Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Oakland, CA 1949-1950

Interstate 580 has radically changed MacArthur Blvd.; I walked to school along MacArthur to Park Blvd. On a fairly recent visit, once a few blocks east of Lake Merritt, I can find few landmarks. The woodsy park around Highland Hospital, the Alameda County Hospital, seems, like the older building itself, to be gone, or perhaps I see some of it on the satellite view. This whole area is low, rolling hills. Block by block, the neighborhoods seem to have been unzoned and unplanned. The house opposite ours was really poor looking, and one night the Oakland police answered to a call: woman shot (not fatally) by husband. Though the Oakland police of that time were not admired, they were by no means so busy as they became later. Our block of 25th, anyway, was not all bad; next door was a Portuguese man who raised beautiful canaries and outlined his garden plots with abalone shells. The reason we heard sirens so frequently was proximity to Highland Hospital. Most of the Emergency came in there. I liked to go shopping, window shopping mostly, on 14th Avenue, also part of my route to school; I think that the music store I found was there rather than on Park Blvd. (Even the numbered streets and blvds. had to accommodate the hills, remnants of ancient earthquakes, I guess, and Oakland is a place where it really matters to know whether one's address is a 'street' of an 'avenue/blvd'). On counters the current 10" hits lay in their brown-paper sleeves in boxes that held a dozen; farther back the lady who owned the store at her counter served those, even teenagers, who wanted red-seal singles for solos, arias or Horowitz or Menhuin, for example. The albums of longer works, with their covers signed often by one Steinweiss, were displayed on wall racks. After babysitting, I could stop to buy young Robert Merrill or a Jussi Bjoerling, for example, or something sung by Beniamino Gigli, whose films were run at the Elmwood Theater (see below). The previous Christmas I had been given (in two albums, 26 sides of 12" shellac) the complete La Bohème, with Gigli and Albanese of 1936. The 1929 Electrola's phonograph with its 8 ounce pick-up was hard on the disks; later, almost in reverence for such a gift, I bought it anew on LP, since, in any case, young Albanese was an excellent Mimi.
The first Christmas on E. 25th, 1949, turntables with pickups that tracked at only about 6 or 8 grams (but very rigid, so still punishing) became available, and I got one. The old Electrola had to be adapted, to boost the output, and, without inputs for external components, just to connect it. The first 33 1/3 rpm LPs had already been released on 78rpm shellac, but recorded on tape in the case of the Bruno Walter Beethoven 9th Symphony, which required three sides (to avoid broken movements, the bane of 78rpm—I still know where every break came in that Bohème as well in the Rudolf Serkin-Walter "Emperor" Concerto). The fourth side with the Walter Beethoven 9th was the Schicksalslied, the Song of Destiny, with Elena Nicolaidi as soprano soloist. My other first LP was the first of the set of six LPs of Wanda Landowska playing the Well Tempered Clavier of Bach. That had been recorded on disks, but with discrete selections it didn't matter. I have often mused idly on the differences of listening to music off different media. With 78s and without a drop-automatic turntable, listening was a full-time job, but one may have paid attention better. The human brain has little trouble listening over surface noise and a host of distortions (or even over air conditioners now), and perhaps one did pay more attention to the music and less to the sheer sound. One ought to pay even more attention when, now, one can really hear all the parts and not just a wash of orchestral sound (the old playback equipment being much inferior to most of the recordings), but various kinds of 'elevator music' have conditioned most of us otherwise. The 'question' is easily decided: how we listen is our choice. Nevertheless, when I do take out one-sided acoustical 78s and hook up stuff to play them, I also take the trouble to really listen.
Babysitting (or yard work if you're a boy) is freedom when you're young. Already in Brookfield Village, some neighbors had discovered that I could iron, too. Even men's shirts. Ironing was more lucrative. It was the reward for realizing that sending the youngest of us to elementary school in a fresh dress, with all its buttons on, with its hem not out, with its sashes complete meant giving her some self respect, concealing from busybodies that the mother of the house was not well, that we no longer had a washing machine, etc. We did have a washboard and stationary tubs. That doesn't sound like freedom? Well, if you do enough to have pocket money and to be bossy to your mother, on Saturday or Sunday, all the way from 98th Avenue, you can take the number 6 streetcar all the way on East 14th Street (which the new maps seem to label International Blvd) to downtown Oakland and on up Broadway to where College Avenue forks off it (there was an old and good Italian restaurant there, too) and on up College to Ashby Avenue. And there is the Elmwood Theater. There I saw all the Gigli films that later were on VHS by Bel Canto Society. There I saw, every year in the early Fall, Kenny Baker in The Mikado (I must not have been the only one who adored it) in terminal Technicolor. There I saw The Importance of Being Earnest, the one with, among others, Joan Greenwood, and much else. In particular Harry Baur as Beethoven. I began to keep a scrapbook of my favorites from the ads on the movie theater page, but I also kept in it clippings of, for example, the death of Wanda Landowska and of Richard Strauss, for whom at that time I only knew the tone poems from the 78rpm albums. Observation: when there is less coverage accessible, one is likely to remember better what one does have, or is it just remembering the first things you learned in youth? Now that you can get DVDs of almost everything I saw at the Elmwood, let's celebrate the last days of the big streetcars. They were much wider gauge than European ones. Admittedly, they made College Avenue from the fork at Broadway still in Oakland to the UC campus in Berkeley almost impassable. But they were clean and bright and airy, roomy, and the older cars had woven wicker seats; incapable of starting or stopping very suddenly, they rang their bells all the way, at each street of any importance. The motors and all those steel wheels on steel tracks were fairly noisy; conversations were practically private (until the electrical contact ceased when they stopped, so that there were many predictable jokes in which children asked their parents blushable questions at just that moment). They were slow. Plenty of time to think, plenty of chance to read all the signage. There was, and in part still is, a lovely neighborhood of early 20th century brown-shingle houses, just above Ashby Ave. and just east of College, where, when my necessarily generous allowance for delays got me to Berkeley before the theater opened, I would walk and study domestic architecture; it is, after all, one of the best periods of one of the best genres, of which the Gamble House is the masterpiece. This love of the Elmwood's movies (soon to be eclipsed in importance by first-run foreign films at Oakland's Tower Theater, then Berkeley's Cinema Guild, at first in places like the Odd Fellows Hall, and even that in the 50s, not the late 40s) gave me the pleasure of the streetcars very shortly before their demise. More of the electric trains later.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

To Oakland High School (and Farewell to Childhood)

Even writing about the year in Brookfield Village, I was constrained to omit a lot that I do in fact remember. The other three children were growing up, and I saw things more and more as adults see them. Also, too much was going on all the time, and I am not such a writer that I know how to make it work, especially without fabricating a scenario, which would defeat the whole purpose.
We moved, early in 1949, as I said, back into Oakland 'proper', in the vicinity of Park Boulevard and MacArthur Boulevard, to, as well as we can recall, 2038 East 25th. We lived there until the middle of 1950, when my father died; shortly thereafter we moved to 1736 Hearst Ave. in Berkleley and thence, closer to the Bay, to 1623 Kains Avenue, the address from which I moved, on my own, to a rooming house at 2622 College (though I was still in Art School, not yet at UC Berkeley), having by then gotten employment at the San Pablo Poultry Company.
If ever I can manage to write up everything that matters or was interesting in that period, ending with my enrollment on the Berkeley campus in the Fall of 1953, it will take much more careful consideration than I can muster right now.
I regard my addiction to this blog, however, as useful not only to me but possibly, though I really don't know how or to whom, to some others: provided I can keep it honest. Therefore, after perhaps one more entry, possibly two, to take me to the watershed of my father's death, I shall shift to writing isolated essays.
For now, however, I close with a picture of me and my sister's dog Viffy II taken with someone's Brownie Hawkeye on the sidewalk in front of 1623 Kains Avenue, which runs parallel to San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley.
[Even our old address, just one block east of San Pablo Avenue, evidences the upscale development of the Berkeley 'flatlands'. The house we lived in reportedly had been built by an artist and had bedrooms in the attic. It was quite livable but very idiosyncratic. It has been replaced by one with three bedrooms and three baths (!) that is listed for sale for a quarter of a million dollars.]

Elmhurst Junior Hight School, Brookfield Village

Notice the typographical error in picture caption, which cannot be changed here, since it is part of the image: it should be sensitize (not sensitive).
I want to pay homage to a Junior High School that still exists. Our moving to an address on Darien Avenue in a subdivision called Brookfield Village (which Google now shows with barred windows on the houses, so that some later friends' shock at my having once lived there is perhaps accounted for, though it was not rough in 1948: I got a lot of babysitting income there) placed me in Elmhurst Junior High on 98th Avenue, which is still serving its very well integrated but mostly poor students and still keeping up school spirit, it seems, just as it did 60 years ago.
About half of my classmates were Hispanic and had inked quasi-tattoos with the Pachuco sign. Some students smoked marijuana at the bus stop (not many and warily); marijuana did grow in a number of empty lots. A number of the Anglo boys slicked up their hair in duck tails. The teachers were mostly nice, and classes were orderly. A few girls had to drop out because they were pregnant, but it wasn't at school that they got that way. I got a year of Spanish and a year of algebra. Getting good grades was easy, but if one got them it was for the standard California curriculum. In the Fall of 1948 there was quite an outbreak of mononucleosis, not only in our school. I hadn't been kissing (the usual mode of contagion), but I got it anyway and fairly seriously. I stayed home in bed with barely the energy to tune the little 'kitchen radio' (a plastic box about 8" X 6" X 6") that was lent to me to keep me company in bed. When I got up, after a couple of weeks, it was time to address Christmas cards to relatives and, to my horror, my small muscle coordination was so weak that I could hardly form letters, and very slowly. When I could go back to school, just before classes let out for Christmas, my homeroom and English teacher, who previously had favored me, because of my writing easily and my test scores, barely let me take my place and scolded me for deciding to come to school after all. She didn't believe I'd been unable. I am not naming names in this blog, but I haven't forgotten hers, though it was not common or easy to spell. That week we received our yearbooks. The Pachuco kids, who had never spoken to me before, brought their yearbooks for me to sign and signed mine. No discussion, just the gesture. I wish I still had that yearbook. We all knew that we understood.
So I graduated from Elmhurst JHS at the end of January and entered Grade 10 at Castlemont High School (then regarded as relatively nice; subsequently shut down), but not for long. We moved again, and I entered Oakland's biggest and (I think) oldest high school, still Grades 8-12 inclusive, Oakland High School, a wonderful school, taking students from downtown, including many Chinese as well as the motley poor who did not live so far west as to have to go to McClymond's (where, the word was, if you took all it offered and got all A's you'd just get an 8th grade education), including Fruitvale and little pockets of streets like East 25th where we moved, just up from the huge County Hospital (now wholly rebuilt) and Montclair, which was eminently respectable. In other words, it was a high school large enough and varied enough to have courses for all the students. Its building, stuccoed neo-somthing, was fondly called The Pink Prison; the building no longer exists. Jack London had actually attended OHS for a while.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Early Months of 1948

Both my sister and I remember that our mother was with us for part of the time that we lived in two rooms, one equipped for housekeeping, in a residence hotel, a by-the-week hotel, on 7th Street between Broadway and Washington (i.e., not very far from the present, much refurbished Jack London Square). Not that we knew much about it, but we were only a couple of blocks from an honest-to-goodness burlesque, strip-tease theater (http://www.flickr.com/photos/therealdevildoll/1410990310/) but just as close to the Roxie (?)  movie theater, where, a little later, "The Red Shoes" ran to much acclaim for weeks and weeks. On the ground floor, below the whole of the hotel, was a Hispanic shop and restaurant, Mi Rancho, making tortillas continuously, selling phonograph records (78 rpm, shellac, of course), and so forth. To judge from its web page, it has prospered, at least recently. Lower downtown Oakland was not prosperous at all in 1948.
Our furniture was in storage. When my mother was absent, she was at the county hospital, committed for the effects of prescription drugs. That we were at this hotel permitted my father as much parenting as possible, since Swan's Market was only three blocks away. Often when he came home he took us out to walk, usually straight up Broadway, for the better part of an hour, for exercise, but we were not allowed to run around the streets of Oakland by ourselves. I must say that we came to no harm, though we saw plenty of winos on the street, and there were young women in the hotel who were street walkers. There was an open area at the intersection of two hallways, as I recall, where we children congregated and played (perfectly decently). I liked then, and I still like, Mexican-American children; they were friendly and, I repeat, decent. Lice could be a problem; impetigo was a problem with some children. We got together the idea of putting on a show for one another (and our families if they would come); it was nothing to write home about, since no one had talent or training or musical instruments, but it was harmless. One of the streetwalkers was very kind to the children and did up our hair for us, but not 'glamorously', and she never said or did anything even slightly inappropriate. When she asked if two of us could go shopping with her at Swan's, we were allowed. I think she wanted children with her as a sign that she was off duty and should be let alone. It would not have been a good place to grow up, but we were there (as I calculate) only a couple of months and, without our mother to tell us that we were too good for the other children, I might be a bit the better for this experience. In the end, we did not get lice or impetigo, and no one tried to tempt me or Lorna to have sex, either.
Since the #51 bus would take me straight to Alameda High School, I was given permission to enter Grade 9 there. I was 13 1/2 years old, and a few of my earlier Lincoln School classmates were there, in fact. I got a little Latin I, too, just a little. It did not occur to me that the word would have gotten round among the teachers that a girl from that neighborhood in Oakland would be in their classes. Some were careful not to let me sense that they knew where I was coming from, but a couple resented the pupil from out of town and let it be felt. So: it makes all the difference at which end of the Posey Tube you reside.
It can't have been for long. When I entered Elmhurst Junior High in East Oakland, I easily caught up in Spanish I instead of Latin I, and the rest of the curriculum was the same.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Some Considerations: impression of confusion is true

At a time when children were not yet fashionably dressed, and we lived in a tract (viz, subdivision) where no one was wealthy, and our father had a job, and we had each other (and always our grandparents to write to), and the neighborhood was not unsafe, the impression that we had not much to complain of is true in large part. But the other part, the hard part for children who, like Lorna and me, had been protected and cherished and secure in San Luis Obispo and not much less so (because we were still aware of less) in Alameda and even in Rollingwood, was insecurity and knowing that other people did not respect us. Of course, I can only speak for myself. Were we still the girls that we had been when we were younger? Were we still the same family? Would I, too, become perpetually sick and pleading for shots and prescriptions we couldn't pay for to doctors who came unwillingly? For, yes, doctors still came, yes, with a black bag. And not quasi-dealers.
Just about this time, from his job, Daddy did get family coverage, probably Blue Cross, but that had nothing to do with our mother's problems, which, socio-economically, were ours. When I told the attendance clerk at school that I had had to stay home because my mother was sick, she said that in order to come back I still needed an 'excuse' from her. The gym teacher said that in order to get free uniform gym clothes (blue shirt and short bloomers) I just had to bring a request from my mother, but my mother got mad at the idea of begging for gym clothes. I am sure that many thousands of girls have found themselves in the same dilemma. You can't blame school for having no imagination, and you must, in the more recent lingo, just suck it up. Because of my earlier upbringing, it never occurred to me to forge a note from my mother (and besides there'd be hell to pay if she found out: my shame would be hers). I knew that other kids in the tract stuffed paper up the coin-return of the public telephone, but I never was tempted to do it. It was a low thing to do. What would the grandparents think of it?
And through all of this (except when the electricity was cut off) I had a phonograph and classical music recordings to listen to, I had books (including, to be candid, my mother's Doubleday Book Club novels—sent before her subscription was cancelled, as well as better things), and I had drawing materials, even though, from time to time, we certainly were malnourished. Later I couldn't help but respond to Edna St. Vincent Millay's statement that they had all the luxuries but none of the necessities. I'd guess now that she, too, had some luxuries but less of what most people regard as necessities. Certainly, like Miss Millay, I was egoistic. It did not occur to me to wonder what were the luxuries that my sister (let alone the little ones) craved. Sometimes I let myself think that, since they were free to play, and I was trying to create a week's menus that could be provisioned for a set sum or getting clothes washed and ironed, I had earned my special position. Considered in terms of tit for tat, that was so, but it is bad for every eldest child that has to play that role. Disciplining the little ones as well as I could was bad for us all, and it is bad for every child that has to do it for a protracted period. My sister was cooperative, and Daddy was good to both of us, but she was too young to help control the little ones. That she and I survived this insecure period surely was due to our happy beginnings, perhaps even to our mother's better health during our gestation.
Neither one of us knows how the half-Sheltie, Viffy II, came through the early months of 1947, but she did. One of Daddy's fellow workers at Swan's had children the right size for our rocking horses, which thus found a new home; perhaps the cradles did, too.
Neither of us knows when Daddy began to bring home chute-damaged merchandise from his job in the basement of Swan's 10th Street Market. This was legitimate. All the guys did, and with permission. It couldn't be sold, and it wouldn't be picked up for return. Cans and bottles without labels (we learned to read the codes stamped on the bottom of the can), flour and powdered milk and corn meal that had tears or punctures in the sacks, even pet food for Viffy II and Comet. Less often, but often enough, we got sugar this way. For bread, I had only to find cubes of live yeast at the grocery that were not outdated: we had a good, old cookbook. The first batches were not very good, but thereafter I made good loaves of bread and some dinner or breakfast rolls at least once a week. It takes a lot of breadmaking to use fifty or even 20 pounds of flour. It was a great help to have this mystery canned food, though no one likes canned peas very much and I certainly do no like canned sauerkraut. Spam, it must be admitted, chipped beef, and corned-beef hash were most useful. There were no food stamps at the time, and surplus foods were much less varied.

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.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gaynor Ave., Richmond, 1946

Linda, age 5; Pat, age 12; Lorna, age 9; Bruce, age 7
Only the survival (finally) of some photographs with old labels convinces me that we really did, between two Christmases, live in four houses, Alameda, Rollingwood, Gaynor, North 17th St. We were not long on Gaynor, but apart from actually remembering the taking of the pictures attached here, I was at a new school—an old school I should say (even at that time), which had real hallways and classrooms— and once again I was pedestrian. And no longer in a neighborhood of brand-new houses for brand-new families. I could walk to school, straight up 23rd Street, with Janice Wortman, whose backyard abutted ours, to Longfellow Jr. High School, a great relief after Roosevelt. Janice knelt at her father's knees and was prayed over just before we left for school, but we stopped at a gas station rest room so she could put on lipstick. She wasn't allowed to dance, either, or wear shorts for gym, but I think she got around both of those stipulations, too. On the other hand, she wasn't like the Daughters of Nature who scared me at Roosevelt (and that, I must add, irrespective of color, ethnicity, or religion). She was more like Judy, whom I knew at Lincoln School in Alameda and who told me some really remarkable Folk Facts about sex when we were both about ten years old: it was with Judy I went to catechism, what with being fascinated with nuns, ever since wondering whether the heavily habited ones at the Mission School in San Luis Obispo actually had bodies or not. Besides I liked catechism; like the Gideon's leaflet, the Baltimore catechism was interesting language. And the nuns proved to be nice, just like other teachers. I also liked the Stations in the church and the use of holy water and genuflexion. Judy was too well instructed to tell me that if one bit the host it would bleed, but she was full of analogous thinking about what was entailed if a boy got farther in. Janice astonished me. I had perceived that the nuns in Alameda knew that children aren't angels, but Janice's pastor father seemed to believe that the little gold head at his knees was angelic. Yet Janice and I liked each other's company, and never said what either of us thought was odd about the other.
At Longfellow again we had art and music classes (but no ink wells: N.B., the ball point pen, still expensive, but guaranteed to write under water, had just come on the market; it was forbidden in school: it still made blobs, and its ink was waterproof and indelible, and it might be bad for you if you used it to make fake tattoos). We went to the Army Surplus Store and got leather bullet cases to use as purses, and we had white bandanas made of parachute nylon. By the end of the year even nylon stockings (with seams) were freely available again, and some of the Grade 9 girls wore them. The art teacher that I had first was named Mrs. Penrose, I think. So far as I can judge, her idea of art was prettiness, but she was serene in that preference, not partisan. She let me come to her room while she prepared after school for the next day, just to be there and to talk--not confide, just talk. And I remember being active enough to drive anyone crazy. On the other hand, I never had been a very active child, getting exercise enough by roller skating round the block or playing jump-rope or hopscotch at recess, for the rest preferring to read or draw pictures (when I wasn't helping with housekeeping when M. was ill; I did help, by learning to do the ironing, then the washing; by doing dishes, then by learning to cook). I look back. Anyone would think today that I was ADHD (if those are the right initials) that year, but I think it was just a combination of anxiety and hormones. Luckily, I remained at Longfellow, by zoning alone, I think, so long as in Richmond, though we soon moved, but here I record what I remember of the time we were on Gaynor Ave.
Late one afternoon, I was sent up 23rd St., in the other direction where there was a market that stayed open a little later, to get milk. On the way back a man stopped me and asked if I had a pussy. Not that I'd ever heard the word used amiss, deeply alarmed I replied, No, but a girl I know who lives two blocks that way (west), then turn right, has one, and they have four kittens—but, excuse me, my mother is waiting. I turned on my heel and managed not to panic and run or turn around to look, and I went several blocks out of my way to avoid being followed. I took the milk to the kitchen and went to my room, where I was shaking, but not crying because it was almost dinner time. If I had told my mother, the next month or more would have been worse than any daytime soap opera (radio, not TV, of course, but essentially the same).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Rollingwood 1946

I do not remember celebrating Christmas at either the old or the new address, but it was probably in Alameda, where it would have been like other ones and so not remembered apart. And I had had some little Grade 7 in Alameda, which would have been in January 1946. I have no photos, a trunk and a box having later been lost, which included all my father's surviving negatives as well as prints: what I have I owe to my cousin M.E. who sent her mother's prints back to both me and my sister. The house, then brand new, of wood so green that things tended to mold, can be seen by getting the ground level view of Clarendon Court, Rollingwood, San Pablo, CA from Google Earth. Later tract houses are typically in worse condition. Perhaps the first post-war FHA funded ones were built best, or perhaps the building of Contra Costa College and the building of later developments on the hills where we went up and followed the shepherd and the sheep all over the rounded slopes served to protect Rollingwood from the worst deterioration. When we moved in there were military barracks style housing units across El Portal Drive, and a wash house, where I was not allowed to go, because a dead infant had been abandoned in it. (Don't think 'laundromat', since it pre-dated the front-loading and spinning, rather than agitating and wringing era). It was half understood that if you qualified for an FHA loan for Rollingwood, you and your family did not manage Life in that way. I knew that in "Little Women" babies were born at home, but in real life they were, so far as I had known, born in hospitals. Anyhow, nothing tempted me to walk into the Projects. So I walked virtuously along Road 20, unpaved and deep in dust, past the Projects to the shed that protected us from rain as we waited for the school bus to Roosevelt Jr. High in Richmond. In dry weather, May through September usually, we had sand fleas nearly to our knees by the time we got to the shed. I went alone, because the others were still in Elementary (I think the Rollingwood school was called El Portal, too, but I'm not sure). Thus my daily life was apart from the family. My sister and I were talking on the phone last night: Daddy had by then been let off at the shipyards? Was he trying to succeed by photography alone (he did get business, but it can't have been much)? Lorna remembers his working in clothing and shoe stores, and I have a dim recollection of such a job, too, but neither of us was sure of when. That he took every job he could I do not doubt. Neither of us is sure when he began at Swan's 10th Street Market in Oakland, but neither of us thinks it was from Rollingwood. The Market was a wonderful place, of which more later. file:///Users/patricialawrence/Desktop/Swan's%20Marketplace%20Photographs%20-%20Page%202.webarchive He built a darkroom in the attached garage of the Rollingwood house, and it was then and there, since I was tall enough to see into the trays, that he taught me how to handle the chemicals and the prints and assess the contrast as seen under the red safe light. He had a two-room Studio on San Pablo Avenue, where there were also palmists and cafes and bars and what not. As I said, it cannot have been profitable enough. I thought that I remembered a salesman enrolling my sister in tap dancing class while we were living in Clarendon Court and Daddy's taking pictures of her and her classmates at that time, because I seem to remember her practicing to The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (78rpm) in that house, but she remembers it in connection with North 17th Street instead, and she probably is right, since it's her memory. Her prints of these photos were lost in a Texas tornado (the life of a young air force wife...), or I'd post them here.
Most of the time, while we lived there, things were fairly normal, though our mother had a fallopian pregnancy and our brother caught his jeans on a picket fence and broke his leg (and had another illness of whose nature I'm not sure). Nothing happened to me, apart from puberty shortly before I turned 12 (but see note at end here). I came to like the bus trips, looking out the windows and memorizing every detail. The worst hullabaloo was in the back of the bus. There was a polio scare that year, and as I recall it affected the house at the E. corner of Clarendon Court at Greenwood Dr. Most important to me was acquiring a black and white kitten that I called Comet for the marking on his nose. I was able to keep him through three houses.
When out of school I learned what housewife coffee clatches were, since my mother let me join her and Virgie and the other woman whose name I forget. They were careful of how they spoke in front of me, coy, and I never asked questions, even when they teased me. Girl children are self-protective, and I still wanted to know and understand things at the level of that Parent's Magazine-approved book, "Being Born". But I understood profoundly that adulthood might be simply the loss of aspiration and ideals and imagination and that 'love' might be not only different from the movies but different from the 19th century novelists, such as Jane Austen; certainly I hadn't read Madame Bovary yet and wouldn't have understood (or liked) it if I'd tried. There was a one-room library in San Pablo, and I read Edna Ferber (at best) and biographies. The librarian there was nice and posted several of my pictures there.
These are not philosophical essays, but I wonder whether adolescence is not easier, in some ways, when you really have something to fuss and worry about, such as whether some of the girls at Roosevelt Jr. High School may themselves have had babies that they dumped in wash houses or at the bus station.
Note: Both Lorna, though only age 9, and I earned pocket money by baby-sitting in Rollingwood.  I said, above, that nothing happened to me there.  Actually, one evening I went in this capacity to a home just around the corner (outside of Clarendon Court); the children were already put down and falling asleep, and the parents asked me, as they left, just to feed the dog.  It was a cocker spaniel, very cute.  But as I filled his bowl, then bent to set it down for him he leapt for my throat and got my right jaw rather than the jugular.  I telephoned, home I think; someone called the parents (anyhow, someone came to take care of the children I was to have watched); someone found a clinic where a doctor cleaned the wound, put seven stitches in it, dressed it.  I hated kids saying at school, hey, did a dog get you?  I have never argued with those who say that some breeds, at that time cockers, notably, were inbred and stupid.  Our big springer spaniel, Viffy, had been an altogether different spaniel.  That is how I completed the triangle of scars: the one where as a toddler I'd tumbled into the fireplace poker at 644, on the left jaw, the gold crown on my upper incisor where it had been broken, and the new one.  Now I usually forget about the scars that came from the wounds that took stitches, but both are still there.  The difference between me and my brother was that I healed quickly.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

End of Alameda

I began Grade 7 in Lincoln School, but not for very long.  One thing that I remember caught my interest, diagramming sentences the old fashioned way (as I learned later it was) on the black board.  I loved doing this.  Stripping sentences down to essential subjects and predicates and hanging everything else where it belonged.  Almost at once I realized, not that I could have said so as simply as I can now, that we were analyzing thought.  I wish I could claim to have understood the practice of finding square roots so well.  But I did love pre-geometry, finding areas and volumes.
I was soon to live in another world.  Instead of a neighborhood of houses build before World War I in one of the most serene and (literally as well as figuratively) pedestrian bedroom communities I would be in a tract at the edge of building in a western sort of Levittown (just google it) but built in 1946.  Instead of going around the corner to school, I had to wait in a shed for the school bus.  And so forth.  And Roosevelt Junior High School in Richmond was mostly Temporary Buildings.  And, though there was Macdonald Street, it wasn't really "downtown".
In Alameda, at the end of our block, was a very nice elderly lady who would play "The Lost Doll" on her piano and sing it for me (later I was astonished and overjoyed to find it on a CD sung by Emma Eames).  There was a Carnegie library.  In Richmond, or rather San Pablo, there was a one room sort of library and no one who played and sang old songs for little girls who liked them.  I don't remember a shock, exactly.  I was too busy trying to figure things out.  Instead of a K-8 school, I was in a Junior High School, which meant only that one went from one temporary to another (they weren't quonsets, but they were army surplus units) instead of belonging to one class and having one's own desk in one room.  Every time I hear some wise guy grouse about putting children is great prison-like buildings, I think how much worse something like Roosevlet Junior High School is.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Outside of school, Grades 4 through 6

Before I ever went to Girl Scout camp, I went to a lovely camp, for a week or ten days as I recall, sponsored by our church, 1st Presbyterian in Alameda.  It was in the Muir Woods, a reserve fully worthy of being named for him.  The open-sided cabins were not too rough for beginning campers, the paths were neither overswept nor too apt to make one stumble, there were streams, there were places for campfires, and there was the sound of the breeze in the trees and the odor of evergreens (the great Sequoia Redwoods: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muir_Woods_National_Monument ; scroll down to Flora for best picture).  Because of church sponsorship we had plenty of personnel.  We even did an all-day hike.  That year I also went to Daily Vacation Bible School, at the church itself, where carefully instructed day after day we made ourselves scrap books that stayed together for years and years.  We certainly were instructed; it wasn't just church babysitting.  I don't recall specific instruction, though.  Most of the actual instruction was done in the Sunday School class for 10 to 12 year olds, and, with good attendance, it was then that we received our own Bibles, stamped with our own name, KJV with onion paper and with illustrations at intervals, mostly in the OT to show the land, and with maps in back, maps including the Assyrian Empire and the Persian Empire and the Travels of St. Paul.  A bonus equal to the Gideons Gift of Languages.  I am writing without looking, but it is still with me, shelved not 10 feet behind me.  If we'd been Episcopalian or Catholic this would have been preparation for Confirmation; the Presbyterians merely questioned us to ascertain intuitively whether we were ready to become Members of the church.  My parents had been attending, too, but had not yet joined (my mother liked the handsome church and nice services—so did I, as well as the stories in the stained glass windows).  So we were called into the church office together, and the minister asked, me first, why we wished to join.  That very instant I said something and couldn't remember what, though I remember wanting to be as pious as the young Samuel in the painting by Reynolds (http://gardenofpraise.com/artprint2.htm); the important fact was that I spoke without any conscious meaning and did not like myself in so doing.  Then the minister said to my father, And you?  And Daddy said, I think she has spoken for us all.  He certainly believed my Infant Samuel attitude.  Alarmed.  Have never forgotten it, and never ought.
Right in the center of east Alameda we had one of the Carnegie libraries, few of which remain today, and in an annex the children's library.  One advantage of wartime was that older books were kept, and one could count on one's favorites being there, trash as well as treasure.  In the former category, for example, were picture books on my famous coevals, the Dionne quintuplets, four of whom were two sets of mirror twins, and of the upbringing and schooling on the set of Shirley Temple.  But the interest in twinning in multiple births and what they did with such tiny babies before there were incubators was not so bad.  There was an English children's story about a brass bedstead with a ball that unscrewed and allowed them (I forget just how) to escape dread.  I seem to have been attracted to books that came in series: The Dutch Twins, The French Twins, and so on, Little Greta of Denmark and Carmen of the Golden Coast, which I had at home and the library had many others, Mother West Wind's Animal Friends, Pollyanna (so many sequels!), and, frankly, almost anything else, at every reading level; Susannah of the Mounties, a series about a Canadian child, Snipp, Snapp, and Snurr.  In particular, anything outdated I would check out and read.  Why?  My feeling was to get in touch with when my parents and grandparents had been young, and, not least, the children who had come to California in covered wagons.  My great grandmother Trewblood had, when she was 8 years old she said.  Also, of course, 'the good old days' is standard escapism, but at least one can follow the map on the end papers and learn something.  I am just barely too old to have read the Little House series or Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, but I was fond of Wanda Gag's illustrations wherever I found them.  I began to want to illustrate books myself.  When I got my card to use the adult library as well, though, the first thing I headed for was Sigmund Spaeth's books on vaudeville and minstrel shows and the like.  But my grandfather liked early 20c popular songs; he sang us Ragtime Violin whenever we visited and asked him to.  And I started reading those lady writers with three names, like Bess Streeter Aldrich.  As literature no better than later novels that had begun as serials in Woman's Home Companion or Ladies Home Journal.  The best thing I began to read was biographies.  Whether Mozart or Marian Anderson, presidents or 'settlers' (was it "Grandma Brown's First Hundred Years"?).  Well, I wanted to find out what a life was like.  All of this was reached on foot, usually straight up Central Ave., as well as window shopping on Park Street,  Long's, Woolworth's, and so on.  I suppose we took the car to church, but we needn't; it was only seven or eight blocks, and with fuel rationing walking was natural.
As for the radio.  I came to do rather little walking on weekends, unless to go to the movies in our end of town.  Even out of Met Opera season, there was the NBC Symphony, followed by the SF Symphony broadcast on Saturday afternoon.  On Sunday afternoons, after the NY Philharmonic, there was James Melton, there was the American Album of Familiar Music and Manhattan Merry-go-round.  Later on Sunday nights there was the Chicago Theater of the Air, operetta or abbreviated opera and, in the middle, and largely unintelligible to me, there was the talk by Colonel McCormick; I understood that he owned the paper and paid for the program, but I really couldn't follow what he said (and didn't try very hard).  This program was not always top-notch singers, but it was pretty good.  I heard Blossom Time and registered what a Schubert tune was like on Chicago Theater.  There was lots of Victor Herbert.  I think that the Bell Telephone hour, which was actually a half hour, was on Monday evening, and the Firestone, a cut below it then, though sometimes wonderful later on television.  The New York Philharmonic was midday (in California) on Sundays.  There was as yet no station, even in an urban market, wholly devoted to Classical Music.  That began with KSMO way down-dial at 1600 so that one often heard a bit of Tiajuana through it; it was better when FM became general.  Not that KSMO was awfully highbrow, either; it carried Doug Pledger's Polka Party, for example.
Anyhow, on weekend afternoons I'd curl up on the end of the sofa nearest the speaker and write to my grandparents (really to my grandfather, considering what I was writing), a running commentary of what I was hearing, with an occasional note of commendation when I really liked how something was sung or played.  I'd write five or six pages of this stuff.  By midweek an answer from my grandparents would come from San Luis Obispo; they never failed to write, and Gramps would send me bits of verse or the clipping from his versified column, Under the Cork Tree.  And, barring an excursion (but there was the gas rationing, always), I'd stuff another envelope the next weekend.  It cost only 3¢, after all, to send it.  I wonder what-all I did write.  It looks in retrospect like the making of a born blogger, of just this kind.  I do realize that there are other uses for blogs.