Thursday, June 18, 2009

North 17th Street, Richmond

For family mailing Xmas of 1946
In North Richmond, this subdivision was laid out basically on a grid. This picture was taken in time to make 5" X 7" prints for all the aunts and uncles and send them in lieu of Christmas cards. The camera was Daddy's Speed Graphic (the newsman's camera, too, of the day). I wish that the pictures he took at Girl Scout camp, for the local G.S. council, survived. My sister Lorna reports that at this address she, in turn, was taught how to work in the darkroom. I know that we lived here for something more than a year, at any rate including two Christmases. It is not that the second one was festive, but I know I completed Grade 8 at Longfellow JHS, now with a bus pass on AC Transit (I think by now the name was no longer Key System), though I don't remember whether semesters ended before Christmas or late in January. I remember trying to raise vegetables in the back yard and as usual doing well with radishes, less well with carrots and squash. I remember our next-door neighbors, Shirley and Leo Koch and their little girl (I was again their baby-sitter). He was a graduate student in life sciences at Berkeley. They raised rabbits for meat and to sell their pelts, and Leo let me watch the correct method of killing, gutting, and skinning them. This tract, with block after block of close-set houses, was ready-made for selling Girl Scout cookies and in the autumn for Halloween Trick-or-Treat. We never played tricks, unless you count something like writing BOO! on the sidewalk with white chalk, but Daddy regaled us with tales of rural stunts from his boyhood, such as lifting outhouses off their meager foundations, leaving the 'throne' standing for the world to see, and (reportedly) putting one of them on the church steeple. This was thrilling, daring, to think of, but may have been folklore. Perfectly real was what people did for Trick-or-Treat (making caramel popcorn balls, serving hot apple cider, passing out pomegranates and oranges, homemade cookies, Tootsie Rolls and Bit o' Honey bars galore, etc.), and what we brought home. I took the younger ones but was not above taking treats myself; each of us had a large brown-paper shopping bag, the kind with a string handle built in (remember: the plastic bag had not been introduced yet), and we returned after a couple of hours with our bags full. We were allowed to eat it all, and it took a week before we tossed out the last crumbs and bits of popcorn. I do not remember getting sick. It never occurred to anyone that any adult in our working-class subdivision would even think of giving children something harmful. The 'widow's mite' of Treats was popcorn, but only the elderly did not answer the door. Yes, of course, we had Halloween parties at school and/or at church as well, but to range freely in homemade costumes over many blocks of strangers' houses, starting at dusk, was glorious fun. Very small children, of course, were followed by a parent but at least allowed to ring or knock for themselves. This is NOT folklore. I can still recall the mixed odors of all that comestible stuff in our bags.
During our tenure of N. 17th, the Kochs moved to University housing in the south part of Richmond, former military families' housing, nothing fancy but well subsidized and maintained. I missed them. Once they invited me to come visit them for the day, and Leo showed me volume after volume of botanical specimens pressed for preservation. Years later, in my early years of teaching, the AAUP Bulletin, Committee A, reported his difficulties with the University of Illinois (the University was put on the Censured list). I never saw the Kochs again, and they must be aged now, being half a generation older than I am, but I remember them warmly. They were the first academics that I knew. And they were Liberal, more so than I ever dared to be.
North 17th Street and Longfellow JHS were not high culture, but all might have continued well enough, since my father by now (I'm almost sure) was at Swan's 10th Street Market, but for two facts: the occurrence of AFL-CIO strikes that affected my father, though he was not a Retail Clerk and did not work at Safeway, and my mother's descent into prescription-drug dependency. No family can live on strike pay, and no working man's pay can support serious barbiturate and opiate dependency. When anyone decries food stamps, for example, I think of my father and of ourselves. I record these facts without discussion, because I think that there are few people who need to be told about these helpless descents. As an eldest child, with books and watercolors and some Strathmore paper still, I was spoiled in some ways and also perhaps damaged by a hardening that came with assuming premature responsibilities. But sometimes there was nothing to eat: we called flour-and-water without leavening 'googobs'. Occasionally the power was cut. One was helpless.
(I don't know if this link is helpful, but it is surprisingly hard to find links for a particular year: http://sonic.net/~figgins/generalstrike/northamerica/unitedstates/oakland1946.html )
I still had my black-and-white cat, Comet, though when we left this address he was abandoned. My sister and I still had the doll cradles, too, that we'd had since our pre-school years. My sister got a puppy, hardly weaned, that we fed milk and pablum at first. She was half Shetland sheepdog, like a miniature collie. We put her in one of the cradles with blankets that first night, and the next morning we found my tom cat, Comet, curled up around her. The puppy was named Viffy, in honor of the first Viffy, and Lorna kept her for about five years: there is a Brownie snapshot of me with her taken, perhaps, late in 1951 or in 1952 on Kains Avenue. The chronological link of Comet and Viffy II helps to limit the possible sequence of our addresses during a period that frequent moves made seem longer in memory than it really was. Lorna and I were in one year in so many schools in the same grade that we cannot even remember most of the teachers, let alone our classmates. In this I was the more fortunate, since I stayed at Longfellow JHS while we lived at both Gaynor and N. 17th Street. The only other, even more solid, date peg is my being allowed to attend Alameda High School in the early part of the low 9th grade, having barely begun grade 9 at Longfellow. See the next.
It is not that where we lived was so important as that it is an Odyssey of sorts that many families have experienced.