Noe Valley Voice November 2003

Let Bylines be Bylines:
Farewell for Now...

By Susan Broxon

As I pulled up to my sister's apartment on Sanchez and Jersey on that very last day, my stomach lurched when I saw the enormous moving van parked out front. Along with it was a team of movers hard at work, and there were boxes stacked everywhere. It was official. My sister and her family were leaving to make a new start 3,000 miles away in the state of Maine, and an 18-year era was coming to an end.

When I first moved to San Francisco nearly 20 years ago, it was to get away from the beach town where I grew up and to live a more sophisticated, "cityish" life. However, back then my vision of the city extended to little more than the downtown area, cable cars, and the surrounding bay.

Then, almost a year later, my sister also moved to San Francisco, to attend art school. After about a month of living in one of those pitiful women's rooming houses in town, she landed an apartment in a neighborhood I'd never heard of. It was on Army Street (now Cesar Chavez) in some area called Noe Valley.

Truth be told, I was envious of the place that she shared with two other girls (also art students). The apartment was Victorian-style, boasting a fireplace, French doors, and impressive hillside views. I, on the other hand, was sharing a dingy one-bedroom apartment in lower Nob Hill, now considered the "Upper Tenderloin." My room overlooked a brick wall (that is, if one could see through the filth on the window), and getting to our front door required a long walk down a dark corridor that one gracious guest described as "a trip down death row."

Okay, so my place wasn't the Ritz-Carlton (or even Motel 6), but I consoled myself with the fact that I was actually in the "city," where I could walk or take the cable car everywhere, while my sister had to wait on the street for the J-Church line, which proved to run sporadically at best. I can recall one chilly night all those years ago when I had the dubious pleasure of joining her.

After getting all dressed up to go downtown dancing, we were faced with the task of traipsing over to wait for the J. The luxury of taking a taxi was out of the question, seeing as we were both working as temporary office clerks and money was tight. Naturally, our timing was horrible, and we were forced to endure the cold for the better part of an hour. In the midst of the waiting, two guys walked by and started ribbing us, "It's a little cold for a skirt, isn't it?"

Although we failed to see the humor in their observation, minutes later we were treated to a beautiful twist of irony. After finally boarding the streetcar, we saw a young gentleman sauntering down the aisle, clad in, of all things, a kilt. We couldn't resist laughing and saying, "It's a little cold for a skirt, isn't it?"

Fast-forward several more years. I had moved from San Francisco and returned again while my sister remained in Noe Valley pursuing her career as an artist. She no longer had the same apartment I was once envious of, but seemed to have found her element in the community's laid-back feel and bohemian spirit. In addition, there was the perpetually sunny weather and all that legendary 24th Street had to offer. Somewhere down the line, my sister developed an interest in a person she referred to as "that Tom guy."

The first thing I learned about him was that he lived on the corner of Sanchez and Jersey, just off 24th Street, and he often hung out working in his garage. Coincidentally, Sanchez Street was the exact path my sister normally took to get to 24th Street, and the trips suddenly became more frequent. "I saw that Tom guy today" would be the opener for many of our phone conversations for months to come.

"That Tom guy" had lived in the neighborhood as long as Janet had, and was seen as even more of a local than she. In fact, by sheer accident he had been captured as an extra in the movie Nina Takes a Lover (with Laura San Giacomo), shot some years ago in a Noe Valley café. He had just happened to be in the café that day, and the camera randomly zeroed in on a close-up of him sitting at a table, thus temporarily giving him celebrity status.

I remember my first meeting with this "Tom guy" (who eventually did graduate to plain "Tom"). Of course, it was out in front of his garage as we strolled by one Sunday afternoon. When we were introduced, I thought he seemed nice enough, but was hard to read. The conversation was strained at best, and I couldn't determine his level of interest in my sister.

Despite my reservations, and all the time they spent dilly-dallying around, the relationship at last took off and continued through good times and bad. And there were the bad. I'm sure there must be some longtime residents who will recall witnessing a particularly volatile scene on 24th Street on an otherwise peaceful Saturday afternoon in 1996. In the heat of an argument, my sister, normally a gentle soul, dumped an entire smoothie on Tom's head and then stormed off down the street. He was left standing on the pavement with more than just "egg on his face."

Their relationship looked to be doomed for a while, but somehow it all came together. In one whirlwind year, my sister and Tom got engaged, married...and, the biggest surprise and miracle of all, gave birth to my identical-twin nephews.

For the first few months of the boys' life, their names were literally "Baby A" and "Baby B." Eventually, they became Aidan and Finn and--with their adorable smiles, blond hair, and blue eyes--big attractions around the neighborhood, especially while riding in their double-stroller.

A year or so later, after Tom and I had both lost our jobs, I stepped more significantly into the scene by coming over regularly to help with the boys. Instead of being on the outside looking in, I felt like a part of the community for the first time. How strange it felt to have this single neighborhood now serve as my main connection to San Francisco, after all the years I'd lived and worked in the city.

With boys as wild and outspoken as Aidan and Finn, it could be both trying and tiring looking after them. Even so, I realize how much I miss my outings with them. Not only did I get to watch them grow and change, it was also, in a way, an opportunity to reinvent myself. Anyone who saw me with the boys would never have guessed that I was some out-of-work East Bay resident. In the eyes of many I encountered, I was just a local mom out with her kids.

And as opposed to being at my former cutthroat job, it felt oddly refreshing (and amusing) to find myself in the middle of a sing-along at the Day Street kids' gym, involved in chats with other caretakers and moms, or sitting in the warm sun outside Mikeytom Market, feeding the boys their favorite snacks. Poor Finn really missed that market when it shut down. Several times after the closure, we'd be leaving the playground and he'd point in the direction of the store and say, "I want to go that way!" Finally, I took them by and showed them the empty store and explained that it had closed. After that, he stopped asking.

The trying was when they'd run away in opposite directions, or squabble over toys, or the day Aidan broke away during a diaper change and bolted through the gym, baring all.

The tiring was pushing 60-plus pounds around in a stroller, especially up all the hills. And I particularly loved it when they chanted in unison, "Go faster! Go faster!" Yeah, right, guys!

My brother-in-law's new job at L.L. Bean in Freeport, Maine, was a long time in coming. Still, when it finally happened, everything hit like a ton of bricks. There was too much to do in so little time. My sister and her family had no time to commune with the past and say farewell to all the friends they'd made over the years. I know they felt shortchanged.

I haven't been back to the neighborhood since their departure in July. Right now, it's hard to imagine passing by that Sanchez Street apartment without going to the door and ringing the bell in anticipation of two little blond heads appearing in the window. Not to mention all of the history from before the boys came into the picture.

How do you say goodbye to an era of almost 20 years? You really can't. You simply move on, hopefully come back to visit someday, and most of all, never forget.

Susan Broxon now resides in Hercules, Calif., where she is both a part-time writer and a consultant in the human resources field.

Let Bylines Be Bylines

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