San Francisco is having an identity crisis. People are arguing and legislating and propositioning about what the city is and what it is becoming. Who are these new people filling up that fancy coffee shop where my old dry cleaners used to be? Why is that decrepit old parking lot being replaced with a huge apartment building? Why was my bus stop just super-sized? What is this place, anyway?
People who want to know where this city is going would do well to know where it came from, who built it, and who was run out of town on a rail. Ernest Beyl, the Marina Times’ resident docent of San Francisco history and highlights, has provided a guide to the characters of the past in his new book Sketches from a North Beach Journal (Grizzly Peak Press, 2015), which is subtitled “Heroes and Heroines, the Wise and the Wily: San Franciscans from the Gold Rush to Yesterday.”
In fact, much like his Marina Times column of the same name, Beyl uses this book to take a prose walk down the streets of North Beach (and parts thereabouts), giving you insight into the personalities who made the place what it is. Beyl introduces you to (or, if you’re a long-timer in the city, expands your knowledge of) people who are noteworthy because of their achievements, their special way of standing out from a crowd, or their ability to tell a tale well.
There are some old favorites in here, such as Joshua Norton, a mid-19th-century local business tycoon who had an Icarus-like financial career, finally leaving town in failure. Years later, he would resurface, thoroughly out of his mind, but charmingly so as the self-styled Emperor Norton, ruler of this country and protector of Mexico. “And he was serious,” Beyl writes. “He had gone mad. But nicely mad. He issued his own currency and he used it to pay his expenses. And, strangely, his phony money was honored. He used it for all his needs and for the needs of his two mongrel dogs, Bummer and Lazarus, his constant companions.” Thirty thousand people came out for Norton’s funeral in 1880, celebrating a man who would be just as at home on the streets of this city today.
There are also snapshots of lesser-known life here, such as the topless shoeshine stand, or the San Francisco Chronicle’s entry into the Hearst family as the make-good for a gambling debt. Many of these stories present people from the edges of respectability (con artists, madams, journalists), which is both a reminder of who really built this town and an inspiration for people hoping to transcend a humble or unrespectable beginning to become respectable, such as the former madam who became a mayor.
As Marina Times readers know, Beyl is an inveterate haunter of restaurants and saloons. He not only knows how to tell a good story, but he knows how to listen to a good story and pass it along. Through his discussions with bartenders (for you kids, that’s a mixologist), club owners, and restaurateurs, we are able to vicariously witness the greats and near-greats who came through town on their ways to vast fame and fortune. Lenny Bruce. Phyllis Diller. Dizzy Gillespie. To name only a very few.
Beyl also gives us up-close views of radical lawyer Tony Serra, restaurateur Ed Moose, cooking guru “Tante Marie” (a.k.a. Mary Risley), Beyl’s favorite Irish bartender, Michael McCourt, filmmaker and businessman Francis Ford Coppola, and others.
Many of the people in this book lived decades ago, but they would find kindred spirits in young newcomers to the city who want to disrupt the way things are. They were independent. Beyl presents us with a panoply of people who didn’t shy away from doing and saying what they wanted and what they meant, without caring about political correctness or social opinion. Whether they were starting up newspapers or music careers or brothels, they took chances, reshaped their own life stories, created art (or food or comedy or commerce), and then often got to live on in the city that was changed to whatever degree by what they had introduced.
Sketches from a North Beach Journal has something for lifelong San Franciscans and for new arrivals alike. The book won’t solve San Francisco’s current identity crisis, but everyone who is worried about that crisis should read it, because it shows that the city has always had a crisis like this. From frontier mission to mining town to military base to one big red-light district to baby boomer Valhalla to techno-town, San Francisco has always been changing and upsetting people with its changes. What will it become? It’ll be the same, which is to say it will be different from today, different from everywhere else, weird, annoying, amazing.