Growing Up In Noe Valley in the 50s
Noe Valley. I lived there once, on the hill, on the street that cleaves Twin Peaks, in a house with a window that pictured the world — San Francisco Bay, the neon Dutch Boy sign with the child mechanically waving a paint brush, cargo ships resting like driftwood, waiting to dock.
The city’s roar and diesel fumes swirled through my grandmother’s open front window on winds whipped off the ocean. We watched TV, black and white Crusader Rabbit cartoons, played on ratty oriental carpets, broke the faux Chippendale furniture, ignored the framed French landscape prints from Sears, and relied on the house’s skylights to illuminate the gloom. When someone asks “where are you from,” images of growing up in the 1950s in Noe Valley rush in before I answer, then I tell them the truth in those two words, words that once named my universe.
In that Irish enclave where my family had lived for several generations, my Great Aunt Eva lay dying of old age and widow’s despair in the back bedroom. My father, his bony body spent, curled up drunk on the bedstead in the basement. Next door, Mr. Anderson, the neighborhood bachelor, pruned shrubs in his front garden. He had a hot house in the back, propagated cuttings from the nursery in Golden Gate Park where he worked as a gardener. He shared the strongest ones with my grandmother. He called the four of us kids “the weeds.”
Our side of the hothouse — a fence divided our yards and the structure, but the long narrow hothouse was there first — served as a playroom. We invited the neighbor kids back there and ran through the flower beds and Grandma’s thoughtful plantings: calla lilies, coral bells, primroses and iris in spring. We climbed on the playhouse roof, careful not to get pricked by the climbing Cecile Brunner rose that provided pink bouquets for our yellow tea table. Mr. Anderson, his watery blue eye trained on us through a crack in the boards, knocked on the wood when we said bad words or socked each other.
My first crush, Michael Esterbrook, came over from across the street in his coonskin cap. We played saloon, Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone. I’d be Miss Kitty from “Gun Smoke” and try to trick him into a kiss, but my brothers were always there, lifting butterfly cocoons from the Shasta daisies or prying quartz rocks from the birdbath to use as ammo, distracting the flirtations. I put white iris in my hair, sucked nectar from the nasturtiums flower tubes, occasionally taking in a bitter black ant. Michael never kissed me. But, I kissed my pretty dolls as I lay them in their tole-painted toy beds.
Sometimes my grandmother called us in from the back window and we’d trudge with her, all four of us kids, down to the grocery store at 24th and Castro. She’d buy lamb chops at the butcher shop, chat with the neighbors. We’d ogle the pig’s head in the shop window, peek around the paper 3-D glasses to study it’s milky eyes, get free slices of baloney from the butcher, wait for the 11 Hoffman bus to carry us back up the hill with our sacks of food. But, back to where I’m from.
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