by Ron Russo
In 1978 my friend Annie and I planned our first trip together. There was no question where we’d go—San Francisco. I don’t remember what caused Annie’s fascination with the city by the bay but mine was based largely on sex. I’d come out less than a year before, and San Francisco was the capital of “gay” at the time.
We went on June 2. I’d moved into a new apartment the day before and left behind the pandemonium of unpacked boxes and unplaced furniture. Plenty of time to get things in order afterward. All I could think of was heading to Castro Street and seeing all those mustachioed, muscled men I’d stared at in magazines. Maybe even nab one for myself.
We arrived on a Friday and idly roamed the Union Square neighborhood where we were staying. At breakfast on Saturday we planned our day. The waitress heard us discussing how cold it was and asked, “First time here, kids?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“Everyone who comes for the first time is surprised at how cold it gets.”
“Well, we figured we were coming to California in June, and it would be much hotter than in New York,” Annie said.
“Hon, you see that Macy’s the other side of Union Square?” the waitress asked. “Go on over when you finish eating and buy sweatshirts. San Francisco is always chilly, especially in the morning and after sunset. God, if I made a commission on every sweatshirt I sold for Macy’s I could retire a rich woman,” she laughed.
The waitress got a generous tip, and we did exactly as she advised. Warmer, laughing at our naiveté we walked the city, marveling at everything. Over an Irish coffee at the Buena Vista we discussed what we’d do that evening.
“Let’s go to the Dignity meeting,” I suggested. “I’d like to get an idea of what it’s like over here.” Dignity was a gay Catholic group I’d joined in New York the year before. A friend, originally from California, told me about the San Francisco branch and gave me their number.
“Okay,” said Annie. “If the map is right it’s near the Mexican restaurant Noreen told me about. We can go there for dinner afterwards.”
I called to verify the time and location of the meeting and we arrived a bit late. There was a talk going on, so we slipped in quietly and found seats. The speaker was a man who appeared to be in his forties. He had strong presence, a terrific sense of humor, and a way of engaging the audience that kept everyone rapt. He was also good-looking, just my type: dark hair, rugged facial features and a body that looked buff even under his button-down shirt and jeans. Normally I hated listening to speakers and couldn’t sit still for more than ten minutes. But this guy mesmerized me for nearly an hour, speaking of gay lib and the need to come out. As he was wrapping up his talk he said, “As many of you know, I’m originally from New York,” and at this both Annie and I clapped. He noticed us and continued, “San Francisco is my home now and this is where we’re going to make it happen.”
There was great applause as his talk ended. We were all invited into the adjoining room for a social with wine and snacks.
“That guy was terrific,” Annie said. “Handsome, too.”
“Yeah, for an older guy he’s pretty hot,” I said. I was twenty-seven at the time.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see the speaker smiling broadly.
“Fellow New Yorkers?” he asked, addressing both of us.
“Aah. Long Island here. Been in San Francisco a couple of years now, though. You live here, or visiting?”
“On vacation, second day here,” Annie answered.
“Well then you need to see the town and there’s lots to see. Been to the bars yet?” he asked me.
“Not yet. I’ll be going tomorrow night though. Any recommendations?”
“Yes,” he said. “I recommend that you meet me at the Twin Peaks around ten tonight. I’ll show you around.”
“Well, I don’t know what we’re doing after dinner. Where is this place?”
“Boy, you are green,” he chuckled. “Probably the most famous bar in San Francisco. On Castro, right off Market. What’s your name? I’m Harvey Milk,” he said, extending a hand.
“I’m Ronnie Russo, and this is my friend Annie.” Annie threw me a sly glance as she shook Harvey’s hand and said, “I’m going to use the ladies room. Be back in a few minutes.”
“So, Ronnie, what brings you to a Dignity meeting? How come you’re not roaming Castro Street? All the boys will be after you.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, I look back on pictures and realize I was good looking, with big brown eyes and a slim toned body. Harvey’s eyes remained focused on mine and his grin was suggestive.
“Well, as I said, I’m planning to go out tomorrow night. I don’t want to leave my friend alone too much.”
“She’ll do fine, she’s a fox. Send her to Perry’s on Union Street. In fact, tell her to go to any place on Union, that’s where all the straights cruise. It’s Saturday night, you’ve got to see Castro.”
“Believe me, I’m dying to get there. But Annie and I agreed that Sunday would be our split up night.”
“Stay together on Sunday, split up tonight. I can show you around like no one else can. I live on Castro too,” said this man with the unflinching stare of his seductive eyes.
“Talk to her and work it out. I’ll be waiting for you. Twin Peaks at ten. Got it?”
“Got it. Hope to see you later but if not, nice meeting you.”
“Same here,” Harvey said. Leaning forward, he gave me a quick peck on the lips while his hand found my butt and gave it a firm squeeze. “You won’t be sorry,” he said, then turned and walked away. In an instant he was surrounded by a group of people.
Annie returned a moment later. She’d been watching from afar. “My, you work fast,” she said.
“I work fast? I’d say he was the fast worker, missy.”
“So, you going to meet him then?” she asked.. I could sense Annie was looking forward to our night on the town.
“Nah. We said we’d have dinner and hang out together. It’s our only Saturday night here. We’ll find a place to go dancing. Tomorrow I’ll hit the bars, and I bet I’ll find him then.”
We spent the evening as planned. But the next night, at precisely ten o’clock, I was sitting alone on a bar stool at Twin Peaks. No Harvey. I was well into my second beer when I felt a tap on the shoulder. My heart raced. I turned to see not Harvey but a sandy haired, blue eyed guy replete with mustache and muscular chest. “I’m John Hirsch,” he said. And with that simple introduction, the rest of the evening and most of the following day were spoken for. Two more times that week I roamed the bars, two more times I sat hopefully in the Twin Peaks. But Harvey Milk was never was there.
When I returned to New York I started hearing more about him, how he was the first openly gay elected official in the U.S., an outspoken advocate for gay rights, a confidant of the mayor of San Francisco, and an all-around guy. I increasingly regretted not having connected with him. I was dreaming of moving to San Francisco as most first-time visitors do, and he somehow entered the fantasy as the built-in lover who’d be waiting to take me in. I couldn’t shake his image in the media or in my imagination.
When I heard of his assassination that November I felt more than sad. I felt a disproportionate sense of loss—for gays, for America, for myself. Whenever I think of Harvey Milk I still feel it. Would we have had a sexual liaison? I’m rather certain. Would anything more have come of it? Something tells me yes. Of course this is the stuff that dreams are made of and the whole meeting was, in a certain way, a fantasy. I learned something from our very brief encounter—to be more proactive in seizing a propitious moment. I’ve tried to do so ever since.
Ron Russo has been writing fiction and memoir for twenty five years. Of late, he has been particularly inspired by the wonderful writing workshops given at the IRP.