Heart of the City Archives


San Francisco in fact, half truth, and legend
by Hank Donat

News that the national average price of gasoline in the U.S. has reached $2.15 per gallon is laughable to San Franciscans. Last week, one of the stations at Castro and Market Streets posted a price of over $3.00. I assume that was for a special formula, diesel perhaps with full service and a mint on the dashboard. Our high cost of living is one of the truths about San Francisco. Better to get around by BWM: BART, Muni, and walking.

Transportation issues, never far from the fore, are hot again. Muni fares and bridge tolls are likely to rise much faster than the new eastern span of the Emperor Norton San Francisco-Oakland Bridge, by any other name. Perhaps feeling left out of the municipal discussion, disgruntled cable car grips and conductors recently staged their own three-hour wildcat strike in defense of conductors accused of pocketing fares.

The friendliness of cable car grips was a staple of San Francisco lore for generations, but not these days. It's not that the grip operators have gotten any less friendly, of course, only that today's marketers must change their message often in order to keep promotional campaigns fresh. Lately, the Convention and Visitor's Bureau has been using the theme "Only in San Francisco," an old chestnut that's apparently so fresh it's fresh again, like the Boudin sourdough starter that lives on decade after decade.

Whether grips treat you with warmth and kindness is more likely a matter of personal karma. I've known people who return from Paris and swear that Parisians are friendly and hospitable. Not me. I found that Parisians take pride in living up to their reputation for rudeness. Here at home, my own experience with cable car grips was decidedly Parisian until recently. Fortunately, it seems that my friendship with bell ringing champ Byron Cobb has broken the curse, at least for now.

North Beach is something else that lives up to its legend. The scents of garlic, coffee, and marijuana waft through the air along with saxophone music. Outside Caffe Trieste I watch as counterculture publisher V. Vale, poet George Tsongas, and beat cop Mark Alvarez - a former Mabuhay Gardens doorman - all intersect at the northeast corner of Vallejo and Grant. Each is walking in a different direction. Each is a living example of the truth of San Francisco lore.

It's easy to enjoy a typical day in North Beach. When the sun shines down on its inhabitants, innocently pursuing their pleasure filled lives, the Little City emerges front and center.

Over at O'Reilly's on Green Street, a worker is busy repairing an awning through which a drunk took a dive the night before. Some locals are gossiping over a table of cold beers and O'Reilly's great french fries. Everyone hates the Green Street Mortuary's new painted parking sign.

A myth of San Francisco is that we are obsessed with sex. Dale Bullock is a professional matchmaker for gay couples. His company, Bonds Limited, is located in the Flood Building. Bullock advertises a "safe and comfortable process to bring together loving, stable, same-gender companions." Kudos to Bullock for using the correct term, "gender." His ad confirms a legend of San Francisco, too, the one that says we just love to "process" through the means of processes. From Est to Lifespring to Alcoholics Anonymous, therapy, group therapy, group encounter, retreat, the Forum and beyond, San Franciscans seem to enjoy the process. Life is a journey, not a destination they say, but for this San Franciscan Speedy's Market is a destination. The 30 Stockton is a journey.

That we are a sentimental lot is perhaps the truest of true San Francisco legends. Emile Santos is a local who wrote to MisterSF.com to share some of his favorite City landmarks. "One of the most beautiful buildings in San Francisco," Santos writes, "is the old Flood Mansion at 2222 Broadway, now home to the Schools of the Sacred Heart. It is a great example of the grand architecture from San Francisco's early years. Views of the bay from the main hall are phenomenal."

Santos' favorite local joint is one that appears often in "best-of" roundups. "Marina Submarine on Union Street is 'Mr. Subs' to us regulars. Nothing reminds me more of Sundays in the city than going to Mr. Subs and picking up a sandwich while the Niners game plays on the 10-inch TV in the corner."

A sentimental bunch we are, and why not? Have you taken a look out your window lately? There it is, this place of incomparable beauty. That is perhaps our truest myth of all. So don't just sit there. Put a flower in your hair and hop on Muni or take out that home equity loan for a gallon of gas and get out and enjoy the warm weather - while it lasts.

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Copyright 2005 Hank Donat
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