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Friday, May 25, 2012

Yes, move to California?


My misinformation lead me to believe San Francisco was warm. It was exciting, beautiful, it was on the sea and had a mild climate year round. I was 19, I’d outgrown my family in Greenwich Village Manhattan and wanted to experience life on my own. It was 1948. Surely I could find a job in San Francisco and actually thought I could swim during my lunch hour. While I looked for work and an apartment, I could stay with relatives in Marin County and bus to the city. The Chronicle’s want ad gave me a job at Macy’s San Francisco in the Display department. Next, I needed something to rent.


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Every time I passed over the wonderful Golden Gate bridge, the bus dipped down into a little village called Sausalito. It was a hill town right on the bay with houseboats tied to the dock, I thought I would love to live in a houseboat, how romantic. For 50 dollars a month I rented a very little floating cabin, it had a thin cot, a table, chair and a minimal kitchen. I sat in the doorway rocking with the tides and felt lonely. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea? At night, I couldn’t sleep for fear some waterfront drunks would barge in and rape me.

Near by was an old Staten Island Ferryboat that had noisy parties all day Sunday. I learned it was owned by a wild Greek-Turkish artist called Varda. It didn’t take long before I was able to meet this wirey man with heavy black eyebrows and a white drooping mustache that made him look fierce. He let me wander around his fantasy fairy land of mirrors and mosaics, scraps of cloth theatrical drapes, driftwood creations, interesting trash; it was a stage set for Turkish delights.

The Big boat was divided into two studios, Varda lived and worked in one side and his friend Onslow-Ford had the other. The Vallejo was famous as the meeting place for artists and writers. Varda had lived in Paris and knew all the artists of the day, you didn’t need an invitation, anyone who heard about The Vallejo dropped in on Sundays. People brought bottles and food. Varda was famous for his Greek cooking and fabulous Turkish dishes. Sausages hung from the rafters, Garlic in ropes,tomatos filled washtubs, it was a veritable Salon where he held forth with stories of Picasso, Anais Nin and the many artists he had known around the world. He gave costume parties and created wild colorful collages. I was too young, too shy to really enter into this wild life and felt too vulnerable in my tiny houseboat where drunks could barge in once they got wind of this young girl who lived alone with only a latch on her door.

My job at Macy’s was fun. I designed displays for merchandise and clothing around the store. I made some new friends. My stepfather had built a little cottage in San Rafael and said I could live there. Sally, a co-worker, joined me. It was safer and very comfortable to have a real home even though it was a longer ride to the city and far from Varda’s fabulous Ferryboat.

For more about the floating homes of Sausalito; Floating Homes Association
Image source: Egan Snow via Flickr

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Ann Sayre Wiseman is no longer a California resident but it seems we did keep a bit of her heart. A therapist, teacher, mother and grandmother, Ms. Wiseman has written more than a dozen books. She is also an artist with work in the Rockefeller and Hirschorn collections, among others.

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