Volume 45 Number 21

Appetite: Gin for a winter’s night

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A favorite experiment: gather a few industry and non-industry friends, taste a specific spirit side-by-side, sample it in the same cocktail recipe, and compare notes. Gin seemed appropriate for a rainy winter’s night.

While gin is fabulous all year ’round, there’s something about its bracing herbal and citrus qualities that evoke winter, particularly in Northern California where crisp air and sunny days mingle to create the mild backdrop that spawns our wealth of citrus at its peak.

Our cocktail of choice was plain and simple: the Martini. Gin and dry vermouth with a little twist of lemon… on the extra dry side to truly taste the properties of the gin.

Out of the 12 gins we sampled, these six stood out for various reasons:

All-around Favorite

DEATH’S DOOR GIN (94 proof – $32) — In our gathering, all loved Death’s Door, and the majority included it as one of their top two or three. It has been a top choice of mine since its release. This Wisconsin gem is made with local ingredients (wheat and organic malted barely) around Washington Island, WI. One of the best gins to come along in recent years, it’s reminiscent of a London dry gin but with its own unique, Midwest character.

Tasting Notes: Juniper berries dominate, coriander and citrus add nuance, while gentle fennel notes surprise.

In a Martini: A bold, flavorful Martini, Death’s Door fennel adds a subtle but seductive absinthe-like tinge to the cocktail.

 

Rare Edition

BEEFEATER’S WINTER EDITION (80 Proof – $30 and up) — The very limited Beefeater London Dry Winter Edition Gin isn’t going to be available for long, in limited supply, originally launched in New York and San Francisco in December. Legendary master distiller Desmond Payne has taken the signature profile of Beefeater, and as he has done with Beefeater 24 and their Summer gin, added new depth. Here’s hoping for more seasonal, limited editions ahead.

Tasting Notes: With a heavier citrus thrust than the standard Beefeater, I taste Seville orange and peel with a gentle sweetness. Pine and cinnamon add dimension.

In a Martini: It makes a citrusy, bright Martini with nuanced smoothness.

 

Brand New

NO. 3 GIN (92 Proof – $45) – Created by Berry Brothers & Rudd, London’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, No. 3 Gin is a brand new release named after BBR’s address at 3 St. James St. in London since 1698. Actually distilled in Schiedam, Holland, in copper pot stills, No. 3 is a classic-style, London dry gin.

Tasting Notes: Juniper stands strong here but does not overwhelm. There’s undertones of citrus with the Spanish orange and grapefruit peels used, while Angelica root, coriander and Moroccan cardamom round out this dry gin with a spicy finish.

In a Martini: Makes a classic, smooth Martini, redolent with juniper.


Smooth and Balanced

VOYAGER GIN (84 proof – $35) – Voyager Dry Gin is a harder-to-procure beauty that exemplifies balance and roundness in a juniper-driven gin. Voyager is American (made in Woodinville, WA) in the London dry style, distilled in a copper alembic pot still.

Tasting Notes: Not one element overwhelms: orris root, citrus, angelica, coriander and cassia are all here, but so are licorice and cardamom. They meld with smooth elegance.

In a Martini: Though initially a martini made with Voyager tastes as smooth as the gin alone, when compared side-by-side to other martinis, it somehow got lost. It was quite mellow compared to martinis made with gins like Death’s Door or Junipero.

 

Local Perfection

JUNIPERO GIN (98.6 proof – $33) – Junipero Gin has long been one of my favorites. Certainly I am proud of its local heritage as an Anchor Distilling product. But it also has one of the bolder, stand-out gin profiles. In the classic London dry style, more than a dozen botanicals and distillation in a copper pot still imbue it with a radiant complexity.

Tasting Notes: Bold and punchy, juniper comes across strong, though the overall effect is still clean and bright. Spice comes through as does citrus, though Anchor Distilling remains secretive about botanicals used.

In a Martini: A bracing yet balanced martini, this makes my top martini alongside Death’s Door.


Classic and Affordable

BROKER’S GIN (80 proof – $20) – Broker’s Gin has only been around since 1998, created by brothers Martin and Andy Dawson, but it plays like a classic London dry gin (actually distilled near Birmingham, England) around for hundreds of years. The best part is the quality vs. price, if you can get past the silly bowler hat cap (although I love the elegant, clean label design with a bowler-hatted gentleman).

Tasting Notes: Delightfully dry, botanicals reign here with herbs from Bulgaria to Macedonia. Orris root and coriander co-mingle with nutmeg, Cassia bark and cinnamon.

In a Martini: Makes a straightforward, classic Martini, but is also balanced, full and spicy.

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Spirit and soul

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Having uprooted from his native Atlanta to chase his musical dreams in L.A., Cody ChestnuTT and his band, the Crosswalk, landed a deal with Hollywood Records and got as far as recording and mixing a debut album, Venus Loves a Melody, before things went south. In 2002, ChestnuTT took his bass, drum machine, keyboard, guitar, organ, microphone, and headphones into his bedroom and single-handedly crafted his debut album, The Headphone Masterpiece (Ready Set Go). The 99-minute double CD contained 39 songs that ranged from Southern-fried rock to hip-hop, and was laced with enough dastardly and divine deeds to provoke any listener. All of it was written, produced, and performed by ChesnuTT on his four-track cassette recorder.

The success of the album is evident in how it permeated the American fabric. ChestnuTT’s fame soared when Grammy Award-winning band the Roots decided to cover his song “The Seed” for its 2002 album Phrenology, with ChestnuTT on guitar and vocals. The video for “The Seed (2.0)” was nominated for an MTV Video Music Award and an MTV 2 Award. The Headphone Masterpiece was nominated for the Shortlist Music Prize in 2003. ChesnuTT’s music figured in Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), and his performance in the Dave Chappelle movie Block Party (2005) was a throwback to the days of Wattstax. Thom Yorke of Radiohead considers ChesnuTT a musical genius, and the opening riff to Headphone Masterpiece‘s “Look Good In Leather” has become a ubiquitous commercial ditty.

Though ChesnuTT continued to tour and release singles, it wasn’t until his 2010 reemergence project, the six-track EP Black Skin No Value (Vibration Vineyard), that he truly returned, brandishing a lyrical approach that had evolved beyond the more “profane” content of Masterpiece. In his words, “the EP was a social commentary rooted in spiritual and soul traditions.” Due later this year, his next album, Landing On a Hundred, promises to be as passionate and powerful as the rest of his work. On the eve of a show at Yoshi’s, I caught up with him.

SFBG Why did you title your EP Black Skin No Value?

Cody ChesnuTT I wanted to form something that was ironic. To blend all I think could be a literal application to what I feel is going on. We’re facing a low perception of self-worth in the community — from media, the justice system, and so many different things — and at the same time the content of the body of work itself is in stark contrast. We have to recognize that there’s value in acknowledging or addressing the issue. Off the top, it was an ironic approach to deal with what I feel is a crisis in the community.

SFBG Although there’s community focus in the album, most of the songs seem intimate.

CC Yeah, it’s straightforward. I wanted to take a sound-bite songwriting approach. Straight to the point, to cut through all the noise we’re hearing in the media right now. Something that awakens the spirit in some way, or opens chakras that make sure you’re really paying attention to what we’re facing right now.

SFBG Somewhere between rock, funk, folk, soul, hip-hop, and experimental sounds, The Headphone Masterpiece and its success left you in an interesting position in the world of music. I know you didn’t cultivate this crossroad or gray area, so how do you work within it?

CC I don’t think about it. I just create. I do know that the last experience put me in a position where I had some advantages as an artist that gave me room to do what I wanted to do. That’s the beauty of my career — it set me up to go either way. Gave me the freedom to create whatever I wanted to create. What’s your take on it?

SFBG In The Headphone Masterpiece you’re able to show so many sides in an industry that demands two-dimensionality. You go from “Serve This Royalty” to “Smoke and Love,” then you write “Bitch, I’m Broke” and throw in a lullaby to your son. You’re showing yourself as a fully-formed human being. I feel that kind of complexity confuses the machine.

CC I think that is to my advantage. I was hoping, and still hope, that it will inspire other people to look at the humanity of it all. To not be so focused on sure-thing in-the-box marketing. I think exposing the range of human emotion makes the landscape much more interesting. Not to get too deep off into the philosophical aspects of creativity, but I’m reading a piece on Nietzsche’s self-criticism and The Birth of Tragedy, and [Nietzsche is] saying that after the first three Greek tragedies, there were no more to create — the rest are just copies. That’s why we need to expose the range and bring in new content, because, in my opinion, certain subject matter has been exhausted. There’s more to explore within the spirit. It’s what drives me to do what I do.

SFBG What can we expect from your show?

CC I’m playing all new material with a 10-piece band. I’m really interested into tapping into that root soul music. The kind of music that heals, the kind that touches. It’s what I want to feel and hear right now. And there seems to be a consensus that people really want something a little more substantive, closer to that feeling that they had when they were growing up. Right now is an interesting time to bring back that healing vibration, that element. I’m not the only one doing it. I just want to contribute to what I think is a renaissance, a resurgence, a restoration, so to speak, of soul. So much of the soul has been sapped out of our music.

CODY CHESNUTT

Sat./26, 8 and 10 p.m.; $25

Yoshi’s San Francisco

1330 Fillmore, S.F.

(415) 655-5600

www.yoshis.com

Back to the streets

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Coronel knew an old man in Granada who said

(who often said):

“I wish I were a foreigner, so that I

Could go home

— Zero Hour, Ernesto Cardenal

I first came into contact with the work of poet Roberto Vargas a couple of years ago, when I saw his face, projected several stories tall, on a wall just off Valencia Street.

I was riding my bike to the Day of the Dead procession when I came across filmmaker Veronica Majano screening historical footage of the old Mission District on the wall of Dog Eared Books. The footage of Vargas was from a movie called Back to the Streets, and it showed a Latino hippie fest in Precita Park circa-1970. Long-haired Chicanos smoked weed and danced and played bongos on the grass while Vargas read from a stage. On today’s Valencia Street, Vargas was a ghost returned from a long-lost Mission, now standing twenty feet tall on the bookstore’s wall, reading a powerful poem that angrily denounced the SFPD for the mysterious death of a Mission Latino youth in police custody.

The film of Vargas was a beautiful snapshot of Latino youth culture in the neighborhood before gang violence and gentrification, like a Mission High School yearbook scene from an exhilarating era of Latino self-determination. In 1970, the Free Los Siete movement was feeding the community at a free breakfast program out of St. Peter’s Church on Alabama Street and had started free clinics and legal aid programs in the Mission. In the years to follow, the neighborhood would see the founding of the Mission Cultural Center and Galeria de la Raza and the inception of many of the neighborhood’s now world-famous mural projects.

Looking at the groovy scene in the park, it was hard to imagine that just a few short years later, Vargas and other kids from the Mission would be fighting alongside the Sandinistas in the jungles and mountains of Nicaragua. Yet the utopian promise of the era’s poetry, art, and youth culture in many ways culminated in the guerrilla war in which Vargas and other poets from San Francisco would fight and ultimately — in 1979 — help defeat the forces of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

On Feb. 24, the day of his 70th birthday, Roberto Vargas makes a rare return to San Francisco to perform in a poetry event at the Mission Cultural Center in honor of that Nicaraguan solidarity movement of the 1970s. A video will be shown of footage from that struggle — classic scenes of Vargas and others taking over the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco; of the famed nightly candlelight vigils at 24th and Mission BART Plaza in support of the Sandinistas — and Vargas will be reunited on stage to read with old poet friends like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Alejandro Murguía, and Vargas’ old compañero from San Francisco State University’s Third World Liberation Front, actor Danny Glover. The event is not open to the public. Invitations have been given out and the small MCC theater’s 150 seats have already been filled. Yet the event provides an opportunity to publicly honor Roberto Vargas’ contributions to the Mission, and to reflect on the hopes and dreams of Mission past.

 

POETRY AND REVOLUTIONARY VISION

Poetry was a part of Vargas’ world from the beginning. Vargas was born in Nicaragua, but came to the United States when he was a small child. In his 1980 collection of poems Nicaragua Te Canto Besos, Balas, y Sueños, he writes of “living in an offbeat alley called Natoma Street (where I always imagined a lost Mayan city existed beneath the factories).” By the late 1950s, Vargas may have been the first Mission District Latino Beat poet. “I graduated from Mission High School in 1958 and used to hang out in North Beach, going around to see all the poets,” he says. “I met Allen Ginsberg when I was just a 19-year-old kid running around in North Beach. Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Ted Berrigan — all the major poets knew me when I was in my teens.”

After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and an attempt at a boxing career that ended with a detached retina (an injury that also helped him avoid the Vietnam-era draft), Vargas went to SF State, where he was heavily active in the student strike of 1968-69. Students walked out of campus and battled riot police while standing on picket lines for five months to demand an ethnic studies program at the university.

In the spirit of the times, Vargas and other poets — including a young Mission Chicano named Alejandro Murguía — joined the Pocho-Che Collective to publish poetry by local Latino poets. The poets went to cut sugar cane in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba. They put out small poetry chapbooks in the Mission, full of poems that linked Che Guevara’s call for Third World revolution with the experience of the Chicano barrios of the United States in a new vision tropical. In the era after the SF State strike, the city started funding community arts projects in the ghettos. Like all classic zines, the first copies of Pocho-Che were scammed, in this case late at night at Vargas’ new job in the Mission’s Neighborhood Arts Program. In the years to come, the group would eventually publish hardbound books by Vargas, Nina Serrano, and others.

Today, Murguía is a professor in the ethnic studies program at SF State that the strikers fought to originate. He is the author of the American Book Award-winning short story collection This War Called Love (2002) and the memoir The Medicine of Memory (2002). He remembers, “The poetry scene was incipient, very young, and the readings weren’t always very formal. Sometimes they were at community events or protest rallies. But we had contact with Latin America. We knew people who had been in Chile, like Dr. Fernando Alegría.”

Alegría was a poet who had been the cultural attaché to the U.S. under Allende in Washington. Vargas recalls, “Alegría had myself and some other young poets come to Chile and spend a month or two studying with [Pablo] Neruda. But, of course, our plans were canceled by the coup in Chile.”

Murguia remembers the September 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew the popularly elected Socialist democracy of Salvador Allende caused the young poets to organize rare formal readings at Glide Memorial Church in protest. “We had several big ones there,” he says. “There was a broad range of poets — Michael McClure, Fernando Alegría, Jack Hirschman, Bob Kaufman, Janice Mirikitami all read. There was a line going down the block to get in.”

In addition to their mentor, Alegría, Vargas, and Murguía also knew one of their heroes, the Nicaraguan Marxist poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal lived under the Somoza dictatorship in a sort-of internal exile in a religious artist commune called Solentiname. Vargas wanted to bring Cardenal to read in the United States, but Somoza would not allow the poet, who was critical of the Nicaraguan dictator, to travel outside the country. Vargas went to his old pal Ginsberg for help.

“Because Allen knew me when I was a kid, he helped me with my organizing for Nicaragua,” says Vargas. “Allen was part of PEN, and in 1973 or ’74 he went to the State Department with other writers to put pressure on [Anastasio] Somoza. Eventually Somoza relented and we brought Cardenal to New York for a reading.”

The poetry of Cardenal was a north star to the young Mission poets. Cardenal’s epic 1957-60 masterwork Zero Hour is perhaps the literary foundation of revolution in Nicaragua. Influenced formally by Ezra Pound, Zero Hour weaves a sprawling history of Somozan oppression and U.S. intervention in Nicaragua together with lyrical imagery of Nicaragua’s natural beauty and wildlife. The poem creates a poignant sense that Nicaraguans, unable to enjoy and own these natural riches, had under Somoza become exiles within their own country.

Of particular interest to the young Mission poets, though, was Cardenal’s Homage to the American Indians (1969), a book-length meditation on the glory of Mayan and North American native civilizations. “For us, the work of Cardenal was very important,” says Murguía. “Homage to the American Indians is a continental vision of Native Americans — everything from the San Blas Indians of Panama to the Indians of Omaha to the Indians of Mexico City and Peru.”

In Homage, Cardenal evokes a lost Indian Utopia “so democratic that archaeologists know nothing about their rulers,” where “their pyramids were built with no forced labor, the peak of their civilization did not lead to an empire, and the word wall does not exist in their language.” He writes:

But how to write anew the hieroglyph,

How to paint the jaguar anew,

How to overthrow the tyrants?

How to build our tropical acropolis anew

Cardenal’s poems of this lost glorious past were to Vargas more pointedly a vision of a Latin American utopia that can also be regained in the future. In Cardenal’s work, says Vargas, “There is a longing for the simplicity of that civilization — the creativity, the innocence, the tribalism. Can we get it back after all the dictatorships, after all that capitalism has done? Cardenal showed us what we were, what we had, what we lost.”

Under Cardenal’s influence, the Mission poets turned seeing lost Mayan cities beneath the city’s factories into a literary movement. By 1975, members of Pocho-Che had started a magazine called El Tin Tan with Murguia as editor and Vargas as contributor. El Tin Tan presented a sweeping utopian vision of a borderless invisible Latino republic united culturally and politically under the sign of the palm tree. The poets situated the capital of this world right here in the Mission District.

“To tropicalize the Mission — to see it as a tropical pueblo — was a political act of defiance and self-determination,” says Murguía. “We were saying that we put this particular neighborhood — our pueblo, in a way — not in a context of North American history but in the context of Latin American history. The history of the eastern U.S. doesn’t affect California until 1848 when the first illegal immigrants came to California — not from the South, but from the East.

El Tin Tan,” Murguía continues, “was probably the first magazine that was intercontinental in scope, a combination of politics and literature and art and different trends from the Mission to Mexico City to Argentina and everywhere in between.” He proudly recalls that it ran the first North American essays on Salvadoran poetry, and translated and printed a short story by Nelson Marra, a writer imprisoned by the Uruguayan dictatorship.

Yet for all its international perspective, El Tin Tan remained firmly rooted in the Mission. Columns by Nuyorican poet Victor Hernández Cruz and news of the assassination of Salvadoran guerrilla poet Roque Dalton ran side by side with the first comics by future Galeria de la Raza founder Rene Yáñez, all folded between wildly colorful cover art by neighborhood favorites like the famed Chicano artist Rupert Garcia and the muralist Mike Rios.

“The magazines were colorful — tropical — on the outside, but very political on the inside,” says Murguía. “That was a metaphor for our own work.”

By this time, Vargas had become an Associate Director at the SF Arts Commission. From within City Hall, he started to pump city arts money into the Mission, helping to fund projects like Mike Rios’ mural of the people holding BART on their backs at 24th and Mission BART Plaza and the Balmy Alley Mural Project — art that can still be seen in public today.

Once, Vargas commissioned a Chuy Campesano mural for the Bank of America building at 22nd and Mission. “I read a poem called “Boa” and had the crowd dancing and chanting, Es la Boa, Es la Boa,” says Vargas. “We were trying to say, ‘You made your millions off our farmers, but now you are on our turf in the Mission here in occupied Mexico. So we’ll put hieroglyphics on the walls of your bank like we used to do!’ Someone from the bank tried to take the mic from me and cops came and escorted us out.”

Vargas’s story of the mural’s dedication ceremony captures the bravado of the era. “It was a beautiful time, all of us young and thinking we were going to change the world. We wanted to change the world through culture.”

The poets organized the community to demand a neighborhood’s arts center, too. In 1977, the dream was realized when the City, with pressure from Vargas from within City Hall in the Arts Commission, purchased an old, five-floor furniture store at 24th and Mission to be made into the Mission Cultural Center. Murguia became the center’s first director.

The Mission utopia was becoming a reality for Vargas. In Nicaragua Te Canto, he wrote:

We used to drive

Our lowered down Plymouths and Chevys

On top of the breast of a mountain to

Make love and drink wine… Never

Knowing what was going to happen after

Mission High School

The Mission is now an expression of real culture, a many-faceted being … both plus and minus with the soul of a human rainbow…My people watching slides of Sandino and Nica history … White children wearing guarachas and afros trippin’ down the streets to party. Young Salvadoran poets discussing the assassination of Roque Dalton … The Mission is now an implosion/explosion of human color, of walls being painted by muralistas. There is a collective feeling of compassion for each other Nicas Blacks Chicanos Chilenos Oppressed Indios. The sense of collective survival, histories full of Somozas, Wounded Knees written on the walls.

In Zero Hour, Cardenal wrote of Nicaragua’s trees and birds and lakes, and their call to revolution, as seen from its mountains:

What’s that light way off there? Is it a star?

Its Sandino’s light shining in the black mountain

 

Vargas, the excited Mission kid, echoed in his work:

 

Tonight I am sitting on a mountain called Bernal Hill

Tonight I see the flames of America Latina spreading from here …

 

STRUGGLE AND VICTORY — AND STRUGGLE

Perhaps inevitably, the Latin American Utopia Vargas and company created in poetry would seem so tantalizingly close to actualization that they would be forced to pick up the gun and fight for its existence.

When the enormous earthquake of 1972 left Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, in ruins, Nicaraguan refugees flocked to SF’s Mission District. Soon, San Francisco was home to more Nicaraguans than any place on Earth outside of Nicaragua. The family of Anastasio Somoza had controlled Nicaragua with brutal repression for generations. Somoza’s embezzling of relief funds for earthquake victims led to increased revolutionary activity against his rule. Taking their name from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who led resistance against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, La Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) — or the Sandinistas, as they were popularly known — began guerrilla activities in late 1974 by taking government officials and Somoza relatives hostage in a raid on the house of the minister of agriculture. They received a $2 million ransom and had their communiqué printed in the national newspaper. Thus was born the Sandinista revolution.

In the Mission, Vargas, Murguía, and others were in touch with La Frente, and began organizing Sandinista solidarity rallies to coordinate with La Frente’s actions in Nicaragua. Out of offices in the Mission Cultural Center, along with El Tin Tan, the poets published a newspaper called La Gaceta about the situation in Nicaragua. The paper had a circulation of 5000 copies and was available for free all over the district. The sight of pro-Sandinista rallies at 24th and BART Plaza became so common that the plaza was popularly nicknamed Plaza Sandino.

Vargas organized takeovers of the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco and traveled the US, speaking about Nicaragua. Yet, soon, this kind of support didn’t seem like enough. In Cardenal’s poetry, victory was inevitable. Cardenal had written that Indian time was circular, that “history became prophecy,” and that therefore the “empire will always fall.” He had also written, “The hero is reborn when he dies. And the green grass is reborn from the ashes.” In poetry, Vargas and Murguia found inspiration to go to war.

In 1976 and 1977, Mission District residents, in solidarity with the FSLN, began quietly leaving San Francisco to join up with La Frente and pick up the gun in the Sandinista Revolution. Among them were Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murguía.

“It was very romantic,” says Murguía. “If you grew up in the time after Che’s death, when you had Che’s figure calling for “1,2,3, many Vietnams” and a lot of different armed struggles going on all over Latin America, then it would seem logical, I think, if you were kind of young and crazy, that you would want to participate in some of these situations besides just doing solidarity work or organizing rallies. Also, the coup in Chile crushed our generation’s hope for electoral change in Latin America.”

Today, Murguía tries to situate the poets’ embrace of armed struggle within the spirit of those long ago times, but one senses that Vargas would not hesitate to join a guerrilla war tomorrow morning. When I ask him how the young poets made the leap from verse to bullets, he is incredulous at the question.

“We had to fight! There was no other way!” Vargas says. “We had the historical perspective and as a people we were worthless if we let that situation stand. We had our own books out. But are we really revolutionary poets if we just sit back and collect our laurels?”

Murguía compares the Sandinista war with the Spanish Civil War, when there were many international brigades in which writers had been involved. He suggests the poets went to war because they were poets. “If you knew the situation intimately in Nicaragua and you were reading Cardenal’s poems,” he says, “it was easy to see the connection between poets and political necessity.”

Vargas began organizing small, tight-knit cadres for battle in Nicaragua, recruiting his Sandinista guerrillas right off of the streets of the Mission. “I was secretive and I found them one by one,” he explains. “We were very clandestine and very compartmentalized. We never had more than a dozen people in our committee at once.”

Men who were menial laborers in San Francisco would one day be among the most respected heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution. “When I recruited Chombo [Walter Ferretti], he was a cook at the Hyatt Regency,” says Vargas. “Later, Chombo would become a head of national security in Nicaragua. Another recruit was a former pilot, so I went to talk to him where he pumped gas at 21st and South Van Ness. That was Commandante Raúl Venerio. After the triumph of 1979, he would become the Chief of the Nicaraguan Air Force.”

When in San Francisco, Venerio later served as the editor of La Gaceta. In Nicaragua, the former gas station attendant became a real hero. “They got an airplane and attacked the National Palace,” says Vargas, laughing. “They hit it and split, and got away — real Mission boys!”

Before heading off to join La Frente, Vargas’ recruits would undergo a regimen of training and political education, an informal boot camp largely hidden in plain sight in the Bay Area.

“It was primitive,” remembers Murguía. “We didn’t really have someone with a military background to train us. We got just guns at pawn shops on Mission Street and practiced shooting at the firing range in Sharp Park down in Pacifica. We worked out with a friend who was a black belt in karate.”

Murguía says the most difficult part of training was the daily pre-dawn run of five laps around Bernal Hill. “We would run up the hill counter-clockwise — because that way is more difficult,” he says, “and we would wear these combat boots we bought at Leed’s Shoes on Mission.”

Besides being a part of physical conditioning, the run was a litmus test of the recruits’ commitment. “Doing activity like that is almost impossible if you’re not really psychologically into it,” says Murguía. “Try running five times around Bernal Hill! You start wondering after your third lap, ‘Goddamn! Why am I doing this?‘ Especially when no one is forcing you to do it!”

When I ask if the daily jog of 10 or 12 Latino men in combat boots on the hill at sunrise did not attract any, uh, attention, Murguía shrugs. “There were less people on the hill in those days,” he says. He recalls that the Mission cadres trained in complete anonymity: “We got money to rent planes and we took turns learning to fly the planes around the Bay Area. Nobody suspected anything because nobody knew anything about Nicaragua then.”

When I try to imagine a phalanx of Sandinistas at dawn on today’s Bernal Hill, surrounded by a crowd of early morning dog walkers, I can’t help but laugh. But the cadre’s training was deadly serious, and Murguía says its value was far more than psychological. “What I discovered when I went to the Southern Front was that our San Francisco cadres were some of the most advanced in the war,” he explains. “We understood the political situation and the tactic of insurrection and we had a minimum of physical conditioning. But some of these other cats, man! They literally just walked in off the street!”

For a time, Murguía remained the director of the Mission Cultural Center, while making regular trips to fight in Nicaragua. In 1977, Vargas resigned from the Arts Commission and went to battle for six or seven months. He and Murguía would spend the next couple of years rotating back and forth from the war front in Nicaragua to their solidarity work in the Mission. Murguía describes his entry into Nicaragua, his stay in various guerrilla safe houses in Costa Rica, and his experiences in the war in his 1991 American Book Award-winning fictionalized memoir, Southern Front.

Though Murguía says the actual military war on the ground was largely a stalemate between the Sandinistas and the Somozas’ National Guard, the Sandinistas were at last able to triumph through international pressure, strategic military victories, and a general strike. Somoza fled in July of 1979, and the Sandinistas entered Managua victorious on July 19 of the same year. Cardenal’s poem “Lights” describes the city as seen from a plane that brought the elder poet into a Managua free from the Somoza family’s rule for the first time in 43 years. In Managua, street graffiti declared, El triunfo de la revolución el triunfo de la poesía.

Vargas and Murguía, however, did not enter Managua with the victorious army. The Southern Front did not go to Managua, and Vargas had recently been sent back to the U.S., to coordinate a simultaneous take over of the Nicaraguan consulates in major U.S. cities from coast to coast to coincide with the victory in Managua.

Vargas’ work for Nicaragua did not end with victory. The Mission High kid now found himself serving in the new revolutionary government as cultural attaché to the United States. “I was jailed in the takeover of the DC consulate,” Vargas says, laughing, “but then I came back several months later to serve there!”

The voluble poet grows uncharacteristically silent when I ask him what it felt like to actually win the war.

“To win?,” he asks, pronouncing the word as if he was hearing it for the very first time. “Well … it’s like taking off a huge load, man. Like taking mountains off your back.” He is silent for a bit and then adds, “But what do you win? You win the right to continue the struggle.”

“To win was to reach the objective of getting rid of the Somoza family once and for all,” Vargas says. “But it was not really a win/lose situation.” Indeed, the Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins and in debt, with an estimated 50,000 war dead, and 600,000 homeless. Nicaragua’s left-wing powers would become an obsession for the Reagan Administration, who for the next ten years offered heavy financial assistance and training to the Contras, a coalition of pro-Somoza and anti-Sandinista guerrillas who fought to overthrow the revolutionary government. The U.S. strangled Nicaragua’s economy with a trade embargo like it employed against Cuba. In reality, for the Sandinistas, the war literally never ended.

“Somoza bombed everything in Nicaragua before he left the country. Reagan was spending — what? — $100 million a year annually against us at that time?” says Vargas. “They spent so much for a decade to destroy our little country.”

Nonetheless, poetry remained in the forefront of the Nicaraguan revolution. Cardenal was named Ministry of Culture, and he instituted poetry workshops across Nicaragua as part of a highly successful literacy campaign that raised literacy from just 12 percent to over 50 percent in the first 6 months of the revolutionary government. Soon, poetry was being written and taught in the tiniest villages and in the fields.

“We tried,” Vargas says bluntly. “We were doing very important land reform, incredible stuff for the economy. But it was dangerous to be a good example. We had the potential, but we had to hold off this enormous power [of the U.S.] for decades. Ultimately, we had to step back so they would not destroy Nicaragua.”

In 1990, Nicaraguan voters, weary of war and economic misery, chose to elect FSLN President Daniel Ortega’s U.S.-backed opponent, Violetta Chamorro, in the presidential election. “We lost the elections,” says Vargas. “But we had to allow them to demonstrate that we were not like Cuba or other revolutions. We lost beautiful young men and women to get that liberty.”

I ask Vargas to consider the successes and failures of the Nicaraguan revolution. He pauses and then seemingly changes the subject, excitedly telling me of the time he brought Ginsberg to meet the Sandinista soldiers. “Ginsberg was fascinated by the Sandinistas,” says Vargas. “And he wanted to see what he had been supporting on my behalf all these years. So I took him to the fighting along the Honduras border in 1984, during the Contra war.”

When Ginsberg went to the war zone, he brought not a rifle but a concertina. “I took him to meet these young soldiers in a trench. They see Allen with the concertina and they were like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ I told them he was a very famous poet. At once, they all started taking bits of paper out of their pockets that they had written poems on and started reading them to Allen. So there we are, with these soldiers in the trench with their rifles reading poetry, and Allen just wailing away on this concertina!”

I think of the strange road from Cardenal’s vision of lost Mayan cities to Vargas’ dreams of a Bernal Hill utopia to Ginsberg listening to soldiers’ poetry in a Nicaraguan trench, and I see that Vargas has answered my question with his own, the question asked by revolutionary poetry.

 

LOST CITIES, AND NEW ONES

The lost moment with Ginsberg in the trenches is like a missing chapter out of Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. Indeed Vargas’ story in many ways embodies that of Bolaño’s exile poet generation, of which he wrote, “They dreamed of a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell.” Except for one crucial difference: Vargas is very much alive and still fighting.

Today, Vargas still puts in a tireless 50-hour work week as a labor organizer for the American Federation of Teachers in San Antonio, TX. During our conversation, he excitedly tells me of an action he is organizing for next month, a march of teachers on the Texas capital to protest budget cuts to education. “I camp out in the teacher’s lounge and talk to them when they are on break,” he says. “I signed up 50 new members last week!”

As he nears 70, the poet shows no signs of slowing down. “I can’t afford to!” he says. “My youngest son is only 17. When I get finished putting him through college, then maybe I can take a break.”

But work seems like more than necessity to Vargas; political struggle is the central theme of his life’s work. “Work, work, work, Erick,” he tells me. “That is what we have to do. I could go back and forth about what went wrong in Nicaragua, but there is more work to do and I have to stay positive. It is all part of the process.”

When Vargas comes back to the Mission Cultural Center this week, he will literally return, full circle, to a building he helped build. “We had no money to hire laborers, so we’d be there with our kids every weekend, building the place,” he remembers.

One of those kids was Vargas’ son, Mission poet Ariel Vargas, who will read in public with his father for the first time this week. “Cardenal baptized him when Ernesto came to bless the new Mission Cultural Center in 1977,” Vargas says. “He had offered to baptize any children who also might be there. In the end, there was a line of families around the block on 24th Street who had brought their children for Ernesto Cardenal to baptize. Ariel had already been there every weekend on his hands and knees sanding those huge gymnasium-like floors with us. The Mission Cultural Center is still there and that is our monument.” As he discusses the Mission, Vargas forgets the problems of the Nicaraguan revolution and begins talking nonstop again at last. He comes back to the stories that started our conversation. “You know, I lived at 110 Mullen on Bernal Hill,” he says, his excitement gathering. “Mike Rios was my neighbor. Rene Yáñez lived on the block. So it was all happening right there! Carlos Santana lived down the block at around 180 Mullen or something. We used to hear him and his band jamming all the time. The Arts Commission had a stage truck and I’d take it out to Precita Park and put the stage down for Carlos to play on.” I think of Cardenal’s vision of the repeating cycle of time, the promise that the empire will always fall and the hero will always be reborn. Much in the Mission has changed. But Vargas, the old poet, still looks out from Bernal Hill today and sees lost cities beneath the surface.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volume 45 Number 21 Flip-through Edition

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No San Bruno rate hike for PG&E

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EDITORIAL In a Feb. 18 message to shareholders, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. announced that the projected costs of the San Bruno pipeline explosion could exceed $700 million. Now the company wants to get some of that back from ratepayers. That will be a huge test for Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Public Utilities Commission, and send a signal about how the new governor will deal with the rogue utility. The outcome should be simple: every penny of the costs of cleaning up the mess, repairing and upgrading the pipelines, and setting damage claims and lawsuits should be paid out of PG&E profits.

Let’s review the facts.

The CPUC gave PG&E $5 million to upgrade the pipeline under San Bruno in 2009, but the company decided to spend the money instead on executive bonuses.

PG&E officials fought bitterly to prevent the federal government from cracking down on natural gas pipeline inspections.

PG&E never conducted serious inspections of a line that was past its rated use and had been poorly constructed in the first place.

PG&E intentionally inflated gas pressure in that line beyond what regulators say was safe.

It took PG&E more than an hour to shut off the gas after the explosion, making the resulting fire much harder to contain and quite possibly contributing to some of the eight deaths and destruction of more than 30 houses.

That’s not the sort of record that suggests that the pipeline disaster was an unavoidable accident. It certainly wasn’t caused by a natural disaster. It was corporate error — misuse of money, irresponsible monitoring of a dangerous piece of equipment, intentional efforts to blunt public oversight. The damage was PG&E’s fault.

The problem is that so far, the company hasn’t been held accountable. As John Weber, editor of The Bay Citizen, pointed out in a Feb. 5 column: “What consequences have PG&E and its executives faced for these blunders? None. The stock is doing just fine. The California Public Utilities Commission has awarded the company almost $30 million in bonuses for energy-saving targets that weren’t achieved. The company plans to hire a new gas operations executive, but no one has lost his job — except a hapless manager who thought it would be smart to spy on the online discussions of smart-meter opponents.”

Ideally, the CPUC and the federal regulators ought to levy the heaviest possible fines on the company and mandate far stricter maintenance oversight. At the very least, the commission needs to make it clear that no ratepayer money will go for San Bruno-related expenses.

The pressure should be on at every level of government. The San Francisco supervisors should pass a resolution calling on the CPUC to reject any rate hike that would force PG&E customers to pay for the accident. State Sen. Leland Yee (D-SF) has already issued a statement denouncing any rate hike. But the Legislature ought to go further and pass a bill that would state that no utility can charge its ratepayers for costs related to an accident that was clearly the utility’s fault.

Otherwise, the utility that killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood will emerge unaccountable and unscathed. P.S. Go to TURN.org to sign the Utility Reform Network’s anti rate hike petition.

Who’s next?

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steve@sfbg.com and tredmond@sfbg.com

The seven serious candidates who have announced plans to run for mayor extends from moderate to conservative at this point, but it’s an unusual field for San Francisco: there is no clear progressive standard-bearer, and no clear downtown candidate.

But it probably won’t stay that way. Sources say others are likely to join the lackluster race in the coming months, and there’s a strong likelihood that some progressive candidate will decide to the take plunge.

Also unlike the last few mayor’s races, there appears to be no clear frontrunner — either in fundraising or in having a clear constituency base — a new dynamic that creates an unpredictability that will be exacerbated because this is the first contested mayor’s race using the ranked-choice voting system and public financing of candidates.

There was a weak field of challengers to Gavin Newsom in 2007 and no one qualified for public financing or presented a strong threat. But this time City Attorney Dennis Herrera and former Sup. Bevan Dufty already have indicated they will take public financing, and others are expected to follow suit.

In addition to Herrera and Dufty, the field includes Sen. Leland Yee, Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting, venture capitalist Joanna Rees, and former Sups. Tony Hall and Michela Alioto-Pier. Those close to Board President David Chiu also say he is “seriously considering” jumping into the race and talking to friends and supporters about that possibility now.

But so far none come from the progressive political community that has controlled the Board of Supervisors for the past decade. Although Chiu is the only candidate in the field to self-identify as a progressive, he has adopted a more moderate governing style that has frustrated many progressive activists and supervisors. So that leaves voters on the left without a candidate right now.

“If a credible progressive candidate doesn’t get into the race, then we’ll see the top-tier candidates — which so far Leland Yee and Dennis Herrera — try to make friends with progressive San Francisco. And it would appear they have a lot of work to do,” Aaron Peskin, the former board president who chairs the San Francisco Democratic Party, told us.

Both Yee and Herrera have taken some progressive positions, and Yee has consistently endorsed more progressive candidates than anyone else in the mayoral field, but they have also taken many positions that have alienated them from progressives. And both have been taking in lots of campaign cash from interests hostile to the progressive base of renters, environmentalists, and advocates for social and economic justice.

“Nobody who has put their hats in the ring is really exciting anyone, so there is plenty of room for new entrants,” Peskin said, noting the progressives are actively discussing who should run. Peskin wouldn’t identify whom they’re courting, but some of the names being dropped are Sups. John Avalos, Ross Mirkarimi, and David Campos, as well as former Sup. Chris Daly and Peskin.

But Mirkarimi shifted some of that talk this week when he announced that he intends to run to replace the retiring Mike Hennessey as sheriff.

Political consultant Jim Stearns, who is representing Yee, also expects others to get into the race. “I don’t think the field is complete yet. Historically, the strong self-identified progressive candidate has come in late or surged late, like [Tom] Ammiano and [Matt] Gonzalez,” Stearns said.

Ammiano launched his write-in mayoral bid in September 1999 and Gonzalez jumped into the race just before the filing deadline in August 2003, so there’s plenty of time for progressive candidates to get in. “It’s never too late in San Francisco,” Stearns said. And unlike those two races when the upstarts were seriously outspent by the well-heeled frontrunners, Stearns said this year’s field will likely be on a fairly even financial footing.

“It’s likely every candidate will have $1.5 million to $2 million to spend,” he said. That means the keys to the race are likely to be name ID with voters and “which campaign can do the most with the least dollars,” Stearns said.

Already, some of the candidates who will be running to the center are looking for progressive support. Yee, for example, has given substantial amounts of money to progressive groups and candidates and has endorsed progressives for office.

Yee told us he’s positioning himself as “the candidate of the regular folks of San Francisco — the people who are trying to raise their families and live in this city.” He added: “To the extent that the progressive agenda fits that, we’ll be part of it.”

But he already has the endorsement of the Building Trades Council, which has often been at war with progressives, particularly over development issues.

Yee said he hasn’t yet weighed in on the local budget, but he agreed that new revenue “shouldn’t be off the table.” He said he thinks the current pension reform discussions at City Hall, involving Mayor Ed Lee, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, financier Warren Hellman, and union representatives are “the right way to go.”

Herrera said he’s going to run on his record — which includes a long list of progressive legal actions (along with his gang injunctions, which a lot of progressives question). He also told us that he’s involved in the pension reform discussions but thinks that new revenue absolutely ought to be a part of the budget debate.

Meet the new boss

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news@sfbg.com

The Guardian hasn’t been invited into City Hall’s Room 200 for a long time. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who frequently criticized this newspaper in his public statements, had a tendency to freeze out his critics, adopting a supercilious and vinegary attitude toward any members of the press who questioned his policy decisions. So it was almost surreal when a smiling Mayor Ed Lee cordially welcomed two Guardian reporters into his stately office Feb. 15.

Lee says he plans to open his office to a broader cross-section of the community, a move he described as a way of including those who previously felt left out. Other changes have come, too. He’s replaced Newsom’s press secretary, Tony Winnicker, with Christine Falvey, former communications director at the Department of Public Works (DPW). He’s filled the Mayor’s Office with greenery, including giant tropical plants that exude a calming green aura, in stark contrast to Newsom — whose own Room 200 was sterile and self-aggrandizing, including a portrait of Robert Kennedy, in whose footsteps Newsom repeatedly claimed to walk.

When it comes to policy issues, however, some expect to see little more than business-as-usual in the Mayor’s Office. Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin, a progressive stalwart, said he sees no substantive changes between the new mayor and his predecessor. “It seems to me that the new administration is carrying forward the policies of the former administration,” Peskin said. “I see no demonstrable change. And that makes sense. Lee was Willie Brown and former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s handpicked successor. So he’s dancing with the guys that brought him in.”

Sup. David Campos, viewed as part of the city’s progressive camp along with Peskin, took a more diplomatic tack. “So far I’ve been very pleased with what I’ve seen,” Campos noted. “I really appreciate that he’s reached out to the community-based organizations and come out to my district and done merchant walks. I think we have to wait to see what he does on specific policy issues.”

But while Lee has already garnered a reputation for being stylistically worlds apart from Newsom, he still hews close to his predecessor’s policies in some key areas. In our interview, Lee expressed an unwillingness to consider tax-revenue measures for now, but said he was willing to take condo conversions into consideration as a way to bring in cash. He was unenthusiastic about community choice aggregation and dismissive of replacing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. with a public-power system. He hasn’t committed to overturning the pending eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s recycling center, and he continued to argue for expanding Recology’s monopoly on the city’s $206 million annual trash stream, despite a recent Budget and Legislative Analyst’ report that recommended putting the issue to the voters.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who met Lee in 1980 through the Asian Law Caucus, said Lee would be facing steep challenges. “It’s a fascinating political karmic outcome that he is now our appointed mayor. He didn’t seek it out, as he says, but the opportunity he has now is to focus his efforts on fixing some of the problems that have gone unaddressed for decades, pension reform being one of them. I think he realizes he has a limited time to achieve things of value. The question I and others have is, can he do it?”

 

THE RELUCTANT MAYOR

Lee identified as a non-politician, patently rejecting the notion that he would enter the race for mayor. In meetings with members of the Board of Supervisors at the end of 2010, he said he didn’t want the job.

Yet while vacationing in Hong Kong, Lee became the subject of a full-court press. “When the lobbying and phone calls started … clearly they meant a lot to me,” Lee told us, adding that the choice “was very heavy on my mind.” He finally relented, accepting the city’s top post.

Although rumors had been circulating that Lee might seek a full term, he told the Guardian he’s serious about serving as a caretaker mayor. “If I’m going to thrust all my energy into this, I don’t need to have to deal with … a campaign to run for mayor.”

Adachi offered an interesting take on Lee as caretaker: “Somewhere along the way, [Lee] became known as the go-to guy in government who could take care of problems,” Adachi said, “like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction.”

Sounding rather unlike Harvey Keitel’s tough-talking character, Lee noted, “One of my goals is to rebuild the trust between the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors. I think I can do that by being consistent with the promises I make.”

Lee’s vows to keep his promises, mend rifts with the board, and stay focused on the job could be interpreted as statements intended to set him apart from Newsom, who was frequently criticized for being disengaged during his runs for higher office, provoking skirmishes with the board, and going back on his word.

The new mayor also said he’d be willing to share his working calendar with the public, something Newsom resisted for years. Kimo Crossman, a sunshine advocate who was part of a group that began submitting requests for Newsom’s calendar in 2006, greeted this news with a wait-and-see attitude. “I’ve already put in a request,” Crossman said. “Politicians are always in support of sunshine — until they have to comply with it.”

 

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

Pointing to the tropical elephant-ear plants adorning his office, Lee noted that elephants are considered lucky in Chinese culture. With the monstrous issues of pension reform and a gaping budget deficit hitting his mayoral term like twin tornadoes, it might not hurt to have some extra luck.

Pension reform is emerging as the issue du jour in City Hall. A round of talks on how to turn the tide on rising pension costs has brought labor representatives, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, billionaire Warren Hellman, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, labor leaders, and others to the table as part of a working group.

Gabriel Haaland, who works for SEIU Local 1021, sounded a positive note on Lee. “He’s an extraordinarily knowledgeable guy about government. He seems to have a very collaborative working style and approach to problem-solving, and he is respectful of differing opinions,” Haaland said. “Where is it going to take us? I don’t know yet.”

Lee emphasized his desire to bring many stakeholders together to facilitate agreement. “We’re talking about everything from limiting pensionable salaries, to fixing loopholes, to dealing with what kinds of plans we can afford in the health care arena,” he noted. Lee said the group had hashed out 15 proposals so far, which will be vetted by the Controller’s Office.

A central focus, Lee said, has been “whether we’ve come to a time to recognize that we have to cap pensions.” That could mean capping a pension itself, he said, or limiting how much of an employee’s salary can be counted toward his or her pension.

Since Lee plans to resume his post as city administrator once his mayoral term has ended, he added a personal note: “I want to go back to my old job, do that for five years, and have a pension that is respectable,” he said. “At the same time, I feel others who’ve worked with me deserve a pension. I don’t want it threatened by the instability we’re headed toward and the insolvency we’re headed toward.”

 

BRACING FOR THE BUDGET

If pension reform is shaping up to be the No. 1 challenge of Lee’s administration, tackling the city budget is a close second. When Newsom left office, he passed Lee a budget memo containing instructions for a 2.5 percent reduction in most city departments, part of an overarching plan to shave 10 percent from all departments plus another 10 percent in contingency cuts, making for a bruising 20 percent.

Lee said his budget strategy is to try to avert what Sup. David Chiu once characterized as “the typical Kabuki-style budget process” that has pitted progressives against the mayor in years past. That means sitting down with stakeholders early.

“I have opened the door of this office to a number of community groups that had expressed a lot of historical frustration in not being able to express to the mayor what they feel the priorities of their communities are,” Lee said. “I’ve done that in conjunction with members of the Board of Supervisors, who also felt that they weren’t involved from the beginning.”

Affordable-housing advocate Calvin Welch said Lee’s style is a dramatic change. “I think he’s probably equaled the total number of people he’s met in six weeks with the number that Newsom met in his seven years as mayor,” Welch said.

Sup. Carmen Chu, recently installed as chair of the Budget & Finance Committee, predicted that the budget will still be hard to balance. “We are still grappling with a $380 million deficit,” Chu told us, noting that there are some positive economic signs ahead, but no reason to expect a dramatic improvement. “We’re been told that there is $14 million in better news. But we still have the state budget to contend with, and who knows what that will look like.”

Sup. John Avalos, the former chair of the Board’s powerful Budget Committee, said he thinks the rubber hasn’t hit the road yet on painful budget decisions that seem inevitable this year — and the outcome, he said, could spell a crashing halt to Ed Lee’s current honeymoon as mayor.

“We are facing incredible challenges,” Avalos said, noting that he heard that labor does not intend to open up its contracts, which were approved in 2010 for a two-year period. And federal stimulus money has run out.

 

DID SOMEONE SAY “CONDO CONVERSIONS”?

Asked whether he supported new revenue measures as a way to fill the budget gap, Lee initially gave an answer that seemed to echo Newsom’s inflexible no-new-taxes stance. “I’m not ready to look at taxes yet,” he said.

He also invoked an idea that Newsom proposed during the last budget cycle, which progressives bitterly opposed. In a conversation with community-based organizations about “unpopular revenue-generating ideas,” Lee cautioned attendees that “within the category of unpopular revenue-generating ideas are also some that would be very unpopular to you as well.”

Asked to explain, Lee answered: “Could be condo conversion. Could be taxes. I’m not isolating any one of them, but they are in the category of very unpopular revenue-generating ideas, and they have to be carefully thought out before we determine that they would be that seriously weighed.”

Ted Gullicksen, who runs the San Francisco Tenants Union, said tenant advocates have scheduled a meeting with Lee to talk about condo conversions. Thanks to Prop. 26’s passage in November 2010, he said, any such proposal would have to be approved by two-thirds of the board or the voters. “It’s pretty clear that any such measure would not move forward without support from all sides,” Gullicksen said. “If anyone opposes it, it’s going to go nowhere.”

Gullicksen said he’d heard that Lee is willing to look at the possibility of significant concessions to renter groups in an effort to broker a condo conversion deal, such as a moratorium on future condo conversions. “If, for example, 1,000 TICs [tenants-in-common] became condos under the proposal, then we’d need a moratorium for five years to minimize and mitigate the damages,” Gullicksen explained.

More important, some structural reform of TIC conversions may be on the table, Gullicksen said. “And that would be more important than keeping existing TICs from becoming condos.”

Gullicksen acknowledged that Lee has the decency to talk to all the stakeholders. “Newsom never attempted to talk to tenants advocates,” he said.

 

GREEN, WITHIN LIMITS

Lee’s two children are in their early 20s, and the mayor said he takes seriously the goal of being proactive on environmental issues in order to leave them with a more sustainable San Francisco. He trumpeted the city’s green achievements, saying, “We’re now on the cutting edge of environmental goals for the city.”

Leading bicycle activist Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition had praise for Lee on bike issues. “I’m really encouraged by his very public support of the new green separate bikeways on Market Street and his interest and commitment to creating more,” she said. “I believe Mayor Lee sees the value of connecting the city with cross town bicycle lanes, which serve a wide range of folks, including business people and families.”

Yet some proponents of green causes are feeling uncertain about whether their projects will advance under Lee’s watch.

On the issue of community choice aggregation (CCA), the ambitious green-energy program that would transfer Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers to a city-run program with a cleaner energy mix, Lee — who helped determine rates as city administrator — seemed lukewarm. “I know Mr. [Ed] Harrington and his staff just want to make sure it’s done right,” he said, referring to the general manager of the city’s Public Utilities Commission, whose tepid attitude toward the program has frequently driven him to lock horns with the city’s chief CCA proponent, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi.

Lee noted that CCA program goals were recently scaled back. He also said pretty directly that he opposes public power: “We’re not in any day getting rid of PG&E at all. I don’t think that is the right approach.”

The controversial issue of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council Recycling Center’s pending eviction from Golden Gate Park still hangs in the balance. The Recreation and Park Commission, at Newsom’s behest, approved the eviction despite overwhelming community opposition.

Lee said he hadn’t looked at the issue closely. “I do know that there’s a lot of strong debate around the viability, what that operation attracts and doesn’t attract,” he said. “I had the owner of HANC here along with a good friend, Calvin Welch, who made a plea that I think about it a bit. I agreed that I would sit down and talk with what I believe to be the two experts involved in that decision: Melanie Nutter at the Department of the Environment and then Phil Ginsburg at the Rec and Park.” Nutter and Ginsburg supported HANC’s eviction.

Welch, who is on the board of HANC, noted that Lee could be swayed by his staff. “The bunch around Newsom had old and bad habits, and old and bad policies. In dealing with mayors over the years, I know how dependent they are on their staff. They’re in a bubble, and the only way out is through a good staff. Otherwise, Lee will come to the same conclusions as Newsom.”

HANC’s Jim Rhoads told the Guardian he isn’t feeling reassured. “He said he would keep asking people about it. Unfortunately, if he asked his own staff, it would be a problem because they’re leftovers from Newsom.”

Speaking of leftovers, Lee also weighed in on the debate about the city’s waste-management contract — and threw his support behind the existing private garbage monopoly. Campos is challenging a perpetual waste-hauling contract that Recology has had with the city since 1932, calling instead for a competitive-bidding process. When the Department of the Environment recommended awarding the city’s landfill disposal contract to Recology last year, it effectively endorsed a monopoly for the company over managing the city’s entire waste stream, at an estimated value of $206 million per year.

The final decision to award the contract was delayed for two months at a February Budget & Finance Committee hearing. Campos is contemplating putting the issue to the voters this fall, provided he can find six votes on the Board.

“I know that Sup. Campos had given his policy argument for why he wants that revisited,” Lee said. “I have let him know that the Recology company in its various forms has been our very dependable garbage-hauling company for many, many decades. … I feel that the company has justified its privilege to be the permit holder in San Francisco because of the things that it has been willing to do with us. Whether or not we want to use our time today to revisit the 1932 ordinance, for me that wouldn’t be a high priority.”

 

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

In the last week of 2010, Avalos pushed through groundbreaking local-hire legislation, without the support of then Mayor Gavin Newsom or his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, who wanted Avalos to back off and let Newsom takeover the task.

With Lee now in Room 200, things appear to be moving forward on local hire, in face of misleading attacks from Assemblymember Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who wants to make sure no state money is used on local-hire projects, presumably because the building trades are upset by it. And Kawa, whom Lee has retained as chief of staff, doesn’t really support the legislation. Indeed, Kawa’s presence in the Mayor’s Office has his detractors believing that the new boss in Room 200 is really the same as the old boss.

“I feel like things are moving forward in the right direction around local hire, though a little more quietly than I’d like,” Avalos told the Guardian. Avalos noted that he is going to hold a hearing in March on implementing the legislation that should kick in March 25.

Welch said he believes that if Lee starts replacing staff wholesale, it could indicate two things: he’s a savvy guy who understands the difficulties of relying on Newsom’s chief of staff Steve Kawa for a budget, and he’s not ruling out a run for mayor.

“If I was in his position, the first thing out of my mouth would be, ‘I’m not running.’ I think he’s very focused in the budget. And it’s going to make or break him. But if he starts overriding Kawa and picks staff who represent him … well, then I’d revisit the question of whether he’s contemplating a run for mayor, say, around June.”

A call to do your (jury) duty

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By Ken Maley

OPINION For decades San Franciscans concerned and interested in the workings — and malfunctions — of city government have turned to the Guardian for insights and possible solutions. Guardian readers have developed a reputation for being community activists, and to those activist-minded readers, I encourage you to apply to serve on the San Francisco civil grand jury.

Few citizens understand that the California Constitution requires all counties to impanel a civil grand jury each year. The San Francisco grand jury has researched and issued many important findings — most recently, pertinent reports on the enormous, and growing, city employee retirement obligations threatening to consume our city’s general fund and possibly bankrupt the city in the next five years if not resolved.

Each year the San Francisco Superior Court accepts applications from citizens who want to serve on the jury. Thirty screened applicants are selected, and from those 30, 19 are impaneled as that year’s civil grand jury. Jurors serve for a one-year term, from June to July.

The full jury discusses various issues of interest, selects issues that gain 12 of the 19 votes, spends a year investigating, then writes and releases reports. The panel can investigate any function of city government — contracts, corruption, spending, tax policy .. the mandate is very broad. And the jury has tremendous power, including the ability to subpoena records and force city officials to testify. No pertinent information may be withheld once the judge approves the request.

But the dilemma confounding the court is the lack of qualified applicants. In 2009, the number of applicants was so low we were nearly unable to impanel a jury at all. What a disgrace, in activist San Francisco.

I find it so disheartening that in a city renowned for community interest and participation in almost every aspect of government activity, we have such a small number of citizens willing to make the time to serve.

So I appeal to Guardian readers to direct your interest in the workings of our city government, to consider putting your knowledge and commitment to better city governance by serving on the San Francisco civil grand jury.

Your contribution of time and energy as a juror will be well spent and personally rewarding.

To learn more about the civil grand jury, how you can do your civic duty and apply, go to www.sfgov.org, click on agencies, scroll down to civil grand jury. Applications are due by April 15 for the 2011-12 jury. 

Ken Maley was a member of the 2008-09 civil grand jury and is media committee chair of the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury Association.

 

Mirkarimi runs for sheriff

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tredmond@sfbg.com

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi filed preliminary papers to run for sheriff Feb. 22, altering the shape of the mayor’s race and giving progressives another shot at electing a candidate to citywide office.

His move also guarantees that law enforcement will be part of the discussion on the left this fall and it opens the door for a progressive sheriff to succeed retiring Mike Hennessey and continue the sorts of policies that have made him a national example of alternative ways to approach crime and punishment.

Mikarimi, a graduate of the San Francisco Police Academy and a former District Attorney’s Office investigator, has law enforcement experience and has made violent crime a key issue as a district supervisor. But he’s not part of the city’s public safety establishment.

“One of the greatest successes of Mike Hennessey was that he was an independent sheriff,” Mirkarimi told us. “That allowed him to take a progressive approach to his job.”

Mirkarimi had been talking about the job of sheriff for some time now, but he had been waiting to hear whether Hennessey would seek another term after 31 years on the job. When the sheriff announced last week that he was planning to retire, Mirkarimi moved quickly, contacting potential supporters and setting up a campaign plan.

The supervisor becomes the immediate front-runner in a race where there’s no other high-profile candidate. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to walk into the job — the last thing downtown wants is a progressive of Mirkarimi’s stature holding a high-profile citywide office that could be a springboard to a future run for mayor.

“This is going to be a top-of-the-ticket race,” Mirkarimi said. “We don’t want it to be a setback by losing the Hennessey legacy.”

Mirkarimi pushed hard for community policing as a supervisor, demanding more foot patrols in areas like the Western Addition, where the homicide rate was high. As sheriff, he told us, he would work to expand on Hennessey’s efforts at curbing recidivism.

“Eventually, almost everyone who’s incarcerated comes back to the community,” he said. “Our recidivism rate for the county jails is above 60 percent, and we have to work on reentry programs to lower that. It’s really about keeping communities safe.”

If a strong progressive gets into the mayor’s race — and somebody whom the left can support runs for district attorney — there’s the prospect of a slate of candidates who can work together, share resources, and mount a concerted campaign.

It’s likely Mirkarimi will get the support of at least five or six supervisors and other high-profile political figures. Hennessey hasn’t said anything about his successor, but if he supports Mirkarimi — which is entirely possible — the supervisor will be in strong position for November.

But the likelihood of at least one downtown-backed candidate, and possibly several law-enforcement types, in the race will make it challenging. With ranked-choice voting, Mirkarimi will not only have to win most of the first-place votes, but reach out beyond the progressive community to get enough seconds and thirds to hold on to victory.

But if he can pull it off, he’ll have done something no other solid progressive has done in years: win an open race for a citywide office.

Where were you?

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marke@sfbg.com

FILM Amid the worshipful bromides that attended the 100th birthday of zombie Ronald Reagan on Feb. 6, gay blogger Joe.My.God. helped bring back to light a transcript of a 1982 press briefing Q&A session between Reagan administration spokesman Larry Speakes and journalist Lester Kinsolving. It’s the first known time that AIDS was brought up at the White House.

Lester Kinsolving: Larry, does the president have any reaction to the announcement — the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?

SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?

LK: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the president is aware of it?

SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)

LK No, I don’t …

SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)

LK: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?

The answer, as the briefing spiraled into hysterics, was yes. It’s long been a source of bitterness that Reagan didn’t publicly refer to AIDS until 1987, after the disease had officially killed 20,849 Americans, been identified in 113 countries, and started to be “normalized” by the infection of young white children and closeted Hollywood superstars. But it was the laughter as gays lay dying that brought an angry population together, and that still rings in the ears of those who survived.

Reagan isn’t mentioned in David Weissman’s important and moving new documentary about San Francisco’s early response to the AIDS epidemic, We Were Here — although his communications director Pat Buchanan and Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell get split-second references, as does the heinous Proposition 64, the heroically defeated 1986 California ballot measure that could have led the way to quarantining gays. We Were Here isn’t a political polemic about the lack of governmental support that greeted the onset of the disease. Nor is the film a kind of cinematic And the Band Played On, exhaustively laying out all the historical and medical minutiae of HIV’s dawn. (See PBS Frontline’s engrossing 2006 The Age of AIDS for that.) There’s no mention of crystal meth, the Internet, the HIV denialist movement, protease inhibitors, depression, or survivor guilt. ACT-UP and the AIDS quilt are discussed only briefly. And you’ll find virtually nothing about the infected world outside the United States or the ongoing fight against the disease.

A satisfying 90-minute documentary couldn’t possibly cover all the aspects of AIDS, of course, even the local ones. Instead, Weissman’s film, codirected with Bill Weber and full of often astonishing tidbits, concentrates mostly on AIDS in the 1980s and tells a more personal and, in its way, more controversial story. What happened in San Francisco when gay people started mysteriously wasting away? And how did the epidemic change the people who lived through it?

The first question provides the narrative framework of the film. In the beginning, we’re introduced to five quintessentially San Franciscan characters, identified only by their first names: Ed, Paul, Daniel, Guy, and Eileen. As they tell their stories about how and why they came to San Francisco, and familiar-yet-still-striking archival photos of an unfettered 1970s Castro District fill the screen, you begin to realize Weissman’s impressive canniness in choosing to focus on these wise and almost preternaturally calm people, who turn out to be major players in the horror that slowly engulfs the film. (And We Were Here is indeed structured like a horror flick, with subtle early notes of discord foreshadowing the graphic images to come. The only thing missing is the screaming.)

Guy, for example, is Guy Clark of the legendary Guy’s Flowers in the Castro. He leads the story from the “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” era through the flower-bedecked funerals of the stricken — touching for a moment on the reaction in SF’s African American community — before bearing witness to a recent miraculous recovery, a man actually rising from a wheelchair to walk again. Other participants tell the stories of SF General Hospital’s groundbreaking AIDS Ward 5B/5A, the Shanti Project, Visual AIDS, and the “San Francisco model” of multifaceted, compassionate care for people with AIDS* before contemporary treatments became available.

The tales are well told and expertly woven together, as in Weissman’s earlier doc The Cockettes. Most of these people necessarily focused on the daily work of trying to help in order to stay sane. But where We Were Here really hits home is in its foregrounding of many unspoken or buried truths about that specific AIDS period that are in danger of being lost (one of which is that people who lived with HIV back then were often scaldingly candid about what was happening to their bodies.)

AIDS was annoying — it just went on and on. Participant Ed talks honestly about how he had to give up caring for patients out of exhaustion. AIDS got gay people where it really hurt: their vanity. The whole thing really fucked with your look. AIDS was bewildering. Suddenly people who had dropped out and run away to the Gay Mecca had to become medical experts, their recreational chemicals replaced with excruciating concoctions of exotic panic treatments. And women actually existed during AIDS. One of the most touching stories is about how the lesbian community rushed to donate blood.

The biggest act of emotional archeology, however, is the acknowledgement that some good came of AIDS. Not just in the well-known sense that it brought a marginalized community together and showed gay people as humans. It also personally transformed the narrators. Most of them found their calling, maybe lifelong satisfaction, during the AIDS crisis. We Were Here will affect viewers on a deep level, perhaps allowing many to weep openly about what happened for the first time. But it’s no mere sobfest. (My dead friends would have hated that.) It’s a testament to the absolute craziness of life, and the strange places it can take you — if you survive it.

WE WERE HERE OPENING PARTY with Rufus Wainwright Fri/25, 7:30 p.m., $25. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF. Film plays the Castro Theatre through March 3. www.castrotheatre.com, www.wewereherefilm.com

*An earlier version of this article used the term “AIDS victims” to refer to those who had passed away from the disease. That term has a long and derogatory history, and still offended some readers, even when not used to refer to persons living with AIDS (PWAs), so we have replaced it above. It’s good evidence of how this film is re-enlivening debates. 

Pony up, kids

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le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS From Crawdad’s house in Berkeley, you can see Golden Gate Fields racetrack. I take her kids to the soccer pitch next door, to watch and run, and I walk their dog along the water behind the track.

When I was little, I used to circle my favorite-named horses in the sports section, then check back the next day to see how much I’d won. My uncles and aunts played the ponies. Punker and Gatorgator, they play the ponies. I have been invited. And invited.

I associate three of my favorite writers with horse racing, but have never been, not even once, to the track. Until last Saturday.

Damon Runyon, Charles Bukowski, Mike DeCapite, and now me. Finally, finally I can say with authority that I pulled a kazoo out of the septic in the sixth at Fair Grounds to show and he did! He seconded, paying 51-1.

Now, Hedgehog had a Li’l Loveable visiting from her hometown and this ‘un was marking her daughter’s 21st birthday by redefining herself, running a half marathon, eating weird things, and just getting a tattoo. Loveable was the only one of us with prior track experience, except, I think, that Hedgehog might have been once or twice too. A succincter way of saying this might be that I was the only one without track experience.

And therefore the only winner. Yep, after dropping tacos in the fourth and fifth on a couple of popular pinstripes who failed to impress, let alone deliver, I thought I would change majors — which was good timing because a can-do named Mayo was odds-on incumbent just then, and … yuck!

Hedgehog head-cheesed Mayo, and I — being a world renowned mayophobe — looked for the oppositest entrée, which was the horse called Crispy. Crispy was 20-1 when I placed my taco, but by gate was 51-1. Or, more than twice as losery in the imagination of the wagering public.

But the hard part was I couldn’t even scream as my quantum leap long-shotted across the finish line because we watched that inning from the field announcer’s booth, Hedgehog being the wig that she is. Our host was on mic, and that meant we had to be perfectly quiet, for the sake of the sport, while the unthinkable dreamed itself before my very blinkers. I bit my tongue real hard.

The integrity of horse racing thus preserved, I windowed up to collect my Cheerios. Come to think of it, I’m surprised more of my San Francisco friends didn’t come visit me in New Orleans once they got wind of the kind of column inches I was ethering home to this rag. Just Kayday, and I don’t even think she reads me.

Anyway, she was waiting at her hotel piano bar, so I nut-jobbed my winnings, kissed Hedgehog, high-fived her townie, and went. We had a two-dinner, three-bar date with Frenchmen Street, whereas Hedgehog and the Loveable were updressing for some gala or something. Oh, I was invited, but didn’t have anything to wear. Since Kayday ain’t my fairy godmother, the Cinderella story ends right there.

Things we ate that night included grilled oysters wrapped in bacon, fried crawfish, fried pickles, mac ‘n’ cheese with meatballs, and gumbo. So probably the ball-goers didn’t have anything on us, save maybe a higher dry-cleaning bill.

The next night I cooked for everybody, and the day after that, Kayday’s last, we thought we would go up to Riverbend, get a bucket of crawfish, and sit on the levee, which, my little master’s mama assured us, would be “the right thing to do.”

Except they didn’t have boiled crawfish at Cooter Brown’s, so we got raw oysters and pecan pie and that was when I blew my New Orleans food fuse. “I’m done. Tell me about home, Kayday,” I said, sitting on the grass, on the levee, watching barges on the Mississippi.

She said she had the best burger ($10.50) she ever had at Chez Maman in Potrero Hill. She said the waiter said everything in French, then English. She said the frites … the burger! she said.

“Was there peanut butter on it?”

“No,” she said.

Next week I write you from France.

CHEZ MAMAN

Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.;

Sat.–Sun. 10:30 a.m.–11 p.m.

1453 18th St., SF

(415) 824-7166

MC/V

Beer and wine

Shangri-La

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paulr@sfbg.com

DINE For many of us, the word “kosher” immediately suggests something about meat. As one of the crazy women on Seinfeld once put it, “it’s how they kill the pig.” Well, not exactly, but maybe we can give partial credit, because while there is no such thing as kosher pork — pigs are strictly off-limits, kosher-wise — the method of slaughter is an important aspect of kosher dietary restrictions.

But kosher isn’t only about meat. It’s also about vegetables and fruits, all of which qualify, provided you don’t eat any tag-along bugs. At Shangri-La, a 33-year-old Chinese vegetarian restaurant in the mid-Sunset, the cuisine is cooked “under kosher supervision,” according to the menu card. I pictured a proper authority figure back there in the kitchen, inspecting the produce like an Army medic examining freshly shorn inductees for signs of head lice.

You can’t see into the kitchen, of course. This is an old-style Chinese joint, complete with worn red carpeting, fake-wood paneling, Chinese calendars, and — an element of beautiful discord — elegiac violin music on the sound system. The music reminded me, a little, of the early scene in Schindler’s List in which the Shabbat candles are lighted. It was like being in a café in some city in central Europe in 1937, with the shadows of war gathering in dark corners. The sounds of the violin are among the most haunting and moody in music. I tend to object to almost all music played in restaurants, but that’s at least in part because you rarely hear this kind of music in restaurants any more.

Despite and because of the violin’s tones, we found Shangri-La to be atmospheric rather than moody. The service staff was cheerful and remarkably knowledgeable; we ordered by number, and our server quietly named the dish while writing it down. She knew them by heart. We even threw in a couple of extra numbers, as if giving a quick quiz. She knew them all.

This kind of intimate knowledge suggests confidence in the menu, and although Shangri-La emphasizes meat substitutes, from shark-fin soup to duck and kidney — a style I find suspect, as if most people would not even consider eating vegetarian food unless they were faked out into thinking it was made with real meat — the cooking is outstanding and reasonably priced. Not for nothing are the tables laid with placemats proclaiming the various kosher-vegetarian awards the restaurant has won in recent years.

Some of the most convincing dishes are the ones that don’t bother to pretend — a plateful of spicy cucumbers ($3.50), say, skinned, seeded, cut into lengths, then dressed with a thick, glistening sauce that began in sweetness and ended in chili heat, like spring into summer. The cucumber has to be among the most modest members of the vegetable kingdom, and hardly any serious attempt is made with it beyond slicing it into salads or raita or puréeing it into gazpacho. Here it offered a wonderful texture and a moist mildness that gently supported the sauce.

Green onion cake ($4.25) is another dish that’s vegetarian by birth, and Shangri-La’s version was big, puffy, and crisp, like a flatbread. Veggie goose ($4.50), on the other hand, did seem to try for some carnivore appeal by stuffing smoked tofu into a buckwheat pancake, rolling it into a fat cigar, slathering it with hoisin sauce, and slicing it into bite-sized pieces. It was tasty, but it wasn’t goose.

“Mu shu,” in my life, has almost always meant mu shu pork, but Shangri-La’s fleshless version ($6.95) gave proof of how unimportant the shreds of meat actually are. With some lingerie-sheer pancakes, a small dish of hoisin sauce, and a big platter heaped with a stir-fry of shredded cabbage, carrots, water chestnuts, and (optional) egg, the uninvited guest really wasn’t missed much. We found the Szechuan-style spicy noodles ($6), heavily dabbed with garlic-red chili sauce, to be equally satisfying, even though they were cold — and there is a psychological resistance that has to be overcome to eat cold dishes in cold weather, when one really wants to be bathed in fragrant steam rising from friendly bowls. Cold is dour and can be a flavor damper, but not here.

Still, we did feel a slight want of steam. The pot of green tea gave off a little. A little more would have been heaven, though not pig heaven.

SHANGRI-LA

Daily, 11 a.m.–8:45 p.m.

2026 Irving, SF

(415) 731-2548

Beer and wine

MC/V

Not noisy

Wheelchair accessible

 

L.A. Confidential

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Patrick Warburton occupies his own special niche. He is a big (6 feet, 3 inches), hirsute, square-jawed kinda white guy — the kind who saved screaming ingénues from gorillas or Martians in 1950s B flicks — who’s flourished parodying macho blowhards. Who doesn’t love Warburton? People who don’t know who he is, obviously.

They probably know him regardless, if not by name. First widely noted as Elaine’s emotionally deaf boyfriend on Seinfield, in recent years he’s starred in successful network sitcoms Rules of Engagement and Less than Perfect. They followed The Tick, a short-lived Fox superhero parody series everyone loved but the viewing public. He’s voiced various characters on Family Guy (a man’s gotta work), as well as loftier ‘toons including The Venture Bros., Kim Possible, and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, playing Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story spinoffs, as well as endearing villain Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove (2000).

The Emperor’s New Groove reunited him with Eartha Kitt, also a costar in his screen debut: 1987’s WTF Mandingo (1975) rip-off Dragonard, in which he played a race traitor Scottish hunk on an 18th century Caribbean slaving isle populated by such punishing extroverts as boozy Oliver Reed, chesty Claudia Uddy, and creaky Pink Panther boss Herbert Lom. This campsterpiece features steamy sex intercut with chicken sacrifice, a character called “Manroot,” appalling homosexual caricatures, much library music, and other incitements to drinking-game joy. (Start trolling eBay for used VHS copies now.)

These days, Warburton is promoting a past project he’d rather remember: 1999’s The Woman Chaser, billed as both his leading-role debut (hello! Dragonard!!) It was definitely the first feature for Robinson Devor (2005’s Police Beat, 2007’s Zoo), one of the most stubbornly idiosyncratic and independent American directors to emerge in recent years.

Derived from nihilist pulp master’s Charles Willeford 1960 novel, this perfect B&W retro-noir miniature sets Warburton’s antihero to swaggering across vintage L.A. cityscapes. Sloughing off an incestuously available mother and other bullet-bra’d she cats, his eye on one bizarre personal ambition, he’s a vintage man’s man bobbing obliviously in a sea of delicious, droll irony. Warburton appears with Devor at the Roxie for The Woman Chaser‘s theatrical-revival opening night. I caught up with the actor via phone last week.

SFBG Did The Woman Chaser have a significant impact on your career?

Patrick Warburton It should have. We debuted at the New York Film Festival, an amazing experience, then went to Sundance. The film got a nice little art house release in 15 or 20 cities. But after that, there were ownership issues, [and] it never went to DVD. So the audience has been extremely limited.

SFBG Yet a whole lot of people here seem to know and love it.

PW Of course I’ve always known San Francisco and its residents to possess far more beauty and art and culture than this desolate hell-hole we call Los Angeles.

SFBG Were you at all familiar with Charles Willeford before?

PW No, my first peek was Rob Devor’s screenplay adaptation, which was originally entitled King Size, then went back to the original [novel’s] title.

SFBG: A strange title, because the hero isn’t chasing women. In fact, he’s completely self-absorbed and alarmingly misogynist.

PW No, this isn’t about a guy chasing women. I guess that’s the way you sold a pulp novel back then, putting a man with a topless woman in a convertible on the cover of a paperback with a title like The Woman Chaser — even though Willeford’s interests were much more psychological. I was [36] years old, playing this role had my sexual interest at an all-time low. I didn’t get it. Meanwhile the actor, Patrick Warburton, was probably knocking one off in his dressing room once a day back then.

SFBG: Once?

PW Well, I was eating whatever the fuck I wanted, cuz this guy is a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking car salesman. I got heavier than I’d ever been in my life, about 250 pounds. My wife was not pleased. [This character] was certainly an odd fellow, a misogynist.

SFBG How did you get involved?

PW My agent said “Here’s a script,” I met Rob, and we clicked. What’s interesting is it was right after the ninth season of Seinfeld. Anything else coming my way was because of that. But [Devor] had never seen an episode — I still don’t know if he has.

SFBG The movie does an incredible job recreating 1960 L.A. on a budget.

PW It was a grind. We’d procured a handful of permits, but mostly just ran into locations with our guerilla crew and stole shots. Rob really did have a vision. When you’re working long hours, you’re not getting paid a dime, you’re working with a director who has such a specific idea what he wants — he’s going to be a little bit of a pain in the ass. But it’s an experience I’ve come to appreciate over time. Because I’ve been on the other side, where you can’t believe what a piece of garbage you’re a part of. That movie was what it was wholly because of Rob. He’s truly an artist. You don’t get such opportunities very often in this business. We’ve talked about [working together] again, and the right thing hasn’t come up. But I would love that more than anything.

SFBG: On another subject, I must quote 12 words of dialogue: “Sometimes being a slave is a man more dignity than being free!” So ungrammatical, for starters. Please reveal every last thing about Dragonard.

PW Oh, God. It was the first thing I ever did, and I knew after that experience … well. You have to be able to accept it. The most you can ask for [in this industry] are experiences where you learn and in the end get a great product. Like doing The Dish (2000) in Australia was great. I spent quality time with Sam Neill and Geoffrey Wright, then this delightful film came out of it. But with something like Dragonard, if you’re going to grow as an actor, you’ve got to just shit it out. You’ve got to say, not only is this the most awful movie ever made, but I am the worst thing in it.

THE WOMAN CHASER

Feb. 25–March 3, 7 and 9:15 p.m. (also Sat/26, 2 and 4:30 p.m.), $$5–$9.75

Roxie

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087

www.roxie.com

 

This time it’s personal

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC The wee small hours of the a.m., when the rest of the world is deep in z’s, is magic time for Tim Cohen. “Most of my profound musical moments have come very early in the morning, not being able to sleep and being woken up by a weird dream or nightmare,” verifies the leader of the now-defunct Black Fiction, co-songwriter of the Fresh and Onlys, and proud papa of Magic Trick (Captured Tracks). He casts clear gray eyes — taking everything in like fully open apertures — out the front window of Cafe Abir, pint on hand and orange cap squashed over his brow while sunlight brushes away gray, stormy skies.

One such sonic turning point came in about 2002, when Cohen was visiting his parents in Richmond, Va. After buying a clutch of John Fahey LPs from a thrift store that day, he dreamt of driving through the “spiderweb-like complex” of a suburban business park. All around him women standing at the tops of the buildings were jumping to their death. Startled awake, he put on the first album he saw — Fahey’s Vol. 4: The Great San Bernardino Birthday (Takoma, 1966) — and, with his headphones on, drifted back to sleep to the sound of acoustic fingerpicking and then the backwards guitar of “Knott’s Berry Farm Molly.” This time he was driving the dream in reverse, cruising backward as the suicides jumped back onto the buildings.

“I woke up and swore off playing with a pick,” Cohen declares today. “I went on this several-year run of writing fingerpicked acoustic songs, waking up and realizing there are so many possibilities to this guitar.”

Those sorts of dawn revelations are the reason Cohen says he bolted awake in his Left Coast bed for no explicable reason on the morning of 9/11 — and why he advises susceptible listeners, in the notes for his third solo album and its accompanying double 7-inch EP, Bad Blood (also on Captured Tracks), that they should listen to the music in the comfort and terror of morning darkness. And it may be the reason why he ever-so-sweetly wails on Magic Trick‘s “Sweetheart,” “Don’t be afraid of my heart/ I’m not afraid of the dark.”

“That’s the time of day when you’re most like a sponge,” Cohen explains, as busy Divisadero Street bustles outside. “Every experience you have, whether it’s ecstatic or traumatic, it’s going to stick with you.”

There’s more than a bit of a seer in Cohen, who says he’s making a practice of being open to collaborations with, say, bassist Shayde Sartin in the Fresh and Onlys (note: Cohen refuses to cop to being either Fresh or Only) and to inspiration when it hits him, which is often. “I have a lot of songs coming out me,” he says matter-of-factly.

Fortunately, Cohen has iPhone’s voice memo at the ready to capture scraps of melody and a Tascam 388 in his amazingly tidy bedroom studio to record with, high in the gnome’s-cap fairytale tower of his Western Addition Victorian, surrounded by 360-degree bird’s-eye windows overlooking SF. Cohen’s own intriguing, intricately detailed drawings decorate the walls of the flat, much as they do the covers of his solo LPs, coexisting easily alongside Cubs memorabilia. He’s recorded much of his music here — and it’s legion, including hip-hop projects the Latter, Hattattack, Feller Quentin, and the semi-active Forest Fires Collective; psych combo 3 Leafs; and the “druggy” Window Twins, which will release a full-length this year.

With the help of bassist-keyboardist Alicia Vanden Huevel (Aislers Set), drummer James Kim (Kelley Stoltz), and Noelle Cahill, Magic Trick may be Cohen’s most refined, effortlessly endearing recording to date. His dark, pretty, strangely exhilarating lovestruck songs dip deliciously into cockeyed folk ruminations (“I Am Never Going to Die”), curious psychedelia (“New House in Heaven”), throwback 1960s pop with a three-way wink (“Don’t Give Up”‘s whimsical “When three people lie down together/ They’re trying to make a good thing better/ Good things happen all the time”), and scorched-earth country (“The Flower,” based on the songwriter’s real-life experience of eating a poisonous lily in mid-flirt), with Cohen hitting new almost-heartbreaking highs with his disarmingly rough-hewn vocals and wiseacre-y wise-fool wordplay.

Modern lovers, take heed. This time it’s personal for Cohen, who enjoys a nice, sturdy alias as much as the next MC. That’s why his name is on it. 

TIM COHEN

With Holy Shit, Puro Instinct, Sam Flax and Higher Color, DJ Jimi Hey

Thurs/24, 9 p.m., $5–$8

Great American Music Hall

859 O’Farrell, SF

(888) 233-0449

www.gamh.com

 

Health class, without the STD slideshow

0

caitlin@sfbg.com

RENEW For a brief moment, we here at the Guardian are taking a break from listing the best places to host more damage to your liver to give some soapbox time to a health care professional. Meet Dr. Julie Chen, who has a private practice in San Jose that specializes in integrative medicine, an approach combining conventional Western health knowledge with holistic care options. That’s right, just like Tron‘s Kevin Flynn, Chen is able to operate in multiple dimensions when it comes to your physical well-being. We asked her some big-kid questions about health and her innovative brand of medicine that you should probably know the answers to.

SFBG What’s the most commonly held misconception about integrative medicine?

Julie Chen The fine line between “alternative” and “conventional” medicine is frequently erased and redrawn. For example, fish oil used to be “alternative.” So was vitamin D supplementation. But now we have Lovaza and vitamin D prescription versions that insurance companies will pay for.

Integrative medicine is frequently seen as “alternative medicine,” but — especially if the physician is fellowship-trained and board-certified — it is heavily evidence-based, just like “conventional” medicine. We utilize clinical research as a basis for treatment plans that integrate aspects of conventional and complementary medicine like supplements and herbs, energy medicine, manual therapy, acupuncture, and hypnotherapy. It’s not about one or the other, it’s about utilizing all appropriate modalities available out there to achieve optimal health outcome.

SFBG You’re an expert on stress-reducing mind-body exercises, so let’s get practical here. Recommend one for people sitting on Muni or at a computer.

JC Breath work is relatively unobtrusive and inconspicuous, as is meditation or self-hypnosis. You may even try abridged versions of progressive muscle relaxation: tightening shoulder and upper back muscles, then relaxing; tightening hands and arms, then relaxing; tightening gluteal muscles, then relaxing; tightening leg and feet muscles, then relaxing.

For people who say they can’t sit still long enough to do meditation or self-hypnosis, this exercise may be an option — it offers something active to focus on.

SFBG Eating healthy is hard. What are some ways people eat wrong?

JC Patients frequently think they have to make all the right changes all at once with their diet, and then feel defeated when they can’t sustain them. I’m a big fan of setting smaller, more attainable goals, and using positive reinforcement that helps you to move onto the next.

I’m also a big fan of mixing foods if you’re not ready for a complete change. For people who don’t like brown rice, mix brown and white or use less white rice and mix it with vegetables. That way you can increase complexity of the food you are eat and decrease simple carbohydrate intake with food that is still palatable. Many patients also think that as long as they eat vegetables at one main meal, that’s enough for the day. But our bodies function better if we can provide those phytonutrients and flavonoids all day long. That means that we should incorporate healthy foods like whole grains and vegetables into every meal.

SFBG We live in an age of health info oversaturation. With all the conflicting theories out there, how can we tell if we’re living healthily or not?

JC This is a great question. First, it’s important to educate ourselves about what’s considered “healthy.” At the end of the day, we physicians do not go home with you. Your readers should know that they are the most important member in their health care team, and that they should utilize their doctors as informational tools. Second, our bodies usually will tell us if we are living as healthy as we can. If you feel chronically fatigued, or have insomnia, or a “foggy” mind, there are probably steps you can take to improve your overall health by evaluating and maximizing aspects of your lifestyle, nutritional intake, or health status.

SFBG What should someone do if the advice they are getting from their HMO differs from or conflicts with what is prescribed by their holistic health care provider?

JC In this situation, it would be beneficial for the physician to speak with the holistic health care provider. The extent of training among holistic care providers can be vastly different — it can range from those who have taken weekend courses or are self-taught versus those who are board-certified or fellowship-trained. By increasing communication between physicians and holistic practitioners, it provides an additional level of protection for the patient in case the holistic provider is suggesting something medically dangerous. On the other hand, if the treatment plan from the holistic provider is medically appropriate, then it provides an opportunity for the physician to learn more about holistic care and how it can augment conventional care.

SFBG Are there real health benefits to going vegetarian?

JC There are tremendous benefits to a vegetarian or vegan diet. Plant-based diets tend to be much more anti-inflammatory and thus are more beneficial. The trick is to make sure that the diet is high in plant-based proteins, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients, and not processed or fried fatty foods. If the vegetarian or vegan diet is composed of things like steamed vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, it has tremendous health benefits like improving cholesterol levels, insulin sensitivity, and decreasing inflammation.

SFBG Are there positive health benefits of living in a big city?

JC San Francisco is one of the healthiest cities in America — access to healthy, organic, and diverse foods allows us to eat well throughout the year. Another tremendous benefit of living in San Francisco is the easy access to hiking, biking, and other forms of outdoor exercise. Even for those who aren’t interested in outdoor activities, the simple act of getting around the city allows us to get in regular exercise thanks to the hilly streets.

Hoop dreams

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culture@sfbg.com

RENEW Christabel Zamor moves like a snake — eyes fixed, lithe body writhing, hips rippling back and forth — which isn’t really surprising, considering the number of times she’s shed her skin.

Zamor is a hoopdancer — one of those sylph-like sirens who show up at parties and raves and on the playa in order to make the men drool and the women vow to do sit-ups. She credits hooping as the secret to her sensuous shape — but if you’re thinking of getting out your snake charmer’s flute, let’s get one thing straight: in this case, it’s the sexy serpent who’s charming you.

Zamor is magnetic and incredibly talented, but what sets her apart from other Bay Area hoopers is her avid following, cultivated by Hooping! The Book!, an array of instructional DVDs and 72-hour teacher training program that has certified 570 instructors in 16 countries. Zamor is HoopGirl® — a persona that not only has allowed her to whittle her waist and tone her tummy but to explode into a fitness franchise.

An erstwhile doctoral student and one-time “heavy-set, shy academic,” Zamor says she transformed her life — and her body — through hooping’s calorie-burning workouts and confidence-building powers. She now travels the world as a fitness trainer and empowerment coach, teaching people that they can do the same thing.

“I wasn’t really looking for hooping,” she says. At 27, Zamor was a UC Santa Barbara PhD student struggling to find academic support for her interest in ethnomusicology and drumming. Frustrated, she dropped out from her program after receiving a master’s degree, traveled to Senegal to study djembe, returned to the States, enrolled in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s master’s program in mythology and depth psychology, and began working as a personal assistant. Amid the confusion, she says she didn’t have the power to envision a life outside her studies. “I wanted to be a healer but didn’t know it,” she says.

But a simple circle changed all that. At a Gathering of the Tribes conference in Los Angeles, Zamor fortuitously picked up her first hoop — and HoopGirl was set in motion.

Zamor claims she never had a hula hoop as a child, but from the first instant she picked up the plastic ring and it clattered uncooperatively to the ground, she was hooked. Despite the initial “experience of not succeeding,” she was captivated by the hoopers around her — “beautiful nymphs undulating gorgeously” — and she was determined to become one.

“I got a hoop and started practicing in the park, in rhythm with high-energy trance or electronic music,” she says, and crowds “just started gathering.” When a newspaper reporter wrote a story on her weekly spin sessions, “100 people showed up wanting to hoop.”

Hooping has provided Zamor with a means of transformation, for her physical body as well as her spiritual self. She describes hooping as the portal that awakened her to underground subcultures like the circus-arts scene and artistic communities like Burning Man.

Zamor found that she could hoop for six hours at a time and that it catalyzed a level of physical and spiritual presence she describes as a “quickening” of the body. She interprets the orbital motion of the hoop as “intrinsically about coming back to your center,” a practice that stills mental chatter.

Hooping also began to fill in for the cultural activity that Zamor had so desperately wanted to study at UCSB. She had sought to understand how tribal rituals played a role in society, but she realized that dissecting a cultural form appropriated from the third world brought up questions of co-optation that she didn’t want to wrestle with. Hooping provided the same rhythmic, percussive, ritualistic aspects and counted as an indigenous rite in California in the early aughts, when its popularity was exploding. Burning Man was where Zamor tapped into hooping as a “sacred, transcendent experience,” one that she ultimately felt empowered to interpret for a national audience.

Now 10 years later, Zamor has performed at events for Warner Bros., Universal Pictures, and Cirque du Soleil. She has been hired to represent fitness brands and health club chains. She is licensing HoopGirl® Workout teachers across Canada, England, Australia, and the United States, where her hoop regimen has been certified by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

At 38, she is a fitness guru and the leader of a profitable exercise business. In her books and DVDs, she maintains a bubbly exuberance in describing her physical transformation. “My unwanted extra fat just disappeared and was replaced by gorgeous muscle,” she crows, describing her journey. But she leaves out transcendence at Burning Man in favor of the elation of calories burned.

Zamor admits that she has had to be a chameleon to market herself and her hooping. Unlike other elite hoopers who began to develop the art form around the same time or even earlier, Zamor hasn’t been content to limit herself to a part of the San Francisco subculture. She hopes to bring legitimacy to hooping, which sometimes means talking abs and aerobics. “To spread hooping, I have to be able to spread the lingo. I gain respect by speaking a language that people respect.”

But when she is training HoopGirl dancers, she says she still refers to hooping as a spiritual practice. Her mantra — hooping is sexy! — is as much about a sense of self-worth as a satisfying session in the sack. The once “introverted loner” has been able to use hooping to help shed her old self, literally — and she’s eager to show us that results are replicable at home.

“The hoop adheres better to bare skin,” she explains, “so I started wearing less clothing. Showing my arms, showing my legs — it’s like the hoop was asking me to take those things off. I started to feel like I didn’t have to hide who I was.”

Flipping through pages of toned hotties in her book, or watching the bootie-shorted babes in her DVDs, it might be difficult to believe that the sexiness of hooping isn’t about, well, sex. But Zamor says there is something deeply and inherently feminine about the hoop — and it’s not just that the ladies look better shakin’ it.

After two surgeries for endometriosis, Zamor is convinced that the “soothing gyrations” of the hoop against her pelvis have helped heal her. “Hooping provided the insight I needed to slow down and focus on my body,” she says, explaining that it’s also a way to strengthen her core and reproductive organs, bringing fresh blood to the pelvic region and awakening her libido. Now, six years since her last surgery, she emphasizes that her doctor was amazed at how quickly she healed by hooping through the ordeal.

Next up, Zamor will be working on bringing that whole-body healing to women who may not be willing to step inside the hoop. She has expanded her business to include empowerment classes that honor the “divine, delicious feminine” and that will help women become a more supple, radiant, and luminous version of themselves, she says.

These classes in “hooping outside the hoop” are geared toward helping others uncover the empowerment and sense of self-worth that Zamor has found through HoopGirl. Of course, unless Zamor is planning on turning out hundreds of successful fitness revolutionaries with profitable book deals of their own, it’s hard to say whether her personal transformation will be replicable. But with one irresistible smile from Zamor, it’s easy to see that the hoop has worked for her — and difficult to resist the urge to run out and buy one for oneself.

Renew yourself

2

culture@sfbg.com

So 2011 is a couple months in, and already your new year’s resolution list reads like so many dreams deferred? Chuck it in the flames — not all rebirths neatly coincide with the Gregorian calendar. This spring, rejuvenate your inner and outer workings with some of these excellent opportunities to renew everything from your chi, to your core strength, to the sweetness of your swagger.

 

HEAR THE CRY OF THE MIDNIGHT DOWN-DOG

Tripped the light cataclysmic a time too many? The toxic Fernet fumes ooze from your pores, and you’ve left not only your debit, but your credit, library, and frequent bagel-buyer card in various watering holes about time? Time to purge. Take a night off from tippling and toddle to Laughing Lotus, where Friday night’s midnight yoga class (each week from 10 p.m.-midnight) soothes abused chakras — and livers, need be. Each week even features a different live musician: Fri/25’s class will be home to the didgeridoo and sound-healing savasana of Amber Field.

Laughing Lotus, 3271 16th St., SF. (415) 355-1600, www.laughinglotus.com

 

PARTICIPATE IN A GROUP POKING

What’s community acupuncture, you ask? Small groups of patients are treated in recliners in a quiet, calm room. During the hour-long sessions, those waiting for their pokes receive staggered personalized care (needles are inserted into one’s limbs, face, and head: no disrobing necessary) from a licensed acupuncturist. Learned how to share in kindergarten? Perfect, because the cooperative method means that a single session will only run you $25–$45, including the initial visit’s paperwork fee. Circle Community Acupuncture, 1351 Harrison, SF. (415) 864-1070, www.circleca.com

 

ALKALINIZE!

Fasting, ugh. It has its place, but not eating anything is a bitter pill in the land of street tacos and gourmet coffee grounds. If you’re asking our opinion, a day of cleanse is best accessorized with Lydia’s raw green soup, a tangy elixir of kale, cucumber, dulse seaweed, avocado, ginger, and other green delicious majicks. Lydia’s sells neatly packaged soup servings, resplendent kale chips, and other yummy raw treats are favorites at the city’s crunchiest festivals, and you can pick them up at health food stores too.

Available at various SF grocery stores, www.lydiaslovinfoods.com

 

SWEAT IT OUT

Hidden behind hippie-wear emporium P-Kok is a small green garden and a sauna where tired city souls retreat for the store’s patchouli-heavy full moon ceremonies, complete with vibrational sauna singing. Starting in March, the hidden space will go holistic and become Tall Tree Tambo Wholeness Center. Monthly memberships (to encourage the use of the space as a healthy community hub) will be available for $100–$125 including coed and single-sex sauna access, healing events facilitated by other members, and the center’s four on-site healing arts practitioners, small-group classes in spiritual alignment, yoga, and the ever-popular full moon rites.

776 Haight, SF. (415) 430-8285, www.talltreetambo.org

 

TAKE INSPIRATION FROM A FEMALE FIGHTER

Forget Rocky. For true Bay Area boxing spirit, you couldn’t do better than checking out the super bantamweight championship boxing match of Ana “the Hurricane” Julaton vs. Franchesca “the Chosen One” Alcanter on Fri/25. Julaton, a Daly City and Bayview raised Filipina American, is looking to regain her standing in the pro world after a disappointing loss last year. Regardless of who walks with the belt, the ring’s high-powered punching — and rock hard musculature — is worth checking out if you’re in need of some gym motivation.

Fri/25 6 p.m., $35–$360. Craneway Pavilion, 1414 Harbour, Richmond. www.brownpapertickets.com

 

SWEAT TO BOLLYWOOD BREAKS

Of course, you could saddle up your most comfortable heels and get your werqout in the club. Should you try this tactic, you could hardly do better than the rum-tum-tum stylings of Non-Stop Bhangra, a night that’s been teaching San Franciscans how to circle wrists and move hips in pure Punjabi mode since 2004. Nights begin with a hour-long class on Bollywood-style dance, continues with ample time to practice to beats by resident DJs and guest scratchers, and now attract a diverse following of races, ages, and ahem, physical aptitudes. Calorie burn and culture learn at the same time, perfect.

Next show: March 19 9 p.m., $10–$20. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. (415) 861-2011, www.nonstopbhangra.com

 

READ ABOUT OTHER, HEALTHIER PEOPLE

Maria Arellano was gunning for a healthier lifestyle, so she decided to blog about it. “Accountability,” the chipper office manager e-mailed us when we asked her about Oh Healthy Day‘s providence. “Posting your workouts and healthy eating habits with others is a great way to stay motivated.” Her short, addicting posts and sunny photos of her ongoing journey to fitness are also great ways to hold us accountable — how are you going to down that family-sized bag of corn chips after reading Arellano’s upbeat prose about her delicious protein and veggie dinners or inspiring Crossfit workout? Answer: you’re not.

www.ohhealthyday.com

 

REACH FOR THE SKY

While the spectacularly cool House of Air has added a valuable component to San Francisco’s kid’s-activity-starved landscape (little ones can’t help but explode with glee at the very sight of the humongous “Bounce House”), there’s trampin’ for adults as well. Specifically, the Air Conditioning workout is a 50-minute fly-through that promises to “leave your cheeks just as sore as your quads from smiling so much.” At $16 for a 50-minute session, it’s not a huge leap to “yes.”

926 Mason, SF. (415) 345-9675, www.houseofairsf.com

 

BUFF YOUR BRAINPOWER

Feel the burn all you want in your thighs, but no fitness program would be complete without a stretching your mind. At vibrantBrains, you’ll exercise that flabby cerebellum in what amounts to a workout for your brain. Improve your memory, tackle abstractions, and fast-track your alertness, literacy, and comprehension skills with programs like “Neurobics,” “Mind Evolve,” “NeoCORTA,” and “Posit Science Cortex with InSight.” Each program concentrates on a different area of mental agility using a combination of cutting edge techniques and personal attention. Even reading about the various vibrantBrains offerings makes us feel smarter.

3235 Sacramento, SF. (415) 775-1138, www.vibrantbrains.com

 

IMMERSE YOURSELF IN EGGHEAD

Holy smarty-pants, Batman, there’s a ton of intellectually stimulating stuff going down at the Mechanics’ Institute. Any given day you might enjoy a screwball comedy from the 1940s, a talk by a famous fantasist-cartographer, a book club discussion centering on the Harlem Renaissance, a class in beginner Excel, or intensive chess instruction at any level. It’s also a library! The 1854 Mechanics’ Institute building is a mind-blow in itself — but with a wide-ranging and welcoming program of creatively exhilarating (and very inexpensive) events, you may not even notice your intriguing surroundings.

57 Post. # 415, SF. (415) 393-0110, www.milibrary.org

 

STROKE SOME FUR

Next time you’re about to calculate your checkbook in your head or cry because your (ex-)drummer stole your boyfriend, head over to the Little Farm petting zoo in Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park. This fully-loaded snuggle gang of cows, goats, rabbits, chickens, and pigs will have you back to your cute self — because petting zoos are restorative for small, whiny children, but they also work for midsized, whiny adults.

Little Farm petting zoo, Tilden Regional Park, Central Park Drive, Berk. (510) 525-2233, www.ebparks.org

 

MEDITATE STUPA-SIDE

If you want to change your outlook, pay a visit to the Peace Pagoda in Japan Center, an underrated San Francisco landmark. Designed by artist and architect Yoshiro Taniguchi, the pagoda and its subtly Op Art-tinged interpretation of a Buddhist stupa made their debut in the year of the Summer of Love. Walk around and even step inside Taniguchi’s 100-foot-high, five-tiered, many-passaged structure to meditate from an infinite variety of angles. Or better yet, play a quick game of hide and seek with someone you love. 24-7.

1704 Post, SF. (415) 775-1817, www.sfjapantown.org

 

LET YOUR SPIRIT WANDER

Sometimes the best way to refresh yourself is to get a little lost. When things begin to spiral out of control, let the ancient spiritual meditative paths of the three Bay Area labyrinths lead you to a calmer place. Take a natural journey to the mysterious Eagle Point Labyrinth (Lands End, Sutro Heights Park, SF.). Experience transcendence — and a spectacular quiet zone — with the Labyrinth at Grace Cathedral (1100 California, SF. www.gracecathedral.org). Or amble with playful tots along the colorful circle of the Scott Street Labyrinth near Duboce Park (Scott between Duboce and Waller, SF).

 

MULTITASK YOUR RETRO BEAUTY FIX

If you want to feel new, sometimes there’s only one thing to do: get a fresh hairdo at Down at Lulu’s. The bass is thumpin’, the clothes are cheap and sexy, and the pop culture treasures and creative energy are abundant at this self-described “hair salon-vintage clothing-record store-junk shop” co-owned by Tina Lucchesi and Seth Bogart, where you can get hot highlights, cuckoo color jobs, and perms with panache.

6603 Telegraph, Oakl. (510) 601-0964, www.downatlulus.com.

 

PUT CUTE AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

You’ll break your lease in the land of not-so-fresh after an introduction to wonders of kawaii nail art. Let Trang Bui, the manager of Crystal Nail, facilitate your escape from the days of dull French manicures with her signature collage talons of glitter, jewels, and — so popular you should book and specify you want them well in advance — Hello Kitty 3-D art. Don’t be shocked at the price tag — a full acrylic set with designs and tip will run around $65. Worth it for such blingy digits, no? Next challenge: learning to type with horizontal fingers.

2347 Clement, SF. (415) 752-4425

 

STICK A FEATHER IN YOUR COIF

Still rocking the all-natural look? Shame that — freshen up your do with some feather hair extensions, slim bursts of hue that’ll set you apart from the other land-locked long hairs, but don’t involve the same commitment as a jar of Manic Panic (though they can last for months). You can get a natural or neon-colored bundle of up to four feathers for $30 or single plumes for $10 each at the Mission’s Pretty Parlor. Move fast — once these hit Dolores Park, the trend’s gonna blow up.

Pretty Parlor. 3150 18th St., SF. (415) 556-2883, www.prettyparlorsf.com

Naughty girls (need love too)

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SCANDAL! Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of those pillars of French culture whose dismissal might well get you deported. (Deservedly.) It has inspired innumerable adaptations and co-optations, including a Hindi musical, a VeggieTales episode, and a postmodernist novel posing as a nonfiction memoir-literary homage (Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot). Its film incarnations have been reset everywhere from Portugal to Argentina to Rye, N.Y., attracting directors as celebrated as Jean Renoir and Vincente Minnelli and actresses as disparate as emotional heavy-lifter Pola Negri and chilly, twiggy Isabelle Huppert.

A few notches below that lofty company is 1969’s The Sins of Madame Bovary, a German-Italian coproduction with the era’s requisite mixture of dubbed multinationals — none very well remembered now — which is being issued this month by South San Francisco’s CAV Distributing. Despite its lurid title, this is a fairly faithful, if uninspired, version of the novel directed by journeyman Hans Schott-Schöbinger, whose less-than-illustrious prior credits included something called The Pastor with the Jazz Trumpet (1962).

It was a last career stop for him, but just the beginning for star Edwige Fenech, an Algerian-born beauty contest winner of Maltese and French extraction who would be the face that launched a thousand European exploitation movies — well, a lot of them anyway — over the next decade-plus. (Never entirely retired, she recently had a cameo in 2007’s Hostel: Part II.) Through all her giallos and sex comedies, Fenech, a brunette with a jones for heavy mascara, gamely deployed her beauty in various stages of undress, revealing a curvy figure with considerably less discretion than Flaubert allowed the tragic ninny he both pitied and ridiculed.

It’s probably on the shelf of every junior-high library now, but the original Madame Bovary was hugely scandalous — not just in her fictive world of bourgeois discontent, but in the salons, government offices, and courts of actual mid-19th century France. Couched in the most exquisite prose, her hapless infidelities — spurred by the fatal error of having married a nice, very dull country doctor — brought charges of immorality against author and original publisher (when it was serialized in a magazine) that came close to throwing the future pal to George Sand, Turgenev, and Emperor Napoleon III in prison.

Who knows how many titillated readers tried to emulate Emma B.’s suggested shag in a closed horse-drawn carriage only to discover their design in that era would in all likelihood make that exercise conducive to unpleasant contortions and muscle cramps? Perhaps that was another of Flaubert’s little jokes — as a many-mistress’d lifelong bachelor who’d explored the length of the Kinsey Scale (yet never truly moved out of his mother’s house) and had the venereal souvenirs to show for it. Yet one suspects he would have found the subsequent graphic sexualities of later banned books Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, etc. to be merely vulgar.