It was 1861 and the Civil War was beginning it’s bloody boil. Because of the conflict, Samuel L. Clemens (aka Mark Twain) was forced to give up his life as a steamboat Captain seeing how the Mississippi was closed to peace time traffic. In New Orleans, when Louisiana seceded Sam returned to Hannibal, Missouri where he joined a local group of Confederate militia. Two weeks of running around the woods of Missouri were more than enough for Second Lieutenant Clemens, whose commitment to the cause was less than noble, but honest to himself. “I was incapacitated by fatigue through persistent retreating” he later joked. For the rest of the war he was far away from any fighting which suited Sam just fine.
Hangovers are rough stuff and we all have different methods for their demise. Some prefer saunas or
steam baths, some choose rigorous labor or exercise, while I prefer to consume deep fried foods, more alcohol and to move as little as possible for fear of upsetting my delicate composition and balance. On a rainy San Francisco day in June 1863 halfway through a 2 month stay in San Francisco that stretched into 3 years, Sam chose to battle his heavy hangover at the steam rooms of the fashionable Montgomery Block, also known as the Monkey Block. When built in 1853 the four story structure was the tallest building west of the Mississippi and was the home and work place for hundreds of writers, lawyers and painters for over 100 years. Those who spent time there include Jack London, George Sterling, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, Dorothea Lange, Diego Rivera, and Frida Kahlo. The building bested the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, but couldn’t stop the bulldozers which toppled it in 1959 and is now home to the Transamerica Pyramid.
So anyway, there is Mark Twain with a mountainous hangover in the steam room, overhearing a conversation from a gentleman covered in soot. Turns out that the stout round faced gent was a customs inspector, volunteer fireman, special policeman and bona fide hero by the name of Tom Sawyer. Tom and Mark soon became great friends and patrolled the bars and gambling joints of San Francisco acquiring the best of hangovers and losing copious amounts of money, but having the time of their lives. Sawyer remembered “He beat the record for lyin’ — nobody was in a race with him there. He never had a cent. His clothes were always ragged and he never had his hair cut or a shave since ’60. I used to give him half my wages and then he borrow from the other half, but a jollier companion and a better mate I would never want. He was a prince among men, you can bet, though I allow he was the homeliest man I ever set eyes on, Sam was.” Throughout 1863 and into 1864 Mark Twain published unsigned stories in the “Call” newspaper. ” They’d send him out down at the paper to write something up, Sawyer remembers, ” and he’d go up to the Blue Wing Saloon and sit around telling stories and drink
all day then go back to the office and write something up. Most of the times he’d get it all wrong, but it was mighty entertaining.” Twain used to loathe working at the “Call”. “It was awful drudgery for a lazy man and I was born lazy. I raked the town from end to end and if there weren’t no fires to report I’d start one.” Twain said.
Tom Sawyer earned his hero status not only for being an excellent fireman but for gallantry when a steamer “The Independence” blew it’s boilers off the Baja coast and Tom was credited with saving 90 lives at sea, 26 singlehandedly.
On September 28th, Sawyer and Twain hit the town hard. “Mark was as sprung as I was and in a short time we owned the City,
cobblestones and all.” Sawyer recalled. “Toward the morning Mark sobered up a bit and we got to telling yarns. The next day Mark walks up to me and puts both hands on my shoulders. Tom, he says, I’m gonna write a book about a boy and the kind I have in mind was just about the toughest boy in the world. Tom, he was just such a boy as you must of been….How many copies will you take, Tom, half up front? ”
Mark Twain started a lecture tour which was a big deal back then, just telling stories and make people laugh. Tom sat in the front row at one of the lectures in San Francisco and his hearty laugh could be heard at all the bars on Montgomery Street. Afterwards, Twain decided to take his leave of San Francisco and at the age of 31 he leapt into a most glorious writing and lecturing career that arguably made him the most famous American of the late 19th and early 20th century. Tom Sawyer hugged his friend and said goodbye and despite Tom Sawyer’s wishes that his friend would come join him at his own saloon ” The Gotham,” which he owned for 21 years, they would never see each other again.
The non fictional Tom Sawyer died in 1906 – 3 1/2 years before Twain. “Tom Sawyer, Whose Name Inspired Twain Dies at Great Age,” read the headlines of the local paper. Sawyer’s saloon was destroyed by fire that same year.
So just think about all the authors, painters, and song writers who at this moment are creating something beautiful, sad, dangerous, ridiculous, and deeply moving about the times they have spent drinking massive amounts of alcohol with you. Perhaps it is time for a steam bath. Groove.