First Person: Remembering Herb Caen and ‘Baghdad-By-The-Bay’

By Dorothy Snodgrass
Tuesday August 21, 2007

I owe Herb Caen, the dearly loved and sorely missed San Francisco columnist, a debt of gratitude for having totally changed my life. To put it more precisely, it was his book published back in 1949, Baghdad-By-The-Bay that turned my life around, and all for the better. 

How could this slim book, a compilation of San Francisco Chronicle articles, have had such an impact on my life? Perhaps this will explain it. Most of my early years were spent in South Bend, Indiana, a nice little town with pretty homes, big green lawns, close to Notre Dame University. In fairness I have to say South Bend had much to offer—it, uh, it—(give me time; I’ll think of something.) I should add, the weather was foul; below zero in the winter, near 100 in the summer. 

It was on one of those miserable, muggy days that I dropped into the Public Library, the only building in town with air conditioning. While the New Fiction shelf was ordinarily my first stop, that day I headed straight for the Travel Section. One book instantly caught my eye, Baghdad- By-The-Bay. I knew nothing of the author, Herb Caen. Possibly the name Baghdad struck my fancy. (I should point out that this book was written long before the United States left that formerly beautiful city in ruins.) In any event, I plopped down in a comfortable arm chair and started reading. The afternoon passed and I read on, enchanted with the book, drinking in vivid descriptions of the many wonders of Caen’s adored city. I was still reading when it was time for the library to close. Checking out the book, I continued reading as I walked home in the blazing sunshine. As the hot summer wore on, again seeking shelter in the cool public library, I read and re-read the book until I had practically memorized it. Written several decades ago, much of it was dated and irrelevant, especially well-known figures who had since passed on —Pierre Monteaux, Harry Bridges and William Saroyan, to name just a few. But the city itself had not changed that much; I came to know all the colorful neighborhoods and the people living there (i.e., the Italians in North Beach, the Chinese in Waverly Place). I grew familiar with the more elegant areas—St. Francis Wood, Pacific Heights, Nob Hill, and Sea Cliff “where the homes have room to puff out their chests in the satisfaction of success.” Likewise, “those two distinguished neighbors, the Mark Hopkins and the Fairmont, staring blankly at each other across California Street.” I soon became acquainted with other, less aristocratic parts of the city—the Mission District, Visitacion Valley, the Castro, Golden Gate Park and Powell Street, where I could almost hear the clang of Cable Cars and imagine myself hanging on for dear life with all other happy tourists.  

Given Caen’s vivid passages in the book, I was not only becoming familiar with the geography of San Francisco, but also the flavor and smells—garlic hanging in the windows in North Beach, the tantalizing odors along Fisherman’s Wharf, and seeing “Newly formed whitish fog filtering through the harp strings of Golden Gate Bridge.”  

Languishing as I was all that summer in Indiana’s soaring temperatures, it was the thought of fog creeping in off the Bay that lured me to San Francisco. Tuning in for the weather report one evening in August when the announcer predicted temperatures would hit the century mark with no relief in sight, I shouted, “This is it! San Francisco, here I come! And I came. With two suitcases, a thousand dollars, Herb Caen’s book tucked under one arm, and not the slightest idea where I’d lay my head that first night.  

It soon became evident that I could not afford even a modest studio apartment in S.F. As fate would have it, I ran across a house-sitting advertisement in a local paper and found myself ensconced in a lovely home in Pacific Heights. What a glorious six weeks that was! I walked and walked and walked all over town -- across Golden Gate Bridge, up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower, through Golden Gate Park, along Fisherman’s Wharf, the Marina and China Town. But, alas, all good things come to an end. Reality set in and I faced the cruel fact that I needed to find a job and an apartment I could afford. It was suggested I get myself over to Berkeley and apply for work at the University of California. (This, of course, was not suggested in Herb’s book.) But it turned out to be another fortuitous move. 

Berkeley was not too dissimilar to San Francisco, boasting beautiful old homes (Maybeck and Julia Morgan), steep hills. stunning bay views, and a world-famous University, where I immediately landed a job in the Law School. My new sixth floor apartment in the South Campus area afforded a view of the Campanile, International House and the stately old Claremont Hotel. And, more important, I could see the fog roll in over the East Bay hills.  

So, Herb, dear old friend, I thank you once again for directing me to your glorious Baghdad-By-The-Bay and, subsequently, to my new exciting life in Berkeley. Incidentally, I arrived there just in time for the Free Speech Movement turmoil and the Viet Nam protests. Was even tear gassed when Ronnie sent in the National Guard. I look forward to thanking you in person some day, Herb—though not too soon.