Last week, Longreads published an extraordinary piece by San Francisco-based journalist Leah Rose. “A San Francisco Story” examines the life of Princess Anastasia, a homeless transgender woman who lived on the Castro, and died mysteriously on a bench in front of a Peet’s Coffee.
Read an excerpt below:
On a Saturday afternoon in February, a group of 15 men stood chatting on the back patio of the Eagle, a leather-themed gay bar on 12th Street in San Francisco. The lone female of the group, 55-year-old Donna Merlino, known as Downtown Donna, untangled a heap of heavy extension cords and powered up a Crock Pot full of lamb stew. Wearing a black leather vest and sturdy black boots, Donna set up two tables of food for the guys, who sipped pints of beer surrounded by paintings of pantless Freddie Mercury lookalikes with enormous genitalia.
The lamb stew was one of the dishes served as part of a “beer bust” benefit in honor of Anastasia Walton, a homeless, transgender woman who died mysteriously on a bench in front of a Peet’s Coffee in the Castro neighborhood two months earlier. Bar patrons chipped in $15 apiece for unlimited beer and plates of food that Donna carefully arranged. It was all in an effort to raise money to provide Anastasia with a proper memorial service. Donna and other Castro LGBTQ activists didn’t know whether Anastasia had any family. So, like many in this neighborhood, they made their own.
Anastasia lived and died in front of the local coffee shop. Perhaps because she spent her final days on the street, the legend of Anastasia was just starting to take shape by the people who saw her every day but barely knew her. To some she was a landmark of a vibrant neighborhood, someone you could always count on seeing on a bench somewhere within her two-block haunts between upper Market and Sanchez and Noe Streets. Others remembered her as a deeply troubled individual who threatened the lives of local business owners and refused help up until the day she died. Many assumed she ended up homeless because she was rejected by her family for being transgender. To San Francisco city officials, Anastasia’s death was a reminder that the city needs to improve its services for the mentally ill homeless population in order to help prevent other people from dying on the street.