I've always wanted to begin a column that way, but seriously, it is a dark and stormy night -- a Thursday night, to be precise, and about a hundred of us have gathered to witness the spectacle that is the "Frank Chu Experience" at 12 Galaxies, the Mission District venue named after Chu's cryptic signs. Chu himself is there when we arrive, sitting at the bar, eating a burger and fries and sipping a Budweiser.
He is surrounded by hipsters who have come here to pay tribute to him, though he seems more or less oblivious to that fact. Dozens of his signs are hanging everywhere, and local artists are showing works about him or inspired by him; portraits and photographs adorn the walls; someone has even made a lifelike 8-inch sculpture of the man. In a few moments, bands will take the stage, one of which, Society of Rockets, was named after a phrase that appears on a Frank Chu sign; another act, Addison, recently organized and played at Chu's birthday party. There is a cameraman from KRON 4 News taping everything. It's something of a circus, a "Frank Chu Experience" indeed. My friend Erick sums the whole thing up nicely: "What a schizophrenic's heaven: 'The monkeys in my head will have their message heard.'"
Of course they will. It's plastered all over the walls. What it means is another issue entirely.
In a town full of protesters, Frank Chu is San Francisco's most accomplished, at least in terms of gaining attention. Now 46, the diminutive Chu stands about 5 1/2 feet tall, and his hair is short and combed to the side, jet black but for a few patches of gray. He always wears dark sunglasses, even at night, and one of two sport coats, the blue one or the beige one, over a white button-down shirt. It is estimated by those who have visited his home that Chu has close to 100 unique protest signs, which are printed for him for free by a company that gets to stick its logo on the back of each, because you couldn't ask for a better billboard.
On any given day you can find Chu in the Financial District or at Fisherman's Wharf, in the Marina or the Mission. He doesn't scream or chant or cause a ruckus; he just walks around, protesting ... something. Something having to do with 12 galaxies, which is the only phrase that appears on every single one of his signs, above and below an untold number of other strange words and phrases such as "Faulkner," "cuxigoncial," and, my favorite, "inordinate languishing." Chu says he started protesting on Oct. 16, 1999, but people who know him indicate that it was much earlier than that, more like the early '90s. According to Chu, before he began protesting he worked as an accountant. At one point in his life he attended UC Berkeley, and he earned an associate degree in business administration from Cal State Hayward. But that's all in the past. Today he lives in an apartment in Oakland, watches a lot of TV, is supported primarily by his family, and walks countless miles each day hoisting a sign.
In recent months, Chu has taken to riding the bus to Redwood City two or three days a week to visit the scene of the Scott Peterson trial, where he wanders around the parking lot of the courthouse trying to get into the background when news teams film their daily reports. He's often successful, which means that if you watch local news you've likely seen him standing placidly behind a reporter, staring into the camera, holding his sign. Chu's loitering has intrigued the gaggle of media personnel there, many of whom have befriended him, hence the KRON 4 guy.
"No, this is for the Peterson camp," the cameraman explains to me when I ask if KRON is covering tonight's event. "We see him every day, and none of the other photographers believes that this is happening."
That is, they don't believe that someone has named a nightclub after this man's strange vernacular, and they certainly don't believe that that nightclub throws the occasional party celebrating said man, that it donates a portion of the proceeds from the art auction to him, that it lets him eat and drink for free whenever he wants. But it does. Still, that doesn't stop some people from suspecting that 12 Galaxies is exploiting Chu. Adam Bergerson, the club's co-owner, doesn't see it that way. "It's a fine line," he says. "I'm constantly fighting the public perception of, 'You're making fun of him.' But I just dig the dude. We're good to him; he's good to us."
At about 10 o'clock Society of Rockets takes the stage, although not before letting Chu have the mike for a few minutes: "Concubines, second wives, uh, orgies, top secret, Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, 12 galaxies, perverted prejudice, telepathic scientific ...." All right, let the music begin!
Formerly the Shimmer Kids Underpop Association, a fine collective of psychedelic indie folks, the Society has morphed ever so slightly in the wrong direction. The nonet, which includes players on accordion, theremin, trumpet, and keyboards in addition to the typical guitar-bass-drums thing, has taken the edge off what I remember to be a whimsical, mysterious sound. In their better moments, the musicians remind me of the Muppets' band, all enthusiasm and flair; for most of their set, however, they play boring, innocuous jangle-pop. (For what it's worth, Sunset Homes, the band's new album, is far more enjoyable than its live show.)
"Let's give it up for Frank Chu, local hero," Rockets frontman Joshua Babcock says, reminding us all why we're there. I decide to go talk to that hero.
Chu is a difficult man to understand, but I discover that if you hear him out, if you can get through a minute or two of his ranting about 12 galaxies and "precipitative pragmatists," you can reach a point where a normal conversation can occur. Observe:
Me: "So, Frank, what do you think about all this [gesturing to the club]?"
Frank: "They had a chance to set up signs for me, name a nightclub after me, the 12 Galaxies nightclub, [unintelligible], flying saucers, uh, space stations, populations across other planets, uh, not being paid as a movie star, and uh, ABC World News, Nightline, Channel 7, William Friedman."
"Can you explain what kind of message you're trying to get out?"
"I'm trying to get the impeachments in 2007, behind closed doors in Washington, uh, trying to sue the CIA because I was not paid as a movie star."
"Do you enjoy all this attention?"
"Yes. Yes I do. Uh, there's a lot of prejudices, telepathic constants of attempted murder cases. 12 galaxies. American presidents."
"Do you have a favorite piece of art?"
"Probably these two right here." He points to two "light boxes," translucent photographs depicting Chu protesting alongside other more (or less, I suppose) legitimate protesters.
"Yeah, I like those, too."
"Where did I see you at?" he asks me. This catches me off guard, because after meeting Chu a half-dozen times, I've gotten used to the fact that he never remembers anyone. I have to admit, I'm kind of flattered.
"I've seen you downtown, and at the 'Qoöl' parties."
"On Wednesday, at 111 Minna."
"It's good to see you again."
"Thanks. See you later."
And with that, he walks off. Addison is about to play next, and Chu needs to get to the stage, to the waiting microphone, and make sure he spreads his message with every chance he gets. After he does so, he walks back into the crowd and is greeted by handshakes and people making conversation. Whether he realizes it or not, he's the life of the party.
As Addison delivers its fun, hook-heavy indie rock, Chu makes his way to our section of the bar, and I get an idea. Will Frank Chu do a shot of Fernet with Erick and me?
Actually, yes. We throw down a round of shots, and Chu takes it like a champ. Then he scoots into the crowd. Amazing. For at least a decade this guy has been doing this thing that he does, this thing that no one really understands. Now he has a club named after him, and, as 12 Galaxies' Bergerson points out, he can drink and eat for free in a number of places around town. From the looks of it, he's also got plenty of genuine friends. As Chu wades through the bodies, holding his sign, the revelers throw out their hands and pat him on the shoulder, smiling when they greet him, even though he never smiles back.