by Thomas Piekarski
Who’s fit to be an emperor is a puzzling subject. There has been
a handful of lunatics bearing the title. But a number of emperors
have been worthy of their fame. Some of them ascended to power
by means of the sword, others inheritance. Whatever the method
none of their empires lasted, every one crumbling. What remains
exists only in the intonation of voices heard internally that invoke
the nation within, that collection of spirits constituting our reality.
The most successful of emperors understood their subjects, always
wanting the best for them. And the detestable demented ones often
bringing ruin upon themselves. The truth is that in essence humans
are emperors in and of themselves, for having free will dictates we
are all rulers of every empire we can generate in our imaginations.
It takes guts to be an emperor. Conspiracy often shrouds every step
like a toxic cloud. Always somebody out for that glory, to reckon it
a duty to repel, replace, depose the incumbent ruler, eviscerate his
authority. Responsibility of trying to inspire, unite disparate people
into some semblance of cohesiveness is a top priority for emperors.
Those whose rule failed to serve the populace, who became tyrants
usually deposed, forced out or executed on the spot, their sad lives
shoved into dead memory banks of history. But there were others
worthy of their titles, who led peoples to advancement, in so doing
gave humanity a boost. Much native blood has soaked battlefields
to establish the good emperors and bad, millions of lives sacrificed.
Right now I’m reminiscing about the night I had a special date with
a sophisticated lady, a European tour guide who lived up on Pine
near the top of Nob Hill. We saw Sting perform at an amphitheater
down the peninsula, built upon fill atop a garbage dump. It’s said
in the initial days you could walk the grounds, light a match, then
bursts of flames would spiral upward, fueled from methane leaks.
Sting was phenomenal, especially when he played my favorite hit
with its brisk opening line that rings “In the empire of the senses
you’re the queen of all you survey.” That’s always stuck. The idea
that I truly am the sum of all my parts, which includes every single
particle I contain, these consisting of thoughts, dreams, ghosts, sins
and occurrences that add up to a unique empirical delusion I live by.
Some think it their divine right to be emperor, others called to duty,
and then there are those yoked by responsibility of a noble birth.
Elements of all of these are what spurred Norton. He wasn’t even
American, anyway declared himself emperor of the United States,
as well as protector of Mexico. His critics poked fun, called him
looney, crackpot, fraud, feckless nut, phony or some kind of joker.
In fact Norton was none of these. Now close your eyes reader,
click the heels of your glistening ruby shoes three times, watch
our prodigal arrive in 1849 to a swelled encampment dizzy
with gold rush fever, thousands converging, waterfront stuffed
with hundreds of boats whose residents can’t unload cargo nor
get themselves ashore for that matter. It could take them days.
To this San Francisco the future emperor arrived, half starved,
with $40,000 inheritance on his person to begin what conquest
his destiny would beget him. The voyage from Cape Town sheer
torture, and he was anxious to begin lucrative business ventures.
His first name Joshua, the name given to him by kindly adoptive
parents. He was born to royalty, of the Bourbon family, headed
for a cozy life of privilege. But a sinister plot was made known
to murder him when but a fragile boy. So he was shipped off
to South Africa, where he grew up curious, a bit of an oddball,
nonetheless intellectual, possessing an insatiable desire to absorb
and process the world around him as if it were indeed an overall
gestalt. And nowhere was opportunity more abundant than here.
What’s now the financial district with its iconic skyscrapers,
perennial North Beach, and Broadway strip that has always
featured naughty dens of obsession, all along Embarcadero
where AT&T ballpark provides thrills, also today’s Chinatown,
these were areas within which lived a casehardened populace
of risk takers, pioneers invested in California’s bold new era.
The burgeoning city consisted mostly of little wooden shacks
and tents, their materials often salvaged from abandoned ships
that lingered in the harbor. Lawlessness prevailed. Prostitution
prevalent. Alcohol, debauchery, gambling rampant. The streets
became virtually impassible when it rained, turned to thick mud
in which horses at times got stuck and just left to starve to death.
The western section of the city primarily hills dominated by sand
dunes. The gold rush drew hundreds of criminals from far lands
who camped out in those remote districts to avoid apprehension.
It was a dangerous place. Eventually the Vigilantes would bring
a modicum of justice, but when Norton arrived relative anarchy
was the order of the day. Yet there were fortunes to be extracted,
land values skyrocketing, construction everywhere, huge demand
for goods and services. Already the Mother Lode was overwrought
with 49ers who had journeyed from every continent to seek wealth
amid California’s natural treasure chest. They arrived en masse
from all over the globe. Unfortunately few struck it rich. Dejected,
droves of them sought refuge in the cities, San Francisco foremost.
Norton was too canny to be drawn into the murky sea of demise
that proved the sad ruin of thousands who stampeded California
thinking gold would be their salvation. Much money to be made
by entrepreneurs who knew instinctively that gold would run out.
Furniture, tools, clothing, building materials, almost everything
desperately needed by city dwellers who would pay stiff prices.
Joshua lodged in one of the makeshift flophouses that pretended
to be a hotel, but quite suited his humble needs. Once acclimated
he located a building at a reasonable rent for his infant business.
Most affable of characters, Norton’s demeanor won him respect
from almost everyone he met. He was careful to avoid unseemly
elements, didn’t patronize ladies of ill repute, and detested vice.
There is no such thing as ownership in this world. Food we eat
initiates energy then reduced to waste released into a vapid pit
to be churned by Nature’s digestive forces into some otherness.
Last week I took a ferry boat ride with a successful lady, sharp
realtor from Vallejo, through Suisun and San Pablo bays to dock
at Fisherman’s Wharf. On the way she asked me what New York
was like, and I replied it’s akin to you walking broad pavements
around Sansome, Kearny, Powell and Hyde, where now monster
structures swallow you. In Norton’s day that land was just lots
which held immeasurable potential. Joshua realized this, seized
the chance to cash in on future gains by purchasing some of them.
But he was never to really own them. As I said, nobody ever owns
anything. All is borrowed, used for a while, transformed, in time
to vanish and be replaced. The development of early San Francisco
a dynamic phenomenon, as the vacant lots gave way to wooden
buildings that burned and were rebuilt time and again until brick
was available in abundance. It’s suspected that fires which struck
hundreds of buildings were the result of arson carried out by those
miserable criminals who came from foreign lands to rob, extort and
intimidate the population. But they would never own San Francisco,
nobody ever will. Not even beloved Tony Bennet whose big bronze
statue was of late installed at the entrance to grand Fairmont Hotel.
Norton always maintained high moral ground. This served him well
during the first years of his mercantile endeavors. He proved a good
negotiator, known for his honesty in fulfilling financial obligations.
Joshua became a civic leader, member of a select group that shaped
San Francisco’s future, its founding fathers. They knew posterity
depended on them banding together to better conditions, sniff out
murderers and thieves, hang them high. Also promote commerce,
produce a jewel city, a west coast empire here on the Pacific, place
where magic is in the air, art reigns, its cuisine famous worldwide.
A couple of months ago I sauntered upon what was formerly the town
square, Portsmouth Plaza it was called, the settlers’ principal gathering
place for demonstrations and public events like festivals and weddings.
I wandered rather aimlessly. It’s entirely Chinese now, at the far end
of Grant, pagodas all around. They think this is their exclusive space.
It’s as if they own it and always have, sacred ground. They’re docile,
whether playing Pai gow quietly, reading native periodicals, chatting
in Chinese, but not conscious that these grounds were once otherwise.
Maybe some of them are high on opium. I wouldn’t know. In any event
in my mind’s eye I viewed from the very spot Joshua did as he watched
the Vigilantes in action. A huge crowd gathered in total astonishment
as they strung up a thief who had stolen a safe and thrown it in the bay
after lifting the cash. This was part of an effort to rid the city of vandals
that overwhelmed its streets. For a city growing by bounds, population
doubling again and again, the efforts of Vigilantes were absolutely vital.
In the hurly-burly of rapidly evolving commerce, supply and demand
flip-flopped daily depending on imports, speculation involved in every
transaction. Norton survived on a slippery slope. His financial head
managed to stay above water, but didn’t hold a wide margin of error.
In those days rice was a staple of San Franciscan diet, availability
dependent on consistent supplies from offshore. At one point quite
a lull took place, and no deliveries on the horizon, the city run low.
Then Joshua got a tip. A big shipload had just steamed in from Peru.
The captain would sell cheap, at a third market price. Norton could
grab the lot, turn around and sell it for a tidy fortune. He shelled out
every cent he had, $25,000 in cold hard cash for the whole inventory.
The deal was sealed and that was the turning point of pitiful disaster.
It would prove to be Norton’s undoing. The captain was a swindler,
for two days later several ships docked, plum full of fresh white rice.
This sent street prices plunging overnight to a fraction of what Norton
paid. He had to sell off at a devastating loss. Flat broke, he was forced
to liquidate depressed properties, as values had tanked, gold now not
flowing in. Streams and rivers barren, hydraulic and hard rock mining
benefitting investors, but not workers who no longer had much gold,
with little to spend in San Francisco as they once did. Deep depression
infected the entire city. Norton’s wind had been sucked from him, yet
his ambition made a paradigm shift. He would thereafter pursue solely
philanthropic endeavors, ascend to the office that was his birthright,
so announced to everyone he would henceforth be known as emperor.
A genuine emperor can’t simply act the part, he must be appropriately
adorned. Our emperor shopped around and found just the right apparel
in which to appear regal, distinguished, decorated and patently official.
Officers at the United States Presidio helped, donating a doughty
blue uniform that befit his station, bright brass buttons and smart
epaulets on the shoulders implicitly imperial. He would wear this
outfit around town, along with his beaver hat featuring a fanciful
peacock feather. To certain events and on special occasions Norton
also strapped on a stately sword. With trusty cane in hand he made
quite an impression as he walked the streets day by day, inspecting
every last action, fulfilling his responsibility as emperor. Engaged
in everyone’s best interest, he was widely fawned, highly favored.
Norton’s status was authenticated by recognition from monarchs
far and wide. The queen of England was a pen pal, and he wrote
with vigor to heads of state on pressing matters. A few detractors
shamefully admonished him, insisted he had concocted the myth
of being spirited from the court of Bourbon, like Moses escaping
in the nick of time. But his faithful weren’t moved by such dissent,
accepted him as their sovereign, and knew his intentions were pure.
Penniless pauper for the most part, our emperor patrolled for years,
engaged in a personal crusade of promoting the public’s welfare.
He became known for issuing outrageous proclamations, editors
of San Francisco’s newspapers vying for the right to print them on
their front pages. Yet he kept a level head and maintained sobriety.
Most of Joshua’s proclamations went ignored. They seemed absurd
to almost everyone. But there was always a purpose behind them,
thoroughly thought-out argument, cause, some wrong to be righted,
vision, constructive criticism, plausible or urgent message. Tireless,
our emperor became a living symbol of liberal San Francisco ideals.
He strode the streets daily, engaged in activities of importance, bore
his responsibilities in a serious manner. If anything was brewing
Norton typically knew of it, and spread the news throughout town.
His presence considered an honor, he received a seat at no charge
for any performance, and never went hungry despite having zero
income, since he dined at every restaurant cart blanche. His image
immortalized on postcards and badges was popular with the tourists.
Now reader forgive me, but I’m afraid I must digress for a moment
and tell you of a rather mystical place, the Palace Hotel which sits
at the corner of Market and Montgomery. The existing hotel built
after an original by the same name was torn down and replaced by
this fine palace which withstood the 1906 quake, has hosted royalty,
opulent, ornate. When dropping in on the city I usually dally there
and pay a visit to the Pied Piper bar. Above the row of bottles hangs
a painting rendered by none other than the master Maxfield Parrish.
Worth millions, it’s a scene from Browning’s story of the hero who
arrived to a town riddled with rats, and promised that with his pipe
he’d remove them for the right price. They agreed and he delivered,
but the mayor refused to pay, a decision the residents would regret.
Likewise regrettable was an incident that occurred in the original
hotel, involving his majesty. As was the custom, our emperor while
on his regular reconnaissance made himself perfectly comfortable
in the lobby to read the paper, catch up with current news. However
the manager became annoyed, and ordered Norton to leave at once,
accusing him of vagrancy. Our emperor remained aloof, appraising
that surly, impudent intruder of his unimpeachable right to remain
so long as he bothered no one, besides several chairs being vacant
to accommodate prospective demand. The manager became irate,
summoning a beat cop, a young rookie who knew nothing about
the emperor’s impeccable reputation, much less an unwritten law
that permitted him uncontested dominion all throughout the city.
This eventuated Norton’s arrest, and a wretched night tossing in
a filthy jail cell. The next day he was sprung by a judge who rightly
reprimanded both manger and the cop for their gross negligence and
unforgiveable insults. During the middle 19th century San Francisco
was teeming with rats. They weren’t native, having been transferred
from many a foreign shore on several hundreds of immigrants’ ships
that harbored those despicable rodents then thrust them into the city.
There were rats of every kind, some large as cats. Their pestilence
can’t be overstated, they maintained a constant nuisance and public
health concern. Incredibly two dogs emerged on the scene, Lazarus
and a companion, Bummer. Together they relentlessly snapped up
thousands of rats, ripped them apart or cracked their weak necks.
Lazarus and Bummer were to become legends in their own right,
following Joshua like a shadow as he made the rounds, wherever
he would roam. To them the emperor was a veritable Pied Piper.
Eventually the rat population minimized, as San Francisco evolved
into an international metropolis, each successive generation having
benefitted from the emperor’s ubiquitous largess. One fateful day
while performing his routine rendezvous Joshua stopped suddenly,
went into a minor convulsion, pitched forward, his mouth foaming
from a stroke, and died right there where he fell. People rushed to
his aid. But it was too late, the emperor was gone, yet never really
left, always spritely in the collective soul of this city by the bay.
Unsurpassed in California lore
is the bandit Murrieta.
Many touted him a Robin Hood, hero
to loyal followers. Some thought him
a devil, or bum like Zapata. No doubt
few have commanded such allegiance
from the destitute or desperados
as the valiant Juaquín Murrieta.
John C. Fremont masterminded
the Bear Flag revolt, during which
California was snatched from
submissive Mexicans. Americans
then empowered. Within months
Zachary Taylor and his blue coats
took Mexico City, so California
became United States territory
along with Utah, Arizona,
and other western expanses.
The pitiful Mestizo was reduced
to an alien in his former land.
California had barely become a state
when the legislature imposed
a law that banned Chinese, Indians,
Mexicans, half breeds and blacks
from bringing charges against whites.
This opened a Pandora’s box. Anglos
then free to carry out their manifest
of total supremacy, which they did
with unlimited vengeance.
Murrieta had migrated from down south
of the Rio Grande. His family
adept at mining, saw the light, lit out
when gold was discovered in California.
Juaquín staked a claim, worked it well,
and due to advanced equestrian ability
roamed wide spaces of hills and valleys
rounding up wild mustangs
then hustled them into Mexico
where they sold quite readily.
Fremont ran a highly profitable
mining operation down the road
from Juaquín’s claim. Fremont
staked by fat cats in Washington,
cronies of his who stashed more loot
manipulating stocks than with gold.
At Fremont’s bidding countless
Mexicans were trounced.
He himself is known to have led
a crusade through Niles Canyon
during which they massacred 200,
his inverse Alamo.
And this in fulfilling wishes
of the newfound state California.
Mexicans condemned from the start.
Their land grants burned so they lost
proof of ownership. Property seized,
sprawling ranchos rightfully theirs
dismantled, gobbled up, stolen
by thugs who showed no remorse.
Although in obvious violation
of the US Constitution,
and making a sham of the treaty
of Guadalupe Hidalgo upon which
the ink had but dried,
vigilantes emboldened by local law
pursued genocide, and exhibited
much joy taking scalps.
It’s not at all surprising
that Murrieta’s claim was jumped.
This to be expected in light of
such odious conditions.
His family that had tentacles
throughout Alta California
proved so expert at trading in horses
they lived comfortably without the gold.
Juaquín their chosen leader possessed
impeccable skills and command of men.
One day while Murrieta was lolling
with his brother at the southern
gold rush town of Murphys, not distant
from Angels Camp and Sonora,
rangers rode in. All twenty of them
dismounted and commenced a ruckus.
They accused Juaquín’s brother
of stealing a mule, and without
due process strung him up.
Then despite Murrieta’s pleas
the men took turns with his wife
during which time they tied him
to the very tree where his
brother swung. He was whipped
most brutally and left for dead.
The rangers had won the battle
but long from winning the war because
they couldn’t anticipate Juaquín’s rage,
his cunning, widespread loyalty gained
from persecuted folk. He organized
teams of menacing bandits
to cause commotion
throughout those territories
where they sought restitution.
It is said Murrieta
began his vendetta
by killing every one
of the twenty butchers
who had lynched his brother,
gang raped his lovely wife
and whipped him half to death.
Those gringos would pay
with their worthless lives.
Each band under Juaquín’s jurisdiction
had a given territory wherein
they assaulted Yankees,
held up stages, stole horses and cattle,
at times causing casualties.
They terrorized the Gold Country,
no-one with a white face safe.
They roamed the hills and flats below
wreaking revenge from head to toe.
For virtually every crime Juaquín
took the blame. Even though
many a bad man was culpable
the press had a field day
assigning those deeds to Murrieta,
and oh how he was cursed.
Their wholesale insubordination
could not be long withstood.
The governor placed a steep price
on Juaquín’s head, and then
enlisted a scrofulous bounty hunter
named Love to mount a gang
and bring him in alive or dead.
As was the case with notable outlaws
of the proverbial Wild West, Butch
Cassidy, Jesse James, Billy the Kid,
Juaquín knew the territory better than
anyone. He fled across lonely arroyos,
through slim ravines, down perilous
cliffs, into caves with skeletons, places
of which posses hadn’t a hint.
And so he proved elusive. What’s more,
there were several hostile Mexicans,
men named Juaquín running loose,
marauding, and difficult to tell
which one was Murrieta.
Love’s men flummoxed. Day after day
down interminable dusty trails
and no sign of Juaquín. Something
had to be done. So a plot was hatched:
they would present the severed head
of some innocent Mexican
to the state, swear it was Murrieta’s
and insist upon collecting the reward.
They saddled up and struck out
for the hinterlands outside Mariposa
where they were confident of locating
potential victims. Before long they did,
backed a group Mestizos against
a canyon wall then slaughtered them.
Once quivering ceased
among the newly dead
they sliced off the head
of one who could pass
as well as any for Juaquín.
That bloody head jammed
into a jar of alcohol.
In their campaign to collect
so-called proof of conquest
over the genuine Murrieta
they cut off the hand
of a another dead man,
one they would claim
was that of Juaquín’s notorious
sidekick Three Fingered Jack,
and as with the head pickled it.
When this bogus evidence
was shown authorities
it drew not the least resistance.
The insurrection had been quelled
so they willingly doled out
plentiful blood money
to those brazen murderers.
The public tickled with curiosity
converged on halls all over California.
Admission was a buck
to ogle at the faux head of Juaquín
along with what passed for the hand
of Three Fingered Jack, fathom
those decaying oddities.
As for Murrieta, he hightailed
back to his home in Mexico, this fact
corroborated conclusively by friends
and relatives, no less posterity.
Thomas Piekarski is a former editor of the California State Poetry Quarterly and Pushcart Prize nominee. His poetry and interviews have appeared in literary journals internationally, including Nimrod, Florida English Journal, Cream City Review, Mandala Journal, Poetry Salzburg, Poetry Quarterly, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Boston Poetry Magazine. He has published a travel book, Best Choices In Northern California, and Time Lines, a book of poems.