William Shakespeare, who understood a bit about pacing, knew when to keep it light. To wit, after the wrenching, heavy murder scene, he knew to insert a comic interlude in which the inebriated doorman at Macbeth’s castle could ramble maniacally and make piss and dick jokes.
The lesson here isn’t that even the crudest double-entendres about lechery and inadequate drunken sexual aptitude can, in the span of 400 years, be elevated to high art (though this happened). Rather, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to keep it light. We’ve been running a lot of wrenching, heavy stories of late — chronic homelessness, homicide, nihilistic politics, puppy theft.
Time for a good time. So, enter The Good Time Manual.
Periodically, your humble narrator dusts off this book, subtitled 257 places in the Bay Area where people under 30 are going (or should be going) and mines it for content. That’s because it was published in 1972, meaning the 29-year-old it was marketed to is now — God willing — 76.
For today’s readers, there is much about 1972 that is, inherently, hilarious. Starting with the cover of this book, which features a faux-R. Crumb illustration of a good time couple doing the Keep on Truckin’ walk down a street lined with anthropomorphized buildings.
The photos within, of actual 1972 San Franciscans in actual 1972 places in San Francisco where people under 30 were going (and should go) are no less surreal or humorous to the modern eye.
Surely it’d be a good time to revisit where in the Mission the hip, young people of 1972 were going, how they were dressed, and what you could buy for a dollar (which had the buying power of $6.23 in 2019 money).
Ay, there’s the rub: Of the 257 places profiled in this rather thoroughly reported and well put-together book, not one is in the Mission. Not one. This is, again, a book aimed at people — under age 30 — who like drinking good drinks, eating good eats, and having a good time. And the Mission comes up empty.
Alas. We wanted to keep it light. But, to explain how this could be, instead we need to keep it real.
[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]’ve seen it all. I’ve seen the good and the bad and the bad and the good and the bad again. Oh, God, what a neighborhood.”
Alex Romo has been on Treat Avenue since 1941, meaning the retired union carpenter has lived 78 of his 81 years in the Mission. If you walk by his home, say hello. Rest assured, he will say hello back. “I miss the good old days when they used to deliver milk to your door in a glass bottle and people used to talk to each other! Nobody talks to each other anymore. I stand out on my porch and say good morning, and nobody can be bothered. These young tech people have taken over the Mission. I’m the only one on my block who can speak Spanish now. It’s just different.”
Romo graduated from the John O’Connell trade school on Harrison — “Don’t look for it. It’s not there anymore.” He bypassed the aeronautical mechanic shop and the cooking shop and the sheet metal shop and settled on the carpentry shop. “I was gonna be a cabinet-maker. But carpenters make a little more. And they work outside. I woulda been stuck in a cabinet shop for 40 years. I made the right move, I’ll tell ya.”
Do you like the Palace of Fine Arts? Romo helped build that. Tore out the crumbling plaster of Paris from the 1915 World’s Fair and helped sink the caissons 40 feet deep into the Bay muck.
That’s something for you to talk about when he says hello from his porch.
From that porch, Romo can see boys and girls climb the trees he climbed as a youth in Garfield Park. He can hear them laugh, and he laughs too.
“Time moves on. But it’s not for the best. But, I tell ya, it is a lot better.”
Wait, what? But Romo said exactly what he meant.
In 1972, when hip San Francisco guidebooks were shunning the Mission, Romo heard gunshots in Garfield Park. Violent crime in this and every urban neighborhood was at a level almost inconceivable for today’s young and even middle-aged Americans. And, this being San Francisco in the 1970s, it came with a theatrical flourish; Quentin Tarantino had to get his overwrought ideas somewhere.
And yet, this was the same neighborhood where Romo’s kids could simply amble over to the corner deli — and kids ran the streets then — pick up the family’s milk and bread, and Romo could settle the bill after Friday’s payday. “I miss it,” says the retiree. “I want to go back.”
It turns out “the good and the bad and the bad and the good and the bad again” don’t necessarily exist independently of one another. There is no one story of the Mission; there are many. And they don’t always unfold sequentially.
A district, incidentally, featuring high levels of scary crime and, simultaneously, an intense family and neighborhood atmosphere is not the sort of place young, unattached people in search of a good time are necessarily going to seek out (and, let’s be frank, there’s a racial element at work, too: The cartoon couple on the cover of the The Good Time Manual — perhaps heading over to a highly recommended Mexican restaurant in Ghirardelli Frickin’ Square — is white. The lady is blonde).
Today’s Mission has never looked grander — and Romo, who spent his life dangling off San Francisco’s ornate buildings, could tell you a bit about that. “But we lost all the people,” he sums up.
Before there was BART there were The Barts.
This black and Latino gang’s name was derived not from Bay Area Rapid Transit but, possibly, from poetic outlaw Black Bart. They favored Pendleton flannels over ruffled shirts, Flagg Brothers shoes and Ben Davis pants with wide belts and oversize buckles. And, in one of those theatrical flourishes, this outfit was topped off with a zipper custom installed in the cuff of the pant leg extending up about 10 inches. The silk lining revealed within — turquoise, red, green — indicated what neighborhood you were from.
“These brothers were everywhere!” recalls Mission lifer Jim Salinas, Sr. “There was never a time you wouldn’t see these brothers all the way from 16th up to 24th.”
One way to avoid the Barts, of course, was to avoid the Mission. As tourists did. When asked why young, hip people weren’t flocking to the Mission in ’72, Salinas notes that “If you were hip, you were everywhere else. Who in their right mind would want to endanger themselves to get a burrito?” Then he laughs, recalling the long-ago Halloween when some 300 Barts gathered at 20th and Mission and decided to march, en masse, up to Bernal to mix things up with the White Shoes, a white gang in a primarily white neighborhood.
There were so many zipper-legged Barts walking along Mission that they monopolized the sidewalk and spilled out into the streets. This was hard to miss, and a dozen police cars showed up and nipped the proposed gang brawl in the bud.
Who in their right mind would want to endanger themselves to get a burrito, indeed? Apparently you could eat great Mexican food in Ghirardelli Square, so what’s the trouble?
And yet, even in this more overtly violent and chaotic era, random gunplay of the sort now defining American life was seen as atypical and rare. That’s yet another Mission paradox.
But the ultimate paradox is the way things turned out, and this story you know: A decade or so after The Good Time Manual, the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau held a “familiarization tour” of the Mission for businessmen and travel agents and others. A decade after that you might actually find the Mission on tourist maps, and tourists wandering around with them. And, not quite a decade after that, the president of the United States would drop in on The Slanted Door on Valencia near 17th Street.
Jim Salinas recalls walking by that restaurant one day and seeing a “Beverly Hills car,” a vehicle worth more than his home. Well, that wouldn’t have lasted 15 minutes in the old days. How out of place it looked. But, then, he stopped himself: Was that car out of place? Or was he?
And, for lifers, for the Latino men and women who came up here and are fighting to hang on, that is the question.
“The people who were most afraid of the Mission,” says Carlos “Kookie” Gonzalez, a Folsom Park Loco turned muralist turned probation officer, “have taken it over. They own it now.”
It’s the good and the bad and the bad and the good and the bad again.
Oh, God, what a neighborhood.