Cone-traversy on 24th Street

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Louis-Philibert Debucourt’s “Frascati” (1807) shows a scene from the Parisian glacerie.

The St. Francis Fountain, as we all know, has been operating on 24th street in San Francisco’s Mission District for a very long time.  The self-described “old-fashioned confectionery” says it opened in 1918, and claims to be the oldest operating ice cream counter the City.  Its longstanding 1940′s interior was renovated about ten years ago: a Formica soda-bar with red vinyl upholstered swivel stools, period clocks and neon, banquettes, a burgers-and-shakes menu, and a stern attitude about the proper use of an ice cream cone.

Last weekend I went to the St. Francis with a friend and visitor to the City who, to protect from scandal, we will call “V”;  She is a petit, attractive woman of means, known in some quarters of the sports world.  We were accompanied by a gay couple (“D” and “L”, if you must know), and their two-year-old son to whom we will to not even pseudonymously refer due to his age and the delicate situation I will now describe.

We seated ourselves, all in a row, at the long Formica counter, manned (and yes, it was an all-male staff save one rather bewildered-looking lady scooper) by smartly-dressed young hipsters clothed in the lean styles and mustaches the 1960s.  I ordered a single scoop of Mitchell’s coconut ice cream in a cup.  V. asked for a small vanilla cone.  The lady-scooper, new-on-the-job, took our orders. D., and L. were served in turn, followed by their young son, who (fortunately, as you will note) opted for a dish rather than a cone.

Food can be taken quite seriously in San Francisco.  The manager of the St. Francis rushed from the kitchen to confront V.  You could hear him struggle to remain civil as he spoke.  “Cones are not served at the counter.”  He cast an accusing look at the lady scooper (who had actually prepared the cone), and then at V. for entrapping the staff. “The cone,” he recited, in a tone one might reserve for the Book of Matthew, “is by tradition a carrying device for take-out ice-cream.” We were invited to consider these also-unthinkable analogies: “serving hamburgers at the tables in paper bags”, “sodas in to-go cups”, “a waiter bringing ketchup packets.”

Our lady scooper had slunk away by now (no doubt to face more dire analogies later).  The manager approached us, arms extended, in an apparent attempt to gain control of the cone.   V. was unswayed: “I can have the scoop in a bowl, with the cone on top. Like a hat.”  As she spoke, she moved the cone close to her chest, then motioned — perhaps, batted — the manager away. She fixed her gaze on him. “I like the cone,” she said.  There would be no more discussion.

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The St. Francis Fountain on 24th Street in San Francisco

And so the bowl came, amid grumbled disclaimers from the manager.  In went the ice cream cone, inverted, and so, partially defused.  “This is a one-time event!” muttered the manager.  He had lost control of the shop(pe), and he knew it.  Helpness now, he addressed the female staffer:  “If the owner were here, he would say the very same thing.”

V., victorious, possessing both cone and bowl, surveyed the crowd.  But her fellow diners seemed to side with the manager.  There were murmurs and mutual glances among the crowd.  V. turned her back on them, picked up the spoon, and ate.

The St. Francis Fountain’s stock is in it’s purity of tradition.  It’s a play that often employs a heavy dose of kitch.  Schtick, even.  The old-time appeal is an unsubtle respite from food innovation, and its relentless stress of choice.

Just one block away, a competing ice cream shop trades in exotic futures.  The transgressive mecca for foodies is called Humphrey-Slocum, after the main characters in 1980′s BBC television series “Are You Being Served?”.  The counter looks like that of a dry cleaner, as it may well have been recently.  From a barren mini-storefront they serves up flavors like FlufferNutter, Thai chili lIme, “Jesus Juice,” and, of course, several combinations of bacon.  Each weeks’ flavors shock anew on Twitter, Facebook, and, as we are in San Francisco, Google Plus.  The food press lights up with regular commentary and adoration.

It’s a stand-off on 24th Street.  The Saint Francis staring down Slocum’s “ice cream with attitude.”  Simple chocolate and strawberry against “Skull splitter,” “Pink grapefruit tarragon,” and “Strawberry Candied Jalapeño”.  The scooper is, say, a pink-haired man who favors Comme Des Garçons.  Because it is an affront to transgressivism, “vanilla” at Humphey-Slocum is spelled as the neologized obscenity “v*nill@” so it can appear on the menu.

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Detail from “Frascati”

The prevailing factors for our recent choice of The St. Francis were ambiance and — literally and figuratively — vanilla.  Being told what we can and can’t do there achieved its goal, to underscore the traditional authenticity of the experience.

But inappropriateness of a sit-down cone appears to be the flip side of Humphrey-Slocum’s drag show.   The very first ice cream cones evolved in France from flat wafer-like waffles, similar to the modern Italian pizzelle, that were eventually side-rolled into a “cornucopia” to contain both savory and sweet foods.   Food historians Robert J. Weir and (wife) Caroline Liddell, who have written several books around the history of ice cream, have produced the earliest documented use of the ice cream cone: circa 1807 at a fashionable café in Paris, back when Napoleon I was king of France.  In the print the couple uncovered, a elegant woman  (who looks rather similar to V.) is shown seated at a table licking an ice cream cone.   There is no bowl or spoon in sight.

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The Caliphate of Méxifornia

The name — to echo our politicians for a moment — of the Great State of California was invented in the early 1500′s by a Spanish author named García Ordóñez de Montalvo.  This fictional California was an island off the coast of Asia; the setting for his popular “gentlemen’s novel” Las Sergas de Esplandián (pub. 1510).  As in modern-day rap videos, Montalvo’s California was populated exclusively by nubile black women possessed of “beautiful and robust bodies” who wield lots of gold weapons and accessories.  It’s name combined the exotic concept of a middle eastern caliphate (خلافة) with, rather unsubtly, sexual gratification (-fornia).  “En toda la isla,” he wrote, “no había otro metal que el oro!” (“On all the island there was no other metal than gold!”).

The Island of California (1638)

The Island of California (1638)

It was such fabulous rumors of gold — and of similarly inclined women — that drove Spanish explorers Hernán Cortés and Francisco de Ulloa to sail the western edge of the American continent in 1530.  The Viceroyalty of New Spain planned to find (and loot) what it hoped would be the Seven Cities of Cibola. In a PR move equal to modern venture capital, the Viceroyalty optimistically named the land it found after the island in Montalvo’s then-familiar book. California, now our “Golden State,” is the only US state whose name derives from fiction.

And so it began: California as the provider of fables and fictions for the Western world.  Westward migrations came in waves: gold rushes, a great drought, and so many individual dreams.  Each changed the complexion of the state.  Through it all, the usual folks managed to hold power, and Hollywood told their stories.  Those tales rendered each decade mostly in white, and always in English.  But California’s future, like the fantasy that gave it birth, promises, finally, to be a fabulous tale told in Spanish.

Today, on the streets of the Mission District in San Francisco (the epicenter, if you will, of America’s food culture, and an export factory for hipster trends), the State name has evolved.  Various neologisms, each rich with meaning, and with factional adherents, challenge the past and predict the future of the state: “Mexifornia”, “Calexico”, “Amexica”, and, above all, a celebrated new meta-region emblazoned on t-shirts, graffiti-muraled walls, and flung, often, like a challenge: “Califaztlán.”

Califaztlán is a portmanteau in the literal sense, packed with meanings and syllables.  The idea is that a pre-Colombian Aztec(ish) empire had encompassed what is now California, Arizona, Texas, and México.  Tlán is the Aztec-language word for “place of,” and the usual suffix of Aztec city names.  “Califaztlán” packs in the idea that present-day northward migration of Mexican culture, itself a mix of the Spanish and pre-Columbian, is accomplishing a re-colonization the United States.

califaztlanThe far — and it has been alleged, race-baiting — political right originally came up with the words “Mexifornia” and “Amexica” in an attempt to entrance listeners, in the way Nancy Grace might with stories of an innocent girl’s kidnap and murder.  But Californians have made carne asada out of red talk-radio meat, embracing the x-words and featuring them on menus, clothing, cocktails, and in everyday conversation.  (As earlier gay activists did to defuse terms like “queer”)  The newfound banality of, say, “Mexifornia,” is encouraging the more fabulous constructions like Califaztlán and the handier “Aztlán” — both too high-concept a mouthful to rile the God-and-guns set.  So right-wing pundits have fallen back, of late, to another odd-sounding name that also packages immediacy, geography, and listener-fear in a few neat syllables:  NAFTA.

It is this inexorability of free movement that scares (or delights).  Imbalances no longer hold up the way they used to.  The mechanisms of information have become too accessible, fluid, transparent.  And so into the controlled vacuum of the North, a delicious chaos rushes in.  The social internet reveals much, and informs the otherwise excluded.  It offers alternatives to the tropes that have flowed from media formula-factories.  Real people appear on YouTube and Facebook, living real lives.  They now appear on the other and long-curated screens:  coupled, well-adjusted gays; unaccented latinos; blacks that do not so oddly live in Brooklyn Heights or Bel-Air.  (And, the downside: exploitative scripted-”reality” shows that conflate new transparency and old stereotypes.)

106555101_route-66-authentic-sign--mexifornia-us-1-18-gauge-steel-The fact is that the energy of California that is now, to be charitable to its traditional custodians, at least bi-lingual, radiates in every color.  The transparency we have achieved (technologically, socially) has made that impossible to hide, and so, difficult to misrepresent.  The team that won this years World Series is as much Los Gigantes as The San Francisco Giants, Los Niners (as they are known here) seem poised to win the nation’s Super Bowl.  The state’s nearly $2 trillion annual economy accounts for about 13 percent of US the economic activity.  And 75% of California’s infants are non-white.

As anyone with a catalytic converter might realize, there is, by now, some acknowledgement that what happens in California is inevitable for the rest of the nation.  And so we see the national rush to include those who, in California, are already included.  The elite who plan to thrive in the new United States are leading the charge.  In other groups, we see the resolve to entrench, to resist: the ex-New Yorker McMansion retirement communities of Arizona; the patrician networks of Boston; Wall Street; those for whom aspirational and racial are linked.  There is, of course, no future in such isolationism.  But these groups don’t care.  They hope to preserve wealth and privilege for their expected life, and they underestimate the speed of change.

In the meantime, the West roars ahead with advances in culture, technology, automotives, music, medicine, politics, film, cuisine, and, above all, social structure.  The Califaztlán, if you will, of the future is not multicultural — that old saw of a term that meant static groups co-existing in harmony — but rather a single fast-moving culture-liquid into which various traditions flow.  African-American Oaklanders may not speak Spanish (yet), but they unconsciously roll the ‘r’ in taquería as, well, everyone will.  Asian mayors have become common.  Gay shibboleths are out of closet and on late-night comedy shows.

The fluidity of this cultural recombination amounts to real intellectual capital, and it contributes the the quirky innovations that characterize the west coast: internet startups, self-driving electric cars, a dazzling culinary scene.

The traditional economy used to be dictated by financial capital.  It took lots of money to get a random idea built into a product/service/movie, and then lots more marketing money to bombard people with ads to get them to buy the often lousy result.  (This is the system that gave us the processed food of the 1990s, AOL, and Donald Trump.)

LouDobbsFinancial centers in New York and Boston pushed this scheme to ever more exotic abstractions, products became utterly divorced from utility, until finally, the finance system itself imploded in 2008.  Today, product launches are modest, sales and social media say yay-or-nay, and failures are caught early.  The West Coast is used to this model — they’ve been producing software for decades.  And people here are poised to create products and set the trends for a changing American demographic.  They are living in the place where demography already changed.  Ideas spring from a culture with less bias and more meritocracy.  Yes, some initial money is necessary, so crowdsourced alternatives like Kickstarter are steping in, kicking the traditional moneymen out of the innovation temple.

For all the marvelous glitter of the West, much of it also turns out to be gold.  There is an energy and and magic to life out here, as perhaps there always has been.  It seems obvious, as it did to Cortés and Ulloa, that the future, the treasure, and the best of life will be here — whatever you call the land.  And it is, at last, spreading East.

Open your Golden Gate

It is about 8am on a bright Tuesday morning, April 18th, 2006, and I am on my way to work on San Francisco’s F line streetcar, a restored wooden-bodied affair that originally served Milan in the 1930s. The train has stopped at 5th and Market, and the conductor has turned off the power and gotten out of his seat. When conductors in San Francisco do this, especially on one of the beautifully-restored but mechanically-problematic streetcars, it means a long delay — riders will mutter annoyances and file out the doors. On this car the exits are of course marked withonly the originalsigns: “Uscita”.

But today everyone remains seated, and silent. That’s because today is April 18th. The driver is talking to us. “Ladies and Gentlemen, one hundred years ago today, the Great Earthquake reduced Market Street to rubble, and fire destroyed most of the City of San Francisco.” He paused for a moment. “Here, at 5th and Market, many people died by fire at the Windsor Hotel.”

At the back of the train, a drag queen, who I only now noticed, stood up and began to sing:

It only takes a tiny corner of
This great big world to make the place we love …

Quicker than you would think, the rest of the streetcar, mostly in business clothes, seated, shyly smiling to one another, joins in. Everyone knows the words:

My home upon the hill, I find I love you still,
I’ve been away, but now I’m back to tell you,

San Francisco, open your Golden Gate
You’ll let nobody wait outside your door
San Francisco, here is your wanderin’ one
Saying I’ll wander no more.

Other places only make me love you best
Tell me you’re the one in all the golden west
San Francisco, I’m coming home again
Never to roam again…

San Francisco, right when I arrive
I really come alive…
And you will laugh to see me,
Perpendicular, hanging on a cable car

San Francisco, let me beat my feet
Up and down Market Street
I’m gonna climb Nob Hill, just to watch it get dark
From The Top of the Mark

There’s Brooklyn Bridge, London Bridge,
And the Bridge of San Louis Rey
But the only bridge, that’s a real gone bridge,
Is the bridge accross the bay

San Francisco, I’m coming home again,
Never to roam again, by gum
San Francisco, I don’t mean Frisco
San Francisco, here I come!

By the end of the song, a full chorus.
And the streetcar is on its way.