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Nonconformity Still Reigns! 

The top eccentrics of San Francisco, and that's saying something.

Wednesday, Jul 2 2008

In the beginning of our city's love affair with odd ducks, there was Emperor Norton. A businessman in Gold Rush San Francisco who lost his pants on an investment in Peruvian rice, he re-emerged as a grand character of his own invention: "Emperor of These United States" and "Protector of Mexico." He waltzed about town in a secondhand military uniform while newspapers printed his official edicts without caveat and establishments honored his fake currency.

If Los Angeles lionizes its celebrities, San Francisco has always embraced, or at least tolerated, its homegrown eccentrics. "I can't imagine any other city in the world where [Emperor Norton] could have become what he became with the acceptance of the city," says Richard Miller, an armchair historian who creates podcasts on San Francisco legends for his Web site, Sparkletack. "Some say all the loose nuts rolled west ... people who hadn't made it elsewhere, or just different from the average bears."

Anyone who walks our streets can see the tradition continues, so SF Weekly decided to take a closer look at modern-day incarnations of the late emperor. Even as huge swaths of San Francisco are gentrified in a trend the Chris Daly camp warns will price out the very people who gave the city its flavor, these folks are holding on (one of them BARTs in each day from the East Bay), reminding us that no matter how many high-rise condos go up in the city, we won't turn into Orange County anytime soon.

The list doesn't pretend to be anything close to exhaustive — a complete catalog of the city's antiheroes would fill a book — but, rather, serves as a cheat sheet on some of our streets' most colorful. The only criteria: They boast a big public presence, aren't plugging anything other than the philosophies or conspiracies of their own minds (or the forces speaking through them), and are widely known to the denizens in the slice of the city they've made their stage.

As you break out the July 4 barbecues this week to celebrate our country's independence from foreign control, we salute the folks who embody San Francisco's identity as a haven for those who rebuke conformity. Vivan los kooks!

The Crooner
Walter Paulson
Territory: City Hall
Costume: Business casual or workout gear from training for the Special Olympics

Every Tuesday afternoon, Walter Paulson awaits his cue. As the Board of Supervisors start roll call for introductions, he turns off the city government cable channel on the TV in his SRO hotel room and hustles three blocks to City Hall, dunking his yoyo and humming to warm up for his two minutes in the spotlight: public comment.

Running up City Hall's steps "like Batman" to the meeting room, Walter shoots a robotic wave to the other usual suspects in line and takes the podium. It's where he first broke into song three years ago to see how it would go over; he noted that Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi seemed to enjoy it.

After greeting the supes and a simple "I'm Walter," he belts out the song medley he's been preparing for days, holding his fists out to his sides, wagging his head, a dreamy gleam in his eyes like the star of a high school musical.

Walter plugs the topic of the hour into classic songs, such as singing that Ed Jew was living outside the city's "Borderline" (Madonna), that the mayor and supervisor reunion is only a motion away (Paul Simon), or "Why don't you smile a little public comment smile for me, don't you know you're on SFGTV?"

Though the public has been known to clap, a grin and a terse "thank you" seems to be the most he ever gets out of the supes, who often chat with staffers during public comment. "I know they're listening, though," he says. If he didn't sing, "I think they'd feel a little disappointed or even bored."

To honor the first full day of same-sex marriages in June, he adapted "Get Me to the Church on Time" from My Fair Lady and ended by playing a few unclear seconds of music off a digital recorder (after years of experimentation, he says holding the device about a foot away from the mic makes for the best sound quality). Walter says he even gets feedback on Muni now, usually positive, sometimes not — "but you can't please everybody, I guess."

The Exhibitionists
Rusty Mills and Lloyd Fisher
Territory: Castro Street, 18th Street, occasionally Market Street
Costumes: Birthday suit, cock ring, flip-flops, occasional hat "to add a touch of class"

The thermometer was plummeting into the low 50s, but Rusty and Lloyd padded down Castro Street in no great hurry, the sheer act of walking in their natural state the point in and of itself. Even though the duo has hit the streets in the buff a couple times a week for the last three years and their bare fannies had appeared in the Bay Area Reporter that week over the headline "Naked Men Meet Cop," they still take folks by surprise.

"Why are you naked?" asks one smiling man talking on his cell phone and leaning against the Muni shelter outside Hot Cookie.


"After a stressful day at work, I just want to get naked and relaxed," says Lloyd, who works as a security guy by day. In uniform.

The second reason is to exercise their right to disrobe, since California law condemns only nudity that is interpreted as lewd and offensive. Though the two are often questioned by befuddled police, Rusty has been arrested only once, at Halloween two years ago, and was never charged.

"If a week goes by and we don't do it at all, we feel kind of guilty, like we're letting people down," Rusty says. He's the shorter of the two and walks with his hands perpetually clenched, flexing the arm and pec muscles he sculpts four times a week at the gym. He cordially answers the man: "Well, why are you clothed?"

One lady riding by in a pickup truck yells the obvious: "Hey, that guy is naked!" Bar patrons point and smile. One man with a pack of friends outside Badlands bar blurts out, "That was unnecessary!" Rusty has seen parents cover their children's eyes.

After one round of the neighborhood, Rusty's skin pocks up in goosebumps. It's time to slip on his emergency G-string and dart into the crowded 440 Castro bar to warm up. Lloyd follows suit with the one he's stashed in his crown. "I hate wearin' em," he groans. Ironically enough, the biggest prude in the state is the liquor code.

The Good Samaritan
Dane Johnston
Territory: Castro Street
Costume: Scruffy black jeans, T-shirt, bushy beard, unkempt hair — all part of his "protest against imagery"

In the 15 years Dane has called the Castro home, the spindly six-foot-two, 150-pound toothpick of a man has been on a quest to cure the neighborhood of its pretension. He'll follow people walking with their noses in the air, mimicking them. When one idiot kicked him awake and said, "It's time to go to work," you better believe Dane followed the man to his bus, ranting at him the whole way.

Dane first became homeless when he moved from his native Nebraska to Oregon, where he started hustling in a gay park. He eventually made his way to the Castro, where he took up residence in the parking lot next to All American Boy, befriending owner Tim Oviatt, who let him use the store as a mailing address and a place to store his stuff. Dane carved out an identity as unlikely guardian of the block: breaking up fights, picking up trash and injured birds, turning in lost checks to banks (one of which wouldn't let him in because of his appearance), or reporting a dead man in front of the Castro Theatre (for which he says he was then arrested as a murder suspect). Homeless by choice, he says panhandling stresses him out, so he subsists on $5 to $10 a day given by his stalwart supporters.

Dane's mouth and boisterous voice earned him a lot of enemies and quite a few nights in jail, but many changed their minds after his big moment in 2006: A driver had a seizure at the wheel, torpedoing down Castro Street, smashing into another car, and sending a row of cars up in an apocalyptic blaze. While most people stood by in shock, Dane lunged into the flames to help pull an unconscious man from a hit BMW to safety.

Now 41, Dane says he has mellowed with age, yet he still embarks on many a rant, often hilarious, many times spot-on social critique: "The other half of the world doesn't have water and their river is infected," he says. "And [some people in the Castro] are like, 'Oh, I had to look at a homeless person today. My quality of life is affected.'" The Classic or the Imposter?

Gregory Jacobs
aka Bushman #2 of Fisherman's Wharf
Territory: Currently a patch of sidewalk across the street from Joe's Crab Shack along Jefferson Street
Costume: "The Worlds Famous Bushman of Fisherman's Wharf" baseball cap, leafy branches as a prop

As Gregory Jacobs tells it, one night 25 years ago he was entering his home drunk when some birds rushed out of a bush, scaring the bejesus out of him in a reaction he figured was priceless. He decided to turn his "aha!" moment into a living by shaking two bunches of branches at unsuspecting tourists walking along Fisherman's Wharf. He brought on a friend, David Johnson, to do the scaring while Gregory distracted people and afterward made them pay up. But the two had a falling-out years back, the business partners turned to rivals, and Gregory moved down the street.

It's a great tale — if you believe Gregory. The other version is that Gregory is really Bushman #2, brought on as an apprentice by Johnson — the truth according to many folks at the wharf and a 1999 Chronicle article. Johnson is the Bushman featured in YouTube videos, on the Wikipedia page, and named in numerous complaints, including a claim filed against the city this year after a spooked Michigan woman fell and broke her wrist. Johnson is the one who prevailed in the 2004 trial where jurors found him not guilty of being a public nuisance.

But rumor has it that Johnson recently had a stroke or heart attack, and as soon as Bushman #2 found out, he set up at Bushman #1's prime locale in front of the boat tours. "He didn't miss a beat," said Kenny the Clown, another wharf fixture. "That's what's so cold about it."

"He wants to be me so bad he can taste me," Johnson said over the phone from his St. Francis Memorial Hospital room in June, where he denied he had a stroke, adding no clarification.

Gregory says he didn't think visiting Johnson in the hospital would be good for the latter's health — the two have traded punches before — but Bushman #2 was enjoying his stolen location, holding up an inch-high stack of folded bills he'd made in under an hour. "One man's loss is another man's gain," he says with a cackle.

The Misunderstood Artist
Omer Travers
Territory: Valencia Street, these days on the steps of the Social Security building
Costume: Long animal-print rock cape, heeled boots to boost his five-foot-four frame, guitar, shades

Omer is strutting down the Valencia sidewalk in zigzags on a June night, guitar slung across his back, long hair flying out behind him, when a pretty petite woman in a peacoat and wedge platforms requests "Your Butt's Too Big," his musical comment on American obesity.

"It's my favorite!" she fawns.

Omer lives for moments like these. "I like when people act like they love me," he says. You just have to read the scathing indictments of his late-night jam sessions on to see that some don't. He admits he makes only about $10 a day in tips for three sets of originals and some Johnny Cash, John Lennon, and Christmas carol covers thrown in. He's still waiting for the day he'll reach greater heights of rock fame than infamy, 20 years after he was arrested for lowering himself on a rope onto a fire escape to slip into Yoko Ono's New York City apartment and lived to tell the tale on Howard Stern (and leave angry messages for reporters who still bring it up).

Inviting us to his bare-bones crib at the Altamont Hotel, Travers still seems a little unhinged at times, especially when he lets out his demonic laugh, heaving air through a cigarette-tar-caked voice box, rocking back on his behind, and flapping his hands in front of him like a Muppet. But he later called us back, very serious indeed, to talk about his image.

"I have been described as the cutest bum on the block," he says. "It pisses me off to no end, because I am an artist. ... I'm so fuckin' San Francisco, it creeps me out. And I don't really like San Francisco that much."

Why not? "Because they piss me off. They act like I'm a bum in a doorway. I hate it when cute girls think I'm a bum."

Why? "Because I'm never gonna get kissed!" (For his unkempt appearance, Omer certainly is vain. Pantene Pro-V Sheer Volume Conditioner sits in his medicine closet for his long locks, and he fuels his "temple" — his body — with a constant stream of salmon, avocado, and vitamins.)

But you do stand in doorways and sing for tips, correct? "Don't cloud the issue with facts. I want to be a star. I just haven't found out how to do it yet."

The Dirty Old Man
Territory: He rides from his hotel near 16th and Mission streets to General Hospital, Golden Gate Park, City Hall, or the Embarcadero
Costume: Denim coat that reads "California Nudity Association," wheelchair with an "I love oral sex" sign on the back

First you spot the wheelchair, looking like an adult version of a kiddie car with its aluminum enclosure you best not call a house: "It's not a house," the man inside snaps. "It's a wheelchair cover."

His name is Angel, and with the Southern-drawled sex talk and sizable gut reaching out nearly to the chair's console, he seems more likely to be blazing down an Alabama highway atop a motorcycle (he's done that, too) than down San Francisco sidewalks in a giant wheelchair. But then Angel adds that he's bisexual and claims he started an adult toy company in Hollywood specializing in dildos and breast pumps back in the '60s, and the guy starts to sound like he fits right in around here.

Angel got his electric wheelchair about five years ago after losing sensation in his feet from diabetes, and built the structure on top after getting soaked in a rain that sent him into the hospital. Then came the extras: voodoo-like witch faces scowling, skull-handled whip blowing like a demonmobile straight out of Hades. Why all the macabre fixings? "I'm an artist," he says. "Even though I haven't been recognized by the art society of this city."

Before settling here, Angel says he zipped around the country in the '90s in a Chevy van, dispatched by clergy via CB radio to transport folks infected with "the virus" (his term for HIV) back home. He was diagnosed with the virus himself in the late '80s. He figures there's only one explanation for how he caught it, which he has turned into a public service message: "If anyone has anal sex, you better get used to wearing diapers after you're 50 years old, because you lose all control of that part."

Luckily, he keeps a stash in his wheelchair to remedy that situation as he goes for rides through town on the days he isn't busy constructing bongos and copper sculptures in his room. "I'm a dirty old man. I chase women, but I don't catch 'em."

The Capitalists
The San Francisco Twins,Marian and Vivian Brown
Territory: Union Square, Nob Hill
Costume: Outfits matched down to the faux-leopard fur coats, orthopedic sandals, and gaudy earrings

We caught up with the nomadic Brown twins at the Nob Hill Cafe, figuring that surely a duo adorning a million tourist photo albums and singing on YouTube would be jazzed to talk to the press.

The little old matched ladies blazed in the door and back to a bench a couple minutes past 7 p.m., where they sat sipping red wine in their faux-leopard coats and hairspray-cemented curls as if they were waiting for their cabaret curtain call rather than a window table. They were pleasant enough as they shot the breeze about the various commercials they'd appeared in, but the duo had an ultimatum for an official interview: "Either we get paid, or we don't do it," one said. The Browns referred us to their agent, adding they hoped the interview would work out "if the price is right."

Turns out the twins ain't cheap: Look Talent owner Joan Spangler said magazines had paid $2,000 to $5,000 for a day-long interview, and transportation and meals must be arranged. "The twins have a very distinctive thing going on, and they don't have a whole lot to capitalize on. But they do capitalize on what they do have."

But newspapers don't pay for interviews, so we tried a last-ditch effort. An interview with just one? "They're a matched set," Spangler said. "What's the point?"

The Conspiracy Theorist
Frank Chu
aka 12 Galaxies
Territory: Any major event in the city, along Market Street on weekdays, at the bar named for him in the Mission on weekend nights
Costume: Button-down shirt, sunglasses, protest sign

Look up. If you see Frank Chu's very confusing sign hovering above the masses, you're officially at the marquee event in town: a fire in the Mission, the steps of City Hall on the first full day of gay marriage — anywhere there's a TV camera where Chu can plug his protest and name-drop politicians he's met and other channels he's appeared on.

We caught up with our city's closest living equivalent to Emperor Norton at the Haight-Ashbury Street Fair while he observed a drunk man roll on the pavement outside the Porta Pottis. Frank explained his protest for possibly the 1,089,012th time with fresh conviction: While he was the prince of China, several former U.S. presidents in cahoots with the CIA and 12 galaxies used mind-controlling drugs to film a movie of him and his family and broadcast it to the 12 galaxies and never paid Frank a cent for being its star.

Not only are Frank's conspiracies the catalyst for his fame, they also serve as the justification for anything that doesn't go his way: He says he no longer frequents former favorites like Lefty O'Doul's or the Gold Dust Lounge because the galaxies and the White House "forced the drowsiness and tried to blame me for sleeping in a restaurant." He says the 1985 incident when he held his family hostage in his Oakland home was because the Oakland police used telepathic interventions to control his movements.

His brother, Jack, said Frank was a straight-A student in high school, and was studying at UC Berkeley "when he snapped." Frank's version: The "CIA was embezzling my reading comprehension." However it went down, the seed for a San Francisco star was born.

The Success Story
Vince Depasque
aka the Dogfather
Territory: North Beach
Costume: "The Dogfather" insignia T-shirt, 13 keys to various neighborhood homes around his neck

The ladies who lunch at Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store were not amused as Vince Depasque — who, with his doleful blue eyes, Barbra Streisand nose, bushy mustache, and shag haircut looks a bit like a schnauzer himself — allowed two terriers to sniff their way into the Columbus Street joint. "Don't go in the bar," he gently chided. "I do that. You don't."

On New Year's Eve 2000, recently fired from his 20-year waiter job for showing up drunk at the Yosemite Lodge, Vince came to San Francisco with $1,000 and a simple plan: Eat a good meal, get drunk, get laid, and jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Instead, while walking to the bridge, he met another man with the same plan, they talked each other out of it, and Vince became another homeless guy in Washington Square.

Eight years and some intervention by a neighborhood homeless organization later, Vince is known as the Dogfather, regular walker of five dogs to supplement his income as painter, caterer, mover, and carpet steam-cleaner. He now lives in an SRO by the Hungry I Club on Broadway, boasts a running tab at a dozen neighborhood restaurants, and is on a first-name basis with most folks holding leashes.

Now 49, Vince says a "12-year alcohol binge" caught up with his liver in a grim disease diagnosis earlier this year, but he took the news in stride. He signed up as an organ donor, splurged on satellite TV, and still steals swigs of DeKuyper peppermint schnapps from his fanny pack when the kids on the playground aren't looking. "It's like, why stop? Let's have fun," he says. Vince shows photos of him climbing Half Dome, skiing across the Sierra Nevada, and freefalling off a cliff attached to life by a mere 200 feet of elastic rope during his years at Yosemite. In short, he's tested mortality before. "Does it look like I'm afraid of it?"

About The Author

Lauren Smiley


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