Justin Juul

Tooth and consequences


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It’s two days after Christmas and I’m sprawled out on a plastic-lined chaise lounge, sipping fluoride and waiting for the blood to stop gushing from my gums so the doctors can get back to work. Beyond the noise of drills and X-ray machines I hear grunts from several other patients and the sounds of merchants outside hawking sombreros, sweetbread, bootleg Fendi bags, and pottery. Kind of strange, but I’m not worried anymore. This is my second day at Dr. Rafael Lopez’s dental clinic, and I’m no longer freaked out that it’s nestled among trinket stores and cantinas in a bustling bazaar in Mexico.

I also don’t care that the dentists here speak hardly any English, nor I any Spanish. I mean, it’s not like I’m alone. All the other patients at Dr. Lopez’s office are either Canadian or American, and all the people shopping out front are too. In fact, nearly every person I’ve met on the streets here is Caucasian and an English speaker. We’re all dental tourists, and we’ve come to Los Algodones — a sunny border town near Yuma, Arizona, which allegedly has more dental clinics and pharmacies per block than any other city in the world — to save money. In my case, I’m in for three root canals with posts and crowns for the price of a secondhand scooter on eBay: $1,850, about a third of what I’d pay for the same procedures in the States.

I’d heard about Dr. Lopez’s clinic through a friend of my mother’s, but Los Algodones, like other dental tourism destinations, was easy to find on the Web. In fact, the town’s Web site, www.losalgodones.com, is actually a dental clinic referral network, with pictures of smiling clinicians and graphic before and after shots flashing across its home page. Clinics like Dr. Lopez’s, which often handle 10 to 20 patients a day, are set up exclusively for foreigners. Dr. Lopez estimates that 80 percent of his customers are American and 20 percent are Canadian; most Mexicans in the area can’t afford his rates. Many of them come to towns like this for big-ticket procedures like bridges and reconstructive surgery, some of which can cost more than $10,000 at home.

And they’re coming in increasing numbers. According to HealthCare Tourism International, a nonprofit accreditation and information organization set up to monitor the medical tourism boom, an estimated 1 million Americans will travel abroad this year for some of sort of medical service, up from the National Coalition on Health Care’s figure of about 150,000 in 2004. Of the procedures sought, 40 percent will be dental related. A recent article in the New York Times on the dental tourism phenomenon cited a boom in luxury travel packages designed around dental procedures. A root canal followed by a little fly-fishing in Costa Rica? Why not? The money you save can justify a short vacation.


Dr. Lopez’s clinic is, hopefully, the end of the road for me. I’ve been struggling with dental problems (and the potential resulting bills) for years. With all this talk of health care reform, you’d think I would have been able to find a decent low-cost US dentist, especially in civic-minded San Francisco. But it just wasn’t happening. For whatever reason, dental care and health care are viewed as two separate issues in the United States. When it comes to diseases, colds, and broken bones, you can usually catch a break, but good luck trying to get your teeth fixed on a budget. The truth is, even if you have some form of dental insurance, which is unlikely — according to the American Dental Association (ADA), only about half of all Americans do — dental care is nearly impossible for average wage earners to afford. At least, I’ve never been able to afford it. And I’ve looked everywhere.

My own dental horror story began nearly a decade ago when the Marine Corps kicked me off my retired father’s lifelong dental plan. I was fine for about a year, until the day I awoke with a terrible pain in my mouth. I was 19 at the time, taking classes at a community college and working at a café — barely able to pay rent, let alone find the time and money for a visit to the dentist. So I did the next best thing: simply ignored the pain, staving it off with copious amounts of ibuprofen when it got intense. The over-the-counter denial did the trick for almost two years, but I knew I would be forced to eventually bite the bullet, however softly.

And then it happened. My teeth started breaking. Not hurting, at least no more than usual, just breaking off — in huge, gray chunks.

This went on for years. By the time I was 25, four of my teeth had shattered and the rest seemed well on their way to doing the same. I adopted the diet of a five-month-old, unable to chew anything tougher than bananas or scrambled eggs. It was time to act, but I had no idea where to go. As a full-time student, getting by on financial aid, loans, and whatever I could rake in as a part-time waiter, I was nearly destitute. I’d recently transferred to San Francisco State University, but at that time, in order to purchase the student dental plan the school offered, I also had to purchase its medical plan, a combination that would have increased my monthly bills by nearly $200.

It was tempting, particularly in comparison with most employer-related or individual plans I qualified for, which could run into the thousands. But SFSU’s dental plan screened out existing problems, like the trainwreck I had going on, and carried an annual cap of less than $1,000. (Unlike medical insurance plans, which feature deductibles, most dental plans have annual monetary ceilings.) So even with the plan I would still be unable to afford even a fraction of the work I needed to have done. Since my student days, SFSU has implemented a dental-only plan available to undergrads, but often the limits are too low to cover anything other than cleanings and fillings.

Thus I began my search for a pro bono dentist, figuring that with all the uninsured people living in the city there must be someone around. It quickly became clear, however, that scoring free dental is harder than finding a decent vegetarian restaurant in rural Alabama.


First, I had a glimmer of hope: a medical and dental clinic in Berkeley that had the word free in its name.

The Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC) has been offering free medical and dental care to the hard-up since 1969. It provides free HIV tests, medicine, preventative education, and more. But I needed dental work — and that was another story. As the only clinic in Northern California offering free fillings, extractions, and referrals to discount dentists, BFC is insanely popular. And since it’s run by volunteers and donors, it’s also chronically understaffed. Jessica Hsieh, a clinic coordinator, explained that the facility does as much as it can with limited resources. "We used to take patients on a first-come, first-served basis," she says. "But there were so many people lined up every night that our waiting room and hallway became fire hazards."

To deal with this problems, the clinic has devised a maddening selection system, which includes spotty business hours and a name-in-the-hat-style lottery. It sounded a little sketchy, but I gave it a go.

After making the 45-minute commute from my home, I arrived at the clinic at exactly 5:30 on a Monday evening. I scribbled my name on a small slip of paper, handed it to the receptionist, and took a seat in a waiting room crowded with students, broke workers, and homeless people. A nurse came out and told everyone to sit tight; the dentists were taking our names into a separate room and she’d return soon with their random choices. Ten minutes later, she came out again, read off three names, and then told everyone else to go home.

The room had been quiet as we all waited to see who’d won, but when a young blond girl with designer jeans and a fancy cell phone rose to claim her prize, the atmosphere became tense.

"That’s fucking bullshit," said a man with dirt on his face and ripped boots. "I’ve been coming here for weeks. This is her first fucking time!"

One of the dentists apologized and reminded us that we were welcome to keep trying as many times as we liked. I took his advice and returned three more times, missing a day of study or work for every fruitless visit until I gave up. One of my teeth in the back had started aching like hell, and I couldn’t stomach the wait any longer.

I broadened my search to include dental schools like that at the University of California San Francisco, where the wait times were rumored to be long, but once on the list, getting work done was guaranteed. After talking to students at the UCSF clinic, though, I realized treatment would require several days off from work and school because each step a student made during surgery would have to be approved by a busy professor and analyzed by other students. And the discount wasn’t exactly phenomenal.

The average cost of a single complete root canal procedure (root canal, post, and crown) at UCSF is more than $1,100, almost twice the amount I wound up paying in Mexico and way more than I could afford at the time.

So I scrapped the dental-school idea and dug deeper, figuring that if I couldn’t find free or cheap dental work, I could at least find a place that offered a payment plan. And I did find such a place.

Western Dental is like the McDonald’s of dental clinics. With multiple locations in almost every city in California, it’s effectively cornered the market on affordable dental work. Only it’s not cheap. A complete root canal procedure on one tooth can cost up to $1,590 — a lot less than a regular dentist, but much more than a dental school and about three times as much as Dr. Lopez charged me in Mexico. People flock to Western Dental because it lets you pay off your dental work like you would a car. You plunk down $99 for a yearlong membership, make a 20 to 30 percent down payment, and then pay the rest off monthly over the course of one year. And Western Dental doesn’t take your credit history into account when working out a plan.

Out of desperation, I eventually did get one of my teeth fixed at the Mission and 24th Street location, and wound up paying a $350 deposit and monthly installments of $110 for the next 12 months.


With my most painful tooth taken care of, I could now focus on finding a better deal, which is how I wound up in Mexico. So far it seems to have been a pretty smart decision. My new teeth look great and they’re holding up fine. I was treated extremely well by Dr. Lopez’s staff. But there are many reasons not go to Mexico for cheap dental work. And Brad Hatfield, a Korean War vet and retired city planner from Arizona City who asked that I not use his real name, knows them all.

Hatfield has been making the three-hour trip to Los Algodones for nearly a decade. He’s seen the town evolve from a haven for cheap trinkets and booze into what it is now: a medical resort for Americans with expensive tooth and eye issues. Hatfield started going to Los Algodones when he realized that even with his insurance he’d never be able to afford necessary dental work. But now, many years and thousands of dollars later, he’s learned his lesson.

"The problem with dentistry in Mexico," says Hatfield, "is that there’s no recourse. If something bad happens, you can’t sue anyone. All you can do is ask for your money back." And that’s just what Hatfield did when he returned from Los Algodones recently and discovered that his new teeth were worthless. Indeed, he claims that almost none of the work he’s gotten in Mexico has held up longer than a year or so.

This last time was the worst. "As soon as I got home," says Hatfield, "my gums started hurting really bad and bleeding off and on." When he called his clinic to complain, they denied his request for a refund and invited him back for some discounted work instead. Hatfield went back, got the work done, and thought his problems were over. But a few days later he realized they weren’t. "I was sitting here eating a piece of chocolate, and all of a sudden I realized I was chewing on two of my teeth and the bridge that was connecting them. All the work they had done had just fallen out."

Hatfield has tried repeatedly to get his dentist to refund his money back, but all he gets in response are invitations to return for more work. "Now they want to just rip all my teeth out and give me a full set of implants. It’s going to cost thousands of dollars on top of the $10,000 I’ve already spent there over the past year."

Hatfield is currently trying to get his problems fixed at a dental college in Mesa, Arizona, but he’s facing steeper prices and will probably have to return to Mexico soon. "My dental and medical problems have ruined me as a person," he says. "I can’t get a job because my teeth are so screwed up, and I can’t think through all this pain. I just don’t understand why dental work is so expensive. It’s much worse than medical."


Hatfield brings up a good point. For some reason dental issues aren’t included in national or local debates about health care. Healthy San Francisco, the universal, citywide health care access program operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, doesn’t cover access to dental services, which were never even considered for inclusion. When reached by the Guardian for comment on this exclusion, SFDPH spokesperson Eileen Shields stressed the difference between the city’s program and regular insurance plans, saying "[Healthy San Francisco] is a health access plan, providing access to basic medical care. I mean, my health plan doesn’t even include dental — does yours?"

Denti-Cal, the state dental insurance program offered as part of Medi-Cal, is an option for California residents with a low income, a social security number, and at least one child. But it obviously doesn’t help the throngs who fill the waiting rooms of Western Dental. San Francisco General Hospital keeps an oral surgeon on call for extreme emergencies but if you want your janked-out teeth replaced or aren’t doubled over in chronic pain, SF General can’t help you.

It doesn’t look like any of this is changing soon. None of the candidates running for president this year has announced a platform that specifically deals with the high cost of dental care in America. Why? Why are medical and dental issues treated as two separate entities? And why is it so hard to afford dental treatment even with insurance?

Hsieh of the BFC thinks it may have to do with the fact that dental issues aren’t thought to be as life-threatening as medical issues. But if an infected tooth is left untreated, it can lead to death just as surely as unchecked pneumonia. On its Web site, the ADA acknowledges the high cost of dental insurance but privileges prevention over treatment, claiming that most dental problems are preventable. If Americans would just take care of their teeth, use their paltry insurance plans for routine checkups, and quit eating so much candy, they wouldn’t have to get root canals. But I brush after meals, floss regularly, and stay away from sweets — and I’ve been in and out of dental clinics with major problems since I was five.

Another theory has to do with the high costs of dental school and specialized equipment, which makes sense. But the truth of the matter, commonly pointed out in the ongoing health care debate, is that mixing profit with patients is a recipe for disaster. As long as insurance companies are able to make billions by fleecing their customers, and as long as dental clinics and drug companies are allowed to set their own prices, the general population is going to be cavity ridden and kind of ugly.

For now, it seems dental tourism may be the best option for people with normal-to-low incomes and chronic problems. Two months after my visit to Mexico, my teeth feel much better and I’m back on solid food. But this kind of travel isn’t for the fainthearted. The weather and food in Los Algodones are great. But getting your teeth ripped out and reconstructed in a foreign country with no legal recourse is dangerous and scary, especially during the high-traffic winter season when the tendency to rush through patients escalates.

My triple root canal, for example, took a mere two visits. The doctors hacked away for 10 hours straight, let me heal for one day, and then stuck on the crowns and pocketed my check. I stumbled out of Dr. Lopez’s office a few days before New Year’s, in a Novocain-induced daze, with blood on my shirt and pieces of rubber molding stuck to my cheeks. My jaws and head ached as I shuffled through the mile-long border-crossing corridor, sweating and dry-heaving.

As I approached the checkpoint, I wondered if I had made the right choice.

Then I remembered that I hadn’t actually made one. It was this or nothing.

Emma Lierley contributed to this report.

>>View a video interview with a Canadian dental tourist

G-Spot: Getting girls


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Within minutes of meeting Nicole Halpern, an instructor at the One Taste Urban Retreat Center in SoMa, I was naked and bent over with my ass in her face. In fact, in her naked yoga class there was nothing but penises and vaginas, dangling breasts and balls as far as the eye could see.

I’d come to the center to do research on what I’d heard was a sex cult, and by the looks of things the rumors weren’t far off. In fact, as I’d entered the center on my way to class, I got the feeling my story was writing itself. I would talk about how the receptionists at the front desk had to stop groping one another in order to greet me, how the women looked younger than the men, and how all the signs of new age spirituality — earth tones, organic food, Birkenstocks — seemed a cover for what I sensed was actually a coven of perverts.

One Taste helps people attain deeper connection through sexual experimentation. The most hardcore members have given up their normal lives to frolic in nonmonogamous bliss at the retreat center, which, along with yoga studios, also houses a café, a lounge, and a system of co-ed dorms where members work long nights testing taboos. The idea is that if you free your sex, the rest will follow. To this end, the center also offers public classes in touching, genital stroking, and even prostate massage. Weird shit, right?

So as I relaxed into my second downward dog, I smiled, assuming I’d found the perfect subjects for my anti–Valentine’s Day story, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on all of the weirdos in this city who believe sex is something more than a basic human need. It would be investigative journalism at its finest: "I Joined a Sex Cult," by Justin Juul.

But it didn’t work out that way. It was the last thing I expected, but this naked yoga stuff was making me happy. The shock of public nudity was forcing me to let down my guard and experience the moment for what it was: exciting and naughty. I wanted more.

I decided making fun of these people would be too easy — and dishonest. It seemed that a little sexploration really might benefit the soul. So instead of rushing home afterward to write a sarcastic piece about sex freaks, I swallowed my cynicism and asked Halpern if I could come back sometime.

"If you really want to see what we’re all about, you’ll take the Man Course," she said. And with that, my fate was sealed.

My research later that night revealed that the Man Course would involve 10 "extremely orgasmic" women who’d spend an entire day fielding questions and revealing their secrets to a small group of men. It was boot camp for jilted lovers, designed to help downtrodden men build confidence and score more chicks.

It all sounded great for 40-year-old virgins, but what could I, a young journalist with a girlfriend at home, expect to gain? I wasn’t sure, and neither was my girlfriend. "Sounds like some Venus versus Mars bullshit," she said. "Men and women are more similar than different. It sounds like a way for sleazy men to hang out with young girls to me."

I was afraid she might be right, but I decided to go for it anyway. After all, I hadn’t expected the yoga class to be anything but funny. Maybe I could learn something in the Man Course. After all, although our relationship is great, I can’t say I understand my girlfriend any better now than I did when I tricked her into liking me three years ago.

So two weeks later I was back at the center.

The dudes in the lobby on the morning of class were visibly nervous. They weren’t as ugly as I had imagined, but they all reeked of desperation, their trembling hands running through their hair, their eyes darting. I felt a surge of superiority wash through me as I watched these poor souls drink coffee and wait for instructions. One Taste might be able to teach them something, but I was sure I was way too cool to learn anything here.

Orientation began with an introduction exercise. A man asked each of us to say our name and tell the group a problem we have with women. The first person wondered why he could never please women even though he spent so much time doing things they claimed to want, like buying dinner and opening doors. The next wondered why women seem to want to be taken care of but often become ornery when you treat them like children.

As I listened, my confidence began to evaporate. I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions either, and new ones were popping up. Why does my girlfriend give me that weird look when I talk about articles I read in Vice magazine? Why does she always say she feels like she doesn’t know me? This group confessional was making me worry about my relationship. It also bonded me to these other men, all utterly confused and ready to figure shit out.

And then the women arrived.

The energy in the room grew tense as the women, ranging from 22 to 55 years old, filed in with Halpern at their helm. One by one the girls took off their jackets, adjusted their skirts, and joined our circle, engaging as many men as possible in suggestive eye contact. The room was dead silent until Halpern clapped her hands and said, "Welcome to the Man Course!"

The next hour involved more introductions. The women stated their names and gave a brief description of their personal games — coyness, deliberately confusing eye play, and false flirtatiousness were among the most popular — and the men were asked to explore their own shortcomings. "Hi," a student named John said. "I feel like I’m trapped in a nice-guy shell and that women think I’m boring."

"Well," Halpern said. "Today we’re gonna get dirty. We’re gonna get you out of that box and get really messy. Can you handle that? Are you ready to get messy?"

John said he was ready. "Then let’s see you do something messy right now," Halpern said. John grinned and got up, pumped his pelvis in the air, and said, "Yeah, baby, let’s get mess-say!" The girls giggled.

The other men and I went through a similar deal. We confessed to a particular problem and were then asked to directly address it. The shy guys were asked to speak more, the mean guys were asked to be nice, and I was asked to drop my cool-guy act. In exchange the women promised to stop playing their games. No bitchy auras, pouty mouths, or condescending giggling from the women, and no false bravado, competitiveness, or calculated detachment from the guys. We were just a bunch of humans now, willing participants in a sexually charged science lab. It was both scary and liberating.

We spent the rest of the afternoon doing one-on-one vulnerability exercises, such as making judgments based on appearance, pointing out flaws, and even asking a girl on a date, risking rejection. The most intense exercise, though, was one in which the women shared their fantasies.

The girl I was paired with, a blue-eyed fresh-out-of-college type, had a mouth like a sailor and the mind of a teenage boy. "I want to go out with a stranger and then leave early to lick his balls," the girl said. "I want to suck his cock and stick my tongue in his asshole." Like all of the other exercises, this one suggested that although women may seem very different from men, they’re really just as horny and perverted — and as confused, embarrassed, and shy about it — as we are.

The rest of the day was similarly enlightening. There were touch exercises that included dancing and massage, more talking exercises, and even a mock date. All of the exercises worked to dissolve our ingrained ways of being, so the men in the class could see the women for what they actually are: people.

I left feeling happy and horny, ready to tell my girlfriend about all of the cool stuff I’d learned — namely, that she and the girls at the center weren’t all that different. It seemed the girls of One Taste actually shared my girlfriend’s outlook. Although it was billed as a man-centric healing session, the Man Course felt more like therapy for humans, its primary message being that we are all fundamentally the same. And it did surprise me, just as the yoga experience had. It forced me out of my comfort zone and into the unknown. It was an entire day of emotional nakedness, which, I learned, can be as just as exciting and therapeutic as physical nakedness.

The women of One Taste taught me a few important lessons. One was that my girlfriend is pretty damn smart. Men and women really do have a lot more in common than it seems. Second was that I could probably stand to open up a little more, to focus less on being cool and more on being myself. And finally, even though they may seem a little New Agey, the people at One Taste are very brave and extremely well-intentioned.

The next time I set out to ridicule an unsuspecting group of swingers, I’ll make sure they deserve it first.

‘Tis the season for getting even


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Spending time with your family over the holidays can be difficult. Are you a vegetarian atheist with carnivorous, God-fearin’ folks? Are your grandparents racist? Then you know what I mean. But these special occasions don’t have to suck. Step one? Stop playing on their turf. Why spend one more holiday giving them the home-team advantage, biting your tongue to make them feel more comfortable? Instead, tell your relatives to get their asses up to San Francisco for a good old heathen’s ball. It may sound counterintuitive, but think about it for a minute: you’ll be in charge. It’s the perfect time to have the holiday you’ve always wished you’d had … or to just get even with your folks for all of those miserable dinners you’ve gritted your teeth through all of these years. The businesses listed below have everything you’ll need to either gently ruffle some feathers or send your folks screaming back to their safety nooks. How far you choose to take things is up to you — and your childhood trauma.


If your parents’ wholesome holiday decorations are inherently offensive (even the average gender-"appropriate" angel ornament can seem oppressive to a student of gender-continuum philosophy), you can beat them at their own game by picking up a few things at Under One Roof (549 Castro, SF; 415-503-2300, www.underoneroof.org) in the Castro. Most of the holiday knickknacks you’ll find there, like rainbow-cloaked Santa Claus decorations and muscle-man bottle openers, will do little more than raise a conservative’s eyebrow. But they’ll provide valuable ammunition when the conversation turns political: just watch how Dad reacts when you counter his homophobia by pointing out that the cocoa mug he’s using comes from a boy-town volunteer organization that donates all of its proceeds to HIV-AIDS research.

If that doesn’t work, try riling your folks by jabbing at their spirituality with holiday decorations. They force you to stare down Christianity at every turn? Then shove your lack of belief down their throats this year by shopping in the Mission, where a cluster of small boutiques carries everything you’ll need for an offbeat — or damn near demonic — holiday party.

Start your spree at Paxton Gate (824 Valencia, SF; 415-824-1872, www.paxtongate.com), where you’ll find an assortment of unconventional home decor options, including carnivorous plants and a large collection of vaguely satanic household accessories. Although you might score some unwanted points with your hunting-aficionado brother with a few of taxidermist Jeanie M’s dangling mice angels, you’ll certainly lose plenty from your born-again aunt, whose collection of gruesome Jesus-dying-on-the-cross sculptures offend you as much as your ornaments will her.

After grabbing some choice roadkill art, you’ll want to head to Yoruba Botanica (998 Valencia, SF; 415-826-4967) for some Santeria-style pagan altars, spell candles, and heretical oils and scents, then to Casa Bonampak (3331 24th St., SF; 415-642-4079, www.casabonampak.com) for some Latin flair. A wreath made of chile peppers, some Virgin of Guadalupe party streamers, and a few discounted Día de los Muertos items will add a little subversive color to your thoroughly confusing collection of holiday decorations.


If you’ve lived in the city for more than two years, you’ve probably adopted a cruelty-free diet and grown weary of your family’s annual flesh-eating parties. You know those relatives who always "forget" you don’t eat meat? Now you can ostracize them by serving an alternative smorgasbord from SF’s premier food co-op, Rainbow Grocery (1745 Folsom, SF; 415-863-0620, www.rainbowgrocery.org). There’s plenty to choose from here, including a full line of Tofurky products, organic cranberry sauce, and Tofutti brand frozen treats for dessert.

Even if your relatives don’t mind taking a short break from their irresponsible eating habits, you can still piss them off by directly attacking their morals with an obscene cake from the Cake Gallery (290 Ninth St., SF; 415-861-2253, www.thecakegallerysf.com), a hole-in-the-wall bakery that boasts the ability and desire to make "anything your demented mind can think up." Can the artists at the Cake Gallery make a dessert with a leather-clad transsexual peeing on the baby Jesus? You bet your family’s asses they can.


With dinner out of the way, it’s time to expose your family to a bit of real SF culture with some quality time for them and your friends. You’ll want to invite an array of typical weirdos to rival your family’s usual assortment of nerdy cousins, creepy aunts and uncles, and stoic grandparents; we suggest at least one hippie, a lesbian couple, a club kid, and a few snobby hipsters with neck tattoos.

If none of your friends are willing to flaunt their earlobe plugs or perform a contact improv dance number, you might want to put some effort into background noise. Downloading a raunchy playlist will work in a pinch, but if you really want to shock your guests, how about visiting Amoeba Music (1855 Haight, SF; 415-831-1200, www.amoeba.com), which carries almost every holiday album ever made? Start with Run DMC’s single "Christmas in Hollis" (Fedor Sigel, 1987), then move on to something more unsettling, like the heavy metal compilation A Brutal Christmas: The Season in Chaos (SoTD Records, 2003). Amoeba also carries chapters 1 to 22 of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet (Jive; 2005, 2007) and other parent-unfriendly classics like Wondershowzen (MTV2; 2005–06) — you know, the music your friends will love as much as your folks will hate it.


Is everyone appropriately uncomfortable? Good. Now it’s time for the postdinner activity. Rather than listen to Grandpa’s drunken ramblings or watch Mom resentfully do all of the dishes herself, goddamnit, why not take the fam on a nice little trip through Yuletide SF?

If your folks seem to be planning a mutiny, you might want to appease them (i.e., ease them into submission) by booking a tour with Cable Car Charters (Pier 31, Embarcadero, SF; 415-922-2425, www.cablecarcharters.com), which offers a holiday lights package, complete with blankets and a man dressed like Santa Claus. But if you’re really out for blood, consider heading directly to the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF; 415-621-6120, www.thecastrotheatre.com), whose December calendar boasts an appearance by Crispin Glover, a disco-themed Christmas party hosted by an ex–Village Person, and six performances by the SF Gay Men’s Chorus (415-865-3650, www.sfgmc.org), who’ll be paying tribute to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, solstice, and Ramadan, all at the same time.


Congratulations, you made it!

You can still torture your folks with shots of Fernet back at your apartment as punishment for all of the fattening eggnog nightcaps you’ve endured over the years, but if you ever want to see them again, you might just lead them to their half-deflated air mattresses and bid them good night. After eight full hours of tossing and turning on your floor, maybe they’ll be inspired to tone it down next time you come to visit — or at least remember to add a plate of steamed vegetables to the slaughtered-animal spread. And if they’re not, you can always bring a penis cake home with you next year. *

Scavenging’s new spirit


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>>Click here to check out our Style 2007 Guide

It’s a warm September night, and I’m standing in a crowded art gallery in South San Francisco, staring at a metal octopus that moves its tentacles when you press a button. In many ways, it’s like every other reception I’ve been to: a table with snacks and wine, a healthy feeling of snobbery in the air, and a swath of hipsters blocking my view of everything. But as I walk around I notice some differences. The smell of decomposing flesh, the sound of heavy machinery, the walk-in "free shed," dozens of trash cans, and the mounds of refuse on the horizon all suggest that I’m standing in the middle of a landfill. Which, well, I am. It’s the site of the art exhibition "Waste Deep," by Nemo Gould, the San Francisco Dump’s artist in residence. And what’s most striking? I feel completely at home.

After spending most of September with junk collectors, vintage clothing nerds, and art diggers, I’m now completely accustomed to wallowing in trash and noticing freebies. For example, before driving to the SF Dump this evening I ate free baked goods at the X-rated Cake Gallery in SoMa, scrounged through leftovers at an estate sale in Bernal Heights, and knocked back pints of free Pabst at Broken Record in the Excelsior.

Yes, friends, I have become a bona fide freeloader. But like my newfound partners in grime I shun the connotations of the term. I choose instead to see myself as a sort of hip cultural revolutionary, one of the loose band of entrepreneurs and artists I’ve met over the past month who shamelessly revel in their personal gain because, at the end of the day, they know they’re "working" for a good cause. Not only are we getting a lot of cool free shit, but we’re also helping to transform the traditional hippy-dippy recycle-reuse-redistribute ethos into something more refreshing.

The freestyle movement is growing. Freeganism, a ragtag philosophy of cost-free living in a gift economy, has gained some national attention of late — especially in these economically challenging times — and the freegan ethos incubated in San Francisco, where groups like the Diggers gave away food during the ’60s. This city knows a thing or two about priceless give-and-take. And thanks to the freegan types I’ve been hanging out with, I now look at scavenging as an art form, a party, and a necessary lifestyle, one that has more to do with fashion, art, music, booze, and friendly competition than with fighting world hunger, globalization, or the war machine. Oh, most scavengers are concerned with all of that too, but creating awareness (about irresponsible consumption and the effects of wastefulness on the environment and humanity) is the fortunate by-product of the lifestyle, rather than its focus — which is, of course, copping free stuff.


My journey from a life spent paying to consume to one consumed by the pursuit of freebies began two years ago, when I moved into a new building in the Mission. My neighbor was Aaron Schirmer — a reclusive artist who lives in a world of secondhand designer denim, seminew Macintosh computers, and used sound systems — whom I’d occasionally run into on my way to buy cigarettes and Jim Beam. Usually we’d smile and nod. But one day while he sat smoking on the stoop, he flagged me down. "Check out what I found today," he said.

At his side sat a large bag of American Apparel man panties and a crate of old-school electro cassettes. When I asked where they’d come from, he rambled on about free markets, dumpsters, and swap meets. Then he stopped abruptly, fished for the keys to his house, and said, "Here, I’ll show you."

I followed him into a hallway lined with half-finished paintings and strategically cracked mirrors, through a ’50s-style kitchen, and into his living room. In the corner, beneath a dangling gold and green Eames-style lamp, sat a 50-inch color television. His bedroom walls were lined with random bric-a-brac and outsider art, and his couch was a row of velvet-lined theater seats. Schirmer spread his arms and did his best Vanna White. "Here it is," he said. "I found all of this shit on the streets. People leave piles everywhere, and I just roam around all day and pick through them."

I quickly fell into a routine with Schirmer, a retired world-traveling DJ who now spends his days spinning rare records, tending his garden, and scavenging. I would come over to his house after work, crack a beer, and check out his finds, occasionally claiming certain items for myself. We’d then scroll through the Free section on Craigslist to devise a tentative map for the following day’s scavenge. I rarely had time to join him on his daily hunts, but I quickly learned that the free pot is virtually bottomless. And I was hooked.

These days I roam the neighborhood (corporate dumpsters are always a good bet) or scour the Internet anytime I need something. On my most recent search I found a stuffed bunny, a six-foot-tall stack of records, a pair of cowboy boots, and — I shit you not — Sharon Stone’s old couch. But I’m no expert. Anyone can search a Web site, but it takes a true connoisseur, someone like Kelly Malone, to build a business from scavenging.


Malone, cofounder of the Mission Indie Mart, spent 10 years climbing the retail ladder at places like the Gap and Limited until she worked her way up to a glamorous life as a traveling designer. But then tragedy struck — in the form of ovarian cancer and its debilitating treatment process — and she had to quit. After spending the first few days of her indefinite vacation watching television, drinking too much at the Phone Booth, and watching old movies, she decided to revisit an old hobby: scavenging. "I just started over and kept positive," Malone said. "When I wasn’t sick from the chemo, I was trash-picking for cool stuff to sew and reconstruct." Malone began meticulously scouring estate sales, flea markets, and garage sales for that perfect owl clock or a one-of-a-kind sundress. She also got into interior and exterior design, grabbing spare paint and building materials off the streets, then enlisting her friends to help construct a backyard oasis.

Soon, though, Malone’s home had morphed into a retro junk museum. Her backyard was now dotted with old benches, barbecue grills, sculptures, and a sound system. Clothes were spilling out all over the place, and she had enough paint to cover a mansion. It was time to expand.

Malone began taking her stuff down to the flea market in South San Francisco. She set up a booth with music and goodies, offered free beer and hot dogs to friends, and spent whole weekends selling dolled-up vintage goods and making friends with others who did the same. It was there that she struck up a business relationship with Charles Hurbert, a public relations representative at a marketing firm who has a penchant for outsider art and found fashion. Soon Malone and Hurbert combined forces and decided to look beyond sanctioned venues. Malone’s backyard beckoned. The Mission Indie Mart was born.

The first mart went off without a hitch. Malone and Hurbert invited swap meet–interested friends to set up booths in Malone’s backyard. Cheapo flyers were designed, beer was purchased and resold at cost, and reimagined found apparel was offered for sale. It was a thrifty one-off that felt like an illegal rave, and people loved it. Mission District locals swarmed Malone’s backyard and nearly bought up her entire inventory. When she held it again the next month, the mart was even more successful and attracted more people — so many that her landlord threatened to evict her. So Malone sought sponsors and a new venue. The next Mission Indie Mart will be at 12 Galaxies and will feature a set by DJ Lovedust, extremely cheap Stella Artois, and an even bigger collection of vendors.

The mart’s success suggests that this model benefits its founders, who make some income from the event, and attendees, who get cheap goods, as much as it does San Francisco’s thriving community of independent designers, vintage-clothing dealers, and the recycling-scavenging movement in general. Malone and Hurbert are proving again that with a little effort and creativity, free shit can be turned into gold.


That’s also what Jason Lewis and Monica Hernandez, the founders of SwapSF, are doing at CELLspace — but for them the party and the product are more important than the money.

The couple started SwapSF a few years ago as a way to poach their friends’ unwanted apparel. "I had this friend who owned like a million pairs of limited-edition sneakers that he never wore," Lewis said. "The swap idea started as a way for me to get my hands on some of them." So Hernandez and Lewis, who have been throwing events since they met at a party five years ago, did what came naturally: they drew up a flyer, bought a bunch of cheap beer and pizza, and invited their friends to get down.

The idea has taken off, as I witnessed Sept. 22 when I threw a few shirts, a pair of pants, and some old hats in a bag and pedaled down to Bryant and 18th Street to volunteer at their recent event, the Most Hyperbolically Stupendous Clothing Swap Ever. It was to be a win-win situation: a little time in exchange for first dibs at free clothes. I arrived at CELLspace at 11 a.m. to find a DJ spinning downtempo hip-hop, a handful of kids sorting through bags, and Hernandez, who greeted me with a smile, a name badge, and a beer. I’d envisioned spending a leisurely afternoon sipping beer provided by Trumer Pilsner (the event sponsor) with about a hundred other scavengers, and the day seemed to be turning out that way.

But neither I nor the organizers were quite prepared for the four-hour clusterfuck that awaited us. Soon the volunteers were drowning in a mile-high volcano of pants, shirts, scarves, and underwear. By noon, the event’s official start time, a line wound around 19th Street. At 12:30 p.m. the place was packed. It was as if every hipster in the Mission had gotten wind of an opportunity for free music, beer, and dancing and had gathered up their unwanted clothes to join the party — a party that happened to result in free clothing for charity organizations like A Woman’s Place, the AIDS Emergency Fund, and San Francisco General Hospital.


Since starting in Lewis and Hernandez’s apartment and then relocating, the SwapSF event has become so popular that it’s getting hard to handle. Even the duo have been surprised by its sudden and exponential growth. It seems that by using sarcastic graphic design on their flyers, guerrilla promotion techniques (word of mouth, stickers, blogs, etc.), and a refrigerator full of beer, Hernandez and Lewis have tapped into a new way to market charity events to a community of self-obsessed hipsters. Like Malone, the SwapSF duo see something wrong with the way our culture consumes and wastes, but they’re reluctant to jump on a soapbox — or even stand close to one.

Which may be why their parties have been garnering more attention and support than have the more traditional free markets that have been held across the nation for years. Malone and her contemporaries are creating awareness with no pretenses, no preaching, and no Hacky Sack–playing hippies. They are nurturing a world of gift exchange that speaks to a new generation of recyclers who enjoy the selfish thrills of scoring, a good party, and daytime drinking more than — or at least as much as — the satisfaction people find in collective self-sacrifice and charity.

Even San Francisco Dump artist Nemo Gould isn’t making his garbage art purely, or even mostly, as a political statement. "By virtue of it being made out of garbage, my art does make a statement about waste and overconsumption," Gould said. "But that’s not what it’s really about." Although Gould sees the danger in the complex environmental situations that create places like the SF Dump, his desire to work there had more to do with personal satisfaction than with changing the world. The dump’s Artist in Residence Program offers one of the most coveted positions in the city because it guarantees lifelong access to free garbage.

"There’s a scavenger spirit," Gould said. "Whoever has it is compelled to collect. Whatever comes after that is up to the scavenger."

The scavenger spirit is currently creating a subculture. Like skateboarders who view the city’s byways as a concrete playground, the new breed of scavengers looks at the urban environment from a different perspective. In their eyes the streets of San Francisco are aisles in a seven-mile-by-seven-mile warehouse of free shit. Their primary goal is to decorate their homes with one-of-a-kind furniture, dress their bodies in fly gear, and pad their pocketbooks, all while avoiding overdraft charges and, on the side, helping to generate awareness. In their separate and edgy styles, Gould, Malone, Hernandez, Lewis, and Schirmer have managed to turn this spirit into a lifestyle that doesn’t alienate people with its self-righteousness. I mean, everyone wants free shit, right? Who can’t relate to that?


There’s a fine line between scavenging to make a statement and being a straight-up freeloader. Luckily, it’s up to the individual to decide exactly where that line is drawn. Here are some resources for learning more about the score.


Information about strategies for sustainable living beyond capitalism; includes freegan hot spots in San Francisco.



A monthly alternate-economy festival and a really good place to get rid of your old stuff.



Kelly Malone and Charles Hurbert’s unique party take on the freegan ethos.



Jason Lewis and Monica Hernandez’s fabulous swap bonanza.



A list of every open bar, happy hour, and extremely cheap alcohol event in the city.



A cross between MySpace and Yelp that focuses entirely on events, including a free section featuring happy hours, art openings, and concert ticket giveaways.



Official city site for recycling, disposal, and reuse information.



Learn about our city’s unique take on garbage and strategies for recycling.



An art foundation dedicated to transforming trash into interactive public sculptures.



Mission Indie Mart cofounder Hurbert blogs his best scavenger finds.



The latest artist in residence at the SF Dump has been making cool stuff from garbage for years.


Feast: 7 slop shops for functioning alcoholics


Our mayor isn’t the only one who (allegedly) leads a Jekyll-and-Hyde life of steadfast labor and drunken debauchery. It seems most San Franciscans are highly productive by day, yet totally hammered almost every night. And we don’t let all the booze stop us from staying in shape either. We are notoriously healthy and hedonistic at the same time. It seems impossible, but the facts are there. SF ranks near the top of almost every "healthy-smart city" list, and yet we allegedly consume more booze per capita than any other city in America. The magic lies in the unified opposition of our daytime and nighttime eating habits. Afternoons spent counting carbs and choking down organic salads are balanced by nights of chain-smoking, guzzling beer, and ingesting some of the greasiest foods money can buy. The laws of the working drunkard state that if you’re gonna drink, you gotta eat. Thus, within walking distance of nearly every great SF bar there sits an equally amazing food stand. Just be sure to avoid these places by day. Beer goggles make you see food the same way they do ugly faces and flat asses.


You can find the line cooks at El Farolito seasoning meat with their own sweat long after most taquerias have flipped their signs to cerrado. The Little Light House serves traditional Mexican street fare — which ranges from humdrum (bean burritos) to hilarious (brain and tongue tacos, a perfect gift for your totally hammered friend who "lost his wallet" at the last bar) — until 1 a.m. on weekdays and until 3 a.m. on weekends. Oily tortilla chips and colon-cleansing salsa make this sedentary roach coach an obligatory pit stop for anyone hoping to flush their system before morning.

2777 Mission, SF. (415) 826-4870; 4817 Mission, SF. (415) 337-5500; 2950 24th, SF. (415) 641-0758


The Crepes A-Go-Go on 11th Street robs European burritos of their foreign mystique by serving them from a dirty trailer, the way God intended. You’re not going to find any lightly powdered Suzettes here, but you can score just about any other variation on the theme. Sweet, savory, sickening? Crepes A-Go-Go has it all. Equipped with multiple brands of hot sauce, "fresh" vegetables, meat, assorted cheeses, and jumbo jars of Nutella, this French chuck wagon and its chefs will have you digesting before your head hits the pillow … or sidewalk.

350 11th St., SF. (415) 503-1294


You can’t plan every weekend around bars with food nearby, but your chances of topping off a bender with some down-home Mexican cuisine will grow exponentially if you stay within walking distance of the dives in this review. Virginia Ramos, the svelte tamale nymph, spends her weekends hawking cheap eats at Amber, Delirium, Zeitgeist, and bars all around Folsom Street from about 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Pork, chicken, and vegetable are her specialties.

Mostly in the Mission and SoMa, SF.


San Francisco may not have a fleet of bacon-dog vendors roaming the streets as does Hollywood, but we do have a lone soldier. Adam Gonzales-Hernandez, better known as the Bacon-Dog Cart by his fans at yelp.com — where he’s listed as the fifth-best restaurant in SF — pops up in the right place at the right time (usually around Mission and 16th from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.). He can also be found later in the evening under the freeway by The Endup.


Indian chefs have yet to devise decent handheld versions of palak paneer, chicken curry, or mixed sabzi, so you should only stumble into Naan-N-Curry’s 24-hour downtown location if you’re cool with smelling like coriander and cumin for the next week or so. Cheap and reliable curry in a cup.

336 O’Farrell, SF. (415) 346-1443


When you’ve been knocking back pints of Guinness at Shannon Arms (or at any Irish pub in the Sunset) since noon, and it’s now 2:30 a.m., you’ve got a slim chance of avoiding a hellish hangover. Some people call their dealers, some give up and sacrifice a sick day, but the truly dedicated head over to Island Café, the city’s only 24-hour Hawaiian joint. Spam burgers, Polynesian nachos, pineapple milk shakes, and off-the-wall pork dishes will have your stomach pumping double time to rid itself of toxins.

901 Taraval, SF. (415) 661-3303


Don’t freak out if you’ve missed the Tamale Lady or forgot to tell your cabby to stop at one of the other spots on this list. Just stumble to your room, log onto Mr. Pizza Man’s Web site, and chillax with a snifter of Fernet as San Francisco’s patron saint of late-night delivery makes you a pie to order. Mr. Pizza Man’s got all the fixin’s — pineapple, jalapeño, and cheese make a tried-and-true hangover preventative — as well as locations within five minutes of almost every address in the city.

Locations across the Bay Area. 1-800-570-5111, www.mrpizzaman.com

Talkin’ bout their generation


>> Justin Juul’s Summer of Love 40th Anniversary photos

When I got wind of the 40th anniversary Summer of Love Free Concert, I thought about the many ways I could torment all the burnouts, grandmas, and reggae fans who I knew would be smoking pot and flashing their titties in Golden Gate Park. My best idea involved dressing like an FBI agent and waiting for old rich dudes to stealthily bust out their hash pipes; I’d let them get a couple of good hits, then jump out of the bushes, flash a fake badge, and demand to know who sold them the stuff. Pretty clever, right?

I had fun daydreaming about that scenario as I waded through the drug-addled, spotty-faced teenagers who had gathered on the trail leading into the heart of the park, where 50,000 other people were grooving to the eclectic and authentic sounds of the ’60s.

The random bits of conversation I overheard as I neared Speedway Meadow made me laugh even more. "Don’t eat the brown acid!" someone kept joking in his best Tommy Chong voice. "Hey, honey, I gotta go," I heard a man say into his cell phone. "I think Dan Hicks is starting." "Fucking perfect," I thought, and I congratulated myself and my entire generation for being more self-aware, fashionably astute, and cynical than the people gathered here.

But something was wrong: unlike the people at the festivals I normally attend, these folks were actually enjoying themselves, and they seemed to be enjoying one another’s company as well.

The music was great. I was having a good time. It was a really good show.

Maybe it was the combination of sun and beer. Maybe it was the smile I saw on everyone’s face. Who knows? The truth is, I suddenly realized that the only reason I ever attend music festivals is so I can more accurately think smug thoughts about others.

And as I looked around at all the happy souls, I realized that I, the cynical twentysomething, was seething with jealousy. "What are these people so happy about?" I thought. "Can’t they see that the world sucks?"

I began to wonder about the differences between my generation and the one that left its undeniable mark not only on Haight-Ashbury but also on the entire world. For all the problems of the ’60s, when these people congregated so long ago, they did it under their own steam and with purpose.

As the afternoon’s announcer put it, "Love is still better than hate, right? And isn’t peace still better than war?" Isn’t that all the hippies were trying to say? And what about my generation? What do we have to say about things? What have we ever done besides bitch and moan and ridicule and purchase? And what are we going to celebrate in 40 years? Bonnaroo, Coachella, Ozzfest, Rock the Bells, JuJu Beats? Are we really going to want to revisit this shit when we’re 60?

With the crowd growing rapidly, the sun shining brightly, and no way to escape without risking a DUI, I decided to put my misgivings aside and try to actually enjoy myself. I stuck a flower in my hair and made a beeline for the stage just as the announcer was introducing the New Riders of the Purple Sage. It took me half an hour, but I finally made it in time to catch Ray Manzarek and Rob Wasserman. As I sat and listened to what sounded like the Doors, I thought some more about the differences between the young people of now and then.

The truth is that I have never understood how the hippies did it. How did a bunch of college dropouts, artists, and poets suddenly commit to coming together in one place without having been seduced into doing so by a clever marketing campaign funded by huge corporations? Every gathering I’ve ever been to has cost me a fortune and lacked both unity and purpose. The Summer of Love was something different.

I sat for the next few hours listening to musicians like Country Joe McDonald, Taj Mahal, and members of the Steve Miller Band. They were all pretty good, but the highlight for me was hearing Lenore Kandel recite a love poem that would make Lil’ Kim blush.

As I made my way through the crowd to leave, I thought about the old joke I was going to start this piece with: How many hippies does it take to change a lightbulb? None, because hippies can’t change shit.

Well, the joke is on the joke. The people who celebrated the Summer of Love on Sept. 2 did change something — and even if they didn’t completely transform society, they were probably the last generation of young Americans to attempt to truly realize their vision of how the world should be. (Justin Juul)

Second nightlife


It may sound cliché, but there’s no other way to put it: my nightlife sucks. With two shitty day jobs and a barely blossoming career as a freelance journalist, it’s nearly impossible for me to find enough time or money to enjoy this city after dark. It hasn’t always been this way: I used to spend my evenings gleefully cross-eyed, rubbing knees with random hedonists, pushers, and hell-raisers. I used to go skateboarding in night goggles and camp nude in the Tenderloin. Goddamn it, I used to have it all!

I’ve thus far managed to maintain sanity by telling myself that hard work produces success, but my self-imposed exile to the sunlit hours is rapidly taking its toll. Gray hair, bedroom alcoholism, and soul-crushing anxiety shouldn’t affect me for another 10 years or so. Yet here I barely stand at the ripe age of 28, a boring fucking wreck. In order to salvage some of my formerly wild personality — and rather than shoot myself or seek expensive therapy — I decided recently to take the plunge into the comprehensive virtual world of Second Life. Might as well throw down with some wart-nosed trolls and weirdo Wizards of Nardo, right? Pass the magick toad grog, Tinker Bell. Yep, I’m just that desperate.


With all the hype surrounding Second Life and its maker, Linden Labs, you’d think the game would be a fairly simple thing to pick up. Not so, my friend. The first obstacle I ran into was of the technical variety. After installing SL and choosing a sly code name (Justyn Jewell, natch), I thought I was good to go, but my poor old Dell crashed whenever I tried to wiggle my virtual buttocks. My friend Tony, a notorious group gamer at Stanford, hates it when I call him with computer questions but was surprisingly enthused about the opportunity to share his SL wisdom. He even agreed to come over that very night and lend me his vacationing roommate’s brand-new MacBook Pro until she got back. Score.

First lesson: customizing an avatar. Perversely, I chose the Boy Next Door body template and then altered its features to match my own. After some meticulous tweaking, Justyn Jewell was no longer your average joe. He was a tragically good-looking skinny white dude with slick brown hair and sleek black shoes. I also gave him a handlebar mustache, because I’m up-to-the-minute like that.

Tony spent the next few hours teaching me the basics. When he left that night, I was able to walk, fly, teleport, take a piss, and hold brief conversations. I was still having trouble picking things up, touching people, and not walking into corners, but it was too early to worry about socially acceptable advanced maneuvers. For a man who hadn’t touched a video game since Mario Bros. III, simply stumbling through SL’s intricate landscape felt like enough. Getting beyond that was going to be a bumpy road, but Tony promised to come back and teach me some more when the time was right.


My first few weeks with Second Life were just what I needed. Whenever my brain grew weary from writing another puff piece about the latest hair-removal technique ("Experience the smooth, toning pleasures of La Cage Aux Follicles"), I would log on and select one of the thousands of clubs from the Popular Place menu. Immediately, I’d shoot to an island dedicated to house, techno, hard rock, hip-hop, or what have you. Each venue was full of kitted-out avatars who acted as though they were at a real party. "Woo-hoo!" they would say. And "This party is sooo amazing!" I knew it was all fake, but I was getting a visceral thrill watching my doppelgänger mingle with squirrel people, virtual heshers, cocky shot-callers, and impossibly elfin ravers.

The possibilities kept me endlessly occupied. I started out mainly going to standard Ibiza-like situations but soon wound up frequenting a hip-hop club called Insatiable, where people ground to slightly less-than-cutting-edge tunes by Ludacris and Fat Joe. I tried to spice things up by talking to people wherever I went, but my standard greeting, "Whacha gonna do with all that ass, all that ass inside them virtual jeans?," was often met with a cold shoulder or yawn — even at Club Insatiable! The reason was obvious. While nearly everyone else had wild hairdos, tattoos, designer outfits, and sparkling electro-bling, I was still in stock attire, a boring newbie who didn’t know shit. It was time to get some gear.

Perusing boutiques in SL made me realize just how Vegas-like this virtual world can be. Everything is for sale. Shirts, pants, drinks, cars, body parts … Most items struck me as rather excessively priced or ephemeral, but a few choice pieces had me reaching for my Linden dollars, the coin of the realm.

One of my first stops was a store called Dicks and Pussies, where I somehow managed to score a free T — skintight, red and white, with the name of the store emblazoned across the chest. It was fine for walking around in an adult boutique, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the damn thing off. What would they say at Club Insatiable? In the hopes of finding a better free shirt, I teleported to a few other stores, but no luck. I was stuck looking like a freebie-grubbing douche bag until Tony could help me. Luckily, we had made a date for that night.


By 10 p.m., Tony and I were in an alcohol-fueled Second Life frenzy. After scoring some more Linden dollars, we flew around to goofy places like Hedonistic Isle, where you can gamble, listen to streaming audio, and lounge in lawn chairs. There were volleyball courts, bonfires, and beach toys all over the place, but I had other plans. Talking, dancing, and roasting electronic marshmallows were great and all, but what kind of nightlife would be complete without one-night stands?

I felt I had to act. "Hey Tony," I said. "How do you have sex in this place?" Tony stopped tapping at his keyboard and looked me dead in the eye. "I’m not exactly sure," he said. "Why don’t we find out?" I took a sip of my third real Jack and Coke and said, "Follow me."

Besides complimentary dorkwear, Dicks and Pussies has everything your perverted avatar could ever want. For less than a thousand Lindens (about $3) you can get a gigantic schlong with veins or a vagina with hyperrealistic stretch action. There were electric toys, erotic hairstyles, and even peekaboo lingerie. "All right, dude, I’ll buy you a vagina and myself a dick, but you have to show me how to put them on and work them," I said. "Fuck it, why not?" Tony said after a slight pause. That’s all I needed.

Within seconds Tony was wetting things with his brand-new vagina, and I was setting the flesh tones on my penis. "All right, man," I said. "How do you work these things?" I thought we would have to purchase some animation codes or something, but Tony knew a shortcut. Next to the showroom floor was a bedchamber with little balls hovering all over the place. Tony walked up to one and said, "Come on, dude, I’ll click on the pink ball. All you gotta do is click on the blue one, and we’ll be off."

Within seconds Justyn Jewell was balls deep in Tony’s avatar. Hilarious. Tony and I spent the rest of the night drinking and taking screen shots as our avatars explored each other’s software.

I passed out sometime around 2 a.m. and awoke the next morning to a pissed-off girlfriend. "What’s wrong, baby?" I asked. She refused to speak to me for an hour or so and then finally said, "I heard you last night. That was sort of weird that you fucked Tony."

I was immediately assaulted by a flurry of flashbacks: the sound of ice clinking in glasses, the sight of my avatar in the throes of passion, the giggles, the grunts … "Don’t say it like that," I said. "I didn’t fuck Tony. He was just, like, showing me how to have sex so I could buy some later." She stared at her coffee for a full minute and then said, "Well, I don’t know why you have to have sex at all. Is something wrong?"

The more I tried to explain that Second Life was just an entertaining outlet for when I was too busy to take her out, the worse it sounded. Why was I obsessed with that particular aspect of the game, anyway? And why, of all people, did I pick my friend Tony to experiment with? I waited until my girlfriend was in the shower before looking at the screen shots from the night before. Jesus Christ, what a pervert. Thanks a lot, Linden Labs! Now I have two shitty lives to deal with.


Learning from sexperts


› culture@sfbg.com

I’d never considered a career in smut until I got fired from my day job as a waiter. As a freelance journalist, my first instinct was to find a stable writing gig. But after hours of meticulously scouring Craigslist, I was a beaten man. There just aren’t that many full-time writing positions available. And though the perks in freelancing are great (changing the world, getting free shit, etc.), the financial ceiling is pretty low. But thankfully, as I abandoned my job search that night, I found myself surfing the Web for free porn and thinking about my mother. Wait. Let me explain.

My mother is also a writer. And after getting a series of rejection letters, she sought career advice from an esteemed professor. He suggested sex writing as a fast, easy way to make money, likening it to the advertising work American actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron do abroad. Thanks to pseudonyms, writers can publish erotic fiction without tarnishing their reputations. After all, who would know A.N. Roquelaure, author of the Sleeping Beauty erotic series, is really Anne Rice — unless she’d wanted us to know?

My mother was financially stable enough to disregard the professor’s advice, but in that moment it seemed to be a perfect solution for a struggling journalist. I figured all I needed was some practice and a good pseudonym.

Sound easy? It’s not.

Sexy prose does not come naturally — at least, not to me. I had to find my e-zone, to push my inhibitions aside and turn up my id. I put in a heroic effort with my first story, but the pirate-themed fetish piece was dripping with the self-deprecating humor I inject into my usual culture stories — and not all that sexy. I needed some guidance.

I figured Good Vibrations, with its wall of books with titles such as I Once Had a Master and Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z, would be a good place to start. So I went to the Mission location, bought some anthologies, and signed up for the next night’s erotic writing circle. I thought if I met people who were working out the kinks in their writing, maybe I could work some into mine.

The next night I smoked nervously in my car outside the Center for Sex and Culture. No doubt the room would be full of semiprofessional sex writers, I figured, dressed for action in lingerie or rubber suits. They would be so comfortable talking about pussies and cocks and masturbation and fucking that I, with my red face and sweaty palms, would look like a fidgety prude.

Of course, I was wrong. I was first greeted by the center’s cofounder, sexologist Carol Queen, whose sensible sweater and black-rimmed spectacles made her look more like a hip college professor than the porn star I expected. There were about seven other people, none of them dressed for sex either. Among them: a high school teacher, a social worker, and a life coach. They all looked as nervous as me, notebooks clutched in their laps.

Queen’s cofacilitator, Jennifer Cross, began with a work in progress about a woman haunted by the memory of a rape. Her protagonist had no need for therapy, choosing instead to cultivate sanity in the arms of a lover with a taste for violent role play. Cross’s lusty voice rose and fell with her characters’ sexual peaks and valleys. It was fucking hot. And nothing like my story.

The high school teacher was next. Her story about a teenage girl’s trip to the Holy Land differed drastically from Cross’s. It seemed more funny than sexy, so I was surprised to see people squirming. The same thing happened when the life coach read. His story, told from the perspective of a young boy witnessing his first sex act, was also humorous. But it too had the desired effect on some. The grand finale was Queen’s story about a star-crossed relationship she’d had with a lesbian in denial. Her piece was funny and realistic yet undeniably erotic.

I left the reading circle confused. Although most of the stories were good, few had made my naughty bits tingle. If they could be considered erotic, wouldn’t my pirate story also qualify?

I decided to turn to the experts to help answer the tough questions.

I asked Cross about the role of humor in erotica. It seemed to work for Queen and some of the others, but wouldn’t everyone laugh at some poor dude with a pirate fetish? Cross told me not to worry. "Some folks might think a story is stupid or not sexy or boring," she said. "But there will be those who breathe a sigh of relief because someone finally wrote about their fantasy."

She also reminded me that erotic fiction — like all writing — isn’t easy. I turned to another expert, Violet Blue — sex blogger, author-editor of several erotic fiction anthologies, and well-known erotic podcaster — for more advice.

"The key is authenticity. Strive to create real, complex characters — flawed, not perfect — in realistic relationships with an honest, rip-each-other’s-clothes-off need to fuck burning beneath the surface at all times," said Blue (yes, that’s her real name), whose Web site, www.tinynibbles.com, features samples of the genre’s best writers; links to Web publishers, online communities, and safe porn sites; and photo albums of erotic art.

"And please," Blue added, "don’t go overboard with genital-sexual euphemisms."

For publishing options, Blue guided me to www.erotica-readers.com, which has an extensive list of soliciting publishers. It took a while to comb through the endless calls for submissions, and although I didn’t find any for pirate stories, I did locate Black Lace Anthologies, which offers $800 for stories with werewolves, vampires, and other oddities, and Penthouse Variations, which pays $400 for stories about anything sexual. Cross also assured me editors are open to new writers as well as experimental stories.

It seems all I need now is a pseudonym. *


2215R Market, SF

(415) 255-1155


To read Justin Juul’s pirate story, visit www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision.

G-string journey


› culture@sfbg.com

My girlfriend leaned over the table during brunch at the Pork Store recently and stared deep into my eyes. "Baby," she said, "when you’re out there looking at all those boobies today, just remember that they’re fake. And when you’re petting asses and sticking money in G-strings, just remember that those bodies, unlike mine, are going to be saggy and horrible-looking in a few years."

Not exactly our ordinary breakfast conversation, but then again, it was no ordinary morning. I was about to embark on a whirlwind tour of some of the city’s notorious gentlemen’s clubs, and that gloomy Sunday seemed perfect. What better day than the Christian Sabbath to burn some cash on sex, right? I finished my eggs, said a little prayer, and hit the streets to find some heathens — I mean, strippers. I knew exactly where to go.


By the time I got to the corner of Market and Sixth streets, it was raining like hell, and various shady-looking characters were hogging every dry spot in sight. Despite my burning desire for a nip of whiskey, I decided to abandon my preparty bar plans and walk directly into the Market Street Cinema. I passed through the mirrored doors, paid the cover charge, and found a seat at the foot of the catwalk just in time to catch the next act.

I don’t know if the girls or the DJs pick the songs, but the music fit the sad spectacle like a latex glove. As the opening riff of the Smiths’ "How Soon Is Now" filled the club, a young girl stepped out onto the stage. Sexy Susan (or Luscious Lucy or whatever the DJ-MC had decided to call her) strutted down the catwalk in her fuck-me pumps, looked at her scant audience, and made her way to the pole. She swung around it with one leg and rubbed herself up and down before finally climbing to the top, where she hung for a full minute before sliding to the floor with a thump. She then stood up and beelined toward me.

"You look shy," the stripper whispered as she squatted in my face and began tugging at the elastic rim of her panties. From a distance the girl had seemed rather pretty, but up close her jagged teeth, stretched belly, and hollow eyes bespoke a street-style homeliness. She made me uncomfortable, and I knew the only way to shoo her off was to produce an embarrassingly small tip. So I dug down in my wallet and threw a buck by her feet. "Uh, thanks," she said. "Do you, like, want a lap dance or anything?"

"No, I’m OK. But I think that guy might want something," I said. She took my money and walked across the stage toward a scary-looking dude waving a five-dollar bill around in the air.

The young girl finished her set with a clumsy attempt to sync her body movements to Nine Inch Nails’ "Closer." She humped the pole, stumbled down the walk, and finally bent over for a spread-eagle encore. She then picked up her seven- or eight-dollar tip stash and took off. I was blown away. This girl had just showed us the holiest of holies for less than it takes to fill the gas tank on a moped. This was, presumably, her daily routine. Was it worth it? I felt too guilty to ponder the question. As soon as the young stripper was out of sight, I pushed all sympathetic thoughts out of my mind and bolted. Next stop: the Crazy Horse.


I didn’t expect much from the Crazy Horse, but it proved to be less depressing than the previous venue by a long shot. Sure, there were weird old men roaming around the lobby. And yes, the girls seemed a little sad. But at least the place was clean. The bouncer gave me a knowing smile, opened the door, and pushed me into a dimly lit room where 30 or 40 businessmen sat watching the show.

This stripper was definitely not a drug addict or a runaway who had recently celebrated the big one-eight. She was fit and healthy, and her dance routine was well rehearsed. She strutted like a cat, slowly removing the only two garments she wore. Soon she was naked and humping the air in front of an old man with glasses and dirty jeans. When she stood up to leave, the man threw down a few bills and waved a wad of cash in the air. It was a signal the stripper knew well. She scooted his donation to the middle of the stage, jumped into his lap, and began gyrating. The pattern repeated as the stripper moved from mark to mark until she was a couple seats down from me. I decided to leave at this point. My wallet had grown significantly lighter since I began this endeavor, and I still had one more cover charge to pay.


By midafternoon I was exhausted and bitter, but I had to press on. I knew my last destination, the Nob Hill Theatre, a seedy gay hideaway, was going to require true grit. After all, naked chicks are nothing new — you see them every time you turn on the tube. But how many times have you seen a bunch of dudes with five-foot dongs petting one another onstage? For me the answer was never. And truth be told, I was a little scared. Still, I tried to be nonchalant as I walked into the theater.

Soon I was in a dark room watching a naked man dance to Bel Biv Devoe. I picked an inconspicuous seat in a shadowy corner, but as soon as the dancer saw me, he stepped off the stage and wandered into my private space. The naked man shook his wiener from side to side as he stared into my eyes. "How’re you doing?" I asked. "I’m good," the naked man said. He stepped closer and closer until his leg was touching mine. "Would you like a lap dance?" he asked. "No, actually, I’m here from the newspaper, writing a story about strip clubs," I blurted. He sensed my apprehension and backed off a little. Then, with a mischievous smile on his face and a growing member in his hand, he said, "That’s OK, honey, I’ll give you one for free." He placed my trembling hands on his ass cheeks and began to sway.

All told, I think I had another man’s penis in my face for about two minutes. When he was finished, he said, "That was just a taste, and you should still tip a little, but if you want more, you gotta pay."

"Thanks for everything," I said, "but I gotta get going." I dug in my wallet for some ones and then looked up in confusion. Where the hell was I supposed to put the money? When he noticed the look on my face, the naked man turned around and put his bum in the air. "Here you go," he said. I hesitated for a moment and then just figured it was protocol. As I went to put the money in the naked man’s ass, he jumped away and said, "Gotcha! You think I let people put dirty-ass bills in there? You must be crazy." I realized at this point that the dancer had been fucking with me the entire time. He stuck his tongue out, winked, and left to go dance for a group of daytime drunks in back.


On my way out the door, I was approached by two other strippers, Craven and Kaci, who had heard I was writing about their club. They laughed and posed and told me stories about stripping days gone by. They liked working at the club, they said. They were happy there.

As I sat smoking and hanging out with them in the doorway, I realized that the whole day had felt pretty gross until now. Something about the straight clubs made me feel sick, but that something was all but absent here. These dudes were actually enjoying themselves. The two straight clubs I had seen seemed to reflect the general population’s attitude toward sex. They were dark, shameful places, hidden in bad neighborhoods, where rules abounded. It seemed that here at the Nob, though, you could pretty much do whatever the hell you wanted. I had an epiphany that night: if I had to choose between hanging out at a gay strip club and a straight one, I would choose the former. Does that mean I’m gay? *


1077 Market, SF

(415) 255-1005



980 Market, SF

(415) 771-6259



729 Bush, SF

(415) 781-9468



Careers and Ed: Cocktail frosh


› culture@sfbg.com

Swanky-ass bars, high-end restaurants, sex, drugs — they’re all great things to love about San Francisco, but they can be cruel and constant symbols of failure to the scrilla deprived. With one-bedroom apartments currently priced at about $1,600 a month, cell phone bills hovering in the $75 to $150 range, and PG&E. religiously raping us for half our salaries, it’s amazing anyone can afford to live in this city, let alone enjoy its vast array of entertainment. But San Francisco has a secret. Unlike most cities, San Francisco pays its waiters, bartenders, and bussers almost $10 an hour. Add to that a healthy tip stash, and there’s at least a little disposable income to hit the town with.

Of all the jobs the service industry has to offer, bartending rules. We’re talking potentially $200 to $500 for six hours of work. OK, count me in. The major problem, though, is acquiring the skills to qualify. San Francisco has almost as many service-industry schools as it does bars and restaurants. Would I get scammed if I enrolled in one? With the ultimate goal of becoming a bartender, I spent a month researching the cultlike world of barkeep education, starting with a quest for the perfect school.


In order to minimize any money and time investments, I first looked for Web classes and free tutorials. I should have known better. Looking for a free or relatively inexpensive online course in bartending turned out to be a bigger waste of time than the hours I logged scouring the Internet for free porn as a young man. The sites of my youth always promised girl-on-girl action, fist-fucking, and bizarre fetish acts but only generated advertisements for sketchy online subscriptions or outrageously expensive chat sessions. The same was true, metaphorically, of www.bartendingcollegeonline.com, www.ebartending.com, and www.zizoo.com. Each one taunted me with screen shots and personal testimonies but wouldn’t give up the goods without a credit card number. So I passed on the virtual cocktail-slinging and set about finding a real-world educator.

ABC Nationwide Bartending School (www.abcbartending.com, 1-888-262-5824) looked promising but seemed a little too corporate for my taste. Other schools, such as National Bartenders School (870 Market, suite 828, SF; 415-677-9777, www.nationalbartenders.com), seemed legitimate but didn’t quite have the attitude and style I associate with the glamorous life of a bartender. I want to be Tom Cruise in Cocktail, not the sad barkeep from Billy Joel’s "Piano Man." I want to serve mojitos, cosmos, and lemon drops to drunk yuppies, ending every night with fistfuls of easy cash and invitations to cologne-drenched orgies. Glamour! Eventually, I seemed to find perfection in the San Francisco School of Bartending (760 Market, suite 833, SF; 415-362-1116, www.sfbartending.com), a school run and taught by local SF bartenders — sort of a FUBU for mixologists.

It works like this: for about $300 (a slow night’s tips for the average SF bartender) you get hands-on training and insider information from a seasoned professional. The classroom simulates an average pub, with music, neon beer signs, and a supersize bar with a pouring station for each student. There’s homework every night, a daily quiz, and a final exam. Near the end of every minisemester, students get a consultation with a professional résumé builder who has magical contacts to the city’s premier restaurants and bars. It’s a boot camp for bartenders, taught by some of the toughest and most knowledgeable drill sergeants around. The slick Web site, affordable price, and sense of community won me over. After a few simple clicks I was all signed up for a two-week course ($295, financing available).


When I arrived at the SFSOB bright and early on a Monday morning, I was immediately greeted by Gretchen Mitchell, a veteran bartender who has served in more than 50 restaurants and bars in her 19 years in the industry. She wasted no time getting started. "All right class, answer me this: if someone comes up to my bar and tries to get a slow screw up against the wall, what am I going to do?" There were blank stares all around as the other students and I tried to think of the right answer. "Should I give a knowing smile and assume the position?" she said. "Hell no! I don’t think so. A Slow Screw Up Against the Wall is a mixture of sloe gin, vodka, and orange juice with a splash of Galliano. I know this, not because I have it memorized, but because I think like a bartender, and that’s exactly what we’re going to teach you to do over the next two weeks. Now get behind your stations and get ready for some action." She paused, then added, "You’re gonna thank me, guys. In no time at all you’ll be having ‘creamy sex on the beach’ with a whole gang of ‘redheaded sluts.’ And ladies, you’ll be serving up expert ‘blow jobs’ and ‘screaming orgasms.’ " With that, class had begun.


I usually wait until around noon to have my first alcoholic beverage, but today was different. It was only 9:30 a.m., and here I was under the soothing neon lights of a real bar. Credence Clearwater Revival played in the background as I wiped down my section of mahogany, filled my ice chest, and got ready to make some drinks. Mitchell passed out laminated cards with pictures of simple drinks like tequila sunrises and screwdrivers and then drew our attention to overhead computer monitors. She was now the patron, and the other students and I were the all-powerful barkeeps. Laid out before us were soda guns, ice scoops, and quick-access mixers. Behind us were countless bottles of fake alcohol, glasses, and towels. We were ready.

"All right, guys, here’s how it’s gonna work: I’m going to walk you through the first couple of drinks, show you how to measure an accurate one-ounce shot without a cup, demonstrate the proper way to hold things, and so on. Then the computer is going to take over for a while. But before I do all that, I want to see what you already know." Mitchell took a breath, looked around, and then said, "Make me a screwdriver right now."

It seemed like an easy request, but as I fumbled around looking for orange juice and vodka, I realized I didn’t know how to mix them correctly. Mitchell watched as we tried to bullshit our way through the exercise. Some scooped ice with their glasses (a major no-no), poured in the orange juice, and then topped the concoction off with a haphazard shot of vodka. Others grabbed the vodka with two hands and then apprehensively poured it into an empty glass before adding the other ingredients. Our new sensei watched in disgust. Soon there were 11 crappy-looking screwdrivers sitting on the bar. The lesson behind the exercise was unmistakable: we didn’t know shit.

We spent the rest of the morning learning proper pouring techniques, standardized orders of mixing, and some light terminology. After lunch we came back and stumbled through a simulated happy hour during which the computer flashed orders while Mitchell marched to and fro shouting suggestions. I thought it would never end. With sweat pouring down my face, fake liquor soaking my shirt, and freezing hands, I poured drink after drink until Mitchell suddenly screamed, "Last call!" The computer stopped flashing. "Good job, guys," she said. "Shift’s over. Now clean up your stations and go home. Remember today’s lesson: bartending is a lot more complicated than you think. It’s not just Bukowski. It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald too."

The rest of the week followed a similar pattern. Mitchell lectured the class on a particular aspect of bartending and then turned the computer on and paced back and forth as we struggled to make drinks. Her teaching style grew warmer over time; eventually, she replaced her cold commands with a soft hand and a helpful voice. Under Mitchell’s guidance mixing drinks became second nature. I could pour a mai tai in a second. Mojitos, cosmos, dirty martinis — I could shoot them all out with ease. By the fifth day I felt like a pro, but I wondered if it was going to work. Would a two-week bartending course be all I needed to get a job? I sought the advice of some experienced bartenders.


According to Cory Norris, a bartender at an Irish pub in the Mission, the answer is no.

"Man, people come in with those certificates, acting like professionals, but once they get behind the bar, they’re fucking lost. The only way to get good at bartending is to jump in the fire. Those classes only work for people with big tits and blue eyes."

Another bartender, Tommy Basso, owner of Delirium, reiterated Norris’s sentiments. "You can’t learn bartending at a fucking school, kid. You’re gonna get back here and choke. You’re gonna have five dudes mad doggin’ you in the corner ’cause you forgot their beers, two chicks at one end of the bar stealing your cherries, two others chicks distracting you with their tits in the middle, and 20 drinks to make. You’re not gonna know what the fuck to do. Those schools are bullshit."

Basso and Norris scared me. Had my $300 been spent in vain? Had I been duped? In an attempt to assuage my anxiety, I went back to the SFSOB and asked Shawn Refoua, one of the other instructors there, about the real-world difficulties of gaining a foothold behind the bar. Refoua was familiar with the antischool attitude. "There is a scholastic component to every trade." he said. "I mean, can it really be true that bartending is so magical that you can only learn it in the field? That line of thinking just doesn’t make sense." Refoua has been teaching classes at the SFSOB for almost two years and has seen hundreds of students get good jobs. Like most teachers there, he keeps in close contact with his students via the Internet, using his MySpace page to notify them of job openings and changes in the industry. "I wouldn’t worry about people who say bartending schools don’t work," he said. "It’s true that a lot of people either fall into bartending or lie their way in. Maybe that’s why there are so many shitty bartenders around here. Many states actually require certification, you know."

As an SFSOB teacher, Refoua could be a little biased, of course. And real-world bartenders naturally look down on newbies. Any smart-ass could conclude, though, that both have good points. A self-taught bartender knows how to deal with a drunken crowd, and a school-taught applicant comes equipped with a deep understanding of liquor ratios, bar etiquette, and efficient pouring techniques.

I now feel confident enough to submit my résumé to all the places in my SFSOB counselor’s little black book. I can shake, stir, pour, mix, blend, and guess the ingredients in foreign drink names with ease. As far as handling belligerent drunks — well, I’m not worried in the slightest. My friends have taught me well. Just last night I had to stop one of them from jumping out of a fourth-story apartment, slap another in the face for throwing an egg at my girlfriend, and convince yet another to not buy more cocaine at 4 a.m. Bar owners of San Francisco, prepare yourselves. There’s a new cocktail jock in town. *

Spiff your licks


› culture@sfbg.com
Painting, welding, playing the xylophone … these all seemed like mildly entertaining pursuits to me, but they didn’t quite inspire the level of intense passion needed to get me off my ass and into a classroom. If I was going to invest my valuable time in any course of instruction, it had to involve something I truly wanted to learn. Drinking, smoking, shoplifting … I was way too good at that stuff already. No, what I needed by way of education was something I could really get a hard-on about. That was it — I could definitely stand to learn more about the activity that gives me the biggest hard-on of all: going down on my girlfriend. Couldn’t we all? Join me, then, as I gently ease back the hood of our city’s sexual instruction resources in search of my very own cunnilingus guru.
Embarking on this quest had me feeling a little like Frodo: small, hairy footed, and bristling with trepidation at the thought of meeting a true cunnilingus master. Don’t get me wrong (I say in typical straight-guy fashion), I’m OK at what I do. But how would I ever convince the woman or man who was to teach me that I’d be a worthy pupil? Yet I knew I had to continue. Perhaps my libido was in charge. Perhaps somewhere in my heart, I knew my girlfriend deserved better than what I had been giving her. Whatever the case, I was determined to fix my licks for better kicks.
Finding my ideal tongue tutor wasn’t as easy as I thought. Most sex educators don’t advertise in the Yellow Pages, nor are they easily googled. And I’m a little leery of gaining sexual insights from the Learning Annex — I might walk away with my entire life savings invested in yoga retreats and Trump towers. To find someone to teach me how to orally astound, the first thing I needed to do was head to a respectable sex shop. In San Francisco that means go to Good Vibrations on Valencia Street.
There at the service counter, on an events calendar dotted with workshops on spanking, sex after 60, toe sucking, lap dancing, and whatever other sex acts you can imagine, I found the course that shot a twinge of excitement through my loins: Tracy Bartlett’s “Oral Majority” workshop. Alas, I’d missed it by a month — but didn’t despair: Tracy was due to come around again soon, I was assured by the counterperson. In the meantime, it was recommended that I read Bartlett’s bible, The Ultimate Guide to Cunnilingus (Cleis Press, www.tinynibbles.com) by Violet Blue.
If The Ultimate Guide works for a professional like Bartlett, I knew it would help me, so I purchased a copy and headed home. There in the cozy corner of my bedroom, I sat for the next three hours reading erotic fiction, techniques for mind-blowing orgasms, and helpful advice on proper pussy-eating etiquette. From the proper utilization of butt plugs to the pleasures of doggy-style licking, Blue’s book offers the sound advice of one who has braved the bush many times. Not only did it hone my cunnilingus skills, but it also provided me with a possible reason why my search for a teacher was proving difficult. “Most sex instructors,” Blue reveals, “are heterosexual females. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course — unless you want to know what it’s really like to lick a pussy. Heterosexual women don’t know, so they tend to gloss over or skip cunnilingus in their classes.”
A bell went off in my head. I knew exactly whom I needed to find: a woman who teaches cunnilingus classes and actually licks pussies.
After reading Blue’s book, I could find the clitoris in two seconds flat. I could also judge the correct moment to introduce a well-lubed finger into a hesitant anus and could expertly perform a down-tempo version of “the ice-cream lick.” I was ready to meet my swami. But where was I to find her? After some more, perhaps embarrassingly persistent queries at Good Vibes, I struck gold. Bartlett had passed the local licks-pertise torch down to her top pupil, Koko West of www.sexysexed.com.
For the past two years, Koko has been making home visits and hosting parties for up to 40 people at a time. She’s queer identified and female, and teaches both fellatio and cunnilingus classes (one and a half hours for $250) and sex classes for couples (two hours for $300). Perfect! I set up a demonstration meeting with her and held my breath (while compulsively brushing my teeth). The next morning I headed to a local park where my pussy guru was patiently waiting on a checkered picnic blanket.
There on the knoll she sat, barefoot and draped in a polka-dot dress, her glistening tray of cucumbers and a silky pillow by her side. Without saying a word, I walked up, dropped to my knees, and prepared to imbibe the lessons of a true master. With tears streaming down my face, I begged her to teach me all she could. Her hands came down from the heavens to push the hair from my sweaty brow. “Shhh,” she said, “Koko’s gonna make it all better. Tell me what you want to know.”
My first question was obvious and the answer surprising; “What is the best way to perform cunnilingus?” I blurted. “First of all,” she said, “I find the word cunnilingus a bit unsexy. I like to say ‘going down’ or ‘licking pussy.’ And honestly, there’s no tried-and-true way to go down on a woman. She may love something one day and yearn for something completely different the next. The key is talking.”
“What do you mean,” I asked naively, “like, talk into her vagina or something?” Koko looked at me disapprovingly, took a breath, and said, “Uh … no. Communication between lovers is the key. Usually when people get over the initial discomfort of talking about sex, they find conversation extremely beneficial and hot.”
Yes, I thought. That’s what my girlfriend needs. A man who can talk and perform “the crooked tongue whip” at the same time. Shit, I had some serious work to do.
We sat for hours talking about the best way to ease a lover, how to use toys, and so on, but it wasn’t until evening approached that we got to the good stuff: cold hard sex tips. Koko flipped over the odd-shaped pillow she had been leaning on. On the other side were lips, a clitoris shrouded in a satin hood, and many, many folds. “This,” she said, “is the ‘Wondrous Vulva Puppet,’ from the House o’ Chicks [www.houseochicks.com], and you’re going to lick it with your hand.”
My arm became a mock tongue as Koko guided me through her repertoire of swirly techniques, flicking motions, penetration, and more. I could have played with Koko’s pussy puppet for days, but she eventually grew weary of my puppyish enthusiasm, packed up, and left. Still, she was only an e-mail away, and I knew that although I may not have earned my master’s in munching, I was no longer just whistling in the dark. SFBG
603 Valencia, SF
(415) 552-5460