My Year for Writing in San Francisco, Part One

I began a new book-length memoir manuscript (“Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments”) with a Preface in which I described the thrill of flying into San Francisco at 7:30 AM on a June morning in 1958 (“The plane banked, cruising low over the waters … and made its final pass before it touched down at San Francisco Airport.”)–and a thrill it was. But that splendid adventure cannot surpass the thrill of arriving in the city on an ocean-going (or ocean having-gone) ship, passing beneath the early morning (8:30 AM this time) glory of the Golden Gate Bridge, that massive structure overhead as you stand on deck, fully awake with arrival at this most resplendent of destinations in 1965.

We had returned to San Francisco (where we had lived from 1958 to 1963) after I had spent two years–my first teaching job after earning my M.A.–as an Instructor in English at the University of Hawaii.

Our arrival fell two years short of the city’s infamous “Summer of Love,” when nearly 100,000 young souls  would invade Haight-Ashbury (which we had known previously as a somewhat sedate area made up of second-hand bookstores and Italian delicatessens), and San Francisco would find itself the epicenter of a cultural revolution—but the music was in the air already in 1965, and it was infectious.

“Hot town, summer in the city
Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty
Been down, isn’t it a pity
Doesn’t seem to be a shadow in the city …

But at night it’s a different world
Go out and find a girl
Come-on come-on and dance all night
Despite the heat it’ll be alright …

Cool town, evening in the city
Dressing so fine and looking so pretty
Cool cat, looking for a kitty
Gonna look in every corner of the city

Till I’m wheezing like a bus stop
Running up the stairs, gonna meet you on the rooftop …

The Lovin’ Spoonful set the tone, and the pace, in this song and others, such as “Daydream” (“What a day for a daydream / What a day for a daydreamin’ boy / And I’m lost in a daydream / Dreamin’ ’bout my bundle of joy”); “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind” (“Did you ever have to make up your mind? / And pick up on one and leave the other behind? / It … Did you ever have to finally decide? / And say yes to one and let the other one ride? / There’s so many changes and tears you must hide. / Did you ever have to finally decide?’); and “Do You Believe in Magic?”

“Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart
How the music can free her, whenever it starts
And it’s magic, if the music is groovy
It makes you feel happy like an old-time movie
I’ll tell you about the magic, and it’ll free your soul …

If you believe in magic don’t bother to choose
If it’s jug band music or rhythm and blues …

Here are album covers for The Lovin’s Spoonful’s Do You Believe in Magic and The Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin.’

John Phillips and The Mamas and Papas had initiated the craving with “California Dreamin’” in December of 1965 (“All the leaves are brown / And the sky is grey (and the sky is grey) / I’ve been for a walk (I’ve been for a walk) / On a winter’s day (on a winter’s day) / California dreamin’ (California dreamin’) / On such a winter’s day.”) and they would follow through in 1967 with “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)”:

“If you are going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair
If you are going to San Francisco
You are gonna meet some gentle people there …

All across the nation such a strange vibration
People in motion
There is a whole generation with a new explanation …”

What an era! A flower power counterculture, a sexual revolution, Free Love, a New Left movement, New Wave science fiction, and long hair: the potential pervaded the air, everywhere—but I hadn’t returned to San Francisco for any of that (although temptations enough would present themselves, everywhere). I had come to San Francisco, because my wife Betty was willing to work for a year, so I could be “free” to become an actual, real, publishable writer: no longer, after two years of educational servitude (My first teaching experience had not been a gratifying experience.)– just another “wannabe.”

We located an apartment to rent adjacent to Clement Street (one of our favorite areas in The City). On July 19, Betty wrote my folks: “We found a flat on Fourth Avenue [and Clement]. I was charmed by the place first thing, and when Bill walked down (he’d been out on 20th Avenue looking at a place there) to see it later, he felt the same way. We’re on the second floor, with our own private entrance, a stairway, in the back. It’s so quiet here, and yet we’re right around the corner from Clement Street, one of my favorite shopping areas. To clinch the whole thing, we’re also near one of the best grammar schools in the city.”

Betty even included a drawing, to scale, of the flat—and my own account confirmed her overall assessment of the place, which–at $115 a month–I found fit our needs, and resources, perfectly. “Tonight the wife and I are sitting in the kitchen, listening to the wind (“whirrl”) and the refrigerator (“purrr’) and the gas heater (‘boom”) and the clock (“tick tock”) do their thing. The night, outside the window, is shrouded in fog. O, delicious crisp chill—resuscitator of sleepy Hawaiian souls … and a great place, San Francisco, to get some serious writing done!” I offered details on each room: the boys’ large and white, great for play, their toys overflowing drawers set in the lower portion of a wall (there was only one wall, for this was an attic room with handsome angles, gracefully shaped by the roof above it)—and colorful, for Betty had provided twin beds with boyishly crimson and beige and champagne pink covers. She also found a small table with chairs at nearby Busvan, a bargain furniture outlet we’d sought out and made full use of when we first lived in the City, on Hayes Street, in 1958.

Up the hall, one alcove housed a miniscule blue bedroom (morning light falling through a stained glass window), which was ours—and the alcove across the hall became my “studio,” another small room, a literary menagerie, space I had no trouble filling with a desk I’d made myself, homegrown bookcase too (all the books I owned fit nicely), and slowly accreting manuscripts piles. The kitchen, also small, was the largest we’d ever had in our nine-year marital history, with red curtains and a generous bath of warm light. The living room was spaciously cozy, and empty, awaiting a couch (from, of course, Busvan).

            Here are photos of the discount furniture house that furnished so many of our domestic needs, and the Richmond area in general—so different from our environment in Manoa Valley on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. (Photo credits: https://mistersf.com/; The New York Times).

    The only assessment in Betty’s August report that would prove to be inaccurate was: “We have new neighbors downstairs; they seem very nice and have two children—a girl seven and a boy five.” The kids proved nice enough, but the parents turned out to be a charming couple who got intoxicated (no, “smashed,” in just any one of the many local bars), each night, and came home at 2:00 AM closing time to engage in the prolonged ritual of a knock-down-drag-out fight. One “morning after,” I heard the boy child say to our son Tim, proudly, “My daddy tried to throw my mommy out the window last night.” The father failed in this attempt only because of the size of his wife—a VERY large (fat) woman with a sweet telephone voice. But more about this couple latter, who could be seen on the street next day (walking hand and hand until “cocktail hour” arrived again at five o’clock) with deep fingernail scratches on both of their faces.

Not only did we find a flat right off the bat (and signed a year’s lease, so we had some security, along with distasteful neighbors), but Betty landed a job—soon, in mid-August. She went to work as a dental assistant (as she was working when we got “reunited” in our home town in Michigan in the summer of 1956, and later in San Francisco), and she liked to describe her boss, Dr. Tobenkin, as “quite a character” (when I met him I learned that, prior to being a dentist, he aspired to be a concert violinist, and had, at one time, studied with Issac Stern). In her own words, Betty wrote my folks that Dr, Tobenkin was “very nice to me and is always sending candy and toys home to the boys.” By the end of September, he had given her two raises (She added in another letter, “I guess that makes up for the long hours.”). By November, she was writing: “I must be getting used to working again for I find I’m not nearly as tired as I was at first. Just knowing my job [previous experience as a dental assistant) makes it easier also.” In mid-August, I had written: “Betty starts work tomorrow. The doctor said she could have two weeks at Christmas  (starting around December 17) so if we can hook up to an appropriate wagon going East, we should be able to throw a few snowballs at you.” This trip “home,” however, would not work out.

When I first mentioned finding a flat in one of our favorite neighborhoods (Clement Street and 4th Avenue), I quoted Betty’s appraisal of where the boys would go to school: “one of the best grammar schools in the city”—which was Madison Elementary School on Sacramento Street. In late September, Betty wrote my folks, saying, “The boys seem very happy in their classes. Bill worked out a satisfactory arrangement with Linda Reyes” [whose address, and the arrangement we worked out, made it possible for the boys to attend Madison Elementary]. When we lived in San Francisco previously (1958-1963), the Reyes family—Tom and Linda and their four kids: Ted, Ian, Haidée, and Gillian—had been close friends. The arrangement now, was: Linda would pick Stephen up at Madison Elementary at noon (so I could have a full five hours to work in the flat alone) and then Tim, when school got out for him later, would walk to the Reyes’ house (also located on Sacramento Street, not far from the school) with the two Reyes boys, Ted and Ian. I would pick them up there and then take all six kids (which included Haidee and Gillian) to the playground in Julius Kahn Park—close to Sacramento Street—and that would give Linda a break.

            Here are three members of the Reyes family: Linda (who was an avid reader and with whom I had fine “literary” conversations), Tom, and the youngest girl, Gillian, whom Linda had taught to recite–beautifully, adorably—Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (“Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow.”).  

I was a classic mid-1960s “house husband” (I fit the definition in most ways: “an unemployed man who stays at home, taking care of children, etc. while his wife goes out to work”—and I enjoyed the role thoroughly, sitting on a bench in the park with a bevy of attractive young wives, cheerfully chatting with them while we watched our respective charges as they played. Locally known as “JK,” Julius Kahn was adjacent to the Presidio, “the nation’s largest urban National Park”—the playground officially cited as being “in excellent condition,” providing kids and parents (or “house husbands” like me) and two areas to choose from—”one designed for babies and toddlers, and another for school-aged kids. Both playgrounds are situated in a sand pit! This park is very green and is surrounded by a grove of beautiful trees that make this spot a great place to hike and explore.”

Here’s a photo of Julius Kahn Park. (Photo credit: http://www.bcx.news/)

I not only enjoyed the park, but the journey to and from it with “my” kids —for some interesting California history could be found along the route, such as Congregation Emanu-El on Lake Street, which housed the two oldest Jewish congregations in California (“During the Gold Rush in 1849, a small group of Jews held the first High Holy Days services on the west coast of the United States” there). The area in which we lived was rich with the City’s history—from Balboa to the Presidio. The Cinderella Bakery, on Balboa Street, had been Established in 1959. It was the oldest authentic, homestyle Russian bakery in the Bay Area, featuring (as it advertised itself) “time-honored recipes handed down through generations for our tender pastries, savory meat pies and a broad selection of delicious Russian entreés, soups and specialties. Come into our sunny bakery and inhale the wonderful fragrance of our freshly baked dark and light rye breads. Treat yourself to some of our flaky pastries or traditional Russian favorites, including Poppy Seed Rolls, Piroshki, Vatrushka, Napoleon Cake, and fresh fruit turnovers.” In the other direction due West, we discovered–at 5241 Geary Blvd. and 17th Avenue, the Russian Renaissance Restaurant—which featured not only borscht, blinis, and smoked fish, but music. I recall a proficient accordianist playing and singing Pushkin’s poem “Я вас любил: любовь еще, быть может / В душе моей угасла не совсем” (“I loved you once and love you still, perhaps / Within my soul that flame remains.”) one night we had dinner there.

Even further out, at 6290 Geary avenue (this area known as “Russian Town”) stood The Holy Virgin Cathedral, also known as Joy of All Who Sorrow, a Russian Orthodox cathedral.. It opened in 1965, and was the largest of the six cathedrals of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia, which had, at the time, over 400 parishes worldwide. This neighborhood also housed what would become my favorite bookstore (aside from City Lights in North Beach), the знание (Znanie: Russian word for “knowledge”—loaded with desirable classic and contemporary books in Russian, which I had taken up studying seriously again, having run into my former tutor, Mrs. Pein (more about her later).

Here is a photo of Congregation Emanu-El on Lake Street—and the Bridge Theatre on Geary. (Photo credit: https://www.emanuelsf.org/; https://www.outsidelands.org/)

Another favorite haunt on Geary Street was the Bridge Theatre, which dated back to 1939 and the film Love Affair, which featured Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Its official publicity offered: “The name Bridge was chosen in honor of the then newly built Golden Gate Bridge which opened in 1937. From the beginning up until the mid-1950’s, The Bridge Theatre was strictly a low price, late run, neighborhood theatre, playing films which had first been shown on Market Street, then later found their way out to the neighborhoods. By the time they got to the Bridge they already had quite a bit of mileage on them. Love Affair, for example, would have been about three or four months old by the time it opened at the Bridge. In the mid-1950’s the Bridge was up-graded to an ‘exclusive’ (meaning the films were not shown at any other theatres as long as they remained at the Bridge) first run ‘art’ (meaning prestige USA and foreign films) house, and has prospered as such ever since. …The vertical sign and marquee are original, but the theatre went through a number of renovations over the years.” In 1966, it often featured classic Russian films such as The Cranes Are Flying, Ballad of a Soldier, and Andrei Rublev—all of which we enjoyed.

I had written my parents in mid-August: “I write (type!) about eight to ten hours a day, and have read eleven books (mostly in Russian) since the end of June. The shopkeepers on Clement Street shower us with Kasseri cheese, steam beer, and kabasa. The sidewalks are filled with old men, pretty women, and advertisements for a host of foreign foods. The sun, in San Francisco, hasn’t got a regular daily plan in its head—aside from a host of winds and fully anticipated fog. Our sons are strong and obnoxious on occasion, and my wife loves me because I can find so many sweet things for her locally: a shopping cart, a bottle of ‘Mr. Clean,’ a pastrami sandwich, two pickles, and a 1926 carpet sweeper.”

Betty was working full time, so I didn’t really strap her with items employed in domestic chores—one of which I had taken on myself. She wrote: “Bill has begun cooking. It has been a big help and the dishes he prepares have been marvelous. We’ve decided to expand our library of cookbooks.” The only complaint she offered was I “used too many pots and pans,” and a reliable cook, I was slow (if absent) when it came to washing dishes—but I was still cooking in mid-November when I wrote: “I have discovered that I am a fantastic chef. No hasty stew for this kid. When it comes to the culinary arts, I am a master: meticulous, demanding, strictly aristocratic in my taste. I have gone from preparing Norwegian Chicken with Carraway seeds (only a partial success, but not bad for my first effort—too much flour in the gravy) to Brewer’s Shrimp with Almond Sauce (five stars for this one, but most of the credit might go to the beer); Bifteks Miremonda (with Danish Cheese); Burgundy Smothered  Liver and Onions (Great! And I don’t even like onions!); a Chef’s Salad (garbanzo beans, eighty different types of lettuce, shrimp, ham, port salute cheese); Greek fish served with Retsina wine; Fillet of Sole Duglere; Polish Hamburger (with egg butterfly noodles); Meatballs with Beer and Green Olives; Turkey and Sausage Pudding (the very best dish I’ve done so far!); Coronado Casserole Choizos (Portuguese sausage), and last but by no means least: Paella  Valencia (with Spanish Saffron). This last item may have been least after all, for it didn’t turn out all that well, although I did add some Shoyu to the dish the next night, and turned it into a satisfactory Fried Rice.”

Best of all, I was now, of a sudden, “cooking” in the area of the writing I had come back to San Francisco to accomplish. I mentioned, in a letter of mid-August, writing eight to ten hours a day (and this alongside undertaking fresh woodblock prints, based on Russian poems, with the Cyrillic text included)—and that began to pay off. I’m not sure just how or where I first heard of the advent of a journal called Per Se, which had an editorial and business office at Stanford University in nearby Palo Alto. An article printed in the San Francisco Chronicle much later (just before the first issue made its appearance in Spring of 1966,) bore the title “The Launching of Per Se –Other Literary Notes,” and it began: “The mortality rate of little magazines, literary and otherwise, is historic—especially here on the West Coast. Only last month, the Sausalito-based Contact officially gave up the struggle after some four years of enterprise and financial woes. And yet there are voices that will be heard.”

The next paragraph of the piece began: “Another brave magazine venture is about to be launched—this one called Per Se, based at Box 2377, Stanford 94305. It will be a quarterly, edited by the Peninsula novelist Robin White and produced at Stanford University Press by an impressive staff of 30  (including three managing editors, according to the prospectus). The first, or Spring 1966, issue is due almost immediately. Robin White explains the enterprise in these paragraphs: “Per Se is designed for the person whose time is limited but whose intellectual curiosity spans many areas. So it’s not any ‘type’ of magazine, but just a magazine, per se, the staff being drawn from variety of fields, professional and geographic, as is the Advisory Board.”

Robin White’s introduction to Per Se listed several staff and Board members, among whom were Bishop Pike of San Francisco and Francis Brown (of the New York Review of Books). A brief description of the contents of the inauguration issue followed—and the prospective read: “A dragon-slayer in a world of noisy sciolists.” I did not “discover” the opportunity of submitting to the magazine by way of this article, because by the time the article appeared, a short story I submitted had been accepted–my first to be published story!–and that work, called ‘The Drive-in” would appear in the first Spring 1966 issue of Per Se.

Typically, I have filed away the letter of acceptance from Robin White in a place so safe I can’t find that historically-significant (for me) document, but on November 15, 1965, I wrote my parents, saying (by then deep in correspondence with Robin White): “My editor likes my high standards, was impressed by my work in general [by then he had asked to see my woodblock prints and had accepted two for the second issue of Per Se–more about this in a moment]—and thinks I have a future in fiction. This is a good break. If I can place another story somewhere, write about ten more and score with some poems, I will have had a better year than I expected.” In January I wrote [the first issue of Per Se not yet out]: “I heard from Mr. White again. He said he’d like to see more of my stuff and that he will ‘beat the drum for [me] at the bigger paying mags. Both of the prints he took will appear in the second issue, which will come out in June—one of the prints as the cover. You might enjoy his own work. Betty has read and enjoyed a novel, Elephant Hill [a Harper Prize Novel] and a book of stories, Foreign Soil. He has two other novels, Men and Angels and House of Many Rooms. All of these are centered in India, where he was born and raised, the son of missionaries

I have a copy of Men and Angels Robin White inscribed for me: “To Bill Minor, with best regards and many thanks for ‘Lilies of the Field’” (a woodcut I sent him a copy of, after he accepted “The Drive-in”—one that included the words of the Biblical text from Matthew 6:2:“And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:”). On January 24, I wrote my parents, sent them the article on the ”launching” of Per Se that appeared in The Chronicle—and I added: “My story will be in the first issue, so I will be able to send it along to you in March. The story has nothing to do with LSD or therapeutic abortion [Two other pieces that appeared in the first issue did]; the magazine will contain articles on everything from electronics  to Nashville (‘The country music capitol of the world’). Mr. white sent me another letter saying, “While I was in New York I discussed your work with the Editors of The New Yorker, and I hope they request you to do some fiction for them.’ I seem to have found a friend.”

When the story was published, an incident occurred that was truly remarkable—and enjoyable. A former friend, Carl Mangold (whose extremely wealthy Canadian parents had “given” him an art gallery for Carl to manage in Palo Alto, before I took the teaching job at the University of Hawaii). Carl was now living, unemployed, in a swanky apartment on Telegraph Hill. One weekend, he took me and son Tim (seven years of age) to see his “pad”—and he began to talk about a beautiful woman he’d met who lived just opposite him. Carl decided on the spot to invite her to meet us—which he did.

The woman was home, and he brought her over to his apartment. She turned out to be “beautiful” indeed, stunningly so. The woman was Mimi Farina, sister of Joan Baez, and wife, now widow, of writer Richard Farina, known as “the lost genius who bridged the gap between beats and hippies,” who’d been Thomas Pynchon’s roommate, hung out with Bob Dylan, and wrote an American cult classic novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me; According to one account, on 30 April 1966, at around lunchtime, Richard Fariña sat down at a table at the Thunderbird bookstore and cafe in Carmel, California, to sign copies of his freshly minted first novel, published just two days before. “The sky was blue and California-cloudless, and Fariña, 29, had organized a surprise 21st birthday party for his wife Mimi. Fariña signed copy after copy of his novel, the dedication page of which read: ‘This one is for Mimi.’ A little after seven that evening, Richard Fariña was dead, a motorcycle accident on the winding Carmel Valley Road had claimed the life of an artist bursting with potential, at the very beginning of his career.”

Richard Fariña had married Mimi in 1963 when she was just 17. Competent musicians, the couple released two albums together in 1965, a year before his death—and one of their songs, “Pack Up Your Sorrows,” was a favorite of mine (“No use cryin’ / Talking to a stranger / Namin’ the sorrows you’ve seen / Oh, cause there are / Too many bad times / Too many sad times / Nobody knows what you mean / If somehow / You could pack up your sorrows / And give them all to me / You would lose them / I know how to use them / Give them all to me.”). In Carl Mangold’s apartment, Mimi Farina sat in an armless cushioned chair affectionately holding my seven year old son Tim on her lap (a situation, he thoroughly enjoyed, as well as me), and, when I mentioned that I’d just had my first short story published, she told me, softly, that her husband Richard had been a writer too—to which I replied, as softly and respectfully as I could, that I was familiar with his work, as well as the music they had created together. I will never forget that afternoon at Carl’s apartment (Mimi Farina was a stunningly beautiful woman in ways far more meaningful than appearance).

Here are photos of Mimi and Richard Farina. As an aside, here, I will provide access to an extraordinary video of her and Joan Baez singing together before a large audience at Sing Sing Prison in 1973: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKQ-WzzQvyY:  (Photo credits:   https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/25/richard-farina-lost-genius-bridged-gap-beats-hippies; https://www.discogs.com/artist/1260593-Richard-Mimi-Farina)

I will leave the outcome of my own “potentials” that followed the publication of “The Drive-in” for the close of this chapter–but from where I was standing (or sitting, writing) in January of the new year 1966, things looked pretty damn good– the decision to spend a year just writing (and doing prints) justified by actual Good News, and forthcoming publication. On January 13, I turned thirty, and had reason to celebrate that accumulation of years, along with what seemed to await me.

The next Bill’s Blog will be Part Two of this chapter from the memoir on the year I spent “free” to be the writer I hoped to be in San Francisco. Stay tuned, please.

Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published thirteen books: most recent Going Solo: A Memoir 1953-1958; also Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and six other books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities) at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for sixty years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

One thought on “My Year for Writing in San Francisco, Part One”

  1. Fabulous historic detail—still relevant.

    I think we met while I was living in the attic area of the Reyes Victorian on Sacramento.
    Recall the late night visit by you, Tom and I with Bob, on Post, from which your “Naked Man With A Gun”sprang forth into the poetry world.

    I remember Carl when he ran a gallery on Pacific for a culture seeking construction company owner. Carl just abrasive enough to wreck some sales and so he sold two Eastern paintings to me, mostly with some of his accumulated wealth. I had little money then and the $500 or so that I paid translated into 225K at a Sotheby’s NYC auction in 2012. I later introduced Carl to his future wife, of Russian background, who worked with me at an insurance company. Carl later said I’d done him no favors.

    There are a number of other gaps I might fill in when and if we connect.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s