On Sutter Street

Golden Gate park was just down the hill — she could walk to it easily. The Golden Gate Bridge could be seen directly from the windows of all of their rooms as they were on the wing that looked directly out to it. There was a group of thirteen of them living there that summer — all having won scholarships to the Academy of Art on Sutter Street downtown — a bus ride away each morning. Lone Mountain College, where they all were staying, was way up on a hill and to get to the bus stop behind it required walking brakes to keep from flying down it — it was very steep. It was not something to look forward to, getting back up it.

A group of nuns were residing at the end of their wing — one of which was on some kind of sabbatical whereby she would decide whether she wanted to stay or leave her order and they thought they saw her with a man or men, coming and going from her room. It could have been her brother, but there were rumors he was not. The nuns were quiet but they were witness to several of their not so quiet shenanigans — youthful drunkenness one night — fool-making — up and down the hall and in and out of the Lavatory, it was called, where they all shared toilet and showering facilities.

The scholarship didn’t cover room and board but whatever they paid the college to stay there included changes of sheets and towels — if you could schedule things just right — and meals — also requiring getting there on time.

Coming up the back, the same way they went down to catch the bus, required getting someone’s attention to let you in the door at certain times. Leaving was no trouble. There were a few other odd, assorted people renting rooms there that summer and one of them was Tuffy — a dark-skinned fellow everyone loved who they all were quite sure was gay. Often, for some reason, Tuffy was there to let someone in — all that was required was to shout up to his window…”Tuuuuffyyy, Tuuuuffy!” Down he’d come to let you in.

One afternoon, probably a Saturday, because she was the only one taking a Saturday class, she couldn’t get Tuffy’s or anyone’s attention and had to scale the side of the hill of dirt and rocks and missed the lunch buffet by minutes — missing lunch was a big disappointment.

It was a wonderful summer — one that she would remember forever. She turned eighteen not long after arriving and it was her first time away from home, requiring a plane ride — something else that was a first. It was a short flight, just 45 minutes or so, so they didn’t get very high and she found it fascinating to see the ground look so much like a patchwork quilt. It was $36 for a round trip ticket and her mother bought two trips, one for her friend who would go with her to help her get oriented because she had been there the year before.

Because her friend came with her, they shared the room at first and then when the friend finally left, staying longer than she should have, she had the room to herself. It was six weeks of spellbinding magic in total.

The dorm arrangement was akin to a social order but the Academy was pure art and there was the smell of oils and linseed and freedom permeating the air through and through the five stories of an old downtown building. It was Heaven. The elevator had a velvet sofa in it — but most everybody took the stairs because they were a lot quicker.

Her favorite class ended up being the one on Saturday. While all her fellow scholarship friends were off getting new shag haircuts or having some mundane normal experience or shopping — she was sitting on the floor with her teacher learning how to stretch a canvas. The teacher was on crutches and had trouble with his legs but made no bones about getting on the floor for the best way of doing it. She took notes so she would remember.

She made a few friends and probably a couple of enemies and met some boys and lost one to the girl next door who would when she wouldn’t — but it was all part of growing up and learning how to love life and find her passion. She would never be the same. One of her friends back home was sure she would come home snooty for having had such a wonderful experience — but mostly she just came back with more muscles in her legs from walking.

One of the things that stood out to her while she was there, navigating steep hills on foot or on and off buses was that all the ladies of San Francisco wore nice shoes when they should have been wearing brogans with suction cups. There was a lot of styling going on and she found this very unique shoe shop that made shoes by hand — The Knack. She was determined to have a pair. They were probably $80 which was a fortune to her, but somehow she managed to eek it out of her measly purse holdings and wore those shoes to death for years and years thereafter.

She wore and wore that summer too. Little did she know what her high school teacher did when he made sure she had all the brushes and Conté Crayons and anything else he could steal from school supplies to send with her — that it would change her life. The fact that he had the confidence in her to start with to make her get the portfolio together to send off for competition and all his careful nurturing for the two years that it took for her to work up enough material. He knew — it was the perfect thing for her to do at that point in her life. “You need to loosen up,” he’d always tell her. She’d find out exactly what he meant and how to do it at the Academy where they all had to try to control long bamboo sticks with chalk attached while standing, or draw without looking at the paper or lifting the pencil, or sketch nude models in seconds. He knew. She had control issues that were part of insecurities that would get some fixing going off to an adventure in artful living.

Mr. Danielson. Everybody loved Mr. Danielson. Everybody was in love with Mr. Danielson — he was an angel sent from heaven — but he was in love with his wife — which made him even more beautiful. He was a beautiful man, inside and out — tall with a full beard and mustache and curly hair, trim and beautifully proportioned and spoke softly and leaned over carefully to show you how to do things. He always had an apron on that was slathered with paint all over — he wiped his brushes on it. She will never stop being grateful for the chance of him in her life. Everyone that knew him said the same.

San Francisco. It’s impossible not to leave your heart there.

She went back somewhere near ten years later and drove around just looking at the spots where she had been. She went again many more years after that when she was nearby taking classes for a company she was working for. She could remember it all.

Her mother used to speak of her own days of living in Goose Bay, Labrador and would say things like “those were the best days of my life.” She knew by then what her mother had meant. There’s just something about freedom from things that inhibit that sticks with you and informs the rest of life. Art, Mr. Danielson and San Francisco had come together like a perfect storm to set her out in life just right.

Art, in and of itself, hadn’t ended up being her life but it had informed it at every turn and just the experience of being brave and going on that trip had made all the difference. Some girls mother’s wouldn’t even let them apply. She had had a mother that liked freedom. She had been lucky there too.

Life wasn’t over yet and she still had longings of stretching canvas and of oil paint and linseed. Maybe she’d find a way to be brave again and do it.

Through The Canyon

Eucalyptus was made into a thoroughfare eventually, but in the 50s and 60s, it was the last, or first depending on direction, of a series of rough rural streets on a grid that had been named in alphabetical order — ending or beginning with Alessandro –five streets altogether to make the little burb.

Alessandro was the thoroughfare at the time and eventually, going west, changed into Central where it continued to lace through their nearby big little city turning into Chicago by Downtown. It was hard giving out directions.

The bus didn’t go that way though because at that point, there wasn’t yet a mall. The old Main Street, where the only shopping was, had been paved over in concrete and the shops on either side were linked for walking freely without traffic. Before that it was for parades, getting through by car and parking.

By the 60s, it was becoming fashionable to get somewhere and hang out — if you didn’t have a car you couldn’t cruise Magnolia but you could walk around on Main. Pic N Save was there with Bargain Fare — lots of good cheap stuff that was the start of the China syndrome — and Woolworth’s still had a counter for getting a soda and some fries.

It might have been that a bus went the other way but for a teenager, if life was making you lonely you could always go Downtown. That’s where all the fun stuff seemed to be, even if you had to go alone.

She almost always had to go alone because by then what few friends she had were tangled up with boys or getting As. She liked getting As too, and boys, but she was very good at putting things off. She might have just been lonely. Her mother worked and her sisters were busy getting into trouble, which she didn’t like at all.

The bus stopped at the end of her street and it wasn’t too far to walk to catch it. It was a brave thing to do and she loved doing things that made her feel brave. It wasn’t anything to post about because posting hadn’t been invented yet, but it was enough that she knew that at least she thought she was being brave. It wouldn’t be long before others would say “You went ALONE?!” They couldn’t imagine it but would ask if they could go with her the next time that she went.

Eucalyptus had houses on both sides by then, but the ones on the north were newer and after them was nothing but potato fields all the way to the little string of hills that they called mountains. She liked to sit on the side of the bus that would let her watch the potato fields fade away.

The highway the bus was on was windy as it made its way to town. It went through a section of a canyon that had been carved out just for it. The top of that canyon was already starting to fill up with high-end houses and those poor rich kids still had to be bused to the school in the suburbs and mix with the poor poor kids.

She loved going through that canyon until her little burb was turned into the place to buy a new cheap house within commutable distance and before it was carved away completely for McMansions. By the time of total carving, she had a car and wasn’t on the bus – she had to pay attention to the bumper to bumper congestion and a road no longer so commutable.

Riding the bus to town in the 60s, you could make it almost all the way without seeing another car.

The first street the bus got to for getting Downtown was University Ave. Right for people to study, left for people to shop or play. It wasn’t long before University crossed Chicago and if you turned left on it, eventually Chicago turned into Central and then to Alessandro and back to where she had started — but she went as far as Market or Main because the bus didn’t take that loop anyway and she had come to stay. She was there for Pic N Save, 50 cent silk undies, Woolworth’s, French fries and for feeling like a brave girl. She might even be brave enough to pick up the bus again and go east on Market to Fairmount Park. The park had a giant pond with paddle boats. Riding the boats alone was really a brave thing and especially the paddle ones because without a partner, it was conceivable to get exhausted right in the middle of the pond and not know how to get help.

Maybe that could be saved for another day.

She got her silky panties, two layers of sheer, one black and one red that turned them into burgundy. She fondled figurines at Pic N Save because she loved anything made of ceramic. She mooched through Bargain Fare that seemed to just have bins and bins of useless stuff and then traveled on for French fries and a soda. By then she was low on money – she’d come with just enough — just enough to have a brave-girl day and she loved those brave-girl days.

The ride home went through the canyon again. This time the bus let out on the far side of the four-lane highway and there were no traffic lights. The scariest challenge of the day, and the least fun, was crossing those four lanes. Even though traffic was light there in the 60s, any car coming was a fright and it seemed so far across.

That night on the top bunk in a room with two sisters, she would admire the burgundy panties and think proudly of her thirteen year old self. It really was quite something to do all of that alone.

Those potato fields would eventually be filled up with industrial buildings. Her little burg would remain but be outlined with thoroughfares and newer homes that shadowed it. The bus might still go through but she had gone on to braver things and wouldn’t know. The last time that she saw it, the canyon was a blur of profit sharing — not anywhere near the value of a bus ride through it in the 60s.


through the canyon