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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Always a view.

E. on the steps near one of her past residences.
Near Union, in North Beach


I've been wanting to share this story with you for a few days now, but other things kept interrupting me and I wasn't able to get into my writing mind long enough to tell this story. Today, it's rainy, the first rain of the season which, in the Bay Area, is enough to drive every other story off the front page because... well, because it's raining.

But because it's raining, I've had to cancel other plans and now it's that quiet, wet afternoon with the windows speckled with water and the cars swooshing by, that I can write about E.


E. was the first person to contact me after the article in the Chronicle came out. She briefly explained that she'd lived in San Francisco for over 40 years and had a project she wanted to talk to me about. We played a little phone and email tag over the next day.

When we finally got to talk on the phone, I heard an intelligent conversationalist on the other end of the line. Her voice was strong and a little commanding. She sounded a chipper 60 years old, not the age of 81 that she'd given me. She told me that she wanted to go around the city, and take photos of all of the places she's lived and worked for over 40 years here. We compared notes on buildings and places throughout San Francisco that we loved. We compared favorite San Francisco movie scenes. "I've lived in almost every neighborhood in the city," she explained. "And I've always had a view. The only room in my place now that doesn't have a view is the bathroom." She laughed.

I told her how excited I was to meet her and help her with her quest. She said that normally she would have taken the pictures herself, but given her health lately that would be hard to do. She wanted to make a book of photos of these homes and offices as gifts for family and friends, who have helped her so much in recent times.

"I don't want you to feel sorry for me," she said. "But I'm recovering from a brain tumor. You know, like what Ted Kennedy died of."

We made a date to meet a few days later, and start her trip down Memory Lane together.


E.'s apartment is lovely, with a picture perfect view of the Marina, Palace of Fine Arts and the Golden Gate Bridge. It looks exactly like a postcard view that was blown up to window size and then pasted to the wall, that's how pretty it is.

Her apartment is filled with books, art and photographs. Antiques and more books. I spied several books that I wanted to borrow, and even more that I had read. She took me around, showing me photos of her children and her grandchildren, herself as a young woman, her parents in their beautiful wedding attire and framed in gilded wooden frames that hung in her bedroom, near her bed.

Instantly I had this fantasy that E., with her lovely manicure and silver jewelry and stylish fall ensemble, was the worldly, educated grandmother that I never had. She spun tales of North Beach, and working in the cocktail bars in North Beach where she knew Miles Davis and Mort Sahl. Her brother had met Alfred Hitchcock while he was in town, filming Vertigo. Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Asawa had been neighbors. Cunningham had taken her portrait years ago, but she hadn't liked it, and had ripped it up. (I shuddered at the thought.) She pulled out books for me, books she knew I'd like, that were written about San Francisco's history. She seemed to know each of the authors. I was smitten.

We started our walking tour in Russian Hill and then North Beach, where she'd lived in several apartments and homes. We climbed hills and I took her arm to steady her. Amazed that she was able to climb these hills, albeit slowly, that winded us both. We stopped to admire the views. I took photos of the places she'd lived and she told me when she lived there, if she was married at the time, how old her children were. She told me what buildings had been torn down, what used to be where and her memory for the way the city used to be was amazing to me. At one point we encountered an 87 year old neighbor that she hadn't seen since the early 1970s. We were invited inside for a glass of water as the Blue Angels tore up the sky, practicing for Fleet Week.

The photo above is the last place we took pictures that day. A studio apartment that was only $95 a month, and the light from Alcatraz's lighthouse routinely made her bedroom glow at night. She described the sound of the foghorns and how they made her feel cozy at night. For anyone, myself included, who's lucky enough to hear the foghorns off the coast regularly, you know what it means to hear them at 3am. You don't mind it at all.

Anyway, I hope there will be more to tell about E. and that we'll be out in other places of the city soon, her health permitting. I hope she'll be a part of i live here:SF, but either way, just taking E.'s tour of San Francisco is a pleasure I won't soon forget.


Anonymous October 13, 2009 at 2:30 PM  

How I loved reading about 'E'. Your adventures with the camera are leading you to such amazing individuals Julie :-)

seeree, phd October 13, 2009 at 3:57 PM  

that is just a fantastic story. thank you for sharing.

Char October 13, 2009 at 4:12 PM  

a beautiful life

smith kaich jones October 13, 2009 at 5:00 PM  

Oh, Julie. She is your Mary. You are about the age I was when I moved across the street from Mary. I'd known her socially for years, but when I moved here, we began to really beome friends. She was the sophisticated mother I'd never had - gin & tonics late into the night, spontaneous parties, etc.. etc. This post made me tear up a bit, but made me oh so happy for both of you. I think things work out the way they're supposed to - yes, silly & naive of me, I know - but still, I hold onto that belief. And so here you are. Your Mary.


An Open Heart October 13, 2009 at 6:26 PM  

Wow, Julie. This is amazing. What an incredible gift of time and history. I am so excited for you and E.!

What a fabulous adventure you have embarked on.


Monique October 13, 2009 at 6:41 PM  

Amazing story...so far. I'm from L.A. but my grandmother tells me stories of when she lived on Market St. I love San Fran!


a painter October 14, 2009 at 5:44 AM  

Love, love, love this story. Thanks for sharing it---and that is a fab photo.

Quarter Thrower October 14, 2009 at 6:48 AM  

what a fantastic story!

AphotoAday October 14, 2009 at 7:48 AM  

I am waiting with baited breath to see the photos, and of course, her own story... (((yours is so beautifully written))) (((the part about the Alcatraz light lighting up the room really grabbed me)))

Regina Dwarkasing October 14, 2009 at 8:05 AM  

I just read your beautiful story about E. and want to say:
Thank you!