When Aaron was out of town I spent a lot of time in Wicked Grounds since I didn’t really feel like going home. One day, as I went in, I noticed that someone had put up fresh graffiti on the store window. Graffiti isn’t uncommon in SOMA – when we were located there, CVE would have fresh graffiti every few weeks– but this was a symbol I hadn’t seen before. It looked like a crown with a tail hanging off it. It was also smaller than I’m used to graffiti being, and off in the corner of the window. I assumed it was a Latin Kings symbol.
I went to get my usual (porn cake and an Aranciata) and I told the owner about it. She thanked me for my concern, but reassured me that it wasn’t a problem. “It’s not actually graffiti – it’s the Emperor’s seal,” she said.
At first I thought she meant the Imperial symbol, which looks more like a gear than a crown. (I’d had Fett’s Vette playing on my mp3 player when I walked in – Star Wars wasn’t a wild leap for my brain to make.) When I asked for clarification, she said, “Emperor Norton.”
“Wait, the Emperor Norton? Hasn’t he been dead for a while now?”
“Um, no, he’s very much alive,” she said, with one of those “you’re new here, aren’t you?” looks usually reserved for tourists wearing shorts and T-shirts in July. (I haven’t gotten one of those looks since I learned to stop looking for street signs at eye level and started looking at the curbs to figure out where I am.)
The door opened and a few regulars walked in. One of them stopped to check out the graffiti/sigil/thing. “Hey, I see you got a visit from the Emperor. Congratulations!”
I decided to go with it. I sat at the bar and ate my pr0n cake and listened in on the conversation, and managed not to ask too many n00b questions.
Some background first, for people who don’t play Changeling/don’t have occasion to know San Francisco trivia: in the mid 19th century, a businessman named Joshua Norton lost a fortune in rice speculation. He disappeared for a while, then resurfaced wearing a military uniform and a feathered hat, declaring himself the Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. He issued a number of decrees (disbanding Congress, issuing a $25 fine for using the word “Frisco”, ordering the Bay Bridge to be built), some of which got printed as a joke in several newspapers around the country. San Francisco totally humored him and turned him into their mascot; he got free meals, theater tickets, and hotel rooms whenever he asked for them, and businesses would advertise themselves as endorsed by the Emperor.
About three months ago, an urban legend started up around a homeless guy with strikingly sharp duds, calling himself Emperor Norton. This isn’t terribly remarkable in itself; social safety nets being only slightly better than they were in the 1800s (thanks ever so, recession and unrelenting BOOTSTRAPS!!!11!eleven! mentality), it’s not uncommon for to find someone with an untreated mental health diagnosis living on the streets. And San Francisco had a tradition of humoring the original Emperor Norton and giving him free shit; as delusions go, you couldn’t ask for a better one.
It gets better, though: whoever this dude was, whatever his circumstances were before he styled himself Emperor Norton, is a dead ringer for the original one. He looks exactly like the pictures of the original guy, has the same clothing, talks the same, writes in the same stylized Victorian style. (Street Spirit, by the way, is printing his decrees. I bought a paper that has one of them – he was ordering Obama to desegregate schools.)
Even more impressive is that people seem to be taking him as seriously as they did the first time around. More seriously, in fact; even back in the 1800s people were mostly humoring Emperor Norton; he was an eccentric novelty and people played along for the fun of it, but nobody seriously believed he had any authority. People don’t just humor this new guy, they respect the fuck out of him. He has an air of gravitas or whatever that makes people give him things and treat him like royalty because they can’t imagine treating him any other way.
Either he is/was an incredibly detailed LARPer, a history buff with a lot of time, acting ability, and disposable income, or – and people laughed when they said this, but not very much – he’s the actual 1860s Emperor Norton. (Nobody's offering any ideas on how he might have gotten from 1870s and dead to 2011 and alive. I'm going with the TARDIS theory.)
Since that day at Wicked Grounds I’ve seen more crowns pop up around the city. The Orpheum, a used bookstore in the Haight, a burrito place in the Mission, and an adult movie theater on Broadway all have the Emperor’s seal on them. I heard that Golden Gate Park has one. I mentioned the Street Spirit issuing his decrees; the editions with his decrees are fast becoming collector’s items. He's got a strong liberal trend on some things - he's issued decrees for things like universal health care, amnesty for immigrants (part of his title is Protector of Mexico), more parks and green space, and more homeless shelters - and on other things he's oddly conservative, like on the subject of women wearing low-rise jeans and same-sex marriage. And I'm not sure whether it's racist or quaint and antiquated for him to call Barack Obama a negro when he decreed that the President step down; I guess if I don't tolerate delusions of acceptable racism in politicians or pundits, it shouldn't be tolerable for the Emperor either.
I have clients who claim they’ve seen him, and they say that he has people following him like an actual court. His followers include other homeless people, runaway kids, a journalist or two, a SFSU professor who took a sabbatical to follow him around and write a book on him (his official title is Royal Biographer By Appointment Of The Emperor), there’s even a reformed gangbanger in his entourage; he’s the guy who doles out the Emperor’s seals, since he’s handy with a spray can. Some people claim he has a physical court somewhere in the city, although accounts vary; I’ve heard that it resembles an actual throne room, I’ve heard that it’s more like a freehold (complete with a balefire); I’ve heard that it’s just a back alley decorated with whatever the Emperor and his followers find on the street or are given; I’ve heard it’s a BART car decorated in Late Burning Man décor. I like the theory that it's all of these at the same time, and that it moves from place to place whenever the Emperor gets tired of the old one.
I propose an expedition to track the fellow down and find his court. I have it on good authority that he's going to be making a State of the Empire address on Saturday night, and I want to see his entourage myself after hearing so much about it. Who's with me?