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Dot, Dot, Dot.

Herb Caen, the much-celebrated, pre-Internet columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, used ellipses to separate the segments of his daily writing and called his work “three-dot journalism.” It was really just a device to string together a series of unrelated, gossipy blurbs, and call it a column. And it worked. Success, in whichever form it takes, is pointless to challenge. Caen wasn’t a hugely talented writer but he had contacts in every corner of the city, never picked up a restaurant tab, and possessed a knack for coining cutesy phrases that captured the popular imagination. This knack in turn led to being credited with other clever things he never said. His was a good gig, and his persona, for many, came to embody the city. That he also coined a phrase to describe his style and that it too caught on is further testament to his ability to elevate what he did beyond what it was. There was a time when I looked upon this with some disdain, but age has a funny way of replacing scorn with reverence.

Herb Caen’s work was a precursor to that which would come to define the Internet, but with some salient distinctions. It was in print and went through an editor; two points which can occasionally equate to thought and restraint, and that separate Caen from a modern-day fluff-scribe like the pudgy Perez Hilton. It’s hard to imagine a time when Hilton’s work will come to be viewed in a reverential light, but who knows, things are declining fast. This occurs to me whenever I check out my Facebook “News Feed.” Many have complained that Facebook doesn’t have a “dislike” button to accompany “like,” but this will never happen. It would lead to a bitter disintegration of the Social Network. That you can only instantly “like” millions of inane postings is testament to the fact that this isn’t an open and social exchange, but in fact a highly controlled environment. Besides, “dislike” alone would never cover it. They’d have to add dozens of other buttons, including “go away”, “nobody cares”, and “if your child was of reading age and saw this, he’d seek foster care.” Again, I’m open to the possibility that mine is simply the opinion of a bitter, old, anti-social crank, but I can’t help thinking that Herb checked out at the right time.

I do have one particular Herb Caen story that I enjoy telling, to the mild chagrin of my good buddy Coleman Miller. Back in the day when Coleman was going by “Scott” and was a brash, young, transplanted Midwestern upstart knocking San Francisco on its ear, we ran in to Herb Caen in a North Beach bar. This was shortly after the Chicago Bears had won the Super Bowl, and Miller was fond of wearing his Bears hat around town on the Friday or Saturday night before they played the 49ers. One of Scott’s favorite phrases was borrowed from Deputy Barney Fife’s description of Ernest T Bass, the rock-throwing, backwoods mountain man on television’s Andy Griffith Show: “He’s a NUT.” It was shortly after midnight and we’d just walked into The Saloon, San Francisco’s oldest bar. It was crowded and when we finally edged up to order a drink the bartender insisted that Scott remove his Bears hat before he would serve him. This did not sit at all well with Miller, but his protesting only caused the guy to move on to other customers. Several minutes later we caught his attention again and Scott lifted the hat slightly above head-level, uttering in condescending concession “Three Budweisers, tough guy..” Being a Niners fan, the whole thing was worth the wait for me.

We barely had time to put a dent in our Buds before spotting Herb. He was cutting his way through the crowd toward the exit, making quite the iconic San Francisco impression in the process: a sixty-something, suitably inebriated writer in an askew Fedora with an attractive thirty year-old woman on either arm. Miller, sensing the chance to recover from the bartender incident, righted his Bears hat and rose to the occasion. Just as Herb passed within earshot he let out a boisterous exclamation: “HERB! .. You NUT!!” There was a pause in Caen’s step and a notable drop in crowd volume making it unnecessary for him to project as much as Scott had to be heard. “You’re pretty crazy yourself,” Herb said in matter of fact tone, and continued on his way. The Niners beat the Bears that weekend, and we didn’t go back to the Saloon for a while.

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  1. coleman wrote:

    Was that the same night?? (Herb Cain and the dipshit bartender) Also the night before the Bears/Niners game when the pigtailed aging dipshit bartender said he wouldn’t serve me until I took the cap off I was deciding what to do when Myers said “No Way are you taking that off” and we left without ordering to go to a place. I felt like a dumbass for even thinking about taking the hat off to appease that drunken barkeep.

    Thursday, September 22, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    No, it probably didn’t happen on the same night – I may have combined both stories in a gesture of artistic license. (OK, OK, more license than art.)

    Good for Myers telling you to keep the hat on .. solid Quaker ethics and all. He told me to do the same thing with a couple of Sureños at Dodger Stadium who insisted I lose my Giants hat, and it cost me $8000 in dental work.

    Thursday, September 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

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