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“San Francisco Looks West” is a report by John Dos Passos of his impressions of San Francisco in wartime. This marks the end of Mr. Dos Passos’s travels for us. He can’t go farther without falling into the water. He began this job more than a year ago. We had “Downeasters Build Ships,” which was about Maine; we had “The Men Who Make the Motors,” which concerned Detroit; then in “Gold Rush in the South,” Mr. Dos Passos went to Mobile, and on to Texas for “New Industries Make New Men.” He doubled back to the Potomac for “Washington Evening” which we published last October. Now with San Francisco he reaches the end of the line.

Mr. Dos Passos’s most recent novel is Number One, published last spring. In addition to Manhattan Transfer, the 42nd Parallel, and all the other well remembered novels, he has also written essays, poetry, and plays and a book called The Ground We Stand On, an investigation of “the basis of the present conception of thought.” — Harper’s Magazine, March 1944

The City in Wartime


I. The West Faces East

It was the foggy end of a drizzly day. Along the lunch counter of the Ferry Dock Tavern gray-haired men in overalls and leather jackets were eating oyster stew. A set of hamburgers sizzling on the electric plate sent little wisps of the smell of scorched beef up through the cigarette smoke. From outside, through the loosely slapped together boards of the frame building, came the hoots and howls of steamboat whistles. Through every crevice the fog seeped into the tavern, bringing with it a tang of rotting evergreens and giving faint ruddy halos to the bare electric light bulbs. Against the window-panes and the glass of the door the white fog pressed snugly as flannel.

Across from the lunch counter every stool along the bar was taken. Behind the seated drinkers stood a row of men waiting for places. A skinny yellow-haired waitress with buck teeth moved back and forth with trays of beer between the end of the bar and the booths of yellow-varnished fir at the back of the room. Now and then the barkeep, a weazened grizzled man with a slabsided look as if sometime in his life he had been passed through a rolling mill, made a hoarse exasperated noise like a seal’s bark to get the thronging customers who were waiting to quench their thirst at the bar to make way for the girl and her tray of empties.

In front of me a stocky black-jowled man in a tightly buttoned pea jacket was addressing a very young blank-faced sailor who sat on the next stool with his blue pancake cap pushed far down on his forehead.

“You are the most hated nation on the face of the earth,” he was shouting in the sailor’s ear. The sailor gave a gulp and looked down glumly into his glass. The black-jowled man raised his beer thoughtfully against the light and drank it down and wiped his mouth with the hairy back of a hand that had the points of the compass tattooed on it in red, green, and blue, and made the assertion again, louder: “You are the most hated nation on the face of the earth and don’t you forget it.”

“I only said mebbe it ud be a short war,” mumbled the very young sailor.

“Short war hell!” shouted the black-jowled man, scowling under the visor of his sea-going cap that had weathered a streaky green. “It’s goin’ to be all war from now on. You got to fight your way to the top yetŠAnother beer, Joe,” he added in a hoarse pleading aside in the direction of the barkeep, who was staring at him with a sour look on his flattened countenance. The barkeep answered with one of his barking yawps and started to draw the beer. “And you’re asking me,’ the black-jowled man went on, looking up and down the row of weather-worn faces turned blankly, most of them, toward the dusty cock-pheasant that stood guard over the wine bottles above the barkeep’s head, “you are asking me why you are the most hated nation. I’ll tell you; it’s because you get the most to eat, and the most to drink, and the most to wear. You can sit down with the war on and eat a turkey dinner if you want one. You can sit down and drink a glass of beer.”

“Like hell I can,” muttered one of the men waiting for a seat at the bar.

“You can make yourself sick on wine or get yourself a snootful of whiskey. Maybe you can’t get a steak whenever you want it, but you can fill yourself right up to the neck with good hot beef stew. And all those colored peoples all over the mighty oceans, they ain’t got a goddam thing. The little yellow Japs, they fight on a handful of rice. In India they are fallin’ down dead in the streets from hunger. The Russians live on a potato a week. The limeys ain’t none too fat. Every port you make across the mighty oceans they are hungry and wretched and they see your cooks throwin’ pork chops over the side....That’s why you are the most hated nation....You got to fight your way to the top, boy.”

An old bleary wino in a checked suit who was slumped over a glass of port wine with a beer chaser at the next stool raised his eyes and stared thoughtfully at the black-jowled man and gave a long shuddering belch that made all the flabby creases on his neck quiver. “This beer,” he whispered peevishly, “makes a man sick.”

The very young sailor’s face was queasy pale. With a shaky hand he shoved his cap down hard onto his forehead so that the band pressed the damp hair down in yellow spikes over his eyebrows. He straightened himself up and drank his beer down at a gulp. His face puckered up as if it had been castor oil he had been drinking. “That’s all right, pardner,” he said briskly. “We’ll take ‘em island by island.”

“Sure you will,” said the black-jowled man. “And you and me’ll be crow’s meat before it’s over. We got to cross the mighty oceans and hit ‘em in the solar plexus . . . but there in the fog across the mighty oceans, they are waiting to get you. . . . Joe, another beer.”

For the first time the barkeep showed his yellow teeth in a smile. He had taken a cardboard sign out from under the bar. Holding it in both hands he reached his skinny arms up to place it on the shelf in front of the pheasant. He stood looking up at it with admiring approbation as if he had just finished lettering it himself. What it read was “No Beer.”

A gasp went along the bar. Already the men who hadn’t found seats were filing out of the door. Talk at the tables and along the bar quieted down. The place all at once was as quiet as a bird cage that’s had a cloth thrown over it.

II. View of the Pacific

If you happen to be endowed with topographical curiosity the hills of San Francisco fill you with an irresistible desire to walk to the top of each one of them. Whoever laid the town out took the conventional checkerboard pattern of streets and without the slightest regard for the laws of gravity planked it down blind on an irregular peninsula that was a confusion of steep slopes and sandhills. The result is exhilarating. Wherever you step out on the street there’s a hilltop in one direction or the other. From the top of each hill you get a view and the sight of more hills to the right and left and ahead that offer the prospect of still broader views. The process goes on indefinitely. You can’t help making your way painfully to the top of each hill just to see what you can see. I kept thinking of what an old French seaman said to me once, describing with some disgust the behavior of passengers on a steamboat: “Le passager c’est comme le perroquet, ca grimpe toujours.

This particular morning was a windy morning, half sun and blue sky and half pearly tatters of fog blowing in from the Pacific. Before day it had been raining. I had started out from a steamy little lunchroom where I had eaten a magnificent breakfast of eighteen tiny wheat cakes flanked by broiled bacon and washed down by fresh-made coffee. They still know how to cook in old San Paco’s town. In my hand was a list of telephone numbers to call and of men to go to see in their offices. It was nine o’clock, just the time to get down to work. Instead of turning down in the direction of offices and the business part of town, I found I had turned the other way and was resolutely walking up the nearest hill.

This one is Nob Hill, I know that. I remember it years ago when there were still gardens on it and big broken-paned mansions of brown stone, and even, if I remember right, a few wind-bleached frame houses with turrets and scalelike shingles imitating stone and scrollsaw woodwork round the porches. Now it’s all hotels and apartment houses, but their massive banality is made up for by the freakishness of the terrain. At the top, in front of the last of the old General-Grant-style houses, I stop a second to get my breath and to mop the sweat off my eyebrows.

Ahead of me the hill rises higher and breaks into a bit of blue sky. Sun shines on a block of white houses at the top. Shiny as a toy fresh from a Christmas tree, a little cable car is crawling up it. Back of me under an indigo blur of mist are shadowed roofs and streets and tall buildings with wisps of fog about them, and beyond, fading off into the foggy sky, stretches the long horizontal of the Bay Bridge.

Better go back now and start about my business. The trouble is that down the hill to the right I’ve caught sight of accented green roofs and curved gables painted jade green and vermilion. That must be Chinatown. Of course the thing to do is to take a turn through Chinatown on the way down toward the business district. I find myself walking along a narrow street in a jungle of Chinese lettering, interpreted here and there by signs announcing Chop Suey, Noodles, Genuine Chinese Store. There are ranks of curio stores, and I find myself studying windows full of Oriental goods with as much sober care as a small boy studying the window of a candy store. The street tempts you along. Beyond the curio shops there are drug stores, groceries giving out an old drenched smell like tea and camphor and lychee nuts, vegetable stores, shops of herb merchants that contain very much the same stock of goods as those Marco Polo saw with such wonder on his travels. In another window there are modern posters: raspberry-and-spinach-tinted plum-cheeked pin-up girls and stern lithographs of the Generalissimo; a few yellowing enlargements of photographs of eager-looking young broad-faced men in cadets’ uniforms. The gilt lettering amuses the eye. The decorative scrollwork of dragons and lotus flowers leads you along. You forget the time wondering how to size up the smooth Chinese faces. At the end of the street I discover that an hour has passed and that I have been walking the wrong way all the time.

I come out into a broad oblique avenue full of streetcars and traffic. Suddenly the Chop Suey signs are gone and now everything is Spaghetti, Pizza, Ravioli, Bella Napoli, Grotta Azzura, blooming in painted signs along the housefronts. There are Italian bakeries and pastry shops breathing out almond paste and anise. In small bars men sit talking noisily as they drink black coffee out of glasses. Restaurants smell of olive oil and spilled wine. I cross the street and at the top of another hill catch a glimpse of a white tower shaped like a lighthouse. That must be Signal [Telegraph] Hill.

As I walk up through a shabby light-gray cheerful quarter where all the doorbells have Italian and Spanish names, and where the air out of doorways smells of garlic and floor polish and there begin to be pots of geraniums on the tops of scaly walls that conceal small gardens, or carnations now and then on a window sill, it suddenly feels like the quiet streets back of Montmartre or, so many years ago, Marseilles. I reach the top of Signal Hill just in time to take refuge in the tower from a spat of driving rain.

From the tower I look down into a swirl of mist, shot with lights and shadows like the inside of a shell, that pours in from the ocean. Now and then the hurrying mist tears apart long enough to let me see wharves crowded with masts and derricks or an expanse of bright ruffled water–and once, rank on rank of sullen looking gray freighters at anchor. Two young men in khaki are standing beside me, squinting to see through the rain-spattered glass.

“Boy, it won’t be long now,” says one.

“You mean before we are stuck down in the hold of one of those things.”

“You said it.” They notice that I am listening. They exchange reproachful looks and their mouths shut up tight and they move away.

When I leave the tower the sun is beginning to burn through dazzling whiteness. There is blue in the puddles on the paved parking place on top of the hill. It has become clear that this isn’t any day to call up telephone numbers or to pester people in their offices. It is a day to walk round the town. And the first thing to do is to get a look out through the Golden Gate.

I plunged down the hill in the direction of the harbor, lost my bearings in a warehouse section, found myself beside a little stagnant inner harbor packed with small motor fishing boats painted up Italian style; and then took a freshly painted cable car to the top of another hill. I got off and set out along a street of frame houses that seemed to be leading me in the direction of the ocean. The houses were all alike, painted cream color, with jutting bay windows and odd little columns on each side of the front door. I walked on and on through the pleasant mild sunlight, expecting to see the ocean from the top of each rise.

Eventually the sight of a hill steeper than the rest, topped with green shrubbery and tall gray pillars of blooming eucalyptus trees, made me change my course. From up there you must be able to see the ocean and the Golden Gate and everything. I got up to the top, puffing after a stiff climb. The hilltop was a park. All the city and the Bay clear to Oakland and the bridges and the hills opened out in every direction at my feet. But not the Golden Gate, though I could see the high straw-colored hills beyond. And toward the ocean there was only a bright haze.

An old Mexican was raking fallen eucalyptus leaves and scaled-off bark into a bonfire that trailed stinging sharp tonic-flavored smoke across the path. At the very summit of the path, cut off from the wind by a hedge of shiny-leaved privet, four whiskered old men were seated round a green board table playing cribbage. It was quiet and sunny up there. The billowing blue smoke cut them off from the city. There is something very special about the smell of burning eucalyptus leaves. In the light fragrant air of the late morning the old men sat in relaxed attitudes of passionless calm. They held their cards with the detachment of gods on Olympus. They weren’t smoking. They weren’t talking. No one was in any hurry to get along with the game. Their pleasure wasn’t in the sun or the air or the immense view. Maybe it was just in being alive, in the gentle ambrosial coursing of the blood through their veins, in the faint pumping of the heart. That may have been what the Greeks meant when they wrote about the shadowless painless pleasures of the spirits in the Elysian Fields.

I had stopped in my tracks to look at the four old men, and they all four looked up at me and craned their necks at the same moment. They showed such startled surprise at seeing me standing in the path that I might have been a spook from another world. Maybe I was. I hurried off down into the city again.

Eventually I had to ask my way to the ocean. Somebody said I ought to take a car to the Cliff House. Somewhere in the back of my memory there was connected with that name a park on a cliff, full of funny beer-garden statuary under pines–and the disappointment as a child of not being able to spot a sea lion among the spuming rocks off the headland. The streetcar, a full-sized normal streetcar, rattled along through a suburban section of low stucco houses and across wide boulevards planted with palms, described an S through pines down a steep slope, and finally came to rest in a decrepit barn beside a lunch counter. I stepped out onto a road that curved down the steep slope to the old square white restaurant, and farther round the headland to the broad gray beach, where slow rollers very far apart broke and growled and slithered inland in a swirl of gray water and were sucked back in spume.

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