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Remembering "The Sidewalk Superintendent" of 24th Street
By John Bird
One morning late in 1997, Ben Asaro came rolling up 24th Street with a big grin on his face. "Thirty years," he exclaimed. He had lived in his home -- a studio apartment on the second floor of the wedge-shaped building on Church at 22nd Street -- for three decades.
Ben discovered Noe Valley in the late 1960s when it was a quiet, out-of-the-way bedroom community. In an era before cafés and coffee culture, his favorite haunts were the local ice cream shops.
Ben Asaro was born on Dec. 1, 1918, and grew up in a North Beach flat. As a boy, he delivered the San Francisco Call Bulletin to customers in the Tenderloin District. He would trade the streetcar drivers a newspaper for a roundtrip ticket downtown.
When America entered World War II, Ben wanted to fly airplanes, but wearing eyeglasses kept him from pursuing pilot training. He was drafted into the Army and did clerical work at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio. Ben liked being in the service -- the structure, the regimen, and the camaraderie.
After the war was over, Ben began an apprenticeship with a shop that made custom window coverings. He became skilled at the craft of hanging draperies, curtains, and shades, and he drove his Chevy station wagon all over the Bay Area to install draperies in customers' homes and offices.
Retired by the 1980s, Ben became a fixture in Noe Valley. Even as he started to succumb to the ravages of emphysema, he continued to make the daily trek down Church and up 24th Street with the help of an electric scooter. He'd get lunch at Herb's, a few groceries at Bell Market, and a coffee at his favorite café, Martha & Bros. Coffee.
He loved Herb Caen's Chronicle columns, Henny Youngman jokes, and American movies of the 1930s and '40s. He would talk to anybody who would listen about his years growing up in San Francisco. Even in his final months, Ben was an avid fan of crossword puzzles.
Ben made his last solo trip to Martha's Coffee late last year. He passed away in his sleep on April 24, 2002, in the apartment in the neighborhood in the city he loved. He was 83 years old.
A memorial service for Ben Asaro will be held at the Noe Valley Ministry, 1021 Sanchez Street, on Saturday, June 22, at 2 p.m. Come share stories of Ben, his life and times. Refreshments will be served.