Gangs of the Castro

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March 15, 2013 by jamesessj


That is how Dennis Anathema describes his time as a member of The Martha Stewarts, one of the ill-mannered and unruly gangs that nearly brought the Castro District of San Francisco to its knees three years ago. Granted, much of the Castro was already on its knees, but these dangerously disorderly gangs laid the area down face-first and forced it to beg for mercy from the relentless pounding they gave the local economy:  according to the Chamber of Commerce their frenzied, irresponsible behavior cost local businesses, in total, almost $238.

And then there was the human toll. Dennis Anathema is only one of several young men who were coerced into joining a Castro gang at a tender and impressionable age — in his case, all of twenty-six. “I was fresh out of Divinity School,” he explains. “I was young and naïve and stupid and foolish and dumb. I was confused and I was ripe to be plucked. The Martha Stewarts came along and they…” His voice cracks. “They plucked me.”

Anathema’s initiation ritual was typical of the Castro gangs’ nefarious activities. He was required to break into a shop facing Castro Street and rearrange its window display to be, he says, “more avant-garde and impactful, while maintaining minimal standards of tastefulness and decorum.” The tears flow freely as Anathema, now thirty-four, remembers that August evening eight years ago when he jimmied the lock on “Tops and Bottoms,” a clothing boutique, and stole inside, where, in the space of four hours, he pulled down the existing display – entitled “Versatiles” – and erected in its place a new display of his own creation that featured a multimedia presentation, live music from a jazz trio, and readings from Jackie Collins’ Hollywood Wives by a trained Italian. “The hours I put into that display,” Anathema recounts. “It had to be perfect, to impress Stephen and Reginald. That display…it broke my spirit. I still have nightmares. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find an Italian who doesn’t mispronounce ‘chaise longue‘?”

Stephen and Reginald — these names recur, in any discussion of The Martha Stewarts.  Stephen and Reginald — the legendary couple who together ruled the most ruthless gang in the Castro. Feared even by their followers, their joint rampage of rearrangement reached, in its heyday, as far south as Twin Peaks. Detectives from the San Francisco Police Department hunted the pair for years, without success. No one who knew the duo would talk — and if anyone who knew the duo was rumored to have talked, that person would be found the next day in loose-fitting off-the-rack clothing, his hair unmoussed, his face unshaven, the word “Breeder” handwritten across his forehead in a casual but elegant script. “Those were dark days,” recalls Anathema. “Stephen and Reginald — they didn’t forgive and they didn’t forget.”

Their reign of terror lasted but a few months, yet the fear they inspired continues unabated. Mention the names “Stephen” or “Reginald” in certain areas of the Castro and a silence will descend to make the vacuum of space seem deafening. This may be because both men remain fugitives at large — wanted on three counts of corrupting a major (both spent time in the military) and one count of abdominal exposure.

Anathema believes they may be hiding in West Hollywood, or Greenwich Village. But he has no doubt that, wherever they are, they have founded a new gang — The Rachael Rays, or The Padma Lakshmis. “Once a criminal, always a criminal,” he says. If Anathema recognizes the irony of this comment — he, too, was once arrested, and charged with misdemeanor fondling of a swatch — he shows no sign of it.

*   *   *

Psychologists who have studied the gangs of the Castro differ on gang members’ motivations for joining. Why did these young(ish) men turn to lives of crime, instead of finding gainful employment as florists or community activists? Petros Pariah, a Greek immigrant who for six harrowing weeks was a member of The Chilled Chardonnays, says most gang members were motivated by “an intense desire to have fun.”

But Dr. Wilfrid Establishment disagrees. “These were young men with extremely high testosterone levels. Also, extremely high estrogen levels. It is only natural that they should lash out at a society that discriminates against their lifestyle.”

Dr. Establishment’s argument might hold more water had the gangs been operating in the deep South. But this was the Castro — then as now quite possibly the most gay-friendly location in the country, if not the entire world. Lola Langtree, owner/operator of Lola’s Lubricants, may have put it best when she said:  “They were here, they were queer, we got used to it.”

*   *   *

What ended the gangs’ unholy sway over the Castro? Some credit better policing techniques; some credit changing modes of window-display fashion; some credit the inability of gay men to commit to anything for any length of time. Dennis Anathema’s departure from The Martha Stewarts was prompted by the comment of a fellow member. “He criticized my cravat,” Anathema says. “Called it pompous and overbearing. How could I stay, after that?”

Petros Pariah departed The Chilled Chardonnays under similar circumstances. “Evil always turns on itself,” he affirms. “We would get drunk on wine coolers and take turns picking apart one another’s boyfriends. ‘He doesn’t moisturize.’ ‘He’s never worked in retail.’ ‘Those aren’t his real fingernails.’ ‘He slept with a woman back in college.’ ‘His family’s from Oklahoma.’ One of us could have dated Jesus Christ and the rest of us would have found something to nitpick. ‘His hair’s too long.’ Or, ‘His sandals aren’t Prada.’ Or, ‘His robe’s always trailing dirt on the carpet.’ It got to where I just couldn’t take it anymore. How much bitching can one man stand?”

In the end, it appears, what finished “the gangs that dare not speak their names” was…the gangs that dare not speak their names. Each collapsed under the weight of its own negativism.

Still, their influence lingers. To this day many shops in the Castro refuse to install a window display that hasn’t been lavishly designed by a Madison Avenue ad company to meet even the most rigorous of window display standards. And every now and again a display will be broken into and rearranged, though police are quick to blame this on individual vandals rather than any organized group.

“The gangs are gone for good,” says Steve Smith, a patrolman with the SFPD. “Their day is done.”

“Yeah,” agrees Reggie Jones, his partner. “Anybody tries to move into the Castro, they’ll find us waiting.”


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March 2013
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