited not only the screen but my imagination.  In the more than 5 decades since I have no idea how many films I have seen; many in the theater, but also on Tv, or college retrospectives, then in time VHS rentals, laserdiscs, and DVDs – but always, always I knew movies were their best in a dark cinema. 

The visions, dreams, stories and songs, were a place I could escape. Where I could find hope, joy, and worlds of adventure for a dollar matinee and a bike ride. In time, I would attend previews, revivals and world premieres; visiting Grauman’s Chinese, the movie palaces of downtown LA built by Charlie Chaplin and countless visits to multiplexes, many now converted to retail or RV showrooms or torn down. 

A 1953 movie premiere at the Chinese – the “golden age” – before my time.

I was often – correction, nearly always – alone, even in a crowded theater. Sometimes I would chat with strangers about the film as we waited, but most were with others, and I was more comfortable waiting for the lights to dim and to leave my neighbors behind. I learned about the artists of screenwriting, direction, production design, editing, scoring and of course the stars. My parents in shared their memories – my Mom of trips to see musicals (and going on a bowling double date with Mickey Rooney), my Dad of being terrified by Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. In time I took my younger brother to Superman and Star Wars; and his first R rated movie, Die Hard; more recently, with his wife and kids, and now my husband, to see even more Star Wars.  Funny how I can remember many of these screenings, theaters, and those times when others enjoyed or hated the film along with me as we chatted after some blockbuster or art film. Too many memories to begin to share – and in recent years, new memories with my husband, a reality beyond even my own romance inspired imagination that no screenwriter could have sold to a studio. 

But earlier this year, of course, no new memories could be created. Theaters like our beautiful Castro, dark for months for the first time in its nearly century long life. Others closed forever, now; chains in bankruptcy, studios ceasing production and deferring release, selling new films direct to Amazon that had been created for audiences to enjoy in the crowded darkness, their drinks and popcorn left in cases. The seats cold.  Like so many lives and businesses – the future uncertain, but the present, silent – more so than any DW Griffith epic or Harold Lloyd comedy. The lights off, the doors locked.

If you EVER get a chance again … go to the Castro Theater. History, magic and more.

Recently, the powers that be in their unknowable wisdom deigned it safe to allow some there to reopen. Sadly, here in SF most remain shuttered; unlike their neighboring cities, they are not being allowed to sell refreshments, which for years has been the only source of profits, especially for independent cinemas; the studios take most of the ticket cut, which is more meager than ever.  Somehow, other sources of food and drink are safe, including restaurants recently reopened for indoor service, but that part of the cinema experience is not permitted here – and so our local theaters remain dark for now. 

But nearby cities had been screening for a few weeks, and now that I could at last get out, I knew exactly what I wanted to see! With all the closures and delays in movie releases, most of the “summer blockbusters” were, well, either not summer, or bust. But one filmmaker whose works have always been creative, and sometimes breathtaking, insisted his project be released in theaters as planned – if delayed – and I wanted very much to see Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” in IMAX.   A theater nearby, south of the city itself, had it on IMAX matinee for the final day the first day of my “release” – and my husband having opted out, I drove to the BART parking structure adjacent.  Usually crowded up to multiple levels, it was nearly deserted – as was the sidewalk past the some open, some closed eateries featuring pizzas, ice cream, sandwiches and more.My ticket was “touchless” with an assigned seat, no adjacent viewers – in fact, only 4 seats were showing as sold that morning out of the entire theater.  The concession area was open, but semi deserted – and entering the theater itself, a hand cleansing station greeted me as I found my seat in silence.  There was no typical “pre-show” with ads, promotions, etc. – but a few “previews of coming attractions” with dates that have now been pushed into 2021.  

You don’t need my evaluation of the film itself – there are plenty of those online.  Rather, I invite you to remember what it was like to go, perhaps with a date, or your family, or a group of friends, to see some film you love to watch even today – whether it was Forrest Gump or Star Wars, James Bond or a Disney classic.  The joy you felt, or the fear or surprises you shared; the music that soared.  These were magic carpets taking us to new worlds in the dark;  showing us what life might have to offer, promising us a future we might never know, and for some, the promise of what discovering what it is to love, be loved, and even lose love. We may see ourselves, or perhaps not – perhaps we will get a glimpse of who we want to become. Films are not always a true representation of life, but they capture the energy of our spirit in a way that combines imagery, sound, story and more that is unique to sitting in that dark room, climbing on the carpet, and letting it take us where it will.  When the ride ends, and we walk out, we may not remember those moments consciously – but they are a part of our common cultural heritage now.  

Perhaps you recall the wonderful, Oscar winning theme music for “Chariots of Fire” created by Vangelis. He also had several albums as part of the team “Jon and Vangelis” – one, “The Friends of Mr. Cairo”, is titled for their evocative, and very lengthy, tribute to how film captures our spirits, our hearts, and creates a shared experience that can last a lifetime.  Of course, it refers to “The Maltese Falcon” but moves into other moments that you may recognize as well.  

Silent gold movies, talkies, technicolor, long ago; my younger ways stand clearer, clearer than my footprints. Stardom greats I’ve followed closely, closer than the nearest heartbeat; longer than expected – they were great. Oh love oh love; just to see them; acting on the silver screen, oh my. Clark Gable, Fairbanks, Maureen O’Sullivan; fantasy would fill my life – and I love fantasy so much. Did you see? In the morning light? I really talked, yes I did, to God’s early morning light – and I was privileged then, as I am to this day, to be with you.

Closing lyrics, “Friends of Mr. Cairo”, Jon and Vangelis, 1981.

I hope you will take the time to view this in one sitting, quietly – the creator of this video clearly loves the music, and the films, and melded the two into this hymn to how films find a place deep in our hearts. 

Turn off the lights, turn off the world around you, and remember what it is to dream.

My wish for you is that one day, perhaps soon but one day, you will again be able to enjoy a movie you love – whether new, or old – in a darkened theater full of strangers, on a screen larger than any in your home, without distraction, and with all the popcorn and soda you have missed.  I hope Bob and I, with our friends and families, will have those moments ahead as well, at the Castro theater with it’s beautiful pipe organ and cavernous edifice, inviting passersby “Come, enter the temple – see the light dance and the hear the angels sing”. The flickering spirits are waiting for you to join them again in the darkness.  As my old film mentors Siskel and Ebert used to say every Sunday evening on TV as they shared thoughts on what magic film offers us – save me the aisle seat. 

Six months, 25 posts, and the future

Do you ever put off doing things? I sure do. Especially the things that I think I don’t know how to do, or may not do well. I put off starting this blog for a long time after the idea entered my head; I put off actually posting for nearly 4 months after I paid the WordPress subscription in November of 2019. I had just the month prior made the decision to end my ongoing job search and retire early; in large part that was driven by my desire to spend more time with my husband and building our life together rather than another few years of professional employment.

Photo by Darwis Alwan on Pexels.com

But, I finally started writing – six months ago, yesterday. And I knew that there were a few other things I had put off – like getting more familiar with WordPress “mechanics”, how to show things on the table of contents, how to make it a little easier for visitors to see what I was sharing. So, this morning, with a goal of getting that long on my to do list item finished, I toyed with WordPress a bit – exploring, getting lost, getting frustrated but … getting back on board and sticking with it.

You know, it’s a good feeling to do something you have put off. This summer I spent many hours on a home improvement project that most will never see or notice; but it’s just about done, and our life is a little better for it. I have a lot left to learn about using WordPress, and writing; about guiding people to my site, or promoting it (thank you, followers I have never met, I am humbled!).

But learning is what keeps life challenging, I think. As we have political discussions with friends – which unfortunately seems to be the gigantic gravitational center of all thought these days – I often remark that questioning what we believe, our priorities and choices is a lot harder than just doing what we did the day before. And hey, maybe that’s great for now – maybe that’s all we can do. I am grateful, and challenged, to have the luxury (or burden?) of time to reconsider my focus – how to spend the precious hours of this day, and the unknown number of days to come.

We cannot take the number of days ahead for granted – never could, but maybe we believed it and now realize that untruth. Last week, my husband and I were exposed to Covid, six months after all the guidelines we followed, and precautions we took, by a visiting home improvement representative who felt ill the next day and went for a test. Less than 48 hours after his short stop to check out our kitchen needs and plan for the beginning of work, we had each received a call from SF City health that we needed to quarantine for two weeks, and test; less than 6 hours after that call, we were at a Kaiser drive through for a memorable swabbing session, and soon on our way home.

For whatever reason, my husband’s negative test results arrived a little more than a day later – but mine did not. More than 30 hours after his email, I finally got a notice at 3 am on a Monday morning that I too was negative; it was a relief, but that gap in communication left me with many thoughts about its implications. Thankfully, we have no symptoms, and in roughly 6 more days we will again be “free” to roam our still mostly shuttered streets, and visit the socially distanced by reservation only gym, and maybe even in time to go see a movie. These are all things we took for granted a few months ago, and yet for some on our globe, are pleasures they might never know. If nothing else, this is a time to nature our appreciation for the gifts we hold today.

But I thought during those 30 hours, and since, again about my priorities. One of our cats has a habit of “campaigning” for his canned food dinner earlier each day – wandering, following, and letting us (mostly, me, since I open the cans) know that he is ready. For up to two hours ahead of time, some days – and then, in moments, his enjoyment of the food itself is over. And I see this in myself, and perhaps we all do it – waiting, yearning, longing and dreaming for something we so desperately want, or think we need – and then, perhaps that experience comes, that dream comes true – and it is over. We put so much time into it, and it passes – and life goes on.

Today, we are all longing for something imminent – maybe for some it is the election and a hoped for change or end to whatever antagonizes us most at the moment; for others, a “return to normal” that probably is never going to be fully realized – the new world is going to be shifting in ways we cannot predict, and in ways we may not even see as they come to pass. I certainly have my frustrations with both; and yet the best I can manage my life right now, for me, my husband, and my loved ones who I cannot be with at the moment, is to just do what I can do now and move on.

So, six months in to my little blog, after 25 entries, and countless hours of thought and reflection, I feel a glimmer of anticipation of where “The New NormL” goes from here. Between thought, writing, reflection and the mechanics of creating a post (along with the learning curve), the amount of time I spend on these posts is, well, more than you might guess. Foremost, my priority remains our shared lives, building what we have and like everyone else just trying to manage the details; but writing here, for you few who read these words, has been in a way both clarifying and freeing for me. So, there will be more to share, although I sense I may be shifting my focus, or my approach, a bit over time. There is much to explore in our world, wonderful things to discover and give to others in turn, when we open our eyes. I will continue to write from the heart, about the present, past and future, and my weird little questions and peculiar explorations – in the hopes that some of what I share will resonate with those few who may find encouragement from my words.

A friend asked me recently if I had changed my blog format a bit, having noticed some of the photos, links etc. that I was tweaking (and which will continue). I think the most noticeable is probably the now routine inclusion of the portrait you see below, although I think I often used the words shown in closing many posts. Those words are both a sentimental wish, and an imperative I try to achieve – imperfectly. We all strive towards ideals we cannot reach, but in that effort, we get closer. Keep on climbing; lend a hand to others near you on that path, or their own – you may not share the same goals, or much else, but we all share the same hopes and needs. Thank you for spending some time with me here – I look forward to our next visit.

You must remember this … in 2040

Since my last post (July 5 2020) was the AMAZING “letter from the future” – I decided to write back – to Future NormL! Of course, this raises all sorts of issues with chronology conflicts – has future me (and presumably future you) already read what I am writing now?  If so … did that influence what future me wrote to begin with?  Whatever – here is what I want the future to remember, one day. 

*********************

Hello Future NormL!  Thanks for your note. I just realized – I have no idea when you might be reading this – or already have?  Let’s say … Summer 2040, 20 years from now.  By then I will be in my 80’s and hopefully still vital and functional – I guess that is somewhat up to me right now, and I think I am doing ok on that front.  Mom and Dad both passed at around age 80; now, in this COVID era, well, nothing is certain.  

Uncertainty is not a threat – it is a traveling companion

I wonder what you will remember of these days – memory is such a slippery critter.  It scurries around in your brain, popping up and slides where it will … like a playful dolphin.  Perhaps it laughs as well – at how we reshape our perception, letting go of some things until they suddenly reappear like some Vegas illusionist, or haunting flashback. “The way we were” lyrics say, of course, “what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget” – I have not found that to necessarily be true, but considering how turbulent this year has been so far, setting it aside might be a gift! 

On the other hand … sometimes we learn the most from the situations we wish we could avoid.  Being isolated, cut off from the “busyness” – makes it difficult to ignore those ongoing questions we often sense within, trying to cut through the “noise” of the everyday.  Right now, the world seems to be going through a kind of upheaval – “unrest” is the polite word the news uses mostly.  It’s odd that one can read encouraging stories about where the virus is going – and then turn on TV or go to another news site and be told everything is falling apart.  It isn’t so much that you don’t know who to believe – but you can’t be certain that anyone really has all the facts! Hopefully by 2040, those questions will be answered – but more will arise!

Today, we are inundated by voices demanding change – things that need to stop, things that others want to hold on to – traditions, artifacts, cultural standards, socio political systems, governments, laws.  It is a storm of fervor, energy, expectations being expressed (few in harmony) – one wonders what will be left if everyone got their wishes? What will continue to be celebrated and treasured, and what will be tossed aside as no longer having meaning?  There are certainly plenty of people shouting out there who claim to be the best qualified to make that decision for us all.   Certainly, for all the people shouting they have the answers, there is a time to listen – but eventually, the voice I need to hear the most is probably the quietest – within me.  Perhaps the most valuable discovery from this era for me will be learning to listen to that still, small voice.  

Right now, I’m having trouble making out that voice.  Feeling my way through just what it is that I can say to you 20 years from now that will have some sort or insight or meaning. That’s one of the hardest things about writing, sorting through all the mental and emotional “little yellow stickies” that line the walls of my brain and heart, to make sense of it all, somehow. I realize my perception, my vision is filtered through the lens of time from my ongoing interest in family history – the fascination I have in reflecting on the stream of events, seemingly random, that brought together my own ancestors from all the other lands and eras here to the West, their lives, loves and losses.  They speak to me of what endures – and what is forgotten.  A sobering truth – we cannot know what will be remembered of our lives, nor do much to ensure that we will be remembered at all.  I am the curator of their lives, to a degree – and of their voices. In some ways, the fact that their lives are little remembered for the most part teaches me that perhaps my needs that seem SO important, SO vital today – will be forgotten, their urgency being replaced by the next crisis. Most of what seems so critical in this moment will fade in time. 

Setting my thoughts free to fly again

That may seem like a sad statement – but in reality, it is a freeing statement.  We are free to determine how we spend our time and energy, within of course limits that we cannot change – but still free to choose each new day what matters most NOW.  We can get up, repeat what we did the day before, the week, month and year before – or we can stop, or at least pause – look around – listen – and consider whether there may be a better path.  This singular crisis offers that window to new understanding. Will I – we – gaze beyond? For me, that is what change looks like – giving our eyes a chance to look at things differently, and our hearts a chance to open, again. 

Ultimately, the change that I have the opportunity to put into motion is – mostly, if not solely – about the future I am building, day by day, thought by thought, choice by choice. For us. You, me – and the people who are in my life and yet to wander through. So future me, remember these things as you gaze back on these words – 

Don’t take anyone, or anything in your life, for granted. These family and friends, these moments and joys and opportunities to grow, explore and learn may not pass your way again – so treasure them. The people, the places, and all these tiny shimmering hues and colors that constitute “everyday life” will in time fade.  Whatever seems vital right now, realize that the impermanence of all our momentary crises leaves us with less control over the outcome, but also grants us a choice to work towards a better, more complete life. This is not a drill, not a practice game, not a “pause” button – it is an OPPORTUNITY – an invitation to create an existence that has real meaning. Progress, not perfection! Don’t worry that you have not made it, instead, relax in accepting you never will.  Truth does set you free – you can’t achieve all your dreams, no one will complete you, and you will always fall short of you wishes in countless ways  – but today you can give from your heart, and matter in this moment.  Live – now. 

When you remember this time, yes – recall the sadness and uncertainty, when threats seem to rise taller and threaten to crush out tomorrow, but also see triumph and survival; determination and sacrifice; overcoming – just like our parents before us, and theirs before them. All of us are incomplete people who struggled but loved. Then see in others that shining potential, that glowing hope that with a little encouragement for one another – a smile, a touch, a song or a quiet moment – we will find our way. I thank you for your letter, again – and I will work to keep building.  One day you can thank me in return. 

Will future me have learned from what choices I am making today? I hope so. Aspiration and achievement continue to be separated, but my climbing continues. “Living in the Moment” by Jason Mraz reminds me to keep my focus on where it will make the most difference. Until next time, friends – love always.