Volume 44 Number 50

Appetite: The great vodka debate

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Vodka — it’s a spirit that in sophisticated drink communities like San Francisco can sometimes elicit more scorn than love, even if most of the country drinks it well above other spirits. I’m not alone in saying it tends to be the last spirit I’d order at a bar. The SF chapter of the USBG (US Bartenders’ Guild) recently re-created their Great Vodka Debate for USBG members and industry folk, which was a popular seminar at 2010 Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.

An all-star bartender, brand ambassador, and drink writer panel discussed vodka’s merits (rich history, a “blank slate” from which to create cocktails) and negatives (aggressive marketing, “blank slate”/lack of flavor, sometimes unchallenging ingredient to make cocktails with). The debate never got nasty but it was, by all accounts, lively. Brand ambassadors for more conscious brands, like H. Joseph Ehrmann with Square One Organic Vodka or Borys Saciuk with 42 Below, talked convincingly of quality vodka beyond heavily-marketed, celebrity-sponsored brands that overpower the market. (Case in point, a recent Sobieski Vodka event at the Fairmont Hotel where none other than Bruce Willis came out for about two seconds to give his stamp of approval – granted, it is better than most mainstream brands). Then I visit bars like the icy, cold Vodbox of Nic’s in Beverly Hills, tasting through a range of vodkas from around the globe, and it’s clear vodka has its place.

While I may never be a vodka fanatic, I appreciate those are who are doing vodka “right”… and readily admit there are times when a vodka martini satisfies (I like mine dry, thank you). Besides craft vodka kings (who also happen to be local), like Hangar One and Charbay, here are three more that stand out from the fray:

STILLWATER SPIRITS – In a side-by-side tasting, this is the most complex, full-bodied of the three, an under-the-radar, single malt vodka made locally in Petaluma. Consequentially, Stillwater is also the pricier and hardest to find of the three. It’s a stand-alone vodka you can sip neat, made from 100% barley malt and copper-distilled. K&L has it for special order at $49.99.

FAIR – Ethically produced, fair-trade-certified ingredients, the first fair trade vodka… what other reasons do you need? Oh, it tastes good, too. This vodka is made from Bolivian quinoa and French distillers, notes of white pepper and berries give way to a creamy finish. Retails around $35. Available at Cask.

42 BELOW – The most accessible, easiest to find of the three is New Zealand’s 42 Below, claiming the pristine qualities of Kiwi water in its pure taste. Made from winter wheat, it does go down smooth and easy with hints of anise and a lightly sweet finish… it is also the right price. Retails around $19.95. Available everywhere from The Jug Shop to Bev Mo.

Better living through porn

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When one door closes another opens: as summer comes to an end, Good Vibrations gives us something to ensure that warm sensation continues — porn.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. On Sept. 23, the Castro Theatre opens its doors to the Good Vibrations Indie Erotic Film Festival’s short film festival competition, after a lead-up week of diverse, sex-positive programming at various venues. The annual contest, now in its fifth year, offers filmmakers the chance to share their unique erotic visions on the big screen.

“As heavily censored as film and TV are today, it’s important to have a safe outlet,” says Steffan Schulz, who is screening his film Lorelei. “More importantly, and specifically to an erotic festival, the Puritan mentality that dominates American society today is really kind of hypocritical.”

The short films vary wildly in terms of gender, sexuality, and explicitness. While Schulz’s Lorelei is more sensual than hardcore, Maxine Holloway and Lex Sloan’s Outlaw is a bit more raw: the titular character is a nine-and-three-quarters-inch dildo.

“When casting, it was important for us to represent the queer community and show a diverse selection of sexualities and bodies,” Holloway and Sloan explain in a jointly-written e-mail. “Which mostly entailed Maxine making a list of people she really wanted to fuck or make-out with and then asking nicely.”

For most of the filmmakers, who range from local to international, these movies are a response to the limited scope of the mainstream porn industry. That means looking at groups who are too often sidelined and approaching erotica from a different perspective.

Spanish filmmaker Erika Lust is screening her fetish film Handcuffs, which she hopes will help open minds.

“Primarily I thought that practice of dominance and submission might still be kind of a taboo for most women,” she says. “In general, I would like to see more of a female view … until it seeps into the mainstream that women are not only there to provide something for the male gaze.”

It’s significant that so many of the films shown at the IXFF delve into realistic portrayals of female sexuality. After all, the porn industry has long been derided as degrading to women — or at least a dangerous perpetuator of the fake female orgasm. Humor is another area several of the filmmakers identified as sorely lacking from mainstream porn. Allegra Hirschman, who also competed last year, is showing T4-2, a film inspired by 1960s and ’70s sitcoms. Naturally, there’s a sexual twist, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t funny.

“Sometimes erotica is so serious it can become somber,” Hirschman notes. “We think adding some hilarity can help erotica remain relatable. It can be playful and still retain its erotic power.”

On a broader scale, the festival speaks to Good Vibes’ sex-positive vision. It’s all part of an exciting effort to celebrate and redefine erotica. Those who have attended in the past know that the films step into uncharted territory more often than not — sometimes even rendering co-MCs Dr. Carol Queen and Peaches Christ temporarily speechless.

“It is always riveting to see people getting sexy outside the lines and being turned on by something you didn’t know moved you,” Holloway and Sloan point out. “And to be really specific, we also would like to see more sex in cars, vajazzling, sex scenes with food, 1960s hairdos, ponytail butt plugs, and humor in our erotica.”

Seems like a lot to cram into one film. But hey, there’s always next year. (Louis Peitzman)

GOOD VIBRATIONS INDEPENDENT EROTIC FILM FESTIVAL

Sept. 18–23, various venues, $7–$10

www.gv-ixff.org/film

Appetite: 3 twists on the Caprese salad

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The purity and simplicity of a caprese salad, or insalata caprese as it is known in Campania, Italy, where it originated, is hard to outdo. Silky buffalo mozzarella, red tomatoes and fresh basil are drizzled with olive oil and salt. When I eat a quality caprese, I am immediately transported to Italia, eating lunch alongside glimmering water, maybe the canals of Venice or the expanse of Lake Como, the juice of the tomatoes dripping down my chin and a glass of Sangiovese in hand. That this experience could be improved upon is doubtful, but what of variations in a caprese’s perfection? A few local San Francisco restaurants have taken its key elements of tomatoes and mozzarella and created something unexpected… 

ROCKETFISH’S FARMERS TOMATO SALAD — Rocketfish, Potrero Hill’s newest sushi lounge, also deals in Japanese small plates. In this izakaya spirit, the kitchen serves what seems to be a simple farmers tomato salad ($7). Caprese elements create the base: heirloom tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. But it takes on a whole new dimension sprinkled with honey balsamic and ume salt, then given a bit of crisp with caramelized fennel crumbled over the top. It works so well, it almost outshines the sushi. 

JARDINIERE’S HEIRLOOM TOMATO SALAD — Pop into Jardiniere‘s bar or sit down for a meal and start with its heirloom tomato salad ($16). You’ve seen all this before: plump, gorgeous heirloom tomatoes over arugula with croutons for crunch. But wait: interspersed in the arugula are Padron peppers and Castelvetrano olives. Sweet tomatoes, salty olives, and piquant peppers hint of a marriage between Italy and Spain, one officiated by California. The combo feels so natural, you’ll wonder why you don’t see it more often. 

BAR CRUDO’S LOBSTER SALAD — A recent visit to the ever brilliant crudo haven of Bar Crudo yielded salad loaded with chunks of lobster and creamy burrata (the pinnacle of mozzarella… with cream) topped with mache leaves. While some nights they make it with gold and chiogga beets ($17), my last visit entailed a load of plump tomatoes with the lobster and burrata ($18), again elevating the basics of a caprese to luxury salad level. 

Volume 44 Number 50 Flip-through Edition

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Tender is the ‘Loin

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arts@sfbg.com

STAGE The sexes — more or less all of them — were at the heart of much of my first 48 hours at the San Francisco Fringe Festival, Exit Theatre’s 19th annual uncurated gamut-gamble. There, too, were the power trips, the pity fests, the nonsense, the reverence, and the dark-carnival mayhem that trails in all of its wake. Men solo, women on women, persons of uncertain gender in ensemble dances, L.A. cabbies driving down mammary lane, men in lab coats burning women at the stake — all of them were sources of grim or delirious laughter, vividly etched characters, a legit existential truth or two, and the occasional horrible theatrical misstep. Just what we go to the Tenderloin for.

In VITCH Slapped, Starr Ahrens, Nancy Kissam, and Diana Yanez of Los Angeles–based troupe The Gay Mafia lob a volley of comic sketches on the subject of, for want of a better term, women’s issues. It’s about harmony (of voices, of visions, of menstrual cycles) and breakdown (of patriarchy, sexual orientation, nervous and social conditions). Hence songs to the goddess-moon-mother from three loving sisters in paganism — or two loving "life partners" and one disgruntled ex–life partner. Hence a jack-booted lesbian speaking impeccable German with an audible whip-crack to each (surprisingly) meaningful morsel. Hence a vlog by two determined liberators of the female bod on a nude road trip across America, always one step ahead of propriety and in stride with the best of bad taste. This and more, in a show that makes up for only fitfully inspired material with focused performances and contagious exuberance.

In the same venue — namely, the Exit’s brand new, nicely appointed Studio Theater — man gets his retort in L.A.-based writer-performer James Schneider’s Man on Sex. But this solo outing is not up to the task. The promise in its title of frank truth-telling from a male perspective leads instead to a disappointing meander down a rather passive-aggressive lane, taken by a man frustrated that his wife has stopped having sex with him. Shallowly assuming the air of an innocent victim of some unnatural disaster, Schneider presents a monologue that lacks honesty as well as cohesiveness. It’s punched up (if not quite elevated) by a pseudo-Elizabethan rap called the "PeniFesto" and about half-dozen original songs that the actor sings to his own keyboard accompaniment. These range from the maudlin ("If Only I Liked Strippers") to the boorishly jaunty ("Tranny in a Tree"). The music conveys some dexterity and imagination, but the schmaltzy pop style, like the show’s overarching theme, often feels strained and misplaced.

Meanwhile, just down the hall in the Exit’s cozy Stage Left, The Burnings smacks its female subjects and the audience around. Writer-director Lili Weckler’s macabre poetry spins a sinuous narrative about three exploited laborers (Rebecca Kanengiser, Carla Pauli, and Lauren Spencer, all wild-eyed and draped in sack cloth mended with duct tape). Their stories are coaxed from them on pain of death, then capitalized on by an opportunist doctor (Pete Frontiera), aided by his willful henchman, The Interpreter. There’s energy and attitude right out of the box, but the play takes a while to heat up and never quite scorches, despite committed performances and lively staging. Beginning like something staged in a neighbor’s haunted house, The Burnings gains depth in its mixing of medieval misogyny with the more subtly sadistic, flagrantly commercial gestures of the therapeutic age. The music along the way — each actor plucks or strikes or squeezes sound from some little something — is sparely composed but well done. This is especially true of the resonant vocal harmonies.

Accomplished actor Dominic Hoffman’s solo show Last Fare will likely rank among the best within the 12-day festival. Beginning at the funeral of a Hollywood man who was mysteriously murdered, the story follows a noir-like path through interviews with several people acquainted to one degree or another with the victim. Hoffman imbues the half-dozen or so characters in his beautifully written play with palpable life — life slightly larger-than, in fact, in keeping with one cab driver’s observation that in Hollywood everyone thinks he or she is a movie star. Suffused with alternately wry and raucous humor, affecting but understated emotion, and flashes of genuine insight and wisdom, Last Fare lures us to the fateful site of apartment 609, only to meet us with surfaces so crystalline in their appearance, and solid in their depth, that they become as much mirror as doorway.

One show not seen in time for review but worth flagging for consideration is San Francisco–based writer-actor David Jacobson’s Theme Park. A hysterically funny and sharp excerpt at the San Francisco Theater Festival had phrases like "powerhouse," "Best of Fringe," and "creatively disturbed" written all over it. Also promising is The Burroughs and Kookie Show: Late Night in the Interzone. The title alone appeals, but knowing this RIPE Theater coproduction is the brainchild of writer-performer Christopher Kuckenbaker (whose recent performance credits include Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage) seals the deal.

SAN FRANCISCO FRINGE FESTIVAL

Through Sept 19, $10–$12.99 ($45 for 5 shows; $75 for 10)

Various locations, SF

(800) 838-3006

Peruvian twist

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM At first glance Undertow doesn’t really seem a bona fide "great"
movie — time will tell. But it manages so many qualities seldom found together, or pulled off at all, that respect is due. It’s sensuous and erotic without becoming puerile fantasy; renders remote, beach-y locations alluring without pandering postcard exoticism or turning the people who live there peasant-quaint. More impressive still, it seamlessly folds magic realism — that very literary quality — into an already well-in-progress narrative
without losing any of the emotional groundedness already established.

Plus: it takes bisexuality for granted, sans salaciousness or melodrama, even if two gender-differentiated loves here provide primary conflict. But the issue isn’t "Choose your side, fence-sitter." It’s "How to handle being in love with two people at once?" Which is always difficult — particularly when one is a guy and the other your wife.

Even today in San Francisco’s gay community you can find plenty of folks whose imagination can’t quite encompass bisexuality as more than a PC camouflage term for those who resist taking one side or another. They’re self-justifying sluts, or outwardly homophilic but inwardly homophobic types who cling to socially comfortable straight relationships while stringing along gay or lesbian ones they’re actually passionate about. Such are the stereotypes.

A reverse scenario is offered up in The Kids Are All Right, which I love — yet Julianne Moore’s very physical affair with Mark Ruffalo ultimately proves only that her "real" relationship is with Annette Bening. He’s a diversion; she’s not really bisexual, just menopausal-restless.

Like most stereotypes, all of the above are occasionally echoed in real life. But movies seldom illustrate the not-uncommon mindset that might fall in love or lust with a person regardless of gender. Societal judgment being what it is, such sexual egalitarianism is seldom an easy path.

Here, Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) are their humble coastal village’s starriest young married couple, leaders at church and in general the kind of people everyone else just knows will do right. He’s a fisherman (the major industry there), she’s pregnant for the first time. They’re both thrilled about that.

Yet Miguel has a very big secret: a passionate affair with upper-class inlander Santiago (Manolo Cardona), who rented a beach cottage to paint nature but now lingers on out of fervent love. Having his cake and eating it too, Miguel is in anxiety-tinged heaven. He truly loves Santiago. But he also loves his wife, their unborn child, their village status. Imagining a life for them together, Santiago is tormented by Miguel’s absolute unwillingness to compromise his status quo.

At a certain point something occurs offscreen, and the dynamic between the two men changes. Not drastically, though — even as Undertow turns into a ghost story of sorts, its characters’ passions remain stubbornly problematic, just as they were before.

Javier Fuentes-Leon is an exceptionally assured debuting feature writer-director. Undertow might easily have let commercial tides drift it toward routine soft-core fantasy, like so many features traveling the annual gay-fest circuit to eventual DVD-Netflix-download profitability. But its attractive, scruffy male leads aren’t buffed that way, and Mariela isn’t a nag or third wheel but an equally sympathetic, fully dimensionalized player in a painfully awkward triangle.

Undertow won the Sundance World Dramatic Audience Award last January. That was one testimony it can’t be pigeonholed as a gay movie, any more than The Kids Are All Right is a mere chick flick. It challenges strictly gay and straight-identified audiences alike, finessing that so smoothly few who pony up will ultimately realize they’ve been finessed. It’s lovely, lyrical, near-universally romantic, and ends on a quiet grace note that is bittersweet perfection.

UNDERTOW opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.

The break-up artist

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Most countries crank out commercial features just as pandering as (if less expensively produced than) the majority of mainstream Hollywood product. Even sacrosanct art house supplier France manufactures plentiful dumb-and-dumber hits that attract little interest (unless it’s remake interest) beyond nations where Frog is spoken.

Still, their schlock is often better than our schlock. The new Heartbreaker is a star-driven romantic comedy that underlines how lame and formulaic Hollywood’s current endeavors in that genre almost invariably are. Not that it isn’t formulaic — but you don’t feel nose-led by a committee of script-coarsening hacks, and the usual escapist lifestyle pleasures (pretty people wearing really nice clothes in exotic or upscale locations) don’t come off as a product-placement parade.

The film immediately announces itself an escapist treat as six-packed Goran (Jean-Marie Paris) leers at a bikini’d fellow hard body across a Moroccan hotel pool. That reverie is interrupted by girlfriend Florence (Amandine Dewasmes), a plainer Jane who insists they actually see the country.

When he bails, she hitches a ride to nearby dunes with Doctors Without Borders type Pierre (Romain Duris). Several hours, some humanitarian aid and much mutual clickage later, Florence happily ditches her wandering-eye lout.

This is, actually, the last we see of Florence, Goran, or even Pierre. Because there is no "Pierre" — only Alex, star performer in a biz run with pragmatic sibling Mélanie (Julie Ferrier) and her genially vague husband Marc (François Damiens). They orchestrate breakups with maximum guile but also strict ethical rules ("We open their eyes, not their legs … We only step in if the woman is unhappy"), usually hired by families desperate to wean daughters from bad relationships with "jerks" like Goran.

An amusing montage of Alex essaying various roles — window washer, sushi chef, redeemable criminal — establishes this is an enterprise both elaborately thought-out and costly. Indeed, Alex and Co. are in debt, thanks to his theatrical perfectionism. Ergo they’ve no choice but to violate rules and accept a lucrative new assignment whose target seems far from unhappy.

For whatever reason, a "flower tycoon" (Jacques Frantz) whose fortunes may well have a shadier origin wants semi-estranged only child Juliette (Gallic pop star and Mrs. Johnny Depp Vanessa Paradis) courted from Brit Jonathan (Andrew Lincoln) whom she’s imminently scheduled to marry.

This is problematic. Juliette proves no pushover — defying Alex’s vain boast, "With preparation, no woman can resist me" — and is in mutual love with an utterly admirable fiancé. Posing as a bodyguard hired by dad to protect her, Alex’s flying-wedge act meets steep resistance.

There’s never any doubt where Heartbreaker is headed. Cocky Alex will fall hard, repent his professional Don Juan fakery, almost lose the game, then grovel sufficiently to pull a Graduate as scruffy charmer triumphs over dully respectable Mr. Right. What happens after the fade, when reality dawns? We probably don’t want to know.

Yet Heartbreaker earns that suspension of disbelief, arriving at a unabashedly melodramatic climax just as romantically intoxicating as it aims to be. Director Pascal Chaumeil’s first major feature (after a decade of TV work) is glamorous where appropriate — Monaco looks as high-end as Paradis in frocks evoking Hitchcock-era Princess Grace — and raffishly funny elsewhere. Duris (from several Cédric Klapish films and 2005’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped) seizes his star turn with perfectly judged panache. What can you say about a movie that exploits Wham!’s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" as a recurrent in-joke without making the viewer’s stomach heave? Kudos, that’s what.

Heartbreaker isn’t great cinema. Yet it gives great escapist burger — In-N-Out, say, compared to the McDonald’s deep fry of gender-flipped similar Hollywood exercise Failure to Launch in 2006. Yeah it’s easy, but you won’t feel cheap the morning after.

HEARTBREAKER opens Fri/17 in Bay Area theaters.

Sunny Sunday smile

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Michael Franti has definite ideas on the best manner in which to enjoy his music. "I wanna see you jumping!" the dreadlocked star of conscious pop music repeats numerous times throughout last weekend’s Power to the Peaceful concert in Golden Gate Park. But the crowd of 80,000 doesn’t mind — in fact, judging from the beaming faces in Speedway Meadow, Franti’s fervent messaging, mixed with liberal doses of dub sounds, reggae, hip-hop, and sunshine positivity, is the reason they came to the event in the first place.

Good thing, because Franti’s touch is everywhere. He started Power to the Peaceful in 1998 in Dolores Park to promote advocacy for death row prisoner-activist Mumia Abu Jamal. The concert’s date, Sept. 11, was chosen to highlight the urgency of Abu Jamal’s release, though now the event also honors victims of the World Trade Center attacks. Franti’s earnest odes to social justice attracted a crowd of 3,500 that first year, and twice that the next. Now Power to the Peaceful is a three-day event (Sept. 10-12) that includes mass yoga sessions, social justice organizations, and a weekend of benefit concerts at the Fillmore.

The vibe is feel-good to the point of theatrics. Throughout Saturday’s program, there was much turning to one’s neighbor and embracing. That many people wishing the world peace in synchronicity is heady, no doubt — but at one point during the yoga (while we are helping our partners, who are lying on their bellies, to "fly") I catch four face-painted Juggalos sniggering at the sheer compassion of it all.

"In order to sustain your activism, you have to have something inside you." Mid-interview, the six-foot, six-inch Franti is sitting cross-legged at my knee in a tapestried tent behind Saturday’s main stage. "It’s easy to get frustrated — you have to have something in your life to give you that fire." He smiles with the same easy grace he bestows throughout the weekend on everyone from toddlers to police officers. He likens PTTP to the battery recharging stations found in airport terminals.

This kind of spiritual activism and change through the shaking of hips hasn’t always been Franti’s modus operandi. At the start of his career, as an adopted kid in the Bay Area sick of hearing the n-word thrown at him (Franti’s birth father is Native American-black; his birth mother white), he called his first group the Beatnigs. Their hip-hop industrial punk songs railed against Ronald Reagan and the CIA.

But over the years, the anger behind Franti’s voice segued into something else. Sample lyric: "Even our worst enemies/ They deserve music." That music he slaps his guitar to, prances across the stage with, and compels us to jump in last weekend’s September sun is less "them" and more "us."

Which isn’t to say he’s given up on making a difference. Before his 2006 album Yell Fire (Anti) Franti, a staunch opponent of U.S. wars in the Middle East, took his show on the road to Iraq, Palestine, and Israel. He played for anyone who’d listen, from war zone families to American troops.

He’s still talking about the issues, just changing the approach. His most recent offering is The Sound of Sunshine (Capitol), whose album cover’s sweet scrawl of a boombox smiling bears the Franti signature. Live performances are ecstatic, infectious recitations of all things beautiful: multiculturalism, celebration, and the line "How ya feeeelin!" — a trademark he booms 11 times on Saturday.

By the family matinee concert Sunday at the Fillmore (a benefit for Hunter’s Point Family, a support center in the neighborhood that Franti has called home for 14 years), it’s clear that his appeal goes beyond the straightforward lyrics and infectious glee of his hits, which make a perfect fit for the little ones hoisted on their parents’ shoulders. He knows — as we do — the world’s got problems. But we do ourselves no favors if we don’t meet them with a smile.

Spire

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paulr@sfbg.com

DINE You can’t be stunned when a restaurant near the baseball park — and Spire is just steps away — has a big flat-panel TV showing Giants’ games. Spire has such a TV, so let’s grant a modicum of kudos for its public-spiritedness. Or at least its awareness of what its clientele is likely to find interesting. But the glowing oracle of sportsdom, while conspicuously slung from a wall just inside the entrance, isn’t the restaurant’s most distinctive design feature. That would be what I can only call the charcuterie bar — a gleaming slab of peach-colored granite that’s a little like the cured-meat equivalent of a sushi bar, except you can’t sit at it and order things. You can only watch, wondering if you’ve stumbled onto a secret Food Network set, and where are the klieg lights and cameras?

Despite the lack of seating, the presence of the bar does announce that food is serious business at Spire. This is no sports bar — although a word of warning — the place is noisy, a vibratorium. The building is a converted MJB coffee warehouse, and the exposed brick walls are braced by a line of triumphal arches. But whatever relief from impinging decibels the high ceiling might have provided is offset by the rock-hard flooring.

Naturally, chef Laird Boles’ kitchen turns out a charcuterie platter, and there’s also a selection of raw seafood, with crudo, ceviche, and oysters. (Boles once cooked at Waterbar.) But the menu, mostly, is farmers-markety. So a salad ($9) of stone fruit and Laura Chenel goat cheese wasn’t assembled atop any old lettuces but atop County Line 5 leaves; these were immaculate, and the stone fruit (cherry halves and wonderfully ripe nectarine) wasn’t too shabby either. And nothing says summer quite like stone fruit unless it’s corn, as in a sweet corn soup ($6) with the kernels puréed and food-milled to a bisque-like smoothness. “Sweet” wasn’t an idle modifier here, and I ended up having to ask for salt, more as matter of personal taste than in response to a miscue. Sweetness can be flat; salt deepens it and adds an extra dimension. Other extra dimensions included a dollop of sour cream in the soup itself and, alongside, a pair of puffy-crisp corn fritters riding the rails of piquillo-pepper coulis.

Chicken, we were advised some years ago by Anthony Bourdain, is the dish for people who can’t decide what they really want. This might sometimes be true, but it doesn’t do justice to the bird, which, if handled right, can be splendid. Spire’s half-chicken ($20), a Rocky the Range leg and breast, had the marvelous crisp skin and slightly pressed look I associate with the Italian technique known as al mattone, or under a brick. The chicken was presented with two pucks of savory bread pudding, a stack of sautéed mixed beans — haricots verts and wax (n.b. the menu said “haricots verts,” small proof of the larger principle that menu cards tend to be advisory rather than strictly honored) — a heap of sautéed baby shiitakes, and a fabulous reduced jus.

If you do know what you really want, you might very well want halibut ($24), and this is good, because halibut is just about the perfect fish in these parts. It’s taken from sustainable fisheries, it takes well to a variety of cooking techniques, and it tastes good. Here a thick filet was pan-roasted, then plated with lemon grits, tarragon leaves, and tomato quarters — a colorful, tasty ensemble redolent of the season.

It is rare now to have a disappointing dessert, but it’s probably just as rare to come across a dessert so rich you wonder if you can finish it. Spire’s chocolate almond layer cake ($8) looked unassuming enough: a modest, dark-brown disk with a comet’s tail of pitted cherry halves and streaks of caramel sauce, little embellishments that added visual texture while also implying that reinforcement was at hand should the star player be found wanting. But the cake itself was so engulfingly rich and moist, dessertdom’s answer to foie gras, as to obliterate any such need. I have never had a richer, moister cake. It was so satisfying as to be nearly fatal. But I did live to tell, and now I have told.

SPIRE

Lunch: Tues.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.

Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.

Brunch: Sun., 11 a.m.–3 p.m.

685 Third St., SF

(415) 947-0000

www.spiresf.com

Full bar

AE/MC/V

Noisy

Wheelchair accessible

At the Drive-In

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arts@sfbg.com

VISUAL ART Before it became the context-free darling of YouTubers and meta-bloggers, the 1980s was a real, living era. Movies and music videos copulated. An actor became president and decided to invade Grenada despite a warning from, yes, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that the action would be seen as "intervention by a Western country in the internal affairs of a small independent nation, however unattractive its regime." The pre-politics Governator appeared in 1984’s The Terminator as "something unstoppable … that felt no pain." And Martin Amis, in Einstein’s Monsters (1987), wrote that "the arms race is a race between nuclear weapons and ourselves." The future appeared bleaker than bleak, its robotic violence and darkness palatable if seen through neon-tinted pop culture glasses.

The 01SJ Biennial, a welcome if dizzying affair that opens this week in San Jose, is a plugged-in antidote to ’80s-era apocalyptic soothsaying. Although more recent cultural creations from 28 Days Later (2002) to The Road (2009) have done little to imagine a coherent future, they’ve at least begun asking what it means to be honestly human. Might we finally stop blaming technology?

Blogging about the biennial’s "Build Your Own Future" theme, Artistic Director Steve Dietz recently noted that the event offers a chance for "serious play." For an illustration of what he means, look no further than Todd Chandler and Jeff Stark’s Empire Drive-In, a fully functional theater featuring cars saved from a local auto wrecker and a screen built almost entirely from salvaged wood. A collaboration with artists including Brett James, Ian Page, and Robin Frohardt (who designed and fabricated a unique concession stand), Empire‘s cinema comes to life inside the San Jose Convention Center’s airplane hangar-sized South Hall.

Last week, Chandler took a break from cleaning broken glass out of one of the cars to chat about the project. He said he had first presented Dietz with the idea of a possible live performance by his band Dark Dark Dark, along with Flood Tide: Remixed. a sort of contemplative preview version of his forthcoming feature film of the same name. "Steve was interested," Chandler explained, "but he said that it wasn’t enough. I was like, not enough?!"

Though Chandler had been pouring himself into Flood Tide project, if the biennial wanted something even bigger, he knew what to do. He called Stark, the intrepid editor of Nonsense NYC (www.nonsensenyc.com ). "Jeff is amazing at pulling off really big, impossible projects," Chandler says. "And he’d had this idea in his head for a while about a junk car drive-in."

Chandler and Stark met while working on the Miss Rockaway Armada project (www.missrockaway.org ), the first iteration of a number of artistic ventures involving large rafts made of salvaged materials. That participatory trip down the Mississippi River — deemed an "anarchist county fair" and a "fools’ ark" — gave birth to the projects that became the subject of Flood Tide. In turn, Empire Drive-In includes not just the hypnotic Flood Tide: Remixed, but a number of "live cinema" presentations, including Zoe Keating and Robert Hodgin’s Into the Trees, and Laetitia Sonami and SUE-C’s Sheepwoman.

"The cars we’re using were on their way to Redwood City to get crushed," Chandler explained. "A lot of them had smashed windshields." He and Stark chose vehicles based on what was available rather than a predetermined vision: "We didn’t want to do a retro, ’50s-style drive-in."

As with any other theater, when a drive-in closes for good, we say that it has "gone dark." My childhood haunt, Skyview Drive-In in Santa Cruz, went dark a few years ago. When I drove by and saw the missing screens, I started to cry. Empire Drive-In presents the unbearable lightness of seeing in a world that might someday go dark.

01SJ BIENNIAL: EMPIRE DRIVE-IN

Thurs/16–Sun/19, various venues

(408) 916-1010

www.01sjart.org

Nobunny unmasked!

2

arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC The morning of our scheduled interview, he sends me a text message, asking me to push things back a bit. Because he says he’s been up until 5:30 a.m., I figured he’s spent the previous night out being a bad bunny. But my assumptions are incorrect: the self-professed early bird known as Nobunny has stayed up late getting work done. The masked man, who now lives in Oakland, is out and about in San Francisco. I remain patient, knowing that he has plenty on his plate, including the release of his new album and an imminent European tour.

Nobunny’s First Blood (Goner Records) is more polished in production than previous efforts, including Love Visions (1-2-3-4 Go! Records), his breakthrough from 2008. He’s been at it for nearly 10 years now, but our hometown hero’s ascent to garage-rock stardom hasn’t come easy. Before getting off the phone with me, he speaks of darker days in Chicago, where he went from two-time Bozo Show visitor to “lying and stealing heroin addict,” only to be saved by a heartbroken sister and a pre-Hunx and His Punx member of the now-defunct Gravy Train. And by the time I finish interviewing him, he shares some information that I didn’t expect him to delve into, giving me glimpses of original obsessions, addictions, and future ambitions.

Still, at about the 30-minute mark, our first conversation comes to a sudden halt when Nobunny alerts me he has to put money in his parking meter. My time is up. After all, Blag Dahlia of Dwarves fame is expecting him for a radio interview. (Nobunny takes a page out of that fellow Chicago-to-Bay Area transplants’ book by shedding his threads on stage with the exception of the mask.)

I have the sense that Nobunny is holding back a little, like there is a wall. Is he guarded? Maybe a little nervous? He’d publicly admitted to shooting heroin before, but it isn’t until after our initial phone call that he begins to be genuine and upfront about his humbling experiences and the struggle that made him who he is today. All the while, I feel he is in complete control of our interactions, and imagine that’s probably what it’s like to work with someone so self-critical in the studio. The dichotomy of the man behind the mask begins to unravel.

We initially speak through a dodgy cell phone connection, interrupted by distracting wind and disruptive sirens. I’m in the TL, and he’s in the Mission. Both environments are worn down, sort of like the mangy Muppet-looking mask Nobunny wears during show time. He’s lived through misery before. He spent one winter in Chicago with a trash bag serving as his front door, and worked the graveyard shift at a highway gas station during his last year in the city. “I lived in a cage in a squatted grocery store that had become a shooting gallery-crack house,” Nobunny says. “Things were not all right.”

Just a week earlier, I’d seen Nobunny at the Total Trash Fest. He did what he does best: live rock ‘n’ roll, delivered sweaty and in briefs, with some crowd-surfing. The one new song worked into the set hinted at First Blood‘s tone. The album itself clocks in at a short but very sweet 26 minutes. Nobunny rips through the tracks, playing guitar, bass, and drums himself. He gets some assistance from his pal Jason “Elvis Christ” Testasecca, who’s aided him with home recordings in the past, and a couple of other musicians who get honorable mentions in the credits.

“Blow Dumb,” First Blood‘s first single, has been described as “Velvet-y” sounding. Perhaps because the Velvet Underground is associated with New York’s high-art scene by way of Warhol’s Factory, Nobunny points out that the track is a love song to California. It gives a special nod to the Bay Area and hyphy, but also shows some love for SoCal, with a possible Burger Records shout out. The end result is ideal for a groovy road trip with friends, riding down Highway 1 with nothing better to do than smile in the sun.

Content-wise, not everything on First Blood is so buoyant. Elsewhere, Nobunny’s lyrics confront sexual desire, unbalanced relationships, inner weakness, and the self improvements necessary to pull yourself out of the proverbial gutter and see the world. Plenty of lustful longings are laid out as he expresses exactly what he wants in the twangy-sounding “Pretty Please Me”: a noncommittal fling, no questions asked, just as long as it feels right.

The blatant “(Do the) Fuck Yourself” conjures up perverse images straight from Nobunny’s stage show, where his masked persona goes public, employing ball-gags while prancing around scantily-clad. When we finally meet in person, I ask him where these antics come from. His answer is quite simple, and makes sense coming from a rabbit, “I’m just horny,” he says. All the while, in order to maintain a “shred of anonymity,” he wears his favorite deranged-looking mask. It never seems to come off.

“I don’t think I’d like to deal with being in an un-masked band at, say, Hunx’s or Thee Oh Sees’ comparable level of popularity.” Nobunny says, when asked about the get-up. “Knowing eyes are on you when you are not on stage sounds maybe not always fun.” Nonetheless, a fruitful creative partnership with Hunx has been vital to Nobunny’s survival: “Seth [Bogart, a.k.a. Hunx] has been a very supportive friend, and, yes, in some ways I feel he saved me, or at the very least vastly improved my living situation.”

Though Nobunny often expresses the wish to record and play alone, he’s no stranger to collaboration, including a recent live session with Jack White at Nashville’s Third Man Records. Not all dream teams come true, though — since childhood he’d hoped to work with another master of disguises, the famously introverted King of Pop. “Michael Jackson was my first obsession, ” he says. “I wanted to be him. I still want to be him. According to Rocktober’s History of Masked Rock ‘n’ Roll, MJ was a masked musician with all his surgeries and what not. We all wear masks, some are just easier to spot than others.”

Speaking of costumed camouflage, First Blood‘s final track, “I Was On (The Bozo Show)” is a psyched-out, swirling down-tempo dirge with many levels of dedication. One could read it as homage to the late clown-god Larry Harmon (a.k.a. Bozo), as Nobunny hazily recalls his lost innocence and how he sat in the back row of a Chicago television with his little brother to meet the world-famous archetype on two separate occasions. Yes, Nobunny was on The Bozo Show — twice.

But behind its showbiz facade, “I Was On (The Bozo Show)” is also an agonizing confession from a former addict. “It’s for my blood brother and sister as well as my friends who struggle with drug addiction,” Nobunny says. “In another time, clowns made children happy and the circus was fun, but now they’ve become just another relic of past, tarnished by the more common association that their images are horrifying and that they are to be feared. I’m pretty sure no Juggalo ever went to clown school.”

A mythical creature from garage rock’s underbelly, Nobunny has earned his success, even securing a gig at the Playboy Mansion in L.A. as part of his 10-year anniversary celebration next Easter. But he’s no stranger to the addictions he sings about on First Blood final track. “My sister had been buggin’ me a bit to come visit her in Arizona, and I finally decided to take her up on it before I killed myself,” he says, still discussing “I Was On (The Bozo Show)”‘s origins. “I drove across the country shooting dope the whole way to the desert west of Tucson. She didn’t even know I was using. She nursed me back to health out there all alone in the desert. Our only neighbor was an 80-something yogi from India who was out there on a 30-day silent meditative prayer.”

If that sounds like material for a boulevard of broken dreams tell-all, in all seriousness, Nobunny has come out of the experience stronger, poised for new adventures, but most of all, grateful. “I am thankful to have enough fans to make touring worthwhile,” he said. “While I’d still be writing and recording and performing with no one looking, it’s really nice to see people at our shows dancing and singing along and smiling.”

Five things you should know about Steve Moss

29

Sarah@sfbg.com

In August 2010, Steve Moss, who is running for District 10 supervisor, took out an ad in the Potrero View, which he owns, titled “Five things you need to know about Steve Moss.”

The ad, paid for by Moss’ political campaign, stated that Moss “edits and publishes this very paper (but got its endorsement on his own merits).” A year earlier, when Moss filed for the D–10 race, he promised in the View that “the paper will not endorse any of the contenders.” Reached by phone, Moss said that part of the ad was intended as a joke.

The other four bullet points seemed to be factual statements about Moss’ accomplishments. But Moss’ misleading ad got the Guardian taking a closer look, and, along the way, we found a lot of other things you probably didn’t know about Moss.

As far as we know, none of these things are illegal, and Moss can certainly argue that none of them are wrong. But since this is a progressive district, we thought voters would want to know a little more before the November election.

1. He’s a carpetbagger

Moss portrays himself as a District 10 resident who spent the last decade raising his family on Potrero Hill. In fact, during 2008 and 2009, Moss wasn’t living on Potrero Hill at all. When he filed his intent to run in the D–10 race in 2009, he was living near Dolores Park in a four-floor, four-unit, $1.6 million apartment building he owns. And shortly before he filed his intent to seek office, Moss’ wife told friends that the family was only moving to District 10 so Moss could run for supervisor, and that if he lost, they would be moving back to the Dolores Park area.

In his declaration of intent to run, a legal document he signed under penalty of perjury Aug. 4, 2009, Moss listed his address as 2325 Third St. That address is where the View; Moss’ nonprofit San Francisco Community Power; and M.Cubed, Moss’ private consulting company, share space. It’s also where where the Moss campaign asked supporters to send checks. It’s not where Moss was living with his family.

Indeed, evidence that came to light in a lawsuit between Moss and his wife, Debbie Findling, and a couple who co-own the property where Moss used to reside on Kansas Street, indicate that he moved out of D-10 in November 2007 and was living at 296 Liberty Street, in District 8, until February 2010.

In a July 8, 2009 e-mail to friends, filed in court in this lawsuit, Moss’ wife noted: “Steven has decided to run for city supervisor in District 10!!! (Sophie Maxwell’s term ends in November 2010) so we’ll be moving back to the hill in early spring! If you hear of any lovely rentals let us know. Or — I know it’s a crazy idea — but if you’re interested in swapping houses with us for a year as an even trade, you can move into our place on Dolores Park! (We’re hedging our bets in case he doesn’t win, we’d be moving back to Dolores Park after the elections. If he does win, we’ll find a long-term place to live … ).”

Reached by phone, Moss told us that it was only his candidate intention statement — a form that allows a candidate to start to raise money — that he filed while living at Liberty Street in 2009, not his official declaration of candidacy form. The language on the two forms is slightly different; the intent form only asks for a “street address” while the actual declaration of candidacy asks for a “residence” address.

Moss said he filed his declaration of candidacy a few days before the deadline, this summer. That form requires candidates to have resided in the district for not less than 30 days immediately preceding the date they file.

Moss insisted that he currently lives in a rental house at 2145 18th Street. “I’m planning to win,” Moss told us. “And we’re very much enjoying the house on Potrero Hill and hoping to stay there.”

2. He managed to avoid the condo lottery.

Moss and his wife bought a two-unit house on Kansas Street in May 2000 for $648,000 and filed for a condo conversion permit in 2002. San Francisco only allows only 200 condo conversions a year. It’s tough to get a permit, it’s very lucrative if you do, and most applicants — including two-unit buildings with a single owner — have to enter a lottery. But thanks to a strange short-term loophole in the law, Moss managed to get away without doing that.

The application, which got tentative approval in March 2004, notes that Moss and his wife — single owners of a two-unit building — did not win the lottery or qualify for a bypass. Asked how he managed this, Moss pointed to a loophole in legislation that former Sup. Jake McGoldrick passed in 2001. “The McGoldrick clause allowed us to directly convert it,” Moss said.

McGoldrick’s law tightened the conversion rules, but allowed two-unit buildings that, like Moss’, had only one owner-occupant, to slip through. The odd thing is that Andrew Zacks, a lawyer who represents landlords, and the Small Property Owners of San Francisco sued to overturn the McGoldrick legislation (not because of the loophole but because of the new restrictions) and the Superior Court ruled in January 2003 that the law was “unconstitutional on its face” and ordered that the city “shall not enforce this ordinance.” That should have ended the loophole, too.

Records show that Moss’ condo application was signed Feb. 10, 2003 by Planning’s Larry Badiner and received tentative mapping approval March 2004.

Department of Public Works Surveyor Bruce Storrs told us he thinks Moss’ case fell through the cracks. “It doesn’t say it was a McTIC,” Storrs said, using the nickname for McGoldrick’s condo conversion loophole, as he reviewed Moss’ file. “But it’s the only thing that makes any sense.”

There’s no indication that Moss did anything wrong, but he sure got a sweet deal. Records show that after he got his conversion permit, he sold the upper unit of Kansas Street in 2007 for more than he paid for the entire building in 2000.

3. He has the support of some very anti-tenant folks.

Attorney Zacks, who specializes in evictions and TICs, gave Moss $500, and the candidate claimed it was because his wife knows Zacks from the playground of the school where their kids both go. Pressed, Moss confirmed that Zacks is his attorney in a court case against the co-owners of the Kansas Street property and in another action he filed against a tenant in his Liberty Steet building in May 2009.

Moss also has the support of the Small Property Owners group, which opposes almost all tenants rights and is among the most conservative, pro-property rights groups in the city. He told us he made a mistake in seeking that endorsement.

And on Aug. 24, conservative campaign finance consultant Jim Sutton, who typically represents big business interests, filed papers representingThe Alliance For Jobs And Sustainable Growth,” which is financing three independent expenditure committees, one supporting Moss; another supporting Scott Weiner in D-8; and the third supporting Theresa Sparks in D–6.

4. He’s involved in a nasty lawsuit with his former neighbor.

Records show that after Moss and Findling subdivided their property on Kansas Street, they sold the upper unit to Edward Penrose and Heather Gibbons in 2007 and moved near Dolores Park.

Court filings suggest the couples remained friendly until March 2010, when Moss and Findling tried to sell the Kansas Street lower unit for $600,000 and ran into problems.

After the deal fell through, Moss and Findling turned around and sued Penrose and Gibbons, claiming that their behavior “constitutes a nuisance.”

In their complaint, Moss and Findling claim they suffered emotional distress, loss of sale, and diminution of the value of their lower unit on Kansas Street “due to the need, going forward, to disclose to buyers that [Penrose and Gibbons] have a propensity to engage in malicious and antisocial behavior.”

On July 30, Gibbons and Penrose countersued. They claim that when they offered to purchase 673 Kansas Street, Moss and Findling never disclosed that there was a boundary line dispute or prior instances of flooding, drainage, and grading problems that had damaged an abutting property.

Now Penrose and Gibbons are asking the court to rescind the purchase agreement whereby they obtained ownership of their Kansas Street condo.

Findling and Moss responded Aug. 31, claiming that “cross-complainants have unclean hands in that, beginning in the spring of 2010, they undertook efforts to interfere with the sale of the lower unit 673 1/2 Kansas] by making unfounded noise complaints and did discourage the buyer from consummating the transaction.”

Asked about this messy legal dispute, Moss said, “We were unhappy with the outcome of a sale in escrow that they disturbed.”

5. His nonprofit pays a bunch of money to his private consulting firm.

In 2001, Moss and two partners founded a private consulting company called M.Cubed. A few months later, Moss and his partners also founded SF Community Power, a nonprofit that started using M.Cubed as a consultant. “M.Cubed was subsequently awarded a contract from SF Community Power. I’m paid directly from SF Community Power, and I’m paid a consulting fee at M.Cubed, depending how much I work,” Moss told us.

Records show that as SFCP’s director, Moss made $48,000 in 2009 and $50,000 in 2008. But more than $1 million has moved from Moss’ nonprofit into Moss’ private consulting firm since 2001.

Moss confirms that SF Power has received $350,000, some of it from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. through the California Public Utilities Commission in 2010; $440,000 in 2009; and $500,000 in 2008 — and that some of those dollars went to M.Cubed.

“I intervene in regulatory cases on behalf of SF Community Power,” Moss said, “And then, if you win a case, you get compensation after the case.”

The Potrero View shares office space with the nonprofit and the consulting firm. Last year, SFCP paid $22,000 in rent, and the View paid SFCP $5,000 toward that rent.

Alhough Moss’ campaign asked supporters to mail contributions to the office that all three of Moss’ business entities share, his campaign finance records show that as of June 30, he had paid no rent for campaign headquarters. “I haven’t had a campaign headquarters,” Moss said. “It’s pretty much been at my house.”

Witchy ways

0

le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS How to tear down a chicken coop: Step one, build a chicken coop. I used scrap wood, found objects, and recycled nails and screws to make this one. At the time, I was going through a divorce, so my spirits were all light and buildery, and I whistled while I worked and didn’t get too upset if I got a splinter.

Suffering for one’s art, not to mention eggs, seemed noble and not at all frightening. I was in love with the woods and fresh air, high on my new sense of self, which I have come to see, in retrospect, as merely a phase: for five years and change, I found myself involved in a kind of a secular witchcraft.

No incantations or Shakespearean hullabaloo; without any belief whatsoever, barely even with intent, I lured little children into a large pot and cooked and ate them. Often in omelets! I didn’t know what I was doing. In fact, it took one of these omelets to point it out to me. The youngest, and one of the first, she stood before my brand-new-yet-already-ramshackle chicken coop, took one look at my outdoor bathtub, half a look at my black and pink punk rock rubber ducky, then stared at the 25-gallon pot on a propane burner that almost blocked the door to my crooked little shack.

"You’re kind of a witch, aren’t you?" she said, her great big eyes getting ever even bigger.

"Um, no, well, I think more of a chicken farmer, if you ask me," I said.

"But this is all so … so … witchy," she said.

So, OK, so I went with it. It’s my nature to just go with things. But I didn’t have any idea what witches do, except for live in funky shacks in the woods (like me) with their big noses (like mine) and crazy black cats (like Weirdo, R.I.P.) and either oversized ovens or giant pots for cooking kids in.

Before anyone burns me at the stake or, worse, tries to ruin my career as a nanny, let me explain metaphor to you. No — cut metaphor, let’s skip straight to dada. The children who I made into omelets were for the most part 40- and 50-something-year-old men with hairy bellies and hardly any heart, who had somehow or other neglected to grow up. They were off-the-beaten-path truck drivers, errant farm hands, recovering ax murderers, and homeless mushroomers. Whereas the little girls, the little girls were two: a psychotic psychologist and the above-mentioned big-eyed young ‘un, 29, a highly educated and queerish knows-a-witchy-woman-when-she-sees-one college perfessor.

In my experience the brainier they are, the harder they hurt. Step two, set down that rusty, dull hatchet and fix your drill. It’s true you are liable to think of ugly, downlifting things while deconstructing your chicken coop. All the spider webs, moldy hay, and fossilized chicken shit … how can you not be reminded of heartless, hopeless, imaginationless fucks?

Thing is, this is not the time for anger. That time has passed, and hopefully you have kicked and screamed and howled and yowled and beaten your poor pillow (or in my case, reading public) into submission. Deconstructing a chicken coop, on the other hand, requires precision. Ergo: Step three, stack all the neatly de-screwed boards and things in a Future Dump Run pile.

Step four, roll all the chicken wire in tight-as-possible rolls and stack it separately. Neatly. Remember: what you are doing is more sacred than building; you are tearing down. You are creating blank space — empty, meaningless, and therefore full of potential. You will want to leave this site as clean as possible for the next person, who is somewhere in the world creating just such a space for you. In the name of which …

Step five: rake, scrape, shovel, and dump what was the floor into what will be the next tenant’s garden. Now, city girl, get your city ass back to town, slow and stylingly, and find yourself a new favorite restaurant. No meat for you: half a falafel sandwich drenched in tahini and a cup o’ cream o’ broccoli, babe. You deserve this.

TWILIGHT CAFE

Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–7 p.m.

2600 McAllister, SF

(415) 386-6115

MC, V

Beer and wine

The battle against desalination in the bay

2

OPINION In July 2010, in one fell swoop, the Marin Municipal Water District’s board of directors ambushed an initiative that would force a public vote on an expensive an environmentally destructive desalination plant on the edge of the bay.

In August 2009, the board unanimously voted to approve an environmental study to pave the way for the desalination plant, which would suck up bay water, filter out the salt, and dump the briny extract back into the bay.

In response, a group of unpaid, grassroots volunteers gathered more than 18,000 signatures to qualify Measure T for the November ballot. The measure requires voter approval before up to $51 million in public money is spent on desalination planning.

On July 6, 2010, the board had a chance to avoid the ballot fight by adopting the proposed initiative as an ordinance. Instead, MMWD voted to “study” Measure T’s impact on desalination planning. And at a packed special four-hour meeting on July 26, the board announced that it decided to place its own rival initiative, Measure S, on the ballot, which allows the plant to move forward without delay.

Then, on Aug. 18, the board went a step further and enacted Measure S as law. Consequently, even if S loses in November, the path is cleared for the environmentally damaging project. And the only way it can be stopped is if Measure T wins.

MMWD argues that Measure T ties the agency’s hands and that the 18,000 signatories knew not what they signed. According to MMWD General Manager Paul Helliker (founding member of CalDesal, “a unified voice for water desalination in the Golden State,”) the actual cost of the plant could run as high as $400 million.

Measure T allows MMWD to study desalination, but the agency can’t start making concrete plans for the project — and start collecting permits and issuing multimillion dollar contracts — without a vote.

MMWD argues its desalination plant is a small capital expenditure for ratepayers. As one Measure T proponent, Bill Rothman, observed, MMWD’s profligate spending needs to be checked because its hands are “in our pockets.” In the past three years, for example, ratepayers have shelled out $252,176 in benefits to directors. It’s no wonder MMWD is drowning in $2.56 million in debt.

This November, the choice is clear: Measure T, the people’s initiative, endorsed by 18,000 Marin voters, would mandate a public vote before any further wasteful, costly, desalination proceeds for a plant that poses health risks from the toxic bay.

Yes on T, no on S.

Joan Bennett is a member of the Coalition for the Public’s Right to Vote About Desalination.

Editor’s Notes

4

Tredmond@sfbg.com

We’ve been doing a lot of reporting on Steve Moss, a candidate for supervisor in District 10 who lived in District 8 when he filed his initial election papers and launched his campaign. Moss, who owns a residential building on Liberty Street near Dolores Park, insists he is now a full-time resident of Potrero Hill, renting a nice place at 18th and Vermont — and that he moved in long before the legal deadline for declaring an official candidacy.

It’s actually not a high standard — city law says you only have to live in a district for 30 days prior to the filing deadline. And since Moss is hardly the only candidate to make a relatively recent relocation, it’s worth asking the question: how important is long-time residence to a candidate for district supervisor — and how long is long enough?

I’ve always supported district elections, in part — and this is critically important — because you can win in a district without raising a huge amount of money. When the universe of voters you’re trying to reach numbers around 30,000, you don’t need $500,000. You can knock on doors, go to neighborhood forums, mobilize volunteers for a get-out-the-vote operation, and get elected with the kind of money you can raise in a real grassroots campaign. That means downtown, the landlords, the developers, and big business interests don’t carry the day, the way they did when the board was elected at-large.

But the other goal of district elections was to ensure that every part of town got represented on the board — and to bring legitimate activists with roots in a community to the table. That means people who have more than a passing interest in where they live.

The first few times around, it wasn’t much of an issue — with the obvious exception of Ed Jew, and the possible exception of Michela Alioto-Pier, everyone who has been elected so far under the district system ran from a neighborhood where he or she had be living, and doing community work, for years.

But this time, people have been venue-shopping. I heard a lot of potential candidates over the past year talk about moving into one district or another to run, and I think we’ll see more of it in the future. It can get tricky; Moss, for example, owns the Potrero View newspaper and lived in D-10 for years, then moved out and bought a place near Dolores Park. When he decided to run for supervisor, he moved back. At least he has some history and ties to the community — but I don’t think there’s a lot of dispute over the fact that he moved back to run for office, and that if he hadn’t decided to run, he’d still be living on Liberty Street.

Jane Kim, president of the School Board, moved into District 6 about a year and a half ago — about the same time she started talking about running for supervisor from that district. Again: perfectly legal — although her ties to the neighborhood and to neighborhood activism aren’t anywhere near as strong as some of the other candidates in the race.

We’re going to have to watch this, carefully — and the 30-day requirement is clearly too weak. You should have to live in a district for at least a year before you can file even exploratory papers — and every neighborhood questionnaire should ask candidates to list every address they’ve lived in for the past five years. That might slow down the shopping a bit.

PG&E’s deadly failures

0

EDITORIAL In 1994, a fire raged through the tiny community of Rough and Ready in Nevada County. The inferno destroyed a dozen homes and caused $2 million in damage. The cause: tree limbs that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. should have trimmed brushed against high-voltage power lines.

A furious local district attorney filed criminal charges — and in a dramatic trial, evidence emerged that PG&E had intentionally taken $80 million in ratepayer money designated for tree trimming and diverted it into executive salaries and profits.

After a natural gas line that was installed in 1948 burst last week in San Bruno, killing five and devastating a community, local and state officials should be asking if the company is still taking money that should be spent upgrading and maintaining its system and spending it elsewhere.

There’s certainly evidence that the company’s safety record is shoddy. In 2003, a fire at a Mission District substation caused 100,000 people to lose power — and the CPUC chided PG&E for failing to follow its own rules and for general procedural laziness. In 2005, an underground explosion at Kearny and Post streets caused a fire that seriously injured a pedestrian on the sidewalk above. In June 2009, a fire at a PG&E vault at O’Farrell and Polk streets caused an explosion that roared up through a manhole and cut power to 8,600 customers.

In San Bruno, neighbors reported smelling gas in the days before the explosion. PG&E trucks had come to the scene and left without repairing the problem.

In the Rough and Ready fire, PG&E was found guilty of criminal negligence — and the San Mateo County D.A., James P. Fox, should immediately start looking into the possibility of filing charges against the company. In the meantime, San Francisco ought to be taking a long, hard look at the state of the private utility’s infrastructure in the city — and how much of it is vulnerable to deadly failure.

The mayor, the supervisors, and the city attorney should demand that PG&E produce a map of every gas line, power line, transformer, and substation in the city — with details about age, condition, and maintenance history. The city should hire an independent auditor to investigate how much of what PG&E has under and above the city streets is old, crumbing, poorly maintained, and likely to fail. The results should be made public — and the city should take whatever legal action is necessary to ensure that the company’s equipment doesn’t pose an imminent risk to local residents and businesses.

State Sen. Mark Leno is calling for a hearing, and PG&E officials should be forced to discuss, in public, how this disaster was allowed to happen. City officials, and the local Legislative delegation, should also be pushing the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate how PG&E has been spending the money it collects from ratepayers for maintenance and system upgrades. It’s clear that company profits were healthy enough for PG&E to spend $46 million on a failed ballot initiative that would have blocked public power in the state; why wasn’t that money used to replace the ancient natural gas pipes in San Bruno? Where else is the company skimping on facilities? How much of the company’s system needs immediate upgrades, and what’s PG&E’s budget and schedule for that work?

There’s a larger point here: none of the public power systems in Northern California have had this type of accident. None of the publicly run utilities have been found guilty of diverting maintenance money to executive salaries and profits. San Francisco’s first modest moves toward public power will come with the establishment of a community choice aggregation system — but that system will still rely on PG&E’s grid. The sooner the city can move to get rid of that private monopoly and build its own power system, block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood if necessary, the less likely it will be that a San Bruno-type catastrophe will happen here.