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Tender Is the Night

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Beyond Trannyshack: Saturday night at the Motherlode

Looking for love in all the wrong places

By Michael Stabile

Slumming. The very word makes my prep-schooled farm-boy mouth water. A night in the Tenderloin means dipping in the primordial ooze and forsaking the theme-park safety of the Castro and the distanced urbanity of South of Market. Normally metropolitan homosexuals cry in prim Jane Austen gasps about the area's depravity, and club kids who are content to stumble tweaked through the streets between Howard and Townsend at 5am cringe in the face of the danger of lower Polk Street after dark. One side effect of the gentrification of San Francisco is the increasing surburbanization of social attitude. Since Bay View and Hunters Point fail to register as actual neighborhoods on many mental maps, the Tenderloin has become the last signifier of urban blight and moral decay.

Assembling a group of Tenderloin cherries for this assignment proved remarkably easy. We all knew the names of venues--the Giraffe, the Motherlode, Kimo's, Reflections, Bachelors--but had little or no knowledge of what to expect and, more importantly, what to wear. I suspected that Banana Republic wouldn't do.

Our first stop, the Giraffe, proved relatively tame. We drank Bud in bottles graced by the subtle lighting of faux-Tiffany bar lamps. Movie stills of Garbo and Garland and James Dean (all unsigned, of course) adorned the wall, while TV monitors projected what appeared to be someone's home video of a European beach. The lens focused on Speedos and pectorals, but it was less tawdry than a Soloflex commercial. With the exception of a mysterious bottle of Johnson & Johnson's baby oil found under the table next to us, the Giraffe could have been a second-rate hotel bar.

The street outside was a little more exciting. Aside from the acrid smell of crack and the sinister flash of lighters in various alleys, we found little more harmful than a man attempting to sell a Japanese fetish tape to one of us "at half price."

The downstairs bar at nearby Kimo's was small and cramped but relatively empty at midnight on a Saturday. We were ushered upstairs where, for an $8 cover charge and a two-drink minimum, we could be entertained by what our hostess Savannah referred to as the only honest revue of female impersonators in San Francisco. ("Honest" is a tricky word, as we well know from impeachment hearings, but Savannah neglected to mention Esta Noche and dismissed Finnochio's. I've never been one to argue semantics.)

En Drag and its sister show, Fauxgirls, were highly entertaining and more than a little lewd. One couple from Atlanta, an older man and his wife, were given a round of applause for their 12 years of matrimony. Soon an anorexic Cher-alike was lip-synching a number from her latest album, Believe. I held out a few dollars, which she snapped up and tucked into her thong without batting a proud eyelash.

Savannah protested loudly when we attempted to leave. She prodded me to get onstage and sing "I Will Survive." I told her I needed a date, and that we were headed to the Motherlode. "You're going to the wrong place, honey," she pronounced over the loudspeaker. "Unless you're looking for a date like me ..."

On the way to the ominous-sounding Motherlode, we made a quick bid to get into N Touch, where a line stretched around the corner. Foolishly, we attempted to pull rank, but the jaded Polk Street doorman had little interest in press credentials. "Get in line like the rest," he ordered. The winter cold and a surly line of rice queens gave us second thoughts.

The Motherlode is the 1015 Folsom of Lower Polk. And unlike Kimo's, it has no stage. Just trannies--some well-pressed, others with makeup smudged--and their prospective dates. A few go-go dancers line the lower bar area in jockstraps and body paint, but they are mere distractions from the cruisy pickup scene of the first floor. Since I was not inclined to proposition one of the lovely ladies, and since their admirers were not particularly interested in me (at least without my donning an item from Ross Dress for Less), I felt as if I were in a straight bar.

We retired to the third-floor lounge, which, like a suburban living room, boasted an L-shaped sofa, a wide-screen TV (playing a video from some Crystal Waters derivative diva) and a fireplace. Thankfully, there was also a bar with a free-flowing supply of Budweiser and a bartender kind enough to share his heart-shaped box of chocolates. He confirmed our nagging suspicion that we were distinctly out of place. "Polk Street is for Asians, drag queens and men who want to fuck them," he declared. Blunt, but perhaps true. And here we all thought it was just for methamphetamine dealers.

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From the March 1, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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