Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

After waking up at the crack of dawn to say one final goodbye to Gary, I returned to his bed to sleep until a more appropriate hour. I saw Brandon, later on my way out, and thanked him again for inviting me along to dinner and letting me join his friends in the celebration.
“Not a problem at all, it was great having you there! Not everyday we get Australian travellers stopping by to join us.” We said our goodbyes, and I headed downstairs to travel via bus back to Noe Valley, where I had to get ready for what I was anticipating would be a long afternoon. It was the first time I would be experiencing a real American holiday, and from what I had been led to believe from numerous popular culture references, as well as most Americans I had discussed it with, Thanksgiving was quite an event.

The one problem for me, however, was that Thanksgiving is typically a family affair. Already Gary, Kayvan and Todd had left the San Francisco to return to their hometowns to celebrate the day, so if I actually wanted to celebrate the day in some capacity then I would have to be relatively proactive about it. Thankfully, while I had been discussing my plans in San Francisco with Kayvan, he had told me about a few of his friends who were hosting what is fondly known as an “orphans Thanksgiving”: a holiday for people who couldn’t make it back home, or were otherwise unable to spent the holiday with their actual families. Kayvan told me about Rob and Jessie, two best friends who lived there in San Francisco, and said that he would put me in touch with them so that I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday by myself. Not that I would have felt that sad or lonely, considering I’d never really had a Thanksgiving to truly understand what I was missing out on, but all the same, I was excited to participate in yet another American experience that so far had only ever been confined to the realm of Hollywood.

***

As a general rule, the entire day of Thanksgiving is spent in the kitchen, making more food than it is physically possible for all your guests to consume. As a guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, all that Rob and Jessie asked was a contribution to the alcohol supply for the evening, so when the time came for me to head over, I stopped at the corner store and picked up a bottle of whiskey. The walk there took a little longer than expected, as once again I had forgotten to factor in the steep topography, and instead of heading back through the up-and-down towards the Castro, I was heading up to Diamond Heights (the name should’ve given it away, huh?), which felt like the suburban equivalent of sheer, cliff-face hiking from start to finish.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the hosts and a handful of guests who had already arrived, and I was led towards a table absolutely packed with plates of salads and sides and breads and snacks, as well as a hefty supply of booze. Jessie and Rob told me to relax and make myself at home, so I poured myself a cup of wine and sat down in the living room while they carved the turkey and attended to the final touches in the kitchen.

While a traditional Thanksgiving is more of a family affair, with a sit down dinner around a big table and I assume some inevitable family holiday drama, the orphans Thanksgiving was very chilled out. There were movies playing on the TV, and we mostly just sat around the living room with plastic cups and paper plates, getting up to help ourselves to the food as we wanted. There was nothing too dramatic or eventful though. In fact, although there had been some talk of maybe heading down to the Castro later in the evening (it kind of goes without saying that this was primarily a gay orphans Thanksgiving, right?), eventually people started dropping like flies, either heading home early or actually passing out around the house. Jessie went to his room at some point, although he never ended up emerging, and as the night progressed I noticed that I was the only person who was drinking from the particular bottle of red wine that I was drinking. So I was a little surprised to eventually find it completely empty, although it probably explained why I had been consistently dozing off on the couch while the rest of the party wound down around me. It didn’t appear as though anyone would be heading anywhere to keep on partying, not that I would have been able to keep up if they did, so eventually I took my leave, bid farewell to whoever was still conscious, and rolled back down the hill to Noe Valley.

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

It was the following day when I learnt of the delightful consequence of making more food than can possibly be ingested: leftovers. Struggling through my late morning hangover, I received a group Facebook message from Jessie informing us all that there was plenty of food leftover from night before, and that we were all welcome to come and help finish them off or take some home. So eventually, when I felt ready to take on that steep trek again, I walked back up to Rob and Jessie’s to continue eating (and eventually drinking). We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and later in the evening Rob suggested that we head down to the Castro like we had been planning the previous evening. I think there might have been a few other people who joined us on the way down, but given how the night ended, I can’t guarantee that my memory of that was accurate. Maybe I was going through a lightweight phase. Maybe it was all the food I’d been eating, which was combining with the alcohol to make me feel sleepy and lethargic rather than tipsy and energised. All I know is that we started at a gay bar called The Mix, which was another chilled out gay bar with a nice outdoor patio. We also went two other clubs: QBar and 440 Castro, which were much more like nightclubs with dark rooms, flashing lights and loud music. I also lost absolutely everyone that I knew at some point, and eventually Rob found me in 440 Castro, were I was lying down in the dark on one of the couches, very close to passing out, if I hadn’t already done so. He gathered me up and told me we were heading home, and I was in no state to protest.

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

Rob helped me into a taxi and we headed back to Diamond Heights. Maybe he asked me where I lived in an attempt to drop me home, and I was just incapable of knowing or remembering the address, or perhaps he realised that I was in such a state that getting myself back into a relatively unfamiliar house by myself would have been a disastrous endeavour. I never really found out – my only clear recollection is stumbling out of the taxi back in Diamond Heights, and having my breath taken away by the sight that I saw. Under the glow the of street lights, the entire setting had been enveloped by a thick fog. I’d heard of San Francisco being well known for the fog that rolled over the water and into the bay, and for being quite a cold city even in the middle of summer, but I hadn’t realised that the fog would come all the way up the hill like this.
“Wow! The fog! It’s so beautiful!” I remember exclaiming, flocking forward into the misty haze and twirling a few times, scooping the low clouds up with my hands and watching it dissipate into thin air. Rob just chuckled and let me have my moment, before guiding me out of the fog and back into the house, where we both eventually crashed.

***

Thanksgiving wasn’t the only holiday that I would be experiencing while I was in the USA, and while it was still a good month away, the end of Thanksgiving celebrations marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Slowly but surely, coloured lights and shiny tinsel and big green Christmas trees were popping up all over the place. Whether I was riding my bike north to the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, or going out for a stroll to dinner in the Castro, the festive season was well and truly upon us, and like most other holidays, Americans take Christmas very seriously.

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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Christmas provides San Francisco with an excuse to create some amazing gay propaganda – not that it needed an excuse, really.

The end of the weekend after Thanksgiving also marked Todd’s arrival back in San Francisco. It was a little strange at first, meeting a man after having already lived in his house for a week, but as soon as I met him I could sense that he was a kind and generous person. You know, the sort of kind and generous you would expect from a man who let a travelling stranger live in his house for a week before even meeting him. Todd was a lot older than me, no longer of a partying, young adult age, but after the few experiences I’d had out in the Castro during my first week, I was more than happy to take it easy and hang out with him in the evenings when he finished work, check out a few of his favourite eating places around the city, and talk about our travels and share some of our stories – as a host, Todd was a bit of a Couchsurfing veteran, and he’d done some pretty extensive travelling in his time too. It was always so nice to meet people like that, and to have such engaging conversations with them. That was the one thing I loved about travelling – people could come from all walks of life, from anywhere in the world, have all kinds of different interests and have relatively little in common with you, but travelling is a universal experience that connects you with those people and forms a diverse and vibrant international community.

***

Unlike Thanksgiving, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the holiday of Christmas, and during my life I’d had a handful of traditions that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to maintain during my travels. However, I was delighted when one afternoon Todd sent me a message, saying that he was going to be buying a Christmas tree on his way from work that evening, and that if I was around I was welcome to help him decorate it. Decorating the Christmas tree was something I usually always done with my mother, so it was nice to know I’d still have the chance to roll out the lights and tinsel and stick some ornaments on another tree. Even better was that for the first time I would be putting decorations on a real tree. Todd found some amusement in my enthusiasm for a tree that wasn’t made of plastic, and I told him all about how Christmas in Australia has to cut corners in ways like that if it ever had a hope in mimicking a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas.

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

When decorating the Christmas tree, Todd confessed that he preferred to keep the whole ordeal sleek and simple, not loading up the tree with too many colours or random decorations. I could appreciate that, and realised that that was actually an option when you didn’t have school-aged children who would bring home arts and crafts projects from school that simply had to be hung on the overcrowded tree. It made me smile to remember, but I have to admit that perfecting the simple, elegant Christmas tree look was not exactly simple. The branches of real, natural trees aren’t all as evenly spaced as their perfect, plastic counterparts, but after some twisting and turning and spinning the tree back and forth, we managed to get the flow of the lights pretty close to perfect.

After that we sat back on the couch to admire our handiwork, and with a clink of our red wine glasses, I turned to Todd with a cheesy grin.
“Well, I guess it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas.”

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Making Friends in San Francisco

After bidding farewell to my new flight attendant friend, I was driven by a shuttle bus north from the airport and into the heart of San Francisco. While I had been in Vegas, I finally organised a Couchsurfing host for San Francisco, although things worked out quite differently from my previous experiences. After denied requests, even more ignored requests, and sifting through the offers from a remarkable amount of nudists living in San Francisco who also stated that guests must comply with the nudist lifestyle in their home (look, I’m open minded, but I’m just not quite ready for that), I finally found someone who was willing to host me. After reading my profile, Todd said that I sounded like an interesting person and he’d love to meet me and host me while I was in San Francisco. There was just one problem: he had travelled back to Florida to see his family for Thanksgiving. However, in another case of the kindness of strangers extending above and beyond anything that I could ever expect, Todd freely offered me use of his home from the moment I arrived in San Francisco, even though he wouldn’t be there for another week. When I arrived at his place, I was greeted by Todd’s neighbour Robert, who gave me a spare set of keys and let me into the apartment and showed me around. Todd had obviously informed him of my arrival, and he told me to let him know if I had any other questions or problems.

And then, for the first time in a long while, I had a place completely to myself again. Todd’s place was gorgeous, with two bedrooms, a nice open living room, and a huge bathroom. Seriously, the bath was basically a hot tub that I could completely stretch out and lie down in. So that’s exactly what I did – after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas and the consistent and tedious stints of transit, I enjoyed the private and personal space and pampered myself a little. It was the cleanest I’d felt in months, and I said a silent thank you to whatever mysterious forces in the universe that allowed me to end up in such an amazing situation.

***

While Todd’s extremely generous offer had given me a place to stay in San Francisco, it didn’t much help the fact that I didn’t actually know a single person in the city. Todd was going to be away for another week, and while I planned to be in San Francisco long enough to finally meet him when he got back, I wasn’t going to just sit around waiting for him. So of course, enter Grindr. Back in Austin, I had actually been chatting to a guy named Rob who lived in San Francisco, and although we never met up in Texas, he had told me let him know if I ever made it to his home city. So on my first evening, after my luxury bath in Todd’s huge bathroom, I sent Rob an email and arranged to meet up with him the following morning for brunch. It turned out that he was staying a short walk away from where I was staying in Noe Valley, so I walked to his place to meet him, and then we continued on from there to the Mission District.

One thing that I feel like I’d been warned about, yet never really paid attention to, was the amount of hills in San Fransisco. It’s actually ridiculous. When I’d first arrived, I surveyed the map and saw that Noe Valley was an extremely short walk from the Castro, the famous gay district of the city. However, I would quickly learn that I had to climb and descend three massive hills in order to get there, so what looked like a gentle stroll on a flat map actually became a semi-strenuous trek.
“It’s why my mother says everyone in San Francisco has such nice legs,” Rob told me as we mounted another hill on our way to the Mission District. “We’re always walking up and down all these hills, giving them a regular workout.”
When we hit the Mission District we had breakfast burritos at one of Rob’s favourite places, and chatted about travelling and San Francisco, and he gave me a few tips and suggestions about things to do and how to get around. Afterwards, he took me to Dolores Park, a popular hangout for… well, pretty much everyone in San Francisco. It was a huge park that spanned the length of several blocks, and due to the typical topography of the area it was a more of a huge green slope, with the hills rolling down the length of the park and naturally splitting it up into various sections.

“Up there is what some people call the Fruit Shelf,” Rob pointed out to the top of the park as we made our way through it. It was a section of the park that levelled out a bit and was relatively flat, before the ground fell away and resumed its regular sloping terrain. “It’s kind of a popular section of the park for the gays to hang out in.” We walked all the way up the park to the Fruit Shelf, and from that vantage point I had a pretty nice view of the city and the surrounding area.

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“Where’s the Golden Gate Bridge?” I asked Rob.
“Oh, it’s…” He looked around as if to get his bearings, and then pointed in what I assume now was a north-western direction. “It’s over that way. It’s not really near the centre of town or anything. You can ride your bike out there, but it’d take a couple of hours for a round trip.”
“Oh, right. I guess I just expected the famous landmark to be a little closer, you know?” After living in Sydney, where the Harbour Bridge is the focal attraction and situated smack bang in the middle of the cities harbour, I was a little taken aback to learn that San Francisco’s famous bridge was tucked away on the outskirts of the bay.

“Also, speaking of bikes, do you know where I could hire one?” I was surprised to learn that despite the hills, riding bikes was extremely popular in San Fransisco, and I was very keen to relive my Amsterdam days and get around via bicycle again.
“Oh, you don’t have one? I have an old one I could lend you.” Rob told me had an old bike that he had taken to the Burning Man festival the year before. It had been done up with flashy paint and glitter and tinsel for the event, and he had since gotten a newer and better bike, but he said I was welcome to borrow the old one for my time in the city. He was currently storing it in the basement of an investment property he had which wasn’t too far away, so we walked there and he got the bike out and gave me the keys to both the lock, and to the basement so that I could return it directly there whenever I was done with it. It was surprising how much trust some people will put in you after only knowing them for a few hours, but he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I had no intentions of abusing that trust. He had to head to work after that, and he said he was usually pretty busy, but if I had any other questions or needed advice about the city that I was welcome to drop him a line any time.

***

The next new friend that I met up with was someone else from Couchsurfing. While there are always a lot of hosts who are looking to take in travellers, there are also plenty of people on Couchsurfing who are not able to take in guests, but are still willing to meet up with other people and show them around their cities, or hang out, or have a meal, or anything at all, really. I’d found that finding a place to stay is usually the primary motivation for contacting people on Couchsurfing, but this time I actually found myself looking for people who were just willing to hang out. I messaged a guy named Kayvan, who had only had experience hosting a handful of people himself, and he agreed to meet up with my in the Castro later that night for dinner, since he would be flying back to Los Angeles the following day to be with his family on Thanksgiving. We met at a cute place called Harvey’s, named after the famous Harvey Milk, which was a mix between a café and a diner that sold food and cocktails. I think Kayvan was a little uneasy at first, but I must have made a good impression and not seemed like a loose screw, because eventually we were chatting away and exchanging stories. He was quite interested to know more about my Couchsurfing experiences, confessing he’d been a little reluctant to get into the whole thing because he wasn’t sure what type of travellers it might attract. I’d like to think I may have changed his mind when it came to that.

Afterwards we went around the corner to check out a few of the gay bars. Firstly we went to Toad Hall, which felt like it was half dive bar, half night club. People were sitting around drinking and catching up, and the vibe was pretty chill and relaxed , but there were playing pop music and the floor was pretty sticky, although I guess that’s just standard for gay bars in most places. The highlight was the outdoor patio, which helped bring around the relaxed drinking area vibe. We had a few more drinks out there, and as I started to get a little more tipsy, Kayvan suggested that we cross back over the road to go to Badlands. Badlands was your typical, slightly trashy gay bar where they that played all the pop hits, with TV screens showing the video clips and nice big dance floor for people to party on. It reminded me of G-A-Y Late in London, except it was still well before midnight when the club became full of people, which I had to admit I found rather shocking for a Tuesday. But I certainly wasn’t complaining, and we stayed there for a while and drank and danced.

 

However, before the night was over, there was one other place I wanted to check out. Earlier in the day Rob had told me about a gay party that only happened on Tuesday nights. It was called Truck, and is was a relatively underground phenomenon, given that you needed a password to get in. He had said that if I’d enjoyed the partying in Berlin, then I would definitely enjoy Truck. He didn’t really elaborate too much on that point, but there was definitely an understanding that the vibe would be a risqué, ‘anything goes’ attitude, similar to the one you might find in places such as Berghain. Anything local and underground was definitely something I wanted to check out, but when I mentioned it Kayvan he seemed slightly taken aback.
“You know about Truck?” He seemed shocked, but not horrified or repelled or in any way judgmental. I explained how I’d found out about it through Rob. “And you want to go? I mean, I can take you there, but… do you have the password?” I confirmed that Rob had also given me the password, so Kayvan just kind of shrugged his shoulders in a “Why the hell not?” kind of fashion, and we left Badlands.

It was a short drive and Kayvan assured me he hadn’t drank too much, so he drove us the short distance to the venue where Truck was held.
“I’ve only been a few times. It’s fine, it’s just… something you usually have to be in the mood for, I guess. I don’t mind though, if you wanna see it we can go.”
I got a little nervous as we approached the bouncers outside of what seemed like nothing, and I had a quick flashback to my first time at Berghain. But I had the password, and so Kayvan and I both went inside to find a long, dimly lit warehouse type building that was crammed with mostly half-naked men. The air was heavy with the smell of sweat and sex, but it was pretty much everything that Rob had alluded to so I wasn’t surprised at all. And I know I’d been telling myself that it was nice to unwind after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas, but hey, I was on holidays and there were some seriously good looking men in the club, so I went in and did a bit of mingling.

Eventually Kayvan actually ran into a friend of his. Well, an acquaintance, at least. They said hi, and I couldn’t tell if it was an awkward place for them to be running into each other, but Kayvan introduced me to Gary too, and we hung out for a bit. Gary was actually quite cute, and things started to get a little flirty between us (although that seems like a given when everybody is at least half naked), which Kayvan must have picked up on, because I think he took it as a chance to leave.
“Hey, so you look like you’re doing okay… Do you need me to hang around?” I remembered what he’d said about needing to be in the mood to enjoy Truck, so I thanked him for bringing me and told him that I would definitely be able to fend for myself if necessary. He had a plane to catch the next day, so we said our goodbyes there on the sweaty dance floor. Luckily I now had Gary to keep me company, so he hadn’t left me completely alone. Without going into any graphic details, we stayed at Truck until close, and were present for the awkward shift in atmosphere when the DJ gets cut off and the house lights all come on. Gary and I readied ourselves for the outside world, and then stumbled out of the warehouse and into the cool night. Since Kayvan had driven me to Truck, I had no idea where I really was, so I just ended up jumping in Gary’s Uber, where we asked the driver to trawl through the streets until we found a fast food place that was still open. And that’s how I ended up eating Subway in Gary’s apartment in the early hours of the morning.

***

Gary said he was “working from home” that day, so the two of us stayed in bed for most of the morning, sleeping in at first, and then slowly waking up and recounting the bizarre night and the series of events that had led us to the moment we were currently in. Until we heard a champagne cork pop out in the kitchen, which brought our conversation to a halt.
“Um… oh!” Gary exclaimed, after a brief moment of confusion. “That’s right, it’s my housemates birthday.” We stared at each other for a few second, unsure of what to do.
“Well… let’s go have some champagne then?” I said to him. He just laughed, so I freshened up and got dressed when then went out to meet his housemate.

“Happy birthday, Brandon” Gary said as we emerged from the room and into the kitchen, where Gary’s housemate and his boyfriend were pouring a few glasses of champagne.
“Thank you, darling,” Brandon said as he gave Gary a hug. “And what’s this? Looks like you’ve started the party already, Gary!”
“This is Robert. He’s a traveller from Australia. Robert, this is Brandon and his boyfriend Orlando.”
“Oh, Australia? How fabulous. Well, welcome to San Francisco!”
“Thank you, and happy birthday Brandon!” He was slightly older than Gary, who was already slightly older than myself, but he was already proving to be quite the character.
“Would you like a glass?” Orlando asked me, holding up the bottle. It was only just 11am, but…
“Well, what the hell, I’m on holidays, right? I’ve got no where else to be!”
And that’s how I ended up drinking until the early afternoon, chatting with Brandon and Orlando and playing with their dogs. Eventually Gary had to go out, to pick a few things up and get ready for the coming evening.

“We’re going out to dinner for my birthday, Robert, and you’re more than welcome to join us if you like,” Brandon said as Gary and I were heading out the door.
“Well… I don’t have any plans,” I said with a shrug. I turned to Gary. “Is that okay with you?”
“Ah, absolutely!” Gary said with a grin. “Also… I have to go home and visit my family for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and then I have to stay away for work so… I probably won’t have another chance to see you again.” Despite the overwhelmingly unromantic setting in which we had met, I was definitely starting to develop a bit of a crush on Gary. It was a shame that I wouldn’t get a chance to spend much more time with him, but it was more than enough motivation to join him and Brandon and Orlando, and presumably a handful of other people, for dinner that evening. We left the apartment complex, and Gary called an Uber to send me home so that I could change out of last nights clothes and freshen up a little bit.

In the evening I caught the bus back over to Gary and Brandon’s side of town and met them at their place, where pre-dinner cocktails were already well under way. I was introduced to a few of their good friends, and also a guy named Nathan*, who was a friend of Gary’s who happened to be in town, and was visiting from Los Angeles.
“Oh nice, I’m going to be in LA soon, in a little more than a week,” I told him, and we got chatting as he mixed me up a drink, and said that’d he’d have room for me to crash with him for a couple of nights when I arrived. I thanked him, slightly amazed at how things had been seemingly working out so well for me, and how easily I’d been able to meet a bunch of people and make friends over the last few days. It was only my third night in San Francisco, but with the delicious pizza, flowing wine, hilarious conversation and excellent company, I was already starting to feel rather at home.

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Brandon’s birthday dinner

 

 

*Name has been changed for reasons that will be expanded upon in further posts.