Lost and Found: The Libertines of Folsom Street

September 27th, 2007 by Rachel

by Rebecca Woolf

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I have always been fascinated by outsiders, feeling quietly like one myself, hiding behind high fashion and well-manicured hair. Laughing out loud with friends, sometimes unaware of what we’re laughing about. What’s so funny?

I grew up in the suburbs where we all dressed like twins and drove matching cars with the same Fly Girls stickers on our bumpers. We lived in homes with the same floor plan and pools in the backyard and wore our hair identically: long and blond.

A group of kids at my high school called themselves “thespians,” but we referred to them as “Goths.” They were involved in theater and wore more makeup than allowed on the stage. Dressed in black, they looked like ghosts in trench coats. They thought of themselves as non-conformists but in reality they all looked the same: same blue and black hair, same Nine Inch Nails stickers on their car windows, same combat boots.

We weren’t that different from each other. We just hid behind different costumes.

Several years ago, I took a trip with some friends to the Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, an annual gathering notorious for its exhibitionists: a parade of freaks and outsiders and misfits and the people who enjoy watching them expose themselves.

I was intrigued to learn that many of the Folsom libertines lead normal lives on the weekdays but enjoyed Folsom for its openness and community of similarly outfitted peers. Just like nudists might go to a nudist colony or Emo kids to a Morrissey convention, every year Folsom Street Fair opens its gum-stained arms to thousands of social pirates and their booty. One such married couple, donning head to toe leather, admitted they were a doctor and lawyer by day. They agreed to let me take their photo in exchange for a couple of cigarettes and told me they made the trek every year to hold hands, half naked, and watch other couples do the same.

“These are our people,” they said, puffing on my Parliaments.

It is a strange conundrum to go on a portrait safari in quest of misfits and outcasts in a place where they all look alike, fitted in disguises, faces covered, cocks on display. Or breasts. Their eyes hidden behind glasses and masks.

What I found more interesting than the groups of men and women who came to find camaraderie, were the people I found alone. The man dressed up like a nurse with a Barbie backpack and a leopard print suitcase, trying to find his way home. The boy who looked like an angel, crouching amidst the rush of the crowd, a human sundial—his shadow growing across the pavement as the sun moved across the sky. A man in the executioner’s mask, holding his own camera as he offered me his flaccid penis like some kind of sacrifice. And the boy with the spiky Mohawk who stopped to light a cigarette under the “No Stopping” sign.

“Take my picture,” moaned a transvestite in high-heeled shoes, her blond hair whipping about her face in the wind. She posed awkwardly like a queen on The Island of Misfit Toys. “Show the world how beautiful I am.”

I took her picture and she thanked me, kindly asking if I could mail her a copy of the photo. I agreed and took down her address. But after getting my film back and finding her frowning face amidst the dozens of Folsom characters on my proof sheets, I knew I wouldn’t be sending her the print. I was afraid she would see her sadness, that maybe without photographic proof she could maintain her place as queen of the costumed.

What is an outcast and when does one stop being one? Who are the lost boys and girls and what does it take to find them? A couple of cigarettes? A friend? A camera? A mob of people who dress the same? Twins and triplets in matching leather with the same cock rings and sexual deviancy?

And suddenly, the normal girl is the one on the outside, appearing lost amidst the found.

Maybe I should have sent the print to the transvestite in the black dress. Or maybe I saw something in her that I was able to identify in myself. Something private and freakish. Something that reminded me of my own two faces and an underbelly I was afraid to expose.

I do believe that there is a place for everyone in the parade: The performers and the clowns and the marching band and the crowd that loves to watch, searching for answers to questions we are still trying to find the guts to ask ourselves. Trying to find a way to tell our personal stories with the faces of strangers, or better understand our fetishes and oddities, all the while hiding behind cameras or pristine suburban lawns.

There is a story in every face and body piercing and stroke of makeup. There is joy and sadness in the collective lost and found, in the liberated smiles of people finding one another and the frowns of those who arrive at a party, only to feel even more isolated than before. And then there are the libertines, who, when gathered up in a large group, become ordinary. The same.

And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re all wandering around trying to find a place to belong, digging through the lost and found bins in search of missing pieces, marching to the beat of someone else’s drum if we haven’t the rhythm to pound our own set of bongos, finding people we can laugh with for all the right reasons—liberating our inner-freak while at the same time, trying to fit in.

Rebecca Woolf is the storied Girl’s Gone Child blogger and author of the forthcoming memoir, Rockabye.

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