A successful public space, they say, is one where the citizens block the steps. So suggested urbanologist Lewis Mumford nearly a hundred years ago. I’m not certain he would have had San Francisco’s busy Union Square in mind, but he may have, even then. What Mumford never envisaged, surely, was the odd and telling assemblage of human beings who make the Square the center of their lives and a Rorschach test for the character of one of America’s great cities. I am one of them. For those of us living downtown, it is the front yard.
San Francisco, dare I say it with prejudice, is one of the world’s fascinating destinations. This has a lot to do with its natural beauty and friendly, moderate size. At 800,000 people, “the city” is still manageable as a “home town––and thought of as one. But far more pertinent is its unusual mix of history, artistic invention, romantic naïveté, architectural design, mysterious weather and sheer wacky insanity. A perfect distillation of all this is to be found in Union Square, whose good fortune it is, unlike its New York namesake, to be at the center of things still. Union Square is, indeed, the “Heart of the City.”
The Square occupies a large so-described block of mid-town space at mid-altitude (important in a city this hilly) bounded on the north by Post Street, on the south by Geary Boulevard and on the sides by Powell and Stockton Streets. You could just as easily describe it, though, in terms of the stores located facing it. Post Street gives one Saks, Tiffany’s and the Hyatt Hotel. Stockton has Neiman Marcus (with the old “City of Paris” dome from the Kim Novak era still inside it) on the corner, facing Geary Boulevard’s Macy’s and endless buses, both tourist and metropolitan. And Powell Street is somehow primus inter pares, with the St. Francis Hotel as its flagship. Indeed, the colorful standards flying from poles framing the St Francis let one know, in a curiously small town way, that someone “important” is in town. “Ah, the rising sun…guess the Japanese Prime Minister is in town… Is he sitting over there with a camera and a map?” That’s how it goes.
These days the flags compete for attention with the colorful Victoria’s Secret outlet just up Powell Street from the main hotel canopy. The Pink and grey striped tote bags are ubiquitous. Every woman sitting down to rest in the square seems to carry one. You are tempted to pipe up, “Will you be wearing that for me?”
Fortunately for one’s powers of observation, San Francisco and its great square appear to be a bit like Emerson’s “better mousetrap.” Everyone sooner or later beats a path to your door. One only has to pick a spot, settle in like a large cat with a newspaper, and wait for things to get interesting. Just sitting there and sunning, I’ve blundered into conversations with the likes of Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, (who was teaching seminars in Shakespeare down the block at ACT), and with news anchor Brit Hume, who, I recall, took a dim view of the bongo-bangers on Macy’s corner.
“I guess live music is good—no matter how BAD it is,” he said testily, almost shouting to the multitudes.
His appearance had ended my flirtation with a lovely and emollient blonde woman—who turned out to be his wife. I once almost met Newt Gingrich, too, but that was back when he was thin enough to be mistaken at a distance for Phil Donahue, who didn’t interest me, so the conversation never happened.
Then there are all the people you don’t recognize—but who arrive in convention strength and change the visual complexion of the city. Each January, it would seem, an international army of J. P. Morgan investment bankers in black suits takes over the St. Francis Hotel. You can’t even get past security on the front steps to use the loo. They come out into the cold winter grey by the hundreds––all facing south hungry for the sun––all looking down at their Blackberrys—all in black. They might as well be ravens perched on a power line. Viewed en masse, it is remarkable how little pleasantness their faces radiate. “Nevermore,” one is tempted to say. This year, the atmosphere is tense among the bankers, who can occasionally be persuaded to have a park bench discussion. One Austrian official, who was representing Sony’s CD products, told me his group were there to discuss what to do about the streaming of music online.
“And what did you decide to do about it?,” I asked.
“We decided to go into health care!” Quoth the Raven……
Although Montgomery Street, a few blocks away, still carries the moniker “Wall Street West,” you’d never know it by a banker’s attitude—or even the Brooks Brothers suits any more. In San Francisco, finance is playful. Back in the early 1970s, when Wall Street still closed at 3PM, the nattily blazered brokers would be out on the bay in their sailboats by 1PM. At Davis Skaags, the old-guard investment firm, I recall a big issue before the office in 1972 was what to name one of the partners’ new sailboats. After “The Impregnator,” (suggested by the secretaries) was voted down, the more respectable “Tinsley Light” was chosen. At Dean Witter, as it was then known and where I was once a broker-trainee, the big thing was the break room in the basement, where females held sway, and where a bachelor might get lucky. A nice smørgasbord lunch at Paolis and a drink later at Harpoon Louie’s, and you never knew what might happen! It is no accident that Herb Caen’s column thrived on sexual encounters of all types in the financial district. Then as now, when you look out the office window in San Francisco, you never quite know what you might see on someone’s desk.
Union Square was once a bit louche like that. It was successfully renovated in the early 90s to its present form, with sleep-proof benches and grotto-less green spaces, and an outdoor coffee shop at each end. But in the hippie-era days gone by, there were two concentric hedge rectangles where people could achieve a bit of privacy. What put an end to the arrangement was the gradual arrival of homeless people in large numbers, who tended to try to set themselves up behind the greenery. I recall an incident where the police had to be called, because a naked man had rolled over in his sleep and begun to exhibit an impressive “flagpole.”
The homeless issue is closely related to everything that happens in Union Square—and to the city. In recent years, things have improved considerably. But Oscar Wilde already noted in the 1890s that everyone he knew who had disappeared “sooner or later turned up in San Francisco.” To this day, San Francisco seems to represent the “geographic cure” for many people’s ill deeds and confused thoughts. I have had a man in the Square explain to me with great care that there are three versions of himself and that the CIA and the FBI have ruined two of his lives.
In its compassion, San Francisco offers anyone who can prove two weeks residency about $420 a month for pretty much the rest of his life—few questions asked. This, some food money, and an annoying pseudo-newspaper called the “Street Sheet” are given out to the new arrivals. The purpose of the “Street Sheet” is to allow you to beg with dignity, (and to forgive the food stamp people for giving you only a couple of dollars a day), but it is, of course, a catalyst for the endless panhandling tourists experience.
This is more disturbing to visitors than we might suppose. I’ve been told by Norwegian and Danish tourists that they have never seen a beggar in their whole lives. And the French, of course, who love the place, (to everyone’s astonishment, even the food) become smug in their conviction that our 25% greater GDP income is distributed entirely to the rich. Annoyingly, it doesn’t seem to say in the guide books that you just have to show up in town to be supported, however modestly. Try getting welfare as a male in New York City—-lots of luck! But most of the homeless in SF are in fact male. And only one third of the homeless really are without a roof over their heads. The rest just say so and beg.
The tragedy of it all is that the policy ensures the success of sociopaths and BS artists. The schizophrenics do not know how to charm as they beg. So the drama continues—-but usually as farce. There used to be a man on Powell Street strolling with a rat perched on top of a cat perched on top of a dog. But another beggar has now claimed his corner. He trolls a baby stroller with a doll in it. The doll is holding up a cardboard sign which says “MILF HUNTER.” If you don’t know what that means, you are too young to be reading this.
And then there is Theon Andrew Gavalos, known as TAG1 to his father, (who named all the children with the same initials and a number–TAG2, TAG3, etc ). Gavalos resembled a Hallmark card Jesus and used to sit in Union Square every day moving his head from side to side, like Stevie Wonder. He referred to himself as blind man. But as you walked into the square, he would greet you from a distance, perfectly sighted. If you sat down next to him, he’d try to sell you drugs, which doesn’t happen much in SF any more, because marijuana is legal. And so you would chat instead. But I can’t quite forget how, in this Jesus-like gentle voice, he once explained that he had hidden behind the family refrigerator and strangled his mother with a bicycle chain. A juvenile crime, apparently. I haven’t seen TAG1 in years—but I expect he has been tagged into wearing stripes again—or should be.
The bewildering amount of such sheer craziness makes one ask just what the demographic is. A German girl once told me she took the bus and hadn’t seen “one normal person.” Apparently, San Francisco has a 21% disability rate. This is not a city where entire Police Departments retire on back-pain “disability.” These people are talking to themselves and think the television sets are listening.
The good side to the urban story, though, is that San Francisco has no slums. The city’s poorest neighborhood is the Tenderloin, just below Union Square, which stretches from Geary Boulevard to the Civic Center. People walk through it every day and only find it a bit shabby. It will soon contain the world headquarters of Twitter. I’ve even lived in the neighborhood at one time, though now, on the elegant Nob Hill cusp just above it, I am said to live, with typical SF double-entendre, in the “Tendernob.” From my window I look down into the ivy-framed Bohemian Club dining room, where the oldest of the old guard hold sway and the Brooks suit is still alive and well.
The Tenderloin is not a ghetto, but largely a mix of San Franciscans undergoing the immigrant experience. The decor, one might say, is the street life of alcoholics and meth addicts. But the level of menace is astonishingly low. Wandering through the place when you shouldn’t, you might run into a guy in a dress with the mascara running and the wig askew. But in all likelihood, no one is out to mug you. And Asian families have softened the neighborhood with the presence of children.
Despite the dimensions of the human problem, San Franciscans feel lucky. We treat the city as tourists ourselves. This slows down the pace of life and prevents the sort of impatience with others that so characterizes New York, my original home town. The one thing you never see in San Francisco is someone standing behind you impatiently in line at a checkout counter, carrying a briefcase and looking at his watch. Indeed, we feel sorry for such people. “Wage slaves,” as Groucho Marx might have put it! One is supposed to smell the flowers. More typically, people stand around looking at the architecture of the city with a map in one hand and a happy look on their faces.
And lots of luck taking the Geary or Mission Street buses anywhere in a hurry! Every few blocks, someone in a wheelchair will get on, in a slow and uncomfortable process. As often as not, the person smells like a wet dog, cusses out everybody on board, throws things out the window, and gets into a dispute with the driver. Nobody seems to mind. It just gives you more time to look out at the human parade. But you do tend to wonder: “Just which 7-11 was it you said you were robbing, when you got shot and paralyzed?!”
No account of Union Square are would be complete without mentioning “Madame” and the “Wolf Man.” “Madame” is a tall, ramrod-straight elderly German woman, who uncannily resembles “Madame Konstantin.” This is the actress who played Claude Rains’ murderous Nazi mother in Notorious, the 1947 Hitchcock thriller. Always beautifully coiffed in a swept—up bun and Saks-coated to the nines in bright red, she sits on the outer rim of the Square each day, sometimes near the café, at other times on a favorite bench near my own sun spot. She speaks confidentially into a radio. There must have been a time when she felt this ruse looked like a cell-phone conversation. But a few years ago, I accidentally raised a surprised eyebrow in her direction as she did it. Ever since, it seems, if “Madame” sees me coming, she puts the radio down in her lap until I pass!
This does not forestall some of her other eccentricities. “Madame” dislikes helicopters, which tend to hover over SF for prolonged periods of time, when movies are being made in the city. On such a day, she will be found in the center of the square, holding her radio to the sky and lecturing the whirlybirds.
But the bearded “Wolf Man” is the true owner of Union Square-–if relaxation is possession–and possession is nine-tenths of the law. He resembles a lean and dangerous rabbinical student gone native. Women are fascinated by him: “I wonder––if we could just clean him up–maybe–hmmm…” At any time of day, “Wolf Man” can be found draped somewhere in the Square like a cross between a cat and Goya’s painting of the dead soldier. He blocks steps. He blocks ledges. He owns it all.
Once the sun gets up high enough in spring, the “Wolf Man” will be found leaning against the back railing of the parking lot entrance near, Macy’s. He sometimes buys drugs from the man I mentioned earlier who has “three selves”—-and smokes up a storm. But he never says a word to anyone. Once in a blue moon he’ll go into some sort of seizure mode, start pointing fingers at himself and begin quacking like a duck. Or he may have been quietly reading the newspaper––but suddenly fling it over the back railing with a movement of stonishingly convulsive violence. I once saw his copy of the Examiner land on the head of an elegant and extremely startled afternoon shopper heading for her car. And, I’m told, if the police confront him, he simply punches the officer in the face. San Francisco is one of the few places on earth where the police are so forgiving, that you can do that and be back in the park the next day. It is the simple operational principal of the department, apparently, to assume that everyone is nuts. Police in SF are essentially social workers. The usual bad stuff seldom happens, at least not downtown.
When it does, the Police can sometimes be useless. Many years ago, I was beaten up by an Asian gang late at night. They were making noise outside a bar near my building. I had made the mistake of thinking they wouldn’t be violent, since they were wearing polo shirts. So I told them off. (Naive Yuppie!) But they turned on me in phalanx, broke the glass door to my building and cut my hand while punching the bejesus out of me. I gave as good as I got for one against four, but I would have appreciated it if the police had gone into the bar from which they had emerged to ask who they were. This never happened. Instead, the police offered me endless lists of counseling services. It took me fifteen minutes to get rid of them, but it never occurred to the officers that I might want them actually to catch the criminals. They seemed unable to grasp the simple fact. I wasn’t remotely traumatized. I was angry!
So, you see, the touchy-feely quality one reads about in san Francisco is definitely real. Life here, though, is a generally harmless battle between egocentric and naive dreamers, whose impracticalities make one roll one’s eyes, and a smaller group of more grounded realists who keep things running. The city government’s recent smoking proclamation is a case in point. San Francisco is a city whose lifeblood is tourism. The Chinese, the French, the Germans, the Italians all tend still to smoke cigarettes in large proportions. (Our local percentage of smokers is now down to 11 percent.) But the world-order green-dreamers on the Board of Supervisors have passed a law which forbids smoking on city land. Union Square is city land. The solution, one notes, is very SF. The more rational minority on the Board simply failed to appropriate money for the “No Smoking” signs. There is only one sign. It is stuck in a green flower bed at one corner of the square. And the sign is painted green.
So the Chinese and the French continue to smoke. The grandiose get to convince themselves that San Francisco plays above its weight-class. And the chamber of commerce utters a sigh of relief. That’s politics in San Francisco. A bit goofy, but never really nefarious. It is easy to live here and remain hopeful for humanity. Everything people are afraid of in small town red America is here: gays, foreigners, drugs, atheists. Odd how the place functions just fine, isn’t it!
But that is not to say that morality is not sometimes sternly enforced here. I was walking past “Madame” the other day in the park. Just as I passed her, she looked up from her radio and said to me in perfect German, “Monica Lewinsky is a SLUT!!”
These are the sorts of things which happen in the Heart of the City.