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By Fred Miller
With the luck of the Irish, I'd landed a plum of a job in the fanciest hotel on the hill, me a mere twelve-year-old in a crisp, bright uniform with a pill box hat the color of my freckles and hair, the newest message boy scrounging tips for cables and notes delivered promptly to various guests of this post establishment. Donovan, that's me, fast and alert and on the spot with a smile and an itch to succeed at whatever came my way.
The two of us had joined the horde of starry-eyed forty-niners, landing in the aura of Sutter's treasures just in time for Pa to keel over a sluice ten days into our search of a new claim. Which I lost. Size counts out here. As do weapons. I had neither.
But as I said, fortune had smiled my way and I hitched a ride in the back of a wagon into downtown San Francisco and begged on the streets until the day a dapper gentleman took pity on the likes of me and paid some ladies in a house full of color and aromas to tub-bathe me, while he instructed another winsome lass to strike out and fetch clothes for my pitiful self.
His name? "Mr. Clark, sir," or Damien as he's known to his friends, and he lives in the hotel where he referred me for the position I now hold. Well, referred is a polite word, for sure. My new-found benefactor had taken me by the collar to the Bell Captain, a crusty old fellow by the name of Walter, and suggested he give me a try as a message boy or runner. And quickly added, "Box his ears if he fails, and bring him round to me so I may do the same."
"Aye, Mr. Clark," he said, "we'll give him a go."
Frightened of the consequences of failure, I can recall only one constant complaint lodged against me: tripping on the ancient rugs across the spacious lobby where I scurried about to deliver and please all concerned.
He said I could call him Damien despite his silvered hair and vested look, but I never could. A saint he was, and "Mr. Clark sir," was the proper address I always used. And he introduced me to Billy, another hotel runner who soon became my best friend. Billy suggested I room with him among the pipes in the boiler room in the basement. 'Twasn't much, but warmth and dryness are rare values for one who'd spent his first nights here on the streets and up alleys, not to mention dodging street toughs and thieves about.
"Cats are strange animals, Donovan," he said to me one morning. Following his breakfast, Mr. Clark, sir, would sit in the same cushioned chair in the lobby, smoke a cigar and read the morning Gazette. If he'd see me unoccupied for a moment, he'd wave me over for the day's riddle. And if I could solve it, he'd proffer a half dime, and that suited the likes of me to a tee. He had a twinkle in his eye when he said, "Cats, Donovan."
"Don't know much about cats, Mr. Clark, sir. Is this today's riddle?"
"'Tis," he said. I listened.
"Cats are a strange breed, Donovan, with small brains, but their loyalty is beyond question. You can fete them, treat them as royalty, or shower them with a myriad of gifts, but you'll never know their sympathies until the chips are down and your back's to the wall. Why is this so, my boy?"
Because of our past exchanges over riddles, I knew better than to admit to any ignorance in this game."How much time do I have to consider this one, Mr. Clark, sir?"
With a grin he said, "A lifetime, Donovan." He chuckled and before I could respond further, his newspaper rose over his face to accept his immediate attention. Cats, I thought, small brained, unable to be influenced, and secretly sympathetic to those they fancied. Wrinkling my brow, I scratched the nape below my canted hat.
"Helps to know you'll likely spend a fortune on them with scant indications of future fidelity. Much to the contrary, they'll display a capricious nature when first your head is turned," he said behind the newspaper, cigar smoke rising as he spoke. I wanted to pull the paper away from his face to see if there was mirth in his eyes, but I dared not. In addition to his attentions and largess to me, he was a highly respected citizen of the city and rumored to have become well-heeled from his shrewd real estate dealings. And if his clothes and deportment were clues, his past successes were assured. Billy said he'd heard that Mr. Clark, sir, owned the hotel as well as many commercial buildings on and around the hill, but my friend and fellow runner was subject to exaggeration, to say the least. Yet I'll give him this: when our services were not immediately needed, we'd stand behind one of the urns that held giant ferns, well out of sight of Walter, and discuss new riddles posed that day. In this he was immensely useful, and if he solved a riddle first, I'd give him the coin from Mr. Clark, sir. And if I explored avenues from his musings that led me to the answer, I'd buy late night snacks we'd share in our room.
"What's today's riddle, Donovan?"
"Cats," I said.
"Cats? Filthy little animals. What on earth?" he said.
"He says that cats are small-brained, but loyal; yet no matter what you do for them, they'll display no loyalty to you unless they secretly like you and they see that you are deep into trouble and need them," I said. "Why is this so?"
"Need them? Who needs cats? I've no idea on this one, Donovan."
"Me either…at the moment."
"How much time do we have to solve it?"
"A lifetime, he says, he does indeed."
"A lifetime? Well, it may take just that," he said.
"Hey, you there, come over here this minute," the Bell Captain said and cuffed both of us lightly about the ears.
"Billy, this message is for Mr. Jacobs in 304. Now off with you." Billy snatched the folded note and disappeared toward the staircase.
"Donovan, this 'un is mighty important. T'is for the mayor of the city. And it must be delivered personally. Are ya up for it, boy?"
"Yes, sir," I said, my hand out for the sealed envelope. Walter handed it to me and bent down to whisper an address I did not recognize on a street that ran through the heart of a district known as the Tendernob, an area that had become a crucible for crime and vices quite unknown to me before I'd come to the city.
At dusk in front of the place I realized this was where Mr. Clark, sir, had brought me for the ladies to bathe and outfit me in new clothes. I approached the door and lifted the polished handle.
My eyes widened when the door was opened by a lady with bright rosy cheeks and a boa that covered almost nothing she currently displayed. She gazed at me and her smile widened.
"Sylvia," she said over her shoulder, "look who's here. It's the boy Damien brought over last summer for a bath and new duds."
And before I knew it, I was surrounded by faces that had appeared out of nowhere.
"Well, ain't you a fancy pants," one said.
"Here for a little sample, are ya, lad?" said another. The crowd cackled. And though I was young, I was no longer so naïve I did not understand the nature of the establishment where I'd been dispatched.
"No'm, I've a message for the mayor," I said.
"Think this is city hall, do ya?" a voice in the crowd said and that brought more laughter.
"Um, I was sent from the hotel to this address with an envelope for the mayor," I said.
Sylvia, who appeared to be in charge, offered her hand and said, "I'll deliver it to him, lad."
"Ma'am, my instructions are to deliver this envelope directly to the mayor," I said.
"What's your name, boy?" Sylvia said.
"Donovan, ma'am, at your service."
"Well, Donovan, the mayor's indisposed at the moment, and I'm confident he'd be angry if anyone interrupted his current negotiations. You wish to wait for him?" she said.
Determined to fulfill my current business obligation, I nodded and stood in the foyer, perspiration rolling off my neck.
Before further confusion could ensue, two large French doors opened toward an inner sanctum and a bearded man strode forth buttoning his vest and with the ladies in tow.
"C. J., there's a runner here with a message for you from the hill," Sylvia said.
"What's your name, lad?" he said.
"Donovan, your honor, sir."
He looked me over and then gazed at the ladies assembled and said, "The boy's got manners." And to me, "And from the looks of your uniform, you've come from the hotel."
"Yes, your honor, and this is for you," I said.
He took the envelope, canted his head as he glanced at the handwriting, reached into his vest pocket and handed me a coin. Now I'd learned from Billy never to examine a tip in front of a guest, but to consider its worth once out of sight of the client.
"Thank you, sir," I said and promptly left. On the street I eyed my new treasure, a one dollar gold piece. Of course I knew what it was, but I'd never been given one. My heart raced. I'd met the mayor of the city, and I was the proud owner of a Liberty gold piece.
In the days that followed, my job remained fraught with adventures, new faces, and places I'd no idea existed until I'd been dispatched to them. Perhaps half the messages were delivered within the hotel. The rest were taken to some of the most unusual of destinations in the city.
"How many apples grow on a tree, Donovan?" he said.
"Um, does it depend on the size of the tree, Mr. Clark, sir?" The wheels in my head began to spin as I stalled for time.
"No, Donovan, it does not," he said.
"Does the weather or the soil matter, Mr. Clark, sir?"
"No, not at all," he said.
I'd come from Ohio so I'd seen plenty of apple trees and I'd picked my share of this fruit. I then decided this must be a joke as well as a riddle.
"All of them, Mr. Clark, sir?"
"Very good, Donovan." A half dime slipped into my hand and, after a gracious thank you, I was out and about watching the front desk and bell stand for my next assignment.
A hotel is a living city, Mr. Clark, sir, had said and within months of my arrival there I'd found this to be an accurate portrait of the place. A few had died in their sleep here, and a baby had been born in the hotel. And that fact helped me solve a riddle and add to the growing store of wealth I'd hidden behind the pipes in my room. The riddle posed to me: She was born in 1735, but she's still alive. How can that be? A woman had just given birth in the hotel that morning and I knew the answer without further thought.
My forays took me to all parts of the city and, in turn, broadened my understanding of mankind. A steady flow of messages came my way from spouses and lady friends intent on finding gentlemen whose presence was temporarily unaccounted for. Frequently the envelopes would, in lieu of an address, include these words: "find him!"
And because Billy had tipped me off about a place run by a statuesque Asian woman on Waverly Street in China Town that was popular with our male guests, I was able to find many of these gentlemen posthaste. And since no one wished to be discovered there, not only was I rewarded handsomely for delivering the missives, but also for an assurance I'd never divulge to anyone where I'd found them.
Because of my alertness and my will to please, I was soon promoted to desk clerk of the hotel, a prestigious position that required a black suit, white shirt and tie—some things I was sure I could now afford. But Mr. Clark, sir, insisted on taking me to his tailor for a fitting, the garments to go on his account. By now I was so in his debt, I was sure there'd be no way I could ever return the many favors he'd done for me. A shadow of this man's caring nature loomed large over me.
Each day following his perusal of the newspaper, Mr. Clark, sir, would leave the hotel on business and I'd not see him again until the dinner hour. And frequently a carriage in the hotel portico awaited him following his evening repast in the hotel with friends or business associates. He never told me where his evening journeys might take him, nor did I ever ask.
But despite his busy schedule, the game of riddles continued. What travels around the world, but remains on one corner? A stamp. What asks questions, but never answers? An owl. These mental activities and other tasks he planned for me away from the hotel assisted me in developing a keen understanding of my new environment, what he called "street smarts." And I must add that because of his acumen and willingness to share his wisdom, he eventually made me a wealthy man, but in a way I'd never have guessed.
The evening it occurred remains seared in my memory. And my heart aches at the thought of the state of affairs that unfolded following the message I received from one of our runners. By now I'd arrived at the ripe old age of twenty and had recently been promoted to night manager of the hotel. And I was in my office when a uniformed youth entered with the message,
Come quickly. He's gone.
At first I was at a loss to decipher the message, but I quickly had the Bell Captain summon a carriage to take me to Sylvia's place. There my friend, Mr. Clark, sir, had died of natural causes, and Sylvia had called for my assistance because she'd decided that propriety demanded that he be found in his hotel suite in the morning hours to come.
The ladies, whose faces were now familiar to me, had taken up a collection among themselves in case I was forced to solicit help from men I'd have to bribe to remain mute on the scheme at hand.
But as I anticipated, that was unnecessary. An arrangement was made with the hotel bellman and others who loved the old gentleman and could assist in a quiet transfer. And though Sylvia and the Asian lady on Waverly Street sent emissaries to offer to underwrite his funeral in its entirety, I knew this was something I needed to do myself. I still owed him a debt I knew I could never repay.
Days later as I was completing the arrangements, I was further stunned when his attorneys informed me that I was to inherit his vast holdings of real estate across the city.
At the funeral I listened to the mayor and other dignitaries extol my friend's virtues and expand on this tragic loss to our great city. And as I looked around I saw the eyes of so many I knew, including a host of ladies under black crowned hats whose gazes brimmed with memories and whose ashen faces were streaked with tears of sincerely devotion. And it was at that moment I realized I had the first clue at solving an unsolvable riddle Mr. Clark, sir, had posed to me so long ago, a puzzle that had haunted me to this day. Unconsciously my lips moved and I whispered, "cats."