Deliciously Invisible: Being a Straight Woman in a Gay Neighborhood
In 1991, my marriage ended and I lived alone for the first time in my life.
I rented a studio apartment in a lovely building at the corner of 18th Street and Collingwood, in the heart of the Castro in San Francisco. It was a big studio — an entry hall, a little bathroom, a big main room with a huge closet (which had clearly once housed a Murphy bed), and a decent-sized kitchen with built-in cabinets and room to put a small dining table. The apartment had high ceilings and hardwood floors, and big windows in the kitchen and main room, and a small window looking onto an airshaft in the bathroom.
My rent was $610 a month, which was outrageously expensive for a place that didn’t even have a separate bedroom. But I had a full-time job and a tiny bit of savings (even after I’d “loaned” my ex-husband enough for first-and-last-and-deposit on a place of his own so that he’d move out already). I couldn’t afford the place that we’d shared (it was a two-bedroom in Noe Valley, and nearly $900), and I’d tried the roommate thing and hated it, so, I took the risk and signed the lease.
(How times have changed…I just did a quick online search. A small one-bedroom one block down Collingwood from my old place is currently listed for $3,885 a month. Or you could splurge and get a two-bedroom one block up 18th for $4,950!)
Living alone was terrifying, and glorious. It wasn’t quiet: just below my apartment was a bar called The Edge, and just across the street was another bar — I don’t remember the name of that one, but it was even noisier than The Edge. (And yes, the city did indeed have a bar called The White Swallow, but that was a few blocks away.) A bus line turned the corner just outside my window, so I also got the flashes and pops of its overhead electric lines. The bars closed at 2; the recycle scavengers came through at 4; the official city recycle trucks came at 6, every single day of the week.
I loved it. I bought a futon bed, a hundred-year-old green Chinese rug from my friendly neighbor upstairs, and a huge used desk from Busvan For Bargains. I was going to come home from work every day, sit down, and write the Great American Novel there.
I had no idea how to live alone. I mean, yeah, basically it’s just like living with other people except without the other people; but really, it’s entirely different. You can cook whatever you want, and leave the dishes in the sink until you feel like washing them. And when you do clean up, nobody else comes along and makes a mess! You can play whatever music you like, and stay up as late as you want reading — nobody trying to sleep on the other side of the bed.
At times it felt like playing house, except it was real. That apartment was my refuge, my place of peace (if not quiet), my own space. I no longer had to worry about what my husband’s mood might be, when he finally made it home; I didn’t have to tiptoe around his anger, his drinking, his despair. When I got home, that was it: the household was complete.
The Castro in the early 1990s was very, very gay. That changed over the next fifteen or twenty years, but when I lived there, it was pretty much Freddie Mercury T-shirts and assless chaps with nothing under them and tight, tight jeans. In the four or five square blocks around Castro and Market Streets, the sidewalks were packed night and day: men, men, men. Men cruising other men. Men going about their business — the video store, the pharmacy, the market. Men on dates at the bars and the restaurants and the movie theatre. Men living their lives, open and out and free.
I worried a little bit when I moved there. Having no car, I needed to be close to transportation and shopping and other amenities, so the Castro was perfect; I just hoped I wouldn’t be seen as an intruder. I wasn’t even a dyke, after all.
I needn’t have fretted. My neighbors in the building were great — friendly and welcoming — and the men on the street…didn’t seem to see me at all. Their eyes passed over me as though I were a blank spot in the landscape.
Until I realized this, I hadn’t fully perceived how much, as a young woman in this world, I’d been so continuously looked at. Assessed, judged, regarded. Found desirable; found wanting. Even if men in the rest of the world made no comments (and they usually didn’t), I realized that they always, always looked at me, and that that was something I had to be aware of — something I was aware of, even on an unconscious level. And I was always assessing and judging in return: Is he a threat? Or even, Is he interesting, is this attention I want?
Soon I began joking to friends that I could have walked down my street naked, and would have been in no danger — wouldn’t even have been noticed. But it wasn’t really a joke. I’m quite sure I could have.
It was really, really gay.
And as soon as I got over the weirdness of feeling invisible, I found I just loved it. Ironically, that was the first time I really felt at home somewhere. I could be myself — whoever I was that day. I could experiment with identities, outfits, whatever. Nobody gave a shit. I didn’t have to conform, or perform, for anyone. Not in my neighborhood, anyway. I could go to the grocery store in my pajamas. Yes, I know people do that all the time these days; but that would have been weird then, in more normal neighborhoods.
In the Castro? I was a tiny mouse, a nullity, utterly without color or consequence. I lived amid a huge jumble of humanity, and I was entirely — fantastically — alone.
I only lived there about a year and a half. I had met the man who would become my second husband; he lived just over the hill in Noe Valley (another reason the Castro was a convenient place for me). My Trophy Wife years were just ahead— I could already see them from there, though I had no idea how they would all unfold.
I Was a Trophy Wife
It was a joke. The kind of joke that’s actually true, but you laugh about it in the hopes of deflecting that truth. A…
I wrote and wrote, but the Great American Novel never emerged. Other things did, including (eventually) a novel about my hippie upbringing, and a lot of journaling and introspection and soul-searching.
But I think the best things that emerged were the little, almost impossible-to-explain things. Exploring my embryonic — but growing — self-confidence: watching a baseball game in a bar full of men (I didn’t have a TV) and being benignly, comfortably ignored. Walking down the street openly admiring the pretty, well-built men with no possibility of consequence or even conversation. It was a safe place to explore myself.
It’s not good to be invisible at work, or in a relationship, or anywhere you need to have a voice, to have power. And I’ve struggled with this: for far too long, I was voiceless, meek, unsure. That’s not what I’m talking about here.
Separating out strangers looking at me from important people in my life listening to me…that’s been a lifelong lesson for me. One that got started when I moved into a neighborhood of flamboyant men who did not, in a million years, want to fuck me.