San Francisco, back when it was beautiful and not the world capital of political correctness, didn’t have to go out of its way to attract attention.
MAYBE it helps to have grown up in unassuming Oakland—gritty, middle-class, unpretentious Oakland—to see San Francisco a bit more clearly than its dewy-eyed citizenry, who tend to view themselves as America’s chosen people. After leaving Oakland, and grinding away 10 years in New York, I’ve been a San Franciscan 30 years and love it for all the usual reasons, but increasingly the place can make even a grateful transplant groan. As a friend from France likes to say, “Get over your fine self.”
This notoriously eccentric city almost revels in being the nation’s fruitcake capital, but harder to digest is its self-appointed position as center of the universe. Naval-gazing San Franciscans reside in a pretty bubble, seemingly unconcerned with what outsiders think of them, bursting with a self-importance rivaled only by New Yorkers and Parisians. Maybe it’s unfair to target San Francisco, for Berkeley and Marin County are equally self-adoring and self-righteous, but S.F. is California’s Ditsyland corporate headquarters.
New Yorkers and Parisians, for all their parochialism, are at least self-critical, but San Franciscans look at you funny if you voice anything but the city’s party line — Frisco: love it or leave it. Much of the population exists in an uncritical, blissed-out state, a Panglossian sense that all is for the best in this best of all possible cities. Seldom is heard a discouraging word and the sky is not cloudy all day — foggy, yes, but the sun usually breaks through by noon; S.F. is where I first heard people chirping, “Have a nice day!”
San Francisco has its own belief system, a moral certainty about all things social, political, and cultural — a feeling that the city not only has the best weather, food, views, and cultural sensibility, but that its enlightened socio-eco-political attitudes are as God intended, although God is not an especially popular guy in town. Former mayor Willie Brown, who writes a Sunday column, is as close to a deity as you’re likely to find here.
The late revered and irreverent local San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once fulfilled that role and, during 60 years as the city’s ex-officio publicist, he created the picture postcard city people think of when they think of San Francisco. But even Caen poked holes in the city’s bloated self-image, which he had a huge hand in inflating.
SAN FRANCISCANS LOOK ASKANCE at Republicans, children (the city has more dogs than kids) and even its major industry — tourists. Toddlers and sightseers are tolerated—but then everything here is tolerated (except conservatives), no matter how daffy. Indeed, the more bizarre the better, an opportunity for residents to parade their tolerance.
Parades are a very big deal in the city, especially preening gay pride parades, the determinedly loopy, semi-naked Bay to Breakers marathon, and disease-of-the-month walks and runs that allow the city to pat itself on the back for its altruism and all-embracing acceptance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As local columnist Leah Garchik notes, the city is so liberal that even billionaires here are lefties and care about world issues, hunger, and the environment, unlike past local tycoons.
I was once lunching at the chic Zuni Café on Market Street when a group of 50 totally nude bicyclers peddled past the window. Blasé San Franciscans glanced out and quickly went back to their ahi tuna. At a Peet’s coffee house in the gay Castro district, two of the store regulars are a pair of stark naked guys who come in and buy lattes to go. Nobody bats an eyelash, so as not to appear un-cool, a hanging offense here. The city is in thrall with anything wild and crazy, and has a special fondness for kinky sex, drag shows, and transgender tales, all much celebrated; sex advisors are a cottage industry.
The city is 15 percent gay and lesbian, but heterosexuals may well feel they’re in the minority. The gay mafia, as it’s been called (in hushed tones), has bullied mayors and gulled supervisors and gets pretty much what it pleases, as does the 12,000-strong bicycle mafia — the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which commands bike lanes on narrow streets and decrees “Bike to Work Days.” A “Sunday Streets” program blocks off areas so bikers can pedal unimpeded by (ugh) cars, forced to make way for precious cyclists.
Motorists are confronted the last Friday of every month when “Critical Mass” cyclists gleefully tie up downtown rush hour traffic — with City Hall’s blessing; San Francisco is militantly anti-auto. “Dikes on Bikes,” the most popular contingent in the Gay Pride Parade, is the ideal metaphor for two of the city’s most powerful pressure groups.
Indeed, claims one longtime resident, “The gays get a free ride here.” Gay state legislator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has authored a bill that California history books must include contributions by gays— though not yet deaf mutes, albinos, or Latvians. A local newsman rants, “The Chronicle reads like a house organ for the gay community.” Even mild criticism of gays, he claims, is sharply slapped down as homophobic. A musical version of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin’s droll ode to pre-AIDS local gay life of the 1970s, got lukewarm reviews, but media hype here led one to think it was a gigantic hit before it even opened. Playgoers didn’t seem to care much if it was any good (Garchik found the show “flat”); it was about their fabulous city, all about them — what could be more wonderful?
MEANWHILE, THE CITY ADDS to its crackpot reputation for rampant silliness daily: PETA petitioned City Hall last spring to change the name of the Tenderloin to something less, well, fleshy (the Tofu district?). There’s an anti-circumcision measure on the November ballot. The Animal Control and Welfare Commission went after pet shops earlier this year for selling pets (i.e., dogs and cats) to pet owners—sorry, “animal guardians” — and has proposed a ban on sales of tropical fish. Even sharks are coddled in the city, which wants to outlaw shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, angering usually docile Asians.
Garchik, who writes the Chronicle’s widely read abouttown column, says, “Like all stereotypical things there’s some truth in it [S.F.’s wacko image] but it’s not the only thing that defines us. I’m from Brooklyn and when people would say they’re from Brooklyn on radio or TV, the audience would just laugh — for no reason. So San Francisco has its little place in the constellation. Who wants to live in Nowheresville?”
Despite lax local lunacy standards, a page one story on “ecosex” had even natives gagging. Founded by sex activist Annie Sprinkle and her partner, “ecosexualists” hope to “change the metaphor from Earth as mother to Earth as lover.” (The city clings passionately to its exhausted beatnik/hippy past.) Sprinkle and spouse have “married” the moon, sky, ocean, and mountains; coal is next to be wed. An Eco-Sex Symposium photo showed Sprinkle spread-eagled, flowers planted between her legs, being watered.
This certifiably crazy event was sponsored by the San Francisco Arts Commission and dutifully reported at length in the Chronicle with a shot of Sprinkle and her lover hugging under the trees. No wonder Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum claims San Francisco “is filled with insufferable, sanctimonious do-gooders” — to which Garchik responds, “They’re just jealous!”
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