Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Country Roads, Take Me Home

by Frank Dunnigan
January 2010

Over the years there have been a goodly number of recollections posted on this Web site's message boards regarding the migration of natives away from the Outside Lands. I confess to being among that number, for reasons which were sound and reasonable for me at the time. Yet every now and then, if I'm in San Francisco at some awkward hour when the northbound traffic on Highway 101 from the Golden Gate Bridge to Sonoma County is in its usual state of gridlock, I find myself inexplicably drawn to wander aimlessly, navigating the car up and down the foggy streets and avenues, slipping quietly into the ghostly past, and revisiting those family members and friends who have left only their hearts behind. I often ponder events that went on in those days gone by, and engage in some quiet speculation about the lives of the folks living in the houses today.

Most of my playmates from 18th Avenue days now reside in places like Belmont, Millbrae, Pacifica, San Mateo, and other far-flung Peninsula destinations. Work, marriage, and family have taken others to Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Anchorage, Seattle, and suburban Washington, DC. Only a very few remain living in San Francisco. While parental longevity seems to be something of a factor in keeping baby boomers local, it's not an absolute criteria. Among those who remain in the Outside Lands, however, many have had relatives at or beyond the age of 90, and many of these older folks have relied on their younger relations for regular care and monitoring. As I drive up and down my old block, I see that there are still bikes on the street in the late afternoon, and judging from the foot traffic, lots of interaction with kids in and out of each other's houses, though this socialization seems to involve only the youngsters. Many of the adults, I am told, barely know their neighbors today.

Looking northwest from 22nd and Santiago. The empty lot behind the twins, Bob and Ann Polacchi, became the Lincoln High School Boys' Gym. - Courtesy of Ann Jennings

Among my St. Ignatius classmates, most of them were once restricted to San Francisco living by the residency rules of the Amateur Athletic Association. That connection ended circa 1967 when S.I. pulled out of the city league, and S.I.'s student population today is geographically diverse. I was amazed to read in a recent alumni newsletter that the largest block of S.I. students—37.7%—are now residents of San Mateo County. A significant number of others cross the Golden Gate or the Bay Bridge daily, and this has apparently been going on for some time. Even more surprisingly, S.I. now sponsors three bus routes—two to San Mateo County and one to Marin—so that these students might have easier access to and from school.

By contrast, only a little over one-third of S.I.'s current 1,400 students live in San Francisco. In my own high school days, more than 40 years ago now, virtually ALL of my classmates still lived IN San Francisco proper, with the vast majority calling the various neighborhoods of the Outside Lands their home. The school's social dynamic today must be greatly changed when students no longer live within a few minutes' walk or drive of each other. Most of my ongoing friendships today are with people whose homes were nearby and "drop-in friendly" back in 1966-70—folks who lived in St. Anne's, St. Cecilia's, Holy Name, St. Gabriel's or St. Stephen's parishes. In those years, there was plenty of high drama being played out in the Outside Lands, from Stanyan Street out to the beach, and from the Presidio to Daly City. Today, the only striking feature of that entire area is the never-ending stretch of parked cars on every single block, day and night, and I now seldom see people coming or going—just all those parked cars.

Would my high school experiences be at all the same if I lived in San Francisco today, while the vast majority of my classmates lived in San Mateo County? Would I have had my first beer in that kitchen at 31st & Noriega? Would I have kissed that wonderful girl outside her house at 40th & Lawton? Would I still be good friends with people who once lived at 27th & Noriega, 25th & Ocean, 30th & Kirkham, and 16th & Taraval? Perhaps not. Do the S.I. students living in San Francisco have their own clique, separate and distinct from those who live to the south? Do Millbrae kids feel superior to those from San Carlos or vice-versa? Is there a Daly City-Belmont rivalry? In the late 1960s, we put aside our own individual parishes and neighborhoods to declare, "WE ARE S.I."—is there still that sense of unity present today?

Within my own family, the outbound traffic from San Francisco has been part of this same pattern for many years, and I often wonder how things might have been.

Dad's father had three older sisters, with all four of those siblings born South-of-Market well before 1906. At one point, in the 1920s, all of them, along with their families, were living along Duboce Avenue, near the park and the "new" Sunset streetcar tunnel. These were the days when Grandpa's eldest sister held Christmas Eve for the whole family at her house every year, with the youngest grandchild reciting "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" for the entire crowd. Each and every day, until our 90+ Great-Aunt Mayme died in 1955, she exchanged phone calls with her adult children and grandchildren early in the morning, immediately after the newspaper hit her doorstep, about who had died, and where the entire family would be going that night for a rosary and viewing of some dear departed relative, friend, or neighbor. Fast-forward to today, and among the hundred or so relations in this part of my family, there are only two elderly cousins who remain residents of San Francisco—one still living in her childhood home near Duboce Avenue and the other located in Parkmerced. Clearly, our family dynamic is not what it would have been in days gone by, nor is our turn-out at wakes and funerals.

Dad's mother's family was even more elusive. Grandma had many siblings, all of whom died in childhood. Even so, she had many cousins on both sides of her family, and everyone lived within a few blocks of each other, South-of-Market, in the days before 1906, and visiting was a daily occurrence. Grandma died in 1960, and over the next few years, so did all of her cousins. All of their descendents are now located in the greater Los Angeles area, and barely recognize the ties that bind us when I email or write to them.

Snow on cars on 46th Avenue facing Moraga Street, February 5, 1976. - Courtesy of Karyn Ann Bosso

Mom's father's family is not much better. Arriving in San Francisco from Germany as a child in 1891, my grandfather lived for many years on 22nd Street near Potrero, along with his mother and seven siblings. They left San Francisco once and for all on the morning of April 18, 1906, my great-grandmother a recent widow, with a three-day old baby in her arms, settling in Oakland. Only my grandfather returned, because of his job on the waterfront. He walked into the company office one rainy day early in 1911, according to family legend, slipped on a wet spot, and skidded across the floor to the desk of one of the secretaries, who obligingly helped him up and didn't laugh at him too much. By the end of that year, they were married, and they remained San Franciscans for the rest of their long lives. Today, none of their seven grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, or ten great-great-grandchildren are living in San Francisco—or even in Oakland for that matter. None of my five first-cousins, all born in San Francisco, is anywhere closer than San Carlos today.

Mom's mother had eight brothers and sisters, and that family originally settled in San Francisco when they arrived in 1907 from Leadville, Colorado to help a recently widowed cousin, and to work on the rebuilding following the 1906 Fire. All of them and most of the next generation lived out their lives within the 49 square miles of San Francisco, and that was just fine with everyone. Most of the family stories that I relish today came from this group and the daily social interactions that used to exist among them.

Even after I arrived in 1951, we saw each other regularly, celebrated birthdays, holidays, and even non-descript Wednesday night dinners at each other's houses, and if one of Uncle Huey's wife's Smith relations died, we all showed up at Duggan's or Arthur Sullivan's for the rosary. Grandma's brother Pat would play his accordion or his violin at the slightest suggestion. Cousin Arthur's wife Gladys had a beautiful voice, and sang at every family wedding and funeral for nearly half a century. Uncle Johnny amused the youngsters with his sleight of hand card tricks, while cousin Ann was busy at work in the kitchen, making her famous crab cioppino (not bad for someone who was Irish) or her incredible rocky road Easter eggs from scratch. The ladies would always marvel over Aunt Dorothy's beautiful clothes, and Grandpa would always be at the dining room table with his pipe, reading page after page of the funnies to the children.

Lower Great Highway, looking northeast from Cutler Avenue, May 12, 1947. - WNP collection

The family loved sports and one classic story, often recalled, concerned the time when Grandma's mother died in 1931, and her wake was being held in the front room of the family's big Victorian flat. As the old Irish priest was reciting the rosary, bursts of cheering could be heard from the big walk-in closet under the stairs in the front hallway. Some of our more enterprising cousins had placed wagers on the outcome of a crucial St. Mary's-Santa Clara football game, and were so intent on following its progress, that they had dragged the big console radio from the living room into the closet, so that they would not miss anything. Grandma's annoyance at this set-up was quickly felt by all the perpetrators.

Uncle Bill and Aunt Marge married late in life, and never had children of their own, but were wonderful to their nieces and nephews, and to the next generation of little ones, myself included. A visit to their Victorian was a kid's delight—playing with the old pump organ in the living room, or with the dozen or so parakeets that Marge was always raising in the sunny breakfast room. Uncle Bill was a tinkerer who built his own automatic garage door opener from scratch in the early 1950s, along with a variety of TV sets assembled by hand in the garage. In a family anecdote still told, Marge succumbed to her first and only heart attack while waiting in line to vote for John F. You-Know-Who at the local polling place on November 8, 1960. According to news accounts of the time, "poll workers assured the family that even though she died, her vote was properly cast by the Inspector, since she was a life-long Democrat". Mayor Daley's Chicago was not the only place where dead voters supported Kennedy in 1960.

Even now, I can still hear Mom pointing out, "That's the house where Aunt Josephine and Uncle Johnny used to live before World War II, when he fell off the ladder into the middle of the Christmas tree", as we criss-crossed San Francisco to one of her many doctor appointments as she approached 90. Other times, she would point out the place where her favorite cousin Jack had brought his lovely British war bride to live in 1946, where they started their family of four rambunctious kids. It's strange that all of these wonderful folks across two generations are gone now, leaving 18 of us in my generation, scattered like golden poppy seeds throughout California, Oregon, Washington, New Mexico, Colorado, and a few other far-flung spots.

I was fortunate enough to know those prior two generations fairly well, and I'm pleased to report that when we baby-boomer cousins get together, it is just like the old days when our grandparents and their siblings and their cousins used to gather. I spent this past Christmas in Arizona, with a large number of my second cousins, and it was a veritable scene out of Woody Allen's Radio Days, circa 1940.

Different family members staggered their arrivals across several days, usually coming in just a bit later than planned, but always to welcoming hugs and kisses all around. Each group settled in and stayed for varying lengths of time, mostly bundled up under the same roof or else staying with others nearby. Bedrooms had different occupants on different days, kids got to argue over beds vs. sleeping bags vs. the living room couch. Quilts and blankets were cast off by some and grabbed onto by others to accommodate the "too hot" as well as the "too cold". Some lived out of their suitcases and backpacks, while others insisted on unpacking and ironing all their clothes before hanging them neatly in the closet. Throughout our days together, the front door was, quite literally, never locked, and people were in and out all day long.

Some wanted to see the desert sights, others still had Christmas shopping and wrapping to complete, while others turned out to be avid holiday movie goers. Some hung out at a local neighborhood pool, swimming and relaxing in the warm desert air, while others curled up on the couch or the patio with a favorite book, and others toured the area's Christmas decorations. Our only standing rule was that we would all assemble at 5 p.m. (just as the streetlights came on) to recount our daily adventures, and to have dinner with one another.

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

We all rotated kitchen duty, several of us armed with favorite cookbooks or tattered recipe cards. Seated around a long dining room table, draped with a red table cloth and covered with more candles than the Vatican, we ate and reminisced and talked of the past, the present, and the future. We mimicked the voices of those who were no longer with us, retelling favorite stories, and laughing out loud at some of the almost-forgotten tales of our parents' and grandparents' generations. The younger ones were watching all of us in wide-eyed amazement, reflecting on just what we thought was so funny. Wine flowed, confidences were exchanged, and more than one whispered conversation among us followed that classic family concern—"Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver".

We stayed up late, watched videos and played board games after dinner, while some nibbled at leftovers and scarfed down goodies from strategically placed candy dishes. Siblings chatted quietly, cousins interacted, and the kids blended into conversation with the grown-ups enough to receive a good glimpse into what life was like a generation or two back in time. Some dozed, while others played cards or watched TV in another room, and someone was always puttering in the kitchen, while others just laid back, surveying the scene. If the phone rang, someone would answer it, confident that they would know the caller, and have something appropriate to say. Christmas carols played, a fire was present in the hearth, and as each night grew late, we took our leave of one another slowly, one-by-one, and we all slept the sleep of contentment.

Early each morning, whoever was up first would plug in the Christmas tree lights, crank up the heat, and start the first of several pots of coffee. We emerged slowly from our cocoons, some still in robes and nightclothes, while others were freshly showered, groomed, and dressed before making their first appearance of the day. Unlike dinner, when the cook of the day made the choices, breakfast was a veritable smorgasbord—cereal and toast quickly emerged for the ravenous, eggs were cooked to order for true breakfast lovers, while others shunned everything except coffee. Most of us took and discussed our morning pills, and someone could always be counted on to be reading aloud from the newspaper, just the way Cousin Kate, our last born-in-Ireland relative, did before her passing back in 1945. Someone was always looking for sports scores, others were checking out comics and horoscopes (along with IMAX 3-D movie listings), and someone's laptop was always being passed around so that we could all stay current on our email.

At the mid-point of our time together, there came word that one of our number who lived nearby could not join us for a special dinner gathering because of a potentially serious health situation that had suddenly arisen. We all reflected inwardly on this turn of events, and unleashed numerous phone calls and emails to our ill cousin and his wife, and to his siblings and children, with even more messages of concern and update to all our far-flung relations. We commiserated with each other about that individual's experiences, filling others in on important missing details of the life of a 63-year old, as each of us understood that life. As we returned to our own homes after the 1st of January, we were pleasantly relieved to learn that the crisis with our cousin had passed, and that the new year was off to a good start for one and all.

As the winter rains begin to pound down, we're all back in our own homes, stretching across several states, and reflecting on the fact that when we are together, we are more family than ever. Who, among all our long-gone relations, would have guessed that we would still be functioning and celebrating our connections more than 100 years after that original group departed Leadville, Colorado for the city of San Francisco? Somewhere, high above the Outside Lands, a band of pioneers is smiling down warmly on all of us, even though we are all so far flung from the place that all of us once called home.

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Page launched 26 January 2010.

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