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Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

Streetwise - A Chip Off the Old Block

by Frank Dunnigan
April 2009

My folks have been gone for quite a while now, but a few times a year, I call or pay a visit to one of the last remaining neighbors who was a parent on the street where I grew up in the Parkside, and we both sit back and remember when...

There were dozens of pre-schoolers living on that stretch of 18th Avenue in 1955—everyone called it "The Block." Most of us were born in the early 1950s, and spent our early years growing up together. We were about evenly divided between girls and boys, though when older and younger siblings were counted, the balance tipped a bit in favor of the girls. We truly grew up as one big extended family, living in houses with essentially the same layouts, featuring Spanish/Moorish archways and tile roofs, and presided over by stay-at-home Moms, while the Dads were away at work all day. Our parents were all friends with one another, with some of the Dads having been classmates at St. Ignatius High School on Stanyan Street, and several of the Moms having graduated from the old St. Peter's Academy in the Mission District, generations before it closed in 1966.

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Chatting with one of my contemporaries awhile back, I was amazed that she could so clearly recall the layout and the furnishings in my parents' home, even recalling a couple of details that I had almost forgotten. Then again, I had a fairly good recall of her parents' place—how the furniture was arranged, the color of the bathroom tiles, where the toys were kept, plus the location and usual contents of her family's kitchen cookie jar. We both recalled that we were in and out of each other's homes almost daily in those early preschool years, without anyone ever having to arrange "play dates" or enlisting others to "babysit". The only question ever asked by any of the Moms whose homes were being visited was, "Does your mother know that you're here?" Once answered in the affirmative, everyone was satisfied that we could amuse ourselves harmlessly until it was time to go back to our own homes later in the day.

Countless early mornings back then found a group of 5-year-olds sitting on the living room floor of one family's house, in front of the standard black-and-white television set of that era, surrounded by friends, all slurping bowls of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes in unison, while following the adventures of Captain Kangaroo and his side-kicks, Mr. Green Jeans, Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, Grandfather Clock, and Magic Drawing Board. Cold cereal and milk was the standard weekday breakfast in those years, and even now, I'm surprised when people recoil in horror at the thought of feeding children a processed food that is loaded with sugar. Even those kids whose mothers fed them the aptly named and nutritionally deficient "Sugar Pops" have grown up to be healthy and productive citizens, with no apparent problems. It's amazing the things that we all survived.

Practically everyone had a younger sibling during those years, and the little ones were routinely relegated to the playpen—another issue that seems to cause anguish for many in this new era. Again, playpens allowed those toddlers free rein to explore their new worlds, without causing any serious damage to themselves or to others. In addition, several of those younger ones with more, ahem, "outgoing" personalities were thus appropriately restrained so that they were actually able to achieve adolescence and adulthood unscathed by older siblings who might have caused them serious harm had they ventured too far outside the confines of those playpens.

If we were still visiting and playing with our friends when lunchtime came, we were automatically fed, and no one needed a signed permission slip. In fact, it was these impromptu meals that opened up whole new culinary worlds for many of us—breakfast with the Captain having been pretty standard fare. Always trying to become more worldly and sophisticated, most of us would politely eat anything placed in front of us at a neighbor's house, rather than go through our standard reaction of "EEYEW—what's that?" that we might have voiced in the inner sanctum of our own kitchens. The first place I truly enjoyed mustard was on a baloney sandwich at a neighbor's house—now I'm an aficionado with at least half a dozen varieties lined up in my refrigerator door. It was also with my neighbors that I learned for the first time that soup does not always begin with the opening of a can, tuna sandwiches are not necessarily limited to just three basic ingredients—tuna, mayonnaise, bread—and Jell-O really does come in flavors other than RED. I was gradually introduced to a world that embraced onion, garlic, and spices, and all of these revelations eventually progressed to my discovery of lox, bagels, and cream cheese when I was about 11 or 12, plus baklava, haroset, pigs' feet, mole poblano, and sushi in later years. It takes outsiders to make kids realize that there is a whole world beyond meat and potatoes.

We were on a first-name basis with each other's pets, as well as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. I still remember Tiger, Junior, Red, Hercules, Henry Heinrich, Blackie, Bingo, Freckles, Chi-Chi, and Mollie—those were the pets, not the relatives. The family members—Big, Little, Pop, Jackson, Mag, Nana, Uncle Sam, Uncle Moe, Auntie Roe, Auntie Marg, Auntie Mildred, Uncle Elmer, Uncle Tom, and others—knew all of us just as well as they knew their own relations.

Playing hide-and-seek and other street games (ignoring the fact that there was a large open schoolyard and a city park just one block away), there was only one basic parental rule, and that was, "Be home when the street lights come on." Ours was a hilly block and parents were always concerned about the terrain contributing to accidents involving bikes, skates, flexi-flyers, and the skateboards that came later. However, other than an occasional mishap involving little more than skinned knees, we all survived to tell our stories in the 21st Century.

In those preschool days, the Moms had a safety valve for themselves when we were all indoors and underfoot for too many days in a row. One quick round of phone calls among their group, and we would all be hastily assembled onto someone's front lawn and/or garage entryway for an impromptu picnic lunch. Even in the damp, foggy summer months, bundled up against the chill, we were able to release excess energy by playing ball with one another and racing through the empty garage area, without "catching cold." Among the "Mom-isms" that I remember from those front-lawn picnic days are: 1) No drinking milk and Coca-Cola at the same meal, or you'll throw up; 2) No popcorn before nap time or you'll throw up; 3) No fresh fruit with lunch if we're having something from Johnson's Tamales for dinner, or you'll throw up.

We suffered through most of our childhood illnesses together, and I distinctly remember either getting or infecting several of my neighbors with chicken pox in 1957, as our parents urged us to pass around our Dixie cups one day when a large group was playing together in our living room. We were all out of commission for a week or two at the same time, and I guess that turned out to be a good thing, since we weren't trying to get out and see one another.

Eventually, most of us ended up in kindergarten at Parkside School, either with Mrs. Beckerman in Room 17 or Mrs. McAtee in Room 16. I still have a group shot in front of our living room fireplace of all of us who started school together that same day in the Fall of 1957. We were a carefree bunch, all swinging our new lunch boxes (mine was a yellow Lone Ranger model), containing sandwiches slathered with either butter or mayonnaise, and wrapped in waxed paper (no one ever got sick eating them, even after they sat for hours, un-refrigerated, in the cloakroom). A thermos of milk, plus some cookies and some cut-up fruit rounded out the daily ration.

Hula hoops and pogo sticks, battery-operated robots, tricycles, bicycles and board games kept all of us amused day in and day out, year after year, regardless of the weather. One member of our group was fortunate enough to have her own sandbox in the back yard, another lived in a house whose downstairs room contained an old, semi-burned piano from 1906 that still played reasonably well, and one family even had a pinball machine tucked away in a corner of the garage next to their furnace. Those of us who later became interested in electric trains would always be working on them and occasionally displaying our train-and-town layouts to the others.

Hillary Clinton said that "It Takes A Village," but our parents created that motto well over half-a-century ago, as all of the neighbors had been persuaded to keep a watchful collective eye on every one of us. If anyone did anything wrong while playing or going to and from school, an invisible network of concerned adults, including the many childless, older, single folks living among us, would become aware of it instantly, and be on the phone a minute later, reporting the details to our mothers.

Holiday lights on 18th Avenue, December 21, 1951. This was the way the street looked for many years in December: every front window outlined with lights, cars driving up & down, and numerous parties taking place inside every single house., 1951 -

Christmas on "The Block" was something special. From the time most of the houses were built, circa 1936, the owners always grouped together to put on a fabulous display of outside holiday lighting. Each house had a custom-made wood frame that held the lights, and most families maintained the same color scheme year after year—red/green, all clear, multi-color, all red, all green—even our Jewish neighbors joined in with a Star of David frame, lit with blue and white lights. Santa would arrive by fire engine from the fire house located just a few blocks up 18th Avenue, near Rivera. Sitting on his "throne" in the garage entryway of the "Mayor and First Lady" of the block (an honor rotated among residents on a yearly basis), Santa would dispense candy canes and listen to wish lists. It was a block-wide celebration of goodwill and hospitality, to which many people invited their friends and relatives; my aunts and uncles and many of our first, second, and third cousins would all be there, and Grandma would sometimes take us out to dinner at the Hot House at Playland beforehand. Every family hosted an open house that night with vast quantities of Chex Mix, Lipton's Onion Dip, Christmas cookies, and a good bit of liquid cheer for all—a wonderful tradition that lived on until the late 1960s.

By 1958, most of us made the move from Parkside School to St. Cecilia's (those who weren't Catholic remained at Parkside and later moved on to Hoover Middle School). Particularly at St. Cecilia's, going to school was one big extension of 18th Avenue—older siblings, cousins who lived nearby, other children whose parents were friends with our parents—we got to know them and their own personal friends, and our social circles began to widen considerably. Going from Parkside's Kindergarten classes of fifteen or twenty to the fifty-plus pupils in each of St. Cecilia's classrooms was a huge change. Friendships were made, secrets exchanged, and alliances forged, but those that we knew from "The Block" still had a special cachet that set them apart from all our new friends.

900 block of Taraval Street, looking east. Parkside Theatre and L-Taraval MUNI streetcar #1003. -

As grammar school wore on many of us still played together—often congregating at the old Parkside Theater on Taraval Street for summer matinees—a ten-week subscription of thin, perforated yellow tickets was only $1.00. It was probably about the same time, 1962-1963, that many of us also developed an interest in coin collecting. Armed with fifty cents each, our group would wander up and down Taraval or West Portal Avenue, from one bank to the next, every Friday afternoon, and ask the teller for "one roll of pennies, please"—this was at a time when banks stayed open past 3:00 p.m. only on Fridays. Then, sitting outside the building, we would go through the coins carefully to see if there were any with the necessary dates and mint marks to fill up those blue Whitman coin albums that we had purchased at Toy Village. There were a dozen or so banks and savings & loans that were on our regular path, and we'd regularly share our finds with one another before adding in a few replacement coins, and re-rolling the remainder with our supply of coin wrappers, ready to approach the next institution for another try.

The eight years of grammar school were over in the flash of an eye, and we were soon off to St. Ignatius, Riordan, Mercy, Star of the Sea, or St. Rose (or Lincoln or Lowell). We didn't see as much of each other as we formed even more new social connections among our high school classmates, but eventually one of our new friends would turn up with someone who had some sort of an association with a member of our original group. It was amazing to see all the interwoven connections. Several of my S.I. classmates dated girls who had an 18th Avenue connection. One S.I. student began dating my third cousin circa 1969, when they played a pair of bumble bees together in a school play (they now have four adult children who are in their 20s and 30s); another friend who sat next to me on Stanyan Street in Father Jacobs' algebra class began dating one of our original preschool group about that same time (resulting in yet another happy thirty-plus year marriage and many children); the girl who sat in front of me in fourth grade later married one of my Bank of America coworkers (thirty-five-plus years of marriage and several grandchildren); and three months after high school graduation, another S.I. classmate married a girl from the neighborhood who was not my cousin, but who shared the very same aunt and uncle with my mom (you need to be a trained genealogist to understand this point!). In those days Irish-Catholic San Francisco was a populous but very small place.

Cars quickly became a big part of our lives, and many of us found ourselves zipping around in VW Beetles, Karmann Ghias, or the occasional Chevy Vega. Things were changing slowly but surely in the Outside Lands, and neighborhood parking soon became a real issue that has remained troublesome to this day.

Eventually, it was off to college for most of us—USF, Santa Clara, Loyola, UC-Davis, UC-Riverside, College of San Mateo, SF State, and others, most of us remaining within an hour's travel, by either car or plane. Sadly, however, for the most part, we were beginning to lose regular contact with each other save for an occasional update about someone's new job, new car, or new major that was routed to each of us through the Mom network.

After college was over, we were out into the working world. We mostly managed to keep track of each other's weddings, whether we were able to attend or not. Working in downtown San Francisco, as I did, resulted in a series of fortuitous bump-intos during the course of the average work week in the mid-to-late 1970s. It was always a hasty catch-up—mostly trying to keep track of the general geographic area where all of us were settling, almost always outside of San Francisco. I was one of the few who bought a house and remained living in the Sunset, a few avenues away, but near "The Block" until the end of the 1990s. Again, the Mom network kept us up on who was having babies in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, but the contacts among all of us remained few and far between in many cases, as our lives grew more complex.

By the mid-1990s, a few of us began corresponding via that hallowed tradition (loved by some, despised by others) of the annual Christmas letter. By the late 1990s, we were mostly online, and in contact electronically. Email and online class directories became even more commonplace in the new millennium, and most of us were then able to stay current on each other's goings on, including the arrival of the first grandchildren while some of us were still having or just starting to have children of our own. Face it, there is going to be a huge mix of older parents and younger grandparents at children's school events in the future!

Sadly, funerals have become our standard meeting place recently. First, it was the Dads who were departing the scene, and then in more recent years, one-by-one, nearly all of the Moms have taken their leave of us, generally at far more advanced ages than the Dads were ever able to achieve. It came as a shock in the past year to learn that several of us have already lost a sibling, and in one case, even a spouse—well before reaching the age of 60. Even though most of us have managed to survive reasonably intact following the rigors of child-bearing, child-rearing, and other adult adventures, including the occasional divorce, we all know friends our own age who have had to deal with pacemakers, new titanium hip joints, and/or life-threatening health conditions. It's strange to think that that we used to pop body parts on and off Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head with unabashed glee, and now some young surgeons are eyeing up each one of us in exactly the same way.

We still recognize one another when we meet in spite of changes involving baldness and gray hair on most of us—or some surprisingly stylish blonde hair on a couple of the girls—plus glasses, wrinkles, and weight gain. As we sit and talk and reminisce, there's that tiny little chip of the past nestled deep within us. We chat on and on, recalling distant adventures that we've shared, including triumphs, tragedies, and some of life's extraordinarily sad moments. We all know instinctively that whatever happens, we are still here for one another, still holding on to a bit of our collective youth, and still able to remember when life was so good to all of us and to our families on a tiny little spot of land that we called "The Block" on the western edge of San Francisco.

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Page launched 29 April 2009.

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