Regular readers of this blog will know of my admiration for Herb Caen, the celebrated San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Indeed, it is often through the prism of his vision that I see the city myself, and I find myself turning to him invariably for an apposite remark in a variety of circumstances. It is why too I chose him as one of the first subjects in my “Great San Franciscan Characters” series, the revised version of which can be found at:
That post explored his life and career and contained a sprinkling of some of his most famous quotes. I have selected fifty for this article from a variety of publications, though I could have included ten times as many. Some illustrate his customary wit, but others are more wistful and contemplative. Above all, they illustrate his literary skill and “loove”, as he put it, for the city.
No photos, just words.
1. I’ve been living here man and boy, since nine months before I was born, having been conceived during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition on what became the Marina. (No, my parents were not in a sideshow, they merely spent the summer here, complaining about the cold).
2. A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gaze at a hippopotamus, buy a flower at the corner, or get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4 A.M. A city is where sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky and foghorns speak in dark grays. San Francisco is such a city.
3. Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?
4. San Francisco has a bond of self-satisfaction bordering on smugness.
5. A city is not gauged by its length and width, but by the broadness of its vision and the height of its dreams.
6.One of my pet ambitions is to run screaming through the lobby of the Fairmont, bowling old ladies off their red plush perches and tweaking the noses of aged elevator boys.
7. No mystery about the 60,288 San Franciscans missing in the Census. They’re all down in the Union Square Garage waiting for their cars.
8. San Francisco, city of the world, worlds within a city, forty-nine square miles of ups and downs, ins and outs, and going around in circles, most of them dizzy. A small “d” democrat city run by big-buck conservatives, a place where the winds of freedom will blow your mind and your hat off, where eccentricity is the norm and sentimentality the ultimate cynicism. Cable cars and conventions, boosterism living uncomfortable with sophistication, a built-in smugness announcing simply that we are simply the best.
9. The number of foggy days over the city is never reported reportedly. But take it from me – there’s enough to satisfy everyone, and dissatisfy somebody.
10. I rose in my mythical helicopter and looked down on the hippies and the heppies, the brokers and the broken, the champs and the charlatans, the Mime Troupe performing on the Marina Square, the fog chasing the boats off the Bay, the old geezers lounging in the sun at Powell and Market, the kids playing in the alleys of the Mission, and I knew I was still in love with the whole beautiful mess. And I knew I was not alone.
11. Fresh cracked crab with Boudin’s “dark bake” sourdough and a well-chilled bottle of Californian Chardonnay is still the quintessential S.F. meal.
12. one has to wonder how the San Franciscans of today would deal with a catastrophe of similar proportions (Earthquake and Fire of 1906). If the evidence is to be believed, our forerunners faced that disaster with a smile and a Jeanette MacDonald song, and, whistling while they worked, built a city even more glittering and glamorous than its doomed predecessor. Out of the ashes rose the cliche about the phoenix bird that would haunt cub reporters furthermore. “Like the phoenix bird, the Milpitas Mustangs rose out of the ashes of defeat to” – to what? To make the boozy old copy reader spit on the floor in disgust as he applied his big blue pencil.
13. Gray Line buses hauling gray-faced tourists through the gray city on a gray day, a city crew waking the Broadway Tunnel as the rain splashes outside, Chinese selling Japanese trinkets to South Americans carrying German cameras…..gee, what a crazy town.
14. The Sounds of the city. Once they were a heady mix of sidewheeler splash, seagull scream, Ferry building siren, sea lion bark, click-clang of birdcage signal and “one more for the road”. Today, the auto horns blow impatiently, amid hippie bagpipe, flutes, bongo drums, “Any spare change?”, a blind man’s accordion wheezing out “Wabash Cannonball” and – lest we forget – “Have a good day, have a nice day” and smile, damn ya, smile.
15. The trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around.
16. On the top-most corners of Nob Hill, I see tourists go crazy. Standing in the intersection, they whirl like dervishes as they shoot photos in four directions: hills, valleys, distant peaks, the cables, the bay, Alcatraz and Angel, sailboats and freighters, Chinatown’s pagoda’d roofs, a snatch of the Bay Bridge. From their antics, you can tell they’ve never seen anything like this before and they are entranced. The jaded San Franciscan looks twice and becomes entranced all over again.
17. The only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever.
18. nobody runs a headstrong city like this for long. She is still untamed. A wild streak of rebellion simmers and stews just below the surface, refusing to conform to the orthodoxies of religion and society. That is why San Francisco is a mecca – that non-Christian term – for those who have been cast out from lesser temples.
19. San Francisco is a city for all seasons (sometimes four in one day) and various reasons. A city that thinks nothing of spending $60 million and rebuild a cable car system that was obsolete a century ago, and even less of letting drunks lie on the street as long as they aren’t in the way of the cables.
20. This is the 14th largest city in the country, has the fourth largest number of so-called homeless, and the gauntlet of paper-cupped pitifuls gets longer and longer. I’m still good for a quarter but that pittance doesn’t go as far as it used to!
21. On foggy nights, where memories grow suddenly sharp in the gloom, you know the old city is still around you, just below the surface – an Atlantis on the Pacific. Maybe it’s the foghorns calling mournfully to each other, the only voices still around that evoke the swish of paddlewheels on ghostly ferries. Or, barely visible in the mist, a cable car disappearing over a hill on its plunge into yesterday. Halos on streetlamps over empty sidewalks that knew the tread of feet long gone….On a long January night in the quiet city (just before it stops being late and starts to get early), the ghosts begin dancing again, atop the creaking ferry slips, through the venal parking lots where lovely buildings once stood, across the steel bones of cable car lines that were buried without funerals. Bits and pieces remain, the leftover pieces of a jigsaw puzzle we could never quite fit together.
22. I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.
23. Waiting for the Muni. Spent some of the best years of my life waiting for the Muni at corner of Five and Mish’, where at is situated this pillar of veracity. It’s like Richard Armour’s catsup bottle – at first none will come and then a lot’ll…….While waiting for the Muni, must think about other things. Anything. “They’re doing the best they can,” is OK thought. Also true. One thing you mustn’t do, after, say, about 15 minutes, is step into street and look for buses that aren’t there. Watched bus never boils into view. When you look up street for buses and don’t see any, get very depressed. Wonder if a strike has been called and nobody mentioned it. You think about writing your District Supervisor, whoever he or she may be if at all. Kick mailbox, which is dumb.
24. It is hard to stay depressed in San Francisco, on a crisp November afternoon, with flowers and pretzels for sale on the street corners and the tourists going Instamatically mad at the bright wonder of it all. We are so lucky to have a proper downtown, where people can parade.
25. “What a great town!” The words come blurting out at dusk on the night of a full moon, erasing the doubts and returning the child-like shine to eyes grown cynical. The beauty is slowly vanishing, but enough remains, more than enough, as the lights come on and the bridges turn golden and a pinkish glow softens the hard lines of the marching buildings that could almost stamp out the spirit of a great city. Almost, but not quite.
26. San Francisco has a large gay population, and it keeps increasing, although exactly how gays multiply has not been explained. Nothing is ever explained in San Francisco.
27. The downtown streets of the naked city are peopled with rare and exotic birds, making their various jungle sounds: mating calls (“if you don’t like my sister how about my brother?”), cackles of insane mirth, pleas for help, attempts at music, poetry and sermons on stones. The scene is at once compelling and repellent – the smell of dirt and poverty, the flopsweat of desperation., If looks could kill, you in your neat suit, carrying your briefcase, hurrying along in your well-shined shoes, would have been dead a long time ago, bones left to bleach under the warm September sun blazing out of a washed denim sky.
28. San Francisco can be a perfectly maddening city. But when there’s a good bar across the street, almost any street, and a decent restaurant around almost any corner, we are not yet a lost civilization.
29. This past summer, the bee-busy Delancey Streeters somehow found time to take fifty kids a day, from “disadvantaged” neighborhoods, on tours to Alcatraz. One day, the guide pointed out a solitary confinement cell – “Just this tiny room, with a toilet and a bed” – at which an incredulous voice from the ghetto piped up to inquire, “You mean he had a whole room to himself?”
30. Nostalgia for a catastrophe may seem odd, but this is an odd city. We glory in our past while busily tearing down the evidence of it. Those who truly care about San Francisco know in their bones that there was something very special about the Founding Fathers, those grave, bearded, hang-the-expense types who built a world city overnight, saw most of it go up in smoke, and started all over again without, seemingly, a whimper.
31. A cable car may be the last surviving piece of public transportation that is still fun to ride. You see people actually smiling aboard them. You see people standing in LINE with a smile, just to ride them. A bus is a chore, a streetcar is infinitely better and a cable car is unarguably in a class by itself, being unique……I think most of us are willing to take their chances on the outside step of a cable, simply because it IS outside. The wind, the air, the view of San Francisco passing slowly by, to be savored – no other public transport provides these lifts to the sagging urban soil.
32. I don’t care what people call us as long as they call us, besides which “Frisco” is a salty nickname, redolent of the days when we had a bustling waterfront.
33. “I’d like to lunch at some place that’s typically old San Francisco,” said the Baron Philippe de Rothschild to his good friend, art dealer Bill Pearson – so Bill took him to Tadich’s, which, being typically old San Francisco, doesn’t take reservations. After they’d waited thirty minutes in the crowded little bar area, the baron sighed, “I dislike doing things like this, but perhaps it would help if you told them who I am,” “I dislike telling you this,” said Bill, grinning, “but I did – fifteen minutes ago!”
34. I ride Muni to get closer to The People, who I wish would get closer to deodorants.
35. I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it, really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interest in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methuselah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.
36. The Tenderloin – so what’s to like? Rundown blocks, rundown people, rundown apartment houses between the big and sterile Federal Building on one side (is that what we really want?) and the Hilton Schmilton on the other. What’s to like is the action, the struggle to survive on one’s own terms, the togetherness of losers and loners…..Hands in raincoat pocket, head down, I walk among the poor, the sad and the ugly, one of them. It would be sentimental and nice to say that they all have hearts of gold, but I wouldn’t count on it.
37. Cockroaches and socialities are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything.
38. The Giants were the perfect baseball team for San Francisco. They couldn’t win for losing in New York, and were going broke. Now they are going broke here. It figures. A lot of old-timers got nervous when they won a pennant in 1962, but they managed to lose the Series and everybody relaxed again. Who could live with a winner?
39. Spring training! One of the nicest two-word phrases in the language, along with “check enclosed”, “open bar”, and “class dismissed.”
40. Unaccountable millions of words have been written and spoken about San Francisco since the Guyana horrors and the City Hall slayings. In newspapers around the world, on radio and TV stations, this city has been loved and hated, praised and damned, discussed and dissected. Some of the words, and I include myself as a perpetrator, have been overblown, oversentimental, maudlin. There has been a tremendous outpouring of sympathetic concern, and a surprising (to me) amount of bitterness. There has not been this much concentrated “analysis” of San Francisco since the hippie era of the 1960s, and what emerges is the jumbled outline of the city that is all things to all people. For every person who finds this “the most civilized place in the country” there seems to be one who regards it as a cesspool and sinkhole, awaiting only the wrath of God.
41. The Hippies made their deepest penetration of the current campaign on Monday night…..By the hundreds, they poured into the heart of Straightville – by foot, via bus, on hogs, in psychedelically painted VWs, in buses so ancient they might have seen service in the First Battle of the Marne. Bells tinkled, beads jangled, beards bristled, plumes waved in the salubrious evening overcast, a brave sight, and no fuzz to tighten up the scene.
42. Wilkes Bashford revealed the Willie Brown formula for dating: “As he gets older, his dates get younger. That’s because the total of Willie’s age and the age of his date must never exceed 100.”
43. Cartoonist Charles “Peanuts” Schulz, resplendent in an out-of-date Nehru jacket, dined in the Sea Cliff home of cartoonist Marty “Bobby Sox” Links. “You should wear a medallion with that” said Marty, ” and I’ve got the perfect one – I bought it in the Haight-Ashbury.” She ran upstairs and reappeared with a heavy chain from which dangled a medallion reading “LOVE” in beautiful entwined letters. After fingering it for a few seconds, Schulz handed it back with a Charlie Brown smile. “It’s just a little too much for me,” he said. “Do you have one that says ‘LIKE’?”
44. Broadway today is just another wide street with too much traffic. North Beach is just around the corner, as charming and irresistible as ever.
45. Here’s Tinytown USA with big league baseball and football, major league opera and ballet and symphony, big theater, little theater, a thousand clowns in a thousand bars, world-class hotels, a financial district with 500 banks…..and all…..those……restaurants. And it all started because a gold miner needed a place to eat and a home-sick Frenchman needed a place to cook.
46. Can a town that has sour-dough bread and honey butter muffins be all bad? Not on your life! The crab may be frozen but it’s fresh frozen, and the Swan Oyster Depot is more redolent of oysters than swans and everything is fresh there, especially the paisans. The cheap white wine smells like a wet collie, so hold your nose delicately ‘twixt thumb and forefinger and drink, for tomorrow, keed, we die. I keep telling you, it’s a great town. You’ve got to be crazy to think so and crazier not to. Stay off the cable cars and out of the health food stores and you’ll outlive us all.
47. It is no longer the beloved city that poets rhapsodized over, visitors fell in love with and natives worshipped. Gone are the spires and minarets of Baghdad-by-the-Bay. The fight now is to save what is left, and fortunately, there is still a lot worth fighting for. If ever a city had an embarrassment of riches, it is this one, even after the squandering.
48. There is a new Mr. San Francisco, plural. Mover over Cyril Magnin – and make room for Bill Walsh and the 49ers, the new rulers of the universe of football and assorted galaxies…..I don’t really know what a Super Bowl can do for a city, but San Francisco must be a different place right now. A little more joyous, a little more confident and perhaps happy to shed the title of Kook Capital of the World. Now, we have the muscles, we have the Title, we have the kind of brawling image that goes back to the real 49ers.
49. Life is a bad item, short but pointless. You stand at the bar and play liar’s dice with fate. It’s the San Francisco way. You might win, and even if you lose, the scenery’s great and the weather isn’t too bad.
And, of course:
50. One day if I go to heaven…….I’ll look around and say “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”.
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