Archive for the ‘San Francisco’ Category

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.

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.

Look Out!

May 10, 2015

Around 1978 I heard about a book that had just come out called Looking Out for Number One. I was appalled. The title was completely at odds with what had been going on throughout the 60s and early 70s, and it sounded evil to my ears. I still think of that book as the beginning of the change in this culture’s psychology, one we’re still living out. Reagan became president a couple of years later, and he advanced this idea of looking out for number one, and it has been growing as a national belief ever since. The author of the book was a libertarian, and we see libertarianism gaining more and more traction.

I think that “selfish” is what is really meant nowadays when we say “conservative.” So-called conservatives insist that it’s a virtue, that you’re supposed to look out for your country, your family, and yourself before anything else. People who don’t share this idea are viewed with suspicion. But looking out for number one is not a virtue. It’s a biological view of morality—instinctive, unthinking. And people who follow it are quite capable of turning against their country, their mate, or their children whenever it serves their self-interest. Selfish people don’t care about anybody else, by definition. Selfishness gradually undermines any system that embraces it. We’re seeing that happen in this country now. The general atmosphere is becoming increasingly hostile and argumentative, less neighborly. There are movements in certain states to secede from the union. People live in isolation from one another in general. Here in San Francisco, for example, people seldom see the inside of other people’s homes. Some people point to social media as an example of the continuance of community, but I don’t think so. It’s superficial community, if it’s community at all. The culture has lost its memory of what real community feels like. I’ve lived in a few and I’ve always liked them. The only one I’m in right now is the South End Rowing Club, my swim club. It’s the one place I actually enjoying being. It’s not a fancy fitness club. It’s all volunteer, and you can feel it. There’s something greater than the sum of the parts.

So if looking out for number one is wrong, what’s right? I read once that we should look out for the well-being of everything that lives, not excluding ourselves. I think that makes good sense.

Swimming in the Rain

February 12, 2015
Swimming in the Rain

Mark and Judy Go Swimming. Photo by Emily Wick

In the drink

In the drink

Sneaker Synchronicity

October 14, 2014

Nearly every October, the City of San Francisco afflicts its citizenry with the screaming lunacy of the Blue Angels. (A friend describes them as a motorcycle gang in the sky, which, I think, nails it.) I think it’s best to restrain one’s hatreds, but the Blue Angels are one of the few things I will admit to feeling contempt for. It’s been my practice for several decades now to skip town the days of the horror show. A few years ago, Judy and I and a few like-minded friends started up a tradition of going up the coast to Drakes Beach to spend the day in the sand, eating, talking, and swimming. Sometimes I bring a book, and I decided to do so this year. I wanted something lightweight (meaning, not too heavy for my daypack), something I could dip into if I felt the urge to read, but could quit easily. I studied my shelves for some time before settling on a book of poems by Gary Snyder. Short nature poems at a wild beach. Perfect.

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach is narrow and ends abruptly at the base of a long wall of sheer white cliff. You can tell from the sea weed and the channels in the sand that the waves sometimes come up all the way to the base of the cliff. But they’ve never done it during any of our outings—and I’ve been there 15 times or more. I’ve sometimes wondered, in my ignorance, if it was something that happened only at night. When Judy and I arrived around noon, none of the others had shown up yet. The fingers of the waves were coming in closer than usual. Judy asked me, “Did you check the tides before we left?” I assured her that I had, although I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d read. It seemed to me that high tide was supposed to be at 2:40 pm. But that was for the Golden Gate. I’d understood the book to say that there is a one hour 20 minute time difference between the tide times at the Golden Gate and at Point Reyes Peninsula—where we were—which would put high tide at 1:20 pm. At 1:15 the waves were still a reasonable distance away, so we relaxed. I pulled out the book of poems and began reading. I kept one eye on the waves, though, and, while I couldn’t be sure, it looked as though they might be coming closer.

Other people on the beach were becoming uneasy. Not that there was any danger. It was more a question of “Are we going to have to move our stuff?” A small group of picnickers passed by on their way up the beach, and one of them stopped to ask me if I knew when high tide was. I told her what I thought I knew, but had to admit that I wasn’t sure. She had an accent, so I asked her where she was from. She said France, which led to a brief conversation. While we were talking, I remembered reading that the Coast Guard had issued a warning for sneaker waves that day. I asked her if she knew the term “sneaker wave.” She didn’t, so I thought I ought to explain it to her. She had difficulty understanding, and was more concerned with catching up to her friends. She let me think she’d understood and then left. A few minutes later, a guy approached me and asked if I was waiting for a particular wave, a wave that had a name. His question made no sense to me. I thought he was just being goofy, and I was a little rude until I realized that he was French, too, a friend of the woman, and was seeking clarification on what a “sneaker wave” was. As we talked, the surf kept throwing out an occasional longer wave. Last gasps of the high tide? Playing it safe, Judy and I moved our stuff a little closer to the cliff and onto a slightly elevated portion of the beach. The way the waves were breaking, I felt certain we were in a place that would stay above it all. I spotted a park ranger coming down the sand, so I trotted over to ask if she knew when high tide was. She said 2:40, which meant I’d misunderstood the tide log. It was obvious now that we were were going to have to abandon the beach entirely. Right at that moment, two of our friends, Bruce and Michele, showed up. As Judy and I greeted them a huge wave reared up, smacked down on the sand, and started rolling toward our stuff. The four of us hoisted everything up off the sand just in time. We were luckier than most. Up and down the beach, folks were mourning over their soaked picnic supplies. Just then the French girl walked by. “That was a sneaker wave,” I shouted.

As we were leaving, Bruce noticed that we’d missed one item, the book of poems by Gary Snyder. It was sitting in a shallow pool of seawater. He picked it up, handed it to me, and I saw the title again: Regarding Wave.

Into the Arms of Mother

August 24, 2014
The starting point of the swim, with the finish line on the horizon.

The starting point of the swim, with the finish line on the horizon.

I successfully completed my swim this morning. 38 minutes. It wasn’t all that hard, but I feel wasted now. In a couple of days, I’m leaving for a week in LA and will write about the swim when I get back. (Judy’s new film Pelican Dreams is going to be released into theaters this fall, and we have to do some work on it down there.) I love open-water swimming. I couldn’t do the crawl before I met Judy. Now, I’m okay at it. Slow, though. I was able to do the 1.2 miles in 38 minutes because we swam it on a flood tide. It was astonishing how fast we were moving along the city shoreline. Fun to watch.

Staying in Contact with Mother

August 22, 2014
Baby Parrot

Baby Cherry-headed Conure

I still get called in every now and then to deal with the parrots. This morning someone telephoned to say that he had a parrot in a bush outside his front door, that it had been there for several hours without moving. He lived just up the street, so I put aside work on the book and headed over with a towel and a small travel cage that I use for emergencies. I was expecting to find a sick adult, or maybe a bird that had crashed into a window. To my surprise, it was a brand new baby. I’d never seen one out of the nest earlier than August 31st, and usually I didn’t start seeing them until early September. So this one was at least nine days ahead of schedule. Parrots rarely go so low to the ground, so he had to have been in some kind of trouble. When I walked toward him, he bolted away to a nearby bush. I heard parrots in some trees call out and he responded. The parents! The baby then flew up to a tall poplar where they were waiting for him. He looked a little weak and sloppy, but he made it. He’s in safe hands now. My hunch is that he fledged a little too soon, or else he’d been trying to keep up with his parents before he was ready to. At first after fledging (taking their first flight) the babies take only short flights and stay in a tree for most of the day waiting for the parents to come back and feed them. I always love seeing the babies. They look so fresh and innocent looking with their big baby eyes.

On another nature note, I belong to something called the South End Rowing Club, which Judy got me into. It’s not what its name might make it seem. It’s at the north end of the city and caters mostly to swimmers, but does have rowers and handball players, too. It’s a blue collar club—not a fancy white collar one. The building is real old and located right on the beach of a cove in San Francisco called Aquatic Park. Most people stick to the cove for their swims, but there are some intrepid swimmers who venture out into the bay itself, swimming Alcatraz and beyond. Judy’s one of those. After sticking to the safety of the cove for thirteen years, I’m about to do my first out-of-cove swim. I’ll be doing a 1.2 mile swim out in the bay along the shoreline from something called Coghlan Beach back to the cove. I’ll be doing it on a flood tide, so it should be relatively easy—like a log being washed along by the tide. I’ve been training for several weeks, and it’s done a lot to take my mind off my book frustrations. (Things are getting better in that department, by the way.) The swim is Sunday morning. Wish me luck.

Main Street Marijuana

June 28, 2014

I grew up in the town of Vancouver, Washington, and like everybody with intellectual, artistic, or spiritual inclinations I grew up hating my hometown for stifling my aspirations. I was a big fan of the Sinclair Lewis novel Main Street because it bolstered my contempt for the small-town mindset. I read it several times. I longed to move to some great city where I would find the open, cosmopolitan mindset where everybody talked about serious, creative issues. (Interestingly, Henry Miller despised his hometown of New York City for many of the same reasons I despised Vancouver.)

Forty years ago, when I arrived in San Francisco I thought I’d finally found what I was looking for. So it’s ironic that on July 7th my old hometown is getting its first marijuana store, while here in San Francisco the locals get all uptight whenever a medical marijuana dispensary is proposed for their neighborhood. It’s especially ironic for me, deliciously ironic, that the new store is going to be located on Vancouver’s Main Street and will be called Main Street Marijuana.

I’m entirely in favor of legalizing marijuana. But, as it seems to be with nearly all issues these days, my reasons for supporting it are different than that of most people. I think legalizing it for medical reasons is fine, but I don’t like the “recreational” tag. It’s frivolous. It encourages people to approach marijuana as a party drug, which is a waste of its real value. The justification for legalization is its value as a spiritual tool.

I’m well aware that you’d never get the stuff legalized taking that approach. Today’s image of the dope smoker is that of a lazy, dull-minded space cadet, a credulous fool. Furthermore, although few of them like to talk about it, a lot of people who used to smoke it stopped because, they say, it started making them “paranoid.” Marijuana is essentially an amplifier—a benevolent one, I’d say. It increases your awareness, in the beginning at least. It depends, though, on what you want it to do. When I was playing music, some of my best performances happened while I was high. (This was not merely my subjective opinion. The audiences affirmed it for me each time.) My hearing was extraordinarily acute and I was strongly aware of the smallest details in my playing and singing. Likewise, I’ve had some fine meditations while stoned, special insights that I still remember. The thing is, you always come back down. The hope is that you learned something while you were high that you could begin to strive toward in your day-to-day unstoned mind. The problem with people who smoke it and smoke it and smoke it is they blow out their energy. That’s why you get sleepy stoners who don’t seem very bright. They’ve shot their wad. (You can always get it back. It doesn’t cause permanent damage. You just have to stop for awhile.)  I haven’t smoked any in 15 years. I’m still working on what I learned in those first 30 years of smoking. As for paranoia, the drug itself doesn’t make you paranoid. It simply shows you the paranoia that is already within you. It shows you by amplifying it. But it also amplifies love. It amplifies everything.

Anyway, that’s my take on the subject. I’m happy to discuss. My best wishes to Main Street Marijuana. May it be a successful enterprise.

Good News

June 4, 2014

It’s been very difficult to post anything here lately. There are several reasons: busy with the book, busy with Judy’s movie, busy with Judy’s Kickstarter campaign, have a lousy cold. Mostly though it’s because I’ve been quite pessimistic lately and haven’t wanted to unload that yet again on this blog. I wanted some good news first.

Well, there is some. First of all, Judy’s Kickstarter campaign succeeded. She made her goal of $50,000, so the project will be funded. Thank you to everyone who gave. And there is other good news: Yesterday, San Francisco voters passed Proposition B by a margin of 59 to 40 percent. Prop B requires that any building project on city-owned waterfront property that would exceed height limits already in place will require a vote of the people to proceed. There have been a lot of complaints that Prop B becomes city planning by the ballot box, that it’s inefficient, slow, open to corruption by politics and scares away developers (I hope). The reason the proposition became necessary is that the San Francisco city government is currently in the hands of developers. The city rubber stamps every development proposal no matter how massive, ugly and inappropriate. They want San Francisco to be a playground for the rich—the global rich. Local development organizations such as SPUR peddle the idea of the “New Urbanism,” which is really just the old urbanism with delusions of grandeur attached. SPUR seems to be made up of liberals who have lost their ideals but like to think that that they’re still forward-thinking. They push the idea that density makes a city vibrant. But it’s still just rats packed tight in a cage. I used to ask a friend who closely follows city politics what the ideology of organizations like SPUR was. He always looked at me with irritation—irritation at how slow and dull I was. “Money,” he would tell me. And I’ve come to see that he’s absolutely right. There is no ideology. Just the desire to get rich.

Proposition B is probably just a holding action. San Francisco has severely deteriorated in the past few years. It has become everything I came here to get away from. The cost of living here continues to drive out the people who see life as being about something more than making money. The developers and their allies are going to keep pushing. They are ruthless and see San Francisco as a goldmine that they are determined to exploit. I used to know a guy who believed that San Francisco was the New Jerusalem. It’s not. It’s just a plain old, garden-variety Babylon.

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.