Today's Tom Sawyer
In June 1864, when Mark Twain was 28 and still known as Samuel Clemens, he moved from Virginia City, Nevada, to San Francisco. He was a flamboyant writer, a self-invented prose-stylist, and really fucking funny. Reading through his newspaper clips reveals evidence of Twain’s subjective slips. He was a social satirist who castigated the San Francisco police and offered his opinions on the judicial process. The man’s writing could not be tamed.
Twain lived the dream I’m pursuing: a career in writing. But before he became America’s quintessential writer, he struggled in his journey. His first job was working for the Morning Call, a daily newspaper where he was fired after four and a half months. Late in his life he described his time at the Morning Call as, “fearful drudgery, soulless drudgery, and almost destitute of interest.”
I am on a similar trajectory – albeit in a very different time and place – from Honolulu Magazine to this foggy West Coast city where I too have struggled with long hours, low pay, and mind-numbing, monotonous writing gigs. To learn of Twain’s failures and of the endless, thankless hours is both shocking and comforting. After all the tribulations, or perhaps because of them, he discovered his vocation here. Inspired by this man, I set out to know what he discovered in our common city and how it’s changed since his feet traversed these streets.
I start at the North Beach library, where I get my hands on some of Twain’s old newspaper clippings by checking out Clemens of the Call. Reading through the old articles, I pick out my favorite printed August 5, 1864: “Soldier Murdered by a Monomanic: Escape and Subsequent Arrest of the Murderer.” According to Twain, the soldier, stationed at Black Point, awoke during the night believing that his fellow prisoners were going to hang him, seized a bayonet, and stabbed a soldier 12 or 15 times.
I go out in search of the same spot Twain had gone to research the monomanic. Once there, between the Fort Mason Youth Hostel and the cliff overlooking the Bay, I find Black Point Battery, which provides a sheltered picnicking spot with a great view of the Bay. It looks much the same as when Twain investigated the murder – the Youth Hostel is the same building from the mid-1800s, originally a barracks – but Twain wouldn’t have seen the Golden Gate Bridge (completed in 1937), which crosses the horizon as I look out.
Next, my journey takes me to Twain’s first residence, the cobblestone four-story Italianate-style Occidental Hotel where he spent his first few months in the city. Twain made $35 dollars a week, which has the spending power of about $700 today. At the time, the Occidental was one of three premier hotels, and he quickly blew all his dough, forcing him to move into more moderate accommodations.
Today, the 31-floor, neo-Gothic Russ Building stands at the same spot on Montgomery Street, from Sutter to Bush. Approaching the Russ, a building filled with offices and one that can boast the city’s first indoor parking garage, it offers just about nothing of interest to the passerby. I go inside anyway just to check it out. I imagine it is equivalent to the decadence of the Occidental Hotel, if you factor in how the times have changed, since the Russ Building is definitely grandiose: It has ornate granite floors, marble elevator lobbies, and pendant light fixtures. I imagine Twain gawking from the hall – for fashion has changed so much since he sported his staple bowtie – as he watches all the flamboyantly dressed pedestrians mixed with the suit-wearing downtowners.
From the hotel, Twain made his way to the Morning Call’s office, just three blocks up Montgomery and to the left at 612 Commercial Street. During this time, the Call was in a brand new brick building – the original structure burned to the ground in the fire of 1862.
Following in his footsteps, I make the same walk and come to a building that houses the Pacific Heritage Museum. Its brick façade is outlined with planters and it’s integrated into the much taller, modern East West Bank, which was built around it, allowing the museum to almost blend in with the modern-day FiDi buildings.
By midmorning, in this very building I’m facing, Twain was checking police court records beginning a day that might end only with his two o’clock deadline the following morning. “I was a reporter on the Morning Call of San Francisco,” wrote Twain 40 years after his time at the Call. “I was more than that – I was the reporter.” Modern-day journalists have a beat: I write about arts and culture, and within that I’m expected to have a sub-specialty such as music trends, but Twain was expected to write about everything – from yesterday’s earthquake and the racetracks at Bay View Park to the longshoremen’s strike and the advent of quail for breakfast at the Occidental Hotel.
Twain wrote his news items in the third-floor editorial room and liked to sneak down to the second floor and hobnob with the superintendent’s secretary of the United States Mint, Bret Harte, the famed literary figure who would give Twain advice and opportunities during his time in the city.
I enter the Pacific Heritage Museum and discover a sparse exhibition dedicated to the Mint where Harte worked. On display are silver dollars dating from1876 – made after Twain’s time at the Call – and replicas of the bank, which remind me of the scene in Disney’s Robin Hood, where the hero steals sacks of money from Prince John and Sir Hiss.
From the former Call headquarters, I follow Twain’s path to the Montgomery Block, the literary center of the time where Twain slung drinks and talked with reporters from the Golden Era and other newspapers. Constructed in 1853, it sat between Montgomery and Sansome, and Washington and Clay streets.
In Twain’s time, reporters had a word count to fill, so when news was slow, Twain wasn’t averse to make it up. He wrote: “If there were no fires to report we started some.” His urban insights, as well as those moments where he fabricated the news, are evident in his tall tales. Twain once wrote: “Reporting is the best school in the world to get a knowledge of human beings, human nature, and human ways.” And it was in the Turkish bath in the Montgomery Block that Twain met a man named Tom Sawyer, with whom he liked playing penny ante.
Standing at this same block, I see in front of me the iconic Transamerica Pyramid and behind it, where Sansome runs, I find a pedestrian alley named after Mark Twain. It is bordered by Starbucks and Alex Gourmet Burrito.
Walking around, I run into my friend Dani who works at 235 Montgomery Street. I tell him about my search, and then we walk down the Mark Twain alley to a small urban park with a funky fountain with bronze jumping frogs leaping from it. It reminds me of Twain talking about his social success: “I suppose I know at least a thousand people here….” And that when he walked down Montgomery Street, he was “shaking hands with Tom, Dick, and Harry.” Being a journalist, he knew the Montgomery Block crew, the city dwellers, and many others. San Fran is a small city where we easily run into the characters of the present, and where we might just notice the ghosts of the past walking down the street, too.
If you want to search out Twain’s trail in San Francisco, take a mini tour of the FiDi and check out the Russ Building, the Pacific Heritage Museum, the Transamerica building, and the Mark Twain alley. Then check out Clemens of the Call, pick out your favorite clip, and go look for what Twain investigated. Maybe it was a real event or maybe it was one of his tall tales thinly disguised as journalism.