SAN FRANCISCO The Golden Gate Bridge and Chinatown aren’t going anywhere, but if you’re looking for the city’s celebrated street performers, they can prove hard to find.
But these buskers – entertainers who pass their hats for tips – are worth tracking down. On a three-day spring weekend, I missed the legendary Bush Man of Fisherman’s Wharf (more on him later), but I did spend quality bizarre-o time enjoying the likes of teen tap dancer/trumpeter MasterBlaster G, Al the Balloon Man, Robot Bob, the Sardine Family Circus and others. And, of course, Kenny the Clown.
Here’s how it works. ...
Forget about Alcatraz, Lombard Street, Coit Tower, etc. Performers go to tourist sites where there’s a steady flow of pedestrians but with a public space large enough to hold an audience. Forget about Chinatown – the streets are too narrow.
Buskers I encountered tended to lived in the Bay area, but not necessarily in the pricey city where they ply their trade. Given their sketchy income, they take the MUNI rail/bus system or BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) trains to their downtown non-desk jobs. If their act includes, say, juggling equipment or prop-filled suitcases, they want a popular spot near a station.
The Embarcadero – the busy, scenic dockside north and northeast of the city’s heart – fits the bill nicely. The commercialized Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are at one end, the Ferry Building is at the other. Strollers throng the pavement and there are rail and bus stops all along the way.
The Ferry Building vibe is less plastic. The structure is historic – it opened in 1898, survived the quakes of 1906 and 1989 and quietly rotted away until the 1990s when it was restored to Victorian prime. The interior is filled with boutiques; the back side is where commuters catch boats that cross the bay to Sausalito, Marin, Oakland and elsewhere.
The expansive Ferry Building pavement facing the Embarcadero is busy with vendors as well as entertainers; the plaza across the street, next to the Hyatt Regency, is well stocked with crafters’ tables and tents.
Another choice but less obvious locale is Hallidie Plaza, south of Union Square at Market, Powell and Fifth streets. The small-ish patch of concrete has mass-transit stops, is a heavily walked commercial area (Bloomingdale’s is across Market); a visitor center is just down the way. The plaza is also at the southern terminus of a cable-car line. If you’re a balloon-bender or boom-box dancer, the site is ideal.
Buskers often move from one location to another – and not just for more lucrative crowd-sourcing:
Police have wide latitude in deciding whom to roust or fine.
That said, Bush Man has unique hassles. He crouches low to the ground along Fisherman’s Wharf, motionless and hidden behind a sheaf of sawed-off eucalyptus branches. He then jumps out to startle unsuspecting passersby.
Some potential customers – as well as wharf merchants – just aren’t amused by his act, and file complaints. Nine years ago, Bush Man stood trial on several misdemeanors.
If nothing else, his acquittal on all charges may answer the old question of how many clowns you can fit into a jury box.
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