"This is the city’s backyard… . An early morning walk will take a visitor past dozens of small businesses manufacturing necessities; metal benders, plastic molders, even casket makers can all be seen plying their trades. At five they set down their tools and return to the suburbs… . A few hours later, men in black leather … will step out on these same streets to fill the nearly 30 gay bars, restaurants and sex clubs in the immediate vicinity. Separate realities that seldom touch and, on the surface at least, have few qualms about each other. —Mark Thompson (1982, 28)
Gay male leather communities have been markedly territorial in major U.S. cities. In San Francisco, leather has been most closely associated with the South of Market neighborhood since 1962. Earlier, in the 1950s, leathermen had mostly patronized the waterfront bars, such as Jacks on the Waterfront, the Sea Cow, and the Castaways. The first dedicated leather bar in San Francisco was the Why Not, which opened briefly in the Tenderloin in 1962. When the Tool Box opened later that year on the corner of Fourth Street and Harrison, it was the first leather bar located in the South of Market. The Tool Box was a sensation. It was wildly popular and even attracted nationwide media notice. Herb Caen wrote about the Tool Box in his famous San Francisco Chronicle column:
"As I noted a few days ago, some of the young fellers who hang out in the Tool Box at Fourth and Harrison wear and S or an M on their shirt pockets to indicate Sadist or Masochist. Which prompted a relieved message from Harold Call. "I’m so glad you printed that," he said. "All this time I thought it meant Single, or Married!" (Caen 1964)
The most celebrated element of the Tool Box was a huge mural painted by Chuck Arnett, a local artist who worked at the bar and whose paintings and posters were also featured at such later bars as the Red Star Saloon and the Ambush. The mural was a massive black-and-white painting that depicted a variety of tough-looking, masculine men. In 1964, when Life magazine did a story on homosexuality in America, a photograph of the Tool Box was spread across the two opening pages. (Welch & Eppridge 1964)
In it we see the mural and some of the bar patrons, including Arnett and several others who would play significant roles in San Francisco’s early leather history, as the managers, bartenders, bouncers, and above all, the artists and decorators of local leather establishments. Standing next to Arnett is Bill Tellman, another artist who has contributed a great deal to the local iconography. He designed the poster for the Slot, one of the earliest leather-oriented bathhouses. He also did graphic design for the Ambush, and a made a backlit stained-glass depiction of fistfucking that eventually adorned the Catacombs.
Jack H. is also in the photo. In 1965 Jack and a partner opened the Detour at 888 McAllister Street when the popularity of the Tool Box began to subside. Later he was a co-owner of Febe’s, one of the first leather bars to open on Folsom Street. Jack also later opened the Slot, and some stories even credit him with having invented fistfucking at a party in his basement in 1962. Mike Caffee, another artist, is there, too. Caffee worked in and did graphic design for many leather businesses. In 1966, he designed the logo for Febe’s and created a statue that came to symbolize the bar.”
Lethe Press, the independent press that publishes the annual Best Gay Stories anthologies, takes its name from the river of forgetfulness and oblivion in Greek mythology. With the publication of Best Gay Stories Lethe’s name becomes a bit of a misnomer for two crucial reasons. The first is that most of the twenty stories collected in the 2014 edition deal with memory, to the extent that “memory” means the absence of forgetfulness. Only three of them are in the still-cutting-edge present tense; the rest are firmly in the past, confronting issues of wanting to forget the traumas and stigmas of growing up gay in the previous generation, but also of nostalgia. As editor Steve Berman writes in his introduction, “The men you will meet in these pages are pained by the realizations that they are no longer young boys who can leap off rocks into a swimming pool or can happen upon a tryst without consequence.
Some are at the precipice of adulthood, some are already across the great divide of years[…]”. The second reason for the name’s irony is simpler: most of these stories are truly quite memorable and attentive. The assemblage of stories is impressive in its diversity. There are two translations: an excerpt from Austrian author Josef Winkler’s novel The Graveyard of Bitter Oranges—which is the most explicitly erotic of the group—and Dmitry Kuzmin’s “On the Moscow Metro and Being Gay,” an introspective essay that discusses how its two titular states of being reflect the desire for power that seems so prevalent in the Russian character. There is also “Ma tu sei pazzo?!”, Tommi Avicolli Mecca’s sweeping summary of the role of Italian-Americans in LGBT and labor rights activism. Sewed into this history lesson is the author’s memoir of growing up and coming out amidst the ultra-Catholic, ultra-conservative environment of southern Italy and the Italian diaspora.
There are few less equivocal moments in the anthology than when Mecca states with startling candid simplicity that when he came out to his family, one “uncle suggested to my oldest brother that they take care of me Godfather style.” Rounding out the nonfiction in the collection is James J. Gifford’s essay “Proem: How to Read Gay Pulp Fiction,” an homily to the now-out-of-print dime store paperbacks that broke ground in male gay narratives in the early twentieth century. For contemporary readers left jaded by the onslaught and easy accessibility of traditional formulaic literature both inside and outside of the LGBT genre, Gifford provides a refreshing approach to the pulp novels that he resurrects. Of course, there are stories that smudge the boundaries between fiction and reality, such as Richard Bowes’ “Seven Days of Poe,” which—as one may guess—dissects a week in the life of the narrator, a library employee, through allusions to his beloved Edgar Allan Poe stories. That story could turn out to be fiction, yet the invocation of the locale—1960s Boston—and the affinity for the Poe tales—which are used variously as mimicry, fantasy, symbolism and even contrast—all feel genuine insomuch that a semi-autobiographical impression is unavoidable.