September, 2009


Have you got renter's insurance? Renter's insurance costs between $150 and $200 a year, a small price to pay for a lot of coverage. First, you get personal liability insurance. That protects you in case somebody slips on your porch or trips over an extension cord. You also get personal property insurance with worldwide coverage. Last month, my sister Bonnie was visiting the San Francisco bay area. While she was here, her camera and some jewelry were stolen. Bonnie has renters insurance. Even though Bonnie's home is 1,000 miles from San Francisco, her insurance company paid for the loss. I always advise tenants to buy renter's insurance whenever I sign a lease, and tenants invariably tell me that they will do that, but sadly, a lot of them put off making the purchase until they have suffered a loss, and then it's too late. If you don't know where to get renter's insurance, just go to Google, and type in "renter's insurance" and the name of the city and state where you live, and you'll get lots of results. This kind of insurance is not hard to find. If you are a tenant, you need renter's insurance!


Do you have insurance you don't need? A lot of people buy insurance that is completely useless. Your insurance agent is supposed to tell you if you have insurance policies that you don't need, but they rarely do that. I had friend named Kate Dowling who had an "excess fur and jewelry" insurance policy, even though she didn't own any furs or valuable jewelry. Kate paid for this policy for 8 years until I convinced her to cancel it.

Among commonly purchased insurance policies, credit card fraud insurance may be the biggest ripoff. According to the Federal Trade Commission, over 3 million Americans have purchased credit card fraud insurance, which costs $200 to $300 a year, but that's just money down the drain. Federal law limits credit card fraud losses to $50 per card provided that you promptly report the loss of your card, and many credit card issuers waive the $50.

Several companies in England sell bizarre insurance policies in the U.S., including vampire and werewolf bite insurance. British Insurance Ltd. sells a policy that will pay you if you are attacked by the Loch Ness monster either in Britain or the United States. (I didn't know that the Loch Ness monster attacked people in the U.S.!) My favorite is alien abduction insurance, which costs around $200 a year, about the same as renter's insurance. In order to get paid, you have to prove that you were abducted by "a being or beings not from Earth." (How would you do that?) If you get pregnant as a result of an alien abduction, the payout is doubled. Several thousand people have purchased alien abduction insurance. (I'm pretty sure that my sister Bonnie does not have this insurance.)


Emperor Norton. Unlike Oofty Goofty and Big Bertha, who are not well known, even in San Francisco where they lived, a great deal has been written about Emperor Norton.

In 1849, Joshua Norton arrived in San Francisco. Norton was a shrewd businessman and within 5 years, he became one of the wealthiest men in California. He owned a number of businesses and a lot of real estate in San Francisco. Then in 1854, Norton took a huge gamble trying to corner the rice market, but the price of rice collapsed, and he lost everything. Soon thereafter, Norton disappeared. Most people assumed that he had committed suicide; however, 2 years later, Joshua Norton reappeared to San Francisco, but he was a changed man. His mind had cracked.

Joshua Norton began wearing elaborate military uniforms and started referring to himself with the royal "we." Then in 1859, Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States and issued the first of his "Imperial Proclamations", which was printed in every newspaper in San Francisco. It said: "At the pre-emptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last nine years and ten months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself the Emperor of these United States." This wasn't meant to be a joke. Norton really thought that he was the Emperor of the United States.

Over the next 20 years, Emperor Norton issued dozens of Imperial Decrees, which were often printed on the front page of San Francisco newspapers. Here are some of his published decrees:

  • In 1859, Norton I dismissed Gov. Wise of Virgina for hanging John Brown.
  • In July 1860, an Imperial Decree from Norton I dissolved the United States of America.
  • In October 1860, a Decree from Norton I barred Congress from meeting in Washington D.C.
  • In 1869, a Proclamation appeared on the front page of the San Francisco Herald from "Norton I, Dei Gratia, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico" dissolving the Democratic and Republican parties because of "strife now existing within our realm."
  • In 1872, Norton issued an Imperial Decree that a suspension bridge be built across the Golden Gate. Norton also ordered a survey to determine if a bridge could be built connecting Oakland and San Francisco. (Ironically, structural engineers in San Francisco concluded at the time that it was technologically impossible to build a suspension bridge across the Golden Gate.)

  • Emperor Norton was internationally famous. Some of the best-known authors of the age, including Robert Louis Stevenson, David Belasco, and Mark Twain wrote plays and novels about Emperor Norton. Mark Twain based the character of "the king" in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" on Emperor Norton. When a new play about Emperor Norton was performed in San Francisco, the theater would reserve its "royal box" for Emperor Norton himself, and the audience would rise in unison and applaud when their emperor entered and greeted his "subjects".

    Emperor Norton died in 1880. The headline in the San Francisco Morning Call read: "Norton the First, by the grace of God Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico Departed This Life." The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle read: "Le Roi Est Mort!" (The King Is Dead!) Emperor Norton had a funeral befitting a head of state. He was buried in a hand carved rosewood coffin. According to the San Francisco Chronicle: "The floral tributes, wreaths, and bouquets were so numerous as to completely cover the coffin." Emperor Norton's funeral cortege was over 2 miles long and between 20,000 to 30,000 people attended. It was the biggest and most lavish funeral in San Francisco history. The funeral was paid for by the San Francisco city government and wealthy businessmen. Many stores in San Francisco closed for the day and put photos of Emperor Norton with black ribbons and funeral wreaths in their windows. In 1934, San Francisco closed all the cemeteries within the city to make more room for the living. Emperor Norton was reinterred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Colma in another elaborate and well-attended ceremony with both civic and military honors.

    Now, you may wonder - where did Emperor Norton get the money to finance his "imperial government"? Simple! He printed it! Emperor Norton printed money in denominations ranging from 50 cents to ten dollars. Many stores, restaurants, and bars in San Francisco accepted Emperor Norton's money as payment, even though they knew it was worthless. I don't know why people took the stuff, but they did. Also, many restaurants gave Norton free meals and stores gave him free merchandise so that they could put signs in their windows that said: "By Appointment to His Imperial Majesty, Norton I." Owners of stores that had such signs noted that their business increased.


    In July, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi unveiled her plan for selling health care reform. A reporter for the New York Times asked Pelosi: "You've had difficult meetings all week. Can you tell us about your methods to reach consensus?" Ms. Pelosi smiled and said: "Chocolate!" Her answer was not entirely a joke. Nancy Pelosi has bowls of Ghirardelli chocolate squares strategically placed throughout her suite in the Capitol office building. The bowls are refilled daily. Apparently, the strategy is working. The number of fiscally conservative "Blue Dog Democrats" visiting Pelosi to discuss health care reform has increased significantly since she began giving away free chocolate. Not coincidentally, Ghirardelli Square is located within Ms. Pelosi's San Francisco congressional district. (I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. Back in the 1950s, Nancy Pelosi's father, Tommy D'Alesandro Jr, was mayor of Baltimore. In the 1960s, Nancy Pelosi's brother, Tommy D'Alesandro III, was mayor of Baltimore. They were both were popular mayors.)


    On August 26, 2009; a 100 year old Victorian house located at 2127 Russell Street, Berkeley (only 1 block from my own house) was completely destroyed by fire. Firemen had a hard time getting into the house. The house was so full of clutter that some doors wouldn't open and there was no way to get from one room to another. Firemen had to cut through walls with chain saws in order to get into some areas of the house. The sound of the chain saws woke me up. I walked over to the house while it was still on fire and saw 2 firemen standing on the roof, cutting openings with chain saws in order to get into the attic.

    According to the fire department, the clutter in this house was the main reason why they were unable to save the building. Most people don't realize that excessive clutter is dangerous, but fires like this are very common. No one was injured in this fire, but fires in overly cluttered houses often results in death! One of my objections to eviction control laws is that they prevent landlords from getting rid of "pack rats" - people who fill their homes with clutter. Excessive clutter is a health and fire hazard and endangers the lives of other people.

    I once had a tenant who was a pack rat. He filled every room in his house up to the ceiling with junk. Then he filled his garage, and finally, he began piling up junk in the front yard. A lot of this stuff was dangerous and/or combustible. It was all worthless. I remember that one of the items he had in his yard was half a motorcycle. Somebody had cut a motorcycle in half lengthwise, and my tenant had the left side of the motorcycle. He knew that half a motorcycle was worthless, but it was free, and he just could not resist the temptation to take things that were free and bring them home. There are a lot of people in this world like that. I gave this guy several warnings to stop this behavior, but the piles of junk just kept growing. One day, I came over to the property and saw him unloading 50 railroad ties from his truck and stacking them up in the front yard. For me, that was the last straw. I terminated his lease and made him leave. As it turned out, he was happy to go. I offered the guy $1,000 to take all his stuff with him when he left. He owned some land in Oregon, which is where he really wanted to live, and my $1,000 was just enough money to move up there with all his stuff.


    Playland Not-at-the-Beach Free Admission Passes. Its hard to describe Playland. There is nothing else like it. Playland calls itself "the museum of fun," and it really is a fun place. There are lots of exhibits and dioramas from Playland at the Beach and other long-gone Bay Area amusement parks. They also have several rooms filled with pinball machines, all set on free play, and arcade games including Skeeball and Fascination. I always liked Skeeball. Even though the arcade games are free to play, you can still win prizes. The place is run by a friendly, all-volunteer staff. Playland is located on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito. Each of my passes admits 2 people. Regular admission is $15 per person. Check the Playland web site for hours and driving directions.

    Gardening Tools. If you want to do some gardening, I can supply you with a variety of free gardening tools, including: a hose, nozzle, washers, pruners, leather gloves, cotton gloves, a weedeater, weedeater string, and a rake. I always keep these items in stock.

    Mark Tarses

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