A few days ago, an irate reader of this site left a comment, vowing that, if I should ever decide to run for Mayor of Ypsilanti, he would make it his mission to stop me. He was apparently compelled to make this solemn oath, you see, because, in coming out against anti-Chinese racism a few days ago, I’ve exposed myself to be… wait for it…. a “really sick racist.” And, like the protagonist in Stephen King’s book The Dead Zone, now that he’s had this glimpse into darkest recesses of my soul, he can’t allow me to ascend to such a position of tremendous power. At any rate, during the subsequent conversation in the comments section, my friend Doug, who, it’s probably worth noting, has made it clear in the past that he too sees me as a seriously flawed individual, implied that my goal wasn’t be become Mayor of the Ypsilanti, but to become the City’s Emperor Norton. Not getting the reference, I went to Wikipedia, where I found the following.
Joshua Abraham Norton (c. 1819 – January 8, 1880), the self-proclaimed Imperial Majesty Emperor Norton I, was a celebrated citizen of San Francisco, California, who in 1859 proclaimed himself “Emperor of these United States” and subsequently “Protector of Mexico”.
Born in England, Norton spent most of his early life in South Africa. He emigrated to San Francisco in 1849 after receiving a bequest of $40,000 from his father’s estate. Norton initially made a living as a businessman, but he lost his fortune investing in Peruvian rice.
After losing a lawsuit in which he tried to void his rice contract, Norton left San Francisco. He returned a few years later, apparently mentally unbalanced, claiming to be the Emperor of the United States. Although he had no political power, and his influence extended only so far as he was humored by those around him, he was treated deferentially in San Francisco, and currency issued in his name was honored in the establishments he frequented.
Though he was considered insane, or at least highly eccentric, the citizens of San Francisco celebrated his regal presence and his proclamations, most famously, his “order” that the United States Congress be dissolved by force and his numerous decrees calling for a bridge crossing and a tunnel to be built under San Francisco Bay (which both happened long after his death in the form of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge and the Transbay Tube).On January 8, 1880, Norton collapsed at a street corner, and died before he could be given medical treatment. The following day, nearly 30,000 people packed the streets of San Francisco to pay homage to Norton. Norton’s legacy has been immortalized in the literature of writers Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson and Neil Gaiman who based characters on him…
Norton spent his days inspecting San Francisco’s streets in an elaborate blue uniform with gold-plated epaulets, given to him by officers of the United States Army post at the Presidio of San Francisco. He also wore a beaver hat decorated with a peacock feather and a rosette. He frequently enhanced this regal posture with a cane or umbrella. During his inspections, Norton would examine the condition of the sidewalks and cable cars, the state of repair of public property, and the appearance of police officers. Norton would also frequently give lengthy philosophical expositions on a variety of topics to anyone within earshot.
During one of his inspections Norton is said to have performed one of his most famous acts of “diplomacy.” During the 1860s and 1870s, there were occasional anti-Chinese demonstrations in the poorer districts of San Francisco. Ugly riots, sometimes resulting in fatalities, took place. During one incident, Norton is claimed to have positioned himself between the rioters and their Chinese targets; with a bowed head, he started reciting the Lord’s Prayer repeatedly until the rioters dispersed without incident…
And that last bit, in case it wasn’t clear, is why I chose to share all of this today. Not only is the image of this incredibly eccentric man placing himself between an angry mob and the group of Chinese people being descended upon absolutely beautiful, but the way that the story came to the surface, through this weird series of fortuitous twists and turns in our conversation, is itself so poetic, that I felt as though I had to share it. One of the main reasons that I continue to work on this site after ten years is the promise of seeing unintended connections like these unfold, and lead somewhere beautiful. Here, we started with a discussion of anti-Chinese race-baiting, as seen in Pete Hoekstra’s deplorable Super Bowl ad, and, after this weird detour into the Emperor Norton-like position I hold in Ypsilanti, we end up with this truly beautiful image of a man placing himself in danger, close to 150 years ago, to protect early Chinese Americans. I realize that I may be odd in this respect, and I don’t mean to diminish in any way the evils of racism when I say this, but I think the winding path that we’ve followed to get here is just so incredibly lovely.
As for Norton, I’m so thankful that Doug brought his existence to my attention. The closest comparison I can think of here in the Ypsi/Arbor area is Shakey Jake, who passed away a few years ago, after spending several decades on the streets of Ann Arbor. He wasn’t know for being a great statesman, and, as far as I know, he never exhibited profound foresight, but, to some extent, he transcended his career as a panhandler and actually held a position of some respect in the community. I think that I said it at the time, but, when he passed, so too did a big part of Ann Arbor’s heart. And, all the “keep Ann Arbor funky” t-shirts in the world, won’t make up for that fact.
Oh, and here’s one more thing about Norton. He not only issued his own money, but it was an accepted local currency in San Francisco. The paper notes, some of which still survive today, came in denominations ranging from fifty cents to ten dollars.
And, one last thing… Emperor Norton was, according to historical accounts, always accompanied by two stray dogs that he referred to Bummer and Lazarus. As I don’t intend to have any more children, I plan to use these names for my next two companion animals.