Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Legend of Saint Harvey Milk

A line of trucks was parked on Van Ness in front of City Hall on Friday, and I assumed they were setting up yet another large, corporate party in the City Hall rotunda.

Suddenly, a gust of wind blew the covering off the backside of one of the trucks, and I saw a hand-painted sign that read "GAY PRIDE." After a moment of total disconnect, my first thought was, "Gosh, that sign looks old-fashioned," and then realized that it was purposefully old-fashioned and that the trucks were hauling movie equipment for the Gus Van Sant film, "Milk," about the gay San Francisco Supervisor who was assassinated in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone.

It's very odd to have lived through a dramatic series of historical events, playing one's own bit part, and then watch the legends and stories accrue to those same events as manufactured mythology.

All San Franciscans were invited to be extras at a march in the Civic Center neighborhood a couple of weeks ago, to recreate the spontaneous candlelight march from Castro and Market to City Hall on the night of the assassinations, but I decided not to take part for a number of reasons. For one, I didn't feel like staying up all night, but it was also because time's river really has moved on.

My downstairs neighbor Richard, who lived through the same period in San Francisco, and has wicked stories about everybody from Cleve Jones to Dennis Peron, asked me, "Do you remember what the Castro was like in the late 70's? Everybody was young! There were virtually no old people except for the straight families who hadn't moved out yet." His memory is right, and there's no equivalent in San Francisco anymore, certainly not in the Castro. The only neighborhood filled with young people is the Haight-Ashbury, who are trying to follow an even older template, the 1960s hippies.

I've discovered over the years that politicians can have good politics (in other words, I agree with them) but still be miserable people as human beings. The reverse, interestingly enough, is also true. Harvey Milk, however, had both good politics and was a wonderful human being, with a rare mixture of fervor and humor. In 1976, a year before he was finally elected to the Board of Supervisors, I ran into him at the San Francisco Opera where he had a subscription in the Balcony Circle. I was in the top balcony standing room with Dennis, my boyfriend at the time, for Britten's "Peter Grimes" featuring a performance by Jon Vickers from which I still haven't quite recovered. Harvey came by after the first act and tapped us on the shoulder. "I know the couple next to me are not going to be showing up. Why don't you join me?" That's how we ended up in the front of the balcony sitting next to a future legend and listening to a present-tense legend.

One of the worst side effects of Milk's murder was the ascension of the reactionary hack Dianne Feinstein into the mayor's chair and subsequent U.S. Senate seat, even though she was mentor to the assassin Dan White. Still, Dianne was about the only amusing character in the forgettable "Harvey Milk" opera by Stewart Wallace that premiered in Houston and San Francisco in the early 1990s. Let's hope Gus Van Sant does a better job with the myth.


Unknown said...

I don't know if it counts as the Haight but we took my father-in-law to eat at Zazie on Cole Street last weekend and the average age of the crowd was about 28. It definitely felt like the Obama generation.

The photo with MTT overlooking the truck with the Gay Pride sign is great, by the way.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Nice post -- this is kind of the ultimate Civic Center post. It captures so much of what you do.

The Opera Tattler said...

That's one of the cutest SF Opera stories I've heard.

janinsanfran said...

The best thing about that era was the White night riots -- all those burning police cars ... Interestingly, a photo of that scene is preserved on what appears to be the official SFPD history site here.

Civic Center said...

Jan, you really are an anarchist and I agree with you completely. I adored the White Night Riots and was part of the original march, left when things started getting hairy at City Hall (in other words, just before the illuminated police cars), and then managed to wander into the police riot in The Castro after having sex with somebody I'd met in the middle of all this. Actually, that's the movie I want to see.

momo said...

I like that screenplay idea!

I was living in Berkeley as a student at the time, and remember when someone came running into Kingpin Donuts where I worked with the news. I was about to go see the Talking Heads on Lower Sproul plaza. And yes, they played "Pyscho Killer."

Nancy Ewart said...

I remember the White Nights but maybe not as fondly as you do. I was the admitting /intake worker at Davies Medical Center and had to do a double shift because of all the injured. I saw enough bloody heads and broken noses to last me a long long time.

Civic Center said...

Dear Nancy: Well, that would certainly be a different take on the evening. I was living a block away on 14th and Buena Vista Terrace at the time.

Did you take care of any of the people who were beaten up by the police down in the Castro? I remember the oddest thing was leaving the City Hall scene, going to the Castro, and finding all kinds of gay people at the bars who were horrified at those people who were rioting in Civic Center, poorly-behaved fags who were creating "a bad image" for all of us. And suddenly, out of the blue, all of these apolitical folk were having the crap beaten out of them by a rogue group of San Francisco cops who decided to kick some ass in the Castro. Very dark times, actually.

Nancy Ewart said...

Yes, these were the people in the Castro who had the shit kicked out of them by the Tac Force plus others who came from the general mess at City Hall. That night was so chaotic that we had ambulances going from hospital to hospital, looking for places with open beds. The police all went to St. Francis which had (maybe still does have) the contract with the police to provide emergency care. I had a friend who worked there and had a hard time acting professional when these bullies in blue came in with blood running down their faces. Unfortunately, there were more civilians injured than police. I forgot how much it cost the city but I know that the hospital took a huge financial hit because people were lying about their names and few had insurance. But we had to provide care to the injured and we did just that. I am not a trained nurse but I did have ER training for such an event so I was emptying emesis basis, running for bandages, and setting up trays of emergency surgical supplies. The whole night was rather a blur of blood and fatigue and I felt so sorry for those who had started out protesting a disgraceful murder and ended up being beaten black and blue by the boys in blue.