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You can learn a lot about the city's history with a comedian as your tour guide

Wednesday, Oct 4 2000
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Even a quick visit to the bathrooms inside the Fairmont Hotel can be a disarming, potentially infinite journey for a Mission lowlander like myself. It's a pageant of sensory opulence -- the rich carpeting running beneath ornate makeup tables, the plush couches and fresh flowers, the gilt mirrors and marble floors. The stalls alone are worth half an hour, with their floor-to-ceiling blond-wood doors, brass fittings, and art deco lampshades that leave the skin looking airbrushed. Someone could live in there. If she could make it past the hotel lobby, where chandeliers shimmer over Persian carpets and cool, smooth marble columns rise to lavish heights. It's almost too much. Everyone in the lobby is polite and gracious to me, but I know they know I'm out of my element. I want to touch everything, count it, sniff it, run my tongue discreetly over its beveled edges. But I don't. There isn't time.

"Anybody know where the name Nob Hill might have come from?" asks Robert Mac, the creator of Foot! Tours, San Francisco's one-and-only comedian-led, interactive, game show-styled walking tour. Six of us blink at him through the brilliant sunlight outside the Fairmont. "Some people say "nob' is short for "nobility.' Others think it came from the British term describing the shape of the hill." I look around and don't see anything remotely connected to my understanding of the British term "nob." "Most locals don't worry about it," continues Mac. "They just call it Snob Hill." The crowd smiles.

Just a short while earlier, Mac had been standing in front of the hotel, his city tour guide badge twinkling officiously on the lapel of his '40s-style goldenrod suit, when four gregarious characters suddenly exited the Fairmont and surrounded him. For several minutes, fellow comedians David Spark, Lee Levine, Gary Cannon, and Gretchen Rootes regaled me with gummy quotes about Mac's walking tour prowess before continuing down the hill to a wedding reception for another funny man. A coincidence. There are comedians everywhere. Mac, who moved to San Francisco in 1996, earns his keep by doing stand-up, and only recently got the idea to lead tours in the daytime hours. His love of the city's history is conspicuous.

"The Big Four were railroad barons: Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins," he explains under the flickering flags that hang outside the Fairmont Hotel to commemorate the signing of the first charter for the United Nations. "They all built beautiful mansions up here."

"What happened on April 17, 1906?" Mac asks the group. When someone ventures a wrong answer, Mac has them draw a "misfortune cookie" from a small Chinese food takeout container.

"Nothing happened on April 17, 1906," says Mac, "but on the following day the great fire of 1906 swept through the city, and none of the mansions survived. Sixty percent of the city was left homeless." He shows us a picture of the devastation. "The flames were so high, it was said people in Oakland could read by their light, which is funny since no one in Oakland can read now."

The group member's misfortune reads: "Go where your talents guide you and take a shovel."

Outside the Flood Mansion, Mac stops us to admire the surrounding brass fence and gate. Elegant lion heads roar beneath a patina of moss green, the evidence of time and weather. "When Flood was alive he paid one man $30,000 a year to keep the fences polished. That would be the equivalent of $600,000 today. Flood was one of the Little Four, who made their money from silver during the rush of 1859."

Grace Cathedral is the third-largest Episcopalian church in the country, which, says Mac, doesn't mean a lot to him but probably means a lot to the fourth-largest Episcopalian church in the country. And who recently got married there? A) Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, B) Courteney Cox and David Arquette, or C) Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry. The answer: Who cares?

On our way downtown, Mac offers more tidbits. "There were six large fires between 1849 and 1851. Most were caused by arson by a gang of Australians called the Sydney Ducks, who discovered that by setting fire to one part of town, they could loot another. California was not a state at that time. There was no official fire department. At one point, it was law for every household to keep six buckets of water on hand." We pass the towering retaining wall of the Stanford Mansion, built so well by Chinese labor that it survived the 1906 earthquake and fire and proved impossible to demolish.

"In 1873, Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car. Not surprisingly, Hallidie was already in the business of making wire cable. ... I've heard that children used to shove wire hangers in between the tracks to hook onto the cable and get pulled up the hill on their roller skates. Haven't seen it myself, but I'd like to."

Two cable cars mount the crest of Powell and California with the Transamerica Pyramid and the bay glistening in the background. Union Square is one of the three busiest shopping districts in the country, Mac tells us. A young tent maker named Levi Strauss came to San Francisco with canvas and saw the need for sturdy pants for the gold miners. In the early days, there were additional copper rivets on the back of the waistband, but they scratched church pews, and the rivet in the crotch heated up uncomfortably when folks crouched near open fires.

The gates at either end of Maiden Lane were placed there to alert women of virtue that they were entering one of the most depraved red-light districts in the world. Whoring, gambling, and drugging were taken to new heights in this Gold Rush town, where men outnumbered women 300 to 1 and there was no police force to speak of. Similarly, the lack of families, and thus the lack of home kitchens, gave rise to countless hotels, restaurants, and bars (as many as one bar for every 96 residents).

Down Spofford, the clatter of tiles from a dozen mah-jongg games bounces against tiny back-alley storefronts filled with herbs and red tissue paper. Doors slam shut as we pass. It's vaguely exciting. We shuffle into an open door harboring half a dozen tiny, strange birds in bamboo cages, then quickly pour out again toward Ross Alley. In the small, cluttered, one-room confines of the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, we are witness to the ancient Chinese secret of fortune cookie rolling, a tradition started in San Francisco by a Japanese-American named Makota Hagiwara.

"This is the community with the second-largest population density in the country -- 160 people per acre," says Mac. "If the rest of the city were so populated, there would be 9 million people here. Thirty-five percent of San Francisco is Asian."

A few left turns later, we are in North Beach, home to the beatniks and the birthplace of both topless and bottomless dancing. We stand on Grant, facing Italian flags painted on lampposts on one side of Columbus Street and Chinese lanterns hanging on the other.

"Cultural diversity is one of the greatest things about San Francisco," says Mac. You can tell from his voice that Mac believes it, in spite of his grumbling about encroaching dot-commies, and, for a moment, you can almost forget that the once-notorious flesh palace of Carol Doda's Condor is now a sports bar.

About The Author

Silke Tudor

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