February 15th, 1856
Joshua Norton and Tom Sawyer walked down Powell Street towards the now-ownerless Meiggs’ Wharf. Everyone still called it that despite Meiggs being in South America. Messages were repeatedly sent back to various creditors of his along with payments, as Meiggs seemed very keen to come back. The messages back were nothing but threats of legal action, which served to keep him in Peru.
Norton noted that this address was directly across the street from the Pleasant Laundry. He had no idea what to expect from the event, but he did not drink so the opening of a bar held very little interest to him. He was just happy to be invited somewhere, so he gathered his friend who drank a lot to make up for what he was not going to drink. And he was happy to help a fellow disgraced merchant.
The invitation was at the behest of Abe Warner, whom he’d met so many years ago at the hall of the Vigilance Committee. Finding himself unable to keep up with running a store in San Francisco, Warner had sold his store to another man and bought a building at the foot of the wharf to pursue another dream of his — owning a bar.
They approached the foot of the wharf and noticed it was actually at the end of the wharf, with four wooden steps that you walked down to the level of the bar. The new water tank that J.J. Pleasant had built last year for the laundry overshadowed the site from across the street. Norton looked for activity at the laundry but they appeared to be closed. Then he remembered that it was five o’clock in the afternoon on a Friday.
There was a sign above the door that simply said BAR. Next to the door was a brightly colored parrot in a cage, puffing its feathers up on a perch. The parrot looked at them with one eye, and then another. Tom Sawyer leaned down to get a closer look at the parrot when they got to the door.
The parrot looked him in the eye and said “Fuck off.”
Sawyer stood up and stepped back for a second. Norton started laughing.
“Is that the welcome committee then?” asked Sawyer as a sailor stumbled out of the door and pretty much fell up the stairs.
“Norton!” came a voice from inside the bar. “I was wondering who Tully was talking to.”
Walking in, Norton and Sawyer let their eyes adjust to the dim light in the bar. There were four men in various states of inebriation wandering in the place, talking to each other. Norton thought this was not bad for a first day. The walls were adorned with artwork, and there was a wonderfully carved bar along an entire wall of the building. Gas lamps burned on each wall, and there were no windows at all.
The place had no unpleasant smells at all. Norton realized he was looking at a brand new building, and these men were his very first customers. His nose smelled coffee and alcohol, and indeed he could see a wood burning stove under a pot of what he assumed was coffee steaming next to the bar.
“I thought there might be a crowd here,” said Norton.
“What, you thought I invited everyone to my first day open?” asked Warner. “I’m here for the sailors. We haven’t even gotten a boat in yet, when that happens there’ll be more than a hundred sailors looking for a drink and we’re the first bar they’ll see. I don’t give a damn about those snooty assholes uptown we used to run with.”
Norton was taken aback at this. He wasn’t aware that Warner felt that way.
“Why do you say that, Warner?” asked Norton.
“Well you and me both, we’ve been on the receiving end of it. Both of us have lost almost everything including our shirts after the gold petered out. And those ones who were in first and made the most act like we’re pond scum.”
“Scum!” screamed the parrot, from the front door.
“Where did you get the parrot?” asked Sawyer.
“I got him off a sailor who came here last year,” said Warner. “I like animals better’n I like people.”
“Then I guess you picked a great business to get into,” laughed Sawyer.
“If you go through life assuming everyone else is drunk, it starts to make a lot more sense,” said Warner.
“Speaking of, Abe, you got any whiskey? And steam beer?” asked Sawyer.
“Whiskey and steam beer, coming up,” said Warner, grabbing some glassware. “What’re you drinking, Norton?”
“I don’t drink alcohol,” said Norton. “I’ll have coffee.”
“Me neither,” said Warner. “I’ll tell you what, though. Let me tap a cask of this stuff I just got from Ireland for us. Ginger ale, they call it. The fermentation carbonates it, but it don’t have any alcohol in it. It’s a special occasion.”
Norton was intrigued for about half a second, then there was an enormous ruckus at the door. As they watched, a man stuck his head in, and yelled back out the door at the crowd.
At this, a crowd of men piled into the bar as fast as they could, while the entire time the parrot at the door started shrieking.
“Assholes! Assholes! Fuck! Here come the cocksuckers!”
Norton sipped at his ginger ale at the bar while watching Sawyer get completely drunk. The rush of people meant Warner had to serve the crowd, and he handled his first day extremely well as far as Norton could tell. There were no tables, so Norton had to lean against the bar and watch the tide of humanity wash against the wooden shore of Abe Warner’s beach.
From the doorway, the parrot shrieked a sustained note, and then said “Cunt!” as a sailor walked in with a small monkey on his shoulder. Warner looked up at the man walking his way, and his eyes lit up.
“Where did you get that monkey?” he cried.
“Argentina,” said the man.
The monkey regarded all of this with calm brown eyes as the man placed his hands on the bar. Its white face looked around at the chaos engulfing the place, seemed to chew its cud for a second, then calmly walked down the man’s arm and stood on the bar. Abe Warner nearly fell over with delight.
“I love him!” he cried. “How do I get one? Are you going back to Argentina?”
The man looked at Warner, up and down.
“I’ll give you this little shit maker right now for the right price.”
Warner considered this.
“I don’t have any cash. How long will you be in town?” asked Warner.
“I’m headed to the gold fields as soon as I can,” said the man.
“That’s a bad idea,” said Sawyer.
“Gold’s tapped out,” nodded Warner in agreement. “But how about this? You give me that monkey, you drink free in here for the next year.”
“That’s a fucking deal,” said the man.
“Not only that,” said Warner, “but you just bought the entire house a round of drinks.”
“Drinks on the house,” he bellowed at the top of his lungs after a pause. “Thank this man and our new monkey!”
A cheer went up, and the monkey stood on its hind legs and grinned at the entire room. A bunch of men clapped the sailor on the back as if he were their new best friend. The bar was suddenly seven people deep with men trying to get free whiskey, so Norton had to move to the end to avoid being crushed.
As Norton settled into the corner between the bar and the wood burning stove, he watched a spider start to spin a web from one of the paintings to the ceiling.
An hour or so later, as Norton watched, a man strode into the bar and placed his card on the bar in front of Warner.
“Hello, Warner,” said the man. “I’ve come to see how your opening day is going.”
“Mr. King, how’s it going,” asked Warner. “Let me buy you a drink. I know what happened wasn’t your fault.”
“Well we’re both in the same boat now,” said King. “To our noble selves, there are damned few of us left.”
With that he downed the shot of whiskey provided.
“What do ya mean?” asked Warner.
“Didn’t you hear?” asked King. “I had to get out of banking. I’m a newspaperman now. I am no longer the evil man who forecloses on unfortunate shopkeepers.”
“Oh really?” asked Warner. He took a better look at the card on the bartop. “James King of William, Editor. Evening Standard. What made you do a damned fool thing like that?”
“Corruption,” said King. “Plain and simple. Corruption in government, fed by men like David Broderick. The elements trying to bring slavery into California, those people as well. And then there is the general lawlessness that not even the Committee of Vigilance stamped out. We know this. We were there, Abe.”
“You should meet Joshua Norton here,” he said. “I met him through the Vigilantes.”
Norton suddenly stood up, feeling noticed for the first time in ages.
“How very nice to meet you, Joshua Norton,” he said, offering his hand.
“James King, of William,” said King, shaking Norton’s hand without returning any of the Masonic grips. “How did you find your time in the Vigilantes?”
“Horrible,” said Norton. “I am new to this country, but the abuses I saw were contrary to the inalienable rights of man that this country put forth in its bill of rights.”
“You’re new and you know about the Bill of Rights?” asked King.
“I came here from Cape Town, by way of Cape Horn. I’ve been studying to become a citizen ever since I got here,” said Norton. “Despite the flawed system of governance.”
King looked at him oddly. “Flawed system?”
“Monarchy is the only true form of governance, given to us by God,” said Norton.
“Forgot to tell you,” said Warner. “Norton here’s a monarchist.”
“I see,” said King. “Well it’s agreed that the Vigilantes were a horrible chapter that should never be repeated. Even if marshalls are being shot down in the street like dogs by the criminal element.”
“You’re talkin’ bout that gambler, right?” asked Warner.
“I am,” said King.
At that moment, Sawyer walked up with two men.
“Abe! Set us up with a whiskey!” he bellowed.
“Two bits,” said Warner.
“Put it on my tab,” said one of the men. “This man just told us a tale of heroism so surreal that I have to buy him a drink. Ninety seven people saved from a sinking ship!”
“Ah yes,” said Warner. “Sawyer’s getting a lot of miles out of that one. Mark one.”
As he said mark one, he pulled out a piece of chalk and walked over to a piece of slate at the end of the bar. Next to a group of hash marks he added one. The monkey watched him intensely.
“I heard that gambler was defending his lady’s honor,” said Warner.
“His lady is a whore,” said King.
“He’d shoot you if he heard ya say that,” said Sawyer. “Norton, who is this bloke?”
“Oh goodness,” said Norton. “James King of William, I present to you my former employee, Thomas Sawyer.”
“Call me Tom,” said Sawyer.
“Nice to meet you,” said King, shaking Sawyer’s offered hand.
“That whole marshall thing is a mess,” said Sawyer.
“I don’t see what’s so messy about it, the man shot an officer of the law,” said King.
“Yeah, well, it’s turned into so much more,” said Sawyer.
“That’s agreed,” said King. “That woman tried to bribe the jury. Now we have to retry the entire case.”
“What do you mean?” asked Norton.
“Well didn’t you hear?” asked King. “Last month the jury was hung on a verdict, even though we had multiple witnesses and a confession. All because this man argued that his harlot’s reputation was besmirched.”
“I’m amazed that a prostitute could bribe a jury,” said Sawyer. “She’s got balls.”
“That’s why the mayor outlawed prostitution, as of today,” said King. “Destroy her ability to bribe the jury.”
“You don’t know men very well, do ya?” he asked. “The mayor probably just made this woman richer. She’s probably paid for a lot of police. She’s not going anywhere.”
“Well, the war is not lost yet. But the corruption in our local offices is staggering. Broderick is giving these seats to absolute criminals. Take our supervisor, Casey. James Casey is a criminal from back east. He spent time in Sing Sing, for stealing furniture from a prostitute.”
Sawyer snorted. “You sure to have a thing about harlots,” he said.
“Why would anyone steal furniture from a prostitute?” asked Norton.
“You men are missing my point,” said King. “The quality of public servants here stinks of corruption.”
“Here here,” said Sawyer, downing his shot of whiskey.
“Do you think if there were any better candidates that Broderick would consider them?” asked Norton.
“He has to,” said King. “Otherwise our society here will fail.”
All of this talk gave Norton an idea.
Norton took his leave from Abe Warner’s bar, feeling a bit refreshed from his pint of ginger ale and subsequent coffee intake. The coffee turned out to be a mixer, because Warner mostly sold it with shots of whiskey in it. His biggest sellers of the evening were a coffee toddy and grog, both warm drinks.
The light had gone, so Norton knew to be careful. As he walked up Powell Street towards Broadway, a familiar shape approached him in the darkness. The dog trotted up to him, followed by another one.
“I have nothing for you, old bummer,” said Norton. “But you and your friend can walk with me.”
Norton walked with the dogs through Washington Square Park, cutting across the park to walk up Union Street. As he walked, he formulated his plan of attack. Somehow, he must regain his standing in society — it was imperative.
Norton made his way up Union Street to Kearny. Not quite top of the hill, but it was all downhill to his boarding house now. He was sick of living there, in close quarters to drunks and sailors and other lower tiers of society. There was also a recent epidemic of cholera than had the dual effect of making hot drinks fashionable and also killing at least one tenant of the boarding house. Mrs. Carswell became fast friends with the nuns of the convent caring for the ill. Norton was well aware that his current position in life rendered him lower down on the totem pole for medical care.
He left the dogs at the stairs and had Mrs. Carswell let him in. Trudging up to his room, Norton considered the shabby surroundings and steeled his resolve. With the door closed behind him, he prepared himself for bed.
When at last he was ready, he got out his coin and did his nightly ritual. He knelt by the nightstand, placed the coin on it, and spoke solemnly to his ancestor.
“Dear Father, I have always heard the call to public service. I recognize it, as what our kind calls noblesse oblige — the duty of the ruling class to those lower than ourselves. I have failed here as a businessman, but on Monday I shall go to my friend and fellow Mason David Broderick, and begin my life of service with a position in the city government here. I shall ask him for a job.”
February 18th, 1856
Norton dressed himself in his best clothes as soon as he awoke on Monday. He checked his pocket watch as he put it into his waistcoat. Seven thirty in the morning, so he would have time for coffee and a biscuit before leaving for city hall. The city hall was still down at the Jenny Lind theater, bought years ago by the city for that purpose.
He had a bit more than a biscuit, as Mrs. Carswell insisted on feeding him a full english. She knew he liked this, and despite not having any tomatoes or black pudding she did a fairly good job of getting everything else right. The sausages were perfect, the bacon was crispy like he liked it, and the coffee was strong. Norton had abandoned his tea habit long ago for coffee, finding it more readily available and as strong as he needed to keep him going. He tucked a sausage in his handkerchief and put it in his pocket when Mrs. Carswell was not looking.
After finishing off the plate, Norton bid farewell to Mrs. Carswell and pointed himself at City Hall, three blocks away down Kearny Street. As he hit the bottom of the hill at Kearny and Broadway, out of nowhere the stray dogs appeared around him. He produced the sausage from his coat pocket and broke off bits to toss at the eager pups, who caught them in mid-air as he tossed them.
“Hey,” said a grocer on the other side of the street, sweeping off the wooden sidewalk in front of his store. “Don’t feed those mutts around here.”
Norton doffed his hat at the man, and walked another half block before tossing more sausage at the dogs.
Finally Norton got to City Hall, and left the dogs outside. He made his way through the halls until he got to one marked DAVID BRODERICK. He knew this office, from visiting once or twice a few years ago. He opened the door and walked in.
There was an outer office and an inner office, and as luck would have it Broderick was standing in the outer office with his clerk and another man, reading a piece of paper. Norton quietly closed the door behind him as Broderick looked up, and was happy to see him smile.
“Norton! What brings you here?” he asked loudly.
“I just wanted to talk to you in private if that would be possible,” said Norton.
“Certainly, certainly. Give me a minute to finish up with Supervisor Casey here,” said Broderick.
“Nice to meet you,” said Casey. Norton didn’t like the look of the man, and then remembered this was the man James King of William said spent time in Sing Sing for stealing a prostitute’s furniture. Norton decided not to mention this.
“Likewise,” said Norton.
“So, Casey, this doesn’t hold water. We can’t penalize the banks because they weren’t involved.” said Broderick.
“But this episode drained the city coffers,” said Casey. “And the banks had to be collluding with Meiggs to accept all those bonds.”
“I think we need to move past that episode,” said Broderick. “That was all last year. The city has recovered, somewhat.”
“No it hasn’t,” said Casey. “Have you seen the men without homes, squatting on vacant lots? Haven’t you noticed the smell of it? Haven’t you known someone who succumbed to cholera in the past year?”
“I don’t think that all has much to do with Meiggs,” said Broderick. “The gold petered out. It was bound to.”
“Well, something needs to be done to force the banks to pay for the damages,” said Casey.
“Why don’t you go talk to that stonefaced bastard Sherman and see what he says?” asked Broderick, and then they both looked at Norton because he’d chuckled at that.
“I’m sorry, you just described him accurately,” said Norton. “Mr. Sherman.”
“Mr. Broderick is well aware that Mr. Sherman evicted me from his building for accusing the banks of colluding with Meiggs,” said Casey. “I’ll drop this, David. But the city is still on thin ice.”
“Noted,” said Broderick. “Norton, my office.”
Casey gathered up his things to leave as Norton followed Broderick into his office. Broderick closed the door.
“What can I do for you, Norton?” he asked.
“David,” said Norton. He was not used to being this informal but he felt he had to make his plea on a personal level.
“Joshua,” replied Broderick.
“I need a job,” he said. “I’ve lost everything. The collapse of the mines, the subsequent failures here in San Francisco, the whole Meiggs debacle. I need to make a change in my life. I have decided that I need to find public service, like my old friend Broderick.”
Broderick looked at him with concern, and then carefully considered this. He was quiet for a minute and then spoke.
“Joshua, listen to me,” said Broderick. “I see exactly two barriers to giving you a job. First and foremost, you aren’t a citizen. I’ve never heard of you becoming naturalized, and it’s too late now that you are destitute. The country doesn’t take in paupers. And second, you’re too English.
“What?” asked Norton.
“What’s my name?” asked Broderick.
“David Broderick?” he asked.
“Right,” said Broderick. “A fine Irish name. And most of the crew I have here is Irish. My sheriffs, my marshals, most of my public servants. And not a single one of them would respect a man with your accent and views. Monarchy is frowned upon here in the United States.”
In an instant, Norton lost all hope.
“I’m sorry, Norton, but I have to say no.”
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