Tag: San Francisco

Day 996: The Greatest Prank In The History Of History


“That putz, Bolton. This will totally blow his mind.”

The above may have been uttered between the cool gusts of sharp giggles at a gathering of the Berkeley chapter of E Clampus Vitus, an organization designated either as a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society”, depending on whom you ask. These are folks who are dedicated to the noble history of the American West, though they prefer to cozy up to their history with a frothy glass of smirk. Call them deviant scholars, outlaw students of the distant past and the eternal spirit of yeeha. Practical academics and impractical jokers.

The brass plate left by Sir Francis Drake near the bubbly Pacific coast is little more than a whopping banana peel, left on the ground to trip up one unfortunate mark but soon elevated into an established part of the natural vegetation. The so-called plaque that signifies the terminus of European exploration across our happy little continent is a hoax, a forgery, a one-off gag that exploded into accepted fact.

The lesson here is that history, for all her dates and names and oft-inexplicable motivations, can be a blast. Especially when iniquitous historians with a smirking sense of humor mess it up on purpose.


Herbert Eugene Bolton was one of the most respected historians of American western expansion, the author of a now-commonplace theory that asserts that we should look at colonial expansion across all the Americas holistically, rather than piece by piece. He was a brilliant man, the fantastic mind who established the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley as the preeminent historical resource it is today. He was also a member of E Clampus Vitus. One would expect he’d have been on the lookout for shenanigans. Read more…

Day 985: The Greatest Show In The Wild Old West


It was the kind of sun-whipped summer day that tended to cook the old west like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Central Pacific Railroad had just rolled into town, and a tall man with a face like sawed oak and fiery red hair leaned casually against a corral fence, watching the passengers disembark. Their faces scanned the local buildings for a place to eat. Few of them noticed the smarmy gentleman in the suit who was crossing the street. But the redhead saw him. He stepped away from the fence and shattered the dusty air.

“There ya are, ya low-down polecat!” he bellowed. The passers-by paused in their tracks. “Ah’m gonna kill ya b’cause of what ya did ta mah sister!” He paused, trying to collect himself. “Mah pore, pore little sister.”

The shorter man was frozen in panic. He didn’t react when the redhead pulled out his gun, cocked it, and fired. The shorter man fell to the street, writhed in pain for a moment, then died. The railway passengers sprinted back onto the train, some women fainted and had to be carried to safety as townsfolk wrestled the gun away from the redhead and dragged him off to jail. The dead man was unceremoniously dragged into the nearest saloon while the terrified passengers remained flat against the train’s floor, afraid to move. Thankfully, the train started rolling once again westward.

After the fervor had passed, the townsfolk relaxed with a hearty laugh. In one swift act of amateur theatre, they had just created the legendary old west.


The town of Palisade, Nevada was founded by a man named Willy East, who was looking for a comfy place in which to settle freed slaves. He had been talking with San Francisco resident-of-note Joshua Norton (who had recently declared himself to be Emperor of the United States), who had directed him toward the vast expanse of available Nevada land. The convenient placement of the railroad, as well as the town’s functional toilet – a feature not yet found aboard rail travel – cranked up the local population of the young town to around 300 in the 1870’s.

It was a picturesque little burg, home to a trio of saloons and a well-placed café beside the railway tracks to provide sustenance to the travelers who were pursuing the American Dream out west. Scoundrels and scammers poked and prodded at passenger wallets, selling them useless salt mines and spinning adventurous (and bogus) tales. But where was the “wild west” they had heard so much about? Read more…

Day 975: All Hail Norton I, Emperor Of These United States Of America


For all her achievements and triumphs, America just hasn’t been the same since the good ol’ days when the Emperor ran the show.

It was a brief sliver of eccentric history (or ‘eccentristory’ – I’m copyrighting that title) that should never be forgotten. And for some who live in San Francisco, where Emperor Norton breathed the free air of his glorious domain, it’s a cause worth championing. If nothing else, he was a testament to the spirit of the San Franciscan penchant for enfolding the quirky and unrepentantly goofy into the city’s lore. This wouldn’t have happened in Omaha.

Consider this an education on the potential of the politic of passion, a reimagining of a man’s place in the society that – to his mind – has clipped the wings of his security and left him abandoned in the ether. One cannot be defeated if one is the champion of one’s own self-proclaimed might. Kudos to Emperor Norton for making up his own rules, and Super-Kudos to San Francisco for buying in.


No one knows for certain the details of his origin story, but we do know that Joshua Abraham Norton came to us from somewhere in England via South Africa in 1849 after receiving a hefty bequest of $40,000 from his late father’s estate. He parlayed that money into a successful dance around the real estate market, building his fortune up to a cool quarter-million within a few short years. But Mr. Norton was always on the lookout for the next big opportunity. In this case, it drifted beneath his nose in the form of a news release from China. Read more…

Day 965: The Inaugural Road Trip


Roll down your windows, crank up the vintage Lindsey Buckingham and ready your innards for a deluge of fast-food grease – we are hitting the open road.

In 1903, right around the time those two bike-shop brothers in North Carolina were writing the first stand-up routines about in-flight meals, the general public was underwhelmingly embracing the automobile. Many thought it was a passing fad, that nothing could beat classic oat-eating, poop-dispensing horse travel. Those who disagreed were eager to test the physical boundaries of motorized transportation. They pushed for faster speeds, longer voyages and snazzier features. Even the kids were too enthralled with the technology to ask, “Are we there yet?”

It was a magical time of firsts for car fans. Among them were Toronto-born doctor Horatio Nelson Jackson and his mechanic friend, Sewell J. Crocker. When the opportunity arose to break the bi-coastal barrier, they couldn’t resist. This is how they grabbed hold of their own little chunk of history.

For those of you who now have "Holiday Road" stuck in your head, I apologize.

For those of you who now have “Holiday Road” stuck in your head, I apologize.

While visiting friends at San Francisco’s University Club, someone bet Horatio a whopping $50 (which is about $1300 in today’s money) that he couldn’t drive from coast to coast in one of those new-fangled auto-thingies. Despite the initial handicap of not owning a car, Horatio agreed to the bet. He had faith in the technology, the kind of faith that propels men to stupid manly endeavors. Endeavors that either result in a comical or ironic death, or a dusty little corner in the cubbyhole of history. Read more…

Day 942: The Hounds Of Golden Gate City


Clambering through the sticky alluvium of a daily paper can be a chore. Death, hate, disaster, and the ricochets of the eternal accusatory politic create the illusion of an incurably cacophonic world. I understand – the precipice of doom is a great slab of real estate if you want to attract gawkers, in particular gawkers with a couple of bucks in hand, who are ready to hear the worst and won’t settle for less. But it wasn’t always this way.

Between the stuffy drama of closed-door Washington and the few international events that would pepper the pages of a typical 19th century American daily, readers sought stories with a narrative bent. In particular when the bloody Civil War splattered so much of a paper’s square footage, a Disneyfied, anthropomorphizing puppy story had the power to pluck readers’ eyes away from the carnage into a happier place. I admire that.

Unearthing such a story in 1860’s San Francisco was not a tricky feat; the city was impervious to the anguish and torment on the nation’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it was awash in lively characters, literary wits and the quivering afterglow of a glorious gold rush. It was from these streets, dusty with optimism and aglow with lucky geography that we find the legend of Bummer and Lazarus, two lively pooches who charmed everyone in the Bay Area.


Nowadays, a dog wandering the streets of a major city is usually a sign that someone’s beloved pet had slipped through a gate or a door and bungled its way free from complacent domesticity. But in 1840’s Los Angeles, free-roaming dogs outnumbered people two-to-one. San Francisco wasn’t quite as deeply mired in canine vagrants, but the situation was still extreme. Dogs were poisoned, trapped and killed like feral raccoons or subway rats. But those few skilled pups who displayed some functional skills and/or a winning personality might stand a chance of survival. Read more…

Day 840: Baby You Can Drive My Car – Or Better Still, Your Robot Can Do It


As I trepidatiously shuffle toward the edge of the board, ready to leap into the warm waters of turning 40 this year, I realize it’s time to release my hopes of seeing the skies filled with flying cars. That Jetsons-style future-scape is not going to cross paths with my personal timeline, just as I probably won’t experience the food replicator from Star Trek or the Cleveland Browns winning a Super Bowl. That’s okay, I can live with that.

But what we lack in personal airborne transport (I don’t see the jetpack taking hold as any type of standard either) we are making up for in robot technology. If we can’t buzz the upper windows of the Chrysler Building in our 2033 Buick Fly-lark then at the very least we can have a nap in the back seat while our car safely transports us to work and parks itself. And from the looks of things, I won’t have to wait until my octogenarian days to experience this.

The robot-car, or autonomous vehicle, is a reality. And we can thank Google, the company that has created the technology to allow us to accurately simulate the experience of walking in a strange city with blurred-out faces, for having successfully tested a driverless car to the extent where it seems almost marketable. This idea has been in the works for a long time.


In 1926 the Houdina Radio Control Co., which had been founded by a former US Army electrical engineer named Francis P. Houdina, demonstrated a radio-controlled driverless car through the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan. It was a novelty and it very much required human control in some fashion, but it was a start. The experiment garnered enough attention to piss off Harry Houdini, who stormed into Houdina’s offices with his secretary and trashed the place, believing Houdina to be capitalizing on Harry’s famous name. The 20’s were a wild decade. Read more…

Day 811: Sympathy For The Sixties


Growing up as I did amid hippie anthems, psychedelic living room lighting fixtures and the notorious sweet smell of those skinny little cigarettes my parents would pass back and forth, it was easy to romanticize the Woodstock culture. When I attended high school, anti-war activism (to boot Iraq out of Kuwait) was non-existent and youth culture involved acting intentionally mopey and disenfranchised or memorizing the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby”. Those kids in 1969 were grooving to great music, they were smiling and enjoying the sun, and they were having promiscuous sex without fear of a deadly organ-murdering virus.

I understand now that framing that era is simplistic and one-dimensional, and I’d overlooked the racial violence, the gender inequity, the generational disconnect and the very real fear that many Americans faced at being shipped off to die in Vietnam. Also, from what I hear the weed wasn’t very good. Woodstock – and I watched the film a few times as a teenager – appeared to be the glittering diamond between the proudly stretched arms of the Peace ‘n Love generation. And Altamont was the axe that knocked the entire thing to the ground.

Another simplification, and it pains me to know that this rich and inarguably fascinating period in our history is going to be butchered by hazy summations and inaccurate conclusions the further we move away from it. The Altamont concert was not the “end of 60’s youth culture” or the “death of ideology”. It was a catastrophic blunder fuelled by poor decisions and lousy planning. Woodstock was a fluke, in that things went well after a disastrous build-up. Altamont was reality.


Less than four months after Woodstock, concert organizers were looking for a sequel. This was prior to the age of corporate-sponsored gigs, when there was no slick industry in place to monetize the counterculture. This is why a free concert was the plan – Woodstock had been free (not by the promoters’ choice, but that’s another story), so why not simulate that vibe on the west coast?

The Rolling Stones were slogging through a successful (though many felt overpriced) tour of the States, and landing in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for a huge free show with a killer roster of opening acts seemed like a great way to finish the tour. They worked alongside members of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead to make it happen. Read more…

Day 782: The Mother Of Civil Rights


History – even that special brand of history that today seems unflinchingly common-sense and righteous – is more deeply mired with confused and distorted perspective than a grease-trap full of one-eyed ants. We reflect on our civil rights champions with quiet applause and a brow-full of scorn for “those other assholes”: the white oppressors, the Nazi scum, the patriarchal dicks, the anti-lefty scissor-making industry, and so on.

But while Dr. King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks were at the forefront of a dramatic national movement, a moment should be spared for those who came earlier. Those who predated a movement or created one on their own.

When Mary Ellen Pleasant pushed for civil rights reforms – even before the country’s highest office had determined that black people amounted to more than a commodity – she was hailed as a hero. Then, naturally, she was skewered, squeezed and crucified. It ended well for Mary, but only if you consider ‘ending well’ to mean she was eventually honored for what she did, more than a century after her death.


Mary Ellen Pleasant was born with a first name only, the illegitimate daughter of John H. Pleasants (the son of the Georgia governor) and a black voodoo priestess. Mary was known for dispersing a heap of contradictory information about her past, so it’s hard to say for certain if she worked as a child in a New Orleans convent or was freed from slavery by a sympathetic planter. We do know it was the early 1800’s and Mary had enough African-American blood in her veins to have knitted her a few rifts with the society around her. Read more…

Day 776: Of Fingers And Knuckles And Stuff


Faced with the prospect of a sixth trip to the dentist in two months for the same misbehaving molar, I find myself begrudgingly short on optimism for today. Rather than delve through another tale of a corrupt world or criminal conspiracy (both of which usually keep me perpetually entertained), I’m going to turn my curiosity toward the world around me.

There are so many miniscule aspects of our trivial routines whose histories and origins are overlooked because deep down, we simply don’t care. Throughout this project I have learned more than I’d ever wanted to know about the history of swear words, about polypropylene chairs and about German artist collectives. My life is endlessly richer for it.

Rather than comb the obscure I’m going to investigate a bit of the history behind some of the hand gestures we take for granted. Why do I do this? Does the public really need to know? Will Day 776 go down in this project’s history (or really any history) as anything but just another day? Should I stop asking rhetorical questions and twirl my word-fork through the pasta of this subject?


The first nationally exhibited high-five in history (though it had no doubt gone through years of laboratory testing before reaching this level of exposure) occurred on October 2, 1977 between Glenn Burke and Dusty Baker of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Baker had just blasted his thirtieth home run of the year over the fence, marking the first time in baseball history that a single team saw four players notch at least 30 homers apiece in a single season. Glenn Burke, who was next to bat, was waiting with his hand raised when Dusty jogged home. Dusty, being of a quick wit and a clever mind, smacked the open hand with his, changing the course of greetings history. Read more…

Day 763: Life In The Slow Lane


I’m going to type this one nice and slow. For as much as I yearn for the sweet, chewy nougat of the weekend’s potential liberation from routine and obligation, I feel that every letter of today’s prose should be savored, tasted, maybe given a little velvet pillow in the chamber of my memory. “Life moves pretty fast these days. Sometimes you’ve got to slow it down.” I think I heard that in a mattress commercial once.

It’s hard to argue the fact that our society leans on its frenetic pace like a cold chrome crutch. Where once expediency and a perpetual gust of haste was required to propel us through the Industrial Revolution, those habits have sunk beneath the epidermis of production and melded with the deep tissue of capitalism. Can the rapid-fire, 25-words-or-less blitzkrieg behavior be stripped from some aspect of our lives? Can’t we all just slow the hell down?

That question has been answered with a definitive (albeit drawn-out) “YES” by a number of movements that are subversively prodding at our hurried madness from the inside. Collectively they are known as the Slow Movement, and with a little creativity and a whole lot of patience, it just might save your sanity.


It all begins with Carlo Petrini, an Italian politician and activist who took aim at the 1986 opening of a McDonalds near the Spanish Steps in Rome. It wasn’t so much the spread of corporate culture to that historic neighborhood (though I’m sure that didn’t tickle his fancy either), but rather the sorry excuse for nourishment that passed into his countrymen’s innards beneath those golden arches. Carlo wasn’t fooled by the flimsy strips of lettuce or the flavorless reconstituted onions upon the Big Mac; he knew the fast-food juggernaut required an extreme opponent. Naturally, he called it ‘Slow Food’. Read more…