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Yammer #2

If the truth were known, and quick
We would have no bone to pick.
Yini Yohans




 Foolish hearts

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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 several hours."

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. house.jpg (18968 bytes)No, 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.

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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 foreshadowed Mike Mosherís present-day Market Street Carnival in the lobby of 1095 Market Street.

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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 coming in."bird.jpg (31795 bytes) 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."

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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, or birds. grfti.jpg (54437 bytes) 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?

legs.jpg (24462 bytes)Weird 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." sit1.jpg (34106 bytes)And even stranger stuff lines the public sidewalks and lurks in private nooks.

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 cityscape.

tech2.jpg (30462 bytes)In 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?