Sam McManis

Discoveries: Brisbane an unexpected delight

In this job, I’m supposed to discover stuff. It’s right there in the column heading, after all. But let’s be real: Most of the things I breathlessly pass along each week existed long before I came along, like some modern Christopher Columbus, to “discover” them. But, hey, these subjects are new to me, right?

Rare are the times I actually stumble upon something I had not set out to visit, something unexpected that captured my attention and spurred me to slam on the brake pedal and pull over.

Today, I’d like to tell you about one such find. Nothing extraordinary about it, nothing Let’s-Pack-Up-The-Kids-And-Visit-Now special, but maybe it will bring a smile to your face as it did to my terminally jaded visage.

I made a wrong turn somewhere between South San Francisco and Daly City one morning and wound up in a place called Brisbane.

It’s a tiny burg (pop., 4,394), all of 3.46 square miles in northern San Mateo County, sandwiched between San Bruno Mountain and Candlestick Park. Not many people make a conscious effort to visit Brisbane, it seems, and the number that do is sure to dwindle on fall weekends now that The ’Stick is slated be reduced to The Rubble.

Call me an old softie, but what really got to me was the town’s fire hydrants. I kid you not. I was trying to find my way back to the freeway and, as I crossed the intersection of Visitacion Avenue and Mariposa Street, I looked to my right and saw about a dozen fire hydrants carefully placed on a tree-shrouded corner lot.

The damnedest thing was, they were painted like people or objets d’art, multihued plugs of cast iron completely anthropomorphized as cute little sailors, Indians, a Girl Scout, a pirate, a milk maid and mustachioed gentleman. A bronzed plaque embedded in a stone, declaring the spot a “Plug Preserve” and dedicating it to the local women’s club, only heightened my interest.

My journalistic instincts led me to the business on Visitacion closest to the plugs – Julie’s Brisbane Liquor & Deli. Julie was too busy slicing luncheon meat to answer my question, so clerk Delanie Banta was enlisted.

“The MOB started it, I think, or maybe they just keep it going,” Banta said. “That’s the Mothers of Brisbane. They’re really cool. They do a lot of stuff for the kids. But I couldn’t tell you how it got started. But it’s cool.”

Further sleuthing led me to the city’s website and a PDF of a book, “Brisbane: City of Stars,” charting the city’s 53-year history, its struggle for independence from the hegemony of the county, its civil wars about development and garbage rates and environmental regulation. That’s all fascinating, but what about the fire hydrants?

There it is, documented on Page 87. The book, written by a collaborative called the Oral History Association, stated that the Brisbane Federated Women’s Club – an organization much more venerable than the MOB – sought to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial in that great American tradition of ... painting the city’s fire plugs. They had to twist the arm of the then-fire chief, Dutch Moritz, who eventually relented, which enabled crews of Brisbaneans to cover the sidewalks in drop clothes and pass out baby food jars of paint to whoever felt artistically inclined.

“We ... had a roving crew that went around and brought everybody soft drinks,” club member Jeanne Bermen-Hosking is quoted as saying. “And we had a little lunch wagon going around.”

How cute, and quaint. The citizenry cottoned to the plugs so much that, even after the Bicentennial parade, they kept them around. Bermen-Hosking is quoted as saying that the local paper, the Brisbane Bee (no relation), ran a photo of a local dog “looking totally perplexed” at the sight of a hydrant with a face and personality.

“He’s just a very confused dog,” she said. “That’s the greatest picture of the fire plugs there ever was.”

Eventually, though, some of the fire plugs wore out, as fire plugs are wont to do. So, instead of tossing them in the scrap metal heap, the city chose to dedicate some prime real estate downtown to a “Plug Preserve,” sort of a rest home for hydrants put out to pasture. The plaque said it was dedicated in 1992 to Bermen-Hosking and the women’s club for “bringing joy to Brisbane residents.”

The story doesn’t end there, though. I reached out to Cy Bologoff, a four-time city councilman and former mayor, who also served as fire chief from 1977-91. He says city movers-and-shakers made sure new hydrants became canvasses for artistic types.

“Every year, they’d touch ’em up and add new ones,” Bologoff said, “They are in different spots in town. I’ve got two on my block: One’s blue with stars on it; the other I can’t see because the bush is overgrown. They tried initially to have each group in a block to take care of their own hydrants but that doesn’t always work out. So whoever’s available does the work. It makes Brisbane a little different.

“People like it. It takes away the usually boring silver and yellow colors every other city has. This, you really notice. There’s pride in taking care of them.”

Pride runs deep in Brisbane. As Bologoff and the oral history book notes, the city also is a must-stop every Christmas season. That’s when residents living on the east slope of San Bruno Mountain take it upon themselves to put large lit stars on every rooftop, ringing the city in a gauzy glow.

Even without the angelic light, Brisbane is worth a stop, if not for the fire plugs then for the coffee and conversation at Madhouse Coffee, up the hill a ways from downtown, where you can sit on the patio with your dog and gaze upon Candlestick Park (at least until demolition occurs).

Or you can catch some music and down some suds at Club 23, where the likes of Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis once played live and now play on the sound system.

Or belly up at the Brisbane Inn, a dive bar in the best sense of the word.

Bologoff warns you might end up liking the city so much you might move there, because “you couldn’t ask for a better place to live.” Even Banta, who just moved to Brisbane less than two years ago, gushes like a loosened fire hydrant.

“It’s kind of a hidden treasure,” she said. “We’re 10 miles from the City, but at the same time a small town. It’s nice. It’s just so nice.”