Northside SF
Bellingham by the Bay
Remembering Herb Caen
It’s hard for me to believe that Herb Caen has been gone 15 years this month. He died on Feb. 1, 1997. I used to write a lot of jokes for his column for about 17 years. He cultivated the funny writers around town, describing them as “Our Native Witz.” They included Matt Buka … Norm Goldblatt … and, of course, the irrepressible Strange de Jim. Herb started as a radio columnist for the S.F. Chronicle. He admired the rapid-fire radio style of Walter Winchell. Hence came the three-dot journalism. Perhaps he picked up the style of the radio greats – Jack Benny … Fred Allen … and Milton Berle. They all collected funny people around them. It only makes the stars look even brighter. Occasionally I got to jaunt around downtown with Herb, having lunch at the storied Washington Square Bar & Grill (he preferred to walk; that’s how one gets items) or watch him play that obnoxious game of liar’s dice at the bar at Le Central with Willie Brown and Wilkes Bashford.

But those were superficial forms of recreation. Of course, he was cursed and blessed by a supernatural curiosity that compelled him to stick his nose into other person’s lives. He was a reporter for all seasons. He could discuss travel, sports, politics, all with the same alacrity. He loved being in the company of polite society – particularly when they got into trouble – but he also reveled in the misadventures of the working class. “I just love saloon humor,” he once said to me.

The whole city of San Francisco was his canvas, and he loved splashing paint everywhere. For many years, he wrote a column six days a week for the Chron – a herculean task. He angered many, got beaten up once in a South of Market alley for his fractious writing.

Herb loved writers and artists of every stripe. He encouraged them. He cultivated a friendship with John & Yoko. Herb was fond of recounting how the three of them sat at a sidewalk table at Enrico’s on Broadway, and John would peel off five-dollar bills for panhandlers. When Herb made a comment, John simply said, “It’s just rich tax.”

In the end, he was quite candid about his own illness, lung cancer, which he described as “The World’s Greatest Hangover” in his column, “What’s Going On With Me,” for his readers, whom he thought should be informed. Shortly before he died, at the age of 80, Herb called me up, and said, “Brucie, I want you to show me your Marina.”

“My Marina?” I said, astonished. “Since when did you deed it to me?” Herb was never much of a Marina fan. He once described it in print as “a bigoted little village.” Well, we came to an accord that day. I took him around to Lucca’s Deli, to a health food supermarket that regularly sprayed water on the produce. “It’s just like the Tonga Room,” Herb chuckled. “A fake thunderstorm every few minutes.” He seemed to have the ability to relate the sham and the grittiness that San Francisco was all about. Herb Caen managed to mythologize a whole city. I took Herb into a very old-world sort of stationery shop. In those days, we used fax paper. “Herb, I going to buy you some fax paper.”

Laura Fox, the owner of the shop, innocently asked Herb if he wanted a ream. You know, 500 pages of paper. Never to miss a beat, Herb shot back, “Gee, I hardly know you.”

Herb and I were still laughing like schoolboys as we hit the sidewalk. We then encountered employees, all dressed in clean aprons and lined up in military fashion so Herb could review his troops. He was moved to tears.

It’s difficult to describe to younger persons who Herb Caen was, and how a columnist of his stature wielded more power than the mayor of San Francisco, the district attorney – even the governor of the State of California combined. People were genuinely afraid of him. He could make or break a business, particularly restaurants. I’m sorry to say that he sometimes did. In an age of bloggers and a seemingly endless slough of reality TV, it’s unimaginable to think that a few guys and dolls could be in charge of public opinion, and in such a profound way.

Herb was a vaudevillian with a poet’s sensibility and lots of room in his heart for the Baghdad by the Bay. He built this City on rock ’n’ roll, and all the other kinds of music that came before it.
Bruce Bellingham also writes for the Marina Times. Reach him at

March 2012
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