Mark Twain’s position on the ‘Call’ was uncongenial from the start. San Francisco was a larger city than Virginia; the work there was necessarily more impersonal, more a routine of news-gathering and drudgery. He once set down his own memories of it:
At nine in the morning I had to be at the police court for an hour and make a brief history of the squabbles of the night before. They were usually between Irishmen and Irishmen, and Chinamen and Chinamen, with now and then a squabble between the two races, for a change.
During the rest of the day we raked the town from end to end, gathering such material as we might, wherewith to fill our required columns; and if there were no fires to report, we started some. At night we visited the six theaters, one after the other, seven nights in the week. We remained in each of those places five minutes, got the merest passing glimpse of play and opera, and with that for a text we “wrote up” those plays and operas, as the phrase goes, torturing our souls every night in the effort to find something to say about those performances which we had not said a couple of hundred times before.
It was fearful drudgery-soulless
drudgery—and almost destitute of
interest. It was an awful slavery for a lazy man.
On the Enterprise he had been free, with a liberty that amounted to license. He could write what he wished, and was personally responsible to the readers. On the Call he was simply a part of a news-machine; restricted by a policy, the whole a part of a still greater machine —politics. Once he saw some butchers set their dogs on an unoffending Chinaman, a policeman looking on with amused interest. He wrote an indignant article criticizing the city government and raking the police. In Virginia City this would have been a welcome delight; in San Francisco it did not appear.
At another time he found a policeman asleep on his beat. Going to a near-by vegetable stall he borrowed a large cabbage-leaf, came back and stood over the sleeper, gently fanning him. It would be wasted effort to make an item of this incident; but he could publish it in his own fashion. He stood there fanning the sleeping official until a large crowd collected. When he thought it was large enough he went away. Next day the joke was all over the city.
Only one of the several severe articles he wrote criticizing officials and institutions seems to have appeared—an attack on an undertaker whose establishment formed a branch of the coroner’s office. The management of this place one day refused information to a Call reporter, and the next morning its proprietor was terrified by a scathing denunciation of his firm. It began, “Those body-snatchers” and continued through half a column of such scorching strictures as only Mark Twain could devise. The Call’s policy of suppression evidently did not include criticisms of deputy coroners.