The missives have been coming in all week from the Sonoran Desert, and I have to admit I am a bit jealous. Every spring my father and I used to head down to Arizona for spring training with the Giants, there to bask in the sun, eat too much food, drink too much booze, and then repeat the whole insanity the following day.
There was a certain group that would always make it down, usually during "owner's weekend," which coincided with the weekend series with the A's and had just about every Bay Area baseball fan inhabiting the bars and restaurants of Old Town Scottsdale. In fact, for that one weekend, bars like the Pink Pony and restaurants such as Don and Charlie's were more San Francisco than Scottsdale. And the two anchors of these journeys every year were my father and Walter Shorenstein.
"Uncle Walt," as my father called him, was one of those people who find a special place in the hearts of everyone around them. And this week I was thinking about those kind of people a lot. I have recently rejoined the city after a few years in Marin, and as I am reconnecting with the city, I am thinking about the mayors.
No, not the Mayors who hang out in that oversized chateau down in Civic Center. Not Mayors with a capital "M," but mayors with a small letter instead. Those people who we all call "the mayor of..." and they are all around us, aren't they? For instance, when we headed down to Arizona, my father would refer to Uncle Walt as "The mayor of Scottsdale." And anyone who saw the action breaking out around the two of them day and night would have to believe it.
I have had the pleasure of meeting many of these mayors through the years, as have many of you. And they are an important part of the fabric of the city; people who make us sigh and realize what a magical place San Francisco really is.
For instance, until recently, we had Jake the bulldog, who just shook his mortal coils earlier this month and headed to the big puppy palace in the sky. Many people called him the "mayor of Haight Street." However, in my mind Jake has to share this title with Saul Levy, who has anchored that neighborhood for years with his son, ironically also named Jake. Saul Levy drives me nuts, because everything he does, he does effortlessly. He paints, he writes, he decides to pick up various musical instruments and within days can play catchy songs and obscure beer commercial ditties (Schaefer... is the... one... to have). When people think about the free, creative souls that inhabit that part of the city, Saul is exactly the person they are thinking of.
Andy Avila, who is sadly no longer with us, is another example, because he was the "mayor of Union Street." Technically, Andy was only a barber, but in reality he was so much more than that. His shop was off the corner of Steiner and Union, and people would walk in not just for haircuts, but for advice, help, loans, and anything else they needed. More than once he picked the locks for storeowners who had forgotten their keys. When one asked him how he acquired that skill, he snarked, "hey, I watched Matlock." Andy was the kind of guy who it seemed would live forever, but the bullet from a hold up years prior finally did him in. I went to the guy for two decades, and I still miss him.
The mayor of Fillmore Street is Ruth Dewson. The mayor of Chinatown for years was Johnny Kan, who convinced Americans that there was more to Chinese food than chow mein. The "mayor of North Beach" was handed from Enrico Banducci to Ed Moose to the irascible and irreplaceable Jeannette Etheredge. She still reigns in glory at Tosca, but I also remember her mother and her delicious rack of lamb at Bali's, their old family restaurant.
How about the Marina? The mayor of the Marina when I was growing up was Frank Oppenheimer. Now many people don't know that name, but they do know his place, as Frank was the creator of The Exploratorium. As is true for many of us, I spent a large portion of my misspent youth at the Exploratorium, playing with everything I could find, taking classes there during the summer, and once helping build some of the exhibits. It's a little hard to believe that this August would have been his 100th birthday.
Actually, Frank Oppenheimer has a chance to do something unique in this town. Because the Exploratorium is in the process of moving from their current digs to the their new space on the waterfront, he has the chance to become the mayor of the Waterfront too. It proves that for many of these great people who make our town what it is, death is never really the end. I will always see Andy Avila shuffling down Union Street and talking to everyone, people will always see Jake sniffing the air on Haight Street (always an interesting undertaking), and Frank Oppenheimer will always live on, delighting a whole new generation of San Franciscans... as all the great mayors have.