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Corner of California and Fillmore

By Judy Dean

I

Some places have the power to change the way we look at and live in the world. This is the third in a series I’m calling “Places that Shaped Me.”

 

Part Three:  Corner of California & Fillmore

San Francisco, CA  1977

 

I woke up to the sound of foghorns: long, deep, incessant foghorns. I’d been dreaming of the Canadian prairie, so where the hell was I? I slowly took in the pale gray room. That’s right: San Francisco. I stumbled out of my sleeping bag and crossed to the window. The 24-hour donut shop on the corner of California and Fillmore glowed in the fog. It was busy as usual; cops in the morning, insomniacs at night. It looked like something Edward Hopper would have painted, only seedier.

 

I was 22 and one week into a new adventure. I’d landed there after a crazy cross-country ramble that ended on an Alberta wheat farm, but that’s another story. I’d received a call from my college roommate Joyce, begging me to come and share her unfurnished studio, at the precise moment I needed to go somewhere. I bought a one-way ticket from Calgary and arrived on her doorstep, broke but excited.

 

Our extremely Spartan apartment was located on a busy corner in the Upper Fillmore, a neighborhood that was far more downscale in 1977 than it is today. I had a roof over my head, one good friend, and sufficient food. Still, San Francisco was where I learned what it feels like to be truly poor, as opposed to student-poor, which I’d been for years.

 

For months, I slept in that sleeping bag on the floor. I’d lay awake at night, listening to the foghorns, worrying about money and everything else. Years later, when I went camping in that same sleeping bag, foghorns would fill my dreams at night. It was as if that sound had soaked right in and lodged there permanently.

 

Joyce had a job as an assistant in a clay jewelry business called Parrot Pearls. The hippie owners made colorful necklaces and fanciful pins for people like Cher and Elton John (a uniquely 70s look). They eventually took pity on me and hired me to make beads for them. Yes, this is what my expensive BFA had come to: hand-rolling small balls of clay on a kitchen table in a cold, bare apartment for $5 an hour.

 

I was still job-hunting non-stop, of course, but the country was in the middle of a deep recession and the job picture was bleak, especially in the coolest, most desirable city in America. Although it pains me to say it, I was forced to become a Kelly Girl and was sent out on all kinds of short-term assignments around the city.

 

My favorite job was working in the information booth at the convention center. At the time, most conventioneers were men, and many stopped by our booth to inquire about two things: 1) Where should we go to gawk at gay men? (Polk Street and the Castro were tourist attractions), and, 2) Where do we go to pick up women? This was inevitably followed by: Oh by the way, what are you doing tonight? Who could ever forget the Sanitary Suppliers Convention? I was surprised to learn about this large organization dedicated to supplying gas station restrooms across America. Their trade show, with all those free samples, was memorable.

 

Living hand-to-mouth was life changing. I was making some money, but never enough. Plus, I didn’t get paid on a regular basis, adding to the stress. There were many days I couldn’t afford bus fare, so I walked. I couldn’t afford the right clothes or shoes for job interviews. As an essentially unemployed have-not young woman I experienced the subtle but disturbing shift in the way other people related to me, and even more alarming, how I began to think about myself. This short chapter of my life is loaded with life-lessons that humbled and changed me.

 

It wouldn’t be fair to paint too bleak of a picture however. San Francisco was my first city, and it’s surely one of the most beautiful in the world. I saw a lot of it by foot, hiking up and down those crazy hills. I fell in love with the architecture, the neighborhoods, the parks, the views, the bay, and of course, the food.

 

As a kid growing up in the Midwest (and self-proclaimed picky eater) I’d never tasted fresh garlic before 1977. Not to mention artichokes, pesto, dim sum, avocados, crusty sourdough, or a hundred other wonderful things. Every week Joyce and I saved up five bucks to eat out on Wednesday night. We looked for small, family-owned neighborhood restaurants: Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Polish, Chinese, Indian—whatever caught our fancy. I’m not exaggerating when I say those meals shaped my world-view. Oh, and did I mention wine? Let’s not forget about wine.

 

One day, about four months in, I got a call from a personnel manager back in Michigan. He offered me a job—a real job, with benefits and everything. I accepted immediately. It was like I was in love with San Francisco but it didn’t love me back. I cried on the plane heading home but even then I knew the breakup was inevitable.

 

I’m proud of my 22 year-old seIf: she was gutsy and resilient. I arrived back in Michigan with some newly minted street smarts and greater empathy for people who struggle. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d head back to San Francisco six years later; fresh out of grad school and still broke, but with eyes wide open.