Posts Tagged ‘Barbary Coast’

I dreamt long last night of San Francisco,
As I have done on so many nights since
I left my heart there twenty years ago,
I trust these verses will you too convince.

I stood upon summer brown Bernal Hill,
Watching the golden city laid before me
Like a lover spread ‘cross a crumpled bed,
In no sweeter place would I rather be.

Standing astride the stunning Sunset steps
As Karl the Fog weaves his cool, wondrous spell,
Slicing Sutro Tower in half before,
In a heartbeat, it returns and all’s well.

Hanging for dear life from the cable car
I crest the hill on Hyde at dawn of day,
Siren song from all the foghorns moaning
As we hurtle down to the glistening bay.

Eating popovers by Pacific shore
Among the tourists and locals well dressed,
Humming to O Sole Mio on a Saturday
While wrestling a ristretto at Trieste.

Hailing Emperor Norton and his doting flock,
As they follow him on the Barbary Coast,
Waiting two hours in Mama’s breakfast line
For bacon, eggs benedict and French toast.

Hunting for tie-dye tees in Hippie Haight,
Paying homage to Harvey on Castro Street,
Reading a whole novel on the F Streetcar
As it clanks and clatters to a Market beat.

Drinking a cool, tall glass of Anchor Steam
With ghosts of Ginsberg, Neal and Kerouac,
In North Beach’s celebrated beat retreat
With Joyce’s peering portrait at my back.

Gorging on Gilroy’s garlic fries at the yard
As gulls circle above to claim what’s left,
Pablo slams a mighty walk off splash hit
To leave downhearted Dodgers fans bereft.

Sharing tales of shows at the Fillmore West
In Martha’s line for coffee and muffin,
The Blackpool boat tram glides past and waves
To Lovejoy’s ladies taking tea and tiffin.

The scent of jasmine on our Noe porch,
Sea lions honking on the wharfside pier,
Sourdough crust with Coppola chardonnay,
And that bracelet of bridges held so dear.

These and other images engulf my mind –
Painted houses, murals and gleaming bay,
Neighbourhoods full of music, food and fun –
I mourn the undue advent of the day.

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It’s near two hundred days since I slouched atop green Bernal Hill,

Dismissing the dogs drooling over my “Progressive Grounds” wrap.


I watched with increasing heavy heart the planes fly towards SFO,

Doleful omens that my own flight home grew ever nearer. 

Now, finally, my next pilgrimage is as close as the last,

But it might as well be another two hundred years as days;

With the city again in the grip of World Series fever,

I yearn to bask beneath the evening city’s orange glow.

So much I miss about this cool, gorgeous, dirty, expensive place.

The soulful song of the foghorns out across the Golden Gate.

That heart stopping moment when you crest the hill at Hyde  

And pier, park and prison under a pristine sky come into view.

Community singing with Elvis and Snow White in Club Fugazi 

Before following Casady, Kerouac and Ginsberg to Vesuvio Cafe

Where I sit beneath James Joyce with a glass of Anchor Steam.

Bowing dutifully to Emperor Norton as he leads his latest star-struck

Subjects round the now scrubbed and polished Barbary Coast.


Standing on stairways in Sunset and Bernal,

Gazing open-mouthed as Karl the Fog weaves his moody magic,

Slicing Golden Gate Bridge and Sutro Tower in half before 

Rendering them clear and whole again in a heartbeat.

Mouthing along to “O Mio Babbino Caro” 

While wrestling a ristretto at Caffe Trieste.  

Devouring warm, thickly buttered popovers by the Pacific

Among the toffs and tourists at the Cliff House.


Scouring for the latest tie-dye tees in still heady Haight.

Getting through a minor novel on the F Streetcar as it

Clanks and clatters down Market and along Embarcadero.

Savouring the scents of jasmine and lemon on the backyard patio.

Marvelling at the Mission murals and their passion and exuberance

Reassures me this changing city still harbours an independent spirit.   


Sharing stories of Dead concerts at Lyceum and Fillmore 

In the line for breakfast at Martha’s on Church,

Where the Blackpool boat tram glides past and waves

Its bunting at “Lovejoy’s” ladies taking tea and tiffin. 

Shovelling down “Gilroy’s” garlic fries at the ballpark before 

The circling seagulls, mindful of each innings slipping away,

Prepare to swoop to reclaim their birthright.

Watching a liquid sun decline over the serene lagoon 

Of the soon to be centurion Palace of Fine Arts,

What better resting place after the Lyon Street Steps descent?


And breathing a sigh of relief as the recycling police

Leave me alone for yet another week. 

These and many more images flood my brain.

But never mind.

For now at least, there’s more baseball torture to

Endure from afar in the dark of the night.

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“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east and Juliet is the sun”.

Even those with the most basic knowledge of, or interest in, Shakespeare, will be familiar with these words from Romeo and Juliet. Of course, they are uttered by Romeo in the famous balcony scene in Act 2.

However, the scene before us is no Royal Shakespeare Company production in Stratford-upon-Avon but a gambling palace turned melodeon or music hall called the Bella Union, located at Washington and Kearney Streets in late nineteenth century San Francisco. 

And our “star-cross’d” lovers are not Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, or even Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey, but a baseball bat wielding wild man and a 20 stone woman of whom it could not have been said for at least 30 years that she was “not yet fourteen”.  The incongruity does not end there – because of her bulk she cannot be trusted not to demolish the balcony the moment that she steps on to it, so she is placed centre stage whilst Romeo growls his immortal words from the balcony instead.

Romeo is played by Oofty Goofty, whom we have met already in this series (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/05/17/great-san-franciscan-characters-12-oofty-goofty)   And his “all-seeing sun” was portrayed by Big Bertha, a wealthy woman with a dubious past.  Their performances are the talk of the town, although Oofty’s violent displays leave Bertha “covered with bruises from head to toe” every night, leading to her vowing never to play the part again.

Big Bertha, who is described by Herbert Asbury in his splendid The Barbary Coast as a “sprightly lass of 280 pounds”, had first appeared in the city in the mid 1880s claiming to be a wealthy Jewish widow in search of a man to help protect her fortune.  In order to test any suitor’s value and good faith, she required him to hand over to her a sum of money that she would then double and risk on an unnamed investment. 

This worked so successfully that she “collected several thousand dollars from a score of lovelorn males, not a penny of which was ever seen again by its rightful owner”. Although she was eventually arrested for a succession of such scams, none of her victims had the courage to charge her for fear of public humiliation. She was released on nominal bail and the case against her dropped.

She now decided to turn her attentions to a stage career, approaching Ned Foster and Jach Hallinan, managers of the Bella Union and Cremorne melodeons respectively. Recognising her potential they hired her immediately under joint management and put her on display in an empty storefront on Market Street. Dubbed the “Queen of the Confidence Women”, for ten cents she would, at regular intervals, rise from her reinforced chair and recount the list of dreadful crimes that she had committed in San Francisco and other cities, “embellishing her account with many vivid details”. 

She would then regale the assembled throng with horribly off key renditions of the only two songs she ever knew: A Flower from my Angel Mother’s Grave” and The Cabin Where the Old Folks Died. This proved so popular that, after a brief engagement at Bottle Koenig’s, where her erstwhile Romeo had also performed briefly, her act transferred to the Bella Union stage and converted into what became an equally celebrated song and dance revue in which she sang “sentimental ballads in a squeaky voice”.    

Aside from the Romeo and Juliet farce, Bertha was involved in one other crazy theatrical moment. She was cast in Byron’s Malzeppa as the eponymous hero strapped to a horse or, in her case, donkey as punishment for having an affair with a young countess. Her entrance always drew ecstatic applause, but one evening it all went horribly wrong.

Wilting under the nightly strain of carrying Bertha, the donkey lost its footing and crashed into the orchestra pit, taking the massively proportioned Bertha with it.  The musicians’ reaction has not been preserved for posterity but it is not unreasonable to speculate that their language was not equally as colourful as that bellowing from the lips of the hero / heroine’s. Neither can I report whether the hapless donkey sustained any lasting injury.

But it did herald the end of Bertha’s bizarre acting career, who confined herself to singing and, on occasions, dancing. This proved more successful, culminating in her wrestling ownership and management of the Bella Union in 1895. However, restrictions placed on the sale of liquor three years previously eventually forced her to sell up and leave.  And that is the last we hear of her.

“So please you, let me now be left alone”.  

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“King of the Crimps”, James “Shanghai” Kelly was not, as you might have thought, a world renowned hairdresser or Vegas high roller but a notorious criminal in 19th century San Francisco. Crimping, or shanghaiing, was the practice of kidnapping men and forcing them to work on ships, and Kelly was the undisputed master of the art.

He was, as described by Herbert Asbury in his excellent “The Barbary Coast – An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld”, a “short, thick-set Irishman, with flaming red hair, a bristling red beard, and an irascible disposition”.  Seduced, like many of his contemporaries, by the prospect of great wealth as a result of the 1848 Gold Rush in California, he fled to San Francisco where he immediately established a three-storey sailors’ boardinghouse at 33 Pacific Street, between Drum and Davis Streets, in the heart of the area known as the Barbary Coast.  However, this was essentially a “front” for his unscrupulous but lucrative business of supplying sea captains with men to fill boats rendered increasingly empty by the desertion inland of prospective crew members to seek their fortune.

Kelly satisfied the ship captains’ need by arranging for runners to row out to arriving ships and offer free drink and other inducements to frequent his  boardinghouse and saloons. Once there, the unsuspecting sailors would be drugged with the “Miss Piggott Special”, his own cocktail of schnapps and beer spiked with opium, laudanum or chloral hydrate. The “Shanghai smoke”, a cigar heavily laced with opium, would follow, and that lethal combination failed to render them unconscious then they would be hit on the head” As one historian put it: “the tools of his trade were knock-out drops and a blackjack”.

Once divested of their belongings – including their clothes – they were wrapped in a blanket, lowered through one of three trapdoors in the front of the bar and rowed out to a waiting vessel. The captain paid the crimp the agreed fee, hauled anchor, and set sail. When the sailors regained consciousness, they were well out to sea – heading to such faraway destinations as Shanghai.

His pre-eminence in the crimping game was most dramatically illustrated in what has become known as his “birthday party” escapade.  With his boardinghouse uncharacterstically short of guests, he was commissioned by one desperate sea captain to find 100 sailors urgently. The ever-resourceful Kelly quickly came up with a plan. Chartering a decrepit old paddlewheel steamer, the Goliah, he put the word out on the streets that it was his birthday and everyone was invited aboard to celebrate with free food and drink.


Ninety men showed up and the Goliah put out to sea “amid great merriment of drinking, eating, and song”. As it left dock, Kelly proposed a toast: “to all my faithful friends, you’ve made me what I am today (heh-heh).  Now down the hatch”. As soon as all the drugged guests had passed out, Kelly ferried them to the infamous New York based sailing ship, the Reefer, and two other vessels anchored off the Heads, just outside the Golden Gate. The still unconscious “sailors” were handed over to their new captains, who sailed away.

Mindful that questions were sure to be asked when he returned with an empty Goliah, Kelly sailed down the California coast to ponder his next move – and struck lucky.  Encountering the Yankee Blade off Point Concepcion, west of Santa Barbara, that had run aground and was taking on water, he saved its whole crew and sailed them up to the Market Street Wharf where, unaware of the true story, the citizens of San Francisco proclaimed him a hero.

Some chroniclers of the Barbary Coast have shed doubt over the accuracy of this story but, nonetheless, it lives on in San Francisco legend. In fact, it was featured in an episode of the long-running TV show, Death Valley Days, narrated by Robert Taylor, in 1967. Kelly’s place in the city’s mythology was reinforced in 1985 by the opening of an old-time saloon named after him at Polk between Pacific and Broadway on Nob Hill.

His crimping days were over when he himself was shanghaied and ended up jumping ship in Peru, although the message that got back to his adopted city was that he had been shot by one of his former runners.

I am indebted to Gail MacGowan’s article on Kelly on www.sfcityguides.org which, in turn, is based upon works by Charles F. Adams, Herbert Asbury, Samuel Dickson and Bill Pickelhaupt.

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Of all the eccentric characters that have graced San Francisco’s history, Oofty Goofty must rank amongst the most bizarre.  His real name (Leonard Borchardt appears to be the most likely contender), background (he may have been a deserter from the US Cavalry), and place and date of  both his birth and death are all bones of contention, yet his strange antics intrigued and entertained residents of the City during the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Herbert Asbury‘s 1933 book The Barbary Coast, An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld, upon which most of the limited knowledge we have of of Oofty is based, explained that he acquired his name during his first sideshow appearance before the San Francisco public as a wild man on Market Street:

“From crown to heel he was covered with road tar, into which were stuck great quantities of horsehair, lending him a savage and ferocious appearance.  He was then installed in a heavy cage, and when a sufficiently large number of people had paid their dimes to gaze upon the wild man recently captured in the jungles of Borneo and brought to San Francisco at enormous expense, large chunks of raw meat were poked between the bars by an attendant.  This provender the wild man gobbled ravenously, occasionally growling, shaking the bars, and yelping these fearsome words: “Oofty goofty! Oofty goofty!””

This frightening spectacle lasted no more than a week before he became ill, unable to perspire through his thick covering of tar and hair.  Doctors at the Receving Hospital tried in vain for several days to remove his costume, and only when he was “liberally doused with a tar solvent” and “laid out upon the roof of the hospital” did it finally come off.

His wild man career abruptly cut short, Oofty turned to the theatre, initially securing a spot at Bottle Koenig’s, a Barbary Coast beer hall.  After just one song and dance, however, he was flung into the street, a humiliating and painful experience had it not been for the fact that it showed him the direction in which his career, or “work” as he termed it, should now turn.

Despite being kicked ferociously and landing heavily upon a stone sidewalk, he discovered that he felt no physical pain. For the next 15 years he exploited this new found talent by touring the city and allowing himself, at a price dependent upon the degree of brutality inflicted, to be kicked and battered by others.  Let Asbury again describe his modus operandi:

“Upon payment of ten cents a man might kick Oofty Goofty as hard as he pleased, and for a quarter……..with a walking stick.  For fifty cents Oofty Goofty would become the willing, and even prideful, recipient of a blow with a baseball bat, which he always carried with him…..It was his custom to approach groups of men, in the streets and in bar-rooms, and diffidently inquire:  “Hit me with a bat for four bits, gents.  Only four bits to hit me with this bat, gents”.

It was only when heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan struck Oofty with a billiard cue, fracturing three vertebrae, that he finally called it a day. He will no doubt have enjoyed Sullivan’s later World Championship defeat at the hands of San Francisco’s own James J. Corbett.  The blow from Sullivan caused Oofty to walk with a limp for the rest of his life, and he was no longer immune to pain, flinching at the slightest touch.

There are many other colourful stories surrounding Oofty, for example:

  • acting as a human skittle in Woodward’s Garden where customers could win a cigar if they hit him with a baseball;
  • performing alongside Big Bertha (another candidate for inclusion in this series) in a Shakespearean parody entitled “Borneo and Juliet”;
  • attempting to push a shiny red wheelbarrow to New York for a bet (a challenge that failed after just 40 miles when he was knocked over in the dark and landed head first in a creek); and
  • being shipped upside down in a box to Sacramento as a joke gift for a young lady and being left in the unopened package over the weekend.

Despite his physical debility he moved to Texas where he continued to play the fool for his living, drinking beer with a bar spoon and engaging in quail eating contests.

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