PERSPECTIVES Series :: Perspective No. 5
Allegiance to the Underdog
By Sara M. Harvey
How could this possibly matter that much? How can the name of the bridge have that kind of effect?
But, of course, I knew the answer. It was an answer too large to fit comfortably inside my head. Norton had been part of a completed circuit between himself and the city; they had fed off of one another. Perhaps it was indeed true that one could not exist without the other. If San Francisco forgot Norton, he would be lost forever, and if that happened, that ineffable something that made the city so special would also be lost.
—from Allegiance to a Dead Man (by Sara M. Harvey)
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area is a lot like being the child of a celebrity. It never occurs to you that “normal” people don’t have songs written about them, movies made of them, and a fan following the world over. It wasn’t until I left the Bay Area that I truly appreciated its reach and scope and especially its legend.
As a kid in Castro Valley, I heard stories about the eccentric and wonderful Joshua Norton, self-proclaimed Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. I was even more excited to learn as a teenager that he was a real guy and that he became so well-known because the people of San Francisco and the surrounding areas believed him. And in college I was thrilled to discover that he wasn’t a hero just to us locals but that people who have no specific ties to the Bay Area, such as Neil Gaiman, chose to immortalize Norton (in Neil’s case, in his groundbreaking Sandman graphic novel series). I grew up with this man close to my heart but never really understood exactly what he meant to me and the rest of the city.
That is, until I decided to immortalize him, too.
When the renovation plans for the Bay Bridge were first announced a few years ago, my mind started churning. Sitting on my lunch break one day, far away from San Francisco, I took out a notebook and began to write. I wanted to capture why it was so important to me to name the bridge after Emperor Norton — and, to do that, I had to capture why Norton was so important to the city.
The short story I wrote, Allegiance to a Dead Man,* has far more truth in it than it might at first appear. I did go to his grave with one of my best friends, and I did kneel and swear an oath to the man, an oath that I have been working steadily to fulfill by adding my voice to the chorus of support for the naming of the bridge. And I was also able, for the first time in my life, to unpack my feelings about Norton and about San Francisco.
All my life, San Francisco was “The City,” a nearly magical place of hippies with flowers in their hair, with little cable cars climbing narrow streets, a place where people left their hearts. San Francisco is weird. It is eclectic and eccentric and rejects the banal and mundane. It is freezing cold in the summer and occasionally swelteringly warm in midwinter. It is a place where anything goes and everyone can find a place to fit in and be themselves, no matter how goofy and offbeat that may be.
And it’s like that, in large part, because of Norton.
The city was already a little bit quirky to begin with; they did affirm His Imperial Highness as the ruler of their hearts and minds, and the shops took the money he printed, and the papers published his decrees. Norton could not have been Norton, could not have been Emperor, in any other city in the world. San Francisco was alone on the coast, far from the rest of the nation, a community of immigrants, of gold-hunters, of freedom-seekers. They took Norton into their collective heart and he left them with a great gift in return: his legacy.
In a time where the Average Joe truly thought that women, Chinese, Mexicans, Africans and Native folk were somehow tarnished, somehow less-than, a different species even, he stood proudly beside them and called them equals, called them friends. He stood proudly before them and made sure they knew he had their backs. He rooted for the underdogs, always. Because San Francisco had rooted for him. He paid it forward the best way he knew how: by ensuring a legacy of acceptance, forgiveness, civic pride, passion, and humor.
Without San Francisco, there never would have been an Emperor Norton, but I strongly believe that without Emperor Norton, there would be no San Francisco, not the way we know it today. They are linked together by a love of the misfit, an understanding of the outcast, and the deep-seated knowledge that everyone deserves a place to call home. Norton always believed in the love and goodwill of his city, his home, and it is time that we do our best to show him, show the world, that we believe in him, too.
* Sara Harvey's 2009 short story, Allegiance to a Dead Man, is a modern-day tale of a young woman's
dream-traveling quest to fulfill her oath to Emperor Norton's ghost — a tale in which the Emperor and
his bridge play leading roles. The story is available as an e-book via Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and Sara
generously is donating half of the proceeds from the sales of her book to The Emperor's Bridge Campaign.
Sara M. Harvey is an author and costume historian who used to call the San Francisco Bay Area home but now lives in Nashville, Tenn., with her husband, daughter and too many dogs. Lucky for her, however, she knows just where she left her heart: right beside the Emperor Norton Bridge.
For more in the Perspectives series, click here.