Go camminare (walking) through the city’s traditional Italian quarter and learn history from a guy who used to be babysat by Eugene O’Neill – and, yeah, it’s free
By Joe Eskenazi
“One of the girls … she was a little heavy.”
Alessandro Baccari’s voice trails off and he shrugs his shoulders. He’s a 79-year-old Italian American gentleman of the old school who still wears a navy blue, pinstriped wool suit with a matching red tie and handkerchief within the comfort of his own home, so the next sentence visually pains him.
“Well, she was more than heavy.”
It was 1939 and an adolescent Baccari was doing a soft-shoe number and belting out the tune “Pony Boy” at the World’s Fair on Treasure Island. And, right when he’d reached his cane-twirling crescendo, the “more than heavy” chorus girl lost her balance and fell on the girl next to her who, in turn, toppled onto the next girl, triggering a human domino effect and leaving Baccari standing amidst a sea of writhing, human detritus.
In the awkward silence that followed, a loud voice (from someone’s mom, no doubt) emerged from the audience: “Continue!” So, knee-deep in recumbent chorus girls, he finished his number:
Pony Boy, Pony Boy, won't you be my Tony Boy?
Don't say no. Here we go off across the plains.
Marry me, carry me right away with you.
Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, whoa! My Pony Boy.
Baccari throws back his head and laughs. Stories – he’s got a million of ‘em. But what else could you expect from a San Francisco native son of North Beach who grew up in the Depression, was an altar boy for Joe DiMaggio’s first wedding and used to be fobbed off for the day on family friends like Eugene O’Neill, Benny Bufano and Paul Robeson?
He’ll host a pair of free events this week; a 7:30 p.m. lecture on Jan. 8 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco (3200 California St.) and a 10 a.m. (“sharp!”) walking tour on Jan. 12 starting at the North Beach Museum, 1435 Stockton at Columbus.
There was a time that Baccari could have led a tour of North Beach blindfolded. Not that you shouldn’t ...
take in the sights of one of San Francisco’s most gorgeous neighborhoods – but, if you hear Korean, how could you not know you’re walking in front of Chauncey Woo’s Laundromat? Of course, that means you’re just a hop, skip and a jump from the cable car stop.
Now, the cable car is expensive: 10 cents a pop. But the brakemen and conductor know Baccari, so they let him ride for free. Well, for a few blocks anyway. When you begin to hear Spanish mixing with the ubiquitous Gaelic and Italian pitter-patter, you must be getting close to Guadalupe Church. And when Cantonese begins to seep into the background, you’ve breached Broadway and skirted the boundaries of Chinatown. And if you’re hearing German, then you must have wandered into Otto’s Deli on Vallejo – “And Mrs. Otto made the greatest strudel God ever created on the planet earth.”
As a child, Baccari didn’t feel the anxiety and fear of Depression-era adults. Like children do, he managed to have fun – and have fun in a go-outside-and-play, Petey and Tony’s-comin’-over-for-dinner, Ma-type neighborhood that no longer exists in San Francisco (or, perhaps anywhere).
“You made your own toys. If you couldn’t buy a wagon, you made a wagon. You’d go to the Simmons mattress company and get some ball-bearings and nail them on wooden frames,” recalled the former San Francisco State business school dean, television broadcaster and historian.
“And there were no strangers. Everybody knew everybody. Washington Square Park playground was the living room of the entire community.”
Of course, not all of Baccari’s memories are pleasant. He still recalls the sad-eyed, old Italian fishermen, some of whom had two, three or four sons in the service, receiving notice during World War II that, as aliens from a hostile nation, they were not permitted within 14 blocks of the waterfront at any time.
What did they do? “They cried,” recalled Baccari. “You had to go around with a certificate of residency with a photograph on it. And you had to be in at 8 at night and you couldn’t exit until 6 in the morning. There were 2,000 fishermen who could no longer fish.”
Just as Baccari’s elegant suit and tie is no longer de rigueur among city dwellers, his longstanding habit of knocking on doors of places he used to haunt is also out of fashion. Oftentimes, the gray-haired grandfather is greeted with abject terror.
“People are afraid – but why? How can you live on a street for years and not know your neighbors? We’ve become a community of strangers,” he says.
And that is why he lectures on history (and knocks on folks’ doors unannounced).
“I want people to be aware of this city within their city. And I want people to think, ‘Wow! That’s in my city?’” I want them to go out and search. And I don’t want anybody to walk the streets in fear.”
Postcard of North Beach in the early 19th century borrowed from this spectacular Web site: http://www.alamedainfo.com/postcards_of_san_francisco_1.htm
Photo of Alessandro Baccari | Joe Eskenazi
Alessandro Baccari’s events are sponsored by the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society