Every week, SFist's Tenderloin correspondent brings you Urbane Studies: a column about the finer points of city lore found on individual street corners. We pick up this week at the corner of Taylor and Turk, home to the 21 Club and a significant piece of local transgendered history at Gene Compton's Cafeteria.
To claim that ghosts roam the Tenderloin is a cliché, but as the first strains of a Motörhead song rip through the 21 Club, those ghosts we refuse to believe in are exorcised from the aged wood and stone, slinking out to inhabit the more ambulatory half-ghosts who populate the streets.
A clean-cut kid gets accused of being undercover: “Don’t sell to the white boy, he's plain clothes!” someone opines from across the street. The Tenderloin, where extra-sensory perception is, at best, 50-50.
Cliché though it may be, this intersection is haunted. Haunted people, haunted with memories of what was and never will be.
Normally we'd begin this round with a look at our usual archive stalwarts, maybe spend a few hours with the Online Archive of California, where so many of the early views of the neighborhood can be found.
But we know this intersection well enough to know that the last 50 years’ worth of history will suffice, thankyouverymuch. One corner’s taken up with the parking lot behind the Warfield Theatre, while the other is Grand Liquor, now closed owing to a combination of factors, chief among them the prevailing desire to host one less liquor store in the TL.
It is the northwest corner that is the most famous un-famous corner, a site of both a great shame and incredible triumph. What happened here is recalled by a plaque, but the ladies in the neighborhood--especially those down the street at Aunt Charlie’s Lounge--very well might be able to spin you a ghost story of what once happened there.
Now it is a dull gray building, the upper floors SROs, but once upon a time it was Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, part of a chain that fed the Bay Area from the 1940s into the 1970s. $1.99 breakfast specials and unflattering lighting were not the only features recommending the joint: because the diner was open all night, it was a haunt for the working ladies and hustlers, and after the bars closed it was ground zero for the demimonde of the transgendered TL. But it wasn’t until one night in 1966 that the community was galvanized alongside other less fabulous (but no less important) civil rights causes.
New York City’s Stonewall Riots are famously called the fomenting of gay liberation. It was here instead, in a fluorescently-lit cafeteria, that one queen was pushed too far, hassled by a cop. She was probably used to it, given that what she and her sisters were doing was illegal at the time. But this time was different: she threw her coffee in his face and kicked off two nights of hell that led to significant changes in the way the City Hall dealt with those who didn’t fit into its narrow focus.
A little backstory, for those who don’t dig how San Francisco is not a place of peace, love, and understanding--and has rarely been such a fairy wonderland (ahem). Trans folk have come a long way, but even in San Francisco, they were personae non gratae. In a gay bar, the presence of men dressing as women (or vice-versa) could potentially invite a police raid, with even non-drag patrons charged with “intent to deceive.” Famously, Empress José I, The Widow Norton (née Jose Sarria) handed out badges to queens that proclaimed “I’m a boy!” cleverly circumventing the nasty fraud charge cops used to ruin everyone's good time.
The history of female impersonation in San Francisco dates back to the 1850s, "first popular due to the shortage of females and later for their novelty," according to James Smith's San Francisco's Lost Landmarks. While establishments like Finocchio’s offered aboveboard drag, there was still a mile-wide rift between classes of queen. All of this is troubling given that a man who primarily identified as a woman was also all but unhirable--too femme to be a man, too butch to be a lady--such that those who didn't make it on the stage had to make it on the streets.
If you’re unfamiliar with this episode in San Francisco history, be you gay or straight, you owe it to yourself to watch Susan Stryker’s excellent documentary, Screaming Queens. In the film, Stryker details how the radical Pastor Cecil Williams made Glide Memorial Church a cornerstone of civil justice, and charts the fascinating effects of the riot, including SFPD outreach and the charmingly named “Center for Special Problems.”
Gene Compton’s closed, of course, and rather poetically became Frenchy's K&T, an adult bookstore and peep show palace. Sic transit gloria mundi.
A booming voice asks the assembled patrons of the 21 Club, "How's everybody doing tonight?"
A reply from one, "It's quiet tonight."
"But I'm still here, how quiet can it be?"
The man who gives lie to the quiet will soon hold an audience with us, but the early evening began in a reverie at the changing western sky, dimming to lavender, a sickle moon framed by the early 20th century architecture. The 21 Club is unlike many of the Tenderloin's canteens thanks to a big window which sets the bar aglow at sunset, and also allows a running commentary on street hassles. Most patrons this night are offering their commentary on the cop-killer drama unfolding on television, but because we dislike television in bars the window seat is ours alone--but not for long.
Roger asks if he can sit, and after the fashion of the neighborhood's general affability, we soon discover a shared love of Chicago. What is he doing in San Francisco, then? Even as the question is formulated, we see the dim light of the ghost in his eyes.
It was love, of course, that brought him to San Francisco, but she's gone now. Before her time, we both agree, clinking glass to glass.
But there are other things to talk about. He has just been to the pawnshop, seeing about getting his 1922 silver dollar turned into cash, but passed on their paltry offer: the Tenderloin's economics are terrible.
"They wanted to give me $15! Can you believe it?" He wonders at their gall.
He lives upstairs, and has for years--been at his job for as long as he's lived in the neighborhood, sees no reason to leave, even though his girl has gone.
Cities, like women, will break your heart. You go on as best you can, even if you get trapped in this unforgiving love.
This week's column is dedicated to Roger, the 21 Club, and anyone who ever got stuck in a beautiful city called San Francisco.