A Polk Street Sex Work Economy
Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.
By the late 1970s, Polk Street had replaced the Tenderloin as the center of a runaway youth and sex work scene. Many of them escaping abusive homes and discrimination, youth migrated from city to city and were often drawn by San Francisco’s reputation as a “safe haven” and “gay mecca.”
Once in the city, they were pushed and pulled to Polk Street by the inexpensive housing at residential hotels, under-the-table work available through gay bars and businesses, discrimination elsewhere in the city, including the affluent gay district of the Castro, the relatively permissive and absent policing, and the sex work economy.
While not all youth became sex workers, the money generated by the profession formed the economic basis of the community. Because it was an “underground” economic bloc with no explicit political or police connections, they responded by creating their own.
Narrators describe the community as a “family,” consisting of a symbiotic relationship between bartenders, clients, and street youth who were described as older brothers, sisters, and moms. Like the Tavern Guild of the 1960s, the “family” also served some of the same purposes of a business association: it provided protection, community, and a system for warning others about abusive clients and police; it maintained self-policing and safety mechanisms to keep violent crime in check; and it provided opportunities for employment “advancement” through bars and gay businesses.
Bars As Employment Ladders
Until the mid-1980s, City social services for youth were focused primarily on family reunification, an unappealing concept to young people escaping abusive homes or discrimination. In this context, bars served as de facto employment centers for these queer migrants, many of them too young for legitimate work and working to avoid police detection.
When Coy Ellison first came to San Francisco in 1977, escaping a sexually abusive home when he was about thirteen years old, he was attracted to Polk Street because of the under-the-table jobs available at gay businesses, through an unofficial job pool at the street's bars. “You could get paid for sweeping a sidewalk, cleaning windows and stuff like that,” he recalled. “The business owners actually took care of people who were willing to work.” This system allowed him to avoid being caught by the police and sent back to an abusive home.
"Say there was someone needed their apartment cleaned, needed some stuff hauled up, couldn’t haul the garbage out, needed their windows cleaned in a store, needed stock packed, [the bartender John Hauser] knew those people and he’d hook people up. He’s say ‘this kid’s not strung out, this kid’s actually trying to make it, why don’t you give him a chance’ and the shop owners would give him a chance. Next thing you know your foots in the door in a job and your finding your way off the street. There were a lot of people doing that at the time."
Ellison later climbed the employment ladder through the bars by working as a bouncer, at which point he provided similar support for newer migrants. Youth did not always follow this path. “When a new homeless kid would show up on the street, some of the cynical older people would make a bet to see how long it would be before the drugs would take them,” Ellison recalled. “And sure enough some of ‘em would and some of ‘em would make it off the street and into a job.”
Rob Bennett remembers most of the bartenders in the late 1970s as being “very attractive boys from the street.” “That was seen like a goal too for a lot of the young guys is they couldn’t wait to get off the street and into the bars.” The bars served as de facto community centers where street youth could avoid police, eat, and socialize. “They had peanuts and finger foods and people would just go in there and make a day of it,” he said. “A lot of the kids, especially if you didn’t have money, could always go in there and get snacks.”
Kevin “Kiko” Lobo moved from San Francisco's Mission District to Polk Gulch around 1981, when he was 17 and found work on the street as a sex worker in bars like the Q.T. “Nobody lost because the bar made money, I got a few drinks, and I met clients,” he said. The bartender John Hauser facilitated hookups between him and the clients who came to the bars. “He did it because he knew I could bring in people,” Kiko recalled. “People would come and sit down with me at the bar and spend money and drink….I guess that he introduced me to pretty much everybody I know…. He was kind of like my other dad and my brother. He was a very caring and dear man to me.”
Kiko worked his way into the bar business in the mid-1980s, working as a bouncer. “I knew everybody that walked in and out of that place and who better to be able to deal with the street kids, my family, [than] me.” He later also worked as a DJ at Polk Street bars.
Street Families: Protection and Support
Youth often formed “street families” for protection and support, pooling money for food and housing. “Back then it seemed to be more of a brotherhood,” Anthony Cabello recalled of the early and mid 1970s, when he came to the area as a college student. Young people taught him how to protect himself and warning him about the danger of street drugs. “The hustlers kind of watched out for each other….They would try to tell me about what to watch out for in terms of the cops being around the area and things I shouldn’t do or shouldn’t say.”
Youth also protected each other from street violence. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, “there was quite a few really hot, buff prostitutes that were really tough,” Rob Bennett recalled. “Everyone kinda looked at ‘em like our older brothers, and they were really protective of the younger, skinnier prostitutes.” When two men attempted to mug Bennett one night, two of the hustlers “beat the crap” out of his attackers. “They never really asked for anything or said why they did it. I was just thankful, and they took off. At that point, I think the camaraderie [was] like a brotherhood. The hookers all looked out for each other. It was pretty safe.”
Kiko Lobo pooled money with his “family” in the early and mid 1980s. “We were all teenagers,” he said. “We milled together to be safe. To have something to cling with because all of us were lost souls. We would go out and hustle, and we would all pool our money together and get hotel rooms and there’d be four or five of us in hotels. Everything was family. If you didn’t make any money that day it didn’t mean you were going to sleep on the street. Your brother or your sister…made sure that you had a roof over your head or a place to sleep.”
Shane “Yoyo” Gibson ran away from a sexually abusive home as a teenager. He heard about the Castro and came to San Francisco in 1983 at the age of 17. When he arrived at the Castro, he found that “when you’re young and you’re on the streets and you’re a hustler, even Castro would only accept you so much….Polk Street was a more acceptable place for the hustlers that had nowhere to wash their clothes every day. Couldn’t cut their hair and wear the certain clothes.” On Polk Street, he found others who shared his background. “We were a family,” Gibson said. “We watched each other’s backs….We made sure each other had food and stuff and we let ‘em know who was the cops… and we camped together in certain spots for safety.”
Polk Street Self-Policing Mechanisms
Polk Street hustler bars maintained their own policing strategies to avoid unnecessary interaction with the police. Coy Ellison remembers working jointly for four bars that had developed a system to rank the level of permissible behavior in each bar.
"What happened was, Kimos was an okay bar, Rendezvous was the sports bar, the P.S. used to be a piano style bar, but it expanded because of coke dealing and became sort of like a dance club, and so it got rough at times too. But Reflections was the bottom of the line, some people would call it a shooting gallery, which means people would go upstairs and shoot up and stuff like that and hustlers. Basically what would happen is [bartenders would] call me up to one bar and say [this patron’s] too drunk to be in this bar and I’d bring him down to the next bar, next level. I’d say, our bouncer would like to buy you a drink at the other bar and they would switch that back and forth. And eventually the bottom of the line was Reflections, if you got 86’d [kicked] out of Reflections you would not be welcome at any bar on Polk Street, whatsoever."
Street youth and hustlers also maintained the street’s safety. “If I ever had a problem and I was cleaning the sidewalk and it was 2 in the morning or 4 in the morning,” Ellison recalled, “and a pimp would be chasing his hookers up onto Polk Street and chasing with a gun, I knew the street kids would have my back if I had a problem walking home.”
“We made sure people understood that you can’t come to Polk Street and think you can take over, because we wouldn’t allow that,” said James Harris, who came to the street in the late 1970s. He recalls bartenders reporting to him and his group of friends when hustlers from outside the tight-knit community became violent or disrespectful, or stole from clients. “And we’d meet ‘em right then and there, and say, ‘I don’t think so.’ A couple times, it got physical. We protected our own, we protected our community,” he recalled. “Cause we didn’t want just anybody coming in and destroying it.”
Ron Huberman, a gay activist who worked in the District Attorney’s office in 1981, recalls that “the bartenders were the eyes and ears of Polk Street.” Bartenders would give him the name of people who had committed crimes against customers or regulars. “The bartenders were usually the first source of information,” he recalled. “And many of the bartenders had come off the streets themselves. Or knew people that had come off the streets. So they knew exactly what was going on.”
- Interview with Coy Ellison by Joey Plaster, 2008.
- Interview with Rob Bennett by Joey Plaster, 2008.
- Interview with Kevin Lobo by Joey Plaster, 2008.
- Interview with Anthony Cabello by Joey Plaster, 2008.
- Interview with Shane Gibson by Joey Plaster, 2008.
- Interview with James Harris by Joey Plaster, 2008.
- Interview with Ron Huberman by Joey Plaster, 2008.