America’s Last Emperor: Knickerbocker

Chapter Seventeen

Monumental Fire Company #6, 1856 — Courtesy OpenSFHistory.org

November 21st, 1857

Eastland talked Norton into reviving his anniversary dinner by offering to pay for it at Macao and Woosung. It was 8 years since Norton stepped off the boat in San Francisco, and the ship that he’d arrived on now lay broken up and scattered underneath the foundations of Eastland’s new Gas Works. Besides, being the head of the gas company gave him unexpected pull with Norman Asing. Norman recalled with glee the week that Eastland had shut the gas off for nonpayment to the City Hall last January. Norman disliked the city government because he believed they hassled him more than other restaurants. Anyone who had them over a barrel was all right with Norman.

Norman’s restaurant had stayed pretty constant, with the exception that Norman made changes to reduce the number of people working for him in the eight years he’d been in business. He dispensed with waiters all together, and served the food on a giant table, as he had on the Lunar New Year that Norton had attended. This became very popular when Norman charged 15 cents plate for each plateful of food. He regularly had lines out of his door and all the politicians still ate at his place.

Chinese New Year took on even greater significance in 1857. Norman united the entire Chinese community to put on a parade for the entire city, which quickly became the talk of the town. Fireworks, dragon dances, and a general open atmosphere started to build bridges despite the openly racist politicians in state and city government. Even if it didn’t make huge strides in racial equality that year, it certainly elevated Norman Asing’s position in the neighborhood that was now called Chinatown, off to the east of Portsmouth Square and to the southwest of his restaurant.

Norton made Macao and Woosung a regular stop on his rounds, morning and evening. The past fourteen months of irregular work had thrown Norton into the depths of grinding poverty. Eastland covered his rent most months, but Norton retreated further and further into his walks, newspaper reading, and a specific number of regular stops on his walks that varied little. Everyone along his routes knew him on sight, and were familiar with his deliberate pacing gait that he’d developed as a Vigilante, ever vigilant for something out of place.

Everyone along the routes knew the dogs that followed Norton as well. Norman fed a lot of them, and Norton often had leftovers to distribute as well. The old bummer that followed Norton around was still there, and he was a constant from Norton’s morning constitutional until his evening stroll. The hound was starting to develop grey hairs around his snout, and despite having no name Norton started to refer to him as Lazarus. He was the oldest stray dog in town and everyone knew it.

Now Lazarus waited by the back door of the restaurant, along with three other dogs, while Norton held court. Eastland gathered Tom Sawyer and Abe Warner to try to cheer Norton up. Much to Norton’s surprise, Dr. Hitchcock and his family showed up to the dinner. Norton said as much at the table as they were all talking.

“Dr. Hitchcock,” said Norton. “I have invited you to my dinner before and you refused.”

“I did not refuse,” said Dr. Hitchcock. “I merely neglected to inform you that I would not attend, and I apologize. If we are being frank here, I would not be here if not for Lillie.”

Seated between her mother and father was a precocious thirteen year old that could hardly be the gangly seven year old that Norton remembered. She grinned when her dad mentioned her name.

“Tell him why, daddy,” she said, urgently.

Dr. Hitchcock sighed.

“I cannot say no to my daughter,” said Dr. Hitchcock. “It’s my one fault.”

“I daresay it’s not bad as far as faults go,” said Norton.

“Tell him, daddy!” she insisted.

Dr. Hitchcock pointed at Sawyer.

“She remembered the fireman,” said Dr. Hitchcock. Sawyer perked up at this.

“Do tell,” he said.

“Mr. Sawyer, I remembered you told us the greatest stories about putting out fires,” said Lillie Hitchcock. “I so wished that our paths crossed again.”

“Indeed,” said Dr. Hitchcock. “So much so that when you presented your calling card to our butler, Lillie here intercepted it and held it hostage until I relented and agreed to come to this dinner. Even though this is rather a pedestrian restaurant.”

“Don’t be rude, father.” said Lillie, turning her attention to Sawyer. “Do you have any more firefighting stories?”

Norton snorted.

“You should ask him about saving ninety people off the coast of Baja on board the Independence.” said Norton.

“It weren’t ninety people, that was just how many was on the ship,” said Sawyer, as he settled into the familiar tale and the gathered dinner party listened in rapt attention.

#

Norton knelt at his bedside table, saying his nightly prayers as he usually did before the glinting coin he kept for the purpose. His thoughts were stormy. This was his seventh year of living in San Francisco, and he couldn’t leave if he tried now. Economic fortunes were such that he was now penniless and destitute in what he would consider a flop house. The money to even get out of town was beyond him, and if he stayed he knew he could get a meal or a coffee at any time by his own wits and connections. Thanks to his friend Eastland he had a place to stay, but digging himself out of the hole he now found himself in seemed an impossibility. He was almost forty years old, a bachelor, and was not inclined towards hard labor.

“Father,” Norton prayed, “please give me a sign. I implore you. How long must I wait to succeed you? What is your plan for me? You sent me away to protect my identity, sent me away to live with a family far away in South Africa, with even a new religion to cover my identity. That was the start of my slide through the lower classes, the ruled classes. How much further down must I go? I talk about myself freely here, if not overtly. The citizens are receptive to an emperor! Around us there is nothing but chaos. Civil war looms on the horizon for this land, over the vilest tendencies of human nature that good kings everywhere have already put a stop to.”

“Announce my existence! Legitimize my royalty!”

The solemn face on the coin stared away from Norton, giving no sign whatsoever.

#

March 15th, 1858

Norton sat at the bar in Warner’s place, and considered the cobwebs piling up in the corners of the ceiling. Old Abe was making good on his promise not to clean the place — the rough nights of abuse by sailors and monkeys since his pledge had turned the place into a pigsty. And yet Norton still stopped by every day for a cup of coffee and the occasional glass of ginger ale that Warner managed to procure somehow from halfway around the world.

His daily routine was set pretty well. His first stop, after leaving the boarding house to walk down Montgomery Street, was always the reading room at the brand new Mechanic’s Institute, an organization much more suited to him than the Miner’s Institute. The Mechanic’s Institute had daily lectures, including a regular series with his friend Eastland of the San Francisco Gas Company. He started to meet Eastland there often, and discussed current events with him over coffee and Eastland’s cigars. The cigars were a new habit of Eastland’s— Norton made the joke that Eastland should have taken up that habit when he’d owned a cigar factory, and the mutual laughter gave Eastland hope that his friend’s poor circumstances were not causing him undue mental strain. As far as Eastland was concerned, losing everything was enough to drive anyone mad. He knew that Norton had no family at all, even if Norton didn’t realize it himself. He tried to help where he could.

Next Norton walked up Kearny Street to Portsmouth Square. There was always a variety of speechmaking happening there, and besides he had to walk past Macao and Woosung. More often than not, this is where the stray dogs would pick up his scent. After he’d talked to Norman Asing a minute or two his walk would continue across Portsmouth Square to Dupont Street with a trail of canine companions hoping for bits of dried meat that Norton always carried hidden in his pockets.

The Chinatown that started on Commercial Street was spreading up DuPont, and Norton liked walking through the new part of it. Unfortunately, the growth drew unwanted attention, starting with an unfortunate miscalculation by David Broderick. Broderick’s win after the Vigilance Committee disbanding was short lived — in reality, people of his tolerance were spectacularly rare, so much so that his hiring of coolie labor backfired on him. The spectacle of Chinese men loading the Vigilante weapons onto carts angered so many of the marchers that the papers were filled with angry editorials and new politicians with racist views rushed to campaign and were subsequently elected. Broderick was himself re-elected to state senate, but the men controlling the city of San Francisco were now enacting laws and rules specifically to target the Chinese. Norton saw how hard it made life for Norman, but he was barely affected by the laws compared with some of his countrymen.

Norton made his way up DuPont Street to Union Street, where he turned right towards Washington Square Park. He liked this park a little more than Portsmouth Square because there were a lot fewer politicians. It was easy to cross Washington Square towards Powell Street and the final approach to Abe Warner’s bar.

Depending on if he had steady work or not, Tom Sawyer was usually in the bar. He was not there today. On this day as well, Eastland wasn’t at the Mechanic’s Institute. Warner was not in a talking mood, and that left Norton alone with Frankie the monkey as company. Frankie had company now — the North Beach Zoo that grew out of Warner’s menagerie now housed a bear, four monkeys, ten parrots of varying species, one capybara, four goats, a henhouse of eleven chickens, a mule, a broken down horse with a severe swayback, and a three toed sloth. The sloth was endlessly fascinating to everyone, along with the capybara. Every animal was traded for drinks at the bar, and Warner happily fed the zoo out of bar proceeds. There was a blind sailor that sat outside the zoo and sold peanuts for a penny to the children that inevitably crowded around the animals around the time school let out. Everyone in town heard of the North Beach Zoo and “Monkey” Warner.

Norton’s only other companion in the place today was a fat man who Warner called “Baron”. His story was much the same as Norton’s, and for that reason Norton disliked talking to the man. The Baron had come to San Francisco in ’49, same as Norton. He’d gotten fat off contracts to supply a steamship line and owned a huge amount of land. When the banks crashed and the contract ended he’d lost everything. Warner let him sleep in the back of the bar most nights.

The prospect of having to listen to the man’s dreary depression rants made Norton decide to get some fresh air. He walked out of the bar, up the stairs, and onto the wharf. Warner barely took any notice of him. He looked both ways, and then across the street at Pleasant Laundry. The Pleasants were gone almost a year now, away from the rising tide of racist demogoguery that San Francisco was descending into. Norton had a feeling it was probably far worse where the Pleasants went.

Looking at the wharf, he saw an oddly dressed older man pacing on the planks. He had a monocle on, a beaver bowler hat, a very nice suit that was filthy with dirt and grease, gold rings on his fingers and a sign that he carried that read:

MONEY KING. YOU CAN BORROW MONEY CHEAP

As Norton watched, a sailor walked up to the man and they talked for a short while. Norton couldn’t hear most of the conversation, but all of a sudden the sailor erupted in protest.

“That’s highway robbery, that’s not cheap!” yelled the sailor.

“Take it or leave it!” said the Money King, loudly.

“I’ll leave it,” said the sailor, turning and stomping off.

Norton knew the instant he saw him that the man was crazy, and made a mental note to avoid him. He started the walk back towards Washington Square Park.

By his pocketwatch it was about two o’clock, and Norton decided that perhaps he would walk up to Telegraph Hill before finding lunch. He started up Filbert Street from Washington Square Park, and soon reached the fearsome grade that the school was on. The city built five schools in the past two years, and one of them had a spectacular view of the Golden Gate from just below the summit of Telegraph Hill. As Norton stopped at Dupont Street, schoolchildren streamed out of the structure and down the hill towards him.

At almost the same time someone yelled “Fire!”

It was impossible to tell who had yelled it, but within a few seconds it was impossible to miss where it was coming from. There was a house just past the school on the other side of the street, at Kearny and Filbert. Thick black smoke coiled up from its roof, and an orange flame started to roar out of an upstairs window. From either street was the steepest grades in town, and Norton stood at the foot of the gentler slope as the bells began to ring, and then he saw the girl running down Filbert Street at him.

“Mr. Norton!” yelled Lillie Hitchcock. “Do you see anyone coming?”

Almost in answer, ringing bells moved through the surrounding streets. Norton looked back at Washington Square Park just as he saw a team of men pulling the fire engine pump wagon turning the corner at Stockton Street. He recognized it as the Knickerbocker #5 engine, the newest engine in town. He’d attended a discussion about it with Eastland at the Mechanic’s Institute last week.

“They’re coming, Miss Hitchcock,” said Norton. “Looks like Knickerbocker #5.”

At the same time he heard a bell ring, and saw the Empire engine coming up DuPont. At about the same time they turned at Union Street, the Knickerbocker Engine got to the foot of the truly steep part of Filbert Street. The men hit the grade, achingly close to their goal. Norton looked up to see the flames fully engulf the turret of the two story house.

“And Empire coming from this way!”

A third engine was coming up Filbert now too, clanging a bell.

A crowd ran up behind the engine from Washington Square Park to watch as the men started the struggle up the steep grade. Nineteen men pushed the wagon and then one of them slipped on a cobblestone. With just one man gone, the pump moved noticeably slower until he regained his footing and rejoined the fight to get the pump up the hill. The seconds ticked by and Norton felt stupid just sitting there watching them as they got slower by the second. He realized they were shorthanded.

No sooner had he decided to help than Lillie Hitchcock jumped in and grabbed the rope at the front of the wagon and started berating the crowd for not helping.

“Come on you men! Everybody pull!”

Norton ran to the engine along with most of the crowd. Nearly fifty men joined the fray, and within seconds the engine was proceeding up Telegraph Hill at a brisk pace. By the time other engines reached the base of the hill, the Knickerbocker engine was at the fire and spraying water on it. Looking down Kearny, Norton could see the Empire company still struggling to pull their engine up what they thought would be a shortcut. As he watched, Lillie Hitchcock came up and punched him in the shoulder.

“I didn’t think you would jump up too, Mister Norton!” she exclaimed.

“I’d decided to help even before you shouted,” said Norton.

“I love this engine company,” said Lillie. “I’m glad they got the contract! First company to the fire gets the contract, you know!”

“They need the money to pay off that engine,” said Norton. “I don’t exactly agree with how they recompense the firemen now. When I become emperor, I will change the way it all works.”

Lillie looked at Norton with amusement in her eyes. “Why certainly, your majesty!” she said, dropping into a perfect curtsy.

“Three cheers for Lillie Hitchcock!” shouted one of the firemen behind them. There was a team in the house making sure the fire was fully out, but the rest of the men pumped their fists in the air and cheered as Lillie stood there with her hands on her hips trying not to blush.

###
Check back Monday for Chapter 18. Please note that the first three chapters are free — the rest are behind Medium’s paywall. You can subscribe by going to this page.
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Founder at KinkBNB. Writer of fiction and nonfiction. https://www.patreon.com/tjcrowley

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