Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Who's Been Working on the Railroad?

by Frank Dunnigan
March 2010

As youngsters growing up in the Sunset in the 1950s, we interacted with family, friends, and neighbors who held a wide variety of occupations. Not everyone in our parents' generation had the good fortune to attend college, but all of them earned decent livings and were able to support themselves and their families comfortably in a wide variety of employment situations that required little more than a basic education, combined with a pleasant nature, persistence, and punctuality.

Watching the neighbors march off to work each morning, from my front window vantage point, I could see an enormous array of occupations represented—both skilled and unskilled labor, the professions, government service, public safety, education, shopkeepers, and more. I knew that there were many different careers to choose from when I grew up, but it never dawned on me that so many of the jobs that I saw represented on those foggy mornings back then would disappear from the San Francisco landscape almost entirely during my own working years.

Chemical Engine No. 12 of the San Francisco Fire Department, 2156 19th Avenue near Rivera [dpwbook5 dpw1408] - DPW Horace Chaffee (Courtesy of a Private Collector)

Police and fire fighters were popular careers that captured childhood imaginations, and who among us didn't aspire to one of those jobs? In grammar school, we often visited firehouses or met police officers up close, and I often saw Mom's brother Jim in his Fire Department Captain's uniform, and we also saw a lot of Grandma's neighbor, John Sullivan, whose fire fighter job had the added cachet of being located at San Francisco International Airport. In fact, one of my grammar school classmates had four sisters who all became members of the SFPD, one of whom recently retired as Deputy Chief. Sad to say, though, that many of those who joined the police and fire departments after the mid-1970s did not remain living in San Francisco. It's often been said that the safest place in the Bay Area is the Marin County city of Novato, given its extraordinarily high population of both SFPD and SFFD personnel. Let's just hope that there's no back-up on the Golden Gate Bridge the next time that a major event occurs that requires these folks to be on duty on short notice.

In addition to police and fire department employees, our family also had other relatives and friends who worked for the City in various other occupations. We knew a couple of gardeners in Golden Gate Park and others who were part of MUNI's vast army of "inspectors" who would ensure that the rolling fleet was on time—one regular Outside Lands correspondent reported recently that a schedule deviation of even two minutes used to be cause for a serious reprimand for a MUNI driver in the old days. Obviously, judging from recent experience, a lot of jobs like these, along with punctual service and manicured lawns, have disappeared entirely.

One of my dad's USF classmates occupied an elective office at City Hall, but the fellow never considered himself a politician, and he never ran for another office—he just continued serving in the same capacity, year after year, becoming more and more skilled at the many intricacies of his job. Today that position is highly politicized, and considered to be only a stepping stone for seekers of higher office. It seems to change hands more and more frequently in recent years, and more than once, it has been the focus of inquiries into possible corruption and other assorted scandals—in short, it is now just a required way-station for politicians, and not a job that will, in and of itself, produce a sense of personal satisfaction or accomplishment whatsoever.

School secretary Marjorie Ute with student Cindy Skinner at West Portal Elementary School, January 1969. - Courtesy of Grant Ute

Several of our friends and neighbors were involved in the San Francisco Unified School District for years, some choosing to remain in the classroom for their entire careers, while others moved up the ranks to positions of dean, assistant principal, or principal. Today, current news stories of classroom violence, budget cutbacks, and annual layoff notices have been successful in discouraging many of the best and the brightest from pursuing this once highly thought-of, civic-minded career.

Even state employment is not the same. Mom spent many years in an administrative position with the California Highway Patrol's "Zone III" office, hidden among the overhead freeway structures at 8th & Bryant streets. She had a goodly number of coworkers who also lived in the Sunset and the Richmond Districts, and it was a happy, productive place where she and her friends enjoyed their work. Several years after her retirement in 1976, her old office was merged with another in the East Bay, with the remaining San Francisco employees all opting for retirement, rather than subjecting themselves to a trans-Bay commute five days a week. Even today, I have cousins who have been state employees for many years, and they all feel that the remainder of their working lives will be filled with layoffs, "furlough days," reduced hours, pay caps, and ever-increasing workloads being handled in offices that are more and more remote from where they actually live.

My dad and his brother spent more than 40 years each with the Post Office, retiring in 1974 as station managers, exactly the same job that their father held from 1894-1934. Their grandfather, my great-grandfather, worked for the Pacific Mail Steamship Company from 1864-1894, loading and unloading sacks of mail on the waterfront. With 150 years of family history working for a "stable" institution, I read this week that the U.S. Postal Service remains in constant danger of financial collapse, even with ongoing postage rate increases. All of the stations that my dad, uncle, and grandfather managed (along with great-grandfather's PMSS docks) are gone, and there is renewed talk of eliminating Saturday home delivery and weekend office hours.

The crew of Standard Heating & Sheet Metal at 834 Irving Street: Mr. Hochede, Mr. McConnell, Mr. Cook, Mr. McGill. (Mr. Cohen in the back room.) - WNP collection

Our next-door neighbor owned and operated a small sheet metal manufacturing shop, which might have been celebrating its 100th anniversary in business this year, if it were not for the changing times. Al took the business over from his father, who had established it in the aftermath of 1906 when San Franciscans needed everything from a needle to an anchor, particularly goods that were manufactured from sheet metal. It was a thriving business for two generations in their family, until our neighbor's untimely death in 1982. For nearly three-quarters of a century, that small storefront turned out bakery pans of all sorts, radiator covers for thousands of apartments, liners for planter boxes, copper weather-stripping, oil cans for MUNI maintenance workers, plus chimneys, air vents, and skylight frames for every type of building imaginable. Al loved his work, and was truly happy to set out each morning to the challenges that awaited him, unlike so many people today.

The western neighborhoods were once filled with thousands of men and women involved in customer service or bookkeeping activities for major employers like PG&E, AT&T, and Standard Oil. These employers represented the epitome of "steady" employment for decades, and my neighbors had life-long careers, usually involving a telephone headset or else a pencil and an adding machine, at desks that filled many of the most prominent buildings along Market Street and elsewhere in the downtown area. Today, these basic, well-paying, secure jobs have been outsourced to every country around the globe, whose inhabitants are presumably marching off to work each day, as happy and secure as my neighbors were back in 1955.

And what about the banks? Montgomery Street and the rest of downtown literally teemed with banking houses that employed vast numbers of San Franciscans. When I was growing up, we knew many people who worked for Wells Fargo or Hibernia Bank, along with two long-time family friends who had been with Bank of America since its pre-1930 Bank of Italy days. Today, following decades of mergers, bankruptcies, takeovers, and just plain idiotic management, many San Francisco banking establishments no longer exist, or else no longer perform large segments of their business in San Francisco. Along with the demise of those firms, went tens of thousands of jobs, whose benefits (health plans, retirement plans, plus discounts on home and auto loans) provided a backbone of stability for many households. Even among the firms that remain, many of the product lines that once employed thousands are now gone. In my own 17-year career with Bank of America, I was employed in only three different administrative units—Travelers Cheque Claims, BankCard Customer Service, and Stock Transfer. Today, most of these products no longer exist within the bank, or else they are serviced in call centers located in faraway locations, staffed by faceless people who recite their scripts with all the enthusiasm of a stale doughnut. Even in the branches, most tellers report that they have been specifically hired to work no more than 19 hours per week, so that there is no possibility whatsoever of accruing benefits such as vacations, paid holidays, health plan, retirement packages, etc. Face it, 19 hours a week doesn't make ends meet for most people, and such a schedule hardly provides the incentive necessary to get out there and promote the latest company product or service.

4401 California Street at the corner of 6th Avenue. Richmond Shade Factory and Richmond Cooperative Trades, 1910s. - Courtesy of Mark Adams.

Most of us kids understood jobs like supermarket checkers from an early age, since we had a bird's eye view of such activities from the little seat at the front of the grocery cart. We also saw that other people filled the shelves, and still others cut meat with those large, noisy electric saws. It was our family friend Martha, though, who explained that she worked for Del Monte Corporation, but that she was not selling the product (nor was she picking it from trees and vines, nor packing it into cans and jars, nor stacking the boxes onto shelves), but rather, she was paid to review written reports of exactly how many jars of this were sold vs. how many jars of that. As I grew older, a job involving the financial end of the business suddenly emerged as a far more interesting career possibility than positions that involved calling out, "That's 2 for 29", or today's ubiquitous "Paper or plastic?" Strangely, a recent look at Del Monte's Web site showed no openings for accounting jobs like Martha's. Instead, there were exactly six jobs listed in San Francisco, all of which appeared to be fairly high-level, senior management positions that would not be available to anyone who did not possess both an advanced educational degree on top of many years of specific food industry experience. Apparently, basic accounting either doesn't exist at the company anymore, or doesn't exist in San Francisco, or else such jobs are so few and far between that there's no need to advertise when there is an opening.

The furniture and department stores, along with the major men's and women's clothing and shoe retailers were once considered to be excellent employers, but not any more. Look how many have simply disappeared: The Emporium, the White House, City of Paris, Liberty House, Bullock's, Butler Brothers, Weinstein, Hale Brothers, Sterling Furniture, Lachman Brothers, I. Magnin, Joseph Magnin, H. Liebes, Ransohoff's, Livingston's, Roos-Atkins, Grodin's, Sommer & Kaufmann. In addition to these, other national retailers have given up on San Francisco entirely—JC Penney, once a cornerstone at 5th & Market, has been gone for almost 40 years, and Sears, which used to have two stores in town, abandoned its final location at Geary & Masonic more than 15 years ago. Even among the newer retailers, Williams-Sonoma, which once employed hundreds of full-time and part-time catalog sales and customer service staff in spacious offices on North Point near the Embarcadero, offering decent wages, health benefits, and generous merchandise discounts, turned its back on the city that had contributed so much to its success, and moved its catalog and internet operations to suburban Las Vegas just over 12 years ago now.

Mohawk gasoline pumps at 16th Avenue and Irving Street, 1978. - Courtesy of Michael Farfan

Our neighbor Bill had been in the wholesale paper business for years, working as a sales manager for a stationery and envelope company. His firm's clients were long-term and steady, and their needs were never-ending: corporate stationery, note pads, telephone message pads, business cards, pre-printed index cards, accounting paper, continuous-feed computer forms, newsprint, carbon paper, advertising post cards, blank checks, etc. All of this provided him with a steady income, and his family with a comfortable lifestyle. His son, close to my age and almost ready for retirement from the same industry, recently told me how this business has nearly become extinct because of the expansion of technology, and that it will likely never again provide a steady career for anyone who hopes to support a household.

We knew people who owned and operated small businesses along Taraval or Noriega or Irving Streets: a coin laundry, a liquor store, a hardware store, a shoe store. Our friend Theresa was the office manager in Supervisor James Sullivan's West Portal real estate/insurance office. Following Sullivan's untimely death in 1961, Theresa took over the insurance side of the business, which she ran on her own for the next 25 years or so until she retired. Today, the independent insurance agent, representing a variety of companies, is a rarity, and many of us fall back on one big-name company and the impersonal help at the other end of a toll-free number for all of our needs. Every one of these small business owners felt pressure at various times, and large-scale competitors have effectively driven out many of the small retail and service establishments that once populated our neighborhood shopping streets, thus making it harder and harder to purchase a small item without first gassing up the car and heading across the county line to northern San Mateo County to some sort of a mall or a big-box store.

Speaking of gas stations, whatever happened to them? There used to be a Flying A station near West Portal, on Ulloa, near the tunnel (now a tiny City parking lot), Shell and Union were kitty-corner from each other at 14th & West Portal, and Chevron was just a block away at 15th. There were dozens of them along Taraval—Arco at 14th Avenue, two more stations at 15th Avenue, three at 19th Avenue, and at least one every other block or so, all the way out to the beach…Richfield, Texaco, Mobil, Phillips 66, along with the tiny independent ones. Now you can practically count them on the fingers of one hand. What happened to all the young kids who used to find a first job there—or the older guys who had all the automotive experience in the world, and who could fix anything? There just seems to be no place for any of them in the today's San Francisco working world.

Grandma's 21st Avenue neighbor, Mr. Cannon, a dapper, white-haired retired Army officer from World War I, represented a revered career choice. He was capable of capturing a child's imagination with his stories of bravery in what I later learned was the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, the final Allied victory that claimed well over 100,000 U.S. soldiers in the Fall of 1918. I have no doubt that he encouraged more than a few enlistments over the years, at a time when the White House was occupied by Ike, who himself had been one of the biggest heroes of the Second World War.

At St. Cecilia's, it went without saying that a call to the religious life, as a priest or a nun, was very highly viewed by Church, family, and society in general. In those days, both St. Cecilia's and its ecclesiastical neighbor, Holy Name parish, used to vie for how many priests and nuns had graduated from each of the grammar schools. In addition to keeping track of those numbers, a careful count was also maintained of the graduates from each parish's school who were then studying in one of the various seminaries or convents. Changes involving the role of women in the workplace, plus the ecclesiastical tumult that seems to have begun in the late 1960s, along with growing revelations regarding gross improprieties on the part of some priests, has forever altered the stature that used to surround those who opted for a religious vocation.

4351 California Street, near 6th Avenue, 1910s. Shade and drapery repair business. - Courtesy of Mark Adams.

Growing up, it seemed that every boy had a play doctor's bag (and every girl a play nurse's kit), filled with the requisite bottles of candy "pills" and sweet syrup "medicines," and I must acknowledge that more than a few of my classmates ended up in those careers for completely altruistic reasons. Today, few in the medical profession seem to be in general practice in any convenient neighborhood locations, and most now seem to be sharing office space with others who may or may not share similar values and goals. The only certainty is that most of them will watch the clock like hawks the entire time you are there, presumably billing you for each one-tenth of an hour that you occupy a seat in the examining room with a practitioner. I feel truly fortunate to have had the same internist for well over 20 years now, knowing that I can discuss whatever I need to with him, but he is indeed a rare breed today. Several years ago, when I was accompanying Mom to one of her doctor appointments, a provider who shall remain nameless quite literally ushered us out of his office into the hallway when I was trying to clarify his vague instructions to my then 80-year-old mother—the nurse later told me that the allotted six minutes for Mom's appointment had been exceeded! One thing is certain: none of my three adult godchildren have ever been inspired to follow in the footsteps of any of the health-care professionals that they've known.

Another neighbor of ours was an attorney, and just like Perry Mason, he was a role model who exuded poise, compassion, and a pretty good intellect. Reruns of that old TV series still demonstrate how Perry advocated on behalf of those falsely accused, won them an acquittal, and then waved his payment away with "Don't you worry about it. I'm just happy that everything worked out". Combining his skills with those of Paul Drake and Della Street, they were an exceptional team of co-workers, determined to do the very best for those who relied on them. Today, however, many people have their own personal horror stories of having to hire attorneys to deal with problems created by prior attorneys, and the law is no longer a career that brings out the more noble instincts in young people who are trying to select a life's calling.

One of my dad's cousins, a 1943 Cal graduate, came home from World War II in 1945 and then spent the next 37 years as an architect-engineer with Bechtel, earning a comfortable salary and benefits along the way, while contributing to major local civic improvements such as BART. Today, like many other companies, Bechtel frequently brings on people like this as consultants—one of the newer downsizing trends in the American workplace. Consultants never become part of a permanent staff—they simply come to work, complete an assignment, and are then GONE, pushed out the door unceremoniously until (or unless) there is a new project a few weeks or months down the road that may require their skills again. This type of sporadic income stream hardly contributes to a stable employment base in any community.

Our family had other friends who spent years waiting tables, cooking, or tending bar, everywhere from the large hotels and restaurants to smaller, well-established places (Grison's, Trader Vic's, Polo's, Gino's, Caesar's, The Red Chimney, The Hot House, The Gold Mirror) that packed the customers in, night after night, allowing the employees to earn good, steady incomes before moving on to comfortable retirements. Today, however, that entire industry seems highly transitory, with an inexperienced staff of employees working such jobs "until something better comes along". The hope of finding a server who knows anything informative about the daily specials or what the difference is between New England and Manhattan clam chowder is beginning to seem as elusive as the scents of freshly baked sourdough and ground coffee in the crisp morning air—manufacturing jobs that, by and large, have also left San Francisco in recent times.

A posed traffic stop on 19th Avenue near Lawton in front of the Shriner's Hospital, 1926. - Courtesy of a private collector.

The fade of trade unionism, particularly along the San Francisco waterfront and its adjacent warehouses, packing plants, and truck yards has forever dimmed the draw of a solid career in a variety of blue collar industries, along with its lifetime promise of financial stability. Again, much like the customer service positions with the big utilities, many of these jobs have gone so far offshore, that they will never again see the lights of San Francisco's waterfront and its environs.

Our neighbor Ed, now gone for well over 40 years, was an engineer for the old Belt Line Railroad along the Embarcadero. How I wanted to be a train engineer after I got to know him and hear his stories (alas, the closest that I ever got was Lionel). You'd be hard pressed to find even a retired railroad engineer in San Francisco today. A couple of years later as a 12-year old, I was attending a bon voyage party with my parents for some neighbors who were embarking on cruise to Hawaii, and I was lucky enough to get a tour of the bridge on the old Matson liner, Lurline, then plying a regular route from San Francisco to Honolulu. I decided then and there that becoming a ship's captain was what I really wanted to do, but in the flash of a passing jet plane, that career also evaporated into the fog.

It's hard to imagine just what today's kids are going to be doing in their working lives, 20, 30, or 50 years from now, but it appears that their choices will never be quite as broad and wide-ranging as they were for all of us, growing up at a time when we really could be anything we chose to be, in a city that seemed to have the greatest variety of careers in the entire world.

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Page launched 29 March 2010.

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