“Did your grandmother give you that?” Delisa asks as we drive into the city through the fog veil enveloping the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge. She’s staring at the antique opera glasses hanging on a gold chain around my neck.
Keeping my eyes on the narrow lanes barely visible through the mist I say, “No, Miguel did. He was a gay Mexican man I lived with in San Francisco in 1974. It was his grandmother’s.”
“It looks pretty fancy,” she says. “Is it abalone shell with pure gold frames? Why did he give it to you?”
“He had a mad crush on me—maybe he was bi? He also gave me his grandmother’s silver calla lily pin. He came from an aristocratic family in the colonial city of Guanajuato…a gorgeous man, and very sweet.” I chuckle to myself.
Delisa asks, “Why are you laughing?”
“Because I was so naïve and dumb back then! Wait till I tell you the Miguel story.”
I had just returned from working and traveling in Europe and the Middle East for two years and needed a place to live. I answered a room rental ad on the Clement Street Safeway community bulletin board, which led me to a sun-filled bedroom in a Victorian. Eight gay men were my roommates. (This was before I knew what gay was.) Miguel was one of them.
I had a part-time job delivering organic sandwiches for a company called Moveable Feast. I wore an embroidered peasant blouse and a long, flower print skirt. I made $20 a day, which was enough to live on but I needed more for my next adventure—a trip to the Amazon.
There was an audition ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a dance gig called “The Love Act” that would be performing at The Garden of Eden club on Broadway in about a month. Since I’d grown up in the Summer of Love, I imagined they wanted a hippie dance like in the musical Hair. I had been free-form dancing in Golden Gate Park to bands like Jefferson Starship and the Grateful Dead since my teen years, and was confident I could conjure up a dance deserving of the promised $50 performance fee. I just needed to find a partner.
Living with gay men—once I knew what that meant—in a communal household in 1970s San Francisco was a blast. We went dancing every evening at The Stud on Folsom Street. I had eight good-looking dance partners who didn’t hit on me, could really rock the floor, stayed up all night, and were great cooks. Heaven for a twenty-year-old suburban girl!
At dinner one night I asked who might want to split the $50 a night and be my dance partner. Miguel was game—we did dance together well during our nightly dance-a-thons on the bar top at The Stud.
Every afternoon we worked on our choreography in the living room to “Black Magic Woman” by Santana. Leopard print costumes, diaphanous scarves, feathered headpieces, and tiger stripes drawn on our faces completed our exotic look. It needed to be sexy but we didn’t want it to be pornographic. Our theme was Tarzan-meets-Jane driven by a hot Latin rhythm, and the risqué finale was Miguel ripping off my top—just a scarf wound around my bodice. Our plan was that I would flee backstage with him in hot pursuit.
Our roommates thought we’d gone loony as we crawled around the carpeted living room floor in cat-like moves and spun into each other’s arms. Doubled over in peals of laughter, Miguel chased me around the couch and down the hallway with my breasts exposed, our startled roommates leaping out of the way. Our chasing evolved into capturing. He would wrap his arms around me, embracing and sniffing and clawing and growling. He had the smoothest skin of anybody I had ever touched—velvet-brown and so appealing. The temperature rose. To my surprise, we became lovers, which magnified our push-me-pull-me attraction.
After a month of this cavorting, we pulled it all into a five-minute routine (without the bedroom hoopla). Our housemates were our trial audience, with one of our roommates serving as the designated deejay and emcee. He ushered everyone into the living room and, with a sweeping hand gesture, invited them to sit on paisley cushions and hushed their chattering. He put Santana’s Abraxas album on the record player. As a Latin guitar riff swelled from the speakers, Miguel and I burst from behind the hallway door and energetically gave that dance all we had. We scampered from the room, and our audience yelled and clapped.
“Bravo!” “Take it off!” they teased. (I think they were much more interested in Miguel tossing his loincloth into the audience than seeing me topless.)
They all agreed we were absolutely ready for the audition at the Garden of Eden, and I nervously called the club and made an appointment with Vinnie, the manager, for the next afternoon.
Miguel and I took the #30 Geary bus downtown and walked over the chewing-gum-strewn sidewalk through Chinatown and along Broadway to the club in North Beach. Our scant costumes peeked out from under our coats.
We knew we had arrived when we saw the club’s two-story neon sign. It showed a giant snake wound around a busty nude woman with flickering red nipples. Eve was holding an apple and looking directly at us. Her eyes were crossed, which choked us with laughter and alleviated our performance anxiety.
Heaving open the studded, burgundy-red vinyl door, we squinted into a dark corridor. Stale beer and cigarette fumes assaulted our senses.
The place seemed deserted. We felt our way down the unlit hallway to a room behind the stage. A pale, red-haired woman in tight cutoffs was filing her nails at a Formica-topped table and noticed us standing there.
“Hi, I’m Candy. You here for ‘The Love Act’?” she drawled, popping and smacking her gum.
We both nodded our heads slowly.
“Okay, I’ll let Vinnie know you’re here. Pick a song out of the jukebox and I’ll start it up when you’re ready to go onstage.”
Candy seemed very friendly. Holding up the Santana album I said, “We don’t need a jukebox song. We brought our own music.”
She swiveled her head toward us and smiled sadly at our naïveté. “Sorry, no record player. Gotta pick one from the jukebox. In fact, I’ll pick it for you. I’ve danced to all of them. What type of music do you want?”
I felt like a child asking for an ice cream cone. In a squeaky voice I said, “A Latin theme, please. Our dance is choreographed to ‘Black Magic Woman.’”
“Choreographed, huh? I’ll try. Get ready. How about I drop the coin in and get the song rolling in a few minutes?”
Miguel and I quickly applied our makeup and headdresses—I was dressed like a hippie-Fred-Flintstone-era Vegas showgirl. Miguel dusted his body with glitter and adjusted the loincloth. His beautiful, sculpted chest and muscular thighs glistened. We climbed up onto the splintery plywood stage. It was small. Not much room for bounding, cat-like movements, let alone all the chasing. We put our coats to the side, avoiding too much contact with the sticky floor, and gave each other a wink and a hug. Then, with our backs to the audience—whom we couldn’t discern—we crouched into position as the spotlights blazed on suddenly, harsh light flooding down on us.
At the same time, a country-western number blared out from the jukebox. Was that Tammy Wynette singing “Stand By Your Man”? The song my mom listened to when she cooked dinner? Was I really going to do a striptease to my mom’s favorite song—a honky-tonk tune that had driven me nuts as a teenager?
I gritted my teeth. Furrows of confusion clouded Miguel’s otherwise perfect face, but we stuck to our routine. We spun around, leapt forward into the glaring lights in our skimpy costumes, and began our dance, peeking through imaginary flora at each other. Me shy and flirtatious; Miguel all sexy-manly. The dance hunt had begun.
I tried to ignore the twangy voice singing the rather un-feminist lyrics to a completely different beat than our movements.
Then I looked out into the shadows of the club. It was nearly empty. A short man perched on a stool, gnawing on a sputtering stogie. Vinnie, perhaps? He was slowly nodding and leering. Another disheveled, greasy-haired man in sagging pants stood next to him, leaning against a broom. His crooked smile revealed gaps where his teeth should have been. I caught the glint of light reflected in liquid on his chin. He was drooling and staring at me bug-eyed.
What a creep! kept running through my head, masking the lyrics to the maudlin song. The noxious odors, the goony guys, the gooey floor, the horrid lights were all making me queasy.
Miguel seemed immune to the environment and kept dancing, letting out deep-throated growls and trying to paw me. He reached for my top to rip it off and reveal a brief glance of nubile titty—my cue to exit behind the curtain—but there was no curtain. I panicked, dropped my sex-kitten veneer, and ran down the dirty hallway. Hefting the red vinyl door open, I tumbled onto the sidewalk and into the fog-paled sunlight. In my revealing costume. Barefoot.
I could still hear Tammy crooning through the crack in the door.
“Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman
Giving all your love to just one man.
You’ll have bad times
And he’ll have good times,
Doin’ things that you don’t understand
But if you love him you’ll forgive him…”
I don’t think so, Tammy. I’m outta here.
Still shoeless, I bolted across four lanes of traffic on Broadway and plopped myself down at a café table on the sidewalk in front of Ernesto’s. I couldn’t stop laughing at my stupid idea. Hadn’t my mom taught me not to dance in strip clubs? “The Love Act”? What was I thinking? I’ll tell you what—$50 to dance. It didn’t occur to me that the place would be sleazy. I was absolutely clueless!
Across the street I could see Miguel craning his neck around the Garden of Eden door, looking for me. Eve and her snake flashed above him, her neon nipples glowing in the gloom. Tears of hysterical laughter were pouring down my face as I slapped my thighs. Miguel heard me all the way across the street. Shaking his head, he struggled into his jacket, pants draped over his arm, loincloth still in place, and dodged the traffic. He ran over and asked, “What got into you?”
In gasps I said, “That paunchy, toothless janitor was drooling.”
He handed me my shoes and coat as I went on. “I realized if we got the part, we would be up on that rickety stage in a haze of cigarette smoke, and that bloated, horny businessmen would be staring at us with lecherous eyes. They would be drooling, too. Yuck!”
Miguel agreed it was disgusting and ordered us Irish coffees. The waiter was obviously intrigued by our meager, askew attire and face paint, though he didn’t ask any questions when he brought the drinks. After all, the Garden of Eden was just one of a dozen strip clubs in North Beach, and Finoccio’s—the famous drag queen revue club—was right next door.
The rich coffee spiked with whiskey and topped with a lavish portion of real whipped cream took the edge off. Brushing glitter off his exposed thighs, Miguel giggled and said, “Perhaps we overestimated the quality of artistic effort the manager at the Garden of Eden was expecting. The jukebox music selection should have been a clue.”
“What about the giant blinking nipples on that sign?” I said, pointing to luminous Eve across the street. Ordering another round of drinks, I told the circumspect waiter, “With an extra mountainous portion of whipped cream, please. Dancing gives me an appetite.”