Issue:  Vol. 46 / No. 20 / 19 May 2016

Memories of Harvey Milk and the Castro

Guest Opinion

Harvey Milk. Photo: Dan Nicoletta
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In 1972 my wife and I bought a four-story landmark 1893 Victorian on 21st Street in San Francisco between Castro and Noe streets, overlooking the Castro district and downtown San Francisco.

The quake and fire that destroyed downtown San Francisco in 1906 never reached our home and we lovingly restored it to its original glory.

We had just finished a four-month training program to become Gestalt therapists at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. We knew after a few short weeks of living in Big Sur that we would never return to what had been our dream house and our lives in Fairfield, Connecticut; the country club, the beach club, dinners, parties, and New York City. We knew San Francisco and California would be a more meaningful life, and we chose to have it.

In the early 1970s you needed photo film to take pictures, and I took many of my wife and my three sons, ages 10, 6, and 2. The smartest, most beautiful boys in the world.

The closest film developing store was a few blocks down on Castro Street. When I walked in, Harvey Milk was alone. He walked toward me and greeted me with a big smile that I would always look forward to receiving.

I noticed Milk talked like me – kind, with a New York accent. I said, "I just moved into the neighborhood, is it safe for Jews here?" He laughed, came over, shook my hand, and said, "Don't worry; you'll be safe in this neighborhood." From then on he always remembered my name and I his.

We both knew we were living in a new era, in the middle of another American revolution. Milk had a brilliant idea, if the gays all came out and lived their lives as who they are, they could change the gay and straight world, and the hidden gay world would be no more.

We were the old guys with the new ideas, but never letting go of our New York Yiddish-kite. Milk would talk about how much he missed a good New York City pastrami on rye. My favorite was chopped liver with coleslaw on rye. We were both veterans of the Korean War and we often poked fun at the Beats and hippies and we would mimic them. "You cool man? You copacetic? You floating yet? Yeah, I'm feeling it."

In 1976 I wrote to about 100 of my family and friends about my idea to open a real New York deli in San Francisco. I would only allow $1,000 to $2,000 per person for stock in the company. I told everyone that I knew nothing about the restaurant business and only one in 10 restaurants make it. Forty people sent me money. It was called New York City Deli and Restaurant and it was on Market Street, one block from Castro Street.

We were packed from day one. Milk was there from the beginning. He'd call and say, "Mel, I need my pastrami on warm rye. I'll be right over."

Milk and I would sit in my office eating, laughing, drinking Fox's U-bet or Dr. Brown's cream, Cel-Ray, or black cherry sodas and eating potato salad made with Hellman's mayo. The smell of the rye bread that I heated before serving filled the restaurant and floated out into the street. For dessert we had nut horns from Leonard's Bakery on 3rd Avenue in New York that I flew in every few weeks and we would reminisce about the old days in New York.

In 1977 when Milk decided to run for supervisor again, I gave him some money. During the campaign he called me: "Mel, I need 300 bucks to print pamphlets I'm handing out." Soon after he called again. "Mel, I need $500 for more pamphlets. I think I can win this." And he was right.

Milk was desperately in love, more than I had ever seen him. After he won the election he called me and told me his boyfriend, Jack Lira, was very depressed. Lira felt he wasn't contributing to the relationship financially, and Milk asked me to give him a job. He worked for me for about four or five weeks and then quit, soon after dying by suicide. A short time later, Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, a former San Francisco supervisor. Whenever I see documentaries showing Milk passing out pamphlets on street corners, tears come to my eyes.

I was at the restaurant that night as over 30,000 people holding candles walked in silence from the Castro down Market Street toward City Hall; the candlelight exposing the tears and pain and sadness in their eyes and faces. I sadly left the restaurant and joined them.

Four months after Milk's death, I opened my version of a New York-style Italian restaurant, at the corner of Castro and 24th Street in Noe Valley. It was called Little Italy. It became the second most popular Italian restaurant in San Francisco. When I had talked to Milk about opening that restaurant, he said, "I want to be there opening night." I often imagined Milk and I eating there. I am sure he would have loved it.

I lived in the Castro through the awakenings of the 1970s to the sadness and despair of AIDS in the 1980s. I owned three restaurants in the Castro and my wife, a psychotherapist, was on the board of an AIDS organization.

Recently, while writing my autobiography, thoughts of my dear friend Milk came rushing in and I put my recollections into this little story. I loved Milk very much.


Mel Lefer now lives in the North Bay. For the past 31 years he's been a colleague of Dr. Dean Ornish, leading workshops, teaching yoga, and giving talks to professionals from hospitals all over the country.



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