Noe Valley Voice March 2002

Florence's Family Album:
Good Neighbor Vivian

In 1985, D.J. Duggan wrote in a letter to the Noe Valley Voice:

What ever happened to "Good Neighbor Sam," who looked after your home, watered your plants, took in the mail, or did any of the nice things neighbors do for one another? Except for the name and a few other changes, she is alive and well and living in Noe Valley.

We are very fortunate to have Vivian Wreden as our neighbor. Our streets are the cleanest of all in Noe Valley, for every day, rain or shine, "Ms. Vivian" and her broom are out making our little corner of the world a much nicer place to live.

So if you pass Hill and Sanchez and see the cute little lady with the broom, give her a smile and a wave -- that is Ms. Vivian.

Ms. Vivian Wreden is my dear friend and neighbor who lives on the Sanchez Street hill. I met her in the 1950s, after Leo and I and our three little boys moved to 21st Street.

Vivian and I were born in the same year, 1919, and share memories of growing up in the valleys and hills of San Francisco. When my family came here from Idaho in 1925, they settled at 22nd and Chattanooga streets.

Back then, Vivian Wreden's family owned the Green Street Grocery, on the corner of Green and Laguna streets, and she lived with her parents and younger brother above the store. In the days when Vivian's grandparents were proprietors (as shown in the pre-1906 photo on this page), the Green Street Grocery offered its customers such specials as two cans of Blue Lake string beans for a quarter. Two boxes of grape nuts cereal also sold for 25 cents. And Lion-brand corn was a bargain at three cans for 25 cents. (Before the advent of refrigeration, most people bought their vegetables in tin cans.)

Although today these prices seem impossibly low, don't forget that wages were low, too. In the 1920s, my father, a carpenter, worked in the building trades for a dollar a day, and that was considered a living wage. Buying a penny's worth of candy was a rare treat for most of us city children -- unless your family owned the corner store!

As a child, Vivian enjoyed the luxury of being able to help herself to candy when she came home from school each day. She'd dip her hand into the large glass candy jar sitting on the counter. The Green Street Grocery was such a thriving business that her father was able to purchase an elegant automobile, a Willis Knight sedan. He took his family on Sunday drives down the Peninsula, which in those days was a huge expanse of dry grassland dotted with oak trees. Vivian recalls that she and her brother Richard didn't much enjoy having to sit still in the back seat for hours.

In 1929, with the crash of the stock market, things changed. The Depression was hard for all businesses, both big and small, and privately owned grocery stores suffered badly. Besides losing the Green Street Grocery, Vivian's father was forced to sell his beautiful automobile...which, on the bright side for the kids, brought an end to the tedious Sunday drives.

But in spite of difficult times, Vivian was able to attend Lux Junior College for Girls, then located at Potrero Avenue and 17th Street. Here she studied to be a dental assistant, receiving extra training at St. Luke's Hospital. After graduating in 1939, she took a couple of part-time jobs before landing a position with one of the many fine dentists with offices on Post and Sutter streets. She eventually went to work for Dr. Robert Zeiss, who was to become her longtime employer.

On the weekends, she played tennis with her friends and soon became known for her powerful wallop.

During the late '30s and early '40s, a number of men approached her with matrimony in mind, but she quickly quelled their ardor with a curt "Forget it!" She was an independent woman. She had created a solid career for herself and was earning a good salary. What's more, her close-knit family provided her with a rewarding home life.

When World War II erupted, home and family took on even more meaning. The entire nation mobilized to help the war effort, and Vivian's dental assisting skills were in high demand at Letterman Hospital in the Presidio. There she pitched in to clean and repair the teeth of thousands of servicemen who were being shipped overseas. Her brother Richard was sent to the South Pacific to serve in the Air Transport Command.

The war seemed like an endless conflict, until the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan brought it to an abrupt halt in 1945, and Vivian was free to go back to her job in the downtown dental district. In 1946, Vivian was named president of the San Francisco Dental Assistants Association.

Over the years, she and her family had been wise enough to build up their savings, so in 1949 they decided to go house hunting. For a year they searched with no luck. Finally, a friend informed them that there was a lovely hilltop home for sale in Noe Valley, so Vivian and her mother hastened to inspect it. As soon as she walked through the house, she declared, "This is it!"

It was perfect for their family. A full basement accommodated the two cars that she and her brother drove. The first floor had a living room, parlor, dining room, kitchen, dinette, and two bedrooms -- one for her parents and the other for her brother. Vivian moved into the penthouse bedroom above, which had a breathtaking view of the East Bay and Lux College, her alma mater. The four Wredens pooled their savings and bought the home they would live in for the rest of their lives.

While Vivian worked, her mother kept the house in excellent condition. One day when her mother was expecting company, she decided that the window glass wasn't clear enough for her guests. Sitting on the windowsill, she stretched far outside the window to scrub the pane. Suddenly, the frame gave way and she fell headfirst a story down to the cement slab below. There she was found unconscious, and rushed to the hospital. The concussion she suffered kept her hospitalized for three months.

Amazingly, Vivian's mother regained her health completely. She was fine until her husband suffered a heart attack and a slight stroke, which must have caused her to lose heart. She failed gradually until she needed fulltime assistance, so Vivian took a leave of absence from her dentist's office to care for her. This continued for two years, with her mother's condition weakening daily. Finally the day came when she had to be taken to the hospital, and she died the next morning, at the age of 71. Vivian's father lived only one year longer.

Vivian and her brother Richard carried on. He, an aviation enthusiast, worked as a mechanic at San Francisco International Airport. Meanwhile, Vivian went back to work for Dr. Zeiss, for whom she had worked for 30 years. When she told him she was ready to retire, she took it as a compliment that he decided to retire also, rather than train a new assistant.

Vivian's retirement at the age of 51 gave her time to become everyone's good neighbor, as documented by D.J. Duggan's letter. She adopted two well-behaved Keeshonds, and took them for strolls around the Valley.

It was through neighborhood projects and social events that I came to know Vivian's great talents. I have always admired her sense of order, her dedication and industry, with which I could never hope to compare. We have lived rather parallel lives, but she is six months younger than I. But if I must compare, I can outdo her in one direction: I am five inches taller than she is!