Category Archives: San Francisco

Happy 100th Birthday, National Parks Service

Photo copyright Smtunli, Svein-Magne Tunli – http://www.tunliweb.no/SM/English/sm_eng.htm

As I may have mentioned here in the past, I’m an information junkie. However, I’m an information junkie cursed with a terrible Swiss Cheese of a memory, possibly caused by an old gypsy woman, and therefore I’m a fan of tour guides. Part of it is respect for knowledge, part of it is the ability to communicate that knowledge, and another part of it is their sheer enthusiasm for their subject(s).

That respect was born out of encounters with the US National Park Service rangers on Alcatraz Island. Now, Alcatraz is a pretty cool place to visit, but amid the tours covering the history and law and order aspects of the place, we had one tour guide enthusiastically telling us about a colony of oysters that was developing off one of the piers. That Park Ranger genuinely loved his job, bubbling over with enthusiasm and geeky joy in his subject. That’s actually the thing that most stands out from that particular tour, even twelve years later.

In many ways, the role of the rangers straddles two worlds that often feel too separate: it’s a cool, outdoorsy job, but it’s also got a sense of the geek spirit, in the most postive way – the idea that this stuff is cool, it’s good to be enthusiastic about it, and there’s nothing wrong with communicating that enthusiasm to the millions of visitors who pass through the parks every year.

So, to the National Parks Service, happy birthday from Britain. You helped make my trips to the States memorable, and long may you continue to inform, preserve and protect.

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Historical Randomness: Emperor Norton I

It was 1880, and on a sad Saturday in January, 30,000 people lined the streets of San Francisco to pay their final respects to Joshua Norton, first (and last) Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. A two-mile cortege made its way to the Masonic Cemetery as residents from across the social spectrum honoured one of history’s great eccentrics.

Of course, the USA doesn’t do emperors – that’s pretty much its reason for existing in the first place. However, on September 17 1859 they got one. Joshua Norton returned to San Francisco after a self-imposed exile. He had been made bankrupt the previous year – famines in China had lead to a ban on rice exports, and while Norton had spotted a potential business opportunity, things went badly wrong, resulting in him being caught up in protracted litigation. It’s possible that the stress of this situation pushed him over the edge, because on his return he declared himself emperor, demanding that Congress be dissolved.

Now, obviously Congress didn’t dissolve, not even after the Norton called upon the army to disband the government by force. It didn’t matter. Emperor Norton soon established himself as a beloved part of San Francisco life (by the way, don’t call it Frisco, he didn’t it being called Frisco), regularly seen in full dress uniform inspecting street cars. Although penniless, the city’s best restaurants let him eat for free, putting up plaques informing customers that they worked by order of the Emperor. He got the best seats in the house at theatre productions. He issued decrees that the streets should be cleared up and that residents should sponsor the airship experiments of Frederick Marriott (the man who coined the term ‘aeroplane’ and who was responsible for the US’s first unmanned aircraft). He pre-empted the Bay Bridge (when they extended the bridge in 2004, there was an unsuccessful campaign to name it after Norton) and when one of the Emperor’s dogs died, Mark Twain wrote its epitaph.

Everyone knew Norton was crazy, of course, but that didn’t matter; when a policeman tried to have him committed it led to a public outcry (“Emperor Norton has killed nobody, robbed nobody and despoiled no country, which is more than can be said of some fellows of his line”) – from then on all the police officers in San Francisco saluted the Emperor when he passed.

The mid-1800s wasn’t necessarily a barrel of laughs if you were Chinese-American – the usual story of immigrants being sought after as cheap labour, but facing racial discrimination as a result is an old, old story. So it’s worth remembering that, when an anti-Chinese riot broke out in San Francisco, Emperor Norton got between the riotters and their targets and simply recited the Lord’s Prayer until the mob dispersed.

In 1880, on a cold and rainy night, Norton I collapsed in the street and died, the first and only Emperor of the United States. His story is obscure, but he’s still remembered if you know where to look; there’s just something inspirational about the whole thing. Just one example – Neil Gaiman wrote about him in the comic book story ‘Three Septembers and a January’ (in issue 31 of The Sandman), in which a character comments that Norton’s “madness keeps him sane.” Something about that feels true.

So at the start of the year, when we’re all thinking about our hopes and dreams for the next twelve months, raise a glass to Emperor Norton and consider how even the strangest dreams can end up somehow beautiful. And then go and think about doing something crazy.

San Francisco Memories

Photograph sourced from http://pdphoto.org/index.php

On this day in 1847, Yerba Buena in California adopted its more famous name, which is as good a reason as any to post some of my memories of when I visited it back in 2004.

 

It hasn’t been that long since I was in San Francisco, not in the grand scheme of things, but some of the memories are getting a bit hazy. Alcatraz is a pretty cool place to visit; it’s now a National Park, and so amid the tours covering the history and law and order aspects of the place, we had one tour guide enthusiastically telling us about a colony of oysters that was developing off one of the piers. That’s one of the reasons I have such respect for tour guides – the US National Parks Service is one of the reasons for that. The Park Ranger at Alcatraz genuinely loved his job, bubbling over with enthusiasm and geeky joy in his subject. That’s actually the thing that most stands out from that particular tour; well, that and getting pooped on by a seagull.

(Reading that back, it sounds a little dismissive of the place and I don’t want that to be the case. It’s well worth visiting if you’re ever in San Francisco, even if Mythbusters may have proven it to be less escape-proof than everyone thought…)

My most recounted memory of SF came at the end of the holiday. We got a cab to the airport and, frankly, the driver was insane. He looked how you’d expect a cabbie in San Francisco to look – long grey hair, vaguely hippy-ish – and he drove maniacally, swerving around a three or four lane freeway as if all other cars were merely conceptual entities and thus couldn’t kill us if we drove into the side/back/front/roof of them. He operated a clever system of indicating the opposite direction to that he intended to move, and when other drivers hit their horns and, you know, swore at us, he just blinked his hazard warning lights with Zen-like calm. It would have been beautiful in its Darwinian elegance if it weren’t for the fact I was in the passenger seat and therefore had a close-up view of everything we were about to hit.

(Minor thought on memory – I remember sitting on the left hand side of the car, but that can’t be right, because it was American and so the passenger seat would have been on the right, surely?)

He also told us that, although he was married, his wife was a hippo and therefore he had a mistress. I don’t think his wife was really a hippo, I just think she nagged him a lot to reconsider his vocation, what with the whole driving thing being a bit of a kamikaze mission…

One night we went to the Hard Rock Cafe, eating over-sized portions, listening to live music and impressing a cute waitress by polishing off a dessert the size of a whale. I think that’s when I consolidated my little tradition of going to Hard Rock Cafes in every country I visit.

(I guess I should apologise for being a bit corporate there, especially when I didn’t find anything relating to Joshua Norton and I didn’t visit the City Lights bookstore.)

Then there was Haight-Ashbury, the legendary hippy district, which still kinda looks the part, although there’s a GAP there which sort of spoils the image. We went there on the bus; in front of us a teenage girl was crying and an aging hippy couple were trying to comfort her. “Write all your memories in a book,” the guy said, “Then when you turn the page it puts those memories in the past and they don’t hurt so bad.” I remember being a bit cynical about that; now I look back and admire the guy for giving a damn about a crying girl on a bus.

Also in the Haight we went to the Ben and Jerry’s store, where the spaced out twentysomething dude behind the counter told us how The Da Vinci Code had blown his mind.

But all this aside, one moment stands out, embedded in my bones. 2004 was a bad year for me; something bad was coming, I knew it was coming, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. It was a good holiday in a bad year and so that’s the context for all this.

Our last night in SF, we went down to Pier 39. It’s a popular tourist spot, all carousels and smelly sealions, and we’d travelled there a couple of times on the famous trolley buses. It’s a nice spot and on that last night I found myself on my own at the end of the pier. Behind me were the sounds of shops and sideshows; before me was San Francisco Bay, dark, waves lapping, the lights of boats slowly drifting, the Alcatraz lighthouse blinking on and off and on and off… And time slowed to a crawl and I was at peace and didn’t want to leave and I just stared out at the Bay with a sense of transcendence and a presence and a peace that I believe to have been God but I wasn’t in much of a state to do much with that knowledge at the time.

“There he is,” said my friend Andy, “You alright, Mr. Hyde?”

“Yeah. Just taking a moment. Just taking a moment.”

 

Back In The Day… 6 December 2011

Introducing a new series of micro-posts based around an “On This Day In History” theme. It will mainly be stuff that wouldn’t make a full post, or that links to old entries, or that I just find interesting.

For instance, on December 6 1897, London became the first city to licence taxi cabs. This reminded me of my most memorable cab journey, back when I was in San Francisco. We got a cab to the airport and, frankly, the driver was insane. He looked how you’d expect a cabbie in San Francisco to look – long grey hair, vaguely hippy-ish – and he drove maniacally, swerving around a three or four lane freeway as if all other cars were merely conceptual entities and thus couldn’t kill us if we drove into the side/back/front/roof of them. He operated a clever system of indicating the opposite direction to that he intended to move, and when other drivers hit their horns and, you know, swore at us, he just blinked his hazard warning lights with Zen-like calm. It would have been beautiful in its Darwinian elegance if it weren’t for the fact I was in the passenger seat and therefore had a close-up view of everything we were about to hit. He also told us that, although he was married, his wife was a hippo and therefore he had a mistress. I don’t think his wife was really a hippo, I just think she nagged him a lot to reconsider his vocation, what with the whole driving thing being a bit of a kamikaze mission. If anyone else has experienced driving with this guy, please let me know…

Also, happy birthday to Peter Buck, REM guitarist. Here’s a link to the post I wrote in tribute to the band

 

Travellers Show and Tell Blog Carnival

One of my posts is featured in the Travellers Show and Tell Blog Carnival over at Mental Mosaic – check it out for posts on California, Norway and ancient American ruins…