You Tell Us: A Bay Area expat returns for the holidays
on December 20, 2010
When I was six years old—in 1953 I am sorry to report—there was no room in the Catholic schools in Alameda for me and so I went to Saint Francis De Sales in Oakland. That school is long gone and the world I lived in even more so. I used to take an AC Transit bus in Alameda through the tube and up Broadway to a downtown stop then walk a few blocks to school. My mother and father worked so they couldn’t take me but would ask the bus driver to make sure I got off at the right stop. I was told to ask a policeman for help if I got lost. That happened only once when I got confused about a drug store landmark that I claimed had been moved while I was in the classroom. A cop walking a beat downtown set me on the right way.
There was no football or baseball in Oakland and so I became a 49er and Giants fan. My brothers Greg and Mike who came along eight and ten years after me were Raiders and A’s fans. But we had one alliance. All of us were devoted to Cal. My father and mother had never been to college but wanted their kids to go. On weekends Dad would take me up to lab buildings at Berkeley where we would simply walk in. I remember men in white lab coats who would take the time to talk to us about what they were doing and in particular a day when someone in a chem lab took my Dad’s keys, dipped them into some kind of bath and magically transformed the color of the metal. All the college boys wore coats and ties. There were houses with mysterious lettering that I later learned was Greek. If it was a football weekend what seemed like an ocean of people would be moving through the streets; a small army in blue and gold. In the woods above all the buildings I first smelled eucalyptus and it still reminds me of Cal.
San Francisco was remote and exotic; a shining set of buildings at the end of the bridge that we could see from Alameda. Commuter train tracks ran down the middle of the Bay Bridge. The city’s highest structure was Coit Tower and the highest downtown that you saw was the Ferry Building clock tower. Most of the buildings seem to be a brilliant, reflecting white in my memory. The city was more workmanlike in those days; warehouses, shipping, fishing, small plants and Navy were in evidence. The yupped-up-cute-shop future San Francisco was not yet in evidence.
We had little to do with the city except for maybe some Christmas expedition to Union Square department stores that are now replaced by national chains. The great divide that still exists between the East Bay and San Francisco was even greater in those days. Oakland downtown was a sort of poor man’s downtown across the bay, but really Oakland and Berkeley were collections of neighborhoods and pockets of activities. Gertrude Stein’s famous crack about “no there there” had already been made and eventually one realized that it was true not merely about Oakland but about most of California; a restless and variable set of living arrangements centered around cars. On both sides of the bay a relentless march southward was underway until the shores would become full of people all the way to San Jose, each town along the way creating its own collection of malls and tracts of houses knitted together by freeway.
As years went by and I ended up in the East I would answer “Near San Francisco” when asked where I grew up. People would almost always say, “Oh I love San Francisco. I hate Los Angeles.” To me that was about the same as saying that you hated California, because L.A. is much more the way Californians live than is San Francisco.
The bones of the place I grew up in are still there, of course, and after four decades in the East it still feels like home to me when I get on the freeway near one of the airports. Thanksgiving this year we came to California as we have many times since I was married thirty years ago. At the Claremont and looking out at the sun setting across the bay I could see the city pink-white and glowing, seemingly as remote, exotic and beautiful as the place I remember from childhood. Look another way and there’s the outlines of the Berkeley I used to know in the dusk and I feel an echo of the old sense of curiosity and endless possibility that was in the little boy of five decades before.
Bruns Grayson lives in Boston, works in the venture capital business and left California at age 18.
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