• Otter Views: Of Bush Man, Pole Woman, and the Balclutha

    A recent commercial expo at San Francisco’s Fort Mason drew me to the city’s waterfront for a weekend of offbeat discoveries and old memories. A twilight stroll along Fisherman’s Wharf also enabled me to check off “See Bush Man” from my bucket list.

    Actually, I almost didn’t see Bush Man, because night was falling, and passing traffic diverted my attention. Prowling along the avenue, a pair of candy-flake low rider cars jolted up and down on pneumatic lifters while cranking out Santana’s “Oye Como Va” at concert volume.

    The lead car had just canted crazily up onto its two left tires when I heard from the sidewalk up ahead a growl as deep and rumbly as the MGM lion’s. The source was a decorative shrub set beside a trash receptacle. I was about to walk past this when a hand pulled me back and an urgent voice whispered: “Bush Man!”

    I stopped.

    Others who had heard about this foliar figure of San Francisco tourist mythology also stopped. We hovered in a tight semi-circle a few steps back, listening as the shrub growled in the darkness and rattled its leaves. I was reminded of the carnivorous plant “Audrey” from “Little Shop of Horrors.”

    At last two young girls could stand the suspense no longer. They dashed toward the shrub and were already screaming when Bush Man exploded off his milk crate, shook his brush-taped arms, thrust his scowling face forward and bellowed. Even at the end of a long day terrifying tourists, his menace was undiminished. I dropped a dollar in the can, and he let me pass.

    That a ragged, elderly man with branches duct-taped to his forearms could become a tourist attraction seemed apro- pos for Fisherman’s Wharf, where hucksters and buskers thrive, and gullibility is as thick as chowder. When I first walked that stretch in the 1960s, it seemed every other gallery displayed the same work: oversized oil portraits of waif-like children with enormous, sorrowful eyes.

    “What are those?” I asked my host.

    “Those are Keanes. They sell along here like hot cakes.”

    “At $10,000 apiece? Hell, I could paint those!”

    He gave a San Francisco shrug. “Yeah, but you didn’t think of it.”

    Strolling along the same strand 40 years later, I passed guys selling little slingshot helicopters that lit up in mid-air, a strobe-lighted robot dancing on a dais, several portrait cartoonists, and the fastest, cleverest airbrush painter I’ve seen yet. At length, throbbing rock music and a bright blaze of carnival colors heralded Pier 39.

    The main attraction the night I visited was not the resident sea lion colony, which had dispersed, but a slender, middle-aged woman with a British accent. Striding back and forth across a canopied stage, she told the audience this was her 29th year doing the same act in the same venue. Soon the act would validate her longevity.

    Summoning two brawny motorcyclists from the seats, she put them through a battery of crowd-pleasing strength and virility tests. She then stood them several feet apart, facing each other, and handed each man one end of a long pole. Shouldering this and securing it with their fists, they knelt so the woman could clamber up one leather-clad back and bestride the pole. Then they stood back up.

    As the painted horses of an antique carousel spun behind her, the woman crept to her knees, slid one foot forward, and rose slowly to her feet. One arm clutching a plastic hoop, the other working a big purple fan, she tight-roped to mid-pole, cracking gags all the while. Then she passed the ring over her head, stepped unwaveringly through it, and walked to the other end, to be greeted there by audience acclaim and a flutter of $10 bills.

    After the pole-walking woman, the crepe-spinning man might have seemed an anticlimax, but he drew a sizeable crowd to his window also. Moving from stovetop to stovetop, the balletic chef spun doughy crepes in mid-air, slapped them on the griddles, folded ingredients in, flipped them adroitly, shook on flavorings, and plated them for admiring diners inside. I would have tried one, but it was Lent.

    Walking back toward Fort Mason, I saw the silhouettes of a World War Two submarine and a liberty ship, then the tall masts of the square-rigger Balclutha. I remembered accompanying a fourth-grade class for an overnight field trip aboard her. At the outset, the bo’sun shouted at the kids and frightened some to tears. But the “midwatch” group later produced dazzling paintings of nighttime San Francisco as seen from the Hyde Street pier.

    One picture showed stars, comets and a neon skyline pulsing beyond dark rigging. For my money, it was better than a Keane.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on March 27, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views


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