Care for sweet tunes on an old muffler? Try the urban county fair

Urban county fair.

The city that mellowspoke its way through the '70s, has just coined an oxymoron for the '80s. And it had the chutzpah to hire a brass band and parade it into the English language.

San Francisco's first annual urban county fair, a cosmopolitan response to those rural rites celebrating home on the grange, was recently inaugurated at the new Moscone Convention Center. Blue ribbons were pinned on the city's best sour dough bread, the best salsa caliente, and the downtown waiter who clocked the fastest time, sprinting 200 feet while palming a tray of filled glasses.

Flicka McGurrin's pasta sauce won first prize, Pearl Isenberg's chopped chicken liver took second, and Perfecto Cahilig's 1978 gold Lincoln Continental was named the fair's sleakest lowrider. Hokum W. Jeebs stole the show in the ''unusual talent hunt'' with his foggy rendition of ''I Left My Heart in San Francisco,'' bugled on an old DeSoto muffler. All in all, the city hadn't seen such jubilant reveling since the 49ers won the Super Bowl.

Strictly speaking, this urban county fair was an agricultural fair. After Proposition 13 nipped California in the budget, Ray Taliaferro, then-president of the San Francisco City and County Art Commission, lobbied the Legislature to pick up the slack in arts funding. In 1979, Willie Brown, Speaker of the Assembly, had San Francisco declared the state's Fifth Agricultural District, making it eligible for the $85,000 allotted annually for county fairs in each of the state's 54 agricultural districts.

If you came expecting cotton candy, Ferris wheels, and prize (''Come-see-10, 000-hamburgers-on-the-hoof'') heifers, you were in the wrong place. Instead of tractors and combines, exhibitors showed oriental rugs, 14-karat gold napkin rings, rock 'n' roll T-shirts, and pine coffins. The 200 booths mirrored the city's diversity and idiosyncracies from haute cuisine to corner meat markets, opera to street music, longshoremen to palm readers. There were booths to please palate and politics. Juxtaposed with The Hunger Project were mountains of sugar cookies and panettone from the Cuneo Italian Bakery. A stone's throw from the antinuclear Abalone Alliance were oysters on the half-shell.

At a traditional county fair, gradeschoolers would toss bamboo rings over stuffed animals and knock down metal milk bottles with softballs. Here they played Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Space Invaders on a futuristic video midway that looked like an Atari showroom.

''In the contests we wanted something as traditional as pie eating and ice cream scooping together with competitions that reflected downtown,'' said Merle Goldstone, a professional juggler and carpenter's apprentice, who coordinated the fair's 34 contests. As she spoke, another financial district messenger pedaled his balloon-tire bike through the race course maze on Howard Street. ''This is what I call city sports,'' she says. ''Next year we're going to have a cow-milking contest and get the mayor to enter.''

Marcelee Cashmere's sweet potatoe pie and peach cobbler each won a second-place red ribbon. So the great grandmother, who learned to cook when she worked for the Houston city jail, felt qualified to put this county fair in perspective: ''Louisiana's fairs back in the '30s served meat pies and jelly cakes which didn't cost near what the fancy food here goes for. But I've got to keep reminding myself that even chitlins now cost $1.25 a pound. They used to be given away for free.''

If the urban county fair served one purpose, said Edith Jenkins, who chaired the Fair Board, it dispelled the laid-back, lotus-eater image of northern California. ''Easterners think we're the land of hot tubs and grown-up hippies. But you won't see any hot tubs here!''

The fair also tipped its hat to the lonely hearts of the city and offered a $ 150 candlelit dinner for two at the Carnelian Room for the ''best come-on'' to woo an unsuspecting Lancelot or Guinevere waiting in line at a bus stop or laundromat. Robert Becker, a portly young fellow who swept the competition, proved once again that money talks. Carrying a dog leash on stage in front of the judges' panel, he tapped his imaginary heart-throb on the shoulder and asked: ''Excuse me, would you help look for my puppy? He jumped out of my Porsche and the mansion won't be the same without him.''

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