Monthly Archives: February 2009

Of Innocence and Immigrants

It was ordained in 1973, but I had decided long before that.

Just as soon as I had my college diploma in hand, I would make a beeline back to California. It helped that the Beach Boys were falsetto-ing surfing songs while the Mamas and the Papas were literally endorsing my plans.

Knowing all too well of my goals, my parents personally drove me from Indiana to my native San Francisco. Mom and Dad  had moved us  “back East” to my dad’s hometown of Muncie, Indiana to open their own business when I was nine — old enough to have remembered what life was like in the Golden State. Although I was 21 and could legally do whatever I wanted, they informed me I had exactly two weeks to find a job and a place to live, or I’d have to go back with them. So I summoned every shred of determination rather than risk the bursting of parental bubbles.

With a fistful of dimes, the “help wanted’ section of the San Francisco Chronicle and my mother by my side, I survival-dialed from a sit-down payphone in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel. We weren’t staying at this high class establishment. It was just a lovely place to use a pay phone while being strategically located in case of impending interviews.

My degree was in secondary level teaching, but the jobs I was calling about were far from academic. I would take anything that would keep me in my beloved San Francisco. And after being sent on a few dead-end interviews the first week, I landed a full time job at a mortgage banking firm in an art-deco building on Sansome Street for $550 per month.

One condition down; one to go.

Rents in San Francisco were pretty much out of my income range-to-be even in the early ’70s. Being of Greek descent, I unashamedly decided I would play the ethnic card when looking for living quarters. I called the two local Greek Orthodox churches and began asking around for elderly immigrant ladies looking for a renter. Both referrals I received were out in the Avenues, where post-war San Francisco saw thousands of densly-placed  “row houses” built, each with a patch of grass in front that were mostly paved over by now.  The first referral was for a garden apartment whose windows faced a steep hill. The warped linoleum flooring and the lack of sunlight were not welcoming.

The second house was on 42nd Avenue near Fulton Avenue, way out by the beach, where I once frolicked with my brothers at the now condo’ed over Playland. A kindly lady, whom I will dub Mrs. M, greeted my mother and I, communicating in Greek as she led us back to a spare bedroom next to her own. The room had two twin beds with matching green bedspreads and pictures of ladies sporting parasols perched atops the headboards.

The rent? $80 per month. I was good to go. I figured I could bank a lot of my earnings for my own little studio apartment before long.

Before he left, my father bought me a black and white TV set on a rolling stand, handed me $40 and wished me luck. He said I should “tough it out” now that I had made the decision to move so far away from them. Mom just had a worried look on her face.

I began getting used to the commute to the Financial District, bagging my lunch each day to save my earnings. Co-workers chuckled as I arrived with an umbrella in hand during my first week. After eleven years in Indiana, I had forgotten that overcast skies didn’t mean rain in the middle of a San Francisco summer.

A rhythm took hold as I got up at the same time each morning, boarded a bus full of open newspapers, took the ceremonial walk from the bus to my office and pretended that being an accounts payable clerk was an important job.  In my mind, the most important thing about it was that this job was in San Francisco.  This first foray into full-fledged adulthood was not quite what I had had in mind, but I reasoned it would have to do until I could find a path to a more satisfying existence.

Mrs. M sometimes offered breakfast or invited me to join her for dinner. At age 76, she moved slowly, kindly spoke haltingly to me (to which I mustered my best responses in broken Greek sentences) and never threw anything away that had been given to her.

I was convinced she was unaware of how some of her displayed memorabilia appeared to an outsider. In the breakfast room, the built-in breakfront boasted family photos, little porcelain ladies with parasols similar to the artwork in my bedroom, prizes from Cracker Jacks boxes and a number of items I could tell were given to her by family members. One was a plaster ashtray with a figure of a golfer posed ready to tee off. At the bottom was a saying, “ Old golfers never die – they just lose their balls.”

The living room was old-world-formal with overstuffed furniture surrounded by heavy silk drapery hanging onto the floor. At least six inches of fabric splayed itself at the base of each drapery panel. I couldn’t understand why they had never been hemmed to the appropriate length, so one day I asked her daughter, who visited several times a week.

The explanation was touching. Because immigrants like Mrs. M had so little when they arrived in this country, they were eager to display everything they had accumulated over the years to demonstrate their newfound prosperity. The extra fabric was a way to showcase their hard-won success – an excess making it clear that they had “arrived” at last in the new world.

One night I heard my matron moaning. Terrified she might be having a heart attack, I banged on her door and asked what was wrong. “TSARLI HORS!!” was all she said. I asked her to repeat herself. “TSARLI HORS!” My Greek-American brain finally unscrambled her response. The old lady had an excruciating charley horse. She asked me to call her daughter when it seemed evident her pain would not subside. Her daughter arrived and after a while, I peeked into her room to see if she was better. There, I saw a mustard plaster on Mrs. M’s back.

Everyone Mrs. M conversed with on the phone spoke Greek, so I surmised she had no command of English whatsoever.  A college friend of mine visited and it was during that week I realized that Mrs. M. understood and could speak English better than I could speak Greek. The  minute my friend left, however, she spoke not a word of Engllish to me again. My Greek improved dramatically out of sheer necessity. Even having spent a year at an American college in Greece (where I defaulted to English whenever I could), did not result in as much fluency.

On a Saturday afternoon, I heard a conversation taking place from behind the toilet room door in the long hallway. Mrs. M’s row house had about 10 inches of clearance from the house next door, whose mirror-image toilet room window faced her own. She was speaking in English in a very thick accent with the old lady next door, who had an obviously heavy Russian accent. “Halloh! How are yoo?” – to which the Russian lady answered, “How ees yore femly?” It was too precious. Two immigrant ladies occupying their respective thrones exchanging pleasantries.

Within eight months, I had saved enough money for a deposit on a little apartment. Mrs. M was beside herself that I could not keep her company any longer. I had moved on to a more interesting job and had set my sights on getting on with an airline at SFO. I said my goodbyes and told her I would not be living far away and would keep in touch.

But I didn’t.

If it’s true that youth is wasted on the young, then never moreso than on me. Despite my best intentions, I was on a mission to go places and see things while some meaningful ties became abandoned, demonstrating my youthful insensitivity. A few years later, after I had begun boarding people onto planes at SFO, I phoned to inquire about Mrs. M. and found she had passed away.

I wonder if she knew how often I reminisced about my short time with her. The stock of immigrant women from whence she came would never exist again. I knew it in my heart of hearts.

I also knew that my new frontiers had become like to her too-long drapery —  meaningful success only to the person earning it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dena's Lady Boomer Column and personal musings

Howdy Doody Time

Recently I received one of those mass emails that contained a short test. Geared to leading-edge Baby Boomers like myself, it asked questions like, “What builds strong bodies 12 ways?” ; “Before he was the skipper’s ‘little buddy,’ Bob Denver was Dobie Gillis’ friend named ——-?”, and, “I’m strong to the finish ‘cause . . . . .” , all of which came from the TV era as depicted in the movie “Pleasantville.”

To my delight. I scored 18 out of 20 and proceeded to send it to all my similarly-aged friends. Most made perfect scores and the rest only missed only one or two, as I did.

What was surprising, however, was the reaction I received from sending it. The act of doing so resulted in an avalanche of responses. I generally hate email-forwards, few of which I care to pass on.  This one sparked something unexpected.

One response I received was simply, “Reminds me of my jingle gyspy days. Stuff set to music sticks!”

Another friend wrote, “I must have watched too much TV. Actually, I was just a culture vulture from a very early age. To me the answers were obvious, but from a contemporary outlook, some of these slogans must look ridiculous.”

I began to survey  my own feelings at that point and was left with the conclusion that the ‘50s and ‘60s, much of which I spent in northern Calfiornia, were worth recounting.

It occurred to me that when I was eight years old, our streets were filled with kids on bikes, some from five neighborhoods away.  My siblings and I (all under age 12) could be dropped off at a downtown theatre double-feature with $1.50 each in our pockets for tickets and popcorn. Mom would drive up to collect us just as the theater emptied for the next showing.

As one of my respondents reminded me, there were only three TV networks. Each September, just as school started, we anxiously awaited our fall line-up TV Guide issue, rejoicing when some shows returned and in disbelief when others were cancelled.  Dad would gather us around the TV for Hallmark Specials, the Perry Como Show and The Wonderful World of Disney as if it were part of our educational enrichment.

I occasionally think back to my daily ritual after school — watching the Mickey Mouse Club with themes like “Fun with Music”, “Circus Day”, and “Rodeo Day”. And the nightly news consisted of one hour of unopinionated reporting with 30 seconds at the end for the anchor’s “thoughts”, during which my father yelled at everyone to shut up as we ate our dinner. The news was too important at our house to have meaningful conversations at that time of day.

Being a girl, I was proud that I could recognize the make, year and model of every car on the road. I thought people with convertibles and Cadillacs were wealthy.  Our two-toned 1955 Mercury looked contemporary and streamlined, but inside it  was adorned by clear plastic seat covers (just like our living room furniture) to which my little girl legs would stick mercilessly.

While on long road trips “back east” to see our grandparents each summer,  my brothers and I read Burma Shave signs out loud and played road games. We serenaded our parents with songs from out-dated 45s  donated to us by our San Francisco uncle, who gave us his restaurant jukebox rejects.  One of my brothers would bm-bm-bm the bass accompaniment as I sang the sultry melody to Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” trying to clone her singing tone.

It was tough for a nine year old to sound sexy. The other brother was, of course, percussion.

Fast food stops were non-existent, not just because there were so few along the road, but because Dad wanted to “make time.”  The  4:30 am reveille was my father yelling, “Rise and shine!,” after which three sleepy kids would tumble into the back seat of the car, pillows in tow, to stretch out on the floor, seat and back window to complete our night’s sleep. Seatbelts were only in sportscars at the time.

Along the sometimes uneven roadways, Mom bravely made sandwiches on a tiny cutting board placed on her lap.

We made it a practice to stop for “pictures with the Indians” and marvelled at important landmarks, like the Royal Gorge and the Great Salt Lake. One of my more unshakeable memories was enduring my father’s choice of motels for the night.  The ritual was always the same. After admonishing us  to stay in the car, Dad would  stroll toward the motel office like a non-chalant detective, slicking his hair back with a comb,  whistling  a 1940s tune. When the motel rate was higher than expected, he would order one of us to hunker down in the car so that the proprieter couldn’t see that there were five of us.  They charged by the head back then.

If the verdict was a motel whose neon sign included the word “pool”, we would whoop with joy.  And within seconds of throwing our luggage onto beds, we were in our swimsuits, ready to take a “dip” after an 800 mile day.  As the only girl, I had the dubious honor of sleeping on a rock-hard army cot wedged between the motel room’s two full-sized beds, taken up by the rest of my family. Fortunately, sleep comes easily to kids.

A heavy canvas water bag hung on our car’s front bumper on these cross-country voyages (I never quite figured out why), while a swamp cooler teetered precariously atop a partially rolled-down passenger-side window. It was filled with ice cubes each time we stopped for 25-cent-a-gallon gas and my brothers and I would be permitted to take turns pulling the cord for cool air to stream into the car. Those stout-hearty “filling station” attendants injected gasoline into our tank from art-deco gas pumps whose apexes were adorned with what looked like colored gumballs floating in tiny see-through domes.

School days were filled with committing the preamble to the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address to memory, singing songs in class like Over the River and Through the Woods, and struggling to pass the President’s Council on Physical Fitness test where we ran, climbed ropes and did push-ups.

Having moved from the patch-of-grass densly-built, foggy  “avenues” of San Francisco to a Sacramento suburb in the ’60s, I was to discover lawns that stretched like expansive golf greens throughout my new neighborhood, offering limitless room to play. The pigtailed, de-frocked girl depicted on suntan lotion bottles was ignorant of “SPF” factors, so during the summers we compared tans lines.

Our “rich” swimming pool neighbors would call our house to see if someone was ill on the sunny days when my brothers and I failed to show up for marathon splashes with their kids  And our backyard was large enough to serve as a “whiffle ball” diamond.

Some days I would plead with  my mom, asking why I couldn’t take swimming, ballet, and horsebackriding lessons, like the neighbor’s daughter. Mom did not mince words.  “We can’t afford it,” was her sucker-punch, illustrating that all incomes were not created equal.

Mom sometimes lost her voice after yelling out the window to call us home for dinner. We didn’t know a single kid in daycare or after-school programs.  And somehow, summer days seemed to last forever.

True, as a generation, we raged against the “establishment” as we got older. Our music, our garb and our slogans reflected a penchant to reject many of the post WWII conventions our parents revered. But just as we grew out of our crew socks, we grew out of our hippiedom as well, opting for paying jobs, walks down matrimonial aisles, the production of 2.5 children and, like many of our parents, houses in the suburbs.

I am surprised but oftentimes saddened by the sophistication levels of today’s kids.  Our parents’ generation no doubt looked at our generation precisely the same way, citing a loss of innocence. But that little 20-question test sparked some feedback that enabled me to look back on my childhood, making me realize just how charmed it really was. I know now that others grew up without the kind of world my parents provided us, but I can still recall the feeling of blissful unawareness with which I fell asleep every night.

Perhaps it’s challenging times, like our current economic crisis, prolonged wars,  and a general lack of confidence in things that make us hearken back to our childhoods for feeiings of comfort and reassurance, hoping that someday we’ll feel as unfettered as we did then.

I thank you for taking this little trip to the past with me.

Good night, Chet. Good night, David.

And happy trails to you . . . .howdy-doody-c

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Bench seats and window speakers

There are some of us that wax nostalgically about what once was. And with Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, it’s easy to get sentimental, especially when stories still circulate about how many Boomer “coming of age” stories revolve around what went on in darkened cars with bench seats at drive-in theaters.

About.com’s  Sharon O’Brien writes in her article,  The Drive in Theater Makes a Comeback with Baby Boomers,  about how many middle-aged folk, despite their embrace of  DVD players, multi-screen cinemas and iPods, long for the entertainment icon youth: the drive-in movie theater.

Richard M. Hollingshead once nailed a bed sheet between trees in his backyard in 1933 to use as a makeshift screen. He then placed a 1928 Kodak projector on the hood of his car and set up a radio behind the sheet screen for sound.  Then he lined up cars in his driveway and the first version of the drive-in theater was born. Hollingshead went on to patent his idea.

Drive-in theatres graced nearly 30 states by the 1940s, but exploded in popularity by the 1950s and 1960s, about the time Boomers began to date.  I remember going to the drive-in theater with my parents, trying hard to stay awake listening to the squawking speaker hanging from the driver’s side window.

“The number of drive-in theaters operating today is about one-tenth as many as the 4,063 that dotted the U.S. landscape in 1958, according to the United Drive-in Theater Owners Association,” says O’Brien.

Surprisingly enough, the downward trend leveled off in the 1990s and began to reverse. New drive-in theaters began to be built and old ones were reprised.

O’ Brien discovered, “Twenty new drive-in theaters opened across the country between the summer of 2005 and the summer of 2006 alone, and drive-in theaters are operating in nearly every U.S. state and Puerto Rico.”

One thing I know I miss the enormity of the big screen drive-in theaters offered and how disappointed I was when I sat for the first time in a multiplex theater, with its stark seating area and small screen, relatively speaking.

Want to find out if there is a drive-in theater near you, so that you can cuddle up with that special someone and gaze up at a REAL big screen?   Simply go to http://www.drive-ins.com and cue in your zip code.  You might just discover a romantic new pastime.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On the build . . .

Within the next month or so,  my writing career will be all about business. My business, that is.  Although my specialty for most of the past twelve years has been writing about real estate and homebuilding, I also now write on women’s issues as Examiner.com’s LadyBoomer Examiner and run a writing business that includes helping people and companies with their corporate newsletters, white papers, professional (print and online) profiles, ghostwriting, web content, book and article editing and all manner or PodCast and Web cast scripting.

To make my web site name reflect the more comprehensive writing venues just listed, I have decided on Ultimate Communic8or (communic8or.com) for my new web site name and brand and logo, which are being being determined by various and sundry experts as I write this.  So stay tuned for all the new “stuff” that goes with having a professional web site designer, graphic artist, business manager and career consultant help grow a career that has too long been left to chance.  In the weeks and months to come, I hope to emerge from my cocoon to do what I was born to do in more abundance — write like a madwoman!

In the meantime, please don’t hesitate to contact me at examinerdena@gmail.com regarding personal or corporate projects, as none are too small or too big for my consideration. I am also available as a speaker for your events, having functioned as a trainer and speaker in the real estate industry for five years.  As soon as my new web site is up and functioning, a fresh link will be added to my Examiner.com pages and we’ll be good to go!

Leave a comment

Filed under Dena's Lady Boomer Column and personal musings