Personal History

Having reached the age of majority, I left Ohio in the fall of 1968 to study painting and drawing at the San Francisco Art Institute on Chestnut Street. During my first semester there, I became friends with filmmaker Curt McDowell and soon began spending most of my time in the film department. I had been trained in classical piano and jazz from the second grade through high school, so I was drawn to sound design, music scoring and recording, which ultimately determined the course of my life for nearly two decades. Between 1971 and 1987, I taught classes at the Art Institute and the Academy of Art and worked as a recording engineer, sound designer, electronics technician, and composer (and occasional actor) for various film labs, studios, and independent film makers including Curt McDowell, George Kuchar, Larry Jordan, and the Mitchell Brothers. As the electronics designer and chief engineer, I entered a business partnership in 1982 to open a 16-track recording studio in the Mission District called Truth and Beauty. There I engineered and produced various albums and twelve-inch 45s, crafted custom audio equipment, and continued to write and arrange music. I had the great pleasure of writing a musical setting for Fragments from the World of Henri LeCroix by Pulitzer nominee Cyrus Cassells and performed it with him around the Bay Area in 1984.

The following year, I suffered a cataclysmic manic-depressive breakdown that left me shell-shocked, severely depressed, and prone to bouts of Acute Stress Disorder. I spent the next ten years trying to recover, studying the works of Carl Jung and attending sessions with various psychiatrists and mental health therapists. Progress was painfully slow. Periods of soul-crushing depression were compounded by a seemingly unending succession of personal losses that included the dissolution of my business, the deaths of my oldest and closest friends, the death of my adoptive father, disinheritance by my adoptive mother, and a devastating breakup with my lover. In the fall of 1995, my one remaining friend—the only person who had steadfastly stood by me throughout my travails—suddenly died, aged forty-seven, of a heart attack. This was the last straw; the end of life as I had known it; the day all hope died inside me. It seemed that my entire life had been pointless, an exercise in futility. I wanted to die.

My existential crisis turned apocalyptic when I discovered that heroin for a few hours at a time made life almost bearable. When the smack began to flow, nothing mattered anymore. The price of such fleeting deliverance was the enslavement of body and soul. It took but a few days to become addicted. Six months were required to lose my home and possessions. To support my habit, I forfeited every last remaining scrap of my life. Alone and dispossessed, for the next five-and-a-half years I chased the bag and lived on the mean streets of San Francisco. As a middle-aged, homeless junkie with no discernible past nor hope for the future, I learned to survive in an underworld of derelicts and outlaws, where thievery and betrayal and acts of shocking brutality were everyday facts of life. I trusted no one and most often slept in dark alleyways or beneath freeway overpasses. It was a cruel and profoundly demeaning existence. Twice, I managed to endure the months-long agony of complete withdrawal only to start using again. Despite the enormities of homelessness and heroin addiction, it was easier to live in oblivion than to face a life devoid of meaning. Despairing, I once tried to kill myself by injecting more than two grams of dope, but I succeeded only in knocking myself out for a day.

Rules of the game were changed on Thanksgiving Day 2000, when I was nearly killed by septic shock. My blood had been poisoned by a deep-tissue bacterial infection of Necrotizing Fasciitis. I was hospitalized for ten weeks and underwent multiple surgeries to repair tissue damage so severe, I narrowly escaped having my left leg amputated at the hip. Coming face to face with my own mortality was an epiphany that awakened me to the sweetness of simply being alive. I concentrated on healing, hoping I could start life over again. Crippled by my wounds, but on the mend and entirely cleansed of opiates, I was discharged in February 2001. Above all else, I needed to find housing; someplace cheap, safe and quiet, where I could put down roots long enough to reinvent myself and recover my health.

The next few months were spent bouncing between South of Market and Tenderloin hotels. When funds were depleted, I slept in bus shelters. Writing kept me sane and focused. My journal was my anchor and constant companion. At last, around mid-Spring, I settled down in a Sixth Street hotel named the Shree Ganeshai. For six years that hotel was my home and there I gradually reconstructed my life. After salvaging a cheap digital camera near the end of 2002, I began photographing my life and surroundings. The buildings and streets I have photographed ever since are now deeply embedded in my psyche, just as people who live and work in the central city have become fundamental parts of my life.

As tangible reminders of what we have done, who we have known and where we have been, our personal artifacts and mementos reinforce our subjective continuity. They are material evidence of our exploits and accomplishments; our triumphs and defeats; our blessings and misfortunes. Lacking all such evidence, I have only memories of my life from childhood till 2001. Absent corroboration, such memories over time become tenuous and elusive. Aside from disfiguring surgical scars and admittedly deep emotional scars, it is as though I dreamed it all; a lifetime lived by someone else, inhabited only by phantoms. For what did I live those fifty-one years? Perhaps there are many reasons, or in the end there may be no reason at all, but for my life to have meaning, I must seek understanding. Thus elucidating history is for me a very personal matter. Within the larger context of San Francisco history are fragments of my own past, wherefore my new life is immutably melded with the heart of the City.

The title Up From The Deep is an adaptation of De Profundis, “Up from the depths (of misery),” the incipit of the 130th Psalm and the title of numerous musical settings and works of literature that include a letter by Oscar Wilde, written while he was imprisoned.

Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. [...] For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. [...] Where there is sorrow there is holy ground. Some day people will realize what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do.

–Oscar Wilde
De Profundis, 1895

Mark Ellinger_Mar2012

Photo by George Auxier, 2012

Copyright © 2012, Mark Ellinger

Except where otherwise indicated, text and photos on this site are copyright © 2004-2014, Mark Ellinger. Any use and/or duplication of this material without prior written permission from the author is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Ellinger and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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30 responses to “Personal History

  1. B garner

    In his book the black ice, Michael Connelly mentions the warfield. I googled the building and came to you.
    You are a treasure. As you say, most people don’t look up. those of us who do look find you.
    You are articulate, insightful and strong. I am so glad you are among us.

    • Until now, I hadn’t heard of either Michael Connelly or The Black Ice. Curious, I did some Googling of my own and discovered that the protagonist in that book is a detective named Hieronmyus “Harry” Bosch. As it happens, his namesake painted some of my favorite works of art, including “The Conjuror” and “Ship of Fools”, so now I really must get a copy of Connelly’s book just to see if Harry lives up to his name! Funny how one thing can lead to another, isn’t it?

      I also took a little trip along the Old Lancaster Pike through northern Delaware, courtesy of Google Maps Street View. I must say, it’s really a lovely area. It reminds me a lot of certain parts of Ohio, where I grew up.

      Thank you so much for your extremely kind words and for opening the door to a new literary adventure.

      All the best to you, Bronwyn,

  2. Ruth Williams

    Dear Mark , I am here by chance .Dare I say fate? I was moved by the photographs, they are a work of beautiful art in it’s purest form!!!! Then I read your history I was left with a series of emotions I have not felt in a long time! You are a wonderful gift to all of us !!! I have sat her admiring and reading for 3 hours at your work . Thank-you for making my day! When I was younger I took a photography course in college. I loved taking pictures of building and things on the off beaten path of life. I put the camera away for awhile. Had two wonderful daughters and a abusive marriage. I left my husband and raised them on my own. It is ironic that today before I even visited your wonderful work of art, I purchased a camera today earlier today for my early birthday present to myself. I never spent money on myself and felt guilty after I had purchased the camera. After wandering aimlessly to your page I am inspired again!!!!! So thank-you again from the bottom of my heart for instilling beauty and hope back into my artistic side of my being!!! Sincerely Ruth Williams

  3. Hi Mark, your blog is a source of great interest and inspiration to me. I’d love to read some more about your music interests. You touch on it here. Have you written more?

    • Other than random notes scattered here and there in my papers, I haven’t written anything in recent years about my musical interests or past experience. Having lost all of my recordings, master tapes, sheet music, journals, annotated scripts, etc., it pains me to say that the only available source material, in a manner of speaking, is memory. I am unable to corroborate anything I remember, because I lost touch with everyone I once knew while living on the streets. Can you tell I’m reluctant to rely on memory alone? If you’re interested, I would enjoy corresponding with you about music. I think it would foster some musical anamnesis. My email address is Hoping you’ll follow through.

  4. Joanna McGuire

    Hi Mark, What an incredibly powerful collection you’ve created. It’s humbling and inspiring to read your story set against the backdrop of such an in-depth historical account of San Francisco. I’d love to speak with you in further detail, I saw your email address in your comment above but wanted to ask before I reached out. Looking forward to speaking with you.
    Thanks, Joanna

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