At 6 o’clock this morning, a group of firemen, NERT volunteers, sleepy children, public health officials, local historians and people in 1900s-era costumes gathered to spray-paint a fire hydrant with a can of Special Purpose Krylon Metallic Gold (dries in 15 minutes or less, ideal for decorations, lamps, furniture, crafts and more).
According to local legend, when all the other fire hydrants ran dry after the 1906 earthquake, the one at 20th and Church mysteriously kept on working. Aided by a crew of hundreds of human assistants wielding buckets and wet blankets, the hydrant saved the buildings around it from the fires that tore through the Mission.
The crowd was much smaller than the one that gathered around Lotta’s Fountain even earlier this morning for the 105th anniversary of the earthquake. There a crowd of several hundred people milled around groggily (rumors of coffee brewed by the Red Cross, bad but hot, failed to materialize) while various speakers, including former mayor Willie Brown, expounded over a staticky public address system.
The star attraction was Bill Del Monte, one of three remaining people in the Bay Area who lived through the earthquake, and the only one who came (the other two, both women, declined on the grounds that they wanted to sleep in). “How do you live to be 105?” asked a man with a microphone, leaning down to speak to him. “Everybody asks me that,” said Del Monte. “I wish I knew.”
At 5:12, the moment the 1906 earthquake began, ear-splitting sirens went off in all directions, which was a bit much to deal with when under-slept. But then the crowd lustily sang the song “San Francisco,” in unison, which was better.
By 6 a.m., when the crowd from downtown arrived in the Mission, the sun wasn’t so much coming up, but the sky was getting lighter. The weather could be described as either heavy fog or slow-motion rain. One by one, people stepped up to paint the hydrant.
“This is for Doc Bullock,” said one woman. She placed one foot in a high-heeled gold boot on the hydrant, spraying that as well. “He began doing this alone, every year. He called himself ‘The Phantom.’ But then one morning he came to do it, and there was a Channel 7 news crew.”
A flamboyantly mustachioed man stepped up. “This is for Herb Caen.”
Another man stepped up and was passed the can. “This is in honor of my grandmother, who always told me my room was messier than the tent she lived in in Golden Gate Park.”
“This is for all the people this hydrant saved,” whispered a little girl in a parka, closing her eyes and wincing as she pressed down on the nozzle.
“For all the San Francisco transplants,” said Anne Kronenberg, executive director of the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management and once, many years ago, the campaign manager for Harvey Milk. “People who weren’t born here, but who found it home.”
People ignored the directions to form a line and instead just passed the can among the crowd.
“For the victims of ’06, ’09 and Japan.”
“In honor of the chiefs of the Fire Department. Past, present and future.”
“To all the city workers who create the city day by day.”
“For all the diverse people of San Francisco.”
“This is for Patrick Calhoun, whose $200,000 bribe got the streetcars running again on Market Street.”
“Aw!” yelled a voice from the crowd. “Don’t talk politics!”
“This is for Rose Cliver, earthquake survivor,” said a woman from the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Association. “She couldn’t be here today. She’s kind of over this. But we’re glad she’s alive.”
“I’ve been in this neighborhood for 20-odd years,” said a man as someone passed him the spray can. “One block over. This is the first time I’ve been to this thing.” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Camera crews keep trying to talk to me,” said one of the women dressed in 1900s garb. “And then they’re disappointed that I’m not fifteenth-generation San Franciscan. But as I always say, people who weren’t born in San Francisco were just born in the wrong city accidentally.”
“Mark Twain said ‘Everything not bolted down winds up in San Francisco,’” added another man, gravely. He shook up the can of gold paint and gilded the piece of paper that the San Francisco Historical Society had handed to him, and everyone else. “On April 18th, 2011, I Helped Gold Paint the Fire Hydrant at 20th and Church Streets,” the paper read.
“Do you want me to spray yours?” he asked. “It’s tradition.”
“It’s a tradition,” the woman replied, “that you just made up.”