The storage facility is vast and labyrinthine; it lacks only a minotaur. The odors of mildew and sweaty gym shorts pervade its endless supply of identical corridors; it's just not an entirely fantastic place to be. But what treasures beckon within.
The key slips into the lock with a satisfying click and the accordion door is raised. Decades of newspaper ephemera are now exposed to the elements. What your humble narrator wants is, naturally, at the bottom of it all. Yellowing volumes of the newspaper you're now reading are bound together in hulking compendiums stretching back to the primordial days of the 1980s, when every edition resembled a phone book in both size and layout.
Our object of desire is the specific bound volume compiling editions of our paper from May to August of the year 1996. The boxes containing our back editions, however, have been packed randomly — and then, naturally, stacked high atop one another. Several hours and ibuprofen later, however, the literary crypt surrenders its prize.
It's not exactly the Rosetta Stone, even if it does weigh just about as much. But, like that nifty bit of archaeological plunder, it serves as a translator of sorts. It makes clear how much life has changed in this city within the confines of one generation — down to the words we use and the meanings behind them.
Earlier this month, a strange missive landed in SF Weekly's general inbox. Penned by a New York-based editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, it claimed that a column by Silke Tudor in the Aug. 7, 1996, edition of SF Weekly "appears to contain the earliest known citation for the word 'faux-hawk'. We have attempted to confirm the citation in various libraries, but have not been able to track down the issue in question."
A cycling expedition to the aforementioned repository ensued and the citation was duly unearthed: A girl dressed in a bright red crinoline and combat boots sits sleeping at a table with her head resting on her crossed arms. An outburst of applause wakes her with a start.
"Is it Everclear?" she asks urgently. "Are they next?"
"No, it's just Spacehog," says a frail-looking black-haired moppet with a faux-hawk. "Fucking British shit."
Tudor, who still writes for this paper, laughs at the memory. "That," she recalls all these years later, "was a very strange morning."
If it was strange then, it seems incomprehensible now. Starting at 6 a.m., black-haired moppets with faux-hawks streamed off private buses and into Bimbo's 365 for a predawn rock show featuring the likes of Poe, Goldfinger, and Mellow Gold-era Beck; that and the din of 7 a.m. mosh pits populated by narcoleptic 13-year-olds was broadcast, live, on Live 105.
Tudor quickly disavows coining the term faux-hawk: "I am not that clever." That's patently untrue, but that's also not what the folks at the OED are claiming. Rather, this is the first purported instance of the term finding its way into print; it was evidently already well-known enough in '96 that Tudor didn't need to define it within the original story.
The OED credits William Shakespeare with introducing some 1,600 words into the English language ("pander," "fashionable," and that late-night infomercial standby "bedazzle"). But it's doubtful The Bard coined them on the fly; if so, his plays wouldn't have made much sense to his contemporaries ("Fucking British shit"). And, of course, concepts exist regardless of whether — and when — we choose names for them: A faux-hawk by any other name would look as schmucky.
What's changed in this city since 1996 is the context. Moppets with faux-hawks are still streaming off private buses in San Francisco.
But now they own the place.
Silke Tudor describes herself as "an old punk rocker." Along with Jack Boulware, she penned Gimme Something Better, the definitive history of the Bay Area's punk scene. And so, when she deployed the term "faux-hawk," it was describing more than just a tousled hairstyle.
It was "a lightweight bridge-and-tunnel take on the culture we lived in," she says. "It was so people could pull it off for a night or two without any effort and just a little hairspray and go back to their squeaky-clean lives after that."
This was the mark of interlopers on safari, unwilling to commit to the intractability of a truly alternative lifestyle. It would be akin to a San Francisco poseur of an earlier generation donning a hippie wig on the weekend before showing up clean-cut Monday morning at the ad agency.
Faux-hawk is now a neutral term, but, in Tudor's context, it wasn't. It was about outsiders vs. insiders and alternative vs. mainstream. But, in the ensuing 18 years, those terms have all changed into new and unrecognizable things. The rock 'n' roll lifers who'd sneer at the preening, faux-hawked, bridge-and-tunnel crowd have, in large part, been supplanted by them. The faux-hawked girl who showed up for an early-morning Everclear show, meanwhile, has "set a trend for waves of future hipsters and soccer players the world over," says Tudor with a chuckle. "She should get royalties."
She's also inspired the de facto official hairstyle of today's ascendant Mid-Market techie. People aren't combing their hair into that ridiculous style anymore in a laughable and doomed attempt to pass muster with denizens of an alternative culture. The faux-hawk, and its wearers, has become mainstream.
The Oxford English Dictionary Tudor's father bought her remains one of her most treasured possessions. "It sits on a small table of its own with that glass magnifying dome," she says. "Even though it is ungainly, I use it — not the web — when I'm writing. I like the way it smells. I like the way it feels. I like everything about that book. I'm a little fetishistic about it."
And now it looks like she'll be a part of it. Along with The Bard. Forever.
Our time here is limited. This city continues to transform, its past denizens slink off to parts unknown, and today's breaking news is destined for a cardboard box within a dank depository.
The OED, though — that's special. We are simply passing through history. But this — this is history.