Volume 44 Number 28

Appetite: A course of courses

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On a sunny Saturday morning, 3/27 in Menlo Park, Chef Guillaume Bienaime led a small group of us through cooking a five course meal, finishing with a leisurely lunch, all in Marche‘s well-outfitted kitchen and dining room. Groggy upon arrival  — it was 10am; not early, but I had to make it down from the city — Guillame was steaming cappuccinos and serving awesome banana dark chocolate scones to get us properly fueled for a couple hours of cooking. Guillame and staff are about as laidback it gets. This isn’t the kind of class where’ll you’ll get intense instruction or detailed technique, but Guillaume and staff are right there in the mix the entire time, offering tips, showing you how best to chop, hack, grill or puree.

I’m glad I didn’t get the job of dissecting a saddle of lamb. I’m sure it would do me well to learn such butchering technique, but fresh off a recent, deep cooking slice into my thumb, thoughts of hacking fat and bone with a cleaver gave me chills. But my fellow classmate fearlessly tackled the meat, with fine, orderly cuts to show for her efforts. Seared and roasted with an olive and caper relish, the lamb was medium rare and juicy.

Veggies were truly beautiful: from grilled aspargus with tender morels and spring onion to a creamy, soup-like fennel & potato veloute, it was a garden cornucopia. My favorite vegetable dish we made? Nantes carrots, toasted in a blend of coriander, sesame seed and hazelnuts. Buttery, nutty and fresh, this is one I can’t wait to make at home. Watching the carrots sizzle in giant ovens gave me a little thrill as they simultaneously smelled divine. The next class on April 24 focuses on Spring vegetables so I imagine there will be more along these lines.

I personally took on summer-redolent strawberry soup with rhubarb poached in grenadine, sugar and water. The sous chef patiently showed me a more aesthetic way to cut up rhubarb stalk. Pushing strawberries through a powerful juicer was a plain, old good time. We topped the lovely soup mixture (with lemon, orange and strawberry juices plus a splash of kirsch for good measure) with fresh, house-made yogurt. Since that needed more prep time, it was already pre-made by Marche staff.

Lingering over our decadent, farm-fresh lunch with other South Bay foodies and cooks, we enjoyed an Alsace white, sweet on the nose, while conversation centered around food, naturally. It’s a pricey class and more for those who want to try by doing (which is how I best learn), rather than receiving step-by-step instruction, but it’s another of those many educational food pleasures available to us in the Bay Area. Guillaume and staff are hands-on but relaxed and you’ll be cooking in a fine dining kitchen, a rare opportunity for many of us.

Next class: 4/24, 10am-1:30pm — number of courses depends on size of class
$105 per person (limited to 14)
898 Santa Cruz Avenue, Menlo Park
(650) 324-9092
www.restaurantmarche.com

Visit Virgina’s personal culinary itinerary site at www.theperfectspotsf.com

Volume 44 Number 28 Flip-through Edition

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In the “Hausu”

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P>CULT FILM Words fail Hausu, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 goofy and deranged horror flick. Hausu is the sort of film that makes a writer want, to borrow the site of one of the film’s zanier set pieces, to draw deep from the tainted wells of cliché and hyperbole — to laud it as a trippy, must-be-seen-be-believed, insane, "like [blank] on acid," avalanche of WTF — precisely because such descriptions actually come close to doing it justice. The cult favorite, which has been leaving a whole new generation of fans gobsmacked in its wake thanks to a restored and newly subtitled touring print (its first U.S. run) from Janus Films, finally arrives at the Castro Theatre for a one-night-only engagement that should be the top priority on anyone’s bucket list.

More Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride than Last House on the Left (1972), Hausu starts from a familiar enough premise. A troupe of giggly teenage girls (each fancifully named in accordance with their personalities: Sweet, Melody, Fantasy, Prof, Mac, Kung Fu) lead by de facto leader Gorgeous head off to the countryside to spend the summer in the crumbling villa belonging to Gorgeous’ wheelchair-bound aunt. From there, Hausu enters a class of weird all by itself that leads to many belly laughs and much head scratching: Auntie’s white cat Blanche (Blanche!?) shoots green sparks from its eyes; a piano devours Melody, leaving behind only her fingers, still picking out notes; Gorgeous’ step-mother is inexplicably accompanied by an off-camera wind machine. I could go on.

Of course, we know it’s only a matter of time before spooky goings-on ensue and the bodies start piling up, but the journey is the destination on this very strange trip thanks to Obayashi’s seemingly limitless arsenal of special effects and love for all manner of cinematic flash, his stylistic flights-of-fancy, random plot detours (look out for the ramen bear), and a Monty Python-esque approach to violence and gore. As singular a debut feature as one could hope for, Hausu and its everything-but-the-kitchen sink approach become less random once you know a little of Obayashi’s background: one of Japan’s leading 8mm and 16mm experimental filmmakers of the 1960s, Obayashi was able to channel his surreal aesthetic into a highly successful career as a TV commercial director in the following decade. In many respects, Hausu represents the perfect synthesis of the avant-garde and the commercial. But don’t take my word for it.

HAUSU

Sat/17, 7:30 and 9:45 p.m., $7.50–$10

Castro

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

www.castrotheatre.com

Can’t stay away

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC “What can you do at the age of 44 that’s relevant?” a philosophical Too Short asks over brunch at the Buttercup in Oakland. “It can’t be good; it’s gotta be critic-proof.”

Seldom can you trace an entire artistic milieu back to one person, yet with Bay Area rap, you can. And his name is Too Short, a.k.a. Todd Shaw. In 1980, when the 14-year-old Short moved from L.A. to Oakland, rap was still considered a New York City phenomenon, but this didn’t stop him from making tapes to sell on the bus and the block. Between 1983 and 1986, he cut three discs on local label 75 Girls before forming his own Dangerous Music, whose first album, Short’s Born to Mack (1987), was soon re-released by Jive Records.

But after 14 albums on Jive — three gold, five platinum, one double platinum — Short Dog has gone independent. His label, once named Short Records, then Up All Nite, has been rechristened Dangerous Music, which released his Internet-only pre-album, Still Blowin’, on April 7. The most exciting news is that he’s returned from Atlanta to make music in the Bay, as well as his native L.A.

“What brought me back West was just the love, period,” he says. “People love me other places, but the West Coast love is unconditional. Not only in the Bay. It’s the same in L.A.

“Even in Atlanta,” he continues, “a lot of what I wrote was Oakland music. Oakland gives me the inspiration to write songs.”

Beyond the Bay, Too Short is as seminal a figure as Ice-T, bringing two major innovations to rap: profanity and pimpin’. These days, when half an MC’s verse gets muted on the radio due to graphic content, it’s hard to imagine rap without dirty lyrics, but it was a teenage Short who opened this Pandora’s box, with hardcore classics like “Blow Job Betty.”

“It’s not about pimps so much as having game,” Too Short says, yet the dirty rhymes inevitably meshed with Oakland’s cult of the pimp, whose ur-text is the locally-shot blaxploitation film, The Mack (1973). His much-imitated signature word, “biatch,” once caused controversy, though America fell in love with it after Dave Chappelle’s Rick James skit. As Short raps on the hit title track of his 16th album, Blow the Whistle (Jive 2006), “He got it from me.” Having discovered and recorded with Lil Jon even makes Short a pivotal figure in crunk.

 

JIVE JIVE

Unlike Ice-T or other contemporaries, Short remains a viable hitmaker. Blow the Whistle reached No. 14 on Billboard (No. 7 on the rap chart) and spawned a second hit, “Keep Bouncin’,” featuring Snoop Dogg and will.i.am, who produced it. Yet Jive refused to promote it, or even make a video, despite Snoop and will’s offer to work on it for free — one symptom of a deteriorating relationship between artist and label, which changed focus in the late 1990s to concentrate on teen pop like Britney Spears. Despite its lack of support, Short says that Jive “wouldn’t bow out gracefully,” instead holding him up for months with talk of a major retrospective with four new tracks that never materialized.

“When it’s near the end of the contract,” he says. “No matter how much they made off you, they don’t want to settle it in a humane way. It was clear their only intent was, ‘You must leave here not famous.'<0x2009>”

“I’m a realist,” he says about Jive pursuing more lucrative pop while abandoning a flagship artist who made the label millions. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. But there are no regrets. There wouldn’t be the legendary rapper Too Short if I didn’t get in my early years at Jive.” Eventually Short turned in a new album, Get Off the Stage (2007) — which, without promotion by Short or Jive, still hit No. 21 on the rap chart — in exchange for freedom.

 

INDEPENDENCE DAY

Unlike E-40, who left Jive for Reprise, Short Dog opted to go independent. “I could have got a major label deal two weeks after I left Jive,” Short says. “But I’m not going to get 100,000 first-week scans, and that’d be it.”

Both statements are probably true; he’s high-profile and relevant enough to get signed. Yet given the state of the industry and the youth-bias of major label rap, he’s unlikely to go platinum. But platinum’s a scarce commodity nowadays. And much like the nearly 40-year-old Snoop, Short still reliably makes hits and sells records. And he doesn’t intend to stop.

“I was smart enough to realize when the support wasn’t there, I could support myself,” he states matter-of-factly, without a trace of bravado.

Still Blowin’, Short says, “is just an appetizer for the upcoming menu,” his full-blown 2011 disc whose title is “so fly” he won’t unveil it yet. “I can’t just throw another album out there in this market. I need to warm it up, and this Internet album’s to feel out which direction I want to go in.” One direction is mixing in songs with a little more food for thought, even flirting with the idea of falling in love on the standout “Playa Card.”

“This is all premeditated,” he says. “I’m talking lots of shit, but I pick subjects where I can give a little more depth.”

“My last and final goal in hip-hop is to shatter that age-limit myth,” he continues. “It’s totally against everything this hip-hop industry is about. I’ll be 45 in 2011, and I guarantee you, I’ll drop an album and it’ll be the shit.

“I see it like I’m a jazz or a blues musician,” he continues. “I should be a rapper when I can’t even get off the stool, just sit there, nod my head, and do the show. I should be in a Vegas show with showgirls and shit. I’m going to rap till the words don’t come out.”

Ring ring

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kimberly@sfbg.com

MUSIC Take a page from the Peaches lesson plan: there are a few similarities between whipping a mob of too-cool-for-school hipsters and jaded insiders into a silly, sweltering mess — and rocking a classroom of bored youngsters. Sweet-voiced and sweet-tempered, Sleigh Bells vocalist Alexis Krauss knows this all too well: as a Teach for America educator, she was once charged with motivating antsy 10-year-olds. “You have to be high energy — it’s hard work!” the 24-year-old exclaims merrily over a gas-and-go line as she and bandmate Derek Miller, 28, once of screamo-hardcore outfit Poison the Well, tool through rural Pennsylvania on tour with Major Lazer.

Sleigh Bells’ performances have been a precious few since late last year, when the Brooklyn twosome stumbled into a few shows as part of CMJ Music Marathon in New York City and ended up being declared breakout belles by sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. “We weren’t really even ready to start playing till December 2009,” Krauss demurs. “But we got lucky and met the right people at the right time.”

The frontwoman has had her share of luck: at 13, she was tapped by producers to sing and play bass in teen-pop act RubyBlue. “Basically it was like all those stories that you hear about those bands: a factory,” she recalls. “It was great in that I learned a lot at a young age, but eye-opening in terms of the darker side of the music business — in the sense that you have no say in the decisions going on around you.”

Disillusionment with music followed, but Krauss met Miller in an almost mythic manner two years ago: at a Brazilian restaurant in NYC, he was waiting on her when her mother helpfully volunteered her daughter’s services as a singer. Since then it’s been a perfect storm of good fortune for the duo. On the strength of a few demos — part of a trove that Miller had been working on in his bedroom since leaving his old band in search of a womanly voice — the pair were embraced by MIA. Miller ended up doing production on MIA’s forthcoming full-length, and her NEET Recordings is coreleasing Sleigh Bells’ debut, Treats (Mom + Pop), on May 11.

MIA’s and Sleigh Bells’ simpatico approach comes through loud and clear in their mutual affection for hip-hop pastiche and post-punk dissonance. Tracks like “A/B Machines” call out to a makeshift dance floor with four-alarm urgency, perpetually revving Link Wray twang and gristly crunch. The janky-cool “Crown on the Ground” draws power from its bleeding, in-the-red meeting ground between hip-hop heads and noise generators. “Ring Ring” comes off as Sleigh Bells at its most soulful — rolling along on an acoustic guitar vamp, finger-click snap, and Krauss’ girlish rap about a sweet and sultry 16. If this is the sound of summer — an early contender for summer song of 2010 — it’s summer in the city, with guitars that sound like jackhammers and ambulance sirens. Even the playful “At the Beach” is driven by rave-ready horn blasts and the type of bass thump you’d ordinarily hear from a passing Jeep.

The pair went into the studio in January, re-recording some songs and assembling new ones. And while Miller still writes the majority of material, Krauss says the two are growing into their roles and becoming more collaborative. In any case, they didn’t clean things up too much. “We added just a few more tools at our disposal to create a better sound,” she explains. “So we hope that it will be everything people want it to be.” What do Sleigh Bells want? “We like people dancing, singing along, and losing their minds.”

SLEIGH BELLS

With Yeasayer

April 17, 9 p.m., $20

Fillmore

1805 Geary, SF

www.livenation.com

Now that we’re older

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By Peter Galvin

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC There’s a civil war afoot in the Hot Chip camp. Caught between tongue-in-cheek club-fillers and more melodic balladry, the U.K. electro-pop act continues to divide its audience by refusing to choose a definitive side and sound.

Duo and long-time friends, Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard have been plagued by the impression that they are largely a singles band, earmarking playlist-ready tracks like “Boy From School” and “Ready For The Floor” from otherwise uneven albums. Such is the scarlet letter left by Coming On Strong, their initial 2004 release with DFA Records, whose name is indelibly linked to a number of playlist-ready remixes. Following the band’s subsequent jump to EMI Records, around the 2008 release of their third album Made in the Dark, it became clear that the pair were ready to take a step away from the ephemeral nature that plagues not only their band’s first two releases, but much of modern dance music. Made in the Dark saw the band begin to experiment with more personal narratives, such as in the standout “We’re Looking For a Lot of Love.” Still, the collection of songs was more suggestive of growing pains than graduation.

After Dark‘s mixed advances, the release of One Life Stand represents the important moment in every successful band’s career, the point where it finally decides whether it’s going to continue rehashing a fruitful formula or take a risk, commit to something new and hope that the audience will stick around. As album opener “Thieves in the Night” comes over the speakers with the lyrics “happiness is what we all want,” it’s tough to find traces of the Hot Chip that was “sick of motherfuckers trying to tell me that they’re down with Prince.” The album title itself announces a band seeking something more real and permanent than an album that college kids bump at their summer parties.

Perhaps fearful that long-time fans might initially be turned off by the new direction, Taylor and Goddard make sure to hit you with the bangers right off the bat, four songs that recall their previous work in tempo if not content. But even these songs are free of the band’s trademark irony. They explore love and yearning rather than ride high on the repetition of goofy catch-phrases. In addition to a distinct lyrical maturity, the new songs are also increasingly densely layered. While they imply an enormous backdrop of influences, you get the impression Hot Chip has moved past paying homage, instead simply wishing to explore new territory in an accessible way.

Past this initial burst of bluster, One Life Stand introduces what may well be the new sound of Hot Chip — ballads. Deeply personal and largely humorless, songs like “Brothers,” “Alley Cats,” and “Slush” show that the band wants to connect with its audience on a more profound level — and they’re willing to drop the irony to do it. “Brothers” is candidly about Taylor loving his friends like brothers, a sentiment that might have embarrassed him had it appeared on Coming Up Strong. Hot Chip has matured, moved beyond posturing and caring what people think, making the album a refreshing reintroduction to a band that some dismissed as a couple of smart alecks.

It can be bittersweet watching a band grow up and define itself. Though One Life Stand is not without its missteps, I’m glad Hot Chip is doing what it wants rather than pandering to the expectations of an established audience. They like dancing and they like ballads, why should they have to choose? As lines are being drawn regarding the band’s inevitable shift away from sardonic dance music, it’s hard not to wonder whether Hot Chip even cares. If it does, it probably feels that its listeners are the ones having a hard time growing up.

HOT CHIP

with the xx

Fri/16, 8 p.m., $29.50

Fox Theatre

1807 Telegraph, Oakl.

1 (800) 745-3000

www.myspace.com/hotchip

An MPC fiend at work

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Few producers have pushed forward the aesthetic of West Coast underground hip-hop like Exile. His dynamic production style navigates a certain uneasiness at the heart of Californian reveries: warm pulses of boom-bap ride over blown-out bass lines and dirtied, jazz-strut melodies. Yet among the towering forces of Dr. Dre gangster pulp and Madlib beat tapes ad infinitum, Exile has been something of a submerged anonymity.

Exile (born Aleksander Manfredi) broke out into the Los Angeles scene at the brink of the millennium as part of the duo Emanon, formed in half by dexterous lyricist and singer Aloe Blacc. In reality, they had already been hustling an arsenal of cassettes since the mid-1990s, championing sun-bleached soundscapes and whimsical verses on the grind. It set the framework for Exile’s prodigious output during the last few years (holds breath): another decisive Emanon full-length, 2004’s The Waiting Room on Shaman Work; full production in the vein of Marley Marl for two freshmen rap debuts, Blu’s impassioned 2007 Below the Heavens on Sound in Color, and Fashawn’s solid 2009 Boy Meets World on One Records; a versatile 2006 beat conductor showcase, Dirty Science (also on Sound and Color); and the 2009 concept album Radio on Plug Research, which reworked a pastiche of sound bytes, vocals, and loops culled from Los Angeles’ AM/FM frequencies.

In any free time scrapped among those projects, Exile also helped spearhead a new form of live performance with the Akai MPC, a powerful drum machine and sampler tool henceforth used only for production. “The MPC is able to do almost anything any instrument can do if it’s programmed right,” Exile tells me over the phone. “Buttons allow you to trigger and manipulate sounds — and that’s exactly what music is.” No longer limited to mixing, scratching, and juggling prerecorded sounds on the turntables, the producer can build, layer, and freak music from its most basic building blocks. “The idea is to have your own instrument, made up of other instruments: a chopped up guitar, horn, bass line, and drums; then add some synth keys,” Exile says. “You have all these instruments at your fingertips and you can rework them.” Simply put, Exile brings a hip-hop producer’s analog studio to the stage.

Whether flipping robotic percussive breaks and lurching sub-bass that reach into your gut and pile-drive your sternum or reimagining Afrika Bambaataa with kindred spirit DJ Day, Exile continually impresses and body rocks the crowd in his live show. Sure, some talented laptop performers have incorporated similar techniques into their sets from behind glowing Apple computer screens, but it’s thrilling to see Exile openly at work in front of the audience. The visual aspect is key as he demonstrates unparalleled skills on the machine, tapping buttons in rapid-fire wizardry like a future-funked Thelonious Monk.

Exile invokes a natural musicality when playing the equipment. This makes his claims that the MPC is a real and serious instrument all the more convincing. “The first instrument I learned was an accordion, which has a lot of buttons,” he says, amused by the thought. “Then I picked up the keyboard and some drums. But I really learned to play the drums with the MPC.”

Exile was that kid in junior high finger-drumming syncopated rhythms on classroom desks and beat boxing in the hallways. Hooked on hip-hop and electronic jams, he was inspired to make programmed music with whatever tools he could find. “The first song I ever recreated was Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” with a turntable and two-tape decks,” Exile recalls. “I recorded a two-bar section of a song, rewound so there were two bars of empty space, recorded two bars again, and then empty space again. Do that for three minutes, then go back and fill in the empty space, and add another tape onto that.” Repeat that DIY method until the sounds of a loving genius knock out of the speakers in full android glory.

This restless impulse to create took Exile down a long road experimenting with four-track recorders, Roland samplers, and even helium balloons before he laid his hands on the MPC. Now, he’s a certified fiend, transforming the way we see hip-hop as much as we hear it. And there’s much more to come. 

EXILE

Fri/16, 9 p.m., $5–$10

Som SF

2925 16th St., SF

(415) 558-8521

www.som-bar.com

Emerald city

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GREEN ISSUE Walk out your front door today and you won’t find a corner store that doesn’t sell “organic food,” a restaurant whose we-buy-sustainable addendum reads “whenever possible,” a trash can with a precious separate compartment for your all-natural soda cans. It’s hard to forget that it’s not all another secret plan from the government to make your life less fun. But it’s not! Below, please find assembled an all-star list of resources that are honest-to-goodness designed to help you help out our little ball, spinning all terrestrially out in space.

RECYCLING
They’ve tried to make it easy on you. Compost goes in green! Beer bottles in blue! Devil Styrofoam — where’d you get that? — in black! But still, you have questions. What about the bottle caps? Can I recycle the bag my Korean taco came in? Can I get a new green bin without a rat-hole in it? (Yes! No, that’s compost! Yes, but work on that vermin problem!) One quick stop at the Recology SF Web site has you sorted. You’ll also find info on the dump’s sculpture garden — the world’s only garbage company’s art park.

GROWING THAT GREEN
Because that window box in your bedroom hasn’t contributed anything to dinner in way too long, SF Garden Resource Organization maintains a database on everything you need to grow your own sustenance in the city. Find within its welcoming Internet embrace info on cheap local classes to turn that idle thumb green, all kinds of gardening pointers, and the lowdown on which community gardens are accepting new plot tenders.

PESTICIDES AND JUNK MAIL
They’re awful, aren’t they? And they’re all around us, which is why the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s toxicity guide for everyday lotions, cleaners, and pet products is so nice to have on hand. Thanks, Nova Scotia! For up close and personal commerce, the friendly worker-owners at Rainbow Grocery can steer you toward natural household products. An there are a bajillion lovely shops like Marie Veronique Organics (1790 Fifth St., Berk.) that’ll sell you the good local stuff. Kill your junk mail with the support of the helpful folks at Bay Area Recycling Outreach Coalition.

SHOPPING
Go organic or go secondhand. For natural fiber or recycled fabric gear, the Bay’s got lots of flash spots like Ladita (827 Cortland, SF. 415-648-4397 www.shopladita.com) or Eco Citizen (1488 Vallejo, SF. 415-614-0100. www.ecocitizenonline.com). Little Otsu (849 Valencia, SF. 415-255-7900 www.littleotsu.com) is all you need for gift shopping, with unique posters, books, and various assorted preciousness. But for the broke environmentalists, wait for the $2 per item of clothing sales at Goodwill (Various locations, www.goodwill.com), Mission Thrift (2330 Mission, SF. 415-821-9560), or even one of the several consignment stores along Fillmore like Repeat Performance (2436 Fillmore, SF. 415-563-3123) or Seconds to Go (2252 Fillmore, SF. 415-563-7806) to feel good about confounding consumerism. The big fish in our green pond, however, remains the invaluable Green Zebra coupon book, with hundreds of deals on earth-lovin’ spas, goods, and adventures.

OUT ON THE TOWN
There are oodles of spots to help you make a night of it without playing our environment for a fool. Terroir (1116 Folsom, SF. (415) 558-9546, www.terroirsf.com) serves elegant, chemical-free wines that taste even better if the wine-bar’s adorably scruffy owners pour them. Thirsty Bear Brewpub (661 Howard, SF. (415) 974-0905. www.thirstybear.com) has a stellar system of low-waste operation and serves only organic brews through its taps. For the club kids, the eco spot de rigueur is Temple (540 Howard, SF. (415) 978-8853 www.templesf.com), where owner Paul Hemming’s Zen Compound concept is expanding to include a roof garden, global art gallery, and dance floor that harnesses the energy expended on beats.

ACTIVISM
Of course, you could always do something outside your day’s normal scope. Hit up the following organizations to make change in your little corner of the world: Roots of Change for food sustainability issues, Livable City for hopes of a future outside our cars, and Planning and Conservation League for work on issues like global warming and water usage.

Mission statement

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By Elise-Marie Brown

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Che Rivera, a strong, middle-aged Latino man, approaches his son with festering anger and fury in his eyes. With outrage, he yells, “Why does this motherfucker have his tongue down your fucking throat?” as he points to a photo of his teenage son kissing another man. “Why do you think?” his son replies in a sharp tone. His rage surfacing, Che leans over, beats the boy, and forces him to leave their Mission District home.

Tackling issues of homophobia, masculinity, and violence, independent film La Mission uncovers the inner struggle of an obstinate father (Benjamin Bratt) learning to accept his son, Jesse (Jeremy Ray Valdez) for being gay. Throughout the film, Che is a dominating machismo presence. By day he works as a Muni driver who strives to keep his bus in line by fighting off difficult passengers. At night he customizes low rider cars and leads a group of friends and family through cruises in the city.

“Che is kind of the alpha male within Latino culture, as well as the alpha male in the dominant culture,” said director and writer Peter Bratt during a recent phone interview alongside younger brother Benjamin. “Something about the Latino community and having a gay son threatens the idea of being a powerful male.”

The role of Che was based on a real Mission resident, a fact that Bratt believes gives the movie more of an authentic feel. “The real Che is a larger-than-life persona. When he walks into the room, you feel his presence,” Peter said. “He’s a brown and proud Chicano who we thought represented the passion and vibrancy of the neighborhood.”

As the film unfolds, the audience starts to learn that Che is more than just a man of aggression. He also feels a strong love for his son and community, despite having a difficult time expressing that love.

“We found it intriguing to take a character like [Che] who appears to be one way and start to peel the layers back,” Benjamin explained. “A real tenderness exists. You don’t see it expressed in words or a physical action, But it comes in other forms.”

After looking back at films that portray men of color as one-dimensional, the actor decided his character would embody an array of emotions and struggles that previous stories had not explored. “When you look at a lot of representations of men of color, they’re often drawn as people to be feared,” Benjamin continued. “Che is a very familiar character that we’ve seen in cholo and urban films. We wanted to pull back the layers and actually show that there is a complex being underneath the swagger and stance.”

When it came to starting the production of the film and choosing a location, the Bratt brothers — who grew up in San Francisco — didn’t hesitate to base the story in the Mission.

“Benjamin and I had already dreamed of making a film in the Mission,” Peter said. “We know about Harlem, Brooklyn, and Queens from filmmakers like Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese. We feel like the Mission is up there with those neighborhoods. It’s just as vibrant, politically and culturally.”

In the four weeks it took to shoot the film, members of the community helped by working behind the cameras as well as in front of them. “We cast a lot of people right from the Mission, which we thought lent a certain level of authenticity,” Peter said.

Although the film takes place in a neighborhood with multiple cultures, traditions, and social issues, the Bratts believe the particular journey undertaken by their characters isn’t something everyone in the community goes through.

“There are a million and one stories going on in the Mission at any given time and this was not our attempt to create the definitive Mission story,” Benjamin said. “Our goal was to create something authentic and ultimately something that would entertain and enlighten you.” *

LA MISSION opens in Bay Area theaters Fri/16.

 

The art of play

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Through the rear window of a nondescript vehicle, three lines of dotted lights stream by in the darkness. The perspective shifts, and you realize you are at the seat of a car, driving through a tortuous tunnel, about to emerge into a skylit, open highway. You’re unsure of your location, or even your destination, but slowly, like a detective story, clues help you piece together some semblance of meaning and purpose. You peer into the rear-view mirror, dive into the road flickering behind you, and let your mind wander beyond that concrete past.

From there, animated filmmaker and multimedia artist Al Jarnow guides you on a hypnotic trip through the interconnected pathways of nature, art, and machinery in Autosong (1976). The dark tunnel returns anew, and the car disappears, unhinging your viewpoint in a disembodied drift. Oceanic tides wash away the whirling road and grids of cubes emerge, twisting in harmony as Jarnow deconstructs the geometrical notions that give form to subjectivity, motion, and space. “In my experimental films I leaned more toward music than a traditional narrative structure,” Jarnow says, calling from his home and studio in Long Island. “Themes build up and then repeat, come back slightly changed and repeat again… like a jazz variation on a theme.”

Brooklyn-born Jarnow found a supportive and inspired community for animated films in New York during the 1970s and ’80s. Trained originally as a painter, he fell into the medium by chance, coaxed by a friend into animating humorist Edward Lear’s offshoot love story The Owl and the Pussycat (1968) with his wife Jill Jarnow’s vibrant paintings. “As we were in the process of making that film, I started doing experiments. And the thrill of seeing something move, and come alive, just woke up a whole new world for me,” Jarnow says. Fascinated with “sculpting in time” more than conventional cartoon plots, Jarnow populated his mesmerizing worlds with an atypical cast of characters and ideas.

Jarnow’s experimental shorts — handcrafted from cell-animation, stop-motion, painting, drawing, and photography — revel in the unending process of exploration and discovery. In left field films like Cubits (1978), Jarnow wields an unlikely power, bringing abstract concepts and formal procedures to life. Ink-drawn geometric shapes dance in rhythm on flashcards like robotic pop-lockers, revealing both operations of motion and a methodical creative process. Yet the logical rigor underpinning Jarnow’s stories feels human and impassioned, saturated with a visceral aura of wonder that is far removed from a scientist’s sterile research lab. Call Jarnow the Carl Sagan of animators (well, a bit more fun than that). “I think art is a form of play,” he says. “It’s a tactile experience of experimenting with the world around you, pushing it this way or that way, and seeing what happens. It’s as much for children as grownups.”

So it’s fitting that Jarnow also brought that playful spirit to bear on educational shorts for PBS’s Sesame Street and 3-2-1 Contact. In his first commercial piece, Yak (1970), the talking beast drops knowledge about the letter y, before running headfirst into the screen and terrifying many an imaginative youngin’ under the sheets (just check the YouTube comments). In Facial Recognition (1978), humans reproduce the computational functions of a dot-matrix printer, thanks to stop-motion magic. And billions of years are reduced to two minutes in the time-lapse of Cosmic Clock (1979), where the lifetime of a boy, a city, and nature all pass through their respective cycles (the last civilization even blasts off into space in a moment’s flash).

Even though Jarnow’s multilayered vision made a lasting impression on a whole generation in heyday of the Children’s Television Workshop, no one knew the author behind the box — and very few had the opportunity to penetrate NYC’s avant-garde animators scene. But earlier this year Jarnow finally got his due. Chicago’s archival imprint Numero Group digitally transferred 45 of Jarnow’s 16mm shorts and compiled them in a handsomely packaged DVD. Celestial Navigations: The Short Films of Al Jarnow includes a 30-minute documentary and 60 pages of liner notes. The title piece, Jarnow’s most explicit scientific voyage, traces the window-light defining his studio walls from equinox to equinox, montaged with heliocentric frames of Stonehenge. It’s stunning — and difficult — but with some patience, you can travel the cosmos with the druids and back again.

The retrospective is hardly exhaustive. “Making art is a way of learning about the world,” Jarnow says. “It’s a way of processing the information coming in through you.” Jarnow hasn’t stopped experimenting with new artistic forays, ceaselessly searching for engaging mediums to provoke and compel. From installing exhibits at San Francisco’s Exploratorium (which set the framework for cofounding the Long Island Children’s Museum) and developing interactive computer software to making ephemeral sculpture on the beach, Jarnow continues to make a playful game, and invoke an animated wonder, of the world.

AL JARNOW: CELESTIAL NAVIGATIONS

Screening and Q&A with Al Jarnow

April 22, 7:15 and 9:30 p.m., $6–$9

Red Vic Movie House

1727 Haight, SF

(415) 668-3994

www.redvicmoviehouse.com

www.protozone.net/AJ/Jarnow 

 

Ghost, writers

0

arts@sfbg.com

FILM Conor McPherson’s The Eclipse is not to be confused with that imminent third Twilight movie of (almost) the same name. But it, too, is a supernatural romance of sorts. Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) is a widower with two kids. From the wife’s post-chemo look in family photos scattered around the house, we glean she died of cancer. He once had writerly ambitions but is now a woodworking teacher. Since school’s out, he’s jobbing as a driver for the annual literary festival in their seaside town of Cobh, a County Cork location not far from where Irish revolutionary hero Michael Collins was born and killed.

It’s a driver’s task in such circumstances to take the bad with the good, as far as chauffeuring around celebrity authors goes. The good being London guest Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a modest, attractive, and gracious scribe of purportedly nonfiction ghost stories. The bad being best-selling American novelist Nicholas Holden (Aidan Quinn), who hits the ground whining — his ride’s slight delay has forced him to endure the hotel-bar enthusiasms of actual fans, a prime target for his all-embracing condescension — and whose subsequent emotional displays run the unctuous to the apoplectic.

Excepting, that is, when he’s attempting to charm Lena, with whom he had a recent one-night-stand at a similar event. Cornered over lunch, Lena keeps a polite arm’s length from his renewed ardor, reminding him “I thought we were going to behave like nothing ever happened.” He is, after all, married. Nicholas rather too readily pipes that he doesn’t love his wife, and, anyway, even if they’re still officially together (he fibbed about that previously), he “never felt more separated” from her than when experiencing brief, torrid, probably drunken passion with Lena.

This is none of Michael’s business, and Lena wishes it wasn’t hers, but circumstances keep driver and guests colliding. Michael tours Lena around to all the terribly quaint and picturesque local sights, bonding over shared experiences (notably, both are under the strong impression that they’ve seen ghosts) and mutual frisson. Rubbing each the wrong way, meanwhile, is every ensuing encounter with Nicholas, who starts showing up plastered at Lena’s accommodations to howl at the moon and/or picks fight with Michael, whom he sneeringly calls “that stalker” — the others being too polite to point out his obvious hypocrisy.

So far, so good: The Eclipse‘s bulk mixes deft satire of literary ego and salesmanship with middle-aged romance in a travelogue setting (beautifully photographed by Ivan McCullough), plus enough domestic nuance to remind that no family life is perfect when a spouse and parent has recently died. But McPherson, better known here for his widely produced plays (The Weir, Shining City, The Seafarer), is not one to leave reality well enough alone. Instead he (helped by the abrupt crescendos of alarm in Fionnuala Ni Chiosain’s score) jars us with elements of the macabre. Michael is burdened with an angry, ailing father-in-law (Jim Norton) he’s turned over to a rest home. Perhaps as punishment, he suffers visions of a ghastly specter that look a whole lot like a zombiefied Jim Norton. These are, hopefully, just nightmares. But what do they mean?

It’s to McPherson’s credit (coadapting a short story by fellow Irish playwright Billy Roche) that his elegantly controlled movie gets away with not quite providing an answer while juggling a lot of mismatched elements with deceptive ease. In a less quirky film, Hinds, atypically cast as the nice guy (he played an arrogant literary prick himself in 2008’s Margot at the Wedding), would have swapped roles with Quinn. The gambit benefits them both, especially Quinn, who is terrific as the kind of tantrum-prone pretentious blowhard who’ll never be a grownup, but is just talented enough to get away with it — commercially if not socially. The Eclipse barely seems to have gotten going before it’s over, and no movie post-1970 should be ever allowed to end on a freeze-frame. Still, these 88 minutes are like some heavy (green of course) liqueur; just a thimbleful leaves you agreeably off-center, flushed, and a little spooked.

THE ECLIPSE opens Fri/16 in San Francisco.

Finger waggle

2

superego@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO What? WHAT?!? This is still happening? Oh Miss Dang, you did not just try to pull off that move where you put your clawy hag-hand on the small of my back and push me aside so you and your train of screaming amigas can press up on the DJ. I don’t care what kind of 2-for-1 ladies night you think this is, but your gimme-gimme is NOT the reason I paid zero dollars to sneak into this club. It is crowded in here and don’t even attempt that Most High Holy Discount-Salon-Streaked Jennifer Anniston Circa 2003 Princess of the VIP shit on me. You reek of Shalimar farts and Pink sweats, ugh.

Seriously, though, some people are getting pushy in the club lately. And, believe me, I’m not going to the wrong parties. In case anyone thinks I’m turning misogynist, I’ve been clotheslined and sidelined in the past three weeks by stomping drag kings, pubic-bearded rockists, and asexual dubstep fans. Look, the only reasons you should be tapping me on the shoulder are to a) hand me the non-well drink you bought me or b) test the structural integrity of my aerodynamically enhanced shoulder pads. It should not be so that you can use me like a sliding door. Duck under or sneak around, people. We’re all in this to make a vibe together. Can we get a little politesse? Merci.

 

EROL ALKAN

Good ol’ electro. It’s still going gonzo with those big time breakdowns and hair-metal stagedives, but slowly — slowly — it’s progressing into something more cerebral and, well, less 00. London vet Alkan pours on the buzzsawing Waters of Nazareth like no other, but he’s tweaking into the future with wide-ranging flair.

Wed/14, 10 p.m., $15. Vessel, 85 Campton Place, SF. www.vesselsf.com

 

MACHINE

A number of dynamic local classic disco and house addicts — Sergio, Conor, Andre Lucero — have teamed up for this hyper new weekly gig, hopefully roughing up gleaming cocktail palace Sloane enough to make it comfortably gritty. They promise to “shoot lasers through speakers.” That oughta do it.

Wed/14, 10 p.m., free. Sloane, 1525 Mission, SF. www.sloanesf.com

 

AMBROSIA AND THE BEARNSTEINS

“I could tell you what we’re gonna do, baby, but isn’t it always better to be surprised?” acid-tongued local dragger Ambrosia Salad rasped into my ear about her “Fat Fame Monster Tour” coming to Art Attack, Supperclub’s eye-popping monthly video-projection-meets-performance night. She’ll be “faux-show air-banding” with her furry backup brood, the Bearnsteins, to arena-dazzling hits. (“The knobs turn on the fake guitars and everything!” she squealed.) Er, “Fame Monster,” though? “No Lady Gaga!” Ms. Salad promises. “Just me being fat!” Faux show.

Thur/15, 10 p.m., $5. Supperclub, 657 Harrison, SF. www.supperclub.com

 

AVANT_MUTEK

The producers of Montreal’s sprawling, techno-intelligent annual Mutek festival are taking their tubes and wires on the road, bringing the heady, yet freakable, sounds of digital creators Afukan, Stephen Beaupré, and Sutekh to the absolutely bonkers visionary Gray Area space. Hear the future in a parallel universe. One called Canada. (Cubed Quebec?)

Fri/16, 10 p.m., $20. Gray Area, 55 Taylor, SF. www.gaffta.org

 

MAD PROFESSOR AND DJ VADIM

Wonderfully deep dub madness (that’s dub, minus the step, but plus the wobble) from the legendary Mad Professor should set it off for heads into quality nods. Trip-hop — yes, I said trip-hop, no shame! — trailblazer DJ Vadim comes from Russia with a sonic palette to rival some hypothetical Timbaland Monet. Dip the brush and swirl.

Fri/16, 10 p.m.-4 a.m., $15. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. www.mighty119.com

 

TEKANDHAUS

Fresh local, um, tech and house upstarts Bells and Whistles (of the excellent DRESSCODE parties), Nightlight Music’s Travis Dalton, and Zenith bring some twilight hustle to Anu. This should be the kind of low and bristly affair, flavored with a moody dusting of machine soul, that leads you onto other avenues.

Fri/16, 10 p.m., free. Anu, 43 Sixth St., SF. www.anu-bar.com

RN74

0

paulr@sfbg.com

DINE As we wait for someone to open a restaurant called Highway 29 — the ultimate Napa Valley wine-country spot — we are comforted in the knowledge that we already have RN74. You are absolved for not knowing that RN74, the road, is the Highway 29 of Burgundy. It runs south from the provincial capital of Dijon to Beaune, in the heart of the Burgundian wine country.

I am not thrilled with the local trend toward naming restaurants after European highways — the names sound too much like car names — but there is no denying the force behind RN74. That force is Michael Mina, and if there is a more lustrous name in the recent annals of San Francisco restauranting, that name has escaped my notice. Mina was the man who, for a decade, guided the kitchen at Aqua (after an opening starburst of George Morrone); he then went on to open his (first) eponymous restaurant in the Westin St. Francis in the summer of 2004, with another following at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

The themes here would seem to be luxe and empire, but in both of those senses, RN74 upsets expectations. It is beautiful and elegant inside but not overwrought, and it is (so far) one-of-a-kind. The main disappointment, for me, pertains to location; as at nearby Roy’s, the windows gaze out onto Mission Street and the romantic spell fades. Maybe that’s why such effort has been spent on the window treatments, with row after row of louvered screens lending a sense of warm summer evenings while subtly filtering out much of the actual view.

The other tremendous design element is the huge wine board hanging high above the east end of the dining room. It resembles the big boards you see in French railway stations, black with ever-changing white letters, like a huge mechanized chalkboard. In train stations, the board gives destinations and platforms; at RN74, the data involves last bottles of wine.

Given the immense scope of the wine list, the mechanized chalkboard must be close to indispensable. You could easily get lost in the printed version, which runs for many pages in small print and includes bottlings from France, Italy, Spain, California, and elsewhere, more than a few of them running into the hundreds of dollars. But the big board flashes deals — we snagged the last of an Italian gamay for $42 — while the prix-fixe option, three courses for $39, also includes a crack at the sommelier’s choice of red or white Burgundy for $30.

The food is exemplary: much less intricate and overbearing than at Michael Mina while losing little or nothing in inventiveness and polish. I was especially impressed by the smoked-sturgeon rillettes ($9), which incorporated a responsibly farmed fish into a classic French technique to produce a beguiling result — a kind of shmear to be spread on toast points. (The fish had been combined with crème fraïche for extra velvetiness.)

When your risotto wins the approval of someone who dislikes risotto, you must be making pretty good risotto. RN74’s leek version ($15) included plenty of Parmesan cheese, green peas, trumpet mushrooms, and watercress; it had the look and texture of corn snow, and the grains were perfectly cooked al dente, with just a hint of chalkiness. No mush. And when your grilled Monterey Bay sardines ($14) are gobbled up by someone who doesn’t like sardines … well, Q.E.D.

The main courses are marginally less compelling, mainly because they are star-driven and tend to rely on large masses of protein rather than artful interlacings of varied ingredients. Still, protein has its charms: halibut ($27) poached in olive oil to an almost confit-like denseness and plated with asparagus and snap peas; a pair of rounds of center-cut ribeye ($30), still gorgeously purple-pink in the middle and riding a coarse magic carpet woven from green garlic and trumpet mushrooms, while a ravioli filled with potato mousseline sat to one side like a cupcake; a filet of striped bass ($28), intoxicatingly scented with herbs and served with little pebbles of crisped chorizo.

Beignets seem to be well on their way to joining crème brûlée and molten chocolate cakes on just about every dessert menu around. At RN74, the beignets ($9) look like little throw pillows someone spilled sugar all over, and you dip them in a whiskey-caramel sauce with a little whipped cream. More interesting was a chocolate-praline bar ($9) — if your tailor made bespoke candy bars, they’d be something like this. You can get throw pillows anywhere.

RN74

Dinner: Sun.–Thurs., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-10:30 p.m.

Lunch: Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.

301 Mission, SF

(415) 543-7474

www.RN74.com

Full bar

AE/DS/MC/V

Bearable noise even when full

Wheelchair accessible

 

Tropic of dancer

0

arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Judging from the packed salsa classes he’s been teaching at Dance Mission Theater for 12 years, Ramón Ramos Alayo is correct: the Bay Area is a hotbed for Cuban-Caribbean culture. But even he underestimated its pull. When I spoke to him on a recent balmy spring evening, he was expecting that night’s attendance to drop. “It’s light and warm, so people like to spend their free time outside,” he explained before heading for class. Wrong. If more aficionados had shown up, they would have had to move the furniture.

In addition to being a highly sought-after instructor — he also teaches modern dance at ODC — Ramos Alayo is a dancer, musician, choreographer, and the director of the annual CubaCaribe Festival (this year’s installment takes place at Dance Mission Theater April 16-May 2). Multitasking may be in his blood, but it’s also something he was trained for.

At the Havana National School of Art, where Ramos Alayo enrolled at age 11, every student had to study ballet, folklórico, and modern dance. “If you didn’t pass the grade in each genre on every level, you were out,” he remembered. After getting his master’s, he had the choice of joining either a modern or traditional company: he went with two modern groups. But when he founded his own Alayo Dance Company in San Francisco in 2002, he made its mission inclusive, fusing Afro-Cuban, modern, traditional folkloric, and popular Cuban dance styles. Although for some fusion suggests loss of identity, to Ramos Alayo it indicates creating something new from what exists.

As a choreographer and performer, Ramos Alayo is as at home in dances based on the Yoruban Orisha myths performed at the Ethnic Dance Festival as he is in original works inspired by political history and personal experience. His 10 dancers have to be able to do it all. Blood + Sugar is a raw dancer theater work about slavery; La Madre takes an intimate look at family. One of his earliest pieces, Wrong Way, is an athletic yet poignant duet for two men. He doesn’t recall the details of the recent Grace Notes, a free-flowing improvisation with bass player Jeff Chambers, but he does remember how good it felt to be performing it. “We had never rehearsed. We just looked at the score, and I had some spatial cues.”

Ramos Alayo’s wide-open approach to what it means to be contemporary artist living in the diaspora also shapes his curating of CubaCaribe, now in its sixth year. Under the overall banner of “From Katrina to Port-au-Prince,” this year’s festival honors the survivors of recent catastrophes. The first weekend will present Haitian and Haitian-rooted ensembles. New York’s Adia Whitaker is a modern, Haitian trained dancer-choreograher; Afoutayi recently relocated from Haiti to San Francisco; and Kumbuka is a New Orleans-based Haitian-Carnival ensemble. Afoutayi and Kumbuka make their San Francisco debuts.

The second weekend traditionally showcases local artists. Liberation Dance Theater’s current work is based on modern dance and reggaeton — a mix of Caribbean-based music styles. Alfafia is a collectively-run Haitian group from San Francisco City College. In the past, Paco Gomes has elegantly fused Afro-Brazilian with modern dance.

On first glance, Los Lupenos de San Jose, a group known for its rendition of regional Mexican dances, is not a natural for CubaCaribe. What got them an invitation was Salón Mexico, Susan Cashion’s choreography of social dances like el danzón and the mambo. They originated in Cuba but started their worldwide journey by way of Mexico.

Ramos Alayo’s new hour-long Migrations was inspired by New York subway performers. Joining his own ten dancers for the third weekend will be a hip-hop artist, a tap dancer, and a steel-drum musician.

CUBACARIBE FESTIVAL OF DANCE AND MUSIC

Through May 2, Fri–Sat, 8 p.m.;

Sun, 7 p.m.; April 25, 3 p.m., $12–$22

Dance Mission Theater

3316 24th St., SF

www.cubacaribe.org

Hugs and kisses

0

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS We left space for The Attack at our table. She wasn’t dead or anything, just at work. Some people are dead. And some are only faking it. Still others of course are in line at Walgreens, or otherwise alive and well and just generally off doing something. So they can’t have breakfast with you at Rico’s Diner, damn!

My mind is boggled and my knees are buckled and rug-burned, but apparently I have a little prettiness left, according to an old-school pimpishly attired dude in a cape and fedora, downtown Oakland.

"You are beautiful ladies," he said to me and Pod, in passing. "You keep that up now!"

You keep that up now. Keep it up. Keep up the beauty.

Pod has a curling-iron burn on one of her cheeks.

When we saw the guy again he smiled even bigger, pumped his fist instead of tipping the fedora, and said pretty much the same things: "Beautiful" and "you keep that up now." I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, a few flakes of last night’s mascara, and chicken-fried steak flavored lip gloss.

You keep that up now.

Beauty is hard to define. Like wet soap, life, and a live fish, beauty — once defined — is also hard to hold on to. It requires concentration. Sometimes you need a coach. Sometimes you need a lover, and sometimes your lover sucks, strains, and presses the beauty right out of you and then you need coaches and cheerleaders again to get it back.

Thank you, pimpishly attired fedora-tipping and fist-pumping dude. Thank you Pod. Thank you The Attack. And thank you Rico’s, for supplying the chicken-fried steak flavored lip gloss.

And, oh, so many other kinds of hot sauce. It gave Pod and me the idea to have a "hot sauce tasting" instead of a "wine tasting" party. And this gives me the idea to have a "lip gloss tasting" party after that.

Which reminds me of a rainy day in La Rochelle, a beautiful port town on the west coast of France where, as a recent romantic refugee, I participated materially in this January’s humidity levels.

I was with my chicken farming comrade on her one day off, shopping for All Things Brown, when we saw a tall, cute man standing in a crowded square with a small sign saying, in English, "Free Hugs." And he didn’t seem to be collecting money or selling anything. And he didn’t look like he smelled bad. And I have never been more in need of hugs so I walked right up to him and hugged him. If nothing else, this gave my chicken farmer’s daughter, who is 11, something to giggle about for the rest of this year. Plus I got to learn my first French phrase, Lâchez moi, or "Let go of me."

Now I don’t need hugs anymore. I need kisses, and to learn how to say ne lâchez pas de moi, s’il vous plaît in English.

"Mmm," says the dreamy dreamboat of my dreams, "What’s that hot sauce you’re wearing?"

El Yucateca. Extra extra hot. Which goes very good with chicken-fried steak and gravy, by the way. Not that Rico’s needs the boost. It was one of my favorite chicken frieds that I can remember. And the over-easies were good, and the omelet I had the first time I went there was great.

I love this place. It’s simple, delicious, and cheap. They do standard American breakfast stuff, plus burgers (which I haven’t tried yet), and veggie and vegan things (which I never will). And it feels like you’re eating on a train, I think because the kitchen’s in the middle of the room, and you have to place your order at a counter there. Plus all the windows. Although, I have to admit that the corner of 15th and Franklin streets does tend to stay a little still.

One of the most beautiful things I ever saw: my curling-iron burnt pal Pod — who is a dot artist, after all — carefully dispensing drops of I-forget-which hot sauce around the breakfast sandwich on her plate. I don’t know exactly what she was going for, but it was a Goldsworthy worthy masterpiece.

You keep that up, now, Pod.

RICO’S DINER

Mon.–Sat.: 10 a.m.–2:30 p.m.

400 15th St., Oakl.

(510) 444-8424

Cash only

Beer

Believe it!

0

arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART What would you do if you had been born with a treasure chest? This is a real-life Pippi Longstocking-tale: Jaina Bee is a quirky lady who sports a pink glam crewtop, was raised with minimal parental interference, and is undeniably devoted to her friends. Like Pippi, she was given a suitcase full of gold coins and owns a home.

Thirteen years ago, when Jaina Bee was in her late 20s, she purchased her Potrero Hill property with a vague vision of creating a collaborative-art utopia.

Each chamber of Granny’s Empire of Art has been given a fitting nickname. Sitting in the trophy room, named for its collection of taxidermy, it’s hard to imagine it as just another blank slate with off-white walls. “There’s a difference between decorating and transforming,” Jaina Bee says. Now: antique sofas, stripes of plaid and French country wallpaper, a haunting brick-based collage of cigarettes and electrical plugs, a hanging chandelier, and portraits of Jaina Bee with chickens — and of the benefactors of her inheritance, her step-grandfather Fred Davis and his father Edwin — fill the living room.

“Seriously, the deepest and most inescapable influence was my mother, who was a total prankster, trickster, nonconformist type,” she says. “As soon as I got out of high school and went into college, she lived out her trippy communal fantasy in Santa Cruz.”

As an experiment based around her deep curiosity about people, Jaina Bee’s mother threw open her doors. Those who came in were mostly freeloading Dead Heads of the 1980s. It was a madhouse.

“I took what I learned from observing that and inevitably turned this into my own semi-open house,” says Jaina Bee. “There are lots of people who make this place their home when they’re in town. They’re all creative, and they all contribute in some way to the household, whether it’s designing lights or creating rooms. And when I’m out of town for months at a time, people come and go just as freely as if I were here. So the house has a kind of life of its own. It’s bigger than all of us.”

“You can’t try to control it,” responds Jenny B, who did the lighting for the house and is staying over.

While her mother was watching her lawless social study, Jaina Bee was attending San Francisco Art Institute, where she befriended many artists who would later be involved with Granny’s.

Her professor Tony Labat challenged her to test, trial-and-error-style, without knowing the results. “That gave me the courage to experiment with collaborating with people not necessarily knowing where it was going to go,” she explains. She took this mentality seriously when she began working on her home. “The whole reason things have turned out the way they have here is that I didn’t try and control it too much — just enough to keep it from going into complete chaos.”

Of course, this is not the first art-home assembled by an eccentric heiress. Granny’s Empire of Art follows a tradition extending from Isabella Stewart Gardner and Sarah Winchester to Peggy Guggenheim and Doris Duke. But none of these comparisons quite fit because of Granny’s particular emphasis on collaboration and experimentation.

“It’s an unusual circumstance with Jaina, because she really wants people to do what they’re good at doing. She’s not sitting there saying she wants it this way. She has a lot of trust with her vision,” explains Christine Shields, who met Jaina at SFAI and has done work on the home since the initial painting sessions when she chose red for what would later be known as the opium den.

“When the whole house started, I thought it was so disparate. It seemed very hodgepodge and very crazy-quilt style. But the more time that goes by, the more it becomes this big vision and it has this cohesion that I couldn’t really see in the beginning,” Shields says. “But I know Jaina saw it.”

Granny’s two homes — an old farmhouse in the back and a Victorian in the front — contain a Ripley’s-Believe-It-or-Not!-worthy staircase covered with pencils that leads to a vintage Circus Circus carpet, a Gaudi-meets-the-Yellow-Submarine bathroom with glow-in-the-dark-slices hidden in the tiles, a fur meditation room, a haunted parlor with multicolored drywall, found photographs compiled into a pseudo family albums, and an old-timey phonograph. All this — and more — comes together to form a fairytale dollhouse that expands with the bite of a cookie, just like Alice’s wonderland.

“This is beyond my wildest dreams of the perfect environment. I’m always discovering things I didn’t notice before,” says Jaina Bee. “I think sometimes my friends have actually stuck things in here without telling me.”

Unlike the Peggy Guggenheim Collection or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there’s an energy that emanates from the life within the home. Jaina Bee says she’s thought about the future of Granny’s Empire of Art and the possibility that it might become a place for an artists residency program, but says she’s made no official plans. Granny’s is alive and growing.

There are even lovely sister cats, Crackle and Quilty, who share the home. “They wrecked a lot,” Jaina Bee says matter-of-factly. “I think in one year these kittens did $1000 in damage — to masterpieces. But that’s art as life. I don’t want it to be so precious I can’t be comfortable.”

www.jainabee.com

Drowned out

0

rebeccab@sfbg.com

GREEN ISSUE The tiny, rigid-hull inflatable boats that researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography use for whale tagging are a mere fraction of the size of the blue whales they are deployed to search for. But Scripps PhD candidate Megan McKenna says there’s no reason to worry about the mammoth creatures — which can weigh as many tons as 27 elephants put together — bumping up against the boat when she reaches overboard with a pole to tag them.

“They’re just pretty mellow, I guess,” McKenna says. “There’s no flailing or anything. Some barely even notice that we’re there.” For two summers, she’s ventured out in pursuit of the endangered whales, popping short-term monitoring tags on them to learn how they behave when massive cargo shipping vessels motor past.

It’s an important question for a couple of reasons. Government funding was provided for the Scripps study after two blue whales were struck and killed by commercial shipping vessels in 2007, tragedies magnified by the fact that the marine mammals are still struggling for survival. If even two die in such collisions every few years, the entire species could be imperiled, McKenna says.

At the same time, a less-understood phenomenon has marine scientists worried that the deep-blue giants’ survival is being undermined by a subtler problem, that Jackie Dragon of San Francisco-based Pacific Environment likens to “death by a thousand cuts.” Noise generated by whirring ship propellers registers at the same frequency as the low tones whales use to communicate and forage for food, and researchers are concerned that the constant interruption is affecting their ability to engage in basic survival behavior.

Put together with an array of concerns including chemical pollution, marine debris, over-fishing, and ocean acidification, noise pollution is just coming onto the sonar of local marine sanctuary councils and federal environmental agencies, and proposed solutions are only in the fledgling stages.

Pacific Environment is one of several environmental organizations advocating for shipping vessels to travel at slower speeds, a quieter practice that also reduces the chances of hitting a whale. Despite growing evidence that noise pollution and ship strikes pose big problems for the planet’s largest mammals, it’s likely to be an uphill battle in an growing global industry where time is money, and on-time delivery is paramount.

Endangered whales favor the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries, not far from San Francisco, so Pacific Environment has chartered a catamaran to take ecologically-minded whale watchers out to what Dragon dubs the “Yosemites of the sea.” Using hydrophones, they capture the deep, rumbling whale calls. They also pick up noise generated by commercial ships, whose designated lanes cut directly through the protected areas.

Under just the right ocean conditions, the low, eerie mating call of a male blue whale off the coast of California can be heard by a female off the coast of Hawaii. “That just has to do with the physics of sound in the ocean,” McKenna explains. “They’re vocal animals. You can think of sound in the ocean as our vision. Sound travels so much better in water than light does, so it’s really an acoustic environment that they’re living in.”

McKenna is working with whale researchers John Calambokidis of the Cascadia Research Collective and John Hildebrand of Scripps Institution. While they’ve observed that some whales linger at the surface longer than usual after a ship has passed, leaving them vulnerable to a strike, there are no conclusive results as of yet.

To explain the noise impacts, Dragon uses an analogy of trying to communicate in a crowded bar where it’s difficult to hear. “In the ocean, sound is king,” she says. “This chronic, noisy, foggy environment … has a masking effect. It might mean whales will not be able to navigate correctly, or may not be able to communicate with mates or offspring.”

The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary supports a rare concentration of blue whales, partly because the water is rich in nutrients, biodiversity, and tiny, shrimp-like creatures called krill. Blue whales and endangered humpbacks forage there from April through November, the colossal blues consuming an astounding 4 tons of krill each day.

At an April 8 joint meeting between the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank marine sanctuary advisory councils, the groups discussed creating a working group — bringing together stakeholders from the U.S. Coast Guard, shipping industries, and others — to establish a set of recommendations for how to regulate noise pollution in the sanctuaries.

“The purpose is to better understand the issue from the standpoint of the sanctuary,” explains Lance Morgan, who chairs the Cordell Bank council. “Ideally, we’d produce a report that says, here’s what we think the issues are.”

Yet Morgan acknowledges that it won’t be easy to get the federal government to impose new sanctuary regulations since there are still so many outstanding questions. “We’re learning a lot about the acoustic environment,” he says. One concern is whether whales are actually able to perceive the sound of the giant shipping vessels, he notes, since the environment has become so noisy. If they can’t hear the ships, they’re at a much higher risk of collision. “We certainly know we can drown out whale calls in certain situations,” he says, “but what does that mean in the long term?”

There are around 14,000 blue whales left across the entire watery globe, according to the most optimistic estimates, just a sliver of the estimated 300,000 that lived before they were nearly harpooned to extinction during a ruthless whaling era. Scientists are encouraged that their numbers have climbed since the mid-1960s when they were listed as endangered.

Yet even with this mild success story as a backdrop, there is growing concern about potential long-term effects of underwater industrial noise. Navy sonar, military air guns, and blasts from seismic surveys all contribute to the problem at varying frequencies. The collective din of ocean noise has doubled every decade since the 1950s, and the shipping business is only expected to grow.

Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, runs weekly container ships from Hong Kong to ports in Oakland and Long Beach, a journey lasting more than two weeks. Getting the goods there on time is “the most important thing to our customers,” says Lee Kindberg, the company’s environment director.

The container ships arrive crammed full of everything from electronics — which require special climate-controlled containers — to clothing, bath products, household items, and pharmaceuticals. Perishable items are transported in refrigerators, consuming a third more energy and powered by auxiliary engines. Up to 8,000 containers can be packed onto a single ship, and the average vessel size has expanded around 20 percent in the past five years. More than 90 percent of the world’s traded goods are transported by water, with shipments on container vessels increasingly rapidly.

If ever there was an icon for globalization, and all that the buy-local and sustainability movements rail against, it would be a diesel-powered container ship transporting heavily packaged stuff halfway across the globe.

“Clearly it’s not a good thing if we hit a whale,” Kindberg says. Undersea noise pollution “is certainly an issue that we’ve been made aware of. But there doesn’t seem to be any real clarity as to what the impacts are,” she notes. Maersk would support certain speed reductions to protect the whales, Kindberg says, but “if you slow down in one place, you need to speed up someplace else, and that can take more fuel.”

Regulations in certain waters off the eastern seaboard already require ships to move at slower speeds to minimize harm, and Kindberg says Maersk has voluntarily opted to operate at slower speeds to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (it saves on fuel costs too). But when going along at 10 knots (around 11 m.p.h.), the speed environmental organizations say is safest for marine mammals, it’s harder to maneuver the ship, Kindberg says. Sailing around the marine sanctuaries is not an option in California, she adds, since ships have to pass through them to get to the ports.

Other efforts to solve the shipping-noise problem focus on ship design. “We’re building larger and larger ships, and they’re getting noisier and noisier,” says marine ecologist Leila Hatch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who studies the effects of underwater sound on marine mammals.

The International Maritime Organization accepted a plan in 2008 to form a working group and to pin down guidelines for making commercial ships quieter, according to Hatch. Although the guidelines aren’t enforceable and are unlikely to be implemented any time soon, she sees it as an opportunity for a win-win scenario. If new ships featured a design with more efficient propulsion, they could be quieter, cheaper to operate, and more energy-efficient — which would also improve the air-quality problems associated with giant commercial ships.

The California Air Resources Board, meanwhile, initiated an effort last year for a program to get commercial vessels to slow down near the coastline, a bid to reduce emissions of smog-causing chemicals and the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Not much is happening on that front to date, but such a program could have the positive side effect of quieting underwater noise.

Hatch has been trying to quantify the decline in hearing ranges for marine mammals as the seas grow increasingly crowded with larger, noisier ships. “Much of the space they used to have is taken up by shipping noise. What is that likely to mean in terms of their ability to communicate effectively and find food?” she asks.

To find answers, she’s engaged in a research project at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts that blends GPS ship-tracking data with profiles from sound-monitoring devices planted on the sea floor. Results suggest that whales’ communication ranges have diminished by 80 percent in some places.

There are few easy answers, however, since scientists are still trying to piece it all together. One certainty is that “we’re changing the environment they’re trying to live in,” notes McKenna, who says she now finds herself wondering if she’ll end up purchasing something that’s packed onto a massive containership when she spies one out on the horizon. “To what degree is it impacting them?”

She can’t say exactly, and that’s part of the problem, because the global shipping industry wants to see some concrete facts before the battleship can be turned. In the meantime, Kindberg says the captains helming Maersk line are just trying to avoid hitting the whales.

An inconvenient war

4

By Christopher D. Cook

news@sfbg.com

For two weeks, in the marble-walled modernist grandeur of the Ninth Circuit U.S. District court in San Francisco, I watched nearly a dozen well-dressed lawyers for the Service Employees International Union — long my favorite union and one I’ve written about and marched with over the years — sue the bejeezus out of two-dozen former SEIU comrades-in-arms, some of labor’s most committed soldiers.

Judge William Alsup’s courtroom was packed and tense every day for two weeks, patrolled watchfully by U.S. marshals as former coworkers shot glares across the aisle and rushed by each other in the hallway outside. “This is like a bad family reunion,” one told me. Indeed, there’s a painful, often quite personal fight inside the family of labor — a fight one can only hope will lead to strong, deep democratic unionism down the road.

In the latest chapter of a saga that’s simmered to a boil over four years, SEIU sued 24 former staffers of its powerful 150,000-member Bay Area local, United Healthcare Workers West (UHW), alleging they used the union’s money and resources to create a rival organization. Since SEIU took over the old local in a bitter trusteeship fight in January 2009, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), led by former UHW president Sal Rosselli, has been organizing workers in droves, challenging SEIU’s hold on health care workers in California.

In the end, following grueling testimonies and cross-examinations, it came to this: on April 9, the jury hit NUHW and 16 of its leaders with a $1.5 million penalty (which might be reduced to $737,850 depending on Alsup’s interpretation of the jury’s intent). It’s a lot of money, but far less than SEIU’s original claim seeking $25 million, and the appeals are likely to drag on into next year.

After dozens of interviews and whispered conversations in the hallways outside Alsup’s courtroom, I was left wondering: how could this be happening? At a time of historic lows in union membership (7.2 percent in the private sector last year) and a recession that may never end for workers, how could SEIU, once the darling of the progressive labor movement, be embroiled in a brutal war with one of its flagship former locals? How could these two unions be tearing each other apart, exchanging ugly accusations that threaten to further tarnish labor’s tenuous reputation? All at a time when California unemployment sits stubbornly at 12.5 percent and more than 90 percent of workers remain unorganized. Hospital executives who are accustomed to tangling with a unified labor front must be thanking their lucky stars.

But this isn’t some union corruption story or simply a scuffle for personal power. Beyond the name-calling lie crucial questions about how unions function, about whose voices are heard both in union offices and on the shop floor. How much voice will workers have in union decisions, not just about break rooms and arguments with the boss, but in the shape and direction of the labor movement?

Ultimately this fight won’t be decided by any jury or judge: despite the verdict, NUHW and its volunteer organizers are pressing on with SEIU for the right to represent California’s health care workers, 400,000 of whom currently pay dues to SEIU. Over the past year, more than 80,000 of those dues-payers have signed petitions to join NUHW, which has won seven of nine elections of health care workers called so far. With more big elections coming soon, most notably among 47,000 Kaiser Permanente workers this June, the stakes are only getting higher.

In a nutshell, the two sides argue thus: SEIU contends that Rosselli and company flouted the will of President Andy Stern, and ultimately its members, by refusing to abide by Stern’s decisions on a union consolidation. That led to a trusteeship of Rosselli’s local, with its leaders allegedly using SEIU resources to form their own union. Rosselli and NUHW insist they were boxed into an untenable corner by Stern’s centralization of power in Washington, D.C., at the expense of locals and workers and that they tried many times to resolve disputes internally, and only broke away to form a new union after they were forced out by Stern.

To convince a jury of its claims, SEIU amassed a formidable legal team drawing from four firms at a cost of roughly $5 million, according to SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman. (An expert witness hired by SEIU testified the union paid him roughly $300,000 just to prepare testimony for the case; defendants say the trial cost SEIU closer to $10 million.) Whatever the number, it’s an awful lot of time and money that could be spent organizing new workers and winning strong contracts instead.

Asked if he thinks the trial is worth the expense, Trossman said, “I think members of the union, when this is over, are going to get the truth of what happened — that they directly used union resources … to hold onto personal power.”

Dan Siegel, NUHW’s chief attorney, casts it differently: “This case is about punishing the defendants and sending a message” to other union dissidents across the country.

 

A LONG-TERM BATTLE

The rift that ended up in federal court has its roots in a 2006 move by Stern to consolidate California’s long-term health care workers, such as home care and nursing home employees, into a single statewide local — a move that would peel away 65,000 long-term care workers from Rosselli’s union.

The most likely beneficiary of the consolidation was the Los Angeles-based Long-Term Care Workers Union, local 6434, headed by Tyrone Freeman, who had been fending off corruption charges (allegedly stealing more than $1 million in union funds for personal gain) since 2002, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Nowhere else but in California did SEIU attempt splitting long-term care and acute care workers into different unions,” said John Marshall, an SEIU strategic researcher who resigned in protest of UHW’s trusteeship, but who remains active in the labor movement. “But it’s worse than that — here SEIU proposed forcing long-term care workers into a local that was widely known to be corrupt, that had contracts with substandard wages and benefits. And on top of it all Stern and SEIU refused to allow those workers to vote on whether or not the transfer should occur.”

When Freeman’s alleged corruption became front-page news in the Times in 2008, and even after SEIU put the L.A. local in trusteeship later that year, Stern continued to push the consolidation. Rosselli resisted, arguing the shift would weaken workers’ voice and standards; wages for workers in Local 6434 were often far lower than those for their counterparts up north, and the mounting corruption charges didn’t bode well for union bargaining power or democracy.

SEIU’s Trossman insists union leaders were not aware of the Freeman allegations until they appeared in the L.A. Times, though one of those stories quotes an unnamed inside source saying Trossman knew of the charges as early as 2002. But Trossman said the issue was not Freeman. “The proposal was to create a new long-term care local in California, and by the time that decision was made in January 2009, Tyrone Freeman was already long out of the picture,” he told us, insisting the long-term care decision was made after hearings and an “advisory member vote.”

Yet 15 months after the takeover of UHW, the consolidation of long-term care workers remains on hold.

Friction between Stern and Rosselli — over the merger, leadership, and labor movement strategy — heated up throughout 2007 and 2008; Rosselli was unanimously booted off of Stern’s “kitchen cabinet” of labor leaders, and removed from his post as president of SEIU’s California State Council.

Then on Jan. 22, 2009, an SEIU-commissioned report by former Labor Secretary Ray Marshall recommended trusteeship — if Rosselli’s union didn’t abide by the transfer of its long-term care workers. A few days later Rosselli and the UHW executive board sent Stern a letter saying they would abide by the merger — if the UHW rank and file could vote on it first. No deal: on Jan. 27, UHW was put into trusteeship: its buildings were locked up, security guards patrolled the perimeters, and many of the deposed union staff camped out on the floors of their old offices.

On the afternoon of the 27th, Rosselli, who had been reelected UHW president earlier that month, spoke to cheering supporters: “[It’s] your right to determine what union you want to be in!”

NUHW members insist it’s never been about Rosselli or the other defendants. “We are not just a bunch of lemmings — we do what we believe,” said Tonya Britton, a Fremont convalescent home worker. “They couldn’t make it this far if there weren’t all of us members … When I heard about the trusteeship, I wanted a union that was for members, not top-down. We were making gains. Now it seems we’re doing nothing but fighting.”

 

Christopher D. Cook is a former Bay Guardian city editor. He has written on labor for Mother Jones, Harper’s, The Economist and others. This story was funded in part by spot.us.

In the company of bees

0

Sarah@sfbg.com

GREEN ISSUE On a rainy afternoon in April, I’m standing on an abandoned military base on Alameda Island counting bees on a wild rosemary bush. In the three minutes I’ve been standing here, I’ve spotted five large, furry bumblebees, flitting from flower to flower, performing the function that keeps the whole ecosystem buzzing.

But the honeybees I often see here are absent. I’m not surprised. As I learned from Bernd Heinrich’s Bumblebee Economics (Harvard University Press, 1979) bumblebees are tundra-adapted insects that are better able to forage at low temperatures than sun-loving Italian honeybees.

I’ve been obsessed with bees for years. My sister says it began when I got stung on the bum as a toddler. My daughter says it started the day we rescued a swarm of half-drowned honeybees that had gotten stranded in high winds on a beach in Santa Cruz. All I know is that my bee obsession really bloomed when we lived on a lavender farm on the north coast of California and I found bumblebees asleep on the lavender, at night.

A beekeeper on the farm explained that, unlike honeybees, bumblebees don’t form permanent colonies. Instead, they nest in empty mouse holes and form small social groups that die out each fall. The bees sleeping on the flowers were probably male, he added; they tend to be lazier, while the females do most of the work.

He told me that only the young pregnant bumblebee queens hibernate in the fall, emerging alone the next spring to start new colonies. There are more than 4,000 species of native bees in North America. Some are the size of ants; others are territorial and drive other bees off the flowers they guard. Most are solitary, nonaggressive loners, and some aren’t that busy at all.

Curious, I bought a book about beekeeping from a clerk who told me his father once kept bees in Oakland. “Urban honey is the best,” he said, explaining that urban gardens often contain unusual and diverse collections of plants. “City bees have far more exotic choices of nectar.”

Fast-forward to the present and it seems that the general public also has taken a much more active interest in bees, particularly since 2006 when colony collapse disorder decimated honeybee populations, triggering warnings of a coming agricultural crisis and potential devastation to the ecosystem.

Scientists estimate that bees pollinate nearly three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants. These plants provide food and shelter for many species of animals. A 2008 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that 36 percent of the 2.4 million hives in the U.S. have been lost to colony collapse disorder, which translates into billions of honeybees.

Some species of bumblebees also are vanishing. Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus of entomology at UC Davis, blames their disappearance on commercially reared bumblebees that are imported to pollinate hothouse tomatoes and then escape into the wild, where they leave pathogens on flowers (see “Buzz Kill,” 01/27/10).

But amid such big news, I’m still keeping a diary of notes on bees and focusing on my own backyard on Alameda Island, wondering how I can attract more bees. Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation heeded Thorp’s thesis and petitioned to stop the cross-country movement of bumblebees, but the Portland, Ore.,-based group has also produced handy pocket guides to help people like me identify bumblebees in the field.

So far I haven’t spotted the missing Western bumblebee, Bombus occidentalis. But I did see a bumblebee queen spiraling through a Potrero Hill garden on a mild day in early January. Reached by phone, Heinrich, professor emeritus of the biology department of the University of Vermont, told me that the queen would retreat into her underground hole when the weather got cold and wet again, which it soon did.

When he was writing Bumblebee Economics, which explores biological energy costs and payoffs using bumblebees as the model, Heinrich studied Bombus terricola, the yellow-banded bumble bee that was plentiful around Maine bogs in the 1970s.

“I could see dozens all at once. But since then, for years I didn’t see any at all, and since then I’ve only seen a few,” Heinrich said “Nobody figured out what happened.”

Gordon Frankie, professor and research entomologist at UC Berkeley, told me he’s happy to see the increased interest in urban bees. “People have begun to recognize that bees have a major role to play in agriculture,” Frankie said, as he and Rollin Coville, who has a doctorate in entomology from UC Berkeley and a passion for photographing insects, showed me around the experimental urban bee garden they created in 2003 at the edge of a field in downtown Berkeley.

“Bees love blues, purples, pinks, and yellows,” Frankie said, explaining that bees can see ultraviolet hues but not red flowers as we observe bees busily foraging on a blue lilac bush.

He also said bees love hanging out in open meadows where the sun shines and where they can see the flowers. “In the forest is no damn good if you’re a bee,” he said.

In July 2009, Frankie, Coville, and Thorp published an article in California Agriculture that outlined the results of bee surveys in gardens in Berkeley, La Canada Flintridge, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Ukiah.

“Evidence is mounting that pollinators of crop and wild land plants are declining worldwide,” they wrote. “Results indicate that many types of residential gardens provide floral and nesting resources for the reproduction and survival of bees, especially a diversity of native bees. Habitat gardening for bees — using targeted ornamental plants — can predictably increase bee diversity and abundance and provide clear pollinator benefits.”

Frankie and Coville also helped produce a 2010 native bee calendar that features Coville’s photographs of bumble, squash, mason, carpenter, leafcutter, mining, wool carder, cuckoo, and ultragreen sweat bees, plus tips on how to attract these pin-ups by planting a variety of bee-friendly plants, avoiding pesticides, and refraining from over-mulching.

Researchers have observed almost 50 species of native bees at UC Berkeley’s bee garden, out of 85 species recorded citywide. UC Berkeley’s urban bee gardens’ Web site, (www.nature.Berkeley.edu/urbanbeegardens) notes that bees have preferences for gardens as well as flowers.

“Gardens with 10 or more species of attractive plants attracted the largest number of bees,” the Web site states, cautioning people against hanging around plants too long. “If an observer spends too long in one place hovering over the same patch of flowers, the bees will gradually begin to move on to other flowers where they won’t be bothered. To facilitate counts, it is sometimes a good idea to create little paths through the garden so that all patches are accessible to the observer.”

Here in California, high real estate prices have led to the increased paving over of bee habitat. And bees have come under additional stress in the wake of a 2006 E. coli outbreak that sickened more than 200 individuals and resulted in at least three deaths on the Central Coast. Growers have since been pressured to eliminate hedgerows, wetlands, habitat, and wildlife around farms.

But as a February 2010 Nature Conservancy report on food safety and ecological health notes, “certain on-farm food safety requirements may do little to protect human health and might in fact damage the natural resources on which agriculture and all life depend.”

These concerns have a direct, if hidden, impact on Bay Area residents, whose food supply comes almost exclusively from outside urban limits. Take San Francisco, where crop production consists of $1 million worth of orchids, flower cuttings, and sprouts on two acres of land, according to a 2008 Department of Public Health report.

Missing from that equation is the honey that local bees produced. As San Francisco beekeeper Robert MacKimmie recently noted, mites hit his hives hard in 2009. “And the summer and fall were pretty brutal since we were in the third year of drought,” MacKimmie said.

He hopes El Nino-related rains will be good for this year’s bees: more water means more flowers for bees, which rely on nectar and pollen to sustain themselves and their developing brood.

MacKimmie doesn’t have a garden and uses other people’s yards to keep his bees. “The honey serves as rent,” he said, noting that he only places two hives in each yard to disperse the bees in more equitably and sustainably. He points to the work of Gretchen LeBuhn, a San Francisco State University professor who started the Great Sunflower Project in 2008, as a fairly easy way to gather information about bee populations.

Reached by e-mail, LeBuhn said her project has more than 80,000 people signed up to plant sunflowers this year. “Participants create habitat by planting sunflowers and then contribute data to our project by taking 15 minutes to count the number of bees visiting their sunflower,” she wrote.

“The Great Sunflower Project empowers people from preschoolers to scientists to do something about this global crisis by identifying at risk pollinator communities,” LeBuhn said. “By volunteering to collect data as a group, these citizen scientists provided huge leverage on a minimal investment in science and created the first detailed international survey of pollinator health and its implications for food production.

“Getting this kind of critical scientific data at thousands of locations using traditional scientific methods would cost so much money that it is untenable,” she added.

LeBuhn encourages people to submit their bee count data at www.greatsunflower.org, which recommends growing bee balm, cosmos, rosemary, tickseed, purple coneflowers, and sunflowers. Unfortunately her data shows that “at least 20 percent of the gardens are getting very poor pollinator service.”

The public is encouraged to visit the UC Berkeley bee garden in May when public tours begin. But you might want to brush up on your Latin, the language experts speak when they hang out with the bees.

Coville saw a mason bee land on a lavender-flowered sage and said, “I think I just saw an Osmia on a Salvia mellifera!”

Frankie smiled at me and said, “It’s bee talk.”

The dawn of Earth Day

2

tredmond@sfbg.com

GREEN ISSUE The heavens welcomed Earth Day to America. All over the country, April 22, 1970 dawned clear and sunny; mild weather made it even easier to bring people into the streets. The Capitol Mall was packed, and so many members of Congress were making speeches and appearing at events that both houses adjourned for the day.

Mayors, governors, aldermen, village trustees, elementary school kids, Boy Scout troops, labor unions, college radicals, and even business groups participated. In fact, the only organization in the nation that actively opposed Earth Day was the Daughters of the American Revolution, which warned ominously that "subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them."

By nightfall, more than 20 million people had participated in the First National Environmental Teach-In, as the event was formally known. It established the environmental movement in the United States and helped spur the passage of numerous laws and the creation of hundreds of activist groups.

It was, by almost all accounts, a phenomenal success, an event that dwarfed the largest single-day civil rights and antiwar demonstrations of the era — and the person who ran it, 25-year-old Denis Hayes, wasn’t happy.

His concern with the nascent movement back then says a lot about where environmentalism is 40 years later.

Gaylord Nelson, a mild-mannered U.S. senator from Wisconsin, came up with the idea of Earth Day on a flight from Santa Barbara to Oakland. Nelson was the kind of guy who doesn’t get elected to the Senate these days — a polite, friendly small-town guy who was anything but a firebrand.

A balding, 52-year-old World War II veteran who survived Okinawa, Nelson was a Democrat and generally a liberal vote, but he got along fine with the die-hard conservatives. He kept a fairly low profile, and did a lot of his work behind the scenes.

But long before it was popular, Nelson was an ardent environmentalist — and he was always looking for ways to bring the future of the planet into the popular consciousness.

In August 1969, Nelson was on a West Coast speaking tour — and one of his mandatory stops was the small coastal city that seven months earlier had become ground zero for the environmental movement. Indeed, a lot of historians say that Earth Day 1970 was the coming out party for modern environmentalism — but the spark that made it possible, the event that turned observers into activists, took place Jan. 28, 1969 in Santa Barbara.

About 3:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, a photographer from the Santa Barbara News Press got the word that something had gone wrong on one of the Union Oil drilling platforms in the channel just offshore. The platforms were fairly new — the federal government had sold drilling rights in the area in February 1968 for $603 million, and Union was in the process of drilling its fourth offshore well. The company had convinced the U.S. Geological Survey to relax the safety rules for underwater rigs, saying there was no threat of a spill.

But shortly after the drill bit struck oil 3,478 feet beneath the surface, the rig hit a snag — and when the workers got the equipment free, oil began exploding out. Within two weeks, more than 3 million gallons of California crude was on the surface of the Pacific Ocean, and a lot of it had washed ashore, fouling the pristine beaches of Santa Barbara and fueling an angry popular backlash nationwide.

Nelson received an overwhelming reception at his Santa Barbara talk — and horrified as he was by the spill, he was glad that an environmental concern was suddenly big news. But, as he told me in an interview years ago, he still wasn’t sure what the next steps ought to be — until, bored on an hour-long flight to his next speech in Berkeley, he picked up a copy of Ramparts magazine.

The radical left publication, once described as having "a bomb in every issue," wasn’t Nelson’s typical reading material. But this particular issue was devoted to a new trend on college campuses — day-long "teach-ins" on the Vietnam War.

Huh, Nelson thought. A teach-in. That’s an intriguing idea.

Hayes was a student in the prestigious joint program in law and public policy at Harvard. He’d been something of a campus activist, protesting against the war, but hadn’t paid much attention to environmental issues. He needed a public-interest job of some sort for a class project, though, so when he read a newspaper article about the senator who was planning a national environmental teach-in, he called and offered to organize the effort in Boston. Nelson invited him to Washington, was impressed by his Harvard education and enthusiasm, and hired him to run the whole show.

The senator was very clear from the start: the National Environmental Teach-In would not be a radical Vietnam-style protest. The event would be nonpartisan, polite, and entirely legal. Hayes and his staffers chafed a bit at the rules (and the two Senate staffers Nelson placed in the Earth Day office to keep an eye on things), and they ultimately set up a separate nonprofit called the Environmental Action Foundation to take more aggressive stands on issues.

Meanwhile, Hayes did the job he was hired to do — and did it well. Everywhere he turned, from small towns to big corporations, people wanted to plug in, to be a part of the first Earth Day. Many wanted to do nice, noncontroversial projects: In Knoxville, Tenn., students decided to scour rivers and streams for trash to see if they could each clean up the five pounds of garbage the average American threw away each day. In dozens of communities, people organized tree-plantings. In New York, Mayor John Lindsay led a parade down Fifth Avenue.

A few of the actions were more dramatic. A few protesters smashed a car to bits, and in Boston, 200 people carried coffins into Logan International Airport in a symbolic "die-in" against airport expansion. In Omaha, Neb., so many college students walked around in gas masks that the stores ran out. But it was, Hayes realized, an awful lot of talk and not a lot of action. The participants were also overwhelmingly white and middle-class.

Hayes wasn’t the only one feeling that way. In New York, author Kurt Vonnegut, speaking from a platform decorated with a giant paper sunflower, added a note of cynicism.

"Here we are again, the peaceful demonstrators," he said, "mostly young and mostly white. Good luck to us, for I don’t know what sporting event the president [Richard Nixon] may be watching at the moment. He should help us make a fit place for human beings to live. Will he do it? No. So the war will go on. Meanwhile, we go up and down Fifth Avenue, picking up trash."

Hayes finally broke with the politics of his mentor early on Earth Day morning when it was too late to fire him. The next day, the National Environmental Teach-In office would close and the organization would shut down. From that moment on, he could say what he liked and not worry who he offended.

"I suspect," he told a crowd gathered at the Capitol Mall, "that the politicians and businessmen who are jumping on the environmental bandwagon don’t have the slightest idea what they are getting into. They are talking about filters on smokestacks while we are challenging corporate irresponsibility. They are bursting with pride about plans for totally inadequate municipal sewage plants. We are challenging the ethics of a society that, with only 6 percent of the world’s population, accounts for more than half the world’s annual consumption of raw materials.

"We are building a movement," he continued, "a movement with a broad base, a movement that transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a movement that values people more than technology and political ideologies, people more than profit.

"It will be a difficult fight. Earth Day is the beginning."

I first met Hayes in 1990, near the office in Palo Alto where he was planning the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. He’d continued his environmental work inside and outside government, at one point running the National Energy Laboratory under President Jimmy Carter. Earth Day 20 was shaping up as a gigantic event, one that would ultimately involve 200 million people around the globe. Earth Day was becoming the largest secular holiday on the planet.

Hayes was excited about the event, which he was running this time without the moderating influence of a U.S. senator. And he was aiming for a much more activist message — in fact, at that point, he was pretty clear that the U.S. environmental movement was running out of time.

"Twenty years ago, Earth Day was a protest movement," he told a crowd of more than 300,000 in Washington, D.C. "We no longer have time to protest. The most important problems facing our generation will be won or lost in the next 10 years. We cannot protest our losses. We have to win."

And now another 20 years have passed — and by many accounts, we are not winning. Climate change continues, and even accelerates; an attempt at a global accord just failed; and Congress can’t even pass a mild, watered-down bill to limit carbon emissions.

And Hayes, now president of the Bullitt Foundation, a sustainability organization in Seattle, thinks the movement has a serious problem. "Earth Day has succeeded in being the ultimate big tent," he told me by phone recently. "To some rather great extent, is had some measure of success."

But he noted that "in American politics these days, it’s not the breadth of support, it’s the intensity that matters. Environmentalists tend to be broadly progressive people who care about war and the economy and health care. They aren’t single-issue voters. And somehow, the political intensity is missing."

Hayes isn’t advocating that environmentalists forget about everything else and ignore all the other issues — or that the movement lose its broad-based appeal — but he said it’s time to bring political leaders and policies under much, much sharper scrutiny and to "stop accepting a voting record of 80 percent."

It’s hard today to be bipartisan, and compromise is unacceptable, Hayes told me. "I was probably right [in 1990]," he said. "If what you’re aspiring to do is stop the greenhouse gases before they do significant damage to the environment, it’s too late." At this point, he said, it’s all about keeping the damage from turning into a widespread ecological disaster.

"I would like to see Earth Day 50 be a celebration," he said. "I would like to see by then a real price on carbon, nuclear power not proliferating, and a profound, stable investment in cost-effective, distributed renewable energy." But for that to happen, "we need to have a very intense core of environmental voters who realize that these threats to life on the planet are more important than a lot of other things."

Tim Redmond is the author, with Marc Mowrey, of Not In Our Back Yard: The People and Events that Shaped America’s Modern Environmental Movement (William Morrow, 1993) which can still be found in the remainder bins of a few used book stores.

No free ride for developers

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EDITORIAL The dumbest plan the Newsom administration has cooked up in a long time continues to make its way through City Hall. The mayor wants to defer fees for housing developers as a way to "stimulate" the economy — despite the fact that the city’s own economist concluded the plan would lead to the creation of a relatively tiny number of jobs and perhaps 40 or 50 new market-rate condos over the next two years.

And the cost would be staggering. Over the next 15 to 20 years, depending on how much the housing market picks up, $43 million worth of fees developers typically pay before they break ground could be deferred, an analysis by Fernando Marti, a member of the Eastern Neighborhoods Citizens Advisory Committee, shows. The city would get the money eventually — but buildings would go up before the cash to provide water and sewer service, public transportation, schools, parks, and other amenities is in the city’s accounts.

At the same time, information released by the city last week shows that the gap between the cost of the infrastructure needed for the Eastern Neighborhoods plan and the fees developers will pay is at least $100 million, and perhaps as much as $234 million.

The message is clear. Under Newsom’s approach, the current residents and businesses of San Francisco will have to put up millions of dollars to cover the costs created by market-rate housing developers. In fact, Newsom’s administration is already suggesting special levies on property in the impacted areas to make up the difference.

In underserved areas like the Eastern Neighborhoods, where transit and open space are already inadequate to meet current needs, the situation is particularly harsh. "They want to have the Eastern Neighborhoods pay higher taxes than anyone else to mitigate the impacts of new stuff that was supposed to pay for itself," planning activist Tony Kelly, who is running for District 10 supervisor, told us. "This is a non-starter."

The problem is nothing new — although a lot of pro-development activists have been denying it for years: new high-end housing development doesn’t pay its own way. If more than 40,000 new residents are going to live in the southeast part of town, San Francisco will have to build schools, police stations, firehouses, bus and rail lines, parks, and in some cases new roads. Then the city will have to hire (and train) cops, bus drivers, firefighters, gardeners, and teachers. None of that is cheap — in fact, the Eastern Neighborhoods Infrastructure Finance Working Group estimates that the actual cost of providing basic infrastructure would be about $22 for every square foot of new development.

The developers howl at that sort of number and insist they can’t afford it, so the city is prepared to charge closer to $10 a square foot. To make up the difference in the Eastern Neighborhoods, the working group suggested some form of tax-increment financing — that is, the city would borrow against the expected new property tax revenues from the new development and use that to build infrastructure. The mayor took that off the table, wanting any new revenue to go right to the General Fund.

And, of course, under the mayor’s current plan, the modest fees developers actually have to pay will be deferred for several years, making the problem even worse. So the only way to pay for the costs of new housing development is some sort of special property-tax district in the affected neighborhoods.

Add to this the fact that the mayor’s proposal would mean the immediate loss of at least 400 affordable housing units, and the whole thing becomes untenable.

The supervisors have amended the fee-deferral plan to make it a bit less awful, but the whole approach is still completely backward. City fees aren’t holding up housing construction; the weak market and tight credit are to blame for that. And when those conditions change, developers will be poised — as always — to make a vast amount of money selling overpriced condos for millionaires in San Francisco. And if they can’t pay their own way, the city shouldn’t allow them to break ground.

Editor’s Notes

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tredmond@sfbg.com

We’ve been talking to people who want to be judges, seven of them. One is already a judge and wants to keep his job; two are challenging him; and four are competing for an open seat. They all talk about their impressive legal backgrounds, life experience, desire to be fair and impartial, and to make the system of justice work for all.

The two who emerge as the winners will take their seats on the bench, and the presiding judge of the San Francisco Superior Court will decide what happens to them next — whether they handle felony murder trials, or juvenile hearings, or family court, or complex civil litigation, or small claims court. The P. J. oversees the court budget and things like the indigent defendant fund. So I asked them all: how does the presiding judge get chosen, anyway?

And all of them, including the sitting judge, said: Dunno.

Now, how can it be that six of the top attorneys in the city and one incumbent jurist don’t know how the person who runs the local courts gets that job? Well, maybe nobody cares — or maybe the whole process is so secretive nobody gets to learn about it.

See, the courts aren’t covered by the Brown Act, which mandates public meetings. So when the judges get together and meet (bimonthly in San Francisco), there’s no meeting notice and no press or public allowed.

I’m told by reliable sources that the P.J. is typically elected by acclamation when there’s only one candidate, and by secret written ballot when there’s competition. The ballots are tallied by the outgoing P.J., then discarded. Nobody knows who voted for whom.

Years ago, when the state Legislature (led by SF senators John Burton and Quentin Kopp) was updating the Brown Act, Ralph Grace, the publisher of a Los Angeles legal paper the Metropolitan News, went to Sacramento to argue that the courts, like any public agency, should operate openly. He got nowhere. "When you’re talking about running a public institution, you should do it in public," Grace told me this week.

There’s no law saying the P.J. has to be elected privately. The California Rules of Court say that local courts can set their own policies and procedures. So it appears that the San Francisco Superior Court could — if the judges wanted — open the doors.
They could. If they wanted to.

Marin County’s water grab

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By Joan Bennett

OPINION In August 2009, the Marin Municipal Water District’s elected board of directors conducted a public hearing to hear and discuss comments on a proposed $432.8 million desalination plant that would be built near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge. Despite overwhelming public opposition, the board unanimously approved the proposal. The stated reason: the dire need for a reliable water supply.

There is no truth to MMWD’s rationale.

This is not just a Marin County issue. The plant would have major impacts on the bay.

The Pacific Institute’s yearlong study, "Desalination, With a Grain of Salt," concluded that "most of the state’s seawater desalination proposals are premature … [such plants] fail to adequately address economic realities, environmental concerns, or potential social impacts."

James Fryer, the former head of MMWD’s water conservation from 1992 to 1999 and a water management and conservationist expert with 20 years of experience in the field, concluded in a separate report that desalination should be pursued only as a last resort.

In response, MMWD paraded before the public the inevitable hackneyed specter of a drought. But MMWD’s arguments are contradicted by the facts:

MMWD operates seven reservoirs with more than 79,000 acre feet of water. Annual ratepayer consumption is roughly 28,000 acre feet or less. Last year, consumers used 26,000 acre feet.

Two of those the reservoirs, Phoenix Lake and Soulajoule, have remained untapped for 17 to 20 years.

Since the 1976-77 drought, MMWD’s reservoirs were expanded by 26,000 acre feet, nearly a 50 percent increase.

Marin tree-ring studies demonstrate that a severe drought occurs once every 400 years.

As Paul Helliker, MMWD general manager, recently noted: "This year we won’t have any rationing because we are above our thresholds … there is no reason to because there is no problem with water supply."

If these facts alone are insufficient to convince even the most dubious, there are more.

The water source for desalination is the polluted San Francisco Bay. MMWD insists that expensive filters and reverse osmosis membranes will block dangerous contaminants such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, chemicals, heavy metals, and Central Marin Sanitary Agency’s 11 million gallons of treated sewage (not to mention untreated spills) dumped daily into the bay near the intended desalination intake pipe.

A desalination plant is an energy glutton. MMWD is already the largest energy user in Marin. The plant would increase MMWD’s energy use from 40 percent to as high as 300 percent depending on the facility’s size and operation.

For decades the water district has urged its customers to conserve, and its customers have complied. As a reward, in February, to erase revenue shortfalls from conservation efforts, MMWD ordered a 10 percent rate hike and simultaneously halved its conservation budget on the disingenuous grounds that "conservation doesn’t work." This raises a conundrum: if rates were raised because of shrinking water use, then does MMWD even need a desalination plant? *

Joan Bennett is a lawyer in Marin. The Coalition for the Public’s Right to Vote About Desalination (CPR-VAD) is circulating an initiative for the November ballot to compel MMWD to obtain voter approval for the plant. For more information, see www.marinwatercoalition.com and www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/california/marin.