You Have to Give Them Hope

harvey-milkI am home after a whirlwind trip to the Bay Area. A friend of mine, Michael Gaffney was doing a reading of the one man show he’s been working on for a few years now and because I’m not working and I could, I decided to drive up for it on Monday and come back last night. He lives in the East Bay and the show was in Berkeley. I thought I was going to head home yesterday morning, but the City by the Bay called to me. I could not be that close to San Francisco without crossing that bridge, both literally and metaphorically.

So, I drove first to Coit Tower. I parked on Sansome, I think, and decided to climb the Filbert steps to the Tower. I huffed and puffed my way to the top, and enjoyed the lovingly restored structure with WPA murals and an ancient Otis Elevator and took several pictures from the observatory deck. And then I took another set of steps down, back to my car. As I was pondering the mixed blessing that living in one of these Telegraph Hill apartments would pose, I noticed a plaque, in a garden. This was Grace Marchant Garden and the plaque itself was to honor a man named Gary Kray who tended to the garden from 1979 to 2012. “His selfless dedication to friends and flowers will always be remembered.” Of course, I wondered if Gary Kray might have been gay, reasoning that any man who tends to a garden, in San Francisco, for 33 years, well, it’s possible, if not likely. This morning, I found his obituary where a friend shared that Kray’s big loves were San Francisco, Paris and the British Monarchy, so, you can draw your own conclusions. His obituary also told me that he worked nights as a cab driver so he could maintain his garden during the day. I thought about the sacrifice he made for doing something he loved and how that sacrifice touched the hearts of so many people. And his work lives on. Anyone, tourist or local, can stop and enjoy the flora and fauna as they take in the spectacular views: it’s a legacy.
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After a quick visit to the Sutro Baths and the fairly new incarnation of the Cliff House, I headed to the Castro for a quick lunch before hitting the road. I walked by The GLBT History Museum, and thought, this is my solo San Francisco adventure, I should check this out. It’s basically one large room and one could spend 15 minutes or a couple of hours there. What struck me most was the section dedicated to Harvey Milk. There was a hologram image of Milk and a blue button with instructions to push the button to listen to an excerpt from his famous tape recording that is featured in the film Milk, where he surmises that an assassination might be imminent and he conjectures what his legacy might be in the event of his death. I had turned away from the hologram as I listened to his words, while looking at pictures and artifacts, I heard him talk about someone from Altoona, Pennsylvania who called him, sharing that Milk’s election had given him hope. Harvey Milk also offered that, if he was assassinated, he would hope to see “every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know.” As I pondered his legacy, I turned around and noticed that the hologram was gone and through the glass, I saw a blood stained suit laid out. My response was surely the curators’ intention because I was truly shocked by its presence. As Harvey Milk continued to speak, I scanned the crimson soiled shirt and tie and jacket. As I became a bit emotional, his words were both a salve and a call to action. His life and death affected and inspired so many people, all races, all sexual identities, all ages.

I thought about Gary Kray and Harvey Milk as I drove down the 5 last night. How these San Franciscans had had these very different, but enduring legacies. They both were a product and a tribute to a city that holds many treasured memories for me.

I must confess now that I’ve buried my lead, and I did it on purpose. Because even more than Gary Kray and Harvey Milk, the person I thought about most as I travelled home was my friend Michael. He’s been the subject and guest star in several of my blogs as well as an occasional guest blogger. His show, at Berkeley Playhouse, a one night only event (so far), was a staged reading of his solo memoir The Oldest Living Cater Waiter: My Life in Three Courses. While he’s been a professional actor for over 25 years, he’s also been a cater waiter for several years. His story is about the juxtaposition of the two careers, the two worlds. It was something I clearly related to, having worked in restaurants, on and off, since I was 19, but it’s a universal theme. Who among us can say that our lives have turned out exactly the way we thought they would? Michael’s story made me laugh and cry, with honesty and humility and passion and tenacity. It must also be noted that the theatre (designed by Julia Morgan, btw) was filled by other artists and cater waiters and artist-cater waiters who love and root for Michael as much as I do. I think it’s rare for someone to be as loved, treasured as he is. I’m so proud of the work that he’s done on this show and I look forward to the next chapter.

So, three men. Three very different legacies, but they were the men who permeated my thoughts and even spoke to me on that long drive home last night. I remembered another famous speech by Harvey Milk, about giving people hope, its importance, and how each of these three gave and give me hope in their own ways. It could have been a lonely trip, but I felt I was in good company.

This Takes Me Back

photo-37I am home now, but a few hours ago, I was walking through the David Hockney Exhibit at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.  Eric and I were in the city this week working a job together and I had a little extra time, so I went to the exhibit.  I used to live in San Francisco and as I drove along Fell and into Golden Gate Park, I remembered how I would often go for a run from my apartment near Alamo Square to the Pacific Ocean, along Fell, through the park, and then I’d turn around and run home.  I marvelled that there was ever a time when I had that much energy.

As I was walking through the exhibit, I noticed a gentleman about my Dad’s age lean in to say something to his wife.  They were looking at a rather large piece, entitled “Midsummer: East Yorkshire” which was composed of several panels of paintings.  I’d noticed him earlier, he was wearing a thin scarf around his neck and he just didn’t look like the scarf-wearing type.   He then pushed a finger up to his scarf and with a gravelly voice, whispered, “This takes me back to our trips to England.”  Then the two of them stared at the paintings in silence for a few moments, presumably lost in the memories of the vacations that they’d taken together through the years.  I don’t know the story of the scarf, if it’s something he’s dealt with for years or if it’s a new development, if it’s temporary or permanent.  He reminded me of my father, who last year for a couple of months had a tracheostomy tube and we wondered for a while if it might be permanent.  

When I saw the couple, for a moment, I thought I would write about them, then decided, no, there isn’t that much of a story.  Then in the next room, there was a very elderly couple, also taking in the same exhibit.  They were in their 90’s and the husband was bent over and the wife, who was only in slightly better shape than him, was helping him adjust his audio ear pieces that one sometimes rents at museums.  And while I was staring, yet again, I noticed my scarved friend was watching them, too.  I don’t know exactly what he was thinking, but it appeared to me, the look on his face said, “Don’t let this happen to me.”  Or maybe his look was just, “I wonder if this will be me.”  It’s hard to read looks, even when you’re a documented voyeur, I mean, people watcher.

And then, in the very next room, there was an installation called “Woldgate Woods” which depicted a road and the trees surrounding, on four different walls, at four different times of a year, April, June, early November and late November.  In the late November piece, there was snow glistening on the road and in the trees.  Certainly, it was intentionally evocative of the seasons of life and it reminded me of Thomas Cole’s “Voyage of Life” series, which depicts the four stages of human life.  And not only was I witnessing it at the DeYoung as I walked through those rooms.  I was a part of it.  I was a 45-year-old man, remembering those enduring, athletic runs of my youth, looking at these men at 70 and 90, wondering if this was going to be me, wondering if I could accept if it were to be my plight.

Last night, after our hosts took us to dinner in the Marina, Eric and I decided to walk from the restaurant to the home where we were staying in Pacific Heights.  After a few days of bitter cold, it was a balmy 50 degrees.  Many houses were decorated for Christmas, the Golden Gate Bridge was always within our eyeline.  As we walked around the Palace of Fine Arts, we took pictures and talked to the five swans that came to greet us at the water’s edge.  We talked about Ricky and Millie, because being around these gorgeous, flirty, talkative creatures made us miss our own gorgeous, flirty, talkative creatures back home.  And then we walked up Baker Street at what felt like a 75 degree angle, huffing, puffing, and laughing the whole way.  I guessed we laughed too much to call it romantic, but when we finally made it home, it felt like we’d made a special memory.  

And today, as I was driving down the 5 back to Los Angeles, already missing Eric, who is coming home tomorrow, it made me hope that one day, 20-40 years from now, we might be in a museum together and we might see a painting of Golden Gate Bridge, or Coit Tower, or the Presidio, or the Palace of Fine Arts and one of us (no matter what kind of shape we are in) will lean in and whisper to the other, “This takes me back to our trips to San Francisco.”