Golden Gate Bridge turns 72 and I think about my San Francisco connection…

May 28, 2009

Saw that the Golden Gate Bridge is 72 years old this week while I was surfing the web. And that made me think about my connection to San Francisco, the city for which that often fog-shrouded structure is such an icon.

My connection is that I was born there. But I was not raised there. I think I was not quite four years old when my family moved away, and yet I seem to have so many childhood memories of the place.

We lived in the Sunset District which was for so long virtually nothing but sand dunes stretching back from the Pacific Ocean to the west of hills that stood between it and downtown San Francisco. But I believe after World War II it was essentially built out – a few sand dunes remained in a few empty lots when we left there in the early 1950s and maybe a few years after that.

But my memories are both vivid and surreal. I spent a lot of time with my mother because my next older brother and my sister were at school and my dad was either at work downtown at his job for the Associated Press or later taking photographs of houses for the multiple listing real estate service.

Sometimes mom and I would go along with him. As small as I was, I recall that he let me use part of an old Speed Graphic camera (the old bulky press camera you see in the movies) to pretend that I was taking pictures too. He’d set up his tri-pod and his camera and I’d stand right along beside him with my partial camera. I have one of those almost surreal type images in my mind. We are both standing on a traffic island and making a photo of one of those multi-story San Francisco-style row houses.

I remember going up and down those hills. Dad bought a brand new ‘53 Studebaker, and those hills rather quickly wore out its clutch (and anyone who recalls driving a car with a clutch also recalls that little working the clutch pedal and gas pedal together routine while stopped at the top of a hill to keep from rolling back but at the same time being ready to move forward).

Sometimes we would see a fruit and vegetable peddler truck, a kind of flat bed affair with its produce and scales hanging from the back. We’d stop and mom with buy bananas for us to eat.

I also recall the whole family going to Fisherman’s Wharf. But back then it was just a wharf, although certainly a picturesque one with its little multi-colored fishing boats and steaming pots of crabs. It was not until years later that it became row upon row of T-shirt shops and the Wax Museum and a kind of glitzy carnival. I liked the old Fisherman’s Wharf better.

And Playland at-the-Beach was not far from our house. It was an amusement park with one of those giant old roller coasters and a diving bell and a high speed merry-go-round, and a laughing caricature of a woman – Laughin’ Sal – who never did stop laughing, that is until they finally closed the place down for good in 1972, by which time it had disintegrated into kind of a trash heap, I understand. I was too young and never went on the roller coaster and never went under water in that diving bell. But I recall watching the green-colored diving bell go under water, stay there for some time, and then come splashing back up to the surface and then immediately submerge again and then come right back up. Never did know why they did it that way. I did go on that fast-paced merry-go-round at least once. Knowing me, it probably scared me, but I don’t recall.

But talk about being scared, I do recall really being terrified when my brother and sister took me to a little hole-in-the wall movie theater, I think called the Surf, on Judah Street, not far from the ocean. We watched that early 1950s black and white classic, “Creature From the Black Lagoon”. I got so scared and bawled so much they had to take me home. I should not have mentioned that, because they have most likely either forgiven me or hopefully forgot it by now.

And that 72-year-old beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. I’m sure we must have gone to it or over it when I was a very little kid. I seemed to know what it was even then. I recall my oldest brother, who was a sailor in the U.S. Navy stationed at the time at nearby Mare Island, visiting us. I asked him how he got on his submarine and he said they dropped a rope ladder down from the bridge. I remember as a kid picturing that in my mind’s eye.

And another surreal memory. Sometimes we drove out to Mare Island to pick him up, but one time I guess he came to town on a bus. I recall riding in the family car, and I have images of a dark early morning or late night with the only illumination being the street lights and the sight of glistening pavement and a kind of ground fog and a sailor wearing his sailor white cap and sailor blues standing on the corner.

And so many memories from both when I lived there and later when the family returned for visits during which we often seemed to go to not only the more conventional touristy places, but other strange places as well. Those memories include: Maiden Lane, a little alley off of Market Street where you entered shops seemingly from their back doors; an elementary school on the Twin Peaks where they were giving a ceramics demonstration; the old and practically rundown, but quite colorful, Gates Hotel where we often stayed (street noise to include sirens all night long – the city never seems to sleep); a little Chinese restaurant in a basement on a corner; a cafeteria downtown where all the working folks ate; a van Gogh art exhibit at the de Young Museum; the Aquarium in Golden Gate Park, which by the way used to have free admission; a corner grocery with its bushel baskets out front – on any number of street corners (not a 7-11); walking past the nondescript Hungry i nightclub where Mort Sahl used to perform with a newspaper under his arm doing jokes on current events and political satire, way, way before that became so universally cool; going to a theater out on Geary Street to see the movie “Around the World in Eighty Days” , starring David Niven; traveling up and down streets and then recognizing them later in scenes in the Hitchcock movie “Vertigo” or in an old cop show that predated the “Streets of San Francisco”, called “Lineup”; a plain clothes policeman and neighbor my folks swore was the model for one the Lineup cops bringing us a pail full of little smelt fish he caught from the beach; my next older brother and sister playing with one of those iconic 1950s Mr. Potato Head toys; watching a horse-mounted cop at Golden Gate Park; having a wrangler tell me to watch out because I was standing in front of a corral in an empty sand lot – he opened a door to a stable and he drove a herd of horses across the street into the corral (and this was on a street with row houses, except for that empty lot and that stable). And here’s still another one: we used to ride on the crowded half open-air cable cars, with many riders standing while hanging out from the side of the car, tightly gripping one hand on a pole. Back then it was more like a regular, if colorful, mode of transportation, and we actually paid for it while riding as the conductor came around and he’d actually make change (and how did he keep track of who paid and who didn’t in that mob?). Today I believe most tourists buy a ticket at a kiosk and it’s more like an amusement ride. I still advise taking the ride, though.

Instead of the cool coastal climate and hills of San Francisco, I grew up in the hot and flat lands of the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys of California’s interior. But I retained that special connection with one the most fabled and beautiful cities of the world.

Once many years ago I had to get a certified copy of my birth certificate. I went to San Francisco and stood in line in a hallway with a bunch of strangers. But we all had a special connection and distinction. We were born in San Francisco.


The late columnist Herb Caen did a good job both describing Playland and lamenting its demise: