Many, many years ago I went to LA for the first time.
I went there accompanying Jan, who was going to an outlaw plastic surgeon for implants and orchiectomy.
I was excited, it was my first trip to Los Angeles. We spent the night we got in at a house in Venice and went to Hollywood early in the morning where we checked into the Hollywood Roosevelt.
Dr. Gaunt’s office and quasi-operating room were next door, across Orange Drive in the old Max Factor Building.
I left Jan there.
I walked out on Hollywood Blvd. It was a warm and sunny February day, I had my Yashica Electro 35, my first serious camera around my neck and I was looking for something.
On Hollywood and Highland I met a tall thin queen, startlingly pale in the harsh morning sun. She looked at me dazed, with a downer glaze as I said to her, “Where is it happening at, sister?”
The Speak 39, the Onion 2 and the Alley down on Cahuenga. I thanked her and said, “Catch ya, later.” I tripped off down the Blvd. pass store windows still shuttered.
I was meeting with Bill Mandel, a writer from Santa Barbara. I was to be his guide into a scene I barely knew myself.
Later that night with Jan safely recovering in a room at the Roosevelt he and I visited the Speak.
It was about as sleazy as a bar could possibly be. A drag queen/transsexual hustle bar just down Cahuenga from Hollywood Blvd and a perfect place to take Santa Barbara Bill who was totally into the slumming thing.
I was new to Hollywood and got the new girl challenge almost immediately. It came from a barely dressed trannie named Stephanie who sauntered over to our table in a quaalude haze and asked, “What are you doing in here? You know this is a drag bar and we don’t need real girls coming her to compete with us.”
I said I was a changeling from San Francisco and she asked if she could see.
We went into the lady’s room and I dropped my jeans and she stuck her fingers in me and we wound up having the sort of hot outlaw sex that made the era what it was.
We became friends and then lovers. She was very troubled. Her boyfriend had overdosed and died shortly before we met. She was a throwaway streetkid, her parents were Cuban American and lived in Miami.
She introduced me to her friends and I started becoming serious about my photography. I was heavily influenced by Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, as well as the Magnum Black Star photographers and anyone who was part of the Bang Bang Club.
I was also becoming the “Shane” (L-Word reference) of my day with all these sisters looking to me for their “lesbian experience.
I broke up with Jerry and started a commuter romance with Stephanie. More than just photographing her it was my mission to keep her from over dosing. It was a constant job since she was in the words of the Rolling Stones song, “Dancing with Mister D.”
At the same time Stephanie and her queen as well as transsexual friends taught me to enjoy things I had refrained from because of my politics. Clothes and blatant sexual audacity. The thrill of shocking people and camping theatrically.
Some of the sisters from San Francisco and some of the girls from LA started regularly traveling on the midnight PSA flight between SF and LA, a flight that was a flying stoned out party.
Nearly a year later I was planning on moving to Los Angeles to be her support and help her with her drug problem as well as to do a suicide watch.
On Valentine’s Day my friend Leslie and I were supposed to catch the cheap midnight PSA flight down from San Francisco for the weekend. It was a stand by only flight that offered a ticket on the 4:00 am flight to any who were bumped. We didn’t get on the midnight flight and flew the later flight, making it to Hollywood around 7:30 in the morning.
Stephanie was dead of an overdose, David Bowie’s album Changes on her record player repeating over and over.
I blamed myself for not being there even though she had over dosed so many times dying was inevitable. It took several more sisters dying the same way before I realized there was really nothing I could do to stop someone who was seriously determined to die.
Photography was an art that gave my life meaning and helped distance me into a participant observer in their world. I wasn’t that into the pills. But the combination of her death and my being brutally raped a few months later sent me into a tail spin where I wound up in an emergency room after over dosing.
My becoming a photographer grew out of our friendship and every Valentine’s Day I still find myself remembering her.