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 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 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 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 © 2004-2014, 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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42 responses to “Personal History

  1. dan ingwersen

    Hi Mark,
    I don’t know where to start and I don’t want to come off like some loon. I am amazed by your site.

    I was born and raised in San Francisco and found the Tenderloin at 15. I was a “fastpass” kid and had explored the whole city at that point, but when I “found” the TL, looking for stores that would sell me liquor, something clicked, and I knew I was home.

    I can’t describe the feelings that came up while going through your blog. We must be related somehow. Your pictures are of the exact same details that have held me captive for all these years. The light that you choose to photograph in, the history that interests you. If I where to take pictures and write a blog about the city of my birth, it would look a lot like what you’ve done here.

    I’m a builder and have had a few jobs around Mid-Market recently. While I like the people I have been working for, I too an saddened knowing it will all be gone soon. I left the TL when I was 26, for reasons similar to your own, but 11 years spent there have left their residue, both good and bad. It may sound corny, but I think the TL stays with you for life. Thank you so much for preserving what of it you’ve been able, It means a lot to your fellow alumni.

    Dan

    • Thanks for sharing your story, Dan, and for letting me know my work has touched you. I’m curious: in what year did you discover the Tenderloin? Knowing that would help me put your story into proper historical perspective. And yes, the Tenderloin stays with you for life. What will happen to it, or rather what it will become in the next decade or so remains to be seen.

      • dan

        That would have been 1988. 1990- 95 where the prime years that I spent most of my time there. I worked at a bike shop that existed briefly on Natoma and then on 6th street, in the rose hotel building, pre renovation. I spent my last night in the Bristol, crashing on a friends floor, in 1999. I think the TL and 6th street will hold out for some time to come, but Mid Market, I’m afraid, is gone. It’s sad, I remember Mid Market as this weird melting pot of The TL, 6th street and random adventurers of all stripes. But really, it hasn’t been that since the early 90’s. Anyway, I could prattle on forever! Thanks again for your work on all of this, I look forward to new updates. BTW, I also stayed in the Fairfax and your description was spot on. It wasn’t the nastiest place I stayed, but I have some funny stories about that one.

      • Thanks for the info, Dan. I agree that the TL will not undergo major changes anytime soon. Sixth Street is already changing, although it’s still a containment zone, so visible signs of change aren’t immediately apparent — yet. Five years from now, mid-Market will be practically unrecognizable. Funny that you stayed at the Fairfax, too. Let’s meet at the Brown Jug Saloon sometime and swap war stories, what do you say? You can reach me via email at tobemarx@gmail.com.

  2. Joe

    Hi Mark,

    Hello from a fellow ex-Ohioan (Columbus) transplanted to the Bay Area in 1989. i really appreciate the wonderful work you’ve done in compiling the history of the mid-market area. My wife & i actually purchased the Shree Ganeshai building over a year ago so its very interesting to see your images and stories from the neighborhood. Hope to see updates and thanks again for the invaluable information about this remarkable area of the City.

    ~joe

  3. You have a wonderful site here!

    I wondered if you might possibly have any insight on a bit of a mystery. There was a man who was living at the National Hotel (1139 Market) in 1980 – his name was Farren Stanberry. He disappeared soon after and left all his belongings in the hotel. Nobody has heard from him since.

    In 1984, a man’s body was found in an attic at 1144 Market. It was found by a the owner of a building wrecking company, so I assume that the building was being demolished. The body had apparently been there for quite awhile when it was found. After a lot of research by several people, as well as inquiries with the library, we are unable to find any record of an 1144 Market since the 1920’s. It seems that 1144 Market would have been where the UN Plaza is now, but the UN Plaza was already there in the 1980’s as far as I can tell.

    We are trying to come up with enough convincing facts to persuade a very backlogged San Francisco Medical Examiner’s office to extract DNA from these remains to verify if they could belong to Farren. We are hitting a major snag on this location, and I thought, by some chance, you might recall an abandoned building that might have once been 1144 Market, that was demolished around 1984?

    Farren may have been staying at the hotel with a group of young men, and may have been caring for a gay male who was ill at the hotel. These are guesses based on vague reports.

    I’d really appreciate any help, if anything rings a bell to you.

    • Variations of this story from different sources have been cropping up for years, but none that I have heard have been supported by any hard evidence. Also, the demolished building in question was on the south side of Market Street (the UN Plaza was built in ’75), and was replaced by the Trinity Plaza building. I’ll do some digging to see if I can come up with anything more for you.

      • I just wanted to follow up and say that the unidentified male is not the missing person I was referring to. They were able to rule it out through dental comparison. Thank you for your offer to help anyway, and thank you for a wonderful site!

      • I have your email address in my mid-Market history files now. If I should hear anything that might relate to your missing person, I will forward the information to you. In the meantime, I wish you the best of luck in your detective work.

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