Herb Caen Classic: No place like it…
I sit on a park bench at San Francisco’s Marina Green on a warm March day looking out over the Bay to see Angel Island, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge. The view is so beautiful! As I sit, I reflect on Herb Caen, who I recall often sitting at the marina admiring this same view.
I met Mr. Caen in October of 1978 while running down Maiden Lane on my way to a go-see for a product ad at Grimme. I had just left my 1976 Corvette Stingray with Henry, who was the doorman at the Hyatt on Union Square at that time. I had my house keys in my hand. While running down the street, looking down, and attempting to put the keys in my purse, I ran smack into a man and almost knocked him over. He stumbled back a few steps then regained his balance. On impact, my house keys fell out of my hand dropping down a street manhole.
I had a tizzy. I screamed, “My keys, my keys”! People started to stop and stare. Frustrated, and concerned that I was going to be late for my go-see, I kept frantically screaming, “I need my keys, please, please help me!”
The man that I almost knocked down asked me for my name, I apologized quickly I think. I told him my name and spelled it out for him several times. I also told him about my appointment and then he said in a calm voice, “Go to Grimme, don’t worry, you’ll get your keys back.” I ran off without getting his name or concerning myself with how he would retrieve my keys. I yelled thank you, thank you, with every leap that I took in my Charles Jourdan 3-inch heels. Oh, the things that we could do when we were young and a little dumb.
The lobby of Grimme was full of beautiful people. I bumped a few elbows to quickly check in. I felt a flash of Jimmy Grimme’s disapproval on his face for my being late and rushing about. Not wanting to deal with him, I smiled quickly and found a seat.
During those days, your agent’s office was home away from home. You dropped in and sat awhile hoping for a quick booking.
So I was chilling while waiting to hear if I was selected for the product ad, when someone handed me a manila envelope, with Zalise written on it. I opened it up to find my house keys. I looked around at all the faces in the lobby wondering and asking where the envelope came from. I began to wonder who was the cool dude that I almost knocked over who told me I would get my keys back.
A few weeks later standing backstage with other models after participating in a designer fashion show at the old Kabuki Theatre, I saw Nancy Wilson. A renowned jazz vocalist who was the special guest performer that opened up the show. I was very excited, and thrilled, and wanted to meet her.
I walked over apprehensively toward this beautiful goddess just to say hello, I thought. When a man’s voice said, “Hello Zalise, any more manhole capers” or something to that effect? He did not wait for my response but turned to his left where Nancy Wilson was standing. Then, without hesitation, he introduced me to the legend. I was like, in awe as I reached for her hand, but I was not speechless! Just can’t recall what I said to her though. … Then the man turned to me and said, “I’m Herb Caen.” Oh, oh, I felt a bit foolish, “No, no more incidents with manholes, thank you for retrieving my keys,” I said. We chatted a bit with Nancy, I said goodnight to both and sped off to an after-party with a friend. The name Herb Caen stayed on my mind all night and way into the morning.
The following day, while at Enrico’s for brunch with an acquaintance who knew when and where the cow-ate-up-the-grindstone or my personal Google at the time, I asked her about Herb Caen. Who is he, and what does he do? She perused the restaurant patrons looking to borrow a copy of the San Francisco Chronicle. Finding a paper, she read Herb Caen’s column out loud to me. She explained that he writes about San Francisco’s who’s who and their goings-on good and bad.
From that day on I subscribed to the Chronicle, just to read what Herb Caen had to say each day about his affection for the City and its colorful people, the famous, the rich, the poor, and the outrageous.
His descriptive writing and edgy puns could be so hilarious, but he also had an even sharper edge that you did not want to be at the end of. He did not play, and if you crossed him, he could chop you down with the cleverest of words. He’d never mention your name, but with his brilliant ability to describe a situation, and its setting to a tee with sharp-humored three and four-syllable words, everyone knew who the person, place, or thing was.
I’d often see Mr. Caen and his shabby fedora sitting in his car on a cold foggy day at the Marina admiring the scenery. On warm days he’d sit on a park bench close to the water and if I’d happened by, I’d sit down beside him for a minute to chit-chat. He took pleasure in knowing that I loved San Francisco too, lived in Pacific Heights with my young daughter, and had no plans to ever leave the City for bigger and cheaper housing in other parts of the Bay Area as so many people do. But, they are not true San Franciscans, right?
I feel so fortunate to have known him. I am not a prominent socialite, politician, or anyone famous, but Mr. Caen always remembered my name.
I’ve helped others in distress too because Mr. Caen helped me. I never found out how he retrieved my keys from the street’s manhole, nor did I ever ask. I assumed he’d tell me if he had wanted me to know. I have had all sorts of visions of how Mr. Caen might have retrieved my keys though.
Years later, shortly before he left us all, I’d see him at the Marina. He was pensive and in deep thought. So, I respected his privacy and would quietly walk on by with a nod. He was as mysterious and wonderful as the City that he wrote about. I miss him! He loved his Baghdad-By-The-Bay, everyone knew that and we all enjoyed reading his interpretations.
At a gathering in his honor he said: “I hope I go to Heaven, and when I do, I’m going to do what every San Franciscan does when he gets there. He looks around and says, it ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco.” —Herb Caen
Be Bold and Bloom. Be inspired to help others because someone helped you. Be your SuperSelf, be the best you, every day, in every way.