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The Kid Stays in the Picture: Seeing the Blur of a Bygone Era 

Wednesday, May 21 2014

With a growl more reminiscent of a motorboat than any terrestrial vehicle, the Dodge Charger eased off Army Street onto York and made toward Bernal Heights. It was following a '68 Mustang.

That turn onto York Street from what is now Cesar Chavez initiated a one-of-a-kind cinematic sequence that will likely remain San Francisco's most lasting screen legacy: the 9-minute, 42-second adrenaline-saturated, dialogue-free chase scene in the 1968 Steve McQueen vehicle Bullitt. In a pre-CGI age, the image of two oversize American cars careening at maniacal speeds through our quaint and hilly city was, in large part, achieved by unleashing two oversize American cars on a bizarre, high-speed, noncontiguous route through our quaint and hilly city.

In an era when this city's residents knew the way from here to there without the aid of the computers in their pockets — or the Uber driver with a computer in his pocket — movie audiences roared with laughter as the Charger and the Mustang teleported hither and yon across the map. The sparring muscle cars blast through Bernal, then Potrero, then Russian Hill, then Potrero, then Russian Hill again. They hit 110 mph on Marina Boulevard — something the city probably wouldn't deign permissible nowadays — before altering time and space by roaring into Daly City and, finally, reaching a fiery conclusion in Brisbane.

This answers the longstanding question: "Has anything ever happened in Brisbane?"

Along the way, the Charger sheds six hubcaps and the same green Volkswagen is run off several roads at several points throughout the city. But it all starts with that turn off of Cesar Chavez and a slow cruise up York. And — blink and you'll miss it — a pair of kids runs across the street where York meets Peralta.

Last week, your humble narrator's cellphone rang. "This is Angel Sanchez Jr." said the voice at the other end.

He was one of those kids.

Your humble narrator enjoys looking through people's windows. Not in a lascivious way — though, perhaps, a judge could be persuaded that this column constitutes community service.

Rather, there is something poignant about observing someone though the window of a bus or car and knowing that, barring a miracle, you will never see this person again. Your lives managed to intersect, just barely, at this fleeting juncture.

A movie like Bullitt offers the chance to look through the window and see an entire city we will never see again.

Sanchez, the boy who ran across the street in front of the movie villains' Dodge Charger, will be 54 next week. His cameo in city lore was not scripted. Loren Janes, the stuntman who, in reality, drove like Steve McQueen, recently recalled how tightly choreographed the seemingly chaotic scenes were. The repetitious Volkswagen was, in fact, driven by a stuntman (or stuntmen). So was every car on the street, even the cable cars on Filbert. Film crews kept an eye out for vehicles backing out of garages and intervened to prevent pedestrians from becoming hood ornaments. But no one lifted a finger to stop those Bernal Heights kids from running across the street every time the director shouted "action."

"He'd yell 'Cut! Cut!' But, finally, to hell with it. He left it in there," recalls Sanchez. "We must have run across the street three, four times. We didn't know any better."

Sanchez didn't even realize he was in a movie until many years later. And, by that time, both he — and the neighborhood — had changed.

Sometime in the early 1980s, Sanchez was invited back to Rolph Park to talk to kids about the same age he was when he ambled into movie history. The message: You, too, can make it happen. You, too, can attain your dreams.

By that point, he was midway through a six-year pro baseball odyssey. A torn rotator cuff in his first year in the Montreal Expos' farm system changed the trajectory of his career — and life. Instead of advancing up the ladder to the The Bigs alongside friends and contemporaries like Mariano Duncan, Andres Galarraga, Jose Rijo, or Jose Cruz, he finished up in the backwoods of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

It's hard to overstate how far sports medicine has come since then. Trainers actually told Sanchez he had "a tired arm." A generation earlier, when McQueen was tearing through San Francisco, Sanchez's teeth might have been pulled. This, the theory went, would prevent poison from seeping into his shoulder.

The neighborhood he left was populated with eccentric, working-class sorts as out of place in today's city as the notion of treating climactic shoulder injuries via dentistry. There was Big Mike and Little George and George and Big Al and Toots. George and Toots rigged up an elaborate pulley system of cinder blocks on ropes; one would swing a block at the other's home, and the resultant apocalyptic thud summoned either man to the holes they had torn in the sides of their homes to expedite cursing at one another.

George kept a supply of toothpick American flags on him at all times. During the Vietnam years, he'd stick one in every pile of dogshit he saw. In his basement, he made sandals.

They were, we are assured, beautiful sandals.

There is a sandal-wearing contingent in Bernal these days, but nobody's making them in the basement. Nobody's enforcing dogshit patriotism, either. The Bernal neighborhood was this year named the nation's hottest by the real estate brokerage site Redfin. Tearing a hole in the side of your home to shout at the guy who keeps chucking cinder blocks your way would now be a highly expensive proposition.

After Sanchez washed out of baseball, he returned to San Francisco and joined the electricians' union. Achieving a blue-collar, middle-class family life was something you could do in San Francisco then.

The city will permit cars to race up and down Marina at 110 mph before this once again becomes a reality. Sanchez lives in the East Bay now with his wife and twin daughters. But, every so often, they ask him to take them for a drive to "The Hill," the place where "daddy was in the movie."

Sanchez laughs. Bernal Heights was a sublime place to grow up. "We always had a summer and the fog would stop on Coit Tower before it hit us. If I had a chance, I'd buy a house there in a hot minute. I'd live there the rest of my life."

But so would everyone else. And, when Sanchez and his daughters cruise up the hill, it's easy to see why. This place is ethereally gorgeous. But, like a lake overcome by acid rain, its pristine appearance is coupled with a lifelessness of sorts.

Back in 1968, an 8-year-old Sanchez gained immortality by running in front of a car. But, all these years later, when Sanchez himself drives up the very same street — there are no kids to be seen.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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