Friday, July 30, 2004

I Remember Herb Remember

I never lived in Herb Caen's world, but I lay in the weeds at the edge of the woods and stared at it. For a while in the mid Eighties my desk at the Chronicle was near his office. I never overheard anything -- it wasn't that close -- but I had some sense of his comings and goings, and that sense confirmed he was working hard, hard at least in the style of his job. He was there every morning, doing lunch, coming back from lunch, working the phones, collecting the items, doing his column himself all by himself on his old manual typewriter and then heading out to tour the San Francisco evening.

He was a courtly man. That word jumps to mind, and now I must unpack it. What is "courtly"? I recall he had a deliberate way of moving. He never seemed in a hurry. He never seemed on display, not in a vain way. I just had the sense that he knew he was being looked on with approval and that he was consciously declining to swagger. He really did dress well; by the standards of the newsroom he was gorgeous: I recall camel sports coats. He was tall and his weight was under control. Of course, he was already over 65 when I joined the Chronicle, so perhaps what I mistook for elegance was only an acccomodation with joint pain and intermittent constipation.

His eyes were not particularly expressive. They were watcher's eyes, in some ways flat, in some ways distant. I never had a real conversation with him, so his gaze may have had degrees of intensity. He was his own time capsule. By the time I started reading him, his column was light and fun and liberal, but he couldn't keep the ghosts out, the ghosts of "old San Francisco." Still, it was impossible to read his column -- even when it ran to name dropping and bad jokes -- as if it were incidental. You knew that it mattered. Being mentioned in the column made a difference, the way being on a reality tv show does now. In San Francisco, generation taught generation that he mattered.

I am thinking of Herb because my wife and I went to the Plush Room in San Francisco last night to hear Andrea Marcovicci in cabaret, doing a tribute to all the songs associated with Fred Astaire. At some point she said there was a Portuguese word -- soltang? -- that meant nostalgia for a world that never existed, and that made me think of Herb and my connection to his, since no world experienced second hand really exists, no matter how hard you try to imagine it.

I was already thinking of Herb. My wife and I had never been to the Plush Room. We had never seen cabaret up close -- and up close we were, in the front row, where the fanatics, the curious and the weak of hearing sit. It was like a Cirque de Soleil performance, fabulous but elusive. I was utterly delighted by the archness and the art, and the memories of old Hollywood, the songs familiar as childhood, the songs as obscurely familiar as somebody else's childhood.

But I realized that I did not know quite how I would write about what we were seeing other than to say Ms. Markovicci sings well, moves well and seems to love what she does. I don't know the conventions of this kind of perfomance. I don't have the kind of inside knowledge that can turn a review into a smart piece, an introduction to the genre that helps motivate the reader to go get some of whatever you're talking about.

I wanted a guide. I suddenly wished Herb were sitting nearby, with an eye on me, knowing this was my first time at cabaret. He would have said a thing or two beforehand, told me what to look for, told me which "ad lib" was old business, what the "tells" were that revealed if the performer were really connecting or merely mailing it in. During the performance, he would have looked my way once or twice and nodded, as if to say, "We knew that was coming."

Or maybe not. I don't remember if Herb liked cabaret or not. He wasn't an antiquarian. He did not value old things fallen from grace simply because they were old things fallen from grace. He might have said, "It's all a museum. Very pretty curator, though." He was capable of mocking the past and apologizing for his addiction to it.

It's just that if you live in San Francisco and you are of a certain age, whenever you stumble upon something old and lovely, or perhaps only odd and out of the way, you think of Herb Caen who did nostalgia like Michaelangelo did ceilings. He taught a way of looking, You thank him for it. You wish him well. You wish him here, actually, at the next table making it all a little bigger and a little brighter, at least for a moment.

I remember him. Who cares! But to be remembered by Herb Caen! That was, that would have been, something.

1 comment:

C. JoDI said...

When I was born, my entrance into this world was noted briefly in one of Caen's columns. My father, who I never knew (parents split, mom takes kids home to small town, you know the words, do I have to hum the tune?), was a fashion photographer of some notoriety and sophistication. Undoubtedly the mention was a social courtesy, but was there something else? A wink from one old man to another you old dog you, having a kid at your age, how'd you convince that sexy thing to make it permanent? I still have that yellowed scrap of paper, a small artifact of a place that could have been mine but for an unexpected turn of the big wheel to the midwest and a youth spent pretending that the absence meant anything but everything.