Be sure of a big surprise
because that innocent looking bush of eucalyptus leaves parked near that trash can on Jefferson Street may just harbour someone loitering, waiting to scare the wits out of you.
As you saunter by admiring the bay and contemplating at which restaurant or sidewalk stand you might get your fix of crab, the self-styled World Famous Bushman is poised to spring from behind that bush or wave it in your direction, accompanying the action with sounds that have variously been described as “ugga bugga” and “arrgh….ooooo. rrrrr.uff”.
Once you have recovered from the shock and finally suppressed your giggling, the done thing is to reward his performance by placing a coin or, better still a dollar bill, in his can (though, on the evidence I have seen, this is more honoured in the breach than the observance).
David Johnson – yes, he has a boring, ordinary name too – was born in Indiana where he worked as a crane operator, steel mill worker and truck driver before moving to San Francisco and setting up one of the first shoe shine stands in Market Street. As competition for the lucrative Financial District pitches grew and he developed arthritis, he moved to. After an unsuccessful spell as a robot (!) and discovering some fallen branches under a tree he conceived the idea for his new vocation.
Despite the fact that he has his own permit – class 7 business license number 309280 – controversy has dogged his thirty year career. He has had several altercations with boat and restaurant owners who claimed he has been blocking the sidewalk and deflecting trade from their businesses. This has necessitated him moving his pitch from time to time.
Among the complaints made to the police by people who have sustained injuries after being “bushed” have been the man who suffered a heart condition being “half scared to death” by him, a retired woman who fell back and twisted her ankle and another woman who jumped back and smashed her mother in the jaw.
In 2004 he was acquitted of four misdemeanours by jury in the Hall of Justice and the District Attorney dropped a number of other public nuisance complaints as a result. There have even been stories – probably apocryphal – that the then Mayor Willie Brown had visited him to advise him to tone his act down, but Johnson proclaims that “they’ll have to go to the Supreme Court to make a whole new law to stop me”.
He insists that he chooses his targets carefully, claiming to avoid anyone whom he believes might be overly upset or offended by his act. “I look at their age, their eyes, how they walk, how they breathe….it’s all in the timing”. Whilst not excluding the elderly and disabled from his list of victims, after all they “need to laugh too”, he invariably shies away from alarming them.
Which is where the “other” Bushman comes in.
Johnson was “recruited” originally for the role by Gregory Jacobs, a part-time short order cook, who acted as his promoter and bodyguard, cracking jokes whilst he lurked behind his bush, and then collecting the tips from startled but hysterical tourists after the event.
His patter would include “Hey, the Bushman got you fair and square! Pay the man! Hey, if you’re going to take a picture, there’s a $1 photo tax. There’s a $2 video tax”. He would also alert Johnson to approaching seniors, cautioning against inflicting his antics on them. Jacobs claimed that he “looked after” Johnson and “watched his back”. However, after he accused Johnson of running off with the proceeds they became sworn enemies. The Bushman has stated that Jacobs still stalks the Wharf with his aggressive panhandling.
Claiming at various times to earn between $60,000 and $90,000 in a “good year” Johnson is as proud of the contribution he makes to the economy as he is of his skill to scare people, to “snatch them right out of their bodies”. “I’m an entertainer. I pay my taxes. I contribute. I give people enjoyment. What’s wrong with that”. And he has no plans to retire, vowing to carry on “until they pack dirt in my eyes”.
Nanette Thrasher, a visitor from Tulsa, summed up the view of the majority of the Bushman’s victims when she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999: “Sure it was worth a buck….I mean the man worked for it. He did something. He made an effort. He’s not just sitting around on his butt”.
And yes, dear reader, this writer was himself taken unawares by the Bushman on his first trip in 1995.
My pride precludes me from confessing to any subsequent scarings.