By Pam Tent
The songwriter Johnny Mercer wrote "Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home" -- and, for me, that's San Francisco. I've been lucky enough to revel in this carnival metropolis since newspapers captivated readers with bristling exploits of the Zodiac Killer and Herb Caen wrote his daily columns for the San Francisco Chronicle exalting life in "Baghdad by the Bay." My attitudes have ripened over the decades and I've put away the bell-bottom pants, but I recently decided to take a fresh look around this town where parking tickets can cost a week's salary and vehicles haphazardly compete with pedestrians in weaving competitions similar to the blind road races once held through the streets of Calcutta.
New buildings have drastically altered the San Francisco skyline. One Rincon Hill, a green-glass, 60-story, condominium high rise, stands unparalleled above its South of Market Street neighborhood. Its modern construction raised little opposition, unlike the erection of the Transamerica Pyramid, which once caused quite a stir. (In 1972, the fracas culminated in typical San Francisco fashion when an Egyptian parade led by pranksters dressed as Nubian slaves dragged stone slabs through the streets of the Financial District.)
Other neighborhoods keep reinventing themselves. The Mission District has long been a thriving kaleidoscope of people and commerce. Once an enclave of inexpensive clothing emporiums and burrito stands, it's now a crowded pastiche of ethnic cafes, peppered with stores offering out-of-print books and hand-made bric-a-brac, all colorfully cloaked within this vibrant Latin community. Near the Roxie Theater, across from the jam-packed Pork Store Café, you'll find collections of unusual wares from Clothes Central (Vintage by the Pound) to the Five and Diamond, where unique jewelry is made from watch pieces and tiny World War II battlefield replicas.
La Cumbre Taqueria is a staple eatery on Valencia Street. Serving burritos since 1968, their expansive walls are adorned with huge murals, including the renowned machine gun-toting Adelita -- one of Pancho Villa's many girlfriends. Posters for the metrosexual theater company, The Thrillpeddlars, can be seen on light poles advertising their latest production: Shocktoberfest -- Kiss of Death. The attitude of these revivers of Grand Guignol, Parisian horror and gore, is summed up by their cheeky motto: "Sissies Stay Home."
Across town on Clement Street, in the Richmond District, the open-air produce markets are still thronged and in abundance, as are Trading Companies and Variety Shops. Unlike the disappearance of many of The City's book nooks, Green Apple Books, the age-old reader's goldmine, is still thriving. Adding an annex to their flagship store, a couple of doors down, they purchased Revolver Records and now include the sale of vintage albums and CDs.
I passed a darkened club called the Rockit Room. I ducked inside and found the new manager holding court at the bar upstairs. The ambience was familiar to me from wilder days. It was the former Last Day Saloon where I'd once shared a joint with Etta James before a show.
Some old haunts have been razed or transformed. Along the water's edge, workers tore down the amusement park, Playland at the Beach, and more recently moved the mechanical oddity "Laffing Sal" and the Musee Mechanique from underneath the Cliff House to a hanger at Pier 39. These antiquated, funfair devices now sit surrounded by innovative buskers and creative moochers, eager to delight you with more than your penny's worth. (The only street musician to ever pry a quarter from my deceased father worked this area in 1982. Known as the Automatic Human Jukebox, he crouched inside a decorated cardboard box and delivered a song for the price of a quarter.)
As ever, poignant displays of human drama await every turn: a bottle and can collector carrying her booty in Luis Vuitton luggage walks by and, across the street, a silver-haired American Indian, attached to a portable oxygen machine faces oncoming traffic holding a tiny, ragged sign that reads: "Help me!" Ageless children (boisterous and reeking of cannabis) share stone benches with the tattooed and toothless. Life still bustles in this odd mixture of the joyous, the licentious, and the desperate.
On 6th Avenue, in the heart of the foggy Sunset District, a shop window crammed full of oddball items leaps out at me. Jeweled pendants, military memorabilia, Egyptian deities, Day of the Dead statues, and Dungeon and Dragon amulets, dragons and gargoyles crowded the entire showcase. I peered into the darkened Oriental Art Gallery, and was about to leave when an elderly woman, hunched over in classical garb and an ill-fitting wig, welcomed me into her shop.
She moved about the glutted store animatedly displaying her trinkets, which included 45-caliber-bullet key chains, baseball cards, and statues of Quan Yin, the goddess of mercy. In broken English she enlightened me on Chinese hierarchy then proudly pointed out a few hundred pins that boldly displayed slogans that were lewd enough to make a sailor blush.
"Of course I carry them most -- they are my best sellers," she boasted.
With the influx of the dotcom brigade, designer coffee bars and the politicization of almost every nonsensical suggestion by our Board of Supervisors, life here is rarely dull. Instead The City has morphed into a unique hybrid. Overwhelmed by high rents and the stressful pace, I sometimes wonder why I stay here. Then I unexpectedly uncover a San Francisco treasure.
Gutsy 77-year-old Lynn Ruth Miller interviews local writers on an independent TV station for a show called "What's Hot Between the Covers." She also writes and performs her own risqué material in a brassy, cabaret act at venues like The Punch Line. The postcard for her routine at the Actors Theatre, Alzheimer's, Alzheimer's, Cha Cha Cha, brazenly proclaims the advice: "Catch her quick, before she croaks!" Lynn Ruth's vitality (as well as that of every kindred crazy) embodies the spirit of this city and keeps the freak flag flying.
Satori strikes and I know I belong here. I doubt I'll ever leave.