I lived near, and left, San Francisco many years ago, but I’ve had the good fortune to stop for a few days now and then. Odd, I thought, when the pandemic struck that of all the places I lived, this was the first place I yearned to see again. So I started writing a new book set in The City by the Bay, thus seizing upon the excuse to hunt down old Herb Caen books.
Herb Caen was a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for six decades. A 1996 special Pulitzer Prize was awarded to him “for his extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of his city.” Lucky for us, he recorded the ever-evolving yet steadfastly quintessential character of The City and its inhabitants. When I was growing up, everyone read him. I mean everyone. Because the first thing that would happen when you went to work on Monday morning is someone would ask: did you see Herb Caen’s column? If you hadn’t read him, you weren’t in the know.
If you don’t read him for your love of The City, read him for his gorgeous descriptions. A quote from Don’t Call it Frisco (Doubleday & Co, 1953):
The tourist, looking at the city for the first time, shakes his head in a puzzled way and sighs: “This San Francisco – it sort of gets to you. There’s something about it. I don’t know quite what it is, but it’s something”…
And the San Franciscan smiles and nods, for he thinks he knows what it is…It’s the gay fluttering of the flags and pennants on the downtown minarets, outlined against a blue sky flecked with fast-rolling fog…It’s the never-cloying thrill of standing at the bow of a proud old ferryboat as it churns its white way in an arc across the Bay, then eases, like a practiced firehorse, into its slip under the Ferry Building’s ageless tower…It’s the pride, reborn again and again, that comes when you stand on a Marin mountaintop and gaze over the water at your magic city, gleaming like an endless mosaic that covers each hill with castles and fills each valley with romantic lights and shadows…
I especially love the firehorse analogy.
How about you, Writers Who Kill? When you’re researching locale, what are your sources?
Beloved Readers: chime in on comments: Where did you leave your heart?