Saturday, September 24, 2011

Pepper - My Hometown's Character

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.

19 comments:

Mona Risk said...

Oh Paisley what a heart-warming story. It shows how people were nice years ago, and not going by strict rules. I smiled and then almost teared. I think you should publish it as a free story. Readers will love it.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

That's sort of why I wanted to share it. I was born at the end of the war and life was so easy and people caring in those days. I truly believed my childhood was in the best of times.

I don't write contemporary so can't really use her. She is so colorful and nobody who lived there during her heyday, remembers her.

Pat McDermott said...

You've written a lovely tribute here, Paisley, a reminder that truth is stranger than fiction. Who could invent a character as colorful as Pepper and her peers in towns and villages everywhere? Even in a large city like Boston, where I grew up, we knew the local eccentrics and accepted them.

Sandy L. Rowland said...

Pepper truly was a character.
I'm glad the town supported her in the end. It's good to know we may be different, but still loved.

Thank you for the post.

Dana Rodgers said...

That was a beautiful tribute Paisley. Pepper was a character, and from what I can tell a kind person that held a special place in the hearts of all those around her. People just don't celebrate the eccentric and accept the unique like they used to.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

It was fun getting reacquainted with Pepper, Pat. Brought back some interesting reminders from my past.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Thanks Sandy. I am wondering if I could put some kind of character like her in my historical west stories. So many remember her.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Hi Dana. I am thinking Pepper got a lot of fun out of life, sometimes at other peoples embarassment but never in malice. She definitely was never dull.

Julie Robinson said...

Paisley, What a wonderful woman! Too bad political correctness and excess lawsuits have killed off true life characters like her.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Thank you, Julie. You are so right - I think political correctness has taken a lot away from society. I would hate to see what it would have done to curb her enthusiasm today.

Josie said...

Paisley,
What a fun and heart-warming story. Pepper sounded like quite a character. Thanks for sharing.

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Thanks Josie. It's been a treat for me to remember the days of my youth again. She definitely was a colorful part. It's those unique people who can add a special touch to our memories.

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Paul Friedrichs said...

I was born in 1960 and lived in Santa Rosa from 1960 until 1975. I remember Pepper well. While running an errand downtown my mom was at a stoplight and Pepper walked up to her car and opened up the door and jumped in. My mother asked her "where are you going Pepper" and off we went. While in the car, Pepper told 2 jokes. "Why does the ocean road"? "if you had crabs on your bottom you'd roar too". I was 10 and had no idea what she was talking about so I asked my mom and she said "I'll explain later". Then as we reached our destination as Pepper got out of the car she turned and said "if I don't see you in the mattress, I'll see you in the spring". One more memory, Once while walking downtown with my dad Pepper saw him and yelled "Hey fat boy! you can park your shoes under my bed anytime" And my dad bought her a cup of coffee!

Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

Thanks for sharing your memories, Paul. I do remember her well and how colorful she dressed. One day in Woolworths she stopped me and pointed to a gold star on her cheek. She told me it was her sheriff's badge. I don't know how old I was, but my mother grabbed me and we left the store before Mother was embarrassed. :) She was definitely the heart of downtown for a long while.