I was born in downtown Fresno.
Or close enough you could hear me wailing from the old Burnett Sanitarium on Divisadero, clear to the Wilson Theatre, a few blocks away from Fulton.
One of my earliest childhood memories has me drawing pictures on a dirt sidewalk in front of a white board house on Iowa Street, waiting for my mother to get off the bus at the corner of First and Tulare streets. Oh, the sight of her in a Wilson’s Confectionary waitress uniform, her slender fingers shielding the sun under that red hair everyone raved about – anybody could tell she had just come from downtown, a place where all the action was.
No Great Depression aftershock for little me. My dad worked almost every day and handed me four bits on Fridays for comic books. My sister, Regina, already in junior high, combed my hair, shined my shoes, and helped my mom on those special occasions when we’d all go downtown.
And believe me, downtown was really something back then.
It was where after a film you hit the street half blind from the dark, thinking you were Billy Halop, the actor who played Tommy, the leader of the Dead End Kids. It was a Coney Island hot dog with Cincinnati chili served on a bun by a Greek man who never smiled but kept his price at a dime. It was the Carnegie Public Library on Broadway, where you were allowed to sit on the mezzanine’s glass block flooring, a pile of fiction in your lap, and a thousand dreams in your head. Then, about the time you first moved north, downtown was your sister, looking regal in the glass ticket booth outside Warnors Theatre, too honest to let her brother in free. And, still later, it was your first high school job as an elevator boy in the Brix Building. “This job must have its ups and downs,” someone would tell you every hour, and you were so young you’d smile each time you heard it.
Eventually the tide of years would spin us away from the center of our city. Regardless of how loyal we felt toward the hub of our childhood world, we scattered from all those big office buildings where our parents paid their utility bills and took us for our first visit to the dentist. Anyone remember? It was almost worth having your teeth drilled just to walk into one of those cool foyers, where pretty hostesses slammed dice boxes on green felt to determine if men in suits and fedoras paid double or nothing for their newspapers and cigars.
We left town. We came back. We left again, each time to settle farther out among the suburban sprawl. Wars took us away. Our jobs took us away. Plain everyday life took us away. Walks to downtown became bus rides, then long car trips from homes north of Shaw, then north of Herndon, now north of the county line.
Joni Mitchell tells us in a song that sidewalks are history books. Maybe the devil has been leaving messages on our walkways while we weren’t looking, and now it’s too late to read our future on all that forsaken concrete.
Walking Fulton Street with my fellow artist, Bill Bruce, I spied a man painting a mural on the side of a building on the mall that faced the corner of Van Ness and Tuolumne.
“Is that Francisco Vargas?” I asked Bill, remembering Francisco at a younger age, full of energy and talent, wanting to advance his participation in the field of sign writing and graphic art.
“Yeah,” Bill said. “That’s the mural I told you about.” Bill’s studio is downtown, and he’s hip to a lot of activity I’ve not caught up to. “He’s painting a huge postage stamp, commemorating our Cultural Arts District.”
“Damn,” I said, shading my eyes to better view Francisco, all alone up there doing his thing on that immense stage. “Maybe there’s hope for us after all.”