Noe Valley Voice July-August 2006

Florence's Family Album: Life at Kingston Corner

By Florence Holub

There is a walk that I frequently take from our present 21st Street home to the corner of Mission and Kingston streets, a block south of 30th Street. Every time I reach "Kingston Corner," it is like a homecoming.

This is the place where Leo and I and our two young children landed when we returned to the city in 1950, after being away for several years.

At the time, inexpensive housing was hard to come by, and few people would rent to couples with young children, who were inclined to be noisy. But fortunately for us, my father owned the property where his business, Mickelson's Paint and Unfinished Furniture Store, was located at 3434 Mission Street.

Since he was in need of a new store manager, he asked me to try my hand at minding the shop for a few days. After a week or so, he decided that I could manage it, so he offered me a permanent job, as well as the adjoining living quarters--a small cottage--for our family of four.

This proved to be a wonderful arrangement. Because my father's paint and furniture business was a relatively quiet one, I was able to keep my eyes on our two young sons, watch their development every day, and get a paycheck at the same time.

Our oldest son, Michael, was in the first grade at Fairmount Elementary School, but our second son, Jan, was 21/2 years younger and not yet of school age. So Jan kept me company in the store and began to learn about the business.

On Monday mornings, we went to the bank to deposit the checks and bills from the weekend sales. At the same time, we got bags of change to replenish the cash register. Jan watched all of this and naturally interpreted it according to a 4-year-old's logic. I overheard him tell a friend knowingly, "You just take a little money to the bank, and the man gives you back a whole bunch."

Without my guidance, he learned to withdraw funds from his piggy bank with a kitchen knife, in order to invest in sweets at the 30th Street corner market. His philosophy was (and still is): "Money is no good unless you use it."

When he tired of helping me, Jan would occupy himself in the rear of the store, where my father's shop, full of hammers, nails, and a variety of other tools, proved to be a welcome stimulation.

Once Michael got home from school, the two boys usually headed out the side door of the store, which opened onto Kingston, a busy narrow passageway between Mission Street and San Jose Avenue. But there was a small fenced courtyard that separated the store from the rear cottage we lived in, and for years that play yard was a magnet that drew small fry from all over the neighborhood.

Our courtyard was often filled with high-pitched laughter and playful screeching, which was a terrible nuisance for some of the neighbors, but at least the parents among them could hear where their children were. It sounded just like recess at an elementary school. One cranky customer of my father's paint shop was surprised to learn that the store manager lived in the rear cottage. He said he had thought that just a bunch of screaming kids lived there!

To us, however, the courtyard was a blessing--a safe refuge located only 30 feet from the heavy traffic of Mission Street. As long as our children were there making happy noises, we knew they were okay.

In the courtyard was a stack of wooden odds and ends left over from my father's construction jobs--scraps that provided the boys with materials to build things. First they constructed a slide. Then they dismantled it in order to build a seesaw, which was great fun until they converted that to a catapult.

When Dirk, the inventor of the catapult, jumped on one end, a brick placed on the other end flew up in the air and then came down right on his head. It did no damage, much to our relief, but the incident put an end to the use of that ingenious invention.

Every few days, the children would come up with a different structure to build. But the most substantial one was the "fort" with a door, situated under the staircase to our house.

One day, my brother Warde, who worked with my father, came to pick up supplies from the basement of the store. He liked children, and especially appreciated the variety of contraptions that his nephews and their friends were always hammering on. So when they invited him to inspect their fort, he accepted. Stooping down, he went inside the fort, judged it to be of solid construction, and then discovered that they had nailed the door shut. There he was, locked inside, while the pranksters howled with laughter. Having been a mischievous youngster himself, he too found this to be terribly funny, and when he was liberated, he gave the kids a quarter just for the laughs.

Television became popular in the '50s, and although as parents we resisted it for several years, we finally relented after realizing that our boys were spending most of their time sitting in front of the set belonging to their friend Ray, who lived across the street.

We had to purchase a small used TV set in order to get our children back. And from that day on, our living room was occupied by a young, spellbound audience.

The children were completely mesmerized by the thrilling cowboy movies, and on one occasion little Dirk became so involved in the action, he nervously and unconsciously unraveled the looped string rug he sat upon. He created a bald spot, but I sewed the loops back on that same evening--while I was sitting in his vacated spot.

On another occasion, an unfamiliar child came home from school with our son Michael and after spending all afternoon in front of the television refused to go home, telling us that his mother didn't care. But it was growing dark, and we finally insisted.

When we took him to the street where he lived, four blocks away, we were alarmed to see a gathering of neighbors, police, and a hysterical mother, who gave us an angry tongue-lashing. We apologized and made a hasty retreat, and resolved to check out every new face in our front room thereafter.

I'll also never forget the day I returned to the cottage after work and found our two little boys innocently seated on the sofa in front of the set. Since it was chilly, I flipped on the furnace switch, then went about preparing dinner. Within minutes, a strange odor began to fill the air, and then I heard a crackling sound that grew louder as the scent got heavier.

Alarmed, I ran around from appliance to appliance trying to determine the source, with the boys joining me in the pursuit. Then suddenly at our feet, the floor furnace began to percolate puffs of white until a billowy cloud filled the entire space beneath the heater grating. It smelled like popcorn--which is exactly what it was!

The boys had accidentally spilled the kernels earlier that day, but neglected to report the mishap. However, they looked so astounded when the popcorn burst into view, Leo and I decided a harsh punishment would not be necessary.

Besides, it was one of the funniest things that happened during our seven years of raising kiddies at Kingston Corner.

Florence Holub first wrote this remembrance for the July/August 1994 Voice.