BY JUDY BORELLO
Listening to KQED (Channel 9) the other night, I learned that they were needing input for a new segment on San Francisco history—the Eureka Valley district, sometimes referred to as the Castro or Lower Twin Peaks area. Boy! This was right up my alley, as these were my old stomping grounds, growing up in Eureka Valley, especially as a teenager.
Raised on the corner of Sanchez and Hancock Streets (between 18th and 19th), my carefree days of yesteryear never went without incident. Skating down steep Sanchez Street hill was literally taking your life in your hands, because the only way you could stop was by hurdling the curb and hitting the cobblestones in the street, hoping that your teeth didn't rattle out of your head if you were lucky enough to stay upright. We peddled Schwinns and laid flat on Flexi-Flyers, taking our lumps like decorated soldiers. I personally suffered a concussion and a broken arm, proving my rite of passage as a "block kid" in the early '50s, but it all ceased when they paved the street about 1952.
We played one-foot-off-the-gutter, kick-the-can, and 1-2-3 heats on Hancock, on the cross street.
Eureka Valley was its own village, and most of our families owned the shops and stores along Castro Street, and it was quite a drinking community. In a two-block radius, there were 10 bars (The Gem, Gene & Frank's, The A&D;, the J&J;, Gallagher's, The Valley Town, The Club Unique, The Eureka Club, and so on). We had Cliff's Five & Dime, which hosted Halloween and pie-eating contests, Edna and Jerry's gift store, which sold rosary beads, prayer books, and holy artifacts, and ran a bookie joint out of the back room.
My first job was as an usherette at the Castro Theater, and Mr. Nasser, the owner, moved me up to candy girl behind the popcorn counter. All was going well until Crazy Zimba, the ticket-taker girl, threw an after-hours' party after the show let out, invited all the crazies in the Valley, who drank and puffed reefers 'til the wee hours of the morning. The party was notorious, and word spread like wildfire through the Valley. In a few days, we all had our walking notice.
Up a few blocks from Castro was Collingwood Street, which housed our real home, Eureka Valley playground, and up one more block on Diamond Street was Most Holy Redeemer grammar school (the Maroon and Gold). It went from K through 8th grades, and I think most of us who graduated from there turned out to be firemen, policemen, bar owners or gangsters.
The nuns were BVMs—Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary—and they were the toughest teachers, comparable to the Jesuits who taught at St. Ignatius or USF. They believed in hands-on discipline, and we got the best education possible. Monsignor Lyons was the headmaster for decades. He came from a wealthy family, had his own yacht and we bought him boxes of Cuban cigars for Christmas.
Father Thomas was my favorite. He sported a blond flat-top, a Hawaiian shirt, and rode a Harley. He was the first priest to allow boy and girl mixed dances in 8th grade, and had the coolest record collection in town. He had the only copy of the "Tell Me, Darling," the only recording done by the Gaylarks, a black group that went to Mission High School.,
Eureka Valley was mostly made up of people of Irish and Italian descent, and nobody loved a good donnybrook more than the Valley kids. When the gangs sprang up in the late '50s, we were labeled "The White Shoes," and it only took a few times for the "Barts" from the Mission to learn not to rebel-rouse in the Valley. All of us girls could ramble anytime night or day and nobody would bother us, for the Valley took care of its own!
When Eureka Valley Gym became an addition to the playground about 1955, that became our hangout all the time. Ed Kelly was our first head director along with Claire, Dodie and Herb Anderson. They cut us no slack and kept us moving and motivated. Enlisting us in volleyball and basketball tourneys, Twilight League softball, teen dances, trips to Marin Town & Country Club, trips to Boyes Hot Springs, snow trips to Tahoe (all by bus) and the Sun Tan Special, a train ride to the Boardwalk at Santa Cruz for the whole day.
One of the greatest Damon Runyon characters that ever came out of the Valley was a crazy, zany Sicilian named Albert Gianquinto. He was scouted by the Yankees, but played for another pro-ball team and never took a piano lesson in his life and was keyboard man for the James Cotton Blues Band, and later wrote and played for Santana.
We attended MHR for all nine years together and hung out at Eureka Valley playground constantly.
Albert had a passion for driving our local cop, Goynton, absolutely stark, raving mad.
Gertie Gurnsey's ice-cream parlor was right on the corner across from the gym, and all of us scarfed down a lot of Curly's (he was bald) bizarre flavors, such as bubblegum, licorice and Blue Moon.
Goynton would amble in every afternoon and set his police cap on the counter brim up. Albert spied his chance for raucous chicanery and when Goynton was jabbering, Albert slid his banana split down into his cap and then proceeded to go outside and scream profanities. Goynton perceived trouble, slapped his cap on his head, and took one giant leap for mankind when the ice cream started dripping down his uptight, gnarled face. We all ran!
Another time Albert chained Goynton's squad car bumper to a telephone pole, then commenced to peel out, spin donuts and squeal his wheels up and down Castro Street, right in front of Charlie's Tamales, where Goynton was licking enchilada sauce from his lips. Hearing the bruhaha, Goynton leapt into his police car, put it in gear, and tried to rip out to nail Albert. Well, this time we hid for two weeks.
Eighth grade, June, 1957, last day of school, Albert and I are to graduate that night, but at noontime of that day, Sister Mary Maxine asked us to please cover with a black cloth the statue that our class was donating to the school that afternoon at a grand presentation in the main hall for all the school to see.
We told Sister we'd gladly ready the statue for its unveiling. A few hours later, when the school faculty and families were there to breathlessly await the ceremony of the principal, Sister Mary Armello whipped off the black shroud and there stood a five-foot St. Joseph holding a six-inch orange squirt gun. We received a red F in deportment and almost didn't graduate. Thank God, the day before Albert's parents had brought a case of wine to the priest's house, and my grandmother baked cookies for the convent, or we would have been told to never darken the doors of MHR again!
How about the punishment you got dealt at MHR for throwing one spit ball: You had to chew 500 out of corrugated paper after school. Believe me, your gums would bleed!
For acting up once I had to write 1,000 times, "What a girl becomes depends on what she does when she hasn't anything to do."
How about some of the nun's great expressions when you were caught up to no good: "Your fat is going to boil in oil in hell for that," "Empty vessels make the most noise," and "You are a spineless jellyfish."
As far as I was concerned, there was nothing like going to MHR and living in Eureka Valley, playing at the gym and sharing that life and times with my still-deeply-rooted friends of the Valley!
Those were the days, my friends. I wished they'd never end, but thanks for being there for me when I needed you: Ken Spargo, Dolores Zackman, Diane Wiley, Denise Feree, Kathy "Mac" McGuire, Yvonne Leal, Bob Huegle, Patty O'Connor, Albert Gianquinto and all the rest of you who made Eureka Valley come alive and gave me treasured memories forever.