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 relative 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 surgical disfigurements and 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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71 responses to “Personal History

  1. Sandi Jordan

    Mark- I remember you from our days at EHS singing in the choir. What a remarkable life you have lived and survived! Everyone has a story, and yours is complete with thoughts, feelings, highs and lows, but the major battle was won…you live!
    Your music and photography spurred you forward to better things but mostly to bring you back to a life of giving to others which in turn gave you satisfaction and encouragement. You pulled yourself up from the depths of hell and now tell your story which lets others see there IS a better way out than death! To recite a quote: “To live is the greatest adventure there is!” God bless you!

  2. John Elk

    Hello Mark!

    You’re still there…? Can you hear me now…?

    Hello from old film student from 1973… I’ve made two films and they both were stolen… So I’m making another one… A documentary… You’re in it

  3. Theodore Camesano

    Your story illustrates that there’s a person inside that body we see sleeping on the street. Your success is exemplary. Look forward to your posts.

  4. Hello Mark! Hope you are doing well. Loved reading your incredible story. Very surprised and happy that I found your website. What a wealth of knowledge and history you have amassed here. I came across your website by researching the Tenderloin, where I have just moved to about 9 months ago. I live at Hyde and Eddy at the 300 block of Hyde, and am a 22 year old graphic designer. I feel quite a bit guilty that I am a young person moving into the city. However, I am very interested in the Tenderloin’s fascinating history and the historical buildings here as well. I would love to get coffee sometime as well, and learn more about your life and your site. For now, I’ll keep reading! Thanks again! Micaela

  5. Diane Dodge

    Welcome back to the land of the living. I’m a former TL resident and addict myself. Lived in the TL in 82 to 86.
    Drew a comic book graphic novel 15 years ago called Junk Comix TL Tales.
    Would like to talk with you sometime. Worked night shift as a desk clerk in the Abbey Hotel Jones and Geary. Lived
    Above John McCauley Park across from Music Hall Ofarrell and Larkin.
    Other places too. Can never get it out of my head.
    Peace to you

    • Thanks, Diane. Even though I’ve been back in the land of the living for some 15 years now, it never grows old. Would love to talk with you sometime, too. Are there any copies available in any form (printed or electronic) of your comic book? I’d REALLY love to read it. I’m a big comix fan. Used to have a huge collection. Do you still live in San Francisco? I am, of course, familiar with the Abbey Hotel, though I’ve never stayed there myself. Please keep in touch.

  6. Hi Mark! Very glad I found your website. I lived in San Francisco for 5 years and it is my favorite city. I write historical fiction set in San Francisco and the Bay Area and it’s awesome to find someone who appreciates the rich history of the area as much as you do and takes the time to dig through archives for historical photos and also reflects the real streets of the city the way that I experienced them when I lived there. I’ll be following your site and your blog!


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