Mechanics Monument


I stopped downtown on the way in to work yesterday. To give blood on Bush Street. When they’d gotten my pint, I walked down the street and got a cup of coffee (no longer recommended by the blood donation people since caffeine is a diuretic and they want to make sure you build up your fluids after you’re tapped). Right there where Bush meets Battery and Battery hits Market is this monument, the Mechanics Monument. It was created in honor of Peter Donahue, the cofounder of the city’s Union Iron Works, which I believe was the first heavy industry on the West Coast. Here’s a description of the monument from Gray Brechin in his fine and irascible history, “Imperial San Francisco“:

Douglas Tilden‘s heroic group of five nude men straining to punch a steel plate commemorated both the family that had built the West’s first foundry and the mechanics who built the Donahue fortune. [Mayor] Phelan … reminded the crowd that from the Donahues’ primitive foundry, once located just a block away in Tar Flat, had grown the might Union Iron Words whose ships had earned San Francisco worldwide fame and wealth.”

President McKinley was in the city to unveil the monument in 1901, but begged off because his wife took ill.

(And: another view of the monument a few years after its dedication.)

Road Blog: Chicago

Today, the road trip included zero time on the road. My sister and I did walk a few blocks up the street and back, though. And Eamon and Sakura arrived after their detour from Council Bluffs to Lamoni, Iowa, and Independence, Missouri. Their drive today brought them from Independence, Harry S Truman's hometown, through 100-degree temperatures in Missouri and severe thunderstorms near Bloomington, Illinois–family home of Adlai Stevenson, who failed to succeed Truman.

Thunderstorms passed through the Chicago area, too. It's an unusual enough occurrence for me, living in the mostly thunder-free Bay Area, that I went out into Ann and Dan's backyard and recorded some of the storm as it passed. The storm and recording were less than Wagnerian in its dramatic dimension, but was plenty atmospheric. Here's an MP3 snippet:


Back on the other end of this trip, the endless rainy season of 2010-11 continues in the Bay Area and Northern California. To define "endless rainy season," we refer to the National Weather Service record report from earlier today, which runs down a few locations that saw their rainiest June 4th ever. An earlier forecast discussion raised the possibility that some locations might exceed their monthly records for the entire month of June today (a surprising possibility, but not an amazing one: we don't get a lot of rain on average in June; the June record for San Francisco, recorded in 1884, is about two and a half inches. One earlier report ran down rainfall totals over the region through late Saturday morning. Noteworthy: the 2-inch-plus totals in the Santa Cruz Mountains and the 3-inch plus amounts in the Santa Lucia Range in Monterey County.

It's more than I want to get into in detail at this late hour, but: water. One impression driving across the northern Rockies and Plains is how wet and green everything looks (but no, we didn't see any honest-to-goodness flooding in Montana or South Dakota) In California, you think of water supply when you see all the rain (and in the mountains, snow) we've been getting as the wet season continues. The state's daily report on its largest reservoirs shows storage is more than 110 percent of average for this date and the biggest lakes are close to capacity. In the mountains, the snowpack is still at 97 percent of its April 1 average–April 1 being the date when the snowpack is at its maximum. We're two months past that now, and the snowpack is at 343 percent of normal for the beginning of June (in a regional breakdown, the snowpack for the Northern Sierra and far northern mountains is at 559 percent of normal for this date (see California Department of Water Resources/California Data Exchange Center: Snow Water Equivalents).

Shakespearean II

A quote ripped off from a well-done blog called The Obit Patrol: “The poetry of history lies in the quasi-miraculous fact that once, on this earth, on this familiar spot of ground, walked men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall be gone, like ghosts at cock-crow.” That’s from a 1949 essay by the British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan.

One night at work last week, I had a conversation with a colleague that started on public radio fund-raising, traversed the difficulty of asking strangers for money, and led to an exchange about homeless people on San Francisco streets. I said that it had crossed my mind that I’d have a hard time if I were forced to panhandle because I thought I’d find it hard to ask passers-by for help.

“Yeah, I hear people say, ‘Hey, get a job,’ ” my colleague said. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s hard out there.” He went on to say that an acquaintance of his, a man who had once been the director of the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, had wound up on the streets and had died there.

I knew who he was talking about. I’d run into the guy myself, about two and a half years ago, lying on the street near a supermarket. I bought him a sandwich. We talked briefly, and he had come out with some of his personal history. He even recited a couple of lines of Shakespeare. I had not heard that he had died.

Later, I went looking for an obituary, and came across The Obit Patrol. The site featured a story by a critic in St. Petersburg, Florida–the hometown of the man I’d met. It can’t help but be heart-rending: It’s the story of Charles McCue, a promising, brilliant, talented, handsome, charming young man who ends up dying on a sidewalk at age 51.

After my first encounter with Charles, I ran into him once more, about a week after that first meeting. It was a Friday night after work. I was walking down 16th Street toward BART in a drizzling rain and had reached the tough blocks between South Van Ness and Mission. He approached me and asked for change. He didn’t recognize me, but I mentioned that we’d met before and that he’d told me about his theater work. Maybe he remembered, maybe he didn’t. He was trying to hustle up enough cash to buy a can of ready-to-eat soup from a little market across the street. He said it was his birthday. I think I gave him twenty bucks and asked him where he’d go to get out of the weather. He had a place he could stay dry, he said. He said maybe it was time he got off the streets with another wet season coming on. He had a sister in Florida who had offered him a place, but only if he stopped drinking. I had a sound recorder with me and thought about breaking it out while we talked. But it was raining, and I didn’t want to go through the whole song and dance. Besides, I wanted to get to my train. “Florida doesn’t sound bad,” I said. “You should go to Florida.”

Friday Night Ferry


A first for me on the San Francisco-Oakland ferry: We passed between an outbound container ship (the MSC craft at left) and one still being loaded/unloaded (the Hapag-Lloyd ship on the right). For a minute, it was like sailing through a canyon.

A Voice from ’06

Update: About half an hour after I posted this, we had a little earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey says it was a 3.8 magnitude shake, centered on the San Andreas Fault near the town of Pacifica, about 10 miles or so from where the 1906 quake hit.

A nice feature in the Chronicle marking the 105th anniversary of San Francisco’s signature catastrophe: ’06 Quake Through Eyes of Woman Ahead of Her Time. It’s a glimpse of the disaster from Leonie von Zesch, 23 when the temblor struck and one of the few women anywhere practicing dentistry at the time. (A contemporary newspaper clipping headlined “Woman Wields Forceps” describes her working “night and day” in a field hospital after the quake “battling that arch enemy of comfort–the toothache. [She] … is attractive as she is young.” Further, the article notes, “Race and caste make no difference to this dainty little lady. The dirty foreign boy receives the same gentle treatment as the daughter of a military officer.”)

Von Zesch’s account was part of an autobiography said to have run to thousands of pages, typed on onionskin paper and left among her personal effects when she died in 1944. The Chronicle’s account says von Zesch left her belongings to a niece who stashed them in an attic without looking at them. When she finally did, she discovered the writings, which will be published next month as “Leonie: A Woman Ahead of Her Time” ($19.95 plus shipping and, if you live in California, sales tax).

If the rest of the book is on a par with her description of the earthquake and its aftermath, it ought to be a good read. It’s not clear how long after the fact she wrote her account, but it begins with the scene in the Nob Hill home she shared with her mother rocking violently as china, Mason jars, and a variety of other household goods crash to the floor. “All the while, a seeming eternity of a few minutes, there was an unforgettable humming, grinding sound that not even the walls shut out, the grinding and breaking of myriad things all over the city.” She and her mother ate a cold breakfast–a man from the gas company had already come through the neighborhood to warn against lighting fires–and then “decided to walk downtown to see whether anything had happened to the tall buildings. No one, as yet, seemed to have the remotest idea of the magnitude of the disaster.”

By the time von Zesch and her mother neared Market Street, though, it was clear the city was beginning to burn.

“In spite of the horror, the air was electric with a sort of holiday spirit, either because the disaster was a novel experience which released people from the humdrum of everyday life, or because there were in a mood of thanksgiving and glad to be alive.

“There was something of hysteria in it, too. To Mother and me, everything was fearfully exciting. We did not anticipate personal loss. Our own home on Hyde, now rented, was out of the supposed fire zone; the Sutter place where we lived, of course, would not burn! Why we and thousands of others were so optimistic, I’d like to know. The water mains were broken. People all over town were daring to light gas stoves. The wind was blowing. How could the city fail to burn?”

The Chronicle ran part two of von Zesch’s earthquake reminiscence today. It includes an excellent slideshow of images from 1906.

And while we’re talking about contemporary images and walking through the ruins, a couple of good references came to hand while I was trying to figure out where Dr. von Zesch and her mother lived (she mentions Sutter and Leavenworth, and the ruined Granada Hotel nearby; I can’t get any closer than that, and a rebuilt Granada Hotel, guaranteed at its opening in 1908 to be fireproof, is at that corner today.

Below is a film discovered by way of the Internet Archive. It’s a 1905 streetcar trip down Market Street; the Ferry Building is the structure way down the street in the distance. What’s most arresting here is the life on the street–the mix of streetcars, automobiles, horse carts, pedestrians, and the random cyclist.

That’s an 11-minute tour through the heart of downtown. For contrast, here’s a snippet of some of the same area of Market Street (note the tower of the Call Building to the right) after the earthquake.

And one last graphic take on the 1906 earthquake. The U.S. Geological Survey has published a cool gallery of animations that try to convey the quake’s magnitude and the extent of the destructive shaking in the Bay Area. The image below is linked to an animation of the shaking in San Francisco:


Storm Week, Potrero Hill


At the foot of the pedestrian overpass that cross U.S. 101 from 18th and Utah (west side of U.S. 101) to 18th and San Bruno (east side of the freeway). I was on my way into work. Can’t remember if this was the day I locked my keys in the car (Triple A came and got them for me), or the day I jump-started a coworker’s car (she had left her lights on), or the day I had delivered another coworker’s purse after she forgot it at work. The only thing I know for sure is that we had rain this day, like every other day of the week. Below: U.S. 101, looking south from the pedestrian overpass toward Bernal Heights (Utah Street turning west into 18th Street below and to the right).


Tough Love, 14th Century Style

We have alluded before in this space to the conundrum of living in a community where–well, where you get hit up for spare change or are otherwise wheedled and baited as part of some impromptu street-based money-raising scheme. We have quoted Walt Whitman's injunction "give alms to all who ask." And we have watched as our town and nearby cities have adopted laws–for instance, San Francisco's "Sit-Lie Ordinance"–that are supposed to address the issue.

In researching another topic just now, I found that England's King Edward III dealt with panhandlers, too. Here's a section of a decree handed down in 1351 to deal with the impact of the Black Death that had recently swept the kingdom:

"… Because many strong beggars, as long as they may live by begging, do refuse to labor, giving themselves to idleness and vice, and sometimes to theft and other abominations; none upon the said pain of imprisonment, shall, under the color of pity or alms, give anything to such, who are able to labor, or presume to favor them in their idleness, so that thereby they may be compelled to labor for their necessary living."

I like the phrase "under the color of pity or alms." Mustn't give sway to those kinds of feelings or predilections.

(And what could this possibly have to do with the Black Death? Well, England was facing a severe labor shortage after the plague, and the king was answering demands to find able-bodied workers. The same proclamation also prohibited laborers, who found themselves in a sellers' market, from demanding higher wages for their work; that prohibition is said to have become the Common Law precedent for blocking formation of labor unions in the United States up through 1840.)



The Missouri River just south of Chamberlain, South Dakota (about 150 miles west of Sioux Falls).

In some part of my mind, I pleasurably anticipate travel. But I don’t like planning for an airline trip or packing for it. I don’t enjoy dealing with the virtual and physical gauntlet air travel forces us to run. I don’t relish facing the group unhappiness that greets you at the gate and accompanies you as long as you’re in the isolated world of your flight. No, I’m not enamored of any of that.

But from the moment the plane leaves the ground to the moment it touches down, it’s hours of visual poetry (assuming of course I have the window seat I want).


The approach to O’Hare, just west of the airport.

Muni Yard, Mariposa Street, Fog


Left work about 10 last night and was surprised to see that fog had descended after a warm, showery afternoon. The light everywhere was beautiful–soft, eerie, with a sheen on the streets from the still-evaporating rain. The scene above is immediately across the street from KQED, on Mariposa Street.

Jerry Springer, the Opera


The marquee isn’t quite clear here, but it says “Jerry Springer — The Opera.” I notice that there’s a will-call podium set up under the marquee at the left, so the performance drew customers. The venue: the Victoria Theare, 16th and Capp streets, San Francisco.

What the heck is this production? Here’s one answer. And I note a Web page claiming that Harvey Keitel performed in the title role at Carnegie Hall a couple years ago. If anyone who happens across this has seen the show, give us a mini-review, please.