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- The Native Son - 5/6 -
he celebrated according to time-honored rites. After his friends had left, he found on his desk a small uninscribed package which had apparently been left by accident. He opened it. Inside was a beautiful leather box showing his initials in gold. And within the box was a small bronze placque exquisitely engraved by a master-artist . . . bearing a message of appreciation exquisitely phrased . . . the names of all his friends. I know of no incident more typical of the taste and the humor with which the Native Son performs every social function. That sense of humor does not lessen but it lightens the gallantry and chivalry which is the earmark of Westerners. It makes for that natural perfection of manners which is also typical of the Native Son,
Touching the matter of their manners . . . A woman writer I know very well once went to a boxing-match in San Francisco. Women are forbidden to attend such events, so that a special permission had to be obtained for her. She was warned beforehand that the audience might manifest its disapproval in terms both audible and uncomplimentary. She entered the arena in considerable trepidation of spirit. It was an important match - for the lightweight championship of the world. She occupied a ring-side box where, it is likely, everybody saw her. There were ten thousand men in the arena and she was the only woman. But in all the two hours she sat there, she was not once made conscious, by a word or glance in her direction, that anybody had noticed her presence. That I think is a perfect example of perfect mob-manners.
Perhaps that instinct, not only for fair but for chivalrous play, which also characterizes the Native Son, comes from pioneer days. Certainly it is deepened by a very active interest in all kinds of sports. I draw my two examples of this from the boxing world. This is a story that Sam Berger tells about Andrew Gallagher.
It happened in that period when both men were amateur lightweights and Mr. Gallagher was champion of the Pacific Coast. Mr. Berger challenged Mr. Gallagher and defeated him. The margin of victory was so narrow, however, that Mr. Gallagher felt justified in as asking for another match, and got it.
This time Mr. Berger's victory was complete. In a letter, Mr. Berger said, "A woman cannot possibly understand what being a champion means to a man. It isn't so much the championship itself but it's the slap on the shoulder and the whispered comment as you pass, 'There goes our champion!' that counts. Looking back at it from the thirties, it isn't so important; but in the twenties it means a lot. My dressing room was near Gallagher's, so that, although he didn't know this, I could not help overhearing much that was said there. After we got back to our rooms, I heard some friend of Gallagher's refer to me as 'a damn Jew'. What was my delight at Gallagher's magnanimity to hear him answer, 'Why do you call him a damn Jew? He is a very fine fellow and a better boxer than me, the best day I ever saw.' "
That incident seems to me typical of the Native Son; and the long unbroken friendship that grew out of it, equally so.
A few years ago an interview with Willie Ritchie appeared in a New York paper. He had just boxed Johnny Dundee, defeating him. In passing I may state that Mr. Ritchie was, during that winter, taking an agricultural course at Columbia College, and that this is quite typical of the kind of professional athlete California turns out. You would have expected that in a long two-column interview, Mr. Ritchie would have devoted much of the space to himself, his record, his future plans. Not at all. It was all about Johnnie Dundee, for whom personally he seems to have an affectionate friendship and for whose work a rueful and decidedly humorous appreciation. He analyzed with great sapience the psychological effect on the audience of Mr. Dundee's ring-system of perpetual motion. He described with great delight a punch that Mr. Dundee had landed on the very top of his head. In fact Mr. Dundee's publicity manager could do no better than to use parts of this interview for advertising purposes.
I began that last paragraph with the phrase, "A few years ago". But since that time a whole era seems to have passed - that heart-breaking era of the Great War. And now the Native Son has entered into and emerged from a new and terrible game. He has needed - and I doubt not displayed - all that he has of strength, natural and developed; of keenness and coolness; of bravery and fortitude; of capacity to endure and yet josh on.
Perhaps after all, though, the best example of the Native Son's fairness was his enfranchisement of the Native Daughter and the way in which he did it. Sometime, when the stories of all the suffrage fights are told, we shall get the personal experiences of the women who worked in that whirlwind campaign. It will make interesting reading; for it is both dramatic and picturesque. And it will redound forever and ever and ever to the glory of the Native Son.
The Native Son - in the truest sense of the romantic - is a romantic figure. He could scarcely avoid being that, for he comes from the most romantic State in the Union and, if from San Francisco, the most romantic city in our modern world. It is, I believe, mainly his sense of romance that drives him into the organization which he himself has called the Native Sons of the Golden West; an adventurous instinct that has come down to us from mediaeval times, urging men to form into congenial company for offence and defence, and to offer personality the opportunity for picturesque masquerade.
That romantic background not only explains the Native Son but the long line of extraordinary fiction, with California for a background, which California has produced. California though is the despair of fiction writers. It offers so many epochs; such a mixture of nationalities; so many and such violently contrasted atmospheres, that it is difficult to make it credible. The gold rush . . . the pioneers . . . the Vigilantes . . . the Sand Lot days . . . San Francisco before the fire . . . the period of reconstruction. As for the drama lying submerged everywhere in the labor movement . . . the novelists have not even begun to mine below the surface. To the fiction-writer, the real, everyday life is so dramatic that the temptation is to substitute for invention the literal records of some literary moving-picture machine.
In fact, all the time you stay in California you're living in a story.
The San Franciscans will inundate you with stories of that old San Francisco. And what stories they are! The water-front, Chinatown, the Barbary Coast and particularly that picturesque neighborhood, south of Market Street - here were four of the great drama-breeding areas of the world. The San Franciscans of the past generation will tell you that the new San Francisco is tamed and ordered. That may be all true. But to one at least who never saw the old city, romance shows her bewildering face everywhere in the new one. Almost anything can happen there and almost everything does. Life explodes. It's as though there were a romantic dynamite in solution in the air. You make a step in any direction and - bang! - you bump into adventure. There is something about the sparkle and bustle and gaiety of the streets . . . There is something about the friendliness and the vivacity of the people . . . There is something about the intimacy and color and gaiety of the restaurants. . . .
Let me tell some stories to prove my point. Anybody who has lived in San Francisco has heard them by scores. I pick one or two at random.
A group of Native Sons were once dining in one of the little Bohemian restaurants of San Francisco. Two of them made a bet with the others that they could kiss every woman in the room. They went from table to table and in mellifluous accents, plus a strain of hyperbole, explained their predicament to each lady, concluding with a respectful demand for a kiss. Every woman in the room (with the gallant indulgence of her swain) acceded to this amazing request. In fifteen minutes all the kisses were collected and the wager won. I don't know on which this story reflects the greater credit - the Native Daughter or the Native Son. But I do know that it couldn't have happened anywhere but in California.
The first time I visited San Francisco shortly after the fire, I was walking one day in rather a lonely part of the city. There were many burnt areas about: only a few pedestrians. Presently, I saw a man and woman leaning against a fence, absorbed in conversation. Apparently they did not hear my approach; they were too deep in talk. They did not look out of the ordinary and, indeed, I should not have given them a second glance if, as I passed, I had not heard the woman say, "And did you kill anyone else?"
A man told me that once early in the morning he was walking through Chinatown. There was nobody else on the street except, a little distance ahead, a child carrying a small bundle. Suddenly just as she passed, a panel in one of the houses slid open . . . a hand came out . . . the child slipped the bundle into the hand . . . the hand disappeared . . . the wall panel closed up. The child trotted on as though nothing had happened . . . disappeared around the corner. When my friend reached the house, it was impossible to locate the panel.
A reporter I know was leaving his home one morning when there came a ring at his telephone. "There is something wrong in apartment number blank, house number blank, on your street," said Central. "Will you please go over there at once?" He went. Somehow he got into the house. Nobody answered his ring at the apartment; he had to break the door open. Inside a very beautiful girl in a gay negligee was lying dead on a couch, a bottle of poison on the floor beside her. He investigated the case. The dead girl had been in the habit of calling a certain number, and she always used a curious identifying code-phrase. The reporter investigated that number. The rest of the story is long and thrilling, but finally he ran down a group of lawbreakers who had been selling the dead girl drugs, were indirectly responsible for her suicide. Do you suppose such a ripe story could have dropped straight from the Tree of Life into the hand of a reporter anywhere except in California?
A woman I know was once waiting on the corner for a car. Near, she happened casually to notice, was a Chinaman of a noticeable, dried antiquity, shuffling along under the weight of a bunch of bananas. She was at that moment considering a curious mental problem and, in her preoccupation, she drew her hand down the length of her face in a gesture that her friends recognize as characteristic. Did she, by accident, stumble on one of the secret signals of a great secret traffic? That is her only explanation of what followed. For suddenly the old Chinaman shuffled to her side, unobtrusively turned his back towards her. One of the bananas on top the bunch, easy to the reach of her hand, was opened, displaying itself to be emptied of fruit. But in its place was something - something little, wrapped in tissue paper. Her complete astonishment apparently warned the vendor of drugs of his mistake. He scuttled across the street; in a flash had vanished in a back alley.
One could go on forever. I cannot forbear another. A woman was passing through the theatrical district of San Francisco one night, just before the theatres let out. The street was fairly deserted. Suddenly she was accosted by a strange gentleman of suave address. Obviously he had dallied with the demon and was spectacularly the worse for it. He was carrying an enormous, a very beautiful - and a very expensive - bouquet. In a short speech of an impassioned eloquence and quite as flowery as his tribute, he presented her with the bouquet. She tried to avoid accepting it. But this was not, without undue publicity, to be done. Finally to put an end to the scene, she bore off her booty. She has often wondered what actress was deprived of her over-the-foot-lights trophy by the sudden freak of an exhilarated messenger.
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