Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Frank Norris - Literary Polk St.

Frank Norris Place (see yesterday's blog post) was named for Benjamin Franklin Norris, who
published novels and short stories under the name Frank Norris. One of his most famous novels, McTeague, is set on our very own Polk Street.

Frank Norris wrote McTeague in 1899 and died in 1902 of a ruptured appendix. More info on Frank Norris on Wikipedia:
Here is a link to the text on-line:

Almost the entire novel takes place on Polk Street and Frank Norris wrote a lot of description about the street. Here is his first homage:

"The street never failed to interest him. It was one of those cross
streets peculiar to Western cities, situated in the heart of the
residence quarter, but occupied by small tradespeople who lived in
the rooms above their shops. There were corner drug stores with huge
jars of red, yellow, and green liquids in their windows, very brave
and gay; stationers' stores, where illustrated weeklies were tacked
upon bulletin boards; barber shops with cigar stands in their
vestibules; sad-looking plumbers' offices; cheap restaurants, in
whose windows one saw piles of unopened oysters weighted down by
cubes of ice, and china pigs and cows knee deep in layers of white
beans. At one end of the street McTeague could see the huge power-
house of the cable line. Immediately opposite him was a great
market; while farther on, over the chimney stacks of the intervening
houses, the glass roof of some huge public baths glittered like
crystal in the afternoon sun. Underneath him the branch post-office
was opening its doors, as was its custom between two and three
o'clock on Sunday afternoons. An acrid odor of ink rose upward to
him. Occasionally a cable car passed, trundling heavily, with a
strident whirring of jostled glass windows.

On week days the street was very lively. It woke to its work about
seven o'clock, at the time when the newsboys made their appearance
together with the day laborers. The laborers went trudging past in a
straggling file—plumbers' apprentices, their pockets stuffed with
sections of lead pipe, tweezers, and pliers; carpenters, carrying
nothing but their little pasteboard lunch baskets painted to imitate
leather; gangs of street workers, their overalls soiled with yellow
clay, their picks and long-handled shovels over their shoulders;
plasterers, spotted with lime from head to foot. This little army of
workers, tramping steadily in one direction, met and mingled with
other toilers of a different description—conductors and "swing men"
of the cable company going on duty; heavy-eyed night clerks from the
drug stores on their way home to sleep; roundsmen returning to the
precinct police station to make their night report, and Chinese
market gardeners teetering past under their heavy baskets. The cable
cars began to fill up; all along the street could be seen the
shopkeepers taking down their shutters.

Between seven and eight the street breakfasted. Now and then a
waiter from one of the cheap restaurants crossed from one sidewalk
to the other, balancing on one palm a tray covered with a napkin.
Everywhere was the smell of coffee and of frying steaks. A little
later, following in the path of the day laborers, came the clerks
and shop girls, dressed with a certain cheap smartness, always in a
hurry, glancing apprehensively at the power-house clock. Their
employers followed an hour or so later—on the cable cars for the
most part whiskered gentlemen with huge stomachs, reading the
morning papers with great gravity; bank cashiers and insurance
clerks with flowers in their buttonholes.

At the same time the school children invaded the street, filling the
air with a clamor of shrill voices, stopping at the stationers'
shops, or idling a moment in the doorways of the candy stores. For
over half an hour they held possession of the sidewalks, then
suddenly disappeared, leaving behind one or two stragglers who
hurried along with great strides of their little thin legs, very
anxious and preoccupied.

Towards eleven o'clock the ladies from the great avenue a block
above Polk Street made their appearance, promenading the sidewalks
leisurely, deliberately. They were at their morning's marketing.
They were handsome women, beautifully dressed. They knew by name
their butchers and grocers and vegetable men. From his window
McTeague saw them in front of the stalls, gloved and veiled and
daintily shod, the subservient provision men at their elbows,
scribbling hastily in the order books. They all seemed to know one
another, these grand ladies from the fashionable avenue. Meetings
took place here and there; a conversation was begun; others arrived;
groups were formed; little impromptu receptions were held before the
chopping blocks of butchers' stalls, or on the sidewalk, around
boxes of berries and fruit.

From noon to evening the population of the street was of a mixed
character. The street was busiest at that time; a vast and prolonged
murmur arose—the mingled shuffling of feet, the rattle of wheels,
the heavy trundling of cable cars. At four o'clock the school
children once more swarmed the sidewalks, again disappearing with
surprising suddenness. At six the great homeward march commenced;
the cars were crowded, the laborers thronged the sidewalks, the
newsboys chanted the evening papers. Then all at once the street
fell quiet; hardly a soul was in sight; the sidewalks were deserted.
It was supper hour. Evening began; and one by one a multitude of
lights, from the demoniac glare of the druggists' windows to the
dazzling blue whiteness of the electric globes, grew thick from
street corner to street corner. Once more the street was crowded.
Now there was no thought but for amusement. The cable cars were
loaded with theatre-goers—men in high hats and young girls in furred
opera cloaks. On the sidewalks were groups and couples—the plumbers'
apprentices, the girls of the ribbon counters, the little families
that lived on the second stories over their shops, the dressmakers,
the small doctors, the harness-makers—all the various inhabitants of
the street were abroad, strolling idly from shop window to shop
window, taking the air after the day's work. Groups of girls
collected on the corners, talking and laughing very loud, making
remarks upon the young men that passed them. The tamale men
appeared. A band of Salvationists began to sing before a saloon.

Then, little by little, Polk Street dropped back to solitude. Eleven
o'clock struck from the power-house clock. Lights were extinguished.
At one o'clock the cable stopped, leaving an abrupt silence in the
air. All at once it seemed very still. The ugly noises were the
occasional footfalls of a policeman and the persistent calling of
ducks and geese in the closed market. The street was asleep.

Day after day, McTeague saw the same panorama unroll itself. The bay
window of his "Dental Parlors" was for him a point of vantage from
which he watched the world go past.

On Sundays, however, all was changed. As he stood in the bay window,
after finishing his beer, wiping his lips, and looking out into the
street, McTeague was conscious of the difference. Nearly all the
stores were closed. No wagons passed. A few people hurried up and
down the sidewalks, dressed in cheap Sunday finery. A cable car went
by; on the outside seats were a party of returning picnickers."

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