My Old Block, Now and Then, by Richard Rosenthal

I have Zillowed the house I grew up in at 70 Seventh Avenue in San Francisco’s Richmond district. The building consists of two six-room flats that my parents paid $12,500 for in 1937, which would be $200,000 now. Zillow’s current estimate is 22 times that, $4,407,925 to be precise; its estimated monthly rent $13,171. We rented out the lower flat for $60 a month, less than $1,000 now.

The website describes the house as “elegant, spacious, sunny with a master bedroom — a nice little back yard — [and] built in book cases [flanking] a decorative fireplace.”

But except for a modernized kitchen and laundry setup, the house seems just as it was 80 years ago. It wasn’t notably sunny when I lived there and still stands nudged between a similar house and an apartment building, so I don’t see how it can be now. The “nice little back yard” is surely the same one that was so small my father bought the shortest hose he could find at Woolworth’s to tend its one proud resident, a hydrangea bush. The bedroom was small, too, and became decidedly cramped when my mother without my father’s input switched from a double to twin beds with ornately initialed bedspreads declaring which bed was whose. And a call to the building’s agent confirms my expectation that the “decorative fireplace” still means as it did in 1937 that you’d really better not light a fire in it.

We were poor for a while, but I never felt it. We had enough food and heat and a sweetly functioning old Nash sedan. For 10 cents I attended movie matinees at the Coliseum on Clement Street, where one Saturday I won a drawing for an angel food cake and a bulging quart of Blum’s scoop-and-pack ice cream. Ten cents was also the kids’ price for the ballpark where my friends and I would watch the San Francisco Seals’ Dominic DiMaggio race with the lightness of a dandelion gone to seed to catch line drives in deep center field.

Don’t get me wrong, we’d have relished being rich, but to most of us on the block middle class was fine and pursuit of riches a waste of family quality time. Put another way, we didn’t think that bothering to get rich was cost-effective.

I vividly remember the built-in bookcases that are pictured in Zillow’s promotional literature. They were the inspiration of Irving Silberberg, my father’s first cousin who lived out of the closet with his gay partner, Bill Mitchell, for decades before it was really safe to do this in an area that still clung to gruff frontier ways.

The bookcases, bare in the Zillow photo, were stuffed with novels and histories of the Old West, some of their hard covers depicting heroic scenes of monks in the desert and explorers in the mountains. My mother favored John Muir and Willa Cather, my father Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain, whom he read to me every Saturday when I was ill and bedridden for a couple of years.

Dick Warren, my best friend from around the corner at 620 Lake Street, I think it was, also enjoyed the books. One rainy afternoon when we were 13 he gleefully came upon a passage in a Fannie Hurst novel referring to the beautiful breasts of a bathing 15-year-old girl. He found this much more meaningful, as well as less expensive, than the $5 hard porn illustrated palm-sized booklets, available in the Roosevelt Junior High schoolyard, which claimed, on their bedraggled pink covers, to have been “Published in Persia.”

Dick was short, happy-go-lucky, and a perpetual adventurer. He was much braver than I at riding the Big Dipper at Playland at the Beach and bolder at snagging baseballs at the annual Seals Stadium ball scramble for kids. Sometimes on a Friday night after the movies, we’d go to Laurel Hill Cemetery, where he’d lead me past the grand tombs of senators and bandits to gravestones behind which we could crouch and peer through my mother’s opera glasses into back bedroom windows on Presidio Avenue in hopes of seeing a female schoolmate undressing. We failed. Whenever one of us thought he saw something significant the other snatched the glasses and had to refocus them, by which time the opportunity, if there really had been one, had passed.

But Dick was much more than a normal adolescent boy. He had a daunting moral courage. He was the only one in our group, including me, and as far as I saw the only non-Asian in all of Lowell High School, to eat lunch openly in the schoolyard with Nisei students after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He wasn’t in anyone’s face about it. He just did it. And while no one emulated him, no one criticized him either.

He also, humiliatingly, robbed me of home runs in the street baseball games we organized on spring and fall afternoons after school.

We played at the dead end of a street that stopped abruptly at a low stone wall separating Seventh Avenue from the Presidio, then a sparsely developed old military base established by the Spanish in the late 1700s. There were six of us, three to a team — Bob Katz, Dick McFarland, Dick Schaefer, Dick Boyle, who was to pitch for St. Ignatius High, Dick Warren, and me.

Sometimes, we’d let Larry Kahn, who was a couple of years younger, in the game to pitch for both sides and get a couple of at-bats that didn’t count. Mr. Sheehy, who I believe was looking for work — we were still in the Great Depression — would come home and volunteer to catch so that foul tips didn’t roar down the hill to Lake Street and its speeding traffic.

Our parents were never there or otherwise monitoring us. They were either at work, looking for work, or home preparing dinner, which we were required to be present for, hands and faces washed, by 5:30.

In my memory’s eye the wall was about 200 feet up from our chalk-designated home plate. Balls that cleared it were home runs. I never did clear it. Never hit a home run. I was a line-drive hitter and number-one window breaker. The few times I connected well and straight enough for a homer, Dick, who was on the other team, would run back to the wall, propel himself way up, catch it back and bare-handed, and bring it down, grinning and chiding me that I’d never slug one past him.

I didn’t take this at all well and actually started doing stuff I detested, like push-ups and lifting weights. I was going to hit that home run.

But we’d played our last game. December 1941 came and with it the war. We’d briefly be going away to college and then into the Army or Navy.

One evening in 1942 when we were almost 17, Dick, who was eager to become a Navy fighter pilot, came over and sat down carefully in one of my mother’s wobbly antique chairs facing the bookshelves and decorative fireplace to check out a test for colorblindness that was in our current issue of Reader’s Digest. On each of about 10 pages were gobs of differently colored dots one cluster of which formed a letter or number. If you weren’t colorblind you were likely to identify all of them. If you were, you’d likely miss them all. As Dick did.

When I came home from the war four years later, filled out and stronger, one of the first things I did was retrieve my old bat and a ball from my closet and set up a little game.

Larry Kahn was there to pitch, a new kid on the block offered to catch. I cleared the wall on my second swing, but I wasn’t at all sure I’d hit it high and far enough to get it past Dick. I’ll never know. He couldn’t be there. Unable to fly for the Navy because he was colorblind, he’d joined the infantry and been killed in Germany, in the grim, frigid Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, shortly before the war in Europe ended. He was 19.


Richard Rosenthal’s articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and New York magazine. He lives in East Hampton.