|Dancers enjoy the music of Dixieland Dykes. Photo by Heidi Beeler.
Itâ€™s a little like being a tardy-yet-musical Secret Santa. The local YMCA throws a New Yearâ€™s bash that the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom has played at almost every year since Jimmy Carter was in office, and Iâ€™ll bet you a bottle of champagne and a top hat youâ€™ve never heard of it.
Stroll through the Tenderloin on New Yearâ€™s morning, and youâ€™ll see us dressed in tuxedos and red bowties carrying tubas, clarinets, saxophones, drums, picking our way through the empty bottles, the broken glass and the occasional spent condom that festoon Golden Gate Avenue in the early hours of Annus Novus. SFPD black and whites triple-park outside the Tenderloin station and troll the neighborhood.
Between our formal dress, the urban street setting and the fact that weâ€™re headed for the Salvation Army, you almost expect Guy Masterson from Guys and Dolls to appear around the corner, looking for Lady Luck.
Step off the sidewalk into the Salvation Armyâ€™s Kroc Center and itâ€™s like sheâ€™s been found. Seniors from SOMA and the Tenderloin are lined up outside the door of the gymnasium, dressed like theyâ€™re waiting to enter some glamorous ballroom off Times Square.
This is the Shih Yu-Lang Central YMCAâ€™s 34th Annual New Yearâ€™s Connection, a festive luncheon for more than 200 seniors living in the neighborhood. Greg Moore, the Yâ€™s director of senior programs and facilities, said the event brings together low income and socially isolated seniors to help them get their new year off to a positive start. Attendees are served a catered lunch featuring holiday fare like turkey, ham, scalloped potatoes, green beans, salad and mini cupcakes. Theyâ€™re treated to goodie bags filled with donated items like fresh fruit, generic Tupperware, alarm clocks, blank journals and free dental kits (donated by the Dugoni Pacific School of Dentistry, Moore tells me). This year, free flu shots were offered to all comers. And local performers provide entertainment to lend a dash of music and color to the festivities.
Thatâ€™s, of course, where we come in. The Band has been playing for the YMCA since roughly the same time the Village People immortalized it in disco. Jay Kast, a former conductor of the Band, told me the Band first performed at the second Seniorâ€™s Connection party in 1980, when the shindig was considerably more swank. Originally, it was held on Christmas Day at venues like the Fairmont Hotel, the Sheraton Palace and the Carnelian Room (a luxury restaurant, now closed, at the top of the BofA building), and Joan Baez was among the performers. By the early 90s, as the City became more expensive and funding more competitive, the event moved into the YMCAâ€™s own gymnasium. When the Y left its longtime home at 150 Golden Gate, Moore rented space two blocks away at the Salvation Armyâ€™s Kroc Center.
The people who attend this bash really know how to cut a rug. The moment Assistant Conductor Eric Fletcher delivered a downbeat, folks were out of their chairs, in pairs and solo, waltzing, twirling and grapevining around the gym floor for every last note. One year, we struck up Jingle Bell Rock, and it became immediately obvious weâ€™d stumbled onto an aerobics class top hit when the entire room leapt up into a unison line dance, like theyâ€™d rehearsed for the show. Watching folks laugh in each otherâ€™s arms as they swing around the floor to our music is one of the most joy-inspiring things we do all year. And when the Band finished, the Dixieland Dykes +3 played a set of trad-jazz tunes and brought the dancers back to their feet for more.
Moore, who has organized the event for the past 9 years, is also inspiring. With a struggling economy, the YMCA on diaspora as it builds a new, retrofitted building, and one of its longtime funders (the Altos Foundation) spent out of existence just this year, youâ€™d think heâ€™d be worried about the 35th Annual New Yearâ€™s Connection. Instead heâ€™s positive the program will grow. Despite a reduction in the number of donors for the program, he said the total amount given has increased, and he sees the need increasing as well. This year, the event served almost 240 people, the largest number of participants since he it took over, and another 10-15 had to be turned away. Seeing the need and the joy the party brings folks is what drives him to work through the holidays.
â€śTo me, that [the program is growing] is just wonderful,â€ť Moore said. â€śAny pennies or bucks I can scrape up, itâ€™s worth the stress. The more people we have, the more successful we can be at providing a bright start in the New Year for these people who have so little and need so very much.â€ť
Itâ€™s what gets us Bandies into our tuxes every New Yearâ€™s morning.
Send comments or your own New Yearâ€™s stories to Heidi at BrassTacks.SF@gmail.com.