Joan Annsfire – “The View from Capp Street” (with audio)
Click below to hear Joan Annsfire reading “The View From Capp Street” at our Special Community Event on October 13, 2011:
joan-annsfire-the-view-from-capp-street by auntlute
The Capp Street apartment was basically a slum, but still it had its good points. Number one: it was cheap, number two: it was big, and number three: it was on the top floor so at least no one could dance on your head at three in the morning like in my last place. In spite of its elevation, it was nearly impossible to see beyond the ramshackle tenements across the street. But the walls to the building next door were so thin that neighbor noise was constant.
Sometimes, when I’d pound on the wall in my bedroom trying to get the neighbors to tone it down, I could hear things fall on the other side.
Another downside to the place was vermin. Although the cats were expert at killing the mice that would brazenly head for their food bowls, we simply couldn’t train them to go after the roaches. The flat was just a hop, skip and a jump from Kelly’s, arguably the most down-home, gritty, old-style dyke bar in the city, a place where it was easy to find a drink, a game of pool or watch two butches duke it out over a femme, right there on the barroom floor.
“Lynn! Alma! Look what I scored for us!” Ronnie had just come home and was opening her coat and laying loot on the table. Before our eyes, plastic containers full of crab salad, shrimp remoulade, macaroni salad, brie and crackers, and even an unopened bottle of champagne were unpacked and spread across the table. Ronnie bussed tables at Johnny’s Joint, a fern bar on South Van Ness. “They had some kind of catered affair, and I was on cleanup.”
“And clean up you did!” was my response. There were always some culinary perks to Ronnie’s job, but tonight was exceptional. This was half due to Ronnie’s ingratiating manner and winning ways, the other half to her oversized trench coat and sleight of hand. Ronnie was the child of Armenian immigrants who landed in Chicago. Ronnie was three years older than me, a big 28. Although I was from Cleveland, not too far away, our family issues were miles apart. She was reined in with an iron hand by rigid people who treated her like the devil’s spawn. And I had enjoyed the absolute freedom of total neglect of parents who were too drunk to notice much of anything.
Ronnie and I became friends after a meeting for lesbians new to San Francisco. That was two years ago in 1975. She was freshly out of jail on a charge of writing bad checks. I don’t want to brag, but not only is she my best friend, she is the smartest, funniest criminal I’ve ever known.
Our third roomie, Alma, was already seated at the table processing some weed from one of the three plants that adorned our windowsill. This one had just been dried. It was kind of a side business for her. Her real salary came from being a “live, nude girl” a few nights a week at a strip club on Columbus Avenue. But now she was removing seeds and weighing nickel bags on her postal scale. Alma was raised in Puerto Rico, which makes her technically American.
“Put that stuff away now, we’re going to eat!” Ronnie sometimes got a bit uptight about Alma’s drug operation. Either she didn’t want another crash landing on the wrong side of the law, or she wanted a cut in the business.
“Momentito carnales!” Alma swept up stems and seeds as Ronnie began laying out food containers. I opened the champagne bottle.
“Being sleazy don’t come easy!” We raise all our glasses in our customary Capp Street toast that had begun as a mock real estate slogan for the disreputable company that owned our building. I liked the gist of it but the fact that it was grammatically incorrect was a bit irritating. After our toast we began to feast.
“Do you work tonight?” I ask Alma.
“Yeah, I’m going in later, a union rep came yesterday, and we will begin voting next week.” With the addition of fake eyelashes, lipstick and a long, black dynel wig, Alma would transform herself into Carmen, wet-dream goddess of the schmucks in North Beach. “When sex workers unionize we can do anything.”
“But you’re going to miss out on the dyke poets!”
“Que lastima! Tonight, my performance will be for pervs behind one-way glass.”
After a quick clean-up of dinner, Ronnie and I headed off for the Full Moon, a new café in Eureka Valley near Castro Street, or Boystown as we called it.
I loved hearing poetry read and actually considered myself a poet as well. Performing wasn’t something I would have attempted in front of other people, although I had great admiration for those who did.
In my daytime incarnation, I worked in a small factory on 3rd St., stringing ceramic pieces to driftwood to create wind-chimes. It wasn’t a bad gig because we got to wear whatever we wanted, pretend we were ceramic artists and listen to the radio all day. But since we were paid by the completed chime, we had to work really fast. I’d gotten to the point where my fingers could fly over those strings. Three days a week I also took a women’s studies class at San Francisco State, a department that was chock full o’dykes.
Our journey from the Capp Street apartment to Eureka Valley by MUNI was a fairly simple one, and since it was summer, the day was long and full of light. The Full Moon Café on 18th street, and it was filling up by the time we arrived. Everyone seemed to know each other. Heads lifted when Ronnie and I walked through the door but just as quickly turned away when they saw we were strangers. We found a small, inconspicuous table near the back.
“Can I get a beer here?” Ronnie stage-whispered to me.
“This is a coffee house, the beverages here are non-alcoholic, so go get some tea and a cookie.” Before I could finish my sentence, a fine young specimen of dykedom was up in front of the crowd, welcoming everyone to the reading. She spoke about the women’s center on Brady Street, a storefront kind of place around the corner from the army surplus store. I’d gone to a group for lesbians new to town so I was familiar with it. After summarizing some of their services, she mentioned that they were trying to buy a building for women in San Francisco, if and when they found the right place.
Four poets read their work that night. They enunciated, ranted, they cooed, consoled, cajoled and joked. They spoke of love and oppression, of identity and repression. One Native American dyke touched upon issues of genocide; a landscape full of minefields for an angst-ridden Jew like me.
I was moved by all of them except the one who kept complaining about her parents. My mother was dead, and I was estranged from my father. I guess you have to have parents in order to complain about them. But the thing that most enthralled, enraptured and captivated me about all of them was that they were openly, unabashedly, shamelessly forthright lesbians reading dyke poetry openly in a coffeehouse in the real world.
They all seemed supremely confident, so soft and pristine. As if they could stake out whatever future they chose by the sheer force of their determination and will. And the world would bend to accommodate their wishes.
“Lynn, you could read your poems here too,” Ronnie observed benignly as though this would be within the realm of human possibility. The truth was that whenever I imagined all those eyes and ears focused on me standing up in front of the crowd like someone with something important to say, I heard the echo of my father’s voice telling me I had shit for brains and remembered my mother telling me that having children ruined her life.
“Yeah, right!’ was my only response.
At the end of the reading, everyone crowded into an alcove at the Full Moon that served as a bookstore. On the shelves there were self-made chapbooks alongside actual, published books. The woman who was staffing the store looked like a sister Jewish dyke but the most noticeable thing about her was that she was blind. Wow, they must really trust each other here, because not only did you have to go out of your way to pay, you had to tell her the denominations of the bills.
Both Ronnie and I were feeling invincible as we left the coffee house heading down 18th towards Castro Street. It was a warmish Friday evening, and Boystown was a happening thing. Guys were sitting out in front of the Elephant Walk drinking and cruising. The smell of weed wafted through the air.
We decided to head towards Scott’s, a lesbian bar in the Duboce Triangle, to get some beverages and maybe play some pool. While making our way up Sanchez, a pickup full of bombed adolescent boys drove by. They slowed down as they passed us and one yelled out the window, “Fucking Faggots!”
“We’re dykes, you morons!” I yelled back and both of us gave them the finger. Our conversation had already moved on to who we thought was cutest at the reading when we noticed that their truck had come around the block and was stopping on the other side of the street. Four of them had gotten out of the car and were following us.
“A stick is better than a slab, bitches!” a tall, stocky crew-cut dude was saying.
“We need to get off this dark street.” I said.
“I’ll kick their fucking asses to kingdom come!” Ronnie was undaunted.
“But Ronnie, there are four of them.” It was then I remembered that my women’s studies professor, Cindy, lived around just a couple blocks up the street because I’d dropped off a paper at her place. It was our best hope. She might be home. I told Ronnie to follow as we broke into a run trying to lose them.
They had begun closing in now, and as we proceeded across the street, they must have sensed that something was up. When we turned up the walk to Cindy’s, the guys surrounded us, trying to prevent us from reaching the door. Ronnie took a swing at the one closest to her as he blocked her punch. His fist hit her head, and she was down. A dude came up to me and grabbed me from behind. He was taller than I was, so I jammed the back of my head into his face. It hit him in the nose, proving that I didn’t take that self defense class for nothing. I began yelling, “Cindy! Cindy!” as loudly as I could.
He spun me around and punched me in the stomach. As I was on the ground trying to catch my breath, I saw Ronnie kicking one of them in the head. Then I saw Cindy appearing like a guardian angel, in the light of her doorway.
“Get the hell out of here, you pathetic dickheads! Lynn is that you? Are you ok?” Cindy’s booming voice resonated as we ran past her up the stairs and into the flat. The gang took off down the street. Ronnie’s forehead was bleeding a bit, that dude must have been wearing a ring. Another woman came into the room with a washcloth wrapped around some ice and gave it to Ronnie to put against her forehead. Once I began to breathe normally again, I was able to speak.
“I’m really glad you were home,” I said breathlessly.
“We could have taken them if we weren’t so outnumbered,” Ronnie added.
She was never short on wishful thinking, acting as though she didn’t know she was only five feet, two inches tall and 115 pounds, although her build is solid muscle.
Cindy introduced us to Jean. It was immediately clear that the two women were partners because they called each other dear and honey in almost every sentence. I recognized Jean from SF State. She taught women’s literature in the same department as Cindy. I was now able to take in our surroundings.
The flat was Victorian style, and all the furniture was from that period as well: stuffed, embroidered couches, brocaded chairs, crushed velvet, brothel-style deep red curtains and all sorts of art on the walls. There was an amazing ceramic piece on the coffee table, a naked woman with a scarf half-draped around her, holding up her fist. They must have artist friends. I’m not that good at doing a poker face so my admiration was evident as I examined their picture perfect universe. Jean asked, “Do you want a tour of the place?”
Well, of course I did. I have a thing for real estate. You’d never know it to look at Capp Street, but crown moldings and polished hardwood floors occupy a soft spot in my heart. I think maybe the goddess got my genes crossed with those of a gay man.
The flat didn’t disappoint, bedrooms overlooking a leafy back deck, eat-in kitchen, great outdoor access for a place in the city. Back in the living room, Ronnie was bending Cindy’s ear on closet cases and how overly cautious types hold back our movement.
“Do you want some tea?” Jean asked.
“Do you have anything stronger?” Ronnie and I said, practically in unison.
“Well yeah, we do have something special. If the cops aren’t dropping in, we can take it out.”
“Fuck the pigs!” Ronnie was adamant. “I don’t want to deal with them. They’ll just treat us like crap. When I was in Sybil Brand, they put me and all the other females who were caught wearing at least two pieces of what they considered male clothing into the ‘daddy tank,’ just another word for more separate but equal ‘justice’ so I have no warm feeling for porkers at all.” “Jesus H. Christ!” I thought. We haven’t been here more than fifteen minutes and Ronnie has already mentioned prison! Still, I thought avoiding police contact seemed like a good idea.
“I did some poetry writing workshops at Santa Rita,” Jean added a bit solicitously. “I was surprised at the quality of some of the work.”
“Yeah, those criminals are almost like real people,” Ronnie was starting in on her spiel; she could be surprisingly charming even while being hostile.
“Well, they certainly have quite a bit of experience to draw upon,” I stepped in to play peacekeeper. Fortunately Cindy had already taken out a mirror and a half razor blade and was beginning to lay out lines in white powder.
That quieted everyone down. We were now caught up in the intimate ritual of rolling up a twenty, passing the mirror and snorting lines. Ronnie had gotten my message and had switched to safer topics. Now she was musing about the amazing androgyny of those attending the Full Moon reading. In the old days, she explained, everyone had to decide if they were butch, femme or ki-ki, which didn’t mean without a role assignment, but only that you could switch back and forth and play either side.
Both Cindy and Jean were familiar with this history. They were, after all, maybe ten to fifteen years older than we were.
“Now,” Cindy said, “the issues have changed. Lesbians seem more concerned with who is monogamous, bi-sexual or try sexual.” Try sexual meant willing to try anything. Soon we were laughing and talking about how the women’s army of lovers would, in no time, take over the world.
It turned out that Cindy and Jean own the building on Sanchez Street and rented out the two other flats. Jean added that one of those flats would become available next month. I elbowed Ronnie, but I don’t think she was getting my drift.
After a couple of hours the buzz wore off, and Cindy offered to drive us home.
Her Toyota Corolla was parked in the driveway in front of the garage. When I got into it, I thought what a perfect sized car for a city like San Francisco!
It was after two A.M. when we finally returned to Capp Street. Alma had just come home, and we told her about the reading, our close call with the bigots and the impressive world of Cindy and Jean.
“Their building is so nice. They own it, and one of the apartments is going to be available next month. Maybe we should all go and take a look!” I suggested.
“I don’t know if I can live with those comemierdas,” Alma said.
“Shit eaters?” I asked.
“No, it means, how you say it, snobs.”
“No shit, Alma, those broads were really full of themselves!” Ronnie expounded.
After Ronnie and Alma went off to their respective bedrooms, I smashed a roach that was running across the kitchen table and proceeded to polish off what remained of the leftovers, downed with the last of the flat champagne. The shrimp remoulade from Johnny’s was really a treat. Ronnie had only copped it once before.
As exhaustion mixed with alcohol, I began visualizing the apartment upstairs from Cindy and Jean in Noe Valley. I thought about wainscotting, original detail and access to outdoor space.
Maybe I will take more classes with Cindy and Jean and go after a degree. They might help me get a job as a teaching assistant or something. We’d all live in the same building, and I would go downstairs and visit with them and their friends, poets, writers and artists. We could all do readings together in front of adoring audiences who would marvel at my way with words.
Tomorrow, in Cindy’s class, I must thank her again for her fortuitous rescue. Perhaps I will set up a time to see the rental. Sometimes, after the class, she goes out with a group of students for tea and discussion. Next time that happens, I will definitely join them.
© 2011 Joan Annsfire