Noe Valley Voice May 1997

Days I Like to Remember

By Florence Holub

Last month as we watched television, a smile that we had not seen for 20 years flashed onto the screen. It belonged to one of the little boys, now grown up, who was in our son Eric's class at the old Edison Grammar School on Chattanooga Street.

It pleases us to be able to relate that the little boy, Emil Guillermo, grew up to be a television news reporter. A Filipino-American journalist with a Democratic viewpoint, Emil writes syndicated columns that sometimes appear on the editorial page of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Emil was only one of the bright and energetic children who came to play with our son when school was out. Sometimes five or six kids would come tromping up the steep hill on 21st Street and then collapse, exhausted, in a panting "dog pile" on our rug.

They had the back yard to play in and often built forts with the odd pieces of wood that my contractor father brought over. On other days they watched their favorite television programs on the sofa in the living room, and I sketched them whenever they stayed still long enough.

I did finish a drawing one day in 1969 -- July 20, in fact -- when three of them sat riveted to the TV, watching the Apollo spacecraft land a man on the moon! But most of the sketches remained unfinished, because they were an active lot -- a bouncing, busy, bunch of little boys.

For energy replenishment, there was always a canister of oatmeal cookies, which I had baked and laced with wheat germ. The cookie jar resided on a shelf over the stove, at just the right height for little hands to reach into as needed.

One of the young gentlemen, 8-year-old Kerry Jones, lived close by, so he and Eric spent many hours together either at his house or ours. I think of Kerry every St. Patrick's Day, because I once asked him to have dinner with us then. Checking to make sure that he would enjoy the meal, I asked if he liked corned beef and cabbage. He said that he did, but when he sat down to dinner, he looked at his plate hesitantly and asked, "Where's the corn?"

There were no little girls on our block, except for Kerry's sister Melanie. She was only a year younger than he was, so she began to tag along on his visits to our home. Since at that stage Melanie's interests were not those of the boys, she followed me around the house chatting as I attended to my chores.

One day as I was going through some old photographs, she wanted to know who the bride was in one of the photos. I held the picture of the young face next to my seasoned face and waited for her to recognize me. When she did, she responded sincerely, "I like you better with wrinkles all over your face."

Melanie was delightful company and a real charmer! One afternoon I heard her on our front stairs talking to an unhappy lad who was obviously smitten. He had followed her from school and seemed to be, as a last resort, trying to win her affection with money -- a dime, to be exact. But she only shook her head back and forth again and again while trying to escape him. At some point he must have threatened to end his own life, because she turned, put her hands on her hips, and, looking him straight in the eye, said firmly, "I'm sorry I can't take your allowance. But I don't want you to kill yourself."

I thought this 7-year-old little lady handled the situation nobly. She showed just enough concern to placate her admirer, but not enough to encourage his suit. Dejected and rejected, her Romeo turned slowly and walked away, never to darken our doorstep again.

On another afternoon, a strange creature who had the body of a little girl but the large hairy head and bulbous nose of Yeti, the Abominable Snowman, arrived at our front door. Naturally, we ushered the furry visitor right in. Melanie was wearing what might have been a genuine Tibetan ceremonial mask, and she was so pleased with our warm response that she struck a graceful pose for Leo to capture on film.

When Kerry and Melanie's mother remarried, the family moved to a home in the country, and, regretfully, we lost track of them. Most of the other children have also moved away, with the exception of Walter (Vladimir in Russian) Merkuloff, who still lives in Noe Valley near 30th Street.

Walter is Eric's oldest and closest friend. He grew up on 20th Street, in a house that also welcomed the little ones in the neighborhood. His family often treated the kids to snacks such as piroshki -- delicious Russian pastries filled with meat, cheese, or potatoes.

It occurred to me that Walter, who was bilingual, might teach our Eric to speak Russian. When I suggested this, Walter looked surprised and said, "He already knows how, don't you, Eric?" Our son quickly answered, "Da."

These two were schoolmates throughout their grammar, middle, and high school years. After graduating, they both gravitated toward the printing trade. Walter became the pressman for the Russian Life Daily, a newspaper printed at the Russian Center on Sutter Street and distributed across the continent. When he needed help getting the edition out on the center's big antiquated press, he asked Eric if he would like to join him, and, of course, Eric said, "Da." They continued working together for several years until the clanking old press had to be replaced by a newer, phototypesetting machine and processor.

Of all the little boys we became acquainted with, Walter is the only one who still keeps in touch. Last year when he dropped in to visit, it was just like old times. He walked over to the canister on the shelf, looked in, found it empty, and with mock indignation asked, "Where are the cookies?"

Now that the boys are grown and the demand for cookies has declined, I rarely bake them. But whenever I do, I remember those delightful little kids!