On Influence and Tributaries
by Edie Meidav
You may have gone so far as to imagine your own funeral but what kind of person foresees writing so strenuously that his last words will script his own obituary?
“It will trail off at the end, where I fall face down on the old Royal with my nose on the ‘I’ key.”
I came to discover the writer of these words, gone now twenty years, the way people once found broadsides: on the most dispensable paper, newsprint, the kind that leaves a slur of negative type on a table, and in the form of the daily column Herb Caen wrote for over sixty years in the Bay Area. Four years before his death, he had to quit the practice, having quipped that if he stopped seeing his name in print he would not know he still existed, but, seeing other opportunities for the act of inscription and glory, his will asked for fireworks to be set off, after his funeral, in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park.
When we moved from an inland suburb of Long Island to Berkeley, I was just eight and my first shock came in the lightness of air: in California, it seemed, you were meant to understand that not much held you up, not even the trusses on all the seismically-retrofitted buildings. You could just fly away, unpinned by the rigor of the East, and yet as consolation you were given an expanse into which you might dream a bit. That August, small fragrant yellow pinwheels I called cornflowers fell from a tree and littered the stairs up to our house and whenever I am back in California, the awe of cornflower air returns, again with its perfume of new freedom. Here you could walk without ever stopping, you could dream and make things, and if you didn’t walk, you could take not just trains but buses and boats.
Of course, in a sense you could do all these things and more cheaply and frequently and better in Long Island. Yet at least to my young mind, the gray of the world around had kept us compressed. Sometimes a neighborhood girl would take my brother and me a bit beyond our neighborhood so we could wait near a haunted Mafioso cemetery with cracked gray columns and a forbidding steel gate for my father to come home off the train from the United Nations where his profession seemed to have to do with being a perennially-frustrated idealist. In Berkeley, however, someone had turned up the light, and if there were cemeteries anywhere they were hidden from public view, behind unscratched brilliant pilasters or up the remote scorched hills. On trains in New York you could study signs not about cornflowers but about corns and hemorrhoids. In Berkeley you had to ask in the drugstore where aspirin was hidden. In this place, everything moved to health, everything efflorescing with liveliness like those cornflowers.
Though not everything about his work stunned me. I accepted certain features as part of a cosmos to which my citizenship was assured, but still skimmed quickly over: moments such as the puns or what he called namephreaks, discoveries of local people in professions with oddly fitting or absurd names such as that of my pediatrician, one Grange S. Coffin.
Why bother recognizing him today? Never mind that once Silicon Valley came along, it recognized Caen as the prince of all blogs. Perhaps it might be best to remember Caen in this moment because he was, among all his virtues and voices, a chronicler of social protest: he knew that within the most specific flower blew the most universal wind. Rather than write about the rise and fall of movements, he sought out the small human moments within a crowd, and by doing so made clear how certain beliefs could become dangerously institutionalized within a given landscape or architecture. To read him was to read a humanist who left you with questions about your role in a greater social order.
|Herb Caen: April 3, 1916 – February 1, 1997|
Jung famously said the single greatest influence on the child are the unfulfilled desires of the parent. If we can have literary parents, only because I would like to be among those who might claim him, I wish to think Caen too might have wanted to write novels and stories. Or perhaps, as is more likely the case, he was a man who found life replete, overjoyed to have written more than 16,000 columns of 1,000 words each. As one commentator said, his was “an astounding and unduplicated feat”: he created by far the longest-running newspaper column in the country. In the year before his death, in February 1996, a colleague of his wrote: “What makes him unique is that on good days his column offers everything you expect from an entire newspaper–in just 25 or so items.” Can we expect any less?
Lola, California. Her short story collection, Kingdom of the Young, was just released by Sarabande Books. She teaches in the UMass Amherst MFA program. Find her on Twitter at @lolacalifornia