Phones, Codgers and Caen

San Francisco itself is art, above all literary art. Every block is a short story, every hill a novel. Every home a poem, every dweller within immortal. That is the whole truth.

William Saroyan
Photo by Brett Sayles on

Yesterday I led a couple of groups through San Francisco’s Chinatown on walking tours. We had fun and they tipped me out well, so I went and had lunch.

Heading home had me waiting for a bus on Market Street, while two twenty-something Asian girls were looking at their phones and giggling.

I too had my phone out as I wanted to touch base with Mrs. Dave, and find out if she’d be home when I got there or what.

We use WhatsApp for our back-and-forth coms, and pushing the button to talk required that I put my phone at a certain angle, and I juggled my backpack on the other arm, all while standing about ten feet from the two girls, who were off to the left but sort of in front of me.

While listening to what Mrs. Dave had to say, I noticed that Asian girl #1 looked in my direction, scrunched up her eyebrows and then said something to Asian girl #2, who also then looked in my direction, then she also scrunched, and they said something to each other, then they moved over to my right side, a little further down.

Then I realized the camera lens on my phone had been pointed at them, so they must have thought I was videoing or taking pics of their little selves.

I wasn’t. I was talking to my wife of many years, but they didn’t know that, they assumed I had the cam on them. I’m sure Asian girl #1 must have said to Asian girl #2, “That creep over there is taking our picture, let’s move down behind some other people.”

I don’t really care about this or what they thought, but it made it a bit awkward when the bus came and they got on it along with almost everyone else at the stop, and the only place to sit was on a side bench directly across from them. I made it a point to not point my phone lens in their direction or even cast a glance their way, but they sure kept an eye on me.

I would include a photo of the two Asian girls, but the whole point of this is that I didn’t take their picture, so below is a stock image of generic people looking at generic phones at some generic train platform.

Photo by on

We’ve reached a day and age where it’s the land of phones; everyone has theirs out and is talking, poking at ‘em or reading, and/or listening to them all of the time, everywhere you go.

At any given bus stop in the city, if there are about twelve people waiting for a bus, at least twelve of them will be looking at their phones.

Those two Asian girls reminded me of a feisty ol’ codger I encountered one day some months ago. I was at Union Square, and oddly enough, I was waiting to conduct another Chinatown walking tour.

I had about ten minutes to kill before guests started showing up, so my phone was out and as usual, I was having a conversation with Mrs. Dave.

At one point she replied to something with a silly little animated GIF, which we use a lot. This caused me to hold the phone in front of me so I could properly see the screen, while at the same time this codger was laboring up the steps on the corner of Union Square.

They aren’t steep steps and there’s not a lot of them, but they are steps nonetheless, and while I looked at the animated GIF, the camera lens on the other side was pointed at them.

I had barely noticed the codger has he labored up the steps, leaning on his cane, his swollen ankles shouting out his poor health and pain.

After clearing the top step his path took him right by me, so as he passed, he leaned over and sneered, “Why in the HELL would you take a picture of an old codger like me? I didn’t give you permission for that! Damn you idiots and your phones!”

If you were thinking it was kind of rude of me to call the guy a “codger,” well, you see there? He’d called himself that, so I figured he wouldn’t mind.

He kept hobbling, so I didn’t have the chance to correct him and say I was just looking at something my wife had sent me, but I’ve met his type, so I’m sure I would’ve gotten another sneer and a lecture about how they had payphones long ago and those didn’t have cameras, or something.

It’s quite legal to take someone’s picture in public, but you get into a gray area if their faces are discernable and you’re going to publish the photo commercially, you could get sued over that. This is why pros carry “release forms” and try to get someone to sign one if they capture their image in public, but only if they’re going to make money off of it.

Not long ago I was standing on a street corner, waiting for the light to change in my favor. Some guy driving an SUV, which had a UBER sign on it, slowed in the intersection right in front of me.

He rolled to a complete stop, foot on the brake, and the driver lifted his phone cam and definitely took a picture of me. Now, this isn’t an assumption like the codger and the two Asian girls had with me, this was certainly a pic, because he was staring at me, then framed it up, pushed something, then down the phone went as he tossed me a wave and went on his way.

Now THAT was weird.

I told Mrs. Dave of it when getting home, and she suggested that if it was an UBER, then he probably thought I was his client. As close a guess as we’re going to get, but don’t they usually just put the window down and say, “Hi, are you Dave?” I’m not aware of them taking pics of their fares and then zooming away.

When I take a people picture, I ask permission if their face will be visible, and this is one of my favorites:

Mark is a homeless guy I’ve known for years, who hustles change in front of the 7/11 store next to our tour office in Fisherman’s Wharf. He was looking a little sullen that day, so I bought him a coffee and Danish in exchange for letting me take his picture, and he perked right up.

I’m glad I got the picture first, because that expression on his face is what I wanted to capture. After getting some coffee in him, he was all song and smiles.

There’s another guy, Jack, who tends to set-up at that same 7/11 and do his own hustle. He’s way older than Mark, and one of the things I admire about Jack is his transparency.

“Dude,” he said, a few years ago, “I’m just a burned-out old hippie who did way too many drugs in my day, so here I am.” He also projects a deep-seated dislike for Donald Trump:

This particular 7/11 store in a magnet for homeless panhandlers, most of whom are only there for a while and then move on. We see a turn-around about every month or so, but Jack and Mark are always there, and have been for years.

A couple of years ago, the owner started piping loud classical music at the storefront with the hope of chasing them off, but it just made for classier panhandlers.

Okay, I totally stole that joke from Saturday Night live.

Last year, Mrs. Dave and I were watching SNL online and it got to ‘Weekend Update,’ the fake, humorous news segment that comes in the middle of every episode. It’d been my favorite part of the show for decades, and I seldom watch the rest after they’ve wrapped up ‘Weekend Update.”

Their format is to give a bit of real news, but followed by a punchline. So, in this particular episode, host Colin Jost said;

“A 7/11 store in California has started playing loud, classical music in front of the store to chase away panhandlers. It hasn’t worked, now they just have classier panhandlers!”

Colin Jost ~ Saturday Night Live: Weekend Update

He meant the store I’m talking about, so HEY, we got a shout out from SNL at 30 Rock in NEW YORK CITY! WOO!!

I’m going to wrap up this week with a shout out to a couple of mentors of mine, who don’t know they’re mentors, and both of whom are long since deceased, so I’d have to hire a medium to thank them in person for the influential poke in the soul they’ve both given me.


I can’t find much on this early 2oth century author, but I sure like her writing style. I’ve been trying to emulate it myself, but more from an inspirational standpoint, not just copying.

I was perusing free E-books on Amazon a few years ago, and came across Ms. Bailey’s 1921 book, “Vignettes of San Francisco.” I literally didn’t have enough to spend on Amazon for any new books, so I was looking at free ones that are usually so old they’re in public domain, and that’s what “Vignettes…” was.

I was immediately drawn to her description of scenes in early 20th century San Francisco, such as this excerpt:

The Garbage Man’s Little Girl

This vignette is written because it can’t help itself and carries with it a hope that someone who reads it may know a little girl whose father is a garbage man. Suppose that you can’t think of anyone just now who is a daughter to a garbage man, it is best to read this just the same for you never know when you may meet her.

When you do, tell her not to care too much when the children at school tease her about her father and cry—”Phew—phew, here comes the gar-bidge-Garrr-bidge-Garrr-bidge.” Tell her at that time to try and sustain her personal integrity with philosophy. It won’t do her a particle of good but tell her just the same.

Tell her that her father is a terribly useful man. That if he should fail to function, then the disposal of garbage would become an individual problem and that the mamas of kids whose fathers are not garbage men would be obliged to say to their husbands—”Ed, dear, don’t forget to take the garbage bucket to the public incinerator on your way to the office.”

Tell her that just because her father collects dirt, it is no disgrace. Tell her to look at the people in good standing who peddle dirt. Tell her to look at the papers. Tell her to tell the world that it’s better any day to collect than to peddle dirt.

Tell her that when her father, up on his great smelly throne, drives around the corner of Powell and Geary that dressed-up folk needn’t disdain him so much. He’s a sermon. They won’t like him as a sermon so much as a garbage man but he’s a sermon just the same.

The text is that back of most things that are dainty and beautiful is the drudgery worker. Tell her that there isn’t an immaculate kitchen in San Francisco that doesn’t depend upon her father. Nor a feast at the Palace or the St. Francis. Tomato skins and the nests that cauliflowers come in, and gnawed “T” bones. What would become of them if she had no father. And coffee grounds and the nameless things that have been forgotten and burned by the absent-minded.

Tell the little girl about Omar Khayyam and how he might have said—. Oh, many a charred secret into the garbage can goes That from the kitchen range in blackened cloud once rose. Tell her that there is a professor at Yale whose father was a junk man. All this and more tell the garbage man’s little girl.

Bailey, Almira. Vignettes of San Francisco (p. 27). Kindle Edition.

This book is widely available, but if you want to get it as a free Kindle download, go to


Longtime San Francisco columnist Herb Caen passed away in 1997, after fifty years on the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a mentor of mine years back and from a moderate distance. I had first read him in 1979, when I had newly arrived in San Francisco to report aboard a Navy ship under renovation. I got hooked and read him daily until the ship moved to San Diego, so I no longer had daily access to The Chronicle in those days long before the internet.

Then I discovered that certain big newsstands in San Diego carried newspapers from all over the world, usually a day or two old, and The San Francisco Chronicle was one of them. It was way more per issue than in San Francisco, which was 25 cents. They had to be flown down there, so at a buck I didn’t buy one everyday, but I kept up with Herb on average about once per week clear up until he signed off with his final column, years later.

I can’t reproduce any Herb Caen columns here because they’re all copyrighted by The Chronicle, but I can quote him:

I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.

Herb Caen

Cockroaches and socialites are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything.

Herb Caen

A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gaze at a hippopotamus, buy a flower at the corner, or get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4 A.M. A city is where sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky and foghorns speak in dark grays. San Francisco is such a city.

Herb Caen

Last but certainly not least, I’ll leave you with one of the late, great Herb Caen’s most well known quotes:

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

If you’d like to peruse the archives of Herb Caen at The San Francisco Chronicle, aka SF GATE, GO HERE.

And to narrow it down for you, here’s one of his better columns from long ago.

Happy trails, and happy reading, friends.


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