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Want To Call It Frisco? Ask The Hells Angels

"Frisco is the upper echelon of thugness.”

So you want to call it Frisco. O.K., sure. You're allowed.

But fly the Frisco colors on your gas tank? Easy, reader. Easy.

That right is reserved by the local chapter of the Hells Angels, who have been calling it Frisco for 60 years and don't tolerate imposters. For as long as upstanding citizens have been heeding Herb Caen's questionable advice to "caress each Spanish syllable" of San Francisco, the Angels have been doing the opposite, eviscerating the city's name and splashing it in red and white on their gear.

"There's two types of people that call it Frisco," said Casey Dempsey, a local motorcycle mechanic who says he obtained special permission to put "Frisco" on the gas tanks of his two bikes. "There's tourists, and Hells Angels."

Dempsey, 35, is a Missouri native who hitchhiked here a decade ago and wound up homeless. He used his skills fixing motorcycles to get back on his feet. He isn't an Angel, but he says he is considered a supporter of the club. He was introduced to this world by Jim Sperow, an important figure in the local motorcycle scene, who is known as Uncle Jimmy.

Dempsey says he repaired and customized an old, beat-up Honda Magna that he got from Uncle Jimmy. He hacked off the back frame, installed a water-cooling system, and drilled holes in the exhaust baffles to give the bike a nice roar.

He also plastered "Frisco," in red and white, on the gas tank. He did so with Uncle Jimmy's blessing.

"Frisco is the upper echelon of thugness," Uncle Jimmy, 53, told us in a phone interview. "It's the street's way of proving who you are."

The nickname Frisco's appeal to motorcycle types is partially due to the simple fact that it's short, and its six large letters easily fit on the back of a leather jacket. According to Wayward Angel, a 2008 memoir by George Wethern, a former vice president of the Hells Angels’ Oakland chapter, "Cities with long names were abbreviated." San Bernardino became Berdoo. San Diego was Dago.

And San Francisco?

"That's a lot to get out in one mouthful," Dempsey said. "Plus, Frisco just sounds cool. It's got a good ring to it."

Hunter S. Thompson, in his book about the Hells Angels, quoted from a 1965 report on the club by the California attorney general. The official document noted that Angels wore a winged skull patch sewn on the back of their jacket, between a "Hells Angels" patch and another patch "bearing the local chapter name, which is usually an abbreviation for the city or locality."

The word has subsequently acquired a certain badass connotation; law enforcement knows how to read between the lines. Dempsey, riding his Frisco bike, has been stopped by San Francisco police, he said.

"They asked me if I'm a Hells Angel. I told them no," he said. "They said, 'Well, you know, it's kind of dangerous to ride around San Francisco with a red and white 'Frisco' on your tank if you're not a Hells Angel.' I said, 'Worry about your own safety, I'll worry about mine.'"

Dempsey's dream is to become an Angel one day. He is tattooed from shoulders to knuckles (with "Cash Only" across his fists) but is saving his back, hoping, if he is ever accepted by the club, to ink a Hells Angels patch there. He says his second bike, a handsome Harley Davidson, was a gift from a friend in his neighborhood. It helps him keep up with others on long rides.

Neither Dempsey nor Uncle Jimmy, who has a shamrock with the "415" area code tattooed on his neck, can really explain why they prefer Frisco. Uncle Jimmy describes it as a term of solidarity, that creates a "tight blood feel" among different neighborhoods. Both are pretty sure, though, that it sounds better than Caen's Spanish syllables.

"We started calling it Frisco to be a more dominating name," Uncle Jimmy said. "We can't say we're from San Francisco. That's a little weak, man."