Even as a kid in the 1950’s, I knew to never call San Francisco, “Frisco.” That is what unknowing tourists from Iowa and Arkansas did thinking they were cool, the same naive souls who visited San Francisco in August in shorts and froze, forcing them to buy sweatshirts in the overpriced tourist traps at Fisherman’s Wharf.
We lived in the middle class, Richmond district, adjacent to Golden Gate Park, a mile from the frigid Pacific Ocean and Ocean Beach. Many immigrants, like my parents, were attracted to the reasonable prices and after World War II, with the help of GI loans, bought homes. Successive waves of immigration has kept it a culturally diverse area, though home prices there and all over the city are out of sight, never seriously affected by the recession as other areas in California.
There are distinct microclimates across the city, influenced by proximity to the ocean, San Francisco Bay, and hills and mountains like Twin Peaks or Mt. Davidson. Living close to the Pacific, on many mornings gray soupy fog rolled in sticking until the afternoon. However “downtown,” where my father worked in the financial district, a half hour drive from our home, warm sun drenched the office buildings from the morning on while we would still be immersed in the thick fog.
“Going downtown” as a kid meant “dressing up” in a dress or skirt, never pants, and donning white cotton gloves while my mother put on a hat. San Francisco had a formality in those years and the sophistication of an international city. My father wore a suit, long sleeved shirt, tie and dapper hat to work every day. We took the #5 Fulton bus or a streetcar because our mother did not drive when we were young. Shopping for school clothes “downtown” was part of our getting-ready-for-school ritual. Our first stop was the venerable shoe store Sommer and Kaufman on Market St, in business since the 1900’s, to get two-tone saddle shoes which stayed in the box until the first day of school. The store had huge wooden sliding horses, and we had to stick our feet in mysterious machines to help the shoe salesman decide on the correct fit based on our bone structure. We didn’t realize at the time these machines emitted radiation which was not very safe.
Then we crossed Market St. to get school outfits at the Emporium, a moderately-priced department store and decades-old San Francisco institution. Our school wardrobe in the 1950’s was plaid dresses, skirts and sweaters or corduroy jumpers and blouses. The highlight for us kids, who did not get to go out to restaurants very often, was lunch, a tuna sandwich on toast, at the Emporium’s cafeteria. After lunch we trekked up to Geary Street for more shopping and ended the afternoon splurging on sundaes at Blum’s while my mother had their signature coffee crunch cake, a layered confection with whip cream and crunchy shards of coffee crunch candy. She had a serious sweet tooth!
We lived ten minutes from Golden Gate Park with its towering eucalyptus, oak and pine trees, man-made lakes, rolling meadows and glades and vibrant flower beds that changed with the seasons. Spring was my favorite, the rhododendron bushes standing out in rich shades of fuchsia and magenta, and wispy pink cherry blossoms adorning the Japanese Tea Garden. We loved spending a Sunday afternoon climbing the lacquered wood bridges, exploring the meandering paths and sitting down for almond and fortune cookies and green tea poured into delicate cups by kimono-clad hostesses. Some Sundays we rented barely-moving motorboats at Stow Lake.
My high school, situated on a steep hill, had a breathtaking view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the football stadium. The view of the red-orange spans and graceful cables changed depending on whether the bridge sparkled under crystal skies or was shrouded by fog. When you eat lunch in the stadium five days a week for three years, ho-hum, you stop noticing the sight that draws picture-snapping visitors from all over the world.
On the few warm days, we had picnics at Ocean Beach wading in the cold Pacific, but were never able to swim because of the dangerous undertow. Salty ocean breezes mixed sand into our lunch, which was part of the ambience of a beach picnic! Playland at the Beach had fun rides like the bumper cars, a funky diving bell that made an “underwater” plunge, a respectably daring roller coaster and an old-fashioned carousel with “up and down” horses. The Fun House, where we’d be greeted by the oversized bobbing figure, the iconic Laughing ‘Sal, was located at the beach as well. There we enjoyed arcade games, huge distorting mirrors and indoor slides. At the beachside stands we pestered our parents until they bought us a treat, just one- either sticky pink cotton candy, red candied apples or It’s It ice cream, wedges of vanilla ice cream sandwiched between chocolate covered oatmeal cookies.
San Francisco’s historic 1906 earthquake was a major influence in the development of the city. Small tremblers can occur several times a year, and you learn to recognize the telltale signs of a quake: the kitchen table shifts, the buffet in the dining room rattles and the house creaks. In the initial panicky moments, we always held our breaths waiting to see if this was a “big one.” There was one major quake when I was in grammar school, and I knew it was serious when my dad came home early from work and picked us up from school himself, which he never did. My sister and I played “earthquake” for months and had our own drills getting under tables as we practiced in school.
We were not New York City but our city exposed us to a wealth of cultural riches: the de Young Museum with its treasure trove of Asian art, the Legion of Honor with its Renaissance masterpieces, and San Francisco’s Symphony, Opera, Ballet, the American Conservatory Theater, and musical theater at the Curran and Geary. We went on Sunday outings to the San Francisco Zoo, or the Academy of Sciences with the Steinhart Aquarium, Morrison Planetarium and Natural History Museum. We saw sleepy live crocodiles, exotic tropical fish, and stuffed buffaloes and antelopes in displays depicting their natural environment.
And we were spoiled in other ways. Ghiradelli chocolate has been around since gold rush days. Ghiradelli Square, the site of the original chocolate factory, now has boutiques and restaurants and the Ghiradelli ice cream parlor where people line up outside waiting for the signature sundaes and banana splits.
Another San Francisco original we loved was the traditional sourdough French bread with its thick crust, slight tang and chewy texture which was served at restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf or available for purchase at stands on the wharf. The unique taste of the French bread originates in the “starter.” The French bakery, Boudin’s has been around since 1849 and credits the wild yeasts in the San Francisco air to have given the unique tang to their starter. Today, the Boudin family's initial recipe is still produced and they claim that a portion of the original “mother dough” still starts their sourdough loaves.
These days San Francisco is filled with an abundance of world class restaurants to satisfy any palate but there are also loads of places to go for tasty, inexpensive chow like pizza, sushi, and burritos. The latest hot trend, fabulous traveling food trucks, are popping up at lunchtime all over the city offering gourmet eats: Chinese buns with fillings, fusion Pan-Asian, Korean-Mexican food, falafel bars, fish and chips, clam chowder, and fancy cupcakes.
Graduating from high school in the late 1960’s, I experienced the Haight-Ashbury, a mecca for long-haired, free-spirited youth from all over the world. I’d go there with friends to walk through the packed streets lined with stands selling hand-made earrings, used records, love beads and feathered headbands. Incense filled the air and impromptu performances by drummers or guitar players entertained the milling crowds. There were rock concerts at the Fillmore auditorium with groups like the Jefferson Airplane. The Grateful Dead performed in Golden Gate Park near my house and we hung out our window watching the “parade” of flower children walking by heading to the concert in the park.
Though I only live in the East Bay, across the Bay Bridge in Oakland, I still enjoy playing “tourist,” riding a cable car, strolling through Chinatown, sampling food at the Ferry Building’s Farmer’s Market and shopping at the Westfield Mall, which has replaced the Emporium. When I see the lights of San Francisco twinkling from across the bay where I live, I revel in the view and the warm memories of the San Francisco of my childhood.
published 12 May 2012