Thursday, August 14, 2014

Hanks A Lot

Hanks A Lot
Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” poisoned Mexican marijuana fields with paraquat. So finding a reliable supply of the plant was a constant challenge at a time when demand was on the rise in the early 1980’s. Beyond the legacy of a Haight Street lifestyle, marijuana was the only affordable and effective palliative for those caught in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. 


Scott Smith, Harvey Milk’s former partner, decided to remedy the problem by consolidating product from secret homegrown sources into a weed retailing boutique. At his apartment near Castro and Eighteen, center of the City’s busiest gay district, he opened a full service cannabis outlet called “The Store”.

There was a semi-formal process for becoming a customer. In order to become one, you had to be introduced by one. My friend Charles was among the first to be admitted and he recommended me into the fold soon after. 

Everyone involved with the store was named Hank which seemed like more of a joke than a serious stab at anonymity. Scott and most of the other Hanks were well known in the City. By the time “The Store” was operating in full swing, there was a constant and obvious stream of customers up and down the stairs to the top floor of the purple Victorian in the heart of gay San Francisco. 

The purchase process was simple. I’d call and ask for Hank, tell them my name and who introduced me, and I’d be given an appointment slot at “The Store”. For the first few months, appointments were spaced far apart so that customers didn’t see each other. Traffic soon exceeded the number of time slots, though, and customers were passing each other on the stairs. A long fainting couch was added to a formal seating area where a melange of Drag queens, leather men, and three-piece suits waited patiently for their time to score. 

The merchandise was displayed on a card table in the dining room. You could smell and touch the wares, but not light up. Your purchase was weighed on an antique balance scale used in an assay office during the Gold Rush. These were men who knew how to retail. 

Scott had remained politically active after Harvey’s death, so when San Francisco won the 1984 Democratic convention, Scott was first in line to volunteer. Being from Mississippi, he asked to be the “official greeter” for his home state delegates. The Mississppi down home delegates, though, weren’t at all gay about having Scott as their greeter and they asked for a straight replacement. This made the national news. “Democratic Party Discriminates Against a Gay Son of the Solid South”. Using the lessons he learned from Harvey about making Media that changes minds, Scott welcomed the opportunity to tell his side of the story. 

On the street in front of the purple Victorian, also known as “The Store”, Scott was interviewed on all the national news channels. Watching CBS that night, I imagined the banner “Homosexual Drug Haven” scrolling under Scott’s name and thought, “Oh my god, what if?”

A few days later, I got a frantic phone call from my friend Charles. “The Store” had just gotten raided by the DEA and he was there when it happened. 

At the time, Charles was one of the three-piece suit customers. An inheritance from his Georgia-Pacific wood products family hadn’t been handed down yet, so he occupied himself in the meantime by handling the Haas Family finances. Charles had no tolerance for personal inconvenience even when it impacted the dreams of those closet to him. His partner, Jonathan, knew this first hand.

Jonathan was doing post-graduate work in medieval Italian at San Francisco State and won a Fullbright scholarship to study in Florence for two years. Preparation was made to ensure that Charles would be comfortable in Italy, including renting a villa in the hills so he wouldn’t be exposed to city annoyance. They lasted two months. The Italians were too loud and rude for Charles. He insisted that Jonathan cede the scholarship so they could return to San Francisco. Charles was not the kind of person who could survive doing time on drug charges. 

Charles was in “The Store”, at the card table, making a purchase when the raid started. Payment was about to change hands as the DEA hammered through the front door. With an eye toward self preservation and financial reward, Charles kept the cash, grabbed the weed, and searched for the nearest exit. 

Squeezing the booty into his Armani briefcase, he left through a bathroom window, then scaled the ten foot privacy fence and hid for hours in the back row of the Strand Adult Theater on Market Street. For once, its cum encrusted seats did not annoy him. Charles was the only one in “The Store” who escaped arrest that day, and he even managed to come away with some contra ban. By the time he called me from a phone booth inside the Strand, Charles was expressing a degree of gratitude unusual for his upbringing. 

The news that night made Scott look like a drug lord. On the eve of the Democratic Convention, footage of the raid was broadcast nationally. Shutting down the “The Store” just days before the convention accomplished at least two political goals. Dianne Feinstein, despite being the first female mayor of a notoriously liberal city, earned tough-on-crime credibility among Ronald Regan democrats, and a delighted delegation from Mississippi had a convenient reason to decline Scott's homosexual hand of friendship.

A few years later, I was cleaning out a drawer and found a scribbled phone number labeled, “The Store”. Curious to see if it still worked, I dialed it up. A warm voice answered, but dipped below freezing when I asked, “Is Hank there?” 

“How did you get this number?”, he demanded.

“Ah, I used to know a group, kind of into performance art, called ‘Hank’. Just calling to see if they're still around,” I replied. “My friend Charles was a big fan”. 

“No Hanks here now, Honey," the voice snorted back. "They retired after the clients from hell came knocking. But the current management hopes your friend enjoyed the sample he salvaged from his last visit." 

"I'll let him know you wish him well," I said ending the call with a smile knowing that somewhere in the City, “The Store” most certainly survived.

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