Thursday, December 03, 2015

High Society in the Big City - Excerpt

In an attempt to explain why I'm mildly obsessed with drawing from photos of folks who comprise the socio-economic-proto-cultural strata known as "High Society" - a small sampling seen below - here's an excerpt of an essay I wrote a few years ago about my adventures as a suburban paperboy. (I know, I'm as guilty as anyone of shying away from too much written substance - emitting the inward groan as a response to the idea of reading anything more than a paragraph when there are videos of cats attacking babies to watch. Cats. Attacking babies for goddsake!) But if you're a voracious consumer of the written word this shouldn't take up too much of your time - please enjoy, or just look at the pictures, that'd be fine too. 

      Growing up in a prosperous suburb of a major metropolitan center meant I didn’t get to live in the actual Big City but still benefited from some of the cultural table scraps. I was close enough geographically that the Big City’s ripples gently jarred my little suburban boat and defined my journey in ways that were subtle yet undeniable.
The city I lived in was San Jose, but since it still had one big boot mired in agriculture it wasn’t yet considered much of an urban reality - it was still considered a suburb of the nearby Big City, San Francisco. San Jose had a downtown of it’s own, with a courthouse and banks and various office buildings, but it still had the dusty patina of a farm town center. It was still the Santa Clara Valley, The Valley of Heart’s Delight, and the drowsy downtown was appropriately small and low key in scale. It would still be a couple of decades before it was affixed with the insidious Silicon Valley moniker.
San Jose had it’s own legitimate newspapers, the Mercury in the morning - which my parents read religiously - and the News in the afternoon, which nobody I knew personally would admit to reading. My family had always read a paper in the morning the way God intended, and that meant the News was never considered.
The real city, the Big City, San Francisco, also had two newspapers - there was the morning Chronicle and the afternoon Examiner. No one in my family beginning with my grandfather had ever considered the Examiner to be much of a newspaper. Even though my grandparents were horribly bigoted snobs, their disdain wasn’t based on the fact that Hearst papers had once been the voice of choice for vast roiling multitudes of “dirty immigrants”. Nor was their aversion to the paper based on some ancient intellectual or political grudge against old Mr. Hearst’s evil ways - it was the Examiner’s afternoon status that sunk it’s chances like the Maine in Havana harbor.
That left the Chronicle.
There were plenty of people in our burgeoning suburb who read the Big City Chronicle. The reason I knew this was because I was their morning Paperboy. I was the unseen agent who put their paper on the porch every day for two years, rain or shine, while they slept.
As anxious as I am to describe how I delivered the paper each morning, I must digress just long enough to explain my product a bit more. Any good businessman should know and believe in their product, and I was no exception.
I liked the Chronicle. It had the sleek heft of sophistication, compared to the corn fed girth of the Mercury. Before I delivered it I would only see it on the occasions when we visited the aforementioned Grandparents. They had money, and lived closer to the Big City then we did. Needless to say they had no use for the provincial rag from the farm colony we inhabited. When we’d go to visit them, usually on a Sunday, I’d always take a look at their Chronicle. I liked their gothic-type masthead, and the little eagle whose wings spread below the title. I liked the sans-serif no nonsense urgency of the headlines, and I liked the comics page.
Whereas the Mercury seemed to favor newer comics like Tumbleweeds and Broom Hilda, the Chronicle stuck with the old world stalwarts, like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. I liked Broom Hilda just fine, but there was something strange and historically compelling about Blondie and Prince Valiant and the weirdly noir Steve Roper and Mike Nomad. I doubt that I ever laid eyes on Steve Roper – to this day I wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a comics lineup - the adventures, which felt vaguely and belatedly WWII-related, always seemed to spin off and around the gruff, crewcut Mike Nomad. Mike Nomad was either a photojournalist or a soldier of fortune, I could never figure which, but I followed him daily for years, mildly addicted and trying to keep up with him.

The Chronicle was also full of Big City shenanigans, most of which had no direct bearing on my life, but to me it reeked of Big City excitement and Big City culture. Since the City had actual professional sports franchises, the paper had a good sports page, the whole section of which they printed on dyed green newsprint and called The Sporting Green. Other than the rather vague grass connection, I didn’t fully understand the point, but it seemed really sophisticated to me at the time. The Chronicle was big on dyeing sections of their paper. The Sunday Datebook section with all the arts and entertainment news was nicknamed the Pink Section because, decades before San Francisco was a haven for the gay population of the world, they actually dyed the newsprint pink.

The Chronicle was the paper of Herb Caen, Stanton Delaplane, and the Society page. The Society page fascinated me, with its flash photography frozen rictus shots of the Very Wealthy at their expensive parties. There was no earthly reason a preteen hetero kid in the suburbs should have any recognition of the names Pat Montandon or Wilkes Bashford or Charlotte Maillard, but I did, because I could never tear my eyes away from their pictures when they appeared in the Society page. Occasionally the women in the photos were actually pretty, as when there was some young debutante event, but even then the images shone with the glaze of the grotesque. There was always the slightest tinge of desperation in the eyes, a bit more whites above the pupils than you’d expect. Ready for their close-ups, all.

I didn’t know who they were or what they did apart form all the events they attended. Galas, endless Galas - The Opera, the Black and White Ball, the Symphony, the De Young Museum Benefits, and all the other Galas. I looked at their pictures with a blend of puzzlement and envy that was laced with a curiously generous helping of loathing. These people seemed so unnecessary, so useless to regular folks like me and mine; yet here they were with their toothy mugs in the paper every couple of days.
The Mercury had a Society page with occasional pictures too, but it was too dully civic-minded, too earnestly responsible to be interesting to me. They were always cutting the ribbon on some new shopping center or housing development or bowling alley. Even I could see it was usually somehow associated with commerce instead of The Arts, and that made it low and base in my eyes. The people in the pictures always looked like chunky hayseeds compared with the bony-sleek cultural Movers and Shakers in the Chronicle. The San Jose crowd was a bunch of goofy, preening amateurs - even I knew it - and I was slightly embarrassed for them and for San Jose in general.

I knew my parents read the San Jose Mercury because it had all the news that pertained to their San Jose lives. Unlike me they liked San Jose, and they liked reading the Mercury. But I also think my parents didn’t want to be reminded every day of their former swinging life in Baghdad By The Bay. They were suburban parents now. They went to church and had a mortgage and a station wagon. Gone were the days of cocktails at Ernies, or cocktails at the Tonga Room, or cocktails at the Top of the Mark. They still had cocktails every night of course, but now the only bar they closed every night was the one on my little brother’s crib.

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