JACK LONDON ON THE WATERFRONT
By JOHN C. HIGGINS
Johnny Heinold, "boss barkeeper, cash-register and swamper" of the First-and-Last Chance Saloon recalls the exploits of a noted California author.
With the passing of Johnny Heinold a few days ago in an Oakland hospital, there disappeared another link in the chain connecting modern, dynamic California with the California of an early and colorful era. Few people, reading the obscure item in the metropolitan papers, paid much attention to it, perhaps. But the word will go around among the last of the old sailors and whalers and sealers, and among the old newspapermen of Oakland and 'Frisco, and it will be passed from politician to policeman: "I see by the papers that Johnny Heinhold is dead." Then there will follow much discussion of the "old days" when the First and Last Chance Saloon was, probably, the most famous in California; where for nearly fifty years, the genial, understanding Heinhold held forth behind the bar.
A way back in the dim days when Chester A. Arthur was president of these United States, Johnny Heinold, then a young man, opened the doors of the First and Last Chance in a little grey building at 50 Webster Street, Oakland. For nearly fifty years, up until his death the other day, he remained at his post, although the advent of prohibition destroyed his business, but not his calling. Philosophically, he installed soft drinks, and candy bars, and tobaccos, and talked to all who came concerning the old days: of the men from the sealing and whaling ships; of firemen and policemen and ward politics of an earlier Oakland; of tramps and hoboes; of gold-seekers from the Klondike; of the follies and escapades of men now leaders in California public life. It was his joy to recall, for all who came, the days of the bicycle built for two, the peg-top trousers and brown derbies of the men, and of the bustles, flounces and puffed sleeves of the women.
And of the great who have honored his establishment he was wont to talk interestingly and well — of George Sterling, the poetical genius; of Martin Johnson, the explorer and writer; of the captains of tankers and tramp steamers and sailing vessels. But most of all it delighted him to tell of Jack London, the boy, and of Jack London, the man and the writer. For he knew the author of The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf as few, now living knew him. He was a sort of foster-father to the youth who startled the literary world with his brilliant and forceful prose, just as he amazed his associates by his freedom of thought and capacity for living.
About a month before he died, I had the pleasure of an interview with the old bartender. When I entered the old grey building, I was among the trappings and habilments of another age that ended with the German War. To the left were two old, round tables, scarred by many a seaman's knife. To the right bulked the bar, smoke-and-age-stained, the top worn and scarred, the footrail worn through in places. Seltzer bottles and fat cider jugs and boxes of candies and cigarettes stood on one end of the bar and on the shelves behind it. The two dusty virgins, one of them headless, the large, gilt-framed mirror, the inevitable eagle perching on the crossed flags, the big sign: "All Nations Welcome Except Carrie" — all were reminiscent of a vanished day. I was glancing about at the lithographs of race-horses and prized-fighters and over-dressed women daringly showing three inches of ankle, when the dean of American bartenders emerged from the back room.
He was a short, thin man with a kindly German face, and a world of wisdom in his old eyes. Dressed nondescriptly yet characteristiclly, he walked quickly and bore his seventy-odd years with a vigor of half his age. His words carried all the decisiveness of youth as he poured me a glass of cider and lighted himself a cigar. For the next three hours he talked of his past life, of the men on all walks of life who had come and gone from his establishment. Most of his monologue, however, was of Jack London and his relations with the author whom he helped and advised and watched rise from poverty to fame and wealth.
"Yes, I'm Johnny Heinold. So you came 500 hundred miles to talk to me, eh? Well, they do, they do — from all over they come."
"Jack London, eh? Will I ever ferget the first time he come in here? Eighteen-ninety-one, I think it was — he was about fifteen, and he come in here one morning with French Frank. Frank was middle-aged then, and the toughest and most famous of the oyster pirates, and he was fixin' to sell his sloop, the Razzle Dazzle, to Jack. The kid had borrowed $300 from Mammy Jenny, his old negro nurse, so's he could buy the boat."
"They fixed up the deal in here — I remember it like yesterday — and Jack hands French Frank the money, and then they have drinks all around to celebrate the deal. And what does Jack do a little later but steal French Frank's girl, who was called Queen of the Oyster Pirates. Hee! Hee! That was funny. It made Frank the talk o' the waterfront, and it looked mighty like he was goin' to lay for the kid with a knife. Matter-of-fact, he did try to run the Razzle Dazzle down in a rain-squall, but Jack was watchin' for him. At fifteen and sixteen he put it all over a man thirty years older than he was."
"Jack used to come in often after that, and sit down at yon table by the door. and fall to readin' a big dictionary I used to keep there." He pointed at the round, scarred table that stood nearest the door. "Never a bit of attention would he pay to the men drinkin' and smokin' and jokin' up here at the bar — just fell to on that old book and read it like he'd like to learn everything was in it . . . That was his way — everything he tackled, he did with all his force."
"In them days, you know, there was busy times around here. The bridge was there across the estuary, and all day long a steady stream o' horse-trucks went by, and a good many o' the drivers come in here before or after crossin'. Then there was about forty sealin' and whalin' ships used to lie up the creek there in the wintertime, and, o' course, my place here was headquarters for the crews. I used to hold the mail for boys on all the famous old windjammers: the Sophie Sutherland, the Mary Thomas, and a whole fleet of others. Then there was the boys from the oyster beds, and the oyster pirates — like French Frank and 'Scratch' Nelson and their outfits — and the crews of the old square-riggers that used to run to 'Stralia and around the Horn. And, besides, there was certain neighborhood gangs used to come in here and have a drink and a smoke. A hard mixed crowd it was!"
"But there was never any fights in my place. No sir, if they wanted to fight, out they went on the dock, where there was plenty of room 'thout breakin' my furniture and fittins's."
"As I say, the first time I saw Jack in here was when he bought the Razzle Dazzle. But he was a common-enough figure around the docks and on the Bay, and I often heered the men speak of him. When he was just fourteen he'd got a little skiff somewhere — decked over she was, and fourteen feet long. And he used to haul potatoes and onions and sech out to the moored ships, and he'd get the ships' cooks to save their kerosene tins till they come back at port, and he'd collect 'em and sell 'em for a dime each. The skippers and mates all liked the kid because he was so young and could handle a boat in a sea that'd have swamped many an older sailor."
"A quiet lad he was and not a boaster and braggart like lots o' people seem to think. He used to hang around and look and listen, and never butt in unless he had somethin' right important to say. He was gentler than a woman — leastways, than the "girls" who used to live in some big buildin's across the way there where you see the warehouse now. Yet he wasn't to be walked over — I don't care how big the guy was. He never fought much, but he'd set his jaw a certain way, and look with them flashing deep eyes of his, and that was all he needed to do. You see, he never bluffed."
"After Jack bought the Razzle Dazzle he became leader of the oyster pirates — him and a guy named Nelson, and they tore around the bay like demons, and Jack made more money than he'd ever knew existed. But it went fast. He gave a lot to his folks to help out at home, but quite a bit o' it went for gay times with the crowd. You had to spend to keep in with that outfit. So Jack got out of it. He was a clean kid, and all the riotin' disgusted him. I guess. Most of those oyster pirates died in jail, or was shot or drowned, and one or two was hanged over to San Quentin. Jack figgered the life would get him, too, if he kept on, I s'pose. So he quit. Came to me one day, said he'd lost his sloop which had been stolen and burnt by a rival gang, and he said he was goin' to sea. I talked him out of it that time, and he got to workin' on the Fish Patrol, runnin' down the very guys he used to roister around with. He tells all about it in Tales of the Fish Patrol — most of them stories is drawed from his own experience, and mighty interestin'."
"But he got tired o' this, and one day just before his seventeenth birthday he comes in and says he's tired of Oakland and 'Frisco and the bay, and that he's goin' to ship before the mast."
"I argied with him, and said that goin' to sea was a hard life, and what he should do was go back to school. But he couldn't see it thataway, and there was no turnin' him when his mind was made up."
The Sophie Sutherland was in port then, just bein' fixed up for a whalin' and sealin' voyage to Japan and the Bering Sea. I knew the skipper pretty well. He was a big hard-faced 'blue-noser' from Nova Scotia, and a braver skipper never took a ship through the Golden Gate to sea. No, I don't recall his name. I think he was Irish-Scotch. But the main thing to remember is the Sophie Sutherland. She was a trim little three-masted schooner, topsail-rigged, and Jack used her later as a model for Cap'n Larsen's vessel in The Sea-Wolf."
"So I speaks to the skipper and tells him there's a kid here that I been watchin' and he's got good stuff in him and wants to go to sea, and will he take him on the Sophie Sutherland and keep an eye on him?"
"How old is the kid?" he asks.
"Hell, no, I won't take him. He's too young," barks the big 'blue-noser,' drainin' his glass."
"But I argied for around an hour an' told him what Jack could do with a small boat, and how he was such a promisin' kid, and might go to the bad if he signed in any old ship."
"So the skipper softened and give in, and when he saw Jack he liked him a lot, for the lad was strongly built and quiet, and a man for all of his youth. So he was signed on as a boatpuller for a voyage to Japan and the Bering Sea. That was on his seventeenth birthday in '93."
"He was gone about eight months, and when he come back he was strong and brown and well-filled out, and he worked at shovelin' coal and mill work for a while for ten cents an hour, but he was too restless, and soon he was off hoboin' with Kelly's army, and gettin' ideas of tramp life."
"When he come back he was more serious than ever, and wanted to finish his education. So he whipped into high school studies, at nineteen, think o' that, and him a big lad who'd been to sea on a sailin' ship and who'd been all over the country as a hobo. But he fergot his pride among all them school kids, and he done the four years' work in less than two, and then he started in out at Berkeley to the University of California, and I didn't see much of him for a while. He was too busy studyin'."
"I remember it well the day he came to me and I loaned him ten dollars for tuition, and he was all eager to get started in the university, and study hard. But he only went for half a year. I guess the perfessers succeeded in takin' all the interest out o' the subjects for him, after the way he'd lived life, and besides he was low on money all this time."
"So he dropped out and went to writin' and then went off gold-huntin' to the Klondike, and then he came back broke, and got the idea of usin' his Klondike experiences in stories. Well, you know the result. Of course it was mighty hard at first. He got nothin' but rejections, and he wrote fifteen hours a day, and pawned his clothes lots o' times to pay his typewriter rent, and it was a hard struggle. But he came through."
The old bartender was silent, gazing long at the cold tip of his cigar.
"Jack never fergot a friend," went on Johnny after a bit. "Soon he got to be famous, and his stories was runnin' in several magazines and then the books started comin' out, but he always found time to come around here and have his little two-finger drink and bring me his latest book with his name writ in the front. Got 'em all home now — first editions with Jack's name in every blasted one o' them. People come around here all the time wantin' to buy 'em — you know, the kind o' people that thinks money will pay for anythin'. The fools — as if I'd sell 'em the books Jack give me."
"You know young feller, a lot of people has the wrong idea o' Jack London. They think he was a boastin' loud-mouth who beat his way to the top by snarlin' and fightin'; or they think he was an anarchist and rebel; or they think he was a swearin', fightin' drunkard, or a fellow who liked to have other people notice him and make big over him. Well, they're all wrong, understand? Put it in your article. Tell 'em just what he was."
"I knew him off and on for twenty-six years, and one man can get to know another pretty well in that space o' time. I watched him grow from a quiet little lad into one of the most famous writers and characters of our time. No man can do that and be a cheap braggart and bully. You know that."
"He was silent unless he had something important to say — then he said it in full. He never shoved himself in or made enemies, or tried to show off, like so many men do when they get in a place like this one. He was kind o' gentle, but he never backed down from a scrap, although it wasn't often necessary for him to fight. He just jumped into life with both feet in that courageous way of his, and he got romance and mystery and beauty out o' it where other men could see only labor. That's genius."
"Generous he was, too. I remember one Fourth of July, he saw some kids starin' at fireworks in a store window, and he asked 'em where their fireworks were, and they said their daddy didn't have any money. I was with Jack then, and his eye got sort of wet, and he took them kids into the store, and when they came out you couldn't see 'em for fireworks. And he used to meet fellows in here that he'd known on the road or at sea or in the Klondike, and they'd be broke, and he'd take 'em up to his ranch at Glen Ellen, in the Valley of the Moon, and give 'em a good home till they went their way. The 'boes in this part of the country made it a point to stop at Jack's ranch, and he'd always give 'em dinner and a bed, and breakfast and a dollar in the morning. That's where lot o' his money went. Don't think that doesn't take big-heartedness."
"Jack lived more completely than any man I ever saw. He threw himself into it, and did everything with all his might. That's why he got so much out o' life, and wrote so many grippin' books, and was regarded with wonder by everyone. He had the vitality of four ordinary men."
"A lot o' people ask my why I don't sell booze here. Plenty of it's sold in the neighborhood. Now, wouldn't that look nice on the front page of the papers: 'Johnny Heinold, friend of Jack London, jailed for sellin' liquor.' Wouldn't that be a hell of a note?"
We laughed and shook hands, for I was on the point of leaving.
"Goodbye, young feller. Sorry to see you go. Come around any time. I'm always here, and glad to talk over old times, especially about Jack. He was the finest and best I've ever known in fifty years on this spot. So long."
So I left him there in the doorway of his historic old saloon, proud of his post and self-created title of "Boss, Barkeep, Cash-Register, and Swamper." through his eyes I had watched the sailors and sealers and whalers, the oyster-pirates and wharf-rats come trooping into his place to drink and smoke and carry on the splendid conviviality of a masculine world that is as dead as the dust in the tombs of the Caesars. And I had come to know intimately the boy who became Jack London, novelist, writer, social reformer, explorer and journalist.
Now Johnny Heinold, too, is a memory. With his passing, California loses another of those characters that have made the history of the State so colorful. There only remains, to recall the little grey building, huddled among the new concrete warehouses of the Oakland waterfront, yet proudly bearing its fifty-year-old legend: "First and Last Chance."