Post 600: Nostalgia and Herb Caen

I was feeling nostalgic today. Not because this is the 600th post — that’s a coincidence, but because I was thinking about my favourite columnist of all time: Herb Caen. Mister Caen is famous because without him you’d not have the word beatnik which he coined in 1958, or the word hippie which he popularized in the 1960s. Nor would the phrase Baghdad by the Bay be in our vernacular. Many people knew of Mister Caen. But if you never lived in San Francisco, you never knew Mister Caen.

He died of lung cancer and his funeral was the largest attended in the history of the city. He was beloved like no other. And to say he shaped the city is no lie. From the Embarcadero to the new Giants Stadium, they all bear his signature. He was a legend in his time and thereafter.

His eulogy was delivered by one Robin Williams. Pretty funny. Just how Herb would have wanted it. It took a week’s worth of newspapers to print a fraction of his remembrances, and they are here if you want to read some. They won’t mean much to many of you because you can never understand what one man can do to shape a city, a culture, just by documenting it and appreciating it. The old chestnut “I left my heart in San Francisco” rings true for those of us who have been there and actually left our hearts there. He documented the infamous earthquakes, the legendary Trader Vic’s, and many other places from Sears (diner) to Coit Tower and many places only a native would know. He felt the city and the city felt him.

As a young Cal student, I wrote him a note about the idiotic Berkeley Police. He wrote me back. The framed letter is still on my wall. But I had been a loyal reader of his from long, long before that. Back when I lived there briefly as a young boy, I discovered him. I read him religiously, and that is, quite honestly, how I began my love affair with the newspaper.

A collection of his columns is here. When he knew he was dying but most people didn’t the city threw him a huge party. He won a pullet surprise that year as he said (Pulitzer Prize if you can’t figure that one out). He typed every one of his columns on a typewriter. There are a number of books of his columns and they all bear reading by his devoted fans. I have them all. Lots of famous people talk about him: Robin Williams, Don Johnson, Willie Mays, Walter Cronkite, more. This man is legendary. In 202 they tried to recreate the party but it wasn’t quite the same without the namesake.

I thought I’d go for real nostalgia in this column, and he’s it. How can you not love a guy who Walter Cronkite respects? That’s a real journalist.

This blog is going to hit five years old on the back half of 2009. I’ve covered myriad topics — many of them of no credible interest to anyone. Others of wide interest. The posts about Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd generate visits near a hundred of thousand, while other posts generate nearly nothing. The top topics are indeed the ones I just mentioned followed by Daniel Radcliffe and the exposure of his magic wand in the play Equus. Those are followed by Terry Goodkind and my take on his novel Phantom. Billy Elliot follows that — a topic I’ve covered a number of times. Sneezing blood comes thereafter. Who knew?

Will this public blog change? Nope. I’ll keep at it. I write what I want to, and you can read or not. But at over 210,000 visitors since I installed the counter (which wasn’t installed when the blog went live, but in January 2006) someone is reading. I want to thank my regulars — whomever you are.

Go read some Herb Caen. It’s good for your soul. Really.

I miss you, Herb. As you once said: “I’m going to do what every San Franciscan does who goes to Heaven. I’ll look around and say, ‘It’s not bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.’


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