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A love letter to High Fantasy, the best party in San Francisco

Writer Brittany Newell and photographer Marissa Patrice Leitman share a personal ode to a night full of drag numbers, pink lights, and promise

Brittany Newell’s been bad. She is a drag queen and a rat. She comes from California and was born in 1994, amidst soft cyber sounds. Her debut novel, OOLA, is available here (UK) and here (US).

Ask anyone in San Francisco: High Fantasy was/is the best party in the world.

If you’ve never been, you might think I’m exaggerating. High Fantasy lends itself to hyperbole, to gushing about a queen or kissing an acquaintance too hard on the cheek: blame the Valentine-y lights, the mirrors, the triple-strength drinks. I’ve heard people say that Aunt Charlie’s Lounge is the only bar in San Francisco where you might actually want more mixer in your drink. When it comes to High Fantasy, all the clichés are also deep truths: love never dies, it was the best night of my life, some people wait a lifetime, my heart will go on. When you step into Aunt Charlie’s, the knit of the world gets loose, like a t-shirt you’ve worn for years and rubbed soft. The world is suddenly as narrow as a BART car, pink-lit and woozy. You can’t help but bump into stools, pretty knees.

So I’ll admit: it’s hard to get things straight with High Fantasy.

Marissa and I have talked about doing this essay for ages. I met her one Tuesday night when she asked to take a photo of my ass. But we always put the essay off. When it comes to High Fantasy, I’m a big drippy baby. I’m biased as fuck, like any girl in love. There was also the naggy voice in my head, hissing: Don’t be a sell-out! Keep High Fantasy secret! I liked the nights when it was just me and the alcoholics.

But now that High Fantasy has come to something of an end, Marissa and I are out of excuses. I’ll try my best to write this ode, to give those who never went a taste of its magic. And for those who went religiously every single Tuesday, risking your livers and scattering your dollars, maybe you’ll find yourself in one of Marissa’s photographs.

Here is what I know. 

1. High Fantasy is where I fell in love, over and over again. I fell in love with my wife Silk Worm every time she performed: when she did Kelly Clarkson, George Michael, Cabaret; when she did Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” and looked over her shoulder with weary maternal concern at her invisible baby asleep in the backseat; when she did every single part to “Officer Krupke” from West Side Story alone.

You would see people for weeks at High Fantasy, too shy to say hi, clocking their outfits, until something shifted and you were suddenly best friends. I fell in love with too many people to mention: momentary crushes, visiting from LA, who I recognised from Instagram; club friends who you kiss hello and never know the full names of; Mark on the door, Mini and Joe and Barry and our wise daddy Myles and Mica on the bar, right where you left them last week, sometimes in the very same clothes.

2. On Halloween 2017, Silk and I went to High Fantasy. I was dressed as Strega Nona with a Ziploc bag of cooked spaghetti in one hand. Silk was dressed as Dracula with a painted-on widow’s peak. We got so deep in a k-hole we didn’t realize Mandy had started performing. I couldn’t hear the music. I stared at her and literally saw the hills of San Francisco, the ones so steep they have stairs cut into them. I sat down on the floor right next to Myles’ DJ booth (breaking the rules about fire exits). I looked down at the carpet and felt profoundly soothed by its booze-smell. I traced the crusty brown roses with my fingers and said aloud, “There will always be roses in San Francisco.” This phrase has stayed with me, a private mantra.

3. The dead nights were often better than the packed ones. On a busy night, High Fantasy was literally full to the rafters. People had to stand on the benches to see, or watch the whole show in the mirror, or through someone’s raised phone. But on the dead nights, you got a courtside view of Nikki Jizz’s asshole. You got a private lap dance for the price of admission. You got into staring contests with Myles. The queens really held your hands, looking deep into your eyes, like old women on the bus asking, have you heard the good word?

4. On High Fantasy’s sixth (or was it seventh?) anniversary, Dia Dear crowd-surfed right out the door.

5. Gina has gorgeous tits and loves to show them to people. Once she said she wanted to fuck my friend Arlen with a strap-on. She brings straight guys to the bar and forces them to buy drinks for all her friends. She wears dresses with easily yankable straps. One night, she kept pulling up her dress to show off her vagina. It was as great as her tits. Everyone cheered or smiled politely.

“That was the magic of High Fantasy: we could hold both things in our minds, the flesh and the fantasy, the realities of our disparate, grimy, tiring lives vs. the swimmy pink dream of this party” 

6. The one thing you can depend on in life is Mandy Coco. Let the rents keep rising and the Big One crack the city in half: Mandy will still be in the back room of Aunt Charlie’s, applying her lashes. Kyle is known to film her feet when she performs: you should ask to see the footage, an intermittently trippy and heartbreaking montage of her bony little feet, plus those roses.

Do the math: if Mandy did four numbers every Tuesday for seven years straight, that’s 72 hours – three days straight – of drag. There was the night she tangoed with the famous gay porn star; a hamster could live in his cum gutters. Once, in a swimming hole far from home, some crust punk was describing the one time he went to High Fantasy. “I’ll never forget this one girl,” he said. “You probably wouldn’t know her. It was a long time ago. She did an Italian aria, pretty skinny, with long black hair.” Of course I knew who it was.

7. High Fantasy made having a body bearable, a suddenly mystic experience. On our first night ever performing there, Silk and I did an ill-conceived ghost-themed number to ABBA, with sheets over our heads. I didn’t cut the eye-holes right, so I faced the wrong direction and tripped on my sheet. That same night, Alexis Blair Penney (who started the party with Myles nine long years ago) performed in the same tank top and cut-off biker shorts she’d been wearing all night, plus a pair of heels with socks. I thought that was so gorgeous and punk.

8. High Fantasy was radically democratic: all you had to do was ask Myles for a slot. Because of this, it was many people’s firsts: Arlen performed as Jewish Community Center, Matia did Cyndi Lauper in a Victorian dress, Carlo debuted Hairy Bradshaw and killed us all. High Fantasy showed me all the things a queen can be: music journalist, sex therapist, teen dream, flasher, queer theorist, crush, doula, witch, shit-starter, star, wonky-eyed prophet too high to walk in her heels.

9. I was at High Fantasy during the election. Silk and I took the train there straight from school and sat at the bar from 6pm on, staring at the little TVs over the bar that normally played Dreamgirls or soft-core porn. At 10.30, everyone turned to the stage and watched the show in a stumped, gloomy silence. For the first show, Mandy dressed up as Obama and did Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” in a suit. We tipped heavily, drank heavier. Marissa and I disagree on the facts: she says Mandy did “The Winner Takes It All” as Marilyn Monroe. She does have a picture to prove it.

10. High Fantasy always had the architectural and emotional qualities of a dream. Architectural, because you feel totally held; emotional, because anything goes.

11. I remember doing “Joanne” by Lady Gaga right after Ghost Ship. I still can’t listen to that song without crying. One of the last times I saw Cash was at a rather empty High Fantasy. She was wearing a pirate-y white blouse and I told her she looked like the heroine in a seedy romance novel. We talked about rent while our girlfriends cackled behind us. I can still see her grooving to Myles’ tracks.

12. Was it fate that Silk and I just so happened to find an apartment at 9th and Balboa, two years ago now, where the 31 stopped on its way from Ocean Beach to the Tenderloin? The last bus was at 2.05am. Every Tuesday, as soon as the show ended, the bus-queens would grab their shit and book it to the corner to catch the N-OWL or 800, unsexily clacking down the sidewalk while everyone smoking or sleeping on the street shouted good night.

13. I can only lay claim to one slice of High Fantasy. How many beginnings and endings has High Fantasy seen, how many break-ups, freak-outs, boob jobs, babes? I can’t imagine how it feels for Myles and Mini and Mandy and Mark and Joe and Mica to have seen High Fantasy through all of its seasons.

Everyone likes to reminisce about the early days of High Fantasy: when lesbians fisted each other on the dance floor, when Boy Child performed regularly, when coked-up SFAI students got into brawls and kept the party going ’til dawn. But this is how we talk in San Francisco: everyone always talks about the early days, when light-filled Victorians were cheap as shit and the city was full of pansexual slackers and God was good and life was sweet. Nostalgia is our municipal vice.

This essay is not nostalgic, nor is it a eulogy, because I refuse to believe that anything has died. Life goes on: Adam Kraft and Mandy (of course) are hosting a new drag show and dance party at Aunt Charlie’s that is every bit as delicious. Every Tuesday you can find me there, sipping a lethal tequila soda and toeing the roses. They continue to bloom.

Still, I must say: I never thought it would end. No one did.

In a fast-changing city full of bodies in flux, High Fantasy was our promise. Everything about High Fantasy suggested forever: we would be together forever, in San Francisco forever, we would be happy and sexy and young forever, even as friends moved away or stopped going out or got sick or died. Every Tuesday I still hear Barry’s voice, saying there ya go honey, and me, feeling like this honey was the best thing anyone had ever given me. That was the magic of High Fantasy: we could hold both things in our minds, the flesh and the fantasy, the realities of our disparate, grimy, tiring lives vs. the swimmy pink dream of this party. The knowledge of our cities’ changes, the friends we lost, didn’t cancel out the secret of our immortality. We were untouchable as we touched.