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Milky White and Smouldering Red: A Story of 70s San Francisco

Milky White and Smouldering Red: A Story of 70s San Francisco

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Published by blackapollo
The seventies in San Francisco was a time of hope and struggle - monumental in scope and operatic in a sort of surreal grandeur. Along with hippydom there was a growing political fervour against the perceived hypocrisies and injustices that measured up the ideals of America with the brutalities of the war in Vietnam and the growing demands for economic and political justice by people of colour … We stood poised before a great plateau so immense that we could only see the vastness and we believed that what lay beyond our line of sight was the stuff that these newly liberated dreams were made of.
The seventies in San Francisco was a time of hope and struggle - monumental in scope and operatic in a sort of surreal grandeur. Along with hippydom there was a growing political fervour against the perceived hypocrisies and injustices that measured up the ideals of America with the brutalities of the war in Vietnam and the growing demands for economic and political justice by people of colour … We stood poised before a great plateau so immense that we could only see the vastness and we believed that what lay beyond our line of sight was the stuff that these newly liberated dreams were made of.

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Published by: blackapollo on Jun 21, 2009
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07/23/2010

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 www.visionsofthecity.com
Milky White and Smouldering Red
A Story of 70s San Francisco
Bob Biderman
 Bob Biderman is a novelist, editor and social historian. His complete list of titles can be found at: www.bobbider- man.com
I
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d arranged to meet him at Sparky's diner on Church midway between Marketand 18th Street. We had lunch there last year and so, when we tried to set up ameeting point again, it seemed a natural choice as it was near the metro line and,more importantly, we both knew the location.There was a certain charm to the place - a sort of 50s, laid-back retro with a commu-nity feel. I recalled the waitress last time was a young woman straight from centralcasting - an overly made-up Hollywood type but not obnoxiously so. Bright red lip-stick, heavy mascara, jet black hair like polished ebony fringing a teenage mug of purewhite porcelain - it could have been grotesque except on her it was like dressing up adoll. She had the aura of forbidden fantasy. So meeting there was stepping into anotherworld and made for a curious reunion of old-time radicals. But ensconced in a padded booth with Formica tables, we felt comfortable as it provided some distance from thattemporal zone we knew each other last. It was an artificial venue, a neutral space wherewe could detach from time's arrow and focus on each other's narrative - tracing a hes-itant line of reconnection that wiggled like an anxious worm overseen by two tired old birds.I arrived early, having walked around the Castro for a while. But the weather wasawful, a driving rain and chill wind that made my pocket umbrella useless - unworthyas it was of anything beyond a minor drizzle. So I took refuge in Sparky's about a half hour earlier than the time we had set.It had changed. No China doll this time. Just a young kid who had the appearance of a Castro rent boy working out his shift to pay for drugs. He was pleasant enough -though the pleasantness might have been weary stoicism had he been old enough tounderstand his escape here from Kansas, or wherever it was he escaped from, wasmerely a stopping off point on his slow road to ruin. The diner, itself, was a mess. Theywere in the process of remodeling, he explained apologetically. Where we sat last year
 
the flooring was now torn up and the booths uprooted. At this point, I might have leftexcept there was a kind of seedy allure and, as no one else was there, I had the place- what there was of it - to myself. So I settled into one of the remaining booths that hadsurvived the cyclonic wrath of unseen workmen, ordered a beer from the waiter hov-ering sadly over me, took out the free paper I had plucked from a street rack mo-ments earlier, and perused the feature story that took up the entire front cover.The story was about Dan White, the young supervisor who back in November 1978shot the mayor, George Moscone, and Harvey Milk, the first gay activist elected to thecity board. The reason this lurid story was being rehashed had to do with a film thatwas being made about the life of Milk who had become an icon in the historical an-nals of San Francisco's movement for Gay Lib. In fact the Castro district was abuzz withtales relating to the film, as this was a major production and, therefore, the cause of much excitement. Castro Street had been made over as a movie set (much to the dis-may of the shops which all had large signs outside trumpeting that they were open for business during the filming). But the story in the free sheet had to do with what thepaper considered serious historical inaccuracies in the script that, somehow, had comeinto their possession.The article was essentially an interview with the guy who had managed White's elec-tion campaign back in '77. What disturbed him was that the film made White out to be homophobic which, he claimed, wasn't the case. In fact, even though White repre-sented a Catholic working-class neighbourhood and had once been a policeman, hewas fairly open-minded, as the election agent could attest since the agent, himself, wasgay. What's more, he claimed, White actually befriended Milk and even admired him- that is until he came to feel Milk had betrayed his trust. The film script, however,sought to make White into a sexually obsessed maniac who killed Milk because hecouldn't come to terms with his own repressed demons.I thought about this as I drank my beer, occasionally looking up to see whether my oldfriend had arrived. San Francisco wasn't the city I once knew. There was a time whenI couldn't imagine living anywhere else. It was a place where anything was possible,where candy-coated dreams were nourished and nurtured (albeit in a haze of cannabisfumes). But then things began to change. I wasn't sure when it happened or how, butchange it did. And so did I. Now coming back was tough - like meeting an old loverafter a great passage of time. You still recognise her and see what attracted you but theembers that once simmered have transformed into dust and the flame in your hearthas grown tepid.That's why the article about Dan White struck me, I suppose. I'd been thinking aboutthe change that took place, when it happened, why it happened and what it meant.
 A Story of 70s San Francisco Page 2
 
Could I put my finger on the time, the cause? Was there an event that made everythingdifferent then on? No, I doubt if there was. But if I had to put a date on it, I supposeit would have been sometime in that period of '78 when the world seemed to crashdown on us and innocence, like the waxen wings of Darius, had melted in the heat of the midnight sun.The seventies in San Francisco was a time of hope and struggle. My wife and I had re-turned late in '71 from a year in Europe bringing back with us a baby girl and settlingin Noe Valley which was just beginning to shift from generations of mainly working-class Irish and Germans to a more mixed neighbourhood of students and young pro-fessionals. The city, which had become a magnet for disaffected youth fromPoughkeepsie, Kalamazoo, Baton Rouge and Pocatello was in its prime. The welcomemat was out and people poured in by bus, plane and rag-tag automobile - refugeesfrom mainstream America still trying to shake itself free from post-50s traumas wheregirls wore dresses of crinoline and boys married their childhood sweetheart, stuffingher and their 2.4 children inside a faux-gingerbread bungalow situated in a placecalled 'Nowhere'. These kids who flooded into the port of San Francisco wore flower-ing hempseed in their scruffy unwashed hair and had exchanged their dreams of ahouse in the suburbs for an overcrowded, acid-drenched commune in the Haight. Itcould have been a recipe for disaster and sometimes it was. But, amazingly, mostly itwasn't. These were kids who wanted to remake the world and San Francisco, circa1971, provided the venue to do it.The years of early to mid-70s were monumental in scope and operatic in a sort of sur-real grandeur. Along with hippydom there was a growing political fervour against theperceived hypocrisies and injustices that measured up the ideals of America with the brutalities of the war in Vietnam and the growing demands for economic and politi-cal justice by people of colour. The great marches in the South during the sixties gaveway to mass movements in the North led by fiery orators like Malcolm X who weresomehow able to embody and articulate the pain and suffering of generations and har-ness them as a mighty cry of outrage. On college campuses throughout the countrymass uprisings took place and hardly a month went by without a bloody confrontation. Along with the war in Vietnam there was a growing war at home. The fervency of youth was pushed to extremes. For every exhortation to 'turn on, tune in and drop out'there were others, even louder, to stand up and be counted - to declare which sideyou were on. The nation was polarised as never before. But beyond the rhetoric andthe banging of war drums there was a conviction that change was possible and that un-tethering the mind and empowering the imagination would transform the world inways we could hardly dream of as dreams, themselves, had only just been liberated.
 A Story of 70s San Francisco Page 3

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