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Castro Bridge Mix #3: Two Clubs

Oct 6, 2013

 

“And no tour of the Castro would be complete without a stop at One Mae Way. Welcome to the home of Mae’s New World Bridge Studio — a Castro landmark which has survived for over five decades.”  The large group of tourists huddled around a swarthy tour guide outfitted in a khaki vest, matching walking shorts, and a tan fur felt fedora hat. The Castro was a huge hit with tourists searching for something unique.

One of the younger tourists who had begun flashing photos with his smart phone turned to the guide. “Is this that Bridge place they recently profiled in the New York Times?  The one where they performed all of those same-sex wedding ceremonies after it became legal in California again?”

The brawny man nodded and motioned to the magnificent antebellum mansion which was set off in its own alcove. Mae’s stood out from the series of Victorian and Edwardian homes leading up to it. “Yes. As you can see with its facade of white marble Corinthian columns, this building looks like nothing else you’ll find in this neighborhood.”

An older woman in the group pointed to the beautiful stained glass windows which adorned one of the immense structure’s wings. “It looks like a church.”

“Good observation. It once was. One Mae Way has also housed a synagogue and a mortuary. Interestingly, Mae’s was also the home to one of the Gold Coast’s most colorful figures, Rachel Collins, who rose from a career in prostitution to ultimately become one of the highest ranking members of San Francisco society.”

A woman visiting from Las Vegas smirked. “She must have been damned good!”

“Actually, she rose to prominence by marrying one of her former clients who just happened to own a huge parcel of land where much of the Castro now sits. And she may have been good.  But by all accounts, the Collinses were both very much in love.” The tour guide knew far more about Mae’s than he was revealing, but he decided that he had provided enough information for a tourist group.

“Excuse me, do y’all play Bridge?” Lullabelle Fitzsimmons leaned out of her car window and forced herself to smile at the group despite just receiving tragic news about one of her dearest friends and Bridge partners.

The members of the tour group shrugged and hurriedly explained that not one of them knew how to play Bridge.

The aristocratic woman finally lost her usually calm exterior. “Well, we can always use new blood. And if Mr. Indiana Jones and the rest of y’all don’t get out of the way of Mae’s gate lickity split, we’ll have some right now.”

 

***

 

Lullabelle regained her composure and politely waved as the tour group parted like the Red Sea in order to allow her breathtaking car, conservatively valued at over a quarter of a million dollars, to pass through the mansion’s two-story tall wrought iron front gate.

The massive hallways leading up to the inner sanctuary at Mae’s were adorned with spectacular frescos depicting both The Last Supper and The Ten Commandments. Wooden crucifixes and silver mezuzahs pulled from different eras coexisted on the walls and in the doorways together with a virtually unparalleled shrine to legendary screen goddess, Mae West.

Dereck thumbed through dozens of fresh texts and emails regarding Marc Nesbitt’s fall in front of the Muni train heading to the Castro. A few witnesses had indicated that there was a man who might have pushed Marc right before the train arrived, but the accounts were inconsistent. At the time of the incident, San Francisco Police had already been investigating a seemingly unrelated outburst on the platform. The investigation was progressing rapidly, there was really nothing Dereck could do right this minute. He felt powerless.

Waffles examined the rainbow pendant around Popeye’s neck. It was the first time since he had known Popeye that he had looked at the pendant closely. “That’s not the regular rainbow flag. It has more stripes.”

“Actually this one is the original eight stripe Gilbert Baker rainbow flag. It has the hot pink stripe for sex and the turquoise for magic and art.”  Popeye choked up as he held the very special gift which Marc Nesbitt had given him years earlier.

“Impressive, Popeye.” Waffles realized that Popeye eyes were welling up. “Are you okay?”

“I may not be rich or some big ass movie star. I’m just a busboy at a dive restaurant, Waffles. But damned it all to hell, I do know things too.”  He realized that he was lashing out and stopped himself. “Sorry.”

“I know that, Popeye. And did you have to group movie star with big ass?”  Waffles’ eyes smiled even wider than his toothy grin. “And you know what? Someday I know that you’re going to have your own restaurant. It’ll probably be one of those fancy three-Michelin-star, 20-course-tasting-menu restaurants with the pallbearer waitstaff.”  He mimicked the precision of the waitstaff as he moved with comic absurdity. “And I probably won’t be able to score a reservation.”

“You’d always get a reservation Waffles. Always.” Popeye’s face brightened as he dared to dream about running his own restaurant. Waffles had always told him that if he ever wanted help he’d be there for him. He just wasn’t ready to take that plunge yet. After all, Waffles didn’t know him in his former life before they had met at Mae’s.

Waffles casually walked over to Dereck who was gradually making his way towards the great hall used for Bridge games. “Race you to the Wall of Eyes.”

Dereck’s mind was still back at Marc Nesbitt’s Muni stop. Did someone push Marc, did he commit suicide, or was it just an accident? If someone did push him, was it the act of a random nut or was there a motive behind it? Did Marc Nesbitt know something worth killing him over?

The great hall’s southernmost facing wall had earned the nickname “The Wall of Eyes” for its haunting portraits of many of its former members. Mae’s had become a very popular retreat starting in the 1980s with those living with HIV/AIDS. Although many of those individuals in the photographs had ultimately succumbed to the disease, their vibrant personalities around the Bridge tables still resonated from their positions on the wall.

Interwoven with the Bridge players’ black and white and color photos were dozens of pictures of Mae West spanning the course of her entire career including enormous gold framed posters of her films “Night After Night,” “She Done Him Wrong,” “Goin’ To Town,” “My Little Chickadee,” and “I’m No Angel.”  Every aspect of Mae’s iconoclastic life was depicted inside the great hall from the platform shoes she invented to give her tiny frame added height, to the military Mae West Life Vest which was nicknamed for her because when they inflated they made military men look like the amply proportioned actress. Over the years, there had been attempts to affix photographs of other screen sirens including Marilyn, Greta, Bette, and even Joan Crawford. Each time, the pictures were not allowed. This was Mae’s home and she shared it with no other female film legends. That was until the mid-1980s, when based on her incredible devotion to fund raising in support of the fight against HIV/AIDS, Elizabeth Taylor’s photograph was allowed to coexist with Mae’s.

A framed letter, supposedly in Mae West’s hand, lauded the Bridge studio and explained that although Mae West had once stated emphatically that she would never want to play Bridge, that this was the one place on earth where she would be willing to break her own rule. Most at the studio doubted the letter’s authenticity or the clever story that it had been retrieved from Mae’s sister, Beverly, but it was still afforded a place of reverence. Carefully crafted fictions were a welcome presence at Mae’s and blended seamlessly with the day-to-day realities of doing battle at the Bridge tables.

A leather-clad figure fresh off of a Harley Davidson motorcycle pulled off a gleaming silver and black helmut to reveal a flowing mane of raven black hair. Jensen Reiser’s beautifully featured face was a striking contrast to her more masculine motorcycle gear.

Reiser pulled off her tight black leather jacket to reveal a bright fuchsia floral blouse. She wrapped her arms around Dereck in an uncharacteristically emotional embrace. She and Dereck had been Bridge partners for over a decade. “I heard about Marc. Any news?”

“Not yet. But believe me, we’ll get to the bottom of it.” He smiled at Jensen. She looked like she had aged ten years since her break-up with her ex-girlfriend, Tanya, a year and half earlier. He smiled at her. “Look at you today with your girly colored blouse.”

“Out with the flannel and in with the frills.” Jensen made an awkward attempt at a curtsy. “I’m getting closer to landing that fixer-up project I told you about.” She looked over at the Wall of Eyes and noticed a group photo which featured Tanya prominently. It still felt like she had daggers turning inside her guts to look at the woman she knew would no longer be her partner in life.

In light of what had happened with Marc Nesbitt, Mae’s held an impromptu celebration of his life. Several of Mae’s Bridge players stood next to their favorite photograph of Marc on the Wall of Eyes and shared their experiences both inside and outside of Mae’s with Marc.

Lullabelle searched the room for Reed. After just loosing Marc, she needed him tonight more than ever. But he was nowhere to be found. Damned old buzzard. Probably out with another young thing he met off the internet.

 

***

 

Tell Williams held court on the opposite side of the Wall of Eyes as far away from Lullabelle as he could possibly get. He was a nattily dressed man in his late sixties who generally  spoke in questions. Waffles had initially nicknamed him the Riddler, but later caved. Some suspected it was fear of Tell’s retaliation that motivated Waffles to restore Tell back to his own chosen name.

Jensen heard the distinctive sound of Tell Williams’ eardrum piercing whistle in her head every time she saw him. “Have you found your dream house yet, Jenny?” Tell had an inviting smile like a predator which had just identified its prey.

She purposely maintained a safe distance of two floor-length lilac-linen-covered Bridge tables between herself and Tell. “Getting close.” Jensen forced a smile at the man who made her stomach twist in knots just at the thought of being next to him.

“Remember, Jenny. I’m there for you if you need me.” He tipped his deluxe grey felt derby hat at her.

Jensen felt her lunch shooting up to the back of her throat. She barely managed to nod and get a single word out of her parchment dry mouth. “Thanks.”

“Marc Nesbitt was a person who helped people who needed people.” Dan-Elle, who had started life as Daniel Schwartz, channeled her feminine energy as an exact replica of Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. She remembered Marc, her fellow Bridge player, with her incredible singing voice. Meanwhile, Glory-Us, who appeared as various male and female celebrities, stood beside Dan-Elle who was his partner both at the Bridge tables and romantically. Tonight he complemented Dan-Elle by appearing as Omar Sharif — ruffle shirt and all.

Dereck hugged Dan-Elle and pointed to a group photo of several men dressed up to look like Mae West. “The first time I met Marc was at a Mae Day back five years ago. He had some trouble fitting into the back of his Mae West dress, but he was such a fun loving guy he that it didn’t seem to matter to him.”

Tell artfully lifted Dereck’s wallet and returned it back to Dereck. He motioned to Dan-Elle and intimated that he had reclaimed the wallet from her. “You’ve got to watch her every single minute.”

After an hour of reminiscing, Dereck decided to excuse himself early. He needed to break free tonight. He made one final glance at the living, breathing Wall of Eyes.

Waffles approached Dereck as he saw him heading out. “Where are you off to?”

“Odyssey.” Dereck knew that the notorious club’s name carried strong connotations. Odyssey wasn’t just a dance club. It was where needs were met and nightly satisfaction was guaranteed. Over the years, Odyssey had grown in stature from a simple dance club to a world class venue akin to Manhattan’s Studio 54 back in its late 1970s heyday. Aspiring artists and established recording stars would often perform together for the hundreds who were lucky enough to be selected from the throngs lined up for six blocks in the hope that they could gain admission. Odyssey was the hottest club — straight or gay — on the West Coast.

“Homo’s Odyssey, eh?”  Waffles wasn’t impressed by Odyssey. He was surprised that Dereck would want to be seen in a club known for prostitution of both sexes as well as rampant drug dealing. It just didn’t look good for someone on the political fast track. He knew that Dereck had the potential to become California’s first openly gay governor. “You know, after everything that happened with Marc, who could blame you?”

Dereck forced his eyes to smile as his lips flatlined. “Thanks for your permission, Dad.”

Waffles couldn’t let it go. He would say anything to steal a few more moments together with Dereck. “Dad, eh?  How very Joe Gage.” He knew instinctively that Dereck would pick up the reference to the iconic gay porn producer known for pairing actors who are a generation apart for his films.

Just as he was getting ready to leave Mae’s, Dereck felt the heat from a pair of eyes, but it wasn’t from inside the playing hall. It was from outside the window looking in. Someone was watching him. He didn’t know why. But he didn’t have a good feeling about it.

 

 

© Will Morrison 2013.  All Rights Reserved.