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!
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."
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?"