Thursday, July 5, 2012

tourist town

alifornia as a destination began to insert itself in the minds of the post-WWII baby boomers with the weekly Disneyland/ Walt Disney Presents  television program which first aired in October, 1954.  The theme song, ``When You Wish Upon a Star'' and the programming mix of fantasy, adventure, the American frontier and the American future made it seem that Tomorrowland was just around the corner.  Besides displaying Donald Duck and Davy Crockett, other Disney episodes imprinted the young brains with ``Man in Space'' and ``Our Friend, the Atom,'' shows indicated the future was in Anaheim, California.  this hourlong weekly ad for the Magic Kingdom caused untold numbers of families piled into automobiles and hit Route 66 as choruses of ``When are we going to get there? When are we gonna get there?'' chimed from the wide back seats.
This vocal anxiety was entirely understandable, their destination was the Happiest Place on Earth.

This West Coast tourist industry made possible by the automobile and enhanced by cross country air travel did not go unnoticed in San Francisco.  The shipping based economy had been in decline with loss of stevedore and longshoreman jobs to the container freight-handling capabilities of the Port of Oakland across the bay.  Because of the mild weather San Francisco had a year-round tourist season to provide permanent jobs unlike say a Cape Cod summer or Key West winter.
The City began advertising this ``come anytime'' aspect in East Coast papers, something that went like, ``In February when it's a bitter snowy 23 degrees in New York City, it's 68 in San Francisco.  And in August when it's a sweltering 97 degrees in New York, it's 68 in San Francisco.''  To which some wag added, ``And when there are one thousand intelligent conversations in New York, there are 68 in San Francisco.''

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large tour bus crawls down Castro Street past the movie theater marque.  Eerie silhouettes in the obsidian windows seem to glower down toward the sidewalk crowded with a bustle of young men.  This swing through the Castro has only recently been added to the route and soon will be banned as gays gain political clout in 1975:  We're not a zoo display!
Inside the bus, in a pleasant gloom insulated from the sun glare and chill wind out on the street, tour guide George stands just behind driver Al's partition holding a microphone as he describes sights the bus cruises past.  SF history for the out of town folk, this blue hair crowd, each face turned to a window.  If it's a couple the man will sit on the aisle and usually try to appear disinterested.
The routine is a glib easy banter between George the pudgy loveable teddy bear, all enthusiasm and big smile, and Al the driver, the grounded, no nonsense curmudgeon, greying hair pulled into a tight pony tail.  Today already they've been across the Golden Gate Bridge, to the top of Twin Peaks, a stop at the Cliff House, everybody out, smell that salt air, George asking as they park, ``Al, I bet you'd like to have a drink at the bar in there.''
``I sure would George, but can't while I'm driving.''
``Well I guess I'll just have to have one extra for you.''

Pickup was Union Square and they swung through Chinatown, then approaching Columbus and Broadway George points out City Lights bookstore, explains,  ``The beatnik era in San Francisco was a mad gay party;  the women were mad because the men were gay.''
Waiting at the light across from the Condor Al keeps hands on wheel,eyes straight ahead as he leans to the mike, ``George, I got a question for you.  The northern part of the City is at least a mile from here over by Aquatic Park, right.''
``Yes Al, that's right.''
``And do you see any beach around here?''
George stoops down and peers out, ``No Al I don't, what's your point?''
``Then why is it called North Beach?''

At the Condor under the three story vertical sign of topless Carol Doda, red light bulb nipples, George bends sideways to gaze up at this monument to silicone.  ``The corner where topless was born.  One night after barhopping Al went topless along Broadway and earned the distinction of being the only person ever arrested in San Francisco for indecent exposure.''
And passing Fisherman's Wharf on the way to the Bridge,  ``Al claims they saw an actual fisherman here in 1971.''
After the Cliff House they cruise through the Park and down Haight Street.  As they cross Ashbury,  ``Al spent all his time hanging out here while his parents thought they were paying for him to be in college, you can probably understand why he's driving a bus now.''
Still on Haight Street Al leans over to his mike, ``George, how many hippies does it take to screw in a light bulb?''
``I don't know Al, how many hippies does it take to screw in a light bulb?''
``Hippies don't screw in light bulbs George, hippies screw in dirty sleeping bags.''
Always a silence as the old gals try to decipher the punch line, eventually there's a a groan or a nervous cackle and some uneasy laughter, this is what they came to Frisco for, a little bit of the naughty, we're not in Kansas.  OK, now we get it as one leans to whisper to the other:  Hippies screw in dirty sleeping bags.
A few blocks later they are moving slowly along Castro viewing storefronts from lintel height, the parade of young men.  Al leans over to his mike while eyes stay on the road, ``George, do you know anybody that's gay?''
George gives it a second as he watches the faces turn from the windows, then he does a little sashay in the aisle with wrist flip to answer, ``Well, Al, you know I'm gay! ''
Never fails to crack them up.

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n summer 1964 a woman dancing on a piano topless, a Republican convention and a Life  magazine spread that showed brooding Brando/James Dean gay men all collided for a perfect media storm to make San Francisco seem the risqué spot to be in America, a Disneyland with bars, something for absolutely everyone; the burgeoning tourist industry could not have wanted for better publicity (``You looking for something?'' the guy said to Jack, ``Well I have it.'')  Every newspaper in the world had mention of the Barbary Coast.  Marshall McLuhan, served lunch by a young woman with bare breasts at a table full of journalists observed, ``They're wearing us.''  The discothéques  of North Beach seemed so sauve, so Continental, you could almost hear someone at the bar say, as that E-minor guitar chord is strummed, ``Name is Bond, . . . James Bond.''
San Francisco in 1964, shaken not stirred.
An influx of new arrivals (the first wave of Baby Boomers had just finished high school), checking out the scene, picking up those easy service industry jobs.  At the end of one summer the owners of a restaurant in Sausalito held a TGTG party for the staff, Thank Goodness They're Gone, now just us locals, us true residents, we can relax and enjoy this wonderland that is California.  A week after that two-thirds of them were layed off because now that Those Tourists Were Gone most of the staff was unnecessary.

A young man in Hong Kong announced to his family that he was moving to San Francisco to seek his fortune.  The father gave a blessing of sorts, he said, ``Son, if you can't make it in a tourist town you won't be able to make it anywhere.''