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Wharf Watch

[whitespace] U.S.S. Pampanito

By Jon Roemer

'I loafe and invite my soul." That's Whitman, folks. Leaves of Grass. An American poet. Writing in simpler, early American times--when the United States of America ruled the seas, as well as the tourist attractions that lined them. Despite the overwhelming tide of Asian and European tourism in our fair city, a uniquely American spirit still informs this increasingly international pastime.

And that goes double when there's a major piece of American artillery on view: the World War II submarine Pampanito, docked permanently, or at least into the foreseeable, revenue-generating future, right here at our own Fisherman's Wharf (Pier 45, right behind Alioto's). Just follow the slow-moving line of shuffling middle-aged men with a glint of testosterone in their eye. Among the many possibilities on the wharf, the Pampanito is the site for some serious, world-class loafing.

For the vast majority of American males, stumbling onto little unexpected treats like the Pampanito beats the pants off of just about any air-conditioned motorcoach activity offered this side of Alcatraz. And nothing, not even a fresh batch of Ginny's Fried Donuts-on-a-Stick, can compare to gazing over a good solid piece of authentic memorabilia from the Big One, the War to End All Wars, Doubleya-Doubleya Two.

The Pampanito ($5, 20 minutes) is also cheaper and faster than a boat ride to the Rock ($11, 150 minutes). Tag along on a quick tour of the Pampanito and take in a bit of American history. Learn about the regimen of the men who once worked in there, the discipline of their military lives together, the smart culinary designs they sampled in the charming little galley, and the very, very, very cramped sleeping quarters--this is every true-blue American boy's dream, the very lifestyle these machines were built to defend and protect.

Outside, on the pier, screw the "Please do not sit on the torpedo" signs. Put your Wal-Mart-sandaled feet up and pop open a cold American brew. You've paid your taxes--most of them, at least--so why not enjoy a second corn dog, comfortably? This is the land of the brave, after all. You're on vacation, and you're reveling in the glory of the last war the U.S. of A. out-and-out won.

But there is another side to all of Pampanito pomp and circumstance: Our beloved has also become a popular destination on the international tour circuit. Which means it is also swarmed by the wharf's many international guests. Which is to say, there are also a number of noncitizen types here. Touring the relics of our once-awesome force. Discussing in strange languages the destruction these dockside warheads once waged upon their ancestors.

And yet if you look around, you might notice that there is an almost universal lack of foreign-language signage at the wharf--including the Pampanito's own informational placards. Not that the bathrooms are difficult to find or the crab stands easy to miss. But a simple gesture, a kind acknowledgment, an easy "Se habla" somewhere couldn't hurt.

Consider the implications of having an international-tourist destination that does not openly welcome its international guests. Somehow the wharf puts everything it's got into being an English-only attraction--perhaps that's all part of the American appeal. Like burger joints, Titanic, Levi's--comforting reminders. Our guns are still bigger than yours. And if you order a corn dog at Fisherman's Wharf, you'd better do it in English.

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From the May 18-31, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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