Noe Valley Voice November 2005

Florence's Family Album

The Alley Cats

by Florence Holub

Before they moved to 21st Street in 1957, Florence and husband Leo Holub traded chicken dinners, dance steps, and babysitting with their neighbors on Kingston Avenue. This essay, penned by Florence, is an update of one printed in the September 1994 Voice.

The year was 1948, 57 years ago, when we began living in a building my father owned on a short, narrow street named Kingston Avenue, located just a few doors from 30th Street between Mission and San Jose Avenue. While Leo went to his job at City Planning, I watched the kids and helped out at my father's paint store.

As soon as we got settled, our two young sons, Michael, 6, and Jan, 4, began to make friends with the other children on the block. The first they met was Frankie, who was hard to ignore because he raced up and down the alley on his little chrome-covered bike, making rasping motor sounds and screeching at the top of his lungs.

Frankie, who was a little older than our kids, 8 or 9 perhaps, proved to be a good-natured, extremely bright child, blessed with overindulgent parents who denied him nothing. He possessed every imaginable toy, owned and operated a ham radio set, and played a shiny brass trumpet that he sometimes awakened us with early in the morning, playing reveille. This usually happened on a Sunday, so we would just grin at the din and roll over.

In time, we met Frankie's father, Frank Jewell, who owned a watch repair shop at the other end of Kingston on the corner of San Jose Avenue. Frank looked like a typical businessman in his suit and tie, but he actually had led quite a colorful life.

He had been born in the Southeast, an orphan of Native American ancestry, and joined the circus as a teenager, traveling from town to town as a tightrope walker on the high wire. That exciting career ended when World War II erupted and he joined the Army and sailed for Europe. Before the war was won, however, Frank was injured when an Army caisson (an ammunition wagon) rolled over his legs, and he was sent back home.

With his damaged feet, Frank couldn't return to the high wire, so he looked for a trade that didn't require much footwork. He found it in watch-making, and, after completing his training, opened the shop on San Jose. He married his wife, Mary, and they had one son, Frankie, who provided much joy (and clamor) in their lives.

After linking up with Frankie, our boys met affable young Ray Torres, nicknamed "Doc," who lived just across the street. The boys became inseparable. And because Doc was an energetic organizer, he provided the stimulus for a lot of action.

First they formed a club, naming it coolly the Alley Cats, and then Michael printed "business cards" on Leo's manual printing press in the basement.

Next they set out to find a purpose for their organization, and decided that raising candy money seemed like a good idea. But how to do it?

Since it was common knowledge that our paint store paid two cents apiece for gallon bottles to hold paint thinner, I was not surprised when the boys came in one day with a bottle in hand. I paid them and absentmindedly placed the bottle on the landing just outside the back door. (I was focused on the monthly store bookkeeping.)

In no time my train of thought was interrupted again by the three boys, who had returned with another bottle. I paid them again, put the bottle out back as before, and returned to the ledgers.

Soon they were back with yet another bottle, but before I could complete the third transaction, one of them asked almost pleadingly, "Aren't you ever going to catch on?" Only then did it dawn on me that those rascals had been bringing in the same bottle each time!

Their next undertaking was a theatrical production to be held in Doc's basement. They wrote a script, came up with costumes and a stage setting, and even allowed a girl to participate (horrors). After a number of rehearsals, they were ready to perform.

Flyers advertising the production were distributed, and the response, although mainly from neighbors and relatives, was impressive. The boys dispensed tickets at the door for a quarter, and when all of the folding chairs in Doc's garage were occupied, the play commenced. The boys presented an original and "very scary" Halloween mystery, with a cast of ghosts and goblins and at least one witch (the girl). I can't remember the details, but I do recall the performance was a huge success.

After the show, Leo and I, along with another mother, Marge Jannson, stayed on to help clear the chairs and free the Torres' parking space. Doc's father (also named Ray Torres) put a Latin music record on the phonograph. Before long, with Ray's expert instruction, we were all doing the mambo and the samba with gusto! This kept up until midnight, when weariness finally sent us home to bed.

In the morning, Leo and I, awakened by Frankie's bugle call, arose and returned to finish the job we had deferred the night before. But we shirked our duty again, because Ray put on some more salsa music, and we couldn't resist having a few more dances. We parents were having so much fun that our neglected sons were a bit annoyed with us. After all, we weren't acting like their usual parents--we were acting like teenagers!

They aired this grievance by picketing out on the sidewalk, carrying signs that said, "We Protest!" and "We Want to Go to the Show!" We met their demand immediately, and they rushed off to the matinee at the Lyceum Theater, which was located where Safeway now stands on Mission near 29th Street.

With all this dancing and conversation, the adults were beginning to form warm and enduring relationships. That day, we learned that each of us had a chicken in the refrigerator for Sunday dinner, so Mrs. Torres, whom we all called Sis, suggested that we pool our fowls and have dinner together at their house.

Marge ran home to fetch her chicken, as did I. So when the boys came home from the show, we all sat down to a banquet on a long table in Sis' basement.

The Torres had worked long hours for many years at their coffee shop, but since they had just sold it, they were eagerly embarking upon a new, more zestful social era. Sis and I became the best of friends and had much in common besides our children.

She taught me to cook spicy Mexican food like tacos, which were almost unknown here at the time. And I tried to introduce her to a Scandinavian treat, pickled herring. The first time she tasted it, she savored it thoughtfully and ventured, "It tastes like raw fish to me." Which it was. (My man Leo has never been able to develop a taste for it either.)

Our friendship with the Torres family was a reciprocal one: whenever Doc's parents went out for the evening, he spent the night with us, and whenever we had an engagement, our boys were welcome to stay with them.

The years went by in this fashion until my father decided to close the paint store due to an impending birth in the family. Since I was busy shopping with Sis for baby clothes and otherwise preparing myself for motherhood, and since he was busy with his contracting business, neither of us had the energy to mind the store.

The nine months passed easily until the afternoon I went into labor. I called Sis, but when Doc answered the phone and said his mother was not at home, I blurted out in haste, "My water broke!" This young man was completely unaware of the nature of my emergency, so he innocently said, "Don't you think you should call a plumber?"

Fortunately at that moment, Frank Jewell was passing by our house, and he kindly drove me to Mary's Help Hospital, then located on Guerrero Street not far from Market. Three hours later, just before the dinner hour on Aug. 8, 1955, Eric Richard Holub came into the world.

He was perfect in every way except for one thing: whenever he was brought to his mother, he scrunched up his face in a most disagreeable manner. He also did this to the nurses whenever they disturbed his sleep, and to the photographer, who apologized profusely to me for the outcome of my baby's picture.

By the time we returned home, however, Eric had learned to make a happy, bemused expression, which made him the center of attention on Kingston Avenue.

Eric became such an integral part of the Kingston scene that he was given an honorary membership in the exclusive club, the Alley Cats. By the time he was 2, however, our rambunctious brood was bulging at the seams in that little house. So we migrated to a bigger house in Noe Valley, and have lived happily ever since.