“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Some (More) Context

This afternoon I walked the four blocks out Eddy to Van Ness.  In my real life, when I had a car, I avoided Van Ness because they do not time the traffic lights, and the traffic itself is heavy.  But Van Ness is now part of my neighborhood, and every time I reach its sidewalks, I remember my grandmother.  I remember her talking about her youth in San Francisco and, in particular, talking about the two kinds of places where she had lived while growing up.

Born in 1892 to a mother from Illinois (herself born in 1875) and a father, Johann Van Drost, from Germany, this grandmother, whom I called “Nana”, spent her early childhood on Van Ness.  He father was a successful druggist, and their house was both large and grand.  Though her parents had met and married in San Francisco, my grandmother had been born in Aspen, Colorado, to which her mother traveled frequently to visit relatives.  Nana's mother, whom we called Uma, was not concerned about traveling such a distance (by ferry, then by train, and finally by stagecoach) despite her pregnancy because the baby was not due for another two months.  Nana, was, however, born prematurely. She told me how her uncle in Aspen, also a druggist, lined a cigar box with blankets, placed my infant grandmother in it, and kept her in the oven as a kind of make-shift incubator.

Nana and her mother, Uma, returned to Colorado to visit those same relatives when she was eight years old.  It was spring time, and the thawing Rockies were magnificent.  It was also 1906, and on April 6th, they got the news that San Francisco had been destroyed by an earthquake and that the hundreds of fires, which began in collapsed buildings that had kerosene lamps and gaslights, had rapidly become a holocaust consuming the few structures that had survived the quake as well as those that lay in ruins.

The telegraph operator in Aspen posted a map of San Francisco in the Telegraph Office window, and four times a day, when the latest reports on the progress of the fires came in, he would take the map down and blacken those areas that had burned.  Nana and Uma watched with increasing anxiety as the black stain spread toward Van Ness.  It was at that wide boulevard that the Army and the Fire Department were finally able to stop the monstrous flames.  They stopped them by dynamiting every structure on both sides of Van Ness, thereby creating an empty space wide enough to form a viable fire-break.  My Nana’s house, and everything in it, including her prize possessions, a collection of Dresden China dolls, was gone.

I wish I could find out what the address of the Van Drost family residence was, but all city records were destroyed in the earthquake and fire. The closest I have come is an insurance map from 1905 that shows the location and type of every structure in the city approximately six months before the disaster.  If Nana's decription was accurate in saying that nothing stood behind her house but sand dunes to the ocean, they lived somewhere out by Lombard. 

[The importance of history and of its Muse, Memory, cannot be overtsated.  I have recently learned about Up from the Deep, a blog that has built and is building a monument of history and of personal memory about the Tenderloin.  I am fascinated by the wealth of facts about San Francisco to be found there.  Check it out!]

Johann himself had died in '04, and when everything was lost in '06, Uma relied on the advice of a friend who told her not to take the settlement of 10 cents on the dollar which was offered by the insurance company. Instead she held out for more and ended up with nothing. Making her living as a milliner, which did not pay much, Uma and Nana had to live in hotels

When Nana spoke of the other home of her childhood, she did so with a mixture of distaste and regret.  “After Father died and we lost the house in the earthquake and fire,” she would say, “we lived in hotels.”  I could think of nothing more adventurous, more luxurious, or more wonderful than growing up in a hotel.  But Nana was not talking about the Fairmont, the Huntington, or the St. Francis.  She was talking about buildings exactly like, and possibly including, the one in which I am living now.

San Francisco has been from its earliest days a city of single men.  They required no kitchens or parlors, not even private baths, in their lodgings.  They needed a place to sleep.

They ate in restaurants.  They entertained themselves on the Barbary Coast or, for those more refined, at the Opera Houses, at Woodward's Gardens, or at the dozens of theaters that crowded the town.  I can imagine how a child in such quarters, an only child without playmates, would be bored and lonely most of the time.  But I can also imagine that for Uma, an attractive young widow, free of any need for chaperones or the other restrictions pressed on an unmarried girl, might have had a marvelous time.

I never knew Uma, who died when I was only two, but I remember being told that she had been a happy and fun-loving woman, who would “stay up until 4 in the morning playing cards” whenever she had the chance.  Now I realize that playing cards for her was not like my mother’s bridge club.  I see Uma shuffling the deck, joking and flirting, in the company of single men, her neighbors and having, I am sure, fun.

If only I could spend one night playing cards with her until four in the morning.