Street stars

Streets of San Francisco: Writers, dancers, and other performers do make a living on the sidewalks

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Street writer Lynn Gentry reads a poem he just typed for members of the band Supercute at Haight and Ashbury

rebeccab@sfbg.com

A few crafty, courageous souls have learned to live off of San Francisco's streets, supporting themselves with tips from random strangers at high-traffic destinations.

Fisherman's Wharf is such a popular spot that the Port of San Francisco has a map dividing the sidewalk turf into specified performance locations. Between Piers 39 to 41, crowds may encounter break-dancers, spray-paint artists, musicians, or balloon sculptors. Then there are strutters and statues, clad in head-to-toe silver or gold, dancing to tunes blasting out of boom boxes, or frozen still until a tip lands in their tin.

Across the city, a writer has carved out his own street niche. Lynn Gentry pecks away at his Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, peering through cat-eyed spectacles at the unevenly inked text. A young black poet sporting an inch or two of vertical hair, seated upon a fold-up wooden chair before a makeshift miniature desk, his gig is summed up in a hand-written sign: "Pick a subject and price then get a poem."

Gentry isn't the city's only busker hocking poems off an old-fashioned typewriter, but he is a regular fixture at the famous corner of Haight and Ashbury. Rather than tailoring his work to a specific style, he spins out spontaneous, lightly punctuated poems and prose, emulating the Beats. Tourists stop often and tip generously, but the locals seem to like him too. One has dubbed him "Professor." Another seemed excited to pick up a poem he previously ordered, about Libras.

"I chose the Haight because you've got a lot of different things going on right here," Gentry explains. "The longer you sit here, the more you meet the people who live right here, and who were part of the neighborhood's history." When not writing, he offers tales and odd historic tidbits. He talks about the 1966 Trips Festival, acid tests, the CIA, and the Summer of Love.

A trio of skinny young women approach, dressed as if they have stepped directly out of that era, and request a poem about "Supercute." Turns out, it's their band name.

Gentry first encountered a busking poet when he saw Jacqueline Suskin at the Oregon Country Fair. The son of a poet, he'd written mostly song lyrics before. Now, he says, he's making ends meet with the street gig. The toughest customer request yet? "Ode to a Menstrual Cycle," he admits. "It's the only one that's taken me three tries."

Meanwhile, back at Fisherman's Wharf, a crowd gathers to watch the masked street performer clad in head-to-toe gold. Poised atop a gold milk crate, he shimmies forward, hips swinging, shoulders rolling, and the milk crate shimmies too. He turns a 360-degree spin, and the milk crate spins too. He pauses for a photo with two wide-eyed blond children. Vacationers pause to snap pictures and tip. They might never guess that the man behind the mask is 51 years old.

At Fisherman's Wharf, everybody sitting on the benches nearby seems to know Shaba, a spry black man who introduces himself as Shabadaba the Gold Man. He wears a gold top hat and an enormous gold clock around his neck. He does his street strutting right across the way from the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and says he's been entertaining at Fisherman's Wharf since 1977.

"I even beat the Bush Man out here," he says. (The Bush Man may have the most bizarre self-made gig of all. He conceals himself behind a cluster of bush-like boughs, and then shakes them around, hollering, to scare unsuspecting passersby. It works every time.)

Comments

I hope the city of San Francisco is smart enough to leave the street performers alone. They are just one more thing that separates San Francisco from the other cities in the U.S. and make it a great city. They are as boldly unique as San Francisco itself and have become another reason for tourist to visit San Fran.

Posted by GuestTensiongentry on May. 12, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

The struggle to secure the public’s right to sidewalk civility and safety is an idea whose time has come. These non-taxpaying thugs are taking away money from real businesses and should be arrested for sitting. Come November we will provide the much needed tools to the SFPD to incarcerate these individuals for 30 days and levy large fines on them. We should also ban standing.

Posted by The silent majority on May. 13, 2010 @ 10:40 pm

With all the hot-air David Villa-Lobos and CLA are generating, perhaps we can provide street performers and artists with personal hot-air balloons so they are neither sitting, lying nor standing on our streets but floating above them.

That way another power hungry group of wealthy men can use government to pass laws to further their own business interests!

The system works!

Posted by TheLaw on May. 18, 2010 @ 3:42 pm