Back in 1975 the civic center district of San Francisco was not the sparkling center of all things government and high culture it is now. The Plaza, with its chugging rows of fountains and pools gleaming with pennies, was a rectangle of turf littered with candy wrappers and take-out cups. With a keen eye, the odd hypodermic leapt out. The homeless camped out but were called hippies. It’s cleaned up in forty some years. The malingerers got shunted up to Larkin Street back in the nineties. Now it’s a picture of contrasts. On one side of the street a psychedelic dragon shod in sneakers guards the door to the Asian Art Museum. On the other, a row of tents hugs the wall of an abandoned building. I visited a couple years ago. It gave me whiplash walking past.
To ditch or not to ditch? That was always the question of the day for Patty and me. One day we were slumped against the gate on the Bay Street side of our junior high, sucking down a cigarette. My arguments against cutting school were half-hearted.
“I don’t want to flunk eighth grade. But sitting in a hard chair all day? Ugh. What’s playing at the movies?”
Nevermind either way we’d be sitting in a hard chair all day. The real world was the superior education. Jack Kerouac said that. If I proposed the movies, Patty would smirk, code for “I’m in.” We were escapists of the first order. So it wasn’t technically the real world. A triple feature was the ultimate. If we had a dime bag of dirt weed, even better.
A block from the rotunda of city hall sat a row of movie theaters clumped together on the south side of Market Street. We called it the movie district. 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 fare. We’d panhandle four blocks north on Geary Street in the theater district then lug our coins back to the movie district. We were beneficiaries of the trickle down effect years before Reaganomics entered the vernacular.
If we weren’t broke, we’d hop the 19 Polk and get dropped at the city center, choked with electric buses and trolleys (now considered “vintage”). Pedestrians rushed along the sidewalks. A few meandered. The crowd was buttoned up or buttoned down. Suits and ties. Or mini-skirts and love beads. A few holdouts from the 60s still roamed the downtown streets, plug eyed, but happy.
We lucked out this one day. Sparkle was playing on a double bill. It followed a girl group, Sister and the Sisters in 1958 Harlem. The plot braided three stories, but it was Sister we followed. We tracked her every move, the glimmer of the screen lighting up our faces, our fingers and shoes sticky with confection. We sat mezmerized, tensing our shoulders as Sister was lured in by the brutish Satin. We emerged from the theater, blinking in the sunlight. We were tired and sore.
“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 can never be like her.”
“Speak for yourself.” Patty hiked up her yolk-sized bumps of cleavage.
She looked disappointed.
This was San Francisco in the 70s. You could stroll the streets, flowers painted on your bare chest and not turn a head. Still, I was paranoid. I didn’t want anyone staring at us. When I scanned the crowd, no one was, proving my point that we were nothing special.
We hiked three blocks to the bus stop gabbing about Sister and her style. 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.
As soon as I got allowance money together we descended on Tower Records in North Beach, a mega-store one 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 — the vats of steaming crabs and brackish water. I bought the album Sparkle with change to spare. Aretha Franklin glowed on the cover, wrapped in white and encircled by a metallic silver frame. She looked dignified, as if her image could be minted onto a coin. We fought over who’d hold the album on the bus ride, each of us tugging at a corner of it.
At Patty’s house, we leaned out her window smoking, listening to the songs. We spead out on her double bed — our raft. We borrowed two white slips from her mother. Patty stashed a pair of her elbow length gloves behind her training bras in a drawer. 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 a cloud bank bearing down on me.
“I don’t see why I can’t be Sister all the time. You can be Dolores.” Patty refused to give up the gloves.
We both stared down at the record player 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 was too hard for me to pull off anyway. Besides, I resembled Dolores more, the shy, self righteous sister. I was a B side. I was the inferior one. Not in a bad way. Just in the way that everyone can’t always be hit material.
Sister’s funeral half way through the film never came up in conversation between Patty and me. We didn’t question our fixation on her. Today we might discuss her as a popular culture trope, the self-destructive woman. We might point out we weren’t alone in being seduced by it. We’ll never have that talk.
Now I see that over-the-top worship as a sign, albeit a flickering one. It wasn’t long before we slid into self destructive behavior ourselves. Not together, but each of us on opposite ends of the city. We yearned so desperately for happiness we tried to slam it into our arms. Needless to say we didn’t find it. I nodded off during a Chemistry exam my junior year capping off a less than stellar semester. I dropped out the next day. Patty was dead a year later.
I accepted that I’d never turn heads the way Sister did. But we had one thing in common. When it came to men I was every bit like Sister. I understood getting your signals crossed. Just like Sister, I didn’t know love from cruelty.