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Don't Call It "Frisco" -- If You're Old and White 

Wednesday, Jan 1 2014

One may think twice after receiving unsolicited advice from a laundromat.

And yet, the joint at Hayes and Laguna made a fair point. Locals toting sacks of soiled clothing or just out for a stroll while wondering what the neighborhood washeteria would demand of them were regaled by the Don't Call It Frisco Laundromat.

Obeying the pronouncements of a laundromat is a matter of personal choice. But it's less so when the identical dictum emanates from the mouth of a judge — which happened in San Francisco. A 1918 article in the Examiner recounts the opprobrium heaped upon a divorce petitioner following his fourth utterance of the term "Frisco" during testimony.

"No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles," snapped the judge. "I am the chairman of the City Council of Defense and I warn you that you stand in danger of being interned as an alien enemy. Don't do it again."

The petitioner admitted wrongdoing and avoided incarceration. Incidentally, he was from Los Angeles.

The wisdom imparted by the Don't Call It Frisco Laundromat was, at one time, common knowledge far and wide. In 1872, illustrious San Francisco lunatic Emperor Norton deemed use of the term "a high misdemeanor" mandating a $25 forfeiture "into the Imperial Treasury." In 1916, a Los Angeles judge — yes, Los Angeles — upbraided a woman who mentioned "Frisco" in his presence: "Madam, when you come into this court, I want you to use California names properly."

That hearing was hundreds of miles from Hayes and Laguna. And yet, not even hundreds of yards away, generations of San Franciscans grew up with no knowledge that Frisco is a detested outsider's term and something to be shunned. Far from it.

The tunes wafting through the airwaves in the Western Addition and the Fillmore have included "Frisco Chillin'," "Frisco Is the Bay," "Frisco Fitted," "In a Frisco Minute," "Frisco Anthem," and, if you set the way-back machine to 1992, "Frisco Niggers Ain't No Punks."

"We love Frisco. We from Frisco," explains San Quinn, one of the small army of rappers who performed on that last number.

When queried if anyone had ever told him, "Don't call it Frisco," he replied, "Never. Nope. Never heard that. I'm from Frisco, man. It ain't a big deal; it's just something we say. You feel me?"

Try telling that to the judge.

Decades ago, saying "Frisco" was a big deal. In 2014, apparently, it ain't. That says a lot about San Francisco's future, but perhaps even more about its past.

In his delightful 1984 article "How to Talk Like a San Franciscan," Chronicle scribe Carl Nolte attests that "no book tells you how to act like a native San Franciscan, because it is widely assumed that the breed, if it ever existed, is extinct."

Thirty years down the road, we've graduated from extinct to mythical.

Descriptions of blue-collar enclaves where people spoke with hardscrabble accents harking to the hobos in Cannery Row — Whereya from? Whereja go t'school? — feel like accounts of the ancient Anasazis. But at least the Anasazis left artifacts; yesterday's San Franciscans passed down little of worth for today's ephemeral residents (other than their homes, of course). Their lives, traditions, vocabularies, accents, values — all are gone or, at best, ignored. So the primordial San Franciscans who queried "Whereya from?" would have had a visceral reaction to the term "Frisco."

But rose-tinted accounts of the city of yore neglect to note that not everyone talked, looked, or thought like this.

The city's black communities have different memories of a different San Francisco — and, it would seem, a different relationship to Frisco too.

Claude Carpenter mans the counter at the Dollar Store and More at Third and Palou in Bayview, the neighborhood where he has lived his entire life. He notes that "Frisco" is not a term you will hear him say and it will never appear on the apparel hawked in his store. But if you say it, he's not going to demand a $25 fee for the Imperial Treasury. He had no idea this was a loathed term.

His business partner, Marvin Robinson, chimed in. He knew this. Only outsiders don't know this. Outsiders and "the Pepsi Generation," with their videogames and hip-hop music.

It warrants mentioning that Robinson is 60. Carpenter, however, is 68 — not exactly a charter member of the Pepsi Generation. San Francisco Bay View editor Mary Ratcliff has published plenty of articles mentioning "Frisco" in her 23 years running the paper. People complain — "but never blacks," she says. Just as R. Crumb's intentionally edgy caricatures of black people solely drew criticism from white liberals, the only people driven to complain about "Frisco" appear to be aging Caucasians.

The criticism these folks heap upon outsiders using the language of the outsider doesn't match the reaction of black people — who, for so long, have been treated as outsiders in their own city.

That a lifelong San Franciscan like Carpenter could make it this far without learning how "San Franciscans" feel about this terminology — or that San Quinn and fellow Fillmore residents could do the same while, literally, living around the corner from the Don't Call It Frisco Laundromat — provides anecdotal evidence for a discomfiting accusation about our city.

In San Francisco, diversity is a concept people are most at ease with when it remains a concept.

"African-American and white communities don't really interact as much as you'd think they would, considering desegregation," said professor John Rickford, a Stanford University linguist. "That's why African-American vernacular remains relatively distinct." So it equates that "African-Americans would be shocked that white people feel differently about this."

For communities to truly influence each other's way of thinking and speaking, Rickford continues, "they have to meet and mingle and talk in a deep sense. In a sense that matters."

It's hard to claim that's happening. It's even harder to give a rudimentary glance at demographic trends and claim there's much time left to do it.

Don't look for the Don't Call It Frisco Laundromat. It's not there anymore. In a physical and metaphysical two-for, an establishment whose name represented a passé way of thinking and whose existence represented a passé use of valuable city real estate foundered. It was replaced by an upscale French bistro where, in all likelihood, they don't give a damn what you call the city so long as you can throw down $26 for the wood-grilled Berkshire pork chop with apples roasted in duck fat and grilled chicories.

San Quinn doesn't live all that far off. The 36-year-old professes his deep love for "Frisco," but disdains another term for our city that your humble narrator has found locals young and old and of every race seem to similarly despise: San Fran.

"I'm from Frisco, man," he says. "But I really don't like 'San Fran.' People say that and I can tell you're an outsider.

"You feel me?"

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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