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. Having been trained in classical piano and jazz from the second grade through high school, 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 longtime companion and 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 while I 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 and whole. 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 Psalm 130 and the title of numerous musical settings and works of literature, including 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 © 2004-2015, 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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55 responses to “Personal History

  1. Matty Stanfield

    I’m only just now discovering your work. Your personal history resonates deeply for me. I have such admiration for overcoming the horrors of depression, grief and addiction — and to then take your strength back to pursue creating such valid and important work.

    As someone who has been digging myself out of PTSD for going into 8 years now, I find hope in your personal history as well as surviving what would have been unsurvivable for most.

    I can’t wait to read, look and learn.

    • Life sometimes delivers some very pleasant surprises, doesn’t it? I’m delighted by our recent connection, Matty, and have already enjoyed tremendously your piece about “Fire Walk with Me.” Looking forward to further unfolding, which I hope will include meeting you at the theatrical rerelease of Thundercrack!, wherever that should take place.

      • Matty Stanfield

        Thanks! Oh, I hope so! Currently fighting through a number of odd phobias one of which deals with being around more than a few people. But am working on it!

      • “Work on it” is all anyone can do, as far as I know. For much of my life, I suffered from an horrendous inferiority complex and agoraphobia. I’m no longer agoraphobic, though I do dislike crowds of any kind, a lot. Inferiority issues have never gone completely away, in fact I’m certain they never will, but I’ve learned a lot about the way my mind works over the years, so I’m no longer quite so tormented. Anyway, I do hope to see you in person sometime soon.

  2. Grace

    I discovered your site today! Marvelous! I was searching for photos of The Gotham Hotel. My grandmother and her 2nd husband Alan Thompson, managed The Gotham approximately around 1935. My mother stayed there as a young adult, 20-ish of age. Her first room was so small she had to lie on the bed to open her dresser. Then she got a corner room which had a sink in it where she could wash her face and brush her teeth. Bathrooms were shared and she would always clean the tub before using. I do have an envelope addressed to her from my father (he was away in the army) with the address of the Gotham on it. I will see if I can find it and scan it in for you.

    • Thanks so much for sharing your own hotel story, Grace, and thanks for offering to scan that old envelope for me. Much appreciated.

      • Grace

        What email should I use? I did not find the envelope yet BUT I did find stationery with Allan’s name and Hotel Gotham on it. Will send the envelope with address on it when I find it. Also I have a picture of my grandmother and Allan on their wedding day, Allan was already managing the Gotham at that time. I believe the correct address for Hotel Gotham is 835 Turk Street and is now known as Vantaggio suites. Their website shows some of their recent remodeling but they did not wipe away all traces of the hotel’s history.

  3. Mantovani

    Hi Mark,

    My name is Andréa Mantovani and I would be very glad to meet you.
    I’m really impress about your work. I’m also working In Tendorloin but on a photographic project.
    I would to do the walking free tours tomorrow morning with you but something came up and I won’t be able to come.
    Do you do other visit during June or can I meet you for a coffee if you are available?

    Thanks you so much,
    I’m looking forward to hearing from you,


  4. Tanya Harjan

    I fell into this site quite by accident last night. I am just getting started with it. Absolutely amazing! What an immense labor of love and so beautifully done. I will be diving back in and reading and savoring the photos and your writing. Thank you so much for this.

  5. Tommy Wilkens

    Indeed the TL does stay with one for life it seems.I myself lived on Geary Street for only a short period during 1974 at the old “Hotel Woodland”. I worked as the night doorman letting people in who lived there and not letting or trying to not let those who wanted to enter that didn’t live there.It was an amazing job that exposed me to some of the strangest and most bizarre people and things that anyone could ever imagine. The memories of the old hotel are still vivid with me and I am sure will always be with me. If anyone has any history on the Hotel Woodland I would greatly appreciate anything that anyone could pass along. Thanks

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