It's been a long time since anyone has mentioned Mr. San Francisco. That used to be Herb Caen, I believe, but it has been seventeen years now since he died. For awhile after he died, when some difficult issue arose, people used to ask, "What would Herb think?" But these days I think the response would be, "Who the fuck's Herb?" The younger generation is not big on respect and even shorter on memory, unless you are talking semiconductor memory in hand-held devices.
But let us be frank. "Mr. San Francisco" is just a model of what a good San Franciscan might be. There is nothing absolute about it, and I think Caen even pooh-poohed the idea that he was Mr. San Francisco. But models can serve a purpose. They can show what might be considered good or desirable behavior or character, and they provide some notion of what is truly bad or deplorable. In short, they have usefulness. So it is an interesting question to ask: Who or what is the model today in San Francisco? And what are his—or maybe we had better say her too—attributes?
A related question, but perhaps one too early to ask, is who or what is "bigger than life" in the City? If there is a "Mr. San Francisco," is there a mythological version that goes beyond just the good model? According to the late pianist and author Don Asher, a man of infinite good taste and judgment, there were three people who were bigger than life in San Francisco: Herb Caen, Enrico Banducci, and Willie Brown. The first two are dead, and some would have strong opinions about calling Willie Brown bigger than life, though they might call him many other things.
But let us stick with Caen for the moment? Who might be his match today?
And let's start with a simple question: Does dress matter?
Caen dressed stylishly. Back in 1993 Jane Gross of the New York Times called Caen "an old-time boulevardier in natty threads and fedora." Caen once defended himself by saying that he just enjoyed getting dressed up and going downtown. Look at any old photo of Market Street and you see nothing but Mr. Caens: Hats, ties, polished shoes ... Who does that these days? In fact, it appears most people do just the opposite. Downtown is a place to show disdain for convention, style, and any sort of spit and polish. Even bankers and accountants now dress in blue jeans, leaving shirts untucked and "sporting," if you want to call it that, modest tattoos ... Are they pretending to be artists? What are they trying to say? That they hate themselves and despise their professions? Something like that, I guess. I empathize with their feelings of failure, but find their expression disingenuous. It takes work to be an artist. If that is what they wanted to be, they should have taken a chance on themselves and done the required work. Becoming an artist is not easy, and Imitating one by getting a tattoo or having an ear pierced just doesn't cut it. They fool no one. Ditto stock brokers, advertising executives, and real estate brokers. They need to grow up! And "who the fuck," to use the language of these imitators, says all artists dress like slobs and have tattoos and pierced ears?
But perhaps I'm getting off track. Is it my age, perhaps? Maybe. But in any case, decent clothes do no harm. In a City today where so many topics are "touchy" topics, I think that is a safe statement to make.
It should also be noted that Mr. Caen was a hard worker. He wrote his columns for almost sixty years seven days a week until, due to illness in his final years, he had to cut back to five days a week. Who in the City works like that these days? The pattern among those lucky enough to be employed now is four days plus a half day on Friday followed by a long lunch that greatly supports the wine industry. Picture the financial schemers and their accomplices, and the techie designers of "wearable technology" and their marketeers, stepping over the homeless as they leave the cafe, and perhaps driving over them on their way home. "Hey, dude, piece of trash, get a job!"
But perhaps I'm being too hard on these kids. Maybe work no longer matters; maybe it is one of those silly generational things. Founding-father Thomas Jefferson seemed to think, however, that the more he worked, the luckier he was. Caen claimed that he lived a "charmed" life. Was hard work a factor? But what do these old dead punks know? The times, they have changed, haven't they! Mr. San Francisco lived in a period when homelessness was not sprawled out everywhere, when mental health "issues" were not constantly in your face, when some of the infrastructure of the City got fixed, when every new building was not another stucco box, when the word "classy" meant something other than old-timer rant, when there were boulevards and it was safe to walk them, ...
And perspective, that has changed too, hasn't it? Then there was reality and Caen's good-ole "vitamin V," that made it a little more palatable; now there are pills and virtual reality. And though the mechanism of the human eye has not changed since Descartes explained it, people see things differently.
Back then, when Mr. San Francisco walked the boulevards of the City, whether it was Caen or some other character, there was a common perspective that prevailed. Back then people "read from the same page," an expression now used by people who are trying to get you on it or at least have an honest discussion about reality; and they agreed or disagreed. There were common "issues," shared and known, and they weren't just my issues, which I programmed to receive news about on a hand-held device, excluding all other issues. And of the news that I followed, it was not just from some whacky source, most likely a blog, that shared my own quirky view. It was from a news source that was edited and to which were applied a modicum of journalistic standards. Forget all that today; news now comes raw and unedited and in the form and with the content that I want to see. So what if it reads more like fiction? It's what I want to read! It's what I want to hear! It's the news my way!
Gross, in her New York Times article, called San Francisco "clubby," and this was probably true back then. In the days of Caen, there was a semblance of social order—society, if you want to call it that—and Caen always made fun of it, especially when it came to events like the opera. But it was fun to read about. This societal order, like the news, provided some perspecitve on the kinds of people who lived in the City. Now that is gone, of course, and it is a kind of free-for-all with no sense of who's who. Now it is the "dude," the big ego, the loud voice that prevails. If you can shout louder than the guy or gal with something to say, you are The Man, though certainly not Mr. San Francisco. And if you got more devices that amplify your particular brand of nonsense, you win; others can't hear themselves think. "Awesome" is a matter of volume, and "Oh, My God" rules the day.
But maybe you don't want to know too much about the new social order and the New San Franciscan. He or she is an irritated and angry person who pushes through lines; and, if you are walking a straight path down the sidewalk and he or she is coming out of a shop or restaurant, he or she will walk right into you in what seems to be a game of chicken. If there is a collision, do not expect an apology; expect, instead, the f word. And if he or she is not in motion, which is rare, he or she will have his or her device out, ear buds plugged in to blot out the world; and he or she will be staring at the piece of plastic in his or her hands. One last detail: If it is a guy, he will surely have one hand in a pants pocket and be holding the piece of plastic at a 30-degree angle to the sidewalk, as though for a photo op. Like the image of the New San Franciscan? Does the New San Franciscan sound like Mr. San Francisco?
And what about language? Does it still matter? Should it, like society and manners, "take a walk?"
Mr. Caen was particularly fond of language—the right word, the clever phrase—and language that turns in upon itself in the oxymoron. He would probably be appalled with the language heard on the streets and in the cafes today:
Hey, dude ... What the fuck! ... Oh, my god ... cool ... awesome ...
Kind of boring, huh, dude?
And with the same word—fucking—used to describe almost everything under the sun, Mr. San Francisco would likely see this as further evidence of a City in decay. How descriptive, how adjectival, is a single word used to describes all other words? What does it tell us about the noun? It tells us more about the person using that word than the thing that person is attempting to describe.
But again, maybe I am being too harsh in my evaluation of today's San Franciscan. With a lack of jobs, decent and affordable housing, crime, and environmental worries, how could he or she be other than a little demented. Repeating the same meaningless words and phrases goes hand in hand with mental illness, they say. And while some do have jobs, the nature of their employment may contribute to an appearance of mental illness as well. Consider the disconnection of the techie: Talking gibberish for hours in open offices and thinking of themselves as "creatives" is a likely contributor to a form of delusional mental illness that would affect the language facilities. What if you, dear reader, were assigned to come up with "wearable" technology—or face being fired and joining the ranks of homeless mutterers out on the street? Maybe you, too, would start saying "Oh, my god!" and "What the fuck!" as often as possible in front of your peers. Possible? You bet it is!
And what about romance? Mr. San Francisco was a pretty romantic fellow and a pretty silly one at that. He took his "girl" to Coit Tower and whispered silly stuff in her ears. She loved it of course; but, by today's standard, how stupid can you get! But what if you, like, killed the whole fucking fantasy about love, and the only thing your girlfriend or boyfriend wanted to do was fuck? What if everything was fucking eye shadow and fucking skin lotion and two fucking days growth of facial hair and Victoria's fucking Secret, which wasn't much of a secret anymore, and ...
The times, they are not very cheerful ones, are they? They don't gladden the heart that doesn't exist or quicken a spirit that has departed for better places. Mr. Caen is gone now and it is hard to imagine his replacement. Oh, sure, there are those who are capable of the role but they don't seem to be auditioning for the part. They are looking elsewhere for employment of their talents. Dude, can you blame them?