Sunday, April 24, 2011

Abandoned Things: The Garden City

The Garden City, 1980
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

The Garden City was a Southern Pacific steam ferry on San Francisco Bay in her glory days more than a century ago, and on one occasion she even flew the Belgian Flag as she carried the King and Queen of Belgium to a reception in San Francisco. The ship was retired in 1929 and moved to the Carquinez Strait where she was used for other purposes. By the time Kevin and I first saw her in the early 1980s, she was in ruin.

In the spring of 1981, we spent some time photographing the 4449 Daylight, a restored steam locomotive which was headed to Sacramento for the opening of the new California State Railroad Museum. We had our own brush with royalty in Dunsmuir, where a crowd of onlookers had come out to see the engine when it stopped in town. A particularly interesting looking old man, who leaned on a big walking stick and carried a plastic-wrapped bundle on his back, turned out to be Fry Pan Jack, King of the Hobos. Closer to the Bay Area near the Carquinez Strait, we’d scouted out a spot to photograph the Daylight from a hillside where the train would go past the abandoned Garden City, which was moored and rotting just beyond the tracks at Port Costa.

4449 Daylight and The Garden City, 1981
Copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Over the years I’d wonder about the fate of the Garden City and whether she continued to deteriorate at the strait. It turns out she finally met her end when hill fires swept through the area in 1983, just a year after we’d moved east from California. Not a happy ending to the story of the Garden City, but fortunately the 4449 Daylight still steams gloriously on.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Signs for the Times: Esso and Borders Books

Route 92, Arthurdale, WV
copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Anybody else old enough to remember Esso gas station signs? The one above is from an old Esso station along Route 92 in historic Arthurdale, WV. The Exxon trademark replaced Esso in the United States decades ago, but the company is still known internationally as Esso (the name taken from the initials of Standard Oil). Classic vintage signs appeal to collectors and can be worth a lot of money.

Last week, new signs went up nationwide at Borders Books as well. At stores slated for liquidation, employees began posting signs of their own, some of which you can see at this link. Handmade, but classic in their own way – the message invaluable.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Red’s Java House on the Embarcadero

Red's Java House, San Francisco, 2004
Copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

It’s easy to get distracted by research done as part of the writing process, especially when it involves looking at photographs of a place you love. San Francisco certainly stole my heart – it was where I fell in love and married. Lately I’ve been caught up in fact-checking details for 1988-1989, a time period six years beyond when that city was my home. My first visit back after we moved away was in January of 1990, just three months after the Loma Prieta earthquake, so I have some sense of the changes during that timeframe. However, all the changes in the decades after Loma Prieta tend to blur together in memory over time.

Much changed after 1990, particularly along the embarcadero. The controversial Embarcadero Freeway, an ugly double-decker elevated freeway along the waterfront, was demolished and removed after it was damaged by the earthquake. Now, a wide boulevard and pedestrian promenade stretches along the waterfront. New skyscrapers went up to dramatically change the skyline in the South of Market Area (SoMA), and an entirely new neighborhood known as South Beach developed in what had been an industrial warehouse district.

In 2004, Red’s Java House was still there at Pier 30, looking much as it did when Kevin first took me there for lunch in 1978. Red’s is all about cheap food and sitting out on the pier below the Bay Bridge while you eat. Memory tells me the building was painted a deep red back in the old days when we’d go down to the Embarcadero for night photography, but I can’t confirm that since any photographs we have of it from back then are in black-and-white. We shot a lot of B&W film in those years and possibly that’s why some of my memories of that time seem to be in B&W too. Or, maybe it’s just that I’ve been watching too many film noirs set there – visually interesting and lots of fun just to see what has changed across eras.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Private Lives in Diaries

Photo copyright by Dory Adams

How many of us keep daily journals? Or read diaries? I’m not talking about your big sister’s diary, but rather published diaries. Some of my favorites are Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. I’ve had the opportunity to glimpse a few original journals and notebooks on exhibition over the years, most memorably photographer Dorothea Lange’s notebooks at the Oakland Museum of California, James Agee and Walker Evans’ notebooks and correspondence at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and John Steinbeck’s journals at The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

Last week (via the National Geographic blog “Intelligent Traveler”) I learned of the exhibition “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” at The Morgan Library and Museum through May 22, 2011, where seventy diaries from the permanent collection are on display – including those of Henry David Thoreau, Charlotte Bronte, Anais Nin, Tennessee Williams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Steinbeck. Even if you’re far from New York City, you can still get a sense of the exhibit via the curator’s blog, online gallery, and audio podcasts.

Most of us probably had at least one of those little diaries that came with a key and lock when we were growing up. I would get those sometimes as Christmas gifts, but after a few weeks I’d get bored with writing the same entry: got up, went to school, came home, fought with my little brothers, did homework, watched TV, went to bed. (I probably embellished that part about doing my homework.)

I’ve kept journals most of my adult life, however these days most of my journaling is done in an electronic format. My most recent paper journals were plain Exacompta refills for the leather journal jacket I bought at the Steinbeck Museum in 2004 after I’d been inspired by seeing his writing notebooks. Journaling has become a habit, a way of recording days and events, and though I rarely go back to reread my old journals I suppose I have it in mind that someday I’ll read through them again when my memory fails in old age.

Recently I consulted the journal kept during my San Francisco years for setting details as part of research for my novel. My San Francisco diary was bought at Green Apple Books on Clement Street, a favorite bookstore back then, which is still in business today at the same location (and the same wooden gnome still stands on the street out front). I remember looking at those blank journals each time we visited the store, wishing I had $8 to buy one. Money was tight back then and we’d spend hours browsing and selecting used paperbacks for only a quarter or fifty cents apiece. I’d always stop to look at those journals, imported from Shanghai and covered in silk cloth in various colors and patterns. I’d hold one in my hands and flip through the clean white pages. By the time I had saved enough money, I knew exactly which one I’d buy. Today that journal is filled with entries beginning in April 1980 and ending in 1986, and even though it spans years with moves to other cities, I still think of it as my San Francisco journal.

As for those childhood diaries, none of mine survived the years. I would make entries for a few days and then abandon them, which is why I’m pretty impressed by the childhood diary a dear friend showed me. She recently found it after her mother died, among some things her mother had saved for her. My friend wrote in that diary faithfully for nearly an entire year, and in doing so managed to capture specific details and a personal history of daily life from that era. I wish I had done the same.

Photo copyright by Dory Adams

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