Photo by Tyler Orsburn
 
 
Photo by Tyler Orsburn

Bay Backdrops

Scenes from the San Francisco region

Photographs by Tyler Orsburn


Cheers

Mission District, San Francisco—The neon 500 Club sign stabs a drizzly, afternoon sky above Guerrero and 17th streets.

Todd, Henry, Liz, Summer, and the others are part of the usual lineup at the bar inside—some 13 steady drinkers who have been here since Jeffrey, the bartender, opened up the place at 11 a.m. Most of them also stare out from photos nailed to the walls, or have mixed CDs from home in the Starlight Rowe jukebox. Everybody is family at 3 p.m. on a Monday.

One of 38 bars in the Mission, the 500 Club is an old neighborhood favorite. A dive on the corner that has quenched the thirst of natives, transients, and ne’er-do-wells for generations, it’s a place that’s the same as it’s always been. A place you can return to after a decade and, in the words of one of the owners, “probably know someone.”

The regulars are here to drink with those who know their names and their stories. With those who, like them, never turn down another shot. Like Emiley, who bartends at night but checks in daily to share a few drinks with customers, the regulars favor bars over cafés—the talking, cussing, listening to music, telling jokes. As morning fades to night, hard alcohol softens reality. They say the place feels like a living room, and they nearly forget the children and spouses who wait for them in real ones. Right before sunset, they tuck their stools back in. They’ll be back before noon the next day.

There are folks who Emiley says she doesn’t like—maybe five out of the 60 regulars. Those are the entitled, who throw their straws on the ground and think 40 years of loyalty means they should be served right away.

None of them are at the bar now. Todd’s drinking his usual: Herradura tequila and Trumer Pils (preferably in a frosty mug). Henry sips a tall vodka Collins, and asks for another shot when it gets low. Liz shoots fernet but has taken to Greyhounds. Summer doesn’t like fruit floating in her Ketel One and soda, so Jeffrey squeezes lemon into the glass, then tosses the rind.

If Todd and the others weren’t here, Emiley would be worried. It’s a daytime bar. It’s not a habit. It’s our life, she says. Today, she sits on a stool in jeans and a slashed off-the-shoulder shirt with a wolf on it. Her arms are covered with inked flowers and an “Off With Her Head” tattoo scrolls across the top of her chest. Her fingers are decorated with silver and turquoise jewelry.

“Hey, Joe,” Emiley says as a man walks in. He has gray hair, glasses, and carries a newspaper under his arm. He’s a bookie from New Jersey who drinks Miller High Life, followed by white wine. He knows everything about every pony and every racetrack. He’s been coming here forever.

Joe mumbles a quip about Emiley’s mother up in Reno. “Ahhh, go watch your ponies, you old fart,” she says.

“Everything I Own” by Bread begins to play.

Emiley knows that Todd put it on. “He’s gonna start crying any second,” she says. And I would give anything I own
And give up my life, my heart, my home …

Then it stops. The lineup boos. “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it!” Emiley shouts. The jukebox skips to another song.

Soon, the Lucky Strike clock will hit 4 p.m. and Bre will take over the bar. She has a cherry tattoo on the right side of her neck and a white dishtowel hangs from her pants. By 8 p.m., the lineup will be gone. It’s not their scene. The hipsters will trickle in and take over the booths and the backroom. One of them will put the Circle Jerks on the jukebox. Gimme, gimme, gimme.

But that’s still many drinks away. For now, everybody here is family.


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Women’s Studies

South Bay Area—Six people sit at attention around a small table, listening carefully to speech therapist Lynette Nisbet. She’s explaining how to elongate single-syllable words. “It’s not ‘Hi,’” she says. “It’s more like, ‘Hiiiii-eeee-eee.’” They repeat in unison: “Hiiiii-eeee-eee.” Nisbet goes around in a circle, asking everyone to try it out on their own. They’re tentative, but Nisbet rewards every attempt with an exclamation of praise. Slowly, the group unwinds and begins to enjoy the seminar, which is titled “Why Women Sound Like Women.”

All of the seminar’s participants were born men and most are over 50. They’re at various stages in transition from male to female, but all are relatively new to womanhood and gender performance. Cynthia Norwood, who is 68 years old, has been recreating herself for only 11 months and frequents the boutique where the seminar is being held. She’s a short, prim woman who, in her sweater dress, might be someone’s elderly aunt. She has a stylish haircut, wears pearls, and sits with a ruler-straight spine. The posture is likely a remnant of her army days—as a young man, Norwood served 14 months in a combat unit in Vietnam.

While the definition of what it means to be transgender is broadening every day—some transgender women are happy to appear more masculine or gender neutral—for those who want to truly pass as female, like Norwood, putting on a dress is just the beginning. So with Nisbet and other coaches, she’s working not only on her image, but also on movement, mannerisms, and, on this particular day, speech.

The vast majority of transgender folks worry about “passing,” or being perceived as their chosen gender. In 2008, the National Center for Transgender Equality surveyed 7,000 people, asking how often they think strangers recognize them as transgender. Only 21 percent replied “never.” For Norwood and others, being convincingly female isn’t just a question of pride or vanity. Not passing can shut doors to employment, friendships, a healthy self-image, and happiness. Many risk becoming victims of violence. Depression plagues both MtoF (male-to-female) and FtoM (female-to-male) trans people. More than half attempt suicide at some point in their lives.

With so much at stake, transgender women are willing to invest time, money, and exhaustive effort into becoming a woman that society will not question. And, considering the discomfort of surgery and injections, performance can be considered the “fun part” where transgender people can, at last, enjoy being female. To meet this market, a veritable industry around “feminization” has sprung up, particularly in liberal-leaning pockets like the Bay Area. There are image consultants, movement coaches, and therapists who help people shed the mannish behaviors of their past.

That’s where today’s voice class comes in. Transgender women have the option of vocal-chord surgery, which often results in an unnaturally high voice. One of the attendees has had the vocal-cord surgery, giving her a voice a shrill, Minnie Mouse-like quality. It’s hard to say whether she has a leg up on the others who are struggling to unlearn the masculine tones they’ve used for decades, but the coaching approach is widely considered to be safer.

The biggest issue is pitch. Wherever a transgender woman is starting from, her voice is normally much lower than she wants it to be, but with extensive practice she can learn to speak at a higher pitch all the time. Many take a phone-sex operator approach, which Nisbet quickly corrects. “Definitely don’t do the breathy thing,” she says. “Women don’t really talk like that.”

Women do tend to have a singsongy quality to their voice, whereas men are typically more monotonous. Nisbet tries to demonstrate how her voice goes up in a lilt at the end of her sentences. Those undergoing male-to-female transitions even need to learn how to sneeze with a high-pitched “achoo!” Yes: men and women sneeze, and cough, differently.

Slaving over the smaller aspects of gender transitioning can pay off for many of these women. At almost 70, Cynthia Norwood’s late transition leaves her with a huge amount of work. Her voice is far from perfect, and she’s still mastering the finer points of movement. Still, friends tell her she’s passing more successfully than ever. Recently, she was the recipient of flirtatious male attention, courtesy of a cashier at a gas station.

For a long time, Norwood avoided shopping in places she used to go as a man, for fear of being recognized. But last week her garbage disposal broke and, forced into action by a faulty appliance, she risked a trip to her old hardware store. Wearing chunky jewelry and precisely applied makeup, Norwood practiced a feminine gait through the aisles. She interacted with several of the sales people. She checked out with the cashier. All as a woman, all without question. Then, just as she was safely out of the store, she walked right past a family member she hadn’t seen since she became Cynthia. He didn’t recognize her at all. “I was so happy,” she says. “That’s when I knew that I was really, truly passing.”


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Diamonds in the Rough

Oakland—On any given day, Roscoe Bryant can look out at the West Oakland dirt fields where he coaches and see a player who has found refuge in baseball. The neighborhood is home to only about 7 percent of the city’s population, yet it’s where roughly 20 percent of Oakland’s 100 or so murders occur every year. It’s a place where drugs, gangs, and poverty too often overpower opportunity, hope, and, certainly, leisure.

But for a small set of children on Bryant’s Little League teams, baseball has become a way to escape. As the 8-and-under team wraps up practice, the 12-year-olds begin to warm up in shallow right field. Ronnie, suited in a gray T-shirt and shorts, with a barrel chest and braided hair falling around his ears, slowly swings his bat around from the left side, envisioning contact with an imaginary ball. “He comes from a really torn family,” Bryant says about Ronnie.

When Bryant started the local teams, the boys all had one thing that unified them: They had each lost someone to gun violence. But since finding the game of baseball—or maybe it was the other way around—Ronnie has a place where he is welcomed, Bryant says. “Here he is the man; here he is loved. Here he’s not just another one of these kids on the block.”

As coach of the Oakland Royals, Bryant, who stands a wiry 5 foot 7, has a daunting task. It’s not just because the majority of the kids he coaches have hard lives and no fathers to practice throwing the ball around with. It’s also because the 48-year-old is attempting to revive a storied pastime that is disappearing from black America.

It hasn’t always been this way. At one point in the mid-1970s, African Americans made up 28 percent of major league rosters. It was a time when black icons such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were winding down their careers, while Oakland’s Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson were launching their own. These players were the pride of post-segregationist America, especially in the black community.

Today, African Americans account for just 8 percent of the players in Major League Baseball. And big league efforts to reverse the trend have had limited success. David James, the national director of MLB’s outreach program, recalls not seeing a single African American child playing in last summer’s Little League World Series. “I was cringing,” James says.

When blacks do make it into the major leagues these days, they’ve often been recruited from the Dominican Republic and other countries where baseball is an opportunity—even an obsession—for low-income kids. Which means the professional black players often aren’t US born.

Still, Bryant has managed to keep the Royals running for seven years, even expanding the operation to four teams, for ages ranging from 7 to 14. But because most of the kids’ parents can’t afford the $150 sign-up fees and the necessary equipment—gloves, cleats, bats—Bryant is as much a fundraiser as he is a coach. Even finding a safe field to play on can be tricky. The Royals stopped practicing at nearby Lowell Park after a shooting in the outfield during practice.

As Bryant says of his players, whether it’s to learn life skills, temporarily escape reality, or make it to the pros, “They all have a chance.” Which is something they might not otherwise have without baseball.


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Urban Cowboys

Richmond—Buffy the cowboy glares at the steel-frame door. His feet are set apart, the bandolier around his belly loaded with red shot shells. It is morning, and the sun has not yet pierced the fog on the outskirts of town at the Richmond Rod & Gun Club. His 10-gallon hat is pulled down over his forehead, and his neckerchief is snugged up tight with a steel slide, an accessory similar in form and function to a napkin ring, with the image of two hogs engaged in a lewd act etched into the metal.

“Come on out, or I’ll shoot you out!” Buffy yells, but he doesn’t wait, just lifts his shotgun and shoots. The door swings open in a cloud of debris. He rushes through and hustles to shoot the other targets, including some shaped like small cowboys. He drops the shotgun, draws the iron on his left hip, pop pop pop pop pop, slams it back in its holster, pulls the piece on his right, pop pop pop pop pop.

More cowboys join Buffy—Vesperado with the black hat, Ready-and-Able Annie with the baby blue bandana, Leapin’ Otis with the purple silk vest—guns puffing smoke, littering the ground with empty shells. Rough-and-Ready Rob follows behind, eyes on the ground, grabbing brass casings with a garbage picker and dropping them in a Folgers can attached to a dowel. These cowboys clean up after themselves.

Bang pop-pop-pop zip zing!

Some of the cowboys seem new to this style of shooting. Forrest Fire, red curls spilling out under his black gaucho’s hat, looks confused when his rifle jams and ejects an unfired shell. “Don’t pick it up off the ground,” Buffy says. Forrest Fire chambers another round and keeps shooting.

The Shanghai Kid steps up, eyeing the door. “Come on out, or I’m blasting my way in!” he shouts.

“I say that to my wife in the bathroom all the time,” Buffy jokes.

Bang!

Cowboy shooters like these, members of the Single Action Shooting Society as their group is officially called, are playing one of the fastest-growing shooting sports in a country of gun lovers. But the men (and few women) who play cowboy at the Rod & Gun Club aren’t the stereotypical gun nuts.

Cowboys are not slick, like the crew-cut law enforcement guys who meticulously measure the distance between bullet holes they shoot in targets shaped like human silhouettes. They aren’t like the grizzled, flannel-wearing elders who lounge around the trap-and-skeet shack down the road. Nor do they look or sound anything like the camo-clad men at the Rod & Gun Club’s bar who swig domestic pints and laugh at racist jokes.

These cowboys have wide-brimmed hats, Western nicknames, and classic old guns. True, the whole thing can seem a little dorky, and there’s something awkward about seeing a cowboy step out of a minivan in a Richmond parking lot, watching him send a text message, and hearing him complain about traffic. But cowboy shooting also hints at a basic reason for the popularity of guns in America: They’re fun.

As in any game, the first thing to learn about cowboy shooting is the rules. And, for a sport meant to emulate the Wild West, there are an awful lot of them. Aliases must be selected from an approved list in the Single Action Shooting Society Handbook, and cowboys can only use guns designed before the beginning of the 20th century. Modern replicas are fine, although the old guns are obviously cooler. T-shirts and designer jeans, as well as nylon, plastic, and Velcro accoutrements, are strictly outlawed.

Since their targets are only a few paces away, they’re hard to miss, so the goal is less accuracy than speed. For the fastest cowboy shooters, the ones these cowboys talk about in reverent tones, the key is the transitions—putting down the rifle, drawing and reholstering the pistols, loading the shotgun.

At the Richmond shooting range, it’s high noon and the cowboys are on the sixth and final stage of the match. The object is to shoot two large, adjacent plates 10 times back-and-forth with a rifle, then 10 times back-and-forth with a pistol. Finally, the cowboys have to shotgun snakes, which are actually just short pieces of hose. The ground beneath the plates is covered with them; the moment of glory is blasting the rubber reptiles, seeing them fly end-over-end in the sand.

The last cowboy of the day shoots at the plates and smokes the snakes. The match is over.

“I had so many misses today,” a cowboy called Crabby says, sounding almost happy about it.

“They’re just fun days,” says Sourdough Stu.

The cowboys drift into the Richmond Rod & Gun Club’s bar, a dim room decorated with taxidermied animals and sarcastic signs (WARNING: This Sign Has Sharp Edges), where a stein-full of Miller is $1 and a hotdog is $2.

Outside, Buffy, or Tom Frenkel as he’s known in the real world, loads his gear into the trunk of his Lexus sedan. He pulls off the neckerchief and the slide with the screwing pigs. There’s a Niners game on, and he needs to get to his favorite bar, he says: “I have a moral obligation to go get drunk.”

Then Frenkel takes off his cowboy hat and rides away from the gun club, wheels kicking up a cloud of dust.dots-1

(A previous version of Urban Cowboys appeared on TheAtlantic.com.)