Busy days these past couple of months…too busy to spend any time up here really, which can happen when you’re setting up a job and a new apartment cross the country while closing out another job you’ve been working for three years – and at the same time, just for the fuck of it, planning a trip to Germany and Denmark immediately after the move.
And so I’ve moved.
And so I’ve been to Germany and Denmark.
And now I’m home again, back in Chicago.
And did you know, in Berlin, they have a Ramones Museum? They do…and inside this museum and cafe they have a wall which has been signed by hundreds of musicians who’ve been to the museum to pay their respects and on this wall, right in the middle of it all, I found this:
I wasn’t living in New Orleans when the levees failed, I was one year in on my first time in San Francisco, watching it all unfold on television just like most people not in New Orleans…the anger is still clear, as is the disbelief.
Respect and remembering those who lost and those who struggled…still struggle. And a recognition of those who still have been unable to get home. I know someone out here in SF constantly torn between going back to a place that triggers so much trauma versus staying in a place that has never been home, no matter how much he tries to make it one…
Best to him, best to all, and may those still seeking resolution nine years later, find it.
Like many of you, I have been reading about the coming forced evacuations of the 120 plus homeless people who currently reside nightly underneath the Pontchartrain Expressway in downtown New Orleans. City officials began handing out 72 hour notices on Monday evening, citing health violations, safety concerns and drug use as parts of the problem which are necessitating this move. Outreach workers will be on hand to help steer people into the shelters, where resources and case management will be made available to assist people in finding more suitable, long term housing.
People aren’t that simple, much as we might want them to be.
So then, why might somebody choose the streets of New Orleans, choose to live under an overpass instead of a shelter with resources?
1. Shelters have rules and curfews. Oftentimes, dismissive types claim homeless people don’t like shelters because the curfews and rules prevent people with addictions from getting drunk or high. And for some, that may very well be a part of it but that’s not the whole story. First off, not all homeless people are addicted to substances. Second, people also bristle at curfews and rules because homelessness doesn’t suddenly instill in people the desire to give up their freedoms. They are adults, and most adults don’t want to answer to strangers, be told what to do, when to eat, where and when to sleep, what time to be at the shelter and when it is too late for them to leave, or lose their bed. A loss of so many freedoms most of us take for granted can be a pretty demeaning feeling in an already often demeaning situation, feeling less than, stigmatized, not in control of your own situation…out on the streets, there’s still an element of control, of making independent choices most adults I know would be loathe to give up. Can’t sleep and want to go for a walk, have a smoke, make a phone call? Curfews and rules might say nope.
2. The men and women who live under the overpass have formed a community, one that could be broken up in a shelter. No communities are perfect and some can be dangerous and certainly, with assaults and sexual exploitation that have been documented under the Pontchartrain Expressway, this community has its dangers, but it is a community. People there look out for each other, know each other, know when someone’s not doing well and sometimes even care for one another. That’s what people do. To many, this community is a known and it’s voluntary inasmuch as there is a choice on whether or not to be in that community. There are understandings there, and to go into the shelters is to give this up and put yourself at the mercy of the unknown. There may be someone in the shelter somebody has a past with, somebody that makes another feel threatened or unsafe. It can be a very hard choice.
3. What about their belongings? Most shelters, due to space restrictions, have set limits on how many belongings you can bring through their door. When you’re homeless, oftentimes the stuff you have with you is what you have left of your present and former identity. On the streets, there are no restrictions upon how much you can bring with you and to be told by strangers what is necessary for you to have and what is expendable, that anything outside of two bags is superfluous and to be told you need to go through your possessions and decide what to keep and what to throw away is extraordinarily difficult for anyone who has already lost so much.
4. In the shelters there may be issues with staff treatment. Let me say first that I can only believe the vast majority of people who work in the shelters do so because they care, because they really want to help and work very hard, but having myself worked in shelters it is a fact not everyone is like this. There are predators. There are abusive staff. In San Francisco, staff like this were called “jailers.” They exist, and they can do a number of things to shelter residents. Curse them out. Kick them out arbitrarily. Coerce favors for perks at the shelter…use your imagination. It isn’t a regular occurrence I’m sure, but it happens. And if you are a shelter resident it happens to, it can be extraordinarily damaging.
5. The shelters have time limits, and many of those time limits are short. Three weeks at the New Orleans Mission. Ten days at Ozanam. That is not enough time to fix the kind of problems that lead to homelessness. Now, at some shelters, people do have options for more time, up to a year if they are in mental health or substance abuse programs and for some that may be precisely what they need to right what needs righting, but not everybody is ready to accept that kind of help. Not everyone thinks they have a substance abuse problem and many with mental health issues may dislike the stigma that comes with treatment, adding to the stigma of being homeless or they may not think they need treatment at all, have a lack of insight or be against medications. Mental health and substance addiction are very complex issues and when combined they can be that much more so. And with these time limits, where do people go when they time out? Back to the shadows of the overpass? Maybe to a different neighborhood or city, or to jail?
6. Many of these shelters charge nightly, some upwards of ten dollars a night. One can go to various churches and get fee waivers, but it’s difficult to cart your belongings from one place to another to get a waiver, then back to the shelter at night and in the morning, have to leave the shelter all day, still carrying belongings. It’s more loss of autonomy and more answering to others. Either that or you can pay the ten dollars a night, money many don’t have so they are then forced to panhandle to get. With all of this, it can be easier, freer, more autonomous and independent to stake out a spot on the streets and just stay there. Not ideal obviously, but for some it can seem a better choice.
Now, as a social worker for the past twenty plus years I do feel that some of the people who are forced out of the homeless encampment will get a chance to do something different, maybe get treatment or mental health help, maybe even housing and that is certainly a win for them, especially in the long run but I also feel some won’t be ready for these steps. Some have been on the streets so long to try to acculturate themselves back into a life away can be difficult. Mental illness can make it more difficult. Mental illness and addiction, even more so. Some just won’t be ready.
It should seem obvious the people living under the expressway are doing so for a reason. You may not understand what those reasons are or even disagree with them, but that makes these reasons no less real or valid. Rather than kicking them out, why not continue to provide outreach, outreach, outreach while helping them to be safe, right where they are until that outreach leads to a home, or until they are ready to face any problems they might have. If there are public health issues, clean it up, or provide incentive for the people staying there to clean it up themselves. Provide waste disposal, port-a-lets, whatever’s necessary. Bring the solutions to them and put in the time to make it work, take hold for real. If worried this might lead to people never wanting to leave, find out exactly why it is they want to live under an overpass rather than their own home and work towards solutions to these wants. Find the bigger and better deal and present it to them. It may cost more, but it sure will be more effective in the long run and isn’t helping people the point of all this? If not, it should be, unless this really is being done because of neighbor complaints, pending Saints games at the Superdome or because some consider their fellow citizens, people, to be eyesores.
Rather than the police just forcing them out, possibly traumatizing some and then fencing it all up, there should be a mixture of responses here. This is a community, and for now it has become their home. In social work, there is a oft-quoted phrase: “Meet people where they’re at,” which essentially means to provide the amount of help people are ready to accept and help motivate them over time to accept even more.
Forcing them out of their home with a 72 hour notice is not meeting people where they’re at and for some, not the right thing to do at all.
I was going to write this morning about Bobby Jindal. That was the plan, take the day off of work and just kind of fuck around with a silly idea I had that I found amusing, but as I read the news with my coffee I didn’t really feel like it anymore:
Three cities: New Orleans, Ferguson and Chicago. Just shooting and death, death and more death. Cops, gangs, cop-gangs and it just keeps going on and on and on and on…and too many people caught in all the crossfire.
And all the frustration with all this death and the feelings of powerlessness it gives suddenly made me think of an exchange I had on Saturday night in a bar here in San Francisco. I was shooting pool with a friend and having a beer or several when the friend I was with started talking about people in the neighborhood and just so casually, he says, “Well, that’s what happens around here with all the (n-bomb).”
I practically spit out my beer, “The fuck you say?”
He started turning red, “What?”
“I can’t believe you just said that,” I said, shaking my head.
“So, you hate me now?”
“No man,” I responded, “I don’t hate you, but if you want to have those kind of idiot thoughts in your head, that’s your business. Just don’t be saying that shit around me.”
And we finished the game of pool, any remaining conversation kind of ended and I made my excuses and went home, turning down his offer of a ride back to my apartment. This is a guy I’ve known for two plus years now, who I met at work, at a social work gig in the oh-so-supposedly-liberal city of San Francisco and even sitting here now I wonder about what he said and I ask myself, is there something about me that made him think that was okay to say? Maybe he’s become more relaxed as we’ve hung out here and there and that’s a previously hidden, but normal part of his vocabulary, and it just came out?
I don’t know for sure, and I don’t know if we’ll ever hang out again for me to ask him.
But I do know all of this got me thinking about a few other things…about the guy the NYPD killed a couple of weeks back with a choke-hold or about all the black men the police have killed nationwide. I think about gang violence in Chicago and New Orleans. I think about Paul Ryan doing a “poverty tour” where at one point he blamed poverty on “inner-city” culture. I think a lot about loaded language, both coded and not used to describe Barack Obama. I think about all the pundits on national news programs, both broadcast and cable who make the rounds making outrageous statements about race, violence, poverty, “real” Americans, statements that would cause an eye-roll from any semi-skilled fact-checker. I think about this violence in our cities, about the dismissal of those less fortunate, the brutality of the police and how all of this links up to the words from your Ann Coulters and Sarah Palins, your Rushes and Seans and Bills and Mitt Romney percentages.
I think back to an interview where Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel tried laying the blame for all the shootings in Chicago at the feet of families and the community while ignoring and thus absolving himself of the fact that he closed schools, mental health clinics and disproportionately laid off city workers all over the West and South side (read largely African American and Hispanic) while at the same time, doing very, very little to get jobs into these neighborhoods that might instill more hope of finding a better way of making it for the largely unemployed youth in the city.
I think of the coming budget to the city of New Orleans and how Mayor Mitch Landrieu is already sounding the typical warning bells of austerity and what that might mean to those being left behind by the new New Orleans. I think of the arguments about Orleans Parish Prison, about how many people it will jail there and what messages the potential size of this place sends to anyone who has to live in it’s shadow.
I think about the murder of Michael Brown and the riots in Ferguson, the drive by shooting in the 9th Ward or the 19 shot on Mother’s Day or the weekend body counts in Chicago and way too many other murders and riots and frustrations and angers and loss…always loss, no matter who shoots or who dies.
I think a lot, maybe too much…but I do believe there’s a direct link between the words we use and the world we see. As coded racial statements or even not so coded racial statements again become increasingly normalized in mainstream media outlets, spoken by supposedly mainstream pundits, politicians or just your average asshole, a climate is perpetuated and this climate is having definite affects…dehumanizing affects to race, to economic class, to anyone else who’s living on the margins:
Maybe these words make it a little bit easier for a mayor to ignore the needs of whole sections of his city.
Maybe it makes it a little easier for a governor to refuse an expansion of health care.
Maybe it makes a police officer just a bit more at ease in pulling his gun.
Maybe it makes that drive by shooter a bit more ready to get into the car.
And yes, I understand this is a simplistic way of explaining a complex argument, but nevertheless, dismissive words entering the popular consciousness on a regular basis will, over time, dehumanize people and cultures, both internally and externally and the results of this are never good. The results of this can contribute to the deadliest of scenarios. And all of this bullshit has to stop, the words, the violence, the perception of the communities that make up our cities as separate and distinct. They’re not. They’re as connected as words and actions.
I remember going to a conference a few months back on race where an attendee asked the speaker, an expert on gang violence, why gang members were so willing to kill each other over such small slights. The speaker responded that when you’ve grown up never getting afforded any respect by those around you, when you do finally get it, you’ll be damned if you let anyone take it away again.
Yeah…it’s all connected.
And I certainly don’t have all the answers.
But I can start with simple respect, and include in this the respect the demand that elected politicians not just serve a portion of the community. And I can also start with language and send a message to those with the mouthpieces that though they may enjoy using racial and otherwise volatile words with an angry sneer or a knowing wink, these words have social consequences, and perhaps a consequence should be a timeline on how long they get to hold that fucking microphone…or stay in elected office. And no, this isn’t any sort of attack on free speech. I firmly believe that everyone has the right to say whatever they like without the government imprisoning them for doing so…but a social cost? Well, of course, that’s what makes us a society. If I go into work tomorrow at my housing non-profit and start talking to clients about how poor people are leeches on the system, I’d probably get fired. As I should be. Prison? No. The unemployment line? Uh-huh, that’s a social cost.
And in my opinion, too many police, politicians and pundits no longer pay a social cost for expressing ignorance and this leads to a domino affect of dehumanization over time and the costs of this, they’re huge. They can even contribute to the death in our streets.
Just a thought, nothing groundbreaking, but it’s what’s on my mind today…
Also, I think I need to call my friend from Saturday night, maybe invite him to lunch over the coming weekend so I can really talk to him about why what he said is not okay with me, and why I think he should stop saying that kind of shit for good.
The steel slats from the bench dig into my legs, and we’re all damp in the air. A thicker layer of water combusts with a breezy diesel, filtering through the odor of overheated trash from the garbage can to my right…and I’m thinking about a few friends who died down here, and the sun’s going low behind down here and I lean back, facing the Mississippi’s crawl towards the Connection, and no matter how I shift, the slats still dig into my legs, my back.
I’m waiting for for the show, that exact moment of darkness when the brown lumps begin their scatter through the grass, humping up the levee to cross the Moon Walk, a run on the sunset when the really big rats exit the stony banks of the river to race towards the Quarter.
One of them used to live in the bar, when I bartended graveyard on Chartres.
And this is just one more shade of the city, the back of the bench digging at my elbows as I listen to the muddy river, as I listen to a rat left behind inside that nearby garbage can, scrambling for traction. It’s pretty close, but I don’t mind too much…a rat’s gotta eat, it’s what they do and the digging, frantic sound reminds me a little of:
We’ve all heard the term. Typically it’ll refer to a parent who ignores his children, leaves them behind, is aware of, but does little to nothing to care for those in his charge, regardless of consequence. Well, the city of New Orleans has one of the worst deadbeat dads in history and his name is Sheriff Marlin N Gusman and his charges all occupy New Orleans Parish Prison. By his title of Sheriff, it is his responsibility to ensure the inmates at OPP have their basic needs met, have medical and mental health care and are safe from abuse by both other prisoners and the prison staff and for that matter, his prison staff too should not meet with extraneous violence as a result of the Sheriff’s actions or more presciently, what appears to be his inaction.
By any standard, Gusman is a failure, a deadbeat dad who, federal consent decree or not, seems perfectly (content) unwilling to live up to his parental responsibilities.
From an article in the Advocate by Jim Mustian:
“The outside expert monitoring a court-ordered plan to reform Orleans Parish Prison offered a blistering critique Tuesday of Sheriff Marlin Gusman, blaming the sluggish pace of change at the jail on a lack of leadership and initiative within the Sheriff’s Office.
The expert, Susan W. McCampbell, said she has rejected Gusman’s repeated excuse that city officials haven’t given him enough money to implement a federal consent decree intended to reverse deplorable conditions at OPP that have festered for years.
“The question has been posed to me several times whether it’s an issue of leadership or resources that continues to result in the Sheriff’s Office not moving forward with significant changes,” McCampbell said by phone during a status conference in U.S. District Court. “I really am now believing it’s a leadership issue — not a resource issue.””
Really, well, come on now, how bad could it actually be?
McCampbell added, “The jail is not safe…this isn’t a philosophical conversation about how to move forward. This is an in-your-face, happening, bad, everyday thing going on in the jail.”
So it’s bad then…but that’s just one expert right? I mean there are still in this day and age a couple scientists claiming climate change isn’t happening too. Course, when McCampbell went on to apologize for her frustrations, the US District Judge Lance Africk both empathized and agreed with her and this is the guy in charge of overseeing the consent decree.
But still, that’s only two people and even deadbeat dads have their defenders which is why I’m sure that Katie Schwartzman, an attorney from the McCarthur Justice Center will correct all of this information, give us the real facts on the case, put us all firmly back in the no-spin zone…and this is precisely what she did when she said in her statement, “The sheriff has been called upon to fix the jail for years…in that time, there have been countless stabbings, sexual assaults and mental-health crises. The violence in our jail spills over into our streets and touches thousands of members of our community. This is not theoretical, it is not hyperbole or academic — people have died in our jail.”
Well, fuck me then.
So that’s three…but Sheriff Gusman, he must have a reasonable explanation for all this, some sort of detailed response with maybe a side of slight contrition to the court for what appears to be a horrible lack of progress in essentially, doing his job. What say you Sheriff types? Let us have it! Tell these bleeding hearts how wrong they are!
“The Sheriff’s Office is committed to moving forward and working with the monitors,” said Sheriff’s spokesman Philip Stelly.
That was underwhelming.
Fuck me twice, I guess…
And allow me to be skeptical, because from what I read this department seems best at stalling, then blaming Landrieu, claiming a lack of funds while at the same time refusing to be transparent about the funds already received. Then Gusman offers up expensive solutions to problems of his own creation…case in point, you know how that new jail is supposed to solve so much when it comes to the consent decree? Debatable, but it appears his plans are already creating new ones, like how is it the jail wasn’t designed to house acutely mentally ill inmates? Bit of a design flaw there, and for a $145 million dollar price tag it seems reasonable to expect Gusman’s new jail to have zero design flaws. What gives? I’m assuming Marlin Gusman pays attention to trends which might affect his job, his jail and his responsibilities but maybe not…because if he did, he should be aware that as funds have dried up nationwide for mental health services, jails and prisons are unfortunately becoming the new inpatient hospitals in our current mental health system. Maybe this is something Gusman should have accounted for when spending $145 million dollars for his new fucking jail. And then back to Gusman’s bullshit solution: just relocate mentally ill inmates to a state prison in St. Gabriel. Right, because that’s obviously far less expensive (in transportation costs alone) than just designing your new jail to suit the needs of your own city and department.
Also mentioned in Mustian’s article: this month three jail deputies were stabbed by an acutely mentally ill inmate who was not even housed in the current jail’s psychiatric tier.
And that’s not the only problem with this jail, and with the snails pace at complying with the decree. The high incident of violence and poor treatment of inmates is a really bad fucking way to go about rehabilitation, if anything because inmates are people and deserving of certain basic rights and met needs, even in jail…safety being one of the most important. Some on the outside though, politicians especially might disagree with this, instead opting to go all tough on crime and dismissing the prisoners’ humanity, dismissing the violence and making jokes about rape…jokes, all of which are nothing more than easy bumper-stickers and platitudes that crumble in the face of real blood spilled on a concrete floor or the painful reality of distraught loved ones on the outside reacting to the abuse or death of their child, father, husband or other member of their family. Furthermore, another real truth the tough on crime types should consider is that all those inmates thrown into the Thunderdome before they turn their back, those inmates do eventually get released back into the city, traumatized and with few options. But let’s say you really don’t care about those incarcerated at all. Do you do care about the prison staff? A dangerous jail is also dangerous to guards and as I said before, everyone eventually gets back to their community, both inmates and staff and the community gets impacted directly or indirectly by this violence. Nobody gets to live in a bubble. A mentally ill individual who is further terrorized can struggle far more reintegrating into society, especially with substandard treatment and no resources, than one who is treated humanely. Also, when outside divisions get brought to life inside the jail by way of violence, that violence will often then perpetuate on the outside. When the very concept of humanity is disregarded, when inmates feel under siege, unsafe and are shown by the system how little control they have over their life, or may ever have, this doesn’t bode well for the inmates, their families and anyone who helps them try to pick up the pieces upon release. The staff too has to live with what they’ve seen and experienced, and that is a hard life, with consequences.
And all of the inaction leading to this, all of this chaos is squarely on the plate of the person hired to prevent it: Marlin Gusman.
Even with a consent decree hanging over his head, it seems Gusman’s best skill set is making excuses about why he hasn’t done much of anything to resolve this mess. He needs to take more responsibility, start being present, start taking care of the inmates and the prison staff. This is his job. He ran for this job. His staff, the inmates, all of their families and the community at large are owed more than just another deadbeat dad, ducking the decree and looking the other way while blaming everyone else for why he isn’t handling his own fucking business. Stop fighting with Landrieu. If you don’t have the funds as you say, open the books and show everyone where the money’s going. Hire people who know how to run a jail and fully staff your department, because an understaffed jail is really fucking dangerous for both the inmates and the staff you do have. Recognize that inmate safety and resources upon discharge are keys in the fight against recidivism. Start acting like you’re taking this seriously and recognize an overall, basic truth: the safer the jail, the safer the city of New Orleans.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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…