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Tourist for a Day
Sun, 1 Feb 1998, published in Nov. 2001, llandry
Yesterday with the weather wonderful, my boyfriend Jack working at a friends' loft wiring sound equipment, and me with an itch to get outside, I drove to Fisherman's Wharf. I've only been out there once before but it was just kinda on the edge of the maddening crowd.
On this day, I was in the right frame of mind to deal with the whole scene. The downtown Cost Plus store has a really cheap parking garage beneath it that the tourists don't seem to know about. I parked there and walked down Mason Street to the Wharf-Mall. The air was crisp and a nice breeze blew.
Let me make no bones about it: Fisherman's Wharf is probably the cheesiest urban tourist Mecca I've ever seen. It ranks up there with Dogpatch USA. Some people compare it to Bourbon Street but I don't agree. In spite of how touristy Bourbon Street is, it still has a feel of not being that way. It still feels real to me. Maybe that's just me. Maybe I haven't been there in so long, I'm nostalgic for something that never was.
My favorite storefronts on Fisherman's Wharf were THE WAX MUSEUM, THE HAUNTED MINE and THE HOUSE OF TORTURE. I didn't go inside but the fact that these establishments didn't even pretend not to be cheese made them much more appealing. There's a Ripley's Believe it or Not on the strip but after my nine-year-old experience in St. Augustine, Florida (the day after Nixon resigned), no other R.B.I.O.N. could hold the same thrill or more profound sense of the ridiculous. I wonder how many kids will think back 25 years from now how they went to the R.B.I.O.N. museum the day after seeing the 60 Minutes that brought down the President. So many comparisons made using the Baby Boomer's and Kennedy's Assassination to my generation and Watergate. Think of the next generation and its relation to Presidential Oval Office Groping. I fear for our future.
I walked down the strip that had all the tourist mall stuff. I didn't go in any of those shops. I really just wanted to be next to water. I crossed the street assisted by the friendly hand-flicking of some old guy wearing a jacket that was the same color scheme as the old Howard Johnsons. He was a San Francisco Goodwill Ambassador making sure that I crossed the street safely (the walk sign would have been sufficient — but the human element was nice; keeping those retirees off the street and from driving with the left blinker on). I walked past all the food stands selling chowder, crab claws, fish and chips. Whether or not the food actually tastes good in there, it was nice to bypass the inflated pricing and impending gastric disappointment to just enjoy the smell of fish boiling in oil for free. The sound of tiny hammers smashing crab claws echoed over the crowd's din. I was getting hungry in spite of myself.
I weaved in an out of tourists speaking all sorts of languages; yelling at their kids, walking and eating. The biggest disappointment is that the part near the water is a big parking lot. Kind of a shame to dodge cars for a peak at THE ROCK and the bay. But, because the wharf used to actually be a working industrial area, the parking lot is probably the most authentic to the space. The alternative would be yet another sleek, neon water plaza that has genericized nearly every city in the U.S. San Francisco has that too — Ghiradelli Square sits a little farther down with more chi-chi shops like you see at the Riverwalk or Baltimore Harbor.
Through the parking lot-slash-plaza I walked past steel drum bands, jugglers, and two guys with huge Mohawks and tattoos and holding a sign, "Take a Picture with Freaks, $1". A black man with big dreads and sunglasses and wearing army fatigues and white gloves called himself the Human Statue (he stood on a crate and talked about suffering in Yugoslavia and told people not to pay taxes, accenting his shouting with dramatic hand motions — he would intrigue people for about three seconds and then they would get the hell away quickly and determinedly). I felt like I was in the movie "Life of Brian" when Brian lands on a rock amid all these other "prophets" saying "remember the lilies" and holding up gourds. It was really funny. This is all backgrounded by announcements to cruise around Alcatraz. SEE THE FAMOUS ROCK: HOME TO AMERICA'S NOTORIOUS CRIMINALS. Granted, all the boats directly to Alcatraz were booked but, for the same price, you could get in a boat that just sailed AROUND it. What a bargain.
Question: before Alcatraz was a mere tourist attraction, did they have those cruises around it? There's an old-looking neon sign to advertise this. I imagined tourists in the 50s all decked out in hats and suits sailing around the infamous prison hoping to catch a glimpse of some notorious gangster waving a tin cup behind barred windows. LOOK HONEY, THE BIRDMAN JUST LET A PIGEON LOOSE. But maybe the cruises and souvenir striped T-shirts only appeared recently — once the prison became a National Treasure. I'll have to investigate this one.
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