Streetwise - Going, Going, Gone

by Frank Dunnigan
January 2013


Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

There was much talk with family and friends over the holidays, and some of it included utter disbelief about recent events—whatever WILL we do without Hostess Twinkies, Cupcakes, SnoBalls, Ho-Hos, and Ding-Dongs? Even beyond that, there were concerns expressed about many other once-standard items in our lives that are now disappearing.

Television—TV was my regular companion once my parents purchased their first RCA Victor set a few months after I was born, thinking “Well, we’re going to be staying home a lot more now.” For more than 60 years, it’s been there through wars, assassinations, civil unrest, moon landings, elections, inaugurations, state funerals, and natural disasters, while offering a million laughs from Lucy and Uncle Miltie to the antics of Seinfeld and Friends. It’s hard to see it slipping away—as it certainly is right now—rather like a beloved relative in the final stages of decline. As commercials become longer, more frequent, and more intrusive, many of us now spend far less time watching. Like many other people, I’ve now figured out how to view episodes of the BBC’s As Time Goes By (or Dick Van Dyke, Perry Mason, or the original Julia Child), full-screen on my computer, uninterrupted, as I sit back in an armchair across the room—just like watching TV used to be. A recent item in USA Today confirmed my suspicions—in the early 1950s, the FCC allowed exactly four commercial minutes per hour of programming, but that has slowly been increased to 16 minutes per hour—with certain exceptions allowing even more. Ask yourself why a televised football game can run three to four hours…

Telephones—Our family had ONE: it was firmly attached in the hallway, with a prefix that defined the neighborhood—LOmbard, MOntrose, OVerland, SEabright in the Sunset, and BAyview, EVergreen, SKyline for the Richmond. There were also just a handful of California area codes. Today there are over 30, with many people acquiring telephone numbers at an early age, and keeping them for life. My personal phone book contains many 10-digit numbers from unfamiliar places, but the owners do not necessarily live there; they have just kept an old phone number, and soon, we’ll have the 628 area code for all new San Francisco and Marin phone numbers. No one balks at making “long-distance” or “toll” calls anymore, since many consumers now pay a flat rate for unlimited nationwide calling, packaged with unlimited Internet service—itself a measured-by-the-minute product in the early 1990s. By 1970, San Francisco telephone books were hard to fit into the built-in spot of our 18th Avenue hallway. Now they have slimmed down considerably because of cell phones that are not included, fewer landlines, and many unlisted numbers. The “real” telephone book (as opposed to privately printed advertising look-alikes that clutter up apartment-house lobbies) is headed the way of telephone booths and PBX operators.


Bartender at Ranch House Dinners on the northeast corner of Geary Boulevard and 16th Avenue, 1953 - San Francisco Examiner photo. WNP Collection

Clothing—For decades, teen-aged boys shopped at Bruce Bary in Stonestown, while the girls headed for Joseph Magnin. We knew that these places were for the young and trendy, and that one day, the men would move on to Roos-Atkins and the women to I. Magnin. Today? Gone, gone, gone, and gone. My last few shirts, pants, and sweaters have come from L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine—ordered online and delivered with no shipping charge and no sales tax—whoever could have predicted that? It’s also been said that the unluckiest business in America was the men’s hat shop in 1961. Upon John Kennedy’s inauguration, men’s hats plummeted in popularity, given the new president’s habit of going hatless. Women’s hats suffered, too, once Jackie captured the public imagination with her bouffant hairstyle—and gloves for women also vanished. More drastic changes are now emerging in “clothing-optional” San Francisco. I met a friend for lunch last Fall, and on a crowded downtown street during the middle of the workday, it was hard to spot a man wearing a necktie. I wore one virtually every single workday of my adult life, until I began working from home circa 1997. Has this once-standard fashion item disappeared completely? Even well-dressed women today seem to have abandoned hosiery. The list of fatalities among San Francisco clothing retailers over the last 40+ years is staggering: Emporium, The White House, City of Paris, Hale’s, Bullock’s, Liberty House, Bruce Bary, Jay Briggs, I. Magnin, Joseph Magnin, Roos-Atkins, Grodins, Livingston’s, Ransohoff’s, H. Liebes, Penney’s, Sears, Mervyn’s and more.

Grocery Shopping—Mom did our family’s grocery shopping like clockwork, every Friday morning at QFI—Quality Foods, Inc.—at Stonestown, continuing there even after Petrini’s took over, circa 1980. For several decades, she and her friends would get their “hair done” early on Friday mornings at Vicente Beauty Salon—another endangered business that just bit the dust recently, after a series of owners had kept it going for nearly 60 years—before they headed off en masse to Stonestown. There was still Pine Lake Market on Vicente Street for last-minute items, and Eezy-Freezy on West Portal for that missing spice or package of batteries on Christmas morning, but Safeway couldn’t compete with QFI since Safeway’s local stores were older/smaller. Stonestown has been without a full-service grocery store for over 20 years now, and although this was once a huge issue to hundreds of residents in the adjacent apartments, those buildings all became student housing for San Francisco State seven years ago (along with several blocks in nearby Parkmerced in 2002). Today, Trader Joe’s offers many grocery items, but there’s no one to bone and butterfly a leg of lamb anymore or to call you just before Christmas Eve when the fresh crab comes in. Anyone else remember the long conveyer belt that ran the whole length of the store, taking your purchases right up to the meat department cashier? Who knew that today, we’d be grocery shopping at WalMart, Costco, large modern Safeways, plus online ordering/delivery of groceries?

Butcher Counter at Stadium Market, 1909 Irving Street, in 1936. - Courtesy of Bud Bowcock.

Elevator Operators—I passed the old Bank of America at #1 Powell Street, my workplace from 1971-1979, and thought of Joyce, the gregarious elevator operator who whisked us up and down every day. Back then, manually-operated elevators had already disappeared from most businesses—they were replaced at the Emporium in the late 1950s and gone from Penney’s at 5th & Market Street once it closed in 1971. I. Magnin still had elevator operators until the late 1980s—all of them matchingly attired in designer beige suits and strawberry-blonde bouffant hairdos. I hope Joyce is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement, since the bank building is now a retail store with automatic elevators serving the condos occupying the upper floors where I used to process claims for lost/stolen Travelers Cheques—another extinct product. Those I. Magnin ladies also exist only in memory, with that elegant store gone since 1994.

Bingo—For years, the Catholic Church had a monopoly on Bingo, and there were multiple games operating seven nights a week across the Outside Lands. St. Cecilia’s had a popular game in the school auditorium in the late 1950s, and there was an enormous session every Friday night in the 1960s at Corpus Christi Parish Hall on Alemany (just beyond the Outside Lands)—I can still see and smell the cloud of blue tobacco smoke that hung in the air and permeated my clothing there. Mom and her sister used to attend games at St. Ignatius on 37th Avenue in the early 1980s, but all these are now gone. The few remaining locations are St. Anne’s on Tuesdays and St. Stephen’s on Fridays, though the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence reportedly have regular weekly sessions at the Herbst Theater on Van Ness Avenue for players who may be a bit more adventuresome than the usual crowd of ladies with blue-rinsed hair (another disappearing fashion trend).

Banks—For decades, banks were open Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and until 6 p.m. Fridays. Long lines, impatient people, and slow tellers made things worse on the 15th and 30th of each month, and on the third of the month when millions of paper Social Security checks were received by mail and then deposited in person. All this began to change when Direct Deposit and ATMs were introduced, with Bank of America’s Parkside Branch acquiring an ATM in 1983. Banking has never been the same, and industry experts now predict the demise of ATMs in favor of hand-held devices that allow scanning/deposit of paper checks and electronic funds transfer. Many established names are now gone—Hibernia, Crocker, Security-Pacific, Citizens Federal, San Francisco Savings, United California Bank (UCB), First Western, Colonial Savings, Bank of San Francisco, Bank of California. Even dear old Bank of America is now headquartered in North Carolina. Who could have imagined?

Ad for Stonestown Apartments by Stoneson Brothers, 1951. - San Francisco Chronicle

Coca-Cola—“The real thing” disappeared in 1985 when Coke became “New Coke” but then went back to the original formula after a huge public outcry, but with corn syrup replacing real sugar. A couple of years ago at a rural deli, in an area with a large Hispanic population, I stumbled onto the original—bottlers in Mexico still adhere to the all-sugar recipe and package it in the classic glass bottle, rather than in plastic/aluminum. What a spectacular taste sensation!

Mail-Order Catalogs—Sears, the catalog industry leader since 1888, was shut down 20 years ago. Spiegel has been through multiple bankruptcies and is now a shadow of its former self, and Lillian Vernon folded after 2008. Businesses that still offer a catalog generally back it up with an online presence, 800-number, and free shipping.

Eating Out—So many are gone—Zim’s, Hot House, El Sombrero, Woolworth, Foster’s, Lyon’s, Herb’s Deli, Red Roof, Red Chimney, Shaw’s, Doggie Diner, Bino’s, Gino’s, Luzern, Le Cyrano, Café Riggio, Riviera Dinner House, West Portal Joe’s, and just recently, Caesar’s (after a 55-year run) and Stonestown Chevys.

Interior of Ranch House Dinners on Geary Boulevard in 1953. - WNP collection

Stock/Bond Certificates—Practically unknown today, unless you are handling an estate. Ownership of securities is now mostly computer-recorded, with monthly statements (often electronic-only) issued to customers.

Trash Burners—Gas stoves had them when I was growing up, making for a warm and cozy kitchen on cold mornings. Ocean breezes quickly cleared the neighborhood smoke.

Holiday Parties—Always involved food from Herman’s Delicatessen on Geary and Golden Brown Bakery on Irving Street.

Mincemeat Pie—Originally made with meat, suet, raisins, etc., today’s recipes replace the meat and fat with more fruits and other ingredients.

Betty Crocker Points Coupons—Discontinued in 2006.

Friday Fish for Catholics—Gone since 1966.

Toll Takers—Going, going, gone—the Golden Gate Bridge will convert to all-electronic toll collection on March 1, 2013.

And whatever happened to:

Fuller Brush Men, Washboards, Clotheslines, Clothespins, Milkmen, Transistor Radios, Boom-Boxes, 8-Track Tapes, Polaroid Cameras, Skate Keys, 45-Rpm Adapters, Slide Rules, Flexi-Flyers, Volkswagen Beetles, Convertibles, Charge-A-Plate For All Downtown Stores, Typewriters, Adding Machines, Irish Sweepstakes, Buying Yellow For Babies Because Gender Was Unknown Before Birth, The Iceman, Dressing Up On Airplanes, Saturday Night Date At The Movies, Free Admission At San Francisco Zoo/Museums, Train Travel From Sp Station At 3rd & Townsend, Life-Insurance Vending Machines At the Airport, Neighborhood Holiday Lighting Contests and Decorated Firehouses, Cops Walking A Beat, Bars Closed Until 8Pm On Election Days, “New” Lowell/S.I./Beth Israel-Judea—Buildings Now 40-50 Years Old, Muni Drivers Giving Change, Playland, Fleishhacker Pool, 50-Cent Pieces, Bandanas, Bosco Chocolate Syrup, Evening Newspapers, Paperboys Collecting In Person, Busy Signals, Bakers’ Dozens, Tootsie Rolls At Barber Shops, Puppies In Pet Store Windows & Parrots On Sidewalks, Women Wearing Hats In Catholic Churches, Liver For Dinner, Life, Look & Saturday Evening Post, Christmas Club Accounts, Ungated Tunnel Entrances, Wind-Up Barbershop Poles, Tv Antennas, Zoo Keys, Checking Weight For A Penny At Drug Store Scales, Public Libraries Open Until 9 p.m. Weeknights, Carrying Dimes For Phone Calls & Pennies For Parking Meters, Children Walking To School?

Life changes, many things that were once common to our everyday lives slip away, and the world goes on—with some people never quite understanding what life used to be like in the Outside Lands.


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