San Francisco – American Travel

LEAVING the train in Oakland, one is reminded of Hoboken or Jersey City in the days before the Hudson Tubes were built. There is the train shed, the throng headed for the ferry, the bag-gage trucks, and the ferryboat itself, like a New York ferryboat down to its very smell. Likewise the fresh salt wind that blows into your face as you stand at the front of the boat, in crossing San Francisco Bay, is like a spring or summer wind in New York Harbor. So, if you cross at night, you have only the lights to tell you that you are not indeed arriving in New York.

The ferry is three miles wide. There are no sky-scrapers, with lighted windows, looming overhead, as they loom over the Hudson. To the right the myriad lamps of Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda are distributed along the shore, electric trains dashing in front of them like comets ; and straight ahead lies San Francisco—a fallen fragment of the Milky Way, draped over a succession of receding hills.

Crossing the ferry I tried to remember things I had been told of this city of my dreams, and to imagine what it would be like. Of course I had been warned time and again not to refer to it as “‘Frisco,” and not to speak of the Earthquake, but only of the Fire. I had those two points well in mind, but there were others out of which I endeavored to construct an imaginary town.

San Francisco was, as I pictured it in advance, a city of gaiety, gold money, twenty-five cent drinks, flowers, Chinamen, hospitality, night restaurants, mysterious private dining rooms, the Bohemian Club, openhearted men and unrivaled women—superb, majestic, handsomely upholstered, six-cylinder self-starting blondes, with all improvements, including high-tension double ignition, Prestolite lamps, and four speeds forward but no reverse.

That is the way I pictured San Francisco, and that, with some slight reservations, is the way I found it.

Several times in the course of these chapters, I have been conscious of an effort to say something agreeable about this city or that, but in the case of San Francisco, I find it necessary to restrain, rather than force my appreciation, lest I be charged with making noises like a Native Son.

The Native Sons of the Golden West is a large and semi-secret organization of men born in California who, I was informed, are banded together to help one an-other and the State. Its activities are largely political and vocal.

It was a Native Son who, when asked by an English-man, visiting the United States for the first time, to name the Seven Wonders of America, replied: “Santa Barbara, Coronado, Del Monte, San Francisco, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe and Mount Shasta.”

“But,” objected the visitor, “all those places are in California, aren’t they?”

“Of course they’re in California !” cried the Native Son. “Where else would they be?”

That is the point of view of the Native Son and the native Californian in general. Meeting Californians outside their State, I have been inclined to think them boasters, but now, after a visit to California, I have come to understand that they are nothing of the kind, but are, upon the contrary, adherents of cold truth. They want to tell the truth about their State, they try to tell it, and if they do not succeed it is only because they lack the power of expression. When it comes to California everybody does—a fact which I shall now assist in demonstrating further.

Take, for instance, the climate. The exact nature of the California climate had been a puzzle to me. I had been in the habit of considering certain parts of the country as suited for winter residence, and certain other parts for summer; but, in the East, when I asked people about California, I found some who advised it as a win-ter substitute for Florida, and others who recommended it as a summer substitute for Maine.

Therefore, on reaching San Francisco, I took pains to cross-examine natives as to what they meant by “climate.”

As I did not visit Southern California I shall leave the climate of that section to the residents, who are not only willing to describe it, but who, from all ac-counts, can come as near doing it adequately as anybody can. But in San Francisco and the surrounding country I think I know what climate means..

There are two seasons: spring, beginning about November and running on into April; autumn, beginning in April and filling out the remaining six months. Winter. and summer are simply left out. There is no great cold (snow has fallen but six times in the history of the city) and no great heat (84 degrees was the highest temperature registered during an unusual “hot spell” which occurred just before our visit). It is, however, a celebrated peculiarity of the San Francisco climate that between shade and sun there is a difference so great as to make light winter clothing comfortable on one side of the street, and summer clothing on the other. The .most convenient clothing, upon the whole, I found to be of medium weight, and as soon as the sun had set I sometimes felt the need of a light overcoat.

One of the finest things about the California weather is its absolute reliability. In the rainy season of spring, rain is expected and people go prepared for it; but with the arrival of the sunny season, the rain is really over, and thereafter you need not fear for your straw hat or your millinery, as the case may be.

Small wonder that the Californian loves to talk about his climate. He loves to discuss it for the same reason the New Yorker loves to discuss money: because, with him, it is the fundamental thing. All through the West, but particularly on the Pacific Coast, men and women alike lead outdoor lives, compared with which the out-door lives of Easterners are labored and pathetic. The man or woman in California who does not know what it is to ride and camp and shoot is an anomaly. Apropos of this love of outdoors, I am reminded that the head of a large department store informed me that, in San Francisco, rainy days bring out the largest shopping crowds, because people like to spend the sunny ones in the open. Also, I noticed for myself, that small shop-keepers think so much of the climate that in many in-stances they cannot bear to bar it out, even at night, but have permanent screen fronts in their stores..

All the year round, flowers are for sale at stands on corners, in the San Francisco streets, and if you think we have no genre in America, if you think there is nothing in this country to compare with your memories of picturesque little scenes in Europe — scenes involving such things as the dog-drawn wagons of Belgium; Dutch girls in wooden shoes, bending at the waist to scrub a sidewalk; embroidered peasants at a Breton par-don; proud beggars at an Andalusian railway station; mysterious hooded Arabs at Gibraltar; street singers in Naples; flower girls in the costume of the campagna, at the Spanish Steps in Rome—if you think we cannot match such bits of color, then you should see the flower stands of San Francisco upon some holiday, when Chinese girls are bargaining for blooms.

But I am talking only of this one part of California. When one considers the whole State, one is forced to admit that it is a natural wonder-place. It is every-thing. In its ore-filled mountains it is Alaska; to the south it is South America; I have looked out of a train window and seen a perfect English park, only to realize suddenly that it had not been made by gardeners, but was the sublimated landscape gardening which Nature gave to this state of states. I have eaten Parisian meals in San Francisco and drunk splendid wines, and afterwards I have been told that our viands and beverages had, without exception, been produced in California—unless one counts the gin in the cocktail which preceded dinner. But that is only part of it. With her hills San Francisco is Rome ; with her harbor she is Naples; with her hotels she is New York. But with her clubs and her people she is San Francisco—which, to my mind, comes near being the apotheosis of praise.

So far as I know American cities San Francisco stands out amongst them like some beautiful, fascinating creature who comes suddenly into a roomful of mediocrities. She is radiant, she has charm and allure, those qualities which are gifts of the gods, and which, though we recognize them instantly when we meet them, we are unable to describe.

I have not forgotten the charm of Detroit, nor the stupendousness of Chicago, but—there is only one Paris and only one San Francisco. San Francisco does not look at all like Paris, and while it has a large foreign population the people one meets are, for the most part, pure-blooded Americans, yet all the time I was there, I found myself thinking of the place as a city that was somehow foreign. It is full of that splendid vigor which one learns to expect of young American cities ; yet it is full of something else—something Latin. The outlook upon life even of its most American inhabitants is touched with a quality that is different. The climate works its will upon them as climate does on people everywhere. Here it makes them lively and spontaneous.. They are able to do more (including more sitting up at night) than people do in New York, and it seems to tell upon them less. They love good times and, again owing to the climate, they are able to have them out of doors.

The story of the Portola fete, as told me by a San Franciscan, nicely illustrates that, and also shows the San Francisco point of view.

“In 1907,” he informed me, “we decided to put over a big out-door New Year’s fete, with dancing in the streets, the way they have it in Paris on the Fourteenth of July. But at the last minute it rained and spoiled the outdoor part of the fun. Once in a while, you see, that can happen even in San Francisco.

“Everybody agreed that we ought to have a regular established festival, and as we didn’t want to have it spoiled a second time, we hunted up the weather records and found that in the history of the city there had never been rain between October seventeenth and twenty-ninth. That established the time for our fete; the next thing was to discover an excuse for it. That was not so easy. After digging through a lot of history we found that Don Gaspar de Portola discovered San Francisco Bay October twenty-second, 1679—or maybe it was 1769—that doesn’t matter. .Nobody had ever heard of Portola until then, but now we have dragged him out of oblivion and made quite a boy of him, all as an excuse to have a good time.”

“Then you don’t celebrate New Year’s out here?” I asked.

“Don’t we though !” he exclaimed. “You ought to be here for our New Year’s fete. It is one of the most spontaneous shows of the kind you’ll see anywhere.. It’s not a tough orgy such as you have on Broadway every .New Year’s Eve, with a lot of drunks sitting ‘around in restaurants under signs saying `Champagne Only’—I’ve seen that. We just have a lot of real fun, mostly in the streets.

“One thing you can count on out here. We celebrate everything that can be celebrated, and the beauty of a lot of our good times is that they have a way of just breaking loose instead of being cooked-up in advance. It has often happened that on Christmas Eve some great singer or musician would appear in the streets and sing or play for the crowds. A hundred thousand people heard Tetrazzini when she did that four years ago. Bispham and a lot of other big singers have done the same thing, and three years ago, on Christmas Eve, Kubelik played for the crowds in the streets. Somehow I think that musicians and artists of all kinds have a warm feeling for San Francisco, and want to show us that they have,”

There can be no doubt that that is true. Many artists have inhabited San Francisco, and the city has always been beloved by them ; especially, it sometimes seems, by the writing group. Mark Twain records that on his arrival he “fell in love with the most cordial and sociable city in the Union,” and countless other authors, from Stevenson down, have paid their tribute.

As might be expected of a country so palpitantly beautiful and alive, California has produced many artists in literature and the other branches, and has developed many others who, having had the misfortune to be born elsewhere, possessed, at least, the good judgment to move to California while still in the formative period.

Sitting around a table in a cafe, one night, with a painter, a novelist and a newspaper man, I set them all to making lists, from memory, of persons following the arts, who may be classified as Californians by birth or long residence.

The four most prominent painters listed were Arthur F. Mathews, Charles Rollo Peters, Charles J. Dickman and Francis McComas, all of them men standing very high in American art. Among sculptors were mentioned Robert Aitken, Arthur Putnam, Haig Patigian and Douglas Tilden. Of writers there is a deluge.

Besides Mark Twain and Stevenson, the names of Bret Harte, Frank Norris, and Joaquin Miller are, of course, historic in connection with the State. Among living writers born in California were listed Gertrude Atherton, Jack London, Lloyd Osbourne, Austin Strong, Ernest Peixotto and Kathleen Norris; while among those born elsewhere who have migrated to California, were set down the names of Harry Leon Wilson, Stewart Edward White, James Hopper, Mary Austin, Grace MacGowan Cooke, Alice MacGowan, Rufus Steele and Bertha Runkle. Still another group of writers who do not now reside in California are, nevertheless, associated with the State because of having lived there in the past. Among these are Wallace and Will Irwin, Gelett Burgess, Eleanor Gates, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Edwin Markham, George Sterling, Richard Tully, Jack Hines and Arno Dosch.

At this juncture it occurs to me that, quite regardless of the truth, I had better say that I have not set down these names according to any theories of mine about the order of their importance, but that I have copied them off as they came to me on lists made by other persons, who shall be sheltered to the last by anonymity.

All the names so far mentioned were furnished by the painter and the novelist. The newspaper man kept me waiting a long time for his list. At last he gave it to me, and lo! Harrison Fisher’s name led all the rest. Henry Raliegh and Rae Irvin, illustrators, were also listed, but the formidable California showing came with the category of cartoonists and “comic artists” employed on New York newspapers. Of these the following were set down as products of the Golden State : Bud Fisher, Igoe, and James Swinnerton of the “American”; Tom McNamara, Hal Cauffman, George Harriman, Hershfield, and T. A. Dorgan (“Tad”) of the “Journal”; Goldberg of the “Evening Mail”; R. E. Edgren of the “World” ; Robert Carter of the “Sun”; and Ripley of the “Globe.” The late Homer Davenport of the “American” also came to New York from San Francisco. This list, covering as it does all but a handful of the cartoonists and “funny men” of the New York papers, seems to me hardly less remarkable than this further list of “artists” of another variety who trace back to California: James J. Corbett, Jim Jeffries, Joe Choynski, Jimmy Britt, Abe Attell, Willie Ritchie, Eddie Hanlon and Frankie Neil; with Jack Johnson and Stanley Ketchell added for the reason that, although not actual native products, they “developed” in California.

Perhaps after having given California her artistic due in this handsome manner, and being, myself, well out of the State, this may be the best time to touch upon a sensitive point. As the reader may have observed, I always try to evade responsibility when playing with fire, and if one does that with fire, it becomes all the more necessary to observe the same rule in the case of earthquakes.

In this instance the best way out of it for me seems to be to put the blame on Baedeker, who, in his little red book, declares that “earthquakes occur occasionally in San Francisco, but have seldom been destructive,” after which he recites that in 1906 “a severe earthquake lasting about a minute” visited the city, that “the City Hall became a mass of ruins but, on the whole, few of the more solid structures were seriously injured.”

San Francisco is notoriously sensitive upon this subject, and her sensitiveness is not difficult to understand. For one thing, earthquakes, interesting though they may be as demonstrations of the power of Nature, are not generally considered a profitable form of advertising for a city, although, curiously enough, they seem, like volcanic eruptions, to visit spots of the greatest natural beauty. For another thing San Francisco feels that “earthquake” is really a misnomer for het disaster, and that this fact is not generally understood in such remote and ill-informed localities as, for instance, the Island of Manhattan.

There is not a little justice in this contention. How-ever the city may have been “shaken down” in the past, by corrupt politicians, the quake did no such thing. All the damage done by the actual trembling of the ground might have been repaired at a cost of a few millions, had not the quake started the fire and at the same time destroyed the means of fighting it. Baedeker, always conservative, estimates the fire loss at three hundred and fifty millions..

Furthermore, it is contended in San Francisco that the city is not actually in the earthquake belt. Scientists have examined the earthquake’s fault-line, and have declared that it comes down the coast to a point some miles north of the city, where it obligingly heads out to sea, passing around San Francisco, and coming ashore again far to the south.

While, to my mind, this seems to indicate an extraordinary degree of good-nature on the part of an earthquake, I have come, through a negative course of reasoning, to accept it as true. For it so happens that I have discussed literature with a considerable number of scientific men, and I cannot but conclude from the experience that they must know an enormous amount about other matters. Therefore, on earthquakes, I am bound entirely by their decisions, and I believe that all well-ordered earthquakes will be so bound, and that the only chance of future trouble from this source, in San Francisco, might arise through a visit from some irresponsible, renegade quake which was not a member of the regular organization.

As to San Francisco’s “touchiness” upon the subject there is this much more to be said. A cow is rumored to have kicked over a lamp and started the Chicago Fire. An earthquake kicked over a building and started the San Francisco Fire. People do not refer to the Chicago Fire as the “Cow.” Why then should they refer to the San Francisco Fire as the “Earthquake”? That is the way they reason at the Golden Gate. But however that may be, the important fact is this: the Chicago Fire taught that city a lesson. When Chicago was rebuilt in brick and stone, instead of wood, another cow could kick over another lamp without endangering the whole town. The same story is repeated in San Francisco. The city has been magnificently reconstructed. Another quake might kick over another building, but the city would not go as it did before, because, aside from the fact that the main part of it is now unburnable, as nearly as that may be said of any group of buildings, the most elaborate system of fire-protection has been installed, so that if, in future, water connections are broken at one point, or two points, or several points, there will still be plenty of water from other sources.

As an outsider, in love with San Francisco, who has yet had the temerity to mention the forbidden word, I may perhaps venture a little farther and suggest that it is time for sensitiveness over the word “earthquake” to cease.

Let us use what word we like: the fact remains that the disaster brought out magnificent qualities in San Francisco’s people; they were victorious over it; they have fortified themselves against a repetition of it; they transformed catastrophe into opportunity. Already, I think, many San Franciscans understand that the cataclysm was not an unmixed evil, and I believe that, strange though it may seem, there will presently come a time when, for all their half-melancholy “before the fire” talk, they will admit that on the whole it was a good thing. For it is granted to but few cities and few men to really begin life anew.