Volume 43 Number 15

Super Lit!


Welcome to a super secret book issue, where you’ll find reviews, interviews, and some preview picks for events at the library, where books are relatively "free." I’ll kick things off with a rave for Blaine Dixon’s Polk Gulch (Blurb, 144 pages, $49.95), a semi-self-published collection of photos of life on one of San Francisco’s most storied streets. Blaine’s black-and-white eye is a West Coast counterpart to the Times Square views of Larry Clark and Gary Lee Boas, and the book’s final contemporary color section is packed with wise irony. Polk Gulch may not be what it once was, but Polk Gulch proves small publishing is still spirited, intelligent, and surprising. (Johnny Ray Huston)


>>The wayward west
America is not a freeway in Jon Raymond’s Livability
By Max Goldberg

>>This land was your land
The American West at Risk confronts mine-all-mine mentality
By Amanda Witherell

>>Speed Reading
83 Days of Radiation Sickness, The Photographs of Stanley Marcus and more
New Reviews

>>Herself redefined
The word is the thing in The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest
By Garrett Caples

>>Vive l’amour
Stephanie Young remakes icons and images in Picture Palace
By Brandon Bussolini

>>Blessed be
The Necronomicon has an expensive 31st birthday party
By Cheryl Eddy

>>Reel time travel
A book-length encounter with the criminally obscure Ulrike Ottinger
Matt Wolf

The wayward west


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The world falls away again and again in Jon Raymond’s short stories. The 10 pieces comprising Livability (Bloomsbury, 272 pages, $15), the Portland, Ore., author’s first such collection, are introspective ellipses enshrouded in the march of everyday life. We may hear about a job or spouse in passing, but Raymond submerges his characters into stunned states of contingency. Kelly Reichardt’s film adaptations of Raymond’s tales (2006’s Old Joy, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy) surely expand upon their source material, but his third person limited point of view skims existential drift with delicate precision. Whether it’s the dissipation of a Fight Club–inspired adolescent initiation ("The Wind"), a furtive after-hours blow job in the mall ("Young Bodies"), or a search for a missing friend amid the unfamiliar streets of a gentrifying city ("Benny"), Livability‘s plots are liminal hooks, awash in the overcast Oregon sky.

Though not an overwhelming prose stylist, Raymond sutures our reading with familiar ruminations. We have all known "almost lovers" and "might as well have been brothers." Most of us have friends who can "turn everything inside out in two breaths," too. Raymond’s characters have sharp eyes for sadness, spotting regret in everything from the diminishing opportunities for a bargain ("With the Internet, everyone knew exactly what everything was worth") to the misdirected vigor of young fathers ("Only after they’d been beaten up by the world for a good, long time were they ready").

The dearest passages in Livability linger over the unexpected amnesty of solitude. In "The Coast," a becalmed widow admits his guilty relish in being alone: "I enjoyed making the small decisions about which way to turn on the beach … I liked the slight puzzle a single man my age seemed to pose." In "Words and Things," a newly single woman observes the warmth of a cup of tea pressed to her hand, the light of passing headlights, and a silence that "crackled on her eardrums." These snatches pull up short of ecstasy, instead taking measure of the quiet remainder of perseverance.

The culminating story, "Train Choir," stands out for its inexorable chain of events, a heartbreaking progression with the unerring momentum of a ballad. In it, a young woman (Verna here, Wendy in Reichardt’s adaptation) breaks down in Oregon on her way to work the Alaskan canneries with her dog Lucy (who first appeared in the film version of Old Joy). Verna is literally at a loss, but it’s not so much what happens to the character as it is the steady undoing of options that makes "Train Choir" so moving. Even when a menacing turn is diffused, helplessness is still "only a few steps in either direction."

Raymond invokes the domestic dissolution of the George W. Bush era by giving Verna’s journey the telling backdrop of a flood. Given the current headlines, it’s hard to miss the story’s basic yet perspicacious point that the road from Bush’s America is not a freeway. Verna’s careful tally of expenses registers a different picture of money than the one lodged in discussions of "the economy." When a steep repair estimate pushes her over the edge of solubility, the sense of dispossession is sharp, like grief. Verna comes unyoked from society, but "Train Choir" is a frieze of vulnerability rather than disengagement. Verna’s condition illustrates the ease with which one can slip between the cracks in today’s United States — Bush’s rhetoric about the "ownership" society is meaningless to the individuals and entire communities who feel disowned by their country.

And yet, desolation offers its own illumination: "Overhead, the lights seemed to flutter, and for a moment she worried the whole world might disappear. But in fact nothing happened; the world remained as it was. There was no thunder. No lightning." We can read either hope or despair into these lines, but it would be folly to think the two are more than a few inches (or votes) apart.

This land was your land


Anyone paying any kind of attention has a deep-gut feeling that things aren’t going well for Earth. No matter how fancy or technologically advanced we get, everything humans make and break is fashioned from the resources at hand — water, air, petroleum, minerals, soil and its nutrients, and plants and trees and their fruit. Your MacBook may look space age, but it didn’t fall from the sky. "Nearly everything you use every day is based on minerals mined somewhere, often leaving behind disfigured land and a toxic mess," Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, and Richard W. Hazlett write in The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery (Oxford University Press, 619 pages, $35)

"Mining is the prow of America’s consumer-propelled ship. Its whole purpose is to dig up resources for transformation to consumer goods," the authors go on to note, with the kicker that such resources are nonrenewable. "A three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house of about 2,000 square feet, with a two-car garage, central air conditioning, and a fireplace, contains more than a quarter-million pounds of mined metals and other minerals."

The American West at Risk explains the exact effects mining has on Western ecosystems — in other words, the other living things trying to survive alongside humans. Beginning with forests, the authors outline the history of logging and how the right to do it on public lands was weasled from a weak Environmental Protection Agency made even weaker over the last eight years. All professional geologists, the three authors draw upon science in their argument for preservation.

An EPA library in condensed form, The American West at Risk presents a coherent survey of forestry, agriculture, water use, outdoor recreation, road building, military operations, garbage disposal, and nuclear power. "Western US public lands, about 47 percent of the region, are this nation’s patrimony — the bulk of its remaining natural capital," the authors observe. In each of the book’s 13 chapters, they study a single major resource and its uses. The chapters are tidy and stand on their own, but read together, they reveal an abuse of public lands and resources for the benefit of a very few. They also reveal how government science has been warped to perpetuate myths — for example, the idea that grazing on rangelands doesn’t harm the soil, or that military testing shouldn’t have bothersome effects on downwind populations.

The conclusions reached by Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett aren’t all doom and gloom — solutions are included — but amid climate change, the authors deserve great credit for not mincing words. The American West at Risk is being marketed as a textbook, and although schools are one ideal realm for its ideas, they aren’t the only one. This book appeals to anyone with an interest in environmental issues, and is essential bedside reading for any environmentalist or activist. It should be read by all Westerners — and by anyone who cares about this great, vast, once bountiful planet, now on the brink of death.

HOWARD G. WILSHIRE, JANE E. NIELSON, AND RICHARD W. HAZLETT read from The American West at Risk. Thurs/8, 7 p.m. at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness, SF. (415) 776-1111, www.losingthewest.com

>>Read Amanda Witherell’s interview with the authors here

Speed Reading



By NHK-TV "Tokaimura Criticality Accident Crew"


160 pages


It’s tacky to begin a review of a book about death by radiation poisoning by praising the design of its jacket. But I’m afraid I have to — John Gall’s art for A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness is unique in a gaze-snatching fashion. It combines hues of yellow and green, block patterns, and a news photo backdrop into an attractive, enigmatic, and faintly disturbing image that makes a browser wonder, "What exactly is inside this book?"

The answer is an account of a nuclear plant worker’s gradual demise after he was accidentally exposed to 20,000 times the maximum tolerable amount of neutron beam radiation. As some alleged environmentalists (including figureheads such as Al Gore) have begun touting the benefits of "non-carbon sources" of energy — an evasive way of saying "atomic power" — Hisashi Ouchi’s death comes across as an extreme cautionary tale.

Built from a television documentary about the nuclear accident, A Slow Death bluntly but compassionately renders Ouchi’s physical symptoms — which included massive skin loss — and the emotional impact his plight had on the doctors and nurses who treated him. The last extraordinary aspect of Ouchi’s story involves his heart, which persevered and remained relatively healthy while the rest of him demonstrated the impact of radiation — as the book puts it, "it continued living amidst the destruction of virtually every other cell in his body." (Johnny Ray Huston)


Photo selection by Allison V. Smith

Cairn Press

192 pages


Sale signs at Macy’s and other businesses tend to suggest that the department store is a 20th-century phenomenon on its way down. But the department store had a great curator of sorts in Stanley Marcus, the Marcus in Neiman Marcus. An over-the-top extravagant collection of the businessman’s photography, Reflections of a Man might seem like a vanity project, but in fact it reveals a talented cameraman and, somewhat enticingly, the aesthetic point-of-view that might have gone into creating a popular chain of stores.

Dallas was Marcus’ home, and his version of the city wasn’t characterized by ugly American cowboy mentality so much as a love of beauty, parties, and profitable combinations thereof — he invented an annual Fortnight celebration as a way to boost sales during the slack period between back-to-school and the holidays. Oscar de la Renta’s brief forward to this monograph is a semi-flattering if fully affectionate account of Marcus’ unflagging success at making a sale. An old press pass reveals he wanted to be a photojournalist, but his public profession proved far more lucrative.

As for the photos, they are gorgeous, Popsicle-bright Kodachrome images of life in the South and abroad in Europe. Marcus had a terrific eye for patterns and repetitions, whether they came from cubic carpeting on the floor of a Paris fashion show or funny visual rhyming between Stetson hats and hanging lamps in a Houston restaurant. Christian Dior and Pucci pose with personality for Marcus, but his skill isn’t so much for portraiture as it is for the art of commerce, capturing the flair of couturiers as well as balloon and sponge vendors on the street. (Huston)


By Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka)

Akashic Books

282 pages



By Ed Bullins

Akashic Books

192 pages


I didn’t ask, so don’t tell me why queers have come to be the fashionable sacrificial stooges for pandering new Democratic presidents. For some overstanding on the matter, read Amiri Baraka’s intro to the most recent edition of Home: Social Essays, a collection he wrote between 1961 and 1966 as Leroi Jones. Anyone familiar with reprints of Jones’s autobiographical works knows that they afford Baraka with a chance to engage in scathing (and sometimes funny) multileveled assessments of his past writings and views. Here, he leaps right into a critique of his past use of the word "fag" that insinuates tribute (without naming names) to some of the strong, influential queers he’s worked with over the years. It’s a prescient genuine act, but characteristic — Baraka was calling Obama "slick" years ago at a City Lights reading.

Baraka also writes a preface for a reprint of Ed Bullins’ story collection The Hungered One, but it’s Bullins’ introduction that makes an impression, because of its open-ended refusal of readings that interpret (and thus restrict) the title tale as an allegory. The Hungered One is filled with pieces that do exactly what they set out to do — "An Ancient One," for example, perfectly renders a city scene that happens in front of my building every day of the year. But it’s that title story — more horrifying than anything a genre writer like Stephen King has imagined — that lingers. It’s as uncanny as a nightmare, and as real as human nature. (Huston)

Herself redefined


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although I don’t enjoy real lakes

Barbara Guest, Biography

Barbara Guest (1920-2006) once told me she shared a taxi in Manhattan with Marianne Moore. Seeing Guest unsuccessfully hail a cab, Moore impulsively instructed the driver of the one she was in to pull over and pick up the young poet. Moore didn’t know Guest was a poet, and Guest was too intimidated to confess it, though they had a pleasant chat before Moore dropped her off at her destination.

There’s something fitting about this encounter. Although she most strongly identified with H.D. among modernist poets — even writing 1984’s still-standard H.D. biography Herself Defined — Guest is perhaps more like Moore in terms of her relative position within the New York School. Of the original members — including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and Kenneth Koch — she is the most obviously difficult. Unlike her relatively postmodern colleagues, she primarily engaged with a high modernist aesthetic attuned to both the arch formalism of The Waste Land-era T.S. Eliot and the strident irrationality of surrealism. The result was a truly singular aesthetic, yielding, as The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest (Wesleyan University Press, $40) demonstrates, one of the most radical bodies of work in 20th century literature.

Difficulty is, of course, a vexed question; poetry’s perceived difficulty frightens off even readers of the most abstruse fiction. Some of Guest’s poetry is admittedly taxing — a book like Rocks on a Platter (1999) is nearly impenetrable to me, despite my appetite for such work. But the bulk of Guest’s writing is difficult only if you assume the goal of poetry is to make sense, which it isn’t. The greatest poetry exceeds meaning, suggesting more than it says, suspending language’s sense-making capacity in favor of the word as thing. If you forego the demand that poetry deliver a coherent picture or scenario, Guest becomes much less difficult. You simply follow, without worrying where you’re headed.

In Symbiosis (2000), for example, one of Guest’s increasingly abstract later works, we find these three lines: "In no climate whatsoever / noise traveling up the tower<0x2009>/ bronze green in the tournament … " Quotation out of context hardly distorts the passage because it’s never clear what the context is, the lines appearing apropos of nothing before or after. They remain stubbornly themselves, resisting meaning. You can propose a tower "in no climate," but the very definition of "climate" presupposes its ubiquity; everywhere has a climate. More pertinent to Guest’s concerns are the subtle musical echoes between "noise traveling" and "bronze green," or the disposition of the word "tower," scrambled throughout "whatsoever" and translated into French as the "tour" of "tournament." These are hardly Guest’s greatest lines, but they indicate some of her procedures. The poems are generated less by "the real" than by words themselves, their use as material objects, which is what I mean by "the word as thing."

To see early work like The Location of Things (1960-62) and The Blue Stairs (1968) back in print is thrilling, while the bird’s eye view of Guest’s career is revealing: nearly half the collection was written in the last 10 years of her life, indicating the mastery she attained. The array of forms is remarkable — just when she seems to embark permanently into a Mallarméan scattering of phrases across the page, she shifts to the microfictional prose poems of 1999’s The Confetti Trees. A short section of new work at the end suggests yet more possibilities. But as the Collected Poems shows, Guest had done enough.

Vive l’amour


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REVIEW Stephanie Young edited the anthology Bay Poetics (Faux Press, 432 pages, $29), which attempted to take a snapshot of the Bay Area’s poetry scene while acknowledging the failure built into such a task. Her second book of poetry, Picture Palace (in girum imus nocte et consumimur igni, 120 pages, $15), is not particularly concerned with choosing between various poetic modes and traditions. Picture Palace draws as heavily on pop culture as it does on theory to find its form and to subsequently understand form’s impact on content. In the process, Young escapes the lyric poetry/language poetry binary. (Or, to use a less geography-bound but equally contemporary axis, the flarf/conceptual poetry binary.)

As its title suggests, Picture Palace is heavily invested in movies. Young makes and unmakes icons as well as the minutiae of daily life. On the theoretical tip, she applies Gaston Bachelard’s thought in books like 1994’s Poetics of Space and 1987’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire to the act of walking around Lake Merritt. In terms of ideas and visual imagination, Picture Palace is best described as dense. Images and their aftereffects are at play, but the reader has to dig for the gratifying thrill of recognition; even when a pop-culture reference is spotted, it has a strange murky glimmer. Young is both recovering a shared experience and implanting a new one when she writes lines like "Tim Robbins with Tupac<0x2009>/ the one where they stabbed each other<0x2009>/ for treatment," in "Betty Page We Love You Get Up."

There are other funny moments (the most intense flashes of Sylvia Plath’s "Lady Lazarus" are condensed into the formula "Rising, ash, eat, air, etc."), yet the real thrill of Picture Palace comes from the way it jumps between different levels of knowledge, in the kind of epistemological recreation that brings us back to Bachelard. Young’s ability to portray, in tandem, the way her speakers routinely perceive the world and the way they are able to break with those perceptions, and the ways of knowing the world that those perceptions embody, reminds me of the libretti of Robert Ashley’s operas more than it does the work of other contemporary poets. Much like the titular protagonist of Ashley’s Now Eleanor’s Idea (2007), her poetry is haunted by an "end of the world feeling," but where that feeling prodded Now Eleanor to pursue investigative journalism focusing on New Mexico’s lowrider culture, the same feeling pushes Young’s speakers to ponder and deform images projected onto, or from, screens: "There was a superimposed face on my face and I gradually came to see my own belief that it could never change. In this way my face functioned as an image on film."

The overall effect — and this seems like an inaccurate phrase, given how much Young’s poetics depends on micro-effects, small calibrations, and reversals of thought — is similar to Lynne Tillman’s 2006 novel American Genius. By this I mean that both writers’ driving concern is finding new forms to convey new experiences; they each establish a voice that, in its neurotic precision, contains multitudes.

Blessed be


What the hell is the Necronomicon? A figment of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination? A demon-awakening tool foolishly deployed in the Evil Dead movies? A manifestation of Aleister Crowley’s magical powers? Or simply a good old-fashioned hoax?

For purposes of this review, Necronomicon (Ibis, 220 pages, $125) is none of the above. Assume, if you will, that it’s a tome based on Sumerian mythology, filled with line drawings and incantations. It’s bound in ominous black with silver lettering and a built-in ribbon bookmark — all the better to keep important verses ("The Exorcism of the Crown of Anu," perhaps) at your fingertips. It’s edited by the single-named "Simon," who has been on the Necronomicon beat since 1977. According to Wikipedia, Simon’s interpretation has sold nearly 1 million copies. According to his author bio, his best-selling whereabouts "have been unknown since 1984" — until this 2008 re-release, anyway.

The Necronomicon is a fearsome-looking addition to any bookshelf. It’ll definitely enhance any library lacking in new age creepiness. But, uh, one more time: what is it exactly? Fortunately, Simon doesn’t leave you dangling. This edition comes complete with a new preface (helpfully explaining the significance of a deluxe 31st anniversary volume, lest you think someone dropped the ball during an even-numbered year), as well as earlier prefaces and an introduction that discusses Lovecraft, Crowley, and occult history. There’s also a pronunciation guide (since when uttering the incantations, "a mistake may prove fatal"); and a solemn page-and-a-half warning that dicking around with the Necronomicon can have serious consequences. There’s no mention of having to cut off one’s hand and strap on a chainsaw in its place, but readers who are also movie buffs will nod knowingly.

OK, then the good stuff (purportedly ancient curses, rituals, spells, etc.) begins, kicking off with "The Testimony of the Mad Arab" and continuing into chapters like "The Incantations of the Gates" and "The Conjuration of the Fire God." Names dropped include Pazuzu, of Exorcist fame. Not everything’s gloomy though; instructions on how to "win the love of a woman" and "restore potency" are included, along with poetry that could pass for death-metal lyrics: "I will cause the Dead to rise and devour the living!" Cookie Monster that!

All right. I’m pretty close to mocking the Ancient Ones here. If you happen to see me coming down the street (you’ll know it’s me — just listen for the "fearful howlings of a hundred wolves"), you might want to scrape together the dough for your own Necronomicon, just for protection purposes. The price tag on Simon’s brand-new version suggests to me that demons might really be pulling the strings somewhere along the way.

Reel time travel


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How often do you encounter a living artist whose radical and prolific body of work is criminally obscure? I can’t evangelize enough about the German filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger, whose work is the subject of Laurence A. Rickels’ Ulrike Ottinger: The Autobiography of Art Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 288 pages, $22).

Some glimpses into Ottinger’s dazzling and genre-defying oeuvre: baroque lesbian pirate adventure (1977’s Madame X: An Absolute Ruler); an aristocratic alcoholic tourist drinking herself to death in a post-apocalyptic West Berlin (1979’s Ticket of No Return); and a trans-Siberian train journey that makes an unexpected pit stop in Mongolia, where a two-hour ethnography of an all-female tribe unfolds (1989’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia).

There are hardly words to describe these striking and innovative films, but Rickels’ ambitious new book — drawing upon extensive interviews with the filmmaker — provides compelling interpretations. I recently interviewed him via e-mail.

SFBG It puzzles me how Derek Jarman’s queer-punk classic Jubilee (1978) is available as a Criterion DVD and Ulrike Ottinger’s contemporaneous and similarly groundbreaking Madame X is virtually inaccessible. Why do you think Ottinger isn’t better known in the states?

LAURENCE A. RICKELS Ottinger was very well known throughout the art cinema network in the 1980s. Though [her] fiction films were "long" in density and attention-surfeit, they in fact observed the time limits of features made for theatrical release. With the turn to documentary, she engaged in what I once referred to as "real time travel" — involving durations of viewing time up to nine hours in length. But once she began again to show her photography in acknowledged art venues, her current film work was rediscovered at least for that world.

Just as important, no doubt, is her refusal to release her films as readily available videos or DVDs. But this brings us back to the point that she operates, even when she identifies herself as filmmaker, as an artist who tries to oversee her reception.

SFBG Many of Ottinger’s films — both the documentaries and narrative films — deal with the exotic and otherness. She persistently crosses genres, cultures, and genders.

LAR What is so radical about her film art is an insistence on encountering the other, on meeting the other "halfway." For the other’s arrival, Ottinger constructs out of her own (formal) language a sort of terminal, which anticipates or fantasizes about what the other will bring to their "first" contact and exchange.

SFBG Which film from Ottinger’s oeuvre is essential viewing for those who haven’t seen her work? What about this film should a new viewer expect?

LAR If I had to choose one, it would be Ticket of No Return. It introduces the viewer to the distance Ottinger observes with regard to the very conditions of trauma. By drinking herself to death, the protagonist seeks, as Nietzsche counseled, to become who she is.

SFBG In your book you describe Ottinger’s next narrative work, Diamond Dance, about Jewish gangsters in Brighton Beach, the diamond business in New York, a gay psychoanalyst, and more. The film sounds incredible. What’s happening with the project?

LAR Diamond Dance was a new fictional film project at the start of the 1990s. There have been more near-miss attempts to find suitable conditions for its realization, even according to a more modest plan. However, Ottinger has not given up, and has been revising some of the pressure plot points in the original screenplay to reflect and invite another time period in which the film will be made and set. But the original film is in a sense lost — together with the era of art cinema to which it belonged.

Scary kids scaring kids


PG TERROR The real magic kingdom is Disney Inc., which has managed to completely dominate family entertainment for at least 70 years, from Snow White (1938) to High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2007). Yet there was a period in the 1980s when the post-Walt studio appeared to have lost its way. The old formulas seemed tapped out, and attempts to find new directions floundered, at least commercially.

Thus there was a rush of incongruously un-Disneyesque titles venturing boldly into PG terrain: 1979 sci-fi thriller The Black Hole (featuring Anthony Perkins’ drilling death); 1980 musical flop Popeye from least-apt-Disney-director-ever Robert Altman; 1981 medieval horror Dragonslayer (which had a priest flambéed in closeup); 1982’s psychedelic Tron; 1985’s seriously depressed fantasy Return to Oz, and so forth. Many of these have since developed cult followings, but they were pretty unloved back then.

One such notable failure — though somehow every kid of the era seems to have experienced nightmares from seeing it — was 1980’s The Watcher in the Woods.

Based on Florence Engel Randall’s young-adult novel, it has the Curtis family — parents Carroll Baker and David McCallum, ex-pro ice skater Lynn-Holly Johnson’s oft-hysterical psychic teen Jan, and child horror-film regular (and eventual Paris Hilton auntie) Kyle Richards as demonically possessed tyke Ellie — renting the requisite spooky old English country mansion from spooky old Mrs. Aylwood (an imperiously restrained Bette Davis), whose own daughter mysteriously disappeared three decades earlier. Myriad inexplicable, near-fatal events targeting Jan point toward an explanation both supernatural and sci-fi.

Watcher‘s tortuous history exemplified a nervous studio’s conflicting impulses. Disney wanted to make something "darker" — or did it? Rewrites lightened up scary material. There were creative arguments and forced changes during filming. Yet the often beautifully atmospheric film’s woes had only begun.

The plug was pulled on completing elaborate F/X for a parallel-dimension climax, making for an abrupt, critically panned ending. This version was yanked from theaters after brief exposure in April 1980. A re-release in even softer form followed 18 months later. No less than three alternative endings were shot; Disney still refuses to release credited director John Hough’s preferred cut. Midnites for Maniacs programmer Jesse Hawthorne Ficks doesn’t even know which variant will open his "Broken Homes for the Holidays" triple bill. It’s followed by 1986 classic Stand by Me and 1973’s diabolically clever drive-in sleazefest The Candy Snatchers.


Fri/9, Watcher in the Woods (7:30 p.m.), Stand by Me (9:45 p.m.), The Candy Snatchers (11:45 p.m.), $10

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120, www.castrotheatre.com

Return to deform


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PREVIEW One of the most exciting and unusual theatrical events of 2008 came from a small San Francisco–spawned, now Brooklyn-based company: the curiously named Banana Bag and Bodice. It almost sounds unexpected, but in fact BBB, which retains close ties to the Bay Area, has been doing shrewd, highly imaginative, often startlingly designed songplays — their preferred term — with practically no budget for about a decade. Habitués of the San Francisco Fringe Festival, most of the company’s work has appeared there in one form or another — almost invariably garnering Best of Fringe honors — beginning with 1999’s debut outing, The Bastard Chronicles, and running through such memorable encounters as the dadaist delight and vegetarian horror show, Sandwich (2004), or the haunted viscera and satirical apocaly-poesis of The Sewers (2007).

Nonetheless, last spring’s world premiere of Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage — a slick, rousing performance-arty rock operetta-cum-English-lit-seminar that ran at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley — raised things to a new level for the company, especially in terms of production values. And thanks to the support of commissioning company Shotgun Players, BBB’s well-honed minimalist aesthetic, sardonic humor, enveloping musical designs, and performance rigor all proved more than capable of expanding to fill the bigger space and budget. It’s otherwise impossible — and still somewhat awesome — to imagine a BBB performance being mounted at a top-of-the-line venue like the Berkeley Rep. But that’s just where Beowulf will be reprised Jan. 8, expanding to fill the Rep’s cavernous Roda stage, in a single benefit performance ahead of the show’s New York City premiere in April at the Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center. A sign of things to come.

Since co-founding Banana Bag and Bodice in 1999, writer-actor Jason Craig and actor Jessica Jelliffe have led the extremely resourceful, highly collaborative ensemble — which includes stalwarts composer-actor Dave Malloy and actor-director Rod Hipskind — in far-flung productions that regularly straddle NYC, SF, and Craig’s hometown of Dublin, Ireland. While dazzling audiences with works as conceptually unconventional as they are hilariously clever, behind the scenes they take a tough-minded and committed approach that serves them well in the lean and unforgiving environment of NYC’s alternative theater scene, and the group’s recent productions there have gained enthusiastic audiences and reviews as well as plenty of street cred with their peers.

Meanwhile, nurturing longstanding ties to the Bay Area has helped ensure a consistent output as well as momentum. When Shotgun’s artistic director Patrick Dooley held out the offer of a commission for an opera, Craig says they took the plunge without hesitation, telling him they’d like to do something with Beowulf. The idea apparently came more or less out of a hat. "I didn’t read it until Shotgun agreed to do it," he confesses alongside Jeliffe and Malloy at Craig and Jeliffe’s comfortable roost in a warehouse in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. "It’s just really not my cup of tea. Honor and machismo." But Dooley immediately agreed, providing BBB with what was, for them, unprecedented support.

Malloy — as composer, musical director, and actor in the role of King Hrothgar — reveled in the creative possibilities: "To be able to have an eight-piece orchestra — I’ve never been able to have that before, and it’s so rich and rewarding." For the NYC production he’s even adding two more musicians. "I’ve been rewriting all the music, making it thicker and denser," he says. "It’s just a real treat, because I’m so used to doing black box theater where it’s like, ‘oh, this actor plays violin — great.’<0x2009>"

Craig’s script, meanwhile, ended up brilliantly channeling his reluctance and skepticism toward the epic poem itself, turning his own discovery and questioning of the text into a set of theatrical subjects and productive dichotomies: a panel of seemingly empty academic experts — two of whom, including Jelliffe, double as Beowulf’s monster adversaries — and the titular hero, played by Craig, as an unlikely he-man gone slightly to seed, in addition to a showdown with monsters who are also a mother and son, and the sly morphing of Beowulf’s medieval warrior mythos with its 21st-century rock-god counterpart. The latter concept was already honed in BBB’s 2007 show, The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, which birthed a mock-legendary band with a life beyond the play. The results have shown BBB playing at the top of their game.

"It’s working with Shotgun that’s ramped up everything," confirms Jelliffe. "Not that we have to match that every time, but it has upped the ante, definitely. Usually we make whatever we can with whatever we can. With The Sewers, we made this incredible $20,000 set with no money because of the resources we are able to draw from in New York.

"We still do that, and will continue to do that," she continues. "But with Shotgun, I mean, having a budget?" It’s a modest one to be sure, but for now, without a doubt, as Craig says, "It’s cool."


Thurs/8, 8 p.m., $30

Roda Theatre

2025 Addison, Berk.


Beautiful voices


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

In the 2005 Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, Bob Dylan noted an era when people desired "beautiful voices over very melodic songs." He referred to the early 1960s and pop balladeers such as Doris Day and Johnny Mathis. But the description fits the current soul scene, too, and its celebration of black — and, increasingly, white — artists with wondrously perfect voices and virtuous, albeit sexually complicated lives. A friend of mine used to call it "church."

If the soul scene resembles a megachurch, then John "Legend" Stephens is its deacon. His rise in the music industry — from backup vocalist on Jay-Z’s "Encore" to flagship artist on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint — was balanced with a years-long stint as music director at Philadelphia’s Bethel A.M.E. Church. In photos accompanying his 2004 debut Get Lifted (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), Legend stood in the aisle of a nondescript church, bathed in sunlight, his hands resting on two adjacent pews. Thematically the album followed Legend’s transformation from hip-hop kid with a roving eye ("She Don’t Have to Know," "Used to Love U," which pays homage to Common’s "I Used to Love H.E.R.") to chastened man trying to save his relationship ("I Can Change," "Ordinary People") and, finally, spiritually and physically devoted lover ("Stay With You," "So High"). He performed these songs with a studious air. His voice alternately massaged and swayed, like an altar boy brushing the dirt off his shoes as he enters.

Legend has moved on to other themes of love and devotion, but the Christian aspects of his music remain. The "church" probably wouldn’t have it any other way. The modern R&B industry resembles the old-school pop industry — before it lapsed into the Madonna/whore syndrome personified by Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus — in its celebration of carefully manicured personalities with stylish (but not too avant-garde) fashion sensibilities and gossipy (but not too slutty) love lives. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with going to church. Still, whether used as a metaphor or visited as a place of worship, a church and its congregation idealize the world around it.

As a result, most soul vocalists sing about love and sex, reducing the vagaries of life to intimate relationships. A few, particularly the great Anthony Hamilton and Raheem DeVaughn, address the black community, the effects of violent crime and rampant poverty, and the idea of working hard for a paycheck and dreaming of better days. But that’s not really Legend’s thing. He imagines as a songwriter and composer in the vein of Quincy Jones and Billy Joel. He cuts a dashing figure on the cover of his 2004 album Once Again (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), tinkling a grand piano in the middle of busy New York City streets and spinning light, romantic numbers such as "P.D.A. (We Just Don’t Care)." "Let’s go to the park, I wanna kiss you underneath the stars," he sings in a breezily sultry voice. "Let’s make love."

Much like Burt Bacharach, the old-school mandarin of fluffy Brill Building pop, Legend is an ace craftsman of modern standards. His best songs mix concise and thoughtful lyrics with subtle melodies, expert musicianship, and standout choruses. For his new full-length, Evolver (G.O.O.D. Music/Columbia), he adds "Green Light," a seductive come on buffeted by drum and keyboard programming. "Give me the green light, give me just one night," croons Legend as stray synth melodies pop and sparkle around him. Andre 3000 from OutKast shows up after the second hook, promising to have "you giggling like a piglet / Oh, that’s the ticket / I hope you’re more Anita Baker than Robin Givens."

The cover of Evolver, where Legend poses mysteriously in a Members Only jacket, plays on "Green Light"’s promise that the traditionalist is playing a new game. But, of course, it’s the same tricks. Get Lifted successfully mixed A-list rappers with familiar neo-soul grooves: baby-making music with a contemporary edge. Despite the subtle nods to ’80s babies nostalgia, Legend doesn’t wander too far from that winning formula. Instead, he offers creamy ballads such as "Cross the Line," where he admits, "I don’t want to risk losing everything."

For all the loveliness of Legend’s voice, it would be nice to hear him write more challenging material. Get Lifted drew unpredictable, exciting tension from his classical tendencies and hip-hop’s swagger, but with Evolver he veers dangerously close to blandness. Of course, his "church" probably wouldn’t want it any other way.

Back in 2006, I saw Los Angeles singer-songwriter Esthero open for Legend. Walking on stage barefoot and in loose-fitting clothes, Esthero’s funk jams and earthy Bjork-like trip-pop drew snickers from the audience. She was almost booed off the stage. It took Legend to pacify the old ladies and married couples.

"Hey, do you remember this one?" he teased them, playing a few notes from Jay-Z’s "Encore" and Slum Village’s "Selfish." He sang in fine form that night, and the church was pleased.


With Estelle

Mon/12, 8 p.m., $50.50–$76.50

Paramount Theatre

2025 Broadway, Oakland


So Fox-y


› kimberly@sfbg.com

SONIC REDUCER Wow, 80 years old and such a beauty: I took a peek at Oakland’s Fox Theatre — yes, a distant relation to San Francisco’s late, lamented Fox — before the holiday break and, whoa, wolf whistles. The friendly rival to the Paramount around the corner is definitely beginning to feel like her glam self once more, decked out in a fabulist fantasia of Indian-Moorish finery, and in December, positively glowing beneath the hands of the workers intent on restoring her to her rightful splendor — and upgrading her in key spots with new bathrooms, dressing rooms, balcony seats, and a new Meyer sound system.

The now-2,800-capacity live-music venue operated as a movie house from 1928 until it closed in 1965. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979, the Fox was purchased by the city of Oakland in 1996 — after undergoing the threat of being turned into a parking lot and the indignity of arson, water damage, and neglect — and is now under the aegis of developer Phil Tagami and Another Planet Entertainment, readying to reopen Feb. 5. Its first show is on Feb. 6 with Social Distortion.

According to Another Planet VP Allen Scott, "We have been working on this project for close to four years and there has been a lot of blood, sweat … and now cheers." The Fox will be APE’s flagship venue — showcasing everything from rock to soul to Latin.

Great expectations, yet from the mere look of it, the Fox’s prospects are as marvelous as its beauteous shell. It’s safe for me to say — after walking by the magnificently lit-up neon marquee, tiled towers, and faux-sikhara for years and wondering what was inside — the Fox will not disappoint anyone who wants an eyeful of glorious, orientalist movie-palace exotica. Two Hindu gods look down on shining new floors from the sides of the gold-hued stage, styled to resemble the temples of Palitana, below a highly ornate star-splashed ceiling. The mezzanine: a magic-carpet ride of tiled niches and stenciling patterned after Persian carpets. The venue itself will be topped by Oakland School of the Arts and be flanked by a restaurant and bar that will keep the corner lively when shows aren’t scheduled.

It’s a miraculous save — long coming — for Fox followers like Patricia Dedekian, founding board member of Friends of the Oakland Fox. "Every time I go in there now I start crying because it’s so exciting and emotional," Dedekian said. She hopes to raise money for an endowment for the Fox’s continued preservation and upkeep.

"I used to describe the Fox Oakland as the black hole that sits in center of Uptown," she continued. "It was clear this was a big project waiting to happen. Now I can believe it when I see it."

ZAP! After a horrible fall on Landers Street during a drunken stumble home on the rainy eve of Nov. 1, San Francisco underground artist S. Clay Wilson, 67, is drawing again, reports his partner Lorraine Chamberlain.

Chamberlain is still trying to track down the Good Samaritan — or guardian checkered demon — who found Wilson with a fracture and gash in his head lying between two parked cars, made the 911 call, and waited with the artist till the ambulance arrived — an act that saved the cartoonist from perishing from hypothermia. "He was like a block of ice," Chamberlain told me. "If he had been there a couple more hours they would never have been able to stabilize him." But right now she’s glad that after spending his first two weeks in a semi-coma with a bout of pneumonia, Wilson is attacking his colored pencils and vellum with gusto, making drawings that don’t quite resemble the super-maximalist, sensory-overload, iconoclastic pieces of Zap Comix, though Chamberlain added, "they’re quite good."

Word has it the cartoonist is cracking wise in his room at Davies Medical Center, though he still suffers from aphasia and impaired short-term memory. "He called me in the morning and said he was doing a drawing of hobbling zombies — he said it three times. He meant, rotting zombies," explained Chamberlain, an ex of Frank Zappa’s who coined his nickname, Lumpy Gravy. "He talks on and on about things that aren’t based in reality, and I realized he was doing a verbal drawing, just talking a drawing rather than doing it."

The Christmas artwork he gave her was "pretty hideous. A couple of ugly guys, one guy in a gray suit and a little guy standing there with a muffin tin of steaming piles of shit, and a big ugly guy with a shovel with holes in it and it says, ‘Merry Ex Mass.’"

Wilson is on Medicare, Chamberlain said, but needs continuing care. Thus checks are being sent to S. Clay Wilson, POB 14854, San Francisco, CA 94114, from all over the country — the Jan. 11 fundraiser comes courtesy of his friends in Brutal Sound Effects (a blues benefit happens Jan. 24 at Mojo Lounge, Fremont). Meanwhile Chamberlain can’t wait for Wilson to come home. "I miss him," she said. "He’s a pain in the ass, he’s hard to live with, but I got used to it!"


S. CLAY WILSON BENEFIT, with Anvil Encephalopathy, Liz Allbee/Agnes Szelag, Skullcaster, Loachfillet, Heartworm, Heule/Dryer, and others. Sun/11, 6 p.m., $7–$20 sliding scale. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com




Ex-!!! vocalist John Pugh pushes it further with Madeline Davy in their DFA project. With Landshark. Fri/9, 9:30 p.m., $10–$20. DNA Lounge, 375 11th St., SF. www.dnalounge.com


Claude VonStroke, Justin Martin, Christian Martin, and Worthy get filthy at their first quarterly at the venue. Fri/9, 10 p.m., $10–$15. Mezzanine, 444 Jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com



› a&eletters@sfbg.com

It seems inevitable that no matter how admired and lauded the actor, a time comes sooner or later when there ain’t much left but the Crotchety Comedy Coot roles. Some, like Peter O’Toole, Helen Hayes, Walter Matthau, or Maggie Smith, build entire second-act careers out of them; others are dragged kicking and screaming into those twinkle-eyed support slots. (You’ve got to respect Glenda Jackson, who quit acting for politics at age 55, snorting "I don’t fancy hanging around to play Nurse in Romeo and Juliet. Life’s too short.")

Not all such parts are demeaning. But there often is something bleak about seeing actors of great range reduced to formula cuteness and sentimentality — the kind of emotional marks that often make old people on screen roughly equivalent to doggie reaction shots.

Perhaps the biggest wallow of this type since 1988’s Cocoon: The Return is now upon us in How About You, a crusty codgerfest that’s like tapioca for the soul. It’s the kind of "crowd-pleasing" movie a particular crowd likes no matter how poorly it’s made (and it is poorly made), because it gives you exactly what’s expected, on cue: broad geezers-behaving-badly laughs, canned nostalgia, a maudlin turn or three and plenty of forced joie de vivre, all enacted in handsome Tourist Board settings by comfortingly familiar faces.

Trouble is, when the familiar faces are ones you still vividly remember as, say, Vera Drake, or Christy Brown’s mum, or — yeesh, where to even begin with Vanessa Redgrave, possible Greatest Actress of Her Generation? — such innocuous matinee fluff can start smelling like a form of hazardous waste.

A terribly picturesque Irish country estate is the site for an elderly care facility run by a young widow, Kate (Orla Brady). Like managing a B and B, it’s one of those neverending jobs, made worse here by four residents so obnoxious they’ve sent some other patrons scurrying for other accommodations. The culprits: grandiose retired showgirl Georgia (Redgrave); sobered up but still fight-picking jerk ex-judge Donald (Joss Ackland); and gnomish sisters Hazel (Imelda Staunton) and Heather (Brenda Fricker), a disagreeable society of two who are really too young to be here. But the latter have led such a sheltered life that once their mother died, they opted to find another hole to hide in rather than face the outside world. It’s not the world’s loss.

A rather humorless workaholic, Kate isn’t all that happy when her perpetually footloose younger sister Ellie (Hayley Atwell) turns up wanting short-term employment to fund another global party trot. After a distressingly long time spent on narrative dead ends, disconnects, and anecdotal errata unhelped by Anthony Byrne’s direction, the screenplay by Jean Pasley — based on a short story by Maeve Binchy, and you can really feel that original material stretching thin — finally locates a plot engine. This occurs when a family emergency forces Kate to leave over the holidays, when all staff and residents have briefly disappeared back into family life.

All save the quarrelsome quartet, of course, whom no one will have. So it falls to inexperienced, irresponsible Ellie to tend this impossible lot (who don’t even like each other) by herself. Naturally it all goes hilariously horribly … and then life-affirmingly wonderfully! Awww. Yes, there is geriatric dancing and snowball-throwing.

The dears!

Binchy is Ireland’s most popular living author; one gleans her work is more of the Literary Tea Cozy than Booker-winning type. (A quote on her latest: "Only a curmudgeon could resist this master of cheerful, sit-by-the-fire comfort.") Still, it can’t be her fault that much of How About You handles its uncomplicated agenda so sloppily, with some scenes that appear missing (particularly those involving Ellie’s off-screen boyfriend) while others meander pointlessly. Why do the seasons seem to change from scene to scene? Irish weather is changeable — but not that changeable.

Of course the old and not-so-old pros ably ham it up in the desired "colorful" fashion. But these actors can do just about anything — watching them asked to do so little, for so little real reward, is dispiriting. Hearing Redgrave bray the titular Tin Pan Alley standard over and over, gowned and painted like a drag queen’s Cruella De Vil, is somehow ever so much less fun than that might sound. Could be worse: she could be doing Nunsense. Or Juliet’s Nurse.

HOW ABOUT YOU opens Fri/9 in Bay Area theaters.

Cafe Kati


› paulr@sfbg.com

If the second half of the 1990s stands to be remembered as an era of golden bubble baths in San Francisco, the decade’s quite different first half (less opulence, more calamities) might be remembered as a magical era of neighborhood restaurants. With the Great Freeway Shift that followed the 1989 earthquake — demolitions, re-routings, rethinkings — the city’s relationship with its suburbs changed forever; suburban diners could not be counted on as before to fill city restaurants, and young chefs migrated into the neighborhoods to start their own places in what amounted to a culinary diaspora.

Among the earliest of these pioneers was Kirk Webber, who opened his Café Kati in the borderland between the Fillmore and Japantown in 1990. Webber brought a high pedigree to the venture; he had been trained at the California Culinary Academy and had worked at Silks (in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel), among other places, before opening Kati. The restaurant, nonetheless, was a neighborhood restaurant, snug and warm, with a handful of tables and a sense that each dish was being carefully handmade in the small kitchen behind the dining room.

And so it remains. From the rustic, wood-cut-style street signage (reminiscent, for me, of Chez Panisse’s) to the intimacy of the dining room (which seats no more than 20 or so) to the wall art that resembles the famous cave paintings at Lascaux, France, Café Kati feels personal. It has been shaped by human hands and reflects a steady, guiding sensibility. Even the slightly retro black track lighting on the ceiling reinforces our sense that Café Kati has evolved and accreted — has earned its look over the years rather than having been sculpted all at once by a hired-gun designer who then was hired elsewhere and moved on, never to revisit.

Webber is one of the first, and remains one of the purest, of the so-called fusion chefs, the people who brought Asian touches to classic French cooking. A central goal for Webber was to cut down on the fattiness and richness of the traditional dishes without having them deflate altogether, and in this sense his food shares a root with nouvelle cuisine. Even after nearly two decades, it retains an element of invention and wonder without becoming contorted or attention-seeking.

The appetizers are the main, most overtly Asian dishes on the menu. One of Kati’s longtime customer favorites, in fact — the dragon roll ($18.95) — is as good a sushi-style roll as I’ve had in any Japanese restaurant. The roll includes avocado, cucumber, and wonderful crisp-fried shrimp, with flaps of smoked salmon laid like tarpaulins over the top of each rice round. And instead of serving the wasabi and soy sauce separately, Webber mixes them into a glossy sauce that shows signs of being thickened and softened with a bit of honey.

In another signature dish, Vietnamese-style spring rolls ($8.95) the sweetness of mango is modulated with plenty of cilantro, Thai basil (a little sharper than the Italian kinds), and, above all, mint. Webber doesn’t stint on plate decoration, either, having a particular fancy for complex coilings of ruby-red beet and for colorful heaps of cut carrots and microgreens. Plates can look like dioramas of a flower shop.

Main courses open out from Asian influences without forsaking them entirely. Hanger steak (at $29.95, the priciest item on the menu) gets a slightly sweet marinade of soy sauce and sesame oil before being grilled, cut into slices, and served with Blue Lake beans and sautéed spinach. The deft touch here is the pile of spicy Spanish fries, really a version of patatas bravas, the gently crispy quarters of waxy (in this case some kind of baby yellow) potato.

From steak and potatoes to fried chicken ($16.95) — in this case a Cornish game hen, given a Cajun-scented batter, then lightly fried and served with buttermilk mashed potatoes, a mop top of wilted pea tendrils, and a marvelous, bewitching gravy inflected with citrus. If there’s a heaven, the home cooking there will include something like this.

Desserts are all $8.95 — a price point I would describe as neither high nor low — and sing in a more mainstream key. You might find a sundae, a flourless chocolate cake, a crisp, a butterscotch pudding. The last is presented in a parfait glass and consists of layerings of homemade butterscotch and whipped cream — like a sundae with no ice cream, or a planet (like Jupiter) with no definite surface. Butterscotch is basically caramel with vanilla, and Kati’s version is barely sweet with a faint, keen edge of smoke and a rich color like that of tarnished gold. These are strong hints that the butterscotch has been made by a practiced hand, someone who isn’t afraid to skate near the edge of burnt sugar and to give character to the result. (The big giveaway for commercial, mass-produced desserts is that they are predominantly, often overwhelmingly, sweet; they taste as if they were made from sugar and little else.)

Kati’s wine list is substantial though not overwrought, with quite a few decent choices by the glass, and service tends toward flawlessness. As in many pint-sized restaurants, the door opens right into the dining room, which can be disconcerting, especially in the season of cold drafts. I mean wind, not beer.


Dinner: Tues.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.

1963 Sutter, SF

(415) 775-7313


Beer and wine


Moderately noisy

Wheelchair accessible

New year, new pho


› le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS Rang Dong happened out of anger. So don’t let any new age it’s-all-good hippie dips tell you that anger is not a constructive emotion. Without it I never would have been ranting about Pho 84 in the first place.

And Mod the Pod wouldn’t have heard me and wouldn’t have said, "What were you doing at Pho 84 when you could have been at Rang Dong?"

And I wouldn’t have said, "Rang Dong?"

Because, see, I’d never heard of it. It’s in Oakland Chinatown, at Webster and Eighth streets, right where Vi’s used to be, and it might be as good as Vi’s used to be, only better, because it’s still there.

Pod and the Attack have been on this place forever. And such is my trust in my buds’ buds … I’d have grabbed them up and gone right then, even though we’d all already eaten, except it was after 10 p.m. and everyone had to work in the morning. Oh, and Rang Dong closes at 9:30.

Not that I was going to get any sleep anyway, having just dropped over $30 with Deevee at Pho 84 for a bowl of soup and a bowl of bun, no drinks. And here’s the worst part: it wasn’t even good!

She had to pick all the catfishes out of her soup, and I — me, your simple-minded chicken farmer, L.E. for Loves Everything — left pork on my plate! When was the last time I left anything on my plate, let alone pork? Let alone grilled pork in a Vietnamese restaurant? But it was inedibly overcooked.

Just to be sure we weren’t having some weirdo shared hallucination or nightmare (Pho 84 having been pretty good to us in the past), I tried Deevee’s catfish and she tried my pork and we agreed that they both sucked ass. It’s one thing to raise your prices. Everybody does it. When the price goes up and the quality comes down … that’s just bullshit.

So Rang Dong. Next chance I got I gathered up all my West Oakland grillfriends — the Pod, the Attack, Deevee, and Kiz — and Kiz had a pal visiting from New York. So there were six of us, but me and the friend were the first ones seated, and she looked at me and said, "So you’re going to review this?"

"Well, I don’t want to jinx anything," I said. "I’m sure going to try. It’s kind of a New Year’s resolution sort of thing."

She gave me a look. "Wait," she said, "aren’t you a restaurant reviewer?"

"Fifteen, sixteen years," I said, proudly.

"And you’re going to try?" she said, still giving me still the same look.

"To write a restaurant review, yes," I said.

"So … your New Year’s resolution," she said (still the look), "is to do precisely what it is that you already do."

"For a living, yes." I said. "But I’m not making any promises."

The look. She’s a math teacher, turns out, and is rather accustomed to things adding up. Speaking of which: $9.95 + $6.55 + $7.50 + $7.50 + $7.95 + $9.95 + $10.95 = not a lot, really, for six people, especially compared to Pho 84, where hardly anything is under 10 bucks anymore.

And Rang Dong is many many times better. The raw beef salad was as good as any I’ve had anywhere. The thin slices of steak were actually raw, as in red. A lot of places give them too much of a citrus bath and they start to actually cook in it. I get a little turned off by browned "raw" beef.

The salt-and-pepper calamari was lightly breaded and perfectly fried, and I tasted some imperial roll out of someone’s bun, and that was perfectly fried too. The pho was fantastic, really flavorful. In fact, the only dish — out of seven — that I wasn’t absolutely gaga over was the lemongrass chicken. But it wasn’t bad. It was a matter of taste. Other people loved it.

See? So there wasn’t any chicken left on the plate at the end of the meal. And there wasn’t any grilled pork left on any of the plates either. Well, maybe just a little in Kizzer’s New Yorker friend’s bowl, but you better believe I was eyeballing it.

New favorite restaurant!


Daily: 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

724 Webster, Oakl.

(510) 835-8375

Beer and wine


L.E. Leone’s new book is Big Bend (Sparkle Street Books), a collection of short fiction.

Her cheatin’ heart


› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

Three years into my relationship with my girlfriend, I found her panties stuffed in her handbag and it turned me on. When I found out she had cheated on me and the panties were worn the night she cheated, I couldn’t stop masturbating to them. We stayed together, went through counseling, and eventually got married. However, two months later, she was on a business trip and ended up sleeping with some guy she met at a bar. She’s been very apologetic and it bothered me a lot at first, but a big part of me seems to get really turned on every time I find out or suspect she is cheating. She’s never continued an affair, and unlike most women who cheat, I actually think she does it for the sex.

It sounds bad, but I know she loves me and I love her, and she is starting counseling to figure out why she does this. But it still really turns me on. I have confessed to her about the panties and she thinks I’m a dirty guy, but she deals with it well. I like talking dirty to her during sex and calling her a dirty cheating wife. She says she’s not really into sleeping with other men or the dirty talk, but I think she really is and is too embarrassed to tell me. I know that the excitement from her cheating came from her doing something I wouldn’t know about. And I have offered her the chance to have sex with other men, but she says she doesn’t want that. What do you think? Interestingly, she seems to be more into the sex and more turned on sleeping with me (even kinkier) after she has cheated. Of course, she might be thinking about how bad she just was and what she just did.

I don’t know if I can really handle her being with other men, and she’s expressed that she doesn’t want to be with other men, but I can’t help but feel like our sex is too good afterward to not try this, and that she’s only saying that because she wants to have the freedom to cheat, should the opportunity arise, without me knowing. I think it’s a turn-off and not really cheating if I were to know about it before it happens. Any thoughts?


Wearing Horns

Dear Horny:

Yeah. I’m thinking this is not going to work. Or rather, it is going to require a radical rethink if it’s going to work — any of it.

It’s not that I think your marriage is doomed — I really don’t — but I do think you’re being very silly. Just because your wife is obviously turned on by her own bad behavior, and just because you are just as obviously reaping the benefits, doesn’t make the whole thing a big nudge-nudge, wink-wink sex game. She isn’t "cheating on you" (that sort of game is pretty common and, while best left to the experts, can certainly be done without ruining a marriage), she really is cheating on you. You’ve given her every opportunity to make it into a fun consensual game and she says she doesn’t want to sleep around and she doesn’t want to talk dirty, and she doesn’t want your permission to do any of that and she really just wants to go see a therapist and figure out what’s driving her to do this stuff she doesn’t really want to do, so don’t you dare consider trying to drive her to cheat for the great post-cheating sex. I do realize you’re being given mixed signals, so it isn’t entirely on you, but I suggest putting down those used underpants and putting your energies into something more constructive for a while. Maybe the gutters need cleaning.

It is entirely possible that she does get off on being bad. I’d call it probable, even. But, at the risk of sounding like The Voice of Joyless Grown-Uppitude, so what? If we all did everything it turns us on to think about, we’d all be dead, diseased, or in jail. And besides, have you read your own letter? You say yourself that you’re not sure you can handle her being with other men. So let’s see … she can’t handle it … you can’t handle it … maybe … she shouldn’t do it?

I’ll tell you what: why don’t you back off on the dirty talk and leave her underthings alone while she goes to therapy? Maybe the two of you could go together for a few sessions. Then later, when she’s no longer mired in the self-loathing she brought upon herself by cheating on you in the first place, and you are feeling more secure because she’s not cheating on you, you can revisit the cheating-wife fantasy. Until then, everybody just grow up already. There’s more to life (and marriage) than "But I want to!" My son pulls that on us all the time, and we don’t fall for it — and he’s all of two years old.



Andrea is teaching Sex After Parenthood at Day One Center (www.dayonecenter.com), Recess (info@recessurbanrecreation.com), and privately. Contact her at andrea@altsexcolumn.com for more info.

Don’t leave your home


› news@sfbg.com

On Oct. 4, 2008, Genevieve Hilpert came home to her apartment in the Outer Mission to find her gas shut off. The 35-year-old, who lives alone, hasn’t had gas service since then. Her landlord moved to the Philippines, the bank foreclosed on the property, and a real-estate broker assumed control.

Hilpert, an international student, was told by the broker to continue paying her rent, but she isn’t even sure who gets the check.

Hilpert is facing a problem all too common these days: she’s a tenant in a building that — through no fault of her own — is in the legal limbo of foreclosure. Hilpert is relatively lucky — she hasn’t been evicted. But necessary repairs, like the broken gas service, aren’t getting made.

The property manager, she told us, "hasn’t done anything. He hasn’t turned on the gas. [I] don’t know who is who."

Hilpert’s case demonstrates a less-publicized part of the nation’s housing crisis. In many instances, rent-paying, law-abiding tenants have come home to find padlocks on their doors and notes telling them to find other places.

The renters may have kept up with their bills — but the owners have not. And when a bank forecloses on a building, the tenants can be forced out. "The renters we’ve seen have been displaced," Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee, told the Guardian. She mentioned that in many instances their utilities have been shut off, and renters have been left in a bind between brokers and banks. She said, "[Renters] are completely innocent victims of [the] financial crisis."

In San Francisco, it’s illegal for a bank or broker or anyone else to evict a tenant just because the ownership of a building changed hands. But many tenants don’t realize that.

In an effort to promote tenant-rights awareness, the Assessor-Recorder’s Office will be circuutf8g letters to inform tenants when a landlord has received a ‘Notice of Default’ — the precursor to a foreclosure. "According to San Francisco law," the letter says, "it is illegal for the new owner to ask you to leave without just cause or shut off your utilities." Since most of the renters who have been evicted by this latest ruse don’t speak English, the letter is being circulated in English, Spanish, and Chinese.

The letter advises tenants to contact housing organizations that can help, including the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, Comite De Vivienda San Pedro, and the Asian Law Caucus.

"Do not leave your home," said Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, addressing tenants at a recent press conference.

The Assessor-Recorder’s Office estimates that 25 percent of all buildings that received a Notice of Default in San Francisco are occupied by tenants. And that’s a lot of tenants: according to the Housing Rights Committee, Notices of Default recorded with the city rose 94 percent between the 3rd quarter of 2006 and the 3rd quarter of 2008.

The Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco reported 75 cases in the past year involving tenants facing displacement after a foreclosure. In the month of September alone, there were 17 cases. The most common problems renters face include utility shut-offs, illegal eviction attempts, not knowing where to send rent, and illegal entry and harassment by brokers and landlords.

The law may seem confusing, and in some cities, a foreclosure may mean the tenants have to go. But that’s not the case in San Francisco. The city’s rent ordinance requires "just cause" for eviction — and a change of ownership, no matter the cause, is not in itself a just cause.

The San Francisco Rent Board’s literature makes that clear: "The Court of Appeal held in Gross v. Superior Court (1985) … that foreclosure, like any other sale, is not a just cause for eviction under the Rent Ordinance and provides no basis to force the tenant to leave."

As Shortt told us, "We’re worried about the folks out there that haven’t come to us…. We hope through this program people will be educated and know their rights, and not be displaced."

The class of 2008: an agenda


OPINION Every few years, San Francisco’s political landscape is remade. But we, the new arrivals of the Board of Supervisors’ Class of 2008, know that the last decade of district elections helped ensure that the supervisors truly represent our neighborhoods and our shared San Francisco values.

Despite various efforts by special interests to paint us as out of step with everyday San Franciscans, the very strength of our campaigns was that they were rooted in the lives of actual residents who understood the choices before them. We campaigned on the best of our experiences — neighborhood activism, labor and community organizing, running nonprofits and small businesses, and championing public education and police accountability.

Despite our different districts and diverse constituencies, we rallied voters around real San Francisco values — the faith in the role of government to protect the most vulnerable and bring forth justice and equity; the trust in grassroots democracy and neighborhood-based activism; the pursuit of a safe and clean environment and sustainable development; the belief in the sanctity of immigrant, labor, and LGBT rights; the dignity of working families, seniors, and people with disabilities; and the pursuit of housing justice and economic opportunity for all.

While the Class of 2000 paved the way on many of these progressive values, we enter public office ready to build on this foundation while rising to the new and enormous challenges of today. San Francisco is not just facing a fiscal crisis; we are facing a quandary in which city government cannot do all that it aspires to do.

Our agenda is no less ambitious for the crisis we are in. It is because of the crisis that we need to create opportunity, direction, and hope where there is violence, confusion, and despair. Our San Francisco values mean that we will tackle public safety by addressing the root causes of violence by seeking rehabilitation and restorative justice and push for real police reform by promoting the kind of community policing that is built on relationships between neighborhood residents and the police.

Our San Francisco values prompt us to make our city budget more transparent. We will initiate new programs only with the certainty that important services are not cut in the process. We will do our best to protect critical frontline city workers from privatization and layoffs.

We will work collectively to maintain the city’s commitment to its public schools; promote public transit; foster sustainable development and new affordable housing connected to green and well-conceived public infrastructure; promote community choice aggregation and public power based on renewable energy; support local businesses and the hiring of San Francisco residents; safeguard our sanctuary city to make sure that immigrants can live free from fear of ICE raids; and fight to keep our vital neighborhood services working and our parks, libraries, and senior centers thriving.

We are committed to ushering in a new tone of cooperation and unity in San Francisco. Despite the enormous challenges and contending political views within the city family, we will work to ensure that our neighborhoods always win out over special interests. After all, politics is about improving the lives of everyday people. We look forward to working with you in this noble effort.

Supervisor John Avalos represents District 11. Supervisor David Campos represents District 9. Supervisor David Chiu represents District 3. Supervisor Eric Mar represents District 1.

The 2008 Lamebow Awards


Wow, oh wow — 2k8 was such an incredible trainwreck "LGBT: WTF?" year that we’ve resurrected our Lamebow Awards, a tarnished-star-studded list of some of the biggest gay boners of the past queer year. And, hey, 2009 already looks like a winner, with Barack Obama inviting extra-special homophobic walrus Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation in Washington, DC — on the very same weekend as the capital’s biggest queer S-M event, the Mid-Atlantic Leather Weekend. So far Obama says he "probably" won’t attend the MAL haps. Up from bondage, Barack! Give us chains we can believe in.

Best MySpace Bisexual: It’s a tie! The original MySpace Bi, Tila Tequila of MTV’s desperate cross-gender dating show Shot of Love, wins again for her assertion to Us Weekly that legalized same-sex marriage is "because of me." Before her show came out, "everyone was still a little apprehensive about same sex relationships," she said. "Then they realized, ‘Wow, everyone is really into this stuff, and it is fine." Really. Sharing the award this year is, of course, Lindsay Lohan — because rehab makes you gay and want to blog about it.

Best Idol Anticlimax: This one goes to Clay Aiken — not because he finally came out on the cover of People — shocker! Sing it, sister — but because he didn’t even have to try to clinch the top spot on that "Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians" blog.

Best What Did You Expect, Buddy: "Manhunt.net Founder Jonathan Crutchley Donates $2,300 to McCain Campaign!" Please. It’s Manhunt, people — the only surprise here was that he didn’t round up to $3,000 and end up only giving $50.

Best Killer Irony: When Austrian fascist and anti-gay leader Jörg Haider died in a head-on auto collision with a tree this fall, it was revealed that he was sleeping with his uber-twink communications director — and that he crashed after pounding drinks in a gay bar. Just research, we’re sure.

Best Hairplugged Pander: Nothing warmed our heart cockles more than Joe Biden shouting, "No! Neither Barack Obama nor I support redefining, from a civil side, what constitutes marriage. We do not support that!" when asked "Do you support gay marriage?" during the vice presidential debates. Thanks, Joe. Of course, Sarah Palin saying she knew a gay person once in Alaska when asked the same question was just as ridiculous. But Palin is disqualified from the Lamebows, because even after spending $23,000 on a makeup artist, she still did that whole horrifying "smear dusty rose rouge up your cheekbones" thing.

Best Done Just Dug a Deeper Hole: Emerging from a swamp more horrifyingly rancid than Kathy Griffin’s fan base, former congress member and heinous pedophile Mark Foley granted a crocodile-tear-filled interview to Florida’s WPTV in which he insisted that he’d done nothing "really" wrong and blamed his behavior on alcohol and childhood abuse by a priest (who, sadly, confirmed the charge). Stay in the grave, already! Even scarier: Foley’s interior-designer boyfriend is still with him. Break the cycle, dude.

Best double STFU: "Ur So Gay" but "I Kissed a Girl"? Yawn, yawn, and wrong, Katy Perry. U suck.

Best Maybe Meth-Driven Midlife Meltdown: It’s fast becoming a far-too-public trend — the gay version of Viagra-crazed gray beards: reach 45, drop 50 pounds, get a bunch of lame tattoos, and hit the circuit 10 years too late. Then, if you’re famous, pose naked in a 1,000 boring rags and ad campaigns while still keeping your 20-year-old porn star wannabe hustler boy-toy on the speed dial. Kudos, then, to Marc Jacobs, who did all this and Facebooked it in real time, too.

Best Scapegoat: We wanted to give this one to black people, because of that whole hothead blame game us gays had so much fun playing after Proposition 8 passed. Classy. But that all happened, like, 500 blog centuries ago, so we’re gonna go with global-warming queers. Yep, according to a pre-Christmas speech by Pope Eggs Benedict XVI, "saving humanity from homosexual or transsexual behavior [is] just as important as saving the rainforest from destruction." Is that man in a dress aware of just how many trannies come from the Amazon?

Best Ginormous Oops: Wait a minute. Prop. 8 passed?

Offies 2008


› tredmond@sfbg.com

Wow. What a year.

Sarah Palin ran for vice president. Joe the Plumber got his 15 minutes. Gavin Newsom made out with Sarah Silverman. Eliot Spitzer seemed to be the only one in New York with any money left to spend. Dana Rohrabacher dressed in drag to go to prison. And O.J. Simpson finally managed to get convicted of something…. It was a year for the ages. And it’s finally, finally over.


Sarah Palin took a call from a Canadian radio comedian posing as French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy and remained on the line, convinced she was talking to a foreign leader, for several minutes as the comedian told her his wife was hot in bed and that he loved the Hustler smut film Who’s Nailin’ Paylin?.


Palin said the "jury’s still out" on global warming and that even if the climate was changing, she didn’t know what was causing it.


O.J. Simpson faced more than 30 years in jail for stealing some sports memorabilia he said belonged to him.


Ann Coulter broke her jaw and had her mouth wired shut.


A temporary worker in a Long Island, N.Y., Wal-Mart died when bargain-crazy crowds smashed through the store’s front door.


Absentee ballots in an upstate New York county listed "Barack Osama" as a presidential candidate.


The Alaska legislature concluded that Sarah Palin had violated ethics laws when she tried to have her ex brother-in-law fired from the state police. Palin immediately announced that she had been cleared of any wrongdoing.


Former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan admitted there was a "flaw" in his free-market approach to economic policy, but said he wasn’t sure exactly what went wrong.


A Treasury Department spokesperson announced that the agency had set $700 billion as the amount for the financial bailout because "we just wanted to choose a really large number."


George W. Bush addressed the massive federal bailout of the banking system by saying, "I’ve abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system."


John McCain admitted he didn’t know how many houses he owned.


President Bush, addressing the state of the economy, announced that "if money isn’t loosened up, this sucker could go down."


Levi Johnston, who impregnated Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol, described himself as a "fucking redneck" who didn’t want kids.


P. Diddy announced that the economy and the cost of fuel had forced him to give up private jet travel.


A book by Cliff Schecter reported that McCain had called his wife, Cindy, a "cunt."


A Brazilian former exotic dancer said she’d had an affair 50 years ago with John McCain, whom she called "my coconut desert."


Samantha Power, an advisor to Obama, called Hillary Clinton "a monster."


In a presidential debate, McCain referred to Obama as "that one."


Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich referred to Obama as "that motherfucker."


McCain said that Palin "knows more about energy than probably anyone in the United States."


In a speech, McCain referred to Americans as "my fellow prisoners."


McCain proclaimed that "we should be able to deliver bottled hot water to dehydrated babies."


A TV station in Germany reported that the East German secret police had made private porno movies in the early 1980s with titles like Private Werner’s Big Surprise and Fucking for the Fatherland.


Eliot Spitzer, the crusading governor of New York, had to resign after a federal sting operation found he had spent more than $80,000 on high-end prostitutes from the Emperor’s Club. On an FBI wiretap, a prostitute named Kristen, after an assignation with Spitzer, told her boss she’d heard that the governor would "ask you do to do things that, like, you might not think were safe" but that "I have a way of dealing with that. I’d be like, listen dude, do you really want the sex?"


Palin gave a speech on the economy while TV cameras captured a farmer beheading turkeys and draining the blood from their carcasses.


Joseph Wurzelbacher rose to fame as Joe the Plumber after he confronted Obama and said that the Democrat would force him to pay higher taxes. It later turned out that Joe wasn’t a licensed plumber, owed $1,182 in back taxes, and didn’t make anywhere near enough money to be affected by Obama’s tax plans.


Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Orange County) dressed in drag and pretended to be a human-rights worker named "Diana" to sneak into a state prison and badger Sirhan Sirhan, whom the congressman believed was part of a vast Arab conspiracy to kill Robert Kennedy.


Barack Obama, who was stung by criticism that his former pastor criticized America, chose for his inaugural convocation a pastor who says homosexuality is a sin.


An Iraqi journalist who threw two shoes at Bush was beaten badly by security guards; Bush later said he "didn’t know what the guy’s beef was."


Mayor Gavin Newsom wore a cowboy hat and rode a horse for a photo shoot at his wedding.


Newsom groped comedian Sarah Silverman on stage at a Democratic National Convention party after she said she wanted to "sexually discipline" him.


An unknown arsonist with an unknown motive set more than half a dozen portable toilets on fire in San Francisco.


Former Mayor Willie Brown complained about progressives using techniques from "Tammany Hall or Richard Daly’s Chicago" to take over the local Democratic Party.


Witnesses reported seeing Carole Migden talking on her cell phone and reading while rapidly changing lanes at 80 mph on the freeway shortly before she crashed into another car. One caller to the state police asked officers to "please get out here, she’s scary."


Newsom’s press secretary said that reporters wondering about the mayor’s position on public power should ask Pacific Gas and Electric Co. consultant Eric Jaye.


Newsom spent more than $50,000 in city money protecting his slow-food victory garden near City Hall from homeless people.


Newsom appeared before the Board of Supervisors to discuss his budget cuts, but didn’t actually hand out the budget proposal. Press aides handled that job two hours later.


Sam Singer, a $400-per-hour flak for the San Francisco Zoo, sought to blame the victims of a tiger attack by saying that they were drunk and asking for it.


California officials threatened to bombard the Bay Area by spraying hazardous moth pheromones from helicopters to eradicate an agricultural pest that has probably been around for decades and will almost certainly survive the assault anyway.


PG&E spent $10 million to fight a public power proposal.


Newsom decided to avoid protests by keeping the route of the Olympic torch relay secret.


Newsom tried to mess with the supervisors by having voters support his Community Justice Center, which the voters then rejected.


The San Francisco Catholic archbishop helped convince Mormon leaders to join him in pouring millions of dollars into defeating same-sex marriage.

Losing the West


› amanda@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Our society can’t continue functioning the way it does. Exploiting the natural abundance of resources in the western United States, without balancing the needs of nature, has lead to the myriad environmental problems outlined in The American West at Risk, a book recently penned by Bay Area–based geologists Richard W. Hazlett, Jane E. Nielson, and Howard G. Wilshire.

A thorough survey of environmental issues related to forestry, water, agriculture, mining, road building, outdoor recreation, waste disposal, military testing, nuclear energy, and warfare, the book was written from the perspectives of scientists, but told in such a way that the science makes the case for preservation by driving home the point that everything the human race depends on comes from nature. Ultimately, the authors stress that the solution is homegrown. "Americans have to start caring about the survival of small communities, their local towns, and their local resources."

We caught up with Nielson and Wilshire by phone to discuss the book in anticipation of their visit to San Francisco this week.

SFBG It often seems like saving the world becomes an emotional or moral stance and less of a scientific one — or that’s how it frequently gets framed by opponents.

JANE E. NIELSON That’s right, and for no reason. Economics have become more important. One of the things we’re trying to say is the environment is the basis for our economic well-being.

SFBG Do you think that if people more fully realize that resources aren’t infinite, thriftiness will become more of the American lifestyle?

JEN It would be very desirable for people to realize that more, to have it taught in schools. How much time we have left to do that, I don’t know. I feel that once people do get an appreciation for the fact that life is going to be leaner, that the soil is really important, things can change very rapidly.

HOWARD G. WILSHIRE My pessimism is borne of the fact that they will have to respond quickly because we are on the brink of serious problems. Climate change is a big one and coping with that — the plans that are being endorsed now and pushed now by politicians and businesspeople — are that we’re going to have to find alternatives to cheap oil to keep on doing what we’re doing.

SFBG In the book you reveal a pattern of public commons being used to benefit a minority, whether its subsidies for big growers, cheap grazing rights, water rights for a handful of a farmers …

HGW It’s across the board.

SFBG How do we break these patterns of privilege, because it’s so ingrained it seems like an institutional problem?

JEN I have to tell you this is something that just sort of grew on us as we wrote the book. We knew about various subsidies, but the immensity of it and the pervasive pattern really only became clear as we progressed through the book.

SFBG It’s interesting that not only is there a pattern of subsidies, but they’re for a very small percentage of people.

JEN The whole history of land ownership in this country was intended to support the small person. The Homestead Act was supposed to give land to individuals, but most people failed at homesteading and there was no provision built in to prevent land from being gobbled up by big landowners.

SFBG So how can we flip this? Some of it is local, but for a lot of it these laws are federal.

HGW We have to take money out of the election system so we can get people free of monetary interest promoting their offices to do something useful. There are people who have the insight and the knowledge to know that we have got to stop this bleeding of our resources through subsidies.

The three authors will be reading and discussing the book Thursday, Jan. 8 at Books Inc. Opera Plaza, 601 Van Ness Ave. The event begins at 7 p.m. More information can be found at losingthewest.com.

>>Read the full interview with the authors here

>>Read Amanda Witherell’s full review of the book here

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

When I saw KTVU’s excellent report Saturday night about the BART police officer shooting an unarmed man, all I could think was: I’ve been here before.

In 1992, Officer Fred Carbtree, a 15-year veteran of the BART police force, shot and killed an unarmed kid named Jerrold Hall in the parking lot of the Hayward station. That was way before cell phones and ubiquitous video; there were no pictures of the shooting and few witnesses would come forward. BART made a monumental effort to cover it up; I spent an entire month working seven days a week to break through that brick wall. In the end, I got the story: Crabtree, who was white, had heard a report of an armed robbery on the train, saw Hall, who was black, leaving the station and called him over. Hall, who had no weapon, argued with the cop and told him he’d done nothing, then turned and started to walk away. Crabtree racked his shotgun, fired a warning shot over Hall’s head, then fired again, killing him.

There is no police agency in the United States that allows its officers to fire warning shots. There is no police agency that authorizes an officer to shoot an unarmed suspect who is fleeing the scene. I thought Crabtree should be prosecuted for homicide, but at the very least, he violated his own agency’s clearly written rules.

Nothing happened. He was not subject to any discipline at all. BART called the shooting justified.

Back then, I raised the question: Who’s in charge of the BART police? Where’s the civilian oversight?

There wasn’t any. And 17 years later, there still isn’t.

This latest incident is going to cost BART at least $10 million when the lawsuits are over. That could fund a modest civilian oversight operation for 20 years. And maybe it will save someone’s life.

>>Read the Guardian’s previous BART tragedy coverage here

Another BART police tragedy


EDITORIAL The video isn’t the highest quality — it was taken on a cell phone — but it’s pretty simple to figure out what’s happening. A young man named Oscar Grant is lying on the ground on a BART train platform, surrounded by BART cops. His hands are behind him, and the police have him completely under control.

Grant was one of a group of young men who had been removed from the train and arrested after reports of a fight early in the morning on New Year’s Day. The other suspects are handcuffed; Grant is not, but in early footage, he has his hands in the air and appears to be cooperating. Witnesses on the scene say that’s what they saw — a young man doing what the police told him to do.

Then suddenly — shockingly — one of the officers reaches back and pulls his gun. He points the weapon at Grant, and fires, point-blank, from perhaps two feet away. The bullet entered Grant’s back, ricocheted off the concrete, and hit him again, in the chest.

It’s mind-boggling. It appears to violate so many standards of police conduct we don’t even know where to begin. Oakland lawyer John Burris, who is representing the Grant family, puts the first question pretty succinctly: "Why did he take his gun out?"

Let’s go a few steps further. Why did the BART officer, who has been identified only as a two-year veteran of the force, feel he needed to use lethal force on a suspect who was unarmed, was (at worst) guilty of fighting on a train, and was on the ground with two other cops on top of him? Why did the officer fire his gun at close range, with the prospect not only of hitting his colleagues but also of injuring bystanders? Why didn’t any of the other cops tell him to put the gun away? Why is the young father of a four-year old daughter dead?

We’ll add a few more: Why is BART still in full-on public relations-cover-up mode, acting as if the evidence is still unclear? Why is the name of the officer still a secret?

And why — why, as we’ve asked a dozen times over the past 15 years, do the BART police operate with absolutely no civilian oversight?

The structure of the BART police force is a recipe for disaster. BART’s general manager, (who is not an elected official and has no expertise in law enforcement) hires the BART police chief, who then runs a force with some 200 armed officers. There is no police commission, no police review board, not even a committee of the elected BART board designated to handle complaints against and issues with the BART police.

The BART board holds no regular hearings on police activity or conduct. There is no public forum where the chief is held to account. There is no procedure for complaints against BART officers to be heard and adjudicated by anyone except the BART police.

There is, in other words, no civilian oversight or accountability. This is unacceptable.

The killing of Oscar Grant isn’t an isolated case. Back in 1992, a BART cop pulled a shotgun and killed an unarmed man named Jerrold Hall. Hall wasn’t threatening the officer or anyone else. He was walking away. The shotgun pellets hit him in the back of the head. The officer, Fred Crabtree, was never subject to any discipline, and BART tried to cover up the whole thing (see "Lethal force," 12/9/92). In 2001, a BART cop shot an unarmed naked man who was seriously mentally ill (see "Gun crazy," 10/17/01).

The BART Board simply can’t let this continue. The board must immediately create a process for civilian oversight of the BART police, including a civilian monitor to handle complaints. The BART board must establish a permanent police oversight committee that meets regularly to hear public comments and monitor police practices. Every city that BART passes through, starting with San Francisco, should pass a resolution demanding accountability for the BART cops, and the state Legislature (which granted the BART police peace officer status in 1976) should pass a measure mandating that the BART police have civilian oversight proceedings.

We’re sick of this. How many more people have to die before BART gets its act together?

“The W. Kamau Bell Curve”


REVIEW Standup comic W. Kamau Bell has reopened his frank, funny, and genuinely thoughtful one-man show at SF Playhouse, and it’s worth catching if you haven’t yet (I took in a recent performance at the Climate).

Subtitled "Ending Racism in About an Hour," Bell’s reflections on the recent election and Proposition 8, among other race-inflected personal and political matters still closer to home, are topical, to say the least, and run considerably deeper than the usual one-liners or simplistic oppositions of much race-based comedy. Meanwhile, Bell’s sure and charismatic stage presence, ready wit, and excellent comic timing ensure that the lines between scripted material, inspired tangents, and eager engagement with both the day’s headlines and his diverse audience remain all but seamless.

THE W. KAMAU BELL CURVE Opens Thurs/8. Thurs.–Sat., 8 p.m. Through Feb. 28. SF Playhouse Studio Theater, 533 Sutter, SF. $25 (bring a friend of a different race, and get in two for one). www.wkamaubell.com