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April 28, 2003


Take It from a Native (Part 1)

By Richard Lombardi (richard.lombardi@web.de)

Though I have changed my environment many times in my life, one could say I am a product of my environment. I grew up in the 1950s on 12th and Clement. In this little neighborhood on those foggy days I was welcomed into the world in one of the most beautiful cities of the world, San Francisco.

I really had an interesting little welcome. One of my neighbors, an old lady, couldn’t speak of word of English; but for a nickel I could buy her laundry powder once in a while. I did not care that she was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, whatever that was. The powder was purchased from a small grocery store on the corner, Larry’s. Larry, the owner, was Hawaiian of Japanese decent. All the kids loved Larry, and he loved us. I must admit I am a little bit ashamed that my first theft in life was a five-cent candy bar from Larry. I got tired of waiting for him one time and I just took it. Don’t fully condemn me for stealing from my protectors though; my Catholic upbringing from Star of the Sea took care of that I had a conscience. I never stole from Larry again. And no one asked about his loyalty during the war either.

Since I am confessing, I might as well admit my other crime against my home city. We used to jump on the cable cars and jump off when money was demanded. But those were the days before cable cars were for tourists, when they were modes of transportation. Perhaps that makes my brothers and me guiltier. You be the judge. Anyway, those black guys sure knew how to handle the hills. I mean, one learned, muscle counts.

One of the things that may have formed my “work-ethic” was the Russian printer around the corner. When I was around four or five, he used to let me come in his shop alone, without my older brothers, and watch him work. I forgot his name; but I watched those big machines and all those lead letters being handled by this one man. And this giant of a man would talk with me, show me how he did things. I tell you, he was impressive! I did not know anything about how he got to America from Russia, or when. I wasn’t aware of any tension between him and the appliance shop owner, a Jew, my mother’s boss, only two shops from the Russian printer. I wasn’t aware of communism, anti-Semitism, and hatred. None of that was part of my neighborhood. All I knew was, the Russian printer let me feel welcome in the world and showed me many wonderful things about machines and work. Besides, his cat was the biggest, oldest cat in the world.

One of my favorite events was going to the Mexican restaurant, near the Russian printer, run and owned by a Chinese man. Don’t ask me how a Chinese man learned to cook Mexican food; but he did it right! There was a period when my family went there once a week. We always sat under a big picture of “Custer’s Last Stand.” I wondered why this man was fighting Indians, when it was clear he was going to die. I just accepted it, and anyway, the food was great.

I never thought it was strange that my mother spoke Spanish and could read the menu. Of course, she was my mother; she was supposed to read the menu. I never thought it strange that my grandmother spoke Czech with her friends. She was supposed to because I couldn’t and the Czech friends loved me. Who else would translate for me?

It never crossed my mind at the time that somehow the restaurant’s owner was related to the Chinese family that ran the laundry on 12th and California Street. Didn’t matter. My parents were satisfied with their service and sent things to them as needed. It never crossed my mind, that the Chinese laundry, the Mexican restaurant owner, and the people whom I used to buy illegal firecrackers from in Chinatown were all the same race. Race was never an issue with me.

Life on 12th and Clement was much more interesting than one might imagine. My brothers and I had a friend who lived with his aunt and grandmother. We never understood why nor did we even pass judgment on his aunt who was a prostitute. We didn’t care. She loved our friend and she showed us love as well; not to mention that my friend showed us magazines that Larry didn’t have. Besides, every Saturday my friend had a new father and he let us play in his car. So, who’s to ask, huh?

There was a period when my mother would give us 25 cents and send us to the Saturday matinee at the Coliseum. If I could walk to school alone, I was old enough to go the show. That was my argument. I won. If I remember correctly, the deal was 15 cents for the show, 10 cents for candy. Sometimes I did not buy the candy, but bought a softie from King Cole’s Ice Cream on 11th. I never asked my mother if I had this freedom to choose between candy and ice cream after the show. I just did it. One time I saved my candy money and the next week I was able to buy my favorite butterscotch suckers from See’s candies across the street from the Coliseum.

On one of those Saturday matinees I saw something I would never forget. There wasn’t porno in those days, so my mother never asked what I was going to see. There was nothing to suspect anyway, because she heard all my Zorro stories from the weekly serials, and Saturday matinees were meant for kids anyway. However, I thought it was going to be exciting to see “Mein Kampf” at seven years old. To be truthful, it was exciting, a bit strange as well. These British liberation newsreels of the end of WWII and the liberation of concentration camps showed me piles of bodies, mass murders and executions, and all the horrors one could imagine. Perhaps I was strong, perhaps unfeeling, but the truth is, I just sat there watching and thinking, “Something is really wrong in this world if people do these things to each other.” After all, no one in my neighborhood would do such things, so why did they do these things in those other neighborhoods? This mystery followed me most of my life till I understood it.

That was my happy welcome to the world -- friendly people from all over the world, people of all walks of life, people who loved me and protected me in a lovely neighborhood in a wonderful city. There was something special in San Francisco then, and it took me most of my life and many miles to find out what. I learned to be adventurous, inquisitive, and exploring, all from 12th and Clement.

My Travels

T.he mystery of “Mein Kampf” stuck. Even through the hippy and Vietnam era. After the Manson murders, a migrant mass murderer, the Hearst kidnapping, etc. I eventually told my friends that I was leaving California, going east and coming back from the Pacific in 20 years. The world couldn’t be as crazy as California and San Francisco. At least that is what I thought.

I spent the next 11 years traveling through America for graduate school (physics and astrophysics) and then work. I learned computer programming and was making OK money. But things were getting a bit crazy in the Carter years, so I finally made my jump over the pond. With my M.S. degree in physics, my programming knowledge, and knowing English, I found that I could travel throughout the world. And so I did. Was the world as crazy as California and America? Would I ever understand why people “did those things in those other neighborhoods?”

Perhaps I have not seen the worst of what this world has to offer. However, I have seen much. I experienced 1,200 % inflation in Israel and people still ecstatic that they were making good money. Of course, the bubble would never burst because their country was very intelligent and clever. There was no bubble. When it did burst, 50 % of their economy disappeared in three days and life got crazy.

Killing and terrorism in Israel in the 1980s? You just get inured to it. Unless it happens to you, it is only on TV. What a scientific mind like mine asks is only the frequency. If it is more than once a week, you start to be careful.

Subsidies? Why worry about diseases you see on the streets of Cairo when you can buy a loaf of bread for one penny. It makes you think. Food has a different priority than disease control for a government trying to keep its power and people alive. If you cannot have both, it was clear which one is chosen.

I ended up in Germany. I wanted to experience Europe so that I could understand my homeland, America, San Francisco. I never dreamed that Germany would behave as it does now. But since I am well traveled, nothing surprises me about the world anymore. I do understand America better because I have traveled. There is an old world and a new one. And even though I am not first person to “unravel” the mysteries of the human race, some things are clearer to me than they were on 12th and Clement.

As the Berlin Wall came down, I went over to Eastern Europe, the Czech Republic, Poland, etc. After all, I had a grandmother from Czechoslovakia. I spent a few years working between Germany and the East in the 1990s. Years of communism had interesting effects upon civilization. Many would tell me that they went to work to relax because they spent the night working on the black market. Their company gave them an opportunity to catch up on their sleep and they got their one hot meal from it. Thank God it didn’t expect them to work too! They did that last night! And if they got sick from all this, they could get a doctor to register them as “exhausted” and they could then get some paid time off for their black market activities. Heh, the company pays for it, so who cares!

In the 1980s and 1990s, I learned to compare bread for one penny, disease, high inflation, and guaranteed sick leave with America’s business cycles, takeovers, layoffs, and 2 - 8% unemployment. Sometimes I wonder that the world functions even the little bit that it does.

It has been a little more than 20 years, and I did not get back by way of the Pacific. But since I am here in Germany and you are in my home city, I would like to share a few thoughts from this side of the pond. You may want to listen; after all, I am a product of you, only I am a little farther away than 12th and Clement.

[To be continued.]