It Was 40 Years Ago Today

November 27th, 2018 by tony

For better or for worse having lived through a historic event inclines one to dwell on it or perhaps incorporate it as a seminal touchstone from then on. In November 1978 two such events took place for me: the Jonestown mass suicide and the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone by Dan White. I didn’t personally know anyone who was part of the People’s Temple or Jonestown nor did I ever meet Milk or Moscone in person. But Jim Jones, Harvey Milk, and George Moscone touched many lives in the Bay Area and they definitely were part of the post-60s ethos: radical Christianity of the poor, identity politics, and violence as a reaction to the cultural throes we were experiencing. It was like the end of a dream and left a withering cynicism among some and acted as a call to greater action to others.

40 years is a long time. I think about how Pearl Harbor, undoubtedly a turning point in the lives of the Americans who lived through it or during it, yet to me it was just another distant historic event, on a feeling level no different than the American Revolution or the Civil War—abstractions. So it is with the Milk/Moscone assassinations for many of you.

I had never been to Milk’s memorial at the SF Columbarium nor to Moscone’s grave in Colma. To give you an idea how long it’s has been on my mind, about ten years ago I was thinking of leading a ride to see them. But it just didn’t come together; I was busy chasing high heart rates and had a busy work schedule as well. About a month ago I suddenly realized it was 40 years ago when those events took place. Wow, a lifetime. So I made it happen and on time, which is contrary to my usual MO, i.e. to completely forget about an anniversary until a week later.

Fortunately the Camp Fire smoke ended and the rains did as well. Roger was going to miss the ride for medical reasons but at the last minute threw caution to the wind and came along.

We took BART to the City and rode from Civic Center to McLaren Lodge. I’ve done it many times since moving out of the City, but this time I was noticing the changes along the way. Long time businesses that were there in 1978 were no more. There are now so many more cyclists plying the streets than 40 years ago. Ah, but the old Freewheel Bike Shop is still there on Hayes!

Starting a ride at McLaren Lodge is a real throwback. In the early days of the club it was THE place to start a ride, that position having been usurped by Peet’s in the Castro. I remember meeting Michael John, Bob Humason, Dennis Westler, Abel Galvan, Walter Teague, Ron DeCamp, and many others—some now ghosts—at McLaren to head out on rides. In any case no one else chose to join us for a stroll to the boneyards so off we went to Colma.

Getting to Colma is pretty easy and we decided to take the ‘scenic’ route: through GG Park to the Great Highway and then down the coast to Westlake Shopping Center, and then cutting through to Hillside Blvd. By now the fog had lifted and it was a beautiful blue sky day, perfect for a visit to the cemeteries. Once in Colma housing and businesses abruptly stop at the city limit and are replaced by miles and miles of green lawns of the various cemeteries. Some of them have their origin in being kicked out of SF, the land being too valuable to leave to the dead. George Moscone is buried in Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery but there are plenty of other well-known figures interred in Colma and why not pay them a visit as well? Our first stop was Woodlawn Memorial Park where Jose Sarria a.k.a. the Widow Norton was laid to rest. You may have heard of Jose Sarria from his drag doppelganger, the Widow Norton, a drag gag take on the famous SF eccentric, Emperor Norton. The latter declared himself the ruler of the US and Mexico in 1859 and was treated deferentially by Barbary Coasters despite being a bona fide bum. The Emperor Norton was interred at Woodlawn and by coincidence the plot directly in front of his was available and that is where the Widow Norton is buried! You may not know that Jose Sarria was much more than his drag persona. Before Harvey he was the first openly homosexual candidate for the SF Board of Supervisors back in 1961. He came in 9th out of over 30 candidates and got 6,000 votes. Sarria also founded an early LGBT rights organizations, the League for Civil Education. He got his taste of discrimination when he was busted for cruising in a tea room and the morals charges prevented him from becoming a public school teacher. He ended up working as a waiter at the infamous Black Cat bar at the edge of North Beach, a gay hangout, that was repeatedly raided by the SF Police because it was then illegal to sell alcohol to homosexuals as well as to “impersonate members of the opposite sex.” When he was dolled up as the Widow Norton or any of his other drag personae, he wore a button that said “I’m a boy” to get around that idiotic law.

Finding Sarria’s gravesite took some effort. Woodlawn isn’t on Hillside Blvd. where all the other cemeteries are located, rather it’s down off of Junipero Serra. We eventually found it and the office kindly gave us a map. We had to climb up a steep hillside to get to his plot and we only found it after scurrying around on a very wet lawn for about 20 minutes. But there it was. On his tombstone it says, “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.” Someone else had recently visited because  fresh flowers were on the site.

“God Save Us Nelly Queens!”

A quick descent to Junipero Serra and then a slog back up to Hillside took us to our next stop, Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, to look for Wyatt Earp’s and Levi Strauss’s sites. But when we got to the entrance it was chained. What kind of cemetery isn’t open on Sundays?? After looking for a second entrance (there isn’t one) we gave up and headed south to Holy Cross.

Besides George Moscone Holy Cross has a slew of famous people buried there. You could spend the better part of a day hunting for all of the sites. But today we were looking just for Joe DiMaggio, Vince Guaraldi, and Benny Bufano. Holy Cross has two entrances and unfortunately the one I had planned to use was closed. The other entrance was open but I was disoriented because we were now off-route and Holy Cross is a bit of a warren. We rolled right by Joe DiMaggio’s grave but didn’t notice until we were further along. Oh well, another time. Finding Vince Guaraldi’s was easy. You probably know him as the composer of the music for the Peanuts special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” But he was a very well-regarded jazz pianist and a SF native as well. His grave is very modest and like a good Italian boy he’s buried along with his mother, who long outlived him. He died in 1976 at the early age of 47, a real loss to the jazz community.

After paying our respects we rolled off to our real goal, George Moscone. His site was also fairly easy to find and like Vince Guaraldi’s, a very modest bronze plaque on the ground. You would never know a Mayor of San Francisco was interred there, a nearly anonymous plaque amongst thousands. On this day hardly anyone was visiting cemeteries. Was it the good weather that turned people’s minds to other forms of pleasure and amusement? On his plaque it read, “We love you, Dad.” If you aren’t old enough or local enough, Moscone is merely a name of a historical figure. But in the 1960s and ‘70s he was a liberal politician aligned with the Burton brothers and their allies who included Willie Brown and Nancy Pelosi. He was an ally of the LGBT community during a time when being an ally was politically costly. He was known for sponsoring legislation for the first school lunch program in California as well as repealing the anti-sodomy laws. When he ran for Mayor in 1975 he beat out a terribly conservative real estate broker, John “Garbage-alotta” Barbagelata, as well as Dianne Feinstein, who to this day has never attended a Gay Freedom Day Parade in our city. (Oh, and by the way do you recall when Diane Feinstein, who succeeded the assassinated George Moscone as Mayor, vetoed the domestic partners legislation in SF?) Moscone was a true friend of our community not an expedient supporter trying to catch the LGBT gravy train.

A Friend In Need Is a Friend Indeed

Afterwards we mounted our bikes and rolled by Benny Bufano’s grave, which is topped with one of his iconic sculptures, and headed back to SF to visit Harvey. The ride back was a bit easier because Hillside Blvd. is up on a hill. So we rolled mostly downhill back to Westlake and up Lake Merced. We headed back up 37th into the Park and then up Arguello to the Columbarium. I’m sure almost all of you have never been to this hidden, tucked away, site dropped down in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Being on a cul-de-sac it was very easy to miss. The Columbarium is a place where those who’ve passed away can be memorialized. It’s not exactly a mausoleum because some of the dead people honored there actually have no cremains there. That is the case with Harvey Milk. The Columbarium may appear small but it holds the niches of a LOT of people. Fortunately there is a kiosk in the office that allows you to look up the location. For the record Harvey’s location is in the House of Olympians in the Dionysus room, tier 4, niche 26. The House of Olympians is the side building just to the east of the main capitol. Harvey’s niche is decorated with memorabilia including buttons against the Briggs Initiative, in which he was instrumental in fighting for its defeat, as well as items from the film Gus Van Sant directed about him, “Milk”. There is also a toy camera there reminding us that Harvey ran a camera shop in the Castro and from which he ran his campaign to become Supervisor.

Afterward we ran into the manager who wanted to be sure we visited the niche of Chet Helms. You remember Chet Helms, don’t you? He was THE hippie: he produced concerts at the Fillmore and the old Avalon ballroom during the ‘60s. Roger didn’t seem interested but I remember Chet Helms!

By now we were starving since we did not stop at Westlake for lunch despite plans. Luckily Velo Rouge Cafe was just a few blocks away. Being a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon I thought it would be packed but it wasn’t. In a way it was a perfect end to an interesting day: the clientele was distinctly Millenial but it looked like a Haight St. cafe from back in the day (minus the love beads and patchouli). Oh, and the huevos rancheros were excellent!

Although those days were very dark and depressing, somehow we managed to move into another era thanks to the steps that people like Harvey Milk and George Moscone made. I didn’t think I’d see them happen in my lifetime. Instead of being treated with thinly veiled contempt (or no veil whatsoever) the LGBT community is treated more like a formidable third rail: fucking with us will have a cost. Instead of getting stomped on we are fighting back. Harvey and Jose told us to fight, and we are.

“We Say Fight Back!”

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