| May 2011
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By Olivia Boler
Yvonne Daley and her dog Daniel took a circuitous route to her present home in Noe Valley, a path that is chronicled in her memoir Octavia Boulevard. Photo by Pamela Gerard
In a lot of ways, Yvonne Daley lives an enchanted life. A journalism professor for the past 13 years at San Francisco State University, she divides her time between a home in Noe Valley and one in Rutland, Vermont, where she directs the Green Mountain Writers Conference. Her adorable Maltese pooch, Daniel, is with her wherever she goes. At 63, she is a grandmother to six children, mother to five, and wife to Chuck Clarino, a sports writer who lives fulltime in their Vermont house. To top it all off, in February she published her third book, Octavia Boulevard (Northshire Books). What compelled her in part to write this memoir, however, was the not so enchanting mix of homelessness and gentrification in San Francisco, and the way it affected her while she lived on Octavia Boulevard from 2003 to 2007.
“It’s also about the way a multi-unit apartment building can be a functional family,” Daley says over coffee at Bernie’s on 24th Street, where she is “one of our favorite customers,” according to the barista behind the counter.
Daley, who grew up in a suburb of Boston, has lived on communes and worked as a freelance investigative journalist for prestigious publications like the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and Time magazine. Yet, she hadn’t really lived in a city before moving to San Francisco from the Peninsula, from which she commuted to her SFSU job. “I especially hadn’t lived in the inner city, and mid-Market Street is certainly that,” she says.
She moved into a 12-unit building on Octavia soon after the Central Freeway, damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, was dismantled, giving open air to the streetscape. She says she immediately found herself part of a community of “characters.” There was Mae West, a blind African-American woman who dressed to the nines and was swept away each week to her “temple” by her “Jewesses”; Ann, a generous and kind single mother to a little girl she had adopted from Vietnam, who also expected the tenants of her building to help her raise her daughter; and most memorable of all, Jul, Daley’s landlord, who chose her as a tenant after Googling her, liked to have “discussions” that felt like arguments, and claimed the author T. Coraghessan Boyle had based a character on him in the novel Budding Prospects.
Although they did not live in her building, Daley includes the neighborhood homeless as part of her functional family. Inquisitive, as a journalist should be, she would talk to the men who lined up for free meals at the First Baptist Church. She watched as they collected bottles and cans in their shopping carts to turn in at the redemption center next to the Market Street Safeway and visited the clean-needle exchange nearby.
“It disturbed me when I first got here, the way people would just walk by the homeless or say, ‘Why can’t they get a job?’” says Daley. “Have they looked at these people? It would take a lot for them to get a job. In a prosperous society, we should be able to take care of people who need it.”
At the same time, Daley kept close watch over the progress on Octavia, as it was transformed from a place where prostitutes and drug dealers had done their business, to a Parisian-style thoroughfare. She took note as 261 trees were planted along four blocks, including mature palm trees, the cost of which ran into six digits.
“Just for fun, the city put in these permanent kaleidoscopes with haikus etched on them,” Daley shakes her head. “I began to see the development of the boulevard as a metaphor for what I truly love about the city and for what upsets me about it. Of course the boulevard is beautiful and a better solution than a double-decker freeway spewing pollution onto the homes next to it. But it cost gazillions of dollars. It certainly doesn’t solve San Francisco’s problems of homelessness and its expensive standard of living for the average person.”
In 2007, for reasons she does not want to reveal because they are part of the book’s conclusion, Daley moved to Elizabeth Street (and just last month, moved two blocks over to 25th Street).
“In a way, Noe Valley has allowed me to continue living in San Francisco,” she says. “People say this all the time, but it feels like a village in a city. For me, I need to know my neighbors. I want to be part of a community. I really feel accepted here. I’m known, I’m safe, and I’m happy.”
Yvonne Daley will be reading from Octavia Boulevard and signing copies at Bird & Beckett Books in Glen Park on Sunday, May 8, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Phoenix Books on 24th Street will also have copies. For more information, go to www.octaviaboulevardbook.com.
Excerpt from Octavia Boulevard by Yvonne Daley
An apartment building is a microcosm, a small village. Our noises, smells or bad habits had ramifications that identified us as considerate or not, reliable or not. There on Octavia, this is how we functioned: We had Gordon, whether official or not, as our building manager. Several afternoons a week, he unwound the long orange power cord and sucked up the city debris we’d all hauled in, wiped down the washing machines and dryers, emptied the mail trash by the door. Gordon knew our dirt. Better yet, if my gas heater wouldn’t turn on and Jul wasn’t around to fix it, Gordon would figure out the problem and have it working in no time. As he was leaving, he might notice the music I was listening to or the book I was reading and the next day I might find outside my door a different CD by the musician I had on the CD player or another book by the author I’d been reading.
There were the predictable sounds of the comings and goings of Ann and Alexandra. In the morning, there was the struggle to get to work and daycare. And in the evening, when the two arrived home, they stopped at the mailboxes in the hall not far from my door. Alexandra loved junk mail. She loved envelopes. Her voice and Ann’s filled the hall, the mother patient or not, the child happy or not as the ritual unfolded. Ann would attempt to limit the amount of junk mail that would make it upstairs to their apartment while Alexandra didn’t want a bit of it thrown away. She loved the flyers from Bed Bath & Beyond or Safeway. She loved the Walgreen’s advertisements. Each provided opportunities for cutting and pasting, for pretend shopping, for working at her “office.” Ann was the kind of mother who liked to reason with a child, even when the child was tired and hungry and beyond reason. It was often at that moment, the moment of meltdown I remembered so well from raising my own brood, that I’d lend a hand with the hauling. Later, Alexandra would sit for hours with crayons and glitter sticks, “writing letters” that would appear under one of our doors, a gift from our building’s only child.
Mother Mae, as the Jewesses called her, ruled the house. We took our turns bringing her raspberry turnovers and chocolates, running errands, taking her trash down to the basement. She was our fashion statement, stepping out on her Sabbath in winter white, a gold broach perfectly situated upon her fuchsia scarf one week, or in an old-fashioned black suit and pearls another.
Noel was our rock. His steadiness grounded us with the smallest of actions: the tip of his hat in the hallway; the warmth of his smile; the stories he told of life in the city when jazz ruled; the salsa clubs in the Mission where, week after week, he promised to take me dancing.
Robin was our reprobate. His life unfolded in one drama after another. Like nearly everyone else in the building, Robin was generous to a fault, only what he had to give away, his affection, for example, came encumbered with things you might regret in the morning. Everyone loved him but, when we gathered in Ann’s apartment for potluck, or in my apartment for pie, we didn’t invite him.
We invited Glenn for the lovely acid of his wit and the joy of watching a toddler climb over Zipper. Zipper was our mascot. If one of our doors were open, he’d wander in. He might even clear the table. We didn’t take offense. Glenn was our aristocrat. He raised our cachet.
There were others in the building who were peripherally part of our little family. Brendan, our resident queen, sang at The Mint Karaoke Lounge a block away on Market Street; Patrick and his wife lived with an Italian greyhound upstairs, next to Lance. Lance had once been a successful computer programmer. Now, he loomed over the banister. He stumbled in the door. You didn’t see him for weeks, then heard him on the stairs, traipsing up and down, dragging garbage bags of clanking Jack Daniels bottles and stacks of pizza boxes to the basement. Mary told us there was a brilliant man in there, a sweet man who had been broken by love. I wished I had known him when he was whole, but when I tried to talk to him, his pale eyes turned watery and he drifted away.
Published with author’s permission from Octavia Boulevard by Yvonne Daley, ©2011 (Northshire Books, Manchester, VT).