Thursday, May 31, 2012

Top 5 "Only in San Francisco" Things to Do

"Only in San Francisco" is a term that's spoken in either a positive tone, with a warm smile and a beat of the heart, or a pejorative one, accompanied by an intolerant eye roll. Today, a few days after the Bay Area celebrated the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge, I'm feeling the love for my adopted home. So for any of you planning a visit, here are five of my favorite "only in San Francisco" things to do (in no particular order of preference). 

1. See a movie at the Castro Theatre

 It's a 1922 neighborhood, single-screen movie palace that still shows films most every night--usually of the vintage and independent variety--and still has a guy playing the Wurlitzer organ before screenings. Do you have one of those in your town? I thought not. 

I've seen everything here from the sing-a-long versions of Grease and The Sound of Music to Up in 3D to countless film noirs to Fun in Boys' Shorts, a staple of the annual Frameline gay and lesbian film festival. At the Castro, you're part of a community, not just an audience member--and it's OK to hiss the villain on screen, if not expected. Tip: Before the show, smuggle in a freshly baked treat from Hot Cookie, a few doors up the street.
The Castro Theatre
2. Check out the naked guys.  

The Castro is San Francisco's--if not the world's--main 'gayborhood.' In recent years, it's also become home to a tiny minority of nudists (in which "tiny" refers to their membership ranks, not necessarily their "members"). Mostly guys, mostly older, mostly not physically attractive, the clotheless contingent walks around the neighborhood as casually as if they were going grocery shopping. (Imagine them in the produce aisle, carefully selecting cucumbers.) 

The 'naked guys' also congregate in the public parklet across from that staple of middle America, Pottery Barn. Sometimes, the Creme Brulee Cart sets up shop nearby, though I think a hot dog stand would be more appropriate. 

Oddly enough, public nudity isn't a crime here (unless something lewd is occurring), though a citizen could make a beef about it if he or she wanted to. Do I love seeing these guys naked in public? The truth is, no. But I love what they represent: freedom and lack of shame. Here, in one of the country's most liberal cities, you can be who you truly are--and you can do it with pride. Tip: I've heard some of the naked guys will pose for pictures with you (if you ask nicely, of course). Won't that be something to show your friends back home?
3. Ride a vintage streetcar. 

I'm not talking about the cable car. I'm talking about hopping aboard one of the many mid-20th century streetcars from cities around the country--and some from abroad. (The loud orange trolley cars are from Milan.) Here again, this is where San Francisco goes against the grain. These cars had been cast aside, considered archaic by cities like Boston. San Francisco bought and restored them and now runs a fleet of them along Market Street, the Embarcadero, and a few other above-ground rail lines. To my knowledge, no other city has amassed such a collection of trolley cars. Tip: You can ride a vintage trolley to the Castro, if you're dying to see a movie and public nudity. And if you're lucky, you might even get to ride NewOrleans' streetcar named desire
Vintage streetcar in San Francisco
4. Ride the California Street cable car. 

I sensed your disappointment when I wrote about streetcars, not cable cars. Of course you must ride a cable car when you're in San Francisco. To many people, it's the definition of an "only in San Francisco" experience, as no other city in the world still operates cable cars. 

But don't do what every other tourist does and wait in the interminable lines at the Powell Street cable car turnaround. Instead, jump onto a cable car at either the top of California Street (at Van Ness Avenue) or at the bottom, near the Hyatt Regency on Market Street (not far from the Ferry Building). For some odd reason, the California Street cable car carries far fewer riders, so you'll probably be able to board without waiting. 

And frankly, I like the views better on this route. Along the way, you'll pass the financial district, Chinatown, and Nob Hill landmarks. And you'll go up or down some steep hills, depending upon where you board--which is, in itself, another great San Francisco experience. Tip: Fares at most times are $6 each way (with no transfers), which can you pay the conductor. Try to have the exact fare, if possible. If you plan to ride a cable car more than three times in a day or ride other local buses or trains, get the $14 day pass (which the conductor will also sell you).
California Street cable car

5. Eat a hamburger at Zuni. 

I know what you're thinking: You can eat a hamburger anywhere. But Zuni is and always has been, practically from the moment it opened, a quintessential San Francisco restaurant. Just about everyone I know who lives here loves it. You'll see all types at Zuni, from local politicians to leather queens (sometimes they're one and the same) to film directors. I once spotted cult film director John Waters having dinner here, went over, introduced myself, and enjoyed a brief chat with him. (He's as funny in person as you'd expect.) 

I almost always take out-of-towners here, who uniformly love it. Which brings another Zuni story to mind. Years ago, Nick and I brought visiting relatives of his from Alabama, a conservative but sweet couple of retirement age, to Zuni for lunch. They sat with their backs to the huge windows that look out onto Market Street, with Nick and I facing the windows. At one point, a trickle of leather queens in full regalia began parading by, including an unusually short man chain-linked to an unusually tall one. The trickle soon turned into a flood, as I realized that it was time for the annual Folsom Street Fair, a celebration of all things leather and kink. Nick and I struggled to keep from reacting as his relatives enjoyed their lunch, completely unaware of the parade going on behind him. 

Oh yes, the hamburger! I almost forgot. The Zuni burger is the bomb. Zuni mixes the meat with salt and lets it sit (refrigerated) for 18 to 24 hours. Then they cook it just to your liking, throw on some Gruyere cheese if you want, and serve it on fresh focaccia bread. Order it with the shoestring fries and you'll soon be smacking your lips double-time. Tip: You can only order the burger at lunch or after 10 p.m. 

Zuni's burger
Now it's your turn. What are your favorite "only in San Francisco" experiences?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Uncle Stafford's 85th Birthday Party: Tales of Fried Chicken & Gin in the Baptist Ladies' Punchbowl

It's my Uncle Stafford's 85th birthday party, a big, happy affair with my entire family gathered around a long banquet table at a restaurant. Stafford and his younger brother--my father--are in rare form, telling stories on each other.

It starts with the fried chicken.

When my father, C.W. Martin, and Stafford were boys in Virginia and it was Sunday night, it was more than likely going to be fried chicken for supper. Stafford and C.W. would watch their mother grab a live Rhode Island Red chicken in the backyard, hang it upside down, tie its feet to a clothesline, whack its head off, and throw the head into the bushes--all the time singing a Baptist hymn like Old Rugged Cross. Stafford and C.W.'s job was to pluck the hapless bird after it had been scalded.
Uncle Stafford (left) and my father, C.W. Martin, in Roanoke, Va.
"It was terrible to watch," my father says.

"But man oh man," Uncle Stafford pipes in, "that was the best fried chicken you'd ever eat." 

A waiter appears and wants to know if Stafford would like something to drink. "I believe I've earned a gin and tonic, don't you?," Stafford asks.

"Absolutely," the waiter responds, and off he goes, leaving Stafford to launch into another tale about my grandmother.

 "She was a right staunch Baptist, in case y'all hadn't noticed," Stafford says. "One afternoon, she had a women's missionary society group over for punch. My friend Bob---"

"The bald-headed guy with the glass eye?," my father wants to know.

"That's the one. Well, he and I got hold of a bottle of gin, and when Mother wasn't looking, we poured it into the punch bowl."

"Oh my God," my mother says, laughing. "Not the whole bottle?"

"It was just half a bottle," my father replies.

"If it was, it's because you drank the other half," Uncle Stafford jokes.

"I was twelve," says my father.

"Details. Anyhow, all those ladies lapped up that fruit punch. I heard several of them ask Mother for the recipe."

"Did she figure out what happened?" This question comes from my nephew Stafford, named for the man we are here to celebrate.

"No, thank God, because she'd have taken a buggy whip to us if she had," Uncle Stafford replies.

At this precise moment, Uncle Stafford's gin and tonic arrives. He examines the wedge of lime, squirts it into the drink, takes a small sip, and looks around at the presents piled up before him. "Which one of these lovely things wants to be unwrapped first?," he asks mischievously. I push my gift toward him eagerly. He smiles at me warmly and slowly accepts the brightly colored package, unwraps it, puts on his reading glasses, studies it.

"Is it..." he begins.

"A radio. It plays radio stations from around the world, over the Internet," I explain. Uncle Stafford is a radio fanatic, having built them himself when he was young.

He's pleased. "I'll never leave home again," he says. "Thank you, Jimmy."

As a young man, Uncle Stafford used to build radios, first out of crystals, then out of tubes. It was a huge deal when, after working on a radio for what must have been months, there suddenly came a popping, crackling sound, followed by a broadcast from KDKA in Pittsburgh. He and my father danced around like lunatics, whooping it up.

When I was a boy, Uncle Stafford tried--oh so patiently--to teach me how to make a radio. He didn't succeed. "Why build something when you can buy it?," I'd ask. "Because it helps you learn how to think," he'd say. He did manage to infect me with a love for the radio programs of his youth, and during my family's visits to see him, Uncle Stafford and I would spend hours listening to his tapes of old shows. "I think it's time you heard The War of the Worlds," he said to me when I was about 15.

"I saw the movie," I shrugged.

"You don't know the half of it," he said. And so I listened, riveted, as Orson Welles' brilliant 1938 radio hoax--which had most of America convinced an alien invasion was occurring--unfolded. 
Uncle Stafford in uniform
Uncle Stafford's mastery of radios was put to use during World War II. He enlisted, rather than waiting to be drafted, and soon enough found himself operating the radio on a B-25 bomber over the Pacific. It was there, over the dense Burmese jungles in October 1944, my Uncle Stafford's plane was shot down.

His body was never recovered.

Only his "dog tag" and those of his six fellow crew members were discovered and later buried in the Louisville National Cemetery in Kentucky. You see, the truth is that my Uncle Stafford never had an 85th birthday; he didn't make it past 36.

Though the stories of him and my father I've shared actually happened, the party and my experiences with Uncle Stafford are only something I wish were true. He died 14 years before I was born.

On more than one occasion, I've imagined watching him surrounded by our family, celebrating a landmark of old age, laughing as he and my father needled each other yet again--their way of showing affection. And at this imaginary 85th birthday party, amidst the clatter of cutlery and glasses and conversation, I sit next to my beloved uncle. In this moment, I have his complete attention, so I look him in the eyes, I squeeze his hand, and I say "Thank you." I know he understands exactly what I mean, because he squeezes my hand back.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

'67 Camaro Convertible: The Car of My Dreams, and Screams

In last week's post about North Carolina's same-sex marriage ban, I mentioned that years ago, I had owned a 1967 Camaro convertible.

After reading that post, my colleague and FB buddy Fred Sandsmark wrote: "You buried the lede. I want to see pictures of that yellow 1967 Camaro convertible." 

Several others commented on the Camaro, too, which sent me reeling back to my days with "Cammie." Days when I sweated profusely. And screamed. And cried. And sang along to eight-track tapes. And lost all my savings. And skipped school a million times. And feared for my life, more than once.

I'll start at the beginning.

My father bought the '67 Camaro in 1970 as a car for my sisters Mimi and Julia and me. The idea was that as each of us came of driving age, we'd share the car. Being the youngest, I lucked out. There was no one I'd have to pass the car onto.

Cammie and me, circa 1980-81
I'd never been in a convertible before, not that I could remember, and once I rode in the Camaro, I knew convertibles would forever be my style. (I still drive a convertible, a Mini Cooper.) Cammie had character. You got attention riding around in it. You felt slightly rebellious.

And I was rebellious. In high school, my friends and I would skip school, pile into Cammie, smoke a joint (or three), and ride around Greensboro, top down (even when it was cold; that was what the heater was for). We'd sing along to eight-track tapes of David Bowie, Alice Cooper, Elton John, and their ilk. And then, inevitably, we'd head to Krispy Kreme for doughnuts. If I ever write a story about those fun, mid 1970s experiences, I must call it Glazed and Confused.

Let's see, where was I? Oh, yes. I mentioned earlier that I'd screamed in the Camaro. That would have happened when I was living and working in Charleston. I'd left the car windows down overnight, got in, drove up the highway, and discovered a gecko on the inside of my windshield. For those of you who've seen the fantastic opening sequence in the movie Contact, you know that my scream is still floating around in space, along with Lucille Ball's laugh.

I also feared for my life in Cammie. The first time, I somehow found myself lost in the Great Dismal Swamp, a 112,000-acre wetland preserve on the N.C./Virginia border. It was dusk. I grew fearful that I wouldn't find my way out before the blackness of night set in and therefore I was doomed to be eaten by alligators. Miraculously, I discovered the exit at last and returned to civilization with all my limbs (but not all my nerves) intact.

On another occasion, I was driving the Camaro over the old Cooper River Bridge that connected Charleston to its eastern neighbors. Anyone who had the misfortune of driving on that bridge might understand why I called it the Crack Your Face bridge, because its narrow lanes and flimsy feel (to me) would quickly erode any composure you had.

The Crack Your Face Bridge
One afternoon, I was at the highest point of the bridge when traffic came to a halt due to a summer squall. For what must have been 15 or 20 minutes, I was stuck in place, feeling the old bridge sway and creak against the fierce winds and relentless rain. A couple of times, Cammie stalled, which only added to my undoing. Finally, the winds died down and the traffic moved on, and the Camaro, after a few more lurches, started up again and took me home.

I'd also mentioned losing all my savings because of Cammie. When I was working at the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald as a reporter, I made a ridiculously low salary--just under $10,000. I had about $1,200 in savings, mostly money my father had set aside for me. During this time (late 1981), the Camaro's engine started to go. I suspected as much when I thought there always seemed to be a four-alarm fire nearby--and realized it was Cammie's engine.

I was told a new engine would cost me about $2,000. At the office, I mentioned to a co-worker my dilemma. Her husband, a mechanic, and his friends would gladly rebuild my engine for $1,100, she said.

I paid her husband the money up front, which was my second mistake. (The first was to even consider having a co-worker's no-count husband work on my car.) He and his buddies fixed the Camaro and it ran fine. For one week. And then, the black smoke returned. I insisted that my co-worker's husband fix the engine; he said he would; and despite numerous pleas and threats, he never did. I was incredulous and distraught and didn't know what to do.

"Cut your losses," Nick said--a life lesson if there ever was one. Humiliated, I had to ask my father for money to get the engine replaced.

If you'll recall, a few paragraphs back I mentioned sweating profusely. This was because Cammie lacked air conditioning. And it had a black interior. You drove it in the summer, you perspired. Epically. Like Mark Zuckerberg being interviewed on stage.

Mark Zuckerberg's famous meltdown
As a teenager, I wasn't too concerned about that. But when I started working full-time, the lack of AC became a problem. I'd sometimes carry an extra shirt to change into, so that I wouldn't arrive at a business meeting looking like a wet T-shirt contestant. When Nick and I lived in Atlanta, I'd often get stuck in horrendous traffic jams on the freeway, with no choice but to inhale the fumes of idling transfer trucks. 

Following one particularly excruciating freeway jam without air conditioning, I vowed that that summer would be my last with Cammie. And it was. 

In spring 1987, as Nick and I prepared to move to San Francisco, I decided not to have the Camaro shipped West, that it was time for me to buy a new car. I advertised Cammie in a local paper and almost immediately, the calls started. I sold her to a vintage car enthusiast who, after the deal was cinched, said he was going to paint her red. 

The night before I was to hand over the keys, I took Cammie for one last ride. I'd created a cassette mix tape especially for the occasion, with songs I'd loved as a teenager, music I listened to as a young adult, and, with a nod to my future, a few songs about San Francisco. And that was the night I cried in my Camaro.


I bet you've got a few tales to share about your beloved car. Put your phone down, pull over, and tell me all about it. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

North Carolina Said No. I've Said Yes--Twice

This week, North Carolina said no. President Obama, God bless him, said yes. And here we are again with the same-sex marriage debate. It's a subject I know something about, having said "I do" to not one but two same-sex marriages.

It all started with the Washington Post, when I think about it.

In the summer of 1980, I'd graduated from college and went to Washington, D.C., to find a job as a writer. With only an English degree and zero experience, I waltzed into the offices of the Post to inquire about staff writing positions.

"We may have something coming open," the human resources person informed me. "It's in the library. But I'm afraid you're unqualified."

The Post's rejection was the coup de grace that came after about 45 days of fruitless job hunting, a final setback that hurled me toward Greensboro, N.C., to move in with my parents. I'd run out of money and self-esteem.

I still had determination, however. So I set my sights lower, looking for jobs at small-town newspapers in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virgina. After months of rejections, I received an offer for an entry-level reporting job at the Daily Herald in Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

Reluctantly, I accepted. I packed up my yellow, 1967 Camaro convertible and drove to this small city, with its smelly paper mills and hick farmers and Bible thumpers. Along the way, I had a talk with myself. "Forget about meeting someone," I said. "For the next year, focus on your career, get some experience. Maybe then you can try Washington or New York or another big city."

About one week into my job, I looked up from my computer terminal and saw Nick Parham.

Nick had come to the Herald to socialize with another reporter, Adrienne. He was the director of PR and community affairs for VEPCO, the local utility company. Nick was handsome, tan, and dressed in a Pierre Cardin suit. He did not belong here, I thought as I eavesdropped on his conversation with Adrienne.

Nick was showing Adrienne pictures of his recent vacation in Cancun, Mexico, which included, to my dismay, photos of topless women sunbathing on the beach. Now I was even more intrigued, and I finagled an introduction.

A week later--specifically June 3, 1981--I ran into Nick at the Planters National Bank. It was a Wednesday, and each Wednesday, practically the entire town went to the bank to cash their paychecks. I was thrilled when Nick said he'd read my Sunday column, even quoted it to me, and said he'd heard about my infamous review of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. I said something that he thought was funny, and for the first time, I witnessed the famous Nick Parham laugh. His head tilts back quickly and this joyful, unrestrained laugh bursts forth, sometimes accompanied by a few drops of spittle, which landed on my arm that day and caused a tingle I still feel.

Nick invited me to his office after lunch. I went. He invited me to his house for dinner that night. I wore a Polo shirt purchased in the boy's department at Belk's. He grilled steaks on the deck of his lake house. We talked for hours about movies and books and our ambitions, and I still wasn't sure he was gay.

Finally, at 2 a.m., I decided to end the mystery without revealing too much about myself (though I wasn't exactly hiding anything by wearing a boy's Polo shirt). 

"When you go to Raleigh for business, do you go out for fun?," I asked. "You know, to a bar?"

"Yes," Nick said. "The Capital Corral."

Jackpot--the Capital Corral was a big gay bar in Raleigh. We ended the night with a hug, and I returned again to Nick's house that weekend.

I moved to Charleston, S.C., less than a year later, and we continued our relationship long distance. We moved in together in Atlanta in 1984, then made our way to San Francisco in 1987.

In February 2004, when then-mayor Gavin Newsom defied every law on the book and invited same-sex couples to marry, Nick and I said our first vows. Within about a month, all those marriages were annulled. Four years later, for a few months at least, same-sex marriages were legal in California (until Prop 8 passed), and Nick and I took another trip down to City Hall to say "I do."

Jim and Nick, the second time around
We're still married, even though same-sex marriages are currently illegal in California. But for how long? Will the state of California, the U.S. Supreme Court, or some other institution declare our marriage unlawful again? Will some other organization decree that, despite the fact Nick and I have been with each other nearly 31 years, we constitute a threat to the sanctity of marriage?

I used to be philosophical about this. When Nick and I re-married in 2008, a TV reporter asked me what I thought it would take for same-sex marriage to stick. "Time," I said. "It's going to take time."

Now, with the news this week from North Carolina and President Obama, I'd have a different answer for that reporter. "It's going to take a fight," I'd tell her. "And this time, I'm ready."

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

12 Reasons Why You Should Visit Charleston, SC

What makes a city great? In my view, it's usually two things: A distinctive character and a nearby, preferably large, body of water.

To me, the great cities of the world share these two traits. San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Paris, Sydney, London, Venice, Florence. These are all places to which tourists flock and for which former residents pine.

To this list, I add Charleston, S.C. Despite the hotly contested influx of tourists and cruise ships, this beautiful peninsular city has lost little of its character. Sure, Charleston is relatively similar in superficial ways to Savannah, Ga. For me, however, Charleston possesses a cultural vibrancy that the comparatively sleepier Savannah lacks.

But let's not rehash that tired old Charleston vs. Savannah debate. Instead, I'd like to share some of my favorite experiences of Charleston, where I lived from 1982 to 1984 and to which I have repeatedly returned in the years since. These are my top 12 things to do, eat, and see in Charleston, in no particular order because they're all so damn good.

1. Eat she crab soup in the courtyard of 82 Queen restaurant. And if they're serving fried green tomatoes, well, you know what to do.

2. Eat the Coca-Cola cake at Jestine's Kitchen.

Coca-Cola cake, Jestine's Kitchen
3. Go for drinks to the Market Pavilion Hotel rooftop bar. You get a gorgeous view of the city, amazing cocktails (like the blueberry mojito, below). If you go, make sure no one in your party is wearing flip flops or cut-offs, because they're kinda persnickety about their dress code. 

Blueberry mojito at the Market Pavilion rooftop bar
4. Take a private walking tour of the historic area from Laura Wichmann Hipp of Charleston Tea Party Private Tours. Laura gives an unforgettable tour, and she may even get you into a private mansion for a look-see and some mint tea made from a local tea plantation. Call Laura at 843-577-5896 and tell her Jim and Nick in San Francisco sent you.

5. Go shopping on lower King Street. Gorgeous (and expensive) antiques, interesting women's clothes, some highly traditional men's clothing store (that would be you, Berlin's), and lots of chain stores like Gap and Apple. A pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

The 'latest' men's fashions at Berlin's
6. Shop on King Street north of Calhoun. This is where you'll find quirky, interesting shops and restaurants you won't see anywhere else.

7. Go to the Unitarian Church cemetery by way of the alley. On King Street, across from the Charleston historical society/library, there's a wrought-iron gate surrounded by two brick walls. Past the gate, you'll find a path that leads to the cemetery of the Unitarian church. It's Southern gothic at its best, with Spanish moss dripping off ancient live oak trees, and crumbling tombstones from the 1800s with inscriptions such as "They were lovely and pleasant in their lives together" (this was for a married couple, buried together).

Unitarian Church cemetery
8. Go to the Piggly Wiggly. Just because you can. There's one at 445 Meeting Street. If they have a red cooler bag like the one below (which I bought at the Folly Beach Piggly Wiggly), get it. I use mine all the time.

One reason why "I'm big on the pig"

9. Eat at Old Towne restaurant, which is an old-school (but recently refurbished) Greek restaurant on King Street. And buy a bottle of their Greek seasoning to bring home. Nick and I sprinkle this stuff everywhere: on chicken, pork, steak, potatoes. I've considered putting it on my toothbrush. That's how good it is.

10. Walk around Ansonborough, a beautiful neighborhood in the historic district without all the tourists. I used to live here, at 6 Wentworth Street--conveniently located near the Harris-Teeter grocery store and a tiny ABC store. (An ABC store, for you Yankees out there, is where Southerners go to buy hard liquor.) This is where I accidentally dropped an air conditioner out of a second-story window while completely naked, but that's for another blog post.

6 Wentworth Street

11. Spend an afternoon at Folly Beach. It's a funky, Left Coastish town, a touch of Santa Cruz on the Carolina coast. The far western end of the beach is often sparsely populated and quite beautiful. Worth knowing: George Gershwin spent a summer on Folly Beach during the 30s while composing his opera Porgy and Bess (which is set in Charleston).

The stark beauty of Folly Beach

12. Walk south on Church Street, beginning around St. Philip's Church. Just do it. You'll thank me. And if you see an alley, here or anywhere else, enter it. Charleston alleys aren't like the ones in your city or mine, trust me.

St. Philip's Church

Above all, wear comfortable walking shoes, because you will be walking. Dress lightly, because if it's warm, you will be sweating. Go during the Spoleto festival if possible, which is the last week of May and first week of June every year. If you get the chance, read something by Pat Conroy before, during, or after your visit, preferably The Prince of Tides, South of Broad, or The Lords of Discipline. And when you return from your trip, please tell me all about it. I never tire of hearing people's Charleston stories.