Chester B Simpson
Barkers in North Beach
Updated: May 21, 2022
The story of how I got my first job after arriving in San Francisco in 1975 as a young photographer from Roanoke, Virginia.
After hitchhiking to San Francisco with my friend Sherry from NYC, we found a studio apartment to rent at 1000 Union Street for $169 a month. It was an ideal location, only four blocks from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where I would be starting classes soon.
The SFAI is one of the oldest art schools in the United States founded in 1871. It was the first "fine art" photography program in the country and it was founded by Ansel Adams, who I admired greatly.
Our apartment had access to the roof, which had a great view of San Francisco and the bay. The only problem was that we lived on a big hill with a long walk down to the grocery store and North Beach where the best bars and clubs were located. We got our exercise walking those hills, but we were always so happy to be there and watch the fog roll in.
We didn’t have any furniture. We had our sleeping bags on the floor and the radio I had carried in my pack across America was our entertainment.
Three weeks before my classes started, I would wander around San Francisco taking pictures on my own. One day, I arrived home and met this guy Joey Allietta, who had met Sherry at a local bar. His uncle here in San Francisco had kicked him out of his apartment and he needed a place to stay. We offered him a spot on the floor for his sleeping bag.
We all became good friends. None of us had a job, but we had a few hundred dollars between us, so we were fine for a few months. We knew eventually we’d all find jobs.
One evening we decided to go to North Beach and enjoy Happy Hour with some drinks in our new city. While hanging out at the bar, we met a gentleman who walked into the bar and stood next to us. He seemed pretty friendly, smiled, and told a few jokes here and there. We told him we were celebrating our first real weekend out in San Francisco. He offered to buy us a round of beers and each a shot of whiskey. We accepted and told him how we had arrived in San Francisco and what our plans were. We decided to buy him a drink and continue chatting.
He asked if we had opened up a bank account yet, saying he worked at the local Bank of America and presented his business card. He suggested that we come to see him on Monday to open a bank account with him. Being new to a big city while also getting a bit drunk, we stated naively told him all of our money was kept in our apartment. Reflecting on it later, we realized how dumb it was telling him that.
He asked if we smoke weed to which we all smiled while exclaiming, “Yes!”
He suggested we walk outside in the alley to smoke a joint with him. After smoking we came back inside, bought another round of shots, and then decided we better leave before we get too drunk.
We all thanked him and said our goodbyes, but he suggested we share a taxi home. We all jumped in the taxi, arriving at 1000 Union Street. He told us that he had one more joint and we could all smoke it in our apartment and he’d take another taxi home later.
We went up to our studio apartment and smoked the joint. He asked where the bathroom was and not two minutes later, he walked out pointing a gun at us. He stole every last dime from us.
We couldn’t believe how stupid we were or how friendly he had been, all while he questioned us so as to rob us.
We didn’t have any money and we all looked for work, but we had to feed ourselves somehow. We asked around and found out about St. Anthony's Dining Room in San Francisco's Tenderloin area. You had to get there early, around 11 am, and get in line with all the homeless people that were there for lunch.
For our dinner meal, we found out that we could go to Washington Square Park, to the ally door of the Catholic Church, ring the bell and the nuns inside would bring us a baloney sandwich. It was just baloney on two slices of white bread, but that was our dinner. We survived this way for about two weeks.
I never knew what it was like not having any money. I would wander the streets of North Beach hoping to find some coins laying on the ground. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen very often. I knew I could call my parents and ask for money, but I wasn’t going to do that. I had too much pride. We’d get through this somehow.
Then one day Joel arrived with great news, he found me and him a job in North Beach for $35 a night working as Barkers at the Roaring 20s off of Broadway.
Joey and I got to hang out with the dancers, which was a major perk of the job. That was 1975 and we were happy. I started art school a few days later.
Check out photographs by the artist: Rock-n-roll Photography