Category Archives: The Marina

Enter Spring

Last Saturday was San Francisco’s first day of spring.  Although it reached the mid-seventies more than a few times during our (so-called) winter, we endured a bit of a cold, wet spell throughout March and April–I know, Californians suffer so much on account of the weather–so that when a perfectly clear, perfectly warm weekend day came along, everyone put on dresses or shorts, grabbed beers and lawn games, and headed out to the park.  I spent much of Saturday writing in my apartment, which meant that I couldn’t get to my favorite outdoor people watching spot, Dolores Park, with enough time to enjoy the sunshine.  Instead, I headed to Fort Mason: the playground of the Marina set.  It doesn’t quite hold a candle to DoPa, but Fort Mason has its own brand of unbridled ridiculousness.  With views of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, and the downtown area, as well as old military buildings and a community garden, it’s unbelievably picturesque.

I’d planned to spend some time getting my daily allowance of vitamin D and reading some Gary Snyder, which meant that I didn’t tote my camera along. When I got distracted by the surrounding scenes, I had to resort to my iPhone.  All of the photos in this post were taken with my iPhone 4, Hipstamatic, Adler 9009 Lens, Ina’s 1969 film.  The overexposed, bleached finish of the lens-film combination captured, for me, how the afternoon felt.

Update, 4/27/12: I saw today that Fox ran a story charging that “green activists” “trashed” Fort Mason on “Earth Day.”  SFist has already made the points I’m about to make.  However, since I happened to spend several hours at the park on the 21st and went to the farmer’s market down there on the 22nd, I’d like to set the record straight: The photos Fox took were from April 21st (it was foggy on the 22nd, so no one was out), there was nary an activist to be seen in Fort Mason on April 21st, and Earth Day is April 22nd.  So, A+, Fox, for fact checking.  Keeping it fair and balanced, people.


The Brixton

Safeway Safeway

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).

A favorite detail from Garth's mosaic: it encapsulates so much era-appropriate exoticism. And notice the Safeway logo on the bag? Details, my friends.

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.

I love the sexualized milkmaid, the dog sledding, the Brawny Man double, and the suit approving the strawberries. I wonder whether this mural was a subtle pro-worker, pro-Third-World-ism statement or a true celebration of American capitalism and neo-colonialism.

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).


Nikita Khrushchev pets a prize Holstein in Beltsville, MD, with Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Henry Cabot Lodge. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, via USDAgov's Flickr page, CC BY 2.0.

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.

(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.

(5) Blue, Violet.  “Shopping for Sex at the Supermarket.”  SF Gate 6 July 2007.  Web.  16 February 2012.

(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.  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.  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.

Beat It On Down the Line

“San Francisco has always been a breeding ground for bohemian countercultures; its cosmopolitan population, its tolerance of eccentricity, and its provincialism and distance from the centers of national culture and political power have long made it an ideal place for non-conformist writers, artists, and utopian dreamers” (1).

Writing about the Beats is a daunting task.  It’s been done so many times before, and the definition of Beat as a philosophy, poetic movement, lifestyle, what have you, is as mutable as the list of writers and thinkers who might fall under its banner.  But one cannot write about San Francisco and avoid the Beats.  Their fingerprints are everywhere: when you come to your senses, bleary-eyed and tired, over a brew in a dingy North Beach dive, and just as much in the breathless tourist traps in that same neighborhood.  The Haight would not exist without them, and neither, in some ways, would the Castro.  They are in San Franciscans’ love for the absurd, our antiauthoritarian streak, the earnest cries for a better society.  And they officially put down their mark, according to fact and fiction, at the Six Gallery Reading at 3119 Fillmore on Friday, October 7, 1955, when Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl.

The Six Gallery, c. 1957. Photo: C.R. Snyder, courtesy of Found SF, CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

I pass by what was once the Six Gallery on a weekly basis, and I’ve eaten at Tacko, which now occupies its space, more than a few times (delicious and inauthentic carnitas tacos).  There’s a plaque outside commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the reading.  In a 1974 interview, the artist Wally Hedrick discussed the importance of Six Gallery in the art scene: existing outside of the mainstream art school or gallery system, it allowed for self-teaching and experimentation with unaccepted techniques and forms.  Hedrick remembered that before it was Six, it was the King Ubu, where the city’s first jazz poems were read.  The gallery was a narrow, ramshackle place, Hedrick explained, “like a bowling alley” (2).  When I visited the site last week, I noticed the address 3119 no longer exists: I guess that whoever bought up 3119 snatched up a couple of other parcels as well, knocking down the wall and destroying the last vestiges of Six Gallery.  Such is city life.

Allen Ginsberg on the Six Gallery Reading Commemorative Plaque

The accounts of the Six Gallery Reading differ, and without photographs, film, or sound recordings, we can only sift through the stories of flaky, wine-drunk, pot-smoking, sometimes self-effacing and other times self-aggrandizing poets, writers, artists, and hangers-on.  The flyers (written by Allen Ginsberg) for the “charming event” list a “remarkable collection of angels on one stage:” Philip Lamantia (reading John Hoffman’s poems), Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and, of course, Allen Ginsberg.  Kenneth Rexroth emceed (3).  It was Michael McClure’s first public reading, and in his 1982 collection of essays and poems Scratching the Beat Surface, the scene is of “a hundred and fifty enthusiastic people” listening as Ginsberg read in a “small and intensely lucid voice,” with Jack Kerouac chanting “GO” and jugfuls of wine floating around the room.  McClure recollected the oppressive feeling of the Cold War mainstream culture and what Howl did to shatter it, for this group of poets:

In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before–we had gone beyond a point of no return–and we were ready for it, for a point of no return.  None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void–to the land without poetry–to the spiritual drabness.  We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it.  We wanted voice and we wanted vision (4).

In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account of his life among the Beats on the West Coast, learning the ins and outs of Zen from Gary Snyder, he writes that he “followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.”  He takes credit for the success of the evening:

It was a mad night.  And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience…and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem “Wail” drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session)…

For Kerouac, the standout of the evening was not Alvah Goldbook/Allen Ginsberg but rather Gary Snyder (AKA Japhy Ryder), who made “them all howl with joy” (5) with A Berry Feast.  The 2010 film Howl depicts James Franco’s Allen Ginsberg preaching to a right-on, tittering and nodding crowd, passing wine jugs but refraining from jam session whoops.  The Beat literati look on, eyes shining (6).  A few months later, Ginsberg read Howl and America at the Town Hall Theatre in Berkeley, in March 1956.  A recording of America in the excellent In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry reveals a hooting and laughing crowd, clearly in on the joke, as Ginsberg spins out his much more irreverent (but still deadly serious) lines (7).

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg

Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959. Courtesy of orionpozo, CC BY 2.0

Regardless of what actually happened that night, the Six Gallery Reading and Howl captured the zeitgeist of a generation on the cusp.  Howl uses a language known to a select underground group, which would become the Beats or the Counterculture or whatever.  It pushes linguistic boundaries that remain in place today–to the point where I covered a page with my hand while reading the poem in a coffee shop (I was sitting next to an elderly woman).  It was, of course, the subject of an obscenity trial that catapulted City Lights, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg to national fame.  But I’ll write of that another day.

Howl’s power, its rawness, are still fresh.  There are difficult, almost inaccessible moments, repetitions that dull the poem on the page but that are much more effective when spoken aloud.  I used the term preach above to describe the way in which Franco read the poem intentionally: this is a sermon, McClure’s point of no return, a foundational text, a fulcrum.  It’s as full of rage against a dehumanizing establishment–society at large as much as the mental health system–as it is full of joy.

Howl is unapologetic and uncompromising: a frank depiction of homosexuality, heterosexuality, pansexuality, drug use, mental illness, jazz, alienation, loss, and gain.  Take a look for yourself.  The footnote brings the poem to an uplifting close, where “Everything is holy,” from the “groaning saxophone,” to “the asshole,” to “Allen” himself (8).  Nancy J. Peters writes:  “As Allen Ginsberg often claimed, candor–the expression of authentic personal experience–was foremost, and beat work helped to bring private life into public discourse” (1).  By stripping himself naked for the crowd at Six Gallery (and later, the nation), by talking about personal experiences that were previously left unsaid, Ginsberg challenged the prevailing order and announced that things could, and should, be different.  That this poem was written, read, and published in the Bay Area speaks to the freedom that Ginsberg felt when he moved out to San Francisco.  To me, it seems that Howl could not have been created and unveiled anywhere else.

(1) Peters, Nancy J.  “The Beat Generation and San Francisco’s Culture of Dissent.”  Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, and Culture.  Ed. James Brook, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy J. Peters.  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998.  Print.  Page 199 and 212.  Emphasis in the second quotation is my own.

(2) Karlstrom, Paul.  Oral history interview with Wally Hedrick.  San Geronimo, California: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, June 10-24, 1974.  Web transcript.  9 February 2012.

(3) Ginsberg, Allen.  “6 Poets at 6 Gallery.”  San Francisco: October 1955.  Via the Allen Ginsberg Project.  Web.  9 February 2012.

(4) McClure, Michael.  “The Beat Surface.”  Scratching the Beat Surface.  Berkeley: North Point Press, 1982.  Print.  Pages 11-13.

(5) Kerouac, Jack.  The Dharma Bums.  New York: Penguin Books, 1991.  Print.  Pages 13-14.  The book was first published by Viking Press in 1958.

(6) Howl.  Dir. Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman.  Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010.  Film.

(7) Ginsberg, Allen.  “America.”  In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry.  Rhino/Whea, 1996.  CD.  Disc 2, track 33.  A very short clip of Ginsberg’s reading of Howl at the same March 1956 Berkeley event can be heard here.

(8) Ginsberg, Allen.  “Howl.”  Howl and Other Poems.  San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.  Web version available here, with footnote here.