Add Bonn was born 100 years ago yesterday, at 19th and Capp streets.
When you get to be 100, they throw a party for you at City Hall. There was one yesterday, in Supervisor David Chiu’s office, where Add’s paintings of San Francisco were displayed.
The first time I met Add Bonn she was a sprightly 98. I interviewed her for a map I was working on for a book called “Infinite City.” We drank straight vermouth and watched the sun set from her living room in North Beach. I hadn’t even realized that you could drink straight vermouth. It was horrible. Slightly less horrible once you had gotten a little tipsy on it.
Add grew up the only child of a single mother in the Mission District. Back then (and this may come as a surprise to you) the Mission was considered to be a rough-and-tumble district. She never went to Folsom and 22nd, because, in her words, there was a “terrible gang” there. Some visiting family members visited a lot less often after some things were stolen from their carriage.
Her mother worked at Schwartz’s Department Store at 21st and Mission. Unlike the other women of Add’s era that I interviewed, Add not only left the house, but essentially ran feral through the neighborhood. She ate potatoes that she cooked herself on hot coals in holes in the ground.
She went on to study painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She saw Diego Rivera painting the mural there, or rather, the back of Diego Rivera’s head painting the mural. She got a job at Met Life — sort of the Google of its day, for its all-encompassing approach to the well-being of its employees. Employees of “Mother Met” not only ate meals and did cute activities together, they put on full theatrical productions, starring and directed by Met Life employees. It says something about how prosperous the company was that the former Met Life building is the current Ritz Carlton.
More than anything, Add talked about a place on Capp Street called the San Francisco Girls Club. It changed her life, she said. It sounded awfully prissy to me — little girls getting together in a clubhouse and learning how to do needlepoint and flower arranging. But to her it was the place where she was loved, and where she learned how to be a grownup.
Then I ran across this. The San Francisco Girls Club was the organization that would later become Mission Neighborhood Centers. It had the same mission — to take care of people, especially children, in the neighborhood who were in need of what we now refer to as social services.
They seemed to do a decent job with Add. She made it to 100, and when I saw her yesterday afternoon, she was drinking vermouth. With bourbon, to take the edge off.