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Rediscovering My San Francisco Roots

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Photo of San Francisco skyline

What I’m about to tell you isn’t a secret. I’m from the East Bay. I was born in Walnut Creek, lived in Oakland’s Laurel neighborhood until I was 12 and then moved around Contra Costa until we ended up finding a permanent spot in Martinez. I lived in Emerson Arms, if you’re familiar with Martinez, you know all about Emerson Arms. It’s the nucleus of the Downtown Martinez meth trade, at least it was when I lived there. It’s a great place to get a swastika face tattoo or buy a stolen bike. 

Despite these glorious East Bay roots, San Francisco is why I exist. I mean that literally.

Despite these glorious East Bay roots, San Francisco is why I exist. I mean that literally. My father moved here from Texas  and met my mother in the Mission. My entire mom’s side of the family are all Frisco natives. Yes, they call it Frisco.

Yet, I feel more at home in the East Bay. I know it better. Everything from Downtown Oakland to the refineries in Martinez feel like home. I understand it. I understand why people are the way they are. There’s an energy in Oakland and Contra Costa County that I genuinely understand. I don’t know the entire East Bay. Once you get south of San Leandro, you may as well be in San Jose to me. Despite my internet reputation as being some sort of Bay Area expert, anything south of Daly City or San Leandro is foreign to me. 

To better understand San Francisco, I wanted to document the houses where my grandparents, and my parents grew up in and share what I know about those neighborhoods. I decided to start with my grandmother, Alma Jean Raimondi.

Ancestry.com screenshot of my grandmother’s childhood address.

Most of my family lived in the Mission and the Excelsior, but what I previously believed (according to my uncle who is a fucking idiot) my family moved to the Excelsior after first being from the Mission. Ancestry.com has proven this to be inaccurate. My uncle said growing up in the Mission in the 1970s was like West Side Story. The Italians and the “Latins,” as he called them, used to fight all the time. I wasn’t there, but I’ve heard this from a few people. So most of my family left the Mission for the Outer Mission and the Excelsior. That was what I was told, that was what I believed. 

However, the first house my grandmother grew up in was located in the Excelsior. The first record I could find of my family in San Francisco was from 1940 and it listed my grandmother’s address as 370 Madrid Street. 

I wasn’t very close with her when I was young, but I felt a sense of closeness as I approached her childhood home. I often feel lost because I have very little tethering me to my family, but standing near where I know she lived as a child felt good. It felt nice knowing I was standing on the same concrete as her. I imagined her playing games, and running around the crowded streets with friends. There was a thin layer of fog kissing the ground. I imagined her and her siblings watching the fog roll into the neighborhood. 

Next I figured I’d visit where my mother grew up, luckily I didn’t have to Google her name. I just called her and asked. Turns out she lived all over the City. The longest address she lived at was 123 Albion Street in the Mission, but she also lived on the corner of 16th and Bryant, 662 Valencia and then 148 Rome Street in the Excelsior. There were other addresses, one in Noe Valley, another in Haight-Ashbury and at one point she rented a room in Glen Park, obviously I wasn’t going to visit every single place, so I decided on 123 Albion Street. Her, my grandparents and my uncles all lived there. This was the house she lived in from 7 until she finished high school. 

My mother’s childhood home on Albion Street

While most of the conversations I have with my mom over the phone rarely march past the 5 minute mark, this one lasted nearly an hour. She told me stories about her life in the City including an incident where my grandmother apparently patched up Carlos Santana when he got jumped by gang members or the when My aunt and my mom were smoking weed in a friend’s van and apparently there was a group of Nazis having a club meeting when my aunt decided to open the door and screamed “Fuck you, Nazi bastards!” They chased the van for a few blocks and threw beer cans until a group of Samoans started to attack the Nazis and it turned into a big brawl as my aunt’s friend drove them home. 

I think I’m trying to ascertain whether or not I truly belong here. 

I have no way of knowing if the Carlos Santana thing is true and I honestly thought my mom was making shit up about Nazis openly walking through the Mission, but after a quick Google search, I found out it really happened. There was a group called the California Reich that marched, passed out fascist literature and started fights with people in various San Francisco neighborhoods throughout the 70s and 80s. 

When I first came up with this article, I didn’t know what compelled me to write it. But after visiting these specific locations within the City, I think I’m trying to ascertain whether or not I truly belong here. 

I’ve spent my entire life wanting to live in San Francisco, wanting to put a book out, and to make a name for myself as a writer, but as these goals are slowly coming to fruition, I am losing my drive to an extent. The reality of life is slowly eating away at the fantasy that I had of a life in San Francisco. 

Buildings in SoMa.

I’m also struggling with an identity crisis of sorts. My entire life I’ve been poor and a lot of my beliefs were inherently rooted in a snide resentment. I assumed I’d never be truly let in. But they did let me in. I got a tech job. I’m no longer poor. My book is out and I have gotten to be relatively well known in the Bay Area.

Back in 2019 my best friend and I were sitting in Chinatown. We were talking about life and he asked me what would make me happy. Before I answered, he said he could see me happy in an apartment somewhere in SF with a girl I loved. I agreed with him, but I found that specific scenario to be highly unlikely. 

Well, it happened. I’m living it, and yet I feel as if I don’t belong. 

So, I’m loitering in front of the places my parents and grandparents lived. I’m returning to my San Francisco roots to see if they’re strong enough to justify my presence in a place that makes it hard to exist. 

And so far, I’m existing.

FOLLOW MY WRITING ON INSTAGRAM HERE

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Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff - Bay Area Memelord

Abraham Woodliff is a San Francisco-based writer, editor and digital content creator known for Bay Area Memes, a local meme page that has amassed nearly 200k followers. His work has appeared in SFGATE, The Bold Italic and of course, BrokeAssStuart.com. His book of short stories, personal essays and poetry entitled Don't Drown on Dry Ground will be available early 2022.

1 Comment

  1. Dan
    April 7, 2022 at 4:10 pm — Reply

    I am East Bay Born and Raised, like you have old school roots on my Dads side of the family here in SF. I grew up in Castro Valley and Hayward and I can say it is definitely not San Jose. But a blue collar suburb of a blue collar town. GM was to the South in Fremont and the Hayward/San Leandro industrial area was East and North and Oakland with it’s ports and shipping. It is still my comfort zone when I am there.

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