I remember Harvey Milk mostly from bathhouses and bars where he didnâ€™t drink more than a coke or another non-alcoholic drink. I remember him coming into bars like the In Touch with his huge, warm smile, and instantly creating an entourage of mostly men with a smattering of women all sharing hilarity and a sense of openness that soon would elevate Harvey to become an elected Supervisor in the never-ending political drama of San Francisco.
Polk Street was the center, but the Castro was emerging because of cheap and stable rents and housing costs, with almost two-dozen bars from Turk Street to Union Street including the PS, Buzbyâ€™s, Polk Gulch, Rendezvous, New Bell and the White Swallow. There were many more, including The Palms, where Sylvester sang his soulful disco hits. Wayne Friday was then a bartender and most of my memories are of him holding court at the farthest end of the bar at The New Bell Saloon, which also featured David Kelsey playing opposing piano and organ.
On Sundayâ€™s a group called Pure Trash joined Kelsey and the music and crowd were magic. Harvey would sometimes bound into the bar brimming with joy, and usually after a visit to the baths. He instilled those around him with his zany urban humor.
There were so many emerging voices in our LGBTQ community, moving us toward freedom. They included Armistead and his Tales of the City, Roberta Achtenberg, Carole Migden and Richard Hongisto, who would become Supervisor, Sheriff, Assessor and Police Chief. He was always an outspoken advocate for gay rights. The times were changing and Harvey started making waves as he morphed from a hippie to a political insider who built a movement that changed everything here for all San Franciscans.
I was closeted for the most part then, although being widely known in the Polk Street, downtown and Fillmore bars didnâ€™t give me much cover. Harvey posed a threat to my fears and paranoia and kept me from fully embracing him. He was open, honest and proud. He was ready to fight for our LGBTQ rights and those of all oppressed people. That scared men like me who thought we were to be seen and not heard.
After the bars closed, you would often find Harvey with his entourage du jour, almost always including Wayne Friday, who became the earliest and most effective operative in Harveyâ€™s rise to political success. They would move en masse to The Grubstake at Pine and Polk, which was open 24 hours and late night was home to drag queens, hookers, pimps, hustlers, prostitutes and people from every other walk of life. You could tell Harvey was there as you approached the diner because of the laughter and joy emanating from within, and it was all about his pushing us out the closet and into the mainstream.
There are about half a dozen American tragedies that are embedded in my memory, with the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone is just below the same fate dealt John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. I was at my restaurant Zottâ€™s in the financial district and about to open when the television carrying some sporting event was interrupted with Dianne Feinstein announcing the tragic event. That day I cried for the loss of another truly great American.