Researching the circumstances around Patty’s murder brought me back to our old stomping grounds. The area around the civic center was now a picture of contrasts. It gave me whiplash walking past.
Back in 1975 it wasn’t the sparkling gentrified center of all things high culture. Sure, there was the opera house. But it, like the rest of the major buildings, appeared grungy after more than forty years of neglect. The Plaza — the golden pate of city hall’s rotunda at its western edge — was flanked by rows of chugging fountains in a pool gleaming with pennies. The rectangle of turf surrounding it was covered in litter: candy wrappers, cigarette butts, take-out cups, aluminum pull tabs. With a keen eye, the odd hypodermic leapt out. The homeless camped out and were sometimes lumped together with the hippies under the umbrella of undesirables. It had cleaned up in the intervening years, since Patty and I slummed around. Little by little the homeless got shunted further up Larkin Street and away from Market. Researching the circumstances around Patty’s murder brought me back to our old stomping grounds. The area around the civic center was now a picture of contrasts. It gave me whiplash walking past.
These days on one side of Larkin a psychedelic dragon shod in sneakers guarded the door to the Asian Art Museum. On the other side, a row of tents hugged an abandoned building. With only a sidewards glance I could see through a slit in a tarp a woman fumbling to inject herself in the crook of her arm. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Whoever said that was pretty damn insightful.
Patty and I used to start each school day in the Marina district, but would inevitably end up in this very spot where most of city government resided. Our question of the day was “to ditch school, or not to ditch school?” We spent many an hour slumped outside our junior high, sucking down cigarettes and weighing our options. My protestations against cutting school were pointedly half-hearted.
“I don’t want to flunk eighth grade. But I haven’t even started the book we’re reading in English. And those hard chairs they make us sit in. Ug. What’s playing at the movies?”
Never mind that I’d as good as flunked English and we’d be sitting in hard seats all day at the theater. Patty would flash me an “I’m in” smirk and off we’d go. A triple feature was the ultimate. If we had a dime bag of dirt weed, even better.
A block over from city hall five movie theaters were clumped together on the south side of Market Street. We called it the movie district. In the early 70s X or XXX films were shaking their money makers with titles like Behind the Green Door and Deep Throat, but a few hold outs like the Strand and UA offered up PG or rated R fare. We’d panhandle four blocks north on Geary Street in the theater district, then lug our coins to the movie district. We were beneficiaries of the trickle down effect long before Reaganomics entered the popular vernacular.
One day we lucked out. Sparkle was playing on a double bill. We could sit for hours through movies like Enter the Dragon and Shaft. But we yearned for stories that spoke to the experience of girls. Sparkle followed a girl group, Sister and the Sisters in 1958 Harlem. The plot braided three stories, but we followed one more closely — that of Sister. We tracked her every move. When the screen lit up our faces we’d look over and give one another a little nod. Isn’t she something? Look at how she demanded attention. We tensed our shoulders as Sister’s man, Satin, lured Sister, into his world of violence and heroin. We emerged from the theater, blinking into the sunlight. We were tired and sore. But satisfied.
“Sister sure was pretty.” I raised my voice over the buzz of traffic.
“Yeah, she’s sexy. Why are we so flat-chested?” Patty pressed her palms against her breasts.
“It doesn’t matter. Even when we grow some, we’ll never be beautiful like her.”
“Speak for yourself.” Patty hiked up her yolk-sized bumps of cleavage.
She looked disappointed.
It seemed our way of defining ourselves was by what we were lacking. At least Patty had her hair. I wasn’t sure what I had. Mythology swirled around redheads — they were witches, temperamental, and untrustworthy. Judas, Christ’s betrayer, was portrayed with red hair.
Then again, there was the stock character of the redhead as sexpot. From femme fatales to Clara Bow many a red-head has been painted as a temptress. To me, the rarity of red hair made Patty distinct, her look one-of-a-kind. She was able to turn heads with that mane alone. Perhaps she didn’t have the traffic-stopping allure of Sister, but she had a sole beauty. Not everyone recognized it, but I did.
Whenever that red hair of hers put on a spell people, I was happy to give her the spotlight. For as often as I craved attention, more often I was content to remain invisible. The last thing I wanted was to be walking alongside Patty while she played with her breasts in the middle of Market Street. This was San Francisco in the 70s. You could stroll the streets, daisies painted on your tits and not a soul would take notice. Still, I was paranoid. I didn’t want anyone staring at us. When I scanned the crowd, no one was. Proving either that I was paranoid or overestimated the appeal of her hair.
We hiked three blocks to the bus stop gabbing about Sister and her style. We agreed neither of us could pull off a white gardenia behind the ear. The girl group eluded to The Supremes, but the parallels between Billie Holiday and Sister smacked you between the eyes.
Two weeks later the two of us descended on Tower Records, a mega-store a block from North Beach. From the parking lot we smelled fish, poking our noses in the air like alley cats. The odor wafted from the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf — from vats of steaming crabs and the brackish water of the bay. I bought the album Sparkle with that week’s allowance. Aretha Franklin glowed on the cover, wrapped in a white stole and encircled by a metallic silver frame. Her face looked regal, the perfect image to mint onto a coin. We fought over who’d hold the album on the bus ride, ultimately cradling it between us.
Once at Patty’s house, we leaned out her bedroom window smoking, listening to the songs. We spread out on her double bed — our raft, so to speak. We borrowed two white slips from her mother. Patty had a pair of elbow length gloves stashed behind her training bras. During the A side of the album she was Sister. I was Sister on the B side. We gestured the moves we remembered from the movie, fishtailing our arms and wagging our hips. I Get High, Sister Williams’s lament about her descent into heroin addiction made me shutter. The line “woke up this morning, looking back over the darkness of my life” nailed my very own mornings. It was a rarity to wake up without feeling that nothing about my life made any sense.
“I don’t see why I can’t be Sister all the time. You can be Dolores.” Patty refused to give up the one pair of gloves.
We both stared down at the record player, the needle stalled at the end of A side.
“It’s my album.” I tugged at the gloves.
Her face arranged itself into an expression of mock hurt. I relented. The hypnotic beauty of Sister was too difficult for me to pull off anyway. Besides, I did more closely resemble Dolores, the shy, self-righteous sister. I was a B side. I was the inferior one. Not in a bad way. In the way that everyone can’t be hit material, a chart topper. Besides, just the idea of being in the spotlight made me squirm.
Sister’s funeral half way through the film never came up in conversation between Patty and me. We never questioned our fixation on her. Sister was a popular culture trope — the self-destructive woman. We were seduced by her, but more than that, we related to her. Sister wanted out of a life she saw as oppressive. Yet she knew getting out was a long shot. Heroin had a way of making you forget your own long odds.
The way we put Sister on a pedestal wasn’t the only red flag. Maybe it wasn’t even a harbinger of things to come. Not everyone followed in the footsteps of those they revered. But the revered wield power over us. Especially over us impressionable types. Shortly after we saw Sparkle, it was as if the two of us set off our detonators. We yearned so desperately for happiness we tried anything. After my own one failed experiment doing heroin my junior year, I nodded off the following morning during a Chemistry exam. I woke to find my cheek pressed into my desk, a string of saliva wetting a blank spot on the quiz where a written response was expected. On the heels of a less-than-stellar semester I dropped out of high school for good within the week. Patty was dead a year later.