Common Soldiers: 1976

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Ten years ago Charles and I bought a house on Potrero Hill, not far from Ferlinghetti’s.  We were led here by a need we didn’t know we had for seclusion, privacy and a distance between us and the restless ambitions of North Beach life.

Potrero Hill is one of the oldest settlements in San Francisco, and incredibly there remain here still a few Russians whose parents arrived in the middle of the last century and who even today speak little English.  The man we bought this house from speaks both Italian and Russian, an oddity that inspired him to become a tax accountant; and at present he flourishes tri-lingually tending the yearly income tax distress of families now American but originally Sicilian or Russian.  Two decades ago when Telegraph Hill fell to the predatory rich, artists began coming here.  But so powerful is the spirit of the place that artists here are nothing like artists on Telegraph Hill, even though they may be one and the same artist, as in our own cases.

It is very quiet here, peaceful.  At this moment I cannot hear a sound of traffic, and it is too early in the year for birds.  Now that the eucalyptus trees we planted in the back of our garden are tall, every year we have a nesting family of wild canaries.  Yet, though we have trees in a garden, and birds, this Hill is urban, very urban, the retreat not of those with suburban souls but of us city dwellers who perhaps were moved by the nostalgia for the beauties of Nature latent in us all.  We see the bay from two of our windows.  There are no Chinese except one of the pharmacists at our drug store (who lives in the Richmond District), and I miss the steady, heartening bustle of Chinese life that heretofore always seemed so nearby.  It is all I do miss.

A few rich people have bought very desirable Victorian houses with magnificent wide views out over the city and the bay, but though we all feared it was the beginning of the end as it had been on Telegraph Hill, Potrero Hill has mysteriously thrown off this group and their invasion has slowed.  Potrero Hill is very stubbornly what it wants to be, a working-class neighborhood of small prospering hard-working families who live here for generations.  Artists always seem tolerated, even welcomed in such a neighborhood.  This place, in fact, will embrace anybody willing to become a participant in its deeply strong personality.  The rich seldom know the knack of this.  As a group the rich seem to know the knack of little that makes life so opulent for poorer people.

Betty and Dick McBride and their two boys lived down the street from us, and on Saturday night and other times too, when Dick and Betty came bounding up the hill, windblown, flushed, laden with bags of beer, I always seemed to hear somebody cry, “God bless all here!” It was only my imagination that fired the delight I took in the kind of clannish closeness I had envied my childhood classmates.

Thus Betty and Dick were the welcome life sent me when the gods released me from my past, from the solemnities of the 17th century and the sniffiness of the 19th.  They, with their Scotch-Irish and Czech enthusiasm, swept off my violent memories of calamitous childhood, cadaverous orthopedists, hated enslavement to a demoralizing disease which often ate away most of my energy, frantic excursions down blind alleys, and visits to the chasms of emotional illness.  They finished what Charles had begun twenty years before.

My parents are both dead now.  They never meant me harm, but it is nevertheless true that the nicest thing they ever did for me occurred after they retreated from life into death.  They began to live another life in my memory, and more and more as I ponder their odd ways, I come to admire them.

“All that has been weak can never become absolutely strong.  We say in vain, “He has grown, he has changed;” he is the same.”

Pascal’s warning is a sadness we will carry with us to our graves.  Perhaps it is the work of one’s life to achieve freedom for that persisting self with which we are born.

Painter Janet Richards was a San Francisco native.  Excerpted from Common Soldiers, published by The Archer Press, 1979.