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Gone But Not Forgotten: My Back Yard
By Eileen Collins Spiers
Every time I approach the intersection of 22nd and Noe streets, I swear I can hear the voices of children laughing and shouting. One of those voices is my own -- Noe Valley was the neighborhood of my early childhood. The freedom we city kids had, even during the rebellious 1960s, is unknown today. We were free to explore our neighborhood and interact with its residents as though it were an extension of our own back yard.
My brother and two sisters could rarely be found at our home at 913 Noe St. More likely, we were off visiting one of our neighbors, particularly if they had children.
There were the Gallaghers, Murphys, Glynns, Flynns, Gomezes, Cotters, Chapots, and Hanifins, to name a few. Definitely an Irish influence with a dash of Latin. My own family was among the leftover Irish in Noe Valley after so many had made an exodus to the fog-shrouded but more residential Sunset District.
Summertime provided us with the most freedom. We made full use of neighborhood parks. Before my siblings and I set out for the day, we often stopped at Mark's Grocery at 22nd and Noe, where for 35 cents we bought French-roll sandwiches with freshly sliced bologna and Shasta orange sodas. Then, armed with our lunches, we marched across Noe Valley, trekking up and down the hills to Douglass Park at 26th and Douglass. There we spent hours clambering over the park's steep, dusty hills and climbing its tall pine trees like monkeys.
On other days, we hiked to "Nickel Pool" -- it cost just a nickel -- at 19th and Linda streets in the Mission. On route to the pool, we descended the precipitous 22nd Street "step hill," crept along the J-Church streetcar tracks that snaked behind the houses, and then chased one another across the grassy slopes of Dolores Park, still wet from the morning sprinklers. Being young and daring, we always signed up for the earliest swimming lessons offered by the Red Cross in the Mission's open-air, unheated pool. I get goosebumps just thinking about those chilly mornings.
Summer evenings meant that the neighborhood boys would converge at the intersection of Noe and Alvarado to play baseball. Back then there was so little traffic, a baseball game could actually be played in the middle of the intersection.
Home base was always on the southwestern curb so that the balls would be hit up the Noe hill. Still, countless balls went foul, either rolling all the way down Noe to 24th Street or, worse yet, crashing through a nearby Victorian window. Of course, the game always went forward despite the exasperation of the neighbors.
Although living on a steep hill was sometimes a hindrance to our diversions, we kids often took advantage of its grade by finding the fastest way to slide, roll, or glide down it. We soaped, oiled, and even rubbed ice plant on any piece of cardboard or wood board we could find. To get an effective start, we would push off from the short cement mounds buttressing a few of the driveways, then slide and twirl down Noe as if we were saucers in the snow, until we bounced off the Alvarado Street curb, screaming until we were slowed by the sudden flatness of the cross street.
For further excitement, or to simply make us beg for mercy, my brother, Jerry, used to take us for rides on the back of his motorcycle up the 22nd Street step hill starting down at Church Street. That was, of course, before the hill was turned into a one-way street in the downhill direction. I would be on the back of the motorcycle, extremely vertical, with the forces of gravity pulling me backwards, seeing my life pass before my eyes. My brother, meanwhile, is enjoying the intense fright he has inflicted and is already heading back to Noe Street to seek his next victim.
Halloween, my favorite holiday, again found us traipsing through the neighborhood dressed as fairy princesses, pirates, or hobos in search of treats. It was a night of protracted walking and stair-climbing. Always on the agenda was a stop at the notoriously spooky Tagle Haunted House, on Castro between Alvarado and 22nd. This spectacle drew hundreds of children each year for some hair-raising encounters with vampires, witches, ghosts, and goblins. After we reclaimed our wits, we headed over toward Hill Street, haunted by old ladies who handed out cold, refreshing bottles of Coca-Cola and warm popcorn balls wrapped in waxed paper.
One Halloween night -- I think it was 1968 -- a couple of the Gallagher girls and I stopped by an apartment at 892 Noe at the corner of 22nd, above the coin-operated laundry. Here we knew Janis Joplin had taken up residence because we had often seen her enter the building after emerging from her '65 Porche with the custom psychedelic paint job (the "hippiemobile"), which she parked out front on Noe. With every ounce of courage we could muster, a couple of us rang her doorbell and were invited up into her apartment. We entered a world scented with exotic incense and swathed in bright fabric with plenty of beaded fringe. I can't remember if she actually was prepared to give us any treats, but she was very gracious, and frankly we were too star-struck at that point to care. We left running and giggling down the stairs ready to exclaim to all we encountered, "Oh my God, we met Janis!"
To top off most Halloween nights, we would stop by to see Bud, at Bud's Ice Cream at the corner of 24th and Castro streets. He always gave us a cone with a swirl of soft vanilla ice cream. Bud's is just one of several 24th Street businesses we regularly visited during the '60s. Others included the Glen Five & Ten, Meyer's Variety, and Eleanor Rodriguez's Beauty Salon, where my mother would arrange for us to get the always dreaded, boyish-looking "Pixie" haircuts. Of course, there were the Irish bars, such as Murphy's Irish Inn (which eventually became Finnegan's Wake, then the Rat & Raven, and now the Coyote), the Cork-N-Bottle, and the Valley Cavern (now the Dubliner). Let's just say I had my share of Shirley Temples in these establishments, particularly at Murphy's, where my father took us after mass on Sundays. On St. Patrick's Day we were beseeched to entertain the patrons with our Irish dancing.
Noe Valley has changed in many ways since my childhood. Its sky-high real estate prices attest to its popularity with the dot-com set. And unfortunately, the streets that were once owned by children playing baseball, dodge ball, and Red Rover are now dominated by traffic. Yet, whenever I come back to Noe Valley, I can't help but remember the days when a child's whole neighborhood was her back yard.
Eileen Collins Spiers lived on Noe Street from 1963 to 1970, at which time her family moved near Mt. Davidson. She now lives in the Forest Hill area of San Francisco with her husband Brendan and their two daughters. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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