I’ve never been busier in my life. Along with a personal situation that’s taking a lot of time, I’m working on publicizing our just‑finished book Rolling Homes: Shelter on Wheels (our best book in years!), running Shelter Publications, and starting an autobiography of my first 38 years (1935–1973), which includes my take on the ’60s, provisionally titled Live From California: The ’60s, Before, During, and After — 1935–1973.
For these reasons, I hardly have time to post here, However, I’ll be putting up pages from the book-in-progress from time to time.
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.
My folks rented an apartment across from the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District and then, when I was two, bought a house on Ulloa Street, near the Forest Hill District.
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 just because they were rules. I wanted to have fun.
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, so apparently I didn’t do any lasting damage), she would laugh and reminisce about my stunts. “You remember when you…”
She told me that one day, when I was 2 or 3, she tied a rope around my overalls, and to the garage door handle so I couldn’t get out into the street while she did the dishes. A few minutes later, standing at the kitchen sink (on the second floor), she looked out the window and saw me walking down the street naked. (It was a long leash, not as bad as it may sound in this day of Precious Parenting.)
I had a happy childhood. My parents loved each other. Our family was a happy one. We always had food and shelter. I’ve often thought how lucky we were, especially when I hear about traumatic childhoods. In many ways, it was the best of times.
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 me to finally breaking out of the prescribed plan for my generation: high school/college/military service/successful business career.
I also have to admit that I’m having fun looking back at our lives in the ’40s and ’50s and sorting through the family photos, scrapbooks, and documents — some of which go way back.
There were 26 kids on our block (the 100 block of Ulloa Street). 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, rollerskating, riding Flexi racers, playing football or baseball. No parental supervision at all, ever. No little league, no lacrosse, 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 and everyone on the block was Catholic except for us. My Mom was a Christian Scientist. (We never went to doctors.)
There was a pony rental place a mile or so from our house, where we’d go during birthday parties. Speaking of which, at one of Bill Floyd’s birthdays, we went to see The Phantom of the Opera with Claude Rains at the Empire theater. I was so terrified by the scene at the end when the Phantom’s mask is pulled off (to reveal his face disfigured by acid) that I had to sleep in my parents’ bed that night.
During World War II, there was a large community vegetable garden on a quarter-acre lot next to our house, and we raised a ton of vegetables. My dad, being a hunter, was the official gopher trapper.
The whole city was our playground. We went all over it on foot, bikes, roller skates, streetcars, and buses. We walked to school, about one mile to West Portal Grammar School, 1½ miles to Aptos Jr. High. We’d ride four miles on our bikes 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 roller skate wheels and rode it down the hill. A bunch of us then did the same — maybe the first RVs!
We’d stay outside until our mother would call us for dinner: “Low-eed, Bob-ee.”
Hitching Streetcar Rides
The “L,” “M,” and “K” streetcars ran through the tunnel (my initials), which was about a mile walk from our house. They had cowcatchers on both ends, which were lowered at the front end. When the direction of the car was reversed at the end of the line, the cowcatcher would be cranked up on the back end via a cable through a round fitting in the center.
We would creep up behind a slowly moving car (crouching so the conductor, who was in the back, wouldn’t see us), then run up and jump on the cowcatcher.
We rode all over the city. The big deal was to ride through the two-mile-long dark tunnel from West Portal Avenue to Castro Street — sparks flying overhead from the electric trolleys — whoo! There are lots of recessed alcoves where someone on foot in the tunnel could jump when trains came by. The trains probably went 20–30 mph, rocking through the darkness, to emerge into the dazzling daylight at Market and Castro.
There was a lady we called “The Crab,” who would spray us with a hose when we rode by her house on bikes; one Halloween we put the traditional flaming paper bag full of dog shit on her porch. During World War II, everyone saved bacon grease in cans to donate to the Army (to be used for manufacturing explosives); we also flattened tin cans and recycled them.
San Francisco Was a Port
Until the ’60s, the city, surrounded on three sides by water, was a shipping center. The waterfront was a deepwater port, dating back to the clipper ships, with a series of piers. It was (is) called The Embarcadero, and when we were kids, it was a city within the city, with its own hotels, bars, and restaurants. Loading and unloading of ships was controlled by the Longshoreman’s Union.
Fisherman’s Wharf, now a tourist mecca, was at one time the fishing center of the west coast, with its 16-foot Monterey Clipper fishing boats modeled on the felluca sailing fishing boats of Genoa.
I mention this because this was the city of our childhood and one would never guess this by looking at the tourist-oriented, sanitized, palm-tree-lined waterfront of today.
Fishing in the City
Around the turn of the century, my grandfather had a bait and tackle shop at the foot of Polk Street (in later years, it became Muni Bait), and that’s how my dad got started fishing. He and his friends went fishing in the ocean and they also fished for trout in lakes in the Sierras.
My grandfather used to import hexagonal bamboo rods from Asia and tie on the casting guides with red and gold silk thread. It’s a craft he taught my dad, and that he taught me.
My brother and I had our city version of fishing, which didn’t require any parental transportation or guidance. We would walk down to the streetcar tunnel, carrying fishing rods and a crab trap, and take a streetcar to Van Ness, where we’d catch a bus down to the Hyde Street pier.
We’d catch crabs and use the orange part of the innards as bait to catch perch. We’d go back home on public transit and our mom would cook a fish dinner.
The City Was Our Playground
We’d ride bikes out to one of the two huge abandoned windmills at the beach, sneak in the boarded-up door, and climb the ladder to the top, which was 75 feet above the ground.
We’d ride to Golden Gate Park to a large pond that had a concrete bottom, and we could ride (about pedal-deep) all around the pond. We roller-skated around the city, using skates with metal wheels that you clamped onto your shoes.
We roamed in the eucalyptus groves of Mt. Davidson and Twin Peaks (had a big rope swing up there).
This was an amusement park out at Ocean Beach, with a fun house that all kids loved. There was a spinning disc that you hopped on; as it speeded up, riders were ejected. There was a revolving barrel, in which you tried to stay upright as it spun around. (Think of the lawsuits nowadays!) There were long, curvy slides and mirrors that made you look taller or shorter or distorted.
The Hot House, serving Mexican food, was open for 40 years and reportedly served 12,000 tamales a day, Unusual for a Mexican restaurant, they always brought you a basket of hard sourdough French bread with lots of butter. The Pie Shop sold 14 types of pies (they were good!). The It’s-It ice cream sandwich (a disk of vanilla ice cream between two oatmeal cookies dipped in chocolate) was invented at Playland.
There was also a roller coaster and other carny type rides and games, plus Laffing Sal, a gap-toothed, red-haired, freckle-faced, 7-foot-tall automated figure in front of the Fun House that waved her arms and cackled raucously. (A bit scary for little kids.)
Nearby was the magnificent Sutro Baths, a huge oceanside glass palace with six swimming pools filled with salt water. (Next to the Cliff House.) It seems kind of unbelievable now, but we took everything in the city for granted. There were pools of different temperatures, a diving pool, a cold pool. People wore old-fashioned, wool bathing suits. You can still see the foundation just north of The Cliff House.)
It was never a commercially successful operation and burned to the ground in 1966.
(To be continued)