Remembrances of Oakland’s Past: Chapter Two

by Virginia Brown Keyder

Last month, the first chapter of my remembrances was limited to the immediate neighborhood surrounding Charlie’s Smoke Shop and the Grand Lake Theatre. Of course, there were times when we neighborhood kids ventured elsewhere. For example, there were the tedious Sunday drives to exotic places like San Leandro or San Lorenzo (always somewhere in the East Bay – we knew San Jose was a miserable place and Marin was just too far afield geographically and economically) to see the neighborhoods where people lived without a hill or even a stair in sight. These new subdivisions were envied by many urban Oaklanders, rather than derided as they have been at times – at least before any Bay Area real estate became gold. They had wide flat streets for bike-riding or roller skating. Some houses even had their own swimming pools, which was unheard of in Oakland. We learned to swim at age 7 in Oakland High School’s summer program, where we also lolled away the summer days for years to come, especially after Lake Temescal acquired the label “polio pond.” Much later, I learned that the origin of the word temescal’ is “sweat lodge”’ via Spanish from the original Nahuatl word temazcalli.

Public transport played a huge role in our lives, particularly the Key System, a sprawling privately-owned mass transit system that operated busses, trains, and ferries between 1903 and 1960. It took us to school (“school busses” apparently existed elsewhere – we saw them in children’s books – but one could not be sure) and it took us to San Francisco. For my older brothers and their friends, the trains that operated on the lower level of the Bay Bridge were a source of derring-do. They would hop on the outside of the last car and hang on for dear life as the train inched its way across the bridge to the Transbay Terminal near Market Street, a hub that was converted to a bus station in 1959. (I never recognized the humor in the name “Terminal Drugs” across the street until it was pointed out to me by a newcomer [now husband] in 1969.)

My own first memory of the Key System was taking the ferry (which ceased to operate commercially in 1939, though one ferry was kept in service as a tourist attraction) to see a film with my grandmother’s childhood friend, May. Strangely, almost all of my grandmother’s friends never married, whether because WWI decimated the potential pool of mates or because they were expected to stay home and care for elderly parents or unmarried brothers. In any case, it was our good luck; they doted on us as the grandchildren they never had and took us on local trips we would never otherwise have made. People dressed up to go to “The City” in those days (my mother rued the day when women stopped wearing hats and gloves to make the trip), so we wore Sunday dress and Sunday shoes and, yes, white gloves.

The Key System became AC transit in 1960, but the switch was hardly noticed. The routes remained the same, sans trains and ferries, of course. The muted yellow/ochre trademark of the system vanished forever.

Soon thereafter, the idea of BART was born.

VBK is a third-generation Oaklander who attended Lakeview School, Westlake Jr. High, Oakland H.S, Merritt College, and UC Berkeley, before leaving for Montreal to do graduate work in Middle Eastern History, then law. After graduation from McGill Law, she worked in NYC and joined the NY Bar. She married her college sweetheart and moved to Istanbul and taught various law courses in Istanbul and State University of NY, Binghamton. Virginia regularly commutes between Istanbul and NYC where her two sons reside.



5 responses to “Remembrances of Oakland’s Past: Chapter Two”

  1. If you attended Westlake you might have encountered my next-door neighbor, Minnie F. Turner who taught there until her retirement.

  2. I love these remembrances so much. Please consider writing a book – I’ll be first in line to buy.

  3. Ken Katz Avatar

    We’re so very glad you found us. Your memories of growing up in Oakland are a wonderful addition to our monthly news. Looking forward to more of the same over the coming months.

  4. John Hutchinson Avatar
    John Hutchinson

    What a charming intelligent recollection. More memories, please!

    1. virginia Margaret brown Avatar
      virginia Margaret brown

      Thank you!