San Francisco -- SHE SAT in the foyer of her haircutter's salon, waiting for a shampoo. A man in a white shirt and tie sat next to her, waiting for the same.
With difficulty, she turned the pages of a "fall preview" fashion magazine that she hid tilted away from the man's view. She was embarrassed to look at it in a stranger's presence.
Not because the pages were filled with fashions, but because they were filled with erotic photographs: naked men and women -- all combinations and configurations -- who appeared to be having sex, thinking about having sex or just finished having sex.
When she was a teen-ager, she breathlessly awaited the big autumn editions of such fashion magazines and dreamed through their pages, imagining herself in a whole new wardrobe of school clothes. No naked human sandwiches then. Nothing she couldn't hold open for a male stranger's eyes. Possibly her teens were the last time she related to fashion and its chroniclers. For decades, it seemed, whatever fashion "said" about Western civilization, the news was disturbing.
At least the sadomasochism trend of a few years ago had passed. So, too, the woman-as-sexual-child trend that followed. Whatever is now under way is built upon Wonderbras; white vvinyl, high-heeled, over-the-knee boots; excessive eyeliner and the resuscitation of the Dracula of color: chartreuse.
She searched the magazine for a dress she could imagine wearing that night to the opening party at the Starlight Room, atop the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. In 200 pages, she found only one; it cost $6,300.
As she walked back to work after her haircut, she was hailed by a young girl.
"Ma'am, could you tell me the best way to get to Interstate 80?" said the girl, who did not look 16. "I'm going to Colorado."
The girl carried a huge backpack. Her ears and nose were pierced with dozens of silver rings.
Was the girl planning to hitch-hike? The girl said yes.
Images from fall fashion issues of long ago suddenly crowded out the girl and her nose rings: plaid kilts, velvet prom dresses, camel's hair coats with raccoon collars.
She shook the images from her brain and told the girl to walk to the freeway entrance of the Bay Bridge.
"The cars have to slow down to get on the bridge," she said. "It's your best chance to get a ride east."
"Cool," said the girl.
That night, at the opening of the Starlight Room, she stood at a wall of windows, thinking about what and whom lay 21 floors below.
On her short walk to the Drake, she had passed the usual army of panhandlers -- from the rancid and pathetic to the amusing: a man about her age, holding a sign that read, "Why lie? I need a beer."
As always these days, when she dressed up and went someplace "really nice," she could not quite leave the winos and AIDS-stricken vets and pregnant women outside the party. They hovered just behind the silver platter of fresh oysters and rose from the bubbles in the Moet & Chandon champagne.
AIDS. She thought of the Pine Street Neighborhood Sidewalk Sale, a few blocks away, scheduled for the coming weekend. Last year, 40 volunteers -- gay, straight, old, teenage, married with kids and single -- held a giant yard sale and raised more than $12,000 for the AIDS Emergency Fund. This weekend, they planned to do it again.
Old-fashioned community values in the grassless heart of urban-ill, downtown San Francisco. Like something from another time.
A man standing near her at the wall of windows spoke intelligently about "the historical obsession with revivals of all kinds as the fin de siecle approaches."
He had been trying to characterize the new Starlight Room. It was retro, everyone agreed, but from what time? A time when the 21st floor of a building was a stunning height. A time when women with baby-swollen bellies did not sit on Powell Street and beg. When girls too young to drive cars did not hitchhike alone to Colorado. When free French champagne carried no guilt.
So, too, she thought, whether it was the '20s, World War II, Eisenhower's '50s or Kennedy's 1962, it was a time when an autumn fashion magazine could kindle the most romantic dreams. And they could be kindled in public with impunity.
Stephanie Salter is a columnist with the San Francisco Examiner.