San Francisco’s Black and White Ball has both intrigued and repelled me since I was old enough to look at society page photos in local papers and magazines. The people in those photos, draped in gemstones, silk and couture, always looked weird. Who are they? No one I ever knew had contact with these socialites. Posing stiffly for uninteresting feature articles about San Francisco’s upper class, they occupy an alien world with foreign traditions, their own mythologies, and rarefied air of superiority and insecurity.
They live and shop and fuck and eat in the same city as me. Yet they might as well be as far away from the rest of us as Mars, and the Ball a ritual of old money mystery. This elite party happened every year only half a mile from where as a teen I’d panhandled for food money, and slept in squats. The Black and White Ball was to me like a snow globe; outside it looked like glitter and stood for the the evocation of dreams.
I’d only received notice that I’d be going to the ball a day before. The ball began at nine pm, and up to the last minute I was taping and trussing the Armani gown I’d somehow gotten my hands on less than 24 hours before. I’d read in a quick panic of online research that dress code for the Ball was strict: Only black and white attire. Men had to wear tuxedos. For women, neat and simple hair, and jewelry was “no metals” – diamonds and pearls are the standard. As I have no diamonds or pearls, my panic escalated when I read that this year, color was acceptable in that rubies and sapphires for women’s jewelry was this year’s vogue – along with red lipstick. I noted that coats were discouraged while wraps were the preference.
Diamonds… Shine on, you crazy people. The fog had come in low and freezing cold; San Francisco’s evil wind machine was relentless. We pulled up behind the giant white tents where wealthy patrons had dined a few hours previous, and stepping out into the wet wind was a merciless shock. I wondered at the tuxedoed men and lightly dressed women streaming into the closed off street; Van Ness made into a spectacle of a concourse for the night on a characteristically freezing early Summer evening.
And pouring in they were; the wealthy (or at least those perfectly dressed to the code) entered the secured, carpeted entries at street closures along Van Ness from Hayes to McAllister. Van Ness was absolutely unrecognizable and it took me a minute to realize I was pecking my way in high heels down a street I’d ordinarily regard as a path to quick death for anyone crazy enough to actually walk in. We were handed champagne. At the intersection Van Ness had become a glittery otherworld painted in an elaborate set and overwhelming palette of lighting highlit by the fog, which added a luminous glow to everything. There must have been hundreds of people in the streets, along the sidewalks, all decked in black and white. It was like you’d imagine a ball out of a movie. It was nothing short of magical.
Davies Symphony Hall, the Opera House and City Hall were all open to wander into and around. Champagne was on tap and available at about every thirty feet; large tents dispatched superlative food and I could see at least two pigs roasting on spits as I looked down Van Ness toward City Hall.
The Wallflowers were on stage, and a small crowd of revelers watched. And danced, badly. That kind of awkward, drunk older folks with no rhythm that make you kind of go “mom and dad, stop it you’re embarrassing me” kind of dancing. SFPD watched, and a few took advantage of the sparse crowd to get close and take iPhone photos of The Wallflowers. They were excellent, and the lead singer looked and sounded so much like his father (Bob Dylan) it was worth a double-take.
We could get as close as we wanted. This was the other side of privilege.
Freezing, we hoofed indoors to see what we could see. We seamlessly entered the Green Room, reminding me that confidence and expensive attire makes infiltration a breeze. As I warmed up I realized the Gov. Jerry Brown was ten feet away, chatting and snacking. Back out into the Symphony Hall, scores of outrageously dressed and coiffed debutantes, upper class figures and elite flooded down the stairs as the Paul Simon performance had just ended. I could see that it wasn’t my kind of music. But it was sinking in that this didn’t matter; everyone was there to see and be seen.
We were definitely seen. My date seemed to be the youngest man for three blocks, and I was the center of a strange attention; the older women eyed my tattoos and gown, and if I stood still long enough I had a crowd ‘being seen’ around me within a minute. I’d planned on being a ghost. I hadn’t planned on the opposite.
We’d been given VIP access, so we made our way to the warm tent at the front of the Opera House. Inside was a bizarre collection of the upper class: botox and fillers had certainly plumped the pockets of The City’s finest doctors before the ball. More perfect food, white couches, more champagne.
In VIP I also saw what seemed to be dotcom denizens; the telltale signature details of geeks with piles of money were evident, along with the fact that being younger than most everyone else made them stand out as I did with my date. They were decidedly, and disappointingly, far less friendly than the older old money partiers. My date and I stayed inside for the warmth and this utterly strange people watching.
Half a glass of champagne later and we could hear that Cyndi Lauper was taking the stage. I opted to stay inside and headed to the restrooms inside VIP; on the way I passed two tuxedoe’d men of the younger variety. Walking by, one was in mid-conversation to his friend and I overheard him bragging, “…oh yeah, she’s freaky, she’ll do anything.”
I stifled a laugh, thinking that money doesn’t actually buy class after all. They turned and looked at me, alarmed that I’d heard them. Thanks for the OH, guys.
Back upstairs I waited with even more champagne for my date, as a tired-seeming Cyndi Lauper trudged through her hits with energy at an all-time low. When he returned, we went back out into the cold and away from Cyndi, who seemed to be singing and swaying through five feet of jello. Drunk debutantes wobbily danced without their shoes. I flashed back to earlier that day, where I’d noted blood all over the sidewalk just one block down Van Ness. I’d certainly be keeping my shoes on.
A left turn outside the Opera House and we were in a pavilion of tents serving hot dim sum and what seemed like miles and miles of sushi being prepared by chefs in the center. I gawped at all the food, thinking about how the ball was going to be over in half an hour. We were so close to the Tenderloin. “I need a photo…” I started. My date finished, …”of all the wastefulness.”
The wind and fog whipped us as we threaded down the avenue; tables on the side of the street held pockets of partiers. My eye caught a large bald man in a tux, head down and asleep at a table as his blonde date danced on her chair.
Completing our circuit, we found ourselves back at the corner of Van Ness and Grove where we started. It was just after midnight and a lively gospel choir had taken over the stage, bringing the crowd alive and restoring the magic back to the same glittery snow globe where we’d entered.
The outrageous lighting moved and bounced off City Hall and the Opera House; the fog made it seem like we were on acid. Suddenly, large strands of confetti, like ticker tape, were being blown by enormous fans to create whorls in the air and dance in the light.
On our right, two exquisitely dressed men in tuxedos stopped and paused. Fireworks erupted red out of the crown of Davies Symphony Hall right next to us. One reached out and put both hands on the other man’s face, and drew him in for a kiss.
The pair, maybe overwhelmed by passion and the atmosphere, the swirling paper and lights, kissed deeply – then madly, outrageously, the way lovers do when they decide that they are the only people in the world and nothing else matters.
They were beautiful.
All photos: Michael D. Long, for the Appeal
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