When I was in the late ‘tween years and allowed some mobility outside of the scope of parental supervision, my friend L. and I frequented the book and record stores Polk Street. California Street’s wide, cable car tracked expanse was the line of demarcation of Upper Polk and what has now been now dubbed the Lower Polk Business District. My mother would grumble about us traversing the streets there, but there was always an undercurrent of activity that appealed to our rebellious and curious teenage minds and hormones. In Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel Diary of a Teenage Girl (recently adapted into a film), the autobiographical heroine, Minnie, is a regular visitor to this stretch of Polk Street and gets involved in some pretty unsavory activities. One of our favorite stores at the Sutter Street border where things got even more dicey was Headlines. This store sold a mix of clothes, posters, and paraphernalia whose purpose was sometimes obvious or led to speculation. I bought a button there that said “Sex, Drugs, and Rock n’ Roll” which led to me getting chastised by a teacher when she saw it on my backpack.
Paperback Traffic at the corner of California and Polk sold new books that came with a bookmark with illustrated skeletons dancing or playing musical instruments. They had an extensive occult section which lured in disaffected Catholic school students to sneakily peruse The Satanic Bible authored by San Francisco resident, Anton LaVey. I later learned that Margaret Cho’s family owned this bookstore, another connection to local celebrity. Like so many bookstores throughout the city, Paperback Traffic is long gone, but a smoke shop has thrived where it once was for many years—a testament to the continued endurance of tobacco addiction (or to the fact that they own the building).
I consider myself fortunate that I didn’t get hooked on tobacco. I remember the lame attempts at “Just say no” marketing plastered on our high school’s walls. (“Cigarettes: the white liars.”) But for me, harsh censure from my boyfriend was the most effective deterrent. He introduced me to all kinds of rebellious, restricted activities, but smoking was verboten. We usually went to metal shows at the On Broadway together, but one time, I went solo. I knew people liked to bum cigarettes so I made sure I had some with me—instant friends! I shouldn’t have been surprised that word got back to my BF that I’d been sharing cigarettes with the band member’s girlfriends. At the time, I based my self-worth heavily on his opinion so when he lit into me for this behavior, the act of smoking lost all appeal for me.
I didn’t revisit cigs until my 20s when I joined smoking friends outside bars for a few puffs on a bummed smoke as a way to balance the booze buzz. But the habit didn’t stick, fortunately for my lungs and my wallet. My addiction to printed reading material endures though, even though the places to browse on the streets of the city are few and far between.