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The Buckleys' House on 22nd Street
By Jim Costello
There was this house on 22nd Street in San Francisco between Noe and Sanchez streets. It belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah Buckley and their six children: Jerry, Tom, Jack, Nancy, Peggy, and Jim. There were other occupants -- every boy and girl in the Noe Valley. The door was always open, morning, noon, and night. I don't believe Mom and Dad Buckley realized how many kids they really had, but I would venture to say it was well into the hundreds.
It was my pleasure to have lived in the neighborhood from 1930 to 1941. I spent more time at the Buckleys' than anyplace in San Francisco, and went in and out of that open door as often as my adopted brothers and sisters. Yes, I considered myself one of their kids.
The early 1930s were hard years. We were in the tail end of the Depression, and money was scarce. Most mothers with eight mouths to feed would have been reluctant to hand out food to every kid in the neighborhood, but not "Mom" Buckley. She always had biscuits or "Irish" bread, coffee, or tea for those entering the house, and always with the words, "Have some more!"
The only outside enjoyment for Dad (and sometimes Mom) was to read the "Irish Sporting Page" to see if an Irish person had passed away. It didn't matter if they were acquainted with the person who had died. They'd go to the funeral parlor anyway. It was a sure place to meet someone they knew, especially if the departed was from their old county in Ireland. At the Irish wakes, the men would gather in the restroom and pass the bottle around, either toasting the departed or "roasting" him, depending on how he lived his life.
But the favorite pastime for us kids was running around outside. Jerry, who liked to play football, was laid up for a while with water on the knee. It was hard on him, sitting on the front porch watching the rest of us play ball. He was never one for inactivity.
Tom had a job with Pete, the fruit and vegetable man, and he would throw us apples and oranges as we followed behind the truck. Tom didn't make much money, but we enjoyed the fruit.
The latter part of the '30s were better years. The Depression was over, and jobs for kids our age began to open up. We played card games almost every night -- Dad, Jerry, Tom, and I -- or if one of us was missing, Jack would sit in. "Pedro" was the game -- a nickel a game -- and after the games were over, Mom would serve her famous "Irish" bread and coffee. I think Dad enjoyed those games -- he was always the first one to sit down at the table. When he could smell victory, he'd throw down an ace and shout to his partner, "Were you ever drunk at a fair?!"
This was the era when people held parties, and put the keg of beer on the kitchen table with a tub of ice under it. And a keg of beer it was, the old wooden kind, the size of a wine barrel. Someone would have a fiddle, and Tom Brown would play his accordion, and Nancy would be dancing the Irish jig.
Before you knew it, it was time to head off to 6 a.m. mass, with the women punching their husbands in the ribs to keep them awake. Then away we went back to the Buckleys' for breakfast or whatever your pleasure.
There were the trips to K.R.B. Hall (Knights of the Red Branch) to learn the Irish dances, and always at the corner bar "Frog Eyes" Twomey. There were dances at St. James, the Irish picnics, and the nickel swimming pool off Valencia Street. A towel and bathing suit for a nickel. Football games on Sunday, and a long walk to the Gray Brothers Quarry on 30th Street. It would be like walking from Visitacion Valley to Brisbane.
Again and again, the parties, dancing, laughter, and happiness at the house at 3733 22nd St. Oh, there were moments when Mom lost her temper, but it seemed most of it went to Nancy and Tom. Jerry was always doing something around the house, but Tom always had his eye on the front door, and Nancy, being the oldest girl, was expected to help with the housework. Nancy was approaching the age of boys and makeup, and one time she spent a little too long in the bathroom and Dad got upset and broke in the door. This was big news because Mr. Buckley was generally quite calm and even known as the original "Quiet Man" (from the movie by the same name).
Jerry was the first of the gang to get a car. I remember one Sunday we decided we'd like to go for a ride, but when we got to the house, he was grinding the valves. That shot a hole in our plans. Do you know he was still grinding them three weeks later?!
When we entered the 1940s, Peggy was about 9 or 10 -- a cute little redhead with the devil in her eyes -- not old enough to bear the wrath of Mom or Dad. Little Jim (about 7) looked a lot like I did when I was his age, and his eyes would get as big as Mom's biscuits when I'd tell him I was a friend of the Lone Ranger. I promised him a silver bullet and a horse, and I gave him a mountain of excuses for why I couldn't give them to him -- just yet!
"Mom" Buckley took a lot of kidding from me. I tied her apron strings to a chair or loosened them as she walked by. I banged her waffles or biscuits on the table. But it was all in fun and we loved every minute of it.
The war came upon us, and on my last furlough home from basic training, before going overseas, it was hard to go to that house on the hill and say goodbye to one of the greatest, most loving women I'd ever met. I walked away with tears in my eyes.
After the war, things changed. There was a drifting away from the City by the Bay. Everybody moved to the suburbs, and tended to lose touch.
I'm sorry I didn't stay closer to my adopted family throughout the years, because it sure would be a thrill to see all the "kids" and that smiling, happy lady, "Mom" Buckley.
Jim Costello wrote this fond reminiscence in the 1960s. It found its way to the Voice courtesy of Mike Mannion, a nephew of "Mom" Buckley residing in San Francisco. Mike put us in contact with the "Nancy" of the story, Nancy Arsenault, who now lives in San Bruno with her husband Joe. Nancy, 73, reports that their old friend Jim Costello passed away in 1991, joining her parents and all but one of her siblings, older brother Jerry. Her father, Jeremiah Buckley, died in 1957 at the age of 70. Mrs. Buckley, whose maiden name was Margaret Browne, lived to the ripe old age of 93. (She was born in Waterford, Ireland, in 1890.) Nancy, who with Joe has raised four children in Visitacion Valley, says she can't imagine a happier childhood than the one she spent in Noe Valley. "We thought we lived in heaven! In those days, my girlfriend Bridie and I would hike up to Twin Peaks and pick the wildflowers. Mom and I would walk down and shop on 24th Street and then jump on the 'Dinkey' [the Castro cable car], and she would sweet-talk the conductor into letting us ride back up the hill for nothing! We had the best time."