Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Castro

The last time I’d visited the Castro area of San Francisco in 2002 I sang “Sing" by Travis in a gay Karaoke bar. I have no idea if the clientele automatically supposed I was gay. I’m not sure how many straight men tend to go, alone, to gay bars of an afternoon and behave in this way.

It must have been off one of the side streets, up the hill. I had no idea where it was when I walked along the main road, half-heartedly trying to remember.

With an irony that makes one choke, the Castro is often called the ‘Mecca’ of the gay community. Rainbow flags, tactile male couples, gay sex shops, including one boasting a six foot phallus, clearly mark out the area as a unique part of the city.

I sat down at an outside cafĂ© and opened a conversation with a middle aged woman. Well, I say woman but I wasn’t really sure. Nevertheless, there was something definitive about the hairstyle and lips, and the hat she wore, as well as the boots, that left me feeling that even if she wasn’t a woman, she wanted to be taken as one. Such suspicions were confirmed when I saw her chest protruding beneath her shirt.

I wanted to know if she lived in the Castro (she did) and, as one does, asked her what she ‘did’. She told me she bought and restored old vehicles and pointed proudly to the 1972 BMW parked nearby. I mentioned my mother’s Morris Minor, which is slightly older than I am, and we moved onto the subject of driving in the States. Yes, I should definitely hire a car if I want to see Yosemite as the buses don’t go to enough places there. There is far more to it than the valley, after all.

Unlike herself, who liked to drive manually operated vehicles, I told her I preferred automatics and that I was, yes, confident driving on the wrong side of the road.

It seems she has lived in the area for decades; has seen the house prices rocket, as elsewhere, and along with the gentrification, witnessed a far more mixed and heterosexual, even family based, demographic moving in. She spoke with a certain nostalgia, a sense of loss, as if the best days had gone.

I asked about the hippy era and learnt she’d been in the thick of it, a genuine 17 year old flower child. That made me think of one of those cute little maidens swaying in the breeze, smoking pot and staring into space that one can see on old footage, but all the while I continued to be unsure about her gender. It wasn’t just the things she said. It was something about the way she held her head and spoke, how she moved her hands, and later how she walked, as well as some unidentifiable quality in the face that intimated male with more than mild conviction. My uncertainty then became whether she’d had a sex change, and if so with what degree and kind of surgery or hormone therapy. Or was she a true born hermaphrodite, a type of individual which, apparently, is far more numerous than one might suppose. Or was she a he and dressing up?

I’ve read somewhere how young babies can instinctively determine, long before they can speak or even see properly and simply from the outline of the human body, whether adults or even other children are male or female. I forget how the scientists established this but I certainly remember always being aware of this reputedly crucial divide. When we meet people, long before we decide if we like them or not - though perhaps not before we decide they’re a threat or not- we categorise them as male or female, a designation centrally influencing how we relate to them.

Maybe that was why I felt so weird talking to her. Something basic in my mind’s orientation hadn’t been configured. I felt lightheaded and giddy, uncertain of my stance. Evidently, in some fundamental way, I do not talk to women as I do to men. So how should I talk if I don’t know who I’m talking to?

If you’re a prickly, politically correct sort of person whose habit is to get offended on other people’s behalf, you may want to suppose it's insulting of me to question a woman’s gender just because she seems a bit male.

Thing is, while we were discussing the evolving indeterminacy of sexual orientation and identity (again, as one does), it was she herself who declared that I had probably noticed something uncertain about her gender. To which I, sensing her kindness and strength, replied, yes, and that I still wasn’t sure if she was a man or a woman, a frankness that didn’t throw her at all.

Apparently, so she told me, I have to learn not to care about such things.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Subterranean Afternoon

One day in North Beach I gravitated to a British pub, presumably out of some kind of patriotic impulse. Nothing about the venue’s decor was British, everything Thai, but the waitress charmed me which compensated, especially in light of the five pints of British ale I sank.

For some reason, to do with my libido I should think, I found myself going into a strip joint round the corner.

Not getting ripped off in such venues is a significant duty, I find. It makes one feel less of the loser that with due reason one is supposed to feel oneself to be for venturing into such domains in the first place. I was told it would only cost me ten bucks and though I knew damn well it wasn’t supposed to only cost me ten bucks, I determined that it would indeed only cost me ten bucks.

Oddly enough, they didn’t persuade me to break my pledge by offering me a beer, but imposed a no booze, endlessly free soda ruling that baffled and bored. The puritanical underbelly of the American psyche, presumably, can not be truly escaped, not even in the company of dancing, semi-naked flesh.

Usually in Europe in these places, which I attend far less frequently that you might imagine, the dancers will leave you alone for awhile before swooping in for the high intensity, personalised pitch. Here I was entreated no sooner than I’d laid eyes on the main event. No rest for the wicked, so it seems.

For 60 dollars, I was repeatedly told, despite my gentlemanly assurance that I only wanted to watch, that I could go upstairs for a private show in the VIP room. All but one of the women were relatively easy to turn down, but the last had eyes redolent of misty mountains and a touch and a smile to be killed for. Very tempting, though what would have happened in the privacy upstairs wasn’t explained and will now never be known.

I left with my ten dollar dignity in tact, which left me feeling oddly triumphant, as it happens. One girl had asked for a dollar bill, which I thought very reasonable of her, but alas I lacked change and she vanished.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Haight and The Bridge

I never got to drive up and down San Fran’s crazy angles. I just had to wander. Haight Ashbury’s Victorian mansions were colourfully fun. They line the streets of a district of America where anarchist bookshops make ambitious claim to a tradition of left beam radicalism one might struggle to find elsewhere.

I missed one of the walking tours promising to take me to the sight of 67’s famous ‘Be In’, but enjoyed the armchairs in the consciously chilled cafes, smelt the Mary Jane from the joints of the disheveled, and felt, somehow, the glimmer of the past, collective, experimental event. But its essence was dispelled by 68, so I learnt, not long after it began, routed by the commodifiable consequences of its success. Stick a label and a category on something and the shadow will fall. This we know.

A little later I took a walk from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge. Supposing California’s sun would be no match for Kuwait’s, I wasn’t expecting my face to get burnt as I lay down in green grass for a rest along my way.

Since its construction in the 1930s, over a thousand people have leapt to their deaths from the iconic Bay- spanning landmark. There’s a film called ‘The Bridge’ all about it. Debate mounts over what can be done, whether or not fencing it off, which would no doubt happen in Europe, would too drastically interfere with civil liberties and views of the Bay (which are wondrous). Meanwhile, emergency telephones offer avenues for indecision, and bold, macabre signs, conceivably encouraging as much as discouraging in their effects, read ‘the consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic’.

Personally, peering over at the succulent, soft, shimmering curls of the water beneath, I didn’t think that was obvious at all, but maybe I’ve seen too many movie stars launching themselves from gallant heights.

I wonder, with respect, if any of those who died were just wanting a swim and fancied their skills as a diver.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Being now back from America, I wonder now if it is too late to write about my time there.

I shall try. But not in this entry.

The below is perhaps something I 'should' not have written.

Recently a friend commented that my posts tend to be unstructured, and too absorbed in the mere presentation of the workings of my psyche; of interest, no doubt, to me (this is true) but not really, in his estimation, to the general reader. He even summoned up the analogy of a man talking to himself on a bus to represent why I may not be of much appeal.

This has discouraged me and made me wonder that this may be the reason, rather than just bad luck or cosmic injustice, why I get far fewer comments than he does (yes, I know, it remains to be argued why quantity of comments necessarily signifies much anyway). He even suggested that I might find it difficult to change, which led me to wonder whether he felt that I should give up the whole blogging enterprise. Maybe I will.

I am thinking that the context in which to situate his reaction involves two questions. First, is he correct in saying I am unstructured, and very self-absorbed, or self-revolving. Second, if he is correct, does this matter? This second question implies, for me, the related question: am I boring as a writer, especially to those who don't know me from my personal life.

Ultimately, the practical corollary of this is: Should I change, and if so how should I justify this to myself in terms other than that I have merely submitted to his critique?

It is an awkward, slightly painful issue. I have always had difficulty accepting criticism. I don’t know why. Maybe it is a response to a perceived lack of needed love. Or maybe it’s because I am grossly narcissistic and imperialistic, as it were, Caligula to anyone who would question my self-imagined glory (yet this would not be an answer in-itself, but must be explained at a deeper psychological level). For some reason, I am inclined to identity a focussed criticism of some aspect of my existence with its entire refutation; a defensive all-or-nothing engagement with my critic that can leave me struggling for my life. Presumably, this would be put down to some kind of core ontological insecurity.

Often I go on the offensive, which is probably extremely annoying to my critic. I sometimes want to get the critic to examine the basis or bases of his criticism such that he might then question it or even withdraw it. This won’t necessarily mean that I denied all validity to what he said but is I think an attempt to abridge the abyss of separation that I often note arising when a critic resorts to pass judgement.

Oh well, I told him I might try to be more objective, but I wonder if I do this how this blog might start to become less and less mine and more that of an abstracted, fictional persona; you know, the kind we use to write academic essays, or to write to relatives out of duty, or to the bank manager.

I suppose as in much, the answer between internal and external, subjective and objective, personal and public, is balance.

What do I know, apart from that 2+2 is 4 (because of the rules implicit in the terms we use).