When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
-Allen Ginsberg, America
I was driving around the northern end of town this week, buying groceries piecemeal (each supermarket holding the key to some, never all, of the random ingredients I may need on a weekly basis), and stressing, as always, about what to write. I hadn’t done enough research on labor art in San Francisco to feel comfortable with a post, I was deeply immersed in the Beats but didn’t want to go double or nothing on that front, and Sir Francis Drake warranted, I thought, a trip out to the Marin Headlands for photos. Around two o’clock, I wandered into the Marina Safeway for that last pesky item: a lemongrass stalk. And I walked out with a story.
The Marina Safeway is known in San Francisco lore as “Singles Safeway” or “Dateway,” and it is, according to many, the best place for heterosexuals of a certain type to shop for both produce and a date. Immortalized by Armistead Maupin (just read the books already; you’ll learn so much), Dateway is where the Marina set goes to get down. When they’re not in the Triangle, of course. In Tales of the City, Maupin sends a new-to-the-city and very reluctant Mary Ann Singleton to the “Social Safeway” at the insistence of her heart-of-gold, good-time-having friend, Connie:
“Safeway, dink. As in supermarket.”
“That’s what I thought you said. You sure know how to show a girl a good time.”
“For your information, dink, Social Safeway just happens to be…well, it’s just the…big thing, that’s all.”
“For those who get off on groceries.”
“For those who get off on men, hon. It’s a local tradition. Every Wednesday night. And you don’t even have to look like you’re on the make.” (1)
Maupin’s first installment of the serialized Tales of the City (in the Chronicle) was published in 1976, so Dateway has been around since the mid 70s at least. The Marina Safeway was opened in 1959 and is the definitive design for the “Marina style” of Safeway supermarkets that were built over the next decade: an arched entrance, with full windows on the front (2). The Marina style feels a bit mega-church-y, and given Americans’ relationship with food, I’d say that’s an apt sentiment. The east side of the building features a beautiful four-panel mosaic by John Garth that depicts food cultivation and its transportation from around the world to the Marina Safeway. It’s worth a look if you happen to be around Fort Mason (if we’re putting this in Michelin Green Guide speak, it’d be one star: interesting but not worth a diversion or a trip).
Many Bay Area publications have covered the Dateway scene, with young, mostly female writers going “undercover” to glean the truth about this mythical place. Beth Spotswood from the SF Gate describes a supermarket full of good-looking young people in expensive workout clothes and a few old codgers focused on punishing express check-out rule breakers, of whom she was one (3). That sounds about right. Heather Smith of the SF Bay Guardian puts Dateway on a level with the city’s alternative cultures: “San Francisco has a reputation for bathhouses, orgies, people in latex flogging each other, and Safeway pickups […]” (4). Given the Marina’s vanilla status (in comparison with the rest of SF), I consider that high praise. After searching for dates at other local Safeways, Violet Blue theorizes:
Maybe the Marina Safeway was built over the site of an Ohlone sex cult or the former location of an exceedingly decadent Barbary Coast brothel, and the spirits of rowdy sailors, bawdy babes in breeches and corsets and hard-up fortune seeking prospectors fondle the cantaloupes and caress the canned peaches at midnight (5).
I can say from my own anthropological observations that most of this is true. On the occasions when I’ve gone in the evening, I’ve watched more than a few pick-ups (never me; I don’t linger in the produce section or own any Lululemon). It’s sort of unbelievable to hear that one of the prime date-getting spots in town is a grocery store–until you see it with your own eyes. Sometimes I want to bring popcorn. However, I do most of my grocery shopping in the late morning or early afternoon, which brings in a different demographic entirely: the much older Marina retiree holdouts, remnants of a different culture. They’re octogenarians, mostly, and I stick out. I help reach for things on shelves (this is beyond laughable; I’m 5’2) and nod politely during check-out conversations about how I must be the same age as a grandson–which, I’m thinking, brings the Dateway experience to a whole new level.
It was one of those check-out line conversations, however, that inspired this post. After drawing me into a mutual rant about those renegades who Break The Rules In The Express Line (I’m 80 years old at heart, get off my lawn, etc.), a very nice older gentleman launched into a few stories about the Marina Safeway and his experiences in the city. A former Marina resident who now lives in “the Avenues” (the Western, residential expanse of the city), he ended up in San Francisco “by accident.” After fighting in Korea, he landed in the city (along with a lot of other recent vets; I’ll write about the effect of returning soldiers on the city another time) and longed to stay for a few days. Unfortunately, the government wouldn’t pay for his return ticket unless he left for home immediately, and so SF was put on hold. Years later, he traveled to Los Angeles and rented a car to visit a relative in San Francisco. Driving off the 280 into the city, he saw a cable car coming over the hill and “that was it” (6).
He also talked about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s first visit to the United States in September 1959. The visit was the result of a diplomatic snafu, and Eisenhower could not rescind his invitation once accepted (the visit was supposed to be contingent on a deal over West Berlin that never materialized, but that part of the invitation was omitted inadvertently). San Francisco was among the places that Khrushchev selected to tour; his request to visit Disneyland, however, was denied. At almost every turn, Khrushchev asserted: “We have it better in the Soviet Union,” apart from hot dogs and the baggage lockers at Union Station in Washington, DC (7).
My check-out line acquaintance, however, told me a bit more. While in SF, Khrushchev was supposed to view the brand-new Marina Safeway–a paragon of American plenty, efficiency, and affluence. The place was dusted, scrubbed, and arranged to put capitalism in its best light: my acquaintance went there to shop a few days later, and “everything was immaculate.” Sensing a “put-up job, (and maybe it was),” Khrushchev scrapped the visit, making an unscheduled stop at an unprepared supermarket down on the Peninsula instead. The mere sight of the car-filled parking lot was enough for Khrushchev to admit that “we were ahead” of the USSR (6). True or not, when he returned to Soviet Russia a few weeks later, Khrushchev landed in Vladivostok and announced that the Eastern Russian city would be built up and developed, made into “our San Francisco” (8). Something must’ve made an impression.
(1) Maupin, Armistead. Tales of the City. New York: Harper Perennial, 1978. Print. Page 14.
(2) Unfortunately, the most legitimate source I could find for this was Wikipedia’s entry on Safeway, Inc.; however, the “Marina-style” term appears to be in use in various places on the Internet.
(3) Spotswood, Beth. “I Got in a Fight at the Marina Safeway.” SF Gate, 7 March 2007. Web. 16 February 2012. http://blog.sfgate.com/culture/2007/03/07/i-got-in-a-fight-at-the-marina-safeway/
(4) Smith, Heather. “Strangers in the Night: Bars, Cheap Sex, and Boozy Anthropology.” SF Bay Guardian, 16-22 June 2004: Vol. 38, No. 38. Web. 16 February 2012. http://www.sfbg.com/38/38/cover_strangers.html
(5) Blue, Violet. “Shopping for Sex at the Supermarket.” SF Gate 6 July 2007. Web. 16 February 2012. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2007/06/07/violetblue.DTL&ao=all
(6) Anonymous man at Safeway. Personal interview, notes. San Francisco: 15 February 2012.
(7) Stewart, Alison. “‘K Blows Top:’ Reliving Khrushchev’s American Tour.” Weekend Edition, NPR News, 21 June 2009. Audio and Web. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105633878. More on Khrushchev’s displeasure at being barred from Disneyland here. Bonus photo: Cosmonaut Gherman Titov at the Marina Safeway in 1962.
(8) Filatova, Irina. “Vladivostok: Khrushchev’s San Francisco.” The Moscow Times, date unknown. Web. 16 February 2012. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/beyond_moscow/vladivostok.html. Although I could not find the date for this piece, I assume, based on comments below the article and on the subject, that it was published in late 2011.