A Real Clift Hanger.

The ticket said “Price” and it was nothing special: scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, orange juice and a pot of coffee, i.e. your typical American breakfast. I was working the night shift – midnight to 8 am – and occasionally the early morning crew would let me take up a few of the easier orders before I clocked out and the real rush started soon after. I rode up the service elevator and walked all the way down to the far end of the 14th floor where the Presidential Suite was. I knocked three times and said “room service.” A few seconds later the door opened and standing there, in real life, was Vincent Price. “Good morning,” he said.

“Good morning, Mr. Price. Where would you like me to put your breakfast?” I asked. He said “Over there on the table.” “Sure,” I said, and put the tray down. “Would you like to sign for it, or should I just put it on your room tab?” He said he’d sign for it, I kept that autograph for many, many years.

I was living at the Drake Hotel on Eddy Street, an $11/night SRO full of pimps, overweight and overtall spade transvestites and faggot junkie freaks with their tagalong hags, after a narrow escape from a castrating relationship in Boston, with my buddy David Allyn. We were paying a cheap godsend for the privilege, and I’m not being facetious, of having our own double room, and just the fact that we could lock the door behind us every night with the medicated and unmedicated remedials, deranged and fidgety, the emaciated loony crims and wholesale human sewerage howling and haunting on the other side was priceless.

All the cliché dive hotel adjectives were unfortunately true, including “fleabag” and “cockroach,” but the thing that made my skin crawl and the blood vessels on both sphenoids pop the most in rage and disgust were the rats. They were many, and shit-vicious doesn’t do them justice. They had no fear, because there was nothing to fear – the junk food in most of the rooms that was abandoned and rotting deliciousness was plentiful and free. I finally got so exasperated that I bought a slingshot at the Army-Navy Store and used to kill them with frozen garbanzo beans and then flush them down the toilet. 

The Clift Hotel, two blocks north on Geary Street, and overlooking Union Square, was one of the exquisite only-in-the-know treasures in the city, high-class, low-key and quietly unsung. All the most famous celebrities of the day stayed there, and the efficient hum of discretion and tact prevailed, unperturbed throughout the draperied hallways. The murmur of money and merit was almost inaudible.

If it was slow I would read all night in the Redwood Room, a monument to grandeur and taste art-deco bar, that years later reminded me of the Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Station. I’d come home after work and sleep until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. I’d write my novel for 4 or 5 hours, and then go to back into the fray – daily, emerging out of the decadence and depravity that was and is the Tenderloin, and then hike a few hundred yards up to the opulence of wealth and status only a bricks and mortar competence hierarchy temple can singularly incarnate. I used the ‘Employees Only’ door, of course.

One morning a ‘whale’ breakfast order came down, complete with champagne and caviar, and when I wheeled it up to the Penthouse Suite, I was stopped in the hallway right outside the elevator by a couple of steroidal black men wearing Raybans and frowns. I told them I was room service and needed to deliver. One of them looked at me and said “Miss Ross doesn’t allow visitors in her room.”

I told him “I’m not going to visit, I’m just going to drop off her breakfast.” He said that he would take it in himself. I asked him if he knew how to chill champagne properly. He didn’t flinch. He took the cart from me and the other goon escorted me back to the elevator and even pushed the call button. “What about the check? My tip?” He looks down on me and smiled slightly, thinking something uncharitable I’m sure about ‘white boy.’

This same pantomime went on for the whole week, since the supreme lady had a sold-out engagement at the Cow Palace through that Sunday. One morning I got in the elevator and a famous singer, I’m not sure who it was, and his entourage got in with me. We rode up together in silence and when we got to the 15th Floor, the doors opened and they got out. They walked right into the suite. The two goons stopped me, as per usual. “I thought you said Miss Ross didn’t allow visitors in her room?” Musclehead number one looked at me as he took the cart, and said without missing a beat, “I meant ‘uninvited.'"

“But she called me again this morning and asked me to sunny-side up some eggs for her, brother!”

I had two nights off, usually during the week, and every once in a while I’d go to the gay bars on Castro with my hilarious homosexual roommate David as tour guide and chaperone. I’m as straight as they come, but curious, and I found the whole gay subculture ‘cruising’ scene fascinating: carnal down to the bone, slightly dangerous, joyously unfettered, and unashamedly amoral. I shouldn’t say amoral, since there was a morality to it – I’ll say its feral, unjudgemental immediacy and the cult of beauty was vaguely fascistic, hence the leather and unsubtle Nazi iconography and military fetishism. And its seriousness and singularity of purpose surprised me – these people weren’t pantomiming or play-acting, but were all about the boom boom boom. Now.

So I dove journalistically as it were into the world of fairies, bears, leathermen, tops, bottoms, transvestites, and the endless handwringing about coming out of the closet by a lot of the inwardly timid business men and husbands who wanted to be obscene but not heard. The emergent specter of AIDS cast a pall, but it was small, and dismissed as smaller than anyone would like to think. We’d frequent a place called the White Swallow, and I had some of the esotericest and weirdest conversations of my life in that place.

For instance, I met this guy named Paul who had been a waiter in New York City, and friends with Robert Mapplethorpe, since both of them were dinge queens, back in the early ‘70s. He had a weeping cherry tree growing inside his apartment and Robert would go over and photograph it during the different seasons, since he left the leaves on the floor in the fall and when it bloomed in the spring it was like a pink and white avalanche. When the fruit was ripe in the summer, he’d have a party and all his dripbucket friends would come over and they’d make Cherry Popper Martinis. Then they’d all take the pits home and try to grow their own trees but couldn’t since wild cherries aren’t self-fertile and need to be cross-pollinated – I forget what that’s called in botany.

Eduardo, another guy I met one time in a dark basement biker bar was molested by his uncle when he was a small boy in Argentina, but went on to a fairly famous career as a visual artist in Italy. I asked him about that, and he said over the years he actually became quite fond of his uncle, and enjoyed going to the back room of his bakery after school. The dynamic shifted as he got older, to one of mutuality and eventually respect believe it or not. He credits the man with encouraging his dream to be an artist, against the wishes of his provincial and absolute catholic and conservative family, and financing his move to Italy. I asked Eduardo about his parents, and he said his dad was a crude, violent tyrant, and the only time he ever saw his mother cry was when he happened to see her once when she wasn’t wearing her wig.

Back at work, I got a call one night for some cold beer and some sort of snacks very late and I went to the room and it was Joe Spano, one of the stars of Hill Street Blues, then the number one show on television. Remember when policemen and women were maybe not exactly heroes, but respected and portrayed almost across the board, as human, and in a positive light? Joe was a hometown boy, so I’m not sure why he was staying at the Clift, but I sat down and we had a real conversation since I was a huge fan of his or at least his character, and the show.

Another time I got sent up with breakfast for the Penthouse Suite and when I knocked on the door, Neil Diamond himself answered. I said “Good morning, Mr. Diamond, where would you like your breakfast?” He told me to come in and put the tray on the table. He then asked me a few questions about myself, and I asked him, “Was Sweet Caroline really about Caroline Kennedy?” This went on all week – he was down-to-earth, smart, interested and interesting. A humble gem of a man.

On a sidebar note, Neil Diamond has sold over 100 million records, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time, in the top 20 if not the top 10 ever, any way you slice it. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Patti Smith who had one hit, written by Bruce Springsteen, years and years before it finally awarded Neil Diamond the honor he should’ve gotten as one of the inaugural class. Politics, cowardice, and snobbery – reprehensible and inexcusable. Patti Smith? Please.

The Redwood Room is one of my favorite bars in the world, up there with the Chinnery Bar, Harry’s in Venice, and the Campbell Apartment in New York City, as I’ve already mentioned. I was on a World War I edumacation kick at this time, reading Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo, after having read All Quiet on the Western Front, by Eric Remarque, as I’ve mentioned in another monograph, and Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That. For all his idiosyncrasies, Trumbo is a man of principle, for sure, having served eleven months for contempt of Congress when he wouldn’t name his commie comrades, and even though I disagree with this politics, and find his behavior borderline treasonous, I admire his loyalty and conviction. Man kept it ten toes down and ate that prison sentence by himself, like a true baddie, without snitching on anyone. Plus, he wrote the near-genius script for Roman Holiday.

Anyway, I’m up to my elbows in the book, all alone in the bar, when a wisp of a purple pixie walks in, has a look around, and then hightails his raspberry beret out. I almost didn’t recognize him, since I hadn’t seen him in person since his insane concert in Yokohama devastated me and almost as many Japanese as the atom bomb had at Nagasaki. Yeah, Prince himself, sans revolution. He was a tiny whisper, even in high heels, but took dominion everywhere in that bar like nothing else I had ever seen.

“Camp is the triumph of the epicene style,” Susan Sontag once wrote, and I see the perceptive, distilled wisdom of that undeniable truth everywhere. Missouri Mule – “If you can’t whip the ass, whip the saddle,” Twin Peaks, Moby Dick – the names of the bars themselves are camp classics, and sometimes gave me a chuckle even before I walked in. So I’m talking to this guy who’s wearing a fuzzy dice bra, black leather chaps, silver moon boots, and vermillion velvet elbow gloves, which if there’s any theme or overall message to the ensemble it’s lost on me. I ask him what he does for a living. He tells me that he has a private jet that waits every afternoon at San Francisco airport and when the banks close his armored cars bring the actual cash money to the jet and he flies it to some central bank by midnight so it can count toward the total cash reserves and thus get the interest for that day. Remember, this way the mid-‘80s, way before computer anything.

I ask him if he’s serious. He says he’s dead serious, and he gets a percentage of the cash total he successfully deposits in the central bank by midnight, EST, every day. He tells me, darling, my only worry in this world is the weather, as he walks away and I see his chaps are backless. I shouldn’t have been surprised – chaps are backless, of course, but they don’t usually frame a furry moonhole.

I almost always drink scotch, neat, but I’d been drinking beer at this bar for some reason, and I had to go to the bathroom, which I absolutely try to avoid at all costs. Have any of you heterosexuals ever been to a bathroom in a packed gay leather bar at night? It’s not the place you want to be taking your penis out and waving around, believe me. So you’ll understand why I’d rather pee in my pants, which I almost do as I double-time it home, but make it just in time.

I had lost sight of David long before that, and I wasn’t actually going to see him for a few days, come to find out. Yeah, we can all fall in love, and sometimes at first sight, but what was most surprising to me was the unadulterated, unfiltered carnality of the desire, the unmitigated testosteronal urgency and victory of the animal id . I grew up a sheltered Pollyanna, and courtship and courtesy were the understood and enforced watchwords in that world. The bluntness and directness of the I was going to say seductions but most of them weren’t even that. They were more like the pro forma en gardes in fencing –  a perfunctory and quick ritual before the swords are drawn and the predictable obsessions of male excitement begins, and consummation comes. And sometimes it was over just like that, and back to bellying up to the bar. I say this all observationally, and not judgmentally. I was fascinated by this ruthless furnace, beautifully barbarous in its thrashing simplicity and clear understanding, but a lot of times I felt like a frightened breeder caught in the headlights.

I had had a conversation earlier with an older gentleman wearing an “ACT UP” t-shirt, which I found amusing and told him so, since it was the only time I know of where an acronym used another acronym: AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. At the time everyone, except it seems the gay community, was petrified of AIDS, since even an innocent young boy like Ryan White could contract it from a blood transfusion. It was only many, many years later that I read an article in British GQ that said what a crock of shit all that was: 99.9% of AIDS victims were promiscuous homosexuals having unprotected anal sex, with multiple partners, or were heroin addicts shooting up with dirty needles. In fact, there was a joke in the health care community: what do you call a man who is claims he’s straight and doesn’t do heroin, but who has contracted AIDS? A liar.

What? All those years I was petrified and celibate, based on a mainstream media narrative that I now know in hindsight was intentionally false, or disingenuous at best, and ruinous for many, many people – in fact the ones they were trying hardest to shield and deflect.  Never mind the fact that I couldn’t get laid anyway, but still. I also came to another hard-to-swallow truth, recently as a matter of fact, to beware of any movement that uses a child as a spokesperson. It means the cause has no real ground to stand on, or their arguments are weak, if they exist at all, or most likely aren’t based on science, and they impugn anyone’s character who questions the sincerity of a minor, especially a blonde, white, beautiful and articulate one. I’m thinking Greta Thunberg, who I’ve been missing lately since I’m still concerned about global warming, and am bummed that a real crisis got in the way of her daring me, very emotionally, to be less selfish and more caring and not ruining her childhood.

If I was able to go back in time I’d have asked him what he thought of the AIDS crisis, with hindsight. He might have said something like this, “We didn’t deserve it, and it was horrible, and a lot of my friends died slow, tragic, and costly deaths, but we kind of brought it on ourselves, didn’t we? First by calling it a conspiracy against the gay community cooked up by the evil Reagan administration and the religious freaks, and then stubbornly ignoring it. We pooh-poohed the admonitions for safe sex – we weren’t going to be controlled or dictated to by the nervous puritans and priggish religious nuts who hated us anyway! When the death toll started piling high, we tried to blame the rest of the world, especially The Great Satan Reagan for our suffering, when we should have been looking inward, accepting responsibility, owning the consequences, learning the right lessons, seeking a cure, taking care of our own.” Wow. And ouch.

Paula, who I called Pauler since she was from Dorchester, and not the yacht-club side, was grinding away in my lap with nothing on but a teabag, and I almost didn’t recognize her at first au naturel. She was the morning ‘dispatcher’ at the hotel, taking all the breakfast orders from the guests, sending them over to the kitchen, and then making sure the reliably incompetent lunatics like me who worked room service took them up while they were still hot. Women weren’t allowed to go up to the rooms, as per hotel policy, and for obvious reasons, so she was the only one on the team. She was curt and efficient, with her hair pulled back and her sleeves rolled up, ready to rumble. She sat behind the kitchen service window, polite out of one side of her mouth and barking out the other. And always busy and rushed, so I didn’t really know what she looked like from the waist down, with her clothes on never mind off.

But we soon become buddies because she was whip-smart and sane, and at the Clift, a ship of fools like most hotels if there ever was one, finding another wicked wisecracker was a rare treat. She lived in a second-floor walk-up on Nob Hill, and I used to go over there and we’d eat moo goo gai pan from Bo Bo’s sitting cross-legged on the floor since she didn’t “believe in furniture.”

Anyway, we were in the Ultra Room at the Mitchell Brothers Theatre, the oldest and most notorious strip club in America, and all I could think about was the recent police raid that Mayor Feinstein had ordered, and a bunch of patrons, strippers and employers were arrested on charges of obscenity and prostitution. The San Francisco Chronicle quoted Jim Mitchell (the owner, along with his brother Artie, who he later killed claiming he was a drugged-out and dangerous psychotic), who vowed to fight the charges and stated: “Fondling a girl’s breast is not prostitution.”  

I couldn’t agree more. While I'm thinking of it, I just wanted to mention The Kopenhagen, another Mitchell Brothers brainchild: a completely dark room where two live nubile lesbians would perform a bondage show, with a floor-level stage and no barrier between them and the audience, sitting in the round like an X-rated playground puppet-performance. You had to bring your own flashlight if you wanted to see anything since the room was pitch black, and it was hilarious watching how enraged the smelly, basement-dwelling aspie neckbeards got if you shined your flashlight ‘accidentally’ in their eyes. I took David there one day because he thought I was making the whole surreal theatrical mock-torture lesbo-orgy up for comic effect. I wasn’t.

The point of this gratuitous digression is that San Francisco was decadent and depraved in an almost charming and innocent way: Paula, the mousey four-eyes behind the room service desk by day was a demonic serpentine and serious stripper chick/money-making machine at night, which normally, and psychologically speaking would be a difficult dichotomy to mentally reconcile, I assume. But she clucked derisively when she told me to come see her “show” and I asked her if she’d mind if I saw her in the altogether.    

The other point of the digression, and the reason I brought it up in the first place is because a few years earlier I had seen the classic adult film Behind the Green Door, and thought as far as porn movies go, it was the best ever. Even as far as regular movies go, it’s a stunner. If I had to describe it I’d say it was a cross between Fellini’s 8 ½, and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. It was written, shot and distributed by the Mitchell Brothers, and is the highest-grossing adult film of all time. It brought in a total of fifty million dollars, and financed the phenomenal growth of their “Carnegie Hall of smut” empire. I’m not even joking – if you haven’t seen Marilyn Chambers in this Oscar-worthy performance I’d recommend you feast your eyes on her profound in a way performance. It begins with: “You are about to see the ravishing of a woman…”

So I came here to the original temple to pay homage to the masters, who have endured years and years of hate, raids, arrests and lawsuits to keep their doors open. They believe, and I think they present a good argument, that the value of pornography is as a protective shield for the rest of art and literature – if the authorities can’t censor pornography, then the other means of personal artistic expression would be protected as well.

And think about it: behind the green door has become an idiom for a portal to the unknown, where secrets are kept; the dangerous and illicit beckoning just on the other side of a come-hither keyhole. Not many films can make the claim that they’ve become part of mainstream American vernacular.

When I got into work that night, I found out Madonna was staying for a couple of days, but I never got a call from her “people” to send something delicious up. I had just seen her movie Desperately Seeking Susan, and was hoping to re-enact the scene where the room service twit brings in her breakfast while her boyfriend “John” was still asleep. It didn’t happen, but I can make a very believable and entertaining story up if you’d like… Seriously, that reminds me that I did see a lot of hookers in the hotel – their johns would usually order some kind of romantic late-night dinner, complete with flowers, which I always found kind of weird and ironic, because I mean, they were already bought and paid for, weren’t they?

The hotel offered a free overnight shoeshine service, and I can honestly say I probably polished more prostitutes’ fuck-me pumps than almost any man alive. No, they weren’t still wearing them, dingbat – guests would put their shoes in a special bag and then hang that on the outside doorknob, and, voila, they were returned in the morning buffed professionally right the hell up. Jimmy Choo, how do you do?

Anyway, Madonna never rang – in fact I’m still waiting for that call. But I had heard that she would often let one of the lucky hoi polloi who she allowed into her presence such as deliverymen and room service people like myself to ask her a question, which she would answer. I thought that was pretty cool and democratic of her, even though the queries were probably either fatuous, unoriginal or dumb. So I had my question ready:

“As you may or may not know, Madonna, even though 99.999% of all the CO2 we have ever exhaled has been absorbed by the oceans and the plants and made into sugars (which is known as thermocatalytic CO2 hyrdrogenation), it is mathematically certain that every breath I take contains a few molecules that were once inside your, from what I’ve read, very desirable vagina. Whaddaya think of them apples, Madge?”

Never got the chance to pose it, but if you’re reading this, Material Girl, I’d still really like to hear your thoughts…

On my way back home the next morning, I was bone tired and just wanted to crawl into bed. But when I came out of the side street service entrance I just happened to see a former, beloved, entangling and unconsummated flame getting out of her car in front of the hotel, and handing the keys to my buddy Ryan, the valet, who I played squash with once a week in the basement courts at the University Club, where his Princeton grad dad had a membership. I sidled up behind the passenger side c-pillar, and grabbed her suitcase from him. I put my finger to my lips to tell him to be quiet, and I started to follow her into the hotel, carrying her baggage, as it were.

My head was bursting with landslides and poetry: “What maidens loth?/What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?/What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?” Pulse crescendoing in anguished, throbbing suspense. As she got to the front door, which was revolving, she glanced back to make sure luggage guy was tagging along behind her like a donkey on a rope, and then looked back again, as her momentum carried her into the glassy whirl. She went all the way around and then stepped resolutely out. We were suddenly and almost theatrically face-to-face, staring into each other’s surprised eyes.

Photo ©Paul Fusco, San Francisco, California, 1980 (18.1981)
August 03, 2020 — Johnny Mustard