Mar 14, 2015

Spring 1996: The Leatherman Who Never Left South of Market

South of Market was a San Francisco neighborhood of warehouses, factories, car repair places, tattoo parlors, dive bars, drug deals, graffiti, and general decay.

And Mickey, a tall, buffed leatherman in his 30s, with a scruffy beard, nipple rings, and a tattoo of Hot Stuff the Little Devil.

He was at every Bear Party, standing in a dark corner in chaps and a leather vest, never socializing, never approaching anyone.

He was at every beer bust at the Eagle, standing in a dark corner in chaps and a leather jacket, never socializing, never approaching anyone.

He was at every underwear party at the Lone Star, standing in a corner in leather underwear, never socializing, never approaching anyone.

Most guys who took the initiative and approached him got Attitude.  The few who met his standards got an exchange of names and an invitation to the nearest dark space.  Nothing more. He never went home with anyone.  He apparently had no friends.

I was intrigued,  What caused a man to become isolated even from his own people?  But when I tried involving Mickey in a conversation, all I got was an invitation to the nearest dark space.

Then one Tuesday morning I was walking down 9th to my part time job at an architectural firm, and I saw Mickey walking down Folsom, looking out of place in his chaps and leather vest in the midst of a business day.

"Hey, Mickey!" I called.  He turned and looked at me, confused, threatened.

"Boomer.  From the Bear Party and the Eagle, remember?"

"Sure.  Um...how are you?"

"Fine, thanks.  I'm on my way to work. I'm an administrative assistant at McCracken. You?"

"Um, well...."  He looked around, as if searching for the nearest dark space to invite me to.  Didn't he ever have conversations about anything else?

"Are you on your way to work, too?"  I suggested.  "Nice job that lets you work with your shirt off!"


"It's a leather shop. Looking hot is good for business."

My information about Mickey had doubled!  Now was my chance!  "So...are you free for lunch?  There's a nice Chinese restaurant down on Bryant.  You might have to put on a t-shirt...."

He peered toward the south.  "I never go past Harrison.  Too homophobic. Sixth, Twelfth, Harrison, Market, that's my turf."

"Really?"  I was shocked. He had named a constrained world of about ten blocks!  Ok, it had the Eagle, the Lone Star, the Bear Party, and some gyms, tattoo parlors, and bike shops, but no banks, bookstores, hardware stores, parks, or movie theaters.  And... "You're missing the Castro! Gay heaven!"

"I'm not missing it much!"  Mickey grinned.  This was the first time I ever saw him express any emotion.

"Ok, how about if I come to you?  I'll pick up some Chinese food and drop by your shop."

"Is it a gay Chinese restaurant?" he asked pointedly. "I don't eat straight food."

Straight food?

Over gay kung pao chicken and gay pork dumplings, Mickey told me a bit more about his life:
1. He grew up in Missouri, and had a degree in visual arts from Washington University in St. Louis.
2. He was working as a graphic artist in St. Louis, but he was accidentally outed and fired.
3. He was the favorite uncle to his brothers' and sister's kids, but when he was outed, they cut off all contact.
4. While leaving Clementine's in St. Louis, he was jumped and beat up by a band of homophobes, and taken to the hospital.  His brothers and sister didn't visit.
5. He had lived in San Francisco for about five years.  But he never visited the Castro.  He'd have to go through a homophobic neighborhood to get there.

Gradually I began to understand.  Some horrifying experiences with homophobia -- much worse than my own -- drove Mickey to bulwark himself in muscle and leather, entomb himself South of Market, and refuse human contact except when necessary for work or erotic release.

But gay neighborhoods were not about work or erotic release -- they were always about finding friends, family, a place where you belong.

And I knew exactly how to get Mickey there!

"The Metropolitan Community Church has an outreach program for gay youth," I said.  "Many of them are having a terrible time at home, with parents who are homophobic and treat them like dirt."

"That's awful!" Mickey exclaimed.

"One of the things we do is give them a place to hang out after school.  But right now it's unstructured, just some snacks and videos in the fellowship hall.  I think they need some structured activities, like sports, or maybe an art class."

He knew where I was going.  "No way -- I'm no teacher!"

"You don't have to know how to teach.  You have to know how to mentor.  You can be a favorite uncle again."

"But I'm an atheist!"

"The MCC doesn't discriminate."

"The MCC -- that's in the Castro, isn't it?"

"Yes, you'd have to go to the Castro. And you'd have to switch to a t-shirt and jeans."

It took a bit more persuading over several days of gay Chinese food, but soon Mickey and I were in the pastor's office, discussing his art background.  And a couple of weeks after that, Mickey started his after-school art classes for LGBT youth.

The transformation was amazing.  Soon Mickey was talking to people at the Lone Star and the Eagle.  He was volunteering to work on the Mr. San Francisco Leather competition.  And he invited one of the guys he met at the Bear Party to dinner -- at a gay restaurant, of course.

See also: The Slave Boy of Castro Street; and Hot Stuff the Little Devil.