Archive for the ‘North Beach/Telegraph Hill’ Category

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 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

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.

The Joy of Real Music

December 6, 2014

I haven’t posted here in quite some time. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. Most of my thinking, though, has been focused on what a dark and insane time it is we live in. Every time I’ve gone to write my thoughts, I’ve pulled back. I haven’t wanted to wallow in negativity. I’m sure there will be more of it in the future—analysis of what’s going on in this nasty old world of egotism, racism, and greed—but I can’t bear to do it at the moment. I had a nice memory float up today, so I’m going to write about that instead.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s I was a regular at a cafe here in San Francisco called The Tattoo Rose. The cafe was a very nice scene. There were poetry readings, open-mike nights for singers and songwriters, and the food was cheap, so it was a good hangout for people with unusual and interesting ideas. Several years before, I’d abandoned my old dream (a fantasy really) of becoming a musician. I still liked to play, though. I’d never taken the time when I was ambitious to learn music theory properly, so I took advantage of the atmosphere within the cafe to teach myself the nuances of chord construction and scales. The best instrument on which to study theory is the piano, and happily the cafe had one—a piano that was kept in tune and all of whose keys worked! I was a guitar player, but I knew which note was which on the piano, so I was able to work on my favorite aspect of music: chords, harmonies. But all I could do was play block chords. To avoid disturbing customers with my primitive skills, I only worked on it when business was slow.

One of my favorite musicians was Ray Charles. I loved the way he altered the chords to other people’s songs—songs like “Georgia On My Mind,” “Come Rain or Shine,” and “You Don’t Know Me.” He always came up with appealing, jazzy voicings that I could never figure out. All I knew was folk music and rock and roll. None of the Ray Charles songbooks I saw ever used his actual arrangements. They usually published the songwriter’s original version. One rainy afternoon, I was in a music store and found a Ray Charles songbook with the chords that Charles had used. Excited, I bought that book and hurried back to the cafe. When I got there, I found that the place was packed. I couldn’t stand to wait. I had to play those chords now. I took a chance and went to the piano, and when the cafe manager made no effort to stop me, I opened the book and started running through the chords—simple block chords, played very, very softly. People kept talking—it didn’t seem to disturb them—so I kept going. It was such an incredible pleasure to sound out those chords! I felt ecstatic. Nevertheless, I kept the volume low, barely audible. A lot of the chords were unfamiliar to me—flatted fifths, sharped ninths, and so on—and to keep the flow reasonably smooth, I had to slow everything down. I didn’t want to press my luck, so after about twenty minutes I shut the book and stood up to leave. The moment I did, the entire cafe broke into applause. It wasn’t merely polite applause; it was the kind of applause you get when you do a show and the audience has actually enjoyed your performance. As quiet as I’d been, they’d heard my joy—and all those beautiful chords.

The Wild Coyote of Telegraph Hill

February 20, 2014

For several years now, Judy and I have been hearing about a coyote on the hill. There have probably been several. Coyotes are being seen in different parts of the city. We’ve been wanting to catch a glimpse of him, and Judy has spent time tracking down the neighborhood residents who know the coyote’s routine. A couple of nights ago, after receiving some tips from one of them, we found him immediately. He was hard to miss. Someone was standing on the sidewalk  shining a flashlight on him. The coyote is a bit of a celebrity among the condo dwellers at the bottom of the hill. Small groups gather to watch him and compare notes. The coyote has a special interest in small dogs. Before leaving, I was able to get one barely usable shot, which is below, first as a wide shot and then blown-up and cropped.

Telegraph HIll Coyote

The Wild Coyote of Telegraph Hill

Coyote Close-up

Coyote Close-up

It’s interesting that Coyote should show his face at this particular time when greedy developers, ambitious politicians, jaded techies, and unprincipled government agencies are all working in tandem to exploit and destroy what’s left of the beauty of San Francisco. It’s happening at a feverish pace. I can’t think of it as anything other than an attempted gang rape. I’m sure I’ll be writing about it more in the future. It often makes me want to leave the city.

Progress Report #81

July 1, 2012

Yesterday I finished the first pass through Draft 2, Chapter 34. Tomorrow I start a second pass through the chapter to clean it up. That’ll take most of the week. Then I need to edit the outline so that it conforms to the finished version. After that, I’ll work on Chapter 35, which will be a commentary on the events in the book from the perspective of 24 years later. I think there will be such a chapter in the final version of the book and I want to explore how it might go. But I’m not going to sweat over it. Once I’ve let go of Chapter 35, the second draft is done, done, done. Four and a half years!

When I was writing The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill I knew all along that Street Song was going to be my next book—if there was a next book. But I haven’t been sure what book, if any, I will write after this one. I’ve had one recurring idea, and this week I found myself creating some research files. The book would be about the unique neighborhood I live in. (It’s the same one you see in the parrot movie.) The overarching theme would be how magic is undermined and destroyed by people with money. I’ve seen this happen over and over again. It’s the curse of this nation. How can we have a good life if the good life cannot find a place to take root and grow? I would spend most of the book establishing and depicting the neighborhood’s original magic, which goes back seventy-five years. I’ll be able to tell some parrot stories that didn’t fit into my first book. I have a title in mind, but I’m not going to put that out yet. It wouldn’t take me nearly so long to write this book. At the moment, though, it’s just an idea. My focus is on Street Song.

On San Francisco

February 26, 2012

A while ago I told someone who reads this blog that I would write something about what I see happening in San Francisco. As I remember, the reader used to live here but had to move to Florida and was curious to know what the city is like now.

I first came to San Francisco in late 1973 and, except for a year in exile in Oakland, I’ve been here ever since. In that time, the city has gone through a lot of changes. Few of the changes have been for the good. We have a reputation for being a city filled with radical leftwing kooks who are anti-business. I wish it were true. The reality is that San Francisco is a money town now, and the interesting people—who seldom have the goal of getting rich—can’t afford to live here anymore.

One thing I see happening is that Silicon Valley has filled the town with technophiles who are so enchanted by their gadgets and virtual realities that they have very little concern with the world they actually inhabit. San Francisco has been a beautiful place, but that beauty is quickly being destroyed by mindless development. More and more, the people who live here don’t care. They want a job, an apartment, and good cell phone reception. Everything else is of little importance. So business has a free hand to “create jobs.” Doing meaningful work seems a meaningless goal to most people. All they want is a paycheck. A lot of these same people have the goal of turning San Francisco into a “world class city,” which means “high-powered,” big, bright, and crowded; taller and taller buildings that look exactly like the buildings in every other town you go to; big sports events.

One of the biggest job creators here is tourism. Tourists started coming to San Francisco in large numbers because it was different from other American cities. It had soul. But tourism kills the soul of every place it infects. I’ve seen it happen in many other places. No one can tell me it’s not true. San Francisco is losing its soul. For a lot of people, the trade-off is worth it, and I find that immensely disheartening.

The reason all this bugs me so much is that when I first arrived, there were a lot of people here working to create something that met real human needs and concerns. It was a rare endeavor within American life. These kinds of movements are hard enough to start, let alone pull off. We Americans like to think of ourselves as practical and utilitarian. I think we’re merely mundane. The powers that be—the Chamber of Commerce, certain newspaper columnists—have mocked and vilified those movements to the point that they have very little support anymore. They are worthy endeavors. Sometimes they get a little unreal, but that’s because being creative and real are so foreign to us as a people.

I live in a garden on Telegraph Hill. It’s one of the most unique neighborhoods in the United States. Because the neighborhood is officially designated an historic district, it often feels removed from developments going on in the rest of the city. But money having the free hand that it does now at City hall, this feeling seems more and more like an illusion. I’m going to be writing more about this in the near future.

Back from New York

January 23, 2012

I got back from New York Saturday afternoon. Judy’s in Florida visiting her mother, so I’m alone here in the house. I spent the early part of Sunday washing clothes, putting my stuff away, shopping for groceries. Judy had received an invitation to what was being called a “sneak preview” of a restaurant and bar that’s opening in the neighborhood in a few days. I decided to go in her place. The bar area was packed with people all worked up over the New York Giants-San Francisco 49ers playoff game, which was on the TV. I left the restaurant before there was any score and spent the evening relaxing—mostly in bed—reading a book. Outside it was raining, and the streets were quiet—a pleasant respite from the hustle of New York. A little before going to bed it occurred to me: Oh, they must have lost.

Nearing the end of the road

June 19, 2011

I have a habit of taking up a new interest and devoting myself to it so completely that I do little else—for years. I’ve done it with music, the Italian language, bicycles, the study of history. Invariably, I reach a point where I can’t go any farther with a particular study. I begin to feel that it isn’t essential to my life and so gradually I let go of it. I feel this happening with computers now. I started out with Windows around 1996, and switched to the Mac in around 2000. My first Mac had OS X, and I’ve upgraded to each new version as soon as it came out. Right now the Mac world is all excited about Lion, the new upgrade coming out in July. I’m not. I find that I don’t care at all. I doubt that I’ll bother with it. I’ve gotten deeply irritated with the belief that Apple is constantly pushing: that tech must be at the center of our lives. I would rather sit down and play my guitar than download a song from iTunes or stitch together a fake song from pre-recorded loops in Garage Band.

When I look out my window, I don’t see anybody. Everybody’s indoors. I keep thinking I should go outside, sit down, wait for some people to show up, and get into a conversation. Yesterday I went over the hill to the annual North Beach Street Fair where I sat down in a doorway and studied people as they walked by. After a while I realized that I was actually making some people nervous, which reminded me of the famous line from the Gregory Corso poem, “Power”:

Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is Power

Comrades in Arms

May 11, 2011

In the late ’70s here in North Beach, famous bohemian neighborhood of San Francisco, there used to be a group of guys who sat in the cafes and talked ideas. All their ideas were preposterous, yet they saw themselves as cutting-edge visionaries whose views would eventually alter all intellectual fields. The reality was that they did little more than drink coffee and shoot the shit. Every now and then a local newspaper would do a story on them. I was amazed that anybody took them seriously. One of them must have known a journalist. At that time they were all left-wingers of one sort or another. Today, they all seem to have become right-wingers. (I will repeat: I dislike those terms, but I use them to keep this story short.) I once asked one of them, “Why the change?” He admitted confidentially that it was because there was more money in being a right-winger. Anyway, every time I see or hear Newt Gingrich, I can’t help but think of those guys.

Everything Changes

June 13, 2009

In 1954, local artist Peter Macchiarini put together the first Upper Grant Street Fair. In those days there was a high concentration of arts and crafts people in North Beach, and they needed an outlet for their work. A street fair seemed like a good way for the artists both to display their work and to celebrate the kind of work they did. It was a genuinely local affair. The fair was so popular that it became an annual event. Other neighborhoods in San Francisco took up the idea, and in later years, so did other cities.

While they haven’t disappeared from North Beach entirely, arts and crafts are not nearly what they used to be. The fair is bigger than ever, though. But it’s a travesty of the original vision. It has nothing to do with the neighborhood anymore. It’s a traveling circus that lands on top of the community once a year and attracts large numbers of people who wander the streets getting wasted on alcohol and acting belligerent. The fair is about money now. It’s the annual moneymaker for a local businesswoman who pays mere lip service to the arts.

So today was the first day of this year’s edition. I was complaining about the fair to a local who mostly agreed with my assessment of it, but added, “well, everything changes.” I often hear this line when people are talking about something good that has turned to shit. But it’s a bad characterization of the truth that “everything changes.” Everything must change through the course of time, but that doesn’t mean that everything is obliged to go in a bad direction. “Everything changes” is not equivalent to “everything deteriorates.”

Injured Hawk Update

May 14, 2009

I received this yesterday from Ian Cooper, the neighbor who found the injured hawk:

“Just spoke with the Peninsula Humane Society – they have done blood work and weighed the bird and all seems normal. They are saying he’s a young red shouldered hawk (hasn’t developed the red shoulders yet). He (or she) has shown some improvement and is standing better, but not eating – as yet they do not know what the problem is and give the prognosis as ‘guarded.’ There is speculation he flew into a building – I found him right outside the art deco building on Montgomery. They are taking X-rays today.

Anyway, it sounds like he is in good hands. I’ll try to get another update from them in a day or 2. Fingers crossed and he recovers, they will release him back in SF.”