Fish, Line, and Hooker's Ball
Back in the seedy '70s, there was an annual masquerade party called the Hooker's Ball. It was a festive occasion, uniting not only the Police and Fire Departments, but luminaries like Willie Brown, George Carlin, Lily Tomlin, Harlan Ellison, Huey Lewis, Tom Robbins, Queen Ida, O.J. Simpson, and anyone else with a taste for Halloween debauchery.
Produced by the prostitutes' rights organization COYOTE (everybody say it together, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), the balls gained international notoriety as those infamous bashes from the freak show known as the Bay Area. Everybody saw each other's body parts and had a good time, with proceeds going to sex-related charities. The 1978 ball, the biggest by far, attracted a sold-out crowd of 20,000 to the Cow Palace, where COYOTE founder Margo St. James made a grand entrance astride a live elephant. Then came the disaster of the next year. Margo picks up the story, explaining that the operation fell victim to too many drugs.
We're sitting in the cabin of the Ruby, a 64-foot yacht which at this moment is chugging out under the Bay Bridge with a deckload of nine happy Hewlett-Packard computer engineers. The guys work diligently through a cooler of Anchor Steam, but gosh darn it, the little scamps have scarcely touched their brie. And the conventioneers have no idea that the deckhand serving up the beer is Margo St. James, founder of COYOTE and the Hooker's Balls, co-sponsor of the World Whores Congress in Amsterdam, and co-founder of the National Task Force of Prostitution.
After 1979, when the three balls were condensed into one at the Civic Center, Margo saw the ugliness on the wall. Somebody torched her office. Mayor Moscone and Harvey Milk had been assassinated. The political climate was cold, and a weird mood settled over San Francisco. Now, after a self-imposed exile in France, it's time to come home and lend a hand to WORLD (Women Organized to Respond to Life-threatening Diseases), the Street Survival Project for young women, and, of course, the continuing work of COYOTE. That's right, Margo St. James is cranking up another Hooker's Ball.
Promised stars for the Oct. 28 bash, which will benefit WORLD and Street Survival Project, include Peter Coyote, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Pussy Tourette, Mimi=Freed, Susie Bright, and the Broun Fellinis, as well as a fetish fashion show.
"The city is ready for it," she says. "The pendulum is really swinging for us this time."
You might think the political climate is even more chilly than in the '70s, with the rise of the Christian Coalition and Republican family values, but Margo is a pro at this sort of thing.
"I like people who give me something to bounce off of," she says. "If they're marshmallows, I'm not gonna get much play. If somebody out there's saying, 'You shameless hussy, what are you saying!' I'm gonna say, 'You're right! I'm a shameless agitator!' "
Margo looks downright feisty in her baseball cap, apron, purple blouse, and deck shoes. For the past year, she has been working on the Ruby, racking up the 300 hours necessary to qualify for a captain's license. After this afternoon's cruise, she will head off to Capp's Corner in North Beach, where she also moonlights as a guest celebrity hostess.
"A whore, if she's survived long enough, becomes respectable just because she's survived," says this respectable woman who turns 58 this week. "I'm sort of like an old jock. That's what it comes down to."
Oh, and next year she's running for the Board of Supervisors.
A harbor seal surfaces its whiskered face in the afternoon sun. The increasingly lubricated engineers all spot it like Magellan discovering the Moluccas. Below deck, we discuss the resurgence of hookers in the mainstream, from Jimmy Swaggart to Joey Buttafuoco and Hugh "I've Done a Bad Thing" Grant. Obviously prostitution is called the world's oldest profession for a reason.
Margo is incensed that streetwalkers are tested for AIDS, but clients like Hugh Grant never are. "I think they should test every guy, starting with the governor!"
The engineers grow quiet as Josh the skipper steers the Ruby on a circular loop around Alcatraz. Treasure Island pops into view, or as Margo says with a grin, "Pleasure Island."
There's something impish about her still, this grandmother of three. It's easy to see why so many have been drawn to her over the years, and been inspired by her to write books on prostitution and sexual politics, and to attempt reform of the sex laws.
Margo smiles. "We're not alone anymore."
As the Ruby plunges into the middle of a regatta, she fills me in on hooker historicities. Charlemagne may have been crowned emperor of the West in 800 A.D., but few textbooks will tell you his wife was a hooker. According to Margo, prostitution was acceptable up until 1500, when the church decided it needed to protect young women from the lecherous priests. Confession booths appeared as a result. Now if only they could do something about the young boys.
Small, white terns circle above the water, riding the early evening wind that chops the surface of the bay. While the nerds are chatting about 486s, Josh, Margo, and I hang out at the back of the boat that Josh built himself. The two have known each other for years, and keep up a never-ending stream of stories, dating back to the days when Margo lived in a love palace room in a Nob Hill mansion, complete with round bed and incense.
Both were once arrested for painting fire hydrants around town with psychedelic patterns "to brighten people's day." Upon being hauled into the station, a cop at the desk recognized Margo from some racy photos pinned up on the wall. Ravi Shankar once brought her a bouquet of flowers shaped like vaginas. And there's the one about the hippie group called the Diggers, who once killed a buffalo from Golden Gate Park, roasted it, and fed people for free in the Panhandle, vegetarians be damned.
Josh eases the Ruby into its dock behind the China Basin outdoor bar/restaurant called the Ramp. As the bow nudges the pier, a slightly pie-eyed computer engineer from Atlanta walks up to me.
"Why are you interviewing Margo?" he asks, dying of curiosity.
"Because she's legendary," I answer.
"Why?" Another engineer drifts over, wearing a Purdue sweat shirt.
"You'll have to ask her."
The perky H-P employees get her attention.
"I founded COYOTE and started the Hooker's Balls," she answers matter-of-factly, lashing the boat to the dock. "Campaigned for prostitutes' rights."
A moment passes, and after the initial shock wave subsides, they immediately all want a picture with her. She poses for cameras on the deck of the Ruby, surrounded by clean-cut guys in tennis shoes and Ray-Bans. The boat unloads its chuckling cargo, and Margo stays behind, picking up sacks of empties, making things shipshape for tomorrow's sail.
Hooker's Ball, Sat, Oct. 28, Galleria Design Center, 101 Henry Adams Place, S.F.; doors open at 9 p.m., tickets through BASS.