Excerpts from My Son, the Vice President, a memoir written by Charles Elkind In the massive 1890-1914 exodus
out of Eastern Europe, many émigrés set up residence in the eastern sector of the U.S. or Canada. But those who reached San Francisco discovered that the McAllister District was the bustling Jewish enclave. A wag observed, “The area could have been considered San Francisco’s ghetto, even though the archbishop lived two blocks away.” The midtown community was a compact replica of the multi-racial melting pot of New Your City, except for the West Coast city’s far larger numbers of Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos. [My father]Moishe Elkind’s first job was as a salesman for a wholesaler whose product came from Petaluma—proclaimed “Egg Basket of the World”— some 40 miles north of San Francisco. About 300 Jewish families had come to Petaluma at the beginning of 1900. They planned eventually to move on to Palestine. Of the 300 families, 200 were poultry ranchers. Moishe was won over by the simplicity —and profitability—of the wholesale operation: paced by hourly market index fluctuations, the target was to buy at lower prices when supply exceeded demand, and sell when demand was greater, moving prices upward. Moishe closely observed the daily action for months and concluded that demand won out more often. Observing his employers’ great success, Moishe resented being a mere wage earner excluded from partaking of the ample bounty. Frustrated, he asked, “Why can’t I do the same thing? It’s a winning situation.” Determined to become an entrepreneur, he cultivated a clientele of hotels, restaurants and other larger-volume egg consumers. At that point, he left the company — taking his prime customers along. Pivotal to this scheme was a retail outlet, Petaluma Egg Distributors, which he operated on the ground floor of a pre-1906 earthquake four-unit flat he bought at 1123 McAllister Street, between Fillmore and Webster. Above the store, one flat was occupied by [my mother’s] parents and another, the largest, by our family— which was enlarged by my birth in 1923 and Shirley Ruth’s three years later. With the acquisition of the McAllister property, Moishe achieved one of most immigrants’ fondest dreams: ownership of a piece of land. The flat would be our home for almost two decades.
The block between Fillmore and Webster Streets was a mouth-watering and aromatic universe: the pungent dill pickle barrels of Mendelson’s Delicatessen… on nippy wintry mornings, the warmth of a bagful of Kaiser rolls from the Ukraine Bakery, exuding a tantalizing bouquet of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove…the baklava and spicy hors d’œuvres at Tarnoff’s Bialystok— whose vegetable bin sign implored, “Don’t squeeze the Tomatoes!” McAllister could not have been more ideal for Mom. For holidays and other occasions, she made gefilte fish from the fattest carp she could extract from the Drabkin Fish Market’s tank. Making a choice early in the week before the fish community was picked over, Mom transferred her catch to the family bathtub. This arrangement caused no problem for us in that pre-daily shower era; we were in the widely prevalent once-aweek bath norm. The fish enjoyed exclusive occupancy of the tub until Mom was ready to make the delicacy. Their removal from the tub was the signal for the family bath lineup to form. McAllister’s lone ethnic commercial deviation was Ah Sing’s Deluxe Laundry. The only other Chinese were the yarmulke-wearing waiters in White’s Strictly Kosher Restaurant. Diners were entranced by their sing-song recitation of dishes on the menu —which was entirely in Yiddish. There were only two non-Jewish residences on the street. Next door, a medical doctor ran a thriving practice. Our wonderment at having a goy in our midst was ended abruptly, however, when the police busted the distinguished-looking doctor for operating an abortion mill. Further disillusion came from the three flamboyant women across the street— heavily rouged, brazenly bra-less, their legs flashing black sheer hose. Playing the sophisticate, my older brother Sam decided they were in show business. Viewing the nightly procession of male visitors, [my mother] Nettie was skeptical. When Moishe tipped his hat and exchanged pleasantries, Mom said, “Don’t pay any attention to them, Moishe. They’re ‘tzatskies’ (play things).” He protested, “You’re wrong, Nettie. They’re nice family girls.” “Such a family I’ve never seen. Never a mother, sister or aunt. But plenty of brothers and uncles and zaydes (grandfathers).” Soon the police removed any doubts about the trio when they made an unannounced visit. As the street buzzed, the police unceremoniously pushed the partially dressed women into a paddy wagon and deactivated the bustling bordello.
McAllister’s ethnic mix at times brought about provocative confluences. Such was the case when McAllister elders verbally attacked Moishe for steering a blind priest of the local Greek Orthodox Church across a busy neighborhood street. “How can you help a head of the church that did not lift a finger against the cruel persecution of Jews in Russia and Poland?” Moishe brushed aside the tirade and quipped, “Let them all be blind, and I will gladly help each one across the street.” * * *
Petaluma Egg Distributors insulated our family from some of the Depression rigors. The store provided most of our basic food: dairy products, eggs, chickens and day-old bread. When cash was scarce, Moishe bartered. A significant portion of our dental bills was defrayed by an exchange of eggs and poultry for professional services: three dozen jumbo eggs for cleaned teeth and two schmaltzy chickens for a filled cavity. Penny-pinching was mandatory. Having accompanied Mom on numerous shopping excursions, many years passed before my sister realized she could buy household goods and clothes at the street level. Until then, Ruth knew no world other than the frugal realm of bargain basements which all proclaimed: “Shop downstairs and save.” * * *
The following are excerpts from articles Charles (aka Chuck) Elkind contributed to the Potrero Hill View, a San Francisco neighborhood newspaper whose former editor, Ruth Passen, is the author’s sister. Chuck recalls more details from his Fillmore District days. From “Blood, John Swett and Tears” For this ex-San Franciscan, occasional revisits over the years have become futile attempts to recapture the Fillmore district aura of the Depression Years. The search has been largely stymied by the absence of familiar landmarks, institutions and jazz joints, most of which are long gone. But at least one important structure remains. Although functioning now as an alternative school, throughout the 1930s John Swett Junior High was a pivotal influence in the maturation of the ‘hood’s highly diverse student body. Johns Swett’s curriculum notwithstanding, one of the first compelling lessons for incoming seventh graders was the male ritual of hazing. Hostile ninth graders relished humiliating newcomers by pantsings. Without warning, they would swoop down on the
prey. In those pre-zipper days, the tormentors would rip open the quarry’s buttoned fly and tear off the pants. With co-eds as giggling onlookers, the pants were draped forlornly atop the schoolyard’s 7-foot chain-link fence…. All four San Francisco newspaper front pages sensationalized John Swett as “A Hotbed of Juvenile Delinquency with a Scandalous number of co-ed pregnancies.” There was an immediate uproar in the community. To calm the aroused and wrought-up parents, a full-day of comprehensive drug and sex lectures was hurriedly constructed. As most John Swett boys were ill-informed about sex—getting their information from latrine walls and older youths’ braggadocio—they drooled at the prospect of being awash in the sea of erotica. No one wanted to miss the offering: it was standing room only that day as even chronic truants showed up. * * *
The school year ended on a high note as the city eased the “Depression Blues” by celebrating the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge. John Swett students were selected to join representatives from all city schools for a walk across the new bridge and to scatter flowers in the Bay to commemorate the 24 workers who died during the perilous phases of the span’s construction. After three eventful years, graduates left John Swett with a diploma and a firm belief that high school would surely be an anti-climax.
From “Lowell High Redux—or, How it Was” For teenagers, entry into high school is a major step toward adulthood. But for the Fillmore District’s depression years youths, it was a quantum leap from John Swett’s proletarian ambience to Lowell High’s patrician aura. Most John Swett graduates went to Commerce High on Van Ness Avenue, but for others who showed up at Lowell’s campus, then on Hayes Street at Ashbury, it was like stepping through the looking glass. In well-worn clothes, they were dazzled by Lowellites in brightly-colored attire— and there were no hand-me-downs! In corridors and the inner quad, cocky jocks strutted, with a retinue of the comeliest co-eds, fetching in cashmere sweaters, pearl necklaces, accordion-pleated skirts and brown and white saddle shoes.
Equally impressive were the co-eds splendidly attired in stylish riding habits and shiny jodhpur boots that clicked loudly as they strutted down corridors. The horsewomen exuded the image of having sashayed out of a drama class rehearsal of a sophisticated Noel Coward play. Then there was the surname contrast. John Swett’s classes mirrored their exotic “melting pot” roots: Christian Lebesque, Hisashi Tani, Max Rubinchik, Viktor Federoff, etc. Meanwhile, Lowell’s student body members might well have stepped out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel: Naylor Hartwig, Caxton Rhodes, Seward Chapman, Peckham Jordan…. With war clouds gathering, Lowell’s debating team valiantly tackled an awesome array of issues: adoption of socialized medicine in the United States, government ownership of the railroad system, and Japan’s brutal invasion of Manchuria. And there were the stalwart R.O.T.C. boys acting soldierly. Clad in military uniforms, the 183-man battalion marched in parades and honed their skills with saber and rifle. Lowellite’s concerns would soon be eclipsed by the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack that sent thousands of them and of the nation’s “best and brightest” off to war.