(published by permission of Ken Sproul, 2010)
Table of Contents
THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS
THE MARINA GREEN
MARINA YACHT HARBOR and BEACH
THE PRESIDIO AND THE WAR
WORLD WAR II, ‘THE WAR’
SCHOOL & GAMES
CUTS, BRUISES AND BLOOD
PLAYLAND AT THE BEACH
FORT MASON: TROOPSHIPS AND THE GATEWAY TO THE PACIFIC
THE EMBARCADERO: SHIPS AND PIERS
A TRIP DOWNTOWN
SATURDAY MOVIE MATINEES
TRAINS, FERRIES AND BUSSES
NEW YEAR’S EVE
TEAMS AND STADIUMS
SOFT DRINKS AND SODA FOUNTAINS
This compilation of Memories and Recollections of my youth in San Francisco is a result of many discussions with other native San Franciscans I knew then and many I have met over the years. We feel as if we are strangers in our own city. The influx of new arrivals from throughout the country, as well as from foreign lands has dramatically changed to face of the city and its social and political structure. This is not a history, but an attempt to convey what life was like in the 1940s and 1950s for a boy growing up in the Marina. Others have different memories and grew up in other parts of the city, so their feelings memories may vary, but I hope this attempt prompts fond recollections.
San Francisco was a true Progressive and liberal city with a ‘can do’ attitude. The Gold Rush, the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, a broad mixture of immigrants from throughout Europe and parts of Asia and South America, a Spanish/Mexican foundation and a feeling of being at the end of the trail and the beginning of the Pacific, led to a sense of self-sufficiency and pride as well as community. Today that does not seem to exist.
The newcomers have brought their version of what ‘The City’ should be, and it isn’t the city that was. I am not talking about the passage of time and the natural progression of change that time, technology and history create. Their version of ‘The City’ seems to be less inclined towards community and more towards self, special causes, self-righteousness and petulance. Outright denial of the past and the re-writing of history seems to be important to those who are new but want to claim the mantle of the past. I hope to impart the feel of ‘The City’ I knew to those who are here today so that there is some sense of what many of us believe is going, going, gone.
I was fortunate to grow up in San Francisco when “The City’ wasn’t so self infatuated and still was an outpost in the Western United States, not connected by jet travel to the east and Midwest and not yet the recipient of migrants from those areas determined to come and create a city of their dreams. It was a big small town in many respects that had grown with a sense of self-sufficiency and ‘can do’ attitude. It was less than 100 years old and had rebuilt itself only 40 years earlier after 1906. It had been a focal point of World War Two and had seen tens of thousands of men and women from the rest of the country pass thru and their way to destiny, and they had seen The City and left their mark, many came back and stayed.
Home grown banks, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Hibernia, Crocker; local business and industry, Matson and Dollar lines, Crown Zellerbach and Pacific Lumber, DelMonte, Hills Bros and MJB, Levi Strauss, Dean Witter, Coldwell Banker, Southern Pacific were the big names. Printing, shipping, canning, food processing, machine works were dynamic participants. San Francisco was the end of the west and the beginning of the Pacific. It was a Progressive city in the true sense, not a political catch phrase; public health, parks, libraries, transportation, infrastructure, water works, schools, fire and police were the pride of its citizens and leaders.
It was a military city. The Navy had its own Shore Patrol and jail. When the fleet was in there were thousands of sailors doing what sailors do in port. The Presidio, home of the 6th Army was home to soldiers and their families who participated in the city’s daily life. Fort Mason, Treasure Island, Hunters Point, Fort Funston, Mare Island; Forts Barry, Baker and Cronkite, Angel Island; the city was surrounded and infused with the military. Many schools were named after military men, Grant, Sherman, Winfield Scott. There was even an Army Street.
I was born in October of 1939; my mother was a Physical Education instructor for the San Francisco school district. My father was a salesman who suffered from manic depression, now know as bipolar disorder. He was never a part of my life and was away for treatment most of the time; he died in 1944. My maternal grandparents, especially my grandfather, were a major influence on my life; he was a Scottish immigrant who managed a Levi Strauss shirt factory, she was an Italian sewing girl who caught his eye or vice-versa. We lived in a pair of flats in the Marina, off Chestnut Street. Mom, my sister and I lived up, Granny and Granddad in the lower flat. From here I ventured forth into find and create my version of the city.
Like every neighborhood in the 1940s and 1950s, and San Francisco was a city of neighborhoods, the Marina had a commercial center that served as the ‘Main Street’ of the community, Chestnut Street.
Before the advent of chain stores and the homogenization of many parts of commercial retailing, each neighborhood shopping street reflected the ethnic and economic tastes of its residents to become a small town in a big city. Local merchants and Mom and Pop stores set the tenor and tone of the street.
The Marina was a family neighborhood, with plenty of children. Families of Italian background were dominant, but not overwhelming; there were plenty of others, as well as the military families from the Presidio who used Chestnut Street as a shopping area. From the families on Marina Boulevard to those around Funston Field there were differences in income, but not in shopping habits; frugality and reasonable value were the driving force, as most adults remembered the Great Depression and WWII, neither of which encouraged spendthrift habits.
Food Markets: With the exception of the small Safeway on Lombard all markets were local. Embee, Wunners, O’Conners, Victors, Day and Nite were just some. There were several small stores that were deli’s like Lucca, where little ladies dressed in black seemed to prevail at the counter, but there were at least three other delicatessens as well as two or three hole in the wall markets that never seemed to close.
Restaurants: Marina Joe’s at Fillmore and Chestnut was the upscale Italian; Fosters for the breakfast and coffee crowd. Hunt’s donuts for Sunday morning, Danny’s at Avila Street for burgers; Old Sole Mio for Pizza, Herbert’s Sherbet Shop for ice cream and softies, Presidio Café next to the Presidio theatre, the home of Green River Cokes and such, the soda fountain at Bastiani Drugs, and on and on. Even a Log Cabin at Pierce with a gravel parking lot to the rear.
There was a Woolworth’s Five and Dime, old wooden floors, little bins of knick-knacks. GallenKamps Shoes with the Green X-Ray machine to see your toes in the shoe; See’s Candy, thank goodness. These were the main outsiders.
Banks seemed to be everywhere. Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Anglo, Crocker. Bank of America was my bank, where the manager actually met you and helped open a savings account.
Bars. Were there bars! The one thing that hasn’t changed in the Marina, they are just different now, with a different clientele. Full of smoke, dark and well patronized. The Horseshoe and others too numerous to name.
Smoke Shops and Liquor Stores. Plenty of them; pinball machines, rumors of gambling in the smoke shops. Seemed always to have someone doing something mysterious on the ‘phone. I was a delivery boy for DeMartini Liquor, peddling my bike over hill and dale to deliver to thirsty patrons, sometimes leaving a bottle in a bush in exchange for an envelope with the exact amount of cash.
Two toy stores, three drug stores, Marina Hardware, Wimp’s Clothing, card shops, gift shops, three florists, two movie theatres, the Presidio and the Marina, all added up to Main Street.
At Christmas there were decorations, for Halloween, a parade. You saw your friends, or their parents, and knew many of the merchants. Some stores came and went, indirectly teaching a lesson in the perils of being a merchant. New people came and gave it a try, some made it, others didn’t; it was a vibrant and personal place.
THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS
In the 1940s and 1950s the Palace of Fine Arts was a slowly crumbling ruin, the last vestige of the great Worlds Fair of 1915. Constructed of wood and plaster, the years, weather and lack of upkeep had taken its toll; it was fenced off, to be viewed from across the lagoon. The lagoon was not a reflecting pond, but a greenish murky lake with seagulls vying with ducks, coots and immigrant Canadian geese for bread scraps from children. Some pairs of swans, both black and white, offered the only sense dignity to the scene. Since rebuilt, it no longer has the sense of mystery and the distant past it had.
It was a place we could walk to with our stale bread scraps to feed the ducks and fight off the Canadian geese. Some evenings my sister, Mom and I would go after dinner for grass fights on the freshly mowed lawns or make daisy chains from the small clumps in the lawn.
A major rite of passage for almost every kid in the area was to fall into the lagoon. Emerging with gooey mud, feathers and whatever else is at the bottom a lagoon full of birds, we would squish on home and await the wrath of Mom and a good scrubbing.
There were clumps of Pampas grass to hide in and cut yourself on raspy long blades of grass; trees to climb and grassy slopes to roll down, but above all loomed the Palace and its beckoning dangers. You could get thru the fence and climb to the top of the dome or the columned porticoes that surrounded it!
There were wooden ladders inside some of the columns. There were holes and semi-closed doors you could squeeze thru. Then up, up, up. Missing and loose rungs added to the fun. Pigeons flapping around as you disturbed them. Years of dust, dirt, feathers and pigeon droppings were yours for the asking. You could climb all the way up to the interior of the dome where there was a lattice of wooden beams, planks and boards that you could scramble on to reach the exit holes to the outside of the dome.
We played ‘heats’ in the dome interior. A team game of capture and hiding. We ran around the outside, semi-oblivious to the fact that we were inches from a one hundred foot or more drop.
We did not tell grownups; we hid from the gardeners. We were foolish and excited. My sister introduced me to this, and I can assure you our mother never knew, but could have suspected from the condition of our clothes and the associated musty smells.
The Palace today is pristine and new and the scene for weddings and photos. A far cry from the grand ruin turned into a majestic play set.
THE MARINA GREEN
The Palace of Fine Arts and the Marina Green are two of the last traces of the great 1915 World’s Fair held in San Francisco.
Now a vast open area with children’s soccer and joggers and other active people crowding it on weekends, it has a varied history that could have led to a different end. In the 1920s it was proposed to be San Francisco’s airport, and idea that made sense at the time given the nature of the then flying machine and passengers.
That idea didn’t fly and the city was left with a large open green area bordering the bay, with the ultimate solution to leave it be.
My main memories are of kites, fireworks and submarines.
KITES. For years the Marina Green was the focal point of serious kite flyers from throughout the city. Constant western winds, a large open area and no obstructions were attractive to the entire kiting community. I remember seeing kites of every size and shape, flown by people of every size, shape and age. There were some specific Asian and Dragon kites, huge box kites in all variations and everything in-between.
The king of the kite community was an elderly man, at least elderly to me, with an old grey four door sedan. The back seat had been removed and a large windlass, somehow connected to the engine was installed. There must have been miles of heavy string. He would start with a small kite to help give lift to a larger box kite and then play out the string. At times there would be a line of string leading to Heaven and far, far off in the sky would be the box kite. He could retrieve it slowly via motor power.
The kite flying was eventually banned as unsafe as the Army was still flying planes into Crissy Field a mile or less to the west. The kite people were foiled by their own success.
RED, GREEN GOLDEN NOISY FOG. The 4th of July in San Francisco always seemed to fall on the foggiest day of the year. For several years the main fireworks event was held at the Marina Green. Throngs of people, shivering and watching the fog turn colors and glow as the fireworks tried to overpower the fog and lost. The best part then became the noise of the explosions and the ensuing Oohs and Ahs of the crowd, applauding the loudest boom or bang. The fog appeared to intensify the noise as it drowned the colors, so there was some benefit.
SUBMARINES. I understand that much later in the interest of national security that the US Navy conducted submarine races off the Marina Green. The grandstands consisted of parked cars, windows steamed up and occupants being of high school age who would studiously search the waters for signs of winners. This is hearsay and may not be true.
MARINA YACHT HARBOR and BEACH
Our flat was five and a half blocks from the Yacht Harbor. In those days you could walk down the gangway to the docks between the boats, nothing was closed off. Many of the ‘yachts’ never seemed to sail; we could fish for shiners and perch and note the number of bottles and other items in the water that seemed to surround some of the vessels especially after weekends.
The availability of bottles combined with rocks on the railroad bed for the Presidio train led to boys throwing rocks at bottles in the water. It was a sport that improved your aim and accuracy, as you wanted to be the one to hit and break the bottle, being careful not to hit a boat. The harbormaster would yell if and when we were spotted, but it was a bark worse than a bite.
Jumping from pier to pier was the challenge game; you either made it or went in over your head in not the cleanest water. The fish were small shiners, that if you caught you would usually throw to the ever present seagulls. A perch was a different story, they were big enough to eat. One was really big, but it wasn’t until I got it home and mom cut it open that we realized perch gave birth to live little fishes.
There were two beaches. One inside the harbor, the other on the bay by the yacht club. The harbor beach was near the small stone snack stand that sold ice cream, fried hot dogs on a grill and had a selection of colored popcorn bricks. There had been an attempt to improve the little beach with underground dressing rooms and stone steps for sitting, but the tides and sand had won out and they were abandoned. The main occupants of the beach were little black crabs that lived under the rocks. Can’t remember what you did with them once you caught them
The bay front beach had sand, waves, a view of the Golden gate and passing put-put fishing boats. You could build sand castles, dare the waves, get sunburned and generally do all you could do at any beach. It has been improved since then and is no longer people friendly. It was nice to have a real beach in your own neighborhood.
The Saint Francis Yacht Club did not open itself to the public and was the home of those who actually sailed. The yachts near the club did go out often for races and excursions and access to them was more restricted than on the Marina Boulevard side of the harbor. You could walk along the narrow portion on top of the seawall in back of the yacht club and peer in to see members dining while they looked at you in some displeasure. Once in a while you’d find an unbroken champagne bottle that cried out to be broken on the rocks below.
The outer harbor jetty continued past the club to a small stone decorative lighthouse guarded by two lions, now gone. The lighthouse was at the end, with ample parking for those who wanted to fish in the bay. Long casts were needed to clear the granite and marble rubble from graveyards that served as wave barriers. I remember the Italian portion of the family and my Scottish grandfather braving wind and surf spray to catch several good sized flounders that fed us all.
The Marina, like many neighborhoods, was built in a block pattern, with buildings facing the streets at the sidewalk with private rear yards. The center of each block became on open sky area with fences separating properties, poles for close lines at the rear; to a certain extent it was a common area, at least visually. You could look out the rear windows to see neighbors in their yards or them looking at you from their rear windows.
The way the rear yards were developed told you much about the occupants of the houses. Some were almost all concrete while other could be a riot of color with flowers, citrus and fruit trees and roses, while others could be forested with pines, firs and monkey puzzle trees. Some were always active with children playing or owners gardening. Some seemed to never be used except as a place to keep the dog.
My grandfather had the Scottish/English love of gardening and took advantage of the Marina’s climate to grow beautiful roses and camellias. Flowers in the house came from the garden as did the produce from the Victory Garden. The competition between our neighbor, Major Williams, and my grandfather to grow the biggest carrots or potatoes or whatever was intense. We would pull up carrots, wash the dirt off and have a treat. We only took the smaller ones as the big ones were for competition.
I was sent down to pick rosemary, chives or parsley while Mom cooked dinner dinner, maybe some radishes or onions. At times I was pressed into service as a watering boy, a task I did not relish, as standing around with a hose in hand was not my idea of action.
Helping to garden was a learning experience. If we went fishing and caught sardines that were wormy they were buried around the rose bushes; there was no commercial fertilizer. If there were snails they were executed by foot or air travel. Once we had ducklings from Easter that lived in the yard and they took care of the snails.
We had a small dirt play area with a play set my grandfather had built; couple of swings was it. Kids came over to play on the weekends or sometimes after school. The central part of the yard was a pale green concrete used for skating or jump rope by my sister and her friends. Boys preferred the sidewalk or streets.
Other kids had different yards; Bruce and Doug around the corner had a naked concrete yard with two huge cedar trees in the back. The one on the right was climbable and supported some sort of tree house. The tree on the left was ultra dense, dirty, full of dead twigs and small branches and at places exuded sticky sap. Guess which one was the dare to climb tree?
Back yards were a private park or playground and were a big part of our lives.
Stairwells, those sets of wooden stairs and railings between flats in the Marina, and in apartment buildings throughout the city, offered a glimpse of life that ran from snooping on others to being open neighbors.
Many Marina flats and small apartments had stairwells adjoining the stairwell in the adjacent building. They afforded access to light and air as they were open to the sky and were a means for a rear door exit to access the ground floor passageway to the street. You could shake hands with your neighbor on his set of stairs if you so desired. Since most buildings were the same height the floors would match up and your kitchen door or window would be level with your neighbors kitchen door and back porch.
It sounds too close for comfort, but it made you better neighbors because you had to acknowledge and interact with each other in some way other than when you were taking out the garbage.
My sister and I would hop the wooden railings and visit Major and Mrs. Williams in their kitchen next door. Cookies helped. We got to know the Italian family that moved in after the Williams left through a combination of mixed languages and food exchanges. They did, however, introduce a new element, fruit flies, as their wine making in their garage and alley added zest to the air.
Stairwells in apartment houses were for rear deliveries of milk and whatnot to individual apartment rear doors. There were wooden coolers, vented boxes to store semi-perishable things as refrigerators were usually small in those days, and some were even built in with a central cooling plant. The garbage chute from the upper floors connected to a big garbage can that had to be manhandled on collection day.
As a newspaper boy, front doors, rear doors, regular stairs or light well stairs were all a means of getting the job done. We were to deliver to the front door of each apartment, but how we got there was up to us. Front doors to the lobby sometimes couldn’t be jimmied, but back alley doors usually were open. Some stairs led to the roof and a clothes drying platform that served all tenants, but also let you hop onto the roof of the next building and go down their stairwell to cover those customers. Cut the vertical in half.
Today I am not sure that the fear or reality of crime hasn’t changed the open stairwell to a problem instead of a benefit.
It’s hard to imagine San Francisco without fog. ‘Fog City’ has become a common description, but my memories of fog are as varied as the way it wisps and twists thru hills and trees.
Evening Fog. Usually without wind, a late evening fog would settle in the Marina and downtown to shroud the streetlights and drip from trees. Dampness would coat the streets and there was a sense of the sea in the air, maybe even a hint of salt.
Morning Fog. Heavier, dense and fighting the rising sun. Usually gone by mid to late morning. I could see the fog hanging on the ridge of trees we could see from our rear window and pray it would stay as I did not want to go to gym at Marina Junior High and be told it was a no shirt day and have to expose my slightly corpulent frame to public view.
Afternoon Fog. This was usually the wind born variety. Rapid advance, cold, catching you unprepared. Most common in summer when the East Bay was warm and pulling in nature’s air conditioning. The bane of tourists in summer clothes; a boon for sweat shirt sellers.
Bay Fog. Right down the middle of the bay, usually under the Golden gate Bridge and shrouding the roadway; Alcatraz semi-enveloped, with portions of buildings showing and then disappearing. Angel Island drifting in and out of sight. Afternoon and mornings. Sometimes it would make landfall around Fort Mason or Aquatic Park.
Howling Fog. No little cat’s feet creeping in! Blasting thru Noe Valley, Hayes Valley the Marina and the Presidio. A tidal Wave of fog that obliterated the city and called for layering of clothes, even hats. Not the kind you wanted when you were fishing.
Fog views. The lights of the Golden Gate appearing, disappearing and reappearing. Bridge towers cut off at the bottom, only the tops floating on fog. The Alcatraz light offering glimpses as to where all those men were spending the night. Ships on the bay, appearing and disappearing. Downtown buildings, like the Shell and Russ Buildings, and Coit Tower glowing in the fog as their night lighting would win and loose battles to be seen. Sausalito and Belvedere coming and going. The big fog factory at the north end of the Golden Gate near Kirby Cove that would be generating for that would be blown east and then vanish in seconds.
FOG HORNS. Where there’s smoke there’s fire applies to fog and foghorns. Before radar on ships, the fog horns were the guardians and guides of the Golden Gate as fog shrouded and dimmed the lighthouse efforts.
There were horns on land and buoys outside the Golden Gate, on the bridge and tower bases, on Alcatraz and Angel Island, at the old lighthouse at Land’s End. Lying in bed at night I could hear seven or eight. Each had its own distinctive roar, bellow or belch; each would do its own thing to its own schedule. You would know who would be next, what the sequences were. The sounds were mournful but reassuring. It made bed feel safer and warmer. You could think of the men on the ships listening and peering into the fog, cold, damp, lonely. Many are gone now and to those who remember, they are missed. I would bring them all back if I could.
THE PRESIDIO AND THE WAR
Our flat was on Divisadero near Lombard, about seven blocks from the main gate of the Presidio. In my earliest years it was ‘off limits’ to civilians and was a mysterious and tempting attraction. Many of my classmates and friends at Winfield Scott were ‘Army brats’ and were bused to and from school in large green Army busses. Sometime after WWII the Presidio opened up and became as wonderful a place as we had all imagined.
It is hard to deal with the Presidio and not the wars, WWII and Korean, which brought so many men there. Here I will deal with it as a playground. The wars have their own story to be told later.
The Presidio had forests and forts, beaches, old gun emplacements, grand officers housing, big brick barracks, hills and hidden dells, wildlife, buildings to explore and ‘souvenirs’ to collect. Nothing like a half overgrown steel door leading into a buried brick artillery battery to get your juices flowing!
The Enlisted Men’s club was wide open and we could sneak in posing as Army dependents. Soldiers playing pool, lots of smoke and noise and a mysterious light green vending machine for something called Dr. Pepper which was probably one of the few in California, but sure was popular with the boys from the South. I’d never seen or tasted it before.
Fort Point was abandoned and closed, sort of, we got in and ran around. Stacks of old heating stoves in the courtyard, the smell of salt air, mold, rust and decay. A forgotten place. Next to it on the bluff above were tan wooden Victorian houses, since torn down, for the families in charge of caretaking the fort.
Above the fort more gun emplacements, some brick and old, others concrete and new, from the Civil War, WWI and II, all of them tempting. We had a ‘clubhouse’ in one old one, lit by candles and burning trash; black faces, dirty noses. There was a communications tunnel under the Golden Gate Bridge toll plaza, through there to three underground range finding stations on the west side of the bridge bluff. Entered after strenuous exertion they yielded a range finding table and abandoned phone equipment.
Some of the gun batteries were huge and were there for the asking, others were surrounded by barbed wire overgrown with ivy and were less hospitable, but all had to be explored. Today the GGNRA has cleaned off much of the ivy and cut the trees that hid them and their presence is an open secret. Once they were full of men manning big guns waiting for the Japanese Imperial Navy to pay a visit. Lonesome and cold duty, but not as bad as for the men on the Marin side.
The Presidio offered many treasures, but bottles and bullets were the ones I remember. Soldiers would buy a Coke from one of the innumerable Coke machines, drink it and throw the bottle in the bushes. I would ride my bike with the extra large basket around and pick up abandoned bottles, never from the Coke machines area with return crates. I found lost bottles and redeemed them for two cents each or whatever the going rate was.
Bullets came from the 45 caliber pistol range located under Doyle Drive. Targets were hung in front of sand filled concrete bins. There was a war going on, Korea, my friend Dick Anderson’s dad was a printer. He needed copper and lead to make type, they were in short supply. Two kids on bikes with their newspaper delivery bags on the handlebars and their Mom’s kitchen colanders would sift the sand for bullets, load up and have to walk their bikes home, too heavy to steer. I believe we got 10 cents a pound.
The beach to the west of Fort Point was another great place reeking of potential danger. Slip around the fort on the Golden Gate Bridge side between waves and you could then make it to the shore that took you all the way to Bakers Beach. Rocks, cliffs, waves, tide pools and flotsam and jetsam all needed time to absorb. Now open to the public as part of GGNRA it was then considered too dangerous as there were no paths or railings, all the better.
There was always a reminder that it was a military base. MPs in their olive drab and white cars were impressive and looked at you knowingly as you pretended you were innocent of whatever you were not. Soldiers, WACs, once in awhile a parade or Army Day, the evening gun that fired at six that we could hear at home, the Presidio Army Band with their Scottish clad drum major. There were Army Day open houses with field kitchens baking bread and I remember a flamethrower demonstration that certainly caught your attention.
There was a downside: Letterman Hospital, a major treatment center for those wounded in the Pacific or Korea. Men, not in uniform, but in purple and blue dressing gowns, striped pajamas underneath. In wheel chairs, on crutches, walking with difficulty, missing arms and legs, sitting in the sun in groups; quiet, not the boisterous boys in the enlisted men’s club. Big buildings full of men looking out the windows. Sometimes there were Army ambulances going to and fro. The cemetery you could see from Doyle drive, the flag at half mast for a burial. Lots to see and think about.
WORLD WAR II, ‘THE WAR’
Born in October of 1939 I was two at the time of Pearl Harbor and almost six when the war ended. Some memories are crystal clear as to places and events and others are vague and somewhat indistinct, but overall there is a series of memories, recollections and feelings that make up a major part of recollections of early childhood and still seem current. The city was a focal point for the war effort and it now seems as if that episode of its history is fast vanishing. Living near the Presidio and Fort Mason there were daily reminders that something out of the ordinary was happening.
I don’t know where to begin, so this is a series of events and memories in no particular order.
Blackouts: Air Raid sirens, an unforgettable sound even today, would announce a blackout. All lights were turned off, Mom would put up blackout window coverings, a wood frame with black oilcloth, and we would gather in the kitchen, the room furthest from any windows. Maybe a few candles flickering for light and we’d wait for the ‘all clear’ siren, a better sound that the first, even though it was the same.
Searchlights; Part of the blackout that was redeeming if you peeked out were the searchlights sweeping the sky looking for the planes that never came. Sharp, focused beams crisscrossing the sky. A light show of a different sort.
No Daddies. My father died when I was five, so the absence of a ‘man of the house’ other than my grandfather living in the flat downstairs, was not an oddity to me. But other kids were different, they had daddies who weren’t home and they didn’t really know where they were. There was sort of a social rule, unspoken, that you did not ask other kids where their fathers were, because there were some kids who did know that their fathers were not going to come home. My sister remembers a boy being taken from class to be sent home to his mother to be told that his father had been killed.
Rationing. Stamps and little round tokens of some value I did not understand were treasured. The day I used some of the stamps for something that rendered them useless was not a good day. It was only when the war and rationing ended that I realized what a tight ship Mom ran. Going thru a pair of shoes in a few weeks was not something that won plaudits. At the end of the war I remember the first time we could get canned tuna fish, two cans at a time. Tomales Bay Creamery had a commercial butter churn operation on Pierce Street off Lombard and when they could finally sell butter there was a line down the block and around the corner.
Ships. Walking with Granddad down to the Marina Green and Yacht Harbor to watch the warships come and go, some ships were on their way to Hunters Point or Alameda for battle damage repair; there weren’t many yachts. Transports from Fort Mason taking men off to war or returning home with wounded. There was a submarine net control station on piles off the St. Francis yacht Club. There was constant Navy activity with every kind of ship imaginable, from aircraft carriers and battleships to landing craft heading for small islands in the Pacific with names like Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa where maybe someone’s daddy would be.
Housekeepers (and friends). Mom was a schoolteacher and needed someone at home to keep an eye on my sister and I when my grandparents couldn’t. We had several young ladies, girls really, who came and stayed with us; they were from the Midwest or south, had come out for war jobs or to follow their men if they could. We met many young men in uniform who seemed to dote on us as long as we were out of the way. One memory is clear, being put in a dresser drawer to play ‘hide and seek’; I hid a long time while I don’t think anyone was seeking.
Troops. Soldiers were everywhere, downtown it was sailors and Marines from the fleet. They were all very nice to a little boy. I remember lots of hugs, pats and warmth and talk of little brothers at home. If you were on the road there were huge convoys that would go on for hours; we took a train to see my Mom’s sister in Mount Shasta, full of soldiers and sailors in scratchy woolen uniforms.
The Bad Cross Lady. Two houses from us was a flat occupied by the ‘bad cross lady’. She never smiled and we all thought she was mean. She didn’t appear to have any friends who visited. She did have a small flag in her window, white with a blue border and a gold star in the middle. Sad to think of her being alone with her memories.
Major Williams. Next to our flat and sharing the light well in between was Major Williams. He was with the Officer’s Mess in the Presidio. He and my grandfather had a competition to see who could grow the largest carrot or potato or whatever in their Victory gardens in the backs. He didn’t worry about rationing too much and would share. Once a whole slab of bacon that lasted forever. His wife was a wonderful cook, as was he, and my sister and I were always available for a snack.
War Games and Guns. I know we did, but I don’t remember lots of war games, guns, hollering and passion to kill the ‘enemy’. Maybe the war was too real.
The A Bomb. We knew that Germany had surrendered, but for those on the west coast the war wasn’t over; our war was in the Pacific. We were home, Major Williams was listening to the radio to a special broadcast from the president, Harry Truman. Major and Mrs. Williams were very happy and tried to explain what the importance of a bomb and a place called Hiroshima meant to the soldiers in the Presidio. I remember sitting on the steps listening.
It’s Over. I was in the back yard one afternoon with several friends digging a hole and filling it full of water to make some kind of boy mess when all the air raid sirens went off. We could then hear people shouting, horn honking and a lot of noise. We ran out onto the street and people were leaning out windows yelling “It’s Over”! There was a lot of joy and a feeling that a big weight had been lifted off of a lot of shoulders; we yelled too, but I’m not sure we had the same sense of elation.
The Fleet Comes Home. The last big event. They let us out of school, we went to the Marina Green on the bay. It was grey and a little foggy. We all had little flags to wave. Everyone was there who could be there. Then slowly ships began to come under the Golden Gate Bridge, misty, grey; sailors were lined up around the sides and hanging all over the guns. Ship after ship, big ones and little ones, some with burn marks and patches on the sides, guns boomed, ships bands played and lots of people cried.
SCHOOL & GAMES
I attended Winfield Scott School on Divisadero Street, now the Claire Lilienthal School, from kindergarten thru the 6th grade and Marina Junior High for the 7th and 8th grades. I am sure school memories can evoke both good and bad memories, but I’ll concentrate on the good.
Winfield Scott, named after a famous American General like other schools in the area, Grant and Sherman, was a two story and part basement building with a separate small wing for kindergarten.
Classrooms ran along both sides of a central corridor with brown linoleum flooring. Desks were small units, with seat and desk top that contained a hole for the ink well and a slot for pens and pencils, Books went on a rack under the seat. One wall was a blackboard, teacher sat in front with the flag.
We all walked to school, some kids from quite a distance, except for the Presidio kids who were bussed in. No long lines of cars dropping of children, many families didn’t have cars, so groups of us would meet up and walk together. We’d gather in the schoolyard and play until the first bell rang, at which time we would face the central flagpole and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Then to class.
Teachers were all women as were the Principal and Assistant Principal. The only man in the building was the custodian/engineer who stayed in the basement with the boiler most of the day. It wasn’t until the fifth grade that the first male teacher became part of our lives. For many kids he was the closest thing to a father figure they would have.
Schoolyard discipline was enforced by the clanging of large hand bells wielded by teachers or the principal; a sense of trepidation would overcome you as the Principal strode towards you with bell clanging and a look of fierce determination to set you straight. We played individually or in groups; boys, and some girls, would play dodge ball, girls, and some boys would play hop scotch. The schoolyard, with the exception of some basketball standards, was gritty asphalt with painted hop scotch, game circles and baseball bases. Plenty of skinned knees and elbows.
The school safety patrol was the top of the pecking order. Boys only then. White Sam Brown belt your mom would soak in bleach to keep spotless; military type hat, a badge if you were a captain or lieutenant. You manned the crosswalks before and after school, stood in the street and gave hand signals for cars to stop and kids to cross. Everyone obeyed, no teenage drivers then. Once a year a big gathering of all the school safety patrols, including the Catholic schools, at Kezar Stadium. Dressed up for the event and marched around the track behind the school banner in step and in special sweaters saved for the occasion.
Classmates came from a variety of economic backgrounds, from Marina Boulevard big houses, to Army kids from military barracks housing, to kids from small apartment houses that weren’t grand. There never seemed to be any feeling that some were ‘better off’ than others, no dressing up to show off and no toys or games were allowed from home to show up others.
We had earthquake drills where we would huddle near or under our desks if that were possible. Starting about 1950 we had Atomic Bomb drills where we would gather in the hall and huddle up against the walls. Lots of goofing off, but the teachers were dead serious about it.
There was a cafeteria for those who could afford it and did not bring lunch. Long tables with benches. We would all sit together and swap different types of sandwiches or barter for some of the better cafeteria food, which actually was good at times. There was no ‘junk food’ and the choices were limited to what was cooked that day.
After school would bring the big green busses for the kids going back to the Presidio and yellow busses from St. Vincent DePaul to take some to Catechism. Those who remained waited for Joe, the playground director, who was a Cal student and showed up to distribute balls, bats or whatever. We would play until it was time to go home, which varied with the seasons and available light. Later, as a paper boy, this fun time was lost to avarice.
Graduating on to Marina Junior High meant that you went from being the ‘big 6th graders’ to the new little 7th graders. A step down.
Marina was a big school and had the disadvantage of being where my mother used to teach and faculty members who, for some reason, thought that I should be better than I was.
We were divided into home room groups based upon some testing of purported academic skills. There were six home room groups in my grade; you would attend classes together and only mix it up with the others during lunch, gym or shop. There was a shop wing where there was a band practice room as well as woodshop and art classes.
Gym was not my favorite as I had become a bit pudgy. We would all undress in a big, crowded locker room, where each had their own locker, put on the uniform of the day, usually shorts and a T-shirt, and out to the schoolyard for 40 minutes or so of exercise. Back in to take a group shower with school provided towels made of a combination of cotton and sandpaper. They dried you and cleaned you simultaneously.
Marina was the first really melting pot school I attended. Winfield Scott was primarily a white kids school even though the kids came from many different backgrounds and levels of wealth and assimilation. Marina introduced me to kids of Chinese, Japanese, African and Hispanic origins. There were differences, similarities and some cultural clashes, but nothing major.
Even though most of us had grown up during WWII the kids of Japanese extraction were not stigmatized in any way. One of my best friends was Bill Masuda and we exchanged my mother’s peanut butter and banana sandwiches on raisin bread for his rice and seaweed balls.
I was only at Marina for two years but remember it as one of the better times of my academic life.
Don’t play in the street! Not in my time. We played in the streets and on the sidewalks. There were parks and other places, but the street and sidewalk in front of your house or a friend’s house was closer.
The street games were the more dangerous; we knew it, but perhaps that’s how you develop ‘street smarts’. Also, people did not drive like today’s idiots and seemed to be much more aware and cautious; perhaps it’s because in the 1940s and early 50s adults had cars, not today’s youth.
Street Ball was another version of the stick ball game of the east. Four or five to a side and home and one or two bases. A tennis ball, not mitts. Hitting a parked car was an out. Bats were usually sawed off broom handles.
Kick the can was the team sport with the greatest degree of chaos. Sort of a combination of soccer and general mayhem. A team would attempt to cross the other’s goal, body contact was not unknown, tripping was endemic.
Capture the flag. Another team sport that required asphalt open spaces for maximum room to run. Hide and Seek with teams, and the more competitive version, ‘Heats’ which involved capture, jail, jail breaking and lots of running and tactical thought.
Stair ball. Tennis ball thrown at and bounced off stairs, a sidewalk game, usually just two players, thrower and fielder. If you could hit the edge of a stair just right it could be a long fly; if you threw high or at an angle you could broaden the field. Best played on concrete or terrazzo stairs; brick was trickier.
Hill rolling. Why roll on grass when you can roll down concrete sidewalks on steep hills? When you encountered a driveway cut into the hill it gave added speed.
Bicycles and other wheeled street machines were as follows:
Scooters. Now trendy, the flimsy scooters of aluminum were good for racing downhill. I have a chipped tooth from facial contact with a sewer grate after a collision. Stopping was not a fine art; rapid dismount could work if you weren’t too rapid at the time.
Flexies or Flexy Fliers. Now banned, a sled with wheels. Think of going down a steep street, about 6 inches off the ground, flat out, on a sled capable of going under a car, impossible to see, difficult to stop. Can’t imagine why they were considered unsafe.
Bicycles: Before training wheels, helmets and even small sizes. Came in one size, two types, boys or girls, coaster brakes, pants trapping chain and one weight, heavy. To learn was to fall. You could run as fast as you could and attempt to hop on, but if you were too small that was out. Even if you got on the very act of getting on made it unstable. The best bet was to find a fire hydrant, lean the bike against it, pedals in position, get on and shove off.
CUTS, BRUISES AND BLOOD
A rite of passage entailed the garnering of numerous cuts, bruises and the spilling of blood and acquisition of scars.
Any and all of the ‘games’ we played would probably be banned now, if they weren’t then. The lack of television and electronic games forced us to be resourceful with what we had; time, lack of sense, vivid imaginations and places that offered the opportunity to run amok. As a result my friends and I were in a somewhat self-destructive mode on occasion.
Number one on the list was ‘rock fights’ played in vacant lots, at the beach or wherever rocks and space could be found. There were two teams, usually fairly balanced by size, age and arm strength. The object was to be at the extreme throwing range of most of the participants and then chuck rocks of any size that could cover the distance to the opposing team. Players would dodge, hide behind available cover, make feints and raids and sometimes get hit. Throws were really lobs, not fast pitches, in order to keep casualties low.
Needless to say, you can’t dodge them all. I still remember watching a piece of red brick tumbling towards me as I was sneaking up in the grass to spring a surprise. I have a nice scar and a slight lump on the right side of my forehead to remind me of that day many years ago.
Another opportunity arose when a new house was being constructed in the neighborhood. Substitute pieces of wood for rocks and place the teams on different floors and the game was the same. Lots of splinters, no wood with nails in it. I am afraid that there was a fair amount of deconstruction to obtain the choices pieces of ammunition.
Slingshots were also not an uncommon device to juice up a day. Again, teams, but it was never really even as some had better equipment, usually store bought. Whamo slingshots were the best and most lethal. The one unspoken rule in all this was no deliberate head shots, and if you did get hit don’t bleed on your clothes or your mother would know and then there could be recriminations.
Tree climbing to make ‘forts’ was also an excellent way to accumulate damage, especially if there were a bunch of guys in the tree pushing and shoving to gain a handhold and altitude. Falls were not uncommon, but usually broken by dirt and leaves, unlike the playgrounds that offered gritty, grainy asphalt.
PLAYLAND AT THE BEACH
A place with a distant location but almost fatal attraction was Playland at the Beach. From the Marina it was a long series of streetcar rides, but with age came bicycles and a long ride thru the Presidio and out Geary to Laughing Sal, the Fun House, Bumper Cars and bad food.
Big Beach and the Great Highway, Sutro Baths and the Cliff House were all part of the mix, but the rides and games were the real attraction.
The Fun House was the focal point, Sal laughing insanely, beckoning you to enter the mirror maze with levitating floors and air jets at the entrance to the main hall. In the middle of the hall was the rotating centrifugal disc; you fought to get on first and sit in the center. The two madmen in the central control booth that overlooked the entire hall would turn it on and it would start to rotate. Faster and faster, kids furthest from the center would hurl off onto the waxed floor and padded wall, you’d elbow the other kids off and fight to stay in the center. Faster and faster and, at last, off you went.
Then up to the slides. Grab a piece of burlap run up the ramp to the top, which seemed like a hundred feet, jump on the burlap and down you went on a smooth undulating wooden surface, then up again and again until exhausted. Not supposed to go head first, some did. Not supposed to hold hands with the kid next to you on one of the three slides or double up, some did. Not supposed to push, crowd or butt in line, very few did. No adult supervision, excellent.
Off to the Barrel of Fun. Round and round, kids tumbling and knocking each other over; experienced veterans calmly out for a walk, work your way thru and then off to some other misadventure, dodging rotating padded wheels that could knock down the unwary or inexperience.
Then out to the Bumper Cars. Smell of electricity and graphite, slick and slippery metal floor, sparks flying from the poles to the electrified ceiling. Crash, Bang, no ‘head on’ collisions, Hah! No going the wrong way, Hah!
Then to the Roller Coaster or Shoot the Chutes, a boat hauled up on a long wooden ramp by a clanking chain, then released to plummet down into a pool of water; you could get wet. Good stuff.
The Diving Bell, a Jules Verne like underwater adventure to see a few fish in murky water, but then it would shoot up to the surface. The microphone inside transmitting to shrieks and yells from the rapid, explosive ascent to the folks waiting in line for their chance to be Captain Nemo.
Then off to all the lurching, turning, dizzying rides. The Octopus and all of them. Looping, swirling, lights flashing, children crying. Stomachs rebelling, screams of fear and delight.
Then maybe a scary ride through the House of Horrors, black light, ghosts, witches, howling beasts and all sorts of things to keep the adrenaline moving.
Lunch time; Pronto Pups, bricks of colored popcorn, corn dogs with mustard, bad ‘Mexican’ food, It’s It’s ice cream sandwiches, salt water taffy, sno-cones of bright hue; a gourmet’s delight of colorful unhealthy fare that sometimes littered the surface under the Octopus and its ilk.
Then to the darts at the balloon scam, or baseballs at lead milk bottles or any of the other ‘games of skill’ that could lead to prizes like cheap ceramic dolls or other treasures, that if they made it home had a short shelf life.
Real men would spend a lot of time at the air guns shooting spinning targets that clinked, some clanged, but the real game were ducks in the water slowly moving majestically into a flurry of lead. Hit one and over it went. If you got enough of them you could get a prize. Here there was adult supervision and the guns were on short chains and air hose so you couldn’t start a war.
Playland was fun all the way thru until it was demolished in the name of something that was to be better. It wasn’t, and a place of fun and simple pleasures was lost to the city.
FORT MASON: TROOPSHIPS AND THE GATEWAY TO THE PACIFIC
During most of my youth Fort Mason was off limits to civilians as it was a major transit point to the Pacific in World War Two, the Korean War and even the early part of the Vietnam War. During World War Two almost 1,500,000 men shipped out from the Port of Embarcation, many returned, some did not, their final footprint on American soil was at Fort Mason.
Including the Korean War, Vietnam and the constant rotating of troops, it is likely over 2,500,000 men and women sailed from the cavernous piers, out the Golden gate and into the Pacific.
My visual recollection from the Marina is of the piers jutting out into the bay, they were the most northerly point on the waterfront, blocking part of the view to the east bay hills and looking as if they were trying to close the gap to Alcatraz.
The piers were at least two stories high above the pilings and were painted a light adobe brown with red roofs. The setting sun would reflect off the water and highlight the piers and the great seal of the Military Sea Transportation Service, a ship’s wheel with a red center, which was on the western side facing the Golden Gate.
The troop transports were all grey, many looking like ocean liners with two funnels, but I am sure they lacked the amenities that the traveling public demanded. There were no swimming pools, lounges, all you can eat buffets. In talking to soldiers who shipped out it was a cramped, seasick voyage; several tiers of bunks rather than staterooms.
You could see the funnels above the tops of the piers and when smoke started you knew the ship would be leaving. I am sure there were families on the hills and waterfront who watched those ships leave with a heavy heart; some would even go to the Golden Gate Bridge for a last look. The big ships would back out, turn and head west passing right by the Marina and then under the Golden Gate.
Happier times were when the ships came in and families were waiting.
Fort Mason is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation area and has been turned into a public park: the piers and sheds are shops and restaurants, galleries, non-profit organizations and studios.
There is very little indication of what took place on the piers; there is a lack of recognition and no memorial recording how meaningful they were to the nation and the men and women who boarded troopships for a long voyage to the unknown.
Aquatic Park, at the foot of Van Ness, between Fort mason and Fisherman’s Wharf, offered a sandy beach at low tide, a sheltered cove, with Muni Pier on one side and the Hyde Street Pier on the other, and a rundown ‘bathhouse’ for changing.
The Muni Pier was a great fishing spot that I frequented with my grandfather. The bathhouse, a wonderful Art Deco building from 1939, which had been built as a community center with a restaurant, left much to be desired. The Army had used it from 1941 to 1948 as an adjunct to Fort Mason and its future was uncertain. I only used it once, but that was in part because the water was cold, sandy and didn’t appear overly hygienic.
There was a rowing club and a swimming club at the east end or the beach and you could see men swimming leisurely in the cold water or rowing out into the bay for real exercise. The swimmers would wear colored bathing caps for identification and were, to my eyes, like old bronzed and wrinkled walruses.
A Sea Scout base was on the west side, usually with a bunch of older kids working on keeping boats shipshape and sometimes rowing whaleboats about the harbor. Up from the base was a snack shop that offered hot coffee and chocolate to the Muni Pier fishermen to help ward off the cold.
The Alcatraz ferry and supply boats would dock at the foot of the Muni Pier and always offered the hope you could see Al Capone or some such. All the supplies for the prison, including water, had to be brought over, so there was usually some sort of activity.
The Belt Line Railroad, which served the Port of San Francisco, ran along the Embarcadero, past Aquatic Park and then under Fort Mason to the Presidio through a dark and mysterious tunnel that was usually off limits and closed by a chain link fence. We did climb the fence, even hoisting our bikes over, as it offered a shortcut to Chinatown during fireworks expeditions.
There were several Bocce Ball courts located near the snack stand that were built and patronized by the Italian community, mostly fishermen. You could sit and pretend you were in Italy, no English, much gesticulating and banter, appeals to God for justice on the court, some red wine and the ever present ropey dark small cigars clenched tightly in their teeth as they ran forward to give the ball just the right trajectory.
Today Aquatic Park is part of the San Francisco Maritime national Historic Park. The bathhouse has been restored and used as a museum and the area is a lively tourist spot. The Bocce courts are still there, as is the closed tunnel and the snack bar; the Sea Scouts are gone, but the rowers and swimmers are still at it. The Hyde Street Pier is a collection of wonderful old boats and ships, but the Muni Pier has fallen on hard times. All in all, a better place than it was.
Fisherman’s Wharf was an authentic adventure to visit and experience. In the 1940s and 50s it was still a true fishing port for the city’s Italian fishermen with a small but growing tourist side.
The majority of the fishing boats were small adaptations of the original Italian sailing boats with lanteen sails; by the time of the 1940s they had been modernized with a gasoline singer banger gasoline put-put engines and a cabin. They still had the Mediterranean looks with a high prow, colorful paint schemes and names of Saints and loved ones. Docked in one of the harbor basins, cheek to jowl, the crew of two or three chatting it up, Italy was not far away.
The crews would hang their nets from poles to dry, coil ropes, wash down the boat and go home to a hearty meal to prepare for the next day early departure. Some would take their nets over to the net repair station, where nets would be laid out on planking to be repaired. There were a couple of railings on the planking that went down to the water so boats could be hauled out for bottom cleaning and repair.
The boats went out in the morning and returned in late afternoon. Crabs held in tanks on the decks. Much noise as the catch was transferred into bigger holding tanks or taken ashore; seagulls were always on the alert for a fortuitous accident. Fish were thrown up to the pier if large, hoisted in buckets is small.
There were restaurants, not yet too fancy, and sidewalk stands for buying walking food and fish and crab purchases. Mounds of shaved ice cradled crabs, fish, mussels and shrimp. Big sidewalk cauldrons took Dungeness crabs to their end in a steaming bath; salty, smelly, but taste enticing. Crabs were 5 for a dollar! Then they went to 3 for a dollar and everyone went into hysterics about cost. Times have changed.
Little turtles with souvenir decals on their backs were sold for a dollar. We once had one that was accidentally locked in a typewriter case only to be found alive two weeks later. Bay shrimp, and they were actually San Francisco bay shrimp, sold in little paper bags for a quarter or so. Mom taught us how to peel them, head off first, then the tail and shell. A lot of work for a tiny morsel.
The Wharf was as exotic as Chinatown, each with their smells, food, customs, dress, boisterous language and each a part of a city that seems different today.
THE EMBARCADERO: SHIPS AND PIERS
From Fisherman’s Wharf to China Basin, the Embarcadero was a jumble of trains and trucks and dock workers, with its finger piers jutting out into the Bay from behind impressive facades. It gave a glimpse at the world of ocean borne trade that seemed exotic and evocative of distant places.
Ships would be tied up alongside their piers with their bows facing the city; you could read their names and try and figure out from whence they came. The Japanese Marus were easy, but there were Spanish names from South America and European names, like Maersk, on ships that plied the Pacific and never saw the Atlantic. Foreign flags and painted smokestacks with company colors and logos made them even more exotic.
There were American ships docked at piers decorated with their company name and logo; Dollar Lines, Pacific Far East Lines, Matson Lines and American President Lines were some of the majors, they even had their own downtown office buildings, as the shipping industry was a driver of San Francisco’s economy.
The ships were break bulk freighters with open cargo holds and their own deck cranes to help unload the cargo. The stevedores and longshoremen would be in the holds, sometimes unloading bulk cargo, like copra, by hand, or winching up rope nets filled with boxes, bales and crates of whatnot. You could see the cranes swinging to and fro and watch the frenzy of activity on the wharf as things were sorted out and moved into the cavernous piers to be loaded on trucks or railroad cars for further travel.
The railroad was the Belt Line Railroad which served the entire Embarcadero, from the interior of the piers to the Southern Pacific tracks near China and India Basins leading down the peninsula. Some trains went to the railroad piers near Fisherman’s Wharf where rail cars were loaded on ferries for the trip to Marin or Oakland for trains to the north and east.
The trucks that moved the heavy cargo were distinct drayage trucks, with a very low flat bed surrounded by movable wooden posts. There were special lumber carriers that looked like large insects with the load of lumber in the middle and the driver perched atop a platform supported by four long legs. Constant chaos seemed to work in the intermix of train, trucks, traffic and people.
Today the Embarcadero is more of a promenade, with restaurants, pedestrian walkways, water vistas, boat tours and tourism. The ships and longshoremen with their white caps and cargo hooks are gone. Container ships go to Oakland, but make an impressive sight as they come close to shore before going under the Bay Bridge and turning east.
North Beach was another favored neighborhood/community that Mom insisted we explore on foot. It was a good walk from the Marina, but the hills were minimal. We would take the F streetcar back home as we usually had loaded up on various goodies that reflected the best of Italian culinary traditions. My grandmother grew up in North Beach and she still had a sister and niece living near Saints Peter and Paul and we would often visit them as part of our excursions.
The boundaries of the Italian community in the 1940s and 1950s extended along Columbus Avenue from Jackson Street to the south, past Broadway and Washington Square and continued towards Fisherman’s Wharf. Families lived on Telegraph Hill, lower Russian Hill and all the way to the Embarcadero. (Over the years Chinatown had grown to the north and east, crossing Broadway, especially along Stockton Street.)
Washington Square was a focal point for the center of town, with Saint Peter and Paul dominating the scene of elderly Italian men sitting on benches in the park, soaking up the sun, chatting and smoking toxic black rope-like cigars. At some point the park was ‘improved’ and the benches that used to be along the paths that crossed the park and faced the sun were moved to the sides so the men could enjoy the traffic and shade.
The bakeries were a main stop, with Victoria Pastry being the home of St. Honore cakes which were necessary for my birthday celebrations. Layers of whipped cream and pastry, topped with cream puffs and loaded with calories; also cannoli that would not be stuffed until you were ready to pick up to keep them crisp. Italian cookies and candy, Panettone with little pieces of glazed fruit. Liguria Bakery for focaccia bread, baked at night for early morning purchase. Each flat wrapped in white paper and twine in the stark, white store; you could peer through and see the big ovens in the rear. The battle over whether the tomato was better than the onion or raisin has still not been resolved. Both bakeries are still in existence, much to the detriment of dieters.
Little City Meats for veal, sausages and pre-made Italian meat dishes. Dianda Bakery on Green Street for long, crisp bread sticks that were almost all crust; kept in the car for snacks on those Sunday rides. Exposition Ravioli Factory on Grant for spinach, cheese or meat ravioli. (Only Little City is still in business.)
Delicatessens. Molinari, Panelli Brothers and others offered a plethora of sausages, cheeses, imports from Italy, wines, canned this and that, dried that and this, breads, smells and hunger inducing visuals. Cheeses and sausages hanging from the ceiling, piles of hard crusted sour dough rolls, stacks of big cans of olive oil, fresh pasta, dried cod, too many kinds of olives, and best of all, salami. Walking into a good Italian Deli is like a treasure hunt.
North Beach is still a vibrant community with some of the vestiges of the past still surviving. There is a newspaper clipping in Vesuvio’s, across from Tosca, that shows men on Columbus Street listening to a broadcast of Mussolini’s speech announcing the invasion of Ethiopia. It really wasn’t that long ago.
Chinatown had an air of mystery and the unknown that was a magnet for my mother. We would either take the streetcar, or if adventurous, walk from out house to Chinatown to shop, explore and eat. I still walk through several times a year and always see something new as it changes and accommodates new arrivals. My own children would complain, ‘Dad, not Chinatown again’ as I dragged them off for another tour.
The Chinatown of my youth was Cantonese and rather fixed in what it offered to tourists and locals alike. As new immigrants have arrived from other parts of China and Asia, the food, the language and the non-tourist portions have grown. In addition parts of the Richmond and Sunset have become an extension of the Asian community and in some ways are more ‘authentic’ than portions of Chinatown.
The Chinatown of my youth offered strange and often delicious foods and smells, fascinating produce, live fish and fowl, maybe even turtles and frogs, all destined for some dish or another. Food stores had dried things of unknown origin; fish, fungi, roots, spices and even reptiles. Drug stores had boxes and bins full of medicines and remedies that didn’t come with printed dosages.
We experimented with dried fish and shrimp, but most of all, dried mushrooms and fresh produce. Mom tried her hand at what we considered Chinese food.
The meat and fish markets not only had cages of birds and tanks of fish that you could purchase dead or alive, but they had cuts of meat and parts of animals on display that were lessons in dissecting. I didn’t know that pigs had so many parts, both exterior and interior, that could fill a couple of cases at the pork store.
The vegetables on sidewalk stands ran the gamut from the familiar to the totally unknown. Melons, eggplant, citrus fruits, beans and greens all came in a bewildering array of styles and shapes with very little in the way of description as to use or taste. Sometimes we would buy and experiment.
The best part of the food cycle were the markets with prepared foods. Ducks and squabs hanging in the windows; salt chicken, and the king of the hill, whole roasted pig, a glistening golden brown, that you could buy by the piece or pound and a magician with a cleaver would turn it into bite sized pieces fit in a carton. A whole duck would be reduced to a quart sized container, filled with juices. Pay no attention to discussions of cholesterol! Take it home and eat, but if you put it in the refrigerator it may look a little less appealing in the morning.
Steam tables with rice, noodles, squid, chicken, fish, shrimp, duck and everything smelling great were a real temptation. Bakeries with a range from steamed pork buns to almond cookies were the last stop.
Enough of food! The real mystery of Chinatown was to figure out how and where to buy fireworks for the 4th of July. Wing Duck on Grant avenue had the basement room with hidden cabinets. This was one trip to Chinatown that did not involve my mother. We took the streetcar or rode our bikes to search for rockets, double aerial bombs, M-80s and any other forbidden fruit. Long walks down dark corridors or dank alleys following a ‘buy firecracker?’ tout would usually lead to success. Sometimes money was given to total strangers with the promise they would return with the right stuff. They always did. It all seems to have been stamped out and driven deep underground in the interest of making sure that future generations are safe and sane. Too bad.
Chinatown was a great experience and certainly broadened one’s horizons as to what was out there in the world.
A TRIP DOWNTOWN
‘Downtown’ generally meant Market Street from 5th to 3rd Street and the Union Square area from Powell to Grant, south of Bush Street. There were some exceptions, but the stores in this area represented the spectrum of big names that meant dressing up to ‘go downtown’ to shop for things your neighborhood main street lacked. It did not mean going into the financial district full of businessmen in suits wearing hats.
The big name stores were mostly local, The Emporium, City of Paris, Livingston’s, Ransohoff’s, Roos Brothers, Shreve’s, Gump’s to name a few. The chain stores like J.C. Penny, Woolworth’s, I. Magnin and Macy’s were part of the mix, there were many others, big and small, but all required you to look like you could pay for what you were eyeing, as the credit card was in the future.
You did dress up, women in dresses, hats with veils, white gloves; men in suits and ties; boys and girls scrubbed, no patches, hair slicked down, hands clean. The streetcars from all over the city ended up on Market Street and from there you branched out depending on needs and budget.
If you drove, and few did, you parked at the Union Square underground garage. An attendant would take you care and drive it down into the bowels of the earth after handing you a ticket. When you returned and an attendant would take your ticket get on a moving belt man lift and disappear down a hole in the floor. Several minutes later your car would appear with the attendant who had found it down below by some mysterious process.
As you walked the streets, there were several flower stands, mostly on Stockton, there were ‘must see’ store windows like Gump’s, City of Paris or the Emporium; there was the photographer, usually on Geary, who would snap your picture and sell you the improvised street portrait. There were restaurants in the Emporium and City of Paris; a great luncheonette counter in Woolworths, and places like Compton’s Cafeteria, Moar’s, Sear’s House of Pancakes and even Morrow’s Nut House. You could dine at John’s Grill or Omar Khayyam’s if you were upscale.
There were several large markets like Grand Central and Grant market that offered the finest meats, fish and produce. There was a donut shop on the corner of Stockton and Ellis where a doughnut machine spurted out raw donuts into a vat of cooking oil where they would ride on a moving chain of stainless steel rafts and be flipped over automatically half way thru to expose the then white top to the tanning of the oil. You could stand on the sidewalk and watch the entire process, a tempting experience.
Shopping meant going from store to store to buy what they did best. J.C. Penny was the underwear king, Roos Brothers was outerwear, Woolworth’s was canned sardines in the basement, The Emporium, practical stuff. You trundled around like a pack animal and finally climbed into the streetcar to make it home; folks would ask what you bought.
Downtown is different now. Dressing up seems to have become very passé at the same time ‘upscale and trendy’ seem to have taken over. More glitz and glamour, fewer smiles. The locals are mostly gone and national stores and brands prevail. It is really just a large, upscale open air mall.
A rite of passage into the business world usually started with a newspaper route. Most of my friends had routes, as did I, and we learned a lot about work, people, responsibility and how money is earned. Much of what we did is now considered illegal child labor, in violation of OSHA, dangerous and almost involuntary servitude. We were ‘independent contractors’ and had to run our own business.
I started my first route on an inauspicious day; the newspapers were extra thick and the headlines read “Reds Attack South Korea”.
My first newspaper was the San Francisco Call Bulletin, an afternoon paper printed on reddish newsprint. The ink smeared, so by the end of the day your hands and clothes had a nice patina of black ink.
In the afternoon, three or four of us would wait at the corner of Chestnut and Broderick for ‘Herb’, our purported boss, to zoom up in his green and black Chevy sedan to dump out our bundles of papers. The car had a driver’s seat and a plywood floor throughout. Many a wild ride was taken in that seat less, much less seat beltless, machine as it careened around the streets. The leap heading down Divisadero at Vallejo was my first experience with zero gravity.
We would saw thru the hemp ropes tying the bundles using friction and then load up our delivery bags, big canvass bags that you wore over your shoulders with papers in front and back. Sometimes they were so heavy you had to stand the bag up like a tent and crawl under, put your head thru the hole and have a buddy help you get up.
Some rode bikes with the bags hanging over their handle bars, I was a walker. Bikers had longer less dense routes and had to fold all their papers and load up before they left; walkers could fold as they went. I had many apartment houses and a short route; the downside was figuring out how to get into the apartment house as you had to deliver to the door. Many devious and probably unlawful entries ensued.
Folding papers was an art, long since lost. The paper had to be at the door which meant a lot of throwing papers up flights of stairs or down walkways. What fold was best? Each had different virtues as to distance, accuracy and destructive potential and depended on the thickness of that day’s paper. I preferred the double roll, others the triple. For long shots the tucked sandwich was ideal, for accuracy the tomahawk. Windows and milk bottles were the usual casualties.
As an ‘independent contractor’ we bought our papers and were responsible for collecting from customers. Once a month we paid off ‘Herb’ after having to collect from our sometimes stingy customers: some stiffed you and then complained if you didn’t deliver, others actually gave a tip. We would collect at night, in the dark in winter, with our collection book and pocket of money; today we’d probably be robbed.
Once the money was in, you paid for your papers, what was left was profit. If someone didn’t pay it was your nickel, not the Call Bulletin’s, that was anted up. Herb made more money by being a coin collector and sifting thru our grubby handfuls of coin and bills for things we knew not.
After the Call Bulletin I shifted careers to the Shopping News, as it was free, they paid you and there was no interaction with customers.
There was a downside, the routes were longer and the paper had to be delivered, not to the door, but jammed into the door handle so it was unavoidable. This meant no more long tosses up stairs, it meant climbing stairs, many stairs, with a load of papers on your back. Built character and thick legs and necks.
I ended up back at the Call, with a long bicycle route, but with some hills. The greatest excitement came when I was careening down Divisadero and the paper bag on the handle bars got caught in my bike spokes. I went over the handlebars and ended up further down the hill. Nothing broken, but I learned man wasn’t meant to fly.
I didn’t love it, but I certainly liked most of the newspaper delivery boy experience. It is sad to me that in our protective society this opportunity to do real world things at a young age is gone.
The Marina offered access to several fishing spots, Muni Pier at Aquatic Park, the Marina Yacht Harbor and the Presidio Pier at Crissy Field. Today the Muni Pier is in disrepair, the Marina Yacht Harbor is off limits to all but boat owners, and the Presidio Pier is gone.
The Muni Pier trips were with my grandfather on the F Streetcar, down Chestnut to Van Ness to the Muni Bait Shop at Polk and Francisco, then walk to the Pier. Granddad would have his fishing pole and crab net and we would purchase bait from the Muni Bait Shop, usually a sawdust filled shoe box loaded with bloody sardine heads, probably from Cannery Row. I could buy a drop line for $0.25 with two hooks and a sinker and about twenty feet of green string.
We actually caught fish, maybe a striped bass, but usually a flounder, once a sting ray. Lots of perch and many, many ugly bull-heads. Crab nets brought up legal sizes Dungeness crabs, and if you jerked them up some times fish would be caught. The fish and crabs would ride the streetcar home in the crab net bag to my grandmother’s kitchen.
Soldiers from Fort Mason, many waiting to ship out, would visit the pier. Some were from the mid-West and knew nothing of crabs and sting rays and bull-heads; they were curious and interested and were kind and friendly to a small boy and his grandfather.
The other attraction at Muni Pier was the grey tug like boat that shuttled between Alcatraz and the city. Armed guards sometimes were present with sullen looking men who never smiled. The kids who lived on Alcatraz took the boat every weekday to and from school.
The Marina Yacht Harbor was drop line fishing for kids from docks between the boats. Shiners and perch, maybe a rock cod and the ever present bull-heads were the targets. Bait was 10 cents worth of shrimp from the market. Shiners were usually thrown to the waiting seagulls, but the perch and cod made it home to Mom.
Granddad and my Grandmother’s Italian clan would often fish from the breakwater pier by the Saint Francis Yacht Club. Long casts to clear the rocks and rubble fronting the pier, many snags and snapped lines. The more frugal would use Bull Durham tobacco bags filled with sand as sinkers. (That’s when people rolled their own, with tobacco.) Wet, cold and blustery days. A view of the submarine net anchorage off the St. Francis Yacht Club.
The Presidio Pier came into play after WWII and when the Presidio was open to the public. Located off Crissy Field it was a good crabbing site. Biggest I ever caught. The tide could pull the crab net out under the pier as you hauled it in and dexterity was required to free it and not the crabs in it.
Fishing, salt water smells, snags, hooks in fingers and failure more than success, but fun.
The Sunday ride was a tradition that reflected the new found freedom to travel after the war. More cars, no gasoline rationing, and bridges to take you across the bay to Marin and Sonoma or Contra Costa and the east bay. The peninsula was reached by Skyline or the Coast highway, Bayshore was the last choice.
Memorable rides and destinations were:
Deer Park in Fairfax. Big wooden picnic tables and benches among oak and bay trees. A little creek, barbeque grills, leaky faucets with yellow jackets hanging around for a drink. Poison oak. You walked in from a little gravel parking area in front with all your stuff for a fire, picnic, games and hiking. There was a big field that years later would house a school, from there trails off thru the woods, even to the top of Mount Tam. I remember a birthday party where at least 12 of us jammed in mom’s 1940 grey Dodge sedan to picnic and hang out in a huge multi-trunk bay tree.
Martinez. The Italian side of the family. A long ride in those days. Wonderful food made the trip worthwhile. A big wooden house with fruit trees and a cellar. A dark wood paneled dining room that would accommodate the entire extended family. Crab boiled in water with white wine and garlic, pigeon cacciatore with the birds provided by a sharp shooting uncle. Several generations piling it on. Wine spilled on the tablecloth soaked up by a dose of salt.
Half Moon Bay, a trip down the coast for a fire and food on the beach. Helped the grandparents get to the sand from the bluff. Abandoned farmhouses on the ocean side of Hiway One that had been closed and boarded up during the war to deny them to invaders, some still with government warning signs. A little shack on the east side of the road that sold soft drinks. Buying artichokes and Brussels sprouts. Throwing a dead seagull on the fire and ruining the ocean scented air.
Sebastopol. Off to pick apples and pears. You could pick your own or frequent one of the many fruit stands. We would fill big wooden boxes and bring them home to keep in a dark closet where they would last for some time. A side trip to Petaluma and you could see huge flocks of chickens, maybe even visit a hatchery. Back home through Marin and side roads to see cows, wind sculpted cypress trees sheltering big white barns and soaring hawks.
It was all leisurely and slow paced. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry, and my sister and I would gaze out the window looking for out of state license plates or counting train cars and taking in the scenery; once in a while, Burma Shave ditties along the road. I don’t even remember a car radio. Sometimes we would just take a drive with no destination in mind and when we found a small country schoolhouse we’d stop and picnic in the yard, using the playground, then back home.
The downside of long trips on winding roads were being stuck behind a diesel Greyhound bus that could make any hint of car-sick illness increase tenfold. Lumber trucks on the way to the coast were always good for a real opportunity to see the scenery in slow motion.
SATURDAY MOVIE MATINEES
The Saturday matinee was almost mandatory during winter when the rains made outdoor play less appealing.
For 25 cents you could immerse yourself in the magic of movieland, with added attractions being plenty of cartoons and serial adventures of a number of heroes, usually cowboys. Most kids did not have television and the movies were the high tech of the day.
The shows took place in early afternoon and lasted for two hours so the theatre could get ready for the evening adult crowd. We would go in groups, boys separate from girls, and once inside, we would stay separate with the exception of throwing popcorn at the girls and trying to be ‘cool’. There were no dates and hand holding at this pre-adolescent stage, but some brave souls would slowly advance in the dim light towards the girls with some vague idea in mind, but usually retreated when shrieks and giggles blew their cover.
The two theatres were the Marina on Chestnut and the Metro on Union Street. The Marina offered the luxury of a candy counter and the smell of old popcorn and not so real butter, but the best were things like: Sugar Daddy (a dental filling pulling taffy on a dangerous sharp stick), Big Hunk candy bars, BonBon ice cream drops, Eskimo Pie ice cream on a stick, Jujubes, Butterfinger candy bars, bright Orange soda and a host of other goodies.
There was a small candy shop next to the Metro where you could load up for the performance. At the end of the war when chewing gum became readily available and bubble gum was the chew of choice the owner offered a free piece of Double Bubble gum with each 10 cent bag of popcorn. The street was littered with popcorn! It looked as if it had been snowing.
The cartoons were good and bad. I disliked Mighty Mouse and Casper as they were a little too cute; especially the singing mouse, but Tom and Jerry, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and the rest had a nice mix of violent humor. There were sing along cartoons with the bouncing ball, but they left me cold.
The serials were about ten minutes in length and were not of the highest quality either plot wise or cinematically. Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rodgers, Sky King, Red Ryder, Gene Autry were all second to the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion, Tonto, always muttering Kemo Sabe or some such.
The main features I can remember not at all.
The Saturday matinee brought together kids from all over the neighborhood and from different schools; there was a temporary community built each Saturday, which sometimes lead to friendships with kids outside of your usual gang.
Halloween was one of the most eagerly awaited days of the year; you could get treats or you could trick, some would do both. There was an underpinning of vandalism that called forth primitive passions, as well as the goal of amassing edible loot. You did have to dress up and get into the spirit of things, especially in grammar school, but as one got older the costumes became less elaborate.
Winfield Scott had a Halloween parade on the play yard at noon and parents went to great lengths to show off their wardrobe talents; whether the children were thrilled by some of the getups is another thing. It was the one day when many mothers would walk their children to school and also stay for the parade.
That afternoon the early bird trick or treaters would be out, but the custom was to wait until dark. There would be an early evening parade on Chestnut street with some decorated cars and floats and candy would be tossed to the crowds on the sidewalk. After the parade it was off to ring doorbells and pass on information as to who was giving out the best treat. The best houses to hit were on Marina Boulevard and around the Palace of Fine Arts; some people gave real whole candy bars.
There were very few, if any, store bought costumes; they were usually clothes from around the house fashioned into something of note. There were no mini candy bars made especially to give to urchins. Maybe you’d get a Tootsie Rood, Double Bubble gum, lots of candy corn, colored wax harmonicas, even some apples and homemade cookies.
The trick part consisted of mostly soaping windows; most of the merchants on Chestnut had put a film of soluble oil on their windows to foil the attempt. There some water balloons and water pistols, with pressurized Shasta seltzer bottles being the most dangerous for all involved. There were some egg and tomato missiles, even an overturned garbage can or two, but actual physical vandalism was minimal.
When it was over you went home and poured your collection on the bed, ate too much, traded with sisters and brothers and had your teeth really brushed that night.
The most memorable Halloween was in 1944 when I was five and going to kindergarten. Mom took it in her head to dress me like a girl, and one of my sister’s dresses, pink, was the main part to the costume. I was not a happy camper and pleaded for a costume change for evening trick or treats.
That afternoon when my sister came home (kindergarten got out early) Mom called us into her room and was very serious. She had not gone to work that day, nor did she go to the parade at school. She told us that our father had died that morning, she was unable to be with him as he was in a hospital in San Jose; she had gotten a telephone call early in the morning that he was dying, dressed us up and sent us off to wait for the next call.
She told me I could not go out that night to trick or treat but would stay with her as ‘the man of the house.’ We sat in the living room that night, looking out the window at kids running up and down the street. I sat on her lap and did not complain. She held my hand and said very little.
TRAINS, FERRIES AND BUSSES
Trips from the city that were more than a Sunday drive created a sense of adventure as there were so many new and different places to see, but getting there was always the most personal part.
The major trips that still evoke memories are as follows:
The railroad to Mount Shasta, a family trip to see Aunt Ollie and family. We got up very early in the morning and took the streetcar to the Ferry Building and then the ferry to Oakland to catch the train. The ferry glided along in darkness which dramatized the golden lights of a Key System train crossing the lower level of the Bay Bridge. A string of moving pearls in the dark.
We boarded the train and found ourselves in a car that must have been 90%+ filled with soldiers and sailors heading to Portland and Seattle and points in between. I hope they were going home and not shipping out. I must have sat in a dozen laps on the trip and became the little brother for a lot of young men in scratchy woolen uniforms whose warmth I still remember.
Ferries: The Ferry Building was a huge, vast and active place. The smell of salt air and creosoted wood piles, ferries hooting and tooting as they pulled in or out of the slips. The screeching and of wood against rubber as the ferries banged into the pilings and the lurch of the slip at the collision.
Cars waiting to board for the trip across if they were avoiding the bridge. On the upper level, long wooden bench seats polished with the bottoms of countless passengers, a coffee and snack bar. Big coffee urns, steam in the cold air, donuts and sandwiches. The rumble of engines and paddle wheels, a glimpse into the engine room and massive machinery moving up and down to make us go forward. A walk to the outside to smell the air and see the city disappear in the morning fog, seagulls keeping noisy watch.
Busses. The Greyhound Terminal on Seventh near Market was not an attractive place. Open boarding platforms partially open to the sky, busses lined up on either side under destination signs. Bus engines running to add fumes and smoke to the air. A driver in uniform who would punch your ticket and help you with luggage if needed and then off you go thru the city to the highway. It was an inexpensive way to travel and would get you to small towns where the bus depot was a landmark Glamor was out.
Another trip to Mount Shasta, this time alone to see my cousins for Christmas. Many hours looking out the windows; pit stops in small towns in the valley. A long ride. It was dark and snowing as we approached Shasta City. I stood in front by the driver waiting to be dropped off and watched the headlights illuminate snowflakes that appeared to be racing towards us.
The last time I was in the Greyhound terminal was for a trip to Travis Air Force base and a long flight courtesy of the U.S. Army to garden spots in Asia. I do not miss the terminal.
The ever changing street scene in the San Francisco of the 1940s and 1950s were fascinating to a young boy who could see trucks as an integral part of the city and its way of life. Many of these trucks and the men (no women) who drove them were part of the stream of commerce that has vanished in today’s more ‘sophisticated’ life style.
Following is a short summary of each memorable truck and its place in daily life in the Marina, this could and did vary by neighborhood.
Milk Trucks: Borden milk trucks with open metal shelving on each side with metal crates of milk, butter and eggs. Big chunks of ice on each crate melting slowly thru the shelves to keep things cool. No refrigeration. Milk men in white delivering bottles up to the front door and collecting the empties; little colored flags to spell out that day’s order. If it was hot and you were handy, a piece of ice chipped off the block was a treat.
Ice Trucks: Big blocks of ice in the back of an enclosed Union Ice Company truck. Stopped at houses with ‘ICE’ signs in the window for their ice-box, not refrigerator. Burly ice-men with black leather aprons and shoulder pads manhandling block ice with ice picks and steel tongs, then sprinting stairs up to deliver the melting load.
Garbage Trucks. Green very tall open top trucks with a circular metal stairway at the right rear up to the top. Garbage men with big burlap enclosed loads of garbage dumped from garbage cans in alleys, climbing up the stairs to dump their load into the open truck. No recycling, flies and smells and a tough job.
Knife Sharpeners. Once every couple of months the knife sharpener with an open truck and a large motor driven grinding wheel would honk his way thru the neighborhood. Out would come the knives, sparks would fly and the smell of grinding oil and steel would hang in the air.
Produce Trucks; Small open trucks with shelves of vegetables and boxes and crates of fruit. Scale hanging on the back. Came on a certain day at a certain time to the more upscale houses around the Palace of Fine Arts; out would come the cook to select the latest and freshest.
Rags, Bottles and Sacks! Not really a truck, a horse drawn wagon with a grizzled oldster calling out ‘Rags, bottles and sacks’ as he slowly cruised the street. That was the limit of recycling. He did well enough to feed his horse and come back in the next couple of months.
Roofing Trucks; The smell of tar bubbling in the trailer was not good, but had an attraction. Men on roofs shouting down; rope pulleys hauling up buckets of gravel and molten tar. Perhaps a small piece of tar to chew on as a gift after being told it would make your teeth whiter.
Cho Cho’s truck. One of several snack and goodies trucks that would stop by after school or at playgrounds. We never knew the name of the proprietor, nor did he ever tell us, so we called him Cho Cho after the chocolate ice cream he sold. A small dark man of unknown origin, a man of very few words. A glass enclosed cabin built into the body of a small truck of wonders with a sliding window, he on the inside, we on the outside. A popcorn popper, ice cream bars kept cold by dry ice, sodas, gum, candy, a plethora of dinner ruiners. Nickels, dimes and an occasional quarter. Not much money then.
Army Trucks. We were at war most of my youth, WWII, Korea. The Presidio and Fort Mason were on either side of the Marina. We saw convoys along Lombard Street, ambulances from Fort Mason to Letterman Hospital in the Presidio. A reminder that there was big world out there that we knew little about.
I am sure others will remember different trucks and men and jobs people did, but these recall the best for me.
Street cars, massive, lumbering steel beasts were the chosen option for getting around the city.
The F-Line on Chestnut Street, with its green and yellow colors, connected with other lines to open up the city to kids with a nickel and a sense of adventure. There were lines on Greenwich Street into the Presidio, Geary street lines could take you to Playland at the Beach, Market Street lines connected to ‘everywhere’. There were tunnels under Twin Peaks and Duboce Street that connected to ‘out there’, also known as the Sunset and Richmond.
There were two basic interiors depending on the type of car, woven straw covered seats, somewhat soft, or wooden slat seats of redwood. The seats were hinged to be reversed when the car retraced its steps without turning around. The conductor would walk thru the car at the end of the line and flip the seats forward for the return trip. The motorman carried the control handle, which was portable, and would fit it onto the top of the electric magneto, give it a twist, and off you would go. The conductor would man the rear of the car, guarding the entry, collect fares and give change from the coin changer on his belt. Nobody got on without paying their due. A transfer would be your passport to continue your journey on a different line.
The ends of some cars were open on one side with a lattice screen to keep you in and others out. The open ends could be cold and damp in the fog, but made you feel more adventurous; they came with risk, I remember a full pack of firecrackers sailing over the screen and into the car during Chinese New Year causing much hooting and hollering. The really adventurous would sit on the cow catcher in the front of the car despite the bell clanging warnings from the motorman. Less adventurous would sit in the interior of the car, which was enclosed and parlor-like. Little things, like rough brass plates for striking matches added homey touches. There was little or no trash, and the motorman or conductor would make sure the car was tidy at the end of the run.
Long trips were an adventure. My sister dragged me off to movies on Market Street or far off neighborhoods. A trip downtown to the ‘tower of pain’ at 450 Sutter to see the dentist was not the most exciting, but going to North Beach, Chinatown or to catch a ferry at the Ferry Building were rewarding.
Streetcars were safe and clean, conductors and motormen were uniformed, caring and concerned adults who ran a tight ship while serving the public; they wore full uniforms and a prominent identifying number. They could tell you what lines to take to get to your ultimate destination and offer advice on what to see when you got there. Sometimes they could give you schedule information so you could plan your return. A nickel and a transfer got you all the city had to offer.
The F Line on Chestnut Street, like many others, was ‘modernized’ in the 1950s and replaced by electric trolleys in the name of progress. A major step backwards for the city. Busses just became part of the traffic and got no respect from the public, motorists or passengers. The streetcar had tracks and a purpose, the bus was lost in the crowd.
Christmas in San Francisco in the 1940s and 1950s was not the commercial affair it is today, it did had many sights, sounds and activities that made it a time of goodwill and shared community experiences that gave a sense of something special to all, especially children.
Many of the sights and memories of the past are gone for a variety of reasons, from economic to political correctness celebrating nothing but ‘Happy Holidays’, but these are the things I remember the most.
The Salvation Army was a strong presence downtown and in many neighborhoods. Downtown had uniformed Salvation Army personnel in the most strategic locations with their Red Kettles and the constant ringing of hand bells. Real Salvation Army members in full uniform gave a sense that they were not fooling around and that they would take dimes, nickels and pennies and do something good with them.
The Salvation Army Bands would play in various locales, both downtown and in the neighborhoods. Brass, drums and tambourines belting out traditional Christmas music gave a touch that was perfect for the season and time. In the Marina they would come at night during the week and play on Chestnut Street and the side streets. Windows would open and some would drop money in envelopes or even loose bills and change, others would gather around and sing. They don’t do that anymore.
Firehouses throughout the City were all decorated and vied to be the winner of the best decorated. We’d pile in the old 1940 Dodge and drive around the city to see which firehouse had done the most to dazzle the passing line of cars. It was a grand tour for all and took us into unfamiliar parts of the city to share with each other.
The store windows downtown were a ‘must see’, with people four or five deep or more in front of the stores and shops that had gone to extravagant lengths to outdo each other. Macy’s, the Emprorium, the City of Paris, Gumps and Podesta Baldocci were in the top tier. The trees in the Emporium and City of Paris rotundas were also on the must see list, Union Square was ablaze with lights and decorations as were the exteriors or many of the buildings. The smell of real fir and pine was in the air.
Each neighborhood ‘Main Street’, be it Chestnut, Fillmore, Silver Avenue, Army, Geneva, Clement, Irving, Geary or Mission each put on their best with decorations, lights and their own storefront contests. There were no ‘Sale’ signs, decorations didn’t go up in October and a lack of business hustle made it a time of smiles, without the acquisition frenzy of today.
Christmas tree lots sprang up on vacant lots around the city. There were more then. Each was a mysterious place; a small temporary urban forest that kids could wander thru. Even better were the days after Christmas where the unsold and abandoned trees would be a great venue for all sorts of imaginary adventures.
NEW YEAR’S EVE
New Year’s Eve for a young kid? What kind of memories could those be? Certainly no drinking or night clubs.
It was Market Street! Get a couple of buddies, pile into the F Streetcar line and through Chinatown and the Stockton tunnel, past Union Square to Market Street. All lite up with the residue of Christmas decorations, crowded with people blowing horns, some dressed up, others on their way to or from parties, and a generally boisterous but friendly crowd waiting for the old year to go and the new to come.
The streets would already be covered with the year’s calendar pages that people had thrown out of their office windows on the last day of work, a great tradition doomed by modern buildings with sealed windows. There would be ticker tape strewn about, another item gone via technology.
Best of all, there would be men with large sacks of confetti that they would sell for ‘a nickel a bag’. You’d get a small bag or two and enter into the throwing things around contest that was ongoing and involved every one. You’d yell ‘Happy New Year’ and generally have a noisy time and then wait for midnight.
The sirens would go off, bells, horns, whistles. Everyone would shout. Older folks would lock lips and hug, we’d look away. The back on the F Streetcar back to home base.
Today, there isn’t the same scene on Market and if there were I am sure no unescorted pre-teenagers would be allowed to be there on their own by their overly concerned parents. New Year’s Eve seems to have gone from a shared celebration to a communal drunk with all the negative behavior that creates.
I never flew until later in life, but courtesy of my grandfather I had visited the airport on several occasions to watch the planes and think of far off places.
We would take the F street car to the Greyhound bus station on 7th Street near Market and head south. Granddad would bring lunch which always included a 16oz Pepsi bottle full of red wine for him, none for me. I got water. We would walk to the old terminal building, a white Spanish colonial style two storey structure with an internal balcony that ran around the upper floor looking at the bustle below. We would eat our lunch up on the balcony.
There were some windows to look out, but it was best to sit outside to get the feel and sense of activity of arrivals, departures and passengers on foot walking to and fro. There were no gangways, just moveable steps rolled up to the plane for the passengers who would walk from the terminal to the plane.
There were no jet powered airliners; just propeller driven two and four engine planes. They would land and taxi up near the terminal and turn off the engines that would cough and sputter and the propeller would slowly come to a stop. Departing planes were much better. There would be some whining noise and the props would slowly start to turn. Sometimes there would be a blast of black smoke, or even flame, as the engines slowly came to life. A load roar would become louder and louder and at last, with much noise and smoke they would trundle off towards the runway.
I could spot the incoming planes at a distance and confound my grandfather by being able to tell him whther they were two or four engine aircraft long before he could make them out. It was about 50/50 for each.
The planes were all aluminum with the airlines names painted on as well as the plane’s name and company logo. The prettiest and most interesting were the TWA Constellations with their distinctive tail and shape. The biggest were the United Stratocruisers off to Hawaii. In between were all manner of DC 3s, 4s, and 6s. It wasn’t until later years that turbo-props and then jets made their appearance.
The new International Terminal opened in 1954 and we went to the opening to see the vastly bigger and more impressive terminal and control tower. The were all manner of new planes on display, including the B36, which dwarfed the other planes, just like the new terminal dwarfed the old. Times had changed!
The Golden Gate Bridge and its less photogenic relative, the Bay Bridge, are icons of San Francisco and monuments to the ‘can do’ attitude of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Built in the late 1930s with the depression still in full flower, they were a source of pride and showpieces of determination to show the world that San Francisco was truly world class.
The Golden Gate Bridge opened up Marin Country and points north, like the Russian River to city residents that had previously been impossible but for car ferries from Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a good walk from the parking lot near the toll plaza, across the bridge. Start in the sun, walk thru howling fog and end up in the sun in Marin County and try and see the city skyline thru the fog.
Walking across the bridge with my grandfather was a memorable experience when I was probably seven. We took the Greyhound to Sausalito and walked back to the Marina, up to Waldo Grade, across the bridge and down Doyle Drive. I was deposited at the front door, unable to climb the stairs when we got home.
Looking over the side of the bridge was a bit too much for me; I remember peeking thru the railing and thru the gap between the side walk and the road bed to see the surging tides far below. Seeing ships and fishing boats plowing thru the ‘potato patch’ outside the Gate did not make me want to go down to the sea in ships.
With high winds you could feel the bridge sway, and at times you could hear the wind whistling thru the suspender cables as far away as our house in the Marina. The painters would hang from bosun’s chairs from the main cables to paint the suspender cables, open to the elements. Big men in brownish overalls and hard hats all stained international orange.
Riding a bike across the bridge to Marin County was a major adventure. It was not a bicycle friendly environment. At the Marin side was a turnstile for pedestrians to pay a nickel, a fence ran along a portion of the roadway to make sure you paid. There was no way to get a bike thru so we threw our bikes onto the roadway and rode like scared rabbits to get around this obstacle.
I have since had the opportunity to go to the top of the south tower in a very small internal elevator and marvel and the courage, audacity and sheer guts of those who designed and built the bridge without computers, OSHA and all the necessary trappings of today.
The Bay Bridge was always different. Longer. No pedestrians. It was all business and no romance. Trucks and Key System trains shared the lower level; cars went both ways on the upper. The best part was seeing the mudflat artists’ creations in Emeryville as you were stopped in traffic going to the toll booth. The neon advertising lights of San Francisco lit up the west end of the sky, but the Sherwin Williams paint covering the world sign on the east end was the best.
TEAMS AND STADIUMS
San Francisco had the benefit of having two sports venues that reflected the nature of the times: Seals Stadium, the home of the Seals, and Kezar Stadium, the home of the 49ers.
Seals Stadium, located off Potrero Avenue was a jewel of a baseball park. It was small and had a real home town feeling; you could see people you knew and you could see the entire crowd. The weather was as good as you could get in the city. Public transit was the way to get there as there was very limited parking. It was a ‘people’s park’ in the sense of scale and intimacy. There were no private boxes and the distinction between the high priced seats and bleachers was minimal, no private boxes and clubs.
The seats were comfortable and spacious; the view of the field unobstructed, and above all, it was clean. The neighborhood had a collection of bars and restaurants to cater to the thirsty with the Double Play being the closest, if not the best. It is still there today. To the west, towering over the area was the Rainer Brewery, home of ‘green death’, also known as Rainer Ale. Later in life it became the Hamm’s Brewery with a wonderful rooftop neon display of an ever filling and emptying beer glass.
Unfortunately, Seals Stadium was torn down after Candlestick was built and become a rather depressing shopping center that was more a detriment to the area than a benefit. The brewery became office space.
The Seals were a home town team as many of the players were local boys made good. From the Italians from the North Beach boys clubs, to the Irish from SI and SH, there was a sense of local pride and participation that became part of the game.
Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park was the home of the 49ers. Small was the operative word. Built for high school sports with a track for games and parades, it was open to the elements in the true sense, as the weather was not as good as at Seals Stadium. It also had very limited parking, so the Muni was the chosen method of transit. The ‘seats’ were wooden benches that offered no give and would seem to grow harder as the game progressed. To ensure communal spirit, the space per seat was minimal as was the space for legs and feet, so you really got to know your fellow fans.
The neighborhood had numerous establishments for quenching thirst, and there were liquor stores to ensure that you could purchase supplies for the game, there did seem to be a considerable thirst amongst the fan base and there was little control of what was brought into the stadium The stadium was at a lower level than the adjacent street to the south, and cheap seats or standing room was available on the roofs of the houses fronting the park.
The 49ers were a ‘wait until next year’ team, year after year. Like the Seals, they seem to have attracted lots of, local talent, much of it from USF when it was a football powerhouse. There were plenty of familiar names, a disproportionate percent being Italian, that lasted season after season on the roster. The fan loyalty to the team was reciprocated by the players who made the bay area their home.
Alas, like Seals Stadium, Kezar is no more but for a section left standing to memorialize what was. I was fortunate to attend the last game played at Kezar before the move and still remember the feeling that something was being lost as I walked out.
My Grandparents had a weekly ritual; every Wednesday they would go out to dinner. They would take the F Streetcar to North Beach or further downtown to go to their favorite places. Never expensive, they offered a variety of types of food and venues that were a different experience for my sister and I when we were invited along.
My recollections of their favorites follow:
The Buon Gusto. Located at the southwest corner of Columbus and Broadway, it was long and narrow and very unpretentious with a small entry. The layout was simple, a long communal table in the middle, with side tables along each wall; wooden table tops and chairs. Longshoremen with their white caps would usually sit at the communal table, with families at the sides. Each table had a cruet of oil and vinegar you made your own salad dressing to taste; no choices of ranch, blue cheese or house.
The menu was on the wall; choices were printed on cardboard inserts slipped into a wooden rack. No specials, no waiter touting this or that, wine was red or white in an unmarked bottle, sometimes we got a little mixed with water. My grandfather did not mix his. Loaves of bread were stacked above a small cutting table by the open kitchen to the rear; a waiter would grab three of four loaves and slice them all at once with a wicked looking knife. Pasta, soup (minestrone or broth with pastina), roast veal, broiled chicken, chard. No child’s plate. Noisy. Too bad it’s gone.
Delmonico’s. Sutter, off Stockton. Fancier. White table cloths, waiters in not so impressive black tuxedos. I remember booths where we could crowd in and watch the excitement. My favorite was a big crab Louis, with plenty of crab and dressing. But desert offered fried bananas with powdered sugar. Gone now, site of the Sutter Stockton garage.
The Montclair, on Green off Columbus. Little side booths, central table. All decorated with what looked like meringue on the walls and ceiling. Later became the New Pisa. One night there was a small earthquake; a complete silence followed by much talk and chatter. My grandparents went through 1906 and I am sure there was a feeling that transcended the moment.
The Basque Hotel and Des Alps. Both on Broadway above Stockton. Basque Hotel was a more formal sit down restaurant, but with excellent French/Basque food. Last time I ate there was the night before I went off to Taiwan courtesy of the U.S. Army. Des Alps was a true family style restaurant, you sat with others and big platters of food were put on the table to share. Interesting to see the different definitions of sharing. Soup, salad two entrees, maybe oxtail stew and roast chicken. Both gone now as Chinatown has extended northward.
Caesars. Bay Street at Powell. Across from what was then the Simmons mattress factory and near Fisherman’s wharf. A good solid Italian restaurant, which it still is. As I write this I am having lunch there tomorrow. Roast Veal!
SOFT DRINKS AND SODA FOUNTAINS
Believe it or not, there was a time when the ubiquitous can of soda was not omnipresent. It was a time when sodas were a treat, if not considered frivolous, and there certainly weren’t any soda machines in schools, much less easy to find anywhere. The closest soda came to school was when Cho-Cho or some other goodie truck would come by.
Most brands available in both stores and the few vending machines came in bottles, cans were much less common, probably as a result of the war. Bottles were usually store bought in larger sizes for home use. Smaller bottles were usually consumed at or near the place of purchase as there were deposit costs that could not be recouped if you didn’t return the bottle. Merchants made you drink on the premises if there was no deposit.
7-Up came in less than quart bottles in two colors, green and brown. RC Cola came in big 16oz bottles, like Pepsi, but was less expensive. Pepsi still promised ‘two full glasses, that’s a lot’, whereas Coke stuck to its familiar small bottle. MUG root beer came in brown bottles that could make a casual observer think that there was real beer inside; something we knew would fool adults. Canada Dry Ginger ale had the green big bottle with a colored map of Canada and a superimposed beaver on the front.
We never had soft drinks at home as our mom, the gym teacher, did not approve for health and financial reasons. We did have an extract of Hires root bear that could make a passable beverage without carbonation. Our neighbor across the street, Ray Raymond had a generous mother with a good supply of 7UP.
The store bought brands I remember best that aren’t around today were Bierly’s non-carbonated fruit flavors in a shaped bottle, Nehi with powerful grape, orange and peach flavors and Kayo with a chocolate flavor that was really a pretty good substitute for the real thing. There were lots of others, like Crème Soda, but those were the best.
Soda fountains were different in that they had flavored syrups they could add to plain soda or to popular brands like Coke and create on site a Green River or cherry Coke. Bechelli’s Coffee Shop must have had 10 different dispenser flavors. There were many possible variations, some rather foul, but to each his own.
The best in my book was a root beer float at Bastiani Drugs, right up the street. I had to cage some change from my grandfather for this once a week treat. Root Beer syrup over a scoop of vanilla and then the soda; punch it around with a long handled spoon to get to the bottom of the fluted glass, mash it up good and make a sort of slushy mix. Perfect and only 15 cents!
The nickel ice cream cone was the simplest delight; after you licked
the ice cream down to the top of the cone, you could bite off the bottom
and suck the ice cream thru. The banana split at a quarter the top of the
line. Money was tight and treats were measured in intervals of days, if
not weeks; instant gratification and ‘I want it now’ had not yet made their