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They say you can never go home again. Home, being the past, your childhood, those days of adolescent glory and good times that memory distorts into something more than they could possibly ever had been, carefree days that included playing baseball until dusk, three month long summer vacation, being in love with your fourth grade teacher, and fudgesicles for only a nickel.
Although the old neighborhood is only about twenty-five miles away from my present home, itís been at least fifteen years since Iíve revisited my childhood stomping grounds. I canít explain why ĎIíve never gone back. It was nothing as profound as a psychological aversion to remembering a traumatic childhood that prevented me. Actually, I remember being very happy. Perhaps the dominant factor was time. It required time to grow into the teen years, time to experience first dates and first kisses, time to work oneís way through college, time to create and sustain a career. Having just surpassed the milestone of my thirtieth birthday, perhaps it is the realization of that passing of time that requires me to stop, to reflect, to revisit, and hopefully, to regain a touch of that childhood innocence and awe that carried me through those simpler days.
In 1959, I was ten years old. The world was smaller then. In my case, the boundaries were Divisadero Boulevard on the east, Masonic Avenue to the west, Geary to the north, and the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park to the south. George Christopher was the mayor of San Francisco, and the only reason that a ten year old safety patrol crossing guard was aware of that political tidbit is because the mayor sponsored free tickets for the kids to 49er games at Kezar Stadium.
We were street kids; resourceful, cocky, a shade on the mischievous side, but basically good kids. Boredom was something that never had to be contended with. Saturday mornings were spent hanging out on front porches and jiving, mostly re-telling the story lines of the latest double feature monster movies at the Harding, then challenging each othersí bravery by inquiring as to who kept his eyes open during the scary part. Sunday afternoon was when the watermelon truck drove slowly down Golden Gate Avenue, the driver honking his horn and yelling "waaatermeloon". The remainder of the afternoon was spent devouring the melons, then taking target practice on ants by spitting seeds at them. Every other Wednesday, weíd sit by the Carew and English mortuary and wait for the new shipment of coffins to be delivered, fantasizing about Dracula and assorted vampires.
Occasionally, something dramatic would happen that would occupy our conversation for weeks. The day that the entire street caved in on Central Avenue was such an event. The Department of Public Works was out there immediately to close off the area and make an inspection. A pack of us sat patiently watching the commotion until the grown ups left. As soon as they did, we descended into the hole, discovering what seemed to be an underground stream that undoubtedly led to China. Actually, it was probably a broken water main, but that didnít matter. The chunks of broken asphalt and concrete with their exposed layers brought to mind the crust of the earth, lifted by a tremendous earthquake.
We were totally absorbed when a voice from above us said, "Donít look at the camera. Just keep exploring". Naturally, we all looked up. Dang. It was a camera man from one of the local news stations. "hey", he cried out, "if you kids want to see yourselves on the news tonight, you gotta be cool. Donít look at the camera, Just pretend weíre not here".
Be cool. After a moment of fighting for composure, we were "cool". It was a concept that we could understand. At ten, being cool was socially more desirable than getting straight As. We mulled around before the camera, pretending great concern over the calamity of Central Avenue, exploring the debris, picking up chunks of broken pavement and showing them to our comrades, nodding and shaking our heads with slow exaggerated motions as if in scientific amazement. The news that night was absolutely spellbinding. I knew that I was destined for the movies.
Money was something that was always a concern. My brothers and I were always guaranteed movie money and a quarter a week allowance, if we were good. It took a lot of willpower to stretch that quarter for an entire week, especially if you wanted candy at the Saturday matinee. My parents were strong believers in good nutrition, so I always had a sack lunch for the movies, but who wanted a bologna sandwich when there were all those goodies around. I remember once, I denied myself all frivolous purchases so that on Saturday I had my full weekís allowance. I managed to trade my sandwich for a nickel, then treated myself to a hot tamale and a coke. It seems rather insignificant now, but a full thirty cent purchase those days for an exotic Mexican meal was downright ostentatious.
Once we staged a puppet show. Sitting in front of Petrini Plaza on McAllister Street, we accosted grocery shoppers as they were leaving the store, selling tickets to our production for two cents each. The grown ups were more than receptive and encouraged our entrepreneurial sprit by buying as many as five tickets at a time. When show time came, our audience consisted of only two pre-school kids. Our money box, though, was filled with assorted coins.
On another occasion, I had the great fortune of catching a two and a half foot long sand shark at Muni Pier while on a fishing trip with my father. I was able to sell the dead fish to Billy Rennie for a quarter. I understand that he later tried to revive the shark in his bathtub, much to the horror of his mother. I was henceforth denied entry into the Rennie household forever.
The largest scale money scheme that my two brothers and I ever had concerned a bright red J.C. Higgins ten speed bicycle. It retailed at Sears for $59.97. We had pleaded with our parents for months for a bicycle. Our bargain of forgoing all allowance and movie money for a year was answered by our parentsí argument of safety, traffic and general grown up gobbledygook. In other words, "no". It was clear that any further discussion would be futile, so an alternative plan was necessary.
My two brothers and I were given thirty-five cents each a day for a hot school lunch. Although most of our friends brown bagged it, my insisted on a hot lunch. Also, since my father was working a graveyard shift at the time and my mother left very early in the morning for work, they really didnít have time to put together a "proper" lunch. Anyway, if we saved the thirty-five cents each, that was $1.05 a day. Multiply that by five school days and that was $5.25 a week. If we didnít buy lunch for twelve weeks, we could have enough money for the bicycle. If we didnít spend the allowance money and forsook all movies, the impossible dream was conceivable in ten weeks. If prospective buyers could be found for our no longer used toys, the timetable could be further shortened. IfÖ.
For the next few weeks, it was starvation during the day, but when dinner was finally served in the evening, my unsuspecting mother thrilled at the ravenous appetites of her three offspring. Second helpings were always requested and every plate was completely cleaned of any vestiges of food. My mother glowed. I have since contended that the way to any motherís heart is through her childrenís stomachs.
Eight and a half weeks later, my seven year old little brother stepped proudly up to the counter of the sporting goods department at Sears. Beside him on the floor was a double handled grocery bag filled with quarters, nickels, pennies and dimes; a grand total of $62.97. When the salesclerk asked if he could help him, he pointed over to the bright red J.C. Higgins ten speed, behind which my older brother and I were standingÖdrooling.
To make a long and heartbreaking story short, our dreams were shattered by the series of events that followed. The salesclerk had suspected that something was amiss. The store security was contacted. Our parents were contacted. The money was confiscated. No bicycle.
After recovering from the initial shock, the delayed reaction was a feeling of shame. My parents were awestruck by our ingenuity and tenacity, however the point was, we had covertly and overtly disobeyed their wishes on the bicycle, not to mention jeopardizing our health by fasting. They were right. We were wrong. Life was simple then.
The school yard at Anza Elementary was the scene of thirty-three inning softball games, four square tournaments, kickball, basketball, volleyball and Oliver Harrison. Ollie was the after school playground director. Physically and morally, no man stood taller in our eyes. Clad in high top sneakers, olive green cardigan and a tan English cap, this six foot three giant served the role of surrogate father, teacher and friend. He lectured, disciplined and counseled us on every subject from personal philosophy and morality to the importance of homework and washing hands after using the bathroom. Iíd like to think that the impact this man had on my life was shared by most of my peers. I had to include Ollie in this memoir because Iíve never had the chance to thank him. Thank you, Oliver Harrison.
As for the kids on the school yard, the adventures we shared are far too numerous to go into detail on. Their faces are vague in my memory, but their names are still clear. At ten, children not only had first names, but definite last names that when said together, characterized their identities. There was Joey Calabooso, Thaddeus Reese, Michael McClammy, Benson Armstrong and Mark Kizee. Jackie Spears, Jerry King, Horace Kitchener and "Hams" Lampkin. Hams always insisted that we call him Robert if his mother was around. Yes, there were little girls too; Lynn Sawasaki, Joyce Miller, Wanda Forsythe, Debra King and Verna. Vernaís last name eludes me. Perhaps it is because Verna had the marked distinction of being the only girl in the school to strike out a boy in softball. To this day, I still say the sun was in my eyes.
After an hour of retracing my footsteps in the old neighborhood, a tinge of disappointment came over me. The buildings seemed foreign and unfamiliar. I had remembered the streets being a little safer, the air, a little cleaner, the left field fence, a little farther. Most disturbing was the fact that there was an absence of children playing on the front porches. Maybe it is true that you can never really go home again. Too many changes occur in a decade or two taking their toll on sidewalks, school yards and sentimentalists. I have been lucky though to have been blessed with a very vivid memory, and if I can believe that home was never really a street address or a two story flat in San Francisco, but rather, a state of mind that can transcend the passing time, then I can believe that I didnít fail in trying to go home againÖI never really left it.