Re: 'Tis the Season

12/23/17 - posted by Frank Dunnigan

So true, jb! Although I have visited San Francisco several times in the last few years in the course of writing and promoting my books, and again this March for the SF History Fair, my last Christmastime visit was several years ago. That was when I found myself headed downtown on the L-Taraval one weekday afternoon to meet some friends for dinner, and I encountered several scenes that convinced me that I was “not in Kansas anymore”:

• MUNI passengers displaying openly hostile behavior to others sitting nearby for no apparent reason—other than serious emotional disturbances.
• What seemed to be an official civic uniform of jeans, running shoes, and sweatshirts/parkas on young and old alike.
• An almost complete lack of holiday decorations on most homes and local businesses.
• A smell of stale, uncirculated air and exhaust fumes in the food court and shops that operate in the old Emporium basement space. Many of the customers were sufficiently sketchy-looking that I transferred my wallet from my hip pocket to a side pocket, keeping a firm grip on it.
• All the 20-something store cashiers (you can’t call them salespeople anymore, since they only take payments and know nothing about selling) eyeing this 60-something suspiciously, as though I were going to grab a bunch of 28-inch waist jeans and sprint for the door.
• Long lines of tired people at the cable car turnaround, looking like exhausted Disneyland visitors waiting to board another attraction just so that it can be checked off a TO-DO list.
• Passing by marvelous old bank spaces like #1 Powell Street and #1 Grant Avenue that have been converted to sad-looking retail outlets, and then remembering other architectural delights like Bernstein’s Fish Grotto (gone since 1981) and the then-recently vandalized Samuel’s Jewelers clock (since restored nicely)—while experiencing the same little twitch in the heartstrings that I used to feel at the funerals of beloved elderly family members.
• Walking through Union Square and detecting three unmistakable odors—pot, pee, and poop. This was nothing at all like the joyous smells of the City of Paris Christmas tree, the fragrances in the I. Magnin cosmetic department, a walk through the flora and fauna at Podesta-Baldocchi, or strolling past Morrow’s Nut House on Geary, Adeline Bakery on Powell, or the nearby Joseph Schmidt chocolate shop—all of which are long-gone. The stores that I liked best for shopping or just window-shopping—Emporium, Roos-Atkins, Cable Car Clothiers, the White House, City of Paris/Liberty House, Grodins, Granat Brothers, Tro Harper Books—have all vanished, and the remaining retailers were displaying merchandise in ways that looked very much like a Bed, Bath & Beyond outlet after an earthquake.
• Parking garages had confusing signs, outlining different hourly rates depending on the time of day—the bottom line being that 8 hours of parking will set you back well over 30 bucks. The newly-painted red and green traffic lanes on some downtown streets (implemented to speed buses and taxis along while eliminating double-parked cars) proved completely ineffective and very confusing to many drivers. Cops were having a field day issuing tickets, as mounds of broken glass on the streets served as grim reminders that many parked vehicles were routinely being vandalized by smash-and-grab thieves.

When I finally connected with my friends at John’s Grill on Ellis (essentially unchanged since 1907), we suddenly felt “back home” as we indulged in a glass of wine before dinner. We chatted about other nostalgic places such as Tadich’s in the Financial District, the Palace Hotel, and the handful of See’s Candy stores that still remain in the downtown area—all of which were still doing a good job of evoking the past. There will always be the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel—a great place to just sit and people-watch, followed by a ride in one of the glass elevators. St. Patrick’s Church, the Jewish Museum in the wonderful 1880s building that once housed a PG&E substation, and the Old Mint all still maintain strong presences along Mission Street, and visitors can just imagine what sights those walls have witnessed over the years.

Over dinner, we chatted about schools and places of worship—Lowell, S.I., and USF were still going strong, while Temple Emanu-El and St. Ignatius Church continued to hold down important corners in the Richmond District. We commiserated about the loss of some family members and classmates, but rejoiced at how the Internet had rekindled contact with many others.

After our meal, I took one of the historic streetcars on the surface of Market Street to the Ferry Building where I continued to stroll through a comfortable and pleasant scene before boarding a subterranean L-Taraval for the ride back to the dear old Ocean Park Motel near the Zoo. En route, I decided to stop off at Civic Center for a glimpse of the grand interior of City Hall, and it did not disappoint.

Back on the streetcar, I was soon whisking along through the Twin Peaks tunnel with a nighttime crowd of passengers that seemed decidedly friendlier and more sociable than the folks I had encountered earlier that day. Emerging onto the small village of shops along West Portal Avenue, a glittering nighttime shopping experience was still in full swing, and I indulged my love of bakeries and books in that first block. I passed by the location of the old pet shop where the green parrot used to sit on a perch just outside the entrance, and glanced over at the former site of Toy Village (now home to a large real estate office) and took in the posters of coming attractions at the local theater, just as I used to do at age 6.

Finally returning to the motel, with an interior that uncannily resembles many Richmond and Sunset District bedrooms/bathrooms, I dozed off to sleep with the roar of the ocean and an occasional ding of a streetcar bell outside my window, feeling that some small but important bits of “home” still exist out there if we just look hard enough.

Merry Christmas to all!

The Western Neighborhoods Project is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.