Selective Memories

We’ve just returned from a trip from Budapest to Vienna, through the Wachau Valley and eventually to Nuremberg. I saw several lovely towns and beautiful cities, magnificent palaces and churches, had great food and heard good music.

But you know what sticks in my mind?

On a long evening bus ride from Budapest towards Austria, the dullest part of the trip as far my traveling companions were concerned, I saw a little village rising up out of the mist. It was a factory town, or a mill town, I have no idea what it was called, but it was wreathed in the foggy, misty weather, and in the steam, or maybe smoke, coming from the industrial buildings along the river. I could see the church, and the houses, looming on the hills above the riverbanks through the opaque steamy air, as if the town was materializing before my eyes in just that very second.

And not too long after that, we passed an oil refinery. A HUGE oil refinery, possibly bigger than my little village, every building and structure alight from the ground all the way to the top, all interconnected. It reminded me of Ridley Scott’s vision of future Los Angeles, perpetually midnight, in Bladerunner. Even after seeing Vienna, and Melk, and Nuremberg, I still remember that anonymous town, that oil refinery.

Funny how the mind works.

When I was little, my family lived across the Bay from San Francisco. I remember a lot of trips back and forth to SFO, to pick up my grandmother, or my aunts and uncles and cousins, who all emigrated here to the States about that time. And of course, whenever friends or family came to visit California, we always had to drive them out to the City, to see Chinatown and Golden Gate Park, or to drive down crooked Lombard Street.

So what was the symbol of San Francisco to my five or ten year old self? The Bay Bridge? The Golden Gate? The Trans-America Building, Coit Tower? Nope.

It was the Union 76 clock tower.


The clock tower stood just where I-80 comes off the Bay Bridge and turns into an elevated highway through San Francisco, before merging into Highway 101. The highway was at a level about halfway up the tower, which had three faces, each one with a digital clock and the Union 76 logo; one of the faces faced the highway. It seemed so close that I always felt that if I opened the window, I could reach out and touch the clock, as we passed. Seeing the clock tower was a significant point in that journey; it meant that we were officially in San Francisco.

Photo:Richard Clark

According to this site, the original (rectangular) tower was built in 1940. The triangular tower replaced it in 1954. The tower had the Union 76 logo from 1940 until about the time I moved back to San Francisco, in 1996, when Bank of America bought the building and replaced the signage with their own. It was never the same. The clock tower was demolished in 2005 to make way for the Rincon Hill tower, the tallest residential-only building west of Chicago.

Today, I cross the Bay Bridge from the East Bay back to the City at least once or twice, every week. Rincon Tower is way, way taller than the Union 76 clock, with a much larger footprint. It must be even closer to the highway. But it means nothing. Maybe it’s because I’m older, maybe it’s because I live here now and the City has lost much of the mystique it had for me as a child. Sometimes, when I drive past, I feel a voyeuristic urge to peek in the windows of the people who live there, but most of the time, I hardly notice it.

As I write this now, I’m trying to think what landmark, today, mentally puts me officially in San Francisco; I think it’s the Howard Street offramp (which is pretty much right where Rincon is). How boring.

But at least the Coke sign is still there.

7 thoughts on “Selective Memories

  1. Remember the smell of roasting coffee as you came across the bridge? That was my sign that I was in S.F.

    The smell came from the Hills Bros roastery, which since 1990 has been an office building with a great view of the bay, where I’m sitting as I type this.


  2. Ah, yes. I do remember the smell of the coffee. And the Hills Bros. man on the sign.

    I knew that the Hills Bros. building had been converted (they kept the sign, right?); I didn’t realize your office was there now. How cool is that?

  3. I lived in the bay area throughout the 80’s. I never really thought about it so carefully, but realized that the icon of the tower was there without much thought about it. In the late 2000’s when I returned to the bay area, the tower was ominously missing. Tonight, I was watching the 1954 Frank Sinatra movie, Pal Joey, and noticed it in the background of one shot. I was flooded with memories. Now, I can barely believe that it is not still there.

    1. It’s funny to remember what’s not there, isn’t it? The Union 76 Clock, Carol Doda, the gigantic golf shooting range where the Mission Bay Biotech office park is now…

  4. I guess I’ve been gone from the Bay area, and particularly from SF, for too long. I noticed that Tower disappeared back when it did, but never wondered WHY. When I was a kid, my parents used to drive up the 101 to get to the Bay Bridge and then over to Oakland where one set of Grandparents lived. I actually had a model of the 76 Tower in my room. That Grandfather was an SP lifer, Oakland Yardmaster. But the SF skyline up has changed drastically over the years. That 101 section into town (elevated) seemed like it was never completed, always under construction. The Bergie and Hamms signs are gone. Last time I was through there, about ten years ago, noticed that about the only thing that had not changed were the actual bridges themselves. And I’m old enough to remember the bottom deck of the OLD Bay Bridge as having been for Trucks only and having Railroad Tracks on it and no, it was NOT that long ago, LOL. i mean, how old is the Trans-Am pyramid now? Remember the squabbles and cries of cultural indignation about THAT?.

    1. Alas, the Bay Bridge has changed now (a mere 24 years after the ’89 earthquake):

      Actually, it’s very pretty, and it’s no longer a double-decker on the east side of Treasure Island. I think I knew that the old bottom deck was for truck and rail (was it the Key Route that ran over it, or am I making that up?), though I don’t remember it personally.

      TransAm pyramid is still there. I saw a clip from the Towering Inferno not too long ago; Paul Newman’s beautiful building was placed where the TransAm is now. Was the pyramid there then? (I was alive, but too young to remember.)

      They rebuilt the International Hotel (residence hotel, razed in the ’70s), on the border of Chinatown and the Financial district, too.

      Anyway – thanks for stopping by!

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