Deadline Poetry

The death of newspaper legend Herb Caen


Gary Kamiya
February 6, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

on Saturday afternoon, I walked blearily out of my apartment on Nob Hill, chasing some carbonated sugar water after a night that had begun at a South of Market dive and ended seven hours later in North Beach. The San Francisco Examiner was lying on the doorstep. I glanced at the headline. "Herb Caen dies," it read.

I stared at the paper for a moment. Then I looked slowly at the houses across the street, past the humming murmur of the cable car lines, up through the maze of telephone lines, into the cloud-torn gray sky. For a moment the city's heart, too, seemed to have stopped beating. Then it came back to life, and it was changed.

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It was not diminished: It was bigger. It was older, wiser, more haunted by history. It reached further back into the past, a past of neon jazz joints and starlets and big-nosed convertibles, glasses glowing in dark rooms, muscular men unloading cargo on the waterfront, white apartments rising up in the fog. The city had arranged itself around its chronicler, the way the forest rearranges itself around the empty place when one of the big trees fall.

It had always been his city, it struck me as I walked up Leavenworth Street, but it was only now that I really knew it.

Herb Caen was two things above all: He was a great newspaperman, and he was a great lover of San Francisco. What made him unique was the way he brought these two things together. He brought a deadline poetry to the life in the streets, the roistering and gossip and tragedy of 700,000 lives. His column was the city's agora, its Roman forum. The scoops, the sparkling one-liners, the praise and derision, the endless dish he served up brought the city's people together, if only for 10 minutes over a latte. But he also brought a tough, unabashed lyricism to the beauty of the place itself. The city, for him, was neither just a pretty postcard nor a source of three-dot anecdotes for his daily thousand words it was a living entity, a place that at once included and transcended its inhabitants' destinies.

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There is something hilarious, and touching, and absolutely right about the fact that one of Caen's wives named San Francisco as a co-respondent in her divorce suit. She was the one he never left.

Caen was a living link to an almost mythical age, the fedora-hat era when a sweaty glamour hovered over the whole sidewalk-pounding enterprise of being a daily man. Writing a daily column, as he did for 58 years, is wiltingly hard work, but he did it with a panache and muscular zest that made the macho creed civilized. During my five years at the Chronicle's great rival, the Examiner, where he was lured for a spell in the '50s before returning to the Chron for good, I would sometimes see him parking his white Jaguar and strolling, with a Jeeves-like insouciance, down Fifth Street, homburg jauntily on his head. The lesson of that supreme saunter was simple: You gotta enjoy it, all of it. Just knowing that he was there, pounding away in the same building as me on his old Royal, was as reassuring as a flask in the pocket or money in the bank. In an age when journalism seems to have lost its style, its eccentricity, its balls, Caen was a Stoli-quaffing, nightclub-going, skirt-admiring anchor.

And then there was his humanity. Caen upheld the great democratic tradition of the American press one fading as TV stars and even newspapermen move into income brackets and sensibilities far removed from the people they're writing about. Caen hobnobbed with the wealthy and powerful, he didn't suffer fools gladly, but he always retained the humility of the newsman, a solidarity with the taxi drivers and waitresses and secretaries and dock workers who made the city work. His early opposition to the Vietnam War, his opposition to all forms of bigotry, truly marked him as the apt chronicler for this most liberal of American cities.

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As the years went on, and the city moved further away from the enchanted, sparkling Baghdad-by-the-Bay years that he loved best, his tolerance acquired a pathos, an even greater emotional resonance: You knew that he was not entirely happy with what had happened to his city, but he refused to turn sour and bitter. He kept up with what was going on, could laugh at and appreciate the blue-haired punks on Folsom Street just as 40 years earlier he had laughed at and appreciated the hepcats in the Beach.

Duke Ellington, I think, once said that he stayed young by playing with young cats. Caen, old drummer that he was, kept swinging until the end. He taught a lot of us '60s kids who had erroneously thought that we had the market on tolerance look at us now in our judgments and weep! what that word really means. He taught us how to grow old.

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Herb Caen said he wanted his gravestone to read "He never missed a deadline." That is a fine and fitting epitaph for a man who upheld the best traditions of his profession and had a hell of a good time doing it. But his true memorial is larger.

It is all around the city, in every corner of this jumbled steep old treasure-hunt village running away from civilization and down to the sea, from the restless wind-blown waves at Ocean Beach to the rotting piers at Red's Java House, from the filthy numberless byways of Chinatown to the bleached stark vistas on Twin Peaks, from the lights in the big houses on the hills to the music in the little ones in the valleys. It comes alive and will always come alive every time anyone reaches far enough into imagination and tolerance to see the city as he did: whole and alive, intricate and majestic, a place in the heart at continent's end, a friend for life when other friends fade. As long as people love San Francisco, Herb Caen will live on.

Thanks, Herb. We'll see you around town.

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Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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