Home > Fifty Five Is The New > Forty Niners In The Modern Age

Forty Niners In The Modern Age


Walking around Sixth Street near Minna today, my mind was drawn to when Diane and I first got to the City. We were wide-eyed and expectant, frightened and mesmerized all at once.

Having visited San Francisco in 1978, we kind of knew what to expect and where to go for the first few nights. And being seasoned travelers, we did what most seasoned travelers do…we reserved our hotel room so that it would be there for us when we arrived. Now, considering our intended temporary abode was the Tenderloin’s famous/infamous Sunnyside Hotel and we called to make our reservations from Philadelphia like a couple of dandies, you can imagine the ruckus and fuss it must have caused!

Coming across the Bay Bridge I looked out the window and breathed a silent prayer. I didn’t know what was ’round the corner….we didn’t really have any prospects, just what we had with us and the determination that comes from knowing that survival is all you got.

The City’s skyline twinkled like the million dreams it was built upon; and there we were on the verge of adding ours to the din. A little late for cold feet, I reminded myself, it’s here or the ocean…can’t go any more west than this!

Diane was looking out the window, too. “Well kiddo,” she smiled nervously above the bus’s continuous engine hum, “looks like this is it!” “Yep.” I nodded, suddenly remembering the way my mom made what we kids lovingly called Irish Chili con Carne served over mashed potatoes…..I smiled at my friend, “No turning back now!”

Our trip started out from Philly on the tail end of February 1980 and we arrived at San Francisco’s bus terminal on March 3rd of that same year at around 11 pm…’though according to our aching backs it felt like a year had passed on those bus seats!

It took a few minutes to get our luggage sorted out, then we walked over to the hotel and started dragging our bedraggled bodies and bags up the long staircase. At first no one offered to help but once they realized we were the Philadelphia Party you’d think we were a pair of movie stars in a first class house!

“Oh! Let me carry this for you, miss..” a very round, heavily Hindi-accented man cried out as he came from behind a caged window. “You’ve come a long way….your room is ready.” He grabbed the 75 lb back pack and a majority of our luggage set and led the way down a very narrow hallway.

“I must apologize.” the manager sighed “For tonight only you have this one. Tomorrow morning we have the corner room,” he paused as if offering the Presidential Suite, “complete with its own bath!”

At the word bath I smiled and did an unconscious sniff of the air around me. I smelled like bus! My mouth tasted like foot! My legs were weak from too much sitting, ears still ringing from the four days and three nights of nonstop Greyhound, and I’m sure Diane felt the same.

But when he opened the door to our room all I saw was the bed. It was fine….it was perfect.
It didn’t matter that there was a very visible depression in the middle of the mattress… after sitting in bus seats for several days, it was comparatively flat! We thanked our host with a smile and a small tip then closed the door.

We were hungry. We’d packed the left overs from our 30 minute dinner stop in Reno, so after taking turns in the hallway bathroom we snacked on the Conestoga Casino’s famous chicken…which we’d discovered on our previous trip in 1978 and just had to have again this time ’round. For that night, it didn’t matter that cockroaches were crawling up the walls or that there were mouse droppings in the drawers…we were landed.

We were, for better or worse, home….the next day would be all about moving to our corner room and getting baths, calling the folks to let them know we were okay, looking for work, getting a bank account for our meager savings and getting familiar with our new surroundings.
But for that first night, we were happy enough to grab a quick snack, brush our teeth and get some sleep.

Together we’d made a leap of faith….to the tune of leaping across the Grand Canyon minus the take-off and landing ramps, ambulance and host of admirers. We were fundamentally alone.

For my own sake it wasn’t so important. I’d done the stranger in a strange land thing before. But for Diane who’d lived a very sheltered, somewhat privileged upbringing, the mean streets and lean times were going to be quite an education. But she was strong and smart and not afraid to stand up for herself and those she loved so all that made up for any inexperience. Besides, in many ways Diane was stronger than me; like the fact that she wasn’t crazy…that helped a lot. I was crazy enough for both of us, although I hadn’t lost much time on the trip I was still having episodes.

As I nodded off to the sound of people arguing in the alley way, someone barfing and a gun being fired, my mind wandered 3500 miles east and all the security we’d left behind. What lay ahead was anybody’s guess…failure or success, living or dying were all part of the same equation and happened on a daily basis all over the world. All we had to do was do it.

Diane got a job and we landed an apartment within our first week in San Francisco, it took me a little longer to get work and then my mental and physical health gave out before any meaningful career could take place, so I had to opt for General Assistance then SSI.

I learned a lot about standing in lines and begging, then learned the local spots and supplemented my income by singing on the street with my battered guitar and an ancient milking stool from Purple Heart thrift store. As the years went on I managed to do other things, from home health care work through publishing an international fanzine, teaching a computer graphics course and working in the medical cannabis movement; but those first few months it was all about surviving.

That was thirty years ago and a lot has happened since then….enough to count for more than one lifetime a piece for each of us.

What all of that has to do with Fifty-Five being the new anything you may well ask.
Today, to me at any rate, Fifty Five is the New Forty Nine, as in the pioneer Forty Niners…because that’s just what Diane and I were; a couple of pioneers on the trail to self discovery in the brave new world of San Francisco.

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