In the late 1940s and the 1950s, when I was growing up, the major city in the East Bay was Oakland, with a population of about 250,000. Along the Bay it had big piers, both military and civilian, where ships came in from the Pacific and unloaded their cargoes, and acres and acres of warehouses. A bit inland from the harbor was a belt of small and medium sized factories that made things like machine parts, automobile frames, paint, fire escapes, and tools. There was a central commercial area, the classic downtown, where you found the banks and professional office buildings, the big department stores, several hotels, movie theaters, specialty shops, restaurants of every price range, and the building with the big, Italianate tower that housed the major newspaper, the Oakland Tribune. Next to the downtown, a bit further inland, was Lake Merritt, which had been created around 1900 to beautify the city by damming of several creeks. The Lake was bordered by parks, fancy apartments, and large clubhouses, including the Scottish Rite Temple where my mother and father met each other at a dance in 1939. Most of the rest of Oakland consisted of residential areas. The northwest side of the city was the place where most of the black people lived. They had come to Oakland from the South to find jobs, especially in the 1940s, when war expanded the California economy. On the southeast and northeast sides of the city were the homes of the white population. The dwellings got bigger and fancier as you went from the flatlands up into the hills.
My parents didn’t locate in Oakland. You could get more for your rent money elsewhere. But Oakland was the easiest place to get to when my mother and father wanted the things that big cities provide.
I recall the rides to Oakland by car or bus from our home in Alameda, beginning when I was around age 6. You had to go underground because Alameda was an island in the Bay, separated from Oakland by an estuary. A two-lane road went under the water through “the tube,” as everyone called it. As you entered the tunnel on the Alameda side, there were some empty plots of land and things were pretty quiet. Then for about ten minutes you were in the tunnel, with its odd yellow lighting, the muffled echoes of car engines and an occasional horn, the shiny reflection off of the white tile walls and roof of the tube, the raised walkway along one side, separated from the roadway by pipe railings, where an occasional, lonely pedestrian trudged along. Then finally you came out at the other end and you were in the street traffic and tall buildings of Oakland – your reward for enduring the brief discomfort and mild anxiety of being underground.
My father’s mother, Vera, and her husband, Jerry, my step-grandfather, lived in Oakland where they operated an old hotel. After the death of her first husband, from cancer, Vera met and married Jerry. He was born in Alabama then moved with his family to the ranch where he was raised in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Reno. His father died when Jerry was around twelve years old. His mother could not maintain their property and it was sold. Jerry left school and took a full time job as a ranch hand and itinerant handyman to keep his mother and young sister from becoming destitute. Later, in his twenties, after his mother was more secure, Jerry migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area to seek better paying work in the shipyards. He became a skilled mechanic and master machinist. He met various women but never chose to marry — perhaps because he was constantly on the move in the Bay Area to find work, perhaps because he didn’t want the risks he had discovered as a child that come with commitment.
Jerry worked long hours and saved his money. In the late 1920s, before the stock market crash of 1929, he bought a part interest in a hotel in Oakland and helped to run it for several years. The clientele was middle class and the hotel observed the usual custom, with such guests, of asking for full payment only at the end of a stay. By the 1930s, with the beginning of the Depression, an ever-larger number of guests were running out on their debts. To cope, Jerry and his partners found a buyer for the hotel and then he used his proceeds to buy property that he owned outright. This was a hotel for workingmen, located in Oakland near the foot of Broadway, where Jack London Square bordered on the estuary. Big black steam locomotives from the Southern Pacific Railway chugged through that part of town. There were numerous warehouses and small factories in the area. Most of the people living there were skilled and semi-skilled laborers. A lot of the work was cyclical and most of the workers were single men. All needed a place to stay. They were paid from week to week and were not in a position to buy or rent. Around 1880, as Oakland grew, various hotels were built to serve this transient class. Some were flophouses. Others, mostly around San Pablo Avenue and nearer to the shore of the Bay, were for workers who wanted to be in the racier areas of Oakland where you could find the tougher saloons, the burlesque shows, and some of the whorehouses. The workingmen’s hotels on and around Broadway, which was nearer to the central business district, were for more upstanding workers. You could find rowdy people here, too, but not as often.
Shortly after Vera and Jerry were married, she sold her house in Alameda and moved to Jerry’s hotel. It was a large, three-story structure that could accommodate about fifty guests. A few had private rooms. Some shared rooms with one or two other people. Most of the guests slept on metal cots, separated only by moveable wooden partitions, in one of the large, high-ceilinged rooms of the hotel. The standard rate for a bed, clean towel, and small bar of soap was seventy-five cents a night. This fee included the right to use the “lobby,” which was simply the sum total of all the hallways, where there were soft chairs, a few sofas, floor lamps, and a couple of radios. The hallways and all the rooms, including the showers and restrooms, were extremely clean, and every guest’s bed linen was changed every day.
The hotel’s front entrance, on Broadway, was in the middle of the block. Everywhere there were small business establishments — things like a shoe repair shop, a Chinese restaurant, a produce store, a pharmacy, a coffee shop, a jeweler, a pawnshop, and a store that sold heavy duty work clothes. Several of the shops occupied the space that otherwise would have been the first floor of the hotel. What you saw of the hotel from the sidewalk was simply two high, swinging, wooden doors. You pushed them, went through, and walked up a wide, steep flight of stairs. On the strut of each step, as was still common in older parts of cities in those days, there were hand-painted advertisements telling you which nickel cigar was the one to buy, which corn plaster would best relieve your feet, which low priced watch was the one for you.
To check into the hotel, you climbed these stairs and turned to your left at the landing, which was on the first above-street level. Here there was a large set of Dutch doors — the kind you could keep closed on the bottom half while the top half remained open. Jutting out horizontally from the top of the closed part of the door was a writing surface about three feet across and two feet outward. On the surface there was a green blotter in a leather frame. Next to it was a metal-tipped pen in a glass inkwell. On top of the blotter there was a leather bound registry book. To one side was a stainless steel bell you could slap with your palm to ring for service. On the wall next to the doorway, there was a big bulletin board where the hotel rates and rules were posted.
Vera and Jerry lived on the other side of the Dutch doors. Their residence was a single, very large room with a high ceiling. The section of the room nearest to the doorway contained their sink and cupboards, the refrigerator, a breakfast table covered with oilcloth, and an old stove on high legs. As you moved out of the kitchen area, the residence fanned out. To your right you saw a Chesterfield and an easy chair. To the left you saw a brown, rather ornate dining room table and chairs, then a sewing machine with a folding card table next to it, then Vera and Jerry’s large double bed. As you moved toward the far end of the residence, you faced a big bay window. Looking down, you could see the life of the street one level below on Broadway. Just outside the window, perpendicular to the wall, fastened to it by steel bars and bolts, there was a large sign with foot high letters:
The letters were painted white against a black background. There was glass tubing over each letter. In the day it was transparent and looked like spermaceti. At night, the neon in the tubes gave off an orange-red glow, and the sign blinked on and off as if it was conversing, firefly-like, with the hundreds of other lights maintaining their positions in the inky urban night.
Sometimes my sister and I stayed with Vera and Jerry for a day or two while my parents went off to do other things. On those nights my sister and I slept in the bed that was located near the big bay window. Through the lace curtains, the neon hotel sign blinked on and off. The light did not prevent us from sleeping, but it did cause me to have mixed feelings. I felt very safe falling asleep in the home of my grandparents, but the surroundings were very different from the conditions I was used to at home.
During the day, Jerry often took me with him as he went about his routines. There might be a visit to the local bank or the barbershop. Frequently we dropped in to local hardware stores and pawnshops — always to buy tools. Jerry had always been around tools and machines — as a ranch hand, as a welder and riveter in Bay Area shipyards during the First World War, as an auto mechanic, as a master machinist. Tools were his way of connecting with the world.
My sister and I were not allowed to leave the hotel unaccompanied. The streets in the Broadway area were essentially safe, my grandparents explained, but too complicated for children of our age to understand everything that was going on. This meant that my sister and I spent many hours at home with Vera, reading or playing games or listening to the radio while she tended to office matters. It soon became apparent to me, even at my age, that Vera was a skilled businesswoman. She kept the books, negotiated purchases over the phone, and received the guests who presented themselves for registration. She never doubted her ability to be accurate with figures. She did not get frustrated when tasks and questions came in bunches. Most of all, I noticed, she seemed completely un-intimidated by the parade of large, deep-voiced workmen who appeared at the door. She was usually by herself when the men appeared, except for my sister and me. Any one of the men could have overpowered her, and many looked like they had been in fights sometime in their pasts. But Vera had a manner about her that brought out upstanding behavior. “Hello,” she said to each one. The tone in her voice was one part dance hall hostess, two parts surrogate mother, two parts manager, two parts cashier, one part church lady, and one part alert female prepared if necessary to yell out into the hallway for help. Watching my grandmother at such moments, I learned many things about big city life.