Thursday, April 6, 2017

On Influence and Tributaries: Edie Meidav Remembers Herb Caen

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.

And the lexicographer of this exuberance was Herb Caen, the West Coast’s effusive Whitman, the coiner of the term beatnik, the man who called his city Baghdad-by-the-Bay for its multiculturalism, a repeater of the slogan that one should never call the city Frisco. Even as the Bay Area reckoned with the stale incense of buzzkill in the air, after the counterculture had landed like a snub-nosed paper airplane, even as avenues and parks were populated by all those who no longer bothered with the vanity of patchouli, vets high or frustrated or panhandling, even with the deinstitutionalization of patients out onto the streets, everything spilling out into an increasingly unfeeling polis, into the vacuum of each day, nonetheless there kept being this daily 1,000-word missive on the front of one section of The Chronicle, a little paean to joy and the way that it could resist the most lugubrious missteps and overarching views of politicians. Happiest when he could see the fancy in the grit and less so the reverse, Caen modeled a way of paying attention and engagement with all elements of a city. A latter-day heir of Walter Winchell whose bitterness was less, Caen had a greater moral force while at the same time being a romantic: his cries out for a nostalgic other San Francisco pierced my newish heart with the force of exile so that I grew up, notated by him, believing I belonged in that place. A dandy celebrating the presence of a good moment of camaraderie with his tipsters both famous and homeless, like the state itself he lived, as if a tightrope-walker bearing a parasol, at once in the past and the future. Though once it was joked that, having found some famous San Francisco sourdough sweet, Caen too had gone a little sour, I rarely found him anything but redemptive.

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.

More importantly, prefiguring so many other people I would come to admire, Caen was my first flaneur, a skirter around the edge of urban life, hearkening back to the grace and gentility of a prior era. Imagine Leonard Cohen as columnist. The strangest part, for a man so devoted toward mourning the passing of the present moment, was that Caen seemed to know everyone who had formed the history of San Francisco, as if he were a timeless tuxedo’d turtle, around since the place had been the Barbary Coast through its time of Italian opera singers, the Enrico Carusos and a gogo girl like the image of Carol Doda whose giant sign on Columbus still boasted the on-off flickering nipples. Caen loved the crass and the genteel, creating each day a city that forgave others its foibles, passionate about San Francisco in the way that people from the boroughs or farther precincts can love Manhattan. Instead of writing of the heights of skyscrapers, Caen wrote of wisps of fog. Because of his talent in locating the city as a literary map itself, to read him in the morning was a way to understand our new land. He himself was a striver, liking to claim his own origin myth, pointing out that his parents had visited San Francisco nine months before his birth in Sacramento, all the way back in the mists of 1916.

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
In this strange time of ours, do we not need to find our Herb Caen, someone who can document the specific in our momentous warp and woof?

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?

Edie Meidav is the author of three novels, including 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

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