In the Castro

In another era…say, four weeks ago…I might have deemed it cowardly or unsporting to request assistance. Being older and wiser now, what the hell. Dennis and I leave the house together and head straight up the hill to Bemis Street. We stand shivering in the fog while he checks his app. The 35 Eureka is six minutes away. I tell Dennis that this reminds me of waiting for the school bus with my mother. Did I wait for the school bus with my mother? Surely I did. And surely I did not learn this in school, taking a few minutes to reduce…not eliminate…anxiety. When the Muni bus arrives, I roll up its ramp, Dennis walks back down the hill…and all, or mostly all, is right with the world.

What could have gone wrong? That’s the thing about worrying…it’s hard to say. But if the 35 Eureka failed to materialize, leaving me well up the slopes of Diamond Heights, I wouldn’t have to face the precipice of Roanoke Street alone. Thus, Dennis. Soon, of course, I am facing an equally alarming downhill run in the hands of a Muni bus driver. But I have learned. The man has flipped up a passenger seat on the left side of his bus. This creates a wheelchair space with handholds for my functioning side. My non-paralyzed foot braces against a bulwark, the working hand grips…and the moving finger writes. In no time at all we are in the lowlands, the Castro Theatre beckoning.

What would entice me out of my home at 9:30 AM? The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, of course. I had never heard of the thing, but my friend David assured me it would be well worthwhile. So I have thrown neuromuscular caution to the winds…gotten a bit of assistance, for which I give myself full wisdom and credit. And there it is, the old ornate Art Deco cinema, long preserved, in this historic Gay Liberation neighborhood. Being early, there’s time for a coffee. But why rush? I roll inside the cinema and find it packed at 9:45 AM. If I had stopped for coffee, I would not have found a wheelchair space.

As it is, I soon give up mine. A woman with a walker informs me that she is going to take the nearby seat, park her device where mine now resides. And dammed if this doesn’t come to pass. She has 15 or 20 years on me, after all. And even if she doesn’t maneuver herself into place with great politesse, I am ceding this ground.

When the lights go down what starts up defies ready categorization. Still, these silent film people mean business, whatever their business is. And I stick around long enough to mostly find out.

Three film archivists present their work. The first is from San Francisco and actually makes a living restoring old film. Someone from the staff of the long dead Hearst newspaper in town had discovered moldering reels in a storage room. Eventually, the old film found its way to restoration. And here it is, something of a find. The acetate reveals shots of the tall William Randolph Hearst walking about La Encantada, his name for the estate on California’s central coast. No one could easily identify the woman walking with him. She is conspicuously bespectacled and dressed for business, one supposes, 1920s style. The footage dates from roughly 1926. Hearst’s mother? Some other relation? No, it is Julia Morgan, famed California architect, and designer of this grand folly at San Simeon, locally known as the Hearst Castle.

The central California hills look exactly as they do today. Three women pose in front of a statue of entwined muses, and we watch as, 90 years ago, they humorously mimic the sculpture. I recognize southwestern motifs on the furniture upholstery, the look of the Santa Fe Railroad in its heyday. When the piece is over and the house lights come up, we get a crash course in film restoration. Technicolor process number two – there were six, through 1961 – provides the slightly off tones. Even achieving these weak tints was a feat. A synchronized camera recorded images with, and without, silver emulsion, the footage was passed through red, green and blue dyes…and that’s as much sense as I can make of it.

Next, another film restorer describes his discovery of a badly damaged 1915 silent Sherlock Holmes. It’s a French version. The Cinematheque in Paris has helped recreate it. Then on to a woman from the British Film Institute with rare footage of the Lusitania, its launch in stills and sinking in animation. The latter, an early propaganda work, may be crude in terms of technology, but shows a remarkably artistic sense of wave action and perspective. We have to honor old things.

Like me, I am deciding. The film experience over, I have wandered around the corner in search of brunch. Jane and I spotted this place one morning when out buying cabinet knobs.  Yes, it has come to this, my life of home remodeling. Anyway, the menu offered an attractive melange of vegetable curry and poached eggs. Which I now order. Sheepishly, I slide into a table. At least there is one handy. I try to read the silent film festival program. Mostly I tune into the customers.

I am by far the oldest. The waitress calls me dearie…and I can’t decide whether to be pleased or resentful. Perhaps neither of us can quite fit me in among this crowd. Twentysomethings predominate, with thirtysomethings close behind. Actually, this is a fine point, a distinction I can hardly make any more. Everyone is much, much younger. And being in the Castro district in this the era of San Francisco gentrification, the crowd is not so much gay as ambisexual. Some customers may be writing business plans, others simply having a louche moment in between God knows what. I am too old, it seems.

But I am also in a wheelchair, which makes me well, in my own category, everywhere. Maybe that’s good. Old, and watching silent films, kind of, and now boarding the 24 Castro bus for a harrowing ride homeward. It’s one of San Francisco’s older electric buses, which can achieve remarkable speed on hills. The whole experience challenges my abdominal muscles. But then, I challenge them myself. This is disabled life, with emphasis on the life. And one has to stay in shape…for whatever lies ahead.I

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