The Lighter Side of Living on Bernal Heights Boulevard
By Jerry Schimmel, excerpted from Bernal Hill Memoir (2007)
In the early 1980s, before the park gates were installed, some kids were partying one night on the boulevard at the west end of the hill. As the story goes, one of them heaved an empty beer bottle down the incline toward Elsie Street just for the hell of it. At the time Supervisor Bill Maher's house was backed against the slope and happened to be in the right spot. The bottle went smack through his kitchen window while he and his wife were sleeping. The two gates across the boulevard you now see were approved faster than anything I've seen go through the Board of Supervisors.
Another evening around 1976 the woman living upstairs at 40 Prentiss Street, Christine Axelrod, came down and timidly knocked on my door. She could hear strange sounds coming from the boulevard, she said, and was frightened. It was raining and windy as hell, literally pouring. So I went out and found a neighbor kid, Harry Funk (49 Nevada Street), wrapped around a guardrail post, soaking wet, rolling in the mud and howling like a dog, apparently on a bad drug trip. So I picked him up and we stumbled down the slope to his house where his father put him to bed. Harry was heavy into rock music in those days. After he was in bed, I watched as his father turned on a country and Western station.
Another time in the 1980s I pulled into my driveway one summer night. When I turned off the engine I could hear a man and woman shouting in the distance. Feeling a little concerned I walked back to the roadway and saw a woman sitting up on the hill in the dry grass yelling down at a man standing in the middle of the road. Over her shouts he kept pleading, "Darling, please come down. We’ve got to get home." Her reply was something like, "You bastard, stay the hell away from me," and more words to that effect. I didn’t worry about them because she was in total control of the situation.
Then there was the fellow in a convertible sportscar with the top down who kept ramming the guardrail post at the entrance to my driveway. He would slam into the post, back up, shift back into low, and bash it again. He repeated this for about twenty minutes, then abandoned the vehicle with its front end wrapped around the post. The last I saw he was walking east along the boulevard toward Carver Street with an angry expression on his face. Later I talked to the cop assigned to the case. It seems the guy's car was about to be repossessed and thought if he couldn't have it then no one should. The car was towed to wherever they take wrecks. The city came and fixed the post.
In the past couple of years something like it happened again. I and Billy Ray, the guy who now sometimes stays upstairs, were out of the house for the whole day. When I returned in the early evening, the same guardrail post was cleanly sheared off at ground level and the rail itself bent back by a third. Those posts are one foot by one foot solid wood and the railings made of half-inch steel. The ground around the post was torn up like there had been a demolition derby though there were no car parts lying around. No one has come out to repair the post and the bent railing is still there.
A couple of years ago I was on one of my afternoon constitutionals, limping west along the boulevard with my bad left ankle, when I came up to Gates Street, or to where it should have intersected. It was an achievement for me to have got that far the way my foot felt. Resting briefly, my attention was taken by an attractive young woman downslope on the pavement screaming profanities at one of the first houses on the east side of the street. This she alternated with pounding with her fists on a car parked at the curb. A minute later the garage door opened and a second car backed out, driven by a fellow slightly older. His window came down and the two of them had words I couldn't make out but which can be easily imagined.
He was apparently in a hurry and drove off in the middle of the woman's scorching tirade. Tired of shouting she picked up a rock and began seriously denting and scratching the first car, apparently a possession of the now absent man. But the rock was not enough.I stood there the whole time with my mouth open as the woman climbed the slope, picked up a length of scrap two-by-four, and started back down to continue the task at hand. I intervened momentarily suggesting she not do so, that it might get her in trouble, future consequences, etc. She listened briefly, though more to see if I would go running for a phone than to consider my avuncular pleading. When I was done she trotted down to the car where her rage and glee resumed unhindered. Since I was in no condition to go running for a phone I abandoned the scene to its protagonist struggling along with my slow limp.
A few yards away I turned and saw she had already smashed the windshield and driver’s side windows and was starting on the others. Whatever else I may have thought about her, I had to admit she was thorough.
I used to worry about cars parked on the boulevard near my house. Too often they were sitting there with the express purpose of noting the comings and goings of home owners in preparation for a burglary. Whenever I saw car windows steamed up from the inside I stopped being concerned. The occupants weren't going anywhere I had to be worried about.
About eight years ago my distant neighbor Beverly Anderson buttonholed me on the boulevard. There was this crazy guy, she said, climbing around the hill and painting rocks white for reasons known only to himself. "We have to to stop him," she complained. And I didn’t hear any more from her after that, at least not about painted rocks. For a time the fellow lived in a makeshift shelter cobbled together among the old foundations above Prentiss Street and was never a problem except for his obsession. The white-daubed outcropping next to the microwave tower is his proudest legacy to the neighborhood.
In 1985 the Department of Public Works was transferring the unimproved slopes below the boulevard to the Recreation and Park Department. When their attention turned to a short piece of Bocana Street off Stoneman, the engineers found a house constructed in 1896 sitting in the middle of the right-of-way. It wasn’t exactly a street, though, just lines on paper that no one had ever paved. However, the city had to go through a lot of rigmarole to transfer bits and pieces of land back and forth through different offices to get it all straight. The house still stands, though when I looked at it the other day it had been considerably remodeled.
One afternoon I heard a woman's voice shrieking unintelligibly up on the boulevard. It sounded like she was in pain and continued unabated for some minutes. I went out and saw my neighbor Andee Wright heading up the path. We met at the top of the trail and looked around to see a woman yelling at a dog happily nosing around in the roadside grass and totally ignoring her. This happens a lot. Some owners come unglued at their pets, especially when the beasts have a chance to get away from a dreary apartment routine and into a pile of yummy garbage.
Every now and then someone asks about the "Phantom Post Office of Bernal Heights." When we moved to Prentiss Street, our over-the-back-fence neighbors at 87 Banks Street were Ann Kelley and her poet husband Aidan. Ann was an artist who also worked part-time at the Napoleon Street postal annex. One day the post office was dumping old equipment into a nearby lot, and she spotted a bank of P.O. boxes on the heap. In a moment of artistic inspiration, she thought the boxes would make a neat outside wall for her house. As visitors and passersby saw those boxes year in, year out, they assumed the house had been a real post office. If they inquired Ann would sometimes tell them. Often she did not.
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