Tag Archives: Armistead Maupin

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.  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.


Cow Hollow

I live in Cow Hollow, between the posher Pacific Heights, uphill and South, and the yuppier Marina, downhill and North.  Cow Hollow is bordered on its other extremities by the Presidio and Russian Hill.  According to Google, Lombard and Green make up the long sides of Cow Hollow’s rectangle, Lyon and Van Ness the short.  The Cow Hollow Association has a different view of things, however, and I’d rather not get in the middle of a knife fight between Googlers and a group that holds its annual meetings at the Saint Francis Yacht Club.

The neighborhood is known for its cute, mid-price boutiques and restaurants and is full of nail salons, dog bakeries, and yoga studios.  It is an affluent, comparatively crime-free area with beautiful Victorians and the continuous renovation thereof.  It’s also, based on my experience, very homogenous.  If this were the only place one visited in San Francisco, one might assume that everyone in the city was white, made a decent salary, had a dog and/or a young child, and loved brunch.  It’s a lovely, quiet, leafy place to live, a neighborhood that some San Franciscans wouldn’t know by name: most of the time, I just tell people I’m in the Marina.

Cow Hollow is also where the Marina set comes to drink.  The bar scene at the crossroads of Fillmore and Greenwich is known as the “Bermuda Triangle,” a place defined by drunken hazes and long lines for a late night slice.  Although some have attributed the term to Herb Caen, I learned of it when reading Armistead Maupin.  In Further Tales of the City, Maupin wrote: “Nubile computer programmers and other innocents had been known to pass this mystical nexus and never be heard from again” (1).  I’ve never been in the bars at the Bermuda Triangle, but I ‘ve passed by on a Saturday night or three.  It makes more sense, in that context, why the Marina gets a bad name.  But we’ll leave the bitter cultural wars of San Francisco for another post.

Fillmore Street, looking South to Pacific Heights, 1895 (most likely). Photo: Greg Gaar Collection, courtesy of Found SF, CC BY NC-SA 3.0.

Washerwoman’s Lagoon, located near the corner of Franklin and Lombard, was one of the few bodies of fresh water in the city (2).  In the 1850s, Chinese entrepreneurs and “thrifty” locals came here to do their laundry by hand: paying someone else to do one’s washing was exorbitantly  expensive in the Gold Rush days.  The only other option was to ship garments to Hawaii or China for cleaning (3).

Dairies popped up starting in 1861 to take advantage of the spring-fed pastures (2), with approximately 30 operations established by the early 1870s (4).  The city removed the cows and banned livestock around 1891, when the area became too populated and conditions at the dairies deteriorated (2).  One media account detailed the poor sanitation of the Cow Hollow area during a visit with city officials sometime before 1900.  It quoted Health Officer Dr. Keeney, head of the tour: “If some one were to start out and search California from end to end, they could hardly find a more unsuitable place in which to keep cows than ‘Cow Hollow'” (5).  Personally, I wonder whether the Pac Heights la-di-das wanted slightly more respectable neighbors than a bunch of farmers and their bovine friends and subsequently leaned on the local government to make some changes.  They might’ve plotted it all out at the Saint Francis Yacht Club, if it’d been around then.  It’s probably better, however, that we don’t have a tuberculosis outbreak or an open sewer “waterfall” hereabouts (5).  Still, I know I’m not the only one wishing for more urban farming in San Francisco.

Existing in a strange in-between space, neither fully residential nor urban, not the Marina and not Pac Heights, Cow Hollow is an oasis for those of us who like our cities without a side of sirens.   The neighborhood represents one facet of the contradictory, difficult elements that make San Francisco so interesting and so challenging.  It’s a sheltered place, both safety-wise and in that it’s easy to be here without questioning why it is the way that it is.  But it doesn’t have to be so.  Furthermore, we should not forget the importance of the neighborhood in the history of the city.  When San Francisco was growing too fast to sustain itself, Cow Hollow provided its residents with locally-grown, fresh food: a precursor to the locavore movement over a century before it was even a thing.

(1) Maupin, Armistead. Further Tales of the City.  New York: Harper Perennial, 1982.  Print.  Page 98.

(2) Snyder, John.  “Cow Hollow.”  San Francisco Secrets.  San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999.  Print.

(3) Unknown Author.  “Washerwoman’s Lagoon.” Except from This is San Francisco.  Via Found SF.  Web.  1 February 2021.  http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=WASHERWOMAN’S_LAGOON.

(4) O’Brien, Robert.  “And They Called It ‘Cow Hollow.'”  San Francisco Chronicle, January 1947.  Via Found SF.  Web.  1 February 2012.  http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=AND_THEY_CALLED_IT_%22COW_HOLLOW%22.

(5) Unknown Author.  “Cow Hollow Sanitation Scandal c. 1900.”  Via Found SF.  Web.  1 February 2012.  http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=COW_HOLLOW_SANITATION_SCANDAL_c._1900.