"I suppose that it's good to know where you stand," laughs a young man wearing a Guinness mustache and walking shorts.
"This is the area where the most children under 5 live," points out Chris Tolles, a fellow walker who works in Silicon Valley and lives on Eddy Street, "and the neighborhood with the most immigrants. Of course it's full of sleaze and unpolished edges, but -- while the local government doesn't like to state it publicly -- sleaze has been an important aspect of San Francisco since the Barbary Coast days. Naturally, the Tenderloin should be a cool place to visit during the day."
Today's resident Tenderloin expert and walking guide is the wry, cigarette-smoking W. Anchor (read: "Wanker," known also most weekend nights at the Edinburgh as waiter Aidan McManus). He leads the day-trippers -- with their sun hats, maps, and sensible walking shoes -- out into the formidable 'hood.
The first stop is The Magazine, which boasts the largest selection of used pornography on the West Coast (a passing customer clarifies that the store also carries a remarkable selection of historical books, but furtive glances directed at the tour indicate that most customers are more interested in Tight Hot Asses than Victorian Resurrection). The next stop is the Old Chelsea Fish Shop, which supplies authentic, deep-fried edibles to Edinburgh customers and walk-in clientele. A visit to The Motherlode, San Francisco's most famous tranny bar, comes with a warning from Anchor: "Do not take any pictures. They may look like ladies, but they're blokes and most of their wives don't know they're here." As we find out, Little Henrys serves up a fantastic Italian meal for less than a tenner (including tip, which should be high if you're a decent sort). The Polk Gulch marks the beginning of the "meat rack," a three-block stretch where "rent boys" ply their trade -- if you need a seedy bar in which to duck between blow jobs, the Gulch will do just fine. Going only a few blocks farther north, however, finds you in a neighborhood that is "utter shite, just teeming with disgusting yuppies."
The New Locker Room is your all-around 24-hour entertainment center, complete with the latest X-rated videos shown in private booths. Napoli Pizza is open until 3 a.m. and will give you a discount if you say the Edinburgh sent ya. Myrte Alley is now known as Murder Alley to locals -- a body was found cut in small chunks and thrown into a dumpster. (Interestingly, after the body was cut up, the thoughtful murderer washed and blow-dried the victim's hair.) At the Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theater, Black tells of how he was the last person to shake Jim Mitchell's hand before he went off to kill his brother. Still, the brothers were fantastic entrepreneurs, turning their film degrees from S.F. State into a multimillion-dollar adult entertainment empire.
Although Sergeant Macarley Park is surrounded by a locked fence, Anchor still assures sightseers that it is the best place in the area to buy high-grade crack cocaine. The people outside King Kong Billiards, "a local hangout for embryonic gangsters," look too startled and astonished by the touring group to seem threatening. Alex's Grocery -- where a person can buy underwear, guitars, wall clocks, backpacks, pots and pans, lock knives, skateboards, and chewing gum all in one store -- proves more interesting.
Near Home Boy Liquors, some local "environmental artists" have festooned a lamppost with dozens of tennis shoes and several pairs of crutches, under which Anchor's white-haired "mother" spare-changes the group. On the next corner, two young prostitutes barter with a client. (Two tips: The going rate is $50 for an hour and 15 minutes; and the girls are always two years younger than they look.) Shalimar, a small Indian restaurant on Jones, boasts "one of the best tandoori chefs in the city."
At the Hotel Mark Twain, the tour is led up a narrow flight of stairs, past many quickly locking doors, to Room 203 -- where, in 1949, Billie Holiday was busted for possession of $50 worth of opium (the resulting press sold out every show in town). At the St. Francis Hotel, Fatty Arbuckle was accused of killing an actress by shoving a champagne bottle inside her, Paul Bowles got stoned and walked through a plate-glass window, and Jim Jones met with Rosalynn Smith Carter. The Blue Lamp on Geary is a great local bar with live music seven nights a week. Finally, at the Sun Spa, the daring are invited to stick their fingers in a bullet hole that was the result of a cop shooting.
Along the way there is some grousing from "walkers," who claim that the Tenderloin Tour involves too much walking and too little drinking -- but when they arrive safely back at the Edinburgh Castle, the entire group seems pleased with their trek ("Any lack of historical anecdotes was certainly made up for by the voyeuristic unease supplied by the local color," says one bloke), and little Grant Black, Alan's infant son, is grandly applauded for his bravery on the tour.
"It was good fun," says Gillian Porter, a Scottish tourist on holiday from her home in London. "It was quite different than the tour of Chinatown."
By Silke Tudor