Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kids in "the City" ... Don't Call It "Frisco"!

On facebook recently there has been a lot of excitement and discussion in a group called "You know you grew up in San Francisco when ..." The group members — 11,629 at this precise moment — talk about shared experiences and memories, such as visiting Playland at the Beach, San Francisco's long-gone amusement park that has been extinct exactly 39 years this weekend, Labor Day weekend, but is still fondly remembered by many of the facebook reminiscers. Interestingly, quite a few recall being scared by the six-foot-tall, mechanical Laffing Sal that beckoned kids — of all ages, as they say — into Playland's Fun House. Like other native San Franciscans in the group, I too distinctly remember being petrified of Laffing Sal and her maniacal cackle that could be heard all across Playland. Jeez. Shiver.

Other San Francisco memories: Surfing homemade coasters — planks with cannibalized roller-skate wheels — down steep concrete hills. The one and only Mitchell's Ice Cream shop with its trademark Filipino flavors: ube, macapuno, langka, halo-halo. The San Francisco restaurant chain Doggie Diner with the huge sign: a 3D dog's head wearing a chef's hat and a bowtie. The Mission District's Tik Tok drive-in, where Carlos Santana as a teenager washed dishes for his after-school job. Golden Gate Park's Music Concourse where the rock band I was in played the summer after the Summer of Love; two of us went to high school at SI &mdash St. Ignatius &mdash another to Riordan High School, the fourth to the gifted-and-talented magnet Lowell High School. Oh yeah, then there were those two guys who sang and played guitar on the sidewalk below Ghirardelli Square with a handwritten sign, "Help us get to Europe" . . . they used that sign for several summers and probably never went to see the Eiffel Tower or the Tower of London. Illegal bonfires at Ocean Beach to go with Boone's Farm wine and Colt 45 beer. Parking with your honey along the "lovers' lane" on top of Twin Peaks.

My short story "Manny's Climb" draws from such specifically San Francisco memories, focusing especially on boyhood in "the City," as all San Franciscans call their home. Need I say it? Don't call it "Frisco." There was even once a tourist-trap restaurant called that: Don't Call it Frisco. We mean it. Really.

"Manny's Climb" was first published in Tilting the Continent: Southeast Asian American Writing, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Cheng Lok Chua and published by New Rivers Press in 2000. This book was a landmark publication, the first literary anthology by Southeast Asian Americans . . . in other words, not just plain old Asian American (which, to many, may have meant only Chinese American or Japanese American).

Later, I had the good fortune to have the story reprinted in Growing Up Filipino: Stories for Young Adults, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard and published in 2003 by PALH (Philippine American Literary House). Since this anthology explores the topic of Filipino childhood across the globe, editor Cecilia Brainard asked the contributors for short introductions to our story, which appeared as headnotes in front of each piece. Here's my brief intro.

Growing Up in America in the 1960s     [a preface to the story]

"Manny's Climb" mines its emotional power from the experience of young Filipino Americans in the 1960s, a time when the racial sensitivities of the U.S. were attuned to only two colors: black and white. It was difficult then to be teenage and brown, yellow, or red. I recall distinctly how I and my Filipino American friends and peers slipped on whiteness (Derby jackets and Ben Davis baggy pants) as well as blackness (pimp socks, dashikis, knit shirt-jackets) but not so much "flip-ness" — Barong Tagalog, the terno — even though we would wear these to the many "Fil-Am" social events our parents would drag us to. I was probably nineteen or older before I began to really accept being Filipino, and older yet when I could see those experiences more lucidly, as I hope they are depicted in this story.

Before we get to "Manny's Climb," let me clarify a couple of things.

First, the transmitter tower on top of Mt. Sutro in the story is NOT the gigantic three-pronged transmitter that now looms above Clarendon Heights, even though that's called the Sutro Tower. An inaccurate name, I've always thought, because it's not on Mt. Sutro itself but rather between Sutro proper and Twin Peaks. Before that humongous tower was built, there was a much smaller transmitter atop Mt. Sutro that is no longer there now. That smaller older tower is where my story takes place.

Second, to my grade school classmates at St. Agnes ("grammar school," as we called it) . . . I've based the kids at St. Alfred's in the story on us. You'll recognize some first names though not family names. Please rest assured these kids in the story are NOT meant to represent us. I've mixed and merged and altered. As the author, I am not talking about any of us in particular, so please don't try to read into the characters that way. The narrator of the story, although Filipino, is not me. None of the events in this story really happened. Okay? Here we go.

Manny's Climb
— a story by Vince Gotera

"He looks just like a damn spider in a web!" It must have been Piggy Figone who said that. "A Flip spider!" We had all laughed — me, the Three Rons, Crazy Greg, and a couple other kids — as we watched Manny climb the transmitter tower. Hanging by the tips of his fingers. Even now, more than twenty-five years later, I can still imagine what he must have felt like; just the week before Manny's climb, the Three Rons had made me scale that tower. I can still remember how it felt: the wind parting your hair like a cold hand, the tower creaking as it swayed, like the rivets were gonna pop off one by one as if you were Wile E. Coyote in a Roadrunner cartoon, and the sky all around you a deep blue fishbowl. Manny just kept inching, shinnying up. Filipino spider, indeed.

I'll never forget the day Manny — Emmanuel was his full given name — transferred to St. Alfred's in the sixth grade. Third week of school, a bright Indian-summer morning with just a hint of crispness in the air. A new kid was in the schoolyard, where we were all waiting for Sister Mary Michael, the principal, to come out and ring that huge handbell of hers, telling us to line up. "My name is Manny Mendoza," he was saying to one kid after another, "D'ya want me to eat this paper?" He would then hold up a piece of paper, shredded on one end, where it had been torn from one of those pocket-size spiral-bound notebooks. Of course, each one of us, when asked that question, said "Yeah!" What else could a self-respecting, red-blooded, American eleven-year-old say? Boy, did he gather a crowd of kids as he chewed up and swallowed paper after paper. Kids were beginning to cheer, to egg him on, "Manny! Manny! Manny!" In fact, just as Sister Michael came out on the school steps with her bell, Manny's pad ran out, and he tore a chunk out of his brown lunch bag with his teeth.

Well, I didn't know what to think about this new kid. For five years, I had been the only Filipino kid in the class, and now Manny made two. But, jeez, what a clown! Did I want to be associated with this guy? One thing about Manny, though, he knew how to dress. His St. Alfred School uniform — white shirt, brown "salt-and-pepper" corduroy pants, brown cardigan — was always impeccably cut. The rest of us always seemed rumpled and baggy in our uniforms next to Manny. His pants had been altered, form-fitted to a sixteenth of an inch outside what the nuns might deem too tight. And his pants — I tell you, this is hard to do with cords — his pants were always starch-ironed with folds like razor blades. His sweaters always had a blousy look, kind of like "poet shirts" in lingerie catalogs, billowing out slightly in the sleeves before the gather of the cuff, a whisper of fullness at the waist before the cummerbund-like tightness hugging the hips. His white short-sleeve shirts, too, were always professionally starched. By 3:30 in the afternoon, we would be limp as wilted cabbage, but Manny's collars would still be crisp as cardboard. And he wore imported Italian half-boots! The rest of us wore Kinney's wingtips, but his boots were what we could call, in a year or so, "Beatle boots" — coming to a chic, sleek, and trendy point at the toe. Man, that Manny was sharp!

Don't get me wrong, now, Manny was no sissy. He may have dressed like a dandy, but he was no slouch on the basketball court. Every day at lunch, the Three Rons would rule. That was Ron Johnson, a tall black kid who played center on our fourth-grade team; Ron Morse, a freckled and carrot-topped Irish boy with a short-man complex, who would fight anybody that looked at him the wrong way; and Geronimo Lee Wong, a sullen half-Chinese, half-Apache kid who had beaten up white Ron the second week of school in second grade to earn his slot. It occurs to me now that the Three Rons were like some kind of demographic slice of early 1960s San Francisco. Anyway, the Three Rons were the apex of the boys' social pyramid, and some of the girls rather liked the Rons' dashing ways, at least until Manny showed up with his Italian half-boots. So Manny had to prove himself that first day. Well, no, it couldn't have been the first day, because Manny was sent home right after lunch with a stomach-ache. In fact, he had thrown his lunch away (what there was left of the paper bag), 'cause he just couldn't bring himself to eat anything. But anyway, Manny showed himself over the next few days to be a pretty decent point guard. He could dribble real fancy — between scissoring legs, pizzicato behind the back — and he could sink two out of three jump shots from the top of the key. Until now, though, I can't figure out how he kept those Italian half-boots shined throughout the day, but he always did.

Back at the tower, all I could see of Manny's boots were his soles, and they were just as worn as the bottoms of anybody else's shoes. In fact, it seemed like there was the beginning of a hole in the left sole, but he must have been thirty feet above us, so who knows? In any case, the pointed toes were coming in real handy as Manny slipped them into one acutely angled foothold after another, as diagonal braces criss-crossed in front of and around him. As I looked at him against the backdrop of drifting clouds, the tower seemed to ripple and shimmer, sway slightly like the tower of Pisa must, I imagined. Jeez, that was one climb I would never want to do again.

When white Ron, in the sixth grade, noticed that the rest of us were growing taller around him, and that he was fading back in the growth curve, becoming a runt, one might say though still no one dared to say it to his face, he and black Ron devised a series of tests by which the rest of us boys could prove our manhood. One was to jump off the top of Chinese Ron's stoop to the sidewalk. Now this wasn't a straight-down drop, some ten feet or so. That wouldn't have been sporting enough. No, you had to sail at a forty-five degree angle across the gravitational pull of the earth, about fifteen feet over the steps. And there wasn't much room at the top of the steps for a running start. You just had to stand there and take off, hoping your knees could take the shock when — and if — you hit the sidewalk and not the last step. I guess it was fortunate no one got more than a skinned knee or torn pants. There were twenty-one steps, I remember distinctly, and that split second while you were in the air seemed like forever. Then you would hit rock bottom. Piggy was the best at that free fall. Piggy wasn't fat; he just had a little upturned nose and with a name like Figone, well, his nickname was a natural. Manny survived that test too, though he did scuff his right boot.

Another stunt black Ron devised was walking around and over the N Judah tunnel entrance. The N Judah was a streetcar line that went underground for a mile and a half, or thereabouts, and then surfaced to continue its way downtown. For a while, we had been jumping on the back of the streetcars, riding on the outside and making funny faces at the backs of passengers' heads. One time, Chinese Ron and Crazy Greg even rode the N Judah — again, on the outside, hanging on to the back window ledge — all the way through the tunnel. After they rode back, Crazy Greg — his full name was Gregory Romanoff, a good Russian boy — Greg was jumping around like Daffy Duck, he was so jazzed. Now that tunnel ride's something I just could not do. Black Ron couldn't do it either, so he proposed the tunnel walk.

The tunnel entrance was flanked by two sidewalks which climbed the hill above the tunnel; at the top, the sidewalks met and continued up. Next to the sidewalks was a four-foot-high concrete bannister, maybe a foot or so wide with a fairly gentle incline, while at the top, where the sidewalks converged, a level segment, about forty feet across, formed the upper rim of the concrete wall that edged the tunnel archway. Black Ron's idea was to walk on the banister, an uphill climb of maybe a hundred feet, then across the straight edge above — a real tightrope act, since you'd look down past your feet at the rails glinting below, with an occasional rumbling streetcar to shake you up, literally as well as figuratively — and finally downhill on the other side. White Ron and I, both small and fleet of foot, were the best at this stunt. Manny passed this test too; in fact, he stood on one leg in the middle of the level crossing, and mimicked a statue of Mercury perched on one winged foot. "Look at me, you guys! No hands!"

Manny was getting close to the top of the tower, now. He had been climbing for a solid seven minutes. With a couple of shaky transitions, I must say. I particularly remember that loose strut he encountered some ten feet earlier. Well, not exactly loose, since the rivets on either end were still holding. The strut would nevertheless quiver and rattle if you touched it, and you sure didn't dare put your weight on it. When I had climbed the tower the week before, I had looked down as I passed that strut, wanting to make sure I didn't put a foot on it. The view was magnificent. The Three Rons and the other kids were distant as ants. Crazy Greg's mouth gaped open. With sheer bravado born of adrenaline, I had leaned out over the abyss and yelled, "Hey, Crazy! You catching flies?" Boy, what a rush! The sun shining, reflections glinting off the occasional shiny surfaces on the tower. Down below, on the other side of the tower from the kids, was Sutro Lake, also flashing reflections like you wouldn't believe. Well, not exactly a lake, more like a pond, really. It was beautiful.

Piggy and I went over to Manny's house one afternoon, after school. He had invited us to have cookies or something. His parents weren't home, but that was pretty common among us kids, all latchkey types. Manny lived in a typical San Francisco flat, a little dingy and dark, with most of the shades pulled down. All sorts of Filipino bric-a-brac all around: on the dining room wall hung a giant wooden fork and spoon, carved fancifully on the handles; also a black shield like an interstate sign, with miniature Moro swords and knives arrayed on it like inlaid stripes; in the corner of the living room, a hanging lamp festooned with a mobile of circular capiz-shell slices; and other touristy knick-knacks.

"Jesus H. Christ," Piggy laughed, "we're in the Philippines now."

"I can't help what family I was born into," Manny muttered, his eyes glowering as he turned on the tube. So anyway, Piggy and Manny and I were sitting in the living room munching down on ginger snaps and watching Rocky and Bullwinkle, when Piggy's hand darted up into the air in front of his face. He had caught a fly. Not much to brag about, 'cause that fly had clearly been in the house for a couple of days, and it was starting to slow down. Not yet at that stage where the fly becomes delirious and begins bumping into your face, but certainly not at the peak of condition either. After Piggy let the fly go, I reached out and grabbed it too.

"Hey, watch this," I said, leading the way into the kitchen. Still holding the fly buzzing around inside my right fist, I asked Manny for a glass of water. He set it down on the counter, and I lowered my right hand into the water and let the fly go. "What do you think? Will he drown?"

"Sure," Piggy snorted, "he's a Flip, that fly!"

Manny's lips were pressed into a firm straight line. The fly lay at the bottom of the glass, motionless, for quite a long time, maybe a minute, as we watched intently. And then I poured the water slowly into the sink.

"Now watch," I whispered. In the empty glass, the fly lay there for a moment and then seemed to shrug feebly. After a few seconds, he was on his feet, though a little shaky. In another half-minute, he had recovered enough to sail into the air, buzzing as well as ever before.

"That's nothing," Manny said. He then snagged the fly in his palm, got it between finger and thumb. I remember how mad it was, buzzing and wriggling its legs. Then Manny popped it into his mouth and swallowed noisily. "There you go, Piggy," he said. "So much for your Filipino fly. I hate everything about the goddamn Philippines." It was only at that moment that I realized how much Manny and I were in competition.

Manny was almost at the top of the tower now. He just had to reach his left arm upward and he would touch the base of the transmitter itself. That's as far as any one of us had ever gone. Just a momentary touch, to say you too had been there, had planted your flag in the North Pole, then back down to terra firma. Of course Manny went further. Pretty soon he was standing on the transmitter base, swinging from the antenna itself like King Kong on top of the Empire State Building. "I'll be damned," black Ron said. "I thought that antenna would give you one hell of a shock." We all stood there with our mouths hanging open, like lightning was going to strike Manny any moment.

And then Manny turned to face the lake. He was just a silhouette up there, a figure cut sharply from the blue background of sky. Manny dove, kicking his legs to clear the chain-link fence around the bottom of the tower. In the air, Manny spread his arms like bird's wings. "Holy Mary," white Ron whispered, "Mother of God." In my head going on thirty years, in all our heads, I'm sure, though we never talked about it, Manny was dazzling as an eagle flashing in the heavens. None of us could tell at that moment if he was going to make it into the lake. I turned away, the image of Manny spread out against the sky indelibly burning in my brain.

Vince Gotera, from Tilting the Continent (2000).
Reprinted in Growing Up Filipino (2003).
Usually when I post one of my own poems in the blog, I say something about its craft or its history. I think all I will say here is that all of the stunts from the story are drawn from real life. Kids did ride the outside of streetcars through tunnels. We did walk in tightrope fashion the wall around the N Judah tunnel entrance. There's now a fence on that wall to keep daredevils off. Sometimes I marvel that any of us survived. Bob Boynton, the drummer in my band that played in the Music Concourse, was the person who showed me how a fly could survive long immersion; neither of us ate the fly, though. And so on.

I hadn't thought about this before, but I'm teaching a Beginning Fiction Writing class at the University of Northern Iowa this semester, and perhaps my students who might happen to read this could take away a lesson about how to use "real" facts: when to be journalistic (of a sort), when to fictionalize. As I said above, when you base your characters on people you actually know, "mix and merge and alter."

Okay, 'nuff said. Check out these pictures (click to see them larger).

Laffing Sal, the 6-foot-tall clown that laughed maniacally above the Fun House door in Playland. She frightened many little kids, including me.

One of the huge trademark signs that stood above Doggie Diner restaurants, in several locations around San Francisco. I think this one was from the Doggie Diner on Sloat Boulevard, near the zoo.

The Sutro Tower. NOT the transmitter in the story. This much larger tower dates from 1972, a decade after the story's time period.

Ghirardelli Square, home of the famous Ghirardelli chocolates. At the bottom of the zigzag stair near the lower center of this photo is where, as I described above, two college-age guys played guitars and sang for tourist tips with a sign "Help us get to Europe." They plied their "art" for several summers, using the same sign, and I bet those buskers never actually travelled overseas.


The east end of the N Judah tunnel. This is where the kids in the story would balance on the wall, walking up one side, then cross at the top (still on the wall, directly above the tunnel entrance), and finally back down the other side. Kids did this in real life — me too. As seen in the picture, a chain-link fence now prevents such potentially deadly stunts.

Our band PEACE OF MIND playing a show in the Golden Gate Park bandshell in the Music Concourse, summer 1968. Left to right: Pat Martin (rhythm guitar, lead vocals), Vince Gotera (lead guitar, vocals), Bob Boynton (drums), Steve Hazlewood (bass). We were high school sophomores.

Pat Martin is now principal of a middle school. Bob Boynton I've lost touch with ... are you looking at this, Bob? Leave me a message below! Steve Hazlewood is the only one of us who became a professional musician. He has played bass with various rock bands and toured the world several times. I play in church bands here in Cedar Falls, Iowa — bass, lead, a bit of drums. Also playing lead axe in a start-up classic-rock band.

Please write me a comment below. I'd love to hear what you think. Especially if you were raised in San Francisco.

Hope you're having a great weekend. Take care. Ingat. Don't go tightrope-walking on any tunnel-portal curtain walls.

PHOTO CREDITS: (1) The Laffing Sal photo above was taken by Wikipedia user Schmiteye, who has released it into public domain. (2) The Doggie Diner photo was taken by Wikipedia user Atlant; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. (3) The Sutro Tower photo was taken by Justin Beck; it is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. (4) The Ghirardelli Square photo was taken by Wikipedia user Infratec, who has released it into public domain. (5) The tunnel-entrance photo was taken by Wikipedia user Senor_k [Kneiphof], who has released it into public domain. (6) The band photo was taken by my late father Martin Gotera; I own the rights.


Vince Gotera said...

I posted on the wall of "You know you grew up in San Francisco when..." facebook group an announcement about this blog post:

Hey, everyone. I've been inspired by this group to post on my blog a fictional story I wrote a while back about growing up in "the City." Check it out. Please leave me a comment on the blog. Or here. Or whatever. Hope you enjoy it.

As it turned out, comments appeared here rather than there, so I'm re-posting those here.

Vince Gotera said...

First of all, seven people "liked" the wall post, one of whom I've known for many years.

Then Maurice said, "Loved it. Great writing. I've never written anything creatively but I've been trying to think of putting something together that would include growing up here and the free reign of the city adventures. Maybe someday..."

Vince Gotera said...


Vince Gotera said...

Gil wrote, "Great writing Vince.. Im also Filipino..Dad served in the Navy on TI in the mid 60s. me, my brother and 2 other minorities were that only non-whites in the school.(barracks).. for a while there I thought i was white.. Even had a teacher asked me on the first day.. if i spoke Spanish. that gave me a hint that I wasnt.. When we came to the City.. I went to Bret Harte Elementary.. big change from the TI schools.. I adjusted pretty quick though after I met other Filipinos kids there. I still didnt fit in.. because of the Navy upbringing on PI.. the Filipino kids in the City seemed very different from me.. More aggressive and bold.. in the coming years of fighting cuz i was different from the City (Flips) and several broken hearts from the Pinays.. i began to be accepted.. Interesting.. as kids we see our difference but each of our mother's cooked the same stuff.. Lumpia.. adobo.. etc..LOL!,, with steamed rice at every meal.. Today.. i know who I am and where I stand as a Proud Filipino American... in SF.. Dad was right about the City diversity here.. It runs thick.. Great piece Vince. Thanks for the great share.. I printed it and will share it with my family.."

TI = Treasure Island
PI = Philippine Islands

Vince Gotera said...

Maurice (from before) responded, "Yeah, I liked the diversity part too. That's a big thing for me. I always thought my crew of friends was like the Wee Pals. I have this BMX riding video from a ramp we had on Potrero Hill at the bottom of Snake Hill (Vermont). We had like black, white, flip, Mexican, Italian all in there riding, talking smack and having a good time. It's funny though because people that aren't from here are so much more uptight about racial stuff that I've been called out by white people for some jokes just because you know, a white boy shouldn't say shit like that. I'm raising my kid here for that diversity I got to grow up in. I hope it stays that way..."

Vince Gotera said...

Kaitrin wrote, "Smart and Creative. Incredible follow through.

I like how you mention using real facts and merging them into the fictional alter egos."

Vince Gotera said...

Uh-oh. I just realized I made a mistake in the first post above. I said, "As it turned out, comments appeared here rather than there, so I'm re-posting those here."

What I should have said: "comments appeared there [that is, facebook] rather there here [in the blog]. Sorry about that.

Vince Gotera said...

I responded this way to the facebook comments: "Thanks for the comments, everyone. If you guys don't mind, I'll copy your comments over to the blog."

I also responded more specifically to a couple of the people who wrote comments.

"Gil, I appreciate hearing your story. Especially the differences of experience between the raised-in-the-US Filipinos and those raised (even if only partially) in the Philippines. Thanks."

"Maurice, the diversity you're talking about is what I love most about the City."

And, finally, "Once again, thanks for the compliments and comments, everyone. That's what writers love to hear: remarks from people who have actually read the work. Salamat!"

Vince Gotera said...

A couple of new comments from the facebook post.

Ivan said, "Damn that freakin clown used to scare the shit out of me! To this day, I still have unpleasant thoughts of that bitch and im almost 50! Otherwise i used to love playland Lmao! Hate clowns! Lol!"

I replied, "I hear ya, Ivan. I can still hear her today. Thanks!"

Vince Gotera said...

Ivan then responded, "Yea it was the laugh that freaked me out lol!"

Vince Gotera said...

Here's a recent comment: Tracy said, "Thank You for sharing! while reading it, it felt like I was right there watching them climb the tower! Very good writing.... Please feel free too share more of these stories..."

Thanks for the comments on facebook, everyone!

Damon McLaughlin said...

nice ending to "manny's climb," vince -- and love that band photo!

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed it. Written in away that really brought it to life for me.thank you for sharing it.
Sports Good

Noah Regan said...

That is great stuff, Vince. I like the transition from the current daredevil stunt to the series of stunts that led up to it. I particularly enjoyed the ending and how the decision was left up to us.

Vince Gotera said...

Noah, thanks a lot. I appreciate such a thoughtful comment from a fellow fiction writer.

Vince Gotera said...

Spam comments are sometimes really funny. So-called "raj mangal" (three comments above) actually copied his comment from an earlier one by "Michael." Smart in its own way, I guess ... perhaps raj mangal is being snarky?

Dog Walking Frisco said...
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