Wednesday, March 14, 2012

All hail Norton I!

Just recently I've been reading (again) about the life and times of Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, a genial loony who lordly roamed the streets of Victorian-era San Francisco. He was intelligent, well-educated and well-spoken, but life had disappointed and broken him in many ways, and at some point he took refuge from reality in the harmless but untenable belief that he was descended from the French Bourbon line of kings.

I have to think that these days, what people love most about the story of Emperor Norton is not the quirky personality of the man himself, but the character of the city that protected and humored him. Most cities let their crazy homeless characters fend for themselves. Not San Francisco. Joshua Norton sent imperial proclamations and missives to the local newspapers -- and the papers printed them. He wrote and issued promissory notes -- and people accepted them as legal tender or paid cash for them as San Francisco souvenirs. He visited local pubs and restaurants -- and the proprietors fed him for free, in exchange for the right to advertise "By Appointment to Norton I" in their windows. A box seat in the theater was regularly reserved for him on opening night. The Presidio gave him old uniforms to wear. When the police once arrested Norton for lunacy, there was such a public hue and cry that he was released and received a formal apology, and thereafter the city police saluted him as he passed.

(Norton I promissory note courtesy of

Norton convinced a local printing operation to print his promissory notes free of charge. All the original notes were to be due and payable, with interest, in 1880. In a freakish coincidence, Joshua Norton dropped dead -- presumably of a heart attack or stroke -- in early January 1880, never having paid off a single note (although no one bought them with the expectation that he would). The extant promissory notes themselves have, however, become highly-sought-after collectors' items, and each one is now worth a sum that probably would have made the Emperor blush.

The city's collective behavior toward a character who was essentially a delusional homeless man may seem strange to anyone who doesn't know the nature of the Bay Area. But San Franciscans have a long tradition of recognizing -- nay, championing -- eccentricity and displaying a willingness to indulge the personal fantasies of individuals as though they were reality. This is unsurprising when you consider that San Francisco, as a whole, has always behaved as though it were a reality-optional zone. After all, this is a city founded practically on the back of a major faultline (Robin Williams calls it "God's Etch-a-Sketch"), a place where a drag nun called "Sister Boom Boom" ran for a seat on the city Board of Supervisors, where the often freakishly cold and foggy summers cannot dissuade people from blithely running naked through the streets for fun, where a ventriloquist's dummy can serve as a city policeman, where a professional baseball player proudly answers to the nickname "Freak," where both the Cacophony Society and Burning Man got their start, and the epicenter of many other acts of random weirdness in the American West. Considering how tolerant San Franciscans can be of personal oddities, their red-carpet treatment of Emperor Norton is hardly surprising. He might have been born somewhere else, but he was a San Franciscan by temperament and by choice, and they enthusiastically adopted him as one of their own. That makes me proud.

[On a related note: I wonder if anyone has written a science fiction story depicting Joshua Norton as a dimensional traveler -- say, someone who actually was Emperor of the United States in an alternate timeline, and who unwittingly stumbled into our reality by mistake? What would he do in order to get back? What kinds of adjustments would he have to make to living in another reality? And how could one tell the difference between a dimensional traveler stuck in the wrong version of reality and your garden-variety street loony with delusions of grandeur? Hmmm.]

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