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BOHEMIAN DAYS IN SAN FRANCISCO


It is but just to the respectable memory of San Francisco that in
these vagrant recollections I should deprecate at once any
suggestion that the levity of my title described its dominant tone
at any period of my early experiences. On the contrary, it was a
singular fact that while the rest of California was swayed by an
easy, careless unconventionalism, or swept over by waves of emotion
and sentiment, San Francisco preserved an intensely material and
practical attitude, and even a certain austere morality. I do not,
of course, allude to the brief days of '49, when it was a
straggling beach of huts and stranded hulks, but to the earlier
stages of its development into the metropolis of California. Its
first tottering steps in that direction were marked by a distinct
gravity and decorum. Even during the period when the revolver
settled small private difficulties, and Vigilance Committees
adjudicated larger public ones, an unmistakable seriousness and
respectability was the ruling sign of its governing class. It was
not improbable that under the reign of the Committee the lawless
and vicious class were more appalled by the moral spectacle of
several thousand black-coated, serious-minded business men in
embattled procession than by mere force of arms, and one "suspect"--
a prize-fighter--is known to have committed suicide in his cell
after confrontation with his grave and passionless shopkeeping
judges. Even that peculiar quality of Californian humor which was
apt to mitigate the extravagances of the revolver and the
uncertainties of poker had no place in the decorous and responsible
utterance of San Francisco. The press was sober, materialistic,
practical--when it was not severely admonitory of existing evil;
the few smaller papers that indulged in levity were considered
libelous and improper. Fancy was displaced by heavy articles on
the revenues of the State and inducements to the investment of
capital. Local news was under an implied censorship which
suppressed anything that might tend to discourage timid or cautious
capital. Episodes of romantic lawlessness or pathetic incidents of
mining life were carefully edited--with the comment that these
things belonged to the past, and that life and property were now
"as safe in San Francisco as in New York or London."

Wonder-loving visitors in quest of scenes characteristic of the
civilization were coldly snubbed with this assurance. Fires,
floods, and even seismic convulsions were subjected to a like
grimly materialistic optimism. I have a vivid recollection of a
ponderous editorial on one of the severer earthquakes, in which it
was asserted that only the UNEXPECTEDNESS of the onset prevented
San Francisco from meeting it in a way that would be deterrent of
all future attacks. The unconsciousness of the humor was only
equaled by the gravity with which it was received by the whole
business community. Strangely enough, this grave materialism
flourished side by side with--and was even sustained by--a narrow
religious strictness more characteristic of the Pilgrim Fathers of
a past century than the Western pioneers of the present. San
Francisco was early a city of churches and church organizations to
which the leading men and merchants belonged. The lax Sundays of
the dying Spanish race seemed only to provoke a revival of the
rigors of the Puritan Sabbath. With the Spaniard and his Sunday
afternoon bullfight scarcely an hour distant, the San Francisco
pulpit thundered against Sunday picnics. One of the popular
preachers, declaiming upon the practice of Sunday dinner-giving,
averred that when he saw a guest in his best Sunday clothes
standing shamelessly upon the doorstep of his host, he felt like
seizing him by the shoulder and dragging him from that threshold of
perdition.

Against the actual heathen the feeling was even stronger, and
reached its climax one Sunday when a Chinaman was stoned to death
by a crowd of children returning from Sunday-school. I am offering
these examples with no ethical purpose, but merely to indicate a
singular contradictory condition which I do not think writers of
early Californian history have fairly recorded. It is not my
province to suggest any theory for these appalling exceptions to
the usual good-humored lawlessness and extravagance of the rest of
the State. They may have been essential agencies to the growth and
evolution of the city. They were undoubtedly sincere. The
impressions I propose to give of certain scenes and incidents of my
early experience must, therefore, be taken as purely personal and
Bohemian, and their selection as equally individual and vagrant. I
am writing of what interested me at the time, though not perhaps of
what was more generally characteristic of San Francisco.

I had been there a week--an idle week, spent in listless outlook
for employment; a full week in my eager absorption of the strange
life around me and a photographic sensitiveness to certain scenes
and incidents of those days, which start out of my memory to-day as
freshly as the day they impressed me.

One of these recollections is of "steamer night," as it was
called,--the night of "steamer day,"--preceding the departure of
the mail steamship with the mails for "home." Indeed, at that time
San Francisco may be said to have lived from steamer day to steamer
day; bills were made due on that day, interest computed to that
period, and accounts settled. The next day was the turning of a
new leaf: another essay to fortune, another inspiration of energy.
So recognized was the fact that even ordinary changes of condition,
social and domestic, were put aside until AFTER steamer day. "I'll
see what I can do after next steamer day" was the common cautious
or hopeful formula. It was the "Saturday night" of many a wage-
earner--and to him a night of festivity. The thoroughfares were
animated and crowded; the saloons and theatres full. I can recall
myself at such times wandering along the City Front, as the
business part of San Francisco was then known. Here the lights
were burning all night, the first streaks of dawn finding the
merchants still at their counting-house desks. I remember the dim
lines of warehouses lining the insecure wharves of rotten piles,
half filled in--that had ceased to be wharves, but had not yet
become streets,--their treacherous yawning depths, with the
uncertain gleam of tarlike mud below, at times still vocal with the
lap and gurgle of the tide. I remember the weird stories of
disappearing men found afterward imbedded in the ooze in which they
had fallen and gasped their life away. I remember the two or three
ships, still left standing where they were beached a year or two
before, built in between warehouses, their bows projecting into the
roadway. There was the dignity of the sea and its boundless
freedom in their beautiful curves, which the abutting houses could
not destroy, and even something of the sea's loneliness in the far-
spaced ports and cabin windows lit up by the lamps of the prosaic
landsmen who plied their trades behind them. One of these ships,
transformed into a hotel, retained its name, the Niantic, and part
of its characteristic interior unchanged. I remember these ships'
old tenants--the rats--who had increased and multiplied to such an
extent that at night they fearlessly crossed the wayfarer's path at
every turn, and even invaded the gilded saloons of Montgomery
Street. In the Niantic their pit-a-pat was met on every staircase,
and it was said that sometimes in an excess of sociability they
accompanied the traveler to his room. In the early "cloth-and-
papered" houses--so called because the ceilings were not plastered,
but simply covered by stretched and whitewashed cloth--their
scamperings were plainly indicated in zigzag movements of the
sagging cloth, or they became actually visible by finally dropping
through the holes they had worn in it! I remember the house whose
foundations were made of boxes of plug tobacco--part of a
jettisoned cargo--used instead of more expensive lumber; and the
adjacent warehouse where the trunks of the early and forgotten
"forty-niners" were stored, and--never claimed by their dead or
missing owners--were finally sold at auction. I remember the
strong breath of the sea over all, and the constant onset of the
trade winds which helped to disinfect the deposit of dirt and
grime, decay and wreckage, which were stirred up in the later
evolutions of the city.




Under the Redwoods by Bret Harte
Category:
General Fiction
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