Heart of the City Archives
In Search of... Herb Caen's City
by Hank Donat

On Day 2 of the five Herb Caen Days I woke with a nostalgia hangover. Celebrating the life of San Francisco's chronicler was an invitation to search for the man whose writing embodied everything we wanted the City to be for nearly 60 years. 

The catalog of Caen characters at Ed Moose's luncheon Tuesday saw Caen in one another. Stories of Caen's San Francisco are written between the lines on Wilkes Bashford's forehead, behind the twinkle in Stanlee Gatti's eye, and in the cheek of Willie Brown.

Caen legends like the one about Eva Gardner dancing on the bar at the Mat are etched in Barnaby Conrad's laugh lines. Caen's stories were visible on the faces of the great women there too, but many of those faces have been edited.

Later, I searched for Caen along his famous shortcut from Le Central on Bush Street to the Chronicle at "Fifth and Mish." In 1981, Caen detailed his route like a Family Circus cartoon, taking readers through parking garages and department store basements in order to get from the brasserie to his office in the rain without cover and still arrive reasonably dry. "This entails a lot of jaywalking," Caen wrote.

Most of the path is still intact, though Union Square is under reconstruction and the Emporium and Woolworth are gone as is Giannini's Market, which was also on the course. At the end of the rainbow I did find Caen, or at least his "Loyal Royal," which is on display in the Chronicle lobby. 

The Hearst folks might take a closer look at the yellowing piece of paper - an authentic page of Caen copy - in the cylinder of the L.R. Directly above the keys are the words, "Greet Mayor Angela Alioto!" Caen was writing about the 1995 election and what might happen if the Board of Supervisors had to pick a winner in the event of a tie. Perhaps Caen was prophetic about a Supreme Court scenario he didn't live to see. The page is also a warning to those like myself who follow in Caen's footsteps, or work in his shadow. No matter if you call yourself a successor and others imitators, sooner or later all journalism turns yellow. PS: There's a Royal on display at the Main Library, but that one's an imitator.

While celebrating the joi de vivre of Caen and San Francisco it was impossible not see how much the City has changed in the five years since his death. One of the cornerstones of Herb Caen Days was the Giants opener at Pac Bell Park, which didnŐt exist when Caen and his beloved Ann Moller searched the sky for the comet Hyakutake from the Marina Green during the last year of his life.

When Caen died in 1997 we were beginning to worry about dot com workers taking over the Mission. The tragedies of September 11 proved that we can become a different City, and the world a different place, over the course of single morning. We're supposed to know that here in earthquake country.

Sacramento native Caen started his column, It's News to Me, in 1938 at the age of 22. Caen's San Francisco spanned six decades and includes a time when African-Americans were porters, not mayors. Women wore hats downtown. Caen's era also includes a time before Chinese people could own property, and when gay bars were routinely raided by police. Caen championed free speech and was ahead of his time in recognizing advocates for tolerance. It was he who coined the term "beatnik."

Now we watch as his legend, too, is folded into the mythological City in the mists of Baghdad by the Bay. Though Caen himself counted the ways San Francisco wasn't what it used to be at least three times a year, he also acknowledged that it never was, and knew that no matter how much fun he was having, the best was yet to come.

After leaving a reading of his columns at the Main Library, I found the closest thing to Caen yet, but in surprising form. On the 19-line there was a young man who couldn't be a day over 22. He carried his gear in a nylon backpack with an out-of-town sports logo on it and generally reeked of newbie. The kid was gangly, with pimples, a bulging Adam's apple, and thick glasses that enlarged his eyes. He reviewed a list of apartments he had appointments to see that afternoon. Watching as this kid attempted to fold a map of streets he hasn't climbed yet, I was glad he came to a City where there's always going to be someone who will tell him that he's beautiful. Because, like so many who come here to blossom on their own soil, he is. Bright with promise, they are like our trees during these April Herb Caen Days, trees from Telegraph Hill to Portola to the Sunset - bursting with life from the center of the earth toward the sun.

That's why when I look for Herb Caen's San Francisco, I look at San Franciscans, and I look forward. 

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