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Posts Tagged ‘Emperor Norton’


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.   

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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?

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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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Now, I know that title alone will already have raised the hackles of many readers from the City.

But it is a rhetorical question, believe me.

I can state without equivocation that I have NEVER uttered the word myself, apart, of course, from when singing along with Otis Redding. Nor, by the way, have I ever said “San Fran”, which I find an even uglier term.

I prefer to use its full name – and why wouldn’t I, it’s a beautiful name – or the City.

Now that might mark me out as a long term native, at least a white one, but I’m not, as you will gather from the strapline above, even if you weren’t aware before.

So what’s a crazy limey doing stepping into a debate that has raged among San Franciscans since Emperor Norton first proclaimed that “whoever, after due and proper warning, shall be heard to utter the abominable word Frisco, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of High Misdemeanor”?

I suppose it’s just another symptom of my affection and fascination for the City. And perhaps, as an Englishman, I might be able to provide some perspective.

Emperor Norton’s claim that the word had “no linguistic or other warrant” was not strictly true. It derives from both old Icelandic and Middle English. Frithsoken meant a refuge, sanctuary, safe harbour – all words which would appear to fit San Francisco’s image and purpose perfectly, even to this day.

Interestingly too, it might derive from the Spanish and Italian word for a romp, gambol or caper, a possible sailors’ reference to the activities of the Barbary Coast in the late nineteenth century.

Immigrants during the Gold Rush sang of finding “gold lumps” on the ground when they got to Frisco, and generations of sailors, soldiers, longshoreman and other blue collar workers since have called it by that name.

That said, the view of the self-styled “Emperor of These United States” received powerful endorsement in the following century. At Christmas 1907 the ladies of the Outdoor Art League formed an Anti-Frisco Committee, “for the purpose of discouraging the use of the term, “Frisco”.

The punishment for those “possessed of the poor taste to use this obnoxious term”?

To wear diamonds for breakfast.

After enduring the fourth reference to Frisco in his testimony from Hal R. Hobbs, a Los Angeles automobile dealer in a divorce case of April 1918, Judge Mogan warned him to desist because:

No one refers to San Francisco…..by that title except people from Los Angeles. I am the Chairman of the County Council of Defense, and I warn you that you stand in danger of being interred as an alien enemy.

And most famously, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, published a book of his newspaper columns in 1953 entitled Don’t Call it Frisco. He implored that you should:

Caress each Spanish syllable, salute our Italian saint. Don’t say Frisco and don’t say San-Fran-Cis-Co. That’s the way Easterners, like Larry King, pronounce it. It’s more like SanfrnSISco.

On another occasion he wrote:

Don’t call it Frisco – it’s SAN Francisco, because it was named after St. Francis of Assisi. And because “Frisco” is a nickname that reminds the city uncomfortably of the early, brawling, boisterous days of the Barbary Coast and the cribs and sailors who were shanghaied. And because “Frisco” shows disrespect for a city that is now big and proper and respectable. And because only tourists call it “Frisco”, anyway, and you don’t want to be taken for a tourist, do you?

The reverence with which Caen was held ensured that such a view held sway for a long time, and judging by the comments on internet forums, still receives vehement support to this day.

During Caen’s heyday, the word continued to figure strongly in the public consciousness. Movies, including Fog Over Frisco starring Bette Davis in 1934 and stage productions like Hello, Frisco, Hello nine years later, celebrated the name. In addition to Otis’s (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, Pink Floyd delivered a live album entitled Darkness Over Frisco and the Youngbloods, the band that gave us one of the great anthems of the hippie movement of the late sixties, Get Together, could also sing about going to Frisco-o-o. 

Beat poets Kenneth Rexroth and Bob Kaufman referred to Frisco in their work, Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac’s On The Road talked of heading to Frisco, and John Lee Hooker, another revered San Francisco cultural icon, was one of many blues musicians to record Frisco Blues.

Which brings me to another dimension that is often overlooked in the contemporary debate about the use of the word. Most of San Francisco’s African-American residents have historically referred to their city as Frisco, and there are innumerable hip hop and rap songs with it in the title, including Frisco is the Bay, In a Frisco Minute and Frisco Niggers Ain’t No Punks. 

And Caen actually changed his position late in life when remarking that:

I was never sure about the reasoning behind the objection, even while voicing it. Other old-timers don’t know either. They stumble around with words like “undignified” and “bawdy” and “coarse”, as if there’s anything wrong with a city being any of those, which every city is. Maybe it has to do with San Francisco being “the city of St Francis”, and there is no St. Frisco. My recollection is that it’s a waterfront-born nickname that the sailors used lovingly, back when this was the best (i.e. wildest) port of call in the Pacific.

The debate continues on social media to this day and stirs the emotions of natives and long term residents as much as do issues such as the tech explosion, dog poop and the role of Tim Lincecum in the Giants’ rotation.

Several websites and blogs celebrate the name, exemplified by the Facebook page, RAISED IN FRISCO which proclaims that “They say don’t call it Frisco, real San Franciscans don’t call it Frisco, shit we got Frisco runnin thru our blood, “Raised in Frisco!”

So why all the fuss when the term still seems so embedded in people’s minds?

And does it really matter anyway?

Well, some will say it does.

A commonly held belief among its opponents is that it is a term only used by outsiders, by people who don’t know any better, by that increasingly used hate term of today – tourists. How would New Yorkers or residents of Chicago feel if people called their cities Nork and Chico, they say? 

Nicknames are intended to reflect a prominent feature of its subject, not merely a lazy contraction of the full name. Frisco denotes a lack of respect, a wilful dismissal of the place and its people. It makes you sound like a doofus” as one, now defunct, website claimed.

And there are already thirteen places in the U.S. already called Frisco, though none in California.

Perhaps the The Bold Italic  online magazine and store should have (almost) the last word in its characteristically wry and forthright manner:

San Franciscans have a reputation for being uptight jerks about the nickname. Don’t play into that stereotype. They’ll eventually notice you never call it that anyway.

Whatever the merits of the issue. I still won’t be calling it Frisco or San Fran or S.F., as much on aesthetic grounds as any other.

But then I’m not from San Francisco.

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All things must pass

All things must pass away

And so, little more than a week ago, we had to leave our temporary residence in Bernal Heights for “home” in the UK.

But I do not want to put that experience to one side just yet (and we will be returning next year), without paying one final tribute to the neighborhood.

So here, in this fifth and final article in the series, are this visiting Englishman’s ten reasons for loving Bernal Heights.

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A cautionary note for residents before I start.

In a little under a fortnight we could neither cover every blade of grass, trip over every upturned pavement slab, nor eat at every café or restaurant, so this will be no more nor less than a personal account of those people and places we actually encountered.

Where I have written on a subject in one of the previous posts in this series, I have tried to keep it short.

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For ease of reference they are listed in alphabetical order.

1. Accessibility

A few years ago, the thought of staying so far from Fisherman’s Wharf or Union Square would have been unthinkable. After all, many of the maps produced by the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau do not stretch as far as Bernal Heights. And few guide books even make passing reference to the neighborhood (the Alemany Farmer’s Market might just get a mention).

But once we had swapped hotel for apartment living, we have moved progressively further out. Hayes Valley begat the Western Addition begat Noe Valley begat Noe Valley again. The gentle hike up to Bernal Heights Hill from Precita Park last year, followed by lunch in Progressive Grounds, was enough to convince us that this is where we wanted to base ourselves next time.

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Accessibility was not the problem it might have seemed. The 101 and 280 freeways were barely three minutes drive from our cottage, the 24 Divisadero Muni bus ran along the bottom of our street and there were several other lines operating through the adjacent Mission district. Having become attached to the J Church Muni Metro line during our stays in Noe Valley, we often walked over to 29th Street to catch a direct line downtown.

 

2. Architecture 

One of the things that most charmed us about Bernal was the sheer variety of housing. No long rows of Queen Annes, Bay Windowed Italianates or Sticks here, but a real diversity of property. Their relative smallness and, in many cases, quirkiness, made wandering around the area a fascinating and often surprising adventure.

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The fact that Bernal Heights featured as low as nineteenth in a recent survey of the number of single millionaires living in each San Francisco neighborhood (Noe Valley next door came third, and even the Mission, evidence of its growing gentrification, was sixth), reinforced this impression of the relative modesty and affordability of the area.

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Though it would still be out of our price bracket!

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3. Cafés

Having seduced us to stay in Bernal Heights in the first place, Progressive Grounds was first on our list of watering (and feeding) holes on our arrival.

And it was also the last!

Our final meal in the city – scrumptious grilled lavash wraps and coffee – was bought there and carried ceremoniously up to the hill where we consumed it whilst continuing the perennial debate about the identity of each downtown building – now you see Coit Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid, now you don’t.

We had encountered Martha’s, or Martha and Brothers to give it its official name, on both 24th Street and Church Street during our stays in Noe Valley, and were delighted to find that there was a branch on Cortland. Strong coffee, excellent pastries and outstanding service were on offer, and the tables outside were perfect spots for watching Bernal go about its business (and counting the number of 24 buses that passed by in each direction).

It would be a real shame if Starbuck’s was to take over the Badger Books site or any other vacant lot in the neighborhood in the future.

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We ate good, wholesome breakfasts at both the Liberty Café and Moonlight Café (the interior of which is pictured above). Although the former enjoys a stronger, city-wide reputation, we were particularly impressed with the latter. Perhaps our expectations had been lower (you order at the counter rather than be served at your table), but we were pleasantly surprised.

And last, but by no means, least, we called in at the Precita Park Café for Mitchell’s ice cream during a Sunday afternoon walk around the northern slope. This is undoubtedly somewhere to explore further on our next visit – the food looked delicious.

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4. Diversity

The traditional equation of a single ethnic grouping with many of San Francisco’s neighborhoods has been diluted in recent times. I have already mentioned the influx of affluent white tech workers in the historically Hispanic and Latino dominated Mission. And the edges of the boundary between North Beach and Chinatown have become increasingly blurred.

In the past three hundred years, Bernal Heights has been inhabited by Native Americans (the Ohlone), Latin Americans, Irish, Italians, Scandinavians, African Americans, Filipinos and other Asian nationalities, so it is hardly surprising that there is a refreshing ethnic mix in the community, one that hasn’t been quite so evident to us anywhere else in the city.

And this diversity was not only about ethnicity.  Young families, the elderly and lesbian and gay couples were all in evidence.

The visible contrast in the demographic between Bernal and neighboring Noe (“Stroller”) Valley, was especially dramatic.

 

5. Dogs

I wrote about the apparent “dogs rule” phenomenon on Bernal Heights Park in my article last year, and we were able to enjoy it at close hand on this trip. The top of the hill must sometimes seem like the canine community center for all of San Francisco.

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But it was the excitement of those tied up outside the Good Life Grocery every time I called in that provided the most entertainment and could not pass without stroking them. I can report that I still have all my fingers.

The absence of a doggie companion was the only thing that prevented us from feeling truly at home during our stay. In fact, at one point I feared we might be contravening some by-law by not owning one of our own, at least, walking half a dozen of somebody else’s.

 

6. Friendliness

I referred to the warm greeting we received everywhere we went in one of my earlier articles, and I’m pleased to report that we continued to be treated well throughout the remainder of our stay. The only establishment that we didn’t feel entirely welcome was the Wild Side West, though we liked the quirky back garden.   

I should add that we had been a little apprehensive about staying in the neighborhood before arriving in the light of the shooting of Alex Nieto only a few days before we left the UK. However, we detected none of the tension (perhaps we were too far away), and felt completely safe at all times, including late at night when we often walked back from Mission Street.

 

7. Hill

We could while away hours on the hill, picking out landmarks in all directions, having a picnic and watching the dogs at play. For us, it is a far superior viewing point than Twin Peaks, which most of our compatriots, and many residents for that matter, will only have visited.

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Our only regret is that we omitted, as we had planned, to go up onto the hill at night – another reason for returning as soon as possible!

 

8.Library 

Again, I have already recounted the story of my visit to the library to print some documents. This is somewhere else I would want to spend more time in the future.

 

9. Restaurants

We only ate out twice in the evening in the neighborhood, but both were outstanding experiences.

On the recommendation of Emperor Norton himself, who lives in the neighborhood, we dined at Piqueo’s Peruvian restaurant on Cortland on our second night. It was fortunate we had made a reservation as it was packed, even though it was Wednesday. Granted that it is small and intimate (and just, perhaps, a little too dark), but we were, nonetheless, impressed by its popularity.

And rightly so.

Service was attentive and professional and our food was excellent. It took a lot of convincing to persuade my wife that we shouldn’t return there rather than try somewhere else.

But we did eat somewhere else.

Acting on another local resident’s recommendation, we had our last meal at Vega, a family-run Italian, again on Cortland. We had made a reservation for 8pm. On arrival, we were told that we might have to wait a few minutes while previous diners finished off. We were offered the small table by the front desk (and the open front door!) which we politely declined, preferring to wait for a table in the main dining room.

For that we received a free glass of wine each!

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After we had finished our starters, we were asked by the waiter if we would mind moving to another table for two for the remainder of the meal in order to accommodate a larger party that would necessitate putting tables together. We were happy to do so.

Our reward this time – a free glass of sparkling wine each!

Sadly, we weren’t inconvenienced any further and so had to pay for the bottle of wine – and food – we had actually ordered.

The meal was excellent, though the short walk back up the hill to the cottage was somewhat less enjoyable in the circumstances.

 

10. Stairways

Again, I have already written about these in a previous post. Suffice to say that this was another charming feature of the neighborhood, offering stunning views and keeping us fit (if I keep saying/writing that I might just believe it).

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The only thing we don’t miss?

Climbing up from Mission Street via the Eugenia Stairway late at night to get back to the cottage.

No, I lied.

We do miss it!

Au revoir, Bernal.

A bientôt.

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My 100 Favourite San Francisco Quotes


If the number of views is the true gauge of success, then the most popular of the two hundred posts I have submitted on this blog has been “My 50 San Francisco Quotes”. I’m sure that it is pure coincidence that it happens to be the one that contains fewest of my own words.

Moving swiftly on, and building on that success, I have now expanded it to 100. And with no more ado:

  1. One day if I go to heaven…..I’ll look around and say “It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco”. (Herb Caen)
  2. San Francisco has only one drawback – ’tis hard to leave. (Rudyard Kipling)
  3. You know what it is? (It) is a golden handcuff with the key thrown away. (John Steinbeck)
  4. East is East, and West is San Francisco. (O. Henry)
  5. San Franciscans are very proud of their city, and they should be.  It’s the most beautiful place in the world.  (Robert Redford)
  6. If you’re alive, you can’t be bored in San Francisco.  If you’re not alive, San Francisco will bring you to life……San Francisco is a world to explore. It is a place where the heart can go on a delightful adventure. It is a city in which the spirit can know refreshment every day.  (William Saroyan)
  7. Every man should be allowed to love two cities, his own and San Francisco.  (Gene Fowler)
  8. Of all cities in the United States I have seen, San Francisco is the most beautiful.  (Nikita Kruschev)
  9. I prefer a wet San Francisco to a dry Manhattan. (Larry Geraldi)
  10. The cool, grey city of love. (George Sterling)
  11. I never dreamed I’d like any city as well as London.  San Francisco is exciting, moody, exhilarating.  I even love the muted fogs.  (Julie Christie)
  12. I don’t know of any other city where you can walk through so many culturally diverse neighbourhoods, and you’re never out of sight of the wild hills.  Nature is very close here.  (Gary Snyder)
  13. I’m proud to have been a Yankee. But I have found more happiness and contentment, since I came back home to San Francisco than any man has a rigo deserve. This is the friendliest city in the world. (Joe di Maggio)
  14. San Francisco is 49 square miles surrounded by reality.  (Paul Kantner)
  15. The ultimate (travel destination) for me would be one perfect day in San Francisco.  It’s a perfect 72 degrees, clear, the sky bright blue.  I’d start down at Fisherman’s Wharf with someone I really like and end with a romantic dinner and a ride over the Golden Gate Bridge.  There’s no city like it anywhere.  And, if I could be there with the girl of my dreams, that would be the ultimate.  (Larry King)
  16. The port of San Francisco……is a marvel of nature, and might well be called the harbor of harbors….And I think if it could be well settled like Europe there would not be anything more beautiful in all the world” (Juan Bautista de Anza)
  17. Leaving San Francisco is like saying goodbye to an old sweetheart.  You want to linger as long as possible.  (Walter Kronkite)
  18. The Bay Area is so beautiful, I hesitate to preach about heaven while I’m here. (Billy Graham)
  19. San Francisco can start right now to become number one. We can set examples so that others will follow. We can start overnight. We don’t have to wait for budgets to be passed, surveys to be made, political wheelings and dealings…….for it takes no money……it takes no compromising to give the people their rights……it takes no money to respect the individual. It takes no political deal to give people freedom. It takes no survey to remove repression. (Harvey Milk)
  20. There’s no question this is where I want to live.  Never has been.  (Robin Williams)
  21. San Francisco is one of my favourite cities in the world…I would probably rank it at the top or near the top.  It’s small but photogenic and has layers…You never have problems finding great angles that people have never done.  (Ang Lee)
  22. When you get tired of walking around in San Francisco, you can always lean against it.  (unknown)
  23. It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time. (Jack Kerouac)
  24. There may not be a Heaven, but there is San Francisco. (Ashleigh Brilliant)
  25. I have done more for San Francisco than any of its old residents. Since I left there it has increased in population fully 300,000. I could have done more – I could have gone earlier – it was suggested. (Mark Twain)
  26. I find no objection to turning Hollywood into a suburb of San Francisco, the most photogenic city in the world. (Mayor Joseph Alioto)
  27. The City that knows how. (William Howard Taft)
  28. San Francisco is the only city I can think of that can survive all the things you people are doing to it and still look beautiful. (Frank Lloyd Wright)
  29. You wouldn’t think such a place as San Francisco could exist.  The wonderful sunlight here, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes.  Beautiful Chinatown.  Every race in the world.  The sardine fleets sailing out.  The little cable-cars whizzing down The City hills….And all the people are open and friendly.  (Dylan Thomas)
  30. (San Francisco) is a rich, lusty city, rippling with people, with movement, with girls in summer dresses, with flowers, with color; one of the great and wonderful cities of the world….the great seaport of the Pacific now, one of the great naval bases. Through it have poured a million men…..And the sea is always just on the other side of those hills. (James Marlow)
  31. I certainly was surprised to be named Poet Laureate of this far-out city on the left side of the world, and I gratefully accept, for as I told the Mayor, “How could I refuse?” I’d rather be Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)
  32. In all my travels I have never seen the hospitality of San Francisco equalled anywhere in the world.  (Conrad Hilton)
  33. San Francisco! Is there a land where the magic of that name has not been felt? (Clarence F. Edwards)
  34. Your city is remarkable not only for its beauty.  It is also, of all the cities in the United States, the one whose name, the world over, conjures up the most visions and more than any other city incites one to dream.  (Georges Pompidou)
  35. It’s a mad city, inhabited by insane people whose women are of remarkable beauty (Rudyard Kipling)
  36. Somehow the great cities of America have taken their places in a jythology that shapes their destiny: money live sin New York. Power sits in Washington. Freedom sips cappuccino in a sidewalk café in San Francisco. (Joe Flower)
  37. I was married once – in San Francisco. I haven’t seen her for many years. The great earthquake and fire in 1906 destroyed the marriage certificate. There’s no legal proof. Which means that earthquakes aren’t always bad. (W.C. Fields)
  38. It is a good thing the early settlers landed on the East Coast; if they’d landed in San Francisco first, the rest of the country would still be uninhabited.  (Herbert Mye)
  39. What fetched me instantly (and thousands of other newcomers with me) was the subtle but unmistakeable sense of escape from the United States.  (H.L. Mencken)
  40. The City of San Francisco (the metropolis of the State) considering its age, is by long odds the most wonderful city on the face of the earth.  (G.W. Sullivan)
  41. Any one who doesn’t have a great time in San Francisco is pretty much dead to me. (Anthony Boudain)
  42. There are just three big cities in the United States that are “story cities” – New York, of course, New Orleans, and, best of the lot, San Francisco. (Frank Norris)
  43. You have in San Francisco this magnificent Civic Center crowned by a City Hall which I have never seen anywhere equalled.  (Joseph Strauss)
  44. A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gape 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 dark grays – San Francisco is such a city. (Herb Caen)
  45. Caen’s San Francisco may not be the city we remember, but it is the city we want to remember. (Mayor Willie Brown)
  46. Of all American cities of whatever size the most friendly on preliminary inspection, and on further acquaintance the most likable. The happiest-hearted, the gayest, the most care-free city on this continent.  (Irwin S. Cobb)
  47. No city invites the heart to come to life as San Francisco does.  Arrival in San Francisco is an experience in living.  (William Saroyan)
  48. God took the beauty of the Bay of Naples, the Valley of the Nile, the Swiss Alps, the Hudson River Valley, rolled them into one and made San Francisco Bay.  (Fiorello La Guardia)
  49. I always see about six scuffles a night when I come to San Francisco.  That’s one of the town’s charms.  (Erroll Flynn)
  50. San Francisco is a complex town that lets you be yourself, that accepts you even if your family doesn’t. No matter how uncomfortable your own skin feels, you can move to this city, discover who you really are, and plant your feet on the ground.  (Jack Boulware)
  51. San Francisco, open your Golden Gate, you’ll let nobody wait outside your door, San Francisco, here is your wanderin’ one, saying I’ll wander no more. (Gus Khan, Bronislaw Kaper, Walter Jurrman)
  52. San Francisco! – one of my two favorite cities.  There is more grace per square foot in San Francisco than any place on earth!  (Bishop Fulton J. Sheen)
  53. I don’t think San Francisco needs defending.  I never meet anyone who doesn’t love the place, Americans or others.  (Doris Lessing)
  54. There are a thousand viewpoints in the viewtiful city. (Herb Caen)
  55. San Francisco has always been a haven for misfits and weirdos. I’m both of these, which is why I came here. (Michael Franti)
  56. I think San Francisco is the best place in the whole world for an easy life. (Imogen Cunningham)
  57. San Francisco is perhaps the most European of all American cities. (Cecil Beaton)
  58. San Francisco is Beautiful People wearing a bracelet of bridges.  (Hal Lipset)
  59. I have always been rather better treated in San Francisco than I actually deserved (Mark Twain)
  60. It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco. It must be a delightful city and possess all the attraction of the next world. (Oscar Wilde).
  61. Every city on earth has its special sink of vice, crime and degradation, its running ulcer or moral cancer, which it would fain hide from the gaze of mankind…..San Franciscans will not yield the palm of superiority to anything to be found elsewhere in the world. Speak of the deeper depth, the lower hell, the maelstrom of vice and iniquity – from whence those who once fairly enter escape no more forever – and they will point triumphantly to the Barbary Coast, strewn from end to end with the wrecks of humanity, and challenge you to match it anywhere outside of he lake of fire and brimstone. (Colonel Evans)
  62. If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, if you’re going to San Francisco, you’re gonna meet some gentle people there. (John Phillips)
  63. San Francisco is the greatest…the hills…fabulous food…most beautiful and civilised people.  (Duke and Duchess of Bedford)
  64. The old San Francisco is dead. The gayest, lightest hearted, and most pleasure-loving city of the western continent, and in many ways the most interesting and romantic, is a horde of refugees living among ruins. It may rebuild; it probably will; but those who have known that peculiar city by the Golden Gate, have caught its flavour of the Arabian Nights, feel it can never be the same. It is as though a pretty, frivolous woman has passed through a great tragedy. She survives, but she is sobered and different. If it rises out of the ashes it must be a modern city, much like other cities without its old atmosphere. (Will Irwin)
  65. I love San Francisco.  It would be a perfect place for a honeymoon.  (Kim Novak)
  66. San Francisco is a breathtakingly beautiful city, with lots of great contrasts between dark and light, often overlapping each other. It’s a great setting for a horror story. (Christopher Moore)
  67. Now there’s a grown-up swinging town.  (Frank Sinatra)
  68. Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of High Misdemeanour, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars. (Emperor Norton)
  69. If civil disobedience is the way to go about change, than I think a lot of people will be going to San Francisco (Rosie O’Donnell)
  70. I don’t like San Francisco.  I love it!  (Dorothy Lamour)
  71. “Queen of the Pacific Coast! Fair city whose changing skies for half the year shower down mist and rain, and the other half sunbeams of molten brass! Metropolis of alternate sticky mud and blinding dust! In spite of these and more thou art a city of my heart,  O Ciudad de San Francisco!” (T.S. Kenderdine)
  72. Two days in this city is worth two months in New York.  (Robert Menzies)
  73. I’m just mad for San Francisco.  It is like London and Paris stacked on top of each other.  (Twiggy)
  74. I fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union. After the sagebrush and alkali deserts of Wahoe, San Francisco was Paradise to me. (Mark Twain)
  75. San Francisco is poetry.  Even the hills rhyme.  (Pat Montandon)
  76. San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every house a poem, every dweller within immortal. This is the whole truth. (William Saroyan)
  77. I love this city.  If I am elected, I’ll move the White House to San Francisco. Everybody’s so friendly.  (Robert Kennedy)
  78. I like the fog that creeps over the whole city every night about five, and the warm protective feeling it gives…and lights of San Francisco at night, the fog horn, the bay at dusk and the little flower stands where spring flowers appear before anywhere else in the country…But, most of all, I like the view of the ocean from the Cliff House.  (Irene Dunne)
  79. San Francisco is really fun and liberal, and it’s my kind of politics. It’s like being Jewish in front of Jewish people. (Elayne Bossier)
  80. I love San Francisco and Brighton has something of San Francisco about it. It’s by the sea, there’s a big gay community, a feeling of people being there because they enjoy their life there. (Brian Eno)
  81. We’re crazy about this city.  First time we came here, we walked the streets all day – all over town – and nobody hassled us.  People smiled, friendly-like, and we knew we could live here……Los Angeles? That’s just a big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for a trip to San Francisco……And the beautiful old houses and the strange light.  We’ve never been in a city with light like this.  We sit in our hotel room for hours, watching the fog come in, the light change.  (John Lennon and Yoko Ono)
  82. The extreme geniality of San Francisco’s economic, intellectual and political climate makes it the most varied and challenging city in the United States (James Michener)
  83. But I would rather be with you, somewhere in San Francisco on a back porch in July, just looking up to Heaven, at this crescent in the sky (Robert Hunter)
  84. I have seen few things as beautiful as a 6.30 am lift-off from San Francisco International Airport in the autumn. From above, the rippled fog layer laps against the shores of the foothills like a voluminous cotton ocean (Eric Chang)
  85. San Francisco is a city with the assets of a metropolis without the disadvantages of size and industry.  (Jack Kenny)
  86. Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there? (Herb Caen)
  87. San Francisco is one of the great cultural plateaus in the world….one of the really urbane communities in the United States…one of the truly cosmopolitan places – and for many, many years, it has always had a warm welcome for human beings from all over the world.  (Duke Ellington)
  88. The Golden Gate Bridge’s daily strip tease from enveloping stoles of mist to full frontal glory is still the most provocative show in town (Mary Moore Mason)
  89. No visit to the United States would be complete without San Francisco – this beautiful city, center of the West, very well known for its beauty and the place where the United Nations was born.  (Queen Sirikit of Thailand)
  90. To a traveler paying his first visit, it has the interest of a new planet.  It ignores the meteorological laws which govern the rest of the world.  (Fitz Hugh Ludlow)
  91. Cities are like gentlemen, they are born, not made.  You are either a city, or you are not, size has nothing to do with it.  I bet San Francisco was a city from the very first time it had a dozen settlers.  New York is “Yokel”, but San Francisco is “City at Heart”.  (Will Rogers)
  92. God! I loove this city! (Herb Caen)
  93. This is the first place in the United States where I sang, and I like San Francisco better than any other city in the world.  I love no city more than this one.  Where else could I sing outdoors on Christmas Eve?  (Luisa Tetrazzini)
  94. The San Francisco Bay Area is the playpen of countercultures (RZ Sheppard)
  95. I have seen purer liqors, better segars, finer tobacco, truer guns and pistols, larger dirks and bowie knives, and prettier women courtesans here in San Francisco than in any other place I have ever visited. (Hinton Helper)
  96. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories. (Jack London)
  97. San Francisco may soon become the first fully gentrified city in America, the urban equivalent of a gated bedroom community…..Now it’s becoming almost impossible for a lot of the people who have made this such a world-class city – people who have been the heart and soul of the city for decades – from the fishers and pasta makers and blue-collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others –to exist here anymore. And when you’ve lost that part of the city, you’ve lost San Francisco. (Daniel Zoll)
  98. San Francisco is a city where people are never more abroad than when they are at home.  (Benjamin F. Taylor)
  99. It’s the grandest city I saw in America.  If everyone acted as the San Franciscans did, there would be hope for settlement of the world’s difficulties.  (Frol Zozlov)
  100. To this day the city of San Francisco remains to the Chinese the Great City of the Golden Mountains.  (Kai Fu Shah)

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San Francisco can proudly boast more than its fair share of eccentrics, but few can rival Joshua Abraham Norton, the self-proclaimed “Emperor of these United States” and “Protector of Mexico”, for their presumption, bravado and, at times, visionary genius.

Born of Jewish parents (somewhere) in London, England (sometime) between 1814 and 1819, he spent his early manhood in South Africa, serving as a colonial rifleman.  He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 with $40,000 to his name and quickly amassed a fortune of $250,000, primarily from real estate but also from speculating in commodities. However, he lost it all when his attempts to corner the market for imported Peruvian rice (China had banned the export of their own) backfired spectacularly.  Lengthy litigation resulted in the Supreme Court of California ruling against him, forcing him to declare bankruptcy in 1853.

He fled San Francisco, only to return several years later, a changed man.  Embittered and, many might argue, severely mentally disturbed, by his earlier experiences, he spent the next two decades perpetuating a one man campaign to denounce and dissolve the nation’s political and financial infrastructure.

On 17th September 1859 he issued letters to the city’s newspapers declaring  himself “Emperor of these United States”, adding that:
“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton……….declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States, and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested, do hereby order and direct the representatives of the different States of the Union to assemble in Musical Hall, of this city, on the 1st day of Feb. next, then and there to make such alterations in the existing laws of the Union as may ameliorate the evils under which the country is laboring, and thereby cause confidence to exist, both at home and abroad, in our stability and integrity”.

On 12th October he formally dissolved Congress.  Amongst his numerous subsequent decrees were an invocation to the Army to depose the elected officials of Congress, the ordering of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches to publicly ordain him as “Emperor” and a telegram proposal to Abraham Lincoln that he should marry Queen Victoria to cement relations between the U.S. and Great Britain. He also thought nothing of issuing orders too to the German Kaiser and Russian Czar.

And on 12th August 1869 he abolished the Democratic and Republican parties (now there’s a thought)!

One portentious pronouncement would have struck a chord later, not only with legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, Herb Caen, but many other San Francisco natives:

“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abonimable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of High Misdemeanour, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars”.

Irrespective of his mental state, Norton was, at times, a real visionary and some of his “Imperial Decrees” demonstrated great prescience.  He urged the formation of a League of Nations and forbade conflict between religions.  Most dramatically, he called persistently for a suspension bridge or tunnel to be built connecting San Francisco with Oakland. Both eventually saw the light of day with the constructions of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Bay Area Rapid Transit’s Transbay Tube in 1936 and 1974 respectively.

Another proclamation ordered that a huge Christmas tree should be erected in Union Square. Duly accepted, it has stood there ever since.

Each day for more than 20 years, the “Emperor” would leave his “Imperial Palace”, a minute room in a boarding house at 642, Commercial Street, to walk the streets in a grand blue uniform with brass buttons, gold-plated epaulets and royal purple sash, a beaver hat embellished by a peacock feather (his “dusty plume”) and a rosette.

He was rarely seen without his cane or umbrella as he inspected the condition of the cable cars and sidewalks, the state of public property and even the appearance of police officers. After an over-zealous young police officer had been soundly reprimanded for arresting him, and subsequently been granted an “Imperial Pardon” by Norton himself, all police officers made a point of saluting him when they met in the street.

Many cities would have persecuted, incarcerated or, at best, ridiculed him for being insane. But this was San Francisco in the full flush of post-Gold Rush glory, and the citizens loved and revered him.  He was welcomed at the best restaurants, where he would dine for free, enabling the owner thereafter to erect blass plaques proclaiming “by Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”.

Front row balcony seats were also reserved for him at local theaters, including the Opera, where he was cheered on arrival. His active involvement in civic affairs even led to him being granted a reserved seat in the visitors’ gallery of the State Senate, from which he was occasionally invited onto the floor to speak on matters close to his heart.

He was alleged to have been accompanied often – including at the theatre – by two mongrel dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, local celebrities in their own right, whom he supplied with food scraps from the free lunch counters that he frequented.  Lazarus died after being run over by a truck of the same fire company – Knickerbocker Engine Co. No. 5 – that Lillian Coit revered and subsequently befriended. When Bummer died shortly afterwards, allegedly of a broken heart, Mark Twain wrote: “He died full of years, and honor, and disease, and fleas”. Their fame led to them posthumously being depicted in Life in San Francisco, a comic opera.

Now, he could not have been a true Emperor without the right to coin his own currency, and his “Imperial Government of Norton” notes, all bearing his royal image and ranging from 50 cents to 10 dollars, were accepted wherever he did business.  Every day he used one of his own fifty cent bills to pay for his lodgings. And when his uniform started to deteriorate, the Board of Supervisors bought him a “suitably regal replacement” and the city charter was amended to permit Norton to collect $30 annually for its replacement and repair.

On the evening of 8th January 1880, after completing his daily rounds of the city, Norton collapsed on the corner of California Street and Dupont Street (now Grant Avenue) in front of Old St. Mary’s Church as he was on his way to a lecture at the California Academy of Sciences.  He died before medical attention could arrive.

The following day the San Francisco Chronicle published his obituary on its front page under the headline “Le Roi est Mort” (“The King is Dead”).  He had died in abject poverty.  His funeral, two days later, was a sad, dignified event, honoured by the attendance of the Mayor and the playing of a military band. Upwards of 30,000 people, a seventh of the entire population of the city at the time, lined the streets to pay their respects to the two mile long funeral cortege.  The City of San Francisco and Pacific Club paid all his funeral expenses.

Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson, amongst others, paid homage to Norton by modelling characters on him in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn  and The Wrecker respectively. Seventy years after his death, the Chronicle sponsored an annual treasure hunt in his name.

But perhaps his, and his adopted city’s, finest epitaph is that provided by Stevenson’s stepdaughter, Isobel Field, who wrote that he “was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being “let him be emperor if he wants to”.  San Francisco played the game with him”.

More, in the words of John C. Ralston, a “tourist attraction in his own time” than a “significant historical figure”, there can be few lives that better personify that much-quoted phrase “Only in San Francisco”.

Postcript:

Emperor Norton Lives! Not only does he conduct walking tours of his empire but he maintains an excellent Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Emperor-Nortons-Fantastic-San-Francisco-Time-Machine/104510419615984

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Washington may have had its Art Buchwald, London its J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber”) and Dublin the mercurial Myles Na gCopaleen, but few cities can have been as fortunate as San Francisco in having a chronicler (no pun intended) as prolific, urbane and popular as Herb Caen who wrote in its daily newspapers about life in the city, for almost sixty years.  With more than 16,000 columns of over 1,000 words each, lifelong friend, author and restaurateur, Barnaby Conrad, estimated that if “laid end to end, his columns would stretch 5.6 miles, from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge”.

Herbert Eugene Caen was born on 3rd April 1916 in Sacramento, though he claimed to have been conceived on the Marina in San Francisco during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition as his parents spent the summer there “complaining about the cold”.

He joined the Sacramento Union as a sports reporter in 1932 on graduating from high school.  Four years later he was hired to write a radio column for the San Francisco Chronicle, beginning an association that was to last for 50 of the next 61 years.

On the scrapping of the radio column he persuaded the editor, Paul Smith, that he could write a daily column on the city, and  It’s News to Me duly debuted on 5th July 1938, appearing thereafter for six days a week.

When the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1942 he joined the Air Force, assigned to communications, and reached the rank of captain.  Returning to his Chronicle column, he continued to record and comment upon the foibles of local government and personailities.

Caen often referred to San Francisco as Baghdad-by-the-Bay,  a term he coined to reflect the city’s exotic multiculturism.  A collection of his essays bearing the same title was published in 1949, going through seven printings.  In 1953 he published the book Don’t Call it Frisco after an Examiner news item of the same name on 3rd April 1918 when Judge Mogan, presiding in a divorce case, stated that “No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles”.  Emperor Norton had previously raged against the use of the term and issued one of his imperial proclamations to that effect.

However, a year later, Caen left the Chronicle for higher paid work at the San Francisco Examiner, for which he worked until 1958 when he was persuaded to return to his former employer on the promise of a better salary.  His “homecoming” column was published on 15th January of that year.

In 1976 he published One Man’s San Francisco, a fine collection of some of the best writing from his columns.  In 1988, the fiftieth anniversary of the column was marked by a special edition of the Chronicle’s “Sunday Punch”.  At the age of 75 he decided to slow down by reducing his output from six to five days a week!

Caen was hugely popular and a highly influential figure in San Francisco society.  He was described by the Chronicle as a “major wit and unwavering liberal who could be charming, outspoken and, at times, disagreeable.”

He called his work “three-dot journalism”, in reference to the ellipses by which he separated his column’s short items, all composed on his “Loyal Royal” typewriter.

His writing was imbued with a gentle, dry wit and an intimate knowledge of the politics, society and culture of his adopted city and the wider Bay Area. Hardly a show, party or any other significant event in San Francisco was complete without Caen’s gregarious presence, and his clever, sometimes acerbic, comments on it the next morning in his column.  Conrad said that “he seemed to know everyone in the world; he somehow made them honorary San Franciscans and let us, his readers, have the privilege of knowing them, too”.

His witticisms and plays on words would fill another ten features, but here are a few:

  • “the trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around”;
  • “I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there”;
  • “cockroaches and socialites are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything”; and
  • “the only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever”.

The Bay Bridge was “the car-strangled spanner”, City Hall “Silly Hall” and Berkeley was “Berserkeley”.

Whilst many of his invented words have passed into history, others have become not only synonymous with San Francisco but entered the everyday language.  On 2nd April 1958, in a Pocketful of Notes, he reported on a party hosted by 50 “Beatniks” which spread to “over 250 bearded cats and kits”.  This is the first known use of the word.  And during the Summer of Love in 1967 he contributed more than anybody to popularising the term “hippie”.

In 1996 he was the recipient of a special award from the Pulitzer Prize Board which acclaimed his “extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of the city”.  On 14th June of the same year 75,000 people, including Walter Cronkite, Robin Williams, Willie Mays, Don  Johnson and Mayor Willie Brown who presided over the event, celebrated Herb Caen Day.

He espoused many liberal causes over his career, including a life long opposition to the death penalty.  He was also one of the first mainstream newspaper men to question the Vietnam War.  But it is to his beloved San Francisco that we return for one of his most passionate campaigns, namely to have the hideous and excessively busy Embarcadero Freeway, or “Dambarcadero” as he called it, demolished.  Success came, but from an unexpected source.  The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged it so severely that the decision was taken to pull it all down.  A three mile sweep  of the Embarcadero is now named “Herb Caen Way” in his honour.  The wide promenade is the most eastern street in San Francisco, curving round its northeast corner, proceeding along the waterfront, and ending near AT & T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, the team Caen adored.

Despite a terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, Caen continued to write almost until his death on 1st February 1997, though his output understandably shrunk over time. His funeral six days later was held in the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, attended by 250 people with hundreds more outside listening to the hymns and eulogies over loudspeaker.

Caen had willed to the city a fireworks display which was given in Aquatic Park in front of Ghiradelli Square, concluding with a pyrotechnic image of a typewriter on the bay.  This tribute was attended by many of his friends and fans, who gathered on Herb Caen Way… on the Embarcadero, lit candles protected from the wind by dixie cups, and walked north along the waterfront to Aquatic Park.

And all this for a local hack!

John Steinbeck wrote that he “made a many-faceted character of the city of San Francisco….It is very probable that Herb’s city will be the one that is remembered”.

But the last fitting words should be left to Caen himself:

“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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