I set out from Haight Street for a night’s walkabout anticipating end-of-the-world spectacles. It was New Year’s Eve, end of an even thousand years if you calculate things by Anglo ways of reckoning, the last night of high tech dot com bliss and the prosperity American ingenuity brings about two thirds of its citizens. Up at home base, the hill muffins were hunkered down on the ridgetops, a year’s worth of rice and beans buried out by the pot patch in waterproof containers. The muffs had their generators gassed up and their AK-47’s on lock and load. The old lady had perimeter duty while old man muff checked out fields of fire. At the more excitable and apocalyptic-oriented venues like KZYX and the Mendocino Environment Center where linear thought processes were long ago traded in for intuition and non-print input, the libs had been positively giddy at the prospect of world’s end for a solid year.
I kinda like the world myself and, like most old commies, have great respect for the resilience of capitalism. I knew in my bones that the boys with all the booty weren’t about to let the counting house fall down just because a gaggle of techno-nerds had forgotten to adjust the computer clocks.
But just in case the four horsemen rode in on January One, what better place to watch them do their thing than San Francisco?
But nothing happened.
I’ve never seen The City emptier or quieter. It was so quiet it was eerie. I started out from Haight and Ashbury, these days a fashion center for young people with stores selling two hundred dollar pairs of rubber shoes with two-foot heels — I’ve lived long enough to watch the area do five sociological flip-flops — up Ashbury, down 17th Street, right on past a deserted Castro, down Market to the Embarcadero where a sedate crowd had gathered to listen to singers I’d never heard of. And I felt nothing resembling deprivation at my ignorance.
There were cops of various kinds all the way down Market posted at each intersection. Critical Mass, at least 30,000 bicyclists short of achieving it, pedaled sedately up Market about a thousand strong. A phalanx of motorcycle cops followed them while a police helicopter rotor-whipped the night air above. At Van Ness and Market, Critical Mass stopped for the red light as the police saw them through to the other side as if they were grandmas on three-wheelers. At 9th and Market a couple of cops confiscated two cans of beer from two hat backwards oafs. (It’s one thing to be a moron, but why try to look like one too? Kids these days....) “But dude....” one of the hat backwards complained as the cop plucked the beer from his hand. “Sorry,” the cop said, “This is no alcohol night.”
At the Embarcadero a group of Chinese kids stood laughing and taking pictures of one another as each posed from behind a pair of oversized glasses. Of the dozen of them, about half wore their hair short and dyed in day-glo colors. An old guy said to another old guy, “Al, did you ever think you’d see a Jap with green hair?” Al replied, “Maybe, but I never thought I’d see two of ‘em.” The old guys chuckled.
I seemed to be the third oldest guy in the throng. Huge speakers pounded out the painfully loud rhythms of sexual intercourse and ya-ya lyrics. Young people danced as cops plucked beers out of startled but unresisting hands. I didn’t see any fights or even anything that resembled the usual free-floating hostility present in mob scenes. There were a few groups of tough guys who looked like they wanted to fight, but nobody seemed inclined to rumble.
There was no point — celebratory or otherwise — standing around listening to music played so loud I couldn’t listen in on conversations so I walked back up Market, then up Taylor for a bolito bowl at Original Joe’s. The waiter told me that “the Mayor wrecked the whole weekend for everybody. The no drinking rule, all the baloney about how the cops were going to crack down on people. The Y2K bullshit from the hippies. That’s why nobody’s out there.”
Lots of stores on Market were boarded up, lots weren’t. Old Navy and the Gap store windows were covered with three-quarter plywood. Between the cracks, I could see fat guys in rent-a-cop unis standing round. Some of them wore sidearms. Would they die for ten bucks an hour when the wealth redistributors hurtled through the plywood?
I walked on up to Union Square where some kind of mega-millennial ecumenical prayer and music event was supposed to come off at $10 a pop. The believers had stayed away in droves. Union Square is a lot more crowded on Christmas day than it was End Of The World Night.
There was nothing else to do so I stopped to listen to an unaffiliated evangelical do his thing at the corner of Geary and Stockton. He was a stocky guy about 40 who resembled a squat Elvis Presley, black hair swept back like fenders on a ‘55 Buick. Elvis the God Guy was dressed in a black leather-like, head-to-toe zippered jump suit with an American flag sewed into its chest. God Guy wore a ten gallon cowboy hat festooned with flag medallions and alternating “Praise God!” decals. Nike running shoes rounded out the millennial attire. If Elvis was wafted away, raptured right off the corner, he might have a tough time getting past the security check at Heaven’s Gate in this get-up, but none of us knows for sure if there’s a dress code on the other side till we get there.
Elvis was bellowing apocalyptic warnings through a small bullhorn. He put on a lot better show than anything happening at the Embarcadero. Bill Graham Presents and Willy Brown should have hired him to liven things up. “God is not pleased with the Pope,” Elvis hollered at me as I settled in for the show. “Pope rhymes with dope. There’s no hope with the Pope.” That vein of alliterative gold quickly exhausted, Elvis brought his bullhorn inches from my face. “You ask me how I was brought up?” he bellered as if I’d asked. “Doesn’t really matter; it’s where I’m going that counts.” With that do-it-yourself exchange completed, Elvis pivoted to shout anti-Clinton insults skyward. “Bill Clinton is a filthy, stinking sinner. Will I pray for this stinking, rotten, evil man? Why should I? He’s pro-queer, pro-abortion.”
It wasn’t hard to understand why the preacher was reduced to an open air Post Street pulpit. His wasn’t exactly a Frisco-friendly message, although Elvis did toss out a few sops to the libs, whether or not out of concern for Frisco sensibilities or out of mental illness could not be determined with any certainty. “All weapons should be buried. They are evil. Praise God.” All he drew was chuckles from me and a few fish eyes from the few passersby who even seemed aware of him.
A young Chinese guy soon appeared, a mischievous grin on his face and a violin case under his arm. I got the feeling the preacher and the violinist were old antagonists. The kid took out a small amplifier and plugged an electric string instrument into it and began sawing unmusically away a few feet from the rambunctious representative of the Prince of Peace. “The devil won’t drive me out!” the preacher shouted at the kid who promptly turned up the volume on his violin for a round of Waltzing Matilda. As I walked up Post the preacher and the electrified violinist were a foot apart, the kid laughing and hacking away with his bow at his amplified strings, the preacher screaming, “The devil hisself is knocking at my door but he sure is wrong if he thinks God will let him in!”
At the rear door of the St. Francis hotel a bunch of cops were assembled to launch a mini-motorcade. The very sight of big black cars and motorcades makes me yearn for hand grenades, but I lingered, joining 50 or so other gawkers. I wanted to see who gets tax-funded escorts these days. The last time I checked, we were paying for the cops to whisk senior sluts from the U.S. Senate out to SFO as the peons pulled over to the side to let the leadership pass. A guy asked me, “Who’s here?” Al Gore, I replied. The guy turned to the lady with him and said authoritatively, “Al Gore. Wonder what he’s doing here? Let’s stick around.”
“Al Gore Al Gore Al Gores” ripple excitedly through the crowd, passed from one person to the next like a beer at a ball game. The crowd waiting for Al Gore grows larger. I lament my little treachery until I remind myself that anybody who’d wait outside a hotel door for a glimpse of Al Gore on the last day of a thousand years or any other day deserves whomever eventually appears and I hope it’s the third secretary of Independent Yakataka or Dianne Feinstein.
At the Civic Center another music festival of some sort was tuning up, but it seemed lightly attended too. I think it was a second whoop de doo sponsored by The City. I walked on up a deserted Polk Street until I got to Sacramento where I hopped a free bus. the Muni is never entirely free, broadly considered to include the emotional toll it often takes, but it was free to riders on this, The Last Night.
The bus was empty except for four Mexicans just getting off work. Early in the morning, late at night, the Muni is a mobile Third World, ferrying the legions of underpaid people who do the real work of our latest economic miracle, the SUV-Dot Com decade where the dollars go up but fewer and fewer come down.
I get off at California and Masonic to catch the 33 back to the Haight. Two middle-aged women, one black one white and nicely done up and how good it is to see women looking after themselves again after the long visual drought years of no paint and no pain over appearances join me at the bus stop. The area is deserted. “Do you mind if we stand near you?” one asks. “It’s creepy out here.” Yes, I’m the only one, I say. They laugh. I don’t know if I should be insulted at their menace-free assumption or elated that I seem capable of serving as armor against the urban night.
The 33 eventually appears. My wards and I are the only passengers until Hayes Street where an odd guy in white bucks trips and sprawls onto the bus, lying on the steps like he’s dead drunk or has just dropped dead from the exertion of climbing onto the 33. But he’s neither, just clumsy. “Are you going to ask me if I’m alright, driver?” Mr. Prat Fall asks. No, the driver says without even looking at the guy as he pulls out into a uniquely vehicle-free Masonic. “How about you folks? Are you going to ask me if I’m alright?” Mr. Prat Fall ask us. Are you alright I and my two wards chorus. “Yes, I am, thank you,” PF says and, apparently gratified at our mannerly response to his inquiry, sits down without saying another word.
The Muni is endlessly fascinating. San Francisco is endlessly fascinating. The libs are lamenting The City’s alleged loss of its “diversity,” but I’ve never seen it more diverse, and I’ve been living there and going there for 55 years.
At Haight and Masonic I alight. One of the two ladies I was selflessly accompanying point to point or at least until a visible threat materialized, wished me happy new year as the other said, “Thank you for guarding us.”
Shucks, ma’am, happy to put your mind to ease.
Haight Street was deserted. Ben and Jerry’s was the only place open. Even the bums, and the winos and the tax-funded dopers had disappeared. Excuse me. Even the homeless seem to have packed it in for the night. Maybe the people who refuse to consider the revival of the state hospital system took them home to welcome in the new year or the end of all years, whichever came first, but nobody was out anywhere in San Francisco. Only a few thousand suburbanites were massed at the Embarcadero, gaping at the Ferry Building and massing at rows of Porta Potties for easily the most chaste New Year’s Eve in the history of the Golden Gate.
The next day the paper said that there were fewer police and fire calls on New Year’s Eve than there are on any Friday night of the year. People stayed home for the end of the world, but it didn’t end anywhere, even the places where it was supposed to.