Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - Western Words of Wisdom

by Frank Dunnigan
May 2010

Growing up in the Outside Lands in the 1950s, with most of grammar school and high school taking place there in the 1960s, and then college and the working world in the 1970s and beyond (and hopefully headed for retirement sometime by the end of this new decade), I've picked up many words of wisdom in my lifetime. Our neighborhood was ethnically, if not racially, diverse and most of us learned some important lessons from among our friends, neighbors, and co-workers. It's almost as though there is a continuous thread playing through my brain, with some of the choice remarks from the past resounding in my ears at certain key moments. No doubt, many of these one-liners will be familiar to anyone visiting this site. Here are some of the better ones that are always on instant replay with me, the approximate age at which I first heard them spoken, and the source of each:

Age 0—"Bye-bye"—useful expression at any age, especially in adulthood, when confronted with undesirable work or social situations.

Age 1—"Be careful"—one of Mom's most frequently spoken admonitions.

Age 2—"STOP"—standard remark made to anyone in the Terrible Twos.

Age 3—"Poor baby"—spoken by Grandma any time children turned to her to avoid justifiable parental anger and when heard today, it's usually spoken in a highly sarcastic tone.

Age 4—"Clean your plate"—spoken by every mother in the neighborhood to every child, whether their own or not.


700 block of Monterey Boulevard between Gennessee and Ridgewood, about 1953. Mt. Davidson Cleaners in background. - Courtesy of a private collector.

Age 5—"Look both ways"—good advice when crossing a street as well as making any important choice in life.

Age 6—"Be nice to everyone today," Mrs. Beckerman, Parkside School Kindergarten.

Age 7—"Pay attention"—spoken to me every morning as I was leaving for school, and still remarkably practical advice today.

Age 8—"Be home before the street lights come on"—standard parental directive in the 1950s.

Age 9—"Homework first, then TV"—standard parental directive in the 1950s.

Age 10—"Never leave for tomorrow what you can do today"—Sister Ann Mary, 4th Grade teacher at St. Cecilia's.

Age 11—"Tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you what you are"—advice on selecting friends, spoken by my 5th Grade teacher, Mrs. Tobin.

Age 12—"You can hear my wife & the kids going at it all the way down at the Ferry."—comment from our neighbor across the street as he returned home from work each night.

Age 13—"In this life, believe nothing that you hear about others, and only half of what you see"—regular reminder from the Jewish mother who lived next door to us.

Age 14—"Better a broken engagement than a broken marriage"—Grandma's take on a cousin's change of plans.

Age 15—"What are you reading now?"—perennial question from a favorite aunt.

Age 16—"En boca cerrada, no entran moscas"—"In a closed mouth, flies do not enter"—daily reminder in Spanish class at St. Ignatius, also applicable in life.


Cowboys, indian and football player in the Parkside district on 38th Avenue in 1932. - Courtesy of Al Williams

Age 17—"Where do you think you're going, dressed like that?"—standard parental question that I still ask myself if I'm dressed too differently from usual.

Age 18—"You don't just marry the girl, you marry her whole family"—spoken by a neighborhood Mom after meeting the parents of her son's fiancée. (Note that this was a marvelously non-committal remark since the speaker never revealed her true feelings toward either the girl or the family.)

Age 19—"Car insurance for the year is HOW much?"—myself.

Age 20—"Finish college"—reminder from all the aunts & uncles.

Age 21—"Those who criticize our generation forget who raised it"—high school friend and classmate.

Age 22—"Life is a journey—get moving"—college professor at USF.

Age 23—"Are you finishing college THIS year?"—my own dad, repeatedly.

Age 24—Never wrestle with a skunk—nobody wins, you both end up filthy, and the only one that has a good time is the skunk"—elderly Southern co-worker.

Age 25——"Here's 25 cents. Get on the streetcar, go down to City Hall, get a job, and you'll be set for life"—college graduation advice from the elderly Irish aunt of a classmate.

Age 26—I protect myself from my enemies, may God protect me from my friends"—Italian proverb similar to "With friends like mine, who needs enemies?"—Jewish proverb, both quoted often by family friends.


Houses along 36th Avenue between Lincoln Way and Irving Street, looking north. 1940s. - Courtesy of Grace Scholz

Age 27—"Buy a house"—advice from an aunt & uncle. "Don't get tied down with a house"—advice from another aunt & uncle. (I bought the house, thank goodness.)

Age 28—"I wasn't hired to do that"—comment from co-worker, when expected to perform the functions of a much higher-paying job for which she had just been told that she was not qualified (she was immediately promoted).

Age 29—"Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself"—Chinese proverb quoted by Argentinean instructor of a college Spanish class.

Age 30—"Don't tell me what we might do to solve this problem, just DO IT, and then tell me whether or not it worked"—my favorite boss.

Age 31—"Those who live by the sword perish by it"—Belgian-born co-worker, commenting on the politics of the workplace.

Age 32—"Sometimes it's easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission"— S.I. classmate.

Age 33—"Keep your friends close and your enemies closer"—cousin (expressed far more graphically by Lyndon B. Johnson when speaking of J. Edgar Hoover).

Age 34—"The family that has no skeleton in the cupboard has buried it instead"—family friend who was from County Cork, Ireland.

Age 35—"You're HOW old now?"—birthday greeting from my 7 year old god-daughter.

Age 36—"Don't ever regret the things you did—regret the things you didn't"—old family friend's advice when I lamented some stupid things done in the past.

Age 37—"Pick life's battles carefully"—sister of a college friend.

Age 38—"Never begin a journey on a Friday"—Italian superstition, quoted by a friend's grandmother.

Age 39—"The happy spouse never strays"—words of advice spoken by an elderly Sicilian aunt to the bride and groom at a friend's wedding.

Age 40—"Don't praise the day before the evening comes"—German-born neighbor.

Age 41—"You always have to know the rules of the game. And then you have to play it better than anyone else."—Dianne Feinstein.

Age 42—"If you offer advice to people who ask, and then they don't listen, let adversity be their next teacher."—Ethiopian-born friend & co-worker, quoting her parents.

Age 43—"Good St. Anthony, come around, something is lost that must be found"—Irish prayer when something has been misplaced. (I've known of this belief since childhood, but had never heard the rhyme before this.)

Age 44—"Forget the favors you have given, but remember those received"—Hong Kong-born co-worker quoting her grandmother.

Age 45—"Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me"—my boss, commenting on behavior of others in the company.

Age 47—"You and I are fine, but we both have some pretty odd relatives"—regular assessment from an elderly female cousin that I met for the first time in 1998.

Age 48—"It's when in need that one recognizes friends"—French-born neighbor.

Age 49—"The sands in the hourglass are shifting faster now—it's a sandstorm!"—classmate of mine, as we sailed right past our 49th birthdays.

Age 50—"You run into a withered old codger on the street, start a conversation, and suddenly realize that he was one year ahead of you in school"—author Bill Geist.

Age 51—"Every New Year's Eve, relax, and let the troubles of the past year go"— advice regularly dispensed by Mom's closest friend.

Age 52—"It's not the cards that end up in your hand, but how you play them that is so important"—cousin's wife, quoting her parents.

Age 53—"Living well is the best revenge against your enemies"—USF classmate.

Age 54—"The veil that hides our view of the future is woven by the hand of mercy"—elderly cousin.

Age 55—"The one who laughs, lasts."—Advice contained in the final Christmas card received from a 100-year-old nun who was a long-time family friend.

Age 56—"An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind"—Gandhi, quoted by a cousin.

Age 57—"Very few people are just plain rotten"—88-year old retired nurse/neighbor.

Age 58—"Don't ask the question if you don't want to hear the answer."—co-worker.


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Page launched 10 May 2010.

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