The pinnacle of popularity comes not with original songs or supporting roles in motion pictures or lavish weekend-long birthday affairs complete with parades, interpretive dancing and fireworks. Indeed, the summit of celebrity is not determined by being photographed more times than Lindsay Lohan entering a courtroom or surviving longer than Jane Fonda and looking just as fit, rising above the fog of advanced years with dignity and poise.
No, the sure sign of fame is having one's image etched on a shot glass. A shot glass with tiny plastic cartoonish human feet. And the feet are wearing flip-flops. And the toenails are painted International Orange.
In essence, it's all about the kitsch.
Such a form of recognition for our elegant Golden Gate Bridge may surely seem the height of tackiness, not to mention being obviously misguided -- after all, wearing flip-flops where the average summer temperature runs about 25 degrees is just wrong. Yet the shot glass stands as a time-honored tribute, putting the bridge in a class with other giants of American tourism and high-volume souvenir sales, such as the Grand Canyon, Route 66, Niagara Falls and the Eiffel Tower (the one in Vegas).
To verify this hypothesis, a photographer and I recently visited Fisherman's Wharf where we performed a highly scientific, thoroughly subjective study -- browsing nearly every souvenir shop and one delicious clam chowder stand -- to find the kookiest, kitschiest bridge items around. And though we've both been to the wharf a million times, we'd never really examined the quantity and alleged quality of GGB memorabilia. Sheer truckloads of stuff, nay, cargo-ship loads, that have probably journeyed from China or Taiwan and sailed under that very bridge in the image that stuff is made. And we're not talking knickknacks in honor of the GGB's 75th birthday this weekend. Rather, these items are available on a regular year-round basis in a daily homage to the celebrity span.
Now, anyone who knows me knows I get a kick out of kitsch. Many are aware of my legendary PEZ candy dispenser collection (126 at last count, including full sets of "Star Trek," "Lord of the Rings" and "Wizard of Oz" characters) that I keep on my desk at work. And if that's not kitsch, I'm a monkey's uncle, and I have no primate nephews that I know of and, well, I'm not a guy.
Yet even I have always marveled at the things people will buy when on vacation. Like those spoon collections with images of the Winchester Mystery House or Hoover Dam or the Wisconsin state seal. Why spoons? Why not forks? Nobody ever uses those spoons. Instead they just sort of have them and hang them on specially-designed spoon-holding racks and they occasionally look at them and wipe off the dust. Kind of like I do with my PEZ, although I don't have a specially designed PEZ-holding rack, and one might be nice.
In terms of GGB trinkets, there are walls upon walls of magnets, and shelves upon shelves of oven mitts, ceramic napkin holders, key rings, tote bags, mini surf boards, purses, small mirrors for purses, music boxes, plastic-coated place mats (4 for $10), golf balls, ashtrays, snow globes, playing cards (for "bridge," no doubt?), and yes, even souvenir spoons.
To be honest, I was hoping for tackier stuff. Something like, say, the image of the GGB on a toilet seat cover that, when the lid is lifted, plays "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." That would have been sweet. Even so, we did find some hilarious items. Here are some standouts:
1. A black velveteen scroll-like wall calendar with the bridge at the top in neon orange and glitter, reminiscent of the world's most-prized and super-classy velvet-based art subject: Elvis.
2. Scale models of the bridge that come in three different colors: a bright gold, a copper color (which looks most like the bridge) and silver. Gold, maybe. But who wants a silver Golden Gate Bridge? That should be shipped off to the Island of Misfit Tchotchkes.
3. Mouse pads with the GGB image and a mouse (the rodent kind).
4. Vinyl pencil holders -- the ones in the shape of an oversized pencil with a zipper top that we had in school when we were kids. I didn't know they still made those. I didn't know kids still used pencils.
5. And, of course, the classic footed shot glasses. Nothing says "I loved visiting the GGB" more than something with plastic feet with which to drink hard alcohol and blot out any memory of the experience.
All this GGB love makes me feel sad for the Bay Bridge. Did you know it's also 75? Its birthday was last November, but the only celebration was a barely publicized Caltrans cake-cutting event on Treasure Island with an exhibit of the new eastern span as it will eventually look when completed in your great-grandchildren's monkey's nephew's lifetimes. In all our recent wharf travels, we did not see a single image of the BB on anything. Not even a shot glass. Poor BB failed the litmus test of fame.
But we'll let that go. It's just, shall we say, water under the bridge.