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Pier 45, Shed B

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Pier Review: Even in touristy San Francisco you can still catch a whiff of something authentic at Fisherman's Wharf.

Fisherman's Wharf--where the ocean ends and civilization begins

By Jon Roemer

No one said life in a postcard was supposed to be easy. The charming and infinitely interesting architecture. The delightful corner grocers. The effortless, spotless trains waiting to whisk you off into the effervescent new-media economy. And the people--with close to 600,000 Ethan Hawkes and Cameron Diazes living in San Francisco, it's as if movie stars wandered our streets.

If you've ever had the feeling that everyone with a real job and a real life lives someplace else, you're on the right track. You've begun to crack the code and started to see the flaws, to recognize the gritty real that lies beneath this phantasmic theme ride we call home. It's all part of an elaborate plan, a great big hoax. Through a complex system of hydroponics and secret underground MUNI tunnels, the tourist and visitors bureau keeps the illusion afloat and the dream alive, seamless and wet. And the Wharf, naturally, is ground zero.

And yet. Call me Ismail or call me crazy, but there's a part of the Wharf that has more to do with Moby than it does Mickey. If you hustle, if you know where to go, you can still catch a whiff of something pretty darn authentically real down there. If you know what I mean.

For starters, let's take in a Sunday morning at the Wharf. Before 9:30am, Pier 45, Shed B. The Fishermen's and Seamen's Memorial Chapel. It sounds like it's named after the local union, but this Catholic mass is the real deal. Tucked in behind Alioto's and Fisherman's Grotto No. 9, the chapel has no neon, no blaring recordings of cackling old gold miners. This is where charming architectural design meets practical religious functioning. Boats are blessed. Guidance is received. I'm not sure how many people leave the FSMC walking on water, but the opportunity is always there. Even with God, it's all about location, location, location, and this sanctuary by the sea is reminder enough that, down here, real lives are on the line every day. (Also, the use of flash photography or recording devices is discouraged during services.)

Just beyond the altar, more realness: rows and rows of "fish-buying stations." No pleasant, charmed-up grottos here. Huge blue industrial-plastic vats, now empty, wait dockside for no purpose other than to contain what is elsewhere labeled "fresh." See the waiting conveyer belts of the processing equipment looking as if borrowed from a factory line for cream-filled desserts. Then glimpse some real laborers hosing down everything in sight, because by the time you get there, their day is just about over. While you were thanking your lord for your measly new-media job, real, unionized people were putting in a real day of real union work. And not a single microprocessor in sight. Think about it. With their hands, people.

This is the real Wharf. And the paradoxes roll in steady as the fog. The far end of the very industrial Pier 45 offers up one of the best views around: of the headlands, the bay's islands, that big orange bridge connecting our fair peninsula to that strange land to the north. When the fisheries' machinery falls quiet, it's darn quiet. Exceptionally quiet. The most northern point of the peninsula, the most real point at the Wharf and, most importantly, after a busy day of taking in the sites and smells, the only spot for miles around you can pee freely into the tidewaters.

Pier 45, Shed B. This is where the ocean ends and civilization begins, the code of the sea meets the law of the land, the fish jump headfirst into their nets and the sermons are served up fresh. This is Fisherman's Wharf: possibly the last real place in San Francisco.

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From the May 4-17, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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