2

From behind the glass wall that separated his office from the reporters, Ed Rosenberg surveyed the rows of gray cubicles that stretched like a line of soldiers the length of the San Francisco Foghorn’s cavernous newsroom. A few heads were visible above the partitions, recalling ducks in a shooting gallery—but no Tika. Where the hell was she? He had emailed the piece hours ago. Shortly after he hit the Send button, she had replied: “The good news: The NCA supplement is a go. Your Palace Hotel story is the cover. Advertising loves it. The bad: Your 1200 words has to be 2500. More detail, more drama. Off to a meeting. See you after.”

A supplement. Ed liked that. And doubling the length of the story wasn’t bad news at all. It allowed him to do justice to the tale of San Francisco’s most storied hotel. But what did she mean by “more drama”? He’d played it as dramatic as possible without going overboard. The old Tika used to tone him down. But since her divorce, she pushed him to be more animated. She’d also lost weight, bought a new wardrobe, and relearned how to smile—and flirt. She knew Ed was married, of course. She knew his wife, Julie, the paper’s PR director. But that didn’t stop Tika from signaling her availability—and, it seemed to Ed, interest in him. No more quickie edits by email. Lately Tika had taken to brining hard copy into his office and leaning over him, lingering over turns of phrase. At times, it made him feel uncomfortable. But on occasion it was refreshing to know that
someone felt attracted to him.

Twenty-five hundred words.
Yes. Ed had been saving the Palace Hotel story ever since the announcement two years earlier that the National Convention Association was coming to town. The NCA represented meeting planners and the countless others involved in producing conventions. Every burg in North America that considered itself a destination coveted the organization’s annual meeting. In San Francisco, showing the NCA a good time could eventually mean dozens of other conventions and tens of millions of dollars. Naturally, the city of St. Francis was pulling out all the stops. For the four days, the cable cars would be free to anyone with an NCA badge. The two blocks of Howard Street fronting Moscone Center’s three huge halls were being closed off and an enormous tent erected so that the twenty thousand delegates could attend a free party thrown by the city’s top restaurants, including their chefs’ signature dishes, hot and cold running booze, and entertainment by local stars on the order of Robin Williams and Linda Ronstadt. Meanwhile, the cops were rousting the homeless from everywhere delegates might wander, and city crews were hosing the sidewalks to minimize any olfactory reminders of them. What better moment to tell the neglected story of San Francisco’s landmark hotel?

Ed extracted his Palace file, ready to rock and roll on the rewrite. But without Tika, he was in limbo. She must still be in her meeting. The honchos were always in meetings, especially since the latest reorganization and the hiring of two new Deputy Something-or-others, whose jobs seemed to revolve around convening meetings for the purpose of scheduling subsequent meetings. How Tika hacked the management grind was beyond Ed. But she was a good editor. Her star was ascending. And more than one of Ed’s colleagues had remarked on her recent transformation from caterpillar to butterfly. Good luck to them. Ed wasn’t interested. He and Julie were solid—though lately things had been rocky lately because of the Battle of Number Two.

Ed glanced at the photo he kept on his desk, Julie enthralled with that fiery sunset on St. Kitts while pregnant with Sonya. He never thought he could love as deeply as he loved her. But, Jesus, could she press his buttons. Especially these days.

Ed sipped his coffee, admiring the blue ceramic mug. It was Sonya’s hopelessly amateurish—but magnificent—gift last Father’s Day, orchestrated by Julie at the pottery-painting place near their home. Mom, Dad, and Sonya: the Three Musketeers. Ed liked it that way, but Julie wanted another child, and suddenly, they found themselves more stuck than they’d been in more than ten years of marriage.

No Tika, no rewrite. Ed dropped the Palace file atop a stack of books dealing with Golden Gate Park. What now? He knew what he
should do: proceed with next week’s column about William Leidesdorff, San Francisco’s first citizen with African blood. He was thinking of calling it “Forgotten Man, Forgotten Alley.” It was the kind of story Ed loved. It spotlighted a larger-than-life character who’d helped give the city its larger-than-life character.

Leidesdorff was half-black and half-white—like Julie, only his mother was black. Adopted into a wealthy New Orleans family, he passed for white, inherited a shipping company, and became engaged to the daughter of a prominent businessman. But shortly before the wedding, her family learned of his black blood, and broke the engagement. Distraught, Leidesdorff bought a hundred-ton schooner, and skippered his way around the Horn to what was then the ends of the earth—San Francisco Bay and the tiny Mexican hamlet of Yerba Buena, population two hundred. It was eight years before the Gold Rush.

Leidesdorff spent several years sailing the Pacific. He returned from a trip to Alaska at the helm of a Russian side-wheeler, the
Sitka, California’s first steamship. He established service between Yerba Buena and Sacramento. In gratitude, the Mexican governor granted him thirty-five thousand acres east of the future state capital, making him the largest African-descended landholder in California history.

But Leidesdorff preferred to live in Yerba Buena. He became the town’s first treasurer, helped found its first school, and built its most stately home, a four-room cottage across the rutted trail from the town plaza, now Portsmouth Square in Chinatown.

Shortly after gold was discovered near his estate, Leidesdorff suddenly sickened and died from what a contemporary account cryptically termed “brain fever.” He was thirty-eight. Three years later, his land was purchased by U.S. Army Captain Joseph Folsom, later memorialized by San Francisco’s Folsom Street, the town of Folsom, and its prison. Meanwhile, the only nod to San Francisco’s first citizen of color was a forgotten three-block alley in the Financial District, Leidesdorff Street, along what was once an Indian path adjacent to the original shoreline of Yerba Buena Cove.

Ed closed the file and ruminated on the column. He couldn’t recall ever visiting Leidesdorff Street. He decided to walk its length and weave the man’s story into his excursion.

Life is so strange, Ed mused. It was sixteen years since he’d washed out of the assistant professor job at Hayward State and wound up chasing cops for the
Horn. Now he was the paper’s resident historian, writer of the weekly column, “San Francisco Unearthed.” These days, the snooty academics who had given him the heave-ho were inviting him to deliver keynotes at meetings of the California Historical Society. Every few years, he collected his columns into a book that was published by the paper’s book company. One edition had sold well enough to finance kitchen renovations. The Leidesdorff piece would make a good chapter in his next one, tentatively titled (with a nod to that old TV show) The Streets of San Francisco, Unearthed.

His column and books weren’t terribly exciting. The young bucks on the paper were starting to tease him about becoming an old fart. But he had a decent gig that supported his family comfortably and allowed him to follow his historical nose wherever it led. A nice life—except for things with Julie. How could he adore her and be so frustrated with her at the same time? Of course, they’d had tussles before, some pretty intense. Who didn’t? But this latest battle felt different.

Ed knew he should focus on the Leidesdorff piece. But with the Palace story in need of significant revisions, he found it impossible to concentrate on the forgotten half-black pioneer.
Where the hell was Tika?