By 1977 I needed to move. As a result visiting large cities for weekends or short vacations, I determined I'd be happier in an urban setting than in Ames. I really felt that my life was stagnating in Iowa.
I liked Minneapolis a lot but it had an immense problem I didn't like a lot: it was even colder than Iowa. I didn't like winter at all. Minneapolis was nice most of the time in the summer. I didn't like Iowa summer at all…neither the heat nor the humidity.
Chicago was fun to visit but I never seemed to think about moving there; I can't put my finger exactly on why. Regardless, Chicago weather was no better than the weather in Iowa. I had two good friends who were roommates in Chicago, John Cantrall and Paul Lakeberg, but they, ironically enough, seemed to enjoy visiting Iowa, and had fantasies about living in the country. (Another guy I met in Chicago once came to visit me in Ames and said, upon seeing the I.S.U. campus, "Wow! It's a real Ozzie and Harriet School!" A bit of an exaggeration but not much.) John C. and Paul L. came to visit Ames more than once, and either both of them or else just Paul was visiting me in the summer of 1976 when I still lived out in the country shack north of Ames. I threw a fairly large country party that summer, to which a lot of diverse groups of people came, and I remember some of the straight folk were not particularly enamored by my disco music (but really, now, could anybody dislike "Turn the Beat Around" or "Cherchez la Femme" -- an anthem full of lush memories for many of us!). A bit ticked off by their whining, I reminded them, "But I listen to that stuff you play when I go to your parties and I never complain even though I don't like it!" Not everybody understood disco as a form of gay culture, and to many folks it became pointless to try to explain after the Great Chicago Disco Fire in 1979.
In May, 1977, my friend Anne Jenkins and I drove my Ford Pinto to San Francisco to visit a mutual friend, Steve Brown. She stayed with him for the week and several days that we were in San Francisco; I stayed in a house in Haight-Ashbury one or two blocks north of Haight Street on Clayton. My friend John (from Chicago) knew people who lived there. John had quit his job in Chicago and was taking a bicycle trip across America that summer and then planned to move to San Francisco; he kept telling me I should move here too, and though it was the most alluring concept I could think of, I kept wavering. It was so damned far away from everything I had known.
The house where John had made arrangements for me to stay during my 1977 vacation had one real advantage. It was absolutely impossible to forget the people's name in the local phone book if you forgot their number. They actually weren't listed under their own names, but rather as "Sissy Queen" although now I can't remember if it was Under "S" or under "Q" (Queen, Sissy).
Their household had four men living in it. One was a poet/writer from Chicago. He, named Gus, was the man who was John's friend. Another guy was a practicing witch who got up and chanted in the morning as the sun rose. The other two were lovers and ex-hare krishnas; one was named Marzipan and I can't remember the other's name. I remember they said they felt nostalgia sometimes about leaving the krishnas behind. I wondered how many airports they knew inside out.
Despite feeling I'd been around and had a fair amount of experience under my belt by this day in 1977, I'd never in my travels met such an eclectic group of folks in one household! They were fun; the ex-krishnas loved [the TV shows] Mary Hartman!, Mary Hartman! and Fernwood Tonight (on at a more reasonable time than in Central Iowa), the poet was rabid about politics and was apt to get much too animated and angry when he discussed the world's - i.e. amerika's - problems. The witch was soft spoken and his original name was John, though I can't remember the name he used in the household (I only knew it was John because his parents sent him a letter that I retrieved from the mail slot downstairs and took up to the apartment, and he said it was for him). Once he told me to use some plant juices from an aloe vera growing in their sun room on a rash that appeared on my arm one day. Indeed, the red went away almost immediately. Aloe was not something I'd ever encountered at Iowa at that time.
On my first night in San Francisco, I left the house and walked about five blocks over to a gay bar called "Bones," a dance bar that had large cardboard cutouts of African animals standing stoic in its corners (large giraffes, lions, etc.). I entered the bar, went to watch people dancing, then turned around to get a drink and standing beside one of the animals (cardboard variety) was Ken Bunch, a man I knew from Iowa City! He had moved to San Francisco about a year earlier, he said (and it would be two years later when he and Fred Brungard, another Iowa Citian, founded the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence).
There were over 100 gay bars in San Francisco in the summer of 1977. There were probably that many organizations catering to the gay community. Gay people were everywhere; the streets were full and the lifestyle was best described as continual Party (capital P). It was a time of truly amazing hedonism with, well maybe, some itsy bitsy excess mixed in. It was a good year to be 24 years old and visiting California.
During the vacation I also ran into other groups of Midwestern people I had known from Gay Conferences in Iowa City or from my travels. I never met a native San Franciscan during the entire vacation. People lived dressed in jeans and t-shirts, rarely would you see gay people dressed up in the clothes that were fashionable in, say, Des Moines, at that time. Though "casual" on first glance, it was actually its own form of carefully contrived "clone" drag (the people were called Castro Clones), but was sure a lot easier than going the fluffy clothing route, if you asked me.
One afternoon during rush hour, as people poured into the neighborhoods from downtown, I was walking by the corner of Market and Castro Streets in the heart of gay San Francisco, and noticed an old man, probably in his 60s, standing by the Bank of America (presently Noah's Bagels). He was selling the now stale morning newspapers. "Get your Chronicle!" he yelled in a gruff and sturdy voice, the words impressed on his vocal chords from years of practice, I'd wager. At the end of the sales pitch there would be a timed, almost pregnant, pause. The pause worked out perfectly for another entrepreneur who took full advantage of the gap to add her own wares to this street side flea market. Every time he finished with the word "Chronicle," she butted in, in perfect cadence, "Acid? Window Pane?" They, who were an odd combo indeed, hitting on a diverse looking group of downtown commuters returning home from the grind of a simpler day than today, loudly trying to sell their odd two item combos alone or together, hocking in perfect rhythm with consideration granted each other despite being from worlds that looked to be a million miles apart, symbolized so perfectly the city of San Francisco, more diverse and civilized than any other I'd ever seen.
By the end of my too short stay in San Francisco, I loved the city. And why not? It was beautiful! The weather was wonderful. It was cool, it was foggy or misty, yet gentle most of the time with a bearable humidity not stifling from jungly oppressive afternoons. By noon in the summer the sun would generally push its way through the morning haze, and in June it might, on a warm day, reach 75 degrees, but inevitable ocean breezes would keep it chilly and sleepable at night, and even often in the daytime. San Francisco was the composite autumn and spring that I'd always longed for but missed in Iowa, where cool and pleasant days are a scarce commodity that barely get noticed between those times when the cold sweeps into hot and the hot returns the favor.
Yes, I liked San Francisco weather.
I liked San Francisco Victorian architecture.
I liked San Francisco politics (not the City Hall variety, of course).
Before I left, I vowed I would return, and bring the cats, and we would make San Francisco home.
When the vacation ended, Ann and I did a very long double overnighter driving marathon without much or any rest (unplanned) and got back to Iowa after 36 or 37 hours of endless Interstate 80. The minor accident in Wyoming wasn't so terrible. I dropped her off in her hometown of Perry, and, though terribly exhausted, I had to stop in Des Moines at the bars since it was a Saturday night, my friends would be there, and I needed to show everybody the cool flight jacket I had to buy in San Francisco to face the chilly summer nights I hadn't expected. (Since I'm not one to be terribly into clothes, indeed it DID have to be special.)
I got so damned little sleep during that long drive and was probably cranky if not delirious, but Iowa still looked wonderful to get home to after the dual plagues of Wyoming and Nebraska. Right in Eastern Nebraska, right before you see Iowa but when you can taste it, there's a spot when things suddenly got green and lush. We crossed the Missouri and indeed I felt I was home. Indeed it was still home then even if I'd seen another shore. My lack of sleep mixed with No Doze made the street lights seem to have feet and they appeared almost to be walking around and bending over the streets of Ames as I got into town and drove home.
In March, 1978, I quit my job in Ames and went to Europe with a backpack and about $1300. I spent eight weeks and came home with only $3 in my pocket. This was cutting it closer than I'd planned, but there were circumstances (of course, aren't there always!?…damned Icelandic Airlines!) that forced me to stay a wee bit longer than was a good idea.
About two weeks after my return, Freda Tepfer, a neighbor who lived down the street from the house where I'd last lived in Ames (Burnett Street), had her own going away party, as she was moving to Idaho. I was invited and attended, though she whined it was my third going away party, and I should just be gone! (I'd had one for myself and David Halterman had thrown one for me too, and NOW I was at hers).
Not to disappoint her, and I guess it couldn't have been any more dramatic an exit not really meant to spoil her own goodbye party, at about 10 in the evening I said my last good byes as an Iowan and didn't dally any longer…. Parked on the street was the small U-Haul attached to my small Pinto (living/moving dangerously methinks now), in the U-Haul I'd crammed a lot of the items I absolutely had to keep and couldn't imagine living without, some of this and that; some furniture, cooking utensils, papers, lots of papers, and the rest of my 27 year of life's worth memories somehow forced into such a small space. I rounded up my (two) cats (on cat tranquilizers that had absolutely NO effect during night driving), and, along with a friend, Mike Anderson, who graciously rode along to help and keep me company during the travels (and who would then spend his own summer's vacation in San Francisco after we arrived), I left.
Ames had been good to me since September 1, 1970. May 17, 1978, at 1 AM, I was a San Franciscan.