Friday, early evening, July 2, 1880
“Kearny, Montgomery, and Market street are already assuming a gala appearance and further elaborate private decorations are in progress.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 1880
“Time to head out, Dunk. Mr. Rashers will have our hides if we’re not back by seven-thirty, sharp.” Seth Timmons sorted through his coins and threw down two quarters, which included a generous tip for the amiable waitress.
Dunk mopped up the last of his gravy with the end of his roll and stuffed it into his mouth. “Don’t you want to take that with you?” the young apprentice mumbled, pointing to the two chunks of potato and a strip of beefsteak left on Seth’s plate.
Seth told him no and pushed himself away from the table as Dunk took out an ink-stained handkerchief and rolled up the left-overs, sticking the soggy bundle back into his jacket pocket. The boy was only fourteen, but he already neared six feet and looked to have a few more inches to go if his prodigious appetite was any indication. Seth remembered what it was like to be that young and feel on the brink of starvation all the time. He also remembered what it was like to really starve.
Slamming the door on the dark thoughts of the war and Andersonville prison, he said gruffly, “You think that’ll tide you over till quitting time?”
Dunk grinned. “Well, I guess I forgot to mention that Ma packed me supper. But since you were so nice as to treat me to a meal, I’ll split that with you later if you get a little peckish.”
Seth chuckled, put on his stetson, and turned to wend his way through the crowded restaurant. The menu at Hank’s Restaurant was limited, but the coffee was excellent, and for five cents you could get all the refills you wanted. He started coming here in March when he began working at Rashers Printing Company. Like many San Francisco teachers, he’d been forced to find a second job when the school board began to delay issuing pay warrants for the spring term. When school ended at three, he would go to the Mechanics Library on Post Street and grade homework. Then he’d stop off at Hank’s for a bite and coffee before starting his shift at Rashers at seven-thirty. He’d get home at one in the morning from his job as night pressman, sleep four hours, then get up in time to do any last minute preparation for his job teaching forty-five energetic fourth graders.
Life was a little easier now that the school term was over and he was working full time at Rashers. Not that he had much time for anything else––or anyone else––for that matter. But he still appreciated the pick-me-up that three cups of Hank’s coffee gave him during his dinner break, which was about half-way through his twelve-hour shift. The steam-powered Babcock printing press he and Dunk operated had gears that were happy to crunch a misplaced finger if you nodded off.
At the door of the restaurant, Seth stopped and took out his tobacco pouch, watching the throngs of people push past. Clay Street was unusually crowded, even for a summer evening. This block, between Kearney and Montgomery, was where San Francisco’s Fourth of July procession would make its turn to go back down south to Market Street. All day people had been checking out the decorations going up along the parade route. The city as a whole seemed to have gone mad for bunting. Flags, banners, and red, white, and blue triangles stuck out from every house window, draped across every shop front, and hung between lamp poles.
Seth didn’t really understand all the fuss and thought a lot of the decorations seemed pretty tawdry. He supposed it was good for business. What he minded most was the pop, pop, pop of firecrackers that ricocheted off the buildings at unexpected intervals. Fifteen years had passed since the war ended, and he still reacted like a gun-shy horse to the sound.
Shrugging, Seth tapped out half the usual amount of tobacco before licking the end of the paper and deftly rolling a cigarette. They only had to go up two blocks to get back to work, and he hated waste. He stepped aside to let Dunk pass and then lit the cigarette and let the lad lead the way east on Clay. Dunk wasn’t quite as tall as Seth yet, but he was twice as wide, with the beefy shoulders of a farm boy, and he plowed a nice furrow through the crowded sidewalk.
The nightly fog was already snuffing out what residual light was left from the setting sun. Nevertheless, when they crossed Montgomery Street, Seth could still make out the huge white letters spelling out “Rashers and Company, Printers” on the story-high billboard affixed to the corner of the Niantic Building. This modern brick edifice was rumored to have been constructed over the buried hull of a ship that ran aground in the San Francisco Bay in forty-nine and was promptly abandoned by gold-seekers.
Light gleamed from the arched windows of the Niantic’s fourth floor where a box factory was still in full operation. On the second floor, which Rashers shared with a book bindery and a shoe factory, only Rashers’ windows showed any light. The third floor, which housed the steam generators and gas plant for the building, was bleeding light from the edges of pulled-down shades. The first-floor commercial shops, each with their own Independence Day trimmings, were closing up for the night, but there were still a good number of shoppers, messengers, and deliverymen darting in and out, and the one restaurant was in full swing.
They crossed Sansome Street and continued to the building’s Clay Street entrance. The night porter was having his usual dispute with a cabbie over whether or not his hansom could stand in front of the delivery entrance while waiting for a fare. Seth tipped his hat and said, “Good evening, Crockett,” and followed Dunk into the building and up the dark set of stairs next to the freight elevator.
Once on the stairs, he could hear the omnipresent rattle and hiss of the steam engines that made this building feel like a living entity, day or night. From below, a sudden burst of high-pitched voices and the pounding of multiple feet caused Seth to move quickly up against the wall.
A stream of young women returning to the cigar box factory from their dinner break pushed past. One of the girls said, “Going to be late, you two,” and playfully snatched Dunk’s cap as she went by.
Dunk was staring up at the retreating skirts, sputtering, when the cap came sailing back down. Seth caught it and clapped it back on the boy’s head, saying, “You heard her, get a move on.”
The service entrance to Rashers consisted of a set of double doors that made it easy to wheel in supplies and wheel out the stacks of unbound books and magazines that made up a significant part of Rashers’ business. Entering, Seth looked clear across the large cluttered room to Joshua Rashers’ office. Its door was only partly closed, letting out a narrow triangle of light. The rest of the room appeared empty; the gas lights turned down everywhere except along the wall to his right where the big Babcock press sat silently waiting for them.
Seth flung his stetson on the hook near the door and turned to Dunk. “Looks like Mrs. Sullivan isn’t here yet, Dunk. Rashers said she would be setting up a last minute order that we will need to get out tonight. I will go check to see if he still needs us to do that before we get going on the Demokrat.”
The California Demokratwas the main German language newspaper in San Francisco and the primary reason Seth had gotten this job. He hadn’t set much type since he was Dunk’s age and working at his uncle’s newspaper back in Pennsylvania, right before he enlisted. After the war, in between cattle ranching jobs, he’d gotten some training with different-sized presses as he worked his way west. What he didn’t have was a union card or references. When he started looking around for work to supplement his wages from teaching, he hadn’t much luck until he’d seen Rashers’ ad in the Chronicle.
Joshua Rashers wanted to land the Demokrataccount, with its nearly five thousand daily subscribers and ten thousand Sunday subscribers. That meant he needed someone who could read German well enough to proof the copy. Seth’s German ancestors had migrated to Pennsylvania nearly a century earlier, but his grandmother still spoke the language and taught him to read German as a boy.
When he started working towards his teaching credential, first at Kansas and then San Jose Normal School, the German came back quickly and was right helpful in his philosophy classes. He figured if he could read Kant and Hegel in the original, he could proof a German newspaper. Joshua Rashers thought so as well and was delighted he’d also found someone who could work with both the small Gordon jobbers and the big Babcock press.
“Go on and get out the paper and load it up top. When I get back, you can go upstairs and have them start the engine for the Babcock,” said Seth as he walked through the crowded room towards Rashers’ office. As he got close, he was surprised to hear what sounded like a woman’s soft cries.
Damn the man, does he have to conduct his dalliances in the office? Seth started to walk away.
The office door slammed against the wall behind him, and he spun back around.
There stood Rashers’ chief compositor, Florence Sullivan, her usual neat appearance marred by the red liquid that dripped down her up-turned hands and lay smeared across her pale cheeks.
“Mrs. Sullivan, ma’am, what has happened? Are you injured?” Seth started to move towards her.
She shook her head, whispering, “I couldn’t help…there was so much blood.” Then she wailed, “Oh, whatever will become of us? Joshua’s dead,” before closing her eyes and crumpling to the floor in a dead faint.