Ideas and Observations

Roger Starr
San Francisco's Citizen Caen
Summer 1994

There are at least two cities called San Francisco. One is a seaport on the California coast, separated from the Pacific Ocean by a narrow opening called the Golden Gate, with a population of about one million people and a climate that led Mark Twain to remark that the coldest winter he ever experienced was August in San Francisco.

Another place with the same name exists in the eyes and heart of a newspaper columnist named Herbert Caen, who has been writing for the San Francisco Chronicle for the past 48 years. The city Caen creates for his readers has the same topography as the seaport: hills tumbling down to perhaps the most fascinating city-and-country bay on the continent; the same climate; and grossly the same history. But it is not quite the same city. True, it is a seat of commerce, a stage of cultures, a garden of races and languages, a hub of transportation, a nexus of those formal relations we call government, and a showcase of architectural and vehicular variety. Beyond all these, however, it is an object of love as no other city is for any other writer in quite the same way.

New Yorkers like me have to turn to the published collections of Caen’s columns, and so our response to the Caen San Francisco is somewhat more detached than that of daily readers. Some thirty years ago, a friend of mine moved from New York to San Francisco’s environs. She soon let me know that she was as much enraptured by Herb Caen’s daily column as by the Golden Gate and its spectacular bridge. When I asked her why she likes Caen so much, she answered: “’Like’ isn’t the word. He’s a necessity. I would say an addiction....You share his comments with a friend who, of course, remembers them, too. Someone who didn’t appreciate Herb Caen wouldn’t be a friend.”

In great part, Caen’s columns represent his efforts to explain, to himself as well as to his readers, what the essence is that ties him to the city. Is it the city’s beauty? The sharpness of its contrasts? The special character of its climate? In one of his columns he describes the way a San Francisco fog surges in from the sea and mocks poets like Carl Sandburg who, having never seen the rough reality of the coastal winds, describe fogs as feline and soft-footed. Again and again over the years, Caen has been drawn to San Francisco’s past—the gaudy, bawdy saloons with their gambling tables and upstairs private rooms, the fancy women, the bold men who did not feel they had to hide their indiscretions. Yet it is not only this golden-tinged past that claims Caen’s heart; it is equally his fear of a homogenized future ruled by developers who would encase the city he loves in a topographical and architectural straitjacket. “The only thing special about San Francisco in their eyes,” he writes, “is that it has too many hills that should be leveled and crowned with boxes as soon as possible, and if they could find a way to fill in the bay and cover it with shopping centers, they would. And probably will.”

This is one of many similar passages in San Francisco—City on Golden Hills, magnificently illustrated with wash drawings by Dong Kingman, in which Caen comes close to making clear that it is the incongruities of San Francisco that truly capture his heart. Or, at least, it is the fear of lack of incongruity that makes him resist change. It’s at least worth a passing thought to wonder whether the astonishment of the unexpected response is not always one of the attractions that bind a lover to his object.

With a small stretch of the imagination the reader can take a passage from the same book and pretend that Caen is addressing his sentiments not to a city, but to a person he loves: “Let the city stay free and wild. Let there be funny old houses for funny young people and ugly old buildings, bursting with life on Market [Street]. When every building on our hills looks like the one next to it, it will no longer be San Francisco as it will not be San Francisco when everybody looks, dresses and thinks alike, if at all.... Do as I do or I’ll kill you (ban you, fire you, snub you, turn you in to the FBI). Some people would like San Francisco that way. But they’re not the people who come up with a Dolphin Square or peddler selling newspapers in a derby hat, or eat a hot dog on Market Street in the cold wind of July—and keep a city warm and alive.”

My San Francisco friend, Rachelle Marshall, tells me that those who know Caen’s work only from the published books miss much of his best writing. That, she claims, is often found “when he tells his daily readers what they would prefer not to know, such as the desperate shortage of funds and volunteers at a downtown homeless shelter, or the unnecessarily brutal rousting of a panhandler he had witnessed that morning, or a local company’s swindle of its employees. He mercilessly skewers politicians he considers jingoists or hypocrites. Still, most of the time he’s not angry but amused.”

Caen is, of course, especially attached to the cable cars that still navigate up and down some of the San Francisco hills. Under the surface of the street on which their rails are laid, a looped steel cable is pulled by a great flywheel in the cable powerhouse. The cars move by closing a steel grip around the cable, which, because it is looped under two sets of tracks on each thoroughfare, can pull simultaneously in either of two directions. When a car reaches one end of its line, the cable grip operator loosens it and he and the conductor descend from the car and push it around the sharp turn that takes it to the opposite track on which it will be pulled back in the other direction. The uniqueness of this arrangement—once the only way to carry passengers up the city’s hills but now easily displaced by buses—delights Caen. When the two operators descend from the car and with no other force than that of their own muscles turn it around so that it can start on its return trip, the columnist feels as though he has raised the lance with the lace kerchief of the city on the golden hills displayed from it.

Caen also reminisces about the old street cars which, when abandoned, were turned into housing units for a number of years until they were replaced by more conventional types of housing. Caen mourns their passing. He acknowledges that it is at least possible that a structure designed as a permanently anchored edifice is a more satisfactory home for its residents than a de-wheeled streetcar. But the change, the move toward convention and away from the variety that flourishes in San Francisco, troubles Caen more than the possible discomfort that residents of the stranded trolley cars may have suffered.

Something of the same ambiguity flavors his discussions of the ferries that carried people across the bay between San Francisco and Marin County, Oakland, and suburban bay communities like Sausalito and Berkeley before the construction of the mighty San Francisco-Oakland Bridge and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. Without minimizing the unpleasantness of the ferries when the weather was really bad or discounting the occasional accidents as ferries collided with each other or other vessels in the dark, Caen seems to have felt about the disappearance of the ferries (all but one route, I believe) as a lover feels when his lady surprises him by getting her long hair cut to an Audrey Hepburn bob. He acknowledges that short hair is easier to shampoo, but like the bridges that have replaced the ferries, it’s long on efficiency and short on romance.

Caen insists that “the concept of cities is changing. They are becoming horizontal, stretching out and out to infinite conformization ... villages laid end to end like cemeteries for the living. They are impossible to tell apart (the democracy of the mediocre)—one simple complex after another, a supermarket, one super bowling alley-cum-superdomed burger shoppe, compounded by a glistening forest of aerials atop look-alike houses populated by look-alike, think-alikes. I’ll take the verticality with its head in the clouds and its feet stuck solidly in concrete surrounded by the wonderful, miserable clutter and rumble of the metropolis. It’s a glorious mess, yes, but it’s alive and kicking. Hard.”

It’s worth noting that while Caen opposes buildings of the same or similar height, considering them boring, there is a strong tendency in New York and other eastern cities among city planners and neighborhood associations to insist upon “contextual” planning. By this, the proponents mean exactly the opposite of what Caen is saying; they are urging that buildings adhere to a similar, or even a rigidly fixed, cornice line. They believe that the very monotony of a street’s aspect offers a source of satisfaction and stability to the people who live on it.

In contrast, the magic of San Francisco depends on the encounter of sudden, unexpected differences between buildings and people. Caen describes how along certain major San Francisco streets, neighborhoods change ethnicity block by block from Anglo to Hispanic to Asian. In New York, ethnic groups arc separated into much larger districts. The unexpected changes in smells and signs not only enliven the experience of the San Francisco walker; they tend to blend the races and nationalities more effectively than does the pattern of New York’s black, Hispanic, and European-American districts.

With astonishing ease Caen picks up stories that reveal the sometimes startling behavior of San Francisco people. One of his columns tells a story that began when Jacob Harvey, one of the city’s more prominent trial lawyers, was waiting for one of his cases to be called in a city courtroom. The judge was about to dispose of a young “bad girl” (Caen’s term) by sending her to an institution when Harvey suddenly spoke up, asking why she couldn’t be sent home to her mother in Montana. The judge, without reprimanding the lawyer, who had no business interfering in someone else’s case, said that the court had no money to cover the young woman’s transportation. Harvey immediately went to the bench and turned over an adequate sum. Several years later, he received a letter from the same young woman. She had straightened herself out, married a fine young man, and had just given birth to a son. She was writing to thank her benefactor for helping to turn her life around.

Counselor Harvey, Caen writes, received the letter from the U. S. Postal Service, as managed in the city on the golden hills, although its envelope was addressed only to “Lawyer Jake, San Francisco, California.”

Another typical anecdote involved a man who had his hair cut before going to his customary lunchroom for a midday meal. One of his acquaintances took a look at the shorn lamb and announced in a loud voice: “Look at Mophead.” Within a few minutes everyone was calling the victim Mophead. In the midst of this verbal tumult, another familiar figure, carrying a newspaper, entered the lunchroom and, after getting his bearings, announced that a horse named Mophead happened to be entered in the sixth at Hollywood Park near Los Angeles that very afternoon. The omen was obvious to everyone present. Within a few minutes, $1,500 had been raised and, since all the bookmakers in San Francisco were closed, an emissary was selected to fly to Los Angeles and get a bet down on Mophead to win. The emissary made it in time, but the horse did not. Mophead finished sixth. But the moral hardly needs to be spoken: where but in San Francisco could such an event occur?

The city that has flowered in Caen’s imagination is, unlike other centers of population, not a working city that claims that what it makes determines its quality, nor is it simply a consuming city whose constant appetites drain the products of the world outside. Such economic processes do not attract Caen’s attention. His San Francisco could, if it willed, subsist on the nourishment of the gods, nectar and ambrosia; and his ultimate fear, one guesses, is that a future San Francisco will be satisfied with prefabricated hamburgers and skimmed milk.

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