In 1981 my business partner Ira and I moved into a studio that our friend Cindy was sub-letting; we became sub-sub-letters. The two-story concrete box was covered in scrawl and located on the corner of Sixth Street and Tehama Alley, in the South of Market District of San Francisco.
Our cavernous studio had a ceiling height of over twenty feet, two skylights, and a shooting cove big enough to backdrop a small car. A roll-up door provided access to the alley on the south side of the building. The rent was a steal at $1200, but what we saved in money we paid for dearly by residing at the epicenter of a very nasty neighborhood.
Holger, a fashion photographer and the master leaseholder, was on the lam. Unfortunately, he had a side job growing marijuana on property he owned in Humbolt County. One day Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP) flew a chopper over Holger’s property, spotted marijuana plants and raided his fields. Holger hid out until he was able to get to his sailboat and flee the country. A federal warrant was put on his head and he was apprehended months later in South America.
Cindy began photographing cars in Los Angeles and soon after announced she was moving there for good, leaving us the sole occupants. On the inside we had a well-insulated place to work, it was only the coming and going that got problematic. To avoid a possible break-in we kept a low profile and displayed no signage or answered any questions about what we did. Sixth Street was a magnet for the homeless, crackheads, crazies, alkies, junkies, prostitutes, and pawnshops. Most everybody was strung-out, Sixth Street mean, and unpredictable. Coming and going from our building I wore my armor. “Give me a dollar man!” Never a please, just raw aggression.
Sixth Street hung like a shriveled udder under the southern tip of the Tenderloin. Adjacent to our studio was a “Glory Hole”, one of the many that littered the area South of Market, the heart of the Gay leather scene. Our neighbors made no attempt to disguise what went on day and night by placing a placard outside the door advertising: Rimming Wednesdays, Corn Hole Thursdays, and Fisting Fridays. Since crystal meth and amyl nitrate were readily available, they were subject to police raids. Sexual activity was not an issue.
Within a five square block area, there were more than ten bathhouses, a city VD clinic, and nearly every bar in the neighborhood catered to the hardcore leather scene. Nightly, a Fellini movie ran until dawn featuring dominant males walking their collared boyfriends on all fours, men blowing and screwing in doorways and alleys. The leathery perfume of sex choked the foggy air, while businessmen in three-piece suits parked BMW’s and, like Clark Kent, changed identities, dressed in head-to-toe leather, minus the butt.
In 1981 rumors began flying about a wasting disease spreading through the Gay community. People became very paranoid. No one knew how AIDS was transmitted but all assumed it was sexual because those that got it usually had every other venereal disease available. Emaciated men with purple spots were shunned and in a matter of two years the landscape was gutted. Bathhouses and bars closed when many of the owners died. Some of the promiscuous patrons suddenly considered monogamy while others soldiered on with or without a condom.
One day, there was an unexpected ring at our doorbell. When I opened the door, an English-speaking German introduced himself as Rolf, Holger’s brother and lawyer. I let him in.
“Holger would like to sell you his lease and fixtures.”
“How much money does Holger want for this?” Ira asked.
“Fifteen thousand dollars. But I could present an offer to him.”
“Holger only has a little over a year on his lease. Right? Why would we pay him that much money? He can’t guarantee that the landlady will renew the lease or even honor the selling of it.”
“I see your point.”
We already knew that our landlady was aware of Holger’s incarceration and wasn’t interested in renewing his lease while he was locked up.
“We’re sorry your brother is in prison, but we can’t provide his commissary money without a guarantee.”
“I understand your position and the merits of your argument. I came to the U.S. to visit my brother in prison and he pled with me to take this offer to you. I’m actually sorry I consented.”
A year later the landlady offered us the master lease. We asked her to paint the graffiti-covered façade. She agreed with our color selection and hired a professional crew.
My girlfriend Barbara came by to do some printing. When she finished, she put her photos in the wash and told me she would be back in an hour to put them on the drying racks. It wasn’t two minutes before the front door slammed.
“Didn’t you hear me screaming?”
“Calm down, calm down, what happened?” I asked.
“This street guy came up behind me and grabbed my boobs and then we fought for my purse. I hit him and he pushed me to the pavement and ran down the alley with my bag. Two people on the street watched and did nothing. I think I broke my finger.”
We got on my motorcycle and drove down the alley in the direction her assailant had run. At the corner, I intuited his escape route, turning right on Fifth Street and another right on Natoma alley. Barb pounded me on the back.
“That’s him, the tall one.”
Three guys were pitching coins against the side of the building. I threw down the kickstand and drew a pocketknife.
“Give back the purse!” I screamed.
The gamblers looked startled: a short white guy with an open knife—who knew if he was nuts? Barb tapped me on the back.
“That’s not him.” She whispered.
All hell broke loose. Everybody started yelling.
“Calm down, calm down. She’s just been robbed. We’re sorry.” We backed away.
“Barb you could have gotten both of us hurt.”
I drove her to the South of Market Health Clinic where they splinted her broken finger. Afterwards, she filed a report at the Police Station.
Our building was directly across the alley from the Anglo Hotel, a “Patel family” fleabag. Residents were elderly men on disability or recently released prisoners given a chit from the city for a three-day stay. It housed very few women. Grocery and liquor storeowner Phil was the King of Sixth Street, occupying half of the ground level. Phil resembled a tall wiry version of the Marvin Gaye variety. His duties as the King were settling disputes, making loans, and selling liquor to the endless trail of drunks sober enough to erect themselves and make a purchase. Our block was slightly safer because of his presence. Whenever I had a problem, I went to Phil before calling the cops.
A crack-addled robber once came into Phil’s brandishing a loaded gun and demanded money from the cash register. Phil handed it over with his left hand and shot him dead with his right. The perpetrator left the store in a zipped-up bag, but not before Phil took his money back.
On the Tehama Alley side of our building, drunken Indians squatted on the sidewalk outside our roll up door. The Indians were the least aggressive citizens of Sixth Street but annoying nonetheless. They drank too much and pissed on the steel door to the point where it began to rot out. Ira and I took turns dragging the garden hose out to dowse the pavement with industrial cleaner in an attempt to scrub away the horrible stench that wafted into our building. No matter how hard I pled with the Indians, it never stopped the river of piss.
One Sunday, I rode my motorcycle over to our freshly painted studio to print for my upcoming show. I parked the bike and noted a congregation of eight Indians, leaning against the roll-up door drinking Thunderbird. After printing for four hours, I took lunch only to discover a fresh tag on the roll-up door above the Indian Pow Wow.
“What’s the matter with you bums? Why’d you tag the building?”
“We didn’t tag your building, man.”
“Right—someone came along, leaned over you with a can of spray-paint and tagged it while you were lying against the door. Bullshit. It doesn’t make sense.”
A big Indian righted himself and staggered towards me with fists balled and ponytail
“You might own what’s inside that building but we own the sidewalk.”
I backed off. The guy was as big as a grizzly. Bubbling with anger, I decided to go to my house to get my .38—not to shoot anyone, but to let them know that if they wanted to fuck with me it would be a fairer fight.
When I returned, the Indians were gone. I dropped the gun off in the studio and decided to consult with Phil about what I should do. When I turned the corner, I spotted the Indians camped out in front of Phil’s store. I stormed through the door sputtering expletives.
“Those mutherfucking Indians tagged my building.”
“Slow down Bobby. What’s the problem?”
“Those fucking Indians out front tagged my building.”
Phil and his big bouncer followed me out the door and stood behind me while I exploded in rage.
“You guys got no respect. Fuck you all. You’re not camping out in my doorway no more.” Suddenly they understood I was connected to the King of Sixth Street.
“We’re sorry man. Give us some paint and we’ll cover it up.”
“No. Find some other place to go.” Their apology was given out of concern that their well might run dry.
I learned my lesson: It was better to let the street know that I was connected to the King than think that my little gun would resolve anything. After all, it had only six shells and there were eight Indians. They came back of course but I only screamed at the big one who’d threatened me demanding he leave. Surprise, surprise, he would grudgingly go and his buddies respected me for not lumping them all together.
The Forgotten and the Animals that Preyed Upon Them
One day Ira and I came to work and ten cop cars surrounded the Anglo Hotel. I rushed over to Phil’s to find out what was going on.
“Phil, what’s up?”
“Six elderly men were robbed and stabbed to death upstairs last night.”
“Yesterday social security checks arrived. I cashed most of them. Most of these old geezers don’t have bank accounts. Whoever did this was staying at the Anglo. Nobody gets in there unless they are a resident.”
The suspect list would be limited. And that’s where the police went with it. Several days later a young thug, recently released from prison, was arrested. He’d been given a chit from the State to stay at the Anglo for three days. He became the main suspect when he left the Hotel his first night and never returned. These were our neighbors, the forgotten and the animals that preyed upon them.
Ira and I took turns going to lunch as we rarely had the opportunity to eat at the same time. After returning from a local restaurant, I found two men and a woman passed out in the doorway. If I leaned over to open the door, they would fall into the studio. I repeatedly kicked at their feet to wake them and got nowhere. Next, I went to Phil for advice.
“Jesus, Phil, I’ve got three bums passed out in front of my doorway.”
“Sorry Bobby. Two guys and a girl, right? They were passed out in front of my store and I had to throw a bucket of water on them to get them to move.”
I borrowed Phil’s telephone, called Ira and asked him to open the roll up door and let me in.
At the back of our building, I filled up the mop bucket and returned to the front door. Once again I kicked the bum‟s feet with no response. Ker-splash… I tossed the entire bucket over their intertwined flesh. Nothing happened. They didn’t wake up. I trudged back and re-filled. For the third time, I kicked their feet and this time one of them arose roaring like a lion. As I ran with my bucket, I suddenly remembered the Mace in my pocket. Spinning around, I blasted the lion in the face. He hit the invisible wall, put his grubby paws to his eyes and doubled over. Two kids passing by burst out laughing.
“He heard that!” one of them said.
“Drag your fucking friends out of my doorway,” I said to the lion.
Which he did as soon as he’d partially recovered.
A large part of the photography we did was for artists and galleries. Most of our artist clients weren’t completely grossed out by the neighborhood as many of them had studios in similar rough areas. One day, I got a call from a Japanese woman needing some small sculptures photographed. I gave her a quote and made a time for her to come by at the end of the day. When she arrived, she didn’t have her work with her.
“Come in. Where are you sculptures?”
“You gay?” she asked, her accent thick.
“What?” I answered thinking that I had misheard her.
“I’m a photographer. What does being gay have to do with taking pictures?”
“I hate gays!” she replied.
“Well, I guess that makes me gay and you rude.”
“Listen lady, I haven’t a clue what you’re on about or why you moved to San Francisco of all places. You asked a question that doesn’t deserve an answer and like I said before, I am a photographer and if you want your work photographed, I will photograph it.”
“I sorry. I need slides to get gallery. The neighborhood scares me. I have sculptures in car. Can you wait on street for me to come back?”
I don’t know what I was thinking but I agreed. I stood on the sidewalk for twenty minutes before stupidly realizing I’d been stood up.
A year later, I answered the phone to a Japanese accent that asked about the cost of photographing some small sculptures. Noting the similarity, I gave the voice the benefit of the doubt. When she arrived at the studio, I saw that this was the same woman who’d come before. I unboxed her pieces and laid them out on the worktable.
“How do you want these photographed?”
“I don’t know. What best?”
I put a few transparencies on the light table to show her.
“Usually I shoot sculpture on a white drop and light the pieces so that the background is white at the bottom and gradually goes to a mid-grey at the top of the slide.”
“Well I trust you. Make the pictures the way you do.”
I made a clean set of slides and in a few days she returned to pick them up. I laid the slides out on the light table for her inspection.
“Why background not all white?”
“Wait a second—I specifically asked if you had a preference for shooting these pictures. You had no opinion and left them in my hands.”
“I don’t like. You make new photos. Make all white.”
“No problem. I can do that. First you have to pay for this set and then I will shoot and charge you for the second set.”
“No, no, no,” she protested.
“Yes, yes, yes. Stop it. You’ve been here before, right? And the last time you were here you left me standing on the streets waiting for you to come back—and not only that, you asked me if I was gay, which is none of your fucking business. Get the fuck out of here and take your shitty sculptures with you.”
She started shaking. “You angry?”
“I’m very fucking angry! Get the fuck out of here now!”
I opened the front door and lost payment on a $250 job. Somehow it came with a small grain of satisfaction.
One summer day I told Ira that I was going to lunch. As I unlocked the door, I heard a loud crash. I dashed around the corner expecting to find my motorcycle knocked over by a car but my bike was standing. A man stepped out of his box truck across the alley.
“Did you hear a loud crash?” I asked.
“I not only heard it, I felt it, it woke me up. I think something landed on the top of my truck.”
We walked to the rear of his truck and saw a pair of legs. Lying on the asphalt was a body with a silver dollar-sized hole punched into his forehead. I ran back to the studio to call 911. When the ambulance arrived, I directed a tall blond EMT to the body. She took a pair of scissors out of her belt and began cutting the guys shirt off. Then she opened a small case with what appeared to be a computer and attached a set of monitoring cords to the man’s pale chest
“He’s still breathing.” I said to her.
She turned her head towards me and coolly stated, “He’ll be dead before sunrise.”
Ira and I were hired to photograph an installation at an exhibition in the Presidio. Unfortunately, we couldn’t begin until after the show closed. We reported at 8 p.m. to set up and went to work. At midnight, we wrapped the shoot, packed up the car and headed back to the studio. For safety reasons, we had a special routine for coming in late. Ira would leave me at the front of the building and I would enter and go to the back of the studio to open the roll-up door.
This particular evening, I jumped out of the car to discover a disheveled Nutcase pushing something into the lock.
“What the fuck are you trying to do? Break in?”
“No, no, no,” he stuttered before skittering off into the Anglo Hotel. I put my key into the lock and realized it was freshly glued. After getting the door open I ran to the back of the studio to let Ira in.
“That bastard nutcase super-glued the front door lock and took off into the Anglo. I’m going after him. Call the police.”
I went into the slummy lobby of the hotel where a skinny Indian of the Patel variety sat behind a half-inch thick Plexiglas window.
“That sleazy son of a bitch that came in here one minute ago just glued my door locks. What room is he in?”
“I can’t let you in here. You’re not a resident.”
“I’ve called the police. They’re on their way.”
The cops came quickly. When they pulled up, I explained the situation and followed them into the Anglo. This time, the clerk gave up the gluer’s room number and buzzed us through the gate. The cops pounded on the door and the gluer opened it up.
“You got an I.D.?”
Nutcase drew it out of his pocket and handed it to the cop, who studied it.
“Joseph, this gentleman is telling me you glued his locks.”
“No. no,” he sputtered.
“What’s that white stuff around your pocket? Empty your pockets.”
Nutcase pulled at his pocket but it was glued shut.
“Your pocket is glued shut, Joseph. Where’s the glue?”
“I don’t have nnnno glue.”
Nutcase’s room was a bum cave that stunk like a bushel of putrid socks. The sink was disgusting, filled with moldy food. The second cop and I stood on either side of the doorframe peering into this nightmare.
“What do you want to do about this?” whispered the cop. “He’s obviously nuts.”
“I want him to pay for my lock,” I replied.
“But he’s crazy. Do you think he actually has money?”
“Everybody around here is crazy. Tell him I won’t press charges if he pays for my lock.”
“Okay, but I don’t think he’s going to have it. How much?”
The second cop entered the room. “Joseph, this man will not press charges if you pay fifty dollars for his locks to be repaired, otherwise we’ll arrest you.”
“I’m nnnnot saying I did any any…anything… thing but I I I I feel sorrrrry for the man. I dddidn’t admmmit gluing his locks. But I’ll give him ffffifty dollars to help him out because he’s my nnnneighbor.”
Nutcase pulled a huge roll of money out of his unglued pocket and peeled off a fifty. Cop number two’s eyebrows went up and he nodded at me. We left Nutcase in his crazy lair and went down the steps together.
“Did you see the size of that guy’s roll?” the cop asked.
“That guy had more money in his pocket than I’ve got in my bank account,” I replied.
On the sidewalk, I thanked the cops and wished them a safe shift.
Ira went home and I spent forty-five minutes pouring acetone into the lock and dragging my key in and out to free it of super glue.
When Ira got to work early the next day, he found Phil in front of his store with a locksmith cutting his locks open. You didn’t need to be a genius to do the math. After Ira delivered the news, Phil entered the hotel and confronted Mr. Nutcase. He left with $1,000 to fix his locks, including the penalty for being a nuisance.
Things returned to normal. Not that there was a normal on Sixth Street. We went about our daily routine until disaster struck two weeks later. Phil saw Nutcase suspiciously scurry by his shop. He followed him around the corner to discover Nutcase with a jar in his hands preparing to throw its contents onto his leased black SUV. Phil screamed, “Drop it.” An arc of liquid spewed through the air. Phil turned just as the solution splashed across the left side of his neck and lower face. Feeling no pain, Phil pummeled Nutcase in the head and torso. By the time the cops arrived, Nutcase suffered three broken ribs and two black eyes. The EMT’s took both men to the hospital, Phil with third degree burns and Nutcase with the injuries described. The liquid in the jar was battery acid. A week later, Phil returned to his store with dressings that had to be changed several times a day. Nutcase went to jail to await trial.
Black people keloid badly and Phil’s neck had become a bark-like tangle of hardened skin. Every time I walked into his store I was filled with guilt and finally told him so.
“If I hadn’t caught that guy gluing our lock shut none of this would have happened.”
“It’s not your fault Bobby. My wife had a premonition that Nutcase was dangerous and asked me to be very careful. I was warned and didn’t listen. I’m scheduled for my first skin graft next week. The Victims of Violent Crimes Program is picking up the tab.”
It took four plastic surgeries to graft new skin to his face and neck. Over the course of two years, Frankenstein Phil gradually began to look like old King Phil. Nutcase had his day in court and was sentenced to an indeterminable time in a State Mental Institution but this did not stop him from sending Christmas cards to Phil informing him that their dispute would be resolved once and for all at a later date. As far as I know, he is still locked up or possibly dead.
On October 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m. San Francisco experienced an earthquake on the San Andreas Fault line. I was sitting down at the bar in the South Park Café, ordering a cappuccino from Charlotte. As Charlotte set the coffee in front of me, the floor started rolling. The cup rattled in its dish and the lights blinked off. Three customers in the front of the Café bailed out through the open window. Charlotte’s ashen face froze and stayed that way until the trembling stopped. We both took our coffees to the street to wait out the aftershocks. When I finished my coffee, I walked one block to my home in a commercial building underneath the foot of the Bay Bridge on Rincon Hill. I called my mom because she had left a voice mail over the weekend and I hadn’t returned her call.
“I’m so glad you called, I was worried about the earthquake.”
“I don’t think it’s that bad, Mom.”
“But Bob, the Bay Bridge has collapsed and they’re vacating Giants Stadium. The World Series.”
“I just walked home and the bridge was moving in both directions.” I stuck my head out the window and mom was right, the lower level cars were moving but in the wrong direction.
“Mom, we might have a problem here—I’ve got to get back to my studio.”
Coming down Harrison Street, I found my beautiful friend Maria, dazed and confused.
“My God,” she said. “I was driving across the Bay Bridge when I thought my car had a flat. Then all of the traffic stopped and seconds later people were running towards me. I got out of my car and asked a woman what was going on and she told me that the bridge had collapsed. I stayed with my car and slowly everybody behind me began turning around so I followed them back off the bridge.”
“I’m still shaking.”
“Come with me, I need to check out my studio.”
Plaster and dust covered everything. Anything that wasn’t nailed down was on the floor. It was too dark to clean up, so we walked back to South Park. Fifteen people were standing around outside the Café, including Rob the owner. My friend Jeff donated his barbeque grill and Rob donated prawns and beer from his walk-in. Tables and chairs were set up on the sidewalk and lit with candles. Rob doled out the prawns, two for you and two for you. It was eerie—I was talking to people I wouldn’t have otherwise given the time of day.
Maria and I bid everyone a good night and in the pitch black walked the block to my loft. As we turned the corner, several flares lit up the road by the entrance onto the Bay Bridge. Two meter-maid vehicles were parked, blocking the ramp. It was deathly quiet: no car noise, no people, no nothing. “Hello,” I said into the void. “Hello,” it replied.
“Where are you going?” a voice asked.
“To Maria’s house in Oakland. We’re going to walk across the bridge.”
I laughed, “Have a good night.”
Back home, the low hum of traffic outside my window was gone. I might have been in the middle of a desert. The city was muzzled at last.
The Anglo Hotel was the first building, slated for demolition by the City. Sixth Street had buckled and a tear ran down its middle. Our block was closed to traffic. The following day the fire department allowed Phil two hours to salvage whatever he could from his store. Phil, I, and a couple of Indians lugged groceries and booze to the sidewalk, later loading it onto a Hertz rental truck that was bound for a storage unit.
A team of engineers fanned across South of Market and the Marina District, the hardest hit areas of the city. X‟s appeared on buildings that were condemned. Luckily our studio survived. Weeks later a demolition ball slammed into the top floors of the Anglo quickly reducing it to splinters. Hopefully whatever replaced it would be something more worthy.
Ira and I hired friends to repair our place and in a couple of weeks things began to shape up. Thankfully, our landlady’s insurance covered our repairs. The Red Cross set up shop in a trailer across the street but because we didn’t live at our studio, they offered nothing. We looked on the bright side, the Anglo Hotel was a pile of timbers and concrete and for a few weeks the riff-raff disappeared.
Three months later, Phil moved a third of a block away to Sixth and Howard where he remained the King of Sixth Street.
Our studio provided a fairly consistent living for me but my partner Ira had recently become a father, bought a house in Bernal Heights and was looking to the future.
He needed more money and suggested buying me out. I entertained his offer, as I had become bored shooting artwork. His offer was enough money to buy new gear and a car so I took him up on it. The day I moved out of the studio and into my new home on Clara Alley a million pounds of Sixth Street torment left my shoulders.
In 1996, I moved to New York in the hopes that my art career would have a better chance of survival. I hired a moving truck, buying a one-way ticket for January 1, 1996.
On the eve of my move New York experienced one of its worst snowstorms in decades. Kennedy Airport was shut down and for three days I found myself sleeping in exgirlfriend Leslie’s apartment above my old studio on Sixth Street.
The night before I left San Francisco, we were awoken by a loud crash. I opened the window and saw a body lying on the glass-covered sidewalk. A third floor window was missing. I dialed 911 and later watched the Coroner’s Office load a body bag into the back of their white van. Jumper number two was my going-away present.
Epilogue: The King is Broken
Several years later, my phone rang—Ira had called to deliver some sad news. Phil’s wife had been murdered in their home in Brisbane south of San Francisco. After the cops questioned Phil’s daughter, they learned that the man she was dating was a gang member.
Finally, she admitted to giving her boyfriend keys to the house so that he and an accomplice could burglarize the home. Phil’s wife arrived unannounced, walking in on the burglary and recognized the boyfriend. To solve the problem he shot her in the head. Phil’s family was destroyed with one bullet. His wife was gone forever and his daughter was convicted as an accessory to the first-degree murder of her stepmother.
I returned to San Francisco later that year to offer my condolences. A ghost stood behind the cash register. Sixth Street always took more than it gave. The King was broken.