Generations of Love: ‘Why I’m Still Here,’ a Conversation With Al Cromedy
Earlier this year — you know, before we were all quarantined inside — I got to sit down and talk with my friend Al Cromedy, a fixture at Powerhouse Bar, where he spends his time running the door, coat check… and his mouth. There’s never any shortage of sass between Al and me, making each of our encounters always a joy. He’s an active member of the leather community and was titled “Count to the Empresses” in 2003 by the Imperial Court System, which was at that time under the reign of Snatch, Absolute Empress XXXVIII.
My friend and writer Matt Charnock joined us as we walked through Al’s past, present, and future in San Francisco.
Al came into the world a Pisces (year undisclosed), at what was once the Stanford Hospital located at Webster and Sacramento Streets. After he was born his parents made the decision to move the family to the suburbs (this was happening with many new families in San Francisco at the time) where they could raise their son in a place where there would be ‘no drugs or crime. They settled in Stockton, California, a small Central Valley farm town with no more than three thousand residents, who were spread acres apart from each other.
(I’ve always thought of San Francisco as a place you run away too. A metropolitan that gives you the chance to start over, become who you really are or want to be — so it’s always refreshing when I meet someone who is born in the City.)
Al was the only black gay kid attending his elementary school, saying he was “never in the closet”; Al, in his own words, waxes that his wrists were limp and he had a certain twist in his walk from the start… He would arrive at school decked out in chokers, jewelry, and handmade clothes his grandmother taught him how to make. (Can you just imagine Al wearing orange hot pants, a fringe top and knee-high boots to high school? Yasss qween)
Each and every day at school, Al was subject to racism from his peers. Confused and exhausted by their name-calling, Al looked to his parents for guidance, his Christian mother, specifically, explaining at that time what the meaning of ignorance is to him. As the school continued, he would stand on his imaginary soapbox and preach the truth.
Al’s family attended church faithfully where he began playing organ in churches of every denomination across town. He quickly became an active member of the church and would — on one hand, hear the ministers bash the gay community and, on the other, all of their wicked homosexual secrets. It wasn’t until years later that Al found his true church, where everyone was welcome… where Al said he’d found his true spirituality. He got ordained in 1991, though he never did preach behind a pulpit.
During high school, he began spending more time with his father in San Francisco, who was a construction worker, while his mom stayed home on the farm in the Valley. Al could feel the liberation happening in the City and soon began spending late nights hanging out with friends in front of the Flagg Brothers store on Market Street (a notorious pick-up spot in the ’70s), playing music, and dancing in the street.
After high school ended, In the early ’70s, towards the end of the Vietnam war, Al decided to join the Navy after struggling to find a solid job in San Francisco. Al was also very clear on the fact that the job would also know that it would get him out from behind a desk and give him the chance to travel the world. Being out in the military at that time was not accepted, so Al kept that part of his life completely quiet. He thought that if he made a good career out of the Navy, he could retire in twenty years. So many youths — both straight and gay — use the military as a place for education, stability, and security.
Each year, he was considered for promotion by taking a test, which he passed with flying color — until it was time to take a swim test. This is where he literally sank to the bottom of the pool like a rock, his only previous association with water being a shower. The Navy’s Commanding Officer wanted so desperately to pass him that she pleaded with him to learn to swim and just float for five minutes. After all, you’re in the Navy, on a boat in the water.) He soon left the Navy and returned to San Francisco, landing an apartment at Fell and Fillmore.
In 1979, Al started working as a secretary for a large scale big local union, fulfilling all of his duties above and beyond the job requirements — all the while ignoring the racism and anti-gay hatred he was receiving from his fellow employees. During this time, Al fell ill at work and went to see his doctor, who later diagnosed him with cancer. After hearing that news, his doctor urged him to go to the hospital to get a biopsy on one of his many inflamed lymph nodes. He checked himself in and calmly listened to the nurse, who explained that the doctor would be in shortly to talk with him about the procedure..(This was pre-AIDs and at a time when no one really knew it was happening.)
Out of nowhere comes a gorgeous blonde man — blue-eyed, wearing a white jacket, with a yellow shirt. The doctor sat down next to Al on the bed, saying he would not do the surgery and that Al would be okay. (Basically, he was to go home and continue to live his life.) So, alas, Al got dressed and went straight back to work. Shortly after sitting back at his desk, he received a frantic call from the nurse at the hospital inquiring as to where he was; he was supposed to be in surgery at that very moment. Al explained that he had spoken to the doctor earlier who informed him he didn’t have to have the surgery and could go home — that he would be fine. Later, after sharing the experience with his mother she reminded him that you never know what an angel is going to look like — which, in this case, was a dashing medical professional with blue-eyes, wings, and sound advice.
Al recovered and went on with his life, spending nights in The Castro hanging out at The Pendulum, Detour, Headquarters, and Toad Hall. At this time he was living in the Tenderloin on O’Farrell at Polk, his mom and dad came for a visit and dinner one night, when, in Al’s words, “Polk was the stroke.”
They got to hear the girls hustling right outside his window, who all were cackling about their tricks and the dick sizes they had just had the pleasure with. (Poor mom, trying to change the subject.)
In the Polk Gulch neighborhood, which was still gay central, he hung out at Bojangles, a place for people of color, where the music he was dancing to was the beginning of what would become the sound of disco; the gay revolution was in full swing. Around this time, Al started working at Ritch Street Health Club, better known as Ritch Street Baths, considered to be the most upscale bathhouse in San Francisco, complete with a rooftop, jacuzzi, gym, and lunch bar.
Bathhouses at the time were considered the primary outlet for sex within the city’s gay community. That was until the CDC highly suggested they close down, blaming them for the spread of AIDS in 1984, resulting in the closure of 14 sex clubs. District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who represents the Castro neighborhood recently introduced an ordinance calling for the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFPDH) to amend city standards established in the 1980s for adult sex venues that effectively shut down gay bathhouses. (Would this mean the end of hook-up apps?)
Al is now a fixture in SOMA, though, back in the day he spent many nights causing trouble as a young hot gay man. He’d sneak away from his friends in The Castro and end up at places South of Market, where he was considered the boy. During this interview, he wouldn’t completely divulge us in the story about the man that took him home one night and set him free. (He promised me he’d save it for another time, but he did say he’s never been so sore.) Al did, however, tell me about one incident at a SOMA leather bar where a big bruiser of a man said to him “Boy, come here, get on your knees and lick my boots”. And, he did.
During the day, he was wearing a suit and tie and working for the temp agency Kelly Services as a secretary. They valued his experience and kept him working constantly. He ended up getting a full-time job at a startup company in SOMA, commanding the front desk. Al worked with burgeoning tech companies across the country, and on the side was busy stealing all the dirty boys that would come to seek the company’s help. (I call that full — Front Desk Service.) This was the very beginning of the tech industry San Francisco, where people and businesses wanted to lean on technology to bolster efficiency. And Al conducted his business from behind the front desk; Al wanted a part of everyone.
Sometime in 1984, he spoke about one guy in particular that wanted to visit San Francisco and possibly start a working relationship with the company. It took All about half-a-second to switch the conversation from work — to inform this man he would do things his wife would never even dream of. (I guess some things never change.)
Around this time the devastation of AIDS started to hit San Francisco, and he was losing friends left and right… gone in the blink of an eye. The Bay Area Reporter’s obituary section was pages and pages long, with people you had said “hello” to no longer than a week prior. At the start, Al lost the first set of friends, and then as it progressed another entire set. Around this time his friend Reggie Williams, an American AIDS activist, started spreading awareness about the epidemic to communities of color.
Around the year 1987, Williams was a leading force in the development of the National Association of Black and White Men Together and the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention. At the time, no one was caring about people of color who had AIDS. Al says they were a strong organization and wise enough to think outside the box. He was working as an administrative assistant for a place in the Tenderloin called The Brothers Network, an organization that educated so many people about HIV/AIDS for people of color and helped countless from becoming positive, themselves. Al, specifically, would care of sick people — who had nowhere else to go or anyone else to turn to — to get help, driving them to hospitals in his own car. Taking them to the hospital when needed; Al was a hero, sans a cape.
At that time, the National Association of Black and White Men Together started conducting a survey about the sexuality of black and white gay men, hitting the pavement and talking with the community. (At that time, so many of these people were hiding their sexuality for reasons of religion, family, or their jobs.)
The CDC found this survey so powerful that it adopted the information for its own use… though in the end not giving The National Association of Black and White Men Together any credit. It was at this time that Al started to ask himself the age-old AIDS survivor question: “Why am I still here,” an all too common enigma asked internally among people who have survived the AIDS crisis.
In 1995, he became deathly ill with a case of shingles. After a doctor’s visit, he was diagnosed with one of the worst cases they had ever seen. The pain lasted an entire year, later morphing into hepatitis, which left him so weak he once, again began, to pray and ask for help. The only person that he could think of for help was his ex-boyfriend, who magically appeared at his door ready to take him to the hospital (with his current boyfriend), an hour later.
Upon arriving at the hospital, he was diagnosed with pneumonia that evening at the hospital the second he walked in, his ex’s boyfriends-boyfriend leaned over and whispered into his ear: “It’s your own fault”. At the moment Al couldn’t tell him what he really wanted to say, but promised himself he’d whip this guy’s ass if he ever saw him on the street. The doctor put Al next to the nurse’s station so that the nurses would be notified when he had passed.
Once released from the hospital, Al was unable to work and desperately tried to get on Social Security disability. AZT, the only HIV-related drug available at the time, was seven to eight hundred dollars a month, and there was no financial help insight — which is when the Human Resources person at his job jumped to his rescue. She took on the responsibility of helping to keep Al surviving. Which he still is, despite aliments that naturally come with the joys of aging.
Fast forward some years, I was lucky enough to put Al in drag at Powerhouse Bar for Powerblouse, where we give someone a full-fantasy drag makeover]. Though he had dabbled in drag consistently over from his youth, that night was particularly special. After his glorious debut onstage, he saw his reflection in the mirror. For me, it was truly one of the most heartwarming moments I have ever felt putting someone in drag. He was so grateful and so happy. We named him Miss Cissy S’More, though I know deep down inside he really is Endora Black.
My love of banter with him is endless, at times shocking to those around us for its sharp, sassy, sometimes even rude tone. Nevertheless, the respect and love between us are always there — all I need to call someone a friend. I’m truly grateful that Al is still here, and his story is vitally important, as are others like it from people who have weathered the AIDS crisis.
Nightlife is central to the Bay Area’s queer culture. Al’s primary source of income is in nightlife and he is currently experiencing economic insecurity as a result of bar closures and event cancellations in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I encourage you to help Al out, as his primary source of income is in nightlife and with the closure of bars and events due to Covid-19 he is also affected. Venmo @Al-Cromedy