My San Francisco is a series of posts that describes my own personal relationship with The City. My San Francisco pieces might be photo essays; they might be life stories or they could be commentaries. They might be a combination of some or all three. My impressions aren’t always paeans to San Francisco; it’s a beautiful city but like any beautiful city it has it’s dark side and its ugly stories. These pieces will always have one common theme; they are my expressions of my personal San Francisco experience.
A continuation of My San Francisco: Downtown, The Confluence
My parents moved us to the suburban hills above San Mateo, California in the late 1950’s. 1958 if my memory serves me but as the years advance the memory’s service can be a bit lackluster and indifferent.
Our move was prompted largely by mom’s car accident. We’d been living on the east side of the bay in Hayward and both mom and dad were commuting across the San Mateo Bridge to work. In those days the bridge was a hazardous, narrow two lane affair and accidents weren’t uncommon.
And so as fate and a few too many drinks by another driver would have it, mom’s car got hit head on. I still have photos of her car. It was during the pre-seatbelt days and that she survived was miraculous. Looking at the photos I can’t even imagine how they got her out of the lump of steel that had once been a car. The aftermath of the accident, discomfort, a permanent limp and emotional complications remained with her until she passed in 1985. At the time though, the first order of business was to get a home on the same side of the bay as work.
Parrott Drive begins near downtown San Mateo, rolls west through and up the hills above the city and then swings south taking you into unincorporated San Mateo. My parents bought a three bedroom ranch style house on a sizable lot for 16 thousand dollars (worth 1.9 million today) on Parrott Drive across the street from what would in a few years become the College of San Mateo. When we moved in it was open space, oak trees on rolling hillocks that were green in winter and spring, turning brown in summer; brown, dry and drab with an annual summer brush fire or two until the winter rains returned to shower the land back to green. It was prime land for the cattle that grazed there and for my friends and I to play army when we dallied on the walk home from school.
Early 1960’s San Mateo, 20 miles south of San Francisco, was typical suburban America; a movie theater on the main street that screened a cartoon and a newsreel before showing two feature films; an ice cream parlor; a family owned toy store and a Chinese restaurant that served Americanized Chinese food.
El Camino Real was the main drag where teens cruised behind whatever wheel they could get behind; a VW Bug, the family station wagon or for those few lucky ones a bright, chrome laden muscle car; they cruised the 30 miles or so from South San Francisco all the way to Santa Clara if they chose and once I got a car, a Chevy Nova, I joined the show. And why not when gas sat at around $0.35 per gallon.
At the north end near South City you could get a burrito at The Jumping Bean and in San Mateo it was the A&W where carhops served Coney Dogs and root beer floats on trays that hung neatly on car windows; all to the Friday night sounds of V8’s revving, horns honking and 8 track players blaring rock music. I still have an A&W mug courtesy of a carhop named Dusty, who, after some flirting and some brazen begging on my part reached into the car and dropped a brand new mug into my lap.
The neighborhood where we lived could have been taken straight out of a Leave it to Beaver TV script. We walked the mile to school past ranch style homes with green, groomed lawns and basketball hoops mounted above garage doors. On Saturdays we rode our bikes to the strip mall to buy candy at the pharmacy. We caught frogs in a nearby creek and poison oak on the creek bank and trick or treated without parental escort every Halloween.
In the evenings we played wiffle ball on the front lawn, basketball in the driveway or romped around the fields while the parents sipped their pre-dinner martinis. As the sun dipped behind the hills to the west, the parents would emerge on front porches to call out for their kids. One of the parents had a shrill whistle while Mrs. Davis on the opposite corner would howl, “BAWWWW-BEEEE!”
“Hey Bobby, your mom’s calling,” we would snicker.
During the late 1950’s and the 1960’s our little enclave in the hills was, with the exception of a few Asian families, predominantly white. The few people of color either tended the gardens or did handy work. In downtown San Mateo there was a literal “other side of the tracks” where the minority population settled.
Discrimination may not have been codified but there still existed a sinister imprint of prejudice. Our biases, little different from those found in Alabama were covertly stashed away in our breasts. If racism in the south was a hemorrhaging gash, ours was insidiously syphilitic. No violence, no name calling, no racist graffiti, no white sheet hanging next to the suit in the closet. You rarely heard any overt, virulent prejudice but it poked up it’s head in those seemingly benign assertions of the time, “I’ve got nothing against black people but….”
Our suburban bigotry was rooted in fear and we secreted it within lest we out ourselves as being prejudiced. Our idea for solving the racial divide and the violence was to cluck to each other about the need for patience. It was a process and “Negroes” (the term of the period) needed to be patient; with time attitudes would evolve, laws would change and with it all would dawn equality. It never dawned on us that the “process” had been crawling along for 200 years.
Our fear was of the black community; the Asian not so much. “Orientals” (the now taboo adjective) were seen as a model group who didn’t cause trouble, kept to their own business and were hard workers striving to improve their lot. In our little enclave Hispanics were almost non-existent. They worked the fields miles away in the Central Valley or worked the sprawling cherry orchards that covered the lush Santa Clara Valley. Those were the days before the tech industry would pave it, pollute it, populate it, call it progress and christen the new concrete desert Silicon Valley. The 1960’s, it was a time when the evening news led with urban protesting, rioting and that perception that the black community was not being patient enough. In the Bay Area we praised our own little corner of the country for not being a story on the evening news.
Even The City, cosmopolitan as it was supposed to be, had a ways to go. While it leaned liberal it still wasn’t the broad minded beacon (or as the less enlightened such as somebody’s president but not mine might term socialist) that it is today. Just as we were moving into our San Mateo home, baseball great Willie Mays faced discrimination when trying to buy a home in San Francisco’s exclusive St. Francis Wood neighborhood. Said a prospective neighbor, “I happen to have a few pieces of property in the area, and I stand to lose a lot if colored people move in.”
Said Mays’ wife Marghuerite, “Down in Alabama where we come from you know your place. But up here, it’s all a lot of camouflage. They grin in your face and deceive you.”
The violence in urban America made us skittish about going into The City and all the more so when in 1966 the police shooting of a black teen in Hunters Point-Bayview set off rioting. San Francisco had made the evening news.
We were comfortable in the suburban hills and while The City was attractive it was still intimidating. It was big and it was congested; confusing with one way streets and scary with swaths of town to be avoided. It was populated by people who were often different and instead of celebrating that diversity and immersing ourselves in it we shunned it; diversity wasn’t a thing yet. Whenever we entered the city we were strangers in a strange land. Visitors from the heartland may have been viewed by the urbane as innocent out of towners but we visitors from down the peninsula could be equally as unrefined.
We dipped our toes briefly, usually for dinner and some window shopping and then it was straight home. There was no thought of exploring any areas but those frequented by tourists; places perceived as being “safe”; Union Square, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park and the museums. We skirted the rest of it, the Fillmore, the Bayview, the Tenderloin, all of those districts that were popularly deemed “bad neighborhoods.”
It was with the coming of age when I would bring a date to The City for dinner but, it had been ingrained in me by my parents to keep to certain areas; in and out and no dawdling. It all began to change when I was hitting twenty and I started seeing Denise, a girl who had spent much of her youth in Hong Kong. A more worldly girl, she lured me outside of my Union Square comfort zone. We often wound up in Chinatown on Stockton or Kearny Streets away from the tourists where we sat for dim sum and tea. We explored Japan Center on the fringes of the Fillmore and flirted with the outskirts of the Tenderloin.
By late ‘76 Denise was gone having broken the news to me that she was lesbian. At the time I stewed over the three years that I’d never get back but years later we bumped into each other at the corner of Fourth and Mission as she waited for a bus. We set a date and she brought me to Hamburger Mary’s a very cool LGBT-friendly restaurant and purveyor of a pretty damned good burger. We talked about the intervening years and vowed to keep in touch; that promise always made and rarely kept. The last I’d heard she’s living somewhere in Pennsylvania. The breakup had two immediate consequences; I decided that I wouldn’t date any more lesbians since the long term prospects seemed dim and I went through an extended period of postpartum self-pity that led to my discovery of marijuana; I was 22, something of a late bloomer I guess.
By now friends and I regularly attended rock concerts at Winterland Arena. If I’d been just testing the urban waters before, this was plunging into the bracing deep end. In those days the neighborhood surrounding Winterland was considered sketchy and a walk to the car at 2 in the morning could make for some jittery moments. It was a couple of years removed from the Zebra killings but the unease over that series of murders was a specter that seemed to lurk in the dark side streets and remained in your swiveling head while you fumbled for your keys and quickly unlocked the car door.
Winterland, built in the 1930’s had once housed an ice skating rink. Later the building hosted sporting events. In 1966, The Jefferson Airplane christened Winterland as a concert venue. Tickets were cheap (the 1974 New Year’s Eve show cost $7.50) and the house rules laissez faire. The New Year’s Eve shows were legendary, beginning in the evening and letting out sometime before dawn on New Year’s Day.
The idea was to show up early in the afternoon and fall in a line that wrapped around the block so that we could be among the first to get in. We sat on the sidewalk for hours, leaning back against the walls, or sprawled in the sun after having shared a few joints or some pulls off a pass around bottle of cheap jug wine. Cops would pass by and as long as we didn’t flaunt the contraband or act out there was a sort of understood detente. The locals would stroll by and look at the stoned rabble with amusement. We must have been quite a spectacle.
Once the doors opened there was a rush to claim a floor seat in front of the stage so that we could go deaf to the sounds of The Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Elvin Bishop, Santana; it was the heyday of the San Francisco sound.
As a music venue Winterland was too good to be true or at least too good to have a long shelf life. Apart from clubs, as a concert hall it was a relatively cozy place (capacity, 5400 with many sitting on the hard main floor), and many of the acts that played there could have filled auditoriums twice the size of Winterland. The last concert was held on New Year’s Eve 1978. The building fell, literally, victim to the wrecking ball in 1985 to be replaced by apartments. The neighborhood long ago considered borderline safe has, like most of San Francisco, given way to gentrification.
By 1977 my mom and I had reached the breaking point. Dad was having to play the failing role of diplomat, holding mom and I at an emotional arm’s length in a fruitless effort to keep the domestic circle from complete collapse. Mom’s hair trigger temper and my newfound self-indulgence conflicted, turning the home into an uncivil war zone.
I’d just graduated college at my parents’ not insignificant expense and I seemed to be satisfied with a life of hedonism interrupted by low paying retail work. The whole notion of graduate school, postponed because I didn’t want to leave Denise was never resurrected after she’d moved on. The beginning of what I’ve termed my “lost years,” a period in which I abandoned any life plans beyond the search for wine, whiskey, weed and women.
By spring I’d moved out of the house and into a two bedroom apartment in Pacifica just barely over the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains that separated the flat lands of the peninsula from the Pacific Ocean. I was sharing a two bedroom apartment with my friend Scott who’d just turned 21. My recollection is that he was having the same sort of crisis with his parents as I was having with mine.
The location was a gloomy place, cold and sodden, day upon bleak day shrouded in ground hugging fog, damp and dank. On days off I would visit my parents if for no other reasons than to catch a glimpse of sunshine and get some home cooking (separation had improved the relationship between my mom and I). Scott and I lived mostly on a diet of Rice-a-Roni, ground beef, beer and weed. The arrangement had a short life and that’s when I moved to San Francisco.
Ben was a former co-worker at a sporting goods store that I’d worked at. He was looking for a roommate and I was looking for another place to live. We called ourselves friends but that’s a generous description. It was more convenient than congenial. Ben came from New York, fully equipped with the accent and the attitude. He was a low rent Tony Soprano; a wannabe wise guy who’s only juice was his Brooklynese and a counterfeit hard edge.
I moved into his ground floor flat at 17th Avenue and California Streets in The City’s Richmond District. The Richmond sits west of Downtown and reaches out to Ocean Beach and the Pacific Ocean. It’s a softly urban section with quiet Sundays that, but for the architecture and the zip code, could almost be suburbia.
It was during this period that I discovered Clement Street, an eclectic mile of restaurants, specialty shops, bars, clubs and markets. It was like nothing you could dream of in San Mateo. You could have Korean for lunch, a burger at Bill’s Place for dinner, ice cream at The Toy Boat, browse books and maybe bump into Robin Williams at Green Apple Books and then have a nightcap at The Bitter End.
Clement Street, below is still much as it was in the 1970’s
A few blocks to the west was Little Russia. lorded over by the golden domes of the Holy Virgin Cathedral, a Russian Orthodox church. About ten blocks where you could pop into a small eatery for borsch, pirojki, dumplings and cabbage.
During those days the one healthy constant was running. I suppose that it was the still extant vibrance of youth and a smattering of luck that let my body shrug off the alcohol, the weed, the lack of sleep and the poor diet that allowed me to cruise effortlessly at a brisk 6 minute per mile pace through the streets. To the east I could weave through the crowds of Clement Street and then run to where the “other half” (before they became one percenters) lived in quiet Pacific Heights; to the west was Ocean Beach or the Land’s End trails and to the South was Golden Gate Park. I lived in a runner’s haven where I could run six, ten, fifteen miles through parks, diverse neighborhoods and along the seashore. Running through the neighborhoods in the evening you could take in the smells of an international potpourri of dinners on the stove.
Our flat was on the ground floor of a screaming bright yellow marina style building; a small two bedroom affair with a dining area and kitchen, more like a galley, that occupied the middle of the house. In the far back was a sunroom that served as our living room. My room was located in the front and had a large bay window that looked out onto placid 17th Avenue. A seat by the big window could be perfect for reading, bright airy and quiet. Quiet but for the frequent copulating of the couple in the second floor bedroom immediately above mine. It was a dirty little novelty for the first week or so but after that it was relegated to being one of those stubborn annoying house sounds like creaking floor boards or a running toilet. The latter two could be fixed while the former was more or less a permanent fixture.
But for Ben’s wiseacre demeanor and the moaning and bumping coming from above it was a perfect situation, at least for the time being.
I was a San Franciscan. Now all I needed was a San Francisco job.