In early August 1962 – atleast I think it was 1962, it could have been 1966 – my dad took me to to the Democratic California State Convention at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. In those days, the Fairmont, owned by Ben Swig, was the Democratic Hotel and the Mark Hopkins Hotel – across the street and owned by cowboy movie star Gene Autry – was the Republican hotel. This convention was to nominate Governor Pat Brown to run for either a second term against Richard Nixon – which he won – or a third term against Ronald Reagan, – which he lost – and all of California’s Democratic big wigs were there.
By now, I had become a little used to going to Democratic Conventions with my dad, having gone to the 1960 National Convention earlier. My dad was not very good at remembering names which was a distinct disadvantage at a convention of glad-handers where the whole point was what we now call networking. My dad’s strategy was that we could walk around together but, if he stopped to say Hello to somebody, I would just keep walking. If my dad knew their name, he would call me back and introduce me to his friend? acquaintance? famous-to-everybody-but my-dad luminary? If he did not know their name, I would just keep walking. Since I knew almost nobody and my dad couldn’t remember alot of names, often I would wander around among the big wigs, alone, for a while.
As an aside, I am not sure when the Convention’s business was over, but the drinking and partying continued way past the legal-bar-closing time of 2:00 AM. I did not want to pay the exorbitant fee of $2.00 to park, so I had parked about a mile away, across Van Ness Avenue, in a residential area. As an aside to the aside, Van Ness is so wide because the buildings on one side were dynamited to make a fire break after the earthquake of 1906 which is also why there are no wooden Victorians to the east of Van Ness and so many on the west side. End of aside to the aside. Anyway, about 3:00 AM, I walked back to my car. The streets were mostly empty because of the hour, but every bus zone, every fire hydrant, every no parking zone -really – had a car in it. There were no tickets on any of the windows: it was a graphic demonstration of how politicians – and Police Chiefs, and Fire Chiefs, and assorted highranking public employees, just big wigs in general – don’t feel it necessary to follow the laws they make. I won’t say that I was devastated, but I did become more cynical and angry as I walked. End aside.
One of those big wigs was an old man whose name I don’t remember and I don’t think that my dad did either. (When I say old man, it comes from the perspective of a young twenty-something; the old man would now look considerably younger but, then, he could have been anything over 70.) Anyway, when my dads called me over and I shook hands with the old man, I was told that the old man’s grandfather had shaken hands with President George Washington so I was three handshakes away from Washington himself. At the time, it did not seem like a very big deal because, among other things, at the time I did not not think of myself as very young, so that the connection could easily be stretched by, say, 17 years and the old man was sort of wasting his time with me. Now the connection seems pretty amazing, and just marginally possible which I guess was the point.
This was the early to mid 1960’s: let’s say 1962. If the old man was 86, he would have been born in 1876. Let’s say that a handshake doesn’t count until a child is five and knows what they are doing, that means the earliest time he could have meaningfully shaken his grandfather’s hand was 1881. If his grandfather lived to be 86, that means the earliest time he could have meaningfully shaken Washington’s hand was 1799. The same year that Washington died. But, Washington died at the very end of 1799 – December 14th – making the whole thing possible. Giving me only three degrees of separation from the first President of the United States.