A mural in Al's Attire at 1300 Grant Ave. depicts a young Mildred “Millie” Gardiner selling cigarettes in North Beach. (Courtesy Aaron Peskin)

‘Beloved’ North Beach woman known for taking Polaroid photos dies

San Francisco has been, and still is, home to eccentric characters, dating back to Emperor Joshua Norton in The City’s earliest days.

On Dec. 22, San Francisco’s North Beach community lost one of its own beloved characters, famous for her heart, “loopy” wit and Polaroid camera: Mildred “Millie” Gardiner.

Gardiner, 94, died at Laguna Honda Hospital on Friday, North Beach News confirmed to the San Francisco Examiner.

“Millie,” as she was called, was known in North Beach for offering to take photos of passersby on her Polaroid camera, usually at $5 apiece.

“Millie was a 4-foot-2 marginally housed force of nature who marched into every restaurant and bar, and was accommodated by every restaurant and bar owner in North Beach,” said Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents the neighborhood on the Board of Supervisors.

“She would whip from under her cape a Polaroid camera, and walk from table to table and barstool to barstool and say, ‘Hey, wanna have your picture taken?’” Peskin recalled.

Peskin described her as “lucid and sometimes loopy,” though she often had words of wisdom and a smile for those who knew her.

That warmth led North Beach to rally for Millie on more than one occasion, said Rick Levine, a North Beach neighbor who first encountered her in 1980. When Polaroid photos began vanishing from stores to make way for digital photography, he said, neighbors across North Beach purchased all the film they could for Millie, so she could continue to earn her livelihood.

The neighborhood came together again for Millie when she said she mistakenly took an interstate bus and ended up in Reno one snowy winter. Levine and other neighbors called around to find her and bring her back to San Francisco’s Little Italy. Peskin said it was North Beach neighbors who helped her secure a bed at Laguna Honda Hospital for her last days.

“She’d say what was on her mind,” Levine said of Millie. “But she was sweet, she was attentive, she was friendly.”

For years, befriending Millie was seen as a rite of passage in North Beach, said Romalyn Schmaltz, a neighborhood artist and writer.

“For years I was pretty frightened by her mammoth persona,” she told the Examiner. “One day, though, she helped herself to a seat at my table at Specs and we went down a conversational rabbit hole. Getting to know someone who looked the way Millie did was jarring and enchanting.”

Millie “wasn’t always the easiest person to approach,” Schmaltz said, “but she was a kind of gatekeeper. I’d say she was deeply, locally famous.”

A mural painted for the historic Spaghetti Factory sits in what is now Al’s Attire on Vallejo Street and Grant Avenue in North Beach, and features Millie in her younger days, Levine told the Examiner. The Spaghetti Factory was a famous hangout for San Francisco’s beatniks. Millie was “their mascot,” Levine said.

The photograph the mural is based off of is at least 65 years old, he estimated, showcasing Millie’s storied history in the neighborhood.

The amount of people she knew is hard to estimate.

Millie’s story, Peskin said, is “not just a story about a beloved, eccentric woman, but an eccentric neighborhood who loved her.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the date that Millie Gardiner died.

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