The Island of San Francisco


There’s a case to be made that San Francisco is an island. It is not a strong case because of the problem that it has water on three not four sides, but I am inclined to make it anyway.

On an island, no matter where you are, you are involved with the sea. You see the wheeling of the seagulls and are startled by their cries. The wind is salty and therefore salt is everywhere; you taste the island as well as smell it and feel it.  Most of all, there is island light at the end of the day and it’s an altogether different kind of light, as if the things you care about are lit from within. You get all that in San Francisco.

San Francisco is an island in the way that San Francisco people are overly absorbed with, well, San Francisco.  They are in love with the city and even when they are running down something about life in San Francisco, they first bow at the alter of SF as in “One thing I don’t understand: we live in the Best City ever, but the parking sucks” or  “This City is too damn beautiful to have to have to clean dog crap out of my shoes whenever I walk in Golden Gate Park.”

San Francisco is also an island because life, well, differs from life on the mainland.

I am in City Hall one afternoon in this holiday season. There are TV trucks and cameras milling around. I follow them into the meeting of the Board of Supervisors. The agenda is packed with freighty matters, but none so freighty as the final vote on a controversial bill to ban public nudity. The bill has aroused intense opposition for it has long been a civil liberty for a San Franciscan to walk down the street naked, if he or she should be in that kind of mood.

I settle in to watch. The audience is humming with expectation. I sit in front of a vocal woman with an Eastern European accent who loudly shares her views on the lack of integrity of the sponsoring Supervisor, a gentleman unfortunately named Scott Wiener.

The Supervisors pass the bill 7 to 4, at which time – with well-planned choreography – the woman behind me and 20 others scattered through the audience arise and whip off their clothes. Signs appears as if by magic: “Nude is not Lewd,” “Nudity is Not a Crime!” “Bodies Are Beautiful”. A fellow cries out “I have come from Iceland to oppose this law!! Shame! Shame! Shame!”

The room is well stocked with beefy Sheriffs and – with well-planned choreography – they grab big blue blankets strategically hidden in a corner of the room and begin wrapping the protestors like pigs in a blanket and hustling them out of the chamber.

The cameras roll.

I get a copy of the ordinance and find that is drafted carefully to exempt public nudity that occurs as part of a street fair or parade or festival. That is a blessing; it is only a week until SantaCon.

I remember last year. I first saw them spilling out of a bar on Broadway near the corner of Stockton. There must have been a dozen of them. Young men in full Santa regalia, red hats, long white beards, beers in hand. I thought they must just be off shift at Salvation Army, but then a block further down Broadway there were another half dozen Santas, equally costumed, wobbling as they walked. This band included a well-endowed young woman in tight green tights dressed as an elf. She had a long red and white Christmas stocking in her hand. She was whirling it around her head like a lariat and laughing maniacally.

At the light just before the tunnel on Broadway a squad of Santas walked in front of my car, drinking beer and yelling, beards askew. I leaned out the window to hear what they were yelling and one of the Santas handed me a Heineken.

I turned off Broadway onto Powell and drove up the hill to where the cable cars crest.  There were literally hundreds of Santas along Powell.  There were hundreds more on Hyde. Everywhere I drove there were Santas. The city was crawling, pub-crawling, with drunken Santas. And in Washington Square Park, the capstone event, the widely promoted attempt to set the Guinness Book world record for greatest number of naked Santas in one place. Thousands of Santas in various stages of undress, ringing in the holiday season.

I am not the only one that understands that San Francisco is an island. One weekend they devoted 72 hours to taking down Doyle Drive, the 1.2 mile road/ramp/overpass that connected to the Golden Gate Bridge. The plan was to jackhammer the roadway into oblivion and remove it and all its pieces over the weekend so that on Monday morning commuters would find themselves on a ground-level route – the Presidio Parkway – temporarily laid out to serve until the ultimate replacement could be put into place.

On Saturday at midnight Marty and I drove down into the Presidio to see the status of the demolitions. We saw twisted rebar like angel hair pasta, great plumes of fire hose spittle arcing high to hold down the dust, and the endless gray on gray of broken concrete. Between the floodlights and the giant jackhammers it reminded me of the visuals in those weeks after 9/11 when every newscast beamed the same compelling photos from Ground Zero. Turns out that the connection was not far off; the Chronicle reported that some of the jackhammers actually did a tour of duty at the World Trade Center. They came to San Francisco like pros from Dover. I wondered how it made sense to bring jackhammers all the way from Manhattan, then I realized the obvious answer: they specialize in working islands….