San Francisco Bizarro Portrays the Weird City the Dotcommers Tried to Kill
Like Times Square and the East Village of yore?places that used to be homesteads of the unwanted, fucked-up creative pilgrims from everywhere else?San Francisco has had its streets paved with Disney and dotcoms in recent years. But just like Charlton Heston in Planet of the Apes uncovering the old New York, there still exists the old San Francisco. You just got to know where to look.
Jack Boulware's tales of underground San Francisco are legendary. He boldly goes where those with strange fetishes go; he leaves no rock uncrawled beneath, and reports all with an unflinching, droll spin. Even if you swear never to set foot in this town, San Francisco Bizarro, his guide to the unseen San Francisco, is an entertaining look at the wild side that is still there quietly waiting to freak you the fuck out. Although the book's been out almost a year now, I thought the recent wholesale destruction of San Francisco's dotcom culture was a good pretext for discussing the city's bizarre underbelly with him.
So why read a book about how weird San Francisco is, now when everyone's getting laid off and fired from their dotcom dream jobs?
This book is about what San Francisco has always been about?the chance to move here, change your name and reinvent yourself into hopefully somebody more interesting than who you used to be. In a way, the dotcom kids are a prime example of that?they all ran screaming to San Francisco and took a job staring into a computer screen for 10 hours a day, and got to go to cool parties and wear fashion eyewear and talk on cellphones and collect a closetful of clothes with little logos. But just like the beatniks and the hippies and every other culture bubble that seems to erupt here, the real juice only happens for a short time, before it's chased down and co-opted by all the wannabes. And then the economy blew up, and everyone mourned the loss of their worthless stock options. It was very weird to watch the rise and fall. I mean, how stupid do you have to be to invest your life in a website that sells allergy medicine? The blind faith in the Internet economy was truly astounding. Billboards were sprouting up all over the city, and some of them were just baffling. You had no idea what the hell the company was about, much less if it was ever going to make money. I was waiting to see ads for completely absurd websites, like www.gotbeets.com. Who knows?maybe there was actually an organization of beet farmers, poised on the verge of launching the big beets website.
So anyway, my book isn't about the heroic era of dotcom excess. It's about what's left of the city that has always been around, and always will be. New-economy companies rented warehouses, filled them up with computer workstations, and then tanked and moved out of the building, but there will always be strange little businesses and seedy bars and hellhole restaurants. Those are the elements of any city that always seem to resist change. In a way, I'm glad the crash came when it did, because a few entries in the book were already outdated when it came out. For a while, businesses and people were getting evicted right and left, as the landlords licked their chops and jacked up the prices. But now it's starting to settle down to the usual exorbitant rates, as opposed to the truly ridiculous. It's still the same town. It's funny?when most industries lay off employees, like steel mills or logging mills, the people simply drift away to find more work elsewhere. Sounds logical, right? But here, the newly unemployed stay in town and throw themselves pink-slip parties.
How did San Francisco Bizarro come about?
It sounds like a double negative, doesn't it? A friend actually suggested it, based on a similar book about Los Angeles. I'd written years of newspaper columns about weird stuff in San Francisco, but to do a book of them was going to be difficult. Once I started thinking about it, the format of a travel guide was perfect. Really heinous topics kind of fell into traditional travel categories. It was like, Oh, perfect, the site of the Donner Party cannibal tragedy would obviously go into the "day trips" chapter, you know? Or the parking lot where Chet Baker got his teeth punched out would then go into the chapter on celebrities.
I know a lot of folks read it as a book?I mean, not just a guidebook?and that's because of the way you write. Who inspired you?
I was always attracted to smart-ass writers, people who would just completely confront you with harsh ideas, and then sit back and force you to laugh at it, to recognize that, yes, you can also find humor in things like death, sex, conspiracy theory, and our own fat-ass American culture. As long as you have some soul about it. Michael O'Donoghue, who wrote for National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live. The comedian Bill Hicks. Terry Southern, who wrote the film Dr. Strangelove, also produced a great couple of novels. Voltaire wrote under 100 pseudonyms because his pamphlets were so nasty to the church and government...
Okay, so then, to apply a satirical perspective to the idea of a travel book was kind of strange. It has to be somewhat useful, with addresses and phone numbers. You don't want to just trash everything and everyone. Some of them deserve criticism, like the politicians and the rich socialites, but what can you say about a woman who runs an international club devoted to garden gnomes? Praise her to the moon, of course! I actually had to sit down and think, okay, what can I make positive about this book, given that I'm kind of a sarcastic fuck? I wanted to celebrate those people, and ideas, who are truly weird, who do these things not because they crave attention, but because it's how they're wired.
Tell me some stories from some of those places.
I visited this swingers' hotel out by the Oakland airport called Edgewater West. One of the oldest in the country, from the 70s. It was open and groovy, but also pretty creepy. People would leave the drapes open in their rooms, so everyone could see what they were up to. There's a big difference between attractive people having sex and really ugly people having sex, I must say.
I once went golfing with representatives from the Shivas Irons Society, which is a new-age golf organization. They don't keep numerical score, but instead write down a word which best describes how they feel about each hole. I hate golf, and I'm terrible at it, but I was writing a story about them, so I had to grit my teeth and get through it. I would screw up every shot. It was like croquet, the ball scooting across the grass. I was getting more and more pissed off. And the guy kept saying these annoyingly meditative, human-potential things to me like, "Okay, on this hole, nobody's going to talk at all," or "98 percent of golf is between shots." I didn't really know what the fuck he was talking about. It was a long day. I still hate golf.
I went to a Hells Angels picnic one afternoon. A whole roast pig, wet t-shirt contest, bands, booths of people selling knives engraved with the image of Adolph Hitler. Sonny Barger was signing autographs. The Angels have really come into their own. They now have their own brands of bottled water, canned coffee, and long-distance phone cards.
I spoke for a long time with the San Francisco police officer who for years carried a ventriloquist dummy dressed as a cop along with him on his beat. He's totally into the puppet. Definitely an odd guy.
And I visited the Power Exchange, this legal s&m club in San Francisco's South of Market. I watched strangers grope and spank each other, and I think the highlight was probably observing an overweight woman with one breast, lying on her back in a sling, with somebody's fist inside of her. There's something you don't see every day.
So did you get a lot of cool free stuff? Like did you get a souvenir Cunt Coloring Book, or get yer booty reddened at the House of Differences?
I did in fact receive a complimentary Cunt Coloring Book, perforated sheets of blotter acid (undipped, so don't break into my house), some freebies from the Henry Miller Museum. Some kind of pheromone perfume, which supposedly drives the opposite sex completely mad with desire. A bottle of Sonny Barger's "Kickstartin' Jalapeno Hellfire Sauce." A few martinis along the way. A tour of the oldest Elks lodge in the U.S. And I got to hang out with the Church of John Coltrane people. That was pretty cool.
What have been some of the reactions to your book?
San Francisco is a fickle little boutique town. Some people were irritated, because I was critical of certain things. But I wasn't writing a book just for people who live here. It's for anybody who's ever heard of San Francisco. Sure, it's a nice-looking, tolerant area where anything goes, but people sometimes lose their perspective. Because we're human beings, it's still rife with hypocrisy and ridiculous behavior. If we all live in a giant group-hug world of healing instead of hurting, that's just as narrowminded as living in an area where people are mean to each other. Like Will Rogers said, everybody's ignorant, just about different things.
You wrote about offbeat stuff for SF Weekly and elsewhere for a long time. What attracts you to these subjects?
I started writing about weirdo culture because I started a magazine called The Nose in the late 1980s, and burrowing into America's subcultures was one style of journalism that young publishers felt would hopefully set them apart from all the others on the newsstand. Same thing with my column for the SF Weekly. I would go way, way out of my way to find something strange to write about, regardless of how it affected me personally. The column was pretty popular, and I figured it would be more difficult to replace me if I always wrote about Satanism and strippers and cat taxidermy and dwarf head-fucking. People used to send me all sorts of fucked-up junk in the mail?death certificates, videos of monkeys giving birth, things like that. I once answered the phone and on the other end was a reader who said very conspiratorially that his friend's father worked at the same prison where the cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer was incarcerated. This was just after Dahmer had been beaten up and I think killed in jail. Just before Dahmer was killed he apparently had been eating a biscuit, and had left half of it on a table. This kid then told me that he was now in possession of this half-eaten biscuit. He paused and said, "If you're interested." My God, what do you say? I told him I wasn't, but that he should get it shellacked as soon as possible.
People seem to spill their guts to me. I don't really know why, but they do. I guess I make them feel comfortable. But it is odd to listen to somebody describe their life, and even though I personally think it's very fucked-up or scary or sad or even plain ridiculous, I sit and nod... I used to feel like I had a psychic radiation sunburn, like I had looked into a wind tunnel for too long.
Has anyone ever gotten pissed at you for the way you wrote about them or their business?
Somebody once mailed me an envelope full of dog shit, because they didn't agree with something I wrote about Kurt Cobain's suicide. I got a lot of hate mail from the fans of rocker Sammy Hagar, because of a profile I wrote of him?with accompanying spelling and grammatical errors.
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