Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Chronic Herb

I fear that I may pass from a wannabe San Franciscan to a wannabe San Franciscan without passing through the period of ever, technically, BEING a San Franciscan.  That would be a shame, since I love this city, and it was a huge part of what brought me out West in the first place.  I grow increasingly fascinated with the city, its history and lore, its past splendors and future dreams, the longer I spend there.  From day to day, I typically only see the relatively bleak streetscape of SOMA, but every time I venture further out I feel like I've discovered something new and valuable, and my love is rekindled.

As part of my continuing exploration of the city, I recently picked up "The Best of Herb Caen 1960-1975."  Herb Caen was a legend, a writer at the San Francisco Chronicle for most of the last century, and arguably did more than any single other person to define The City and preach its virtues.  He coined the phrase "Baghdad by the Bay," and wrote soaring odes to the city's cable cars, glittering waters, and indomitable spirit.

I discovered while reading that he was also a devoted sentimentalist.  Even in 1960 he was already bemoaning the loss of the city that was, worried by the recent arrival of skyscrapers, and the relentless march of Redevelopment.  To his credit, history has largely proven him right.  The Embarcadero Freeway that he argued against so strongly was eventually struck down by the Hand of God Himself, and the people took the opportunity to leave that monstrosity dead.  The blocks around Geary are still around, and not as painful, but one can still mourn the vibrant communities that were town apart by that upheaval.  On the skyline itself I have mixed feelings - it's been there as long as I've known the city, and does seem a crucial part of The City's character, and yet, anyone who has walked down the Financial District streets on nights or weekends will instantly recognize Caen's verdict: it is a moonscape, a place where humans are not meant to live.

And yet, while he seems to endlessly mourn the passing of the city that was (not without some self-awareness - as he cheerfully admits, he himself is a transplant, arriving in The City from Sacramento), he is hardly a reactionary.  It's surprising and encouraging to read the gentle descriptions that he writes about the hippies and other counter-cultural flowering within San Francisco.  He doesn't claim to be one of them or even completely understand them, but neither does he indulge in the nativist tendency to decry the "outsider," to claim that they're ruining "our" city.  He recognizes in them a kindred spirit, manifesting in different form but of a similar type to what has drawn people to San Francisco throughout generations.  They arrive wide-eyed, loving The City, optimistic, driven to change the world for the better.

The book is a collection of newspaper columns, and some are unquestionably better than others.  I found the early writing to be borderline intolerable, far too reliant on puns and arch comments.  It slips into a more natural tone as the years go on and becomes more readable.  A surprisingly large number of columns are basically prose obituaries, devoted to particular socialites or "characters" who lived and died in The City.  These are kind of interesting in the local flavor they give, but it does seem a bit odd to have them so widely represented... the dead often seem far more interesting than the living, which certainly fits with Caen's general outlook on the world.

Beyond the local culture, the book is also extremely moving as an eyewitness to history.  This turbulent period includes the shocking assassinations and the escalation of war in Vietnam, and JFK's death as written that very day moved me in a way that it never has before.  Caen captures rawness, shock, grief that people all over the country must have been feeling.

All together, a fine read.  Probably of limited utility to people who don't already love it here, but who knows - maybe the book can help kindle some hearts to love it for the first time.

No comments:

Post a Comment