The Funeral That Won't Die
It's approximately 2 p.m. on Herb Caen Day, the afternoon of his much-publicized memorial service at Grace Cathedral. Standing in front of the overflowing Moose's, North Beach hangout for politicos, second-tier players, and drunk boyfriends of Angela Alioto, are two elderly women sipping Caen's popular Vitamin V, today's unofficial drink of the city. They are white-haired, barrel-shaped matrons, with bright-red lipstick caked on their wrinkled lips, both wearing necklaces of unspeakably ugly baubles, busily chatting about taking a quick photo of Willie Brown, but he hasn't arrived yet, and so one contemplates taking a picture of the other, just to make use of the camera. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights publisher and King of the Beatniks, strolls past unnoticed.
A creepy little man barely 5 feet tall wanders through the sidewalk crowd of drunks, valets, people in wheelchairs, and men hobbling with walkers. He wears a black, rumpled fedora, ersatz Burberry scarf, and measly white mustache, with a walking cane dangling from one arm and raincoat over the shoulders. He shuffles up and down the sidewalk without purpose, sipping a cocktail and chain-smoking thin cigarettes. Eccentric heir to the McCormick/Schilling spice fortune? The next Truman Capote? Or just another unctuous social climber, with cheap caviar on the breath and secondhand silk shorts? He attempts a conversation with a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. She politely ignores him. He quickly lights another cigarette, and heads through the front door of Moose's for a refill. The two amateur photographers spot him and lean into his face.
"WHO ARE YOU?" blurts one of the baubled women.
Capote Jr. arrogantly pulls the cigarette from his mouth, dashes it to the pavement at their feet, and steps inside without so much as a glance in their direction. A parking valet materializes, quickly stepping on the burning butt, shaking his head. The women both break into laughter.
Not that some people didn't treat the day with reverence. Nob Hill was packed with Caen fans, primarily middle-aged wine-and-cheese townies who could afford to blow off the day. Up in the cathedral's balcony was the city's press corps, vultures with cameras and notepads, eagerly composing yet more Caen pornography which all of us would later devour word by word. Prominent at one end was the Examiner's Rob Morse, enjoying a choice box seat to the closing night of his primary competition. Caen item contributor Strange de Jim grandiose-ly removed his trademark pillow case disguise to reveal his identity to the world, and the cathedral gasped at his face -- an image that had already been broadcast all over local TV for the past week. Willie Brown spoke eloquently and too long, and Robin Williams provided comic relief ("Look up 'irony' in Webster's, and it says 'See Ivy League.' ") The assembled throng laughed, others sat on the steps listening to the service inside, a few wiping their eyes, and it was strange and moving and bombastic and necessary.
One man did a brisk business on California Street, manning a table of Caen commemorative buttons. When asked if he was selling a lot of them, he answered breezily, "Oh yeah, we're gonna miss Herb Caen for sure," and turned to take another dollar.
One local TV station pompously claims they are "the best place for news, in the best place on Earth." They could well have been describing the final procession out of the church. In a ceremony worthy of an assassinated pope, the mayor and immediate family were escorted by security down the steps, flanked by rows of police and state troopers, and into a long black limousine, with the mayor stepping into his own separate limo for the arduous one-block commute to a reception at the Fairmont. An unbelievably regal affair for a newspaper columnist who reportedly never liked funerals or memorials, and an incredible outpouring of love and friendship for a man whose very occupation most likely made him one of the loneliest people in the city.
Perhaps that's why local columnists have each clocked in with their tip of the hat to Caen, from Scott Ostler to Art Hoppe, Leah Garchik, Warren Hinckle, Morse, Pat Steger, Cynthia Robins, and a few remarks from the Bay Guardian; even Stephanie Salter's description of Caen's kissing technique paid homage in a bizarre way. We've all thought ourselves crazy to type our columns in solitude, of which most of these efforts will be tossed in the street, left in a cafe, or shredded like the wheat in Caen's morning cereal. In trolling the city, I sometimes think of Herb Caen facing the deadline all those years, and wonder, as I'm panicking over finding items for a weekly column, how he could continue to produce that many words every day, and not end up in the church tower with a high-powered rifle, a case of Stoli, and a handful of lemons, screaming, "I got your three dots right here!" before emptying a clip into a packed streetcar.
To readers under 40, Caen epitomized the upper crust, a curious, blue-blazered Old World of operas, ballets, five-star restaurants, and vacations to Morocco. His books are hard to find, and if you do get ahold of one it's his style that is worth digesting, rather than the dated gossip. He may have been Mr. San Francisco, but the closest many of us will ever get to this version of the city is having a drink at Bix, before we get kicked out for inappropriate footwear. For instance, later that evening elsewhere in the city, at a reception at ArtRock Gallery, when asked about Herb Caen, the crowd of hot-rod art aficionados simply shrugged and sipped their beer. He's not on the radar.