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THE FLAT ON THE HILL
29 October 2013
I saw a writing prompt this afternoon in a blog from a woman whom I have been following for awhile. She has a writing group where she gives them various simple suggestions and what follows can apparently be quite extraordinary and the group has bonded over the 7 weeks they have been meeting.
One of the topics she listed as things she has discussed with her class was to "describe a place where you live or have lived." I thought it would be fun to describe the place where I grew up, a five room flat on one of the steeper hills in San Francisco.
It belonged to Irma and Joe, friends of my grandparents. Joe was an old Italian and I never could understand him because his accent was so thick, but my father worshipped him and treated him like a second father. Irma was a large woman of German descent and the thing I remember most about her was that when she found a dress she liked, she bought it in three sizes, because her weight fluctuated so much.
My parents must have moved in in about 1941 or 42. They had lived in So. California and were moving back to San Francisco and housing was in short demand. Irma had this flat available and offered it to them for something like $37 a month. They moved in, intending for it to be a short term thing, but it was more than 30 years before they left the flat (and when they left in about 1973, they were paying $43 a month rent, because my father had taken over managing the property for Joe). I lived there until 1961, when I moved across the bay to Berkeley, to attend UC Berkeley.
The building itself had four flats and a corner grocery store. One flat was the "penthouse," with a commanding view of San Francisco. There was an apartment that was partly underground, because of the slope of the hill. Irma and Joe's apartment was next in line, separated from the small apartment (where my aunt Jean eventually lived for awhile) by a very small concrete yard, where my mother hung clothes and tried to plant vegetables in a teeny concrete planter box. Apparently the guy who owned Seabiscuit lived in the penthouse of the apartment house across the street and my mother became friends with his maid, who told her he used to look down into our yard, watching us play, and saying that was real happiness.
Then came our apartment. To get from Irma and Joe's you passed by the two windows which looked in on the bedroom my sister and I shared. When we slept my mother always wanted the curtains tightly closed so nobody could see us, but because of my fear of the dark, I always propped the curtain open a bit with a kleenex box.
There was then a very large basement under our apartment, which you accessed from the concrete yard or from a door on the sidewalk. (Now I think there is a garage there---you can see the garage door underneath the left end of the box)
The front door was made of glass and to the left of the door, my mother used a clothes pin to clip a sign that read "Day Sleeping -- do not disturb," because my father worked nights so often and we had to be very quiet during the day. If anybody rang the doorbell, there would be hell to pay for the reset of us. The front door opened onto a very short hall. To the right was the bedroom Karen and I shared and directly ahead was the kitchen. The other rooms were down the hall to the left.
Karen and I had a small bedroom with twin beds on the walls opposite each other and a desk that my father made between the beds. We each had a headboard that he made, in which we stored books. I had a radio in my headboard and the two of us, with my mother, often listened to radio programs like the evening soap opera, One Man's Family or the weekend kids' shows like Big John and Sparky.
On the walls over alongside our beds were "story book dolls," beautifully dressed little dolls, about 8-12" high. My father built glass boxes to put them in so they could decorate the room and it was always a sadness that I could see them, but was never allowed to touch them.
We had a tiny closet that was tucked in under the stairs that went up to Irma and Joe's apartment. I was terribly claustrophobic and I still remember the day Peach decided to lock me in that closet. She laughs about it, but I was terrified.
I think the room was designed to be a dining room because it had a built in cabinet which really was more fit for holding dishes but we kept our games and puzzles in the upper cupboard and our clothes in the drawers. I remember that there was as break-in one time when we weren't home and the thief stole my piggy bank and I felt violated for years that he had rifled through my underwear to get it.
A thief tried to break in one other time, but my father was sitting at the kitchen table, directly opposite the front door. Since he worked mail on the train, he was licensed to carry a gun and he sat there with his gun in his hands waiting for the thief to come through the door, after which he held the gun on him while waiting for the police.
If you stood in the door of the kitchen and looked to the left, there was what we called a pantry, though it wasn't the kind of pantry you think of today. This was the tiny room with the sink in it, so where we washed our dishes. To the left were cupboards where we kept dishes and the small counter on which my mother made wonderful things like chocolate cream roll, which I haven't had in decades. To the right of the sink was a window which opened out into a "light well," a space between our building and the next building. When we still believed in Santa, we knew we didn't have a fireplace, so we were told that Santa came down the light well and through a window into the dining room. When I was older, after I'd seen the movie Interrupted Melody, about Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence, I decided I was going to be an opera singer and I would skreech out scales and songs in a register so high that my mother would beg me to stop.
The rest of the kitchen contained a cabinet where my parents kept a lunch box where they put all of the cash from my father's paychecks, kept in envelopes for each bill that would have to be paid. (Apparently this was a short-lived system, when my father decided he wanted to take over doing the bill paying. It was, my mother tells me, a disaster she soon she took back the job of bill paying.)
At the end of the kitchen table there was an "ironer," a big machine on which my mother ironed everything flat -- sheets, towels, dish towels, diapers, handkerchiefs, etc. It looked sort of like this.
Notice that the legs to the machine look like they must be hollow. Karen, who hated to eat, was always the last one at the table and discovered that there was a small opening where the legs joined with the table part of the ironer and my mother, after some time, discovered she was pushing her food down inside the hollow legs. Who knows how many dinners were in that thing when my mother finally got rid of it!
There was a stove across from the ironer. It had 4 burners and a griddle, on which my mother frequently made pancakes or potato pancakes.
Over the kitchen table, and over the refrigerator opposite it there were two very dark, large Italian frescos that made the whole room dark. My father asked Joe once if he could paint over them. Joe said yes and then nearly had a heart attack when he saw that his beautiful paintings were now a lemony yellow color. It took awhile before he forgave my father for doing it, even though he had given permission.
There was a door from the kitchen out into the "back porch," where there were tubs for washing, a washer that looked like this.
The clothes washed in the tub and the water drained from the hoses into the big tubs against the wall. You took the clean clothes and ran them through the wringer on top to push the water out before hanging them on the line. I was always terrified that I would catch my hand in it (fortunately I never did). My father also built a swing on the "back porch" where Karen and I could swing, at least until he added a stand up closet to help with the clothes two growing daughters needed when the tiny bedroom closet became too small. When our kids were little, he changed the swing to a baby swing and we had a good time pushing the kids in that swing.
I can see I'm not going to get to the back part of the house, but I wanted to mention that our heat came through square heating vents on the floor and it was my greatest comfort to get dressed standing over the vent in the living room. In all the houses we have had since, I have never had such a comfortable heating arrangement.
Maybe some day I'll get around to the rest of the house. It was
fun taking this trip back down memory lane!
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