Growing Up in San Francisco, Part One

My mom and dad were married in San Francisco in April, 1934. It was in the middle of the Great Depression.

In August of that year, they took the Suntan Special, a train that ran from San Francisco to Santa Cruz, for a vacation. According to my mom, I was conceived on that trip, and born in San Francisco in April, 1935.

I was the first-born in the family, and my parents didn’t quite know how to cope with me. I wasn’t so much rebellious as curious and energetic. Plus at an early age I didn’t believe in following rules.

At one point they took me to a psychiatrist and I remember having a great time hammering wooden pegs into different shaped holes and answering his questions about ink blots. I suspect he told my folks that I wasn’t psychotic, just high-energy. Years later, when my mom was in her 90s (she lived to be 103), she would reminisce about my stunts. “You remember when you…”

I’m writing all this stuff about early years to give you a picture of my background, attitudes and outlook on life, which all led up to my finally breaking out of the prescribed business career.

The Neighborhood

My mom and dad on their honeymoon in April, 1934 at Weaver Lake, a remote lake (then) in the Sierras. My dad and his fishing buddies had built a cabin and pier there. The lake was full of trout. I had a happy childhood. My parents loved each other. We always had food and shelter. Our family functioned. I’ve often thought how lucky we were.

There were 26 kids on our block. (The 100 block of Ulloa Street — next to the intersection of Portola Drive and Laguna Honda Blvd.) On any given day, there would be at least a dozen of us playing in the street. Kick the can, hide and seek, bike riding, roller skating, riding Flexi racers, playing football or baseball. No parental supervision at all, ever. No little league, no automobile transportation to distant soccer fields. We were on our own.

There was a cave about half a mile away; we never went very deeply into it. In wet years, there was a shallow lake across from our house and we had a raft.

There was a Catholic church across the street (St. Brendan’s) and everyone on the block was Catholic except for us. My mom was a Christian Scientist (we never went to doctors).

During World War II we had a large community vegetable garden on a quarter-acre lot next to our house, and my dad and the neighbors raised a ton of vegetables.

We went all over the city on foot, bikes, roller skates, streetcars, and busses. It was about a 2-mile walk to West Portal grammar school, a 4-mile bike ride to Golden Gate Park.

Some city kids made their first skateboards in the ‘40s by taking apart metal roller skates and mounting the wheels on a piece of wood. On our block, the Guzman brothers built a funky flat-roofed little house on metal roller skate wheels and rode it down the hill. A bunch of us then did the same — early RVs!

10-Year-Olds Getting Stoned

We would go into the “cloak room” of our classroom (out of teacher’s view) at West Portal grammar school, take deep knee bends until we were out of breath, then put thumbs in mouths and blow until we passed out. We got in trouble once when I failed to catch Fletcher Pence as he fell, and he cut his forehead.

Books

I started reading when I was about 10. I loved Swiss Family Robinson and Robinson Crusoe. When I was maybe 12, I read Richard Halliburton’s Complete Book of Marvels, written by an American adventurer who swam the Panama Canal, climbed Mt. Fuji, sneaked into the Taj Mahal on a full moon night and swam in the reflecting pond, circumnavigated the globe in an open cockpit biplane and explored the world with enthusiasm and wonder. His spirit and sense of adventure are still with me today. I read many books by Howard Pease, novels about ships and mysteries, and western novels by Zane Grey. I’ve loved books all my life.

Radio

Daytime and nighttime radio was a big part of our lives. Way before TV.

If you talk to anyone in their 70s or 80s, they’ll be nostalgic about the programs. Superman; The Lone Ranger; The Green Hornet; Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy; Tarzan.

And at night: The Whistler (some times, talking to someone my own age, I’ll whistle the first four notes of The Whistler, and he’ll get it immediately); Inner Sanctum, The Shadow (“the Shadow knows…” and at 10 PM,” I Love a Mystery.” It was taboo to be up this late. I had a radio next to my bed and would turn it off when I heard parental footsteps, but was foiled when my mom would feel the vacuum tubes of the radio for warmth.

Many of the radio programs were sponsored by breakfast cereal makers. During WWII, Wheaties came out with a Jack Armstrong series of military fighter plane kits that you could get with two box tops. They were highly coveted.

One day I was staying with my cousin Mike in Stockton and we saw a kid walking down the street, dumping the contents of a box of Wheaties in the gutter; he just wanted the box top.

I was so taken with Superman that I made my own costume: red swim suit over Levis, dish towel for cape, and I’d simulate flying by jumping off our balcony to the grass below (about 10-12 feet).

Radio was alive for us. Since there was no visual element, no TV, we painted pictures in our minds from those voices and special effects. I could see Jack Armstrong. I could see The Green Hornet and Kato (and their car, the “Black Beauty”). It was a rich world; it just required imagination.

Movies

Starting when I was 10 or so, I’d go to the movie theaters on Saturdays. I loved movies. I’d get immersed in each one and it’s still the same: I inhabit each film as if I were in it. I give myself over. I’m not an observer, I’m there.

Patton Oswalt said in a recent New Yorker article, “…I sit in the dark and let worlds wash over me.”

I can’t watch violence; I’m just not dispassionate enough.

Market Street was, among other things, an arcade of film palaces; the Fox (a palace — look it up), the Warfield, the Golden Gate, the Paramount, maybe 20 theaters along Market from Van Ness down to about 9th Street. I’d walk down to the Laguna Honda Station from my house, Saturday about noon, take the streetcar through the tunnel to Van Ness, then walk 6-8 blocks toward the Ferry Building, looking at marquees; sometimes I’d go to two movies. When I was maybe 10, my grandmother used to take me for what she called a “toot:” taking in two movies on Market Street (different eras, different “toots”).

About Lloyd Kahn

Lloyd Kahn started building his own home in the early '60s and went on to publish books showing homeowners how they could build their own homes with their own hands. He got his start in publishing by working as the shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog with Stewart Brand in the late '60s. He has since authored six highly-graphic books on homemade building, all of which are interrelated. The books, "The Shelter Library Of Building Books," include Shelter, Shelter II (1978), Home Work (2004), Builders of the Pacific Coast (2008), Tiny Homes (2012), and Tiny Homes on the Move (2014). Lloyd operates from Northern California studio built of recycled lumber, set in the midst of a vegetable garden, and hooked into the world via five Mac computers. You can check out videos (one with over 450,000 views) on Lloyd by doing a search on YouTube:

8 Responses to Growing Up in San Francisco, Part One

  1. Lloyd, you had a good/interesting/healthy “growing up”. I suspect your parents were grateful/happy with how you “turned out”, grin. It seems like such an idyllic sort of life (although I do realise it was “normal” for you/the time), it seems like the world would be a better place if there was more of this now.—-Also, there is so much worry/concern/focus that kids these days MUST be taught computers/tech/–must have access/ownership of the latest tech etc…I often think that folks like you did not…and mange today’s tech….I often think that many of the “big” names in tech likely had a childhood free of fancy tech, and still seemed to have done “well”…mmmm

    here’s an interesting link…likely you know about this, but if not it is interesting..

    http://www.notechmagazine.com/2014/03/crimean-ovens.html

  2. I grew up in Balboa Terrace across from Aptos Jr. High. I had the same type of freedom to explore. We lived a block from the street car and on
    Sundays I liked to go downtown and just walk around, my favorite place to stop was Kaplans Army Surplus. Riding bikes with my friends was also great, our kingdom was from the Golden Gate to Lake Merced to Twin Peaks to the sea. Had a great life. Thank you for sharing yours with us.

  3. What a lovely childhood. One wonders how the 60’s ever came about. Or does one?
    The Fox Theater: there is still one in Atlanta and it still has the giant Wurlitzer!
    This is good stuff. Please keep going!!

  4. “Remembrances of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
    Marcel Proust

    Enjoy your posts Lloyd. Sis and I were birthed at Stanford Hospital, Palo Alto in 1950’s. Dad was young Lt.JG pilot flying around bay area from Moffitt Field. We lived in Mountain View. SF these days kind of freaks me out. So much growth and congestion in so many places I remember differently. In your times in Big Sur, were you aware of puff balls, and if so did you ever cook and eat one? If can locate copy of your latest book which you signed – I’ll purchase. I like special books signed, like my Alice Waters and Philippe Petit. The later lived not far from our old place in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley, an area of much wonder, beauty, history, art, music and love of life, but bet you know that already.

  5. I tried to answer on this but I keep getting dumped. One More Time. I was a Fireman for the SP and drove out to listen to the Organ when I was forced assigned to the City from San Luis Obispo. It was at the “Lost Weekend”. I would take the bus over from Marin and spend a lot of time on Market St. Also the cable cars and barns. I won the prize in Saving the Cable cars and my wife and I got a free trip to Hawaii. When my godfather would visit
    from New York he stayed at the Mark. While they all had cocktails I found different doors and would go up on a stairway looking into the bar at the “Top Of The Mark”, scaring a few people.
    No, the City taught me a lot and I loved it. I spent over 42 years as an Engineer for the SP, working the Coast/Western from LA to SLO, and to Oakland. The Shasta Division, Portland Division and up to Vancouver. I could fill a book which I hope you do. I would be glad to add anything if you ever the info.

    Nudge

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