By Nicholas Fox
Communing with Oakland’s greatest writer in the bar he used to call home.
You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club. —Jack London
He was a dropout, a hobo, an oyster poacher. He was an excellent sailor, a less excellent rancher, a deeply committed socialist, a boxing fanatic, an early ecologist. He was an alcoholic, a voracious reader, a boat builder, a failed gold miner and, in the language of the day, “a bastard.” He was perhaps the greatest adventure writer America has ever produced.
And he was the first writer whose work I fell in love with.
I’ve got quite a few influences in my writing life. Hunter Thompson was the first writer that made we want to know the person behind the writing, and probably the writer most responsible for me starting to write on my own. But there are so many others. James Baldwin and his ability to cut to the core of his characters’ internal lives. Jorge Luis Borges and his labyrinthine mind. Hemingway’s crisp prose. Steinbeck’s ability to bring the epic into the mundane. Elmore Leonard’s dialogue. Mark Twain’s humor. Jeanette Winterson’s repetitive phrases like a master painter’s strokes on a canvas. Alejo Carpentier’s music. Robert Penn Warren’s soaring rhetorical flights.
But when I read The Call of the Wild at the age of 12, I became a fan of a specific writer for the first time. I wanted to read everything the man wrote, and I wanted to know all I could about his life.
And what a life! His biography reads like a little boy’s adventure comic. He studies in a barroom, buys his own boat at 13. He works the rough and tumble waterfronts of the San Francisco Bay. He drops out of school to mine gold in the Klondike. He hops freight trains around the country and gets locked up for it. He builds his own boat and sails across the Pacific in it. And, most amazingly, he becomes a famous writer by writing, more or less, about his own life.
I wanted a life like that, full of courage and daring and impossible stories. I still do. But something faded in my love for London as time went on. I loved his adventure stories as a kid. As a college student, I fell in love with his commitment to the common man. But I couldn’t reconcile the socialist speeches with London’s ugly racist slashes at the great African-American boxer Jack Johnson, or his overbearing sense of nationalism (read: white supremacy) when he wrote about Chinese immigrants. It was ugly, and it was mean. And it turned me off to his writing for years.
But as the years have gone on, I’ve found that most of the writers I’ve fallen in love with have a lot of characteristics in common. Characteristics I first fell in love with in the work of Jack London. The journalist’s drive to get straight to the story. An inherent dislike of authority and abuse of power. An overdeveloped sense of justice and the importance of the working man. An insatiable hunger for life.
And, in almost every case, at least one really ugly character flaw.
As you walk through Jack London Square on Oakland’s waterfront, you spot several historical markers that tell the story of the man’s history, and of the city he came from. From Oakland’s origins as a spillover town created during the madness of California’s Gold Rush, to its growth into a crucial railroad terminal, to its current status as a vitally important port, the town’s history speaks of movement. Of immigrants and transients. Of tough characters who crossed vast distances to arrive. Of people like the writer who became one of her most famous sons.
I came upon the cabin almost accidentally. It’s on a smooth, sandy section of the park in front of a bar that I didn’t notice at first. The cabin itself is half of Jack London’s old Yukon cabin. The other half was packed up, sent to Dawson City, and reconstructed much the same way as the one in Oakland. I took a peek inside, and my gaze wandered off to the right, to a strange little false-front bar that would seem to have no place in the modern architecture of Oakland’s shiny new waterfront: Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon.
This is an impossible place. Built in 1883 out of the remains of a broken up whaling ship, the bar still stands on its original bones. Many of the pictures date back decades. Several hats and helmets line the ceiling, and God knows how far back they go. There are even a pair of boxing gloves hanging from the ceiling that belonged to either Bob Fitzsimmons or Jim Jeffries (I was told both pairs were in there, but only located one) when they fought for the World Heavyweight Title in San Francisco in 1902.
But the most impressive thing about the bar is its angle. Basically, everything in Heinold’s slopes down.
In 1906, a massive earthquake struck San Francisco, resulting in a string of fires that destroyed nearly the entire city. Oakland was also damaged, and the floor at Heinold’s bar sank. Rather than rebuild, the bar re-opened, operating at an angle that no one has bothered to fix.
It’s one of the greatest bars I’ve ever been in.
“I bought it in 1984,” says Carol Brookman, who owns the property now.
“Who did you buy it from?” I asked her.
“Mrs. Heinold,” she says. “I didn’t ever see her in the bar. They said she didn’t come around a lot. She was older by then. I called her up and asked her if she’d be interested in selling and she said, ‘We should have lunch.’”
I didn’t realize Carol was the owner when I started talking to her. I just mentioned how much I liked the bar and she sat down with me. As it turns out, we were sitting at the exact table Jack London used to sit at while he did his schoolwork.
“Everything in here’s original except the chairs,” said Carol.
It’s appropriate that Carol became the owner of Jack London’s hangout. A native Iowan, she came to California as part of a series of adventures that took her all across the world.
“I made up my mind that I was going to spend every penny I had traveling the world and seeing everything I wanted to see before I settled down.”
She settled in Oakland, and strikes me now as the kind of person Jack London would have fallen in love with. Indeed, it was right in this bar that he started collecting material for his writing career, as well as inspiration for his travels. Sailors, longshoreman, miners, ship captains, railroad workers—they all came to Heinold’s. Many of them figured into London’s works, most notably in his autobiographical novel John Barleycorn, which makes frequent mention of the old saloon.
Carol and I talked for about an hour, on every subject from marriage to traveling in Pakistan. She has piecing blue eyes and brims over with stories. I’m a pretty verbose man, but for most of that hour, I just sat back and listened. When she asked what I was doing in Oakland, I told her I was on a cross-country trip, and that I was hoping to spend the next few years traveling as much as possible.
She slapped my hand and said, “Good for you.”
When Jack London sat at that table in that bar, studying for school, he was about the same age I was when I started reading his books. Something came back together for me sitting there, talking to Carol—a kindred spirit, I imagine, of London’s. I visited Heinold’s four times in my last 24 hours in Oakland, and I’m sure I’ll be there again when I return in two weeks. I somehow managed to fall into the haunt of one of my earliest writing heroes, and in seeing this piece of his life, I believe I started to fall in love again with both his work and—warts and all—with the man.
As I write this, I’m in Hawaii, another place London loved and wrote about. I’m sitting at a table writing the story of my life as I’m living it. It occurs to me, all these years later, that I’m still on Jack London’s trail. I’m still following this life I fell in love with as a boy. And I’m still trying to give that 12 year-old kid who couldn’t put those books down all the adventures he can handle.
Nicholas Fox is a writer and tour guide living in New Orleans. He is a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.