The Bay of San Francisco is separated from the sea by low mountain ranges, looking from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The coast mountains present an apparently continuous line, with only a single gap resembling a mountain pass. This is the only water communication from the coast to the interior country; approaching from the sea the coast, it presents a bold outline.
Within, the view presented is a mountainous country, the bay resembling an interior lake of deep water, lying between parallel ranges of mountains. Islands which have the bold character of the shores, some mere masses of rock, others grass covered, rising to the height of three and eight hundred feet, break its surface, and add to its picturesque appearance. Directly fronting the entrance, mountains a few miles from the shore rise about two thousand feet above the level of the water, crowned by a forest of lofty cypress, which is visible from the sea, and make a conspicuous landmark for vessels entering the bay. Behind, the rugged peak of Mount Diavolo, nearly four thousand feet high, overlooks the surrounding country of the bay and the San Joaquim. - William Kelly
Adolph was still reeling from that stunning entrance through the Golden Gate into the San Francisco Bay as he descended the gangplank from the steamer—into the colorful throng on the dock.
The wharf teemed with exotic inhabitants in startlingly varied national costumes: Native Americans with blankets, Chinese with queues and mandarin coats, Mexicans in sombreros and serapes. There were prostitutes and rich men, scruffy miners and gamblers in tailored coats, women in silks so fine they could only have hailed from France. After the visual monotony of the sea voyage, Adolph was fairly dazzled by the colors and sights and smells. And then the realization hit. He’d survived. He was here.
“Adolph! Adolph Sutro!”
Adolph turned in the crowd, searching for the voice, and recognized the man coming toward him from the photograph he had sent along with his proposal: Adolph’s new employer, August Helbing, founder of the Eureka Benevolent Society.
Helbing greeted with him with a hearty handshake, and over Adolph’s protests, lifted his bag from him.
Sutro followed Helbing, wobbling on sea legs.
The sidewalks were wood plank, the streets of packed dirt, on which rumbled teams of horses drawing carriages, men pulling carts, bustling pedestrians of all hues. Some of the buildings they passed appeared to be actual ships, hauled up from the harbor and converted to taverns and hotels. There was a constant, light wind with a strong smell of the sea.
Adolph was so unimaginably tired, and still queasy from the journey, that the sights and sounds around him seemed to come from a dream. But he was lightheaded with relief that Helbing was a real person, which meant Adolph had a real job.
His official position was to be Fire Watcher. He had no real sense of what that entailed. Except that it included a bed.
Adolph knew from his research that lodging in San Francisco was at a premium. Men would pay two hundred dollars a month to sleep on anything from a cot among dozens in a room to a redwood plank on two sawhorses set out on a porch. Men bedded down in restaurants on the tables used for meals, slept sitting up in rocking chairs, even sprawled on the billiard tables of gambling halls.
Adolph would have the luxury of a mattress behind the counter of Helbing’s dry goods store.
As they walked, Helbing spoke. “We hef here only one police officer for every fifteen hundred inhabitants. You are my security. But more important, you are my fire watcher.” He stopped on the street, and gestured around them. “What do you note about these buildings?”
Sutro knew instantly what Helbing was getting at. “They are wood.”
“All wood. The whole city is nothing but kindling. Five major fires have destroyed the city in less than two years. Your principle work is to keep my store from burning down.”
Helbing motioned down a street lined with shops. “The store is in this street.” He gave Adolph a quick, oblique look. “But first, we will walk a bit.”
Adolph was so tired he could barely stand, but he dutifully followed his new employer.
At the end of the street they turned the corner to enter a street called Pacific, and the atmosphere changed considerably. Adolph knew he was beyond exhausted from his journey and perhaps could not trust his eyes. But this street! He had never seen anything like it in his life.
Colored lights illuminated the fronts of the buildings, and loud music seemed to be coming from every open door. Crowds of drunken men stumbled in and out of the buildings, and milled in large, noisy groups in the middle of the street. Women leaned out open windows, their shirt fronts hanging open, revealing enticing flesh. Others stood at the doors, inviting every passerby to enter. A sweet, sickly, smoky smell drifted in the air. The lights blurred in Adolph’s eyes.
It seemed to go on for block after block with not a single storefront—nothing but saloons and gambling halls.
Helbing spoke beside him. “They are called melodeons. Crimp joints. Dance halls. Deadfalls. Men come in from the gold fields, lay two months’ work on the table, make unheard of money overnight… and gamble it away the next morning, or spend it on vice. You can walk into one of these saloons and disappear. Wake up in the hold of a ship in chains, forced into service, on your way to anywhere.”
Adolph shuddered with the horror of it. And yet…
He glimpsed a girl in an upper floor window. She smiled and bent over the sill, giving him a glimpse of more breast than he had ever seen, and blew him a kiss. He tore his gaze away, and heard her laughter above him.
Hellbing’s eyes were on him. “You are curious, no? We will see.” He gestured to a doorway, and Adolph realized he meant to go in. He followed Helbing into the den.
They descended a long set of stairs and stepped through another door into a large, dirty basement with a bar running along one wall.
Inside, the warmth and stench of the crowd pressed in as Adolph stared around at walls covered with paintings of nude women in various abandoned poses.
He was even more startled to see a stage, where five women were arranged on a revolving platform in a sensual tableau. In the low light, they seemed to be entirely naked. A longer look determined that they wore flesh-colored tights and tops. Another half-dressed woman was seated at a piano singing a lewd song.
A sign above the long bar proclaimed:
Our Pretty Waiter Girls are unequaled in Beauty, Honesty, and Amiability.
Test their Luxuries!
Behind the bar stood one of what the sign called “pretty waiter girls.” She locked eyes with Adolph across the room. Holding his gaze, she poured out a drink for him and set it on the bar in front of her, challenging him with her eyes and posture to come and take it.
And Sutro felt his blood stir.
Helbing saw everything. He spoke evenly. “You could go now, have a drink. There are rooms upstairs where she will take you afterward. All this is here for you and more. Though what happens then is just as much a gamble as what happens at those tables.”
Adoph turned and pushed his way out of the saloon.
Outside on the street he walked and kept walking, past the drunken men and laughing women. He stopped on a corner to catch a breath, looked around him.
Ramshackle shacks lined the darker side street, each with a narrow door in which was set a barred window. Men queued outside the cribs, seemingly waiting their turns. As Adolph watched, a door opened and a near-naked young girl let one man out the door. The first man in the line stepped inside.
Adolph felt the horror of it. But he was a young man and his loins tightened at the sight.
He turned away in shame just as Helbing caught up with him. Adolph blazed out at him. “Why have you brought me here?”
His employer held his gaze. “Because you will find your way here. It is always here, mere steps away. Anything you could dream of wanting, this city can give you. It has a talent for providing pleasure. It is important that you see, that you know what temptations you are up against. This is here for you, for anyone, all hours of the night and day. If you are to fall, better to know that now.”
Just blocks from the streets they had just walked, Helbing unlocked the door of a wood frame dry goods store. He set Adolph’s bag behind the counter and showed Adolph the mattress tucked under it, invisible from the street.
“You will sleep here.”
Adolph’s knees buckled and he crawled forward onto the mattress. He barely heard Helbing’s “Goodnight,” the door closing, the key turning in the lock.
But as he lay there, he found himself entirely unable to sleep. His mind whirled in a kaleidoscope of images.
Always coming back to the women hanging out the windows, the doors.
And the one behind the bar, with the sign above her:
Test their Luxuries!
It was easy to find the street again. He just followed the cacophony of music.
He stepped in through the same doorway, into the warmth and smoke and pulse of sound, and made his way down the flight of stairs into the basement with the bar. A small band now played raucously on the stage, a piano, fiddle, trombone and clarinet.
Two men rose unsteadily from a table and pushed past him. Adolph lowered himself to one of the empty seats.
On the dance floor he saw the girl who had been behind the bar. She sauntered over to his table and leaned down, giving him a glimpse of the tops of her breasts under her open shirt.
“You came back.”
Adolph’s face burned. “I… yes…”
She gave him a slow smile. “I haven’t seen you before.”
“It’s my first night.”
“In San Francisco? We must have champagne.” She turned and strolled back toward the bar.
Adolph watched the other waiter girls dancing with the customers…and thought of the rooms upstairs.
She returned to the table and poured from a bottle of champagne, and then again, and then another, until the room was blurry and spinning. The waiter girl leaned into him and whispered, “Time to go.”
And before Adolph could rise, the floor beneath him opened up and he fell into darkness.
He came to, bruised and aching. When he tried to sit up, iron chains yanked him down.
Through the sick, choking panic, he could feel an all-too recently familiar swaying motion. He was on a ship, in chains. A shadow hovered above him, and a face came into view. A sailor, with pocked skin and too-bright eyes.
Adolph fought down terror. “Where am I?” he demanded. “Where are you taking me?
The sailor leered and grinned toothlessly. “Save your breath, laddie. It’s a long way to Shanghai—”
Sutro jerked upright, and felt a stinging blow to his head. He saw stars in the darkness. But the rocking sensation was gone.
Not the hold.
And he could move his arms, and his legs.
He put out his hands, feeling the space around him… and gasped in in sweet relief.
He was under the counter in Helbing’s store. It had been a dream only.
A dream. A dream.
He heard a key in the lock of the door and crawled out from behind the counter into thin daylight, to find Helbing just coming inside. His employer was quietly pleased to see him, as if he had had sincere doubt. “So you are here. It is good.”
Adolph silently but wholeheartedly agreed. He could still feel the cold weight of manacles on his wrists. He shuddered, and Helbing saw. The older man frowned.
“What you saw last night—
Adolph froze. How could Helbing know? Then he realized his boss was talking about the walk they had taken together.
Helbing continued. “What you saw, that will not build a city. It will not do God’s work on earth. That illusion. That degradation of spirit.”
He grimaced, and then made a gesture, as if to clear the thought.
“We can be world-builders. It is ours to choose.” He looked at Adolph piercingly. “I believe you will choose well.”