Herb Caen, who used to spend his hours in Bagdad by the Bay spinning lovely prose poems about its beauty, has of late become its scourge and its conscience.
A reader, Virginia Vignol, who has just returned from up north, sends me a recent Herb Caen column, from the San Francisco Chronicle, in which he deplores his city's dirty streets.
"Our sidewalks are filthy. They need a good hosing down, a scrubbing. There aren't half enough trash receptacles, and those we have are not emptied often enough. Garbage, human and otherwise, is everywhere. . . .
"Market and Powell is the busiest corner in town. Some 300,000 people a day pass that intersection. It is the location of the Powell-Market cable car turntable, which is world famous, and the principal gathering place for most tourists. In many ways, then, this is the most important corner in the city, but you'd never know it by the attention it gets from City Hall, or lack of it. . . .
"If this were a European city, that corner would mirror civic pride. It would be a place of banners, flowers, trees, lawns, bands and entertainers. . . . Instead, it is a dispiriting expanse of dirty bricks peopled with rummies, dummies, dopers and con artists. . . . (It is) San Francisco's shame. . . ."
In the old days, when San Francisco was called the Paris of the West, and Los Angeles was its wasteland, we might have been secretly pleased by the news that Frisco had fallen into squalor. But Los Angeles has surpassed it in so many ways that San Franciscans no longer have any stomach for the old rivalry. They no longer look down their noses at us from what they used to call "The City," as if there was only one. And Herb Caen himself no longer complains that he can't find a decent meal down here.
It gives me no sense of superiority, though, to hear that Market and Powell has lost its charm. When we were very young, my wife and I sometimes stayed at the Manx Hotel, on Powell just up from Market. The streets were clean. The white buildings around Union Square sparkled in the windy sky. Chic women and men in three-piece suits strode exuberantly along the spotless sidewalks and ran out to catch the cable car, hanging on from its running boards, fore and aft, like children playing some exciting game. It was all very pretty and exhilarating, and I cannot rejoice at its decline.
Alas, Los Angeles has become a trashy city, too.
7th and Broadway was never the charming intersection that Market and Powell was. It was simply the crossroads of Los Angeles, if this city can be said to have had one; it was squat and undistinguished, except perhaps for the Tower Theater, which, in typical eclectic Los Angeles fashion, combined Spanish, Romanesque and Moorish styles.
I spent much of my adolescence in downtown Los Angeles, between the library and the movie theaters, and I remember that, even in the depths of the Depression, it was clean.
Today, on any day, 7th and Broadway is heavily littered with paper and plastic containers of every sort. Trash bins are full and spilling over, so at least some of the people have tried.
We have lived in the same house for 35 years and have seen our neighborhood go from clean to trashy. The parking lots and the front sidewalks of our supermarkets are awash with litter. It looks as if people all eat on the hoof, discarding wrappers as they go.
Marmion Way, a street at the bottom of the hill we live on, runs along a Santa Fe right-of-way. This right-of-way has become a dump. Old sofas, refrigerators, toilets, carpeting and varieties of trash are left for someone to pick up. Evidently it is dumped by people who don't know they can drive it to a public dump, only two or three miles away, or can't afford to pay the $6 fee.
Perhaps some of this can be blamed on people who come here from places or cultures that are less highly industrialized and more casual about litter; people who are not used to having everything they buy, even candy bars, wrapped like an Egyptian mummy. We are obsessed with packaging. I sometimes curse and scream in frustration while trying to open a loaf of bread.
The city could help. As Herb Caen says: "I don't know if such perfumed people as Dianne Feinstein and Roger Boas ever descend from their plush nests, but I do wish they'd walk the miserable streets more often--and take notes, then action. . . ."
We need more trash barrels, and more frequent pickups. We need more sidewalk sweepers. Perhaps we need an ordinance requiring stores to clean the sidewalks in front of their establishments. I suspect that clean sidewalks tend to inhibit littering. It's contagious.
Considering that we live in a world whose continuation depends on the fear of mutual annihilation, why worry about the cleanliness of our streets?
It seems to me that the more we give up on the decencies of life, the less we care about the beauty of the world we live in, the easier it will be, in the long run, to let it go up in a nuclear cloud.
I expect to go up to San Francisco for a holiday in a week or two, and I hope Herb Caen has shamed Dianne Feinstein into doing something about Market and Powell by then.
Not that Herb would be interested in coming down to see 7th and Broadway.