Walking with Ghosts on the Barbary Coast

Ever since we were little kids (and even today, when we’re 27 and 30 years old, come to think of it) my dad’s always loved to tell my sister and me ridiculous stories. I say “stories,” but as we grew older and more skeptical (or more realistic), we started thinking of them more as elaborate, entertaining lies told with nothing but the best of intentions. My father, you see, has always believed Mark Twain was onto something when he said “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Dad also spent some years as a member of a wacky fraternal organization whose motto, “Credo Quia Absurdum,” means “I believe it because it is absurd.” So I grew up hearing weird-and-strange fairy tales at the dinner table, humoring my dad but never really believing him.

Dad 'n me in San Francisco

Dad ‘n me in San Francisco

There was always one story so over the top, I was sure my dad was consciously perpetuating some fable in its retelling, passing down folklore for future generations around the campfire. Norton I, my dad claimed, was Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico back in the 19th century. He lived in San Francisco and was revered by local authorities and townspeople alike. He was also a certified lunatic who’d made up his royal title and marched the city streets daily in full military uniform. The story sounded far too good to be true, and I’d always dismissed it as such.

Imagine my shock, then, when an Internet search a few years ago turned up hundreds of thousands of hits proving my dad was telling the truth. Not only was Emperor Norton a real person, but he really did roam the streets dressed like Napoleon. He really did publish royal proclamations in the newspaper and issue his own completely worthless currency. And he really did command the adoration of everyone, from local policemen who saluted him in the streets, to saloon keepers who considered it good publicity to feed him for free, to a couple of writers named Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson who saw fit to immortalize him in print.

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Here’s a facsimile of the bonds the original Norton would sell for 50 cents a pop to passersby. He’d tell people they could cash them in at a later date, though it’s doubtful anyone ever actually believed him.

All of this is a rather long-winded way of reminding you that San Francisco has always been notably accepting of those outside the norm: hippies, beatniks, quirky politicians, transvestites, and even lovable nut-cases with delusions of grandeur have historically thrived here. Which is why I don’t know why it surprised me when I heard about Emperor Norton’s Fantastic San Francisco Time Machine. Because in San Francisco, that great undiscriminating bear hug of a city, of course — of course — you can take a historical walking tour led by the living, breathing, decree-making reincarnation of His Imperial Highness, Emperor Norton.

And later in the week, if you’re craving more, you can take a tour of the Barbary Coast’s seedy underbelly  with a singing, cross-dressing version of the Countess Lola Montez, a famous Gold Rush-era entertainer.

In the interest of thoroughness, my family patronized both.

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Now, here’s an interesting scenario to ponder: imagine walking around the streets of a major city with your mom. And a guy who’s dressed like he thinks Waterloo sounds like a pretty promising place. And no one else, because you happen to be the only two people who booked today’s tour. At first, I’ll admit, it’s a little odd.  You start to wonder if passersby are staring: there aren’t enough people trailing behind this guy to make it obvious that this is a tour; right now it probably just looks like you and your mom are taking your crazy uncle out for a day trip from Shady Acres. You’re not sure how close it’s appropriate to stand by this guy  while he talks because you’ve never been on a tour with fewer than 30 other people. When he pulls out a scroll and reads a proclamation in the middle of Union Square Park, you kind of look around for some clue from the milling crowds as to how you’re supposed to respond.

Here's a rather famous painting inside the bar at the Palace Hotel portraying famous characters from the city's past. The guy with the Col. Sanders mustache is Mark Twain.  And yet, check out who gets the plum center spot.

Here’s a rather famous painting inside the bar at the Palace Hotel portraying important characters from the city’s past. The guy with the Col. Sanders mustache is Mark Twain. And yet, check out who gets the plum center spot.

But let me tell you: after a few minutes, you remember that you’re in San Francisco, where nobody cares what this whole scene looks like and neither should you. And from then on, it’s awesome. Civilians have revived the old tradition of saluting the Emperor as he walks past. Hotel doormen tip their hats. Barkeeps yell out “All Hail!” when you walk into old-timey saloons. And best of all, the Emperor’s got the scoop on all the shadowy stories from the city’s early days: the U.S. president who may or may not have died in a local whore house and been smuggled out via underground tunnel; the sordid past of the ironically named Maiden Lane; the genesis of the terms “sugar daddy” and “in a pinch.”

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Inside an old basement-level tunnel likely used for the transport of any number of sins.

My mom, for the record, was a little more interested in learning of hidden details that she’d missed during her time living in the city when she was my age (ok, actually, she was younger. I’m old). We’re talking stone window frames still blackened from the post-earthquake fires in 1906, a pub built on the bones of an old old wooden ship (named the “Arkansas” and not, sadly, “Diversity”)  that came to the Barbary coast in 1849 and was promptly abandoned, and rows of old horse-head hitching posts on Hotaling Place. Of course, she was so excited about all of this that every conversation she had with my dad for the next week began with the phrase, “Well, the Emperor says…” and ended with dad looking completely heart-broken that he’d missed out. There was only one way to set things right: I contacted the Countess Lola Montez.

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The story goes that Lola Montez was an Irish entertainer of no particular talent beyond seducing high-profile men (one of whom conferred her with the title of Countess) and lifting her skirts far higher than considered proper while dancing on stage. Still, as we’ve learned is possible in San Francisco, this didn’t stop her from becoming a fairly big hit around town. Today, her historical walking tour is led by a guy named Rick, who’s done an impressive job of finding period-appropriate women’s dress in his size, all the way down to the shoes. While his — ahem, her — tour does overlap at times with the Emperor’s route, Lola’s version focuses a bit more on Chinatown, brothels, notable affairs, and, well, singing.

Which, as it turns out, isn’t nearly as awkward a tour to take with your father as you’d think — as long as your dad’s as laid-back as mine is.

Credo Quia Absurdum.

8 thoughts on “Walking with Ghosts on the Barbary Coast

    • Glad to hear you enjoyed the post! And I definitely sympathize with your post-travel itchy feet. I do see myself hitting the road again, yes — right now I’m focusing on figuring out what’s going to be the best way to go about it this time around :)

  1. aaahahah amazing post, f-train! you have such a talent at weaving a story– apple doesn’t fall from the tree, eh? hope you’re enjoying time w the original j Quandt and mama Quandt. miss you
    xoxo

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