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June 28 - July 2, 1999

Wednesday, June 30, 1999

Heart's journey

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

--- A.E. Housman

Our regular diet of news breviaries about refugees, deportees, the disappeared and the unaccounted-for was superseded momentarily by the cheering tale of 13-year-old Edwin Daniel Sabillon, the Honduran boy who purportedly trekked 3,400 miles to New York in search of his father. But in the course of being questioned by New York police detectives, Sabillon admitted that his father had died of AIDS last fall. It was also learned from the boy's relatives that his mother and brother, who he said had died in a mudslide triggered by Hurricane Mitch, were alive.

The remaining details of Sabillon's odyssey are apparently accurate. He hitchhiked, walked or rode buses through Guatemala and Mexico, crossed the Texas border and made his way to his aunt's home in Miami. Pure youthful pluck, evidently, and the kindness of strangers, kept him in good stead. It was the boy's second attempt to travel to the U.S. He turned back last year at the Texas border upon learning that his gravely ill father was returning to Honduras from the U.S.

This is a distinctly American story, picaresque and pilgrimatic, and even more heartwarming for the headstrong doggedness and ingenuity that concocted the tale's partial falsehoods. In our national bloodlines most all of us possess the memory of steerage-class desire.

Neighbors in the village of San Buenaventura describe Sabillon as "clever" and "streetwise," a "charmer" who sold his prized bicycle prior to initiating his trip. Relatives believe he had a couple of destinations in mind: Newburgh, N.Y., where hundreds of villagers have gone in recent years and found factory work; or Canada, where Canadian missionaries who had visited the famed San Buenaventura waterfall and had befriended Sabillon, had promised the boy they would take him and enroll him in school. Before he set off, Sabillon's ailing grandmother had told him that his mother --- who had abandoned Edwin --- had been killed in the hurricane. The grandmother says she did so because the mother never cared for him or came to visit.

* * *

All recorded American narratives, Hemingway astutely grasped, begin with "Huckleberry Finn." And just as Huck slipped out from under the vise of his drunken father and the Widow Douglas, the enterprising young Sabillon eluded the hold of his grandmother and uncle. Were these accounts kindred stories only for boys, we could place them in our contemporary cache alongside "Porkys" revels or teen vampire frolics. Instead, they resound as folk epic, coterminous with the American grain, excursions through the far recesses of the country's psyche. The mighty river is at one with the eight-lane interstate, both symbols of that with which we forever contend, but in which we must also place our common faith. El Norte and New Orleans, intertwined in beckoning and taunt, as the voyage endlessly unfolds.

As reminders go, the Sabillon kid's saga is noteworthy and refreshing for its throwback authenticity. To be on the road with the song of discovery and promise, and not be impelled by advancing marauders, is a bit of an antidote to this season's portrayal of the human condition. And yet this teen-age runaway from Honduras reconstitutes our forebears' flight from Old World peril, even as it reinforces our collective notion of an enduring pristinity ever ready to accommodate innocence. Huck and Jim, those firsthand wayfarers into uncharted waters, no doubt would have noted our celebrated blips of progress, as well as their progeny --- planned lives in comfortable surroundings, choking on ennui, where sudden mayhem seems as virtual as the reality.

* * *

If you've been fortunate, you've had the opportunity to "light out" the old-fashioned way, to replenish the archetypal journey. Next month will mark 32 years since my arrival here, having spent the two previous months hitchhiking across Canada and the U.S. writing about a fitful continent of burning cities and young boys going off to war.

Those were the days when you could still walk into a newspaper office and announce to the editor that you wanted to write for the paper. A kindly seasoned pro named Nick Blatchford at the Washington (D.C.) Daily News listened to my plans to traverse the country and said, "I'll read whatever you send. Get it here fast. Good luck." I had $80 in my pocket, my father's WWII val-pak Army suitcase, and long list of "Incompletes" on my grad school transcript. This, I realized, was to be no lark; it was for keeps.

I ran into my first story in the Catskill Mountains of New York. A newlywed couple on their honeymoon had disappeared three months earlier while hiking in the mountains, and I went up in a spotter plane with a pilot with the unlikely name of Paul Gaskill. I wrote the story in a tiny room in an ancient and creaky rooming house while the batty old woman owner walked the floors all night and spoke to her cats. I larded the copy with local lore, and evoked the specter of the couple some day miraculously emerging from the dead as the legendary local Rip Van Winkle had done. If I've come to know anything about my country, that was perhaps the moment it first entered my marrow.

I spent a few days with some Quebec separatists in Montreal and listened to them allude to what might be in store for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Expo 67 on her yacht. In Toronto, I did some of the first reporting on American draft resisters. I was caught in Detroit as it burned, unable to hitch a ride. All across the country hippies pressed the pharmaceuticals of enlightenment upon me, and glowingly talked about the multilevels of perception and meaning. I walked into church rectories late at night in Chicago, Kansas City and St. Louis and slept undisturbed in conference rooms, and in university towns I went to frat houses and pretended to be a fellow member from the University of Maryland. Elderly women and madmen, alike, gave me rides, and were generous with information about their lives. I rode for 500 miles with a toothless old guy in a battered 1947 Plymouth and the engine blew in the middle of the desert. He had talked about the two of us going to L.A., getting jobs, women, etc. A packed car with room for only one person stopped for us and I told him to go ahead, I'd be okay. The old man started sobbing and said, "I'll miss you, man."

So that's a bit of it, Edwin. But, then, as Kerouac would have said before his cynicism did him in, You're already a hero of the American night. Welcome, compadre, your memories are now our own.

 --- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Tuesday, June 29, 1999

It's all speculation

One of the myths that San Franciscans love to perpetuate about their city is its isolation from worldly concerns. The rest of the country falls for it. Take, for example, R. W. Apple Jr., writing in Friday's New York Times: "San Francisco has always been a paradox: a thoroughly worldly place, yet ... a little indifferent to the mundane business of trading shares and casting votes."

Tell that to Joe O'Donoghue and Charlie Walker. Tell it to Silicon boys like John Doerr and Larry Ellison, the subjects of Newsweek writer David Kaplan's new book. Tell it to Our Mayor himself.

The fact is, from the very beginning the pursuit of pelf provided a motivating force for the development of the city. We may have forgotten, in this era when plastic threatens to replace paper, but once upon a time the only money that counted for anything was gold. In the late 1840s San Francisco's streets were paved with thick gooey mud, but the Mother Lode's precious metal created a foundation for the buildings that sprang up on either side. And even richer than the prospectors who feverishly scrabbled through the diggings in the Sierra were the merchants and bankers who set up shop in the city by the bay.

By the 1860s the first blush was off the rosy ore, but Pacific Mail steamers carrying a million dollars' worth of gold still sailed down the coast every month, bringing much-needed financial aid to the cash-strapped Union government. And the auric elder sister had acquired a fairer sib: the discovery of silver in Nevada threatened to outshine the exploits of the earlier Argonauts. "Indifferent to the mundane business of trading shares" --- nineteenth-century financiers would have guffawed in disbelief. Speculation in the silver mines, with its international roster of investors ranging from Mark Twain to the Duc de Rothschild, would put present-day venture capitalists to shame. Old-timer Henry T. P. Comstock watched the activity in horror. Although he had given his name to the richest mines in the world, he acknowledged, "I am a regular born mountaineer, and did not know the intrigues of civilized rascality."

A man who invented some of these intrigues as he went along was William Chapman Ralston. The Scots-Irishman had ridden out the Gold Rush aboard a steamship ferrying gold-seekers up the Coast from Panama. Settling in San Francisco in 1854, he opened the Bank of California, which offered tempting low-interest loans to Nevada's newly formed mining companies. He later tucked these mines into his portfolio, one by one, as the owners defaulted. If the Comstock mine ruled Washoe, Ralston served as lord high chamberlain. Applying the same lack of ruth to other areas, he also became a transportation giant, establishing dominion over Pacific shipping lanes and inland waterways.

Ralston had a protégé, a young man with the wonderfully Southern name of Asbury Harpending. Twenty years old and rich overnight with profits from a Mexican gold mine, Harpending arrived in San Francisco in 1860 and entered into the local real estate market as though it was a Monopoly game. He couldn't lose --- at least in the business world.

Harpending proved to be less skillful as a conspirator. Kentucky-born and devoted to the Confederate cause, he soon found himself on the wrong end of a policeman's revolver. His plan had been to seize the steamship Oregon on the high seas, confiscate its cargo of gold and silver for CSA use and convert the vessel into a pirate ship. A couple more rich hauls, and Harpending's California-based rebels would organize an army of a thousand men to disarm the West Coast. Once the telegraph lines to the East were cut, they reasoned, it would be child's play to capture the sparsely staffed military posts in Benicia and San Francisco and gain control of the ports. With a Confederate outpost on the Pacific, the region's mineral wealth would belong to the South and the war would be won.

But somebody spoke too freely of the impending coup, and the plotters were arrested on March 15, 1863, as they prepared for their first voyage. The jig was decidedly up: "Scattered among the boxes and barrels" on board their ship, the Daily Alta California reported, "were large quantities of pieces of paper, torn to bits and chewed up, evidently with the design of destroying all written evidence." SFPD captain John Lees carefully collected the spitballs and reassembled them for use in court. Convicted of treason, Harpending and his companions received $10,000 fines and ten-year prison sentences. They were out on the streets again in months, perhaps because the courts found it difficult to take these youthful schemers seriously, perhaps because the wannabe privateers had powerful friends.

After the war Asbury Harpending continued wheeling and dealing in the city he had wanted to sell out. In 1869 he erected the Harpending Block, a massive three-story brick structure stretching 250 feet along Market Street between First and Second. The building has long since disappeared, but a more lasting monument remains nearby. In 1868 Harpending had told Billy Ralston of an ambitious earth-moving project that caught the banker's equally daring imagination. Dig through Rincon Hill, Harpending said, and extend Montgomery Street south to the bay. Then use the excavated soil to fill in the waterfront, creating 150 acres of new land for development. His words painted the glowing result --- a wide boulevard lined with tall buildings and green parks, stretching down to China Basin.

Ralston responding enthusiastically, promising his full support. Several million dollars later, the enterprise hit a dead end when two landowners refused to sell their property along the route. But the dream lives on. Today PacBell executives in their white wedding-cake building on New Montgomery Street can look south toward the bay, where a stadium rises along the waterfront, bearing their company's name. And just across the creek, Catellus --- the spin-off of the Southern Pacific transportation giant --- sketches a boulevard lined with tall buildings and green parks, stretching out from China Basin.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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