This month I’m writing from the lower right about what works out to be the far left: San Francisco. (My first visit, not long ago, with wife and daughter. OK, lots of people have been to San Francisco. Some even live there. But they’re not writing this column.)

Let’s give credit where it’s due: the food is great. We ate Chinese, naturally (my 14-year-old a little doubtful about green-lipped mussels, but she’s a sport). Thai, Korean, and Vietnamese we can get around here—those cuisines are as common as Big Macs in Fayetteville, NC, home of Fort Bragg and innumerable war-brides and camp-followers—so we skipped them for food from places where the Airborne hasn’t been yet: Indian, Persian, and Ethiopian.

Sam Francis said once—we were eating in an Afghan restaurant in DC at the time—that whenever a Third World country falls to the communists a new cuisine blooms in Washington. In San Francisco the same refugees face stiffer competition and a more discerning clientele, and the results are definitely worth writing home about.

We even went to the mother church of “California cuisine,” Chez Panisse in Berkeley. I wanted to check out the original of what every mesquite-grilled monkfish with kiwi fruit and goat cheese fern-bar in Piedmont, North Carolina is imitating. I figured not going would be like avoiding ribs in Memphis, crawfish in New Orleans, or barbecue in Goldsboro, so I did my duty—and enjoyed it. Seems I only break out in hives when I run into the same thing in Raleigh. No reason California shouldn’t have its own cuisine, and I don’t think I’d mind it even in Raleigh if it were plainly just another kind of foreign restaurant. After all, I like Thai food in Fayetteville partly because it’s exotic. The problem with the California stuff is that it won’t stay exotic.

Anyway, still in the let’s-be-fair department, the San Francisco Bay really is as beautiful as everybody says. I’m a pushover for the combination of steep hills and big water, and the fog is a definite asset, rolling in and out of the Golden Gate like God’s own lava lamp; every prospect pleases.

But man is vile in ways that are downright startling to a boy whose vices run to S&D (smoking and drinking). Of course, even without its most notorious deviants the place would be . . . strange. In Marin County, where BMW’s and New Age thought seem to coexist comfortably, I kept running into people who made me want to go out and find a baby seal to club. All I can say is that Cyra McFadden wasn’t far off the mark in The Serial—which, if you haven’t read it, you should, if only for the character who is regarded as an intellectual because she has two M.A.’s (one in sociology and one in macramé).

Across the bay in Berkeley, the graffiti are a healthier mix than they used to be: one Maoist poster had been defaced with “666” (the Mark of the Beast, of course) on Mao’s forehead. But the notorious People’s Park has become an encampment for the deranged, the drug-addled, and the just plain shiftless, a depot for human debris swept westward by less tolerant communities to a place where there really is a free lunch, and supper, too. Berkeley being what it is, these vagrants are politically organized, demanding what they’re urged to think of as their rights from a community they seem to have thoroughly buffaloed. (Somebody said once that there’s nothing wrong with liberal guilt; they just feel guilty about the wrong things.)

Of course, California was strange even before the 60’s; a great Berkeley house reminded us of that. The former “Temple of the Wing” was originally built without walls, a sort of colonnaded platform on which folks lived and (I gather) ate nuts and berries. It has walls now, but it still commands a marvelous view of the bay, and the ghost of Isadora Duncan haunts the place. The same architect did the University of California faculty club building, a splendid Aztec-Oriental hunting-lodge sort of affair. A while back there was a movement to remove the mounted animal heads that decorate the dining room on grounds of anti-speciesism or some such twaddle, but common sense prevailed for a change.

The point is that there’s a lot to marvel at in the Bay Area without even mentioning homosexuality. Let’s get that on the record. But what’s truly distinctive about San Francisco, obviously, is that it has become the Rome, the Moscow, the Salt Lake City of inversion.

The generally accepted estimate seems to be seventy-five to one hundred thousand homosexual men (and I’m talking about men here: the city’s lesbians are less conspicuous)—concentrated enough and organized enough to make virtually a city of their own, one as large, as diverse, and potentially as complex as, say, Durham, North Carolina. Most cities have gay bars, but San Francisco has homosexual newspapers, restaurants, stores, churches, choirs, marching bands—even a gay Lions Club and, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a cell of gay Nazis (and doesn’t that context make that adjective unfortunate?).

One result is that San Francisco is now the place that comes to Middle American minds when the subject of homosexuality comes up—and homosexuality is increasingly what comes to mind when the subject of San Francisco comes up. When a dowager confessed in a conversation about grandchildren that she’d never be a grandmother because “my son, you know, has moved to San Francisco,” nobody had to ask what she meant. Even Rice-a-Roni, “the San Francisco treat,” is getting nervous—dropping that tag, I read, apparently because market research has found that many now associate the words San Francisco with buggery and death.

That’s not fair, of course—no more fair than the listener who wrote All Things Considered to say that the Southern accent of one of the program’s contributors made her think of the oppression of black people. But once a stereotype gains momentum, people begin to notice what they expect to notice.

My expectations for San Francisco had been shaped by a recent reading of Armistead Maupin, an expatriate North Carolinian who has become sort of the Charles Dickens of gay San Francisco. Tales of the City and Maupin’s subsequent books are fluff so lightweight that I’m surprised they haven’t been turned into a TV sitcom along the lines of Three’s Company (it’s tempting to say that his sure touch with brand names reflects some arch, campy sensibility, except I recall that Ian Fleming used the same gimmick), but they present an oddly touching portrait of the exhilarating, aren’t-we-wonderful, pre-AIDS San Francisco gay life, with that life very much at the heart of what the city is about.

It’s possible, of course, for an innocent to visit San Francisco without particularly noticing any of this. I don’t think my daughter, for instance, picked up on the young male tourists at the airport or even on the gay ghetto of the Castro district as we drove through it. She could hardly ignore the pathetic, drunken, old drag queen she encountered downtown or the large “USE CONDOMS” signs on the backs of city buses, but she left San Francisco pretty much as she came to it, with a romanticized view of city lights appropriate for a provincial lass of her age and station.

The strange thing is that my San Francisco friends don’t seem to notice, either. It’s not so much that they’re tolerant as that they’ve become desensitized; they seem just to tune out the ubiquitous evidence of the homosexual presence. I really don’t want to gross readers out here: let’s just say that the kind of thing that gives sodomy a bad name is hard to avoid.

Yes, of course, most heterosexuals wouldn’t care to be characterized by the evidence of Times Square’s movie marquees, store-window displays, and newsstands. But homosexuals are defined by what they do to one another, sexually. It’s the major thing they have in common. So naturally their most readily identifiable manifestations have to do with sexual activity.

But they also have in common its consequences, so something else they share, now, is the shadow of death from AIDS. The AIDS crisis, which remains largely theoretical around here, was very much in the news out yonder. Obituaries presented a steady drumbeat of young lives cut short: the wages of sin, to be sure, but a dirty trick on those who believed the promise of sexual “freedom.” The condom ads on city buses may help to promote “safe sex”—although of course the only really safe sex is with a faithful partner, and they say a good man is hard to find. In any case, for many, it’s too late. Bay Area personal advertisements sport a macabre addition to designations like “SWM” (single white male, for the sheltered): “PWA for person with AIDS. Truth in advertising of a grisly sort.

Homosexuals’ continuing fear of persecution, however well-founded, has led them into some strange and even deadly political behavior. The same fear has made them, like some ethnic minorities, bloc-voters when issues implicate their peculiar interests. Those issues don’t come up in most towns I know, and the homosexual bloc vote wouldn’t amount to much if they did, but in San Francisco those 100,000 single-issue voters can make politicians grovel, as some mayoral candidates were doing when I was there. The political upshot is that San Francisco strikes me as almost unique, for the time being anyway, in the extent to which its homosexual population is treated with at least the semblance of respect: just another tile in the mosaic, just one of many “communities” with its own culture, symbols, and special interests.

What should other Americans make of this, if anything? Some, obviously, see San Francisco as a model of tolerance that we all should copy. Others would like to test the neutron bomb on it. For my part, I think San Francisco’s accommodation shouldn’t be emulated, but ought to be tolerated. I don’t conclude that just because I’m a communitarian anarchist who tries to be consistent (although I am and I do). In general, local differences do make this a more delightful country. Also, in most respects, I don’t see why a Southerner should care what San Franciscans do, so long as they do it out there and their ways remain a clearly labeled import in our parts. On the other hand, as I said, Californianisms do seem to be contagious, and we’re not talking here about cuisine. I’m no extremist in the defense of liberty, much less libertinism.

Basically I think San Francisco ought to be left alone in its peculiarities because setting one or two American cities aside as something like reservations has a lot to be said for it—and maybe I’ll say it in a later column, when I feel like being abused both by people who think homosexuality is an abomination to be suppressed at any cost and by those who think it’s just an alternative life-style that should be known and accepted everywhere. Reservations haven’t worked very well for Indians, but some such settlement may be the best of the bad choices we’ve got in this troublesome case.