At the deft hand of a caricature artist on Fisherman's Wharf, I have become a big giant head.
I am glamorous in all my exaggerated charcoal glory, looking a little like Cheryl Tiegs, but with a formidable Kirk Douglas chin, my massive disembodied cranium floating over a scene of the Golden Gate Bridge. There's a huge smile on my face, hinting at benevolence -- or a sinister plot to ravage the city, a la most summer blockbusters.
Just steps down the Beach Street sidewalk in front of Ghirardelli Square, another artist also swells my noggin to extreme phrenological proportions, but kindly adds arms and an upper torso. She depicts me with far more robust assets than Mother Nature saw fit to provide, and for some unknown reason, I'm holding what appears to be either an ice cream cone or a microphone -- perhaps she sensed my inner trampy lounge singer.
These masterpieces are my treasured souvenirs from a recent fun and kitschy weekend visit to San Francisco with some out-of-town gal pals. Our chief goal was to obtain caricatures from every sidewalk artist we could find, but the trip would also involve chocolate, clam chowder (pronounced chowdah), a Michael Jackson moonwalk-a-like, Elmo, gold street performers, silver street performers, sea lion fisticuffs and the opportunity to eat our combined weight in teddy bear-shaped sourdough bread from Boudin.
See what you're missing, locals, by steering clear of the touristy stuff? I mean, the reason it's touristy stuff in the first place is because it's actually pretty darned fun, in the way that clichés become clichés because they're actually pretty darned true.
Since my buddies and I have no shame, we did not hesitate to tour with a vengeance. No kitsch would be left unmocked. No sight would go unseen.
We began our caricature quest on a chilly but sunny Saturday morning by exploring the wharf's vibrant sidewalk art community. Small easels and umbrellas clustered amid jewelry stands along the Beach Street stretch and on a section of Jefferson Street (the main wharf drag) near Frank's Fisherman nautical antiques store. Apparently, the artists enter a lottery each day to see who gets the prime spots. Some have been working out there for 10 or 15 years.
Each artist boasts a bold offer of "$2.75 a sketch," but that's just for a quick profile. A frontal caricature is usually $5 or $6 -- still, what a deal! -- plus a couple bucks more for color, and so on up to $25 for a nicely done portrait.
Our first stop was at the booth of an artist named Jim, a sweet man with a scruffy beard, glasses and a floppy fishing hat. I opted for the $6 sketch, and Jim sat me down in a camp chair, surrounded by sample portraits of President Barack Obama and Mel Gibson.
I felt a little silly posing in public, not only because I was momentarily the center of Jim's attention as he glanced from me to the paper, but also because I was the subject of hilarity for my snickering "friends" and the occasional passer-by.
Jim sometimes is out there late, he says, depending on customers and weather. He tries to bring out people's good features (instead of making fun of Rudolph noses or taxi-door ears), but some folks aren't happy no matter what. My Cheryl Tiegs/Kirk Douglas picture turned out great, though -- much better than I look in real life. Jim rolled up the paper tenderly, as though it were a precious Dead Sea Scroll, and we moved on to the next artist.
Shelve the selfie
Caricatures should replace the ubiquitous selfies in today's society. They're far more creative and personal. And, really, if you're going for a San Francisco souvenir, a sketch is way better than a shot glass or a sock monkey sporting an "Alcatraz Psych Ward" T-shirt.
Between sketches, we nibbled on samples of dark chocolate-caramel squares at Ghirardelli and sidestepped a pack of fellow tourists struggling to pedal up the Hyde Street hill on bicycles rented from Blazing Saddles. We breathed in the smell of fish, bay water and creosote. Small waves glistened in the sun, and shivers of light danced on the hulls of fishing boats with such names as Angelina and Sea-Esta.
It soon became apparent that the bay side of Jefferson is the more-or-less authentic Fisherman's Wharf, what with all the, well, fishermen. Plus, there's vats of live crab and lobster, vintage restaurants such as Alioto's, nautical shops and the Musée Mécanique at Pier 45, where you can play with antique coin-operated arcade games. We played with the French Execution, watching little mechanical dolls behead another little mechanical doll.
At the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, you can tour historic ships, such as the 1886 square-rigger Balclutha, or visit the Maritime Museum in the supercool Aquatic Park Bathhouse building, a 1939 Art Deco-offshoot style that looks like an ocean liner for landlubbers.
The flip side
Then there's the other side of Jefferson Street -- basically a mall turned inside out with a Sbarro, It'Sugar, Chipotle, an In-N-Out Burger, a giant Applebee's and more. It makes Pier 39 look like a museum of fine art. At least the Hooters is gone.
Speaking of Pier 39, the sea lions are out in force right now, basking in the sun or vying for dock domination. Maybe they need a sea lion lottery to secure their spots.
A few more caricatures later, we finally decided to sit for a group sketch at a booth with images of Albert Einstein and Will Smith on display. This one's run by Louie and his wife, Yvonne, who has an adjacent jewelry stand. For a $12 package deal, Louie spent quite a bit of time on each one of us. We could see the progress reflected in his mirrored sunglasses. Despite his care, we all came out looking pretty much the same -- kind of an all-blonde version of Charlie's Angels, even though two in our group are brunettes and one is half-Japanese. But we'll treasure this sketch. We took selfies of us getting our caricature "selfies."
Louie gently rolled up the picture, and we went home with an armful of sacred scrolls. And a teddy bear bread loaf.
Follow Angela Hill at Twitter.com/GiveEmHill.
FISHERMAN'S WHARF FUN
There's plenty to see along the wharf, but don't miss these sights: