The cover story by Richard Rodriguez in the November issue of Harper's Magazine contains a fascinating account of the history of the San Francisco Chronicle -- and the role that Tales of the City played in it.
Twilight of the American newspaper
by Richard Rodriguez
A scholar I know, a woman who is ninety-six years old, grew up in a tin shack on the American prairie, near the Canadian border. She learned to read from the pages of the Chicago Tribune in a one-room schoolhouse. Her teacher, who had no more than an eighth-grade education, had once been to Chicago—had been to the opera! Women in Chicago went to the opera with bare shoulders and long gloves, the teacher imparted to her pupils. Because the teacher had once been to Chicago, she subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune, which came on the train by Tuesday, Wednesday at the latest.
Several generations of children learned to read from that text. The schoolroom had a wind-up phonograph, its bell shaped like a morning glory, and one record, from which a distant female voice sang “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.”
Is it better to have or to want? My friend says her teacher knew one great thing: There was something out there. She told her class she did not expect to see even a fraction of what the world had to offer. But she hoped they might.
I became a reader of the San Francisco Chronicle when I was in high school and lived ninety miles inland, in Sacramento. On my way home from school, twenty-five cents bought me a connection with a gray maritime city at odds with the postwar California suburbs. Herb Caen, whose column I read immediately—second section, corner left—invited me into the provincial cosmopolitanism that characterized the city’s outward regard: “Isn’t it nice that people who prefer Los Angeles to San Francisco live there?”
Newspapers have become deadweight commodities linked to other media commodities in chains that are coupled or uncoupled by accountants and lawyers and executive vice presidents and boards of directors in offices thousands of miles from where the man bit the dog and drew ink. The San Francisco Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corporation, once the Chronicle’s archrival. The Hearst Corporation has its headquarters in New York City. According to Hearst, the Chronicle has been losing a million dollars a week. In San Francisco there have been buyouts and firings of truck drivers, printers, reporters, artists, editors, critics. With a certain élan, the San Francisco Chronicle has taken to publishing letters from readers who remark the diminishing pleasure or usefulness of the San Francisco Chronicle.
When a newspaper dies in America, it is not simply that a commercial enterprise has failed; a sense of place has failed. If the San Francisco Chronicle is near death—and why else would the editors celebrate its 144th anniversary? and why else would the editors devote a week to feature articles on fog?—it is because San Francisco’s sense of itself as a city is perishing.
Most newspapers that are dying today were born in the nineteenth century. The Seattle Post–Intelligencer died 2009, born 1863. The Rocky Mountain News died 2009, born 1859. The Ann Arbor News died 2009, born 1835. It was the pride and the function of the American newspaper in the nineteenth century to declare the forming congregation of buildings and services a city—a place busy enough or populated enough to have news. Frontier American journalism preserved a vestige of the low-church impulse toward universal literacy whereby the new country imagined it could read and write itself into existence. We were the Gutenberg Nation.
Nineteenth-century newspapers draped bunting about their mastheads and brandished an inflated diction and a Gothic type to name themselves the Herald, the Eagle, the Tribune, the Mercury, the Globe, the Sun. With the passage of time, the name of the city was commonly attached to the name of the newspaper, not only to distinguish the Alexandria Gazette from the New York Gazette but because the paper described the city and the city described the paper.
The Daily Dramatic Chronicle, precursor to the San Francisco Chronicle, was founded in 1865 by two teenage brothers on a borrowed twenty-dollar gold piece. Charles and Michael de Young (a third brother, Gustavus, was initially a partner in the publishing venture) had come west with their widowed mother from St. Louis. In California, the brothers invented themselves as descendants of French aristocracy. They were adolescents of extraordinary gumption at a time when San Francisco was a city of gumption and of stranded young men.
Karl Marx wrote that Gold Rush California was “thickly populated by men of all races, from the Yankee to the Chinese, from the Negro to the Indian and Malay, from the Creole and Mestizo to the European.” Oscar Wilde seconded Karl Marx: “It is an odd thing, but everyone who disappears is said to be in San Francisco.” What must Gold Rush San Francisco have been like? Melville’s Nantucket? Burning Man? An arms bazaar in Yemen? There were Russians, Chileans, Frenchmen, Welshmen, and Mexicans. There were Australian toughs, the worst of the lot by most accounts—“Sydney Ducks”—prowling the waterfront. There were Chinese opium dens beneath the streets and Chinese opera houses above them. Historians relish the old young city’s foggy wharves and alleyways, its frigates, fleas, mud, and hazard. Two words attached to the lawless city the de Young brothers moved about in. One was “vigilante,” from the Spanish. The other was “hoodlum”—a word coined in San Francisco to name the young men loitering about corners, threatening especially to the Chinese.
The de Young brothers named their newspaper the Daily Dramatic Chronicle because stranded young men seek entertainment. The city very early developed a taste for limelight that was as urgent as its taste for red light. In 1865, there were competing opera houses in the city; there were six or seven or twelve theaters. The Daily Dramatic Chronicle was a theatrical sheet delivered free of charge to the city’s saloons and cafés and reading rooms. San Francisco desperately appreciated minstrel shows and circuses and melodeons and Shakespeare. Stages were set up in gambling halls and saloons where Shakespearean actors, their velvets much the worse for wear, pointed to a ghost rising at the back of the house: Peace, break thee off. Look where it comes again.
An Italian who came to San Francisco to study medicine in 2003 swears he saw the ghost of a forty-niner, in early light, when he slept and then woke in an old house out by the ocean. The forty-niner was very young, my friend said, with a power of sadness about him. He did not speak. He had red hair and wore a dark shirt.
We can imagine marooned opera singers, not of the second, perhaps not even of the third rank, enunciating elaborate prayers and curses from the Italian repertoire as they stumbled among the pebbles and stones of cold running creeks on their way to perform in Gold Rush towns along the American River. It was as though the grandiose nineteenth-century musical form sought its natural echo in the canyons of the Sierra Nevada. The miners loved opera. (Puccini reversed the circuit and took David Belasco’s melodrama of the Gold Rush back to Europe as La Fanciulla del West.)
In 1860, San Francisco had a population of 57,000. By 1870, the population had almost tripled, to 149,000. Within three years of its founding, by 1868, the Daily Dramatic Chronicle would evolve with its hormonal city to become the Daily Morning Chronicle. The de Young brothers were in their early twenties. Along with theatrical and operatic listings, the Chronicle then published news of ships sailing into and out of the bay and the dollar equivalents of treasure in their holds, and bank robberies, and saloon shootings, and gold strikes and drownings, an extraordinary number of suicides, likewise fires, for San Francisco was a wooden city, as it still is in many of its districts.
It is still possible, very occasionally, to visit the Gold Rush city when one attends a crowded theater. Audiences here, more than in any city I know, possess a wit in common and can react as one—in pleasure, but also in derision. I often think our impulse toward hoot and holler might be related to our founding sense of isolation, to our being “an oasis of civilization in the California desert,” in the phrase of Addison DeWitt (in All About Eve), who, though a Hollywood figment, is about as good a rendition as I can summon of the sensibility (“New York critics”) we have courted here for one hundred and fifty years. And deplored.
The nineteenth-century city felt itself surrounded by vacancy—to the west, the gray court of the Pacific; to the east, the Livermore Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierra Nevada range. Shipping and mining were crucial to the wealth of the city, but they were never the consolations the city sought. The city looked, rather, to Addison DeWitt—to the eastern United States, to Europe, for approbation. If there was a pathetic sense of insecurity in living at the edge of the continent—San Francisco proclaiming itself “the Paris of the Pacific”!—the city also raised men of visionary self-interest who squinted into the distance and conceived of opening trade to Asia or cutting down redwood forests or laying track across a sea of yellow grass.
Readers in other parts of the country were fascinated by any scrap of detail about the Gold Rush city. Here is a fragment (July 9, 1866) from Bret Harte’s dispatch to readers of the Springfield Republican (from a collection of such dispatches edited by Gary Scharnhorst). The description remains accurate:
Midsummer! . . . To dwellers in Atlantic cities, what visions of heated pavements, of staring bricks, of grateful shade trees, of straw hats and white muslin, are conjured up in this word. . . . In San Francisco it means equal proportions of fog and wind. On the evening of the Fourth of July it was a pleasant and instructive sight to observe the population, in great-coats and thick shawls, warming themselves by bonfires, watching the sky-rockets lose themselves in the thick fog, and returning soberly home to their firesides and warm blankets.
From its inception, the San Francisco Chronicle borrowed a tone of merriment and swagger from the city it daily invented—on one occasion with fatal consequences: in 1879, the Chronicle ran an exposé of the Reverend Isaac Smith Kalloch, a recent arrival to the city (“driven forth from Boston like an Unclean Leper”) who had put himself up as a candidate for mayor. The Chronicle recounted Kalloch’s trial for adultery in Massachusetts (“his escapade with one of the Tremont Temple choristers”). Kalloch responded by denouncing the “bawdy house breeding” of the de Young boys, implying that Charles and Michael’s mother kept a whorehouse in St. Louis. Charles rose immediately to his mother’s defense; he shot Kalloch, who recovered and won City Hall. De Young never served jail time. A year later, in 1880, Kalloch’s son shot and killed Charles de Young in the offices of the Chronicle.
“Hatred of de Young is the first and best test of a gentleman,” Ambrose Bierce later remarked of Michael, the surviving brother. However just or unjust Bierce’s estimation, the de Young brothers lived and died according to their notion of a newspaper’s purpose—that it should entertain and incite the population.
In 1884, Michael was shot by Adolph Spreckels, the brother of a rival newspaper publisher and the son of the sugar magnate Claus Spreckels, after the Chronicle accused the Spreckels Sugar Company of labor practices in Hawaii amounting to slavery. De Young was not mortally wounded and Spreckels was acquitted on a claim of reasonable cause.
When he died in 1925, Michael de Young bequeathed the ownership of the Chronicle to his four daughters with the stipulation that it could not be sold out of the family until the death of the last surviving daughter.
San Francisco gentility has roots as shallow and as belligerent as those of the Australian blue gum trees that were planted heedlessly throughout the city and now configure and scent our Sunday walks. In 1961, Holiday magazine came to town to devote an entire issue to San Francisco. The three living daughters of Michael de Young were photographed seated on an antique high-backed causeuse in the gallery of the old M. H. de Young Memorial Museum their father had donated to the city to house his collection of paintings and curiosities (including a scabrous old mummy beloved of generations of schoolchildren—now considered too gauche to be displayed). For the same issue, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, widow of Adolph, was photographed taking tea in her Pacific Heights mansion in what looks to be a fur-trimmed, floor-length velvet gown. The Spreckels family donated to the city a replica of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris to house a collection of European paintings and rooms and furniture. One Spreckels and three de Youngs make four Margaret Dumonts—a San Francisco royal flush.
In 1972, the museum donated by Michael de Young merged with the museum created by the family of the man who tried to murder Michael de Young to become the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Men, usually men, who assumed the sole proprietorships of newspapers in the nineteenth century were the sort of men to be attracted by the way a newspaper could magnify an already fatted ego. Newspaper publishers were accustomed to lord over cities.
William Randolph Hearst was given the San Francisco Examiner by his father, a mining millionaire and U.S. senator, who may or may not have won it in a poker game in 1880. As it happened, young Hearst was born to run a newspaper. He turned the Examiner into the largest-circulation paper in San Francisco before he moved on to New York, where, in 1895, he acquired the New York Journal. Hearst quickly engaged in a yellow-journalism rivalry with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Both Hearst and Pulitzer assumed political careers. Hearst served in the Congress of the United States—served is not quite the word—as did Pulitzer, briefly.
We remember Joseph Pulitzer not as a sensationalist journalist but as the philanthropist who endowed an award for excellence in journalism and the arts. We remember William Randolph Hearst because his castle overlooking the Pacific—fifty miles of ocean frontage—is as forthright a temple to grandiosity as this nation can boast. And we remember Hearst as the original for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. Welles portrayed Charles Foster Kane with the mix of populism and egomania audiences of the time easily recognized as Hearst. Kane the champion of the common man becomes Kane the autocrat. Kane builds an opera house for his paramour. Kane invents a war.
The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner were both losing money when, in 1965, Charles Thieriot, grandson of Michael de Young, met with William Randolph Hearst Jr. to collaborate on what they called the San Francisco Newspaper Agency. The Agency was a third entity designed to share production and administrative costs. The papers were to maintain editorial discretion and separate staffs. In addition, an incoherent Sunday edition shuffled together sections from both the Chronicle and the Examiner. The terms of the publishers’ agreement eventually favored the afternoon Hearst newspaper, for it was soon to fall behind, to become the lesser newspaper in a two-paper town. The Examiner nevertheless continued to collect half the profits of both.
In January 1988, Phyllis Tucker, the last surviving daughter of Michael de Young, died in San Francisco. Tucker’s daughter, Nan Tucker McEvoy, managed to forestall the sale of the paper for several years. But in 1999, the founding publisher’s posthumous grip was pried loose by a majority vote of family members to sell. At that time, the Hearst Corporation was desirous of reclaiming the San Francisco market. Hearst paid $660 million to the de Young heirs for the San Francisco Chronicle.
To satisfy antitrust concerns of the Justice Department, the Hearst Corporation sold the still-extant San Francisco Examiner to the politically connected Fang family, owners of Asianweek, the oldest and largest English-language Asian-American newspaper. The Hearst Corporation paid the Fangs a subsidy of $66 million to run the Examiner. Florence Fang placed her son, Ted Fang, in the editor’s chair. Within a year, Florence Fang fired her son; Ted Fang threatened to sue his mother. In 2004, the Fang family sold the Examiner to Philip Anschutz, a scattershot entrepreneur from Colorado who deflated William Randolph Hearst’s “Monarch of the Dailies” to a freebie tabloid that gets delivered to houses up and down the street twice a week, willy-nilly, and litters the floors of San Francisco municipal buses.
The day after I was born in San Francisco, my tiny existential fact was noted in several of the papers that were barked through the downtown streets. In truth, the noun “newspaper” is something of a misnomer. More than purveyors only of news, American newspapers were entrusted to be keepers of public record—papers were daily or weekly cumulative almanacs of tabular information. A newspaper’s morgue was scrutable evidence of the existence of a city. Newspapers published obituaries and they published birth announcements. They published wedding announcements and bankruptcy notices. They published weather forecasts (even in San Francisco, where on most days the weather is optimistic and unremarkable—fog clearing by noon). They published the fire department’s log and high school basketball scores. In a port city like San Francisco, there were listings of the arrivals and departures of ships. None of this constituted news exactly; it was a record of a city’s mundane progress. News was old as soon as it was dry—“fishwrap,” as Herb Caen often called it.
Unwilling to forfeit any fraction of my quarter, I even studied the classifieds—-unrelieved columns laid out like city blocks: Room for rent. Marina. No pets. File clerk position. Heavy phones. Ticket agent for busy downtown box office. Must be bonded. Norman, we’re still here. Only once did I find the titillation I was looking for, a listing worthy of a barbershop magazine, an Argosy, or a Mickey Spillane: “Ex-Green Beret will do anything legal for cash.” Newspapers were sustained by classifieds, as well as by department-store ads and automobile ads. I admired the urbanity of the drawings of newspaper ads in those years, and I took from them a conception of the posture of downtown San Francisco. Despite glimpses into the classified life of the city, despite the hauteur of ad-art mannerism, the Chronicle offered some assurance (to an adolescent such as I was) it would have been difficult for me to describe. I will call it now an implied continuity. There was continuity in the comics and on the sports page, but nowhere more than in the columns.
During Scott Newhall’s tenure as executive editor, from 1952 to 1971, the Chronicle achieved something of a golden age. Newhall was flamboyant in ways that were congenial to the city. At a time when the Los Angeles Times was attracting admiration from the East Coast for its fleet of foreign bureaus, Newhall reverted to an eighteenth-century model of a newspaper as first-person observer.
For nearly two decades the city that prized its singularity was entertained by idiosyncratic voices. At the shallow end of the Chronicle’s roster (under the cipher of a coronet) appeared Count Marco, a Liberace of the typewriter who concerned himself with fashion and beauty and l’amour. At the deep end—a snug corner at Gino and Carlo’s bar in North Beach—sat “Charles McCabe, Esq.,” an erudite connoisseur of books, spirits, and failed marriages. Terrence O’Flaherty watched television. Stanton Delaplane, to my mind the best writer among them, wrote “Postcard”—a travel series with charm and humor. Art Hoppe concocted political satire. Harold Gilliam expounded on wind and tide and fog. Alfred Frankenstein was an art critic of international reputation. There was a book column by William Hogan and a society column by Frances Moffat. Allan Temko wrote architectural criticism against the grain of the city’s sensibility, a sensibility he sometimes characterized as a liberal spirit at odds with a timorous aesthetic. All the Chronicle columnists and critics had constituents, but the name above the banner was Herb Caen.
Herb Caen began writing a column for the Chronicle before the Second World War. At that time, Caen was in his twenties and probably resembled the fresh, fast-talking smarty-pants he pitched his voice to portray in print. Item. . .item. . .who’s gotta item? In 1950, he was lured over to the Examiner at a considerable hike in salary, and circulation followed at his heels. He knew all the places; he knew the maître d’s, the bartenders, the bouncers, the flower-sellers, the cops, the madams, the shopkeepers—knew them in the sense that they all knew him and knew he could be dangerous. In 1958, Caen returned to the Chronicle, and, again, circulation tilted.
Each day except Saturday, for forty years, Caen set the conversation for San Francisco. Who was in town. Who was in the hospital and would appreciate a card. Who was seen drinking champagne out of a rent boy’s tennis shoe. His last column began: “And how was your Christmas?” He persuaded hundreds of thousands of readers (crowded on buses, on the way to work) that his was the city we lived in. Monday through Friday, Caen was an omniscient table-hopping bitch. On Sunday, he dropped all that; he reverted to an ingenue—a sailor on leave, a sentimental flaneur infatuated with his dream “Baghdad-by-the-Bay.” The point of the Sunday perambulation was simple relish—fog clearing by noon; evidence that the mystical, witty, sourdough city had survived one more week.
After a time, Caen stopped writing Sunday panegyrics; he said it was not the same city anymore, and it wasn’t. He wasn’t. Los Angeles, even San Jose—two cities created by suburbanization—had become more influential in the world than the “cool grey city of love,” a George Sterling line Caen favored. The Chinese city did not figure in Caen’s novel, except atmospherically—lanterns and dragons, chorus girls at the Forbidden City, Danny Kaye taking over the kitchen at Kan’s, that sort of thing. The growing Filipino, Latin-American city did not figure at all.
In Caen’s heyday, the San Francisco Chronicle reflected the self-infatuated city. But it was not the city entire that drew the world’s attention. In the 1950s, the version of San Francisco that interested the world was Jack Kerouac’s parish—a few North Beach coffeehouses habituated by beatniks (a word Caen coined) and City Lights Bookstore. By the time I was a teenager, the path to City Lights was electrified by the marquees of topless clubs and bad wolves with flashlights beckoning passersby toward red velvet curtains. Anyway, the scene had moved by that time to the fog-shrouded Grateful Dead concerts in Golden Gate Park and to the Haight Ashbury. A decade later, the most famous neighborhood in the city was the homosexual Castro District. San Francisco never seemed to grow old the way other cities grow old.
In 1967, the Chronicle’s rock and jazz critic, Ralph J. Gleason, teamed up with a renegade cherub named Jann Wenner to publish Rolling Stone magazine. What this disparate twosome intuited was that by chronicling the rising influence of rock music, they were effectively covering a revolution. In New York, writers were cultivating, in the manner of Thackeray, a self-referential point of view and calling it the “New Journalism.” In San Francisco, Rolling Stone was publishing a gospel “I” that found itself in a world without precedent: Greil Marcus, Cameron Crowe, Patti Smith, Timothy Ferris, Hunter S. Thompson. I remember sitting in an Indian tea shop in South London in 1970 (in the manner of the New Journalism) and being gripped by envy potent enough to be called homesickness as I read John Burks’s account of the Stones concert at Altamont. It was like reading a dispatch from the Gold Rush city.
One morning in the 1970s, the Chronicle began to publish Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City—adding sex and drugs and local branding to the nineteenth-century gimmick of serial fiction. At a time when American families were trending to the suburbs, Maupin’s novel insisted that San Francisco was still magnetic for single lives. In those same years, Cyra McFadden was writing satirically about the sexual eccentricities of suburban Marin County in a series (“The Serial”) for an alternative newspaper called the Pacific Sun.
In those same years, Joan Didion wrote, in The White Album, that for many people in Los Angeles “the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the (Manson family) murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community.” To borrow for a moment the oracular deadpan: In San Francisco, the Sixties came to an end for many people in 1977, when Jann Wenner packed up and moved Rolling Stone to New York. As he departed, the moss-covered wunderkind griped to a young reporter standing by that San Francisco was a “provincial backwater.”
What no one could have imagined in 1977, not even Jann Wenner, was that a suburban industrial region thirty miles to the south of the city contained an epic lode. Silicon Valley would, within twenty years, become the capital of Nowhere. What no one could have imagined in 1977 was that San Francisco would become a bedroom community for a suburban industrial region that lay thirty miles to the south.
Don’t kid a kidder. Herb Caen died in 1997. With the loss of that daily hectoring voice, the Chronicle seemed to lose its narrative thread, as did the city. The Chronicle began to reprint Caen columns, to the bewilderment of anyone younger than thirty.
If you die in San Francisco, unless you are judged notable by our know-nothing newspaper (it is unlikely you will be judged notable unless your obituary has already appeared in the Washington Post or the New York Times), your death will be noted in a paid obituary submitted to the Chronicle by your mourners. More likely, there will be no public notice taken at all. As much as any vacancy in the Chronicle I can point to, the dearth of obituaries measures its decline.
In the nineteenth-century newspaper, the relationship between observer and observed was reciprocal: the newspaper described the city; the newspaper, in turn, was sustained by readers who were curious about the strangers that circumstance had placed proximate to them. So, I suppose, it is incomplete to notice that the San Francisco Chronicle has become remiss in its obituary department. Of four friends of mine who died recently in San Francisco, not one wanted a published obituary or any other public notice taken of his absence. This seems to me a serious abrogation of the responsibility of living in a city and as good an explanation as any of why newspapers are dying. All four of my friends requested cremation; three wanted their ashes consigned to the obscurity of Nature. Perhaps the cemetery is as doomed in America as the newspaper, and for the same reason: we do not imagine death as a city.
We no longer imagine the newspaper as a city or the city as a newspaper. Whatever I may say in the rant that follows, I do not believe the decline of newspapers has been the result solely of computer technology or of the Internet. The forces working against newspapers are probably as varied and foregone as the Model-T Ford and the birth-control pill. We like to say that the invention of the internal-combustion engine changed us, changed the way we live. In truth, we built the Model-T Ford because we had changed; we wanted to remake the world to accommodate our restlessness. We might now say: Newspapers will be lost because technology will force us to acquire information in new ways. In that case, who will tell us what it means to live as citizens of Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor? The truth is we no longer want to live in Seattle or Denver or Ann Arbor. Our inclination has led us to invent a digital cosmopolitanism that begins and ends with “I.” Careening down Geary Boulevard on the 38 bus, I can talk to my my dear Auntie in Delhi or I can view snapshots of my cousin’s wedding in Recife or I can listen to girl punk from Glasgow. The cost of my cyber-urban experience is disconnection from body, from presence, from city.
A few months ago there was an item in the paper about a young woman so plugged into her personal sounds and her texting apparatus that she stepped off the curb and was mowed down by a honking bus.
In this morning’s paper there is a quote from an interview San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom, gave to The Economist concerning the likelihood that San Francisco will soon be a city without a newspaper: “People under thirty won’t even notice.”
The other day I came upon a coffeehouse that resembled, as I judged from its nineteenth-century exterior, the sort of café where the de Young brothers might have distributed their paper. The café was only a couple of blocks from the lively gay ambience of upper Market Street yet far removed from the clamorous San Francisco of the nineteenth century. Several men and women sat alone at separate tables. No one spoke. The café advertised free wi-fi; all but one of the customers had laptops open before them. (The exception was playing solitaire with a real deck of cards.) The only sounds were the hissing of an espresso machine and the clattering of a few saucers. A man in his forties, sitting by the door, stared at a screen upon which a cartoon animal, perhaps a dog, loped silently.
I should mention that the café, like every coffeehouse in the city, had stacks of the Bay Guardian, S.F. Weekly, the Bay Area Reporter—free and roughly equivalent to the Daily Dramatic Chronicle of yore. I should mention that San Francisco has always been a city of stranded youth, and the city apparently continues to provide entertainments for youth:
Gosta Berling, Kid Mud, Skeletal System El Rio. 8pm, $5. Davis Jones, Eric Andersen and Tyler Stafford, Melissa McClelland Hotel Utah. 8pm, $7. Ben Kweller, Jones Street Station, Princeton Slim’s. 8:30pm, $19. Harvey Mandel and the Snake Crew Biscuits and Blues. 8pm, $16. Queers, Mansfields, Hot Toddies, Atom Age Bottom of the Hill. 8:30pm, $12.
The colleague I am meeting for coffee tells me (occasioned by my puzzlement at the wi-fi séance) that more and more often he is finding sex on Craigslist. As you know better than I do, one goes to Craigslist to sell or to buy an old couch or a concert ticket or to look for a job. But also to arrange for sexual Lego with a body as free of narrative as possible. (Im bored 26-Oakland-east.)
Another friend, a journalist born in India, who has heard me connect newspapers with place once too often, does not dispute my argument, but neither is he troubled by it: “If I think of what many of my friends and I read these days, it is still a newspaper, but it is clipped and forwarded in bits and pieces on email—a story from the New York Times, a piece from Salon, a blog from the Huffington Post, something from the Times of India, from YouTube. It is like a giant newspaper being assembled at all hours, from every corner of the world, still with news but no roots in a place. Perhaps we do not need a sense of place anymore.”
So what is lost? Only bricks and mortar. (The contemptuous reply.) Cities are bricks and mortar. Cities are bricks and mortar and bodies. In Chicago, women go to the opera with bare shoulders.
Something funny I have noticed, perhaps you have noticed it, too. You know what futurists and online-ists and cut-out-the-middle-man-ists and Davos-ists and deconstructionists of every stripe want for themselves? They want exactly what they tell you you no longer need, you pathetic, overweight, disembodied Kindle reader. They want white linen tablecloths on trestle tables in the middle of vineyards on soft blowy afternoons. (You can click your bottle of wine online. Cheaper.) They want to go shopping on Saturday afternoons on the Avenue Victor Hugo; they want the pages of their New York Times all kind of greasy from croissant crumbs and butter at a café table in Aspen; they want to see their names in hard copy in the “New Establishment” issue of Vanity Fair; they want a nineteenth-century bookshop; they want to see the plays in London, they want to float down the Nile in a felucca; they want five-star bricks and mortar and do not disturb signs and views of the park. And in order to reserve these things for themselves they will plug up your eyes and your ears and your mouth, and if they can figure out a way to pump episodes of The Simpsons through the darkening corridors of your brain as you expire (add to shopping cart), they will do it.
We will end up with one and a half cities in America—Washington, D.C., and American Idol. We will all live in Washington, D.C., where the conversation is a droning, never advancing, debate between “conservatives” and “liberals.” We will not read about newlyweds. We will not read about the death of salesmen. We will not read about prize Holsteins or new novels. We are a nation dismantling the structures of intellectual property and all critical apparatus. We are without professional book reviewers and art critics and essays about what it might mean that our local newspaper has died. We are a nation of Amazon reader responses (Moby Dick is “not a really good piece of fiction”—Feb. 14, 2009, by Donald J. Bingle, Saint Charles, Ill.—two stars out of five). We are without obituaries, but the famous will achieve immortality by a Wikipedia entry.
National newspapers may try to impersonate regional newspapers that are dying or dead. (There have been reports that the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal will soon publish San Francisco Bay Area editions.) We already live in the America of USA Today, which appears, unsolicited, in a plastic chrysalis suspended from your doorknob at a Nebraska Holiday Inn or a Maine Marriott. We check the airport weather. We fly from one CNN Headline News monitor to another. We end up where we started.
An obituary does not propose a solution.
Techno-puritanism that wars with the body must also resist the weight of paper. I remember that weight. It was the weight of the world, carried by boys.
Late in grammar school and into high school, I delivered the Sacramento Bee, a newspaper that was, in those years, published in the afternoon, Monday through Saturday, and in the morning on Sundays. My route comprised one hundred and forty subscribers—nearly every house in three square blocks.
The papers were barely dry when I got them, warm to the touch and clean—if you were caught short, you could deliver a baby on newspaper. The smell of newspapers was a slick petroleum smell of ink. I would fold each paper in triptych, then snap on a rubber band. On Thursdays, the Bee plumped with a cooking section and with supermarket ads. On Sundays, there was added the weight of comics, of real estate and automobile sections, and supplements like Parade and the television guide.
I stuffed half my load of newspapers into the canvas bag I tied onto my bicycle’s handlebars; the rest went into saddlebags on the back. I never learned to throw a baseball with confidence, but I knew how to aim a newspaper well enough. I could make my mark from the sidewalk—one hand on the handlebar—with dead-eye nonchalance. The paper flew over my shoulder; it twirled over hedges and open sprinklers to land with a fine plop only inches from the door.
In the growling gray light (San Francisco still has foghorns), I collect the San Francisco Chronicle from the wet steps. I am so lonely I must subscribe to three papers—the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle. I remark their thinness as I climb the stairs. The three together equal what I remember.