Heart of the City Archives

Notorious: Was Herbert Bass a Norton for the Internet era?

Crossing the bridge to Norton's empire
by Hank Donat

I glanced at a half-folded Examiner that was tucked in the space next to my seat on a 22 Fillmore. There was my horoscope, Sagittarius. Horoscopes are like ex-lovers. It's best not to go looking for them. But this one was optimistic. It said, "Seeing reality through a magical fog is kind of nice! Enjoy it while it lasts."

The Examiner has become an integral part of the MUNI experience. Spending time with the paper on the bus or on the underground ranks with transfer bingo - getting a late night transfer during daylight hours - and seatmate profiling as a favorite pastime on the lines.

In the Ex: I caught up with the story of San Francisco's desire to rename the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton in four stops on a 24 Divisadero.

Since that story broke, Oakland has picked up its marbles and left the yard. They're feigning no knowledge of an emperor in San Francisco, thank you very much. So, for the few Oaklanders who may be reading the Independent on a break from holiday shopping in Union Square, following is a speed-through.

Beginning in the late 1850s, would-be rice baron Norton lost his fortune and his marbles in one fell swoop. He declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico and spent the next 20 years as San Francisco's most eccentric eccentric. Among his imperial proclamations were the banning of the word "Frisco" and an edict for a bridge from San Francisco to Oakland.

Now that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has foisted a dreary causeway upon us all, a Norton Bridge seems more appropriate than ever. It's not really a bridge; he wasn't really an emperor. Though everyone agreed to pretend he had power, he had only the charisma with which to attract the tolerance and affection of others. Norton died of a heart attack, homeless, on Grant Avenue in 1880.

Earlier this month, only hours before the Board of Supervisors took up the issue of whether to rename the bridge for Norton, city officials celebrated the life of a modern day character who, like Norton, was completely self-invented and was no stranger to controversy.

Most you have never heard of Herbert Bass from San Leandro. But several days ago, a dozen of the most powerful people in San Francisco attended his funeral. Until 18 months ago they had never heard of him, either.

To understand the strange story of Herbert Bass it is necessary to back up just a bit. On June 13, 2003, Adriel Hampton reported in the Examiner that an anonymous political satirist known as "Joefire" had allegedly sent a prank email, disguised as a Susan Leal for Mayor campaign letter, to 400 Leal supporters. As a result, the prankster was banned from the political chat board sfpolifix.com. It was Joefire's second such banishment from a political message board.

Joefire next became a volunteer on the Gavin Newsom campaign, but was asked to leave due to a personality conflict. That may have been the end of it, except that Joefire, aka Eric-Allen Bass, aka Herbert Bass was too enamored with the City's political scene to go away quietly.

A few weeks after the Leal email episode, reporter J.K. Dineen wrote, "Just when you thought you'd got rid of him, 'Joefire' is back." Dineen reported that the "electronic political hell-raiser" was about to launch a web site, Joefire.com.

In short order, Joefire.com became recommended reading for City Hall and campaign staffers - and among certain members of the press. Though its pages were filled with unedited screeds that more closely resembled online chat than journalism, Joefire not only became a member of the press himself, but his confrontational personal style had made him beloved by some, reviled by others as Bass became omnipresent at City Hall.

Joefire wrote that the crew of the Columbia space shuttle should have to do more than die in space to be considered heroes, and he famously announced that Supervisor Jake McGoldrick's house "smells like old people."

Joefire's is an only-in-San-Francisco story of a driven individual, fascinated by celebrity and elevated by the political egos who were the very targets of his scorching missives. With just a few months in the public eye, Bass had literally made a name for himself.

After Bass died of AIDS on Thanksgiving Day at the age of 35, City officials searched for next-of-kin for the political gadfly about whom little was known. Relatives of Bass were found just across Joshua Norton's bridge, in Oakland. They were unaware of Herbert's ascent as Joefire.

Only about 200 people were reading the Joefire web page regularly, said a friend in a eulogy for Bass, but most of those readers were the leading citizens of San Francisco.

Mayor Newsom, District Attorney Kamala Harris, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, School Board member Eric Mar, Police Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese, former Supervisor Angela Alioto, and Supervisors Chris Daly and Sean Elsbernd attended the service for Bass at the McAvoy O'Hara funeral parlor on Geary Blvd. Several members of the mayor's staff and the media turned out as well.

Relatives spoke lovingly of the uncle who watched cartoons and went to track meets with them. Members of the City's political family gathered their senses. "I didn't know he had AIDS," some said, "I didn't know his site was a one-man show," "I didn't know he had been homeless," "I didn't know his name was Herbert."

And so ends the story, despite the lingering mysteries of Herbert Eric-Allen Joefire Bass. Though he disappears into the magical fog, he is forever a self-invented San Franciscan and a kind of Norton for the Internet age. But would folks want to cross a bridge called Joefire? Probably not. More >> Notorious: Joefire

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