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Like any street in any great city, Fillmore is always changing, always dying, always being awakened

Photograph of Richard Rodriguez on Fillmore Street by Frank Wing


Growing old on Fillmore Street has taught me how much a city can change, how much I have changed — and how a city continues despite it all. 

Lately, if I have any sort of errand on Fillmore, I will most often take a digressive route. I leave my apartment on Clay Street, climb the Aztec steps into Alta Plaza, then circle around Pacific Heights. I climb back up the hill on Pierce. 

So much of my life has been consumed by exercise. When I could still jog, I used to run through Pacific Heights on my way to the Presidio. The great houses were blurred landmarks in those days. 

Now, exercise offers more of an opportunity to pause. I have favorite houses. Many mansions have had their facades lifted. After being swathed in netting or shrink-wrapped in white plastic for months, even years, exteriors are revealed to the street in pristine turn-of-the-century clarity. I have long admired the novels of American wealth — Wharton, James, Fitzgerald — and the interior secrets they revealed. Walking along Vallejo or up Steiner, however pleasant, is not like reading novels. There is no discernible narrative. 

I know the Getty house. I know the confectionary palace where Danielle Steel lives. I can tell when Nancy Pelosi is in town from the assembly of black security cars. I know the Whittier mansion, which was briefly the consulate of the Third Reich. I even know where a bitten Apple executive lives. I never see anyone in a window. 

I do see Mexican construction workers feverishly employed, or lounging in the manner of Manet, following their noonday meals. The sidewalks are empty except for the occasional Filipina housekeeper walking a joyless dog. 

One late Saturday afternoon, I came upon a friend of my sister’s, who lives on a block I admire, and mentioned that I never see any of these houses lit up for dinner parties. “Nowadays, people entertain at their clubs,” she said. As we talked, a garage door creaked open; a grey sedan soundlessly rolled into the street. 

Yesterday, on Scott Street, a car parked at the curb as I walked by, and two young men got out. “Mom took the Mercedes,” one of them said. The other said nothing. They entered a large brick house through the front door. 

Fillmore Street is the opposite. There are people about. In mid-afternoon, girls from neighboring prep schools begin the parade, their skirts hiked as high as those of majorettes. Tourists follow. Then come the Mexican and Central American women, pushing prams and speaking Spanish to their comprehending charges. A man dressed in a rubber speedsuit straddles his mount at the corner of Pacific. He barks a command to his cell phone: “Find Blue Bottle!” 

I meet an assistant professor from North Carolina at a cafe. He tells me a wonderful story: He had lived in New York, loved New York, then moved away for a job. A few years after, he returned to the city. As he sat in a taxi on Third Avenue, he realized how much he missed streets crammed with life and distraction. His fond realization was followed immediately by dismay. New York hadn’t noticed his absence in the least. 

Fillmore Street doesn’t notice my presence, much less my absence. I am fading from the street because I am old. In Pacific Heights, a security camera will focus briefly upon my interest if I stop to admire a mansion. On Fillmore, the procession of shops that cater to the insecurities of young women has no designs on me. A beautiful Indian couple studies the young people waiting in line for ice cream cones; I study the beautiful Indian couple. 

You expect an old man to complain about how much Fillmore Street has changed. Any street in any great city is always changing, always dying, always being awakened. If you look at photographs of Fillmore Street from 100 years ago, you can still orient yourself — architecturally, I mean — so much of Fillmore remains. It is with a certain poignance, the poignance of being alive, that you imagine yourself — your little errand — among the ghostly pedestrians of 1919. 

I check the marquee at the Clay Theatre because it is Friday. I lean into the bookstore to greet Fred, in his black T-shirt. Dino sits outside his cafe.
I nod to the fine mystic poet who worked so many years at D&M Wines and Liquors. 

We are still alive. 

I wave to Maria; she’s on break from Mollie Stone’s; she passes, speaking urgently into her phone to someone she calls mi amor. She doesn’t notice me waving. I miss the bird shop near Pine where an enlightened grey cat slept through decades of the jungle din. Across the street, when I pass the cosmetics shop that used to be Mrs. Dewson’s Hats, I am entering the street of the dead. 

Ruth Dewson is standing at the checkout line at Mollie Stone’s. Mrs. Dewson greets the cashier, “How you doin’ today, darling?” The cashier shrugs. “Breaking even, I guess,” he replies. Then she: “Oh, honey, you’ve got to do better than that. It’s the homeless who are breaking even.”  

I recall Gloria, the woman who stood outside the donut shop, now a Mexican cafe. Gloria would ask for a quarter, but only from people she recognized. She became alarmed if one dredged up a handful of spilling change from a pocket. She’d only take a quarter. 

I am walking south now. When I cross Post Street, the $25 burger and the high decibel ambience are replaced by Burger King and Goodwill. The Boom Boom Room still stands sentry to the memory of jazz. There is a handsome new marquee on the Fillmore Auditorium. Long before Bill Graham’s legendary tenancy in the ’60s, the Fillmore had been an African-American dance and music hall. 

In the late 1950s, San Francisco urban planners conceived a scheme for an ethnic and racial cleansing they called “redevelopment.” Blocks of the Western Addition were erased. Lives that urban planners imagined as unruly were relegated into uniform, rectangular spaces. 

For several blocks, you will see names incised in cement like tombstones — names of bakeries and delicatessens and bars. This stretch of Fillmore was Jewish and Japanese and African American. At 935 Fillmore, a stone plaque remembers Leola King’s Blue Mirror. Louis Armstrong played there when Fillmore was the “Harlem of the West.”

In the plaza leading to Safeway’s parking lot, embedded on the pavement are names of people with some association with the neighborhood: Isaac Stern, Ernest J. Gaines, Mel Blanc, African-American pastors, educators, Japanese-American community leaders. 

Once a year on the first weekend in July, Fillmore Street recalls itself as music. In an inversion of the Dia de los Muertos, the dead return to serenade us. As much as anyone, Mrs. Dewson was responsible for the Fillmore Jazz Festival — music flowing uphill, from Eddy to Jackson Street. 

Recently, just about where Leola King once held sway, I was shoved from the sidewalk by a teenager in a blue sweater who said not a word. Another time, on a bright afternoon, one block south of the police station, several teenagers pulled another boy out of a car. The captive broke free and ran. The others gave chase. Then shooting. I hid behind a light pole. One boy spied me as I peered from my hiding place. Our eyes met. For maybe two seconds he deliberated whether I mattered or not. Apparently not. He turned and ran.

I came upon a man in a straw hat among the mansions. He looked very old, very pale. He wore a sort of summer-in-the-city linen jacket over a checkered shirt. He was resting his body against a railing. I asked if he needed help. He didn’t say yes, but he resumed his climb at my side. We walked together up Broadway, past tourists happily snapping each other in front of the house where Mrs. Doubtfire was filmed. We passed the home where Francis Ford Coppola lived years ago. The old man dragged his cane behind him. 

At the top of the hill, the old man said he was alright. I left him there, catching his breath and leaning on his cane. I turned around and followed behind a gaggle of majorettes from the girls’ school. I descended Fillmore, all the way to Louis Armstrong.

© 2019 Richard Rodriguez

Photograph of Richard Rodriguez in Alta Plaza by Frank Wing

Lucky Clay Street!

CLAY STREET has been my lucky street. I’ve written four books in an Italianate Victorian house on Clay Street. 

My first book, Hunger of Memory, remains controversial for its political objections to affirmative action and bilingual education. But a front page notice in The New York Times Book Review meant that I was suddenly a writer — which is how I found myself, one winter morning, in the green room of the Today show, listening to Rod Steiger declaim on his latest divorce.

My second book, Days of Obligation, about California and Mexico, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in non-fiction, but never found an audience. One of its chapters, “Late Victorians,” concerns the architecture of Victorian houses in San Francisco in the Age of AIDS. 

My third book, Brown, about racial mixture and forbidden love in America, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. 

My last book, Darling, is a series of essays about the “desert religions” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Lucky Clay Street! Lucky Victorian house! Publication comes with a certain irony: I live as a writer in an age of declining mass literacy. Many of my friends have never read a book I have written.

I wrote an essay for The New York Times a few years ago about a naked old man walking down Divisadero Street toward the Castro. “Nakedness in a Digital Age” is about being a writer in a city that doesn’t read. Or see. Most of the people who passed the naked man didn’t bother to look, and didn’t notice the old dude had glorified his body with golden glitter.

On Clay Street, I began writing for newspapers before newspapers began to fold for lack of advertising. I wrote for lots of newspapers, all over the place. I wrote for magazines that don’t exist anymore, and others that still do.

In 1990, I was invited by the PBS NewsHour to perform — that’s the verb I intend, perform — short essays at the close of the evening’s news. I appeared on the NewsHour for nearly two decades, which is longer than the tenure of I Love Lucy.

There are still mornings, fewer now that I am in my mid-70s, when I am picked up at 5 o’clock for an early flight. As the car passes the Fillmore Street Bakery, I can see the windows are steamed up — the beginning of a new day. Already I feel a homesickness for my apartment on Clay Street. The bakery will open in a few hours and no one will notice my absence on Fillmore Street. I will wake up tomorrow far away.

— Richard Rodriguez