I spent the week in San Francisco.
I spent the week in 1949.
Caen was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he was part of my mornings. Beginning in 1938, he wrote a daily column for either the Chronicle (huzzah!) or the Examiner (boo…hiss…), a feat he continued until 1990, when he “scaled back” to only five days a week. He continued to write until his death in 1997. In his career, he chalked up more than 17,000 columns of 1,000 words a piece, coined the word beatnik in 1958, and was awarded with many honors, including a Pulitzer Prize (which he called a “Pullet Surprise”).
That last item typifies Caen’s predominant style. Light, jaunty, convivial, sprinkled with puns and the occasional raspberry, delivered with a Winchellesque bravado and a wink, his columns were informative and fun, making the biggest names small, lifting the everyday to mythic height.
Baghdad by the Bay recounts the daily life of San Franciscans in the ’40s, pre-war and post-, and is a must-read for anyone who loves The City, has visited it, or wants to. It is not timeless prose; far from it, in fact. While Caen’s columns changed over the decades, keeping pace with the times, the essays in this book form a gallery of still lifes that depict an age that vanished long ago. Each tableau is chock-a-block with phrases and landmarks which, though now turned to dust, still loom in his descriptions as large and as powerful as they did seventy years ago. The Orpheum, Playland-at-the-Beach, nickel ferry rides to Oakland. It’s an age of hats and gloves and neckties, of smoke-filled jernts with gimlet-eyed bartenders, of “Skid Rowgues” and “Muniserable Railway” streetcars, of back doors and hotel lobbies, of corner cops, taxi stands, and newspaper boys shouting “Extry extry get yer copy here!”
My favorites were some of Herb’s, too: aptonyms. Caen loved it when a person’s name was oh-so-apropos to their profession, such as: “Mr. Schade sells Venetian Blinds, I. Dye is an insurance adjuster with Royal Indemnity, and Edith Klock is a secretary in the main office of the Time Oil Company.” He also loved the absurdity of his town’s geography: “The Market Hotel isn’t on Market Street, but on Washington. The offices of the Market Street Railway are on Sutter Street. The Market Street Van & Storage Company is on Mission Street. And the Masonic Temple isn’t on Masonic Avenue, but on Van Ness.” Or, when regaling us with stories of San Francisco’s “Little Italy,” he prefaces it thus: “The center of North Beach, which isn’t a beach, is Washington Square, which isn’t a square and which doesn’t contain a statue of Washington but of Benjamin Franklin.”
As a work of its time, though, there are parts that we will now find uncomfortable. The caricatures of San Francisco’s Asian communities poke out most sharply, and even though Caen’s bleeding-heart liberal nature meant no disrespect or harm, they still rankle as evidence of the ruling culture’s unwitting ignorance of its own inherent racism. It’s nothing you won’t experience when reading Wouk or watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and frankly, I’d rather it was there than not; the picture is more accurate without a coat of whitewash.
This was also the last book my father read. I gave him a first edition a few months ago, and we read it together, comparing notes as we progressed. Below, to close this post, is a favorite.
Midnight, Saturday, San Francisco, 1949:
The floors in a hundred clubs are littered with cigarette butts and gardenias slowly turning black. The immaculate, dearly bought hair-dos of 7 P.M. have disappeared into swirly creations which even Mme. Medusa might envy, and a dozen guys are examining the spots on their best ties and wondering whether cleaning will save them. On street corners, the couples flip coins to see whether they’ll try to catch the midnight movie on Market or wind it all up with waffles and coffee. And in the Mark lobby an old-time habitué looks around at the huge crowd, shrugs, and walks out, flipping to the headwaiter: “Huh —— nobody’s here.”