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Jack Smith

Raising Caen in the City by the Bay

June 27, 1989|Jack Smith

Herb Caen has been the leading columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle for more than 50 years. He is the city's bard, gossip, historian, lover and bon vivant.

He met us for cocktails at 6 o'clock in the Top of the Mark, which is something like having the Prince of Wales meet you for tea at Claridge's. He was wearing a tuxedo, obviously having another date.

He was waiting for us at a table by a window overlooking the city and the bay. He was having a vodka martini, on the rocks. He had switched from white wine some time ago, he said. He had found out that he was allergic to white wine. I wondered how that news, if he had divulged it in his column, had rocked the Napa Valley wine industry.

We had become acquainted as mock rivals, but we had always been friends, and Caen had never failed to answer a jibe of mine with a charming note.

Anecdotes poured out of him like items in his column. He had just come back from the Soviet Union, where he had gone with his softball team. Yes, he played softball with a team of men over 40. Caen must be 73. I asked him what position he played.

"First base," he said.

I asked him if he was a member of the Pacific Union Club.

"I'm not a member of any club," he said. "Not even the Press Club."

I asked him if anyone actually belonged to the Pacific Union. I told him I had never seen anyone entering or leaving it.

"That's because they're too old to climb the stairs," he said. "They come in the back. There are only 300 members, and a new one can't get in until an old one dies. When one dies they take him out the back."

Caen has an anecdote for everything about San Francisco. He said that in 1939 when the Mark Hopkins owner replaced the 19th-story penthouse with a glass-walled cocktail lounge, he told Caen he didn't know what to call the top of the hotel, and Caen said: "That's it. Top of the Mark."

He had another vodka martini and then rose. He was going to the debut of a friend's daughter. He walked with a jaunty step toward the elevators. He had been a San Francisco fixture longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. My wife noticed that his shoes had bows.

We took a cab to go to dinner at the Postrio, down the hill on Post Street. It was a short cab ride, but one not to be forgotten. The cabbie drove like a stunt man in one of those cops and robbers movies with a San Francisco background. He drove so fast that when he hit an intersection the cab actually flew--all four wheels off the ground--as it left the level cross street. He seemed to ignore red lights.

I had always thought they must close off the streets or shoot those scenes at 4 o'clock in the morning, but this fellow was proving it could be done at peak hours. We were all speechless and surprised to be alive when he dropped us off.

The Postrio is Wolfgang Puck's new restaurant in San Francisco, and a big success. We were seated downstairs in a mod-chic room dominated by a translucent Rauschenberg mural. The lamps looked like some kind of deep-sea monsters. The food and service were excellent, though at one point the kitchen got backed up and we had to wait for our entrees. It didn't matter. There was a lot to see.

It was noisy, but not with hard rock. It was noisy with the sound of exuberant young voices. I suspect they deliberately design the acoustics of such places to make them noisy, thus adding to the excitement.

The crowd was mostly young, but it was not a Los Angeles crowd. Almost all the men wore jackets and ties. It was evening garb, not beach garb. The women were good-looking and stylish. Most of them wore miniskirts. I have never seen such a collection of gorgeous legs. I wondered whether they were San Francisco legs or tourist legs.

Somehow I felt we were seeing the real thing. These were San Francisco young. These were creatures of the city that they imagined was the most sophisticated in the world.

No harm in thinking so.

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