For 30 years Gregory Jacobs spent his days at Fisherman’s Wharf hiding behind branches, often up against a trash can, silently waiting for unsuspecting tourists to come by.
When they did, and when they least expected it, he would push those branches towards them, often giving them a little growl. Almost always, without fail, they would jump scream and run.
It is one of those iconic San Francisco experiences. Few people can forget a run-in with the bushman.
But Jacobs hadn’t been in his usual spot lately. He’s been in and out the hospital with heart problems. Last Sunday, his family told KTVU, his heart finally gave out and Jacobs passed away.
The article goes on to note that there are actually two Bushmen so there will still be one at these tourist sites.
Bushman might be considered one of Jane Jacob’s “public characters.” Sociologist Mitchell Duneier discusses this idea in the introduction to his classic ethnography Sidewalk.
Not long after we met, I asked Hakim how he saw his role.
“I’m a public character,” he told me.
“A what?” I asked.
“Have you ever read Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities?” he asked. “You’ll find it in there.”
I considered myself quite familiar with the book, a classic study of modern urban life published in 1961, and grounded in the author’s observations of her own neighborhood, Greenwich Village. But I didn’t recall the discussion of public characters. Nor did I realize that Hakim’s insight would figure in a central way in the manner in which I would come to see the sidewalk life of this neighborhood. When I got home, I looked it up:
The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A public character is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a public character. A public character need have no special talents or wisdom to fulfill his function—although he often does. He just needs to be present, and there need to be enough of his counterparts. His main qualification is that he is public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.
Jacobs had modeled her idea of the public character after the local shopkeepers with whom she and her Greenwich Village neighbors would leave their spare keys. These figures could be counted on to let her know if her children were getting out of hand on the street, or to call the police if a strange-looking person was hanging around for too long: “Storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order,” Jacobs explained. “They hate broken windows and holdups.” She also modeled the public character after persons like herself, who distributed petitions on local political issues to neighborhood stores, spreading local news in the process.
While Bushman didn’t necessarily provide needed services for local residents, being a fixture for so long and interacting with the tourists in a unique way helped make him a feature of Fisherman’s Wharf. I remember seeing him in action multiple times. The first time was surprising and yet it seemed to be the sort of thing that one could only find in a big city: a local man popping out of one of the more natural features along this stretch of the Embarcadero (yes, tearing the Embarcadero Freeway down was helpful but a lot of this road is still fairly ugly) and poking fun at the many tourists who bring lots of money into the city. This is quite different from other odd characters in American cities like the Naked Cowboy in Times Square or the various gold or silver-covered street performers on Michigan Avenue and elsewhere who perform and then ask for money. The key difference is that Bushman had a direct confrontation with tourists who were often quite frightened – until they realized that people were watching them and this was all “normal.”