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Wharf Watch

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What's the Attraction?

By Jon Roemer

The Wharf. The one strip of mom-and-pop T-shirt shops and discount electronics stores that has every tourist bureau in the land bowing low before it. It's the third-most-visited tourist destination in the U.S., drawing 10 million visitors every year. And it does this all almost despite itself. A veritable Mystery Spot of economics we've got down there, folks.

And what destinations stand between us and No. 1 among America's most-wanted? A big chunk of dried-up swampland and a couple square miles of presuburban squalor--both parcels just happen to be owned and operated by Disney Inc. Which makes a lot of sense. A lot of good people work all day long to make "The Happiest Place on Earth" pretty damn happy. Some world-class corporate muscle pulls us inside those never-never-land gates, the whole ABC/Cap Cities thing going and an entire broadcast network under their corporate thumb, one of the major stories of the late-capitalist era, really. And what have we got? The answer, my friends, is Don Johnson in Nash Bridges.

And there is no unifying corporate mission down there. Nobody's controlling the collective marketing interests, nobody tying in movie distribution deals and Saturday morning cartoon syndications. Even The Rock, yet another nadir of Hollywood cinema that still managed to attain blockbuster status, came and went without help or impediment from Fisherman's Wharf. The good folks down at the Wharf had next to nothing to do with it.

Furthermore, a huge chunk of the Wharf's waterfront is just wide-open asphalt (free parking, with validation). In fact, the water itself is a little difficult to get to, with almost no natural shoreline or historical renovation attempted. Actual commercial fishing activity is a little difficult to find, pushed back behind Alioto's and Cresci Bros. And even the sea lions show up here season after season without planning and without much explanation. Hundreds of cash-carrying humans flock to engage in beastly staring contests every day, but there's almost zippo accommodation made for one of the most universal and, one has to admit, redeeming attractions at the Wharf.

Hello. Ten million people? That's more than made the pilgrimage to Mecca this year. Ten million people, and all we can think to offer them is some chowder in a crusty bread bowl. Somehow the Wharf has elevated this to the Holy Grail for millions of visitors. Granted, it's just chowder; it's a little difficult to screw up and therefore a wise food option to commit to.

One of the world's most popular tourist destinations? Or a freak of nature? You decide. We're talking about some pretty cheap chowder, an asphalt waterfront, the stench and noise of a dozen sea lions and an unspeakable repetition of T-shirt designs. Should all this add up to something on the scale of La Giaconda, Mickey Mouse, the great pyramids of Egypt or the swinging baskets of Babylon?

However, down at the Wharf, there is one T-shirt that I would rank as the Eighth Wonder of the World, at least. I have lived in San Francisco for more than seven years, and that same T-shirt with the same blurry print "Too Much Sex Makes Your Eyes Go Fuzzy" is still there, still wielding its magnetic powers, still the source of much personal bewilderment. And yet there's a timeless wit there. A universal appeal. A T-shirt that makes you think.

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From the June 15-28, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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