So finally one weekend I did manage to cadge an invite over to Lonnie’s hotel…for drinks. Not dinner, mind you, just drinks.
“No promises,” Max warned me. “Don’t try to push Lonnie about dinner. If he even senses he’s being pushed he’s liable to get mad and cancel the whole thing for everybody.”
So here we all were, begging for scraps from a rich man’s table.
It was the weekend of the big Gay Pride parade, San Francisco’s signature civic event of the year. Max and Claudia were already in the city with Lonnie, having been picked up in Lonnie’s sleek black limo the night before. No doubt they’d already been treated to one wonderful restaurant dinner. So I was itching to get over there and break out my charm offensive on Lonnie, to finally get him to include in some of that haute cuisine action.
The hotel was on a small rise on Polk Street. A big renovated Victorian. It was Lonnie’s favorite hotel in San Francisco, he always stayed there on his visits, always arranging to stay in the same suite. Everyone at the hotel knew Lonnie. So when I mentioned Lonnie’s name at the desk, the desk clerk perked right up.
“Oh yes, Mr Welkin! We were informed you’d be coming. Unfortunately Mr Belasco’s out at the moment. Would you care to wait for him in the lobby?”
“Actually, I’m here to see some guests of his. Max Nemerov and Claudia de Nemerov.”
“I believe they’re both in. Shall I ring them for you?”
“They’re expecting me. I’ll just go up.”
I walked up to 311. I knocked and heard Claudia’s tell-tale high heeled footsteps on a wood floor from inside. The door opened and Claudia’s face appeared. She shooshed me with her finger shoosh to keep quiet.
“Max is napping,” she whispered. “Come in, come in, Lonnie’s out shopping…”
It was actually two large bedrooms connected by a sitting room. Stuffed chairs and couches were arrayed against the walls and around a wide, circular coffee table. A pair of French doors let onto a balcony overlooking Polk Street. The doors were open, filtering in a pleasant breeze. On the coffee table was a bottle of wine, several wine glasses, a plate of various cheeses and crackers and fresh fruits.
“So how was last night?” I asked.
“You mean the restaurant?”
“Don’t be coy. Of course I mean the restaurant.”
Claudia’s eyes shined, she actually swooned a little with the memory. “Ah! This wonderful place, Stars, behind UN Plaza. The chef’s name is Tower, I believe.”
“I know who he is. He used to be the chef at Chez Panisse.”
“Well! Wonderful! Like a great Parisian brasserie! And the food! Let me just tell you…”
And Claudia began unspooling everything about the wonderful restaurant and the wonderful food and the wine and the atmosphere and the service and everything else that was wonderful. She described it all so well my mouth was actually watering.
Then we heard the fumbling of a key in the hotel door lock and the door creaked open and standing there in the doorway was the rich man himself, The Great Lonnie Belasco, three hundred plus pounds of glorious gourmand. He was steaming with sweat, mouth open wide, sucking for air like a wounded zoo animal. Apparently the walk from the elevator had nearly done him in.
“Hi Lonnie!” I chirped, pleasant as pie. The charm offensive was on.
Lonnie said nothing for a full sixty seconds in a gallant effort to catch his breath. In his arms I noticed a fat sack of groceries, all bundled up and smoothed over, looking rather like a small brown baby in his embrace.
“Hell-o!” he finally managed to sing-song. He moved at glacier pace across the room, his blubber weight all aquiver.
I smiled, I really was glad to see him. I smiled and sent him telepathic messages along the lines of: Lonnie Lonnie Lonnie, invite me out for dinner, you fat bastard!
But, typically, he paid no attention to me, addressing himself strictly to Claudia.
“Is Max still sleeping?” he said, bending over to deposit the bag of groceries on the table.
“No, I’m awake,” came the sound of Max’s voice. A bedroom door opened and there was Max seated blearily on the edge of the bed. He looked bad, dressed only in his underwear. Max was usually so punctilious when appearing in the company of others. He was always showered, shaved, dressed and ready to meet people. Now here he was nearly naked, unshowered and unshaved. He looked hungover. Max never looked hungover. His swollen left leg—all bulging veins and dark purple and yellow bruises–was exposed. He usually kept it covered.
“Max,” Claudia said, “why don’t you get your clothes on and come out and sit with us? Jules is here. We’ll have a nice glass of wine before the parade.”
“Yeah, okay. Wine sounds about right. Where are my pants?” He looked around, found them and shut the door.
“The parade will be nice,” Claudia said to Lonnie. “Are you coming with us?”
“Oh, I really don’t think so, dear heart. All that walking, battling the crowds, ugh! No thank you.”
A minute later Max appeared, fully dressed, hair combed, looking a little better. He sat on the couch, slumping against the arm.
“You feeling all right, Max?” I asked.
“Not one of my better days, I’m afraid.”
“Anything I can do?”
“Thanks, but no.” He didn’t seem to be in the mood for further talk so I said nothing. Claudia jumped in.
“A glass of wine will make you feel better, yes, Max? You’ll see, we’ll all feel better after a glass of wine. Jules, would you please be so good as to pour?”
I did so, handing the glasses around. Lonnie stared straight at the glass as I handed it to him, not even so much as glancing at me. What the hell, the wine was delicious. It couldn’t have been cheap; obviously Lonnie had bought it. I kept smiling and chatting and telegraphing in Lonnie’s direction but Lonnie’s brain wouldn’t budge an inch. Finally, with our wine glasses empty, I gave it up. I resigned myself to the fact that Lonnie Belasco would never ever invite me out for a big fancy dinner.
“Claudia, dear, you must remember to be back here by six thirty at the very latest. Our reservations are for seven and we’re going all the way out to Noe Valley and I don’t want to be late.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I won’t be late, Lonnie, I promise!”
We said our goodbyes and headed out. Back on the sidewalk Claudia pouted and took my hand.
“Oh, poor Jules! Don’t be sad! It is not so big a thing, really. We eat our dinner and then we go to the pool hall and Max and I watch Lonnie play pool. It is all quite boring really.”
“Shoot pool,” I said.
“‘Shoot’ pool, we say. Not ‘play’ pool.”
“Oh? Well, Lonnie likes to shoot pool more than anything. Max and I sit and watch. He bets money with other people and wins almost every time. Lonnie is a very good pool shooter.”
“I wonder why it is he doesn’t like me? What did I ever do to him?”
“Oh, I don’t think it’s that he doesn’t like you, Jules, he just doesn’t know you.”
“The guy never even looks at me or says anything to me. It’s weird. I don’t know what it is.”
“He doesn’t know you, Jules, that’s all! Don’t take it so much to your heart, okay? He just likes to have only his closest friends to him, the people he has known for years. He is nervous around strangers.”
“Oh, so I make him nervous?”
“Oh, poor baby, don’t feel bad!” She gave me a hug. “Promise me you won’t starve to death, will you?”
We were walking downhill, passing through Polk Gulch. Polk Gulch is another notorious San Francisco neighborhood, a homosexual ghetto abutting the western edge of the Tenderloin district. Polk Gulch was not like its more famous cousin, the Castro. This was not exactly a friendly atmosphere. In Polk Gulch there was a constant throb of homosexual menace everywhere in the air. You could smell it like a chemical sweat, a heady admixture of cheap cologne, spilled lube and stale amyl nitrate fumes. Sex for trade pervaded. Pimps with dildos stuffed down their pants fondled themselves as you passed, saying hey baby hey baby and asking, graphically, how you liked to take it. Trannies with grimy legs and torn sundresses leered from barroom doorways. Violence walked with you. Men openly pissed in the gutters, spat angrily on the walls. Dessicated gutter punks shot up in the recesses of darkened alleys where they let desperate old men blow them for a fix.
Claudia and I managed to make our way down to Market and Van Ness where the parade was set to begin. Dykes on Bikes, the flagship opening ceremony of the yearly parade, was getting underway. Hundreds of butch lesbians revving the engines of their Harleys, decked out in leather and denim, bare arms smeared with motor oil and garish tattoos. Many of the dykes went bare-chested, waving their nipples at the sky. A legion of hell-raisers, every one of them screaming ball-crunching war whoops at the tops of their lungs.
“Jules, look! That woman over there, she has hair on her chest!”
“Well, so she does! Whaddaya know!”
Naturally the streets and sidewalks were full of gays and lesbians of every age and description as well as the straight people they attracted—gawking tourists like Claudia and I–gathered here to participate in this mass celebration. Mobs of people hung out over balconies and from rooftops to throw confetti, blow bubbles and unleash colorful streamers upon the mixing and mingling crowds below. Folsom Street was closed to traffic, set up with carnival booths selling plastic gew gaws and nipple rings, trashy t-shirts and lingerie, ice cream and various food and drink and there were games to play too. People took turns tossing a double-headed dildo through a huge billboard with Jesse Helms’ face painted on it, a big cut-out hole where his mouth should be. People from ACT-UP were going around passing out condoms. Men in fairy costumes were set loose carrying clipboards and pens with obscure petitions to sign. The streets were packed with leathermen and cowboys. People walked around naked, painted head to toe in psychedelic colors. The crowd was a whole rainbow spectrum. There was laughter and shouting, people were hugging each other all over the place. Music pulsed from the doorways. Women were kissing each other open-mouthed on the sidewalks. Men too. What cops were around did not protest. In fact they were usually smiling themselves, shaking people’s hands and laughing. The whole scene, as outlandish as it was, struck me as rather harmless and sweet. There was no violence, no stridency, no militancy, no preaching. It was like a big happy Mardi Gras party under California’s dreamy mid-summer skies.
Claudia and I were happy, we hugged and kissed and nobody minded a couple of straights like us making a show of affection in their midst. In fact they smiled, they liked us. They kept giving us more condoms.
“Hey, you wanna go to Brick’s?” I asked.
Brick’s Lounge wasn’t far, I was sure the scene there would be just as warm and welcoming as it was out here and would be full of all sorts of the good people we knew.
But Claudia begged off. “If we go I know I will get to talking with everyone and people will want to buy me drinks and then I might be late getting back to the hotel. Lonnie would be angry.”
“Lonnie likes the control.”
“Yes, he does, a bit. But he’s very nice too. He does many good things for Max. And me too.”
“I know,” I said, resigned. “He does many good things.”
[Editor’s note: “Lonnie Belasco”, like many of the people the author associated with in those days, turned out to be bonzo crazy, as well as a drug addicted serial pederast. Que sera sera!]