I didn’t see it at the time, but my time in San Francisco came to represent several different tangents in my life in the 1980s.
San Francisco represented escape and adventure.
San Francisco was a way to be serious about graphic design.
San Francisco was about growing up.
San Francisco almost ended my relationship with Concetta.
Of all places, why San Francisco? Because I wasn’t going to Pasadena.
Having graduated Lewis & Clark, my friend and roommate Kevin and I worked for temporary agencies doing odd jobs: He worked in warehouses and I worked on switchboards having spent summers as an operator for Pacific Northwest Bell. I had also worked several months in the L&C Publications department, creating flyers for various on campus events and learning to typeset.
I worked for several newspapers, starting in 1983. Paste-up was a production task – put this type and reproduction art (“PMTs”) here or there. I moved out of pure paste up and into newspaper advertising at This Week Magazine, but there isn’t anything glamorous about designing full page tire or grocery ads — a big feature item with a big price point, several subordinate featured items, then a whole lot of minor items in boxes too small to contain the art or leave room for any description other than “pack,” “each,” etc.
My history degree seemed purely academic; it would be a dozen more years before it would become really useful. But I graduated without an immediate goal or future. By 1984, I was antsy.
I believed I could be a better advertising or graphic designer, but didn’t have the credentials. Doing some research, I discovered the best art schools and set out to get into one. There was CalArts, Pratt, Rhode Island School of Design and Art Center. Art Center had a reputation for creating magnificent portfolios of student work that would allow a graduate to call an ad agency art director to say you were an Art Center alum and get an immediate interview. That was where I set my sights.
Unfortunately, the portfolio I sent along with my application was indicative of my lack of classical training: it wasn’t enough for admission. I needed more work in figure drawing. I regrouped, enrolled in a figure drawing class at the Portland Art Museum Art School. Ironically, the school would be separated from the museum and resurrect itself as Pacific Northwest College of Art, where my daughter attended about 35 years later. But my resubmitted portfolio didn’t pass muster either.
The Academy of Art was a private school in downtown San Francisco. The school had strong credentials in advertising and graphic design, leveraging local professionals as instructors. San Francisco was chockfull of ad agencies and design houses. San Francisco had far more culture going on compared to Portland. And there was family history in Bagdad-By-Bay. The Academy seemed the place to go.
I had never applied for a student loan before, but was able to get that arranged through my local bank.
I had never moved out of state before (on my own), although I spent a summer in Palo Alto: when I was about 3, dad did summer school at Stanford to see if that was the right school for his doctorate, he thought not. Not too much later we were living in Eugene where I attended kindergarten.
I also lived in Eugene my sophomore year at the University of Oregon, which was in line with dad’s own history, but it was a 100 miles away, not 650. Moving away from the family, including my aging grandparents, was uncomfortable, made more so by the pressure to visit often when I returned. Many visits north never went further than Salem.
I consciously planned my packing: clothes in a trunk, a rolled-up futon, a disassembled oak desk as well as my drafting table. I think I also packed some basic pans and dishes just in case.
How I would move became a family discussion. I was able to borrow, though Chris, an El Camino with a trailer hitch. We loaded the bed of the El Camino and hooked on a U-Haul trailer. Dad agreed to help get me there and drive the car back.
This dream and these plans unfolded in many discussions with my chief confidant and girlfriend Concetta. We had begun dating in the fall of 1983 during her senior year at Lewis & Clark. She visited me at midnight during my graveyard paste-up shifts at This Week; after she began graduate school at Willamette in Salem, I would often leave after my advertising work at This Week to drive to Salem for the evening.
Graduate school is tough. The next four years for Concetta would be an exclusive first year of business, an exclusive second year of law and then the third and four years a mix. With her economics undergraduate degree, the business school seemed more natural, but accounting would be tough sledding. She got through it with coaching from a woman she befriended.
How serious was the relationship? By no means causal, I was in love with her! She was in love with me! So why would I want to be 650 miles away? In my mind, I was thinking that the Academy would (finally) propel me into a serious art career at about the same time she finished graduate school and we could ride together into the sunset.
But I failed to consider how my presence grounded her and made it possible for her to get through. We hadn’t fully discussed what the distance would mean for our relationship and how we would maintain it.
But in August 1985, she and dad and I drove in that El Camino 10 hours to San Francisco.
When we arrived, it became clear that I needed to stay in the city; commuting without a car was near impossible without knowing anything about the transit system. We spent the first couple of days looking up various services, but these were not fruitful. I switched to roommate ads in the local paper; dad had decided he was only spending a few days on this adventure. I think we interviewed at one opening before we drove to the Inner Richman neighborhood to meet Bill and Dan Cooley.
The brothers Cooley were from the Wilmette, north of Chicago. It just so happened that their parents were in town when we met. Fortunately, my dad and their dad traded stories about their times in the Army, which helped them decide I was their roommate.
Dan was the older of two. Blind since an infant, Dan had adapted very well: he graduated from Harvard Law and was able to leverage the Harvard network to land a torts attorney gig with the local utility company. Bill was his doting brother who looked after the details, such as braille labels in Dan’s shirts, suits and ties so Dan could figure out what to wear each day. Bill managed a sheep skin seat cover operation in Walnut Creek on the far side of East Bay.
We shared a flat in the Inner Richmond neighborhood on Fifth Ave near Clement Street. It was called “Little Chinatown” due to its Asian markets and restaurants. I walked most Saturdays around the neighborhood and throughout the city. I can honestly say there was produce on the sidewalk stands I had never seen before. Many of these markets also had fish tanks for the very freshest seafood.
The neighborhood was really multi-ethnic. An Irish bar boasted a white line painted on the floor dividing between Protestants and Catholics. The best Vietnamese restaurant was a block away. Japanese, Indian and Javanese were other tastes one could try. An Indonesia-Chinese restaurant run by a family was a find one night – and very cheap.
After moving in, Concetta and I discovered early the need to see one another; we were on the phone figuring out best airline prices for the next Salem or San Francisco rendezvous, usually about every six to eight weeks. During her visits, we explored Toy Boat, a popular ice cream and dessert shop on the corner of 5th and Clement. We tried Mexican in the Mission, Cafe Riggio — a wonderful Italian restaurant on Geary, Scott’s Seafood Grill in the Embarcadero buildings, and a lovely family owned pizzeria on Geary next to the Italian restaurant.
Being poor students, travel varied greatly. Coming and going to San Francisco, there are three airports in the Bay Area, all of which required secondary transit to get to and from the airports. Concetta discovered one of her law school friends was engaged to Margaret who was living in the Height neighborhood; Concetta and Russ drove down a few times listening to law tapes in Russ’s Rabbit. I discovered I could drive rental cars between Portland and SFO, although one trip north was a “white knuckle” drive over the Siskiyou range at the Oregon/Californian boarder between winter storms. Salem was between Eugene and Portland for flights.
The reunions were always exciting and we managed to stay together.
But I wasn’t there just for the fun parts; I was there for school, which isn’t to say it was drudgery. Art school classes were exciting. Some theoretical, focusing on shapes and color. Others were pretty straight forward such as figure drawing (again!) or advertising. Instructors were every bit as engaging and experienced as I had been led to believe.
The classrooms were sprinkled across several buildings in the core of downtown San Francisco. The main building was on Powell Street, literally up the hill from the Sir Fances Drake Hotel on Powell and Sutter. Sitting in class, one always heard the cable cars grinding up the hill attached to the cable, while the downhill cars rumbled to a stop. In both directions, the tourists were charmed by the ringing of the overhead bells, which signaled various steps to the conductor or brakeman. Locals disdained riding the cable cars, but was I resident or a visitor? Didn’t care – they were (and still are) fun to ride – about as fast as a quick walk and “free” with my Muni pass.
I think I was definitely in the older student category. While the vast majority were getting their college degrees (the first time!), I did manage to find some friends who were older due to having worked outside of design, but found the calling and the school.
Thirty-five-plus years later, I don’t remember how much money I had saved to get me started, but I knew it was not going to last me a year or three. So I had to find work. I was depressed – it wasn’t an easy time to be looking for work. The two years were always feast-to-famine, living off meager and sometime irregular earnings
My first work gig was with Lowell Moss Publishing. Moss was a self-publishing coordinator. He has a PC, when PCs were somewhat rare and had software that set up a manuscript to be printed at one or another printers with which he worked. (These days, self-publishing is very easy when using the standard EPUB format.) He leveraged typists to keyboard the manuscript, and designers like me to create camera ready cover art. It was kind of an ego rush; the books clearly satisfied the writer’s ego when a conventional publisher rejected the book. Only one author really utilized the self-published book: Kandy Kidd was a business trainer; she sold her books during her lectures as gravy profit to the gig.
I learned that Moss was a bit oily; he was always tardy with payments, especially when rent was due or I needed to buy groceries. Over time I weaned myself off Moss jobs.
My first job was doing paste-up for a tech magazine Computer Currents in Berkley. While I loved the gig and drank a lot of Peet’s Coffee, getting to the magazine office was a long BART ride and long walk from the station. I didn’t stay very long. I also tried a design job with the SF Ballet, designing mailers. I didn’t stay long either, but got to see one of my efforts in print.
I met Ken at CC. He was a salesperson who actually lived a few blocks from my first flat. He introduced me to Castro Street on Halloween, where you watched or were watched: we watched the crowd part to let through a sauntering woman wearing nothing but a fishnet body suit.
I discovered a newspaper production gig in Oakland. The Oakland/Berkley/San Francisco Posts and Noticious del Mundo were owned by a prominent black Oakland attorney, Tom Berkley. He owned the building at 19th and San Leandro; we watched drug deals go down “kitty korner” in front of a low income apartment building. The publications were all for minority audiences; ironically I was a minority staff member.
The production crew was led by Jack, a lively man from Fiji. Unfortunately, many of the press crew were illegal aliens who fled if INS agents were sniffing around the neighborhood, making printing deadlines impossible. Not only could I do paste-up, but when necessary could typeset when our El Salvadorian women typesetters were finished for the day.
Production was in the afternoon, which I could manage with school. Commuting to Oakland required travel on BART; fortunately there was a 19th Street station only 3 blocks from the Post, passing a seedy Greyhound bus terminal along the way. I discovered I could get to Oakland with a low fare and then exit the station on the SF side using my Muni pass; I don’t think that was legal, but I justified it as the poor student. I always found a daily Chronicle or Wall Street Journal to read on the trip and was amused as the trains slowed in the tube beneath the San Francisco Bay to see water trickling down the side of the tube, probably just condensation (I hope). Getting off at the Powell Street BART station, the best big slice of pizza was a block away at Blonde’s.
The brothers Cooley were actually very entertaining. We hosted a party for Cooley friends, serving cheese and Ragu sauce broiled on Triscuit crackers. Later, they bought a floor model hot tub that was octagonally shaped, which fit perfectly in the back of the flat between the bay windows. We could climb out of the back windows in either my bedroom or Dan’s directly into the tub, sit back with a beer (Miller Lite) and listen to the fog horn on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Just before I moved in, the brothers had decided they wanted a pet, but the always resourceful, Dan realized they could get one from the guide dog school in San Rafael. They brought home Nemoy, a golden lab who was not very smart: either he or Dan flunked guide dog school at least twice and Nemoy never understood what he was supposed to do at a curb. Bill and Dan discovered the dog shed, so they hired an illegal alien woman as a housekeeper, who would wash the dog to reduce the amount of fur. Bill would harness the dog and together they would ride the bus on frequent Saturdays to the beach. Bill got away with Nemoy on the bus when the dog was in his guide dog harness. The brothers would take the dog with them to bars, realizing the dog was a “chick magnet.”
On one of Concetta’s visits, Bill, Concetta and I left the flat late one night, headed out to Easy Bay and out of the glare of the city lights to try to see Haley’s Comet. We came across some astronomers who had seen it before the cloud cover blocked our view.
That spring, Sako, a women who had been in my grade and high schools, was getting married. I had bumped into her near school one afternoon. She was living with Bill in his apartment near North Beach. She had met Bill when she was an undergrad at Stanford, he an MBA student. The wedding would be held at Bill’s parents’ “summer house” in Atherton, near Palo Alto.
Sako had invited our mutual friend Jean and asked if she could stay at my flat in SF, which was perfectly OK; I asked if Concetta could come to the wedding, which was also perfectly OK. Driving to the wedding, we got lost, until Concetta wisely said, “just follow that Bentley.” Took us right to the house, a sprawling one-level, full of art, and a huge backyard for a wedding. Beyond the pool was a circus tent for the sit-down dinner. I shook Bill’s billionaire father’s hand, the founder of the Gap stores.
When the school year was close to wrapping up, I decided not to stay the summer; Bill and Dan would look for another roommate and I stored my stuff in a storage unit. Before leaving, I had managed to ingratiate myself with the house that Margret was living in – she was Russ’s fiancé, but would be moving out in the summer after the wedding. I managed to slip into her space that coming fall, sharing space with David and Lisa AKA “The Brau.”
Having worked at This Week, I was able to score an interview the summer of 1986 with the ad department at Fred Meyer; I had done paste-up on many pages of Freddy’s ads. I also found an apartment sharing arrangement in Milwaukie with Noel, a former Army Ranger studying at Portland State. The Freddy’s gig solidified and I was set for a few months.
Before leaving SF, I made a late afternoon stop at Merrill Lynch to sell Tektronix stock my grandmother bought me in grade school. It had grown nicely to an amount that would allow me to buy the ring Concetta had seen that spring at Cal Brockman’s Goldmark jewelry store. It would be the early evening of July 3, kneeling on the beach at Roads End north of Lincoln City, that I presented the ring and said the four most important words of my life. Turned out to be a better investment.
Living with David and Lisa was certainly an upgrade: three bedrooms, two baths, huge kitchen, living room and fireplace. Located on Page Street, we were between Height Street and the Golden Gate Park Panhandle, putting us about 5-6 blocks from the famous Height Ashbury intersection. Allegedly, the Grateful Dead had lived in a house around the corner on Lyon Street in their early days – it was actually Janis Joplin.
Living with these two was also entertaining. When Concetta visited, she and David would dance and sing around the kitchen. Spring in SF gets warm, so sitting on the front stoop reading the Sunday paper was a slice of heaven. David and his boys often went “tramping” on Saturday nights, despite the rising AIDS cases. Sometimes there was a Sunday surprise in the form of whoever David brought home.
One Sunday morning in late winter/early spring, we sat on the stoop reading the paper when I spied the neighborhood cat. We didn’t know his/her/their name, but the cat was very friendly. We often had the visitor walk in through the front door and back to the kitchen as if that was home. We named the cat “Butch.” Sitting on the stoop, I mistakenly yelled out to Butch, who was across the street. “Hey Butch!” I yelled, not seeing two women walking into view on the sidewalk. I got the nastiest look and tried to make amends. “Not you, the cat!” I don’t think the women believed me – would you?
Living in SF was entertaining in and of itself. Working at the Post meant certain journalist tickets were available gratis, even if there might not be space for the review. I was able to see rising star Anita Baker in the Oakland Paramount Theatre—a treat by itself, as well as Violinist Isaac Stern at the Davies Opera House in SF. Concetta and I went to a comedy club one night; there was a rumor that Comedian Robin Williams showed up after the last comedy performance at the Other Cafe to do a wild improv. I took Concetta one January to see Windom Hill pianist George Winston also at the Davies. My boyhood friend Kelly sang in the Seattle Gay Men’s Choir, which came to hold a joint concert with its SF counterpart, also in the Davies.
There were many other visual sites as well. We saw a Gary Larson show at the de Young Museum; I saw a touring Impressionists collection there as well. One of our all-time favorite freebies was spending a lazy time at the Green Apple Bookstore. Everyone thinks City Lights books is a great bookstore, but having grown up with Powell’s in Portland, City Lights is not so stunning. Green Apple is a narrow, but jammed bookstore with nooks and crannies on two floors; best of all it smells like a bookstore. I walked around many afternoons looking for design inspirations from the covers. Concetta and I always make a pilgrimage to Green Apple Books when in town.
I spent many Saturday afternoons walking from my flat, or riding a bus to a neighborhood to walk around. Height Street still had a lot of character: it was the sight of the “summer of love,” which for anyone from SF would know would be the worst time to be camping in the city. Summers on the peninsula are cool due to the 3 o’clock fog. It should have been “the fall from love” in September-October when the early fall was the absolute best weather. One remnant was a witchcraft shop with a shrunken head hanging in the window. One afternoon I walked from The Height all the way to Coit Tower and rode the bus back in the later afternoon.
One afternoon I bused out to the end of the Geary bus line near the Clift House, which sits on an outcropping right along the ocean; south of there is a long beach. I was there one night with Bill and Dan when the city was under a tsunami alert due to an Alaskan earthquake. The SFPD patrolled the beach to keep people safe while we waited. If the wave came ashore, it was disguised as the usual and underwhelming rip.
SF Muni pretty much blanketed the city; it’s been said there was a bus stop within two blocks of 80 percent of the population. All the years spent commuting, I never glanced at a schedule; buses just came.
During my first year, I rode the Geary bus, which was usually a wide articulated monster, built with wide aisles to accommodate three people standing across the aisle. It was riding the Geary bus that I developed my SF manta, “he who hesitates, waits.” Buses would roll up to the stop on 6th Street and the throng of people standing would be paralyzed! I always pushed forward and onto the bus first. In the evening, there were never seats until mid-way home. I found pushing into the trailer portion of the bus provided more breathing room — and more crazy people. It was in the back of a bus that I watched a skilled con artist liberate $80 from a rider playing a shell game—letting the stooge win the first game, then cleaning him out.
The Geary bus drivers were very aggressive. Concetta and I rode home one night as the driver yelled out, “hold on, good people!” It was during a morning commute that a Geary bus I was riding started speeding up to the next stop, but before getting there, clipped the driver’s door as a man was getting out; he saw the mass speeding towards him and managed to dive back into the front seat, avoiding impact. It took the bus almost a block to slow and stop; the driver jumped out, spoke to the driver and jumped back in and got back underway in two minutes or less.
Yes, I rode the cable cars, sometimes in the morning from the bus stop to the school. It wasn’t more than four or five blocks, but it was just as fast a walking, so why not. I rode the Hyde Street car back from the waterfront one evening in December. Someone started singing Christmas carols and soon we all were, the voices ringing off the sides of the building on the narrow streets near the cable building.
Sometime during the second school year I began to realize that maybe school, in whatever form that might be, wasn’t going to give me the experience I needed to propel my career forward — somewhat counter to my original thinking. I didn’t want to be away from Concetta, I didn’t want more school debt, didn’t think I needed another undergraduate degree. Still, living in SF was exciting and I thought about all my options, including quitting school to work full-time. Concetta jumped on that, saying why work there when you could work here. She was right, although that realization didn’t come until after I applied for a camera operator job at the design house of Primo Angeli. Pre-interview, they sounded very interested in me and I think I could have moved up into a design-related position at a very preeminent design firn, but I turned down the interview. Sigh.
I flew up to Portland to borrow my brother’s pickup, drove back down to load it up and drive back, this time with David as co-pilot – he was going to stay with Russ and Margaret who had moved into the apartment complex Concetta and I were moving into for her last year of graduate school. Small town Salem, or “Sl(u)m” or “So-Laim” was quite a change from the big city for me!
This seems the time to invoke a Zen-like quote from Ram Das: “…who you are is everything you’ve ever done.” I wouldn’t be the person I am without my time “growing-up” in San Francisco. It seemed risky to go, and perhaps it was, but looking back almost 40 years, not very risky at all.
I consider San Francisco my second home; I look for ways to get back. I can’t say for certain whether I would have felt the same about Pasadena. Whenever possible, Concetta comes along and we try to go to our old haunts in the neighborhoods or fudge sundaes at Ghirardelli Square. Much has changed, as with Portland or any place really, as well as with me.