When I was first moving to San Francisco, an aunt said, “It’s a beautiful city. But be careful. It has a lot of gays.” I did not tell her that its reputation as the unfettered wild, wild West was always the real allure, not my Silicon Valley job. Happy hour at the gay bars of the Castro neighbourhood, Haight-Ashbury wreathed in pot smoke, leather parties in SOMA bars where daylight never entered, the legendary City Lights bookstore still rustling with the memories of Beat poets — that was the city I sought to discover. That’s where I hoped my Good Conduct medal from my missionary school days in Kolkata could finally be buried for good.
San Francisco did not disappoint. There was not just an LGBT Pride Parade, there was the world’s largest leather-and-fetish fest, even a Hairy Bear street festival. A little alley reeking of urine and stale beer transformed itself into a street party where musclemen in chaps got whipped in public by beefy, bearded men in nun drag, tattooed leather daddies made out with each other and a friend sold butt plugs made in the shape of religious figures. Despite the stalls selling overpriced garlic fries, it all felt deliciously illicit for a sheltered upper middle-class boy from Kolkata.
But it was my own private San Francisco. No shadow of it fell on my Aerogramme letters home. When relatives visited, I dutifully showed them the picture postcard sights — the sweep of the Golden Gate bridge, the white sailboats dotting the bay, the view from Twin Peaks of the fog rolling in and smudging out the carpet of twinkling city lights, the eerie empty prison cells of Alcatraz island, the “crookedest” street in the world with its pocket-handkerchief sized manicured gardens. The other San Francisco was tucked away in the closet. A friend remembers driving his mother through the gay Castro neighbourhood. Being Indian, the men holding hands on the street did not faze her but the rainbow flag puzzled her. What country is that from, she asked. My friend made up some colourful story.
What I did not understand, though, was there was no way these two San Franciscos could be kept apart so neatly, each in its own box. San Francisco had always been the city of escape, perched on the edge of America, more umbilically connected to Shanghai and Manila than to Chicago and Boston. As writer Richard Rodriguez put it, in San Francisco, “yuppies, trained to careerism from the cradle, wavered in their pursuit of the Northern European ethic — indeed, we might now call it the pan-Pacific ethic — in favour of the Mediterranean, the Latin, the Catholic, the Castro, the Gay.” It was the city where the misfits came, the rejects, the dreamers, the outlaws hiding their subversion behind the prim, painted façades of the city’s fabled Victorian homes. I remember going to a party in a lovely house built into the hillside with a Jacuzzi under the stars. It looked like something out of a lifestyle magazine, especially when festooned with extravagant Christmas lights. As I stood there with a glass of Chardonnay, looking down at the beautiful people savouring canapés in the garden below, a friend remarked, “Did you know a lot of porn films have been shot here?”
But it was not the sex that was important about San Francisco, though that had been its siren call. It was the permission. It was the possibility as limitless as the Pacific Ocean that lapped at its shore, the nonchalant ease with which a designer house switched between being the setting for a porn film and home to a holiday party. Perhaps, it was its position at the western edge of the continental USA that helped. Perhaps, it was the earthquake fault line that ran through its heart. There was nothing to lose anymore by being yourself here. This was Land’s End.
On the South Asian radical history walking tour in Berkeley, across the Bay, I learned about Ghadar revolutionaries like Kartar Singh Sarabha who found a home in San Francisco before being sent to the gallows for trying to overthrow the British empire, defiant till the end. I also saw pictures of women in saris, who could have been my aunties, with paper bags over their heads, holding signs reading, “Long Live Revolution” in Bangla and English. They were outside the Indian consulate in San Francisco protesting the Emergency in 1975. They got the paper bag idea from Iranian students protesting the Shah.
That, in the end, is why I fell terribly in love with San Francisco. It was the place where tides from different worlds collided in such unexpected ways, opening up new portals to unimagined worlds. At a desi queer fundraiser in the mural-lined streets of the Mission district, I saw a Japanese woman dance Odissi exquisitely while the son of a Gujarati motel-owner put on his amazing Technicolor dreamcoat, dubbed himself Lovejee and belted out Brazilian songs by Gilberto Gil. I drank a cocktail with turmeric-infused New Amsterdam gin and jaggery and ginger in a dosa bistro where I could get roasted maitake mushrooms on my uttapam. But there was also a cluster of cheap tandoori restaurants within spitting distance of adult movie theatres and strip bars, the smell of biryani and charred naan drawing in late-night clubbers and junkies. Everything could find shelter here it seemed. Everything could be transformed.
I was as well. I came here a software engineer. I left a writer. The city has changed since then. Tech giants have bulldozed out much of the diversity. When I go back now, I see the hollow-eyed desperation of the homeless living in tents with their pitbulls. I see the giant Google buses purring silently like invading spaceships. Gay couples, now married with young toddlers, complain about sex toys in the shop windows of the Castro. Yet, an older, wilder San Francisco still tugs at the heart like the dangling leash of a dog long gone.
I never managed to bury that Good Conduct medal in San Francisco. But I buried a bit of my own heart there. Sometimes when the chilly fog rolls in, it still aches.
This article originally appeared in print with the headline: The City of Escape