The Problem of the Homeless

February 28, 2016

The City of San Francisco made the news recently by breaking up a homeless encampment on the streets, a long row of tents that Judy and I often drove past on our way to Rainbow Grocery, the store we use. The camp was the subject of a lot of controversy, especially after the CEO of some tech company wrote an open, complaining letter to the mayor, demanding that the mayor do something. The poor guy was sick of having to look at the homeless. It’s commonplace to say that San Francisco has a “serious homelessness problem,” but the entire country does, really. I read recently that my hometown of Vancouver, Washington has homeless camps. The homeless are more noticeable in a place like San Francisco, that’s all. I myself was without a home for 15 years, living on the street in San Francisco from 1973 to 1988. I wasn’t what most people picture when they hear that word, “homeless,” but I was out among the homeless much of that time, and I have a decent idea of what’s going on. When I hear people talk about the problem, I realize that no one even comes close to understanding it, that it’s only going to grow.

For a long time I’ve been trying to figure out a simple way of describing what I see, but only recently did I find the words I was looking for: We live in a system that creates homelessness as one of its inevitable byproducts. This society has a near-religious belief in competition, and wherever you have competition, you have, inevitably, winners and losers. You can’t have one without the other. It’s like water boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit: It’s the only possibility. The homeless are the ones who have lost the game. As the competition heats up—as it has been ever since Reagan—the winners keep grabbing more and more, so we have more and more losers of the game. People like the CEO of that tech company are either ignorant or arrogant. Or both. Whether he sees it or not, he‘s a huge part of the problem.

When I was on the street I was subjected to all kinds of absurd situations and arrogant treatment. One example is when people become furious with homeless people for defecating on the street. This society gives them no place else to go. There are few public toilets, at least ones that don’t cost money , and restaurants, cafes, and so on don’t want the homeless in their businesses. I never ended up in a situation where I had to do “my business” in public, but I came close a few times. When you are in an absurd situation like that and you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand the most obvious and simple thing, you tend to lose your respect for them. You end up doing whatever you feel like doing.

If we genuinely want to end the problem, we have to abandon the idea that it’s okay to accumulate as much wealth as possible. It’s not okay to be a billionaire. And if we can’t abandon the idea, then we have to prepare ourselves for the inevitable epidemic of poverty. It’s that cut and dried.

Idealism and the Young

February 22, 2016

My teenage years were the 1960s, a tremendously idealistic time. It was quite clear then that war was wrong, racism was wrong, chasing money was wrong, not loving was wrong. But I was always having to listen to older people assure me that someday I’d get real and grow up. I never knew how to respond to that. I didn’t have enough life experience to understand where they were coming from. Now we’re in a time where you have a candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, arousing the idealism of the young, and the young are responding. And you have another set of people denigrating their idealism and telling them to grow up. And this time the denigrators are people my age. I understand who they are, what they are saying, and why they’re saying it. They are not the people of my generation who grew up; they’re the ones who got old.

We live in a particularly materialistic era of a particularly materialistic civilization. A lot of us tend to see ideals as having no real foundation, that they’re just “brain activity” in a fundamentally meaningless universe. But the essence of existence is not material. What it is is beyond language, although we’ve come up with words for it — “spiritual” being one of them, one that has gotten tired from misuse. There is a set of universal ideals that grow out of that essence. Most of them are obvious, but not all. You don’t need to cultivate them for them to exist. They are inherent within us when we are born. In many of us, as we get older, as we compromise ourselves over and over again, those ideals grow dull and remote. Many of us eventually turn against them. We don’t believe in them anymore. And then we call it growing up. But real growing up is something else entirely: It’s understanding how difficult it is to bring our ideals into our practical lives and the patience we need to accomplish that. We can’t ever abandon those ideals. The farther we get from them, the older and grayer and more meaningless our everyday life feels. I’m not really interested in what a lot of folks call pragmatism. To me, it looks more like death.

Progress Report #101 and the State of the Blog Address

February 11, 2016

Hello? Hello? Anybody here?

I know I’ve been neglecting this blog. It’s been difficult getting to it, again, because of my book, Street Song. Anytime I have the energy to write, I always feel I should be putting it into the book. At the same time, I don’t want to abandon this blog. I started it up because there wasn’t anybody saying what I wanted to hear said, which is still true.

As for the book, I’m almost finished with chapter 10, and I have two chapters much later in the manuscript completed as well, for a total of 12 finished chapters. I have 48 chapters outlined, which makes me a quarter of the way through the book. (This is the last draft.) It’s almost 10 years now, but I can see the end. For reasons too tedious to explain, these first 10 chapters have been the most difficult to write. The pace will pick up with Chapter 11. I see one task that I have to attend to soon. Within the first seven chapters especially, I have about twice as much book as I want. I need to do some editing, compressing, cutting, which I don’t think will be too hard. There’s always a little cleanup to do after that kind of surgery, though. I can say beyond any doubt that I’ve learned a great deal writing Street Song. You might think that’s a no-brainer, but I’ve always tended to regard writing as an expression of what one already knows. But that has not been the case here. It’s been a real meditation that has changed me. I understand certain things now that I didn’t understand before.

As for this blog, like I said, I don’t want to abandon it. I have one idea on how I can stick with it. It can never supersede my work on the book, but there’s a lot happening in the world right now, and I’m eager to speak my mind. I’ve been on Facebook a bunch lately, but you can’t really go into any depth there. It’s fast and ephemeral — more cheerleading than anything else, as I have told a number of people. I’m sure I’ve lost a lot of readers here, but I aim to make a return. Not many people hold the views I do. Because we live in a democracy, there is a tendency to think that whatever the majority of the population believes is the correct view. I don’t see it that way. I think humanity has gone way off the track. There’s a lot I want to say about that.

The Lie of Supply and Demand

December 16, 2015

Every time I get involved in some kind of conversation or debate over economic justice, there’s always some guy who will jump in to invoke the “Law of Supply and Demand.” Invariably, he steps back then to see if any of us are dumb enough to continue. It’s a law, man, a settled issue, something that only an idiot would challenge. But supply and demand is not a law. A law is something that absolutely must happen. But no one has any obligation to follow this supposed law in any transaction they control. If I have the only loaf of bread and I’m surrounded by hungry people, I can give the bread away if I so choose. Supply and demand is a syndrome—a philosophical justification for greed. One of the assumptions behind supply and demand is that people naturally want to get as much as they can and will play every angle they can in order to get it. A further assumption is, that’s okay. The only law involved then is the Law of the Jungle. But it’s not okay. Greed is killing us. It’s been sanctioned for a long time and the ill-effects are mounting. Climate change is one of them. Another is the cost of housing. We have to change our approach to how we exist and survive. We don’t need so much stuff. We’re heading for the cliff, and the cliff isn’t that far away now. If we don’t stop soon, we’re going over it.

Why I’m Voting For Aaron Peskin

October 6, 2015

This post will be of interest primarily to people who live in San Francisco. But it should interest anyone who loves the city. I wrote it for a booklet called San Francisco Lost and Found, which was put together by David Talbot (author of Season of the Witch among other books and founder of Salon.com) to aid Aaron’s campaign. This is a slightly edited version.

I arrived in North Beach in late 1973. One of my aims at the time was to escape what I saw as the horror of everyday American life: wake up, go to work, stop to shop, watch TV. It was a magical time—magical because people didn’t care too much about money. North Beach and Telegraph Hill were very different places from what they are today. North Beach was legendary as the West Coast home of the Beats, but it had continued on past its beat days to become a home for all kinds of people: artists, seekers, as well as those who simply had no idea what to do with their lives and couldn’t see where else to go. It didn’t cost much to live here then. There were a lot of SRO hotels, and even apartments were cheap. I was so broke and at such a crossroads that I couldn’t afford even a cheap hotel room. I lived on the street—not what we think of nowadays as a homeless person, but as a street person. I usually had somewhere to sleep—a rooftop hut, a storage room, a rooftop tent—but I didn’t have my own home. I was able to live that way because I was surrounded by folks who, even if they didn’t understand, were tolerant of other people’s unusual trips.

It was a unique time. People hung out on the streets more, and I made real friends there. It was possible to get into conversations that changed you—not just some opinion you held, but the direction your life was heading. Then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, money started talking again and nearly everyone listened. The interesting people, the ones whose lives were not devoted to having big careers, could not afford the new regime. One by one, I watched my friends leave town. I managed to hang on, but the neighborhood’s magic was leaving with those who couldn’t afford it anymore. Since then, the encroachment of careerism and the obsession with wealth have grown stronger and stronger, while those who oppose it have become fewer and fewer. I’ve lived through both periods. No one will ever be able to convince me that this is the better time. Friends meet on Facebook, not on the street. And oddly, their online conversations never seem to carry over to their face-to-face meetings. (What’s that all about?)

Many supporters of Aaron’s opponent talk about turning San Francisco into a “world class city,” something I find remarkably obtuse. For years, San Francisco was a world class city without compare. In the 1980s I was constantly meeting people from all over the world who had come here looking for the remains of the counterculture—both beat and hippie. It was clear that these people felt hope for humanity because of the experiments that took place here in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This didn’t happen in the same way anywhere else. That is “world class.”

One of the last places you’ll ever find anyone with an interest in what I’m describing here is within the halls of power. But San Francisco is different in that there have been a handful of politicians who have had some experience with what is generally referred to as “bohemia.” One of those politicians is Aaron Peskin. He has other constituencies—I’m not suggesting that he’s the artists’ candidate—but he’s perfectly comfortable socially with the neighborhood’s artists, misfits, and seekers. Good lord, the man speaks Hindi, Nepali, and Hebrew! He has an intelligence, sensibility, and integrity that I trust. And his interest has always been in the community, not in the corporate offices. (Everyone says that about their favorite candidates, but it’s seldom true. In Aaron’s case, it is true.)

I’ll always be grateful to Aaron for one thing in particular. In 2007 the wild parrot flock was having a serious problem with people feeding them in a public park. They’d become so tame that some of the feeders were nabbing them and taking them home as pets. I went through a tremendous amount of anxiety over this. I knew that the parrots valued their freedom above all else. It was beginning to look as though the book and film about them had been a huge mistake. I had to stop the feedings. But how? Talking to the feeders didn’t do any good. The only solution appeared to be a law. I didn’t have to go through any great contortions to get Aaron, my district supervisor, to understand the problem. He saw that the freedom of the wild ones was more important than the desires of a few of his constituents who didn’t have the best interests of the parrots at heart. So he sponsored an ordinance that effectively put an end to the public feedings. He took a tremendous amount of crap for doing so, but he knew what was right and he did it. I have no confidence—no confidence at all—that my current representative would understand. (For details on the ordinance and what brought it about, go to http://www.markbittner.net/writings/feeding_ordinance1.html)

Since money and the inevitable, attendant corruption have become the dominant forces in San Francisco, I’ve seen a lot of “one step forward and two steps back.” District 3 has always been the heart of San Francisco. As I see it, if Aaron doesn’t win this election it will be the final nail in San Francisco’s coffin. Everything I came here for will be gone forever. San Francisco will be just another city. So, we really do need him. He understands how the government works. He also understands that not everybody wants to live a conventional life. Americans like to talk about freedom. One of the greatest freedoms, I think, is to be allowed to seek a way of life outside convention. It’s hard to go there when all the machinery within the society insists on homogenization. I’m not suggesting that San Francisco go back to the way it was before. To create something fresh and vital you always have to dig into the present moment. But I want the regression to stop and for San Francisco to become a spiritually stimulating place to live again. Electing Aaron would be a good place to begin.

Progress Report #100

October 4, 2015

A few days ago I returned from a two-week stay at the Mesa Refuge, a writers retreat in Point Reyes Station, California. My stay there enabled me to put some focused work into my book, Street Song. So where do I stand?

I have the first seven chapters of a 49 chapter book essentially finished. Those first seven chapters have taken a great deal of time because, for one thing, while working on them I saw that they contain the kernel of everything that comes later. I had to get them right. Another reason they’ve been difficult is that my initial drafts of those first seven chapters were a mess. I hadn’t yet found my way when I was working on them in the first two drafts. I still have a little bit of work to do on chapter 7. I also have two other chapters finished that come later in the book. They were written to show to potential publishers. My task now should be editing and refining what I’ve already written in previous drafts. They’re reasonably close to how they’ll be in the finished manuscript. So I hope the work will start speeding up now. I’ve been working on this book for over nine years. When I started I never imagined it would take this long. I’m eager to be done with it, but I have to get it right.

Am I happy with the work? Yes. As the Beatles once said, “it’s getting better all the time.” It’s satisfying when you begin to see your lines begin to look clean and deep. I’m on a roll right now and aim to stay on it.

One more thing, I will be reading an entire chapter from the book (one of the later chapters) at the Bauhaus Gallery in North Beach on Sunday, October 25th. The time of the event is from 3:00 to 5:00 pm. I’m one of two featured readers. The Bauhaus Gallery is located at 703 Columbus Avenue here in San Francisco. It’s a fundraiser for the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, so there’s a $10 cover charge. “Refreshments will be provided.”

Progress Report #99

September 17, 2015

Getting to this blog has been like trying to get off a packed subway car. I get an idea and work on it in my mind. But when the train pulls into the station, the doors open and close before I can get out. The crowded car is my work on Street Song. It overwhelms everything. Sometimes I want to give up on this blog, but something inside me won’t allow it. So I’m going to do another progress report.

Tomorrow I leave for the Mesa Refuge, an artists retreat. For two weeks I’ll essentially be taken care of and have the solitude I need to work on this book. It’s been a long and difficult struggle, much longer and much more difficult than I ever dreamed. I’m over nine years into it now with at least one more year to go. I have the first seven chapters essentially done, and two others that come much later in the book in essentially final form. I’m going to use these two weeks to refine that work. Those first seven chapters are the foundation that the rest of the book is built on. They need to be exactly as I want them. The Mesa Refuge is in a rural area, so I’ll have plenty of peace and quiet. Because it’s impossible to work the whole day, I’m taking my bicycle. It’s a beautiful area for both writing and riding. When I come back to San Francisco I should be quite tuned up. I don’t have any interruptions after that and I hope to make strong progress. I hope before the end of the year to have a contract. I’ve been working all this time without one. I’ve been showing Street Song around to a few people, and the responses have been quite favorable. I’m hopeful for this book.

If you live in the San Francisco area, toward the end of October, I’ll be doing a reading from one of the chapters at an art gallery here. Details to come in early October.

Until then, Mark!

Still Struggling

August 27, 2015

I’ve been trying to get back to this blog, but without much luck. Things (Street Song) keep getting in the way. But as a gesture of my sincerity, I am going to do a short one. I have an idea for a longer post, which I hope to write soon.

When I was in high school, my social studies class received two visitors from England who were on a world tour. The school had invited them to speak to us, but they bored me, so I tuned them out. I was gazing out the classroom window when I heard one of them saw something that caught my attention. “Now, I’m sure everyone in this room will agree with me when I say that Winston Churchill was the greatest man of the 20th Century.” What a preposterous thing to say! I thought. First of all, nobody in that room thought about things like that at all. And I certainly did not agree. To me, Churchill was just some fat man who sat on his ass smoking cigars while sending young men off to die in wars (an opinion that has not changed in nearly 50 years). But my disdain for the man forced me to think about who I would give the title “Greatest Man of the 20th Century.” At the time, I came up with Martin Luther King. But now I would say Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the Japanese Zen master who founded the Zen Center here in San Francisco.

David Chadwick, a former student of Suzuki, has a web site devoted to the man and frequently posts quotes from the Suzuki. Here’s a recent posting that I like very much.

Truth is not some particular, you know, thing. If I say truth you think it is some special theory [laughs] or mathematical or scientific theory. But we don’t mean such concrete, static logic by truth. Truth is unconditionality or eternal reality. Reality does not take any form.

Back from Facebook

July 17, 2015

I’ve been doing the Facebook thing for awhile, becoming familiar with its workings. I’d been told many times that I will need a Facebook presence to publicize my new book when it comes out. But since I started posting over there I haven’t paid any attention to this blog. I don’t really like Facebook. (I didn’t think I would.) The temptation is to be quick and superficial and a smart ass. I expect to start posting here again soon. Until then…

The Greek Debt

June 17, 2015
In Hydra 1969

In Hydra in 1969 with Dougal, Janice, Nikos, and unknown.

In 1969, a few months after graduating from high school, I flew to Europe, where I spent several months exploring by thumb and by train. Of all the countries I traveled through, my favorite by far was Greece. It was a beautiful land with its own distinct culture. The old Mediterranean peasant world still had a strong presence, which made a big impression on me. The Greeks in general were extraordinarily friendly, openly curious about people from other countries, and generous. One day, at an outdoor market I asked a farmer if I could buy an orange. He seemed puzzled and asked, “One kilo?” “No, one orange,” I said. He frowned and shook his head. No, he wasn’t going to sell me just one orange. He gave it to me. One of the special aspects of Greece, especially Crete, was the sense of timelessness—by which I mean I had little awareness of being in a particular historical era. Visually, everything was distinct. As Henry Miller said of Crete in The Colossus of Maroussi, “You see everything in its uniqueness—a man sitting under a tree: a donkey climbing a path near a mountain: a ship in a harbor in a sea of turquoise: a table on a terrace beneath a cloud.” I’d already begun my lifelong loathing of modernity—the tawdry commercialism, superficial relationships, the hustle—and I loved Greece for the slow pace of life and its beauty. Living life was more important than business. (It’s pitiful that people who believe life should be beautiful are regarded now as romantics. It’s a symptom of how lost we’ve become.)

In 2007 I returned to Greece to do research for my book Street Song. I wasn’t expecting it to be the same, but the degree of change was startling. Everything that I loved about Greece was gone. It had lost that special sense of timelessness. Greece had become a resort for wealthy northern Europeans and Americans. And the Greeks themselves had become sullen. All they wanted was your money. It took me a few days to figure out exactly what had happened: globalization. Greece was now just an outpost on the international corporate circuit. One day I tried to talk to a Greek about it, and he blew me off. He was gruff and uncommunicative. I finally did talk to a Greek about it,  a man who owned a laundromat and spoke English. He agreed with me—very passionately—that something had gone very wrong in Greece. All anybody did was work and work, and they were all unhappy about it. They all believed that they had no choice. Much of their work consisted in serving the fat Germans who lounged about on the beaches and treated them like serfs.

There is a lot of anger directed at Greece in the Western World because of the new government’s threat to default on its debt. A tremendous amount of pressure is being put on them to stay the course of austerity and to open the doors wider to those who have no interest in Greece other than to rape and pillage. I, for one, hope they can resist. If it means default, then bless them. The insane, pointless workaholism of the Germans and Americans goes against the character of the Greeks—against the character of human beings, really. We are not designed to live this way and we’re heading for a nervous breakdown.

America, Germany, and England as well as some other countries have declared to the rest of the world that globalization is the only way to go, that every country must be part of it or it won’t survive. No one is given a choice. The global economy is very clearly a great evil to me. It’s tawdry and shallow. We’ve gone far beyond any level of comfort that we actually need, and yet we’re still not satisfied. Our levels of anger and frustration grow continually because materialism can never satisfy. Something is going to bring the whole thing down one day. I think of the bankers as drug dealers. They try to get you hooked and then send in their enforcers if you don’t pay up. It’s probably too much to hope that a default by Greece would begin the unraveling, but it would be most appropriate if it did. The Western World’s enshrinement of rationality and logic began in Greece, and it is rationality and logic that have led us to the horrific level of materialism that we live by today. If Greece can begin the process of the collapse of that system—which must collapse for the world to survive—it will be one of those beautifully ironic moments that history sometimes serves up.


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