Night Crawler

It's Saturday night in the SOMA district, and there's an unmistakable energy in the air: People are counting down the hours until morning, when the Folsom Street Fair begins. Over at the jampacked Eagle, a pungent odor of leather and sweat wafts from the 50 or so leatherboys, "cops," and cowboys who mingle noisily outside. One man brandishes a whip with a flourish, cracking it loudly to raucous laughter as he demonstrates his form.

In front of neighboring Hamburger Mary's, two festive-looking young gents adjust their "packages" one last time before taking the final block to the Eagle. Their enthusiasm is contagious.

"Looking good!" I yell.
"Thanks!" they shout in singsong.
Although I've avoided the fair for the last few rounds, I'm awaiting it eagerly this year. Planning to accompany me is Aaron, a newly transplanted New York het, better known as a Folsom Street Fair Virgin. What could be more entertaining than watching his expression pass from shock to disbelief to acceptance and, I hope, enjoyment?

It's warm but slightly overcast on the day of the big event. Two womyn with buzzed heads and bare breasts stroll up to the entrance gate beside us. A police officer stops them. "You have to cover up," he says.

An incensed Jak Churton, a bartender at Bimbo's, stumbles onto the scene. Clad only in a pair of rubber shorts, he glares and caresses his naked chest. "Hey, is there something wrong with this?" he shouts.

The cop shakes his head, but reiterates his instructions to the females.
"That's just wrong," Churton says furiously.
But the couple is undaunted. The smaller of the two turns casually to her girlfriend. "Got any Band-Aids, hon?" she asks. After a few minutes of strategic placement, they're granted admission.

The fair is teeming with the usual array of bare-bottomed Tom of Finland types and flamboyant drag queens, the outfit of choice seemingly a kilt accessorized with copious rubber. Various charities collect donations, and booths featuring cat-o'-nine-tails, fake tattoos, piercing jewelry, clothes, chow, and booze line the street. Bands on three stages provide music throughout the day, but the real entertainment comes via the fairgoers themselves. After one look at the sea of leather and chains, Aaron says he feels like he's "on the set of a Mad Max movie."

"Out of all the San Francisco events, this fair has remained the most gay," says Rachel of Sirens MC, a locally based lesbian motorcycle club. "All the booths are tied to the community in some way. There aren't as many voyeurs as at the Castro Fair. It's a lot of fun."

Ojai, a punk rocker with green hair, agrees. "Hey, have you noticed? Rubber is in," he jokes. "Spanking is in, too." He heads off toward the Spanking Man's Hands Films booth, where light S/M comes cheap: a swat for a buck, or a full-on spanking for a mere fiver. You can rent a paddle or riding crop if you accidentally left your own equipment at home.

Down by Pizza Love, though, is a more intense display of sadomasochism, as a group of do-it-yourselfers start their own whipping circle. These guys go whole hog, flogging each other viciously until blood flows. The smack of the whip can be heard from half a block away.

"Damn!" Aaron says. "In New York people usually keep that shit indoors."
I lead him into the sticky darkness of the Power House, where buff men in various states of undress slide against each other in the struggle toward the beleaguered bar. As a woman, I feel like I'm trespassing, though no one seems to care. Meanwhile, Aaron maintains his New York cool as a drunk man from San Jose begins caressing his chest under the pretense of "checking out your shirt." Pushing our way toward the art display upstairs, we make it halfway there before reaching an impasse: a throng of young men with biceps the size of my head wearing only dog collars and leather jockstraps. I glimpse one of the prints on the far wall. Any one of these lads could have been the artist's model, although let's just say certain aspects of the, uh, anatomy have been exaggerated.

Outside, tall-dark-and-handsomes lounge in the middle of the street, sipping beer and chatting. Michael, Steve, and Matthew are up from San Diego with a large group. "We come every year," Steve says. "I'm a tour director, you know." Enormous speakers pump out heavy techno from the windows of a nearby flat. A big, hairy queen in shorts and high heels waves from inside, her pasty stomach bulging over her waistband and her wig hanging at a drunken angle. In a window above her, a tan, brawny, go-go boy gyrates. People on the street applaud. "You're all faaab-u-lous!" Miss Thing screams to her audience.

Leaning on a wall below, 38-year-old Fernando poses for cameras. He pulls his jeans down around his hips to expose his jock strap, then pours cold beer over his nipples to make them erect. "The tattoos are fake," he says. "I could never permanently mark my body."

Aaron, now caught up in the spirit of things, forces me to talk to a demonic vision of devil horns and red spandex. As the Faust-like stranger bends toward me, I'm almost impaled with a goat horn.

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