Gus Van Sant’s Milk has been shooting on Castro Street for several days now, even making the front page of the Chronicle on Wednesday. Finally unable to resist the pull of the Castro any longer I dash out of the house at 11am this morning to go see for myself where the action is. It’s a warm, clear morning. The freshly painted red and white Castro Theatre marquee pops into view as I drive over the crest of Castro Street just around 22nd.
I park at 17th and Sanchez and walk up 17th Street to Castro. I gaze wistfully into Twin Peaks, the bar where all the old-timers hang out (also offensively dubbed: “The Glass Coffin” in reference to the age of the clientele) and I wonder how many of those guys were actually around 30 years ago, probably knew Harvey Milk, etc.
I stroll slowly, mindfully down Castro Street past all the re-created vintage storefronts: Double Rainbow, a pretend real estate office, the old Eureka Valley Savings. Down past Cliff’s Hardware and A Different Light, which have not been made over. I cross 18th and watch the guys removing the huge Bank of America plastic lighted sign from the roof of the big corner building in preparation for this weekend’s shooting. I stop into Castro Video to say hello to store manager Richard Rovatti. Richard reminisces about his memories of his first visit to the Castro back in 1979 when he saw a Bette Davis double feature at the Castro Theatre. I usually stop in to visit Richard every few weeks and we lament the ongoing demise of the neighborhood as the storefronts continue to go dark – The Patio Restaurant is gone, the famous old rainbow colored steps, the camera store on the corner at 18th. And it’s not just simple, whiny nostalgia. It’s a genuine concern for the viability of the neighborhood — which continues to weather the blows of old businesses leaving without new businesses moving in to take their place. The number of empty storefronts in the Castro today is particularly depressing in contrast to this nostalgic sense of it as such a vibrant place in the era of Harvey Milk.
I proceed up towards 19th stopping to get some cash at the Wells Fargo ATM and peeking into the Castro Camera Store that has been recreated for the shoot right there on the spot of Harvey Milk’s original Castro Camera. The door is guarded by a woman on a folding chair who is so busy chatting on her cell phone I could probably just walk right in and look around but I resist the urge. The Anchor Oyster Bar next door has never stopped looking vintage – no makeover needed there. And then the title company (which has a sandwich board out front saying it is still open for business) has been lovingly transformed into the psychedelic Aquarius Records.
It’s Friday so I cross the street to pick up a loaf of challah from Buffalo Foods (just across from the HRC Store! What would Harvey think of HRC?!) and proceed back down the other side of the street past the freshly scavenged vintage neon McConnely Liquor Store sign. I picture Harvey Milk dashing across Castro Street for a bottle of something or other – the liquor store being pretty much directly across from Castro Camera. I picture him inside his store. I picture him recording the cassette tape he made on the evening of November 18th, 1977 – just weeks after he was elected to the Board of Supervisors, becoming the nation’s first openly gay elected official. On this tape, which is about 13 minutes long, he outlines his wishes for who should succeed him as Supervisor in the event of his assassination. He talks about his vision for the gay movement. And his desire that when he is killed there should be no religious services. And then he embarks on a passionate indictment of the Church and religious zealots like Anita Bryant who have been: “playing gymnastics with the Bible.”
“I’d turn over in my grave if there were any kind of religious ceremony,” he commands angrily into the microphone. “No. No services whatsoever. If anything, maybe just play that tape of [conservative Senator John] Briggs and I, which is somewheres in the back in the file cabinet [at the camera store]. Just play that tape of Briggs and I over and over again. So people know — what an evil man he is. So people know — where the seeds of hate, come from… So that people know — what the future’s gonna bring if they’re not careful. That’s all. That’s all I ask.”
I was just listening to the recording yesterday and it is just amazing to hear him – talking about himself in the past tense, really knowing that he was so likely to be assassinated.
How do I happen to have access to this morbid historical artifact, you’re wondering. During the final sound mix for the DVD release of my film, The Joy of Life I happened to be in touch with Harvey’s friend Dan Nicoletta about the tape, which seemed so clearly something that should be properly preserved. I asked Dan to hook me up with Harvey’s attorney Walter Caplan who has had the tape all these years. With the tape in hand, I went to my sound engineer, Jim Lively, and in the name of preserving one of the most chilling documents of San Francisco history Jim spent several hours making a digital preservation master as well as CD reference copies for Walter and Dan and Rob Epstein (The Times of Harvey Milk), and also one for the LGBT Historical Society.
In front of The Body Shop I run into my favorite punk-rocker novelist friend Lynnee Breedlove who reminisces about having been in the City and out since the mid-70s. She tells me about the feature script she’s working on (based on her novel, Godspeed) and I feel the pang of resentment that I’ve been feeling ever since the announcement that the Milk movie was really finally happening. It is a familiar, unrestrainable bitterness, envy really, towards the white gay men who somehow manage (not that it’s not a struggle for them as well) to pull together the resources to make big movies about gay white men. And I think: I want to see Lynee’s lesbo/trannyboy movie get that kind of budget and those kind of resources behind it. I want to see Stone Butch Blues and Rubyfruit Jungle and the story of any number of important lesbian historical figures…
I cross 18th Street again and head up to see the re-created Toad Hall in the space where Daddy’s is, just across from the Castro Theatre. I half-heartedly snap a picture before heading back down to get a decaf triple short mocha from the Starbucks at 18th Street that is generally referred to around these parts as Bearbucks for the density of large furry gay men who congregate on the sidewalk outside.
The Bearbucks used to be a Pasqua, part of small chain of California cafes that was bought out by Starbucks as a stealthy way of invading a neighborhood with zoning ordinances that wouldn’t allow a national chain to open a new store. So there was a period of time where it was this kind of hybrid thing between Pasqua and Starbucks. I have never really understood how they finally got away with coming fully out of the closet as a Starbucks. They did a similar thing at the Mariposa and Bryant store – opening it as some other restaurant and then eventually revealing themselves in their true colors.
I get my coffee and sit down as Emile Hirsch (or one of those hot young guys in the movie - or probably just some cute extra) walks in carrying his rolled up baby blue script. He spends a considerable amount of time dumping sugar in his Vente something or other while a hushed awareness of his presence echoes across the café.
This particular Starbucks invariably makes me feel weepy. A general sense of melancholy pervades the space. I feel the ghosts of all the gay men who should still be here. And then there’s my curiosity about the men I see around me, the men who survived. I want to hear their stories. I feel their stories in my heart without them having to tell me. And so I am always strangely on the verge of tears when I’m in there. It’s even worse today.
I walk back up Castro and drop into A Different Light where I chat briefly with noted African American gay photographer and former Frameline board member Duane Cramer about the unlikelihood of much diversity being on view in the film. We have a moment fantasizing about a Bayard Rustin biopic and agree that his story really would make a terrifically entertaining motion picture.
Moments later I am standing in front of the gelato place chatting with Cav Wine Bar owner (and sometime lesbian filmmaker) Pamela Busch, who lives at 19th and Castro and says she has been watching the shooting since last week. We’re free-associating from Harvey to Obama. I express my feeling of depression about the impending anti-gay marriage ballot measure (the “National Organization for Marriage” has just started gathering signatures to put it on the November ballot). And I can’t help thinking how twenty years ago Harvey Milk was fighting the same strain of gay-hate as we are today. Just weeks before he was assassinated he led the victory against the Briggs Initiative, Senator John Briggs’ ballot measure that would have banned gays and lesbians from teaching in California’s public school system. Here’s hoping the intelligence of California voters prevails again as it did in 1978 when the Briggs Initiative was resoundingly defeated. Here’s hoping... And a lot of hard work and cash. Click here to donate some money to Equality California now or to find out other ways you can help.
Just as I’m saying goodbye to Pamela, legendary gay porn star and photographer Peter Berlin walks past.
Peter and I walk slowly back up this side of the street to 17th sharing our mutual feelings of melancholy. He tells me he wasn’t very politically aware back in the ‘70s. He had other things going on in his life. But his eyes tear up as he looks over at Toad Hall and casts his memory back to the days. We stand there side by side, he puts his arm around my shoulder with the instant familiarity we seemed to have in the moment we first met, at Eric Smith’s New Year’s Day brunch just over a year ago. There is this accelerated intimacy that happens with celebrities when they sense you are someone who is NOT trying to get something from them.
“Do you think it will be a good movie?” he asks.
“Yes, I do,” I say. And I really think it will be.
We both fight back a tear and say goodbye. And Peter walks off towards Market Street, crossing 17th against the light as all the good local queers know to do. While the tourists stand at the curb and wait.
I can’t help but think of Brokeback Mountain – as a huge gay-themed film that impacted mainstream audiences while at the same time resonating profoundly with gay audiences. Milk looks poised for a similar kind of impact given the team behind the camera and the cast in front of it. Perhaps they’ll finish in time for a June premiere at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, which is held just up the street from Castro Camera —where Harvey helped process all the rag-tag Super 8 homo movies that launched the first “San Francisco Gay Film Festival” the very year before he was assassinated. Godspeed.