Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Dinnshenchas in Hogsthorpe: the Holmes family of Charity Farm

 

Hogsthorpe’s village sign, standing at the intersection of Thames and High street

The village of Hogsthorpe has a welcome plaque stationed at the intersection of Thames road and High street, which welcomes the people whizzing past the village on the A52. It sports a heraldic device with the charge rendered as an azure boar standing rampant over three fleur-de-lis. Hogsthorpe, I thought. Of course. Native Hogsthorpian Mike Blanchard, who runs the Orchard Farm Riding Center, doesn’t like the sign.

“The name has nothin’ to do with pigs. Do you know what a hog is?” he asked. We were walking through the graveyard at St. Mary’s, Hogsthorpe’s 12-century church, looking for the headstones of my great-great-great grandparents George Freeman and Mary Holmes.

I said no. If a hog isn’t a pig, then I don’t know what a hog is. (Also, I’ve been misled by my great-granduncle Harold C. Holmes, who claimed in an posthumous autobiography entitled “Some Random Reminiscences of an Antiquarian Bookseller” that the village was named after a Viking settler named Ugga.)

“A HOG,” Mr. Blanchard said with energy, “is an uncastrated sheep or pig! Under the age of twelve! They shouldn’t use pigs on our signs! Not unless they use BOTH ANIMALS! UNCASTRATED!”

Hogsthorpe, for those of you who might be confusing it with a certain magical school, is a pleasant little village in the East Midlands of England, in the county of Lincolnshire. My great-great grandfather Robert Holmes left there in 1867 at the age of twenty-two. I decided to visit Hogsthorpe and arrived there on a dark November evening, courtesy of the #449 National Express coach to Mablethorpe. The bus driver did a double take when he saw he had a drop-off there. “Hogsthorpe!” he exclaimed incredulously. (Most people don’t go to Hogsthorpe.) I felt a little shaky as I stepped off the bus. Happily, the Saracen’s Head, Hogsthorpe’s oldest pub, had accommodations that were spacious and clean. I woke up the next morning feeling cheerful and walked to a farmhouse, known locally as Charity Farm.

Goodwin’s Charity Farm, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England. Given to the village of Hogsthorpe in 1639.

Charity Farm is where Robert, a quick-witted man, was born in 1845 to Mary Waterman Holmes and her husband George Freeman Holmes. In the 1851 census Robert was living with his mother and father, his siblings Susanna, George, Joseph, Charlotte, and John, his three-day old sister, his grandmother Anne Waterman, his cousin Elizabeth Waterman, and one house servant named Jabez Harriman. His father cultivated crops and pastured animals on one hundred and two acres of land.

Mr. Chandler remembered John and George Holmes, the last Holmes men on the farm, working in the fields with their Fordson tractors and Lincoln red cows. He even remembered how they farmed. “It’s called Norfolk rotation. I don’t know why,” he said wonderingly. “It’s a rotation. Weeds, grass, potatoes, barley, or sumthin’ like that. I can’t remember. I ought to! I’m really a farmer. It’s not practiced today. Everyone uses fertilizers.”

The name of the farm isn’t meant to be picturesque, but descriptive. The Holmes family didn’t own it. They were extremely long-term tenants—“they were there a couple a-hundred years,” Mr. Chandler told me—of the village of Hogsthorpe, and paid about one hundred and twenty pounds annually in the mid-eighteen hundreds as tenant farmers. The last owner, a gentleman named Thomas Goodwin, left the farm to the village, under the care of trustees with the following instructions:

Thomas Goodwinne, in 1639, bequeathed 34 acres of land, augmented by subsequent inclosure allotments to 55 acres, and producing annually £90, of which £20 are paid to the minister, with £5 for repairing the church, £35 applied to the apprenticing of children, and £5 distributed among the poor.

The profit that the farm produced was intended to pay apprentice fees to master craftsmen who trained young men to become wheelwrights, blacksmiths, coopers, brewers, whatever. Robert Holmes may have been a Goodwin apprentice. (He had a first cousin named Robert William Kirk who was apprenticed to a miller in 1887.) At the time of Robert’s departure from “the land of fens and wolds” he was apprenticing at a wholesale and export firm of drapers, or a dry goods firm, in Manchester. Who paid for Robert’s apprenticeship? This, along with the specifics of my family’s tenure, can only be speculated, and is perhaps impossible to know.

“Records went missing,” Dave Kirkham, a current trustee with Charity Farm, told me. He allowed as things like accurate bookkeeping might not have been perfected when my family began their two to three-hundred year history as tenants. It was put about in my family that the Holmes family owned Charity Farm: this pride of place now registered a note of evasiveness.“Were the Holmes’ squatting?” I asked him, alarmed and wondering if we owed back-rent on Charity Farm. “No, no! Nothing like that,” he assured me.  Later, I ran into a church warden, and asked him about the Holmes’s, and what kind of family they were. They were a good family, he replied.

Back entrance of Charity Farm, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England.

Hogsthorpe is quiet in the manner of small seaside villages in the fall and winter. I was assured by Scott, the ebullient bartender at the Saracen’s Head, that both Chapel St Leonards and Hogsthorpe are bustling from April to September. “It is absolutely MENTAL in here,” he assured me. “I couldn’t sit here and talk to you then.” In the dark of the winter, the villages are the opposite of mental; they feel crestfallen and spent, energetically. There is little for a tourist-wanderer to do, but smell the brine of the North Sea and wonder when it will rise again.

Hogsthorpe is surrounded by other villages with equally magical names like Mumby, Thorsthorpe (my favorite. Hail Thor!) Ingoldmells, and Burgh-le-Marsh. I feel certain that many of these names popped up on an inspiration board in J..Rowling’s office: they are impossibly quaint. All of them are governed by the East Lindsey District Council, a pale remnant of the ancient Kingdom of Lindesege. It has a regnal list which claims Wodan, the Anglo-Saxon version of Odin, as an ancestor of Aldfrið, the earliest king of Lindesge. This divine influence did not help the marshy kingdom from being absorbed into stronger Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By the time the Vikings sloshed ashore in the 10th century, the kings of the marsh were gone. The real ruler of the land, water, was still there. The small towns and villages of the Lindsey marsh are reclaimed from the ocean and the rivers that thread through the region. There’s some idea that perhaps the marsh plain might have been semi-detached at times, almost an island, before sea walls were built, and the drainage ditches were dug.

The entire marsh plain has been systematically de-saturated. Rain and runoff water flows through tile drains, then to dykes, which are maintained by the farmers, and into basins, which are maintained by the drainage board. And then the water goes out obediently into the North Sea. “Every twenty-two yards, machines lay pipes. You put some gravel on top of it, so the water gets through quicker,” Mr. Chandler told me. When he was a boy, the drainage basins were de-silted by hand. “There were no pumps in those days,” he said. Now, pumps express water from the landscape, in a mechanical echo of the process by which farmers milk their cows. Mr. Chandler gestured to the fields behind us. “There were thousands of acres of marsh between Hogsthorpe and Burgh le Marsh.” So proud are the people of East Lindsey of their efforts to drain the marshes that they have a museum, the Anderby Drainage Museum. It houses two diesel engines which, until they were replaced in 1992, drove the centrifugal pumps that pulled 4,500 liters a day of water out of the soil.

Hogsthorpe is at sea level and yet Mr. Chandler doesn’t worry about floods. “It doesn’t flood in Hogsthorpe anymore,” he told me. “And yet we got stupid ER signs, evacuation routes. Ridiculous! It doesn’t flood. We got a damn good drainage board, we got pumps every two or three miles along the coast, one at Chapel Point, one at Anderby and one at Ingoldmells. We are never flooded,” he reiterated. “We got a damn good drainage board.”

A drainage ditch that runs the length of the field in front of Charity Farm, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England.

He and I were having no luck finding George and Mary Holmes. In a fit of tidying, the church pulled up the old headstones and leaned them against the walls that line the graveyard. The vicar had helpfully given me a map of the sites where the headstones used to be. According to it, George and Mary were buried directly north and west of the Norman entrance to the church. Mr. Chandler and I looked at the headstones against the north wall, which were being reclaimed by thick ropes of English ivy, propped against the wall. I found Mary’s father, my great-great-great-great grandfather Simon Waterman. But there was no sign of George or Mary.

There are no Holmes left in the village now. John Freeman Holmes, his brother George and their sister Mary, all of whom died between 1944 and 1981, are interred in the newer part of graveyard. Mr. Chandler knows where his family is. He strode over to a particularly thick mat of nettle and ivy and pointed down. “My grandparents are right there,” he said. “When they took the headstones up, they asked us if we wanted the headstones moved.” He pulled up the mass of ivy root, which came away in a single sheet. Underneath were two flat headstones.

“There they are! Those are my grandparents,” he said. He dropped the ivy back into place. “That’s fine. I know where they are.” They stayed put, along with George and Mary, Simon and Anne, and many others. But Robert left.

St. Mary church, Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England.

It’s a big deal to leave a small village. Robert made a last visit to Hogsthorpe to say good-bye to his family the year he left. There’s a picture of him looking young and sort of tough, newly arrived in Guiana, where he got to work, managing the dry goods store and marrying up, in 1872, to my great-great grandmother, the magnificently named Emily Augusta Culpeper Massiah. Robert had a lot of energy. He moved his family back and forth between Guiana and England for about ten years, before moving to Canada in 1877 and opening a general store in Toronto, and later in Winnipeg in 1880, after moving there. It was in Winnipeg that Robert lost the remainder of his and his wife’s fortune speculating in real estate.

He and Emily flipped a coin, and moved to California, arriving in Oakland in 1882, cash-strapped with five children in tow, an ignominious entry that wouldn’t survive the harsh scrutiny of today’s fevered anti-immigrant conservatives. (Robert was forced to ask for credit in order to pay his hotel bill.)  He began yet again, working at this job and that, before opening a bookstore in 1894 at the age of forty-nine. It was called the Holmes Book Company and it was located on 702 Mission street in San Francisco. He went on to open six more in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles. He never became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Neither did any of his children.

Robert and his two daughters Emily and Marion visited Hogsthorpe in 1911, staying for almost one year. Emily went again for several months in 1922, and was making plans to return once again in 1936 (it’s unclear if she did). Neither Robert or Emily, his eldest daughter who never married (and who, I was told when I was small, flew the Union Jack from the Holmes house on Haste street in Berkeley) ever really detached from the place. It’s very easy to memorialize England, especially small villages with rotund and cozy names; harder is to be able to distinguish between inherited nostalgia and actual memory. It’s not clear how well Hogsthorpe would have fared in family memory and opinion if Robert hadn’t left.

Robert Holmes, founder of the Holmes Book Company, at home on Haste street, Berkeley, CA, 1928.

Hogsthorpe may or may not be making its own departure in the next one hundred years. It, along with Chapel St. Leonards and all the other small towns and villages of the Lindsey marsh plain, lies along a “rapidly eroding” coastline and is inside the official Coastal Risk Flooding Area, as defined by the East Lindsey District Council. The ocean could reclaim land that it lost to industrious farmers, inundating the place in the cold waters of the north sea. There’s less land to reclaim: Hogsthorpe is below sea level, in part due to de-saturation, which subsides the earth. But Mr. Chandler’s faith in local government is not misplaced. The East Lindsey District council (happily) doesn’t have its head buried in the sand when it comes to the impacts of climate change. Actually, sand is used to “nourish” the beach, helping it accrete sediment and gaining elevation.

Hogsthorpe has a chance of surviving all the incursions—the ocean, the tourists, curious outsiders—during the frenzied summer months, and the still winters, existing as it has for many years: solid, weathered and so, so old.

It doesn’t feel as though it plans on doing anything but staying put.

 

A map of Hogsthorpe showing the location of Goodwin’s Charity Farm.

The villagers of Hogsthorpe were incredibly kind and welcoming. I want to thank them all: Bryan Walker, owner of the Saracen’s Head, and his son Scott, the Father Terry Bardel, Vicar of the Church of England for Chapel St. Leonards and St. Mary in Hogsthorpe, Mr.  Balderston and Mr. Dave Kirkham, Charity Farm trustees, Jamie Chandler at the Orchard Farm Riding Center and of course, his dad, Mike Chandler who has the whole history of Hogsthorpe in his head (and heart.)

Elizabeth Creely sitting inside St. Mary’s church in Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire, England in November 2017.

 

Detail of one of the corbel heads inside St. Mary. This head is unusual: apparently there are only twenty in England.

 

 

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October dreams: a short Dinnshenchas

Last night, I had a dream that a seal-creature hauled itself out of the ocean beside a private, bayside resort where well-dressed people sipped drinks on a green lawn.

It pulled itself out of the water and made straight for me. It wanted me.

This seal-creature was grey and had glowing eyes, and it pulled and tugged on a door that separated the outside from the inside, which is where I was. I was scared, because I know from my childhood in Newport Beach that seals can be aggressive and territorial. If you see one, my Dad told me, get out of the water. Seals are like dogs. They bite.

Seals bite, I thought. Seals bite. 

The seal-creature pushed and tugged persistently on the door as the well-dressed people congregated on the overly manicured lawn. The lawn bothered me: why was there a green lawn next to a bay? Why the well-dressed people? Why was there an urban edge that separated me from the water?  Lawns don’t go with bays. County clubs don’t either. Neither one had blocked the seal. I watched it trying to get inside with consternation and fear.

And then the seal was though the door. What it did was this: It swarmed into my arms, as if it belonged there and would never leave. It was fast and fluid and didn’t maintain shape, but it was a seal, with those glowing eyes. It molded itself to me, to my body. It wanted to be held. It wouldn’t let go.

I was confused, walking the halls of the glossy suburban space with the creature clasped in my arms. How could a seal, I wondered, which needs the sea live in an artificial atmosphere like this? I grew less fearful, and more concerned with each passing moment. It needs water, I thought. It can’t be outside of the water like this.

I put it down, tentatively. It flopped around, helpless, unable to move.

I thought perhaps putting it down would force it to do for itself somehow; make itself an environment of water, out of itself, out of sheer will. I thought it would make for itself an environment that would enable it. Help it to navigate and move. But that didn’t happen. It didn’t work.

So with some new tenderness (i don’t think it will bite me) I picked it up again.

 
“I leave myself as open as I possibly can. There’s been very few times in my life when I’ve really planned out a painting and then put it into form. The reason for that, is that by the time I’ve put it into form, I’m bored with it! I was tired of it…I’d already worked it out. Done and over with. I was just doing the mechanical work. So I try and leave it as absolutely open as I can and I start putting some color down, some paint, and let, uh…whatever it starts to say, come into form. And develop it from there.”
Joan Brown, in an interview from 1979

October 26th, 2017

In the Blink of an Eye: the end of CELLspace

 

Two weeks ago my cousin Juli came for a weekend visit. Earlier that day, before she arrived, I’d seen a post on Facebook lamenting the loss of CELLspace, which exists now in partial form at 2050 Bryant street: the east-facing wall is now totally demolished and the rest will follow soon.

I knew CELLspace was being ripped down and that the end was near, but like everyone, thought I had more time with it. I walk by the site almost everyday, and had lately been making mental note to take pictures, for (you know) posterity’s sake. Tristan Tzara’s impudent face had been painted on one of the walls. I loved seeing it. In Tom Stoppard’s play “Travesties”, Stoppard has Tzara yell “Dada! Dada, dada, dada!” like the bratty punk he probably was.

There was a similar sense of surreal unreason guiding the destruction of CELLspace and the surrounding buildings. We who live in the city are now minus a community space. Taking its place will be a six-story building with market-rate condos that most people will not be able to afford. A second eight-story building with 136 units of affordable housing will stand next to it. There had been impassioned attempts to save CELLspace, but in the end, belief in market-driven solutions to the housing crisis and this sentence “C – No Historic Resource Present / Not Age Eligible”, condemned it. The Facebook post made it clear that the end was nigh and that the demolition was proceeding. It was now or never.

“Juli,” I said after dinner, “we’re going for a walk.”

“Ok!” she replied brightly.

We sipped the last of our mead, collected ourselves and walked around the corner to a scene of great finality. Rubble lay in heaps and the dank odor of newly exposed basements filled the air. The entire corner of Bryant and 18th street was gone.

Juli and I let ourselves in to “see”, which was silly. The point of demolition is to take away the thing that used to be there. There was nothing to see. When cities change quickly, individual memory changes too and is included in the act of demolition itself. The construction equipment ripped down the buildings, and my memory, too.

The large brick building that housed CELLspace was still standing that night, now almost two weeks ago, but so bereft of human energy that it already felt gone. There was nothing inside the vast hall, except stuff with no value: a chair, some kind of light fixture, and so many things on the floor that they became nothing, a midden pile of twentieth century plastic trash.

Two years ago, I stood with about 100 people in this hall. There was low flat table supporting a large, wide-mouthed cauldron. A fire was made inside the cauldron because it was St Bridget’s day, Lá Fhéile Bríd, and we had gathered to make promises to each other communally and individually to the Goddess of the forge.

As we moved to the center and made a vow, another ritual participant raised a iron hammer and struck an anvil, which rang out loudly and clearly. There was every kind of person in the space that night, which was usual for that place. It hosted communities that gave the Mission –O horrible word that has ruined my home!—vibrancy. The people who congregated there, made culture there and took it out into the city.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition once held a fundraiser at Cell Space: I know because I helped organize it. Another night, another group, another memory: Rainforest Action Network threw a Christmas party and I danced like a madwoman with my friend Krikor, improvising pseudo-swing moves and having the time of my life.

At the end of the night, someone convinced me to take a hit off a joint. I did so and immediately recognized my mistake. I need to leave, I thought. I can’t be around these dazzling people with my mind on fire. So I walked down Bryant street leaving the confident organizers behind me happy and voluble, standing outside the brick building, gossiping and celebrating their successes even as they plotted their next brilliant campaign.

In all, there are five structures that have been torn down so that the two buildings, known collectively as the Beast on Bryant (The Monster on Mission is a different creature, though no less loathed) may be built. Here are their obituaries.

2000 Bryant street, a two storied, redwood-clad building, unprepossessing and downright homely sat directly on the corner of Bryant and 18th. I knew it as Tortilla Flats. I never ate there. Before that, it was the White Front Lunch Room. Before that it was a saloon, owned first  man named Drewes and later by two men named Jopp and Siebe . Both establishments, which were held up by robbers in 1909 and 1913, catered to the German community. Mr. Drewes often ran ads looking for cooks in the San Francisco Call. “Wanted: German woman for lunch cooking”. This makes me think of my great-great Grandmother Mary Wellendorf who cooked at my great-great grandfather’s “chop house” on Fillmore street during the turn of the century. What solid German lunches were cooked in this space? Schnitzel, probably, cutlets of meat pounded flat and pan-fried with onions and cabbage. (What were the women’s names? Why was Drewes always looking for cooks?)

2010 and 2014 Bryant street: both properties constituted the Korbel Box Factory, which manufactured cigar boxes. Before that, 2014 was home to a 16-year old girl named Annie Couthurst. In March 1903, Annie was declared missing by her frantic mother. She appeared two days later “in a hysterical condition”, declaring that she had been induced to stay out past her curfew by a friend. She feared the wrath of her mother so much, she told the SF Call reporter, that she did not want to return home.

2028 Bryant: this was a two-story Italianate apartment building  located directly next to Cell Space. It was constructed in 1885. In 1927, a woman named Kitty McManus lived there with her eight-year old daughter. Kitty was the victim of a charming bigamist named John Kearney, who had nine other wives. She didn’t know, she said. She planned on getting a divorce. Almost thirty years later, a Patrick McManus still lived there. A brother? Her father? A bachelor uncle? What happened to Kitty? Disgrace?

2070 Bryant: This building, which housed Cell Space, looked like another monumental auto livery of the type that sprung up in the city after the 1906 earthquake. However, it was not: it was a foundry called the Central Iron Works, a funny coincidence considering the ritual devotion that was shown to Bridget and her forge in this space.

In 1913, John O. McAuliffe sold a parcel of land to Central Iron works on Florida street; in 1911 manager A. A. Devoto appeared before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, promising to stop the pounding of the steam hammer at night which “disturbed the slumbers of residents” in the neighborhood. Is this story of neighborly discontent also the history of 2028, which was next door? (What was it like living next to an iron works, with belching smoke, and hissing, grinding, pounding sounds such that the residents of Bryant street might wonder if a dragon had settled in a barrow nearby?)

These histories, and others I’ll never know, represent the “past” of 2000-2050 Bryant street. I recite them to myself as I write, a monotonous string of words, and I think I must sound very much like poor Lady Pole from the book “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, who tries to explain to anyone who will listen that fairies have imprisoned her, and that she is not living in the same world that most people are. She can’t tell the story, because there is a rose at her lips preventing her, and also maybe because of the utter strangeness of it all.

This is how it feels to walk around in the litter of the ruined houses on Bryant street, the old warehouses and box factories of the Northeast Mission knowing that you could tell people some kind of story about who lived in them and what happened there, but that the stories are so wholly free of matters of national import or global impact, that what would come out of your mouth would only be a list of mundane events involving German cooks, workers laboring  in a box factory, broken arms, missing children, lover’s quarrels and a burglary or two. It is all just dust in the wind, so to speak.

From the ruins of the buildings, new vistas have been liberated. I can now see the red neon sign of Heath Ceramics glowing in the foggy night air and the far more of the San Miguel range.

This holds true until the Beast is built. Then I will see far less.

 

written with love and appreciation for:
cousin Juli whose pragmatic response to crisis made this month a lot easier. We will always drink at the Palace.
…and Tom Petty whose sweet soul shines bright. You belong among the wildflowers. You belong in a boat out at sea. Sail away, kill off the hours. You belong somewhere you feel free

The Man Who Won a Fortune: the life and times of Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty

 

 

Daniel McCarty, a.k.a “Whitehat” McCarty, was a tough guy to keep up with when he was alive, ninety-one years ago. He still is. Whitehat was one of the more notorious members of my family when I was growing up, and his life was simultaneously celebrated and used as a cautionary tale. He was nationally acclaimed for his skill as a horse trainer and has been credited as a co-founder of the racecourse at Tanforan. He was a flamboyantly talkative fabulist, often impoverished and on the run from creditors, and a frequent subject of gossip columns in San Francisco newspapers during the bibulous frivolity of late nineteenth-century San Francisco, when men gathered in gilt and marble bars to hobnob, network and brag.

I grew up with Whitehat because of my family’s horrified fascination with him. My grandmother Diddie explained that he was the older brother of my great-great grandmother Margaret McCarty Creely. He embarrassed her, she said, because something was always happening. Neither she nor my father specified what the “something” was: they didn’t know anymore but knew enough that whatever it was, it was hard on the family. (He boasted about being arrested 57 times.) The flamboyance was most obvious in his choice of chapeau, the source of his moniker: a tall white beaver-skin hat, that he always wore. Why did he wear that kind of hat?, I asked someone. Because he was short, the adult told me. This was mere self-consciousness: Whitehat was about five feet and six inches tall, hardly diminutive. Nevertheless, he owned more than 15 of these hats.

Ancestry.com describes him as my 3rd-great grand-uncle which makes him feel entirely fictional. Everyone’s got an tragic/embarrassing family member, but very few people have a “3rd great grand-uncle”. Whitehat, Margaret and their siblings John, Annie and Mrs. Thomas Crowell, (her given name is unknown) were the children of Timothy and Mary McCarty. According to family history, this family immigrated from Cork, Ireland in the mid-eighteenth century, lived on the east coast for less than a decade, and made their way to Stockton, California sometime after the Civil War. Whitehat hit the ground running like a true horseman, leaving behind hundreds of newspaper articles in his wake, more anecdotes than facts, and a reputation for glamorous instability that got lots of attention. That, and the millions he spent acquiring horses. Hundreds of horses.

“I was in the horse business then as I am now, and always will be,” Whitehat told the San Francisco Call at the Palace hotel in 1913. Whitehat was 82 at the time and decidedly down on his luck, it having deserted him twice already: once after he started losing his horses, and again on April 18th 1906, when he lost everything, except his debts, in the earthquake and fire. Whitehat stated the facts. He was born on March 12, 1831 in Ireland, and immigrated with his family to Boston, starting life there as immigrant “turfman” in New York city before the Civil War. He owned stables on Kings Highway in Brooklyn, near the Gravesend racing track. He sold horses to the “government” in 1861, during the Civil War, and claimed he got the sobriquet “Whitehat’ while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

He arrived in San Francisco in 1869 and opened a livery stable with a man named Nathan Hopkins, at 679 Market near the intersection with Annie, close to the Monadnock Building. The 1873 Crocker Langley city directory lists him as a “horse dealer”, a plain turn of phrase. His dwelling was 635 California street, located across the street from Old St Mary’s. His sister and brother-in-law, James and Margaret Creely, were living south of the slot at 55 Minna street, keeping house, as it were, and making a living from my great-great grandfather’s trade as a ferrier who hammered out one hot horseshoe after another over a forge to support his growing family.

Whitehat joined them in SOMA shortly thereafter, moving to 754 Mission street, close to the present site of Yerba Buena. In 1876, he was living at 874 Folsom street and had a new livery stable down the street at 821 Folsom. He called it Daniel McCarty and Son. Within the next twenty years Whitehat acquired two ranches (not at the same time), one in Wesley and one in Pleasanton. Along with this, he purchased some of the best racehorses in the country. He estimated later that he spent 400,000 to pasture and maintain them.

Whitehat was a married man, with wife named Cassie and five children. The sons were Joseph, Daniel, and William, and two daughters were named Gertrude and Genevieve. In the late 19th century, local newspapers routinely documented society and communal events. Thus it is a fact, not an anecdote, that on the evening of August 6, 1899, the Creely/McCarty family got together for a party at the house of Mrs. Thomas J. Crowell, Whitehat’s sister, at 769 Hayes street.

Whitehat’s wife, Mrs. D. McCarty was there with her daughters Gertrude and Genevieve McCarty, who played the piano. Anna and Margaret Creely, my great-grandfather’s daughters, were there. This account—it sounds like they were having a hooley, a party held in a home with guests providing the entertainment—rescues Whitehat from the isolated splendor of family myth, which has him in perpetual motion, always drinking and horse-racing, and driving his brougham at breakneck speeds down Market street.

“White Hat” Dan McCarthy Horse Jumps Through Tailor’s Window

There’s no question that he did these things, sometimes unsuccessfully: in 1901 he crashed his horse and buggy though the window of a tailor’s shop on the corner of Mason and Geary. (Editorial note: He  blamed it on San Francisco’s newest mode of transportation, the automobile, which endears him to me even more.) In reality, he probably woke up at home as often as not, regarded his wife and children, hopefully with fondness, and pondered their future, and his.

He and his horse usually survived their speedy forays through the city, making it in one piece to the Palace Hotel, where, as I was told, he would turn dramatically into the circular driveway, fling himself out of his carriage and spend the rest of the day drinking and hob-nobbing.  This is the exact scenario I was presented with as a child: this is what Whitehat did. He drank at the Palace, the adult told me.

There was drinking, in those days and, like the horses, a lot of it, often at the Palace bar. It was here that Whitehat made an unlikely friend: the right Honorable (not really) Cecil Talbot Clifton, later Baron Grey de Ruthyn, a Englishman in San Francisco, who unlike the “dookes” of Mark Twain’s novels, really was a peer of the realm. I was hoping to discover that Clifton was a fake name, and that he was really a man named Sid from the East End, but no such luck. He was a remittance man, waiting for his brother, the current peer, to die, and whiling his time away in San Francisco spending money and carrying on, especially with Whitehat.

Clifton rode one of Whitehat’s horses in a race in Los Angeles; Whitehat later named one of his racehorses after Clifton. Whether this meant as a complement is uncertain. (The horse was struck by an express wagon and died in 1898.) The San Francisco press had a field day commenting on the odd couple. Clifton, a tall man with a hawk nose and Whitehat, a small man with a big hat, both had the same ability to spend money they didn’t have. Clifton was sued by an appliance company in San Francisco for not paying them for customizing his apartment at the Maison Riche, a hotel and restaurant with an illegal gambling den at the intersection of Geary and Grant. After a spell in the Klondike, prospecting for gold, and trying his hand at being a gentlemen-rancher in Montana, Clifton claimed the golden spurs after his brother died in 1900.

The somewhat dishonorable Cecil Talbot Clifton, later Baron Grey de Ruthyn

There were limits to San Francisco’s social elasticity: even it couldn’t efface the difference between a peer of the realm—who likely did not want those differences erased—and an immigrant who left Ireland because of the collapse of the economy during the potato famine. British arrogance and Irish shrewdness may have met cute in in the pages of the San Francisco Call, but beneath the jocular stories ran a whiff of British patronage from Clifton towards his would-be man of business.

Early in 1895, Clifton proposed to operate a “society coach” between the Palace Hotel and Burlingame. The proposed route was from Market to Golden Gate avenue, through Golden Gate Park, and past the “almshouse” on Laguna Honda road, which, the anonymous writer noted acidly, “will be skirted at sufficiently close range to give the …swells who patronize the society coach an object lesson on the fickleness of riches,”* After stopping in the “cool woods” of Ingleside for a break at a roadhouse—perhaps the Ingleside Inn at Ocean Road and Junipero Serra Boulevard—the coach passed through Colma and ended at the Burlingame Country club where the club “had consented to allow” passengers to lunch at the clubhouse.

Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty and his gold watch, chain,  and fob.

This plan depended on keeping up appearances: the grand black-and-yellow coach, made in England, the nouveau riche of San Francisco who were expected to pay 2.50—roughly 73.00—for the privilege of lurching through San Francisco’s often unpaved streets in order to lunch at a county club, and the finishing touch: the transformation of  Whitehat’s Irish brogue into an English accent. (The exact accent isn’t specified. It’s safe to assume it wasn’t an RP accent) Whitehat had objections, rendered in the article as a near incomprehensible phonetic Corkian brogue.

Talbot, me bye,” sputtered Whitehat, “wot the juice is yez givin’ me? D’you tink oi can go bach on the Ould Dart loike thot? Not on your broory! Nay nay!”

Later that year, the two men journeyed to the Burlingame country club. Clifton, as the story goes, signed himself in as J. Talbot Clifton and “valet.” Whitehat, whose “bump of humor is well enough developed” muttered something under his breath and signed himself in as “McCarty and valise”. The financial value of their relationship is probably what made Clifton’s attitude bearable. Whitehat sold him horses, the very best and often his own. “…the best proof that the veteran horseman is doing the best he can by his lordly and wealthy friend,” reported the SF Call “ is that he has sold him all his own stock first.”

Clifton left San Francisco in 1896, after living large and paying little. He left Whitehat his “effects” in his apartment at the Maison Riche, some of which were unpaid for. Whitehat lost his gifts to creditors, and, later, the ability to provide for his horses. In March of that year, 300 of “Turfman McCarty’s blooded horses”, were reported to be dying for lack of pasturage on John. M. Canty’s ranch in Modesto. Forty horses died. Canty claimed that McCarty had not paid the pasturage bill and that he was prepared to let the animals starve to death. Both Whitehat, and his son Joseph were arrested for failure to pay their bills. A jury later acquitted the McCarty men. Canty and another man were arrested, for absconding with the remaining 240 horses, which had been placed in receivership. McCarty ultimately lost all those horses, and went onto to lose more.

The following year an advertisement for an auction of 100 horses ran in the November 1, 1899 edition of the SF Call. “STANDARD BRED TROTTERS.ROADSTERS. CARRIAGE HORSES. And many others Suitable for All Kinds of Work. Property of Dan McCarty.” McCarty was sued again in 1901 for failing to provide payment for pasturage for thirty-six of his horses in San Jose. He hung to some of his horses. In 1904, Whitehat enlisted the legal services of his nephew, my great-grandfather, attorney James H. Creely to help him recover a bet he made on a sorrel mare he owned named Lillian Palmer. But the stories about Whitehat from this time report his poverty more often than not or play heavily on nostalgia: the “palmy days” when he had beautiful things, and millions of dollars of the best, most beautiful racing horses in the state.  Within the first decade of the twentieth century, the man who “owned more horses than any other man in the world” had no more horses. Sorrento, Dexter Prince, Venus: all his beautiful horses were gone.

An ad from the San Francisco Call, advertising the auction of 100 horse, at the corner of Valencia and 15th street

McCarty lived in San Francisco and continued to drink. On July 11th, 1915, Whitehat had his daughter Mary Gertrude, “25 years old, and pretty,” committed to the Detention Hospital for the Insane on Stevenson street. He was found the next day wandering in the street, “raving” and taken to the same hospital where father and daughter lay on adjoining beds. Physicians diagnosed his daughter as “insane” and Whitehat as an acute alcoholic. He was spotted in 1920, back at the Palace, by the manager, William Shepard. “It is not every day in the year that we see a trio like that around here,” remarked Shepard. He pointed to three men, described as “old-time political figures.” One was Whitehat.

Whitehat died on December 4th, 1926. His funeral mass, which was held St. Patrick’s church, was well-attended for a man who, the paper noted, had lived in seclusion in his later years.  It’s hard to imagine—and a bit painful— that anyone who loved attention as much as he did totally withdrew from San Francisco’s gregarious downtown culture. The “golden shekels”, the beautiful horses and the tall hats are gone, and so are the racetracks Whitehat founded and frequented.

Whitehat is now simply Daniel J. McCarty and is lying peacefully in his grave at Holy Cross in Colma. You’ll find him in section E, row 13, area 1, plot 1, if you want to pay him a visit.

He’d like that.

Daniel “Whitehat” McCarty in the San Diego studio of photographer J.M. Lenz, circa 1887

 

 

 

*the disapproving tone of this article is delicious. Whoever wrote it, did not like Clifton.

 

Written in the season of the thinning veil with a lot of love. ‘Tis the season to welcome your family; show them interest and  hospitality.  

        

 

 

The Ancient Brothers of Hibernia Respond to the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900

A telegraph from meBro. J.M.Kirwin, who lived in Galveston, Texas, to the Ancient Order of Hibernians County Board of Directors, in San Francisco

On September 8, 1900, the city of Galveston, Texas, was hit with a category 4 hurricane. The city, which is located on an augmented and engineered barrier island, was demolished. Barrier islands are great for protecting coastlines and absorbing wave energy and not so great at maintaining geomorphic integrity. (the Newport peninsula, which forms a significant portion of my hometown, comes very close to being a barrier island.) Anyway. The highest points in Galveston 117 years ago weren’t much more than nine feet above sea level. The wind gusted at 145 miles per hour and the storm surge crested at 15 feet. The hurricane destroyed everything in its path. Homes were leveled and swept away. Thirty thousand people were left homeless.

“Thousands of Dead Strew The Ruins of Galveston,” read the headline of the San Francisco Call on September 10, two days after the storm hit. The meeting minutes book of the County Board of Directors of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a Catholic mutual aid organization, shows that J.J.  Donohue, P.J. Kelleher, and several other officials held a special meeting at Hibernia Hall, their headquarters at 120 9th street, when news of the catastrophe became known.

O’Donohue, who was the President of the County Board, opened the meeting by stating the obvious. The AOH needed to decide if they could send money to the citizens of Galveston. “The object of this special meeting was to consider whether the AOH of San Francisco would deem it advisable to take steps towards relieving the distress which prevailed among our members in Galveston, owing to the unfortunate condition of affairs with which they are confronted,” wrote the recording secretary P.J. Kelleher in his chunky, inelegant handwriting.

This was not a small matter. The AOH, along with other mutual aid organizations in San Francisco, had hundreds of members living and working in a city with no safety codes, no OSHA, no social services, nothing. If you lost your job, or broke your ribs in a motor accident, or got kicked in the skull by an irritated horse, you were on your own, unless you were a member of an mutual aid or “benevolent” organization like the AOH. If so, you received monetary benefits in lieu of compensation for lost wages, or sick pay.  If your luck really ran out and you died from illness or in an accident, the AOH paid for your funeral expenses. In any case, they had you covered.

The meeting was called after the Board of Directors received a telegram from an Ancient Brother in Galveston, one J. G. Ganty. He asked the San Francisco Bros*  to meet and discuss the matter. “Call special meeting of Hibernians,” wrote Ganty, adding simply, “Awful loss of life and money.”

“Heartrending Appeals For Aid From Many County Districts Of The Devastated Coast” The San Francisco Call, Sept. 16, 1900

This was correct. At least 6,000 people —and maybe as many as 8,000 or even 12,000—died. That’s a lot of people. About 1,800 people died in Hurricane Katrina.  The Great Earthquake of San Francisco officially killed 3,000 people, although many believe librarian Gladys Hansen’s calculation, which puts the death toll closer to 6,000.

Ganty’s plea for help did not go unheard. The AOH had a membership that spanned many trades, and many income levels.  After hearing suggestions from  Brothers Mcfadden, Ryan, Conklin, O’Gara, Dignan, and Mahoney, and the order’s priest, Reverend D. Crowley, eleven branches from across the city pledged $150.00 for relief.

In addition to this sum, the County Treasurer of the AOH added $50.00 to be telegraphed to the County President of the AOH in Galveston. The San Francisco Call reported later that the AOH sent 500.00, (almost 15,000.00 adjusted for inflation) to Galveston, Texas.

It was all needed. The newspapers accounts from Galveston grew worse and worse as more bodies were uncovered, often “naked and mutilated beyond recognition”. Frantic attempts were made to find housing for those who had lost their homes and fears of water-borne pestilence were spreading.

It wasn’t just Hibernians helping Hibernians. All of San Francisco responded. The September 16th issue of the San Francisco Call lists hundreds of business and individuals who gave what they had—shoes, crockery, and, of course, money. Ms. Mable O’Connor, a “talented schoolgirl” who lived at 3443 19th street, raised 70.25 for Galveston. By January, the situation had improved enough for Galveston to report what had been spent to rebuild the city: 2,258,600.

Ancient Order of Hibernians Gathered in Convention, San Francisco Call, August 18, 1910

It’s unclear (to me in my hasty research into Galveston’s disastrous past) how much of that money came in the form of relief, sent by individuals and organizations and how much came from the administration of President William McKinley, who, during the worst of the hurricane’s impacts, lay dying from the gunshot he received at the hands of assassin Leon Czolgosz. The Army Corps of engineers did help build a seawall, intended to protect Galveston from future hurricanes, something it couldn’t do three days ago on Friday, August 25th, when Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

It’s truly a bummer that once again, as Texas faces a fearsome storm, America has a useless President. (Happily, the process of directing emergency aid isn’t linked to media ratings.) How will America respond to Galveston, 117 years later? The pictures of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and his deputies performing rescues is cause for hope. But neither they, nor the thousands of other emergency personnel rescuing entire cities can do much after people are pulled from inundated houses.

There’s been some misplaced schadenfreude over the fact that it’s Texas, California’s weird shadow nemesis with its climate deniers, its theocrats, its racists, its wall-loving Trump supporters that’s getting its ass kicked by Mother Nature.  Are they reaping what they’ve sown? Nah. Hurricanes don’t crash into cities to teach people hard lessons. (and really: miserable people stay miserable, unless they are helped.) Hurricanes are forces of nature and go where they can go.

What happens after that is entirely up to humanity.

A copy of the money order sent from the San Francisco Ancient Order of Hibernians to their Bros in Galveston, Texas.

Here’s a fund to help people displaced by Hurricane Harvey: it’s called the Harvey Community Relief Fund, and it was established by the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, the Workers Defense Project, SEIU Texas, Faith in Texas, CWA, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service
* (They refer to each other as “Bros” throughout the meeting minutes book. It’s very endearing.)

Getting people.

This weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists went on a rampage, beating a man named Deandre Harris, murdering a woman named Heather Heyer, and attempting to terrorize everyone. They failed. The good citizens of Charlottesville refused to be cowed by the confederate-nazi’s infantile displays of historic insecurity, and threw down, creating a bright line between goodness and evil. Within hours, hundreds of rallies were held across this great nation to respond to their terrorist attacks. I went looking for a rally that I’d heard was happening in the Mission somewhere.

People were drifting down 24th street in the way they do now, clutching a cup or cone of Humphrey Slocums in their hands, possessing little purpose, looking clueless and undisturbed. So not a big rally I thought. These people are still lollygagging. It’s not a rally until bystanders start whipping out their iPhones, ostensibly to film things, but mostly to throw up some imaginary barrier between themselves and the action. I’m not a part of this, the gesture says. I wouldn’t put it past them to do this even if they got charged by some psychotic supremacist.

I found the rally, which fit neatly onto the southwest corner of 24th and Mission (or 24th and BART, as I call it). I saw Frank Chu. He was carrying a new sign: the front was the usual meaningless 24 galaxies-1,000,000,000 population babble and on the back was an ad for Expensify. “Expense reports that don’t suck!” it said. I glared at him. Frank, I wanted to say, now is not the time.

A scruffy older man was speaking laboriously into a battered megaphone, which had clearly been through many rallies. It was barely functioning. (Don’t we have better technology by now, people?) He was hairy, pot-bellied and avuncular, your classic elder-hippy who gets stoned and talks about Allan Watts and Phish. Why the fuck is this guy talking, I wondered. The rally was off to a desultory, mansplaining start, which was a bad contrast to the frenetic displays of irrationality I’d been watching all weekend.

NBC was interviewing a tall African American man wearing a tee shirt printed with the words “Black Swag”. I sidled over to listen, which was hard to do with Mr. Natural droning on about the summer of love, of all things, in the background. Shut up, I wanted to shriek. I’m trying to listen!

“I grew up in Atlanta,” the tall man said to the NBC reporter.  “None of this is a surprise. I didn’t see a lot of them (he meant white supremacists) but I knew they were around. I definitely saw a lot of confederate flags as a kid. People are waking up,” he continued,  “and that’s a good thing. But they need to remember that this is nothing new. And Trump isn’t the point. They need to focus on more than just him. These people didn’t just wake up yesterday and decide to be racists. This has been going on for a long time.”  The NBC reporter was nodding his head vigorously. “Trump stirred the pot to unify his base. That’s what he did,” said the tall man.  “You can see that in his refusal to respond to the racists directly. David Duke? I don’t know who he is! That kind of thing.”

In the meantime, the megaphone was handed to another woman, who was inaudible. No one could hear her. “Speak up!” the crowd demanded. I felt my eyes roll around in my head. Why are the first ones to grab the megaphone always people with no rhetorical skills? I caught the words “speak out” and realized anyone could take the megaphone, which is a great thing or a very bad thing, depending.

I looked to my right and saw Heather Heyer’s smiling self-assured face, floating above the crowd, framed against a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Her last selfie, I thought. You could see the tiny golden crucifix nestled into the base of her throat.

A scrawny guy with a ponytail took the floor and got megaphone fever immediately. This is what I call that state of elation when you realize that you finally have the megaphone and that everyone can hear you, whether they want to or not. He started off slow, but the feverish elation grew in him until his skinny body shook. “We must take our country BACK NOW! NOW! NOW! NOW!” he screamed into the battered megaphone. Take the country back to what? I wondered. Isn’t it the past that’s getting us in trouble?

An African American woman walked over and took the megaphone with assurance. She started speaking. “Heather Heyer,” she said and her throat constricted and caught. She started again. “It takes people,”  she said, “it takes people to face down and defeat racism. That means you have to come to meetings, you have to make phone calls. That means,” she said “that you have to struggle. With People. That is the only way that things will stop. Not impeachment. Not special councils. People are the only thing that can stop other people from doing harm.”

She had a ten year old son, she said. “I worry everyday about his future. I drove here today and I saw a white man in a truck with an American flag and I thought who are you? Do I need to be afraid of you?” She paused. “I have to tell you. I’m afraid of white men. I know there are brothers and sisters here who do the work, but I’m afraid. I’m afraid of white people. Don’t let them represent you! Don’t let them do that to you! Turn out! Get out on the streets! You have to do this. Because understand: they want you to stay home, feel fear! Are you gonna get your head cracked? Are they going to hurt you? That’s what they want. They want you to shut up, to back down. They want you to be afraid! Don’t give them that! Take the streets! Hold the streets! Don’t back down!” The crowd—it had grown and was now twice as big—roared.

An older woman wearing tweed cap and a purple Trans March hoodie spoke.  “I’m a sixty-year old Jewish Lesbian! And I will not allow anti-semitism happen again! Not like it did in WWII. Do you know why it happened in WWII? Because people let it happen! They decided to be Good Germans! Well, I’m not gonna be a Good Fucking German! And you can’t be either!”

The last speaker was the tall man wearing the Black Swag shirt. His name was Allen. “People ask me why black people aren’t angry,” he said. The crowd groaned in dismay.  “Why aren’t black people angry?” Allen repeated. “And I say this. I have a job I have to go to. I have shopping I have to do. I have to live my life. What am I supposed to do? Show up at the office and when someone says good morning, Allen, ask them what’s so good about it? That’ll kill the water cooler talk. Catch you later, my co-worker might say. I can just see them saying, oh not that way. Not like slavery! I go shopping, they ask me paper or plastic? and I say I brought my own damn bag!” He meant to be humorous, and he was. He reminded me of Dick Gregory.

“But,” he went on. “Listen. I can’t be angry all the time! ” He laughed briefly and then said “White people. You gotta stand up. You have to.”

The rally organizer took the megaphone, mentioned a conference on November 4th—“NOVEMBER 4th,” he repeated admonishingly, and then segued into a denunciation of Trump and his attacks on reproductive rights. Ye shall know that you are at a RCP-sponsored rally by the mention of a conference and legal abortion in the same breath, I thought sourly.

Back in 2003, after the San Francisco Archdiocese organized the largest anti-choice march in the West, a few of us tried to start a grassroots abortion-rights organization, the small fish chasing the big fish. Real basic stuff. We quickly found ourselves embroiled in a turf war between various socialist factions. People bailed; the organization faltered, and consequently there was no meaningful grassroots response to the theocrats at the Archdiocese.

This was a thing, I quickly found out, after talking to more experienced organizers. Groups like the RCP disrupt and infiltrate grassroots groups to grow their membership which, as far as I can tell, means paying “dues” and selling more newspapers. I felt pissy listening to this guy list the ways in which Roe v Wade has been damaged. You’re only saying these things to get people to your conference, I thought and remembered a day back in 2004, when a reproductive rights rally failed to materialize—at the last minute— because of the ISO and its cultish bullshit. But that’s a story for another time.

I left the rally and walked home down 23rd street. Scattered across the sidewalk were the stamens from a bottlebrush tree growing nearby. The sidewalk was covered in bright red.

I remembered a Halloween night in 1994. I was at my grandmother’s award-winning small house in Columbus, Ohio. The door bell rang. She opened the door. A small boy stood there with a superman cape draped around his shoulders. He had the joyful smile that only a small boy wearing a superman cape could have. He was African American. His eyes were big in his small face, and his hair was closely cropped. You could see his shapely little head, balanced on his thin, delicate neck.

My grandmother made the requisite fuss over him, ooo-ing and ahh-ing and agreeing with him that he was superman and that his cape was magnificent. She shut the door. I could see she was crying. I was startled. Neither of my grandmothers were easily moved to tears.

“Carmen,” I said “why are you crying? What’s wrong?”
“That little boy,” she relied. She was distraught. “What’s going to happen to him? What’s going to happen to that beautiful little black boy?”*

Dedicated to with love to Deandre Harris, Heather Heyer, Corey Long and everyone in Charlottesville who stood against hate. Please know: I’ll get my people.
 
*I prefer to believe that that beautiful little boy grew up to tear down confederate statues.

 

The Mission, marketed: pop-ups and the peace of Alabama street

The bus that brought the Jack Daniels “brand ambassadors” to 930 Alabama St.

All my best “sightings” of the socially extroverted, yet publicly reticent culture descending on the East Mission have been on 22nd street, always at inconvenient moments. On July 21st, as I was carrying a backpack full of vegetables, I saw a white bus moving hesitantly up the street like a wayward whale, the kind that ends up stuck in the Delta. It seemed confused, and I realized why. The driver was preparing to make a left hand turn onto Alabama Street.

It teetered as it pivoted, almost hitting an SUV, and barely clearing the corner. Alabama street, which started life as Columbia street before the city changed its name in 1881 (there were three streets named Columbia, which must have been confusing) is modestly sized owing to its age. It dates back to the early days of  the Mission when nothing larger than a draft horse pulling a dray moved through the streets (and yes, I would like to return to this.)

After regaining its balance, the bus stopped in front of 930 Alabama Street and discharged its contents: a stream of men, wearing suits, and one woman, a willowy blonde, who had glossy, perfectly styled hair. She regarded her surroundings dreamily, looking as if she expected a photographer to spring out of the bushes as she descended from the white bus that had brought her, a photogenic woman, into the equally photogenic space of 930 Alabama Street.

Prior to about 2016, nothing much happened in the small warehouse. The lot was owned by a machinist named Henry Fletcher in 1909. The family of James Nelson Crawford, a loyal union member of the Varnishers and Polishers Union, Local 134, had his wake inside after he died in 1913. Adolph V. Reyna started the Reyna Electrical Works which occupied the warehouse until at least the late 70’s.

The sensor probe that Reyna Electric Works, 930 Alabama Street, San Francisco helped build.

Things are considerably more exciting at 930 Alabama these days. The latest occupant is a community centre (their spelling, not mine)/event space calling itself the “HERE Collective”. Self-described as “non-obnoxious” on their Facebook page, they’re annoying their neighbors. Three complaints have been filed with the Department of Building Inspections, charging the non-obnoxious collective with playing amplified music and carrying on in a manner unbecoming to the peace of Alabama Street.

In the weirdly abbreviated language of departmental reports, the DBI has officially decided that some sort of unacceptable usage-switcheroo has taken place.  “WORK W/O PERMIT; ILLEGAL CHANGE OF USE” blares the finding on the violation record, adding “They are holding a week-long “pop up” store for Jack Daniels Whiskey.”

They certainly were. The people who stepped out of the bus were wholesalers and “brand ambassadors” there to check out the Jack Daniel’s “pop-up store” which was the warehouse itself. It had been covered in black, the color of outlaws, rule breakers: all the edgy types. “Jack Daniels Lynchburg, General Store” was written in white script on the wall. Inscribed on the other wall was a warning. “One Week Only” (maybe this was meant to be reassuring?) The people from the bus flowed in.

I ran home, dumped my veggies, ran back and tried to walk inside, but was courteously stopped by a rotund man wearing a black vest over a snazzy pinstripe oxford shirt. He asked to see my ID.

“Bless your heart,” I said winningly. “I don’t have it with me. I’m a neighbor. What are you guys doing?”
“We’re here for a week, telling the story of Jack Daniels,” he told me.
“I love Jack Daniels!” I exclaimed (this isn’t a lie. I drink Jack Daniels with my mother and enjoy it.) “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” he said. “We’re not selling any alcohol inside though.” San Francisco’s tight liquor laws had kept the pop-up dry, just like the hometown of the distillery, Lynchburg, which is located in a dry county. Another staff person explained what was in store for me, once I got inside. There were souvenirs, seminars on whiskey-making, and, most exciting, a virtual reality tour of the actual Jack Daniels distillery.

I walked inside. A trio was playing. People milled around looking at wooden whiskey barrels, or stood indecisively before display counters. One counter, which was set up with pastries and empty boxes of Jack Daniels cake, had a chalk-written cursive hand sign hanging over it. Miss Mary Bobo’s Bakery, it read. Only pastries for sale! A barber shop was tucked in the corner; a row of hats were carefully placed in a wall separator.

The atmosphere was relaxed and genial, half Frontierland and half Mission Street hipster bar, the type that sports a manly two-word name like Woodchuck Peppercorn or Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too. (You know what I mean.) I half expected Justin Timberlake to amble in at any moment, leading his photogenic wife Jessica, and smiling in an easy southern way.

The virtual town of Lynchburg, Tennessee as seen inside the Jack Daniel’s pop-up at 930 Alabama St.

I made a beeline for the virtual reality tour of the town of Lynchburg. After the Disneyfied display of the ol’ south, the sight of the man sitting in a chair with goggles clamped to his face was jarring. He was tossing his head up and down like a nervous horse. What’s wrong with this guy, I wondered and then realized he was following the topography of the virtual road he was on, maybe one that was narrow, just like Alabama Street. Did they pick this location because of the Southern name? I wondered. I took a picture of him. The staffer overseeing the virtual reality station noticed me and walked over.

“Hey, there! Why don’t you take a virtual tour instead of just taking a picture?”
I smiled at him. He had a handsome head of strawberry blonde hair and a dimple in his chin. A nice guy.
“I like my reality straight up!” I replied. He chose not to notice my bad pun. It was okay for me to take pictures inside, he told me, but I had to hash tag them “so we can all share this experience!” He told me the hashtag.
“So, do you want to try the tour?”
I demurred. “I like real reality,” I said.
“Just reality for you, huh? Not even augmented reality?”
“Augmented reality? What’s that?”

He launched into his spiel. Augmented reality, he explained to me, could be any object that you see and use but isn’t really there. Kind of like a marketing campaign for a distillery with no actual alcohol, I wanted to say, but didn’t. I was glad they weren’t serving whiskey, and he was a nice guy who wasn’t being paid enough to deal with my snarky ass.

“Like a keyboard!” he said exuberantly and waggled his fingers. “You’ll use a keyboard that isn’t really there.” His name was Scott and he was a trained acrobat. “I lived in San Francisco for two years and then I went on tour with an off-Broadway production of Pippin,” he told me. After performing in ninety shows, he’d injured himself and had to quit the show. “I have stress fractures in my shoulder,” he said soberly. “I wasn’t able to do anything for two months. Not even plank position. That’s why I took this job. I knew I wouldn’t hurt my shoulder.” He hadn’t been in a union and was suing the production company. “Sitting on a bus every day, doing ninety performances… it was grueling. You can’t heal with a schedule like that. I’ve been doing PT for two months. I just want them to cover my medical bills.”

I took a picture of Scott and his co-worker next to the Virtual Reality Sign. “Make sure you tag the pictures,” trilled his co-worker, a petite woman in her twenties. “Hashtag JBSFEHHW….” She rattled off a string of letters so quickly, that they ran like water from her mouth, empty and clear of meaning. I left.

In all fairness, corporations have always been in the Mission. I bought a bottle of Jack Daniels from Safeway last year. My neighbor Jose uses a Ford truck in his business as a house painter. Glass bottle of coke are stocked in the refrigerator at El Metate. But a publicly-traded, commercial distillery owned by a major corporation that makes billions of dollars every year doesn’t just pop-up. It has a business plan. Like Ford and its Go Bikes, which has been popping up all over the Mission (except 24th Street), the Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns Jack Daniels, is here by design, not to make, but to market.

The artfully crafted corporate pop-up was mining the grossly misunderstood “vibrant” culture of the Mission for product placement, which— contrary to popular belief—has never been a place where huge parties are thrown every night. The Mission I know was (and is?) residential and family-based. For most of its existence, people have mostly just lived here.

The Mission is open for business, all right, marketing business, not the hardworking business of making things, which was the concern of the place for more than a century. What kind of reality do those of us who live here want? I asked a friend of mine this question who lives around the corner. “Big alcohol conglomerates that don’t invade my neighborhood; that’s the reality I prefer to live in,” my friend replied tartly.

The woman who stepped out of the bus, and into the bewitching glamour of the Mission was responding to an idea, something that isn’t really there. An old warehouse, which once housed a company that designed electrical systems, was somehow more than that. With a coat of black paint, it became the Mission itself, as translated by a multi-billion dollar corporation: invitation-only (where’s your ID?)  with a new business model, one that even as it manufactures vibrancy–the better to promote the Mission– threatens to shut it down.

July 24, 2017.
Since I started writing this, further complaints, and one response from the owner of 930 Alabama street, have been posted on “Nextdoor” the neighborhood social media site.
Matthew McGraw, the owner of 930 Alabama Street, has posted that he’ll hold a community meeting in two weeks. The HERE Collective has a Facebook page: I suggest checking that for further details. Sadly, because of the privacy controls on Nextdoor, I can’t provide a link to the comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to camp at the Back Ranch Meadows campsite at China Camp State Park using public transit.

A marsh plain, looking north from Buckeye Point at China Camp State Park, CA

It’s time to write what I now realize is an annual narrative about camping and the small disasters and triumphs that go with it. Someday I’ll write an essay about camping in the high desert, but, for now, I’m going to write about camping in another oak woodlands, one that’s located on top of San Pedro Mountain in Marin County. On July 4th, Jay and I took several buses and backpacked one mile to the Back Ranch Meadow campground in China Camp State park, which sits in a glen below the northeast face of San Pedro Mountain.

This fact amazes people when we tell them. Admiring glances are thrown our way. “Wow,” a friendly father walking his daughters said to us. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Well, unless you have mobility issues, you can (please know that I support ADA-compliant transportation options funded by my tax dollars.) There’s an  array of public transportation options in the nine-county Bay Area: BART, Golden Gate Transit, SAMTRANS, county buses, and city shuttles that get you out of the city and into counties with camping sites as far north as Mendocino and as far south as Pacific Grove. (The newest entry in this system is the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit system, which I am very excited about.)

Public transportation can be weirdly invisible to the general public, which is a bummer. Publicly funded transit systems are critical elements in any sustainability or “livability” scenario.  This is the basic assertion of transportation justice, the idea that you shouldn’t have to impoverish yourself getting from point A to point B.

These systems, which deserve greater levels of funding, and always seem to be in danger of having their funding cut, are heavily used. The Golden Gate Transit bus we boarded in San Rafael at 1:30 in the afternoon, coming home from our camping trip, was packed full of site-seers, and commuters going to the Golden Gate bridge or to work or to the Transbay Terminal in San Francisco.

 

Jay and his backpack (thanks, Emily Creely!) at the Back Ranch Meadow campsite in China Camp State Park.

The only thing you have to have–aside from a  backpack with a tent, bedding, food, water, and clothes attached to it–is Time, which can be an expensive and scarce resource. But Time is elastic and illusory and tends to open up under pressure.

Also, for the love of god, please use an actual map. I recommend Ben Pease’s Trails of Northeast Marin County map.

Jay strikes the backpacker’s pose.

San Pedro mountain rises to the east of the 101 north into San Rafael. The main ridge splits into a series of smaller, pincer-like fingers that jut into the San Francisco bay. At Point San Pedro, the coastline makes a sharp turn to the north. This point, together with Pinole Point, located across the bay on the eastern shore, creates the space the San Pablo bay occupies.

There’s a frontage road that winds around Point San Pedro heading north. This road  takes you past salt marshes, the laboratory of the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, which conducts research on estuarine health within the wilds of pickleweed and spartina. There are odd little hills perched on the edge of the marsh, would-be islands, which will be actual islands in another 50 years or so, as soon as the sea rises.

Jay and I went camping in July mostly because of corporate perfidy; he was placed on unpaid furlough by PG&E, as were his fellow contract workers. The alternative was us  sitting at home on the fourth of July in the Mission District, worrying about our future and enduring one M-80 explosion after another until Christ o’clock in the morning.

The challenge for us was that we did not want the expense, or bother, of renting a car.I rent a car about four to five times a year, which is enough for me. Cars are expensive, they use land which could be used for better purposes, and the emissions they belch are helping to cook the planet. I love getting rides home as much as the next person, believe me, especially when I’m dolled up for the opera, but in general, I’d rather ride my bike, take a bus or light rail train or just walk.

Looking east from Buckeye Point in China Camp State Park.

What people should have congratulated us for was getting a campsite anywhere for the 4th of July. (Jay and I suffer from procrastination.) We needed a campsite to be available at the last minute in July and one that was accessible by public transportation. That’s a tall order, I remarked acidly to Jay. Miraculously, we got our wish. China Camp State park had sites available throughout the week of the fourth of July. We booked site #15 for three and 1/2 days and three nights.

Our assumption that we could get there on public transit was well-founded. The Bay Area is unique in California in having undeveloped, natural areas in close proximity to its urban centers. The activism that protected the contado and sought to make it accessible to city dwellers is one of the main reasons Jay and I could depend on public transportation to get to a campsite. Dick Walker wrote about this history in his wonderful book  “The County in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area”. Using 511 and our own knowledge of local transit options, we planned our route, using three buses, and one half hour walk. Within four hours, we were at the campsite.

The first bus we took was a MUNI bus, the 27 Bryant. We hopped on at 22nd and Bryant, and rode to 5th and Market, walked to 7th and Market and got on a Golden Gate Transit bus #70. We de-bussed at the San Rafael transit hub, broke for lunch, and then took a Marin County Transit District bus #233 to Vendola Drive, the last stop for this particular bus and one that put us within walking distance of the campsite.

The first ten minutes of the walk was a bit grim. Pedestrians are forced to walk on a narrow shoulder on North San Pedro Road, which is built for cars, not walkers. I felt like an interloper, and reflected on how transformative sidewalks and walking paths really are. They open spaces up. Streets that are engineered for cars close them down.

After 10 minutes of walking up a slight grade, Gallinas Creek and the San Pablo Bay appeared, and the small shabby suburb disappeared behind us. After that, it was a twenty minute walk to the entrance of China Camp State Park and the parking lot of the Back Ranch Meadows Campground entrance.

A cluster of pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) in the meadow in front of Back Ranch Meadow. It’s not native and is incredibly fragrant and also very handy. If I’d known it was non-native, I would have taken some.

We got to the site at about 2 p.m., trudging a bit. Our backpacks were heavy, and the day was hot (really hot.) There were problems, the most serious of which was the semi-derelict wooden food lockers at the campsite. We were warned about raccoons, but the real vandal was the incredibly cute California mouse (Peromyscus Californicus).  The mice got inside the box, nibbled on this and sampled that, and after breaking into a bag of walnuts, made a cute little nest for themselves and settled down to enjoy life, which they did until Jay came along and flushed them out. (also, mouse feces was everywhere. Yup.) Here’s a link to a video of the mice caught in their moment of  flagrante delicto.  (I urge you to watch it.)

Poor little guys. It’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the State of California and the California Department of Parks and Recreation for trying to close China Camp back in 2012, which has had a deleterious effect on basic park maintenance. At some point this week, I’m going to send an email to the Friends of China Camp—we’re members— the all-volunteer organization tasked with running the 75-acre park, letting them know that they need to tell people to bring their own storage options.

There were other challenges: a bratty child one campsite down who threw florid temper tantrums several times a day. (Once, she woke up in the middle of the night and screamed mama, mama for five minutes, reenacting the most basic and terrible fairy tale of all: the lost child in the wood crying for her mother).

And the mosquitoes were relentless and we hated them for it and wondered why we hadn’t brought protection. Jay and I counted 22 bites between us. Bring mosquito nets and barriers, and repellent. You’ll be a lot happier. The campsite is protected from wind, which makes lighting your campfire easy and fighting mozzies and midges impossible.

Arctostaphylos manzanita on the Powerline fire trail, a southeast-facing trail above Back Ranch Meadows campsite in China Camp State park.

But the consolation was in what we saw in our three days there. There were old-growth manzanita lining the ridges, some of the biggest I’ve seen in Marin. There were black oaks. We saw a skink, a magical lizard with a bright blue tail. Deer crashed through the brush with their heavy yet light-footed bodies and pricked their ears up every time we took a step. The salt marsh rippled with (probably) hybridized spartina, which waved in the wind like green watered silk.

The moon was straining towards fullness the entire time we were there. On the last night, we walked out to look at the marsh plain under the glowing moonlight.

The first night we’d spent there, I’d heard coyotes shrilling and yapping in their crazy way, somewhere out in the baylands. Jay and I hoped to hear this again, but the yells and shrieks were all coming from the children, playing one last game before bed in the campground.

It still counts, I thought. We are, after all, animals too.

Jay and Elizabeth under the influence of the Thunder Moon, July 6th, 2017

 

For Laura, who wanted to know how we did this, and for Alexis and Krikor who showed me how. Long Live the Purple Monster backpack!

 

Jay at dusk, in China Camp State park.

From the 23rd Street Crossroads: the Weeping Man O’ the Mission

 

 

People do get themselves into a pickle: On Friday, as Jay and I walked home down 23rd street, past the Gaehwiler’s Hoarded Mansions, I saw a Siamese cat dart onto the sidewalk and heard the sound of weeping. We walked toward the sound and found a  man sobbing in abject sorrow, sitting on the bottom step of 3015 23rd Street. We asked him what was wrong. He really couldn’t tell us.

“My friends live here,” he told us, by way of explanation. His name was Ryan. He was wearing black-rimmed glasses and his hair was groomed. He lived in Los Angeles and he wanted to go home and go to bed. That was all we could get from him: he lived in Los Angeles, he’d been waiting for his friends, and he wanted to go to bed.

“Where are they? I want to go to bed,” he wailed. It was a nice little bed, he said, located in Los Angeles and he desperately wanted to be in it. His head dropped into his hands and he sobbed afresh. (sorry for the pseudo-Richardsonian prose, but it was exactly like this.) He was very drunk.

Later, I observed to Jay that that kind of drunkenness is a state of inebriation usually achieved in the small hours of the morning.
“That’s a three-o-clock-in-the-morning drunk,” I said. “Not an 11:30 drunk. It takes time to get that wasted.”
“I’ll defer to your superior knowledge,” replied my husband.

Ryan had big brown eyes. “You guys are so kind,” said he said tearfully. “I’ve been sitting here for three hours and no one has stopped.” A car drove by and he sat bolt upright.
“Is that them? Oh, God. Could that be them?” It wasn’t them. He slumped back down. It was a long story, he went on to say, of how he came to be sitting, shivering, woeful, and drunk on the bottom of the stairs and was too wonderfully incomprehensible to be related in a way we’d understand.

“It’s a long story, right?” I said sympathetically.

“Oh my god. It’s such  a long story,” he said and waved his hand in a gesture of you-wouldn’t-believe-it-if-I told-you bafflement. I saw, over Ryan’s slumped shoulders, the tenant of apartment 1305A, twitching her curtain at intervals, peering at us from behind her locked door.  23rd street, between Alabama and Folsom, looks and feels deserted. The Gaehwilers’ have been systematically emptying their buildings, and the sticky, brine-scented fog that was rolling in from the west enhanced the sense of ghostly lostness.

Poor Ryan was wearing only a flimsy jacket and a thin tee shirt. I know from experience that San Francisco fog still comes as a shock to Angelenos. Ryan, I imagined myself asking sternly, where’s your jacket? I was wearing an ugly beige London Fog windbreaker because of the windy, damp cold. It’s a jacket so devoid of style that my mother refuses to wear it. I took it off and spread it across his shoulders.

“Oh, that’s so kind of you!’ he cried. “I’m OK. I really am.” He burst into tears again, and then stopped. “I’m OK. What are you guys doing? You don’t need to worry about me. I’m a professional,” he said.
“I believe you,” I replied. I noticed a white paper band around his wrist; it was the type of bracelet they attach to you as proof of entrance in festivals or psych wards. I touched it.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Oh, that was from a club I went to,” he replied.

The Siamese cat had been darting back and forth on the sidewalk during this encounter. It was a gorgeous cat, a seal point Siamese, with observant eyes and a whippy black tail. If I hadn’t been so involved with the woeful Ryan, I would have paid more attention to it.
“Don’t go in the street,” I told the cat.
It threw itself on the pavement and started writhing ecstatically: clearly it was communing with the spirits of the fog-shrouded night and in thrall to them.

Jay discovered that Ryan’s phone was out of juice. “Do you want me to go get a charger?” he asked Ryan, who waved him away.
“No, no. What are you guys doing,” he said with drunken irritation and touch of belligerence. “I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m a professional.”

He clearly belonged to some profession. The watch he was wearing was a good one, and the scent of his cologne, which was in competition with the  smell of alcohol on his breath and skin, was very distinct: it had a strong note of fougère, and had clearly been crafted by some of the finest noses in the business. He was, in any case, a sitting duck. Robbery is a brisk business in any city, and San Francisco is no exception. I myself had been stolen from just six days before. My bike was swiped because I posted  woefully on Facebook a day later, of my hare-brained actions and the thief’s moral laxity. The loss had affected my week, leaving me with a sense of jumpy, hyper-vigilance.

I looked at Ryan critically: he didn’t weigh more than 160 pounds and he was extremely drunk. Anyone could have robbed him. I could have robbed him.
“Is your wallet on you? Do you have money?” I asked. “You could go and find a place to stay, right?”
“Yes, of course,’ he said. “I have money. My wallet is right here. Go on with your night,” he said. He made an attempt to sit up straight. “Really- you guys are so kind. I’ll be fine.”

I felt doubtful, but also no desire to invite him to our apartment, so that he could pass out in peace. It might have been fine, but it might not have been. The small talk in the morning would have been excruciating and I was all out of patience with the world.
“We’re going to leave you,” I told him. “I’m not real sure we should be doing this.” But he wanted us to go and finally we did.

When we got home, I called non-emergency dispatch and asked that they check on him, knowing he would not welcome this, knowing that it would be his worst nightmare, the flashing red and blue lights, the men in uniform standing over him, the flashlight in his face. But Ryan was vulnerable, sitting there weeping loudly, drenched in his expensive cologne and wearing his fine watch.

Does he have a weapon, asked the dispatcher and I laughed. Oh god no, I replied. Later the thought he’s an American and many American are armed ran through my head. He could have had a weapon, a small gun, maybe, a pearl-handled derringer, the weapon of maiden aunts and spinsters of Victoria Holt novels, blunt-nosed and deadly. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t afraid, I thought.

This morning, while Jay made breakfast, I called non-emergency dispatch.
“Can you tell me what happened with a call I made last night?” I asked and gave the dispatcher the address.
“23rd Street, between Harrison and Alabama, right?” No one had been found there, the dispatcher told me. By the time the police showed up, Ryan was gone.

How long did Ryan sit there, ears straining for the sound of an approaching car with his friends inside? Did they laugh affectionately, jeeringly, at the sight of him and his tears? Did they ask him about the beige windbreaker? (where on earth did you get that terrible jacket?) Did they reassure him that they’d always meant to come home, and open the gates for him, and take him inside to a little bed where he could finally sleep, a safe place inside, where the ecstatic cat and the sticky fog could not follow?

 
— written on Saturday, July 1st, as the moon waxes ever fuller in Libra, the sign of balance and right relationships.
Today is
my eighth day with no bike. The lesson of the stolen bike is this: there’s really no rush. The world isn’t going anywhere.

 

The Marine Firemen’s Union Hall is being sold.

The Marine Firemen’s Union building sits on the western side of Second Street, an appropriate direction given the union’s relationship with the Pacific Ocean. Second Street itself tips ever so slightly up as it intersects with Folsom. This angle is probably all that’s left of the vertiginous sand dunes clumped around the foot of Market Street in the 19th century. After the dunes were dismantled, boarding houses sprung up in their place, housing men who worked on the docks and in the ships berthed at the Embarcadero, back when it was a working waterfront.

The union, formed in 1883, is formally known as the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association. MFOWW (pronounced em-fau) moved to their current location sixty years ago. Today, the building sits on a large lot next to Linkedin, a hiring hall of another kind, minus the collective action for higher wages and better working conditions. The union is preparing for another move.

“We’re selling the building,” Ivy “Cajun” Callais told me. Callais, who lives in Alameda, told me that once the building was sold, the union would move operations to Seattle. “All the jobs are in the Port of Oakland now, anyway,” he said.

Asked if the building will be torn down, he nodded his head. “The air above it is worth more than the building, honey.” Callais, who still has a southern drawl—“I’ve been here since 1964 and haven’t lost it”—is happy the building isn’t under the confines of historic protection. “We have to sell it before that happens. We couldn’t afford it. All that work we’d need to do. It’d bankrupt us.” The building was described by the Chronicle in 1957 as a “shiny, new … marble-faced construction” and cost $800,000 to build. It’s anyone’s guess how much the parcel will sell for. Millions of dollars is a safe bet: the building, which sits on 21,396 square feet, was last assessed at $1,057,237. Callais was proud of the building and its construction even as he predicted its demise. “This building was built with the best materials. You see that wood?”

Interior shot of the Marine Fireman’s Union hall, 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

The building is home to two other unions: The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians–Communications Workers of America and The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Both unions possess the same sort of mouth-busting moniker made manageable by the phonetic pronunciation of their acronyms, NABET and IATSE (pronounced eye-at-see). The building also houses two prized works of art. A bas-relief sculpture is mounted above the entrance. Made by Olof Carl Malmquist, the noted sculptor whose work was scattered throughout the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, the sculpture shows marine firemen inside the boiler room of a ship.

Olaf Carl Malmquist’s unnamed bas-relief sculpture above the entrance to the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall, at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

Inside the hiring hall hangs a mural created by the famed sculptor and muralist Lucienne Bloch. It depicts shipping products and their places of origin throughout the Pacific region. The marine themed mural is charming and whimsical, complete with a mermaid and a jellyfish. Noticeably absent from it are images of men toiling over boilers in the guts of the huge ships that carried them from port to port. Bloch, who created five murals in San Francisco between the years 1956- 1963, is famous for photographing Diego Rivera’s mural “Man At The Crossroads” just moments before it was destroyed on orders given by the thin-skinned capitalist Nelson Rockefeller.

Lucienne Blochs’ mural, inside the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall, at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA.

The building has other historic features too, namely lead and asbestos, elements nobody wants to preserve. According to Callais, the building is full of both. “Look at your feet. See that tile?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s what you’re standin’ on. Asbestos. It’s up there, too,” he said, pointing skyward. These are problems the union doesn’t have the money to solve.

“You hear the media talkin’ about corrupt union officials, embezzlin’ and gettin’ paid too much. Well, let me tell you about this job, darlin’,” Callais explained in his languorous drawl. “If I didn’t draw social security, I couldn’t afford to work here.” He mused on the stability that union wages used to bring to San Francisco. “I could get you a job being a wiper—you know what that is? It’s simple.” He mimed wiping a surface. “I could get you a job doing that, and you’d make a better living than me.”

He remembered a time, after the Vietnam war, when members of the union and “casuals” or non-members, would line up outside the door. “There were jobs in those days,” he said “Some of the casuals, they’d go to Shelley’s bar up there at the corner, and wait. And if at the end of the day, there were still jobs to be filled, jobs the members didn’t want, the dispatcher’d go to bar, walk up to a guy and ask him if he wanted the job. And if that man hesitated, why the dispatcher’d walk to another man and ask him. If you wanted a job, you had to say so. Couldn’t hesitate. There was always a man wanting to work.”

These days, the big hall is often empty, although it is still open. “People still get jobs here,” he said. According to the union’s secretary treasurer, the union’s combined assets totaled $2.6 million. MFFOW had 430 active members and dispatched a total of 1,909 jobs in 2016. He thanked me for stopping in—“take all the pictures you want!”—and handed me some newsletters to read. The April 13 issue of “The Marine Fireman” touted the “hundreds” of new jobs coming to the Port of Oakland and announced the newest advance in the shipping trade: automation. The headline read “Danish researchers excited about prospect of unmanned ships.” Before leaving, I’d asked Callais what he thought of the economy. He paused. “The minute the US loses its shipping trade, well,” he said, “that’s the day the US is finished.”

The view from the dispatcher’s desk inside the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

“Immigrants and native-born workers wash against each other all the time in the California economy, like the tides moving in and out of the bay beneath the Golden Gate, coming together, only to be pushed apart by powerful forces.
The difference between metaphor and reality is that water and tides are not sentient. Workers are conscious and capable of changing direction together  if the current in which they find themselves is not to their benefit or liking.”
From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement
Fred B. Glass, University of California Press

 

UPDATE: Anthony Poplawski, the President of the Marine Firemen’s Union has disputed the assertion that this building is being sold. In a post published on Facebook, he said that offers are made on the building “all the time” and that there are no plans to sell.
However, this blog post, which recounts a conversation, accurately quotes Mr. Callais, and his remarks on the building’s status.

* Consider ordering not only Fred’s book but “The San Francisco Labor Landmarks Guide Book” as well. It’s edited by Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives and Research Center and can be purchased here:https://www.amazon.com/Francisco-Labor-Landmarks-Guide-Book/dp/B008GFRD7O