Back in 1975 the civic center district of San Francisco was not the sparkling center of all things government it is now. The Plaza, with its chugging rows of fountains and pools gleaming with pennies, had the same manicured rectangle of grass, but it was littered with candy wrappers, cigarette butts and aluminum pull tabs. With a keen eye, the odd hypodermic needle leapt out at you. The homeless camped in the park but were called hippies. It’s cleaned up in forty some years. The malingerers got shunted up to Larkin Street where they now pitch tents kitty corner from the gleaming, state-of-the-art Asian Museum. This was for Patty and me one of our old stomping grounds.
To ditch or not to ditch? That was always the question of the day for Patty and me. We sucked down a cigarette on the Bay Street side of our junior high. My arguments against cutting school were always half-hearted. Who liked sitting in a hard chair all day? Actual life made for a better education. If I proposed the movies, Patty would smirk, code for “I’m in.” We were escapists of the first order. A triple feature was the ultimate. If we had weed, even better.
A block from the rotunda of city hall were a clump of movie theaters on the south side of Market Street. It was the movie district, and X or XXX films were the money makers, but a few hold outs like the Strand and UA offered up PG fare. There were times when we’d panhandle four blocks west on Geary Street in the theater district. We’d lug our earnings from the theater district back to the movie district. It was trickle down economics at work.
If we weren’t broke, we’d hop the 19 Polk and get dropped at the Plaza, then head south a block. Once we reached Market, if the street wasn’t choked with trolleys and buses, we could see straight down to the Embarcadero, to the Piers. If we squinted, we could see a glimmer of sunlight off a small square of the bay. 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. San Francisco was slow to move on from the 60s.
One day we caught Sparkle on a double bill. The movie followed a girl group, Sister and the Sisters in 1958 Harlem. The plot braided three stories. But it was Sister we followed, our eyes tracking her every move in that cave-like room, fingers and shoes sticky with confection. We sat mesmerized, tensing up as she was lured in by the brutish Satin. We emerged from the theater, blinking in the sunlight, preparing ourselves for our reentry into the real world.
“Sister sure was pretty.” The street was buzzing with traffic, so I raised my voice.
“Yeah, she’s sexy. Why are we so flat-chested?” Patty cupped her palms under 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 across your bare chested and not a head would turn. Still, I was paranoid. I didn’t want anyone staring at us. As if to prove my point about being nothing special, when I scanned the crowd, no one was.
We hiked the three block to the bust stop. The narrative piece about Sister dying half way through the film never came up. Neither did the question of why we were so fascinated by her. Aside from the obvious — her beauty. Our movie reviews weren’t exactly sophisticated. And neither were we introspective. Now this bit of worship stood out in my mind as one of the first signs.
The following week we descended on Tower Records in North Beach, a mega-store one block from North Beach. Once we got close we were met with the smell of fish, the odor drifting in from Fisherman’s Wharf — the vats of steaming crab and brackish water of the bay. I bought the album Sparkle with my allowance. Aretha Franklin glowed on the cover, wrapped in white and encircled by a metallic silver frame. 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. “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 experience. There was that black cloud feeling of mine coming through this tune. We borrowed two white slips from her mother. Patty had a pair of elbow length gloves she kept in her dresser. During the A side she was Sister, I was B side. We gestured the moves we remembered from the movie, fishtailing our arms and wagging our hips.
“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. I was more like Dolores anyway, the shy, self righteous sister.
The only thing I understood about Sister was how she got her signals crossed. She couldn’t distinguish love from cruelty.