Strangers in the night
Bars, cheap sex, and boozy anthropology.

By Heather Smith

FOR THOSE OF you who don't already know, bonobos are the best monkeys ever. It's not so much their close genetic ties to humans (98.5 percent shared DNA), but the fact that they're small, cute, fond of cheap, obvious jokes, and have sex every 90 minutes.

We in San Francisco at times like to think of ourselves as the bonobos of the nation. All those chimps in the rest of the states are poking one another with sticks and throwing their shit at one another, while we've settled down to more important business. Love business. Hell, none of us are ever going to be able to afford homes here anyway. Might as well phone in sick, put on the cute shoes, and go out dancin' and romancin.'

Situations that seem abnormal elsewhere are normal here. Polyamory, resoundingly fetishized in other locales, has here developed into a complex, well-developed code of behavior frequently given equal social weight with monogamy. Self-identified gay people have torrid affairs with the opposite gender and don't even bother feeling all dirty and secretive about it. Women dress up as men pretending to be women, men dress up like Joan Jett, and everyone dates whomever the hell they feel like. Oh brave new world that has such creatures in it.

San Francisco also has a reputation for bathhouses, orgies, people in latex flogging each other, and Safeway pickups – meaning the gossip down at the typing pool is likely to be about something far more picturesque than your tame self ever got up to. Or is it? Wild sexual behavior still sometimes carries the dreaded high school "slut taint." You may, for example, be considered a little cheap if you fistfuck some beautiful stranger in a SoMa back alley, even if you are, say, a neurosurgeon astronaut who gives free soup to the poor.

Perhaps the answer is that you'd be a household saint in some neighborhoods and a shameless trollop in others. San Francisco, while a wee Polly Pocket of a city, is split by rolling hills and sunken valleys into separate and idiosyncratic boroughs and subboroughs. And just because all my friends and heroes are sluts, doesn't mean everyone is.

It's an interesting theory, but a theory must be put to the test, so in the interest of hastily compiled anthropological insight, I walked, biked, and took the always trusty 22 Fillmore to several major bar districts in the city. Notebook in one hand, ballpoint in the other, I queried its barflies as to the sexual mores and practices of their respective districts.

Confusion is the new sincerity

First stop is the Mission – as I live there, I tend to think of it as on the way to everything else. At 19th Street and Mission I step into Little Baobab, which is, indeed, incredibly tiny and apparently cobbled together out of scavenged wood. Amazingly good Senegalese music is playing as people dance cheerfully with one another. No one appears to be the least bit on the make, which is confirmed by patrons Xavier and Rafael. "It's not sleazy, but sometimes a man comes to get a girl, a woman comes to get a boy ..." They shrug, Gallicly. It's more real in the Mission, they tell me. "Anywhere else you have to dress up."

Around the corner at the Beauty Bar, most everyone is dressed up, made up, and either strenuously trying to make eye contact with or trying to avoid eye contact with everyone else. Lisa, who looks like a foxy, bleachy hybrid of Debbie Harry and Oliver North's secretary, says the Mission can be pickuppy, so she travels in large groups, using them as a buffer between her and the amorous.

I ask Harvey, a somewhat generic, record-geeky guy leaning against the wall with two other male friends, whether he thinks the Beauty Bar is prowly. "In reputation, but not in practice," he says, somewhat dourly scanning the dark, pink-lit bar. He recommends the Internet.

Outside, Regina, John, and Colin, all from Ireland, are smoking and cheerfully insulting one another. Regina is having a hard time feeling attracted to American guys, who in her opinion try too hard to be good. There's not enough slagging, which is to say, the continual stream of good-natured insults that provides a social lubricant in Irish culture the way "the weather" does in ours. John and Colin are attracted to American women, but the latter have not proved amenable to slagging as a courtship mechanism.

Over at 16th Street and Valencia, clots of people scurry back and forth from bar to bar like little platelets under a microscope. In front of Dalva I strike up a conversation with a group of what can only be described as playa babes, who, sadly, are profoundly disillusioned with the bar scene and have nothing much to offer in the way of anecdotal evidence.

"A while back this guy tried to hit on me by reciting poetry about my chakras," a woman with ponytails and Abominable Snowman-type leg warmers offers, but the rest of her tale is suddenly drowned out by the sound of loud cooing. An elderly Boston terrier has just scampered by with its owner and jumped into the arms of the girl standing next to me.

"He jumps all over women," drawls Mark Martini, owner of said dog, helpfully. "His name is Pig." "Oooooooo ... Pig!" the women coo and cluster in to scritch his ears as he snuffles appreciatively. Eventually Pig is set back down and hops off slowly, looking back with the sorrowful eyes of a Keane painting.

"Awww ... he's limping," they wail in chorus.

"No, he's only pretending to limp," shouts Martini over his shoulder as he walks off, and sure enough, once they pass the Roxie, Pig's gait changes and he scampers toward the Valencia intersection.

"That guy's cute," says one of the women.

"I don't want the man. I want Pig," another sighs, putting a cigarette to her lips and taking a long drag of yearning.

A metaphor is forming in my mind about feigned trauma as a social lure. If it works for dogs, it could theoretically work for people, but what trauma would be most booty-winning? A childhood spent in the coal mines? Sex addiction? A lost kitten? I shelve the thought and move on to Samantha and Nikki, who have just walked out of the bar. Samantha has long purple dreads pulled up into ponytails, and Nikki is wearing a short, bright red bob wig. Both are liberally spangled with glitter. "People in San Francisco are obsessively independent," says Nikki. "They walk the fine line between not picking someone up and still getting sex. It's all, 'I'm single in S.F., and I'm too cool for the coupledom school.' "

"And they always pretend to be confused, too," chimes in Amelia, an artsy-looking punk in an orange leather jacket. "It's like confusion is the new sincerity." A bit of a lusty hellcat, Amelia reports troubles in the booty realm, especially in regard to sexual specialization. "Say you really enjoy fucking cute skinny boys with a strap-on," she explains. "OK, so you put an ad up online, find a few cute, skinny boys who want you to fuck them. And then you realize that's all they do. It's not as though they can't do anything else; it's that they don't want to do anything else." She looks down 16th Street with the bitterness of a fun-lovin' gal who has nonreciprocally ravished one gentleman too many, then exhales. "Not enough switch-hitters in this town, not by a long shot."

As I leave the women of Dalva behind, I ponder the possibility that, Amelia aside, the Mission has a bit of an enthusiasm problem. If you're going to hit on someone, you theoretically have to show some amount of zeal at some juncture of the encounter. And I am beginning to suspect this is beyond most of the hipsters surrounding me. But then how do they mate? Does hairstyle meet hairstyle, scarcely a word exchanged before it's mutually understood that coitus must occur? Do they insult one another's record collections until passion overwhelms them and they make love among the dusty LP covers? Maybe they're just shy. But don't they realize shy only works inside John Hughes movies? Ah well, it's time to move on – at least to a neighborhood with a different hairstyle code.

Wine-throwing bitches

The bar scene in the Marina is quite diminutive, considering its reputation. Not realizing this, I get off the 22 Fillmore, walk in the opposite direction of the Triangle (the intersection of Fillmore and Greenwich and the bars clustered around it), and find myself wandering the endless avenues of shuttered Jamba Juices and Baby Gaps. Eventually I'm set straight by John and Brian, who have been going to the bars for the past 20 years "with no progress whatsoever" and have discovered instead the pleasures of a good Guinness and a well-stocked jukebox. "There used to be this urinal at the Balboa that survived the 1906 earthquake," John tells me. "It was amazing," Brian chimes in. "Grandiose ... blue-veined." He holds his hands out in front of him about four feet apart to demonstrate its girth.

Back on track, and mulling over the existence of a mammoth, blue-veined urinal, I enter Cozmos at Chestnut and Fillmore, which has that peachy-gold and dark wood, retro but not too retro, "expensive but not in a threatening way" decor so many other bars merely aspire to. I claim an empty stool at one of the tables and am immediately enveloped in a warm bubble of chatty girlyness that feels a lot like those long hours spent trying to apply mascara in the girl's bathroom in junior high.

Angelina, Carrie, Charlotte, and Kimberly have nothing but bad things to say about other women who hang out in the Marina. "The ladies are all, 'Show me your bank statement,' " Carrie says. "They're all bitches," Charlotte chimes in. "One of them threw a glass of wine at my friend the other night and didn't even apologize." All the men here are at least 10 years older than the women, my companions add. "And they all have the same thing on. Button-down shirt, black loafers, Seven jeans – I just wish one guy would come in here in flip-flops, ratty jeans, and a T-shirt," Charlotte sighs.

"Of course, look at us, wearing the same cute little tops," Angelina points out. It's true, all the women here do look vaguely alike, although it's also fair to say they all look amazing. Perhaps it's just the lighting, but they give off a luminous peachy glow, like an advertisement for something very, very nice and very, very expensive. I'm filled with the sort of awe I usually reserve for drag queens.

According to these four, Marina men are intelligent, respectful, and shameless players. "They smell like pussy at the end of the night," says Carrie, dryly, as the rest of the table giggles. Nonetheless, Carrie wouldn't consider dating a non-Marina man: "They're my type: ambitious, hardworking, white-collar Republican. My intentions lead in the same place. I don't want to settle."

Very Jane Austen, I think, and direct the interview toward recent dates. "Omigod!" Charlotte squeals. "The last guy I dated I actually met here! And he actually did come in here wearing flip-flops!"

"So what happened?" I ask.

"We had three dates."

"Did you get any ... you know ... lovin, out of those three dates?"

"We had three dates," Charlotte giggles. I'm beginning to suspect that the slut taint is alive and well in the Marina.

"You should talk to those girls," she adds, pointing. "They look like total Marina bitches."

The women in question are equally tank-topped and well groomed and equally friendly. "The Marina is shallow fun. It's like Beverly Hills 90210," says Ashley, laughing. She and her cohorts, McKenna and Claire, say people do hook up, but they don't admit it – a slightly coy descriptive that leads me to ponder whether Ashley, McKenna, and Claire are in the aforementioned group. I move on.

"Nine out of ten of these people are going home alone," says Bob, sweeping his hand across the ever-amassing crowd clustering around the bar. He and his friend Doug – and, in fact, every single guy in the entire bar – completely match the aforementioned physical description of the typical Marina man. I'm beginning to feel like I'm surrounded by a crowd of Casual Friday Agent Smiths.

"Do you think anyone here is gay?" I yell somewhat randomly over the loud music and ambient chatter. They both look at me in disbelief. "What about if they're on ecstasy?" I ask, incredulously. The Marina atmosphere of hothouse femininity and laborious grooming seems as if it would naturally lead to hair petting and lord knows what else. "I think there's less E and that sort of thing in the Marina," says Bob. "I used to date a Mission girl, and Mission girls are more bi."

I can't really think of a good comeback to that, so it's off to the Matrix, which is, according to the women of Cozmos, a sausage fest. To my eyes, it doesn't look like any less of a sausage fest than Cozmos, but it is a vision in distressed concrete and glossy black, with low plush sofas everywhere and an open fireplace, like James Bond's underground bunker. Techno music is blaring, and a large video screen is showing the bottom half of a Harry Potter movie, surrounded by tiny images of fish in an aquarium. I feel as though I've turned to page 292 of a pre-recession architecture magazine.

Interestingly, the Matrix is also the Marina bar full of people who don't actually live in San Francisco. I talk to folks here on business from France, New York, Los Angeles, and Miami before I finally find an S.F. resident. Kristi, who is wearing something resembling a very large handkerchief, albeit a ravishing one, lives in South Beach and is of the opinion that Marina men are not of much substance and usually pretty drunk. Her friend Jennifer, visiting from Boston, adds for comparison that in Boston men wear nice pants and nice button-down shirts. She wishes Boston had more gay culture because, according to her, gays and lesbians have earned their reputation for freewheeling amorousness, straight people less so. "It's harder for straight people," she says. "There are more games you have to play."

Apparently someone's always got to occupy that idealized locale in the straight American imagination that might loosely be described as "They Hump Without Shame." Once it was Swedish people, now it's the gay boys. I fold my notebook shut and head to the Castro.

C'mon, you cock-blockers

Most of the men within a three-block radius of Badlands are dressed like Charlotte's dream date. The whole jeans, T-shirt, and flip-flops thing has been elevated to an art form by the gentlemen of the Castro. Charles, a short, muscular Asian MBA in an admirably tight T-shirt is somewhat disappointed that Jennifer from Boston thinks gay culture is a pony ride of shamelessness. "Everyone is just trying to catch up," he says. "I didn't come out until I was 21." Given what I remember of my college years' lusty high jinks, that would indeed be a large project.

Charles adds that new arrivals to the scene are all about getting laid, but the regulars just hang out. This is partly, he and his friend Neil say, because anyone can harness the power of the Internet and find speedy-type lovin' through the numerous Web sites and message boards catering to men who would like to apprise other men of the exact area in Gold's Gym where they'll be found between the hours of 4 and 6 p.m.. "You should go to Fresh," Charles says brightly. "It's a huge club of, like, a thousand muscle guys. Every Sunday. Lots of drugs."

It's late, and I'm exhausted from a long night of anthropology, but on my way back down Castro I step into the Bar, which is kind of like sliding into a warm, red-lit amoeba. Most everyone is dancing with an utterly refreshing goofy enthusiasm. I'm too tired and sweaty and footsore to dance, so I lean against a pillar, exhausted, and examine the crowd, which is the most mixed bunch I've seen all night in terms of race, gender, and apparent orientation. That happy "Free to be You and Me" rainbow coalition feeling washes over me. Everyone is merrily getting their groove on, while "Last Call" flashes on a row of TV screens above the bar. "Ah ..." I think, pleasantly rooted to the concrete floor, "How nice it is that everyone here is all about the dance and not about the booty." Then I realize that a hand is shyly skimming over the zipper of my pants. I wheel around and look back at the crowd, but all I see is a sea of parallaxing, red-lit forms. Well then.

At Church and 18th Street I decide it's too pretty out not to walk back through Dolores Park, 2 a.m. mugging or no 2 a.m. mugging. I start trodding uphill, then notice that I'm being watched by a figure down on the J-tracks. He starts walking up the hill toward me, gets a good look, then retreats back into the shadows. I peer after him and realize there are other people down there. Some lurking is going on. A group of three people ahead of me are yelling, "Mateo. Mataaaaaaaaaeo. Come back!"

"Did you lose a dog or a person?" I ask.

"A person," one of them says bitterly. "He's out cruising. Being stupid."

As I walk toward 20th Street, I can hear them faintly, peevishly saying, "Mateo ... we're leaving you."

A figure emerges from under the bridge and walks uphill to the sidewalk. He waves his beer, shouts, "C'mon you cock-blockers," and grumpily saunters off into the warm San Francisco night.

Just because I don't want to have sex with them doesn't mean it isn't freaky

It's a beautiful Sunday morning at the Eagle, and a man with a red-checked apron and nothing else is firing up a gynormous grill. Manly Lennox, a statuesque drag queen in amazing thigh-high vinyl boots, calls me "girlfriend" as she hands me my plastic beer cup, keg-party style. The crowd is, not unexpectedly, mostly grizzled leathermen, but there's a generous sprinkling of other hip and not-so hip eccentrics soaking up the cheap beer and easy bonhomie of the regular Sunday beer bust.

"I just read in Cosmo that orgies are back in," Lennox yells from the rickety stage, and everyone in the audience hoots and hollers delightedly. Jett Patrick, an enviably muscular man in very small leather shorts is waiting patiently by the stage to help Ms. Lennox and her spiky heels down the steps, should she need such assistance. "Of course I have to go to the Castro – my bank's there," Patrick says. "But it's more sexually serious here. If the Castro's vanilla, this is chocolate. You can quote me on that."

"I like the crowd here best," says John, an older, rough and tumble-looking biker type with a majestic beard who's leaning against a splintery railing and scoping out the crowd. "Not quite so pretty."

John and his friend Steve have some sociological insight into the widely held notion that lesbians are not as hussyish as gay men. According to them, the ladies may sleep around a lot, but they do so with the same people. "My friend Diana has a stable of hos," Steve explains. Lesbians take more time about picking each other up; ergo, they don't think of themselves as slutty.

"Men just don't need to put nearly that much effort into it," John says.

Magnesia has stick-uppy hair and is just the teensiest bit queeny. He's also snagged a coveted bench, so he and his friends run back and forth to get beer for one another to prevent it from becoming colonized. He recommends SoMa for its nonjudgmental vibe. "Honey, I could take my clothes off here, and it wouldn't matter." It's true, many people here are more than halfway there. But Magnesia doesn't need SoMa, or the Castro for that matter, in order to get laid. "Other people aren't as organized as we are," he says blithely. "They don't have drive-by sex like we do. There's male booty all over town – it just depends on what demographic I'm looking for."

Just then Christopher, whippet-thin, with the most artfully styled mullet I have ever seen in my life, walks up to me. "I am an anthropologist and an observer of the human condition," he says. "You should interview me." He recommends Tubesteak Connection at Aunt Charley's for foxy persons of indeterminate gender looking for other foxy persons of indeterminate gender to dance with and possibly grope.

"Every time I go there, I end up kissing at least three or four people," he says, cheerfully. "The last time I was there, I met this boy, and I was like, 'Oh! You're so pretty!' and they were like 'Oh! You're so pretty!' and we just went into the bathroom and licked each other." He also recommends Burning Man as a quality place to pick up straight boys.

To Christopher, San Francisco is a city of lusty monkeys. The city is so small and intimate that its citizens are constantly forced to engage with one another, and the expense of living here weighs on people so heavily that they tend to become hyper-achievers, hyper-athletic, and, frequently, hyper-alcoholics. "The whole city is a freak scene," he says blithely. "The Marina is freaky. Just because I don't want to have sex with them doesn't mean it isn't freaky."

Back home

When I stop by the Lexington Club later that afternoon, the bar is flooded with soporifically yellow sunlight, and it looks ridiculously mellow and pretty. I sit down with a group of women in back who are accompanied by the cutest brindled, pointy-eared dog ever. I wind up talking to Amy, who has spiky hair and dresses as though she might enjoy some form of televised sports. She approaches the topic of the shifting mores in the bar scene with a great deal of thought.

"Gay culture has become a little more free in terms of looks," she muses. "Everyone's sexuality is shifting. Either women have gotten more forward, or we've all gotten older and feel like we have less to lose." Her friends, lounging around the table in their scuffed wooden chairs, agree. Gay boys are hitting on cute little butch dykes, straight people are getting, well, gayer, and gender is getting pretty damn conceptual. It's getting to the point where people are hitting more on your look than on your gender.

Amy is of the opinion that women may take longer to get frisky with one another because they're more concerned with feeling safe – emotionally and physically – than gay men are. "If only there was a glory hole for clits!" one of her friends says, laughing bawdily, and the conversation goes off on a surreal tangent involving late-night rest stops, trucker babes, and how dental dams would have to be sold in rest room vending machines next to "The Tingler" and foil-wrapped packets of No-Doz.

I excuse myself and walk off to the bathroom, which is scrawled with paeans to womanly love and slagging/adoration directed at specific objects of various affections. Next to the toilet roll holder I recognize the name of someone I know. Then I recognize a few other names, and I realize that these cracked and glossy red walls represent a whole web of human connections, a few of which are inevitably connected to me, and probably most everyone else in our wee metropolis. This is a remarkably small city – no two ways about it. The nightlife here is more than just a bunch of 22-year-old office workers and recent divorcees sharing a pitcher of margaritas at TGI Friday's. People in San Francisco stay single longer, and so have often settled into an almost Victorian habit of living out the bulk of their emotional lives with friends, correspondents, and former lovers. The doxies come, and the doxies go, and perhaps we are all a bunch of cheerful monkeys fondling the grapefruit suggestively in the produce section of Safeway. It seems to keep us occupied, and occasionally, even entertained. And if it's good enough for the bonobos, it's good enough for me.