Lit

Tom Ammiano’s feisty new memoir tells all, from Milk to mayoral run

Tom Ammiano at a 1978 gay teachers rally. Photo by Cathy Cade

“It’s not about votes or vetos, it’s about building movements,” veteran politico and revered gay activist Tom Ammiano tells me, surveying the current local political scene. “What the Board of Supervisors and the State legislature continue to miss is that there are movements organizing and mobilizing around certain issues—be it immigration, or the unhoused, or police reform. Instead of tapping into that peoples’ voice, they’re concerned more with immediate power. It’s so out of touch.”

But there’s more than just laser-sharp political analysis in Ammiano’s new memoir, “Kiss My Gay Ass: My trip down the Yellow Brick Road through activism, stand-up, and politics,” published by Bay Guardian Books. The self-described “Mommy Queerest” applies his penchant for outspoken, often hilarious quips to his journey from good New Jersey Catholic boy through San Francisco teaching career, political organizing with Harvey Milk to defeat the homophobic Briggs initiative, stand-up comedy at the Valencia Rose, election to the Board of Supervisors and State Senate, 1999 mayoral run, and beyond.

(Join Tom online for a virtual launch party and reading on Zoom, Sat/9, 3pm-4pm. More info here.) 

There’s plenty of juicy tidbits along the way, including how the title of the book came about. In 1999, when Mayor Willie Brown invited Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, to a Democratic Party fundraiser at the Fairmont Hotel, Ammiano left yelling ‘Kiss my gay ass!” A national media/culture wars brouhaha ensued. (Schwarzenegger responded by vetoing a benign piece of legislation introduced by Ammiano with an acrostic that spelled out “Fuck you.”)

And of course Ammiano is full of hidden history. “How’s the Stud?” he asked me about the bar I co-own when I called him. “You know in the ’70s, we used to dance there until it closed and then we’d go next door to the Universal Life Corral. It was a space set up like a church so it could stay open all night, and everyone would have sex and do a lot of drugs. There was a woman at the door—I think her nickname was Quaaluda or Quaalina—who would give you the run-down before you went in. ‘Oh there’s speed here tonight, it’s not good.’ Or, ‘don’t buy your downers from the skinny guy.’ She was like a Wal-Mart greeter for the orgy.”

I spoke with Ammiano a bit about the book and the world of politics in general.

48 HILLS You’ve lived more lives than a dozen people. How on earth did you summon it all for the book? Have you been keeping journals or notes?  

TOM AMMIANO No, nothing like that—it’s all in the brain, although I did do a one-man show at the Marsh a few years ago that helped me get the material together. It was purely a kitchen table thing, where I sat down with help of my editors Tim Redmond and Jon Golinger. They finally put down the bong and said, ‘Tom, it’s time.’

48H How did it feel to relive something like your “Run Tom Run” mayoral campaign in 1999—something that brought a lot of young people like me (at the time!) into direct action San Francisco politics? Was there any temptation to settle scores, especially since you ran in such a contentious environment against Willie Brown? 

TA You know, it was thrilling to relive running for mayor, because I think we really started something. We picked up on Milk’s legacy and connected it to what was going on then, not just with LGBT issues but broader social justice ideas and movements.

And there were specific moments, too. Willie actually had Jesse Jackson call me in the middle of the night and tell me not to run. There I was in my cucumber mask and hair curlers taking a call from Jesse Jackson in my kitchen. I almost shit my pants! He said, Why are you running agains Willie—he’s good on the gay thing, he’s progressive on this and that. He wanted me to wait to run, next time. I politely thanked him for the call, but said that our approach was channeling a real grassroots energy, not the same old machine politics.

48H What were some of the other positive things you recall from your political career? Obviously defeating the infamous Briggs Initiative that would have expelled gay teachers…

TA The return to district elections, which we put on the ballot for 2000 and won. It went back to the way it was when Harvey was elected. We may not have had all our candidates elected that year, but it really pissed off Willie Brown, which is something I always loved to do.

Healthy San Francisco. Coming from my background in working-class New Jersey, I saw my family suffered from lack of healthcare. During my last term as supervisor, I saw that we had the infrastructure —teaching hospitals, a great healthcare workforce. Why couldn’t we provide universal healthcare access here, if the country wasn’t going to do it? Everyone predicted it would never happen and it did.

I’ve always been and strong advocate for police reform, again going back to going up in Jersey, where the cops would beat the shit out of my friends for being gay. I did a lot of that on the Board, and followed through in Sacramento, helping defeat all these terrible bills. This comes together with my advocacy for public education—I was very much against Kamala Harris’s bill to tie incarceration to truancy. And that came back to bite her big-time in the Presidential primary.

Ammiano at last year’s rally for Bernie Sanders at Crissy Field

48H What are some of the immediate things you see that continue to need work?

TA Definitely support for education, especially with people like Betsey DeVos in charge. This pandemic is really getting people into the groove of appreciating how important teachers, and nurses, and other community workers are, and the many ways we keep failing to support them with what they need. No one is trying to get rich by becoming a teacher. And while schools have come a long way around LGBT issues, there’s so much left to do. And we have to advocate more for immigrants; rights. We need to recognize that movement more.

48H Finally, what are some of your thought on the current SF political scene. 

TA It’s frustrating to see how the Brown-schooled mayor is dealing with issues, especially with the pandemic. We have a tremendous problem with the unhoused right now, because we’ve politicized the issue forever—and continue to do so. However, it’s not just about one person. We need charter reform for the Mayor’s Office in general. There’s all kinds of things that happen behind those doors that we know nothing about. It’s too powerful.

But I’m also really hopeful we’re approaching a turning point, with the election of people like Chesa and Dean. Young people are saying, “Willie who?” I think we’re entering a new era. It’s very exciting.

You can purchase Tom’s book here

Tori Amos: ‘Artists will be the second round of responders’

Tori Amos. Photo by Des Willie

Singer-songwriter Tori Amos is quick to applaud the first responders—the doctors, nurses, and EMTs—who are currently risking their lives to save others during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the “Silent All These Years,” “Cornflake Girl,” and “Spark” singer told 48 Hills that after the darkest days of COVID-19 have passed, it will take a second round of responders—the artists and writers—to give voice to our collective pain and, in so doing, begin a second wave of healing.

Amos is used to creating meaningful art in response to extreme personal and political traumas. Her 1991 single “Me and a Gun,” about being sexually assaulted, shed a light on the rape epidemic. Her 2002 album Scarlet’s Walk was a response to the devastation that befell the nation in the wake of the September 11 attacks and 2017’s Native Invader was a reaction against the politics of hatred that swept the country after the 2016 United States election. Her foray into theatre with the 2013 stage musical The Light Princess, a feminist take on the classic fairytale, confronted widespread sexism and misogyny.

Drawing from her creative highs and lows, the experiences that inspired and shaped them, and the life lessons she’s learned along the way, Amos’s riveting new book released May 5, Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope, Change, and Courage, offers her fellow artists a blueprint for similarly pushing back against “patriarchal power structures” through art.

Tori Amos spoke to me last month from her home in Cornwall, in the South West of England, about art as a form of political resistance, her biggest artistic crisis, and how her fans continue to inform her music.

48 HILLS In Resistance, you describe the ways in which art can be an antidote to personal and political traumas. How, in your opinion, should artists be using their mediums amid the current pandemic?

TORI AMOS Once the doctors and nurses will have done such an incredible job in healing people physically, the writers and artists are going to need to be a healing spiritual and emotional balm.

I do think there will be art coming out from all kinds of artists that will express what we’re hearing at this time from what people are going through. There is a value to that and it will be needed after losing people and the grief of that. Art, like Irish Keening—where the keeners go up and sing into your ear to bring up things with their voices and their music that you’re feeling but haven’t been able to express—is important. So I absolutely believe that the artists are going to have an important role to play.

There’s a value in storytelling, so I just want to encourage artists because they are needed. We need to feel the calling. Some days I have a good cry and then it’s like, “Dust yourself off, Tor. Come on back to the piano and let’s channel this.”

48 HILLS In the book, you describe a time, early in your career, when you were chasing commercial success instead of producing music that was meaningful to you. What did you learn from this experience? 

TORI AMOS I chose to believe the business suits over the piano and the muses, and that’s where I found myself at a huge artistic crisis in my mid-20s. I really then had to crawl back to a place where I asked myself that question that really smacked me back to life, “How do you go from prodigy to bimbo?”

And so there was a whole kind of grieving that had to go on and responsibility. I had to see my part in it. I made those choices. I couldn’t blame anybody else. The piano forgave me much quicker than I forgave myself, but then I never betrayed her again. The gift was I’ve been able to stand my ground because I know what it feels like when I betray her.

48 HILLS One of the most powerful chapters in the book was about how 9/11 shaped you and your subsequent tour and album. What did you learn from that experience that serves you as an artist today? 

TORI AMOS Wow, what a question. Doing the Strange Little Tour after 9/11 when a lot of artists were being encouraged to cancel, there were a few things I learned. When [John Lennon’s] song “Imagine” was being banned on the radio because the drums of war were raging and nobody wanted the narrative of “Imagine all the people living life in peace,” I learned that some songs can be “dangerous.”

Also, people were coming up to me and saying my music is really a backdrop to gather, share intel, and get to the truth. Artists owe it to their audience to listen to what they are saying and channel that into their work. Art had to imitate life, so I wrote Scarlet’s Walk on the Strange Little Tour. Just like my next record is changing because of what’s happening now. Some people are talking about losing their freedoms and when the virus is gone, will all those freedoms come back? So there’s a lot to think about.

48 HILLS In Resistance you explain how meet-and-greets and reading fan mail inspire the subjects that you tackle in your music. Should more artists be doing this? 

TORI AMOS Look, they are my intel. I trust them more than the CIA. There are hundreds of letters and it takes time to go through them, but I’m always amazed at what I learn from them. It’s not always tragic stories where you learn, but also you learn from somebody just sharing what they’ve learned, like, “I learned this today where I was working at a coffee bar,” and you go, “Wow, you’re my Buddha at this moment. That’s just wisdom.”

So I can’t get my head around it when I show up at a venue and someone at the door goes, “Most stars don’t [talk to their fans]; they don’t have that relationship.” I don’t know what crap they’re smoking, but then the gold is falling through the cracks because that is the magic right there.

48 HILLS Several artists have been “cancelled” for complaining on social media about how the shelter-in-place order has impacted them — when they’re already so advantaged. How does an artist find the balance between expressing themselves and coming off as insensitive right now?

TORI AMOS Wow, that is a good question. Getting that balance right is… sometimes certain artists aren’t about balance. Certain artists can take this to extremes because that’s their craft. So I feel like if it’s coming from a genuine place of expression, then people need to express themselves right now.

If you’re a non-artist, you might be feeling something similar but don’t have the platform, so so many emotions are coming up and so many issues are coming up, such as issues of control. We’re in a controlled state of being right now. When someone might say, “If you look at it like a Buddhist retreat,” my grumpy British husband might say, “I’m not in a Buddhist retreat. I’ve got a full house with two vegans and two non-vegans. I wish I could be alone. So anyone who’s lonely, trade places with me and sleep with my wife.” [Laughs]

48 HILLS What can non-artists take away from your book?

TORI AMOS For those who don’t see themselves as creative, I wanted to write a book that talks about the process and takes the lights and the makeup off of some of it, so they could have a relationship with art in a different way, so that it’s not an “us and them” kind of thing.

I really wanted to expose my personal struggles as an artist, so people who care about artists can understand it and how sometimes the only way out of the struggle is to create toward it and with it.

A Drag Queen Story Hour star and activist publishes her own kids’ book

Lil Miss Hot Mess hosting Drag Queen Story Hour. Photo by Joe Tekippe

For the majority of Americans, drag queens are performers they catch every Friday night on RuPaul’s Drag Race or at their local gay bar (pre-pandemic).

For former San Francisco performer Lil Miss Hot Mess, drag queens and kings have a broader appeal. They’re the brave warriors, who fought on the front lines for LGBTQ rights at San Francisco’s Compton’s Cafeteria riot in 1966 and New York’s Stonewall riots in 1969. Over the years, a slew of local queens have even run for public office—from the late José Sarria and Sister Boom Boom to Joan Jett Blakk, Anna Conda, and Honey Mahogany.

Drag queens have shown up at protests, volunteered and raised funds for community organizations, and, in the case of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, provided community-based security at major events.

The pandemic hasn’t slowed down their efforts or lessened their reach. Many performers, including Juanita More, are now putting on digital drag shows to raise money and support community organizations, including the SF Bay Area Queer Nightlife Fund, which supports out-of-work LGBTQ nightlife workers.

Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH), founded by queer author Michelle Tea in 2015 to inspire a love of reading in children while encouraging an appreciation for diversity, has gone virtual, as well, streaming book readings to kids everywhere via Instagram Live and public library websites.

One of the original DQSH hosts, who currently sits on the organization’s national advisory committee, Lil Miss Hot Mess pays tribute to all the tireless drag activists out there in her new children’s book The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, out May 5. This parody of “The Wheels on the Bus” children’s classic encourages kids of all types to be their most authentic selves. The book is vibrantly illustrated by Olga de Dios Ruiz and features some of SF’s landmark attractions, like the Castro Theatre sign.

I spoke to Lil Miss Hot Mess, who currently lives in Los Angeles, about writing her new book, continuing to fight Facebook’s “real names” policy and discriminatory comments on the social media site’s DQSH page, and how she’s handling life under quarantine.

48 HILLS Why did you decide to write a children’s book?

LIL MISS HOT MESS The book grew out of my work with Drag Queen Story Hour. While there are many wonderful books out there with diverse themes and representation and many that deal with queer and gender themes (with even more on the way), there weren’t any kids books about drag queens.

It felt important to be able to offer kids an easy way to understand what a drag queen is, and to spread the joy of DQSH beyond events — especially in communities where we don’t have chapters yet.  What I love about this book, too, is that it teaches kids, but it’s not didactic. There’s no “Drag 101,” but it gets them swishing and shimmying and twirling, so they can embody and celebrate some of the things queens do.  If they like it, maybe they’ll want to be drag queens when they grow up, too.

48 HILLS Why did you choose The Wheels on the Bus as the structural model for your story?

LIL MISS HOT MESS This really was just a stroke of inspiration on my way to a DQSH event a few years ago.  I wanted to do a bit more than just read stories, and I was thinking about kid-friendly songs, but wanted to make them more specific.  And I liked the idea of creating a safe space for kids to experiment.  As an effeminate child, I was made fun of for being too swishy, and I wanted to let kids embrace that.

Plus, parody is a common trick of the trade of drag (and something I loved as a kid), so it seemed like another good way of not watering down drag, but simply adapting it to be kid-friendly.

But I truly didn’t think consciously until afterwards just how well some of the verses mesh up with the original: the hair going up, up, up (instead of the people going up and down), the jewels going bling, bling, bling, (instead of the lights going blink, blink, blink).

48 HILLS What can readers take away from the story aside from the fact that drag queens are amazing?

LIL MISS HOT MESS It sounds cheesy, but I hope that they take away the diversity, joy, and creativity that really are what make drag possible. The book isn’t meant to have any specific message, but I hope kids (and adults) think about drag as not just about gender or glamour, but as about really making your outer appearance reflect your inner sparkle. That’s so much of what drag is about—living that fantasy until it’s an undeniable reality.

Photo by Tracy Chow

48 HILLS Talk to me about being a founding member of Drag Queen Story Hour. How did you get involved and why is DQSH important?

LIL MISS HOT MESS DQSH was started by Michelle Tea, the brilliant author who founded Radar Productions in San Francisco. She had just become a parent and was looking for queer family programs, but wasn’t finding much. Honestly, I’m just so in awe of her genius. It’s such a simple concept, but also requires a lot of dedication and bravery to pull off. So, the first DQSH events were in SF in late 2015, and I was one of the first queens to host in NYC. And now I’m on the national leadership team for the DQSH network, which has 50 chapters and growing.

In terms of its importance, DQSH really is unique in offering a taste of queerness to kids, whether they have queer parents/families, or for straight families wanting to teach their kids about LGBTQ cultures.  Many of the stories we read have social justice themes and hopefully also encourage a love of reading and learning.  But I think the real value is in cultural literacy.  It’s hard to know how to teach kids about LGBTQ issues in age-appropriate ways (even though it’s part of K-12 curriculum in California). DQSH offers one way that is unabashedly queer, but also really connects to kids on their level.

48 HILLS In 2014, you helped fight Facebook’s “real names” policy and now you’re fighting trolls on the DQSH page. What can you tell us about that?

LIL MISS HOT MESS Oy vey. Facebook is a challenge. We won some great victories with the #MyNameIs campaign, though I still get messages from people whose accounts are blocked for the same reasons (and from some of the same people!). And, of course, this was before Cambridge Analytica and many of Facebook’s other scandals.

The problem with trolling really stems from the same problems as the “real names” issue, though. Facebook sees many of its most vulnerable users as “edge cases” that aren’t worthy of investing resources in to solve problems.  For them, trolling that happens to one percent or 10 percent of their user base is a drop in the bucket, but that’s still millions and millions of people!  Of course, there are always going to be haters, but frankly Facebook needs to do a better job of offering tools, systems, and support to prevent attacks.

With DQSH, we’ve simply been asking for the ability to turn off comments on live videos, so that kids don’t have to see hateful messages from trolls. That isn’t hard, but it’s an uphill battle with Facebook. The other issue now is that, because of the pandemic, many of their content moderators are furloughed.  Things weren’t great before, as many queer folks have either seen offensive hate speech deemed “not a violation” or truly innocuous queer-themed content deemed to be “inappropriate.”

I have a feeling that things are about to get a lot worse before they get better. Like the public health pandemic, a lack of preparedness means that bad and unjust policies on Facebook are only being amplified now.

48 HILLS How have you been handling quarantine? What is your daily life like now?

LIL MISS HOT MESS Quarantine has been up and down for me. By day I’m a PhD student, so my work has mostly been from home, though I do genuinely miss working in libraries and coffee shops! I’m also a “spoonie,” meaning I have a chronic illness and limited physical energy, so my life, over the past few years, hasn’t been quite as go-go-go as I used to be and fewer club nights.

So, it’s interesting to feel less like I’m missing out now that we’re all connecting digitally. And I’ve actually been performing more than I had been, because I can finally do drag numbers from my bed and bathtub. As someone who’s more vulnerable to this virus, I’m also grateful that so many in my community and society at large are taking this so seriously. It’s really quite moving, though I wish that the federal government had planned better to mitigate this. And all that said, I can’t wait til we can safely gather and hug again.

The mother who stoned San Francisco

Meridy Volz. Courtesy of the author

Alia Volz, the author of Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco,  knew she had a good story on her hands.

Every time the San Francisco native told anybody about her upbringing as the daughter of Meridy and Doug Volz, the heads of the City’s largest “edibles” bakery in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, delivering over 10 thousand extra-strength brownies a month to locals, their eyes would grow to the size of saucers as they hung on her every word. People found it astounding that she grew up the way that she did.

But when the self-described “reluctant memoir writer” decided, 12 years ago, to put her story in print, she quickly realized through her research that it was even stronger and more potent than her eccentric parents or their wildly successful business. Dubbed Sticky Fingers, her parents’ brownie company famously brought relief to countless AIDS sufferers decades before apps like Eaze made weed deliveries commonplace.

So instead of writing a simple family history, she broadened her project’s scope to include the stories of legendary figures like Supervisor Harvey Milk, activist Cleve Jones, and superstar singer Sylvester, who collectively fought to make the City vibrant, colorful, and inclusive before it was crippled by the Jonestown Massacre, Milk’s assassination, AIDS, and the Loma Prieta earthquake.

I spoke to Volz about writing Home Baked, which fittingly comes out on 4/20 with a brownie bake-in, about the most challenging chapters, why weed has never been her drug of choice, and the lessons from the AIDS era that can be applied to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

48 HILLS Why did you decide to write a book about your family’s experience in the budding pot industry in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s?

ALIA VOLZ I started the book 12 years ago when I started recording the interviews for the book. I only had a vague notion of what it would be. I knew that we had a great story, but I hadn’t really found the heart of it.

The heart of the story came to me in 2016 during the lead-up to Proposition 64, which legalized the adult use of cannabis in California. I noticed that in the conversations and debates around that legislation that there was almost no mention of HIV/AIDS. But I thought that was what drove it.

So it felt like an erasure of a piece of history that I found incredibly important, poignant, and instructive, as far as how to survive or build a grassroots movement when you’re faced with an impossible situation. So that became the impetus to reframe the book and this is why it has to happen now.

48 HILLS The story seems to be as much about San Francisco in its much written about gay golden age in the ‘70s as it is about your family’s own experience in the edibles industry.

ALIA VOLZ Yes, the pieces of my hometown that meant so much to me were just disappearing and being edged out. So it was the desire to tell these forgotten stories about my city in the ‘70s and ‘80s that drove me to write the book.

“Sticky Fingers Logo” by Doug Volz, Courtesy of the author

48 HILLS Was your mother on board with your book idea from the get-go?

ALIA VOLZ She was. My mom isn’t exactly a shy retiring flower and is a bit of a stage hog by nature and does indulge in some self-mythologizing, but I think she never saw herself as a pioneer because she was just making decisions according to her own sense of right and wrong, hippie oracles, and what seemed fun. So on a day-to-day basis, she was just living her life in a way that she found exciting.

So it really wasn’t until I presented the story to her in the way that I contextualized it with my research that she started to think, “Oh well, maybe I did do something that mattered.” I think she’s still trying to wrap her head around it.

48 HILLS Was part of the impetus for writing the book to give your mother some long-overdue credit?

ALIA VOLZ That may have emerged later for me. But I didn’t understand how much my mom was a pioneer in that world until I really dug into the history of the medical marijuana movement and saw where she fit in.

I tried for years to find a business of that size or scope that came earlier and just couldn’t. The more I understood about the historical context, the evolution of medical marijuana, and the evolution of San Francisco culture and politics, I saw that her piece of the puzzle was connected to more elements than I ever imagined.

I would have been happy just to tell a quirky family story, but I found something much richer and more interesting. Then it started to matter to me and became part of my mission plan. It was a nice surprise as a writer to realize that the story you were telling is more consequential than you thought.

Meridy and Alia Volz, circa 1983. Courtesy of the author.

48 HILLS You describe several painful chapters in the City’s history between the Jonestown Massacre, Harvey Milk’s assassination, the AIDS era, and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. How challenging was it to write about these monumental events?

ALIA VOLZ Two of the most difficult parts were the Jonestown Massacre and Harvey Milk’s assassination, because how do you do justice to something like that? How do you write about it in a way that captures the intensity and horror without glorifying it and bringing something new to the conversation when it’s a topic that’s been written about so often? So that was emotionally hard and technically challenging as a writer.

The hardest part, though, was researching and writing about the beginning of the AIDS crisis. It was devastating for me. I spent maybe three weeks where the only thing I did was go through the Bay Area Reporter obituaries and track various threads of names to try to find survivors who were also Sticky Fingers customers to talk to and it was just crushing to discover how many people died.

Then there was a breakthrough where going through obituaries, I found Dan Clowry [a regular client of Meridy Volz’s who worked at Castro’s Village Deli] who connected me to other people and it just opened up. But those weeks combing the beach for survivors were incredibly sad.

48 HILLS One of the City’s most renowned artists to die of AIDS was Sylvester, who happened to be a regular customer of your mom’s. What are your memories of him?

ALIA VOLZ When I was a kid, I would go with my mom to his house in Twin Peaks, which was three stories and all outfitted with this boudoir vibe with lots of velvet, beads, and erotic art on the wall. But I have this clear image of him, always in a caftan or lounging pajamas, a turban, and a lot of jewelry, draped on a fainting couch and smoking a joint with my mom.

As a kid, I had a strong affinity with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, so I had this association in my mind of Sylvester as the caterpillar smoking his hookah. He seemed magical to me, which is not entirely uncommon. He was just so charismatic.

Alia Volz. Photo by Dennis Hearne

48 HILLS What was your first experience with Sticky Fingers brownies?

ALIA VOLZ It’s a little hard for me to answer that question because when you grow up in a weed family, it’s sort of everywhere. But it’s not like I was getting high as a kid. I grew up with the idea of pot being the purview of grown-ups, the way the evening news is. You wouldn’t want it.

I’m sure I snuck some crumbs because they tasted good…it was just so casual. That’s part of why I never got into it as an adult. It doesn’t have any mystique. It’s just not that interesting to me or a right of passage for me. In some form, it was always there. For some people, it’s a step toward adulthood or rebellion, but it wasn’t that for me.

48 HILLS Are there lessons that readers can take from your book, particularly from the passages about the AIDS era that can be applied to the current COVID-19 pandemic?

ALIA VOLZ I think what is instructive about it and what we’re seeing play out again is that state leaders, local leaders, and individuals have to organize on a grassroots level to face the pandemic in the absence of governmental action because the federal government is clearly letting us down as the Reagan administration did during the AIDS era.

But I have civic pride that San Francisco has been a leader in taking it seriously and taking drastic action, which also happened during the AIDS crisis. I’m glad to see we can still pull it together.

So, what do kids say about living in San Francisco?

Katie Burke grew up in a family of five children in Phoenix, Arizona. She felt, like she thinks many children do, that she was always struggling for attention. That may be why she loves being around them now, and hearing their perspectives. 

“I always wanted to be heard,” she said. “I’m a very direct person, and I love how direct children are. They rarely have an agenda. I wish everybody would tell the truth, and you can count on children for that.”

Burke, a family attorney who writes the column “Noe Kids” for the Noe Valley Voice, has her debut book out, Urban Playground: What Kids Say About Living in San Francisco. For the book she interviewed 50 San Francisco children, ages five to nine, about subjects including favorite foods, their families, their heroes and what they’d like to do as a job when they grow up. The book also includes book a series of conversation exercises so parents and kids can do their own interviews at home.

Burke got a master’s in counseling, then went to law school “sort of by accident,” she says.

“I always planned to work with families,” she said. “When I was in counseling, I felt it was too passive, and I wanted to do more for clients.”

Burke has taught creative writing to children and adults and she writes quarterly judicial and attorney profiles for San Francisco Attorney Magazine. In 2017, her mother asked her to do a family project writing answers to questions from her six nieces and two nephews, who live around the country. That led to the column for the Noe Valley Voice and then to working on this book, which Burke says brings together her love of children and the city she’s lived in since 1999.

Burke says San Francisco became a bigger place to her while working on the book talking with children who live in neighborhoods she hasn’t spent much time in like Mission Bay and Mission Terrace.

Author Katie Burke

She spoke with kids like eight-year-old J.P. who lives in Visitation Valley and likes walking his dog in McLaren Park, riding his bike to Candlestick Point, and going to the sports bar and grill 7 Mile House. And there’s nine-year-old Amelia who lives with her two dads in Noe Valley and can play Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” on the ukulele. She also likes going to the pizza place, Mozzeria, where the owners and servers are deaf. She can say, “thank you,” “milk,” and “good morning” in sign language. 

Burke says the children she talked with are aware of and saddened by people who are homeless , who one kid called “abandoned people living on the street,” and she says because of things like the tech boom, the children are living in a completely different city than the one before they were born. 

Burke had lots of readings and events planned for her book launch,which have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But The Booksmith, God love them, is hosting a virtual launch on Thursday, April 16 at 6pm. 

SF’s Juli Delgado Lopera on language, matriarchy, and ‘Fiebre Tropical’

Juli Delgado Lopera

UPDATE: The book release party has been postponed, but you can still buy Fiebre Tropical at Booksmith.

When I met San Francisco author, artist, and historian Juli Delgado Lopera on the patio of Atlas Cafe in the Mission last Friday, they had exciting news to share. After we air-hugged, they told me that the New York Times was publishing a review of their first novel Fiebre Tropical the next day—and it was wildly positive. “It’s a dream come true, something I’ve imagined since I was little” said Lopera. “Especially for a first-time Latinx author with a book full of Spanglish, published on a feminist press.” (The book is literally published by Feminist Press.)

Lopera will be celebrating the book’s publication with a reading and drag show, 6:30pm-9pm at The Bindery in the Haight. The bright, enthralling Fiebre Tropical follows a 15-year old girl named Francisca as she immigrates to Miami from Bogotá, Colombia, with her mother, discovers the world’s workings, explores her sexuality, and watches as her family becomes increasingly involved in a cult-like evangelical sect. It’s driven by Francisca’s narrative voice—a startlingly lush, humid mix of visceral imagery and wondrously inventive language that mixes Spanglish slang with poetic observation. An example:

A few days before the baptism, Mami arrived with a huge yellow dress for me. Yellow is such an ugly color. Plus I hated dresses. Mami knew I hated yellow—and red and orange and all warm colors. You know what was yellow? My Catholic school uniform. Freaking pollito yellow with orange stripes and a green sweater embroidered with the initials of the school and a tiny brown cross. The nuns made sure there wasn’t the slightest possibility of prov- ocation or desire that could awaken the evils of boy temptation, which only existed outside of school, while we respectable teenagers—an endangered species—were protected by the tackiest, most unfashionable piece of clothing ever invented. As if someone’s barf had become the color palette of choice. Men didn’t piss on us to mark territory, we had the nuns to thank for that. And now here it was, that dreaded color popping up in my life again in the form of a baptismal dress inside a Ross bag coming to me via Mami’s exhausted joy.
Le dije, Mami ni muerta am I wearing that dress—

I talked to Lopera about how they wrote the book, their own Latinx experience of immigration, and the playfulness of language.

48 HILLS This is your first novel, yet I know you as a writer and historian. 

JULI DELGADO LOPERA I’ve written a book of oral history [¡Cuéntamelo!, which won a Lambda Literary Award], and we know each other form our work at the GLBT Historical Society. I’ve also published a chapbook of essays. But yes, this is my first novel. I’ve always wanted to write fiction. Being able to conjure up worlds of imagination is totally my thing. This book specifically has been seven years in the making. It was a long time!

48H The descriptions of Miami neighborhoods and of leaving Bogotá behind are so hyper-vivid. How much of your personal story is in the book?

JDL I feel that the writing always comes from you, because anything that you write is going to have a relationship to you in terms of memory, or a glimpse of something from your experience, or a story that you heard. Some of the blueprint of the book definitely comes from my own life. I did move from Bogotá to Miami when I was 15 years old, I did live with my mom and my sister.

We lived in really close quarters with my aunts, and my mom did join an evangelical Christian church which was very culty. I pulled a lot of the imagery from the rituals in the church. I was obsessed with that part because it had such an impact on my life and the relationship I had with my family. That episode was really the shattering point for me, of really starting to see things in the world for what they were.

But most of it is made up—the houses, the details, the specific situations and reactions, these are all fiction.

48H What were some of writers or influences you looked to as you were forming this first novel?

JDL The voice is the narrative force of the novel, and for inspiration I drew a lot from Junot Diaz, of course. Jennine Capó Crucet writes about Miami, she’s also really good. Pedro Lemebel is one of my favorite writers, I read him a lot for helping to form the voice.

But I think a lot of the inspiration is mainly from listening to people talk. For the longest time I’ve had little notebooks where I’d write down things that just captured my attention, not necessarily in terms of content, but phonetically. I did that with my mom and my aunties. This took a long time to take shape, my grandmother was still alive at the time, and I would just write down a bunch of the stuff she and my family would say. I always thought it was incredible how they shifted and molded language.

Spanish is way more flexible and playful to say things in. I tried to translate some that playfulness into the voice and into English.

48H I love the sheer amount of Spanglish in the book, and the fact that the rush of language carries you on without English-speakers necessarily needing to know the exact translation of every phrase.

JDL I did get a lot of pushback from writing workshops about the amount of Spanish in the book. A lot of white people were like, “Oh, I can’t relate to this, why are you doing this?” There was a lot of questioning around the choice. But when I started writing it, it just felt like that was the voice that was there. I actually write everything in Spanglish.

This book definitely had that specific kind of energy because of the character’s consciousness. Francisca is an irreverent, jaded teenager from a specific time and situation. She has an intense voice that takes in everything around her.

48H Francisca really is such a perfectly realized voice and character—how did she come to you? 

JDL I was witting a short story for my MFA program at SF State, which revolved around the baptism scene now in the novel, when Francisca begins to see how this evangelical church is very different. I remembered conversations in the church around baptizing unborn children. And then the characters started growing and growing, and I realized they couldn’t be contained within the short story. So I started calling it a novella and then it just kept growing and I was like, OK, this has to be a whole, full-on thing.

48H One of the most striking things to me in the book is the conflict between the Catholicism that came with Francisca and her mom from Colombia that then melted away into evangelical Christianity in Miami, which is what the aunts they lived with practiced. It seemed very symbolic of Latin American life versus contemporary American culture. 

JDL That was a lot of personal experience, definitely. But I think that it’s important to note that it’s not literal. There’s a whole world between what actually happened in the novel. Some of the themes I was thinking of when I was writing was my fascination with the baptism and the church rituals, this world I felt was invisible to other people.

When I left Miami and came here to go to school in Berkeley, I really started thinking about how people were not exposed to this type of religious thing. The church was deliberately insular. I was in awe of how much people didn’t know was going on in these small religious communities.

48H The novel is almost totally composed of women’s voices and presences, which really seems to power it.  

JDL I grew up in a matriarchy—and there can be some really fucked-up, toxic dynamics in a matriarchy. As a feminist, the impulse is to uplift the matriarchy as the ideal. But I wasn’t interested in making something that would conform to certain ideals and standards of what a novel like this should represent. I just wanted full, complex human beings, which is what happens in a matriarchy. They are allowed to be really flawed.

Assuming a matriarchy is always going to be exemplary is misleading, though. I thought about it when looking at my own family, and how toxic some things were. And they were women. Of course, a lot of that is reaction to patriarchy, but I wasn’t interested in writing a moral story that embodies how to be a woman. I was interested in exploring the dynamics of that specific family and their relationships.

48H This is a very charged moment for immigrant narratives, considering the kerfuffle around Jeanine Cummings’ American Dirt and the subsequent conversation around “authentic” voices and how he publishing industry ignores Latinx voices, even when it comes to immigration stories.    

JDL I don’t want to link this book to that at all—I don’t think it’s an “immigrant book,” I was much more interested in the language play—although I and other writers did do events at the time that aimed to uplift Latinx immigrant voices. We do get dismissed because we’re never really given a chance. We’re just assumed to be inferior. Not only that, but we also have to perform the kind of “Latinization” imposed on us because of the way the US views us.

I am not from here, but  when I am in the US I exist within this powerful framework that defines who I am according to presupposed criteria of what a Latinx person is supposed to be. When I leave and go to Colombia, I feel like a full human being. I get to experience my full cultural heritage without the burden of also feeling inferior.

Right now it’s really an exciting time because people are actually paying attention to immigrants, and it feels like we’re also supporting each other and creating stronger networks. We’re advocating for ourselves and the right to define ourselves. We’re saying we want to make our own decisions.

FIEBRE TROPICAL BOOK LAUNCH (POSTPONED)
Thu/12, 6:30pm-9pm, free
The Bindery, SF. 
More info here.

Opinion: Octavia Butler’s mission is yours, too—should you choose to accept it

Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was a visionary artist. Since the publication of her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976, millions of people have read her words. Countless artists and activists—including Janelle Monae, Gloria Steinem, and Viola Davis—have taken inspiration from the worlds of her imagination.

But the accolades Butler received during her lifetime, her growing popularity in the aftermath of her death, and the privacy she maintained while she was alive have created a conundrum for those of us curious about the woman behind the legend. The enduring image of who Butler was as a person has blurred into a larger-than-life projection of whom we want her to be—a prophet (she wrote about a zealot elected to “make America great again” long before Trump), a sage, a poster child for feminism or Black power or nerds everywhere, an extra-human sibilant transfixed by futures only she could see.

The truth, of course, is more complicated. When I first entered the archives in Los Angeles that hold her papers, researching for what would become a musical of her life called Octavia of Earth, I joked to my co-conspirator T. that Butler seemed like the kind of person who would show up to a drum circle, play the same rhythm on a set of jingle bells for an hour, say nothing, and then leave.

Yet my first glimpse into her teenage diary placed all my preconceptions through the shredder. Here was someone deeply grounded in her experience of the world, who paid attention to the news and the writing on the wall alike and synthesized them all together to create new knowledge with layers and layers of depth.

Here was someone who had unrequited teenage crushes and felt awkward as hell, who dared to want to be something as outlandish as a writer in a working-class Black family where her mother and uncles served the wealthiest of Pasadena in plantation-style homes.

Here was someone who struggled with doubt, wage labor, barriers to accessing healthcare, the relentless cycles of oppression, making humiliating mistakes—the full catastrophe of life. Here was someone who made her way through a world built for people who were not like her and yet who persisted.

Here was someone entirely human in her magnificence. 

Today, passages from Butler’s apocalyptic Parable series are indistinguishable from the morning news. In this moment of two-dimensional villains and saviors in the 30-second news cycle, we must fight to add nuance to our understanding of the world and its people, to listen for depth. We must tear down the statues of our oppressors and reimagine the pedestals beneath the feet of our heroes as mere sidewalks. We must walk arm-in-arm with our goddesses. We must listen to Black women, reflect, and act—not expect them to be superhumans who save the world for everyone else. 

Fourteen years after her death, Octavia E. Butler’s best-known quotes may be those about the infinite nature of change, but the one that haunts me is about stagnation: “I think people can do better. I just don’t think we will.” May this prophecy be the one to prove Butler’s humanity once and for all. May she be wrong.

 Anand Jay Kalra is the founding director of Oakland-based Uncaged Librarian Productions (ULP). From 2016 – 2018, ULP produced Octavia of Earth, Vol. 1, an original musical inspired by the life of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. The soundtrack album is available on CD and mp3 at www.uncagedlibrarianmusic.com and was recently released to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and all major platforms. Anand lives in Oakland with his cats, Sparrow and Finch.

At Zinn Fair, Peter Cole explores SF’s unique history of labor and race

Peter Cole

In Dockworker Power: Race and Activism in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area, labor historian Peter Cole uncovers the undocumented history of waterfront activism and its role in supporting transnational racial justice movements. In advance of his Sun/8 appearance at the Howard Zinn Book Fair, he sat down with us to talk about this history, and what it might teach a resurgent labor movement.  

48 HILLS Early in the book, you talk about how the ILWU’s nearly all-white membership embraced integration and racial justice. This flies in the face of the commonly held belief that all trade unions were shackled by racism. What shaped the ILWU’s commitments? What did they accomplish?

Peter Cole No doubt, the history of unionism in America is shot full of racism but I’d hesitate to say that all unions are racist, especially in recent decades. However, there’s no doubt that, historically, many unions excluded or segregated African American workers as well as Asians, Mexicans and other Latinx, American Indians, women, and other so-called minorities.

Due to this history of exclusion, in the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington flat out encouraged black workers to scab. But there’s also a tradition of antiracism. As early as the 1880s, the Knights of Labor made a sincere effort to organize black and female workers and, since its founding in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World made inclusion a bedrock principle, as I explored in my first book, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. Building on this foundation, in the 1930s a wave of new unions emerged that challenged rejected racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Among the most radical of these was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU).

The history of the ILWU, particularly its SF Bay Area branch—called Local 10—is an incredible example of antiracism in action. When established, literally 99% of SF longshoremen were of European descent or European immigrants. By the way, only 1% of San Francisco’s population was African American and only 3% of Oakland’s. Yet, from its inception, the ILWU and Local 10, the union’s flagship branch as SF was the West Coast’s busiest port, committed itself to racial equality.

Local 10 quickly integrated work gangs, guaranteed black members equal job opportunities, and actively fought racist treatment of its black members. When WWII created a massive labor shortage that sparked another wave of the African American Great Migration, more than a thousand Southern Black men soon entered Local 10. According to Cleophas Williams, who hailed from rural Arkansas, it was the first time he had met white people who weren’t racist. In one interview, he said that many Black members of Local 10 thought they had found utopia. That may seem hard to swallow but that’s what Williams declared. By the way, he went on to become the first African American elected president of Local 10 (and I had the privilege of getting to know him in his final five years of life).

My new book explores in great detail why the ILWU, particularly Local 10, proved so committed to racial equality. First, pragmatically, they wanted to avoid a repetition of past strikes in which black workers crossed picket lines. However, that alone doesn’t explain the ILWU position because many unions refused to embrace equality despite this seeming logic. Thus, there must be additional factors, including ideology.

Many longshoremen who founded the union, later dubbed “’34 men” for participating in the legendary “Big Strike of 1934” out of which the union emerged, were socialists. Be they Communists, Trotskyists, Wobblies, or some other Left flavor, they firmly believed that racial, ethnic, and other identities were far less important than one’s class identity. Understandably, many people point to Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s first and long-time president, as the explanation for the union’s commitment to equality. Of course, he deserves credit, but he’d have been the first to say that he didn’t act alone. A great many in the ILWU believed that all workers—regardless of race, religion, or nationality—shared common interests as well as common foes, namely the capitalist bosses.

48H You also discuss how Black dockworkers in Durban, South Africa used their power to undermine apartheid. Why has the labor story of the anti-apartheid movement been so under-documented before your book?

PC Indeed, I argue that the Durban dockworkers were pivotal to the struggle against apartheid. They started flexing their muscles, by striking, as far back as the late 19th century and continued to do so, repeatedly into the late 1970s. Since Durban was South Africa’s primary port city for both exports and imports, these dockers mattered greatly. Perhaps their most important actions, however, remain underappreciated—specifically how they sparked and shaped the Durban Strikes of 1973, the largest protests by Blacks and Indians since the repression of the early 1960s created a so-called “quiet decade,” i.e. little anti-apartheid activism. 

In 1969, Durban dockers struck, they threatened to so in 1971, and struck again in late 1972—and despite mass firings, police violence, and further state repression. These were the largest strikes among black South Africans in a decade. And, less than two months after their 1972 strike, Black workers downed tools and launched what became known as the Durban Strikes in which tens of thousands joined in the largest wave of strikes, among workers of color, in South African history up to that time. From then onward, there was no further quiet though overthrowing apartheid took another twenty years.

I wouldn’t quite say that labor’s role in the struggle is under-appreciated by historians of South Africa. In fact, I use that fact to point out how far too many people in the United States fail to appreciate how important unions have been to advancing racial equality in the States. However, I do contend that the specific role of Durban’s dockworkers remains under-appreciated in launching the Durban Strikes, though I’m not the first to suggest that. I do hope that my book heightens the appreciation of how important Durban dockers were to the long struggle against apartheid, in many ways the greatest global social movement of the late 20th century.

48H: You buck an academic trend of presenting race and class issues as polar opposites. What is useful to you when thinking through these dynamics?

PC: I’ve been studying the links between struggles for worker power and racial equality for 25 years and counting. And, for 25 years I’ve been tired about the race-class debate. It’s a false dichotomy and only undermines our efforts to overcome racial capitalism. What I mean by that term is that capitalism and white supremacy arose, in tandem, in the 1600s and 1700s and have been inextricably linked ever since, along with its third ugly head, imperialism.

Socialists who ignore the reality of race and racism do so at their peril. So, too, those who think that capitalism can be anything other than racist. Simply put, the majority of the world’s population and working-class peoples aren’t white. Yet, it’s a sad fact that many (far too many) white working people continue to downplay the importance of racism and xenophobia. For me, though, I’d rather spend my time examining those workers and unions that understood that it’s not either/or but both and always.

We humans need not fixate on one single issue; we can simultaneously attack race and class oppression. But those of us who are relatively privileged, in this case white folks, must be particularly aware of the need to combat racism (sexism and xenophobia) in our ranks. The recently deceased Noel Ignatiev, who worked in Chicago steel mills for two decades before getting his PhD in History from Harvard, called such white people “race traitors.” Like many others, I find that term quite insightful.  

48H With the recent strikes and unionizing attempts, it seems like organized labor could be poised to make a comeback. Are there any lessons from your book that you would want to highlight for today’s rebel workers?

PC There sure are some lessons! I don’t only study the past because it’s so fascinating. I also do so, like Howard Zinn did, because I want to understand the present in order to build a better future. The first lesson should be obvious to those who read the book or listen to me talk about it: the greatest power ordinary people possess is when they’re organized, especially in unions, and that our greatest weapon is the strike. As the Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood said, “If the workers are organized, all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.” A century on, that hasn’t changed. 

I live part of the time in Chicago and the recent Chicago Teachers Union’s strike just reminded us, once more, what is possible. In the short term, better earnings, fairer and safer workplaces, and improved conditions for students and the community since they engaged in “bargaining for the common good.” In the longer run, strikes build working class power which, I believe, is the best way to attack racism, sexism, homophobia, and nativism as well as the economic inequality that wreaks havoc on our lives and the planet.

Also, since resources are limited and certain industries more pivotal to capitalism than others, we have to be strategic. In other words, where should we prioritize? Dockworker Power makes clear that the answer is shipping because 90% of the goods we consumer still move by ship for at least part of their journey.

More broadly, we should strive to organize workers up and down the entire supply chain. However, dockworkers aren’t more important, necessarily, than railroad workers, truck drivers, and warehouse workers. They’re just far better organized so have more power (and higher incomes, better conditions, and so on). I’m not always a fan of the Teamsters but when they refused to move scab cars during the recent UAW strike and refused to make deliveries to Chicago public schools during the teachers strike, they demonstrated working class solidarity which translated into real power.

Dockworkers in Durban and the SF Bay Area have long histories of such activism, which I’ll be discussing at the Howard Zinn book Fair this Sunday as well as next week with the Tech Workers Coalition, California Historical Society, and Labor organizing committees of the East Bay and SF DSA chapters.

Peter Cole speaks at the Howard Zinn Book Fair Sun/8 at the Mission Campus of City College of San Francisco with Charmaine Chua and Stacey Rodgers, 2:15 in Room 319. 

Red-hot but clear-eyed, Flea recounts his youth in ‘Acid for the Children’

Photo courtesy Flea

Michael “Flea” Balzary told 48 Hills that he credits three things with keeping the fiery Red Hot Chili Peppers together for almost four decades.

First, each member of the flamboyant three-time Grammy-winning funk-rock band has a “diligent work ethic,” so when they commit to performing a series of gigs the following year — they always follow through. 

Second, when the quartet of singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith, and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer get together to rehearse for the said shows, someone often says or plays something interesting that triggers a new song or album idea that the group simply can’t resist exploring.

Last but certainly not least, there’s a “mysterious alchemy” between Flea (rated the number two bassist of all time by Rolling Stone readers in 2009) and Kiedis, who first befriended each other at Los Angeles’s Fairfax High School in 1976.

It’s never been the easiest of relationships, as Flea describes in his new memoir Acid for the Children, which chronicles all the pivotal moments that shaped him as an artist, starting with the departure of his biological father and ending with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first show in 1983, for a crowd of 27 people at Hollywood’s Grandia Room.

Anthony Kiedis and Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers. Photo: Flea / Fabulosfab

Not fully understanding how or why he and Kiedis work so well together makes him reticent to delve too deeply into their time in the Red Hot Chili Peppers in his new memoir, which he’s promoting in San Francisco this week (Fri/8 at JCCSF), preferring instead to focus on his formative years growing up in Australia and New York state and his teen years spent running wild on the streets of Hollywood.  For Kiedis’s perspective on the band years — the addictions, infighting, and departures as well as tremendous commercial successes — read Scar Tissue.

“There are times that Anthony and I argue, fight, and hurt each other and then times when we’re incredibly supportive, loving, and understanding of each other,” said Flea. “But we always end up drawn to one another. It’s something that I wanted to understand in the book, but it’s still this raw, emotional, open thing, and I don’t know that I understand it well enough that I could look at it in a way that wouldn’t be swept up in emotion. Maybe I never will.” 

I spoke to the musician and perennial actor  — who is currently in the middle of co-producing the next Red Hot Chili Peppers record and next appears in the film Queen & Slim, opening in the Bay Area on Nov. 27 — about Acid for the Children, overcoming childhood traumas, and helping his book readers to feel less alone.

 48 HILLS Why is now a good time to release your first memoir?

FLEA I had been asked many times to write a memoir. I’d always declined because I felt that my life’s still going, so it doesn’t feel right to write one. To tell you the truth, when I agreed to do one, I don’t know why outside of the fact that it just seemed like a good challenge to write one and I finally felt ready to do it.

48 HILLS Did you look to Anthony Kiedis’s 2004 memoir, Scar Tissue, as a model?

FLEA I’ve never read his book, because I knew that we’re very different people with very different world views. So I was kind of scared to read his take on our shared experiences because they might be so different. 

I know he worked with someone else in writing it, but it was very important for me to write mine on my own without a ghostwriter. 

48 HILLS What was your process for writing the book?

FLEA I wrote it in fits and starts. But when I broke my arm in 2016, and I had a couple of months where I was immobilized and just had to sit on the couch, that was the time when I wrote most of it. Once I got off the painkillers and my mind was clear, I would write every morning. 

I read about Toni Morrison’s writing process and how she would write freely in the morning without thinking about organization or grammar and would go on later in the afternoon and revisit what she wrote and then organize it into a more palatable format. So I did that.

Also, when I first wrote it, I wrote in a ranting, sprawling style. Then I decided to refine and simplify it and to only write about my childhood through the period that The Red Hot Chili Peppers started. Later, I went in with an editor and took everything out that didn’t specifically shape me and wasn’t pertinent to the story I was telling.

48 HILLS You talk about some very powerful things in your memoir — from the abandonment and abuse you experienced as a child to being a petty criminal in your teen years as well as your earliest drug experiences — in a very analytical way. At what point in your life did you begin to make sense of these traumatic events?

FLEA To be honest, I didn’t really begin to understand what I went through as a kid or begin to make peace with it till I was in my early 30s. That’s when I stopped doing drugs and drinking alcohol and became conscious of what was around me. 

I went through a period of a lot of anger and frustration because I realized that I was faltering in my life a lot. I was failing in relationships, acting in ways that were embarrassing and hurtful to others, and had been kind of a mess — and I was kind of mad at my parents for it. When I started realizing, especially being a father myself, that they weren’t there when I needed them, I had this real anger at them. Then after going through that, I started realizing, “OK, how do I deal with this in the best possible way?” That’s when I started finding forgiveness.

Also, I’ve been in a shitload therapy. For a good 25 years, I’ve been seeing a therapist on and off.

Photo: Flea / UncleMarc Wolin

48 HILLS So many people wouldn’t have overcome even half of the things you’ve experienced in your life. What helped you to persevere?  

FLEA Music, literature, art, and film are a huge component. Then my connections with people who I’ve felt have seen me and whom I’ve been able to see in profound ways.

But the running thread through all of those things — even when I felt my most alienated, sad, frustrated, and disappointed with things around me or in myself — is love. I’ve always felt a deep love inside of myself and I think that that’s been the main thing that’s guided me and helped me to survive all the difficult things in my life.

48 HILLS What do you hope that readers take away from your book?

FLEA It’s my true heart as best as I’m able to express it, so if reading my stories can help anyone feel less alone in what they’re going through, then that’s my greatest hope for it. Beyond any rockstar Red Hot Chili Peppers thing, I hope that it can just be a book that can sit on someone’s shelf and be of value.

FLEA
Fri/8, 7pm, $75-$95 (Includes a copy of Acid for the Children)
JCCSF, SF.
More info here.

‘Disasterama!’ chronicles SF’s wild, lost queer underground

A certain queer generation has come of memoir age—which is a bit bracing (read: terrifying) for those of us who survived the ’80s and ’90s, and still consider ourselves in the prime of some type of youth. Earlier this year saw the release of Marc Huestis’ gossip-dripping Impresario of Castro Street as well as photographer Melissa Hawkins’ blockbuster “SoMa Nights” show at the GLBT History Museum, which captured SF’s queer nightlife during the height of the AIDS epidemic here.

There’s more: On Thu/17, SFMOMA hosts a celebration for the launch of Justin Vivian Bond and Nayland Blake’s book remembering seminal artist Jerome Caja. And just hotly arrived through my mailslot today is Mad Dogs and Queer Tattoos: Tattooing the San Francisco Queer Revolution by Robert E. Roberts, detailing designs of resistance from the 1970s-1990s.

But it you really want to relive the retro-camp glories, thrift store marathons, punk-rock Tupperware parties, illicit Castro ice-cream parlor after-hours, New Wave hooker adventures, and amphetamine-fueled art projects of a hallucinatory period equally split between AIDS tragedy and in-your-face, nothing-to-lose queer rebellion, then snag a copy of Alvin Orloff‘s new Disasterama! Adventures in the Queer Underground, 1977-1997. (The launch party, part of Litquake, is Fri/18, 7pm-10pm, at Dog-Eared Books in the Castro.)

Orloff was an essential player in so much of what we now consider SF’s last artistic gasp before the Internet Boom and sky-high real estate prices made tech money, not personal expression, the driving force behind Baghdad by the Bay. From young Polk Street denizen and Tenderloin stripper to co-founder of institutions like The Popstitutes band, performance collective/event Klubstitute, and outrageous Baby Judy’s party—with stops at every hot scene spot in between (Club Chaos, Club Uranus, Sick & Twisted Players, underground zines)—the Bay Area native spills it all in a compulsively readable book that will have you swimming in fabulous looks and wayward dreams of yore, and probably some tears as well.

Alvin Orloff. Photo by Wayne Goodman

Now the manager of Dog-Eared Books in the Castro, in the book Orloff is a questing, wide-eyed soul whose sensitive observations of the minutiae and meaning of the times come through in wonderfully twisted incidents. “I’d known most people didn’t like homosexuals,” he writes after hearing an old woman defend Harvey Milk’s murderer on a bus, “but I hadn’t realized so many wanted us dead. This was scary and annoying, yeah, but also thrilling. Being disliked is a wishy-washy experience compared to being homicidally detested.”

Throughout most of this “true story of how a bunch of pathologically flippant kids foundered through a deadly serious disaster,” Orloff’s artistic life and destiny are deeply intertwined with those of his best friend Michael, who later takes the name Diet Popstitute. The hyper-intelligent quips and deep theoretical analyses of relationships and politics, delivered with several strong substances and outlandish projects at hand, fly fast and furious—but not in that tired old bitchy queen way. Diet’s wild pronouncements often come like refreshing slaps to the reader’s face. This is the sis/bromance that defines Orloff both in the heat of friendship and in Diet’s characteristically confounding death from the disease, which wipes so many brilliant characters out of Disasterama!’s narrative.

Perfectly executed, poetically ambitious little chapter “Four Blondes 1984-1986” shows just what a whirlwind of romance, lust, death, and loss those times were, while copious photos and club flyer reproductions document the crazy purple-mohawk-and-plasti-outfit. Names like Jennifer Blowdryer, Deena Davenport, Doris Fish, Tony Vaguely, Stephen Maxxxine, Elvis Herselvis, Bambi Lake, Tyler Ingolia, and more bring back memories of SF’s neon-bright clubkid moment.

Orloff is honest, too, about the psychic toll it all took, from plainly confessing he didn’t have the will to be directly politically active during the heyday of ACT-UP and other such orgs (he reasons that maintaining creative nightlife while others took care of the die-ins was also important), to exploring in his final chapters how the simultaneous deaths of Diet and his beloved mother—plus the weird conservative turn gay culture took once medications made HIV manageable—knocked him out of underground club culture for a more quiet life. We are all still dealing with that period’s trauma, and Orloff ably illustrates how it continues to affect us in different ways. One miracle of the book is that it’s not bitter at all, when it has every right to be.

I caught up with Orloff over email (he’s written movingly for 48 Hills in the past) and asked him a few questions about sex, hair, and how the scene he memorializes lives on.

48 HILLS I had to laugh when you started to talk about your experience as a call boy in the ’80s, placing an ad in the back of the Bay Area Reporter. I remember moving here, taking one horrified look at those ads, and feeling so vanilla that I swore off sex until I could figure out what my incredibly niche fetish was! Do you remember what your ad said? 

ALVIN ORLOFF I’m woefully short on fetishes, so the ad was pretty generic. I find the subplot about my sex work embarrassing, not because I think there’s anything wrong with sex work, but because I wandered into it out of laziness and psychological discombobulation. I ultimately decided to include in the book both for comic relief and because I thought it was important to let the world know that not all sex workers are vacuous bimbos with sad, dead fish eyes like Melania T.

48H I loved the detailed, often raucous descriptions of what people wore throughout the book— including updates on on your latest hairstyles. What are some of the hair creations you thought were the most ‘successful’ in terms of building your image, or that you just liked the most? 

AO Oh gosh, I didn’t mention 90% of my hairstyles. I liked my leopard print hair, but it didn’t like me. Ditto with chartreuse. I tried tiny little braids in front like Adam Ant, and that was pretty cute for a minute. And I used to be fond of bleaching my hair then using red cellophane for a translucent ruby effect. My favorite product, which no longer exists, was Let’s Jam Hair Pudding. It was an electric lavender color and smelled almost like a sweet bathroom disinfectant, but somehow delicious.

48H Some of the most fascinating sections in the book for me are about your time with the Popstitutes and Klubstitute. Can you share a little bit about what that era was like in SF Clubland—and if you think that sort of confluence of talent and outrageousness can happen now in SF?  

AO I actually have no idea how 21st century queer clubland differs from that of the ’80s and early ’90s because I’m now elderly and fall asleep at 11 o’clock. Friends have told me modern nightlife lacks the wild intensity of the Olden Days. If true, that makes sense because the horrifically high death rate from AIDS really fed into a strain of mania back then. So many people were trying to pack a lifetime’s worth of fun into the few short remaining years they had left. Also, we were deliberately flaunting our sexuality and gender-bendering in order to annoy the bigots who wanted us dead. Anti-LGBTQ prejudice is less intense now, so there’s not the same need to react against it quite so intensely. And finally, more people had to go out at night in the 20th century because there was so much less to do at home: no internet, no phone apps, and let’s not forget that TV back then was TERRIBLE.

48H Flipping through the middle of the book, which contains so many photos, flyers, and ephemera of famous people and parties was such a time machine. The Vegas in Space cast, Jerome Caja, Justin Vivian Bond, Jennifer Blowdryer, Diet Popstitute … What was it like to compile both the images and your memories in the book, knowing so many of these people are gone?

AO Being in my autumn years, I’m already prone to wistful nostalgia, and writing about my departed comrades and the vanished world of our youth often pushed me into full melancholy. I kept writing anyway because I felt my pals deserved someone singing their praises for refusing to play the tragic roles fate assigned them and remaining fun, funny, and vivacious right up to their untimely ends. Also, being a writer, I could see that my youth had the makings of a terrific story, what with all the life-and-death drama, unusual characters, morally ambiguous conflicts, and comical subplots. Only a fool would throw away such good material! Not to mention, I think memoirs are great for giving people an idea of what it was like to live through a particular era, adding color and texture to the historical record.

48H The aesthetics of the ’80s and early ’90s SF queer underground really revolved around what you point out as “retro-camp,” from the Sick & Twisted Players’s outrageous musical productions to the fetishization of ’50s kitchenware, rhinestone studs, and bakelite jewelry—but with a punk sensibility, as well. I love this distinction you make in the book: “Good retro-camp is nostalgic, but in a productive way, like cleaning out your attic. Bad retro-camp asks people to laugh at the the fashions and sensibilities of yesteryear, simply because they’re outdated. What do you think happened to retro-camp, or camp at all? I’m thinking of the recent Met Ball disaster, and also just any sense of underlying appreciative humor in the styes of today …

AO Not an easy question! I suspect the retro trend faded because one can no longer find fabulous Midcentury Modern products or clothing in thrift stores, and reviving the hideous styles of the 1990s and early 21st century is an unappealing proposition. (What makes some products fab and others hideous? I’d say it’s the degree of optimism embedded in the design semiotics, but that’s a discussion for another day.) As for the camp sensibility, it’s still there—see: “Feud”—but has perhaps lost some of its zing in becoming mainstream. And although my apartment still looks like a ramshackle version of a swinging bachelor pad from 1968, I don’t lament the passing of retro camp. The culture has moved on and we have all sorts of new trends to explore. I think it’s great there are now something like 37 sexual orientations and gender identities to choose from!

48H Finally, you write so deeply of your vital, infuriating, overwhelming friendship with Diet Popstitute. How do you see his rambunctious spirit living on today?

AO Diet was was a human catalyst who could instantly alter the social chemistry of any situation using wit, flattery, needling questions, and pure blarney to nudge people out of their established roles and habits. This was part of his crusade to destroy social hierarchy and upend convention with the ultimate goal of making the world as a fairer and less boring place. Results varied, but nobody who met him ever forgot him. Does his rambunctious spirit live on? Absolutely! It’s there whenever a teenage boy decides to paint his nails green, or a secretary uses the office printer to put out her poetry chapbook, or someone with no theatrical experience decides to put on a play. It’s there whenever playfulness, glamour, and whimsy are employed against the self-serious bourgeois stodginess that can make life so very un-fun.

DISASTERAMA! Launch Party
Fri/18, 7pm-10pm, free
Dog-Eared Books Castro, SF.
More info here