Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Reflection: The Golden Gate Gay Liberation House

This is Page Street as it looks currently. This was the location of the halfway house, and a piece of history for the gay liberation movement of the 1970's.
Recently, I conducted an extensive web search for any mention of the Golden Gate Gay Liberation House, Inc. from 1978. This place was located near the intersection of Divisadero and Page Street. The only mention I found was in Harvey Milk's Archives. Now, that I see that the story of this place and time in the gay liberation movement has not been told, the writing will begin. The story is too important to allow it to slip away into oblivion without some articulation of its place in history. Perhaps I am one of the last survivor's of this place to tell the story. The story is of a journey for those who are, or were, different, not just of this one link of a chain. Stay tuned, as I collect my thoughts as a writer and tell the story with some artistry and relevant context to the gay rights movement.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Pontification: The human species on earth

I live a life of relatively quiet self examination, and the examination of the world in which I live. This ongoing process of analysis makes my life worthwhile. I have spent my life building on a fund of knowledge, of wisdom, and of insight, that I have collected during my visit to this physical, and at times too flat of a world. Generally no one but my most inner circle, joins me in the debate over the conclusions that I have reached. However, sharing these conclusions with others is the only real way of encountering contradictions to those beliefs. One way that learning can take place is through controversial dialog. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis,...as in the dialectical method... is a way to refine, or invalidate, one's beliefs from the conclusions of the comparative debate. My goal is to find incremental measures of enlightenment wherever I can find them.
I can not help but wonder why human beings have been so slow, self encumbered, and inefficient to flourish as as the most intelligent, enlightened, dominant species on this watery rock in space. It is obvious that we are phenomenally unique thus far in the universe. But, what I can not understand is why we do not work as a collective, in furthering the best interests of our human species. I can not understand why we could not figure out that it is in our common interest, to find fundamental solutions supporting survival, that are universal for all on earth. I wish that the most intelligent and enlightened human beings on earth, not the wealthiest, nor the most influential, were the leaders that would design a better life for all. The ideation for the human species should be to accomplish the best cultural milestones for the benefit of us all. Throughout history, it seems that those in power have managed to dominate our cultures, and have used whatever compelling philosophical precepts that were effective to herd their flock, to separate populations into self indulgent yet oblivious haves, versus subserviant or destructive have nots. It seems that within every ideological philosophy that is embraced, is a substantial element of rationalized dysfunction that inhibits the well being of the common good. Human beings have proven themselves to be a selfish, violent, and self defeating species. I am probably restating what is already evident to most, but I chose to repeat the message.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Reflection: running into Degas

I met Edgar Degas one day, actually I unexpectedly ran into him at work.
When I was a young man, I decided to find out what this large rather peculiar world was about. I was quite a curious cat. More specifically, I wanted to find out everything I could historically, and currently, about being a gay person in this queer world, and what that meant in all spheres of existence. I knew I was a gay person, and it was only logical to empower myself by acquiring as much information, and experience, on this topic as I could possibly find. My intellectual, and sexual curiosity was about all aspects on this topic, from researching gay references of antiquity, to reading books by Oscar Wilde, the unusual perspective of Marquis de Sade, to watching Quentin Crisp in "The Naked Civil Servant", watching Lance Loud in that reality show on TV called "An American Family", or Liberace flying across the stage in his glittering cape in Las Vegas. There was much more, but that will be another post. I discovered that sexual repression, and overcompensation, had created some other quite curious cats throughout history. Beyond this issue of exploration, I wanted to know what the art world was about, and what role art played in civilizations past and present. Where were the gay artists and intellectuals? I found them. Two of my favorite artists were Paul Cadmus, and Jared French, to start. For me, art trumped sexual orientation, art was a higher purpose for me, but I was determined and driven to investigate both, and many other areas of interest. I would take train trips to Boston, or hitch hike there, and while I was there, I sought to find out what it meant to be gay from other gay people, young and old, and from all cultural walks of life. I did this usually after I spent the day touring galleries on Beacon Street, the Gardner Museum, or the Boston Museum of Fine Art, or in Cambridge. Sometimes I would meet people at the galleries or museums. I met a number of gay friends from simply walking down Beacon, or Charles Street, and engaging them in conversation. I met other young people at the YMCA, where I often stayed. Of course, I also met young people at the local gay club scene, the Esplanade, or the Fenway area, and others so called notorious areas of gay iniquity. These occasional social contacts, would invite me to come from Connecticut periodically, to stay at their apartments for perhaps a weekend. In the course of these trips, I was referred to a man named "Melvin", from a black friend of mine who lived in an apartment complex over by the museum of art.
Melvin was a man of an age I would guess, in his forties. He worked as something less than a formal butler per se, for very wealthy families in the Boston urban area. He lived in a two apartment home, in a lower middle class Boston neighborhood. The reason why I was introduced to Melvin, by my friend, was that he knew I was looking for a roommate situation in order to live in Boston more permanently, than just taking trips there. Melvin was a portly gay black man, who was jovial, polite, and very gentle in his comportment toward the world. I was introduced to Melvin, and he accepted my application to be his roommate, and there I was, a Boston resident. We enjoyed each others company, and he was protective of me, and his interest in me. I think he enjoyed this relief from a life of personal loneliness, by having another affable, younger person in his home and life for a while.
Melvin had a long work history as, what I will call here, a supporting staff butler. He did not wear a uniform as a butler proper might, rather he was a supporting laborer for the household staff of other English butlers, and Irish maids.
In the time that I lived as a room mate with Melvin, I was trying to find the elusive job, which as a gay young man at that time, was not always that easy to obtain. Melvin kindly offered me employment as a helper in his own job position. Melvin was sent to a number of estates to perform chores for the aristocrats household staff. He had a big van that he would drive, to pick up furniture moving it from one home to another, or to deliver to another family member's home, or whatever. Sometimes we would drive the furs to cold storage, or pick up the pearls from the jeweler in the limosine. These tasks seem so strange in the interpretation of my common world. I would go along with Melvin to assist him with the labor of packing up furniture, or other property, loading it into the van and unloading it, at the particular destination.
One time, I went with Melvin to Cape Cod to pack up the contents of an aristocrats vacation rental, from the previous summer season. The elderly woman who had spent the summer in this cape home, would go out during the summer days binge shopping, and then bring the "stuff" back to the summer rental. The purpose for the wealthy woman's shopping, was not to solve a problem of necessity for herself or for others, but to entertain herself with the experience of buying whatever suited her momentary whim, because she had the deep pockets to ridiculously indulge herself continuously forward. When this woman would leave, she just walked out of the home, and her staff was later sent to pack up and clean out the discarded rental. Sometimes all the furnishings, and the merchandise she shopped for, were tossed out into the garbage as now irrelevant. Sometimes the merchandise with price tags was still in the original shopping bag with tissue, as it was tossed into the trash. Melvin related to me during the drive to this Cape Cod home, that his clients often replayed this same scenario over and over again, and shook his head at how wasteful, and sad it was to him, to over compensate in this manner to find meaning in life, and a temporary distraction from personal loneliness.
I met Edgar Degas in this chapter of my life. One day Melvin told me that we had a job at this estate, just outside of downtown Boston. He told me that the husband had been a famous trial lawyer (whose last name I think was Diamond), who had passed away leaving a widow at this estate. Our chore of the day, was to remove a dining room table and chairs, and take them in the van to a daughter's home. We drove to the estate, which was surrounded by rhododendrons, trees, a wall of stone topped by wrought iron fencing, that merged into the estate's iron gated street entrance. We drove down the driveway to the main house, under a portico, to the service entrance. This door was near the kitchen door, through which we entered the building. Inside the large kitchen, I glanced up to a wall, where there were installed a series of metal bell covers, that had tentacles of electrical wire, that reached up into the ceiling above, to an upstairs world I was not at all familiar with. Each of the bells was numbered and labeled, for a specific area of the home. There was a movement here of some uniformed staff, through the hallways, and kitchen utility rooms. Mostly, the staff were women, Irish women, and they wore grey cotton uniforms with a white starched apron, and a small white laced, starched cotton tiara on their head. I wondered what it was like for these women to put on these uniforms to serve the estate each morning. I was there with Melvin, who was apparently very comfortable moving around in this hub bub of estate activity, in the semi-institutional looking decor of the back rooms of this utility plant for the estate aristocrats.
Melvin was looking to make contact with a specific woman in charge, who would give further instruction to complete the task he was charged with, from the previous day. He found this woman, with me following behind Melvin's rather round dimensions, and she led us through the back rooms, hallways, and stairs, until we had no option left ahead in our path except to enter the manor rooms proper, with all the embellishment that went along with the status of the aristocracy.
The Irish maid led us to an area of the house that seemed dark or dimly lit. I remember that the carpeting was a light beige to mauve, and the cushioning beneath my feet was softer than what my rank in life was or ever was going to be accustomed. The supervising maid, cautioned us to watch our step as we went up three or four softly carpeted steps. I could sense in the darkness, that through this open doorway at the top of the stair was a long, high ceilinged room, a chamber, and I reflected back in my recollection of reading how they felt when they first entered into Tutankhamen's tomb for some reason.
The maid clicked a light switch on the wall, and the volume of the gallery space was immediately flooded with light from above. It quickly had the feel of a formal gallery space, but offered the soft aesthetics and decorum of a living mansion. The walls of the room that I had just entered, to carry out these dining chairs, were completely covered by original Edgar Degas paintings, as you would see them displayed in a museum of fine art. The ballerinas were practicing in oils, stretching, and gesturing, and the footlights on the dance stages were illuminating the dancers and their faces. The room was filled with paintings displaying details of stages, tutus, satin dance shoes, and the graceful poses of swan like ballerinas. Stagehands were depicted at work in the background of the paintings, just as I was working in the foreground of the room. I did not get the chance to examine the work in a studied way, but I was already familiar with the artist and the magnitude of his work. This rapidly passing experience was a tease of greatness interpreted by me, as I scooted by,... laboring in my relative insignificance. I had to carry chairs back to a van, after all. This was my unexpected encounter, the day I ran into Edgar Degas at work.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Reflection: A chapter with Doug & Sativa

I have procrastinated about writing this story too long now, so I will just tell it now.

Years ago, when I was a lost run away young man, an exiled son, I took myself to San Francisco in the 1970's. I lived for a year or so in a halfway house for gay men known as The Golden Gate Gay Liberation house, on Page Street, in San Francisco. I lived there and I was employed as the cook for about 30 residents. I worked on the referral switchboard there some nights, and as a house guard at the front door other nights. I was a social refugee struggling to survive, and to find my way and place in the world back then.

The way in which I left the halfway house was through meeting a man named Ernest Douglas Batts. Doug is the young man in the center of the photograph above. He was a black man from Winston-Salem, NC. He had served in the Korean War, but he had lied about his age in order to enter the army. Doug explained to me that at that time, they did not keep accurate birth records for black people in some places in the South. He was a boy of 16 when he went off to war in Korea, and the experience had a deleterious effect on his mental health. Doug told me that when he left Korea, he found himself on the streets of New York City. He was lost and delusional, and felt that the parking meters were speaking to him. Something happened, and he was taken into Bellvue hospital. Apparently he was discharged and he made his way to San Francisco, in the 70's. When I met Doug, there was nothing about him that made me think he had any mental health issues at all. The experience of going to the Korean war as a young boy had messed him up, so to speak. Doug had been living in SF for a while, and he was going to San Francisco City College, on the GI bill I believe. He was first studying to be a printer, then he went to become a culinary worker, finally he went to school to be a dancer. He graduated from school, and became a member of a famous dance troupe. He was the first black man I ever fell in love with, and lived with for a number of years. I had never known a black person where I had grown up, but I did not see any reason not to like him. I met Doug through a common acquaintance named Michael Rutherford. Michael, came from Los Angeles, and landed at the halfway house at the same time I was there as a resident. He was at that time pursuing a singing career, even though he was semi-homeless. Michael and I were boyfriends for a while, during which we used to go and visit Ernest Douglas Batts, who lived a few miles away. He called himself Doug. Michael was a nice guy, but he dumped me as his boyfriend, but we remained friends. Life went on, and I ran into Doug Batts now and then. We dated each other for a short while, enjoyed each others company, and fell in love. Doug invited me to move in with him, this was my first live in relationship. We lived together in the Haight-Ashbury for six years on Clayton Street. While Doug and I were together, I met many of his friends from the busy Haight-Ashbury, SF area. One was Walter Smith, aka "Sativa".

Sativa was an exotic, and larger than life personality. He dressed full time in costumes of the world, and had a costume wardrobe from many different cultures, and historical eras. If you had met him at that time, you probably would have thought he was a crazy man, from a first impression of him. By today's description I would liken him to a " Kramer" from the Seinfeld TV show. I found him fascinating, and I was drawn to his unusual personality, obvious high intelligence, and substantial aptitude. We enjoyed long conversations over issues of art and philosophy, and we traveled together to all kinds of unusual events, and he was a most unusual friend. Doug and I both liked Sativa, and as young men of the time did, we invited him to live with us as a room mate.

Sativa had been born in the south of the 1950's on what was previously an old plantation. His father's family has continued to live and work on the plantation after the abolition of slavery. They lived in a small cottage like building. But, there was something different about Sativa. He had anomalously been born with an extraordinary intelligence, and intellect. The circumstances into which he was born, did not contain nor absorb him into the historical restrictions of his community fabric. The way in which he found his way from the small southern town to Harvard University was this. Sativa would study the Oxford dictionary to educate himself. He entered a series of spelling bees through his church group, and worked his way up to a high level of spelling competition. Eventually, he won a scholarship to Harvard University. Sativa showed me a cover of Life, or Look magazine from the late 1960's relating to the status of black americans. The magazine article showed Sativa in a suit, seated in a dining hall at Harvard University. The articles headline explained that these were the first, of an era of black students, at ivy league schools.

Sativa specialized in middle eastern languages while at Harvard. He could speak many languages. He could read and write in Sanskrit, and Arabic among others. He could read and write in ancient languages. He enrolled in the Harvard peace corp, and went on a mission to an African country as a school teacher in a remote village. While he was there, some villagers slipped him an unidentified hallucinogenic drug, and he went into a sustained catatonic state. Harvard intervened, and returned him to the United States. Sativa, ended up in San Francisco during the seventies in the Haight-Ashbury. He lived on an SSI disability payment, and presented himself as a poet philosopher. This is the abbreviated story thus far.

Sativa was a person who wore exotic costumes of Africa, and other cultures. He wore wide brimmed, exotic hats. He frequently smoked ganga. He enjoyed this so much you can guess why his adopted name was "Sativa". He surrounded himself with literature, scented oils and potions, musical instruments from all cultures such as a kalimba, recorders of all sizes, all kinds of instruments. His apartment was bohemian, and eclectic with mementos of many cultures. He was a fascinating, highly intelligent, and educated conversationalist. We would engage in conversation for hours on end, for even days on end. We played a game, where we would challenge each other with the definitions, and derivations of words from his Oxford dictionary. Sativa educated me in methods of identifying, observing, and understanding human behavior in ways that I never realized existed. There is so much I gained from knowing Sativa, that helped to enrich my intellectual life into the future. I am quite thankful to have known him.

One time, Sativa was invited to read his poetry with the Noe Valley Poets, at the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. The event was broadcast on the radio from the stage there. Sativa came to me, and told me that one of the poets that was booked for the event had dropped out unexpectedly, and they needed a replacement. Sativa had read my poetry, and encouraged me to follow him on stage, and I accepted. I did not understand the significance at the time of the place in literary history, and my poetry was just the scribblings of an amateur, but Sativa brought me to the stage with his group. I remember the manager regarding to the group of us as the "artists" could do this or that and I found it peculiarly exciting. I felt as though I did not belong there, but it was great fun in recollection.

Another time, Sativa and I thought it was be a good idea, an intellectual experiment, to go interview the Black Panthers in the pan handle area of the city. We went with our notebooks to a house, and approached the man at the door asking him for an interview for an article about the group. It was a daring, and naive thing to do, yet we proceeded with our quest. I was mostly a follower, and Sativa was the key that opened the doors that were difficult to pass through at that time. I wonder now what the radical group made of us at that time. I am surprised that they did not laugh at us and kick us out onto the sidewalk. For whatever reason, they did not reject us, or treat us with harm or disrespect.

I believe that when Sativa was dosed into a catatonic state by an exotic drug he was mentally injured. He fortunately was brought back to the USA, and was able to come out of that state, but I can think now that he was not fully recovered when I knew him thirty something years ago. Outside of his exotic costumes, instruments, and extraordinary presence, I saw nothing wrong with him in regard to his mental state. If you spent an extended period of time around him, you would see his delusional paranoia would come and go. Luckily, he basically trusted me and did not see me as a threat. As the years went forward, I could see that he was becoming more centered and balanced mentally. He was an intelligent and educated man, and it was sad to think that some random villager damaged his brain, with a malicious prank far away on the African continent. Walter Smith had gone on a long and fantastic journey to reach the streets of Haight Ashbury in the 1970's, as the poet Sativa. The great grandson of a slave passed through doors of the plantation, through Harvard, Africa, and the hippie period.

Doug Batts, years later was living in a SF Victorian house in the city. I used to continue to visit him periodically to maintain a friendship. He lived in this house with his partner, who was also a dancer from the dance troupe. Doug and his partner had taken care of an old woman for a number of years, as live in care givers. I guess that she did not have any living relatives to help her in old age. I remember once going to this house, and seeing this old woman in a wheel chair, whose mental awareness, seemed to be out of it altogether. The woman left this Victorian house to Doug after she died. This woman was, of all strange things, a direct descendant of the historically famous, " Wild Bill Hickok".

Friday, July 13, 2007

Reflection: The poetry of Walter Smith aka "Sativa"

The above is a parable written by a friend and poet, known as Sativa.

We both read our poetry on stage at City Lights in San Francisco in the 1970's. We were both long ago, in another stage of life, characters of conceptual art and ideas. I was cleaning out my attic, and I happened upon this published book from his poetry group, the Noe Valley Poetry Workshop. I thought I had lost my memento decades ago. The cover is soiled with inky blotches, I think from a wet basement at some point in time. Regardless of its condition, this made me so happy to rediscover.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Musing: A sonnet by William Wordsworth

One of my favorite sonnets by William Wordsworth:

The World Is Too Much With Us (1807)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

PS: For those that might follow this blog, perhaps you can understand why I related to this particular sonnet. The contrast of the material world, versus the natural world was a controversial theme, and protest within my family. This was an ice age ago, but I find it curiously interesting in retrospect.