San Francisco History

Odd Characters of Curbstone and Corner

by Walter J. Thompson

In the very early days Montgomery street had a monopoly of the freak section of the city’s population. This was natural enough. It being the main street and there were no attractions for freaks elsewhere. Even though a monarch enjoying the enviable royal prerogative of issuing $5 money orders at any hour of the day or night and marketing them at variable valuations, Emperor Norton was not queer enough to go seeking pots of gold at the base of rainbows in the sparsely settled hillslopes, nor did Willie Coombs deem that his George Washington uniform and banner would shine with the same luster or command the same degree of attention amid strange environment. Along the same line of reasoning that pair of canine scallywags, Bummer and Lazarus, were confident there was in the wide world no place like the vicinity of the Parker House bar for sympathy and scraps. Every city street devoted to pleasure or business must have its freaks, its odd characters of the curbstone and corner. So with the coming of age of Kearny street and the attendant expansion in width and length to Market street, the arrival of the freaks was looked forward to with some interest, not only by the merchants whose places of business began to multiply so rapidly, but the promenaders. You know the upbuilding of Kearny street was upon a different basis from Montgomery. The latter thoroughfare was looked upon as a place to make money, the former, as the place to spend it. The street grew and thrived, but the freaks came not. Some anxiety was felt that the new thoroughfare was to be freakless, a condition that did not seem in accord with nature’s plans in a growing city. It is true offers were made to add tone to the street by loaning it during certain hours each day the shuffling Emperor or the pompous George Washington Coombs, even if they had to be beguiled by specious promises of emoluments compatible with their own ideas of the worth of their dignified presences. These offers were, however, resolutely turned down by those who had the interest of the street at heart and were concerned over the dearth of freaks. They maintained that a street should come by its freaks through a course of evolutionary progress, not by the mercenary method of rental or beguilement or the violence of kidnaping. This course proved best and in due time the freaks arrived, and they multiplied and flourished exceedingly. Their birthplace seemed to be at or near the corner of California street and they broadened out north and south.

Among the pioneers of the Kearny street characters was a gentleman from Gotham with a countenance tanned through exposure to the elements and one eye which glistened in its socket like a black rhinestone. His worldly possessions consisted mainly of a grindstone mounted on a large framework resembling an upright piano that had been once upon a time a participant in a riot. Against its battered background he had an assorted lot of old razors, knives and other cutting implements, an oil chandelier for night service and a set of tin images operated by a pedal which might, according to one’s imagination, represent either a couple of prize fighters or a pair of rival political speakers upon the same stump. All the weather-beaten old gentleman asked was the privilege of locating on a corner as a grinder. He frankly admitted that there was a one-eyed grinder on the streets of New York near the Fulton market who, he said, was his twin brother, from whom he had parted years before. He thought it only fair and proper that a family which boasted of twins, both one-eyed and both grinders, should be represented on a prominent corner in the new city by the western sea as well as the metropolis of the Atlantic seaboard. His point of view seemed fair, and that is how he came to be located for so many moons at the Pine-street corner, his beadlike eye scintillating in the glow of his torch and booming out in deep ventral tones with the pertinacity of a never-more raven and the regularity of the Fort Point fog signal. “Get your razor ground.” And between grinding razors and keeping an edge on the tools of the butchers in the near-by market the old fellow thrived.

Then along came a charming character with an atmosphere of novelty about him the person of a rather portly middle-aged gentleman with gray side whiskers and a dignified staidness that would inspire confidence in a confirmed cynic and give the impression that he was a retired plutocrat with society aspirations who had just left his mansion to attend some swell function and had been concerned in a collision between North Beach and Mission cars, thereby disarranging his long-tailed broadcloth and white choker tie and bringing wrinkled discouragement to his high silk hat. He always appeared in the gloaming, that period of departing day which is supposed to be Cupid’s time, and given over to the vagaries of his votaries. He took possession of the block between California and Pine streets and with a few papers in his hand strolled about muttering to passers-by: “Matrimonial paper,” followed a moment later by “Ten-thousand-dollar widow is waiting.” This combination statement uttered in a methodical way in the face of a likely looking party had just the insinuating inflection to invite inquiry and many were the curbstone conferences held in the evening shades, with listed and waiting widows as the topic. If the rusty old gent was to be believed, there were more widows with $10,000 to their credit waiting for husbands than there were telegraph poles along the street. What mysterious matrimonial conspiracies were laid out only the evening zephyrs could have told.

Nearly all the freaks of Kearny street loved the night life and reveled in the glare of the bright lamps that shone from Pacific street to Market. Among these nocturnal nomads was one known as “Professor Oofty Goofty,” a chap who posed as the human plank and who boasted that one could kick or hammer his carcass at will but the glamour of gladness would hang round him still; of course, at so much per kick, say a quarter. As the human plank one could do anything with him except drive nails into him. Oofty might have risen to high honors along Kearny street had he remained true to his first principles and his native street and his ambition to be only a plank. But he strayed up Market street way one night, a faker grabbed him and convinced him that he would be a roaring success as the original wild man of Borneo. Oofty submitted to a transformation process involving a pair of shears and a pot of glue, out of which he came with scalloped locks stiffened by glue, standing out like spikes, also a painted face and black tights covering his adamantine anatomy. So far so good, but when Oofty in his bizarre outfit instead of glaring fiercely, howling dismally and making vicious jabs at his visitors, yelled out: “Gentleman, you can kick me as hard as you want twice for two bits,” the manager landed him in the middle of Market street. In his close-to-nature garb Oofty sought Kearny street for sympathy. Instead, the police ran him in. The street was never the same after that, and it is said he later died of a broken heart—the only breakable thing about him. At least such was the announcement of Casey the Piper, a contemporary freak, who was in a slouch of a character in his way. Armed with a “penny pipe,” he piped his way from one gay resort to another gathering in the dimes until the rattling of the silver in his voluminous attire resembled a full dress rehearsal of the “Chimes of Normandy” at the Bush Street Theater with Alice Oates in the star role. Casey had his Nemesis in “Peckinpaugh the Great,” the Apollo of the police force and the pride of Kearny street, and full oft was the piper seen flying down the street with Peckinpaugh in close pursuit. Once the officer landed his quarry in prison on a charge of turning loose music after 1 A.M. But Casey beat him out in court by pulling out his tin pipe and convincing Police Judge Rix by auricular demonstration that he could not possibly have been connected with anything resembling music. Peckinpaugh was reprimanded for not bringing a charge of disturbing the peace. Also about this time there was man who came in on a night train and set up a little stand on the corner of Ver Mehr place and attracted quite a congregation with a small box set on slender legs and containing a common red brick. This outfit was a mysterious affair bought at an auction of the estate of one of the most prominent genii of the Arabian Nights. For the sum of 10 cents anyone could hold anything on the under side of that brick and immediately the article could be seen through the opaque building material. Experiments proved the truth of the assertion, and things went merrily with the brick magician until one night a drunken sailor lurched against the frail stand and the entire works went over and strewed pieces of mirror glass over the basalt blocks, in the midst of which the brick dropped with a dull thud. The game was off. Another familiar of the pave was “Nibsey” Levy of operatic and theatrical fame. Nibsey was a manipulator of deals in tickets for big shows, his hobby being to get a corner on all the choice seats at a big performance and commanding his own price for them. On one or two opera occasions, with Patti as the attraction, and on several other notable occasions when big guns were in the limelight, did managers and patrons find that they had to go to Nibsey for their tickets, and pay his price, too. Nibsey seldom lost on his investment in box office pasteboard.

Only on one occasion did he give up a card without getting any price at all. It was a big Booth and Barrett affair at the California, and “Sconchin” Maloney, one of the best-known curbstone entertainers of his time, and who was such a Shakespearean scholar that he could recite the works of the Bard of Avon from beginning to end, was determined to go to the show. Nibsey was selected as the agent. Impulsive and iron-jawed Sconchin nailed the slippery Nibsey at Bush street, and it was a case of the ancient mariner holding the unwilling wedding guest with his glittering eye and restraining finger. The flow of Shakespearean gossip that was then and there unloaded upon the atmosphere was terrific. In the course of the loud mouthing of Sconchin could be heard a strain like: “Man, proud man—clothed—brief authority—make angels weep—thrice upon the Lupercal—a kingly crown—thrice did he refuse it—“ etc.

Nibsey’s red face paled, he trembled, his knees seemed to give way under him. Then with a mighty effort he pulled himself together, drew a piece of pasteboard from his pocket, shoved it into the spouting Sconchin’s palm and fled the scene, glad to escape at any sacrifice.

One by one the freaks fell from their public niches and disappeared. Others have come and gone through the years, but it could not be said that there was anything eleemosynary about the Kearny-street characters. There was a suggestive jingle and a reminder of the hum of industrial energy in the “St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning” outbursts of Casey the Piper and the monotonous droning, “Get Your Razor Ground.”

Source: San Francisco Chronicle. 8 October 1916. 28.

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