Baghdad1951The Arabian Nights – a 12th century fable and a 19th century state of mind.  Veiled maidens with rubies in their belly buttons darting furtively through arched portals, camels kushed outside darkened houses heavy with the odor of strong tobacco burning in a hookah and cuisine based on God-knows-what cooking in an earthen kettle; threatening-looking men with bold moustaches, loose garments and heavy scimitars at their sides, and nary a sound to be heard other than music with some unsettling tone and meter in the background.  A crescent moon – always a crescent, never full nor new – always overhead.  A disdain for westerners.  Safe haven for miscreants from all over the earth, akin to Butch and Sundance’s Hole in the Wall a thousand years later.  A foreboding night in a foreboding town.

            Baghdad.  Or, seen in many early western publications as Bagdad.

            It caught the world’s eye in the 1920s when it became capital of Iraq.  Boundaries of faraway nations meant little to us – it was all the land of Arabia to the music lyricists, fashion designers and Hollywood writers, all capitalizing on its mystique.  Few seasoned moviegoers can forget the sepia-toned scene, in Cinerama yet, when a tiny speck on the barren windswept desert appeared through a distant mirage, then inexorably, slowly, grew larger and closer to the viewer until the skirted horse and a turbaned Omar Sharif, his tattered burnoose streaming in the wind, dismounted to deliver news to (Capt. T. E.) Lawrence of Arabia.  Many regard it as director David Lean’s most memorable scene, ever.

            But why did San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner columnist Herb Caen nickname San Francisco, and later subtitle his column, Baghdad-by-the-Bay?  Baghdad and San Francisco are little alike; San Francisco built on seven hills, only forty square miles with water on three sides, but Baghdad basically level and spread out 20 times larger, its only waterfront the Tigris River; San Francisco, in a word, of breathtaking beauty while Baghdad, well, by Caen’s assessment, less so – the sparkling white minarets exist mostly in travel brochures.  Not an unattractive city, but no San Francisco.  Why was it called Baghdad-by-the-Bay by a scribe who set Bay Area trends for seven decades, until his death in February of 1997?

Right about now, in case you’re wondering what inspired this column: A reader asked me why, given my frequent references to Herb Caen, haven’t I jumped on Caen’s 50-year old reference to Baghdad.  And I point out that I welcome many former Bay Area residents to this column, who loved or hated Caen but definitely read him daily.  My simple excuse is that I figured that some other writer had already drawn attention to it, given the events of the world.  But learning of none, I’ll wrap up the explanation:

Caen drew his analogy based upon lifestyle, not the cities’ appearances or geography.  Caen’s San Francisco was a wild, wide-open city in 1951, a town with colonies of a dozen ethnic regions that lived by their own cultures unabated, a dozen tongues spoken each morning on the 30-Stockton bus line on the way downtown to work, not unlike a commute in Baghdad.  Fugitives from other climes who lived less than savory lives were left alone, so long as they didn’t cause any problems to either city’s other residents.   A large Bohemian presence thrived in both cities.  And both cities had an unsung tolerance, ranging to admiration, for their diversity and colorful characters, the colorful rising to high places in Baghdad, and respected, if not exalted, in San Francisco.  Remember, Caen coined the nickname in the 1950s; San Francisco perpetuated its no-holds-barred Barbary Coast district for a century after sailing ships gave up the ghost, and Count Marco endured as a local character well into the ‘70s.  (And note the fabled “Barbary Coast” itself is of Arabian flavor…)

            I hope I didn’t break any reader’s heart with this yarn – I was raised on Herb Caen’s stuff, and frankly do borrow, usually with attribution, some of his gimmicks like “Pocketful of notes,” “These things I like,” and “And then I wrote,” and until unraveling his rationale, thought Baghdad was a gleaming sister city to San Francisco, appearance-wise. Guess not.  But we still wish the Baghdaddies and Baghmommies all well, and if you read this last sentence Saturday morning, it’ll surprise me to no end.  [I was surprised – it ran!]

• • •

[Readers’ note: This was first published in 2003 during the early height of the Iraq war]
© Reno Gazette-Journal 2003




We’re forgetting a few guys…


Work progresses in site work on Foster Drive across from Reno High School on what was once the home of the Reno YMCA. The new building will be the William N. Pennington facility for the Boys & Girls Club of Truckee Meadows.  This is a wonderful thing and has been appropriately ballyhooed wherever applicable, as it should be. Pennington did a fine thing endowing this building, and was generally a good guy (we were neighbors in the 1960s before our lives took separate courses.)

But it’s mildly annoying to some, in this case, to me, that with all the fol-de-rol over the new facility, little, as in zilch, has been said about how that little piece of dirt was transformed from a dairy farm adjoining Westfield Village, to a grand new building. A few steps have been left out of that site’s journey.

The journey started back in 1952 when the original Reno YMCA, pictured, blew up, actually a boiler in the basement blew up and took the building down to ground level in one quick hurry. I watched it. That YMCA, by the by, was the next building east of the Mapes Hotel and if you don’t know where that was you probably want to leave this site and go read the Mommy Files or the Sudoku page. Reno was without its Y.

So, a group of businessmen got together once, becoming weekly, if memory serves (I was 10 years old and don’t accurately recall; I have a faint recollection of them meeting at the Trocadero Room of the El Cortez but wouldn’t swear to it.) Some names I remember were Al Solari, Del Machabee, Buddy Traynor, Conrad Preiss, Jim Morrison, Gene Gastanaga, Ed Pine, Sr., and hell of a lot of others. Oh, and a young Realtor named Karl Breckenridge. (My dad, not me.) If anybody can think of some more, lemme know; there’s a plaque around somewhere with some names but I can’t find the plaque.

Those local men got on the bandwagon to beg, borrow, and steal, well almost, the funding to acquire a piece of property for a brand-new Y building. And my dad, being a real estate man, found the property, as I recall, with Del Machabee. And they all had fundraisers, barbecues at the California Building, virtual house-to-house solicitations, tail-twisting of the school districts (there were eight in Washoe County back then.) The city government, Stead Air Force Base, the power company, Nevada Bell employees, just an incredible, damn aggressive but all-in-fun fundraiser.

And they raised the funds, and bought the land, I think from the Vhay Ranch but don’t know at this writing. I traveled with my dad for 10 days in his 1952 Buick to a dozen YMCA buildings in northern and southern California, spent nights in them, swam in their pools, while he gathered ideas for the Reno building. And, the building was indeed built, Orville Wahrenbrock was hired to run it with Dick Taylor second in command, and Tom Hardester and Steve Rucker in the P.E. department. Reno had a Y.

What the hell happened to it I can’t say; some of the Ys in California that we toured preparatory to building it still stand (it was a well-built building.) My personal opinion, which I’ve learned is shared by many guys in Reno, is that something or somebody screwed up. It doesn’t matter – it’s been torn down. And we have no Y. And a new building is going up on its former site, a new building with a flagship name.

But, ya know what? There’s a long list of once-prominent people who did a great deal of work, and personal commitment, and personal expense, to get that site. But I don’t look to see their names being bandied about when the new youth club opens a year from now.

If they are, they’ll probably be right alongside Anna Frandsen Loomis’ name on the Lear Theater – my friend Anna who endowed the Christian Science Church in 1938, later the Lear, getting the same credit that Machabee, Solari, Pine, Breckenridge the Elder, and all the others will be getting on Foster Drive – none.

(Photo credit to “” on the web, it’s an old postcard that half of Reno has in their collections but I couldn’t find mine.)

Staying close to West Fifth and Keystone, we see…

Safewayp>While I was capturing the Cue & Cushion et al seen in the previous post on film, (actually on digital, but that lacks the certain je ne sais quoi of film that this site is built upon), I strayed a block to the east, to Vine Street, and took a picture of what in its day was a Safeway, not just a Safeway but the greatest most modern Safeway in Reno or Sparks (akin to the one on Mt. Rose and South Virginia Streets), which now is obviously sunk into the depths of Reno’s slums.

The new (1962) Safeway was the bee’s-knees in shopping, replacing the old favorite Santa Claus Market a block to its north on Vine Street, that little rock market that received its name because it never closed, even on the day when Santa Claus came to Reno.

The Safeway pictured was the pride of northwest Reno, as I said in an earlier post a part of town then developing rapidly. Times changed and the Safeway closed, to become a home improvement store for many years, later an auto parts store, and now a piece of crap taking up space in what should be, and was, a nice part of our city. No opinion here, just a wish that things could be different. It’s a good and viable corner, but alas, yet another reminder of the rapidity with which the premier locations become mere embarrassments

A dog’s life


This is a re-do of the post that went with this photo of the supine canine on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. The animal shown, a large dog, is alive; we think. A beautiful animal indeed . ’nuff said

Another old University of Nevada friend bites the dust…

Getchell 2getchelllibrary copy
Well, they’re doing it again – tearing down a building that many of us watched being built during our University of Nevada matriculation and one that we visited thereafter, quite often. A couple of them were saved – and I’ll modestly take a bit of credit for calling the regents a bunch of damn ungrateful fools in a column, for coming thhhhiiis close to tearing down the Fleischmann Atmospherium-Planetarium, and taking the name “Jot Travis” off the student union center – a building built in 1958 in honor of Ezra “Jot” Travis, endowed by his son Wesley upon Wesley’s death in 1952. The Planetarium, named for the parents of university benefactor Max C. Fleischmann, was on the endangered list in favor of some dingbat building. It still stands. Moral being, don’t give your fortune to the University – they’ll spend it and in a period of time, demolish it for some younger guy’s endowment. And you and your wife’s name (and your contribution!) will soon go by the wayside.

Now, another building is going, going, soon to be gone – the Noble H. Getchell Library opened in 1962, two years after Noble Getchell’s death, to replace the Clark Library, a building still in use today as the Clark Administration Building. In days past, honored names, like William Clark’s, also a miner, were more revered than they are today. We, as undergraduates and “we” being every able-bodied soul attending the U, hauled the Clark’s inventory of library books, box-by-box, from the Clark up the (then) main drive for re-shelving in the new Getchell Library. The Getchell was a beautiful, modern building, bright, airy and welcoming (still is). Noble Getchell was a miner, and beat the drum for all the Nevada miners to support the University which then had a Mackay School of Mines, not “earth-sciences,” whatever those are – euphemisms abound on the Hill – the “Hill” itself a bygone term of endearment for the U. Getchell, like John Mackay before him, contributed mightily to our school. (In fairness, the mining industry went flat about the time the Nevada miners would have started to fund the library and Getchell and the others couldn’t endow it as he’d hoped to. But, he tried, and name “Getchell” will soon depart from the memory of the University of Nevada.)

You may bid the Getchell Library goodbye – apparently it couldn’t be converted to another use in this cash-rich Nevada university system (the tale is that it’s built with student funds. Students, as we know, have a lot of spare cash lying around to build buildings with.) I wonder if this occurs at other universities – the destruction, whether they pull it off or not, as in the case of the Jot and the Planetarium – look-out the Campanile at UC Berkeley, surely taking up a lot of room that could better be used for parking, or the Hoover Library at Stanford, or that damn ol’ Pauley Pavilion at UCLA, right in the middle of what could be a solar array for campus power, or Crisler Arena at Michigan – definitely showing its age. The Tables Down at Morey’s, and the Place where Louie Dwells back east in the Ivy League.

The Getchell served us well for half a century. Thanks, Noble…

An American coin for Casey

Casey copy

I have for many a moon prided myself in sharing Ernest L. Thayer’s Casey at the Bat with whoever would listen, or wouldn’t listen, or who’d prefer not to, or who’d heard it before – I didn’t give a damn, I’d recite Casey at the slightest provocation.

I held out Ernest L. Thayer, who wrote the poem for the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, as my hero. A guy who loved baseball, who could write. I noted in a column 15 years ago that his poem, written when he was a teen-aged flack in the Examiner’s sports department and casually offered to his editor – “Use it if you want to” – put him into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I was contacted by the Baseball Hall of Fame three days after my column was published, and told that only players, managers and owners are “enshrined” in the HOF. As a matter of fact, Thayer is better than “enshrined” – a statue of his Mighty Casey graces the entrance to the Hall.

Now, the U.S. Mint is vetting baseball players worthy of having their visages struck onto US coins. I have nominated, through Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle’s sports department, Mighty Casey, with Ernest L. Thayer’s likeness in a half-tone in the background.

And in closing, I note many readers’ opinions that Scott Ostler himself be included in the Hall, as a Ford Frick Award recipient – where baseball’s writers and announcers are included (can’t use the word “enshrined,” I’ll get jumped on again!)

School principals ain’t what they used to be…


With some amusement our morning coffee group consisting of men of a certain age  who have grown up in Reno, if indeed we’ve grown up at all, have been noting with some amusement the heartbreaking and ongoing saga of the wussy school principal who got chased out of Double Diamond School by some tyrant mother and is now sitting home getting paid to watch The View while somebody sorts out his dilemma for him. A part of what we await is for the RGJ’s writer Siobhan McAndrew, in our opinion tied with Guy Clifton as the best writer on the staff, to get tough and find out and tell us what the hell is really going on at that school.  This lady is a great writer but has become bogged down writing about kiddies, of which most of us have at least one and have long ago discovered that there’s little new to be said about them. Nor of the school district, which trying to improve upon is akin to shoveling s**t into an incoming tide. She could do better than writing of them when topics of consequence beckon her.

But what we really find interesting is that this situation could have become so screwed up in the first place. We talked this morning about what would have happened should a parent, possibly ours, have stuck their nose into principal Rita Cannan’s office, or Eleanor Miller’s (pictured above) or Jean Conrad’s or Esther Traner’s classrooms in Mary S. Doten Elementary School on West Fifth and Washington in 1948, in an attempt to offer their wise counsel and advice about their methods of teaching us.

Good luck with that! And good luck with chasing Rita Cannan out of the school, which absolutely wouldn’t have happened, while Mr. Corbett the Reno School District superintendent adjudicated the issue with the parent, which would have taken him until about noon the same day. (If this principal thinks the Double Diamond mommy’s tough, he’s never crossed Rita Cannan!)

One wonders, how did we ever get an education with people like these, who steered their own ship and didn’t take any crap off the students, their parents, the public, or the Nevada State Journal?

Actually, pretty well…