EMAIL FROM SAN FRANCISCO
You know you are in a different city when you see a car with a pink moustache and maybe bump into Topless Travis.
Okay, your chances of meeting Travis are not high if you're here for the America's Cup; he hangs out somewhere in Haight-Ashbury, the former hippie-dippie area of San Francisco when flower power was at its height in the 60s and 70s. But the fact that he is showcased in the local newspaper is a hint that San Francisco, well, Beijing it ain't.
Travis Sigley, 25, decided his thing would be not to wear a thing on top. He goes shirtless most days - how he gets on in San Francisco's less than stellar climate is not clear - but he goes to the supermarket topless and just about everywhere else. He does carry a shirt in a bum bag for going into a bank or other places where the pursuit of individualism extends to printing your name on your sandwich bag in the office fridge.
"I didn't expect it to ever be part of my persona," Sigley said. "Six years ago I woke up in Santa Cruz. ... I had whole lot of nothing going on, so I thought, 'Why am I getting dressed for this?' So I changed and put on my pyjamas and thought, 'Today is going to be a day of comfort.' " He has been topless most days since.
Travis was featured in a recent edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, in a column entitled The City Exposed, a celebration of what makes the US's most famously liberal city so different. He runs a cuddle therapy business; bimonthly workshops for groups looking to learn about the benefits of nonsexual, non-threatening human touch. He also runs a massage therapy business, hosts traditional Japanese tea parties and once was a go-go dancer in the local club scene. All this is trotted out without comment.
As is the occasional unexpected brush with naked men in Castro, the city's gay area. My wife and her boss experienced two men arm in arm and entirely unclothed on a recent visit here, possibly protesting at a city ordinance that people shall not go around naked by going round naked. No one seems to mind and the police obviously have better things to do.
The cars with the pink moustaches, called 'cartaches' , are not - as I first thought - a gay icon celebrating the recent US Supreme Court decision to allow gay marriages (pause for smug recollection that little old New Zealand did this in April, the US only three weeks ago).
They are privately-owned cars driven by ordinary Joe and Jane Bloggses who act as taxi drivers for an app called Lyft. It is a commercial operation but founded on a very community basis - many San Franciscans are frustrated at the age-old problem of never being able to get a cab when you want one (ie, when it rains, Saturday night or when too much booze has been taken after work). And that's in a city where the public transport is so much better than Auckland...
Here's how it works: sign up for Lyft by creating a profile with user name, photo and credit card, then add the app on your smart phone. Request a car from the app and it sends one. The driver's name and photo and rating (made by other users) are visible on the app. When you are dropped off, you are sent a message with the suggested donation for the ride. It is up to the passenger how much they pay - in San Francisco the average is about US$10.
Pretty cool, huh? It works for the drivers because they get some money coming in on a depreciating asset (their car) and many are also doing it as a community service. There are many reports of the friendliness of the service, citizens being driven by conversational peers instead of sullen taxi drivers. One passenger was charmed to be picked up by a young university student earning extra money to put herself through college. A young female taxi driver? Whatever next...
Still, this is the US and you do wonder when the first Lyft murder might occur. However, San Francisco has a strong community bond and its ability to celebrate differences, rather than hide them or chide them, bodes well.
Paul Lewis, Herald on Sunday sports editor