*This is Part 3 of a serial memoir. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Let us not sit upon the ground
and tell sad stories
of the death of sanity.
Two humans made of flesh
are meshed in death
and no more need be said.
It is pure vanity
to think that all humanity
be bathed in red
because one young mad man
one so bad man
lost his head.
̶ From Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “An Elegy to Dispel Gloom” (1978)
“He trained me, ya know?”
I wasn’t sure El Dorado was talking to me. His face was stricken and gray. His mouth opened and closed, but the words were stuck. He was trying to answer a riddle that had no answer.
His face had dissolved into a pall of indescribable, immeasurable pain. The expression terrified me. I wanted to bolt and put as much distance as possible between me and whatever it was that made El Dorado look that way. I preferred the other El Dorado – the one who dumped caution at the door and his daily catch on the coffee table. That wasn’t happening on this night.
When I had called El Dorado earlier, he asked me to come over. I decided to walk from the Tenderloin to Pacific Heights. At the intersection of Polk and Geary, I ran into an impenetrable mass of people surging down Polk. There was no getting across the street. One foot off the curb, and I was swept into a sea of bodies.
I was caught in a surging black wave that seemed to stretch for miles. So very dark. Human beings and night sky bled into an ink black swell. I don’t know if the black was from the night, from the black clothes everyone seemed to be wearing, or from the shroud of darkness that had settled over the city at 11:30 that morning.
Flickering candlelight dimly illuminated downcast eyes, faces turned toward the ground. All around me, thousands of feet moved toward the city’s center.
I tried to weave my way through and out of the mass, so I could head up the hill instead of down. It was impossible. I stopped trying and became part it.
“What’s going on?” I asked a group of men.
“The murders,” one man moved his face close to mine, his eyes bulging in disbelief at my lack of knowledge.
I soon learned that earlier that day there had been a double assassination. City supervisor Dan White, a former San Francisco cop, had climbed through a basement window at City Hall, hunted down two city officials, and killed them in cold blood.
With a Smith & Wesson .38 service revolver in his holster and 21 bullets in his pocket, White went straight to George Moscone’s office and put two bullets in the mayor’s chest and abdomen. After a brief pause, he fired two more at close range into the side of Moscone’s head.
White left Moscone’s office, stopped to reload his pistol, and then gunned down Supervisor Harvey Milk. This time he fired five rounds – three in Milk’s chest and abdomen followed by two at close range into the back of Milk’s head.
If White hadn’t decided to put those extra bullets in their heads, Moscone and Milk most likely would have lived.
Polk Street: an end-of-the-line stop for people who are running from pieces of the past. It is a cradle of rebirth, for some, and a gutter for most. It is a place of sex and drugs – of love, and things that feel like it. It is a nest for runaways, lost children, drag queens, ministers, strippers, hustlers, druggies, artists, queers, and Others who dream of freedom and dancing, of new lives with new pasts. But for all its inhabitants, for better or worse – Polk Street is home.
By T. Chase Meacham
Based on “Polk Street Stories” by Joey Plaster
At the time of the killings, I thought Polk Street was San Francisco’s only gay neighborhood. Polk Gulch was the city’s first gayborhood. It grew into existence a time in the city’s history when being gay was not constricted by the Castro model of white men of economic privilege. Polk Street gays were less about status and more about transgression, and they cut across the boundaries of race and economics.
From the moment I observed gay men congregating on Polk and spotted young male hustlers leaning against buildings and roaming the street in skintight jeans and bare torsos, I felt a deep connection, as a sexual outsider and as a prostitute, to the neighborhood and the people in it.
Polk also was home to working class punk kids who hailed from the streets and not the Art Institute. Kids just like me. We were punks fighting for our survival in a world ready to eat us alive. Punk gave voice to the reality we knew. That voice solidified our experiences of being sexually and economically cannibalized by a society that saw us as disposable . . . when and if they saw us at all.
I discovered punk when the woman whose kids I babysat smuggled me in into a show at the Mabuhay Gardens in 1977. It was one of the first punk shows. The music and the spirit behind it grabbed me. I never let go.
The Mabuhay was my one consistent safe space, never faltering as my personal oasis in a landscape full of cannibals and cons. I saw my reflection inside the haunted faces of young punk hustlers turning tricks on Polk during daylight hours.
We were an unwritten chapter of San Francisco’s history. Our stories are rarely, if ever, told. Art school punks living on trust funds and privilege wrote songs railing against politicians. Working class street punks lived the life behind the songs. Savaged by politicians who bought our bodies, used us, and tossed us into history’s trash heap, we were the embodiment of political corruption, our bodies the physical evidence of its human cost.
Being in the presence of other causalities like me, connected through our mutual Otherness, I felt less alone. At nights, we erased ourselves in the oblivion of punk at the Mabuhay. During the day, we walked the streets, our young faces wiped to white in the harsh dirty light of Tenderloin sun. We were no ones who were everywhere but who no one saw.
Being molested by five different family members for nearly fifteen years of my young life left me broken and irreparable. Forced to prostitute myself to survive at age fifteen, I lost any chance of a “normal” sexual life. Permanently awkward, uncomfortable, and sexually wrong, I sought comfort in witnessing Polk Street’s community of queers even if I couldn’t find a place within it for my particular queerness.
I had no idea that there was another gay neighborhood in San Francisco – the same neighborhood where I lived less than a year earlier. April 1978, I was living on 16th and Market, right in the middle of the Castro district, but had no idea that I was living in the city’s new gayborhood or that it was called the Castro. I thought it was part of the Mission district, a neighborhood my family had occupied for generations.
The night of the assassinations, 30,000 people marched from the Castro to City Hall where they merged with the mourners from Polk. Together, the two groups became a singular, astronomically large body – the living totality of a city ruptured by violence and reeling with shock.
And I was right in the middle of it. A 16-year old prostitute who never who never heard of Harvey Milk before November 27, 1978, I was living in the middle San Francisco’s explosive history as it unfolded, but I was too young to understand that I was part of it.
I wasn’t entirely clueless, however. San Francisco’s history was hardwired into my unconscious and my life. As a third generation San Francisco native whose Italian American father and grandfather served on the SFPD, I knew George Moscone was mayor just as I knew Alioto was mayor before him. I was the descendant of Italian American men who literally built the city and the women they married, fucked, and beat. Not necessarily in that order.
The Italian American mayors were common topics of conversation for my family. Joe Alioto even visited my grandmother’s house once or twice.
The city’s legacy of corruption was tightly knit into my family’s genetic code and stitched inside every broken bone and broken heart. It could be heard could between words during kitchen table arguments. It was stirred into every pot of red sauce simmering on the stove. It was strung between every bead on every rosary hanging from on my grandmother’s dresser mirror.
My family left me exiled in the same city where they lived and worked. I was a kid living on the streets of the city my family called home, where three generations of their history were written on the skyline, yet no one tried to find me. No one tried to help me. No one came looking.
I became no one, a Jane Doe walking the streets while my stepfather pulled iron just a few blocks away, and my grandparents slept in the safety of their homes on the other side of the city.
I clung to any scraps of my identity I could find to help solidify my existence and stop me from disappearing entirely.
I absorbed Moscone’s murder as if part of me died with him. His death gut punched me with heart shattering loss. I felt like I lost yet another layer of me when they put the mayor in the ground.
Over forty years after his assassination while researching to write these very words, I discovered that Moscone was closer to me than I ever would have guessed. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, the same place my grandfather Alvin J. Nicolini, a retired SFPD lieutenant, the one with the legendary glass eye and temper, had been buried two years before Moscone was killed. By the end of the 20th century, my entire Nicolini family was keeping Moscone company from the family grave in Colma.
Moscone attended St. Ignatius High School, the same school my father Al and his best friend (my future stepfather) Carl attended. Moscone was four years older, their time at St. Ignatius overlapped and through that connection left a trace memory of Moscone on my historic DNA.
Just up the street from City Hall, Moscone and Milk’s bodies would lay in wait for a memorial service at the new St. Mary’s Cathedral on Gough. Moscone’s funeral would be held in the same controversial and ugly catholic church, the architectural abomination that my stepfather Carl helped construct. His team of ironworkers put the finishing touches on the building when they installed the interior’s decorative ironwork in 1971.
Carl took photos during its construction and showed me the cathedral in its making, from its infancy as a skeleton composed of iron rods to its completion when it was rechristened “Our Lady of Maytag” because its roof looked like a washing machine agitator.
An ugly church for an ugly time, The Church of Agitation seemed the perfect place to memorialize the two men whose assassinations ruptured the city.
. . . the world really did seem to spin out of control when Dan White murdered Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk in City Hall. Dianne Feinstein, the rich matron politician who had come in a dismal third in the 1975 mayoral contest and was considered to be finished politically, was president of the Board of Supervisors, and thus ascended to the now vacant mayor’s office. Her regime quickly changed directions from Moscone’s liberalism. Feinstein wasted no time in shifting mayoral support to downtown interests, opposing renter protections, and supporting a new office building boom.
̶ from “When Punk Mattered: At the Dawn of the Neoliberal City” by Chris Carlsson
On November 27, 1978, Dan White obliterated two men and forever changed the city’s history. When Supervisor Dianne Feinstein stepped in for Moscone, she sent much of San Francisco’s cultural history to the grave with the mayor she replaced.
I may not have had much of a formal education, but one look at Feinstein and my instincts told me loud and clear that Feinstein was bad news.
It didn’t take me long to see Feinstein as a thief. She stole the city my family built and robbed me of my heritage, my sense of identity, and the parts of the city that brought me comfort.
Feinstein moved into the mayor’s office and took up arms, wielding her giant bottle of Windex to wipe the “cultural dirt” off the city’s surface and sweep away all she deemed undesirable (eg. punk rockers who she detested and condemned as deranged perversions driving down real estate values).
Feinstein’s sterilization efforts wiped out enormous cross-sections of the city’s population and history, eliminating the elements that did not jive with her view of prosperity.
Over forty years later, and I still can’t escape her mug. Feinstein’s face continues to be a stain in the news and the country’s socio-political landscape. She’s the Evil Windex Wielder who never dies.
It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone
It’s not unusual to have fun with anyone
But when I see you hanging about with anyone
It’s not unusual to see me cry
I wanna die
̶ From “It’s Not Unusual” (Tom Jones, 1965)
El dorado paced back and forth in front of the wall of windows. Down at the marina, all the sailboats were docked and dark. The bay stretched out in a shimmering sheet of opaque black without a boat in sight.
El Dorado eventually stopped long enough to open a box on the coffee table and pull out a baggie of weed and some rolling papers. His fingers fumbled three or four times before he successfully rolled a joint.
He sucked down a long deep hit and a exhaled stream of smoke, dislodging his words.
“It’s too bad what happened,” El Dorado shook his head. “How could Dan do it? Just snap like that? I don’t get it. He trained me. He’s a good cop.”
He took another hit from the joint and exhaled in silence, seeming to forget I was in the room. He lifted his eyes and stared right through me.
“Dan White trained me,” El Dorado emphasized and repeated in disbelief.
“And just like that he snaps and kills two people? I don’t get it.”
The next inhale is so deep and long that El Dorado about kills the joint.
“He’s a good guy. A clean guy. A family man.”
El Dorado stopped to reflect on his reflection staring back at him from the window.
“What about the kids? His wife and kids? He’s a family man. Dan.”
Then, “He trained me, you know?”
By this time, I was sure he wasn’t really asking me a question.
After a brief pause, he remembered something important. “That’s right! He went to my wedding!”
He snapped his fingers, ran into the bedroom, and returned holding a photo album as if it were a rare prize.
“My trip to Hawaii,” El Dorado sat on the sofa and patted the cushion for me to sit next to him. He still hadn’t offered me a hit of the joint.
When he first opened the album, there were no photographs to see. The first page had a single piece of paper with some fancy handwriting and a seal on it.
CERTIFICATE OF MARRIAGE.
El Dorado pointed to the words and explained. “My honeymoon.”
His first mention of his wedding was still reverberating off the walls inside my head. When I saw the marriage certificate, the significance of Dan White attending El Dorado’s wedding hit me.
El Dorado had a wedding!
My eyes bulged with panic. I whipped my head around and inventoried the penthouse apartment, looking for a wife ready to jump me and slit my throat.
“Divorce!” El Dorado bellowed, a stream of laughter leaking from his tight chest and loosening him up.
He held his hand up in peace. “We were divorced over a year ago,” he assured me.
His eyes were still far away but beginning to glaze over with bliss as he flipped through pages of photos and reminisced about his Hawaii Honeymoon.
I wasn’t feeling bliss at that moment. I was still trying to digest this new information.
El Dorado was married and had a honeymoon! So what if he was divorced. Doesn’t mean that he didn’t once have a marriage. A wife. A family.
El Dorado loved someone! He had things I would never have. This knowledge shook me to the core. I was terribly upset and heartsick with a deep dark sad. When El Dorado opened that album, I lost something that would never return to me.
Looking back now, I understand that I was feeling robbed. Cheated. I never once pictured my heroin-sniffing, quaalude-popping bad cop living a normal life with normal things like a wedding, a beautiful bride, and a honeymoon in a tropical paradise.
I believe I was also more than a little jealous. And resentful. And angry. None of it was good.
The El Dorado Placebo Effect for Al the missing father was fading.
Loss, anger, injustice, and jealousy surged through me and grew with each new photograph.
The photos were less about Hawaii and more about El Dorado being naked in Hawaii.
He was particularly smitten with one photo. “Hawaiian shower,” he pointed fondly to a photo of himself standing naked under the gushing stream of a tropical waterfall. Water bounced off his naked body catching pieces of sunlight and turning him into a bronzed angel. This was really more than I could bear.
But there was more. El Dorado sunning his perfect naked body on the beach. First on his back. Then on his stomach. El Dorado naked kayaking. Naked snorkeling. Naked eating and drinking. El Dorado naked. In Hawaii.
It was like Hawaii Five O meets Fantasy Island starring El Dorado, and it was real as TV to me.
Another reality began to seep in. Who was taking the photos of El Dorado naked in Hawaii? El Dorado was naked with someone else!
A grown woman.
One he married.
His beautiful bride.
More jealousy. More anger. More injustice.
Loss for things I never would have consumed me. I wanted to kill the wife or myself or both. I did neither. Instead, I remembered something else that helped deflate the emotions that were strangling the life out of me.
The photo of El Dorado standing naked under a waterfall reminded me of a photo of Tom Jones that Omar, the desk clerk at the Geary Hotel, had shown me recently.
Omar liked me, or at least he liked to talk to me. He was from Brazil and gushed about the beauty of his home. He claimed to come from a very wealthy family who lived on acres of paradise and owned many large houses.
Omar pledged to take me to Brazil someday and insisted that I experience Carnival. When he showed me photos of the fabulous women, gloriously adorned in glitter and flesh, I looked down at my adolescent flat chest and choked on suffocating anxiety and overwhelming worthlessness. I wasn’t remotely close to looking like them. Not only did I lack breasts or any other notable curves, I couldn’t even walk in a pair of high heel shoes.
“Hey, I have something to show you. You got to see this.” Omar beckoned to me nearly every night as I inched my way across the lobby, trying to reach the stairs before he spotted me.
I’d turn my head, and inevitably Omar would ask the question. “Have you seen my picture of Tom Jones taking a leak?”
“Pretty sure I did,” I’d tell him when I was grumpy.
“No! Lemme see!” I’d humor him when I was in decent spirits.
Whatever I answered didn’t matter. Omar never failed to pull the photo from his wallet, unfold it, and show it to me, his face beaming with delight.
Creased and cracked from overhandling, the image in the photo was still clear enough to see Tom Jones standing in front of a redwood tree. His head tilted back gazing up at the branches while he held his dick and released a stream of piss in a glittering arc.
“We were camping. Tom got so drunk,” Omar would laugh and laugh, thoroughly amused as he told me what good friends he and Tom Jones were and how much Tom Jones loved to go camping.
“He just loves to go camping,” Omar gushed. How could I doubt him?
With these photos, Tom Jones and El Dorado merged into a single body made of two men.
It was the trees and the way the men stood under them. It was the solitary vulnerability of their exposed bodies and the singularity of the men within the frame of each photo. It was the twinkling light catching on the edge of streaming water. It was all these things and some I can’t name that will forever connect Tom Jones taking a leak on a redwood tree to El Dorado taking a naked shower under a Hawaiian waterfall.
Across the city in my grandmother’s house on Athens Street, Al Nicolini’s hunting trophies were still watching over me from a distance.
Heads of deer, elk, and antelope were mounted on the back wall of the closet in Al’s old bedroom. Full bodies of raccoons and jack rabbits perched on the floor in a corner. I don’t know what happened to the remainder of the bodies of the large animals, but my mother insisted she ate them. Every night. Day in. Day out. That’s how she “lost her taste for game meat.”
Glistening with light even when there was none, wide open and ready to pounce, the eyes of Al’s hunting trophies glowed from the back seat of every car I climbed into, watched through the window of every hotel room I entered, and stared through the grating of every sewer I stepped over.
Knowing those eyes were just a bus ride away comforted me in some sense, but they also made me feel entirely alone and forgotten. No matter where I was in the city, who I was with, or what I was doing, the heads were with me, but Al never was and never would be.
When I stared into the eyes long enough, I could catch a lingering memory of Al pulling the trigger. If I closed my eyes and concentrated really hard, I could feel the pull of animal bodies hanging from the ceiling in the garage right below me. I could hear Al’s heavy breath seep through the floorboards as he sliced open their bellies, gutted, and stuffed them, just a few feet away from where he opened and gutted me when I was a baby.
As a kid, I’d spent so many afternoons in the dark recesses of that closet trying to get closer to the father I’d never know.
The animals didn’t sleep. They held guard over Al’s racks of rifles and cases of pistols — the same weapons that took their lives. Funny this tendency to love most those which love us least . . .
A small dresser leaned against the back wall. I left it alone until I was ten. Then curiosity got the best of me.
Inhaling deep and holding my breath tight in my lungs, I slid the top drawer open and found just one thing inside. A wooden box with a brass latch.
I flipped the latch, slowly lifted the lid, and rested it on the back wall.
Shiny black metal resting on a bed of red velvet. Wooden handle. Round cylinder. Worn trigger. Fancy letters engraved on the side in what looked like a W over an S.
Sliding my finger over the sleek barrel, I traced the words Smith and Wesson.
Al’s police revolver. How long had it been sleeping in that box?
I lifted its cold body and contemplated the heft of the weapon. Just over two pounds, the handgun felt like it weighed a ton. So much weight. I felt like I found God and the Devil together.
Six years later, Dan White would carry a .38 caliber just like Al’s when he climbed through the basement window at City Hall and rupture the city.
Turn the calendar back a decade or more, and you’ll find Al and my mom down the hall. My mom’s sitting in a chair at the dining room table. Her face is pulled into an expression that’s either a cry or a laugh or both. I can’t quite figure what it’s trying to tell me. A scratchy squeaky whine rises from her throat in ear piercing volume.
Al is laughing. And he’s spinning.
Holding a handgun to the side of my mother’s head, he presses his finger to the barrel and gives it a good hard spin. Round and round it goes. Where it stops nobody knows.
Al and my mom are playing a game. One of Al’s favorites. Russian roulette with his police revolver. My mom told me the stories many times, always with a curious combination of repulsion, wonder, and lust.
I never quite understood on which side of love and hate my mom resided when it came to Al. When all you know of love is a broken spine and the bathtub and fist that gave it to you, what are you going to do?
I looked down at the gun in my hand. This was it. The one that knew the feel of my mother’s temple.
Holding that Smith & Wesson felt like holding hands with death.
I stared into the impenetrable blackness of its barrel and remembered the stories my grandmother and mother told me about the wife Al married after my mom.
Al was going hunting, and she didn’t want him to go. She begged him to stay. She told him that if he left, she would do something terrible, maybe kill herself.
Al went anyway, but he didn’t take his service revolver with him.
He found her body when he returned from his hunting trip three days later. Apparently, she kept her promise. The gun left her brains in a puddle on the dining room rug when it blasted the life right out of her.
Does drawing the losing bullet during a game of Russian Roulette count as suicide?