Feature

Fogged In

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.

By From the October 2011 issue

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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!”

The city has a proud history of wackiness dating back to self-anointed “Emperor” Norton. Garchik says, “I think it’s [wackiness] a bum rap if you assume that’s all the city is, which discounts all the serious stuff. It’s easy for people to think it’s very bizarre, but it’s a cliché—like people who say New York is heartless. It’s always been known for its sense of adventure, devil-may-careness. It’s also a serious city -- the whole high-tech Silicon Valley stuff [more staid San Jose than San Francisco], people believing anything is possible.” She blames the kooky label in part on “politicians afraid to take a stand -- instead of losing 100 votes if they take a stand, they put all these quite silly little measures on the ballot and let the voters decide.”

DINING IS AN EQUALLY emotional, indeed religious, experience here. Alice Waters, who founded the foodist temple Chez Panisse in Berkeley, is the Dalai Lama of dining whom orthodox foodies pray to regularly and ask forgiveness from should they dare to eat a politically incorrect fish, an out-of-state tomato, or a chicken with a sketchy résumé.

Restaurants have supplanted theater as major performance venues, vying for must-eat-at destination of  the month (even if this month’s trendy bistro may be next month’s sub shop). Local menus require ESL instructors to translate ingredients to diners not fluent in Advanced Menu-ese (Australian wagyushabu-shabu, anyone?). The airport recently opened a remodeled Terminal 2 with an upscale dining court that has foodies all a-twitter.

Food is breaking news here. A page one story in the Chronicle featured an in-depth expose by wornout radical Warren Hinckle about a scandalous lack of Irish coffee glasses at the Buena Vista, where Irish coffee was invented. After new glasses were uncovered, Hinckle wrote a full-page follow-up. Rumors that Starbucks might buy up-market Peet’s provoked sputtering callers on talk shows; San Franciscans always let you know they never set foot in Starbucks. A trip to Trader Joe’s is like a visit to Lourdes. You don’t want to be caught shopping at Safeway for non-“artisanal” olives.

Anti-war protests here draw sparse crowds today, unlike the rebellious Sixties. What truly enrage San Franciscans these days are paper bags, soft drinks (banned last year in all city buildings by mayoral edict), and any whiff of tobacco. Cigarette malingerers outside stores are ordered to move along, unlike panhandlers left alone to ply their trade.

The city finally passed a law that ostensibly bans sitting and lying on sidewalks, but it’s far more dangerous to be nabbed smoking here. Panhandlers are so pervasive (more per capita than any other city in America) that the city was forced to outlaw “aggressive panhandling.” It’s not uncommon downtown to be hit up three times in one block, but panhandlers no longer ask for spare change -- a few bucks, please, for a skim milk cappuccino (Visa and MasterCard not accepted).

In San Francisco’s desire to become the world capital of political correctness and social nirvana, it’s possible to foresee a day when the board of supervisors bans the sale of fried food, white bread, refined sugar, and farmed salmon. Bistros here carry a pledge on their menu attesting to the sustainability, pedigree, and culinary correctness of every locally harvested radish and gluten-free muffin.

A lot of this sounds familiar to a Scandinavian who moved to the city in 1985: “Like Sweden, San Francisco loves to tell everyone in the world how they should live.” She adds, “People here give lip service to saving the planet, playing to the liberal gallery. They go on about not leaving a ‘carbon footprint,’ then hop on a plane to visit the rainforest.” Everyone here is busily recycling and composting like mad.

THERE ARE CARBON FOOTPRINTS aplenty on San Francisco’s once tidy streets. “I’m amazed how dirty it’s become,” says a regular visitor here, a common complaint. Travel & Leisure recently named the city the nation’s 12th dirtiest (not even counting the sex gadget shops), grungier than Dallas/Fort Worth, Washington, and Boston. On the other hand, the city ranked high for its coffee, ethnic cuisine, diversity, and neighborhood life.

San Francisco long prided itself as a cosmopolitan city where women wore gloves downtown and gents went to work in suits and ties, but the city’s funky style -- and dress-down Fridays (indeed Mondays through Thursdays) -- finally got to author Danielle Steel, who moved from San Francisco to Paris last spring because, she grumped, “You can’t be chic here.” San Francisco was once dubbed “The Paris of the West,” but now looks more like the Fallujah of the West (although Herb Caen long ago tagged S.F. “Baghdad by the Bay”).

Steel was soundly hissed, but old timer Carl Nolte, who writes the “Native Son” column in the Chronicle, agreed with her. “You know what? She’s right. In my travels around the town, I have noticed more and more that San Franciscans look less and less like San Franciscans.” Nolte quoted a female friend, “The shop girls are dressing better than the customers, who look like garbage. They have no pride in their appearance.” In Steel’s rant, she said, “There’s no style, nobody dresses up. It’s all shorts and hiking boots and flip-flops. It’s as if everyone is dressed to go on a camping trip. I don’t think people really care how they look there.” GQ names San Francisco the 20th Worst Dressed U.S. City.

Leah Garchik counters, “I think it’s nonsense. Who does she see in shorts except tourists? That was just something for her to say -- the mystery is what personal score she was settling.” Garchik adds, “I think that [funkier dress] is true for all cities in the U.S., but in Europe they may dress up a little more.”

Even baseball’s 2010 World Champion Giants are a beloved band of scruffy misfits, led by shoulderlength haired Tim (“The Freak”) Lincecum and showboat reliever Brian Wilson, with his big black bushy Captain Ahab beard. Most of the bewhiskered starting nine have fallen into line. Wilson attended the ESPY awards clad in a spandex tux.

There is ample reason for San Francisco’s love affair with itself as a Petri dish of creative ferment: In the past 60 years, the city has nurtured revolutions in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, also stand-up comedy, gay life, ecology, and cuisine -- although it has long been resting on its innovative laurels (including porn -- a new documentary about the golden age of pornography, San Francisco-based, is titled Smut Capital of America).

San Francisco may praise itself as a haven of eccentricity and experimentation, but it still takes New York City or Los Angeles to certify a pop performer, a comedian, a gourmet trend, a lifestyle change. A fad may begin in anything-goes San Francisco (like Burning Man, the annual love-in of burned-out and wealthy wannabe hippies) but it needs to leave town to get serious national attention. That might be at the heart of the city’s self-infatuation (Garchik prefers to call it “self-awareness”): a deep-seated insecurity, the worry that nobody east of Sacramento takes San Francisco very seriously…except San Franciscans.

THE CITY WAS AGHAST when Prince William and Kate snubbed the city last summer for a visit to Los Angeles, the city’s scorned rival that localites still take joy in feeling superior to, even if L.A. is considered by many to have surpassed San Francisco culturally. S.F.’s best known theatrical contribution is Beach Blanket Babylon, a zanycamp parody of pop life now in its 37th year, a show that appeals to gays, grandmas, and gaga tourists alike. The drag show at Finocchio’s was a hot tourist ticket for decades, but it closed once the same show could be viewed for free any night on Castro Street.

The world coos over the city, adores its hilly vistas, climate, sourdough bread, and cable cars, but in its heart the city struggles with (and yet is deeply proud of) the fact that it is not New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, or Washington. A woman I know calls it “a toy city.” Long ago, New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons wrote off San Francisco as “a three-day city.” An editor at the New York Daily News once told me, “It’s a pretty town, but once you leave there and return to New York, San Francisco dwindles in importance to the size of a pin.” So if San Franciscans are obsessive about flaunting the city’s glories and goofiness, perhaps it’s just to make sure the city gets noticed at all.

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.