Fairyland: Memories of a Singular San Francisco Girlhood

Alysia Abbott recalls being raised by her poet father—a single, openly gay man—in the San Francisco of the nineteen-seventies and eighties.

Alysia Abbott | Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father | June 2014 | W. W. Norton & Company | 17 minutes (4,188 words)

After his wife died in a car accident in 1973, bisexual writer and activist Steve Abbott moved with his two-year-old daughter Alysia to San Francisco, a city bustling with gay men in search of liberation. Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father is that daughter’s story—a paean to the poet father who raised her as a single, openly gay man, and a vivid memoir of a singular and at times otherworldly girlhood. As noted in The New Yorker, the memoir, which vividly recalls San Francisco in the nineteen-seventies and eighties, “doubles as a portrait of a city and a community at a crucial point in history.”  Our thanks to Abbott for allowing us to reprint this excerpt here.

***

I called him Eddie Body. At four years old, language was my playground. “Eddie Body’s not anybody! Eddie Body’s not anybody!” I’d repeat, relishing the near symmetry of the sounds. Eddie Body was Dad’s new boyfriend, his first serious relationship after our move to San Francisco in 1974. There’d been different men—good-looking men, funny-looking men, almost always tall and skinny and young—that I found in Dad’s bed in the mornings. But it was different with Ed. He was the only one with whom I became close. He is the only one I can remember. We spent six months living with Eddie Body. I loved him.

A twenty-two-year-old kid from upstate New York, Eddie Body had moved to San Francisco to get away from his pregnant wife, Mary Ann. He’d made a pass at my dad one afternoon over a game of chess in the Panhandle Park. Soon after, Ed moved into our apartment, a four-bedroom Victorian located a few blocks from Haight Street.

Haight-Ashbury’s “Summer of Love” had ended in 1968 with the arrival of heroin and petty crime. For years the neighborhood was dominated by bars, liquor stores, and boarded-up storefronts. But rent was cheap and soon my father, along with scores of other like-minded searchers, moved in, setting up haphazard households in the dilapidated Victorian flats that lined Oak and Page streets. Many of these new residents, if not hippies themselves, shared an ethos of experimentation and free expression. Many also happened to be gay.

 ***

By 1974, the Castro was emerging as the political and commercial center of gay San Francisco, with future supervisor Harvey Milk already running campaigns out of his camera shop at 19th and Castro. The post-hippie Haight was a gay-friendly alternative. Unlike the Castro, where gay men put their sexual identities front and center, the Haight’s gay residents fit into a larger bohemian mosaic. They got checkups at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic, shopped for crafts at Far Out Fabrics, joined the Food Conspiracy co-op, and patronized Mommy Fortuna’s, a restaurant which hosted cross-dressing musicals featuring members of the psychedelic, nationally renowned theater troupe the Cockettes and their offshoot, the Angels of Light. This diverse community, which favored aesthetics over activism, gave my father a sense of belonging he hadn’t experienced in Nebraska, or even in post-Stonewall Atlanta. It was in this world that Dad and Eddie Body met and fell in love.

In his journal Dad described Ed as “a joy, a help, a comfort and often-times frustrating as hell.” When Eddie Body first moved in, he had ambitions of musical stardom. He played guitar beautifully and wrote songs, including a tender ballad for my father. Ed had a job downtown selling high-end pots and pans. But after a few months in our apartment, he’d quit the job and dedicated his waking hours to getting stoned, strumming on his guitar, and halfheartedly watering ferns around the apartment. By early 1975, Eddie Body mostly lived off Dad and the Social Security checks we received after my mother’s death.

Dad, Eddie Body, and I lived with two roommates, Johnny and Paulette, on Oak Street. Johnny had spent two years in a Buddhist monastery before moving to San Francisco. After smoking several joints, Dad and Johnny would listen to Tibetan bell music and engage in lengthy conversations about the afterlife. But while spiritually enlightened, Johnny showed little interest in the material aspects of the house. Dad alone scoured neighborhood stoop sales and thrift shops for the mirrors, rugs, plants, and Indian fabrics that decorated the apartment. Dad also picked out colors—Indian earth brown and imperial jade green—and painted all the rooms himself.

Johnny was known in the Haight as Joan Blondell, a drag character named after the old Hollywood star famous for her sarcastic wisecracks. Joan would get all dolled up and yell things like, “Don’t you feel hot?” then kick over a chair for everyone’s amusement. Dad fondly described Joan as “the bitch of death.”

Paulette was our roommate who replaced Suzan, who replaced Wade. Like Johnny, she enjoyed dressing in drag; unlike him, she did it full-time. Originally from Alabama, Paulette embraced a Southern Gothic aesthetic mixed with 1940s film fantasy. She decorated her room like the inside of a casket, stapling drapes to the ceiling and outfitting the corners with mahogany antiques and funereal plants.

Paulette also expected everyone to be her servant, an honor Johnny—and Joan—resolutely declined, precipitating many quarrels. Perhaps Paulette was jealous of Joan’s local fame. In a letter, Dad recalled New Year’s Eve 1974-75, when Paulette couldn’t get into the bathroom and had to wait forever before Joan was ready to come out. “You should have seen the feathers fly,” he wrote.

“You actually don’t look forties at all, Johnny. You look like a—well, a whore!”

“I know,” Joan replied. “Isn’t it divine?”

 ***

As we settled into 1975, our household calmed down, with each of us living in our own world: Eddie strumming his guitar, Paulette grooming herself in the mirror, Johnny meditating in the sunroom. Dad was happy to be left alone to read and write while I drew mermaids by the window.

My mornings were spent at the Haight-Ashbury Daycare Center. Through the center Dad became acquainted with some of the neighborhood’s more colorful single moms. Lola’s mother, an actress with the Angels of Light, had performed in a Warhol film. Moonbeam’s mother sold grass out of her apartment on Oak Street. She had a knack for dating young guys, getting them on General Assistance, and then pocketing their checks.

When I wasn’t playing with Moonbeam or Lola, I was often left to myself. “Faggots find her cute but are afraid of her,” my father wrote in a letter. “Child=responsibility, the ultimate freak-out for the selfish and the escapists.”

But not Eddie Body. Each afternoon he’d pick me up from child care, a big smile on his face. On one occasion, he arrived wearing a dress. The attendants wouldn’t allow him into my classroom until I heard his voice and then ran into his arms. After day care, Ed and my dad would take me on long walks in Golden Gate Park.

When I was a little girl, the sun was always shining in Golden Gate Park. Entering the park seemed otherworldly. I knew well the papery, banana-shaped eucalyptus leaves and tiny acorns that littered our path. We walked down a hill to a murky pond framed with fern trees and pointy bushes. I imagined it was inhabited by a lady of the lake, who’d only reveal herself after the sun went down and we’d left the park. After the pond we’d descend into a tunnel designed to resemble a cave: brown painted walls toothed with sculpted stalactites. The home of a wayward dragon. Past the cave, the path spilled into an emerald field where towering eucalyptus and pine trees cast long shadows.

To the right of the field was Hippie Hill. Music was always playing; there was a drum circle, maracas, and someone dancing, limbs flailing loose and free. Dad, Eddie, and I would lie on the grass among the clusters of wanderers. In the 1970s, to be aimless, even homeless, was still considered more a philosophical choice than a product of economic destitution. Eddie would patiently thread daisy chains for me while sitting cross-legged in the grass. Sometimes he teased me.

“Eddie Body, I’m hungry,” I said one afternoon.

“Hi, Hungry.”

“Nooooo, I’m hungry.”

“How are you, Hungry? My name is Ed and this here is Steve.”

“Noooo. Nooooo. That’s not good.”

Dad chastised him. Then Eddie Body gathered me into his arms and squeezed me to his bare chest, his whiskers tickling my neck. He smelled of Egyptian musk and BO.

The three of us stayed in Golden Gate Park as long as the day would have us. When the light faded and the air cooled, we began the long walk home together. The leaves of the eucalyptus trees shimmered in the early evening light, looking like rust-colored sequins.

At home, Daddy made din-din while Eddie Body took a bath. I watched him lounging in our rust-stained claw-foot tub. He washed himself with a thick white bar of soap, the same soap Dad used to wash me each night. Eddie was leaner and browner than my dad. He barely had any hair on his chest and a small migration of whiskers sat precariously above his mouth. When he bent forward, his shoulder-length hair hid his face. Eddie watched me watching him and laughed.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“What is what?”

“That.” I repeated. “There!” I pointed to two egglike spheres I could make out in the dark mass of hair between Eddie’s legs.

Eddie coughed and adjusted himself in the bathtub. A small streak of water spilled over the tub’s porcelain edge.

“Those are testicles,” he said.

I tried the word on for size. “Tess. Tess.”

“They’re also called balls.”

“What do they do?” I asked.

“Um . . . they help make babies,” he answered. “Didn’t your dad tell you about this yet?”

“No.”

“They help make babies. Men have them.”

“I won’t have them?”

“No, you won’t have them.”

After dinner, Eddie and Dad took turns reading me stories before tucking me in to sleep. The next morning I woke up, opened the door to my dad’s room, then crawled into his bed. Eddie Body was always there, always happy to see me. “It’s wake­up time!” I announced. I cuddled between them and lay there, awake but with my eyes closed, while the two of them fell back asleep. Feeling warm and safe, I didn’t want to disturb this special time. Often when I crawled into Dad’s bed I’d slow my breathing so that it moved in time with his. Together we’d breathe like one. But on this morning Eddie Body’s sleep was less steady. Behind me I could feel his breath move from slow to fast. So I tried to adjust my breath to match his. I then moved between the two of them, always trying to reconcile the difference, but always failing.

In the mornings at school I liked to draw. My drawings at four and five were generally the same: an ocean scene. On the surface of the water two boats bob attached by a rope. The girl boat is full of girls, rendered as triangles with stick legs and arms, each topped with a smiley face circle and long hair that curls at the end. The boy boat is populated with rectangles with stick arms and legs and smiley circle heads. Under the water, vast mermaid families swim together: grandma and grandpa mermaids, dogfish and catfish, and birdfish with wings. This mermaid world was fluid, endless, and real to me.

Living in a boy boat, I wanted to do everything the boys did. Every few weeks, Dad would put Lou Reed’s Transformer on the turntable. Then, together with Johnny and Paulette, he’d dig into the big closet and pick through baskets of jewelry while Lou Reed seductively serenaded them, calling them “slick little girl[s].”

While Dad dressed up with Johnny and Paulette, wrapping a white scarf around his neck and pulling a plantation-style picture hat over his head—”Very Juliet of the Spirits, don’t you think?” he asked— I draped myself in sparkly scarves and a heavy faux-Egyptian necklace Dad had found at the local junk shop. The fairies may have outnumbered me, but I was still the reigning princess, able to primp in the mirror along with the best of them.

But it wasn’t enough to dress up with the boys. I wanted to be a boy and told Dad I wanted to be called a boy.

“You have a vagina,” he patiently explained. “Boys have penises.”

“Can’t I get a penis at the store?” I asked.

“No, you can’t.”

I also noticed that Eddie Body and Daddy peed as easily among the thicket of conifers in Golden Gate Park as in our toilet at home. When I had to pee in the park Dad had to take me through the tunnel, past the pond, and up the hill to the McDonald’s, just beyond the entrance, my bladder barely containing itself. After watching Eddie retreat to the bushes one afternoon, I told Dad that I wanted to pee like him. So that night, in our chilly bathroom, he taught me to pee standing up. With gentle hands he helped thrust my pelvis forward while keeping my legs straight and steady so I could better aim into the toilet. I was small in relation to the seat, so it wasn’t hard to pee into the bowl, or at least onto the bowl. After several days of practice, I managed to make it in, not getting any on the floor or down my legs.

“Far out!” my dad said. Then he ran into the bedroom to share the news with Ed.

“It’s a bad kind of life you’re giving Alysia, growing up around queers.”

“What do you mean? She’s happy,” said my father.

“She needs a mother. You should get married to a woman.”

“Like you and Mary Ann?” my dad asked.

 ***

Roommates (queer or otherwise) weren’t simply a way for my dad to save money on housing; they were a source of free child care. On any given night Dad would ask Johnny or Paulette to watch me so he and Ed could go out dancing in one of the many bars that were swelling with excitement in post-Stonewall San Francisco: Sissy’s Saloon, the Mineshaft, the Stud. On one occasion Paulette reported that I’d turned on all of the kitchen burners, which she’d discovered only after the smell of gas had permeated the apartment. Another time I drank half a bottle of medicine and suffered a minor tummy-ache.

Reading about these events in my dad’s journals, it’s hard not to feel angry. My father expressed resentment because I asked him to fix me breakfast when, at age four, I was “perfectly capable of doing it alone.” Maybe Dad couldn’t understand my needs because our life was populated by so many needy wanderers like himself, young people escaping bad homes and bad marriages, all searching for their true selves and open to anything that might further that quest: Hollywood, bisexuality, cross-dressing, meditation, Quaaludes, biorhythm charts, bathhouses, Sufi dancing. Renegades all, but few truly suitable for raising kids, let alone watching them for a night or two.

Eddie Body said I needed a mother. In truth, everyone in that apartment needed a mother, someone to cook and clean, someone to settle the quarrels and to dispense the love and acceptance that was so elusive to these men when they were growing up. I liked to play the role when I could, a Wendy to Dad’s lost boys. I’d call him “my poor little Da-da” and serve us bowls of Jell-O, saving the biggest serving for myself. When Eddie Body and Dad were tripping on drugs and dressed in drag I came up and said, “You can be a boy or you can be a girl, you can be whatever you want to be.”

But, of course this was just pretend. Ours was a defiantly motherless world. Sometimes we were like Huck and Jim, beyond law, beyond rules, eating with our hands. We were unkempt but happy, with Dad affectionately calling me his “Wild Child.” Other times we were like Tatum and Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon, a traveling father-daughter act pulling schemes, subsisting on our charm, and always sticking together.

We hoped that Eddie Body could share this life with us, but their fights became more frequent. More and more he went out without my dad. And, according to my father’s journals, Ed became less interested in sex. Lonely and dejected, Dad remembered my mom:

Sometimes I think of Barb and how callous I was to her for so long, so maybe it serves me right that Ed’s like that to me sometimes. I had a dream about her the other night. I was going around to all the bars alone, feeling lonely, and she brings me the car in the parking lot. We feel so good being together. “But this really isn’t happening you know, you’re dead.” She looks hurt. “It’s not that I don’t love you,” I say.

One afternoon, at the Haight-Ashbury Daycare Center, I didn’t see Ed at the classroom door. Dad met me and we walked to the park. Back in the trees beside Hippie Hill, we started playing our game of hide-and-seek, a favorite from the time I was a toddler hack in Atlanta. I called, “Where you are, Daddy?” He answered, “Here I am,” and I followed the sound. When I found the tree where he’d been hiding, I circled around it while he circled in the same direction so that he was always just out of reach.

“Where you are, Daddy?”

“Here I am!”

Until, finally, I ran and caught him. When I became hungry and tired, we walked home together hand in hand. As we entered the tunnel leading to the opening of the park, Dad told me about Ed.

“Eddie Body and I are having problems,” he said.

“What kind of problems?” I asked.

“Well, Ed doesn’t seem to like me anymore. He doesn’t want to sleep with me.”

“I’ll sleep with you,” I said. And I pulled his hand and started skipping, so that he would be forced to join me, which he did happily.

As we skipped through the tunnel, I began to sing a song I’d learned at day care: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.” Dad tried to sing along but I yelled at him. I wanted to do it alone. “Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”

Alysia Abbott with her father Steve Abbott in 1979. Photo courtesy of Alysia Abbott.

Alysia Abbott with her father Steve Abbott in 1979. Photo courtesy of Alysia Abbott.

The next morning, I went to the airport to spend a week with my maternal grandparents in Kewanee. After my mom died I spent almost every school break at my grandparents. The week I was away, Dad wrote in his journal that Ed had received a letter from the wife he’d left behind in New York. He’d learned that she’d given birth to a baby girl and now wanted a divorce. My dad held Eddie while he cried.

At the end of the week, my father picked me up from the airport. Driving home on Highway 101 at night, San Francisco looked like a glittering diamond necklace strung across the sky. Dad turned to me and asked, “You didn’t tell Munca and Grumpa about Eddie Body and I, did you?”

I looked out the window. “I didn’t say nothing.”

Back at home, we climbed the stairs to our apartment. Dad put down my suitcase and I pulled off my coat then searched the house for Johnny, Paulette, and Ed, but no one was home:

“Where’s Eddie Body?” I asked.

“He’s with Mary Ann.”

“Why?”

“He loves Mary Ann.”

“He loves Alysia,” I said.

“He does love Alysia. But he also loves Mary Ann. And she has a baby.”

“Why can’t Mary Ann and Eddie live with us?” I asked.

“It doesn’t really work that way,” Dad answered.

“But I want Eddie Body.”

“So does Daddy.”

“Daddy is sad?” I asked.

“Yes. Now Daddy doesn’t have a boyfriend.”

“I make you feel better.” I crawled into his lap. “I’ll be your boyfriend.”

When I left Dad’s lap to go to the bathroom, he noticed through the open door that I didn’t pee standing up. When he asked me about it I answered, “Munca and Grumpa said little girls should sit down.”

“Okay. You can do it that way if it’s more comfortable for you. But if you want to pee standing up, you know how!”

“Little girls sit down,” I repeated. “I don’t know how to pee standing up.”

“That’s fine, too.”

Later that night, after putting me to bed, Dad went out to the Stud, leaving me in the care of Paulette. In the back of the club, he got stoned, took two carbitols, and met a rangy eighteen-year-old named Jimmy, whom he took home.

The next morning, I climbed into Dad’s bed, squeezing myself inside the small space between him and the man beside him. My dad was asleep but I didn’t recognize the other man with his shaggy blond hair. I fell back asleep and started having nightmares. I called out to him in my sleep, “Daddy, let me in!” He reported on the night’s aftermath:

February 15: Alysia’s been in upset and cranky mood this afternoon. Maybe upset about Ed leaving. She was more clingy than usual. Her eye hurt. She wanted to be held and cried a lot. I thought it was just because she was tired, not having had a nap. Put her to bed around 4-5. Don’t want to go to bar but may go to a party. I think I’ll stay home because Alysia may wake, and maybe no one will be here with her unless I stay.

That night after putting me to bed, instead of going out, Dad drew me a Valentine’s Day card. In his journals he wrote about making the card as a way to help me cope with the loss of Eddie, which was still so confusing and painful after my mom’s death. But looking at it now, I think he really made the card for himself, as a way to articulate his philosophy on love. I see him especially in the angry dog.

Two of my father’s lovers—his most passionate love affairs after my mother—were with men who ended up leaving him to return to women. Each of these men explored physical love with my dad, either because of his charisma or because of a moment that encouraged sexual experimentation. But these men, with girlfriends and wives, were still anchored to society in a way that Dad no longer was and never would be again. My father wrote about this coincidence in a letter to John Dale that February:

You know, it’s so weird I chose Ed as my lover, a man like you (I say man because he’s refused to become another bitchy queen like so many gay men do – refused to shut himself off from the rest of society). And now, like you, he’s going back to his wife. In his case it’s somewhat different. He has a kid too now, a little girl who he loves terribly much even though he’s never seen her. I love Ed & need him but he wasn’t able to find a job here & hated feeling dependent on me. Also maybe his wife & baby need him more, & he them. So I’ve encouraged him to go . . . I hope [his wife] forgives him & helps him to his feet.

Given how much the breakup hurt Dad, I was surprised to learn that he had actually encouraged Ed to return to his wife. In the back of his journal I even found a seven-page unsent letter Dad wrote to Ed’s wife pleading with her to take him back. I can’t help but think this letter came from some unresolved guilt Dad still felt about the way he’d treated my mom in the end.

After Ed split, Dad tried to orchestrate a room switch in the apartment, arguing that if he was still paying the most rent he should have his pick of rooms. Johnny didn’t want to trade rooms, accusing Dad of “economic imperialism.” Dad then moved us to a flat on Page Street, a few blocks away and without roommates. He regretted losing the Oak Street place he’d put so much time and energy into, but, as he wrote in a letter: “Just living in a houseful of screaming faggots was driving me up the wall . . . I wish I could find some really together people for Alysia to grow up around, instead of all the neurotic, selfish shit-faces that so abound.”

Eddie Body moved to New York but returned to San Francisco only a few weeks later. He’d lived with his wife and daughter but left them after deciding it was “too much.” He started dating women again, and even moved in with Moonbeam’s mom. Since my father had introduced them, their coupling was especially painful for him. He visited us a few times but he never stayed very long, and it always confused me. I missed him and couldn’t understand why he wasn’t with us anymore.

In the years that followed, Dad had other boyfriends but none lived with us. And after Eddie Body, I stopped paying close attention.

 ***

Alysia Abbott is the author of Fairyland, a Memoir of My Father, winner of the ALA Stonewall Award and named one of the best books of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle, Goodreads, Shelf Awareness, among others. Her work has appeared in Vogue, TheAtlantic.com, Real Simple, Slate, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. She’s also a cofounder of TheRecollectors.com, a site and community dedicated to remembering parents lost to AIDS. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts where she teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston