The Fillmore

FillmoreAlthough I’m far from getting to every big arena and hidden-gem music joint in the Bay Area, the Fillmore was the last true biggie in San Francisco for me (OK, I haven’t been to the Warwick yet). Last night, I saw Father John Misty and the Walkmen on the first show of a two-night, sold-out series.

The psychedelic posters lining every wall, the miniscule bathrooms and slightly horrifying crush to exit, the free apples for starving hippies all added to the historical power of the venue. There’s some kind of rare electricity in the air. And if you’re lucky, you get a free poster when you leave.


On the Ebb


Much of San Francisco is about transience and waves of newcomers and about what happened to previous populations, often once newcomers themselves, when the next people came. These people left indelible marks on the city, even as they were erased themselves.

In the early Second Great Migration years of World War II, African Americans moved into the Western Addition, filling spaces recently emptied of Japanese people forced into internment camps. Much of the black population was in turn driven out and across the Bay. Today, I live in the Western Addition.

My coworker told me that the last Irish bar in the Mission closed while he lived there in the early 90s (when the Mission was the “real” Mission—whatever that means). Now, mostly white young people are shifting the neighborhood’s Latino predominance.

Where did the Italians go, when North Beach was overrun? What happened to the Beatniks who took over—apart from the gnarled few who still rant outside Caffe Trieste? The hippie-looking types on Haight are no flower children.

Our city has boomed with tech and busted flat and is booming up again, much to the chagrin of many. Rents are sky-high, gentrification screeches forward, as tech types are shuttled out and away from the city every morning and shuttled back to eat in restaurants I can’t even afford as, uncomfortable as it is to admit, some kind of nonprofit yuppie. I’m also a part of that gentrification. And it’s not always a bad thing to renew and revitalize blighted neighborhoods, but it’s certainly rarely done right.

Take Valencia Street in the Mission. There are parts of it that I love, and only true curmudgeons would argue that it’s not fun to wander there on a Saturday (I’ve been down there for three separate trips in the past two weekends). But there are more wildly expensive restaurants than anything else, and no hardware store, no big grocery store. It’s not an intentional neighborhood but rather a place held hostage by trend. And it will bust out too. Or transform into another tourist enclave, like North Beach, maybe giving that tired old neighborhood the chance to transform again, as the waves move back out.

For these ebbs, San Francisco can be a difficult place to live. Most of us are not locals (though many are native Californians). We come and go with jobs—I’ve said goodbye to a number of friends and co-workers, and I’ve been here for eighteen months. Perhaps the city is too small to fit all of us (unlike New York, which seems to expand indefinitely to swallow everyone), and once the heat and pressure hit a certain level, the loose ones escape.

As I try to keep my writing here more regular (it’s hard with a full-time job, y’all), I’d like to explore the stories—historical and contemporary—of the people who have lived here and then adapted or faded away. And I wonder, and maybe will start to see, how I’ll have to adapt to stay here. Because I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

Header photo is of a mural in Clarion Alley. The cutout figure depicts that very locale.

Haight Street

I’m trying to get back on the blogging wagon, but I picked a terrible month for it. More soon. ish.


Treasure Island

During the Geographer set at Bonfire Sessions.

Fog city.


There’s nothing I can say about it that hasn’t been said before (but don’t bring up that misattributed Mark Twain quote again). It’s a constant worry. It creeps up, or it sprints in, or it just settles, or you wake up and it’s there. Anytime, any month, any mood. There’s no such thing as an easy BBQ in the park or a guaranteed vista on a hike. There is only Karl.

It can be cozy and comforting—to be wrapped up in down and hear the horn on the Golden Gate Bridge, tucked away in bed or on a Sunday morning. My love for the foghorn has endured even in my most frustrated moments.

But god can it ever be oppressive. The rotating plaint, fading in and out. It drives my sister crazy.


We measure time by it, if not seasons. In the Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan’s Jing-Mei Woo, Chinese-American daughter of a tiger mother before that was a term, tallied the fog horn calls it took her each day to exasperate her mother into abandoning her efforts to make her a child prodigy:

 “I performed listlessly, my head propped on one arm. I pretended to be bored. And I was. I got so bored I started counting the bellows of the foghorns out on the bay while my mother drilled me in other areas. The sound was comforting and reminded me of the cow jumping over the moon. And the next day, I played a game with myself, seeing if my mother would give up on me before eight bellows. After a while I usually counted only one, maybe two bellows at most. At last she was beginning to give up hope.”

I get tired of having to wear a scarf and a jacket every single day. I have to plan my bags around how many layers I need to shove into them. I want sundresses and a wallet. I want the certainty that comes with being a southern Californian, that perfect, uniform times aren’t even just ahead—they’ve arrived. Here, summer is a deception and a disappointment.

It means that every moment is fleeting and precious. It means that nothing is certain. It means that you never get effortless days. This is not southern California, where you get mid-70s and blue skies, where it’s guaranteed to be precipitation-free for at least six months of the year. It’s ominous. It’s a mindset.


It makes us crooked. We get that California chill, and then actual chill. I think it’s why we’re weirder than almost anywhere else in the U.S. (Austin, don’t get upset, and has anyone ever been in the Deep South or the Far North? Cause that shit is next level). We put up with the freaks because we put up with the fog. And we become freaks because of the fog.

It’s always there, on your best days and your worst. It makes the misery a little deeper; it makes the times of sunshine a little brighter. It’s a reminder. It’s a curse. It’s constancy. It’s what we have. It’s what we are. No optimism allowed—we have to snatch our warmth when we can, and keep a weather eye out for its departure.


Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Page 135. Originally published 1989.

Enter Spring

Last Saturday was San Francisco’s first day of spring.  Although it reached the mid-seventies more than a few times during our (so-called) winter, we endured a bit of a cold, wet spell throughout March and April–I know, Californians suffer so much on account of the weather–so that when a perfectly clear, perfectly warm weekend day came along, everyone put on dresses or shorts, grabbed beers and lawn games, and headed out to the park.  I spent much of Saturday writing in my apartment, which meant that I couldn’t get to my favorite outdoor people watching spot, Dolores Park, with enough time to enjoy the sunshine.  Instead, I headed to Fort Mason: the playground of the Marina set.  It doesn’t quite hold a candle to DoPa, but Fort Mason has its own brand of unbridled ridiculousness.  With views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the downtown area, as well as old military buildings and a community garden, it’s unbelievably picturesque.

I’d planned to spend some time getting my daily allowance of vitamin D and reading some Gary Snyder, which meant that I didn’t tote my camera along. When I got distracted by the surrounding scenes, I had to resort to my iPhone.  All of the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone 4, Hipstamatic, Adler 9009 Lens, Ina’s 1969 film.  The overexposed, bleached finish of the lens-film combination captured, for me, how the afternoon felt.

Update, 4/27/12: I saw today that Fox ran a story charging that “green activists” “trashed” Fort Mason on “Earth Day.”  SFist has already made the points I’m about to make.  However, since I happened to spend several hours at the park on the 21st and went to the farmer’s market down there on the 22nd, I’d like to set the record straight: The photos Fox took were from April 21st (it was foggy on the 22nd, so no one was out), there was nary an activist to be seen in Fort Mason on April 21st, and Earth Day is April 22nd.  So, A+, Fox, for fact checking.  Keeping it fair and balanced, people.

Hunky Jesus + the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence

“The lightness of everything, in addition to the whiteface and the nun’s habits, are a mechanism to reach out to people. When we’re dressed up like that, kind of like sacred clowns, it allows people to interact with us.”

Sister Irma Geddon

There are three things in which San Francisco does not lack: drag shows, activism, and people partying in Dolores Park.  Most neighborhoods, any imaginable cause, all year long.  But only once a year do we combine all three, when the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence hold their Easter weekend birthday bash in Dolores Park.  The event features an egg hunt, live music, and an Easter bonnet competition, but its crown jewel is the Hunky Jesus contest.  This year, I ventured out on a chilly, windy Holy Sunday, the grass sodden from torrential rains, to check out the Sisters’ 33rd birthday, which was themed “Pumps and Circumstance.”  Although I ended up unable to hop-scotch to a good vantage point through the scrum at the park, I saw enough to know that I’ll be going early next year for a prime seat.

The Sisters call themselves “a leading-edge Order of queer nuns” whose mission is “to promulgate universal joy and expiate stigmatic guilt” (1).  They are a non-profit activist group that addresses conformity and shame, LGBT issues, HIV/AIDS, safe sex, and other local causes, employing a combination of drag, camp, fundraising, and street theater to serve their communities.  The Sisters are best known for their work around anti-homophobia, gay rights, and HIV/AIDS activism.

 The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have been around since 1979, when three future nuns rebelled against the conformity of the “Castro Clone” (2).  Donning authentic, retired habits used for a production of The Sound of Music, the trio marched through the Castro and over to “the” nude beach (I’m not sure which one).  The Sisters’ “Sistory” claims: “One even carried a machine gun (for protection).  They were met with shock and amazement, but captured everyone’s interest.”  Appearances in the coming months cemented the Sisters’ place in San Francisco culture (3).

Early Sisters in original habits. Photo via FoundSF. CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

The Sisters were founded by Sister Vicious Power Hungry Bitch (PHB), Reverend Mother, Sister Missionary Position, and Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes.  Early activism and events included an anti-nuclear protest following the Three Mile Island accident, the world’s first AIDS benefit, anti-homophobia in San Francisco, and STI/HIV education through sex-positive pamphlets.  Sister Boom Boom ran for City Supervisor in 1983 on the “Nun of the Above” ticket.  The Pope visited in 1987 and (allegedly) placed the Sisters on a Papal Heretics List when they performed an exorcism on (or near) His Holiness (3).  Many more activities and actions have followed, with orders of Sisters springing up around the globe, from Arizona and Florida to Colombia and France (4).

Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at Rapture Cafe in New York 2

New York City Sisters. Photo by David Shankbone. Via Wikimedia Commons. GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0.

 Mostly (though not entirely) gay men, the Sisters dress in elaborate, habit-like costumes and wear white face paint and bright makeup. Sister Hysterectoria-Agnes designed new habits in 1980, based on the clothing of 14th-century Flemish ladies-in-waiting and a French-style wimple, or “ear brassieres” (3).  For a present-day and equally unique take on this look, see here.  The Sisters are garish and striking, unmistakable when you find them for the first time.

Dolores Park was as full as I’ve ever seen it, with everyone from children and dogs to preppy girls and thick-rimmed, bearded, skinny boys.  A large percentage of the population, as you may expect, was from the gay community or from niche groups: I saw more than one leather daddy, for example.  And clearly a lot of people who go to Burning Man.  Strollers were almost as ubiquitous as the day drinking and pot smoking.  Everyone was having a lovely, San Franciscan kind of time.  The Hunky Jesus competition was almost an afterthought, a diversion in a relaxed afternoon where it seemed as if everyone in the Bay Area who wasn’t in church decided to hang out together.

The Hunky Jesus of 2012 is center, in aviators. He played an upside-down cross guitar.

It was positive, pleasant, and joyful and completely accepting of difference: the kind of event that makes you want to raise your kids, if you have any, in San Francisco.  Although you’d have a lot of explaining to do.  It illustrated how much influence the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence have had in their fight against conformity and guilt: they have not changed who they are or how they express themselves but rather have successfully encouraged straight-laced, vanilla San Franciscans to join in on the fun.

There are tons more (and better) photos here, here, and here.  The last link has a video of the Hunky Jesus of 2012 playing his cross guitar pre-contest.  I also rode the bus with the second Jesus on the last link (in the red sarong).  He caused quite a (welcoming) stir on Muni.

(1) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Homepage.  Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. Web. 9 April 2012.  Note for photo of Novice and Black Veil sisters: over a one-year process, a person who wishes to take vows can move from an Aspirant to a Postulant to a Novice Sister before  she can be voted in as a fully-professed Black Veil Sister.  More here.

(2) Castro Clones, who originated in the 1970s, dress(ed) in a particular uniform: Levi’s, a plaid snap-front, and a tight t-shirt.  An article on the costumes for Milk discusses the Castro Clone’s meticulous attention to detail, including the immaculately sanded-down knees and crotch on a pair of button-fly 501s.  The article points out that the look hasn’t changed much–I can attest to this and will postulate one further that it’s become ubiquitous to every one: male, female, gay, straight, hipster, yuppie.

(3) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “Sistory.”  Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. Web. 9 April 2012. By the way, Sister Boom Boom’s unsuccessful bid in city politics inspired the “Boom Boom law,” which required Californians seeking public office to run under their birth names.  During the Pope’s visit, Sister Vicious PHB posted demands on the front of St. Mary’s Cathedral with Lee Press-On Nails.  The Sisters also performed an exorcism on Dr. Laura, among other homophobic bigots.  They are participants at Burning Man and have provided a Communion of tequila and “medicinal brownies” to Burners in the desert.

(4) The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. “World Orders.”  Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence website. Web. 9 April 2012.