Rush to the Altar

            The sky above San Francisco’s gold-gilded City Hall was a menacing sheet of gray and a light rain was falling on President’s Day morning. City Hall is normally closed on holidays, of course, but this was no ordinary holiday. Ever since San Francisco’s dashing new mayor, 36-year-old Gavin Newson, stunned the city and the nation by announcing that San Francisco would issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, City Hall had been besieged by a seemingly endless procession of gay and lesbian lovers – some coming from as far away as Thailand and the Netherlands – eager to obtain a document that only days earlier had seemed beyond their reach. To accommodate the deluge, the mayor had ordered City Hall to remain open through the holiday weekend, which, fittingly, included Valentine’s Day. 

Many of the newlyweds-to-be had camped out through the night, huddled under plastic tarps and sodden blankets.

            By 8 a.m. Monday — Day 5 of The Weddings, as they have come to be known in San Francisco — the line of couples waiting to get married wrapped around three sides of the massive Beaux Arts building. Many of the newlyweds-to-be had camped out through the night, huddled under plastic tarps and sodden blankets. Wilted flowers, victims of the wet, blustery night, were scattered along the sidewalk. A few couples were decked out in rumpled wedding gowns and tuxedos, but most opted for a more pragmatic look – jeans, sweaters, and raincoats. 

            Despite the dreary weather, the mood was festive. Whoops and giddy laughs punctuated the murmur of the rain. Passing cars honked in solidarity. Couples snapped pictures of each other smiling gamely under wind-battered umbrellas. Their spirits were buoyed by friends and strangers who came by City Hall throughout the night to drop off  dry clothing and blankets, hot soup and coffee. Someone  delivered a wedding cake. The only dour note was the appearance of a Bible-toting man dressed in black who stalked the line, reminding the brides- and grooms-in waiting  that, with or without a marriage license, they were sinners in the eyes of the Lord.

             “It was a rough night, with the wind and the cold and the rain,” said one middle-aged woman from Fresno, in the Central Valley, who had driven down to San Francisco early Sunday morning with her partner of 10 years. “But you know what? We don’t have the luxury of coming back when it’s sunny.”  The woman, a retired AT&T worker who preferred not to give her name, was referring to a flurry of lawsuits that were filed in response to the mayor’s edict that threatened to halt the parade of same-sex marriages at any moment. “We pay our mortgages like our next-door neighbors. We go to the company picnics. But we don’t have the right to say ‘I do.’ It’s  not right.”

            Rich Chapin, 50, and his partner of 15 years, Rick Tuscany, 37, who run a paint contracting business down the coast in Monterey, had woken up Saturday morning — Valentine’s Day — and decided it was a fine day to get married. They packed up their 10-year-old son Kody and his friend Abraham and headed to San Francisco. They were too late to get into City Hall on Saturday afternoon, so they took a room at the nearby Ramada Plaza and came back early Sunday morning. When the wedding waltz came to a halt that evening, Chapin and Tuscany were at the head of the line and not about to give up their spot. So they sent the boys back to the hotel while they hunkered down for the night outside the main entrance to City Hall.

            “My feet are so cold,” said Chapin, who was dressed in a short khaki jacket, green cargo pants and black tennis sneakers, as he did a little jig. “It’s been raining since midnight. The rain was pounding. But it’s worth it.” Tuscany, wearing a beige baseball cap and a teal-colored San Jose Sharks sweatshirt and holding a pair of droopy red roses, said the couple had already been on national TV several times that morning. “CNN, CBS … We were even on the front page of – what’s that paper called? – USA Today?”

This is the face of love!
— Joe Caruso, aide to Mayor Gavin Newsom

            Around 8:30 a.m., a man in a dark suit climbed the steps of City Hall. “Good morning everyone!” he shouted brightly from under his black umbrella. “This is Joe Caruso from Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office. We’ve got donuts and orange juice that the mayor has gotten for you.”  Caruso said the doors to City Hall would open shortly to allow as many people as possible to get in out of the rain. “This is the face of love!” he added, as he turned and went inside.

             Twenty minutes later, the heavy brass doors of City Hall swung open and a young woman stepped out. “You’re wonderful! You’re wonderful!” she gushed as she beckoned the soggy wedding parties inside. Tuscany and Chapin held hands as a sheriff escorted them through a metal detector, down a narrow passageway, and through a large, sky-lit hall. Outside a door marked Assessor/Recorder, a young man dressed in blue jeans and a paisley shirt handed them a sheet of paper titled Marriage Information. “Welcome to City Hall,” it read. “San Francisco is proud and honored to celebrate love and equality without discrimination.” The document went on to describe how the process would work and the various fees involved.

            Tuscany made a hurried call on his cell phone to his brother Tim, who was driving down from Healdsburg in Sonoma County to witness the wedding. “You’re where? Lombard Street?” he shouted into the phone. “You better hurry. We’re getting close.” 

            A few minutes later, the men were admitted into the Hall of Records, a cavernous room with glistening marble floors, cream-colored columns and a coffered ceiling. Behind a long counter, several dozen volunteers, many of them newlyweds themselves, were getting last-minute instructions on how to process the new applicants. Other volunteers passed around Krispy Kremes and glasses of orange juice.

            As Chapin and Tuscany were completing their application and paying the $82 fee, Tim Tuscany, a large man with a close-trimmed gray beard, hurried into the room and embraced his brother. “I’m excited for these two,” he said, beaming. “They’ve been together a long time. If anybody deserves it, these guys do.” 

            Tim gently squeezed Rick’s shoulder and, in an older-brother-type voice, suggested:  “Maybe you should take off your hat.” Rick pulled off his cap, unleashing a mop of long, curly back hair. Tim tried to smooth out the tangles with his fingers. He studied his brother for a moment. “You know what? Wear the hat.”

            Finally, about 10:15, City Assessor Mabel Teng, a petite woman dressed in a sky-blue velour jacket and a blue ribbed turtleneck set off by a strand of white pearls, introduced herself.    

             “How do you feel?” she asked.

            “Nervous,” Chapin admitted with a sheepish grin.    

            “Almost done. I know you can’t wait till your honeymoon,” Teng said with a conspiratorial grim. “Where are you going after this?”

            “Back to the hotel to take a shower,” Chapin said.

            “Aren’t you going to take the cable car?” Teng inquired, sounding more like the director of tourism than the assessor. “Have you picked a restaurant yet? What kind of food do you like?”     

            Without waiting for a response, Teng led the couple out of the Hall of Records and into the City Hall rotunda,  a soaring marble vault capped by a massive dome. Strobes flashed and shutters clicked as several reporters descended on the men. Teng proceeded through a set of velvet ropes and up a sweeping marble staircase. At the head of the stairs, she turned to face the couple, smiling with what seemed like maternal pride. Then she began reading from a printed form: “We are gathered here in the presence of witnesses for the purpose of uniting Rich Chapin and Rick Tuscany,” Teng said in a soft, clear voice that echoed through the vast chamber. “The contract of marriage is most solemn and is not entered into lightly … No other human ties are more tender and no other vows are more important than those you are about to pledge.”

            At Teng’s direction, the two men joined hands. Tuscany’s right thumb nervously stroked the back of Chapin’s hand.

             “Do you, Rich, take Rick to be your spouse for life?”  

            “I do.” 

            “And do you, Rick, take Rich to be your spouse for life?”

            “I do.”

             “Touch rings and repeat after me,” Teng continued. “With this ring I pledge my constant faith and abiding love. With this ring I thee wed.”

             And so they did. 

             “By virtue of the authority vested in me by the State of California, I now pronounce you spouses for life,” Teng concluded.

            The two men looked at each other for a moment, smiling shyly. Then they  kissed  lightly on the lips and embraced. 

Congratulations! Wonderful! ... It’s a big statement involving equality!
— City Assessor Mabel Teng

            “Congratulations! Wonderful!” Teng exclaimed, as she hugged one man and then the other. “It’s a big statement involving equality!”

            And then it was over. It was 10:35, more than 26 hours after Chapin and Tuscany had arrived at City Hall the previous morning. 

            A TV news crew closed in. “How does it feel?” a reporter shouted.

            “I’m overwhelmed. I’m happy,” Chapin replied, squinting into the camera.

            Kody, however, appeared unimpressed by his parents new status. He and Abraham were leaning languidly against a nearby column, struggling to stay alert after a night of too little sleep.

            The two men walked back down to the Hall of Records, where they paid an additional $13 fee for a copy of their marriage certificate. Then, with the boys in tow, they strolled hand-in-hand out of City Hall. The newlyweds were greeted by a smattering of applause and woo-hoos by those still waiting in line. Cars honked their approval. An elderly man with long white hair shouted, “Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!” as he waved a plastic wand spewing pink bubbles.

Under an American flag flapping above the entrance to City Hall, Chapin and Tuscany held up their license, mugged and kissed as Kody took their picture. Then they all went back to the hotel to get cleaned up. They didn’t say if they were going to ride the cable car.

Photo of newlyweds David Michael Barrett and Mark Peters, Feb. 16, 2004. BlackoutDTLA

Dot-Com Blues

In early August, the tenants of Downtown Rehearsal, a hulking concrete building in the Bayview section of San Francisco, received some unwelcome news: The building had been sold and its occupants were given six weeks to pack up and leave. The new owners, it was reported, planned to renovate the three-story structure and lease it to an unidentified technology company. 

As the burgeoning computer industry spreads north from Silicon Valley, dot-coms have been swarming into San Francisco, devouring every available square foot of commercial space.

It’s a scenario that has become distressingly familiar in a city where the cost of renting prime office space is now higher than in midtown Manhattan. As the burgeoning computer industry spreads north from Silicon Valley, dot-coms have been swarming into San Francisco, devouring every available square foot of commercial space. But Downtown Rehearsal is no ordinary commercial building. It is – or rather, it was – the working home of many Bay Area musicians, including such notable performers as Chris Isaak, Faith No More and The Mermen. Some 2,000 musicians and other artists shared the cavernous building’s 160-odd studios, making it the largest rehearsal space in Northern California, if not the country. 

A couple of days before the deadline to move out, on a shimmering late September afternoon, I paid a visit to Downtown Rehearsal to check out the vibe. Outside the building, Ray Dowler, a compactly built man with a shaved head, a stiletto-sharp shaft of hair sprouting from his chin and a silver ring bisecting his lower lip, was loading an assortment of percussion instruments into a pickup truck. Dowler, a drummer with a band called Halcyon Days (“dark ambient, like a real heavy Pink Floyd,” is how he described the group’s musical style), had been a tenant at Downtown Rehearsal for nearly five years. The eviction notice, he said, “was definitely a quick chop to the knees,” but not an entirely unexpected one. “Things keep closing down. We saw guys walking around with clipboards, so we knew something was up.”

Dowler said he plans to put his drums in storage while he hunts for another place to practice. “I’m gonna call everybody I know and say, ‘Look, dude, we’re in a situation. Can you help us out?’” But he conceded that finding a suitable space at a price he can afford will not be easy. “There are 500 bands looking for space, and there isn’t much out there.” 

Inside Downtown Rehearsal, the long, brightly lit corridors were surprisingly quiet. Many of the tenants had already moved out, and those who remained were busy deconstructing their studios. Cigarette butts littered the paint-splattered concrete floors, remnants, perhaps, of one last late-night jam session. On the door of one studio was a sticker reading, “Fuck Humans.”

Down the hall, Randy Burk’s recording studio looked like it had been rocked by the Big One. Fluorescent lighting fixtures dangled from the ceiling, a mound of cables and wires lay tangled on the floor, glass partitions, strips of insulation and cardboard boxes were scattered around the room. Burk, a lanky 34-year-old dressed in white cutoffs and black hightop sneakers, has been a professional musician for 10 years, and like many other blue-collar musicians, he has survived by being versatile. In addition to operating Stout Recording Studio (“Genuine Analog. Affordable Rates,” his business card reads), he is a drummer in a pop/rock band called Small Time Napoleons and does a little singing as well. “I’ve done cruise ships, theme parks, weddings – whatever,” he said.

Lots of people actually lived here, even though they weren’t supposed to. It was a homey vibe.
— Randy Burk, musician

Burk, who had spent about $20,000 earlier this year expanding his recording studio, betrayed a pinch of bitterness as he talked about the demise of Downtown Rehearsal. “It’s a great loss of a tight little scene,” he said, as he lugged an amplifier to a U-Haul truck parked by the loading dock. “There were a lot of good people here. Lots of people actually lived here, even though they weren’t supposed to. It was a homey vibe.”

Burk, a Bay Area native, said he has witnessed a disturbing shift in the social landscape of San Francisco in the past few years. The free-spirited, laid-back atmosphere he remembers is fast disappearing, subsumed by an army of fast-talking, multi-tasking, SUV-driving digiterati. “You see it on the highway. Rude people yakking on their cell phones, in a hurry to get to the next meeting. Everybody’s in a hurry to make money.” Burk says he’s considering taking his wife and newborn son and moving to a less expensive area, but he’s not sure where. “I thought about Seattle, but it’s the same thing up there. They’ve got Microsoft and that scene. The whole West Coast is going.”

The squeal of an electric guitar drew me to the door of another studio around the corner. Inside, a punk-rock band called The Zodiac Killers was preparing for its next musical caper in an airless room cluttered with a jumble of instruments and a tattered, sagging couch. Greg Lowery, the Killers’ curmudgeonly bass player, minced no words about who was to blame for the fate of Downtown Rehearsal: “The dot-commies, that’s who. San Francisco has always been an artists’ town, but they’re killing us off. Tell them to go back to Kansas.”

All these people know how to do is buy, buy, buy. Money talks in this town.
— Jill Haley, musician

  “I’m extremely depressed,” added rhythm guitarist Jill Haley, who was sporting a spiked dog collar and calf-high motorcycle boots despite the studio’s stifling heat. “All these people know how to do is buy, buy, buy. Money talks in this town. If you don’t make $75,000, they don’t want you.”

True to their name, The Zodiac Killers said they had no intention of going quietly. “We’re not gonna leave. We’re gonna go on a homicidal spree with the owner,” Lowery said, feigning a maniacal smile, as his bandmates tittered gleefully. 

After receiving the eviction notice, Lowery said he had spray-painted a threatening note in the hallway outside The Killers’ studio: “Remember Waco. I’m a live-in and I own a shotgun.” The next day, the owner had the graffiti painted over.