Herb Caen: A Centennial to Celebrate

Herb Caen at the Powell and Market turntable, 1953. A wonderful photo taken by the great Fred Lyon, a San Francisco treasure himself (and a friend of Herb's). (c) Fred Lyon

Herb Caen at the Powell and Market turntable, 1953. A wonderful photo taken by the great Fred Lyon, Herb’s friend and a San Francisco treasure himself. (c) Fred Lyon

 

Somehow, the print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle has managed to forget — or ignore — that today is the centennial of the birth of their greatest columnist ever, Herb Caen. (They did, belatedly, make a post to their Facebook group.)

The self-described “Sacamenna Kid” left Sacramento for San Francisco while still a teenager to become the radio columnist for the Chronicle, and got handed a general column, first titled, “It’s news to me,” in 1938.

It’s hard to explain to those who didn’t experience Caen firsthand just how much his daily newspaper column shaped this city and its people. If you were mentioned regularly in his column, you were famous in this town. Just for that. When he moved from the Chronicle to the Examiner in 1950, and back in 1958, he immediately took more than 30,000 readers with him each way. Just like that.

His 16,000 columns totaled more than 14 million words over the years. He coined some of those words himself, like “beatnik.” His six-day-a-week musings, easily the longest-running newspaper column in American history, were the talk of the entire Bay Area.

Caen wrote about every facet of life in the city, including transit. We collected some of his column tidbits for a display in Muni Car 130, which is dedicated to him. We’ll share a few here.

Our mouth slightly ajar, we stood at Eighth and Market yesterday and watched a woman leap lightly and gracefully aboard a moving streetcar, all the while smoking a cigaret. Thus did all the institutions of our age tremble and totter, thus did man lost one of the last of his “inalienable rights,” the right to hop on streetcars in motion. We almost dare not ask — “What next?”— From Caen’s first daily Chronicle column, July 5, 1938

 

A well-dressed drunk staggered aboard a Powell Street cable and gave a dollar to the conductor, who handed back nine dimes in change. Each time the conductor walked through the car (it was jampacked) the souse handed him another dime—which the conductor took without looking up. After the stew had forked over a dime for the fifth time, he turned to a fellow passenger and complained thickly: “Y’know, we jush gotta get ridda these cable cars. They’re too damn expensive!” — 1950

 

The haunted lower stretches of Market Street, fitfully alive with the ghosts of the streetcars that used to rattle down to the loop in front of the Ferry Building; gone now the Roar of the Four, gone the era of the ferry, gone everything but the gray tower whose four clocks are living on borrowed time…Baghdad-by-the-Bay. — 1950

 

THAT WAS SAN FRANCISCO: When it was an honored S.F. custom to get a transfer from the streetcar conductor (even if you weren’t gonna use it) and hand it to the corner newsboy—who in turn would give it to a customer along with a newspaper; newsboys all over town worked this “free” ride sales gimmick (and the trolley lines made dough anyway)… — 1950

 

THE VIEW FROM HERE: Yes, I feel twinges of nostalgia and arthritis, but I refuse to succumb. Nostalgia is the Ess Eff disease, sometimes fatal and not designed for looking ahead, which is what editorial-we are doing today. Today I am reborn. I feel young again! OK, middle-aged plus 10. If there’s such a thing as a second childhood, I’m experiencing it. Nevertheless, I would like to walk away from the Loyal Royal and mount one of those beautiful old streetcars now running on Market St. They’re the best thing that’s happened to this town since—well—Willie Brown. They take you into the past in the nicest possible way, down almost to the Ferry Building, a landmark filled entirely with memories and the ghosts of seamen gone, not to mention “Peg-Leg Pete,” the one-legged seagull that posed on a piling for equally forgotten tourists armed with box Brownies. –February 12, 1996

We miss Herb. His wit, his style, his verve. Truly Mr. San Francisco.