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August 18, 2016

Saying Nothin’ but Thanks: Getting Back to Roots in the East Bay

Posted from: San Francisco, California

One Valentine’s Day in the nascent months of World War II, and not long after the opening of his flagship furniture store, young Sol Wiseman’s marriage to Bay Area debutante Elizabeth Wolfe was announced in the society pages of the Berkeley Gazette. Just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, as the rest of the world was going to shit, he celebrated yet another blessing: the birth of his first-born son. His second son, my uncle Richard, followed two years later.

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Sol, a Jewish immigrant to California, never once spoke his own father’s name, and so we know very little about his lineage; but he worshiped his mother, Rebecca, whose picture he carried in a pocket-watch gifted to him by his employees, and though Sol’s marriage to Elizabeth was doomed to collapse under a cascade of mutual resentment and hurled martini glasses, the business did alright.

That first store opened at 2420 Shattuck Ave. in downtown Berkeley amidst a flurry of local fanfare, and he spent the next twenty years convincing Bay Area housewives that their mid-century existential dread was best allayed with a new-model Frigidaire. The radio spots came later, featuring the catchphrase that became the basis of several choice ribbings my dad took in highschool:

“This is your Uncle Sol Wiseman sayin’ nothin’ but thanks.”

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In 1961, the property was taken over by an Italian family who opened a restaurant there – Giovanni – which stood for five decades, becoming (apocryphally, anyway) the longest-standing eatery in the Heights. The place looked closed, but I opened the door one bright Tuesday afternoon to scorched walls and the rumble of construction. There were murals once, that much was clear, and a bit of Florentine whimsy.

“Fire,” said some guy in a tool belt. “They’re renovating, though. I guess it’s under new ownership.”

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The blaze started on the ground floor in the early hours of April 23, 2015, and ate its way up into the attic, opening a hole in the roof. Though the damage was estimated at $100,000, the whole thing ended up sounding more like an opportunity for a much-needed revamp than a wellspring of despair – they’re adding a bocce ball court to the new dining area.

San Francisco and all of its satellites are obviously something much different than the city my grandfather knew, it’s all science museums and craft beer and kale on the water, but there are nuggets of Americana left. As for Sol’s kith and kin? They didn’t go far. My father grew up in Lafayette, where the nucleus of the clan remains settled. When I think of ancestral continuity, I see a bird’s eye view of my family tree, root clusters all gathered around the California coast, and oh, there’s my little branch, trailing off into the Pacific and away, oblivious and over-excited, as usual.

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  • Eric Jensen

    Found this blog a couple days ago while researching Koryo Airlines and have been really enjoying it. I’ll happily send a $2 bill anywhere, if you start it up again.

  • kendra_schaefer

    Heya! It never went away, just haven’t done a ton of travel since last summer – did just get back from another stint to Turkey, though, in the process of writing that up. Thanks for the nudge.

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