Herb Caen: Master of the Three Dots
This story is what got me started on remembering Herb Caen — it's from True's 17 May 2009 issue:
Weekly Weird News
Freaks of Nomenclature — May Edition
An employee from the Kissimmee Utility Authority working at an electrical substation in Buenaventura Lakes, Fla., received a severe shock and was hospitalized in stable condition. His name: Robert Crisp. Meanwhile, a Roman Catholic priest has been removed from his duties after he admitted he has had a two-year affair with a woman. The 40-year-old priest, known as "Father Oprah" because of his role as head of the Miami, Fla., Archdiocese's international radio network, where he gave advice on relationships, admits celibacy is something he "struggled with for a long time." His name: Fr. Alberto Cutie. (Orlando Sentinel, AP) ...What a shock.
Regarding my occasional use of "Freaks of Nomenclature": It's a nod toward my favorite columnist, the late Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle, whom I read from the time I started reading newspapers as a boy through journalism school; such was one of the benefits of living in northern California. He was a columnist from 1938 until his death at 80 in 1997, but it wasn't until later that I realized that he had a significant impact on my style. Caen (pronounced "cane") also wrote about "everything" — "short, snappy items" separated by ellipses (aka, "three dots". You know: ... — or, if properly used at the end of the sentence, four dots, because you have to include the period....) It was such a style for him that he referred to his columns as "three-dot journalism".
I didn't set out to mirror Caen, or anyone else, for that matter. But Caen is in my blood from reading him for years. Caen admitted freely that he stole his style from Walter Winchell, and was proud when he met Winchell in 1948 that his mentor called him "the kid who imitates me better than anybody in the business." Caen went on to find his own version of the style, and is the guy who coined the name "Beserkeley" for Berkeley, on the eastern side of the San Francisco Bay. (He also coined his own name for his beloved city: "Baghdad by the Bay" — the title of his memoir.) He also coined the word "beatnik".
While researching this remembrance, I was startled to see he started off his paragraphs (each a different topic) with BOLD CAPS, sometimes with a colon at the end (as I do with stories), and sometimes just leading into the sentence (as I do in the author's notes section of the newsletter). I actually just use plain bold when I write my "slugs" (titles), and change that to all caps when it goes out in the newsletter, because plain text e-mail can't be bolded. A classic Caen example:
SPEAKING OF civilization, Halloween is an odd, non-American (not un-American) throwback to the Middle Ages. One thinks of macabre wood carvings, torture chambers, soldiers dumping molten lead on the mobs clamoring at the castle gate. In this civilized city in a civilized state of confusion, the rite has progressed to a more rarefied level: Hospitals will X-ray fruit, candy and cookies free to see if they contain razor blades, shards of glass or other foreign objects placed therein by people who may not even be registered voters. You go out tonight at your own risk, but you do the same Tuesday when you stick your head into that skimpy tent, your rear end sticking out, to stick pins into the electronic-age ballot. I miss the old mechanical voting booths, with their reassuring clicks and clangs and the exciting possibility that they could be easily fixed by the rogues and scoundrels who really knew how to run this town. (Caen, October 31, 1986)
That doesn't show the three-dot style, though, so one more graf:
BAY CITY BEAT: At the brand-new Pizza Orgasmica in the Bermuda Triangle, First-Nighter Bruce Bellingham noticed several women nodding happily over their orgasmic experience and whispered, "I'll bet half of them are faking it" ... Saab story, or, only in Berserkeley: After the Mario Savio memorial at Cal, David Jansen spotted a bumpersticker reading "I'd Rather Be Smashing Imperialism" — on a new Saab. Mario would have been mordantly amused ... Jerry Matters on the current most noisome fad: "Pretty girls smoking cigars are like roses dipped in mustard" ... Stale tale of the town: Just found out that when the New & Improved Top o' the Mark reopened, it was about to be picketed by the local Carpenters Union because the H. Caen Three-Dot Bar, the only bar in the place, was made by a nonunion shop in San Luis Obispo. The pickets were called off at the last minute by union prez Jim Salinas for a god-I-loove-this-town reason: "My mother was a maid at the Mark for 47 years, and as a 47-year-old native, I would have had a lot of explaining to do." (Caen, December 12, 1996)
One of his recurring features was "Namephreaks" — people whose name matched their profession. Like the local fisherman named Buzz Minnow. The dentist Rodney Pain. Hospital spokeswoman Pam Talkington. Substitute teacher (at my high school!) Mr. Fillin (and no, I don't remember him). Piano teacher Patience Scales. Divorce lawyer Philander Beadle. Orthopedist Dr. Kneebone. And "the Vatican spokesman for its latest decree against rock 'n' roll is one Cardinal Rapsong and that is why namephreaks will always be with us," he wrote in 1996.
I preferred my own twist on "namephreaks"; besides, I couldn't very well copy him. Hence, "Freaks of Nomenclature".
Caen never wanted to retire. He wanted his obituary to be on the front page of the Chronicle, and figured he'd write it himself. "It will trail off at the end, where I fall face down on the old Royal with my nose on the 'I' key," he once said. Well, almost. He slowed down toward the end, only writing five columns a week, rather than seven, with a rerun printed on Sundays. And to the end, he really did pound it all out on a Royal typewriter, supposedly the last typewriter used at the Chronicle. And he typed with two fingers.
I'll never have the pleasure of hearing Caen's opinion of my stuff, but it's a pleasure to share his memory with some people who remember him, and many more who never heard of him. May he live on in the smudgy ink on cheap paper for decades to come.
Related Page: Herb Caen: the First Honorary Unsubscribe — Sort Of
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