may 29, 2000. Itís time for some serious words about silliness.
Take a good look at the city where we live. Half of it
rests on sand dunes and the hulls of old sailing ships; the
other half clings precariously to the sides of rocky hills.
Winds fierce enough to fleece a bear tear down the narrow
streets, and every so often the whole thing undulates like a
martini in a silver shaker. The winters are sodden; the
summers, never. Mark Twain described a rare day in August
1864: "One of those singular freaks of Nature which, by
reference to the dictionary, we find described as Ďthe water
or the descent of water that falls in drops from the clouds
ó a shower,í occurred here yesterday, and kept the
community in a state of pleasant astonishment for the space of
From the very beginning, San Franciscans ó at least a
conspicuous lot of them ó walked around with more money in
their pockets than they knew what to do with. They still do.
But today the arrivistes speak in sonorous tones of their cityís
world-class status. The business of business intrudes
everywhere, in dinner conversations, encounters on the bus,
and cell-phone soliloquies. SPURís Jim Chappell and other
prophets of the digital revolution boast that the new medium
will employ the best minds of their generation to transform
the world, but in fact itís merely McLuhanism writ large.
And itís all so very b-o-r-i-n-g.
What saved the city in the past from its climate and its
topography was not its cagey commercial practices, although
they certainly put a fine array of cakes and ale on the table.
what saved the city was that deep down inside, it didnít
care if the table offered sourdough bread and cheap red wine,
just so long as the company was good and the talk was lively.
This was the city where, in the nineteenth century, a
nerveless chap known as Professor Oofty Goofty walked the
downtown streets, collecting quarters from anyone who wanted
to kick or pummel him. Where a stout fellow in a faded blue
uniform and a cocked hat walked the same streets and
proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and
Protector of Mexico. Where a young Parisian named Edward Jump
depicted these eccentrics and others rubbing elbows with the
good folk of the city, in a series of sketches that
Mosherís present-day Market Street Carnival in the lobby
of 1095 Market Street.
This was a city that, as Herb Gold reminds us, "has
studied hard how to entertain itself and others." In the
twentieth century, it welcomed a scruffy lot dubbed the Beats,
who celebrated its crazy-quilt quality. Hereís Jack Kerouac:
"San Francisco, North Beach, Chinatown, market street,
the bars, the Bay-Oom, the Bell Hotel, the wine, the alleys,
the poorboys, Third Street, poets, painters, Buddhists, bums,
junkies, girls, millionaires, MGís, the whole fabulous movie
of San Francisco seen from the bus or train on the bridge
It raised a bumper crop of flower children who created a
psychedelic city where ó in Darby Slickís words ó
"the sound world was a complex and changing mixture of
music, car horns, shouts, talking, and laughter, with the
obligatory police siren functioning as the lemon rind on the
side of the cocktail."
And still, today, the silliness continues, in houses painted
to mirror the cosmos or bedecked with furniture on the
outside. In labeled arrows pointing out the sky, or one tree,
In more murals than youíll find in a half dozen
"world-class" cities. In better graffiti ó where
else will you find a web site
devoted to this art form and its practitioners?
and wonderful art pops up here and there under official
auspices. We may have vetoed a foot at the foot of Market, but
we still have the ruins of Vaillancourt Fountain, the
incredible hand-shaking man in Yerba Buena Gardens, and the
hi-tech windmill outside the library, of which Our Mayor once
said, "I donít know what it is, but I like it."
even stranger stuff lines the public sidewalks and lurks in
Itís what the merry PR pranksters try to replicate when
they envelop buses in wrap-around billboards. But as long as
memories of places like the Coexistence Bagel Shop and the Six
Gallery remain, itíll be hard to engender excitement over
the pseudo hip of Starbucksí Circadia or the fake funk of
Old Navy. Maybe thatís why the developers are so eager to
shove new chrome and concrete structures onto our landscape
ó to blot out reminders of the free-for-all atmosphere that
once made San Franciscoís reputation. And to blot out the
creative spirits who once enlivened our world-famous
the world-class city to come, built on cement and toxic soil,
who will grow the flowers for our hair? In the future land of
super-chains, each stocked with the same merchandise, will the
odd and the original be outcasts? Or is that a silly thought?