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California Historical Articles

Before The Fire Of San Francisco

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

SAN FRANCISCANS love to show their city off. Nevertheless they take a curious delight in countering against the enthusiasm of the alien with a solemn wag of the head and the invariable :

"Ah, but you should have seen, felt,tasted, smelled, heard it before the Fire !"

They say that about everything, old and new. They say it indiscriminately, without thought of what it means. They love the sound of it, and have made it a fixed habit. They say it about districts and buildings, about hotels, and the Barbary Coast (which is much like the old Bowery, in New York, and where ragtime dancing is said to have originated), and the Presidio (the military post, overlooking the sea), and Golden Gate Park (a semi-tropical wonder-place, built on what used to be sand dunes, and guarded by Park Policemen who carry lassos with which to stop runaways), and Chinatown, and the Fish Market (which resembles a collection of still-life studies by William M. Chase), and the Bank Exchange (which is not a commercial institution, but a venerable bar, presided over by Duncan Nicol, who came around the Horn with his eye-glasses over his ear, where he continues to wear them while mixing Pisco cocktails). They say it also of "Ernie" and his celebrated "Number Two" cocktail, with a hazelnut in it ; and of the St. Francis Hotel (which is one of the best rim and most perfectly cosmopolitan hotels in the country), and of the Fairmont Hotel (a wonderful pile, commanding the city and the bay as Bertolini's commands the city and the bay of Naples), and the Palace Hotel (where drinks are twenty-five cents each, as in the old days; where ripe olives are a specialty, and where, over the bar, hangs Maxfield Parrish's "Pied Piper," balancing the continent against his "Old King Cole," in the Knickerbocker bar, in New York). They say it about the Cliff House, (with its Sorrento setting, its seals barking on the rocks below, and its hectic turkey-trotting nights), about Tait's, and Solari's, and the Techau, and Frank's, and the Poodle Dog, and Marchand's, and Coppa's, and all the other restaurants ; about the private dining-rooms (which are a San Francisco specialty), about the pretty girls (which are another specialty), about the clubs (which are still another), about cable-cars, taxicabs, flowers, shrimps, crabs, sand-dabs (which are fish almost as good as English sole), and about everything else. They use it instead of "if you please," "thank you," "good-morning," and "good-night." If there are no strangers to say it to they say it to one another. If you admire a man's wife and children he will say it, and the same thing occurs if you approve of his new hat.

If the old San Francisco was indeed so far superior to the new, then Bagdad in the days of Haroun-al-Raschid would have been but a dull prairie town, compared with it.

But was it?

The San Francisco attitude upon this subject reminds me of that of the old French Royalists.

A friend of mine, an American living in Paris, happened to inquire of a venerable Marquis concerning the Palais de Glace, where Parisians go to skate.

"Ah, yes," replied the ancient aristocrat, raising his shoulders contemptuously, "one hears that the world now goes to skate under a roof, upon ice manufactured. Truly, all is changed, my friend. I assure you it was not like this under the Empire. In those times the lakes in the Bois used to freeze. But they do so no longer. It is not to be expected. Bah! This sacre Republic !"

While in San Francisco, I noted down a number of odd items, some of them unimportant, which, when added together, have much to do with the flavor of the town. Having used the word "flavor," I may as well begin with drinks.

Drinks cut an important figure in San Francisco life, as is natural in a wine-producing country. The merit of the best California wines is not appreciated in the East. Some of them are very good—much better, indeed, than a great deal of the imported wine brought from Europe. I have even tasted a California champagne which compares creditably with the ordinary run of French champagne, though when it comes to special vintages, California has not attained the French level.

It is a general custom, in public bars and clubs to shake dice for drinks, instead of clamoring to "treat," according to the silly eastern custom, which as every one knows, often causes men to drink more than they wish to, just to be "good fellows." The free lunch, in connection with bars, is developed more highly in San Francisco than in any other city that I know of ; also, Easterners will be surprised to find small onions, or nuts, in their cocktails, instead of olives. A popular cocktail on the Coast is the "Honolulu," which is like the familiar "Bronx," excepting that pineapple juice is used in place of orange juice.

When my companion and I were in San Francisco a prohibition wave was threatening. Such a movement in a wine-producing country engenders very strong feeling, and I found, attached to the bills-of-fare in various restaurants, earnest pleas, addressed to voters, to turn out and cast their ballots against the temperance menace.

Of prohibition the town had already had a taste—if one may use the expression. The reform movement had struck the Barbary Coast, the rule, at the time of our visit, being that there should be no dancing where alcoholic drinks were served, and no drinks where there was dancing. This law was enforced and it made the former region of festivity a sad place. Even the sailors and marines sitting about the dance-halls, consuming beer-substitutes, at a dollar a bottle, were melancholy figures, appearing altogether unresponsive to the sirens who surrounded them.

Ordinary drinks at most bars in San Francisco are fifteen cents each, or two for a quarter, as in most other cities. That is to say, two drinks for "two bits."

Like the American mill, or the English Guinea, the "bit," familiar on the Pacific Slope, is not a coin. The Californian will ask for change for a "quarter," or a "half," as we do in the East, but in making small purchases he will ask for two, or four, or six "bits' worth," a "bit" representing twelve-and-a-half cents. In the old days there were also "short bits" and "long bits," meaning, respectively' ten cents, and fifteen cents, but these terms with their implied scorn of the copper cent, have died out.

The humble penny is, however, still regarded contemptuously in San Francisco.. Until quite recently all newspapers published there sold at five cents each, and that is still true of the morning papers, the "Chronicle" and the "Examiner." Lately the "Call" and the "Bulletin," evening papers, have dropped in price to one cent each, but when the princely Son of the Golden West buys them, he will frequently pay the newsboy with a nickel, ignoring the change.. Nor is the newsboy to be outdone in magnificence: when a five-cent customer asks for one paper the boy will very likely hand him both. They understand each other, these two, and meet on terms of a noble mutual liberality.

As to Chinatown, those who knew it before the fire declare that its charm is gone, but my companion and I found interest in its shops, its printing offices and, most of all, in its telephone exchange.

The San Francisco Telephone Directory has a section devoted to Chinatown, in which the names of Chinese subscribers are printed in both English and Chinese characters. Thus, if I wish to telephone to Boo Gay, Are Too, Chew Chu & Co., Doo Kee, Fat Hoo, the Gee How Tong, Gum Hoo, Hang Far Low, Jew Bark, Joke Key, King Gum, Shee Duck Co., Tin Hop & Co., To To Bete Shy, Too Too Guey, Wee Chun, Wing On & Co., Yet Bun Hung, Yet Ho, Yet You, or Yue Hock, all of whom I find in the directory-if I wish to telephone to them, I can look them up in English and call "China 148," or whatever the number may be. But if a Chinaman who cannot read English wishes to call, he calls by name only, which makes it necessary for operators to remember not merely the name and number of each Chinese subscriber, but to speak English and Chinese-including the nine Chinese provincial dialects.

The operators are, of course, Chinese girls, and the exchange, which has over a thousand subscribers, representing about a tenth of the population of the Chinese district, is under the management of Mr. Loo Kum Shu, who was born in California and educated at the University of California. His assistant, Mr. Chin Sing, is also a native of the State, and is a graduate of the San Francisco public schools.

For a "soulless corporation" the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company has shown a good deal of imagination in constructing and equipping its Chinatown exchange. The building with its gaily decorated pagoda roof and balconies, makes a colorful spot in the center of Chinatown. Inside it is elaborately frescoed with dragons and other Chinese designs, while the woodwork is of ebony and gold. The switchboard is carved and is set in a shrine, and this fascinating incongruity, with the operators, all dressed in the richly colored silk costumes of their ancient civilization, poking in plugs, pulling them out, chattering now in English, now in Chinese, teaches one that anachronism may, under some conditions, be altogether charming.

One rumor concerning San Francisco restaurants appealed to my sinful literary imaginings. I had heard that these establishments resembled those of Paris, not only in cuisine, but because, as in Paris, the proprietors did not deem it necessary to stipulate that private dining-rooms should never be occupied save by parties of more than two.

Of one of these restaurants, in particular, I had been told the most amazing tales : A taxi would drive into the building by a sort of tunnel; great doors would close instantly behind it; it would run onto a large elevator and be taken bodily to some floor above, where the occupants would alight practically at the door of their clandestine meeting-place—an exquisite little apartment, decorated like the boudoir of some royal favorite. If it were in-deed true that such a picturesquely shocking place existed, I intended—entirely in the interest of my readers, you will understand—to see it; and honesty forces me to add that I hoped, with journalistic immorality, that it did exist.

One night I went there. True, the conditions were somewhat prosaic. It was quite late; my companion and I were tired, but we were near the end of our stay in San Francisco, and I insisted upon his accompanying me to the mysterious cafe, although he protested violently—not on moral grounds, but because he is sufficiently sophisticated to know that there is no subject upon which exaggeration gives itself carte blanche as it does when describing gilded vice.

' The taxi did drive in through a kind of tunnel—a place suggesting coal wagons—but there were no massive, silent doors to close behind it. Passing into an inner court, which was like an empty garage, it stopped beside a little door.

"Where is the elevator ?" I asked the taxi driver. "In there," he answered, indicating the door.

"But," I complained, "I heard that there was a big elevator here, that took taxis right up stairs."

"There ain't," he said, succinctly.

Telling him to wait, we entered the door and came upon an elevator and a solitary waiter, whom we informed of our desire to see the place.

Obligingly he took us to an upper floor and opening the door of an apartment, showed us in.

"Of course," he-said, "all of them are not so fine as this."

Alas for my imaginings, here was no rose-pink boudoir, no scene for a romantic meeting, but a room like one of those frightful parlor "sets" one sometimes sees in the cheapest moving pictures. However, in the movies one is spared the color of such a room; one may see that the wallpaper is of hideous design, but one can-not see its ghastly scrambled browns and greens and purples.. As I glanced at the various furnishings it seemed to me that each was uglier than the last, and when finally my eye fell upon an automatic piano in a sort of combination of dark oak and art nouveau, with a stained glass front and a nickel in the slot attachment, my dream of a setting for sumptuous and esthetic sin was dead. It was a room in which adventure would taste like stale beer.

My companion placed a nickel in the slot that fed the terrible piano. There was a whirring sound, succeeded, not by low seductive strains, but by a sudden din of rag-time which crashed upon our ears as the decorations had upon our eyes.

Hastily I moved towards the door. My companion followed.

"If the gentlemans would wish to see some other apartments—?" suggested the obliging waiter, as we closed the door.

"Oh, no thanks," I said. "This gives us a good idea of it."

As we moved towards the elevator the waiter asked politely: "The gentlemans have never been in here before?"

"No," I said, "we don't live in San Francisco. We had heard about this place and wanted to see it before we went away."

"It is a famous place," he said. Then, with a shake. of the head, he added, "But before the Fire Ah, the gentlemans should have seen it then !"