Growing up in Noe Valley in the 1950s

"I was there..."

by Kate Campbell

Childhood Memories of Noe Valley in the 1950s

Noe Valley. I lived there once, on the hill, on the street that cleaves Twin Peaks, in a house with a window that pictured the world – San Francisco Bay, the Dutch Boy sign with the child mechanically waving a paint brush, cargo ships resting like logs by the docks.

The city’s roar and diesel fumes roiled through my grandmother’s open front window. We watched TV, black and white Crusader Rabbit cartoons, played on ratty oriental carpets, broke the faux Chippendale furniture, ignored the framed prints from Sears, and relied on the house’s skylights to illuminate the gloom. When someone asks “where are you from,” images of growing up in the 1950s in Noe Valley rush in before I answer, then tell them the truth, in two words.

But there's more to the answer, in terms of memories and pungent sensory details. In that Irish enclave where my family had lived for several generations, my Great Aunt Eva lay dying of old age and widow’s despair in the back bedroom. My father lay drunk on the bedstead in the basement, while next door, Mr. Anderson, the neighborhood bachelor, pruned shrubs in his front garden. He had a hot house in the back, propagated cuttings from the nursery in Golden Gate Park where he worked, shared the strongest ones with my grandmother. He called the four of us kids "the weeds."

Our side of the hothouse—a fence divided our yards, but the hothouse was there first—served as a playroom. We invited the neighbor kids back there to play. We climbed on the roof, careful not to get pricked by the climbing rose that provided pink bouquets for our little yellow tea table. Mr. Anderson, his watery blue eye trained on us through the crack in the boards, knocked on the wood when we said bad words or socked each other.

My first crush, Michael Esterbrook, came over from across the street in his coonskin cap and we’d play saloon, Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone. I’d be Miss Kitty and try to trick him into a kiss, but my brothers were always there, lifting butterfly cocoons from the Shasta daisies or prying quartz rocks from the birdbath to use as ammo. I'd put nasturtiums and white iris in my hair, suck nectar from the flower tubes. Michael never kissed me, never lay down with me in my little doll’s bed.

My grandmother would call from a back window and we’d trudge with her, all four of us kids, to the grocery store at 24th and Castro. She’d buy lamb chops at the butcher shop, chat with the neighbors. We’d get free slices of baloney, wait for the 11 Hoffman bus to take us back up the hill with our sacks of canned peaches and Folgers coffee, back to where I’m from.