Northside SF
Bellingham by the Bay
Befriending Gangsters
I think I’m hearing too much information,” said the lass at the next table. This was at The Crepe House on Polk and Washington. It’s the clearinghouse for neighborhood gossip, for good local chitchat. It’s where people make connections much more reasonably than on Facebook. This is Face-to-Facebook. Imagine that.

But the gal’s companion looked crushed. 

“What do you mean by ‘too much information’?” he implored.

“Just too intimate,” she said.

The young fellow skulked away crestfallen, a victim of the Information Age, where much is disseminated and little is revealed.

Herb Gold often comes to The Crepe House. He’s the literary lion of Russian Hill. I’m sure Herb’s not on Facebook. He gets in my face in the most kindly of ways. Herb knew about friends before they had to be “befriended.”

All of this recalls an intimate conversation with Florence Fang, who once owned the San Francisco Examiner. With the help of John Gollin, who worked for the person known at the shop as Madame Fang (so known for her fastidious Chinese attire and austere manner), she offered me a job as a daily columnist.

One day I was summoned to her office in the Warfield Building. That’s on Market and Taylor streets.

“Do you know,” Madame Fang intimated, “that Al Capone built this office?”

It was a beautiful office indeed, all constructed in vintage oak. Madame Fang announced this with great pride.

Yes I thought it was odd that anyone would take pride in that sort of legacy. I mean, Al Capone?

It always troubled me about the Al Capone story. The Warfield Building houses the great Warfield Theatre. I recall when I would be working on a piece at the newspaper on the second story and hear Elvis Costello rehearse downstairs on a Friday afternoon. During his time in San Francisco Elvis would personally hand out food to the on-the-street or nearly-on-the-street persons. Because I was a reporter he asked me not to print a word of it. I have of course betrayed him. “Memory has no statute of limitations,” so says John Gollin. I know the Warfield Theatre has a rich history. But did Al Capone actually own the Warfield Building at Market and Taylor? I had to ask Jonathan Eig, author of the great new book Get Capone. He writes:

“It’s unlikely Capone had anything to do with the Warfield Building. I see no evidence that he ever visited San Francisco – unless you count Alcatraz, of course. He did some business with grape growers on the West Coast, so perhaps his money helped build the Warfield. But that’s just speculation.”

No, I don’t think that Al Capone had anything to do with Warfield Building. When I worked at the Examiner I would wander through the lower depths of the place and listen to the ghosts of the players who used to perform there. That’s when it was what they called a legit house, that is, not a movie venue. Honest, there were times I could swear I heard them.

The ghosts that is. That included the Marx Brothers, the Ritz Brothers, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson. Can you imagine seeing such acts? So who needs Al Capone? Truth is he was a friend in some ways to down-and-out persons during the Depression. It would be strange to see him working hand-in-hand with Elvis Costello as the food was distributed. Capone funded soup kitchens in Chicago when the government was not there to help. He was generous they say, scarily generous. At the same time Capone had refined his own talent. That was working his way through the turmoil of the Depression with his prowess at manipulating illegal booze, prostitution, loan-sharking, and murder. Now that’s the American dream. I don’t think Big Al was working the boards on the stage at the Warfield. I think he was too shy for that. Yeah, sure. Others were working on making an American dream out of imagination, being funny, and by creating wondrous storytelling.

Our great Sharon Anderson checks in from Munich, reporting a day of mixed experience. She visited the Dachau death camp and then went on to the Oktoberfest, the famous Bavarian wassail. “After seeing Dachau,” says Sharon, “you can imagine I was not really much in the mood for a party.” The world seems to be teeming with incongruities, contradictions and inexplicable circumstance. Sharon, a great painter in the Surrealist style, sometimes describes these anomalies as “Dadaist accidents.” Sometimes Sharon calls, as if I were a police dispatcher, to say convincingly: “I’d like to report a Dadaist accident.” “Yes, ma’am,” I respond earnestly, “just give me the facts, just the facts, ma’am.”

The other day, AMC aired something called “Mob Week” – great films (an American genius), including the masterpieces by Francis Ford Coppola, Godfather I and Godfather II. We Americans are so fond of gangsters. No wonder they get elected to Congress over and over. Sharon says Europeans are curious about the Tea Party Movement in the United States. But yet they still love Americans. There’s a generous track record there – from Spam to the Marshall Plan. The Americans were real heroes. Many still are of course.

Not paying a bloody thought to history, the GOP candidates are stumbling over each other to say stupid things, then trying to rectify them the next day. They would not know Dada from dodo. But that’s how the Dadaist movement was engendered. It was an artistic reaction to a senseless war, The Great War. Yes World War I. Apparently our wars never got great enough. We keep them going. I walked down Clay Street here on lofty Nob Hill this morning. People sleeping on the sidewalks. We seem to be at war with each other. Yes even here in lovely San Francisco. The wars have already come home. So who is the enemy?


March 2012
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