Memoir provides readers with the chance to hold a life in our hands, to flip pages and uncover the truth of another. For queers there is a particular power of reading about the lives of our people, in trying to understand who we are through a connection to a historical legacy most of us did not grow up having a knowledge of. Jim Stewart’s Folsom Street Blues: A Memoir of 1970’s SoMa and Leatherfolk in Gay San Francisco is a gritty and intimate look at sex, kink, and art. Beginning after Stewart arrives in San Francisco hungry for community, we follow as he fixes up the apartment that will become his home, play space and art studio.
“Unlike many gay archives that were secretly scrapped by embarrassed families or discarded by unsympathetic landlords, mine were cached in an old suitcase in the back of my closet for over a quarter century,” writes Stewart in the introduction to his memoir. As leatherfolk, myself included, many of us are continually on the hunt for history, belonging and connection to a community and history which so often has existed underground and yet has called to us so intimately. Through uncovering the truth of someone who came before us we are gifted with the unique opportunity to understand something about ourselves. This is the strength of Stewart’s book.
Unfortunately, despite my deep personal connection to the subject matter, I found the book’s format disjointed and difficult to follow. Stewart certainly unpacks the “old suitcase in the back of [his] closet” as he phrases it, but the memoir lacks a strong narrative voice and could have benefited from a stronger editor. All too often Stewart tells stories, but despite the compelling content, lacks detail that allow readers to truly experience the world he wants to show us. Ultimately, what Folsom Street Blues lacks in polished narrative, it makes up for in heart. Stewart brings together stories, poems and photographs that gives readers of today a glimpse into the early days of the leather community and the beginnings of a post-stonewall gay community in San Francisco.