“The Cool Gray City of Love”. San Francisco, a place where the groove is easily found. Nothing like rollin’ into a hundred year old San Francisco bar with a stack of twenties and then rollin’ into a few more. A few touristy places to avoid, but I suppose it is the scent of burnished brass and smoked soaked, paneled walls that smell like so much history that is attractive to me. Let us not forget the possibility that in San Francisco one just might make a little history of their own. The night might be vigorous and savage or perhaps sanguine and solitary, but I’ve never had the feeling for San Francisco that one has for a plate of food after attempting to eat it’s less than noble contents.
Most of the physical sites in the “City” are cool (Alcatraz, Coit Tower, Lombard Street, etc), but it is the people who make up the complicated fabric that are so fascinating – their tolerance of the uneven, their embracing of the odd, and their joyful understanding of the less fortunate and bizarre. A couple of cases in point: Batkid (please do not mistake for Bat Boy…long time fodder for the greasy tommyrot tabloids) and Emperor Norton .
Nov, 2013. A five-year old named Miles Scott was delivered the thrill of a lifetime thanks to the “Make -a-Wish Foundation” and the wonderfully empathetic City of San Francisco, which for a short time changed into Gotham City. Miles had suffered for the past 3 years from Leukemia which was now in remission. His greatest wish was to be Batman and the “City” and “Make-a-Wish” promised to make that come true. The effort included Miles’ own Batmobile ( a black Lamborghini), a personal call from S.F. Police Chief Greg Suhr for help, the apprehension of the Riddler, and a flash mob involving hundreds of people in Union Square alerting Batkid to the fact that the Penguin had kidnapped Lou Seal, The S.F. Giants mascot. Batkid then chased the Penguin around AT&T Park, rescued Lou Seal, thus earning a chocolate key to the city which was presented at City Hall before thousands of onlookers. All of these exploits were covered on live television and written about in the “Gotham City Chronicle” with the top stories penned by Clark Kent and Lois Lane. I just can’t see all this happening in the City of Fallen Angels…
Joshua Abraham Norton, came from England to San Francisco in 1849 with $40 grand – ready to make it big. He had early success playing the real estate game, but in an effort to try to corner the rice market he lost all his dough, his pad, and apparently his marbles. He fled San Francisco in a terrible state, but returned to the “City” in 1859 with a very different mind-set. Josh Norton was no longer Josh Norton – he was now Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. Immediately the city of San Francisco opened its arms to the Emperor’s eccentric “Imperial” behavior which consisted of the issuance of various decrees (the firing of the United States Congress (I concur), making the use of the word ” Frisco” a crime, demanding that the “League of Nations” be started, construction of an underwater tunnel between Oakland and San Francisco begin, and the building of the San Francisco Bay Bridge……amazing how many of these ” Decrees” came to later fruition.) Although penniless, he regularly ate at the finest of restaurants decked in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets given to him by the officers of the U.S. Army post at the Presidio. Restauranteurs took it upon themselves to add brass plaques in their entrances which read “by Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton ! of the United States.” Such “Imperial Seals” were much sought after and were a substantial boost of groove to the restaurants. No play or musical performance would dare to open without reserving balcony seats for Norton. In 1867 , a policeman without a clue arrested Norton to commit him to involuntary treatment at a mental facility. The Emperor’s arrest outraged the citizens of the fair city and sparked scathing editorials. The Police chief Pat Crowley ordered Norton released and issued a formal apology. Norton, with a bow and a sweep of the hand granted an “Imperial Pardon” to the errant policeman. After this incident, all S.F. policemen saluted the Emperor as he strolled inspecting the condition of the sidewalks, cable cars, and the appearance of Police officers. The 1870 U.S. census lists Joshua Norton “as 50 years old and residing at 624 Commercial Street; occupation “Emperor.”
The Emperor called it a day January 8th, 1880 and by the good graces of the Pacific Club of San Francisco, Norton was laid to rest in a rosewood casket and buried at the Masonic Cemetery. The San Francisco Chronicle reported “…all classes from capitalists to pauper, the clergyman to the pickpocket, well dressed ladies and those whose drab grab and bearing hinted of a social outcast” lined the street to say goodbye to the Emperor. Some accounts say up to 30,000 were there to say adieu. Isobel Osbourne, in her book The Life I’ve Loved wrote “Norton was a gentle and kindly man, and fortunately found himself in the friendliest and most sentimental city in the world, the idea being let him be the emperor if he wants to. San Francisco played the game with him.”
There are good times in San Francisco and you don’t have to look too hard to find them. The waiters are not plastic actors in waiting, but actual waiters and there is decent value in their cocktails. Dress and act like Batkid or Emperor Norton and no one will bother you. It fact, they will probably smile and buy you multiple drinks. Just don’t call it “Frisco” or you will pay dearly for your egregious crime. Groove.