I work with a woman who goes by the name of Jenner Davis. She spends her day processing and sterilizing glassware for a biotech company, but that’s not what she really does. Really, she’s a writer and a photographer. She’s also so incredibly cool that she goes by Jenner even though her legal name is Jesse James Davis. She actually doesn’t need the added outlaw mystique of her given name. If she used it, it might even seem like a cheesy affectation.
You may or may not have heard of Herb Caen. He wrote about San Francisco for a San Francisco paper. He wrote about what the city feels like; about how it’s breath smells. Caen died in 1997 and Jenner Davis was too young at the time to inherit his crown.
Caen coined the term “Baghdad by the Bay” which was also the title of a book of his collected articles published in 1949, followed in 1953 by Don’t Call it Frisco. Davis also writes about Baghdad by the Bay, but she has a more contemporary understanding of Baghdad. She writes about a beautiful place with broken buildings that disappear and with colorful personalities who get shot. She writes about a city whose character is frequently shaped by invasion.
Jenner wasn’t around for the invasion by hippie baby boomers in the late sixties, or the gay exodus from everywhere to the Castro in the seventies. She has borne witness to the class invasions of the nineties and the new century. She has seen the city she knew over-run with wealthy young white people driving up housing prices. She has seen what she considers to be her people and her places identified as blight. Rather than simply regret the passing of people, places and a way of life, she documents things gone or going.
Jenner Davis is also a photographerand her writing about the city she loves is almost always accompanied by photographs that give you her view. You might not have seen the beauty of the abandoned cannery on the edge of the bay on your own, but Jenner makes sure you can’t miss it. In addition to her blog about San Francisco and her main photo blog, she also has a blog dedicated to photos taken with her cell phone and the almost self-explanatory Secret Faces.
Both her written work and her photography are full of bitter humor and a style that is both her own and so deeply influenced by the city she lives in that she sounds like others who have had the same relationship to San Francisco. She is flattered that I compare her to Herb Caen. She would very much like to be thought of the way he was; as a voice intertwined with a place. I recently saw that Jenner was reading Caen’s Baghdad by the Bay. She admitted that if she is going to write about Frisco, she should see how it has been done before. I was shocked that she hadn’t already read his work because she sounds like him in her writing. She carries a literary voice imprint that she has inherited by osmosis. Herb Caen and Mark Twain and Dashiell Hammett and Jack London and Warren Hinckle (who she has written about) have so influenced the language of San Francisco and been so influenced by it, that Jenner Davis can’t help but sound like them.
Frisco is what a few out-of-towners call the city, but the dividing line on use of this name is really a class line. When you get to prison and they ask where you’re from, you’re from Frisco. The local chapter of the Hells Angels is the Frisco chapter. Davis does call it Frisco, but she might have convinced Caen to do the same.
Davis mumbles little bits about running for the board of supervisors one day. The folks over in Frisco could do far worse.