Friday, September 27, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 2: San Francisco in the Disco Era

I grew up in New York City, but my family first visited San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967. I didn’t meet many writers during that brief stay in the Bay Area in my teens.

That started to change in 1978, when I followed my poet girlfriend to San Francisco, arriving on the last day of rainy season. I bought an umbrella and didn’t use it again the entire seven months I was in San Francisco, to my amazement. I grew up with summer storms with fists of thunder and prongs of lightning, something you almost never hear or see in California. I lived that year in a communal apartment, again in North Beach. I bought a used, manual typewriter from a guy outside City Lights Bookstore and banged out poems in my “pad.”

That summer I spent much more time dancing than at literary events. It was the height of the disco era, and North Beach, where I lived for the second time, had several great disco clubs. There was one called Dance Your Ass Off on Columbus Avenue, which was sometimes fun, but my favorite was a club called The City, right on Broadway, about a block east of City Lights. You could either listen to singers on the ground floor, or dance upstairs. The singers included the legendary Sylvester, who had just released “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” making him an international star. The disco dancing went on till about 2:00 a.m. with a very mixed gay and straight crowd, pretty unusual, even for the disco era. Lots of flashing lights and mirrors, and a great DJ who kept things jumping with vinyl songs that went on forever. 

Marquee of The City disco in North Beach
San Francisco in the late 70s had not yet entered the era of AIDS. It was the height of the sexual revolution, and many relationships began and ended quickly.

I hung out a lot in Noe Valley that summer, which was then the hot neighborhood for artists, before it got gentrified. I was warmly and generously welcomed there into two very different literary circles. I took writing workshops with Robert (Bob) Glück at Small Press Traffic Bookstore on 24th Street. Bob is a thought-provoking teacher with a wry and mischievous sense of humor. Small Press Traffic was then the center of a growing school of writers that included Steve Abbott, Dodie Bellamy, Bruce Boone, and Kevin Killian. Those writers were interested in breaking down the conventions of narrative, and in exploring sexuality in an explicit way. Small Press Traffic Bookstore was so politically correct that they actually had separate sections for male and female writers. The workshops were held right in the dining area of the person who ran the bookstore, who lived upstairs, and she would appear occasionally during class to grab a plum or a yogurt from her refrigerator.

The original Small Press Traffic Bookstore in Noe Valley, San Francisco
I also got to sit in on a fiction workshop that used to meet in Noe Valley in the Victorian home of Ruthanne (Roxie) Lum McCunn. Though they only met a few blocks away, that group was very different from the Small Press Traffic school. The younger fiction writers at Roxie’s—who included Jay Schaefer, Carol Tarlen, Genevieve Belfiglio, and Chris Davis—were exploring narrative but taking it into new subject matter that did not appear in traditional fiction. Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold, which told the story of a Chinese woman in the West during the Gold Rush, was a perfect example of that.

I also got to hear some good San Francisco poets that summer, including a reading at Fort Mason of sexy new work by Summer Brenner and Jana Harris. There was a sign-language interpreter at the event, which I hadn’t seen yet on the East Coast. I also got to hear Genny Lim, a dynamic performer who combines jazz, politics, and poetry.

Though I tried my best to find out about the literary scene in San Francisco during my stay in the Disco Era, I still didn’t know many people in California. I was starting to miss my friends in New York, and I only stayed on in San Francisco until just before the rains started in the fall. Then I moved back to the East Coast. The next time I relocated to the Bay Area, though, it was for keeps.

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