Categotry Archives: If You’re Going to San Francisco

by

Postcards of the Hanging

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

Yes, I received your letter yesterday
about the time the doorknob broke.
When you asked me how I was doing
was that some kind of joke?

Late afternoon rushing down the steps for the train whose destination I can only see upon turning the corner of the bottom of the staircase and left for the doors that will still be open hopefully if I can get there in time see this is why I didn’t take the escalator because you can’t control your own destiny in case someone fails to follow the rule of standing on the right and walking on the left no running on the left because I am running seeing the train and hoping it’s not too late and I have a split-second to read it to decide whether to dive between closing doors or make that little stutter-step hold-up motion that means I’m not going in here’s the last step…

The morning walks toward work lately have been graced by a blood-orange sky since Tuesday. By which I mean that an actual orb, hovering eastward, has been the picture of a blood-orange against a sky somewhere between charcoal and ash. Walking in its pursuit, ever in the direction of the sun and the train, has felt like an epic effort at some Old Testament mission. On Tuesday I thought it was just an omen, but have since learned that fires in the outlying areas are blowing particulate matter into the atmosphere, leaving us in permanent twilight. A co-workers eyes burn each morning as he disembarks his bike or motorcycle. Mornings and evenings are the worst; there’s something about the sun’s rise and fall that brings out the eeriest. Yea though I walk through the valley of.

…and now I can slow down just a hair as I have seen both RICHMOND and been able to jump aboard ahead of the closing doors, but here’s another split-second decision because people are ever at my back, more flooding throngs of people in the momentary chaos of train-boarding fight-or-flight, where is the nearest best seat? And I spy there, ever in motion and just catching my breath, it’s right there, there is a four-plex of seats two-on-two facing each other, and three of them are open and now I have the classic prisoner’s dilemma of whether it’s safer to take the outside corner spot so as not to invade this person’s space and seem too close to them even though the next station will clearly fill the next two seats and everyone will be close and personal or whether to just fill in and take the slightly favorable inside seat because after all it’s easier not to feel guilty about de facto displacing someone who technically might make better marginal use of the seat if one’s on the inside and couldn’t possibly get up to offer one’s seat because one’s trapped and the massive disruption and inconvenience for everyone of offering an inside seat just undoes any chivalric or actual value in offering one’s seat anyway. And besides which taking the outside corner inconveniences anyone who might have to get diagonally between the two sitters of which you would become the more difficult one, trying to get the inside seat which you just moments ago rejected because of the illusion of some sort of momentary fleeting personal space or becoming too personal with someone who after all you’ve never met because you’re just sharing a train and the mutual desire to be home and done with this already and my goodness just take the inside seat already even though this whole musing has been automatic, the actual thinking done long before, and taken about fourteen nanoseconds…

I have had so little to do at work these days that I have taken to keeping an eye on the financial markets very closely in the west-coast mornings when they are open. For one, I’ve begun a little gambling in “the market” and for two, it’s an interesting time to watch such things. And no doubt, the way things are going, the direction of everything surely impacts my work after all. Would not the soup kitchens of 1929 been well-served by keeping an eye on the ticker? And today was remarkable, a dive to those dreaded words: 52-week low. And indeed it was 21 months’ worth of low, something closer to 90 weeks, something incomprehensible to those who remind us that, in the long-term the stock market cannot decline any more than could Rome fall, the Titanic sink, or the US military lose a war. And yet, somehow, no one ever calls a market gain a “correction”. Corrections are only down.

…and so I slide in to claim the seat across from yes, another fellow human being and a stranger, just as the train is moving and the chaos has settled and for one brief stop at least we will be the only two in this group of four, just like people who know each other. My movements are reflexive, automatic, as I settle and start to reach to unzip my backpack to remove the book when she speaks to me. “Hel-lo,” in a friendly, sing-songy, familiar voice. And by “familiar”: there is no recognition on my part, but she speaks as she would to a familiar. A friend, a colleague, a long-lost comrade. I look up. Who is this person? My age? Younger? Slightly younger. School? Work? An intern met in a fleeting moment; the batch of anonymous looking wide-eyed kids that gets younger every year? A former college debater who saw me debate in outrounds? One by one, the possibilities recede. I just don’t know this person. But does she know me, or think she does? I am wearing sunglasses, after all, though also a coat that no one else in the world may own, a bright threading of orange, red, and brown picked up in Nepal. But I am left with no civil recourse but an equal rejoinder: “Hello,” with less sing-song and less familiarity, but not so little as to rule out that I have clean forgotten this person instead of had nothing to recall…

The line is getting longer, of course. By leaps and bounds. I’ve been charting the trends, adding up the food bills, trying to peer into the void and project the curvature of the next spike and up-tilting angle, really putting the analysis into my Analyst title. I could use a wizard hat and spectacles, and maybe a glass orb to refract the blood-orange light that is often already past my window by the time I take my 8:30 seat. The news is all bad: floods in Iowa, threats in Israel, defiance in Iran, idiocy in Washington, panic in New York. It’s speculators or it’s not; no one can tell. It’s the oil companies or it’s not; no one can say. It’s inflation or it’s not; no one wants to admit. Houses sold in a fire-sale. The job lines longer too. I look out my window to see our own line. New faces or old? Who can tell? Everyone looks old in line for free food.

…she is now looking half-expectantly, half-normally. She is not looking away after the requisite time of casual observance. She is utterly unrecognizable, still. I am reading a book, the one I now start to pull out of my backpack, that includes a subplot (or maybe the main plot – who knows at this point?) about mind-control tests done on one particular subject who thinks he’s just another one of the testers but he’s being altered. Messed with. One might argue, given my history, that this is a terrible book for me to be reading. Or perhaps the best. But pull it I do, and she makes this overt, awkward show (she must be younger than I am) of trying to look at the cover, trying to parse out the low-contrast words of the title, presumably in hope that she has something to say about it, or ask, or, but she must not know Pynchon, or like him, or be able to quite make out the cover which I do nothing to exactly thrust in her face (nor to really obscure; I’m just trying to be normal here in this suddenly very self-conscious reality) because she mumbles something that sounds from my seat like “Rhurbook?”…

Eventually I need my own food and stumble downstairs toward the door, thinking perhaps I will spend some time away from the building for awhile because it’s just not been a good morning. And I’m half-hoping to find a place with a TV to watch the Euro Cup semifinals that Russia has somehow surprised their way into and it would really just be too overt to watch on the streaming video at my own desk in my shared office. And I’m not quite dizzy with hunger yet, but getting close, as I play the constant game of dodgeball with all the inhabitants of the Ellis Street Tenderloin; our usual crew accustomed to taking time that even when bored I never seem to have. Or feel to have. And it’s all strangely quiet, even the guy who shouts random numbers and city names and facts a high volume is somehow muted and the glower of blood-orange stands much more blatant above even though it’s just a bit past midday and the uneasiness they’re writing about in New York seems somehow manifest here in San Francisco while I’m hoping to get to images of the anxious situation developing in Vienna (the first half was scoreless, I’d already periodically checked online) and all I can really see is people in a haze of uncertainty. Even the tourists look vaguely a step behind. By the time I get away from desolation row and down to the cable cars, I’m just in time to catch some Russian from a cable car, a big burly bear of a classic Russian voice, and I think if this man can skip his homeland’s biggest soccer match in 20 years, maybe I can too. I find a chile relleno burrito in a nearby taqueria which somehow doesn’t have a TV anyway and return to my room on the row.

…”What?”
“I said ‘Oh. A book.'”
“Oh.”…

Russia lost, three-nil.

…and I have literally nothing else to say, not a damn thing that won’t make this already extremely awkward situation more awkward and I have to wonder: is this awkward for her? Is she paling in frustration over the fact that I can’t remember who she is? Or that I somehow am coming across as standoffish and east-coasty to her simple friendliness? Or is she – oh God – is she somehow hitting on me? Play with my wedding ring. Try to half-smile so as not to appear to be a total jerk. But there’s nothing to say. It’s one of those situations where I often yearn to say something that completely exposes the weirdness of the situation to turn it on it’s head and say something akin to were you just being friendly or should I know you from somewhere or who do you think I am or what?, but of course I almost never say those things in better situations; certainly better situations than now on the train, waiting for the miles to fly by under the tunnel and up the gut of the East Bay. Where – I am literally sweating now – I will be captive, captured, hemmed in by my own deliberate guilt-assuaging seat-clinching strategy, forced to sit through the ratcheted awkwardness that would be created by any sort of risky comment taken poorly. And so I stare, through sunglasses now actually fogging from the sweat of my literal brow as I grow red-faced and thankful that at least if I start to tear up slightly, the sunglasses will conceal, stare at the page without really being able to read or concentrate or focus. It’s hard enough to concentrate on this book as it is, especially on the afternoon side of the train when my mind is weary from too much time in the seat. Just staring at the page, wondering if she’ll say something, if I should, if she’s getting off at the next stop? Ha. She’s almost guaranteed to get off at mine…

And there was more to do, as there always is of late, in the afternoon, with a meeting approaching and late calls from outside sources. And I was thanked for one of my finer works, again and again, this one about it all – about food and prices and projections and where it’s all going. If one more person tells me how much easier I make their job when I’m about to stop I’ll. But what can I do? One cannot just slowly slide into shoddier and shoddier work if one ever hopes to be employed again (I don’t, but may have to, y’know). One cannot especially if one actually still believes in the work being done by the whole operation to begin with (I do, oh ever how I do). And, perhaps most key, one cannot slide simply because it is what has angered one so about certain others who almost forced this issue coming up nigh on a year prior. But the days one wishes that issue had been forced after all? Those are bad.

…and we sit and sit and sit. Sit there. Stop after stop. I, very occasionally risking a glance without head motion, through the sunglasses at her demeanor as it – does it? – descends into more and more grumpy, less and less sing-song cheery. Silence reigns. I am able to focus on my book for periods, but always with a lingering malignance in the back of my brain. The sweating fades, some of it still cold on my forehead, but the redness tilts back to a normal shade (this I can only technically imagine, though one can surely feel redness, no?), and I start to anticipate how this will end. My co-worker was spat on today, with an ambiguous level of deliberateness. A subtle kick? I’ve had those on the train before, someone obliquely making one lose one’s footing as a personal victory snicker. But now she’s staring out the window into the black tunnel, looking the picture of depression and surely it’s just because I can’t see her face but – oh God – (and here the fiction-writer takes off in his fancies and imaginations and storyline plot futures) what if she is recovering from x trauma or y experience or z deep-seeded fear and this was some sort of test or guidance from Mr. Therapist or Ms. Spiritual Advisor or Miss Friend and surely just saying hello on the train with a cheery tone and a Broadway smile will make it all better, restore Faith, demonstrate that there Is Some Hope and Goodness in the World. And I’ve dashed it somehow, or squandered it, and maybe it ends up being about her personal appearance or her ability to speak or just even what it all matters for anymore and can I even give a crap about this sham life that we all seem to be going through? And suddenly I have stomped on whatever flickering coal was left of that, something that had to be heartily coaxed with much log-shifting and blowing by Mr.T/Ms.SA/MissF at personal exertion and energy, knowing they were taking a small but potentially perilous risk in saying “just start saying hi to people with that winning voice and smile and you just see if things don’t improve” and I am the agent of destruction. What if she does something terrible? But of course I know deep down that I’m exaggerating and running away and way overblowing my role in any particular strangers life. Aren’t I? Though isn’t it sometimes strangers who seem more objective than friends, therapists, advisors? But surely, I have nothing to do with this right? I mean, maybe I really did meet her for five seconds and I’m just amnesiac. Although then this reinforces all the previous concerns – she’s forgettable and oh God we’re off to the races again…

But today is not a bad day, except for this little internal tiff. This sinking feeling of everyone being all smiles and hope and somehow, no matter how one plays one’s cards, one knows one to be Judas. This is surely exaggeration, but perhaps it only seems so because this is not my world. I do not belong where words like “career” and “empowerment” are bandied about. But they cannot see this, and this fact feels like a knife or 25 pieces in my hand.

…I get off the train at my stop, perhaps a shade early so if it’s hers as well I can’t be following her. All three remain seated besides me. There are no words, no look, no kick, no event. I proceed out of the train and out of the station, briefly glancing to see she’s not behind me…

I walk again downstairs, out toward the train, ‘neath a blood-orange sky.

…I walk upstairs and homeward, ‘neath a blood-orange sky…

by

Did I Miss a Memo?

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

No one came in to San Francisco today. The train felt almost post-apocalyptic.

Of course not a real apocalypse. How could the trains still be running after a real apocalypse? And there would be no others aboard rather than the seeming 33-50% reduction witnessed this morn.

But the dreams were intense enough last night and the empty train car surreal enough to beg the question of which was reality.

Quickly the question turns to evaluation, to analysis, to logic. It is summer, after all, with the first and longest day over the weekend. We are trained from an extremely early age to take off in the summer, to alter our schedule when the weather warms and expect things to get better, easier, calmer. July fourth looms on the horizon, but surely not everyone is taking their requisite two weeks starting now?

And indeed the weather has snapped rigidly cold, back to Mark Twain’s San Francisco “summer” after a week’s reprieve sent from balmier climes. Could people have somehow foreseen, checked a 30-day forecast and requested their week now, departing sunny and warmed for a place that would stay that way in June’s final week? Could that kind of prescience been in play, anticipating how difficult it would be to face another bitter, teasing joke from the City’s skies?

Unlikely. Indeed more likely that the decision was faced 30 minutes prior, not 30 days. That facing a window and a weather report, many chose to burrow rather than bolt, to neither fly nor flee, but freeze. Or beg not to freeze ’neath an added blanket, holding an ironically brewed cup in the face of no need to wake.

Staring awake, envisioning an empty train, its few riders unnerved by the sense of watching rats walk the ropes, single-file, out of the ship’s hold. Some carrying small bags or little blocks of cheese and meat from last night’s feast. Suddenly the yestereats turn in one’s own stomach, one notices the rocking of the waves a bit more, shoulders slouch and hunch as one braces unconscious for unimagined impact. One knows not whether to vomit over the side or to jump. Or to hang on for dear life.

Yes, no doubt they nestle amongst the bedclothes, stretching in that utterly relaxed way, regretting caffeine but taking solace in leaving the seats alone today. The trains were running late and stalling often; even conductors are not immune to waves of intuition, to coordinated impromptu staycations. We are all more connected than we could ever imagine.

And our constant reminder of same, the price of oil, rocketing ever skyward as though it could outrun the rain. Threatening to capsize a once proud crew of sailors, leave them faced with water that had been so untouched and unthreatening as to seem metaphorical. I sail on a mythical ocean, they might’ve bragged back in port. It looks of water, but ’tis made of glass. We slide along like skaters on the ice.

Eventually all things break. Glass, ice, people, even rats. We are not meant to experience infinince on this planet, only to gaze upon the concept in wonder and disbelief. That which endures here may be somewhat overblown. Best not to make too much of longevity and focus on the meaning in that which we see, feel, touch, sense.

Sense. Use it. Maybe tomorrow, the trains will stop altogether.

In the meantime, friends, it looks like a deluge. Even the sidewalks of the Tenderloin are clear. And those here are in motion. Running in circles feels like progress when you know it’s wrong to stay in one place. Walking beats standing. Standing beats sitting. Sitting beats lying down, at least outside of a bedclothes bunker.

It’s morning in America, but I don’t see much daylight.

by

Pluck o’ the Irish

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: ,

Every summer, a teeming horde of young Irish men and women descend on San Francisco for a taste of life in the big American city. Youthful, exuberant, and almost sweet enough to convince one that there really is such a thing as innocence in the twenty-first century, they come to San Francisco for what seems like just three months’ worth of America for perhaps a whole lifetime. Frankly, that’s probably more than enough.

I don’t know if there’s an actual overt summer program based at some Eire university or a collection of them, but it seems more of an organic tradition than anything overt. They come seeking summer jobs and summer sublets, immersing themselves in a culture that must seem supercharged and hyper compared to the green homeland hills. Do they come to every city? Does San Francisco share a special place in the heart of the young Irish fancy? Until I move, I may never know.

My special insight into this small temporal demographic of the City comes from two sources. For one, the Irish, like all Europeans, are more accustomed to riding trains than the average American. So they fill the subways when the rest of us might otherwise leave them empty. But I might never have truly noticed the trend had Emily not worked so long and devastatingly hard for PIRG, finding many of the young Irish in the employ of their summer canvass by summer’s end. They come, no doubt seeking just enough work to earn their room and board and revelry in the midst of one California season. They left, those at PIRG, thinking that only in America can we muck up idealism and civic engagement with obsequious panhandling and worker abuse. No doubt, it’s a lesson worth learning from our sordid country.

I was nestled amongst three such Irish on the train home today: two lasses and a lad full of the high optimism of early summer interviews. They were tired and already feeling the pinch of the interview process, but one among them had been triumphantly offered a job at a clothes shop that afternoon, recounting an amusing anecdote of picking up a shirt to demonstrate her sales technique and finding it rather small. “Can you believe,” she went on to explain, “they have a clothes shop only for children?”

“I would love to work in a clothes shop,” her fellow female responded wistfully.

I’m likely painting a far more starry-eyed visage of these young Eireanns than they deserve, but if so, it’s because I want to believe. My picture of Ireland is idealized enough as it is without idealistic fresh-faced inhabitants coming to San Francisco with their folkloric accents and ginger freckles. No doubt I would’ve jumped at the chance one summer to take off for three months in Dublin with a handful of friends. And maybe I would’ve never returned.

It might also be worth noting that Irish is my selective heritage. I say selective because truly “European mutt” is the only description that can fit my bill, though Irish is tied with English and German at the top of the list. Somehow Ireland’s history feels better to me than England’s or Germany’s, though, and I’ve taken a special liking to that particular quarter. I say it here perhaps only to disclaim my interest in these visitors, or perhaps disclaim anything that might be misinterpreted. These are “my people” and I can say what I want to, like so many religious and ethnic groups will speak of their own.

Of course, truly, I have no people except those friends I select and the parents who raised me. Any ethnic kinship with any real group feels shameful at worst, irrelevant at best. And America? What is America except a place to disappoint the hopeful aspirations of a downtrodden but rising race of Irish?

And yet they keep coming. If you have to come, it might as well be San Francisco. Weather just like home, only less interesting. The isolation of a peninsula to replace an island. A sense of quiet perseverance against a surrounding world that might not understand.

Malarkey? Blarney?

You mc the call.

by

Subterranean Homesick Pigeons

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

As I was coming out of the subway today, a pair of pigeons were going in. They weren’t quite to the faregate yet, but I doubt any BART security would kick up much of a fuss over two small birds.

They were wandering, pecking and peeking around in that cautious, almost shy way that pigeons amble when they’re not surrounded by hundreds of other competitive pigeons. No doubt it’s a crumb of food or something that looks like food that first leads them down this path. Probably not left deliberately, but one never knows. Down the first staircase, around the corner, the next staircase, and then the long white-floored expanse of empty fluorescent glow.

It has to be two pigeons – it seems somehow unlikely that just one would make the venture underground. I’ve probably seen it before, but it was frantic, somehow incongruous and unsettling. The solo pigeon is well aware that there is something amiss in unfamiliar settings. The pigeon pair can reassure each other, make certain, give a gentle cooing signal that everything’s going to be all right. We don’t realize just how much animals communicate with each other, how everyone has a way of talking.

So they explore and wander. Pecking at the flat black specks of color in the long white hallways. Cocking their heads to pry their gaze into a passing human’s eye. Maybe, after a time, pausing to decorate the floor or starting away in fright at a lurching playful child.

This situation can’t end that well, though I didn’t stick around to observe conclusions. Eventually the pigeons will test their ability to fly, find themselves strangely hampered by the lid on the air. Thus limited, there may be a small amount of discomfort and even panic as they try to discern where they can take to their wings. Eventually the humans will tire of the scat and flapping, seeking to chase their source back to where they belong. But if you’ve ever watched someone trying to herd pigeons, they are almost perversely averse to such corralling. Even if someone has their best interests at heart. They will take just enough flight to get behind you. Duck around the sides. Go briefly in the right direction only to amble back to their initial interest point.

Gradually more disoriented, unable to reconcile their new location with any prior place, they will tire and weaken. Feeling threatened, they will continue to peck at any who approach too closely. No food, more scat, high stress. Eventually, exhaustion. And then either de facto escape or retirement.

Some pigeons carry messages. Tied to their leg. In their beak perhaps. Steadily seeking out humans. Waiting patiently for them to read. And perhaps reply.

by

The Wheels on the Bus Fall Off and Off

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: , ,

Did you feel that?

Monday was sort of cruising along and everything was going pretty swimmingly. Then morning became afternoon and soon, the day hit a wall like so many bugs catching up to a speeding automobile windshield. Wham. And that’s the ballgame.

I’ve been mulling a post about a unique and uniquely productive Sunday, in which Em and I ventured into the city of my work (San Francisco) and took in the “church” “Celebration” at the place of my work (Glide) and then a play by Em’s favorite playwright (Athol Fugard) with the music of a mutually respected artist (Tracy Chapman). It was good. The celebrating and play-watching were not perfect and there were disconnects, but it was a solid Sunday with the brimming of hope and promise and a little bit more energy, focus, togetherness.

Wham.

I write a lot about feelings and moods and the emotional reality that underlies what appears to be going on. I think a lot of people roll their eyes at this stuff. For those people, I guess I also write about hard facts, like politics or baseball or what I did on my summer vacation. But rarely, oh rarely, is it what’s really going on. Most of the time, what’s really going on is what people can’t know or nail down as fact. It’s the inkling in the back of one’s mind, the ebb and flow of ability to focus and relate, to feel and be felt. The undercurrent that’s always at the edge of consciousness, beckoning to a deeper sense of understanding. But oh, it’s real. More real than the clutter we fill our lives with or the time we spend in various seats (school, work, obligation).

All one has to seek is confirmation. Just articulate what you’re feeling, yield to the emotional authenticity and the reality of it all, and you’ll understand that you’re not alone. You’re not the only one thinking and feeling. You may be more ready to let people know (or less), more willing to embrace (or less), but it’s there for everyone. To deny it is like denying the sun just because there are cloudy days and night.

And I’m telling you, folks, the wheels fell off about 2 PM Pacific. Clunk. Clunk.

I heard Cecil Williams preach on Sunday, apparently a rare treat these days in his advancing years. I joked with Emily afterwards that he was telling me to quit my job (at his organization), embracing a message of truth and freedom that seemed to be beckoning me pell-mell to yield entirely to creative urges, to take the leap of faith to full-time writing at the expense of the comforts and hindrances of a day job. It was all in there. Sure, it was also about substance abuse and living on the street and shedding materialism, but it was about my story too. Whether it’s popcorn or people who threaten us, our time is fixed here and no one gets to stay later than they get to. Not even you.

I used to run a debate case about knowing the date of one’s death, if given the omniscient and presupposed choice. It was opp-choice and it was perhaps my favorite case to just plain old debate. Every round was different, every pick was thoughtful, almost every round advanced my understanding of what it was to live on the planet. And like many cases people run, it seemed entirely one-sided to me personally. I could make the right arguments for every side, but I think anyone who wouldn’t choose, right now, at this second, to find out the precise date of their death, is completely crazy.

Get busy living or get busy dying. And one helps determine the other and how it’s best spent.

Of course, the old argument goes that one should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Don’t squander everything for today, but live as though you could die tomorrow and feel okay about it. Maybe not good, but certainly okay.

I’m a long way from that, as (I’d guess) are you. And the more we have afternoons like this one, the more it feels it matters.

This is the only life you’ll be living here. Take a good long look.

by

Land Ho!

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Tuesday afternoon must’ve been pretty inspiring. Walking back from the subject of my last post, my mind was already fomenting the issues at play in this one. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t have more time to write posts at work anymore.

Walking in and out of the Tenderloin is always a surreal experience. It just doesn’t seem to make sense that an area so desperate can be surrounded by such wealth and privilege. The novel idea I had before Loosely Based (what I was actually working on [on and off] during my senior project in 1998) was to be called Blatant Contrast. The idea here was to discuss urban areas in America and how much of a stunning distinction there was between the existence of rich and poor who, often, were integrated on the same blocks and city streets.

While there was integration in Albuquerque, I’ve never seen so much segregation of groups as in San Francisco. Sure, a panhandler might wander down to the nearest BART station or the cable cars, but the Tenderloin generally seems to have invisible walls on all sides, girding in its residents where anything is acceptable and nothing is taking for granted. And yet a walk to lunch, or home, or just about anywhere takes you back to the promised land of California, one of the most expensive places in the world to live, the precious gold of the Barbary Coast.

And yet walking reminds one of one’s feet, one’s literal place in the world, one’s footing and setting and bearings. It certainly doesn’t hurt that I just went to India and have gotten a perhaps unprecedented context for the width and space of the world and how similar every place really is. The spirit ebbs and flows with time and space, but one’s same feet will find the same ground anywhere… anywhere there’s land. And the land may yield fruit or feed fowl or offer rocky rejection, but land is land is land. I have seen it all, and man, it’s all the same.

Of course the real lesson of the Tenderloin is a perfect illustration of how land is not the same, how no land in America (and much of the world) is treated the same as any other patch of land. “How much land does a man need?” Tolstoy asked, but that question never seems to limit the discussion here. Perhaps it’s “How much land can a person avoid getting foreclosed on?” Or “How much land can a credit card buy?” The question is really the same, especially if you’ve read the story (it’s excellent), but the perspective has just enough tweaks and bounces to make it seem different. The point is this, in a world where “Location, location, location” is perceived as the benchmark of selling real estate: every square inch of land is valued differently; every square inch of land is the same.

I understand all the arguments and I’m immersed in a culture that promotes this perspective. Land is where one lives, and where one lives determines everything. Being 20 seconds or 20 minutes or 20 hours from this or that good or service or access makes all the difference in how one lives one’s life. Fair enough, I can understand that perspective and how its valued. The relativity of it all. But the Tenderloin breaks that justification over its knee, since it’s nestled right in the heart of all these other valuable areas. Some definitions of the TL put it as small as 30 square blocks – a castle of poverty under siege from the forces of the gentry on all sides. The Tenderloin is just as close (or far) from all the same activities as everything on its border. And yet its land is worthless, while the same patch of asphalt and cement across the street might be among the most coveted on the planet.

I’m trying to get you to really think about this distinction and whether it makes sense. I haven’t lost my mind and forgotten all of the reasons that property values fluctuate and all the factors the people have been trained to take into account. I understand about the condition of property and the surrounding aesthetics and everything that goes into these calculations that millions of people devote their entire lives to manipulating. I’m asking you to roll back those assumptions, ingrained as so obvious, and really question whether this whole set of perspectives on land makes sense. Or is it simply the willing, overt suspension of disbelief?

Of course the contrast gets wider and more obvious when one looks at a place like India. Obviously one isn’t very close to the services available in San Francisco when one’s in India, but this latter locale is certainly no undesirable place. And yet the whole country, even the most valuable land in the nation, doesn’t come close to San Francisco prices. And even there, constant variation and the close proximity of worthless land and that which is highly valued, is the norm.

Or perhaps the example is best illustrated with land on the outskirts of some growing metropolitan area. Bear Canyon, for those New Mexicans who remember. Or the outskirts of Pleasanton perhaps. The same land, sitting there, can be worthless for decades, centuries, time immemorial. Valued only by lonely souls who seek solitude, or someone who planted their claim flag only after their horse got lost. And suddenly, almost overnight, as the city rolls out and the people roll in, the land is more valuable than it would have been had gold and oil both been uncovered ‘neath its crust.

This is the way the world is. But does it make sense? Is anyone here really valuing land, really understanding its capability and innate properties? Or is it simply the willing suspension of disbelief, to say that other people value something in this and that way, so I will too? That there’s nothing I could do to alter this perspective, so might as well get in line and aspire to the high end as well?

It always amazes me that believers in the so-called Invisible Hand, the only truly respected deity in modern America, have such a hard time imagining a world where people willingly ruled out violence and embraced pacifism. As though it were somehow more essential to human nature to blindly blithely trust the priorities of a marketplace than to avoid hurting one’s fellow person. Traditionally, it has been easier to persuade people to flee to selfishness and embrace the Hand than to make sacrifices for the betterment of society. But this is sort of like saying that it’s easier to reward six-year-olds for tearing toys away from their fellow first-graders rather than teaching them about sharing. While technically true, it sort of ignores the fundamental question at hand. And when it really comes down to it, humans are infinitely adaptable. This is both a strength (survival through adversity) and a weakness (almost unimaginable gullibility and willingness to follow). But people can be taught.

Because of course the same principle in play with land applies to currency itself. Or celebrity. People have created massive architectures around hierarchy and distinction and the elevation of some to the detriment of others. This has not been the path of least resistance… it has been the result of careful, extensive planning and manipulation and effort and work that, when combined with human adaptability, has yielded the societies you see today.

People tell you this piece of paper has value and you believe them. Why? Most fundamentally, because everyone else is running around believing them as well. Don’t think this is the justification? If you woke up tomorrow and everyone were effusively discarding paper bills, using them to wallpaper houses, wrap fish, light fires, and so forth, how would you react? Sure, for 24 hours, you might greedily grab all the cash that you could. Maybe even spend a week dreaming of the piles of paper that you had amassed, waiting for the tide to turn back. But it probably wouldn’t be much more than a month till you walked by 100’s blowing in the streets, or even started lighting some up on a cold night without kindling. You would adapt. You would adopt what’s being done around you, what you see.

And you tell me we can’t train people the same way to not kill each other? To willingly rule out any possibility of violence, or to put it on the same plane as burning stacks of $100-bills? Really?

I think this is where Hamlet should’ve been going (maybe was implicitly going) with the old “Nothing is either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” I’ve always detested that line because I believe, wholeheartedly and fundamentally, that moral distinctions are the only ones that transcend all this trivial human suspension of disbelief. Good and bad really do get past human solipsism and sophistry, to a world of God and morality and the higher order. But everything else? Sure. These things are entirely determined by a species almost obsessed with finding distinctions where none exist, with creating ways of valuing the same thing disparately. Think about how things are marketed. Every piece of advertising, fundamentally, comes down to this question. How can we get people to make phantom distinctions? How can we get people to overvalue the slightest distinctions? How can we divide people’s worldview into one of increasing gulfs between what arbitrarily “has value” and what equally arbitrarily “is worthless”?

If we spent the same energy and time on moral distinctions instead of “value” or “worth” distinctions, we’d have a whole new ballgame. And everyone would win.

by

The Noon Gun

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: , ,

I grew up with stories of “When Daddy was a little boy…”, tales of my father’s childhood lived across adventures from Nevada to DC to Afghanistan to Korea. The preferred setting for these narratives had to be the streets of Kabul, and no Kabul story was complete without some sort of reference to the Noon Gun.

The Noon Gun was a cannon that was (still is?) fired each day at noon, perhaps the atomic clock of its era, to help the residents of Kabul track their temporal progress through the hours. To the uninitiated, it must have caused quite a start to hear the cacophonous blast of gunpowder, an unheralded harbinger of the decades to come in Afghanistan. And there were reassurances and snickers from those who knew, or those who perhaps were just complacent in their noontide reminder.

I was walking to pick up a burrito just now, exploring a new route to a new Mexican (but not New Mexican) place gracing my slightly new location at my slightly new job. And it sounded, a howling wail tolling the end of the world, up, down, up, hold, down. “Take cover, take flight, take heed.” But then when do I go to lunch? And was I at work just yesterday?

It’s San Francisco’s own noon gun, of course, which sounds only on Tuesdays and precisely at noon. It’s a city-wide test of the Emergency Broadcast System, in case of question-marks, so that everyone can know to head for the hills as soon as question-marks happen. You fill in your own blanks, because no one’s really quite clear what it would be. And that fuels the effectiveness… anything can happen, everything is threatening.

But somehow, at the early onset of Tuesday afternoon, it sounds more like a cry for help. Of course it’s only on Tuesdays – when else could it be? And noon, the dawn of the difficult period, the advent of the slow decline into nothingness that is afternoon. Somehow the Tuesday Noon Siren calls out like an affirmation of one’s internal feelings rather than a particular call to action or safety. Why wouldn’t a forlorn, urgent wailing call out at just this particular moment?

But it’s really trying to warn us, like “Vantage Point”, a movie that should probably be protested and picketed when it comes down to it, that the Danger is Out There. “Vantage Point”, a waste of a dear couple hours over this already less-than-precious-weekend, offers an intricate plot that is fiction to its very core. Yes, there are Presidential conspiracies of body-doubles and the fact that no matter how many people came together to kill someone, they will be labeled as a “lone gunman”. But the picture of a terrorist threat, that for the pure power of violence seems to rail against nearly the whole world, that is collected, coordinated, and wants to fight some mysterious war for the sake of never ending it, is the height of American projection. The United States may stand unilaterally for bold, violent action and rogue “heroics”, thus fearing its own image more than any reality out there. But at least if one attacks a mirror with full force, one only gets bloodied by broken glass.

I’m not saying that nothing will change, nothing will happen, and certainly not that nothing will appear to happen. But jumping and running from the mirror is a little distracting when we should be realizing it’s what’s being reflected that should scare us.

And boom.

by

It’s Official

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: ,

At least now I can stop hiding some of what’s going on, and maybe even be a little less cryptic.

My last day in my current job (Contracts/Information Systems Administrator of Glide’s Youth and Family Development Division) will be next Tuesday, the 22nd. But I’m staying with Glide. Starting February 11th (upon return from India), I’ll be taking over as the Program and Strategy Analyst for the whole Foundation.

I probably shouldn’t get into all the details of exactly why I’m so excited about this change and why it couldn’t be coming at a better time. Obviously there’s still small parts of me that are conflicted about choosing to work when I don’t have to work, but there’s enough challenge and opportunity in this position to make it worth it, for now. It was a pretty clear decision when it came down to it, and hopefully will remain so. And I’m sure that once I start rolling up my sleeves and getting into the work, I’m going to really enjoy it.

More than anything, I’m elated about this because it gives me an opportunity to use the parts of my brain that I feel are best honed. Very few jobs manage to do this. Repeatedly in the job description and discussion of this position, words like analytical and critical and creative kept coming up. I will get to use these aspects and mental energies to actually do my work, not just to find a way to get through my work without being too bored. So not only will it be a challenge, but it will be the right kind of challenge. And that just makes me feel extremely fortunate.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the overall goal of my work will be to make an organization that I greatly believe in run more smoothly and efficiently.

My co-Managers at the Division I’m leaving took me out to lunch today as a farewell and I will continue to have little events like this through Tuesday. People have been e-mailing really great wishes and encouragements. It’s been a rather overwhelming day as I put the last 21 months of my life in context and realize that my routine is about to shift tremendously and will never look the same. And there are a lot of people I’ll miss.

But it’s time, it’s the right time, and it looks like the right move. And I won’t be too far from any of these people, and will get a chance to connect and work with some really great people I just barely know at this point. And of course India will probably turn my perspective sideways and give me a whole new dimension and depth on change, transition, and 2008 as a whole. My whole vision is boggling a bit as I try to grasp the enormity of what’s taking place.

So thank you Glide, for the opportunity and the chance. I will be setting a record for length of time with one employer, a threshold I wasn’t sure would be crossed as recently as last month. I’m ecstatic to stay on board for a whole new chapter.

Gonna be some changes made.

by

The Market Will Sell

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Strangers on a Train, Tags: , ,

Every month, almost like clockwork, the Powell Street BART station will change over its entire advertising schema. It’s not quite the changing of the guard, but it’s at least as colorful. In addition to the standard raft of billboards throughout the station, there is a large floor advertisement actually matted atop the base of the escalators. It’s one of those things that really blew me away the first time I saw it and has now become entirely commonplace.

Anyway, December ’07 is devoted to Kaiser Permanente’s “Thrive” campaign. They have rolled out a holiday-oriented theme that, in line with most of the Thrive stuff, seems to believe that health is just a matter of positive thinking and maybe a smattering of vegetables and exercise. An interesting approach from medical providers. But given that they benefit the most from people not using their services, I suppose it works.

So each ad is different, which is a refreshing change from the iPod ads which all run together, or the earlier Sony Reader ads which literally had two different designs that they repeated about twelve times each. All seem to resolve around holiday cheer and vacation, with the running theme of “Time to [blank]”. Time to Relax. Looks nice. Time to Forgive. Cute, especially with a youngish couple kissing and making up, with the kissing neatly cloaked behind a balloon. Time to Illuminate, with the politically correct menorah. After all, there’s another with a Christmas tree. Time to Thrust. Wait, what?

Even a double-take assures the mind that it is indeed “Time to Thrust”. Part of the reaffirmation is that the image is entirely below the waist, with a headless female figure standing barefoot atop a notably taller headless male figure’s shoes, facing him. Oh, wait, hold on… “Time to Trust”. And – oh my goodness – it’s a young child with an adult.

You really have no idea how disturbing I found this ad to be. There is massive blurriness behind the area of the T, R, and U in what (apparently) is really saying “Trust”. But it’s really hard to see. And then there’s the factor that the whole ad campaign is punctuated with Thrive, neatly started with the THR letter combination. And of course the below-the-waist cross-gender shot. Yeah, there’s really no way on Earth this was unintentional.

But you can feel sheepish enough, Kaiser, for evoking encouragement of pelvic movement on your health-promotion ad series (insert overly obvious joke here). But in a presumed (when one really examines it fully and objectively, not quickly and assumptively) father-and-daughter combo? This just breaks new ground of inappropriateness. And frankly, it’s ultimately disturbing. After all, the message is that it’s time to trust. But if it’s time to thrust, the trust couldn’t be more misplaced. Between the adult male and the female child. Could it really get any more subliminally despicable?

You can say whatever you will about the use of sex in advertising just being the market solving. After all, I was reading about another example just yesterday. But when Kaiser’s invoking pedophilia, I get a little worried. Though I guess they got what they really wanted. Someone’s talking about it. Instead of spending my time relating details of my life or the latest revelation about what’s going on, I’m talking about an inappropriate ad on the subway.

What, exactly, has the market solved lately?

by

Smells Like Grandmothers

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Quick Updates, Tags: , , ,

Glide has several buildings in the Tenderloin, and while I primarily work at one (the Family, Youth and Childcare Center), I often have occasion to visit the others, especially the “main” building at 330 Ellis.

This building is the home of most of our programs, including the free meals program, which serves 1,095 free meals a year, which just happens to equal (365×3).

The fog and condensation of San Francisco around this time of year (or really, any time of year) often creates a moist and damp atmosphere that certainly pervades the main building. After all, the door is always open there (it’s not just a metaphor). The environment, the very texture of the air is almost exactly akin to so many rainy or almost-rainy days in Oregon.

And thus, it just takes the right ingredients during an active or nearly-active meal downstairs in the basement, with all the hot air set to rise, to transport me to a kitchen in the suburbs of Portland, circa the late ’80s and early ’90s. Bacon, especially, helps. And maybe just a hint of cigarettes.

I have been a devout vegetarian for over a decade, but there’s something about the smell of bacon that I will never stop loving. That something is precisely this association. My mother’s mother lived in her bathrobe in the kitchen for a vast portion of the days that I would spend with those grandparents in Oregon. A chain smoker, she would chew on straws between the multiple packs a day. This probably doesn’t seem like a flattering image, but I adored my grandmother, and would make a special effort to be the first one awake every morning when my parents and I stayed at the house. She was always up before my grandfather, and I was always up before my parents. Early morning was our time, in the kitchen. And she would cook bacon and chew on straws and we would talk about politics and our day and play dominos and I would promise her up and down that yes, I would go to college and no, I would never smoke a single cigarette.

Tomorrow will be forty years exactly since the death of my father’s mother. Those of you handy with math can tell that this indicates that we missed each other on this planet by more than 12 years. And as much as I loved my grandmother who I shared nearly two decades of time with, the one I missed would have been my favorite. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of someone who would understand me better than she.

So I can only imagine. But for now, today, on the steps of the main building, they can share. Why not? And I’ll pause, take in a full breath of poisonous smoke and murderous bacon, and smile. This is home. This is a moment, a portal to worlds of youth and before I was born.

Grandmothers, I kept my promises.

by

School of Hotel Management

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: , ,

On my walk home from Glide each day, I pass by the back end of the Hilton. The Hilton on the edge of San Francisco’s Tenderloin is a gargantuan 46-story hotel that Wikipedia tells me is the largest lodging facility (1,911 rooms) on the West Coast. There’s a joke around Glide’s disaster preparation circles about “depending on which way the Hilton falls” in the event of the Big One. If the Hilton, across the street from our main building, falls west, everything becomes a lot less relevant in our preparation.

The block covered by the back end of this monstrous hotel is also the block of “no-man’s land” that separates the Tenderloin from the high-end tourist district denoted by the Powell Street cable car turn-around and Union Square. That only one long block can separate these worlds (and that I cross between both every day) is an endless source of wonder for me. And the Hilton’s back end, replete with a massive loading bay and three full dumpsters, makes an eerily quiet neutral zone to secure this distance.

Not only do large stocks of brand-name food and drink come in and endless supplies of eternally foul-smelling refuse go out, but the back-side of the Hilton is also the designated smoking area for staff. No small number of them enjoy smoke breaks while seated on the immense marblesque blocks at the base of the structure. Sometimes they even push back on these blocks to nestle themselves almost invisibly between or behind the oversized pots for plants and trees that adorn this area. There is an insipid illustration on the wall of the “Team Member Entrance” of the Hilton at the center of the back-end, showing servility heightened to a virtue in a row of uniformed staff members. The live people, fortunately, tend to have a bit more spunk. Though sometimes one can detect exactly how their soul is being squeezed up out of their windpipe, and how much longer they can keep it down.

Amidst the descending fog and spirit of premature nightfall on this particular night (that would’ve been the first weeknight of real darkness, were it not for Congress’ determination to ruin Halloween and our Outlook calendars with an extra week of so-called Daylight Saving), I was somewhat heartened and even comforted by the thought of some two- to four-thousand souls bedding up for a long autumn night in that hotel as I walked by. Of course they weren’t yet bedding up at all, but the fleeting thought in my mind took me to one of my strange professional fascinations. Namely, to be a Night Manager in a hotel.

I have had many such fascinations (let’s not quite call them fantasies – that word implies a whole lot more than is involved in these particular fancies) over the course of a quarter-century of conscious life. Being a farmer is a big one, one that still tugs on the heartstrings sometimes despite my overall distaste for physical labor. Baseball player comes to mind. Rock star. But Hotel Night Manager might trump all the rest. Well, except baseball player.

With a few profound exceptions, being a Hotel Night Manager is a serene experience. There is quiet in everything. One has time to breathe, to read, to observe. Contact is incidental and completely devoid of context – the people who are staying in hotels are living a life outside of life, and one gets to live along with them. For the HNM, these contacts are predominantly insomniacs, lovers, the inconsolable, and the weariest or most spontaneous of travelers. Stellar company, altogether, perhaps a list of my ideal chosen cohorts.

It should be noted that this particular desire is not centered in a hotel like the Hilton – I can’t imagine there is just one HNM there, nor that any of them get much ease or quiet. It’s much more pictured in an idyllic hotel setting: a swanky but small downtown establishment, a National Park lodge, the La Fonda in Santa Fe, or perhaps the stereotypical New England inns (see “Newhart”, “Gilmore Girls”, Hotel New Hampshire). The La Fonda would be ideal. But there’s only one place like that in the world.

No small part of this daydream is encompassed in my own love of hotel lobbies, like the ones listed above, at night. The first inspirations for taking interest in such a job were probably little beyond spending many late hours in a wonderful hotel lobby and observing the Night Manager. It had to occur to me many times, as I turned the next page or chatted idly with a friend, that the only difference between us was that they were dressed up and got paid, while I could go to bed whenever I wanted.

Often, I didn’t want. One of these key hotel lobby moments that springs to mind is in Baltimore in May of 1997. It was not exactly a good time in my life. I was at Catholic Nationals, the next-to-last debate tournament of my year, and I had all 5 preliminary rounds the next day. I couldn’t sleep and I had no desire to. The lobby of the hotel (my kingdom to recall its name) was gorgeous, and I spent hours with a walkman borrowed from Barrett watching the activity therein slowly dwindle and pondering what had become of my existence. I got not a minute of sleep. The tournament the next day swirled in slow surreality. Between rounds 3 and 4, someone started up a pickup baseball game on the pristine grass quad of the prep school hosting the tourney, and I got to live out two of my professional aspirations at once, never to be fulfilled. I debated well, but fell just short of the break rounds. They counted ballots and not rounds (3 judges in each round), and I would’ve made it had they just counted rounds. Or maybe it was the other way around. Barrett broke. The next day I would spend one of the most solitary days of my time on this planet at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, wondering how low the needle could go.

For all my dislike of corporations, there are some that I must admit provide a necessary service. Hotels must be one of these, though nice ones cause concern for my conscience. This does not mean, however, that I could ever really bring myself to spend significant time or energy advancing the will of a corporation (even a hotel) when there is so much else to be done in this lifetime.

Maybe. After all, the job would be a lot like bartending. Endless fodder of experience and conversation for the books.

But sooner than that, I have to get writing those books already. So the lobby will have to wait.

Sleep well, Hilton.

by

Who’ll Stop the Rain?

Categories: A Day in the Life, If You're Going to San Francisco, Read it and Weep, Tags: , ,

When it rains in the Tenderloin, it’s easy to lose your footing.

Not only is the rain itself slick in this oft-forgotten neighborhood of San Francisco, but the sidewalks are so often coated with various debris that it mingles with the rainwater to create conditions reminiscent of a Slip-n-Slide. But there are few fun and games when it rains here, only the usual mass of poor, tired, and huddled, alongside the pimps and the dealers.

Everyone, even the pimps and the dealers, look a little more miserable in the rain. When your life is out-of-doors, especially overnight, there’s no such thing as appreciating a rainy day. As Richard Adams notes in Watership Down (my favorite book of all time), “Many human beings say that they enjoy the winter, but what they really enjoy is feeling proof against it. For them there is no winter food problem. They have fires and warm clothes. The winter cannot hurt them and therefore increases their sense of cleverness and security. For birds and animals, and for poor men, winter is another matter. Rabbits, like most wild animals, suffer hardship.”

And since there is no snow in San Francisco, the biting wind-blown rain is our winter.

I’ve been reading Shantaram lately, highly acclaimed by many of my friends. Much of the book is centered in the slums of Bombay. The descriptions and insights remind me much of the Tenderloin, though obviously on a much vaster scale. Which makes me wonder, sometimes, why I’m not in the slums of Bombay, or Baghdad, or the camps of Darfur. Surely there is a deeper need there. The rain falls harder in the land of monsoons. Or perhaps doesn’t fall at all.

I know all my arguments for positioning myself here. The United States remains the epicenter of world influence and thus, obviously, the best place to write, to speak, to be read and heard. One can change the minds of the poor and forgotten, but they have already been disregarded. One can change the minds of the rich and remembered, and watch the ripples fall out from there. I don’t like it, I wouldn’t choose for it to be this way, but I can’t deny practicality out of hand. Besides, it makes a certain amount of sense. The people of the Tenderloin are living much like rabbits, or any other being on the constant brink of survival. Survival does not afford one the luxury to consider larger aims of philosophy or politics. Survival clouds out all other issues and concerns, dominating the landscape with decisions of fight or flight. Part of our mission at Glide is to get people above the survival level, so they can again consider the larger questions. But the landscape of those larger questions will always be dominated by those who have the most time and energy to consider them. And thus, I remain here. Or at least I justify remaining here. Every day, it’s one or the other.

(This post, by the way, has earned the categorization “Read it and Weep” by virtue of discussing books and reading, not by necessarily being sad. The titling of my books/reading category being “Read it and Weep” is my own joke at myself for liking sad books. But this is not meant to imply that you should weep at this post in general. What you choose to be sad about is your own prerogative.)

I lack a window in my crowded narrow office, insulating me from momentary reminders of the rain or the rabbit-people of the Tenderloin. I have a warren. They do not.

by

Of John K. and Signage (or: I Have All the Cool Experiences)

Categories: A Day in the Life, All the Poets Became Rock Stars, If You're Going to San Francisco, Tags: , ,

I am not, by nature, someone who is particularly prone to planning ahead. Unlike some people who one might classify as “flaky”, this is a deliberate choice and not something I internally struggle with. I like not planning. I have my reasons, and to me they’re all true. But rather than delve into an expository on those reasons, I think this vignette of my life last night will serve to illustrate. Showing, not telling, they tell me.

Months ago, the Weakerthans let me know via their e-mail list that they would be coming to visit the city where I work, San Francisco, on October 3rd. The Weakerthans are a relatively obscure Canadian band who have chosen to stay on independent labels despite being talented enough to go for the big-time. They’re one of the bands I only know because I’m friends with David Gray (don’t misunderstand the musical mixed metaphor here – I’m talking about my friend, David Gray, not a Scottish folk singer… perhaps it’s best if I just call him Gris from now on). But unlike most of the music I’ve heard only through Gris, the Weakerthans are really good.

So they say they’ll be coming in October and I start to ready the usual suspects of people in the area who would want to go (Em, Gris, Anna) and get people excited about the show. Then I let it go for awhile, right up until this week when it flashed into my head that something exciting was coming up in October. By this time, rechecking with all the usual suspects reveals that no one else wants to go (everyone’s quite busy) and, lo and behold, the Weakerthans snuck a new CD out a week ago that will clearly be the basis for the show’s set and I don’t know it! Double-decker disaster!

(I initially thought that my e-mail list which is supposed to automatically keep me abreast of all things Weakerthans failed to inform me of the new CD, but upon review it seems that I was easily misled by the title of said disc. It’s called “Reunion Tour”. And I think they announced it in the same e-mail wherein they invited me to see them on their… tour. Chalk one up for not skimming the e-mail updates … or perhaps for bands never ever titling non-live album releases with the word Tour. Incidentally, the band has never broken up.)

Swift action was called for. I came to work yesterday with a plan to acquire the new CD at a music store near my place of employ and (gulp) listen to it at work sufficiently to catch up with it for the new show. I gulp not because there’s any sort of restriction on me listening to music at work – it’s all but encouraged – but because I pretty much can’t concentrate when there’s music on. Any noise that I can make sense of makes it almost impossible for me to zero in on anything else. Ambient, non-linguistic noise does not have the same problem, even at high volumes. I have always been amazed by people who legitimately seem to focus better while listening to music.

So the plan rolled out and I was able to find absurdly rote work to do for the first 40-minute run-though of the CD. Not enough to learn it, but at least I could know which songs to get excited about. And then I decided to hang out in my office for 40 minutes after work to more closely repeat the experience. It wasn’t until I was rechecking the show time on the website of the club (Slim’s) during track 7 that I actually saw the words… “PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS SHOW IS COMPLETELY SOLD OUT – THANK YOU!”

I knew the Weakerthans had stayed independent, so there was only one possible interpretation of that sentence. I wasn’t going to get to go.

Just as my heart was recovering from the shocking jolt of this realization (I had really been spending the whole day preparing for and thinking about this show), a plan began to hatch in my mind. So, only slightly fazed, I put together a sign to print out with a collection of Weakerthans song titles reworked to implore concert-goers to give me an extra ticket they might have (e.g. “This is a Ticket Seeker Never Leave Open”). I wrapped it up with a quote from “Pamphleteer” about standing on a corner, trying to get people’s attention, [and a ticket]. And I made it clear that I would pay face value for the ticket and was not seeking a freebie – although I would gladly have paid well more than the $15 face value of the ticket, I was quite concerned about being rung up for some sort of scalping infraction were I to put in writing that I would pay double face value. In fact I was quite concerned with this whole project that I could get hauled in (or at least shooed away) under scalping accusations of some sort or another. There’s a reason actual scalpers don’t entreaty customers with signs.

My larger concern, of course, was with investing hours of time in the cold with my sign and ending up going home without seeing the show. If it sold out in the first place, who knows how many die-hard fans they had accumulated since the last time they played SF? Would there be a fleet of people with signs like mine, boldly bidding $100 for entry? At least if I got shooed away early, I would only be out a brisk mile-plus walk across the city.

So I got there at about 6:20 (doors 7:30, show 8:00), to stand against a pole by the entrance perfectly positioned to face the line. The line had three inhabitants, stalwartly bracing against the wind tunnel formed by Slim’s on the right and… the tour bus on the left! Interesting. The box office was closed, so I couldn’t cajole them. I asked the three line-standers if they had an extras, then hauled my sign, backed with cardboard from my backpack. The wind was blowing such that it pinned the sign against my chest, which was rather fortunate… had the wind or arrangement of the street been reversed, all my hair would have obscured my face and the sign would constantly be in danger of catching the wind on a corner and blowing down the road.

Band members began to filter back and forth between the bus and the club, sometimes glancing at my sign and a couple took time to stop and read it. (The fonts were to small and people have a harder time seeing than I do, so people would often have to stop right next to me and sort of lean in to get the full impact of the sign. But people kept doing it.) Very few actual concert-goers were showing up. And then John K. Samson, the lead singer, turned the corner with an apparent local friend of his and was chatting with him for awhile. Then he popped into the club, then back over to the bus, and then came by to read my sign and say hello.

Dialogue in these situations is always a little strange. I don’t think stars (major or minor) like the fan who just opens up and starts talking about how they think the star is brilliant and speaks to them or some such. It may be true, it may even be implicit in the interaction, but it’s just weird to hear, especially in an off-the-cuff interaction that doesn’t have indefinite amounts of time to explore lyrical interpretation or the symbolism of syntax. My perception that this is the case is drawn from strained interactions with debaters when I was one of the top debaters on APDA… it’s probably the closest I’ve been to feeling what an adult celebrity might feel like. (And I’m not trying to exaggerate here or delve into grandeur – I’m very well aware of what debate was and wasn’t. I’m just explaining a sensation of an interaction that seems vaguely microcosmic.) Novice debaters I’d never met would walk right up to me and start talking about how they felt about a round, or try to get my opinion on a type of case, often with no introduction, warning, or observation of the fact that this was a weird thing to do. The lack of introduction exacerbated things like them knowing my name and my not knowing theirs. And they almost all seemed to come from the school of thought that if you just talk to someone like you’ve been good friends for a long time, then everything will go perfectly. It was often too odd for words, and always left me feeling a little bad about not having memorized the 214 people who might be registered at a tournament and anticipating everything they might say to me.

So I didn’t want to do that.

“How’s it going?”
“Good. (laughs) I like your sign.”
“Thanks. I didn’t think you’d sell out.”
“Yeah. Sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m just hoping to get in to see you guys tonight. I’m sure someone’ll come along with an extra. I’m pretty confident.”
“Well, I’ll see what I can do for you. I’ll see if we can work this out.”
“That would be great! Thanks.”

He stopped by a couple times thereafter, once to tell me that he was “working on it” and another to say that he thought it was going to work out.

Shortly after the last interaction (about 50 minutes from when I’d started standing there and the line had now grown a bit with no extras in the crowd), someone clearly in some sort of band-manager position came up and asked me to write down my name on a piece of paper in a Sharpie I could hardly open because of the wind tunnel cold. Five minutes later, she said I had been put on a list for the will-call line and could buy a ticket!

The rest was history and became like the normal experience of going to a show by myself, one that (like doing many things alone, such as going to movies) I often really enjoy as a uniquely personal event. Going to a show with others is great fun, but the event becomes as much about the people you’re going with as the music itself or the band or even how one as a person experiences the whole environment. Going by oneself really isolates the emotions of the event itself… I wouldn’t choose that kind of approach every time, but it’s nice from time to time. Plus I get to eavesdrop. And I really enjoy eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers. It’s one of the best schools we have and the best ways of grounding ourselves in the perspectives of others outside our sphere or vantage point.

I did manage to write “THANK YOU!” on the back of my sign and get John K. Samson’s attention with it during the second or third song, which he acknowledged with a smile and nod. I say a smile, but John K. smiles more than anyone I’ve ever seen on the stage at a show… he constantly seems elated and giddy to be performing. Which is a pretty reasonable reaction, if you ask me.

Did I mention I was in the front row? I was in the front row. I was the sixth person to get up to the stage despite being the 20th or 25th person in line. Only the first five people in line and I were concerned with actual proximity to the show (as opposed to, say, first in line for T-shirts or drinks).

I filled the rest of the sign’s back with the setlist, which I’ll post at the bottom of this now absurdly granular and lengthy post. The Weakerthans may never play “Sounds Familiar” in concert, but it won’t keep me from calling out for it during the silences. “Reconstruction Site” back-to-back with “Aside” was probably my highlight of this show, though the entire first encore was pretty great too. While I was ecstatic that they came back for a second encore (they haven’t done this in the two prior times I’ve seen them), the actual songs left a little to be desired. John K. even got my hopes up by saying “We haven’t played this song in years” before the final tune, but it was not the aforementioned “Sounds Familiar”. That would be a great way to close a show, but it seems the Weakerthans like to end on an up-note, unlike say, Counting Crows, who would totally close on “Sounds Familiar”. If, y’know, it were their song.

Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call
Civil Twilight
Our Retired Explorer
Benediction
Reconstruction Site
Aside
Night Windows
Relative Surplus Value
Sun in an Empty Room
Left and Leaving
Tournament of Hearts
The Reasons
Time’s Arrow
History to the Defeated
Plea from a Cat Named Virtute

One Great City!
Pamphleteer
Confessions of a Futon Revolutionist
Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure

Swingin’ Party (cover)
Exiles Among You

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