I grew up in Santa Rosa, California, a town about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco. I recently uncovered an article about the town character and wanted to share parts of it with you. Pepper might be someone that could be used in a story or give you ideas for a story. It was a column written by Gaye Lebaron of the Press Democrat.
Let's just say that San Francisco had Emperor Norton. Santa Rosa had Pepper.
Pepper Garcia Dardon, whose given name was perhaps Florence or maybe Linda, depending on what day you asked, was Santa Rosa's undisputed town character for 50 years.
PEPPER'S JOB -- and she was diligent -- was to patrol the downtown, hollering at jaywalkers, whistling on street corners, yodeling in banks or into the microphones at market check stands, offering candy to small children who were generally too overawed by her appearance to accept, tagging after pedestrians to tell them they'd dropped their footsteps.”
Tongue-in-cheek, “officially,'' she was the “town marshal.” The badge she flashed was given to her in the early '60s when a promotional “shootout” between representatives of downtown and Montgomery Village was canceled.
She was a sight to behold -- built like a fireplug, heavy on the makeup, including glitter and those gold stick-um stars the teacher puts on very good tests; heavier yet on the perfume, which she applied from test bottles on the counters at Rosenberg's and the several drugstores on Fourth Street.
She wore shorts or, in later years, bright-colored muumuus, with plastic flowers in her hair. You get the picture?
IN TERMS of her downtown activity, there's no question she got away with a lot. She was a kind of mascot to our smaller-town Police Department. The officers treated her like a pet.
When she'd had a bad day -- pounding pavement in her moccasins, hollering “Hey, Girl!” at long-haired male teenagers, calling businessmen “Jungle Boy” and “Lizard,” bringing coffee to secretaries tied to the telephone, running any errand a merchant asked her to run or, on appropriate days, selling literally hundreds of dollars worth of white canes for the Lions' blind fund or tickets to the Kiwanis pancake feed -- she would pop in at the Police Department and beg a ride home in a patrol car. In exchange, she kept pedestrians in line; helped Watt Maxwell direct traffic at Fourth and Mendocino before there was a stoplight there and sometimes ordered pizzas delivered to the station -- which she never paid for.
PEPPER was born in the Salinas Valley and came to Santa Rosa, by way of Sonoma State Hospital, I believe, in 1942 when a number of high-functioning wards of the state were deemed capable of looking after themselves.
She lived for a time in a household where she cared for children and did housework. In 1953, she married Paul Dardon, a big, amiable guy who worked as a janitor at the Occidental Hotel. You'd see them walking hand in hand to their apartment on College Avenue when Paul's workday ended.
They made a pair. Pepper was perhaps 4-foot-10 in her shoes. Paul was a loose-limbed 6 feet tall and dressed exclusively in bib overalls. While Paul was on the job, Pepper was around town, at her life's work, which was assisting the police in keeping law and order and annoying those who found her annoying.
When Paul died in 1969, Pepper was devastated as well as being without resources. Bob Bishop, the Ford dealer whose agency was on Fifth Street, joined Dr. Rudee and me in a small fund-raising effort that kept her rent paid until Bishop, who had some political clout, was able to arrange for her to be tested and certified as “unemployable handicapped,” which brought her a state pension.
When her landlord sold the apartment building where she later lived, on Humboldt Street, her neighbors came forth to testify what a good housekeeper she was and what a good friend and neighbor she had been.
WHEN SHE DIED, at age 78, Santa Rosans stepped in to see that she both had a proper funeral and that she came home to Santa Rosa to be buried. There was a respectable crowd at her services. Most of the mourners knew it was the end of an era.
Santa Rosa had been a farm market town of about 13,000 when she arrived. When she hit her stride, in the '60s, the population was approaching 50,000. When she had a fall and was seen no more on her rounds, there were 113,000 people here. She was missed by many, but many more didn't know what they'd missed.
If another Pepper were to emerge today, we'd undoubtedly pass a law making her illegal. Certainly we'd have to crack down on her shoplifting penny candy to give to kids. Or we'd have to arrest her for collecting (and pocketing) 50-cent fines for jaywalking.
My Mother would avoid Pepper at all costs, especially after the lady followed us out of a dime store yelling that Mom was leaving her footprints behind. I can still smile at seeing Pepper. She always seemed happy, walking down the street whistling or singing, and embarrassing the heck out of anyone that interested her.