Portsmouth Square Stories: Tales of A San Francisco Childhood
A bricolage of childhood stories circa 1950 San Francisco. The nabe center is Portsmouth Square: beatniks, writers, Irish hookers, Negro evangelicals, WW II vets, cops, and Chinese families gather to sun and protect the sacredness of childhood as urban Tom Sawyers race cable cars uphill, catch crabs on the bayside, pick raspberries at Coit Tower, feed leaping sea lions, and such like mischief. More
...The way kids get "it"…
By William Poy Lee, the author of the acclaimed memoir "The Eighth Promise," Portsmouth Square Stories is a bricolage of childhood remembrances circa the late 1950s: of beatnik families, Barbary Coast strippers, kids catching baby crabs barehanded and shiners with drop-lines at Fishermen's Wharf, picking summer raspberries on Telegraph Hill, feeding sea lions at Playland by the Beach; descriptions of the Italian American community, policemen, bailbondsmen, & lawyers; of catching butterflies, bumble bees, potato bugs, and pincer bugs in Portsmouth Square; of Filipino & Chinese shop owners, friendly black and white drunkards, and living within the inexplicable Chinatown community.
So too, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each of these vignettes fall into place for the reader who may re-experience how, as a child, we assembled the world. In the end, the author is hopeful that “…it will all come together…” as clearly and as exactly as in a more typically crafted narrative.
The vignettes are told from the perspective of and in the voice of a ten-year old child named Billy and presented in a non-linear narrative, the way kids experience and remember life. And in its child-like way, while everything described here actually happened, it’s not always clear even to the author the exact year of a summer of a particular memory, or whether a few vignettes might actually be a fusion of similar or related events over several seasons.
But that is just so like the way a child sees the world before she or he “…figures it out…” into a first paradigm. Before a child starts to chart things by day, month, and year and hem it in further in by school year and teacher or the new TV series or in my case, which Chinese animal of that particular lunar new year.
But most precious, we ran free throughout San Francisco because our community of adults silently watched over us, protected us, entertained us, and even gave us makeshift chores to earn money. This unspoken social contract by this motley gathering of marginalized and yet kind souls guaranteed to us the innocence of our childhood and cast a warm, unquestioning spell onto our play and our days in the square and beyond into all of San Francisco.