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Archive for February, 2014


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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Today I stand, or rather sit (I find it easier to type that way), accused of a series of offences that, taken together, amount to an even more grievous crime – that of being a bad tourist in San Francisco.

With what appears now to have become an annual pilgrimage to The City approaching, I plead guilty on all counts as outlined below.

1. Failure to take a single cable car ride during the past three vacations, amounting to a total of 52 days.

This is all the more remarkable given my affection for the cute little blighters, but long lines at the turnarounds and a preference for both walking and other forms of transportation (even Muni!), have conspired to keep me away from the lead rail in recent times. But I promise that this is one omission that I intend to rectify very soon.

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2. Failure to visit Alcatraz during the past five vacations, amounting to a total of 73 days. 

Alcatraz is unquestionably one of the city’s greatest draws and any new visitor must include it in his/her itinerary if time permits (be sure to book in advance). And, to be fair, I have taken that short ride across the bay several times in the past, including the night tour, which has an atmosphere all of its own. But not recently. There will come a time when I wish to be reminded of that atmosphere, but living in the now in the city is a greater priority at present.

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3. Failure to make a single purchase in either Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom or any other large store in the vicinity of Union Square at any time.

I have less compunction about flagrantly contravening this obligation. The late lamented Border’s bookstore and Rasputin’s dark, quirky music store have been the limit of my Union Square shopping experiences. Though I have eaten in the area on many occasions!

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4. Failure to purchase a cheap San Francisco fleece or waterproof jacket at Fisherman’s Wharf or Pier 39 at any time.

Another “crime” to which I can offer little defence. I learned the hard way, as many visitors do, that clear days on the bay often go hand in hand with bitingly cold temperatures and an uncomfortable wind (it was probably the crab). But, never being one to follow the herd, I have resisted the lure of this ubiquitous top seller, ensuring that I always carry sufficient layers with me, whatever the weather. And leave the shorts behind altogether (though I do compensate by wearing trousers in case you wondered)!

I have no doubt that I could ask for many other violations to be taken into consideration, notably a failure to ride the tourist buses often enough (only once – on my wife’s birthday), stay in a hotel (rather than renting apartments in outlying neighbourhoods like Noe Valley and Bernal Heights) or fill up on clam chowder.

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But in mitigation I would argue that, at least in part, I served my tourist apprencticeship during the final years of the last, and early years of the new, century, including dutifully riding the cable cars and visiting Alcatraz regularly.

Equally, I have always found time to hang out in Chinatown, North Beach and Haight-Ashbury, however short the stay might have been.

So, whilst I may have gone a little off the rails – or rather cables – I am not completely a lost cause. Going straight – a precarious pursuit in this of all cities – may be beyond me as I journey to a new apartment and contemplate hiking the Presidio and Glen Canyon, but the need to research for my next book will also encourage me to reacquaint myself with those sights that so enchanted me in the early years.

Before sentence is passed, I would offer the following plea bargain – keep letting me back in to San Francisco and I will promise to play the tourist at least for some of the time.

But I draw the line at the fleece.

Dangle me from the Golden Gate Bridge if you ever see me wearing one.

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My last post explored the area on the north western corner of San Francisco – from the Beach Chalet restaurant along Ocean Beach to the Cliff House and adjacent Sutro Baths.

If you need to return to the city at this point, you can either drive back via the avenues or take the 38 Geary Muni bus. But an infinitely more rewarding, if strenuous, route is along the Coastal Trail, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, that winds around the headland all the way to Fort Point and the Golden Gate Bridge. The walk begins at the parking lot behind the baths.

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The Cliff House, with the huge picture windows of the bistro and Sutro’s beneath, presents its more fetching side when viewed from the ruins.

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A few hundred yards along the trail, set in the wild, cypress-filled expanse of Lincoln Park, a short detour inland brings you to the stately Palace of the Legion of Honour, an exact replica of the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d,Honneur in Paris. Built in the nineteen twenties to promote French art in California and commemorate the state’s casualties in the Great War, it houses European art from the last eight centuries, including paintings by Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet and Degas, as well as exhibits from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Assyria.

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It might be best known in the public imagination for providing the setting for scenes in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but the gallery is more important for being the home to more than seventy sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Indeed, an original bronze casting of his Le Penseur (The Thinker),  the production of which was overseen by the sculptor himself, greets visitors as they enter via the courtyard.

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Returning to the trail, steep wooden steps transport the adventurous hiker onto Mile Rocks Beach, where, even on a calm day, the rugged terrain is lashed by the strong currents of the powerful Pacific.

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From here, Mile Rocks Lighthouse sits half a mile off shore. Built originally as a bell buoy in 1889, with the lighthouse completed in 1906, it served to guide the way for seafarers until 1966  when the Coast Guard dismantled the lantern and converted it to a helicopter landing pad. Emasculated it may now be, but it is still a curiously imposing structure.

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One of the chief pleasures of the walk is the “now you see me, now you don’t” tease played by the Golden Gate Bridge.

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China Beach, so named as it was once home to an encampment of Chinese fishermen, is a small cove with facilities for residents hardy enough to swim in the icy waters. As the trail turns due north towards the bridge, the larger Baker Beach, the original site for the Burning Man art festival, is one of the most popular spots for sunbathing, walking and fishing, as well as being dog friendly. On sunny days, the northern end is notable for the absence of swimwear or any clothing for that matter.

And it affords a stunning view – of the bridge, not me.

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It might be feel remote but you should not get lost on the trail.  

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At the end of Lincoln Park, the wooded, green terrain gives way to swanky Sea Cliff, one of San Francisco’s most affluent neighbourhoods with its pastel coloured mansions and their immaculately manicured gardens. Its exclusivity is reinforced on every corner by signs forbidding tourist buses, and its list of current and former residents includes Robin Williams, Sharon Stone, Paul Kantner and the founders of both Twitter and Gap. The views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands are unsurprisingly priceless.

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The walk on this occasion ends here on the south west corner of the Presidio. That magnificent former US army base deserves a post of its own, and I will return to it at a later date.

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Far from Fisherman’s Wharf, on the north west tip of San Francisco, peering out across the vast Pacific, or “Sundown Sea” as the Native Americans called it,  lies Lands End. To the immediate south of that, Ocean Beach stretches towards Half Moon Bay, Pacifica, Monterey and ultimately the Mexican border.

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The following account  is aimed at highlighting some of the attractions to be found in this historic, and often wind and fog ravaged, corner of the city.     

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We start at the Beach Chalet on the western limits of Golden Gate Park. Separated from the beach only by the Great or Pacific Coast Highway, it was opened in 1925, essentially to provide changing rooms for beach-goers. It now houses a popular restaurant and boasts its own brewery.

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It almost goes without saying that it affords magnificent views of the beach and ocean across the road, lulling, as on the occasion pictured, the happy diner into the misapprehension that it is warm and without a breath of wind outside those large picture windows. After all, it was only June and this was still San Francisco.

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Before taking the stairs to the first floor restaurant, visitors should allow time to admire the lovely frescoes depicting life in San Francisco in the thirties, created by French-born cubist designer and former London Welsh rugby player,  Lucien Labaudt, for the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

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Venturing out into the gritty afternoon air after lunch, you should not forego a short detour into the park to relax and wander round the radiant Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, home to the stately Dutch Windmill, the elder of two mills in the park designed to pump ground water for park irrigation.

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I have written about my affection for the Cliff House, a few hundred yards north as the road curves right onto Point Lobos Avenue, on several occasions, notably about the pleasure of eating there:

https://tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/a-cliff-house-brunch-date/

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The current, rather plain and utilitarian, building is the fifth to bear the name on the site. Rebuilt in 1909 after burning to the ground two years earlier (it had survived the Earthquake and Fire of 1906), it houses two excellent restaurants – the street level bistro (pictured below) and Sutro’s below stairs, which offers a more elegant dining experience and equally spectacular wave and wildlife watching. In addition, it hosts weddings, corporate functions and other private events in the Terrace Room.

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The sea lions may have deserted this stretch of coast for a new stage from which they can better entertain the tourists on Pier 39, but Seal Rock(s) remains a fascinating feature that attracts hundreds of gulls , pelicans and cormorants.

The ingenious Camera Obscura, based on a fifteenth century design by Leonardo da Vinci, provides extraordinarily vivid 360 degree images of the birdlife on those rocks.

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Adjacent to the Cliff House lie the ruins of Sutro Baths, the once enormous entertainment complex built by Adolph Sutro – mining engineer, property developer and latterly the first Jewish mayor of the city – who had also constructed the second and most grandiloquent version of the Cliff House in French chateau style.

Comprising six saltwater tanks, a freshwater plunge, natural history museum, Egyptian mummies, amphitheatre and much else besides, the baths could accommodate 25,000 visitors at any one time. Understandably, it was San Francisco’s seaside playground for seventy years from 1896, though it had fallen into disfavour and disrepair long before, as so often in this city, fire finished the job in 1966, just six years before the equally popular and much loved Playland at the Beach close by  was torn down.

Treading among the rocks and pools that remain, one can almost imagine being on a Greek island or an Italian coastal village.

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Opened in the same year – 1937 – as the Golden Gate Bridge, Louis’ family owned restaurant has successfully withstood the competition from its more refined neighbours around the bend in the road, and continues to provide hearty, uncomplicated diner-style fare – and, of course, affords glorious views of the baths and ocean.

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From alongside Louis’, on El Camino del Mar, the road branches eastwards back towards the city, passing the impressive Palace of the Legion of Honour, the moving Holocaust Memorial and the extravagant enclave of Sea Cliff. A more rewarding course is to take the Coastal Trail on foot, winding around the headlands, and from which you can climb down onto China and Baker Beach. The Golden Gate Bridge flirts with the walker at every turn in the path and from behind every clump of trees.

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The Coastal Trail, with its stunning photographic opportunities, is worthy of a post in itself, so I’ll close with another Labaudt fresco from the Beach Chalet and a slightly more modern piece hung up in the bar of the Cliff House bistro.

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