We’ve all had the chance to daydream and maybe reminisce a bit over these many weeks of shelter-in-place during the pandemic. Nearly empty San Francisco streets brought my mind back to the city that I first really came to know in the early and late 60s, when I was a kid.
I was born in San Francisco, my dad was born in San Francisco, and his dad and mom were both born in San Francisco in the late 1800s. My grandparents grew up in North Beach — they were Italian after all — and my dad grew up in the Marina.
In contrast, I spent the first two years of my life in the middle unit of an old Victorian house on Downey Street in the Haight Ashbury district. Rents there were cheaper.
TO MARIN AND BACK
Two years later, in 1956, my folks, my newly born baby brother, and I moved to Larkspur in Marin. But San Francisco was always very much a part of my childhood.
We would visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in the city regularly. Thanksgiving and Christmas were celebrated on Francisco Street, in the Marina, in the home where my dad grew up. Because parking was a problem even then, we’d park if we were lucky near the Palace of Fine Arts, and walk a few blocks to the house.
It was an impossibly tall three-story place, with a flight of brick exterior steps that would take you to a landing. To the right was where my Aunt Lois lived, to the left Aunt Vernel. If Aunt Vernel was hosting, that would mean another impossibly steep flight of stairs to climb. However, this second flight was inside the unit, and as we made our way up the stairs we could smell all the good cooking underway.
Focaccia bread seems to have become popular in recent years, but it was a regular staple for us in the 50s and 60s as our family had been going to Liguria Bakery for generations. For me, focaccia bread as appetizer, antipasto, and ravioli with dinner were as much a part of a holiday meal as turkey or ham and mashed potatoes. It was only later that I learned not everyone had all of these items on their holiday menu. Lucky us!
Among others, Uncle Earl’s mom Mrs. Bruschini was there for every holiday dinner, along with my dad’s Uncle Dave and Aunt Erminia. The latter were two tiny people who smiled a lot and said very little — which is too bad, because I would love to have known more about them and heard their stories.
OVER THE HILL
At some point we would pack up and head over to my mom’s mom and dad’s place, through the Presidio to the other side of the hill. Her family had travelled to California from Rockford, Illinois, and eventually settled in San Francisco. My grandfather and grandmother had downsized to a small apartment on Hugo Street, near UCSF Medical Center. My grandfather was of German descent, and my grandmother was mostly Irish.
As I understand it, my grandmother encouraged my grandfather to join the National Guard when they were young so she could attend a military ball with him back in Illinois. The next thing you know, America entered World War I, and my grandfather wound up in the trenches, where he was wounded and gassed several times. But he lived, and they were married after the war.
In retirement, my grandfather worked at the liquor store up on Judah — the one with the black tiles on the outside that’s still there. When we arrived at their first floor corner apartment, we would run straight to the refrigerator and be dazzled by the small bottles of genuine Coke and 7 Up we would find there. We only had off-brand sodas at our house, so this really was something special.
Their place was small but elegant. My grandmother would flabbergast her grandchildren by playfully wearing a fur around her neck, complete with head and paws. And my grandfather would delight us by letting us bounce on his big protruding belly.
Later in the 60s, my family would take a slightly longer route to their place, so we could drive down Haight, and try to guess who was a boy and who was a girl walking along the street. Both sexes wore virtually the same clothes, and their hair long. Obviously, we were easily entertained in those days.
Occasionally, on the way to my grandparents’ home, we’d run into traffic from the 49ers games being played nearby at Kezar Stadium. At some point as a kid, I was actually able to go to some games, I think courtesy of Larkspur’s recreation department and a Christopher Milk promotion. I mostly remember booing quarterback John Brodie along with other fans, and thinking that the people who lived in the apartment buildings across the street from the stadium were the luckiest people in the world, because they could watch all the games for free, sitting or standing on their rooftops.
After every visit to the city, my little brother and I would climb into the interior cargo compartment of our family’s old VW Beetle. This was our favorite spot. It was located next to the engine, so it was always warm, and we could look out the oval rear window of the car to see the street lights of the Golden Gate Bridge, diffused by the thick fog at night, appear and disappear as we rode along its expanse.