On Leaving San Francisco…Converse All Stars, High Rents and the Fillmore Jazz Fest

Um, yeah...right.
Um, yeah…right.

I was standing outside the Converse All Star Store on Market Street in San Francisco when it became clear to me it was again, time to leave this city.  The sign in the store window yelled, “SHOES ARE BORING! WEAR SNEAKERS!” in large, capitalized letters and behind this sign stood an equally loud, colorful scream of red sneakers, white sneakers and blue, all arranged on the wall to form a huge American flag of Converse, Chuck Taylor All Stars. It was a catching display, big and bright and then further inside the store, large banners did their turn, celebrating the rebelliousness of the shoes themselves, of the purchasing, owning and living in these shoes (or…sneakers) and what doing so might say about you and your lifestyle, about who you really are and hey…you know, you can step right inside and go to the “Create lab” and with the able help of a “Maestro,” actually design your own sneakers while playing “loud raucous tunes” to further express your unique individuality in their biggest store ever for the low, low price of $75.00! Yes-sir! Express all that you are, and can be:

With. Fucking. Footwear.

Yes sir, time to fucking go…Converse told me so, reminding me clearly of the power held in reputations and the potential emptiness existing below their surface. Them All Star’s got a reputation, an individuality image and so does San Francisco, often defined round here as: “Kook City,” and that is only one example. Some also consider it the land of gay rights, gay marriage and the Castro, or maybe it’s the hippies in the Haight (smaller in number, but still there). It’s known as a liberal playground of civil rights, of compassion and care, as the land of a truly progressive politics that tries to see the big picture for the benefit of everybody. Good lord, by reputation alone this is clearly not a city in America, it’s a nation unto itself, a utopian peninsula where the best of American liberalism has taken it upon itself to finally shine from the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay.

Yeah. Okay…right.

Honestly, if any of that was ever really true, it’s bullshit level has been increasing exponentially the past five years or so, leaving a lot of longtime residents disillusioned about the myths they chose to believe in, kinda like the people who buy into that All Star reputation as some sort of independent status symbol only to later discover the black death of child factory footwear, Nike, bought out the whole chain years ago. Oops.

And who bought San Francisco?

Well, the San Francisco of today is real estate developers and speculators flipping properties and evicting people to work around rent control. It is tech companies getting tax breaks to stay in town while they make money hand over fist. It is the gearing of an entire city towards a luxury class while our compassionate citizens, lead by story after story in the Chronicle demonizing panhandlers and the homeless, help enact a set of brutal homeless laws that make it a crime to sleep in a park or sit down on a sidewalk. It is a wealth gap forming like a canyon between the quite well off and those unable to afford even the most basic needs, continuing an ever-increasing homelessness while the city also cuts shelter beds and mental health support in the same shelters. It is a glut of tech workers moving in and greedy landlords going batshit insane, raising rents to a place where the average rent for a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco is around $2400 dollars and at those prices, now left out of the new San Francisco are such mainstream salaries as teachers, nurses, cops, social workers and city employees (just to name a few) all being forced out by these high rents, forced to commute in from the East Bay or go away altogether. Right now, I pay $1000 a month for a tiny studio in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. The only reason my rent has stayed so low over the past couple of years is rent control. New rentals in my building now go for $1,450 dollars, and by market rates this is still pretty cheap. If I were to be evicted I would have to leave this city, no longer able to afford it and I work a professional job, and that’s a fucking powerless feeling, and Jesus Christ, what if you were dumb enough to be here with fucking children? How do you put down roots knowing if your landlord decides he’s had enough of owning his building and sells to the speculators constantly knocking on his door with ever increasing offers, you would have to abandon everything?

Yeah, even childless, I say fuck that.

And that’s a big part of the problem, a lot of people are saying “fuck that.” People like…the aforementioned teachers and nurses, but also the musicians, artists, designers and writers. So many are leaving, and though many have tried Oakland…Oakland is now going the way of San Francisco and as their rents keep climbing, it too is being abandoned. The cultural center of San Francisco is hollowing out, leaving behind a shell of wealthy techies and other higher paying professionals who run around this playground trying hard not to get bored while people commute in from all over the Bay Area to serve them doing retail, restaurant, hotel and other service jobs.

Let them have tips. Let them eat cake.

That’s not a city.

It’s a pretty fiefdom of entitled, dull dilettantes wearing Google Glass and buying eight dollar cups of coffee. It’s a place that hosts the America’s Cup boat races. It’s the land of foodies and food snobs, and so many of the (new and old) wealthy entitled. Now, this doesn’t mean the city’s all bad, and not even bad for me. I love my job, the Bay, the views and the movie houses. I enjoy how most bands on tour stop here, the hills, the never-ending series of taquerias (I have a favorite in every neighborhood in the city and can recite them like poetry). These are all good things, but it’s not enough anymore. Not for me and not for many others, and certainly not when you have other options because everything I like about this town is also available somewhere else. Even one of the strongest reputations San Francisco is known for is losing it’s luster; the city may still be a gay mecca of sorts, but the country’s changing and is it really anymore of a Mecca than many other cities? Even the famed Castro neighborhood is now filled with families complaining about the noise of a scene they once were a part of, back before they decided to get married and adopt kids. It’s all changing. The reputation has expired. One hanging dick from some naked guy on Folsom street no longer makes you “Kook City” when your city council actually went to the trouble to outlaw nudity. Little by little, the unique character of the city gets stripped away. Hell, they even kicked the chess players off of Market Street, stating they (were homeless) attracted crime. The Castro Halloween party? Gone. The Lusty Lady? Gone too. The long trite phrase “Only in San Francisco” becomes vain and rather pointless when there’s far crazier and far friendlier shenanigans happening in Austin, Chicago, New York, New Orleans, Denver, Pittsburg and Seattle…just to name a few. Oh, and with the exception of New York, I can actually afford to live in all of those other cities (and many more) and much more comfortably, and with a much cleaner conscience, especially when I know that the guy who got my coffee or made my tacos or helped me find that book in the bookstore is actually living in the same city I am…maybe more difficultly than in the past but he or she is still there.

But not in San Francisco, here they would need several roommates in their studio to try it, and even then they still couldn’t afford a pair of fucking All Stars.

One more example: a couple of weeks ago, they had the Filmore Jazz Festival. The Fillmore District in San Francisco is a legendary neighborhood once known as the “Harlem of the West.” It was where Louis Armstrong played, where Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday performed in the clubs and shopped at many black owned businesses, historically important and culturally iconic. Every year, they still hold the Fillmore Street Jazz Festival in the district, but today Fillmore Street is a fucking joke, a collection of high end shops, pricy eateries and a Starbucks on every block. The only reason one might ever know the history of the neighborhood is by spotting a banner that hangs off a light pole when you walk out of the Mac cosmetic store or the cute little homemade organic soap shop. They might call it the “Jazz District,” but that’s about as accurate as referring to the famed Cable Cars as anything but a tourist trap. In truth, the Fillmore is nothing but  a series of cosmetic stores and clothing boutiques punctuated by the occasional artisan cafe all tailored to the new gentry of yuppies and other assorted professionals who can somehow afford the exorbitant rents.

And this is your new San Francisco.

Many people like it. These people often own and work in tech companies and/or own a lot of property, or maybe they own high end restaurants or shops that sell five hundred dollar handbags, three hundred dollar pairs of sunglasses or expensive organic food. The CEO of Apple? He fucking loves San Francisco but the people who work at the Apple Store…not so much. They all live in fucking Pleasanton or with their three roommates in Oakland or in their rent controlled studio hoping the owner of the building doesn’t decide to Ellis Act their ass and kick them to the streets so he can flip the building and double or triple the rent on new tenants. Cities change. I get it. I can accept that, and sometimes you roll with that change or you decide that the dissonance between what a city claims to be is too great from what it actually is and you get the fuck out. Sometimes you take a look around you and just get disappointed, and then maybe you even get bitter and start doing your research and realize how places do exist in this country that actually are what San Francisco (still) claims to be…

Growing up I used to wear Converse All Stars. Great fucking shoes…I mean, sneakers, but then they got bought out by Nike and the prices for them tripled over time and their reputation became only that to me, a reputation and I moved on…to shoes that didn’t define me, but were authentic and affordable and they’re fucking shoes! Who fucking cares! It’s not a lifestyle.

It’s. Fucking. Footwear.

And San Francisco is just a city, just another city, not really all that special anymore and sometimes, it even feels kind of ugly being here so very soon, it’s off to Chicago again and yes, I understand it suffers from many of the same problems as San Francisco but it’s way better off for a few reasons: hell 0f a lot more room to maneuver, it’s still affordable, there’s a real chance they might kick Rahm Emanuel the fuck out of there and maybe most important of all…it’s a hell of a lot easier to get to New Orleans from Chicago than it is from San Francisco. And I really love New Orleans too, despite what’s happening in the Bywater, and you know? Maybe because of what’s happening in the Bywater, you can bet your ass I’ll be watching for any sign of a Converse store on Canal or Magazine and if that should start to happen, I’ll be ready…

It’s only fifteen hours by car from Chicago to NOLA and even though I don’t smoke anymore, I seem to always have a lighter around and I’m betting that shoes burn a lot easier than a reputation, no matter how empty.

Have a nice day.

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Remembering…

Deepwater_Horizon_offshore_drilling_unit_on_fireTo the families that lost loved ones that day and to the families that lost loved ones after, to all the people who make their living off that water, the business owners and the families along the Gulf Coast…still thinking about and wishing you the best.

To BP who is still trying to weasel their way out of this, the Gulf is still not healed and won’t be for years, decades to come so stop with the commercials already…may the dolphins haunt your dreams, killer style, so you wake up screaming.

To Bobby, stop trying to let the oil companies off the hook for any past, present or future crimes…dude, you are not going to be President. Seriously. Not a chance, no matter how indignant you pretend to be.

Stay strong in the Gulf…

Have a nice day.

Reflecting on a show: Ani Difranco…

The Fillmore gives free posters when the shows sell out...
Now featuring free posters!

I saw Ani DiFranco two nights ago at the Fillmore in San Francisco…great show, some songs I’d never heard performed before like “School Night” or “Overlap,” and she was in fine form, striking the guitar so hard during “Napoleon” or “Shameless,” you’d think it might break, and performing new songs that thanks to Youtube, I knew by name already, “Careless Words,” “Genie,” and more…and none of this was a surprise. Great shows from Ani Difranco are what I’ve come to expect in seeing her frequently over the past fifteen years.

What did surprise was the crowd…a good crowd, really good crowd and in this days version of San Francisco, these things are not a given. At the show, surveying the people who surrounded I saw a disappearance of the tech-entitled PBR types drunkenly sporting Google Glass or tech company logo’d hoodies. Not this time, the usual omnipresent forerunners of their own declared future instead gave way to what my friend described as a more “earthy” representation of the city…dreadlocks and patchouli oil, couples: straight, gay and lesbian couples (not singles) in jeans with a surprising lack of ornamental facial hair from the men or provocative spandex dresses from the women. It was like being in the city I loved again, and for a night the people seemed more real, genuine, less entranced with status and being seen, and serving more as a communal backdrop to the music Ani Difranco played…

It was nice, special, thoughtful.

And as mentioned above, it was a reminder of what this city used to be, and sadly, will probably never be again.

And it made me think of what this city was like when I moved here the first time, and who I was back then, or who I was the first time I saw Ani DiFranco perform and all the changes I have seen in myself over the years and the changes in the country, by way of all those performances in many other cities since…

Back in 99 or so in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was the first, on a freezing cold night and I was not prepared for what I was about to see, who I was going to see it with or the emotions the show might elicit. This was back in time when most everything I listened to was punk rock and death metal. An acquaintance had turned me onto an album called “Little Plastic Castles” and I used to listen to it alone, quietly and I never really talked about it, lest I be referred to as “soft” or “selling out.” This was a time in my maturation process where such things still mattered, and even though I do shake my head today at the thought this ever mattered, it did once. I even bought the ticket in silence and didn’t tell anyone I was going to the show. I just went quietly and over the course of Ani’s performance was amazed how, just by being there, I was suddenly a part of something so joyful, so genuinely political and real. I was surrounded by more women than I think I’ve ever been surrounded by in my life and most of them were wearing handkerchiefs around their head (standard at the time) and smiling, dancing. They were celebrating. At this time I usually only saw bands called Slayer, Marilyn Manson, KMFDM, etc…and the idea of celebrating music with anything but aggression was foreign to me, and it became surprisingly emotional to me and so very different. I remember when Ani sang the song “Napoleon” and the lights splayed across the crowd and all the movement, the moving heads and dancing and shouting and joy…without anyone clobbering anyone else or slamming into each other in waves of bloody noses and flying elbows and I remember feeling genuinely, very happy. Happy in a good way, a positive way, a way that I wasn’t used to, not then and this helped open my eyes to the possibility of maybe doing things differently…

Six months later, I left the Midwest and moved to Seattle.

And I saw her there too, at the Moore Theater on a usual, drizzly night. I went to the show not only to hear the music, but because I was homesick, nervous, scared about my decisions and intensely lonely. I loved the city of Seattle, but I didn’t know anyone, not closely except a woman I was dating at the time, selfishly because I was afraid of being so alone…and at the show that night, though I don’t really remember too many of the songs (I was drunk. I was drunk a lot of nights that first year in Seattle) I do remember that familiar feeling of inclusion, of being a part of something…a feeling that to this day is something I don’t get to feel too often, and when  this is a stranger to you, when this inclusion approaches, you treat it well, savor and enjoy it because you don’t really know the next time such experience will knock on your door…and I saw her twice more in Seattle and felt the same each time, a special security held in the joy of a resonating performance that though difficult to explain is very real, welcoming and welcomed.

The next concert was in another new city, another new home…in New Orleans. I saw her play at the House of Blues, just her onstage with a guitar. I had always seen her with a band, never alone like this and conversely, this is the first show of hers I went to see with other people. I went that night with a woman I was dating and another couple she was friends with…supposedly I was friends with them too, in name anyways though it never really felt that way. He was an asshole who ran around with a handgun worried the mob was coming after him and she was a willing victim, caught between her concerns about his drinking, his erratic behavior and her desire to get out of the relationship (she eventually did). So even though I was with others that night, oftentimes through the show I pretended I wasn’t, listening to this woman onstage with such strength, and a voice alternating powerfully between soft and huge, concerned and angry, in love and in politics and I was reminded of the night in Milwaukee and those nights in Seattle, who I was then and who I was in New Orleans. Concerns on being soft were long gone, concerns about being lonely were fading into my own growing sense of strength. Being independent in mind and life was a growing focus. I was in full swing on my second cross country move and had spent a month in New York, weeks in Las Vegas, a crazy weekend in Los Angeles and I loved living in, being a part of New Orleans. I was bar-tending there, which was okay but I really wanted to do social work. Just couldn’t find a job. The city that care forgot had yet to see Katrina, but it was still plenty uncaring, tight communities notwithstanding; it was the government that didn’t give a fuck.

I was living there when Nagin was first elected mayor: need one say more?

Two years later I was in San Francisco for the first time…and I saw Ani play at the Warfield Theater on Market Street. I was in a strange long distance relationship that I enjoyed, but couldn’t quite figure out. I was falling hard and it was probably more honest than any relationship before because I didn’t care at all about being alone anymore. I didn’t care about being accepted or included…and the softer parts of my personality were welcomed; they blunted the sharper edges of my cynicism and ever increasing anger at this county and the priorities contained therein: Iraq wars, political lies as fact, the forgotten homeless, alienation of the mentally ill and corporation city shopping for the best tax-breaking deal, workers be fucked. I was fully in the trenches of the Tenderloin by this point, working at homeless shelters and wandering my neighborhood of drugs and containment and prostitution and police reprisal, watching it all…all night long. It was around this time that I watched Katrina unfold on the television and at the show that night, those disastrous affects were still paramount in my mind. I felt a loss, one that still affects me at times today…the people lost during the storm, the loss of housing and resources during that storm and as I watched and listened to the show that night I thought about all of it…even as Ani herself reminded us all of the ongoing struggles in Louisiana.

And two nights ago I saw her play again, and I thought some more, about Milwaukee, Seattle, New Orleans and San Francisco…about how much I’ve changed over all these years and about how much our society and these cities have changed. The increasing inequality, the gentrification driving out longtime residents, the political games being played in some far away world while people are being strangled in their homes or on the streets by a lack of opportunity, lack of food, lack of health care and a corporation sought, and government enabled willful transition of money, up to the highest rungs of a ladder whose lower rungs were seemingly smashed for good by the financial collapse of 2008. A growing segment of America’s population gets willfully discarded or ignored, left to dwindling resources they are blamed for needing, shamed for falling victim to a system that has destroyed them through destruction of pensions, false foreclosures, cutbacks on energy and food assistance, skyrocketing rents and layoffs.

I feel fortunate to have the times for these reflections; they remind me to try to do more, to be more than I am on given days and I feel fortunate to see a performer and a performance that helps provide a medium and an open, musical space for these reflections. A life’s soundtrack is an overly used expression, but probably overused because of the truth behind it and there are several performers I would include on that list…the aforementioned Slayer, the Nine Inch Nails, the Dax Riggs and Dr. Johns…and Ani Difranco. So much corruption and decay in this world and she plays, singing about it all, with an energized, joyful anger…and a politics of reality that resonates with so many, myself included.

And of course, who can forget the mistakes…I’ve made so many mistakes over the years and her mistake on Nottoway helps reflect that as well and that’s fine, so long as we all learn and try to do better, be better. And move on once the apologies have been made. As stated before, it was a great show and I feel fortunate to have seen it for the performance, the stories she told from the stage and the time needed to think about who I was and who I’ve become, about the mistakes I’ve made and what I still need to learn and what I need to do.

There’s so much more to do…with joy.

And music.

And integrity.

Have a nice day.

Knitting behind enemy lines…

Fuck this guy...
Fuck this guy…

Update: Saints win 23-20…Bwahahahaha…!

This is the day I’ve been waiting for…

New Orleans Saints vs. the San Francisco 49ers.

A day that will live in infamy? The times that try men’s souls? How about it was the best of times, it was the worst of times? Fine, I’ll take the latter and in a few hours I’ll be sitting calmly in a bar in San Francisco, rocking slowly in a rocking chair, wearing Saints gear and knitting away the demise of Colin Kaepernick, Gore and Aldon Smith…I will be the personification of Madam Defarge. I will take the abuse, the ridicule, the criticisms of the French Revolution…

Whole lotta criticisms about the French revolution, 200 years or so later? Jesus, talk about Monday morning quarterbacking.

Yeah, but people don’t like the Saints in this town. For weeks now, about a dozen to be exact, I’ve had to listen to that drunk lady at the corner of O’Farrell and Larkin telling me to get out of her city or the people at work telling me how the Saints aren’t for real. Worst of all, I’ve had to hear it from the guys at the corner convenience store. Definitely, the worst. Once I self-identified as a Saints fan, it’s been non-stop crap and I am in that store almost every day. Have to be…in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, the corner store is the be all, end all of your day-to-day odds and ends shopping experience. No grocery stores to speak of in these forty square blocks so, you need some soda, some hot dogs, some water or fruit? The convenience store is where you gotta go and manning my particular store are two guys decked out in 49ers gear, every fucking day.

How many times have you had to hear about that damned playoff game?

Every day.

How many times have you had to hear about the Saint’s run defense?

Every day.

How many times have you had to hear about how Drew Brees doesn’t look like the same player, how the Saints couldn’t even beat Alex Smith, how the Saints haven’t faced a defense like the 49ers?

Every fucking day.

I’ve had to listen to this even as the Saints compiled a better record, showed a defense that can actually play and lit it up on offense here and there, certainly a hell of a lot more than the San Francisco 49ers have…like I said, it’s been the best of times, and the worst of times…and I’m ready for it to end.

Knitting.

Knitting away…shit, I’ll even dress like a matronly French woman if it’ll help. This is important…I don’t want to have to finally change stores.

Go Saints!

Have a nice day.

Independence Day…

The 4th of July…

Tis’ a holiday of conflict.

Maybe it’s twenty plus years of social work that has done this to me. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of giving a damn about people I’ve never met in towns I’ve never been to, concerns about whether they have enough to eat, a place to live, a sense of safety and hoping these random strangers don’t have to wake up to fear, or massive oil spills, or exploding factories or unemployment. Maybe it’s all simply a matter of wanting this country to yes, encourage entrepreneurs and people who pull up their flags by the bootstraps, but at the same time take care of those who haven’t yet, perhaps as a result of being lost, sick, mired in obsessions or failures and yes, even the ones who are just plain lazy.

Some believe there’s a place for everyone at the table, even if the food’s been purchased by food stamps…and I would be one, believing that as a country of citizens we need to care for one another, especially for those who don’t seem to care for themselves at all right now. Either that, or soon enough when we try to look away from those desperate scenes that cause us such discomfort, we’re only going to find more scenes, even more desperate staring right back at us.

So yeah, tonight I’ll be up in North Beach, standing on Broadway looking to the fireworks over San Francisco Bay and I’ll be thinking about this country’s future, same as everyone else looking up nationwide, with a lot on my mind and a lot in my heart and I’ll be thinking about all of you…all of us, caring and doing better.

Ani Difranco – Coming Up

 

Independence…from bias, from fear, from ignorance, from a lack of common care, from hate, crass judgement, superiority, misplaced nationalism and American exceptionalism, consumer lifestyles and politics, from the distractions we create and those created for us while the futures are looted by those who left their compassion on the wrong side of that boardroom door, or political office or bank vault or dust from a limousine lobbyist as he or she sped away to the next gig that divided all of us just a little bit more.

Yeah, it’s the fourth.

Let’s go get a beer and think about how we can improve these scenarios. I, for one, have more mistakes than fingers and toes and I think I might like to change that some…

Have a nice day.

An open letter from a suspicious package…

His name was Carl. That's right, he had a name. NOPD blew him up ten minutes later. RIP
That bag’s name was Carl. That’s right, he had a name. NOPD blew him up ten minutes later. RIP Carl…

Good morning.

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a suspicious package. It would seem my brothers and I are causing a bit of a problem in the Crescent City these days. At the WWII Museum, at the Superdome, on Canal, on Poydras, on Rampart: though my first impulse might be to apologize for the actions of my wayward brothers, I can’t. I won’t. Not today, not ever.

You see, there once was a time where my brothers and I could be simply left alone to enjoy the sun, relax while holding a good book or maybe some gym clothes and we could do it alone. By ourselves. Everyone needs alone time right? Well, since that horrible day twelve years or so ago, it would seem that everybody and their mother feels we need to constantly be chaperoned. I mean, chaperoned all the time. Every minute of every day unless we’re tucked neatly into the corner of someone’s apartment or perhaps in the closet, a school or gym locker, anywhere out of sight and out of the sun.

It’s a fucking drag.

Seriously.

How would you feel if you always had to be slung over somebody’s back or swinging wildly from someone’s hands, knocking into shit, each and every time you were out in public. Don’t lie…you wouldn’t like it all. In fact, I’ll go on record right now saying that each and every one of you reading this would fucking hate it.

So why are we supposed to enjoy it so much?

Because we’re supposedly inanimate objects? Because we don’t have feelings, worries or concerns? Because we don’t like to be left alone in peace, maybe over coffee? A drink? Or as mentioned before, out in the sun, enjoying the heat, trying to suck up a little life from the warmth of the day?

Don’t tell me to get over it.

You wanna know what happens sometimes when one of us decides to take a risk and venture forth without accompaniment? I’ll tell you what, some asshole in a police uniform starts to attack us with robots. That’s right, your Terminator nightmares can be the reality for some of us…and what do those robots occasionally do? Sometimes they blow us the fuck up!

Sucks. It sucks a lot.

So keeping all that in mind, here’s a thought: maybe the package isn’t the one that’s suspicious. Maybe the suspicious one is actually…you. Let that sink in for a moment.

You are the suspicious one.

Why else would you call the police every time one of our owners lets us have a few moments of idle time, even if it’s done by accident? You say it’s a  vigilance thing, uh-huh. Beware of the terrorists, okay. Still, you gotta ask yourself who would be so demented as to intentionally allow one of us some free time in this day and age? Why, and for what possible reason? Oh, but I’ll tell you. Beyond the occasional absent-mindedness, there are certain criminal elements in society who have learned just how suspicious you all can be, and that you project your suspicions upon us, the package. They know what a distraction we are, that if we’re dropped on a corner the NOPD will get called, everyone will freak the fuck out and the majority of the police will respond to stare all loony at us while those who left us there are free to do whatever it is they didn’t want the police or people to see outside of the now cordoned off zone. That’s right, too often these days we’re just a convenient decoy to lure the police and press away from some of your brethren’s more dastardly deeds, such as ripping off your mortgages, stealing your pensions, cutting food stamps to the poor, killing off your schools, raising the rates on flood insurance and raising rents while destroying your public hospital systems ability to treat the poor both medically and emotionally.

How long do you think it’ll take before this trickles down and would be drug dealers and/or assailants realize that if they want to assault people in one block or deal on the corners of another all they need do is leave one of us, a suitcase, a backpack or a briefcase unattended on a bench two or three blocks away?

I know, it’s crazy right?

Nope…you are.

Crazy nervous…so many are hyped up by breathless news stories and stupid action flicks and lingering governmental-hyper-vigilance-report-your-neighbor campaigns. You need proof? Okay. How many surveillance cameras did you get spotted by today…and you didn’t even notice, did you? Of course not. Now you’re all way too used to that kind of thing. Warrant-less wiretapping? National Security letters to Google? Eric Holder accessing reporters’ e-mails without their knowledge? The attack on whistle-blowers? The militarization of police departments?  Yeah, all of it is so commonplace nobody blinks an eye anymore. Freedoms are being whittled away by the National Security apparatus, including your own NOPD, who thanks to a ruling today by the US Supreme Court can now take a DNA sample and store it away if you ever get arrested…that’s right, a DNA database on you.

That’s what’s crazy.

But hey, it’s your world isn’t it? We just get carried through it so go ahead, be afraid…but dammit, can’t you give us a break sometimes? Not all of us are all that suspicious and none of us like it when the bomb squad gets called in to blow our ass up all over the street. It’s positively inhumane.

Okay…I know.

Alright.

I know…I need to be fair and up front here.

Therefore, I feel I must also address those packages out there that may very well be “suspicious,” that one out of a hundred thousand, a million, a billion of us packages who might actually deserve such a label.

You! Knock it the fuck off!

Really, you too are responsible, albeit slightly, for this horrid state of affairs. I know…right now I can hear you all: bags don’t kill people, people kill people. Right, I got it brother…but you bare some of the responsibility. We all know how easy it is to just slip off the shoulder, loosen a strap and just go off. Real easy. So if one of your owners are up to no good, please…be responsible, take one for the team and blow up your owner, preferably when no one else is around. It is an honorable death, and in doing so you’ll make the life for those of us who harbor no ill will a whole hell of a lot easier. Remember how it was thirteen years ago? Before things got all crazy, I used to love spending fifteen minutes or so alone on a Moonwalk bench, feeling the sun and that Mississippi River breeze. Loved it, but now that people are so suspicious and afraid, such a scenario could be my death sentence.

And I don’t want to die.

I just want a safe five minutes alone, unsupervised, monitored or spied upon…in private, clear the head to focus on who’s really doing the wrongs out there.

Hey, maybe we could all use the time.

Hell, anymore suspicious packages and we all just might wind up with some goddamned Duck Tours in the French Quarter and if that happens, an unattended bag will seem like heaven next to thousands of tourists walking down Bourbon Street with quackers in their mouth.

Think about it…and thank you for the time.

Have a nice day.

It happened again last night…

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Another Friday night in the sister-city…

Walking down Polk Street and taking a left onto Sutter, I passed the entrance to one of the many bars just as a rather rotund fellow came stumbling out. He said something to me, rather excitedly but I had ear phones on and couldn’t hear him. Again, we do that here so random strangers typically don’t try to talk to us, but he was insistent. I took out an ear-bud and he grinned, red-faced and sweaty…

“Is that a who-dat sweatshirt?”

I nodded, “Yeah.”

“And your hat, Giants. Who-dat and the Giants!”

I laughed, “Uh-huh.”

“Man, that was a great year! Super Bowl and the Giants win their first series! I’m from New Orleans, born and raised. You made my night!”

He stuck out his hand and I shook it, saying, “Used to live at the corner of St. Ann and Royal.”

“St. Ann and Royal!” He yelled, looking up at the night-sky, “Christ I miss home!”

And then we parted ways and I continued up Nob Hill to meet a friend for drinks. As I’ve written before, it’s a common occurrence round these parts. All it takes is one simple symbol in this chilly city to find a warm exchange…

The fleur-de-lis.

Heard dat, and see you all real soon…

Have a nice day.

An OPP Bedtime Story…

Peter Falk demonstrating a rehabilitative choke-hold...
Peter Falk demonstrating a rehabilitative choke-hold…

Once upon a time, there was a tween named Billy in New Orleans, not yet a teenager, but no longer a small boy.

He’d been having a difficult life, but his mother taught him the best she could. Billy loved his mother and Billy loved his house. Billy loved his friends and Billy loved his faithful dog, Rex, more than anything.

One day, after school, where he studied good and hard, he realized he would need some money to buy tasty snacks for Rex, but he didn’t have any money. What was Billy going to do? Billy thought long and hard about this and walked all over New Orleans trying to find a job cleaning pots and pans so he could buy Rex the snacks that made Rex as happy as Billy.

But Billy was treated bad by the people he asked for a job. Billy tried really hard, but there were very few jobs and nobody hired Billy.

Billy really liked to see Rex happy and Billy didn’t know what else to do so finally, Billy did what he felt he had to do.

Billy sold crack, hot solids around his school and very soon, Rex had more snacks than he could eat and everything was fine. Rex was very happy. And this made Billy happy, but when Billy’s mom found out Billy’s mom was really angry.

“You can’t sell crack!” Billy’s mom yelled, “Your cousin and dad are in prison for misbehaving like that already!”

Billy was sad and soon Rex ran out of snacks.

So Billy didn’t stop. Billy’s friends didn’t want him to stop and Rex didn’t want Billy to stop either.

One day, when Billy was making money, he was stopped by Officer Friendly. Officer Friendly was really angry at Billy too, more angry than Billy’s mom. He slapped Billy. He punched Billy. He held a gun to Billy’s head and begged Billy to give him a reason, but Billy didn’t. He had watched what happened in his neighborhood very closely and he knew that Officer Friendly wasn’t really friendly.

Officer Friendly said, “We’re going to take you to a new school, where you can be rehabilitated.”

“What’s rehabilitation?” Billy asked.

“You’ll see,” said Officer Friendly.

So Billy went to his new school and he didn’t get to go home at night either. He had to sleep there and eat there and Rex was not allowed to visit. Soon, Billy found out that his new school didn’t even have classes and Billy knew he was falling behind those people at regular schools.

Billy was sad.

On the fourth night at his new school, two older boys beat the shit out of Billy while a teacher looked on and then walked away. Billy didn’t understand why the teacher didn’t protect him. Two nights later, another teacher gave two older kids crack, weed and brown powder and when they all saw Billy watching them. They beat up Billy again. This teacher walked away too.

Billy was angry.

Billy didn’t like getting beat up at his new school and he didn’t understand why he had to be rehabilitated when the teachers were doing what Billy had done to buy Rex his snacks. Billy decided he needed to make friends with one of the teachers so he could get a shiv, to protect himself, but that night before Billy could get his shiv another older boy attacked him while he was sleeping and pulled down Billy’s pants.

Billy was humiliated.

Billy had never beaten anyone up before, but now after being rehabilitated, Billy was afraid, sad, angry and humiliated. Billy decided he not only needed a shiv, he needed new friends. So he got new friends at the new school and Billy’s new friends taught Billy to fight. Then one of Billy’s new teachers gave Billy a shiv and later that day placed bets on Billy’s fights. He didn’t give Billy any of the money he won, but he did promise to buy Rex some snacks.

Billy thanked him, but Billy really didn’t give a fuck about Rex anymore.

What Billy cared about now was where to hide at the new school so he wouldn’t be on camera when he beat up the other students. Billy wanted to learn which teachers would look away when he used his shiv, but Billy soon found out that nobody cared when he used his shiv. Then Billy wanted to get in on the drug trade, on the guns and the graft at his new school and in time Billy got good and rehabilitated, so rehabilitated Billy didn’t give a fuck about nobody or nothing anymore.

One day, the Headmaster of the school deemed Billy a total success and just like that, Billy was free.

Free and much more skilled, much more angry and though Billy didn’t know it, much more traumatized than Billy had ever been before…and Billy didn’t go home. Billy found friends of his new friends at the school and moved in with them. They liked Billy and Billy liked hurting the people Billy’s new friends didn’t like. It made Billy feel like he belonged.

He liked it so much, Billy didn’t concern himself too much if other people got hurt in the process.

Soon enough, Billy did what most people considered to be a really fucked up thing to do and some people got hurt really bad, but Billy shrugged. Billy was just doing what he had to do, what he knew how to do, what he had learned to do.

Officer Friendly grabbed Billy two days later and told him he would have to go back to get more rehabilitation.

Billy was really angry and really scared, so much so that it all just made Billy feel vaguely numb. Billy didn’t want to show all his crazy feelings so he just shrugged and said to Officer Friendly, “New school, old school. All the same to me motherfucker.”

And just like that, Officer Friendly and Billy rode off into the sunset, breathing in lead from the surrounding environment.

The moral of the story?

Whereas I won’t say tragedies like the second line shooting and the high murder rate in New Orleans are a direct result of Gusman’s fucked up jail and its utter disregard for inmate safety, the idea that they have absolutely nothing to do with each other is a bunch of conservative law and order bullshit focused on easy answers to problems that don’t go away. Climates are created by lack of concern. Trauma often leads to more violence. There are a hundred and one reasons why people can turn, but when people get arrested out of an unforgiving environment and are remanded to ones even harsher, the creeping desperation can blow up and shut all systems down. If there’s no rehabilitation to be had, and very little supportive service or education…not to mention a lack of housing upon release, or jobs, or training, or any sort of real mental health assistance, what can we expect to happen when people leave OPP and elsewhere?

Simply put, little good.

Have a nice day.

Not so undercover…

Like a sore thumb...
Like a sore thumb…

I like to keep a low profile.

I’m the background guy, the one standing in the back of the room, watching, paying attention and figuring out what to do next… It’s a role I’m most comfortable and familiar with and my ability to hide in plain sight works well, most of the time.

You see, in the city of San Francisco, I live in one of the worst neighborhoods where people don’t like to be known so I slide quietly through, eyes open and watching the drug deals behind parked cars or out in the open. I hug the building facades on midnight strolls looking at lit candles and flowers and graffiti placed seemingly at random alongside a wall, maybe on Leavenworth Street but marking a place not random at all, another place somebody died on some night, some day. I move through groups of homeless people who if they eye me at all, eye me suspiciously and I especially enjoy sitting on benches outside of darkened, closed, small urban parks where the bus comes, stops and then moves on while across the street people huddle against the outside walls of twenty-four hour convenience stores bathed in the neon glow from beer signs. I’m good at being unseen, fortunate to be ignored or when not, physically big enough for most to realize there are easier targets in my neighborhood’s night…

That is, unless I’m wearing one particular brand of clothing…one emblem in fact that pulls me from this background, from these shadows and from my more comfortable anonymity.

The fleur-de-lis.

It’s a defining difference out here. I can wear anything by the San Jose Sharks, any band living or dead or just my usual mostly all black, but if I’m wearing the fleur-de-lis, it might as well be a warm spotlight on these darkened streets, and with this symbol, you find friends and acquaintances you never knew you had and sometimes, on those rare nights where one doesn’t want to be so nondescript, it’s awesome.

“Saints!” I hear called out from across Ellis Street.

“NOLA!” shouts a guy rounding the corner onto Larkin.

“New Orleans, baby…” says the person I pass while coming out of the movie on Van Ness Avenue.

Just the other day, I was wearing a sweatshirt with that well known symbol, partially hidden under a black jacket and I found myself engaged in conversation with a woman outside my building, someone I’d seen a number of times but never acknowledged until she saw the fleur-de-lis…and suddenly we’re talking about Uptown, the Bywater, Mandina’s, seeing Rebirth at the Maple Leaf. She told me how she and her mother were displaced after Katrina and how they wound up in San Francisco living in subsidized housing, how they really want to go home and still can’t. We talked about restaurants we knew, stores that are long gone and the vibrant, warmer, slower feeling in New Orleans that, much as I enjoy this city, is very, very different.

The symbol.

It’s really that simple and it says something which is probably not news to a lot of people until you maybe experience it for yourself – New Orleans has a special place in the hearts of most any who have ever been there, lived there and/or left there. It’s simply that kind of place.

Last night, I had the good fortune of seeing a musician’s first stage performance in San Francisco. He’s someone I know through work and he helps make my job just a little bit better, a few more laughs and a bit more relaxed…all because he’s from New Orleans. We have nothing else in common really, nothing but that city and we hang out here and there, just talking about the politics, the Quarter, the Marigny, the river. We talk about three egg breakfast from Verti-Mart brought by bicycle to the bar at 3 am. Best yet, we reminisce about the look of the fog as it rolls into the Quarter off the river, lending a few square blocks some of the most darkly beautiful atmosphere I’ve ever experienced.

A little something else about San Francisco: it does have its own beauty, the Ocean and the Bay, City Lights and Vesuvios, the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park but man, it is a cold place and I don’t just mean the temperature. People here are wary of strangers. They rarely speak to one another on the street. Hell, eye contact is asking a lot round here. It’s just not done, which of course means, for someone who likes to sit in the background or go unnoticed, this can be a real easy kind of town, but that isn’t necessarily a good thing0 even if it is my preference. I’ve lived in my building for a year. 40 apartments. I don’t know anyone’s name and have never stumbled more than a halted hello or two. But two weeks ago I was on a city bus, coming back from the grocery store wearing a Saints hat and some guy I didn’t know was talking rapidly at me. I didn’t know what he was saying cause I had headphones on. You do that here so people don’t talk rapidly to you, but he was real insistent so I pulled out an ear bud and he grinned…

“Saints baby!”

I laughed and he clapped me on the shoulder before getting off at the next stop.

No, not so undercover when you’re wearing the fleur-de-lis.

New Orleans got a spirit, even 2300 plus miles away. It’s infectious and it will make a stranger your friend and sometimes, every once in awhile, even that guy in the background could use a friend.

NOLA baby…

Love it, and wouldn’t have it any other way…

Have a nice day.