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April 21, 2008

Tripe à la Mode de Caen

WANNA WIN an easy bet? Next time you’re walking down a busy street in SF, wager that most of the people there have never read Herb Caen. Go up to ten passersby & ask ‘em. Easy 20 bucks! Not only will more than half never have read Caen’s columns; they most likely will never have heard of him… A Berkeley friend recently descended from his ivory tower & asked me to describe those columns. They created a whole city, I said, that became the real San Francisco for millions of people. His description wasn’t necessarily true. And it left out a lot. But it was the only picture out there for 60 years… In the 11 years since Caen’s death, the city has changed. Like the rest of the country, it’s gotten a lot younger. Those twenty-somethings who clog our sidewalks weren’t even reading the newspaper when Caen typed his last three dots…. Yes, typed. He was old school. But take a look at any of those antiquarian pieces. Except for their lack of links, they could be postings on the Web, for the Sackamenna Kid had the soul of a blogger.

CAEN RARELY VENTURED South of the Slot. Neighborhoods like the Mission hovered just outside his field of vision, providing what he calls in Baghdad by the Bay

a special flavor — not of San Francisco, but of any small town in any era of the American story.

Imagine Our Town set at 24th & Mission… His idea of Earth Day would have been an afternoon at the ballpark. And his mind would have undoubtedly boggled at the image of his pal Willie Brown in running shorts, carrying the Olympic torch. Toothpicks, for Caen, were meant to hold olives in martinis… He would have missed a terrific show on Saturday. While Northsiders were showing their kids the wonders of composting at Crissy Field, Southsiders took to the streets to celebrate the workers of the earth in the Cesar E. Chavez Holiday Parade.

THE MISSION WAKES UP early, even on weekends. When I wandered down to 24th Street about 8:00 on Saturday morning, the SFPD was already towing parked cars to clear the way. When I went back about 1:00, the procession had just passed & the parking spaces were full again. I wondered where the cars had gone for the five hours in between… The parade, with the usual contingents of union reps & political candidates, made its way to the appropriately named Cesar Chavez School & set up shop in the playground. Outside, on Folsom, SF’s finest leaned on their bikes, chatting with the folks in the street. Just inside the gate, the polished-till-they-dazzled cars of the Boulevard Kings stirred up lowrider memories. Farther inside, the drums of Danza Azteca Ixtlalli set the pavement to vibrating. One tall brown-skinned dancer, his chest bare & muscular above a short white apron, his feet moving with impossible speed, may have set a few pulses to vibrating as well… Mothers & children converged on the scene from all directions. One little girl & her mother walked along, chatting happily in Spanish, until they turned a corner & heard the drums. The girl stopped. Her eyes flashed with excitement. “Come on,” she said in English. “Let’s go.” Only four years old & taking on the world… Above it all, on the wall of the school, the larger-than-life figure of Cesar Chavez hovered, smiling a benediction.

RUMP IN THE AIR, a small terrier trotted ahead of me as I left the festival & walked toward Garfield Park. In tow were a couple of Urban Pioneers at the end of a long leash. When the party reached the park, the little dog decided it was time to head for higher ground. Several men were asleep on the slope near the poolhouse — Caen would have called them “Skid Rowgues,” but these guys just looked tired. The pup marched herself & her people right into the middle of them, squatted & offered them a wet, doggy greeting. The slumberers looked at her, bleary-eyed. The UP’s stood there, oblivious. They didn’t know it was better to let sleeping gods lie.

BACK ON BERNAL HILL, the wind was fierce. It blew the last remnants of the plum blossoms into pink snowdrifts. It must have blown the resident kestrel pair to shelter, because they were nowhere to be seen. Usually, they hang out near Peralta Park, where the folks who live on the hill keep an eye on them. The dogs who live on the hill give their rapt attention to the pursuit of balls & ignore the raptors… On quieter days, the birds follow a regular ritual. They meet on top of a utility pole — you can see white stains covering the sides — where the male turns over his latest catch to the female. She flies off to a nearby treetop & waits a few minutes before heading over to the nest & hungry babies. He flies off in the opposite direction, scanning the skies for predators. Reminds me of some male humans I know, who are happy to bring home the bacon but wouldn’t be caught dead changing diapers.

BACK TO CAEN, who set this train of thought in motion. His vision of SF may have had rose-colored edges. But it was clear-sighted, maybe too clear-sighted for the city he served. Take the end of his very first column:

Painful Thought: On clear days, when Treasure Island is plainly discernible from the mainland, we look somewhat dolefully at the palm trees which have magically arisen on its surface. We don’t like to believe that this is a concession to the Easterner’s idea of California, an idea planted and nurtured by the Chamber of Commerce of Southern California. Come, all ye fogs!

After Caen died, the City of San Francisco set aside a small portion of the Embarcadero as “Herb Caen Way…” (note the three dots). And then, in a fit of ionic injustice, it proceeded to line the thoroughfare with palms. Come, all ye fogs indeed! Sic those palms!

Thanks for reading. I’m outta here till Wednesday.

        — Copyright Betsey Culp 2008