Volume 45 Number 33
Young At Art Festival de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, SF. (415) 695-2441, www.youngatartsf.com. Through May 22, free. The creative achievements of our city’s youth are celebrated in this eight day event curated and hosted by the de Young Museum.
* Oakland Asian Cultural Center Asian Pacific Heritage Festival Oakland Asian Cultural Center, 388 Ninth St., Oakl. (510) 637-0462, www.oacc.cc. Through May 26. Times and prices vary. Music, lectures, performances, family-friendly events in honor of Asian and Pacific American culture and traditions.
DIVAfest Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy, SF. (415) 931-2699, www.theexit.org. Through May 28. Times and prices vary. Bastion of the alternative, EXIT Theatre showcases its 10th annual buffet of fierce women writers, performers, and directors. This year features two plays, beat poetry, musical exploration, and more.
* Yerba Buena Gardens Festival Yerba Buena Gardens, Mission and Third St., SF. (415) 543-1718, www.ybgf.org. Through Oct. 31. Times vary, free. A series of cultural events, performances, activities, music, and children and family programs to highlight the green goodness of SoMa’s landscaped oasis.
May 18-June 5
San Francisco International Arts Festival Various venues. (415) 399-9554, www.sfiaf.org. Times and prices vary. Celebrate the arts through with this mish-mash of artistic collaborations dedicated to increasing human awareness. Artists included hail from around the world and right here in the Bay Area.
* A La Carte & Art Castro St. between Church and Evelyn, Mountain View. (650) 964-3395, www.miramarevents.com. 10am-6pm, free. With vendors selling handmade crafts, microbrewed beers, fresh foods, a farmers market, and even a fun zone for kids, there’s little you won’t find at this all-in-one fun fair.• Asian Heritage Street Celebration Larkin and McAllister, SF. www.asianfairsf.com. 11am-6pm, free. This year’s at the country’s largest gathering of APA’s promises a Muay Thai kickboxing ring, DJs, and the latest in Asian pop culture fanfare — as well as tasty bites to keep your strength up.
Freestone Fermentation Festival Salmon Creek School, 1935 Bohemian Hwy, Sonoma. (707) 479-3557, www.freestonefermentationfestival.com. Noon-5pm, $12. Learn about the magical wonders of fermentation with hands-on and mouth-on demonstrations, exhibits, and tasty live food nibbles.
Uncorked! San Francisco Wine Festival Ghirardelli Square, SF. (415) 775-5500, www.ghirardellisq.com. 1-6pm, $45-50 for tasting tickets, free for other activities. Uncorked! brings you the real California wine experience with tastings, cooking demonstrations, and even a wine 101 class for those who are feeling not quite wine-refined.
SF Sex Worker Film and Art Festival Various venues, SF. (415) 751-1659, www.sexworkerfest.com. Times and prices vary. Webcam workshops, empowering film screenings, shared dialogues on plant healing to sex work in the age of HIV: this fest has everything to offer sex workers and the people who love ’em.
Lagunitas Beer Circus Lagunitas Brewing Co., 1280 N McDowell, Petaluma. (303) 447-0816, www.craftbeer.com. Noon-6pm, $40. All the wonders of a live circus — snake charmers, plate spinners, and sword swallowers — doing their thing inside of a brewery!
* Maker Faire San Mateo County Event Center, 2495 South Delaware, San Mateo. www.makerfaire.com. Sat, 10am- 8pm; Sun, 10am-6pm, $5-25. Make Magazine’s annual showcase of all things DIY is a tribute to human craftiness. This is where the making minds meet.• Castroville Artichoke Festival Castroville, Calif. (831) 633-0485, www.artichokefestival.org. Sat., 10am- 6pm; Sun., 11 am- 4:30 p.m., free. Pay homage to the only vegetable with a heart: the artichoke. This fest does just that, with music, parades, and camping.
San Francisco Carnaval Harrison between 16th and 22nd St., SF. 10am-6pm, free. The theme of this year’s showcase of Latin and Caribbean culture is “Live Your Fantasy” — bound to bring dreams alive on the streets of the Mission.
Healdsburg Jazz Festival Various venues, Healdsburg. (707) 433-463, www.healdsburgjazzfestival.org. Times and prices vary. Bask in the lounge-lit glow of all things jazz-related at this celebration in Sonoma’s wine county.
June 3-July 3
SF Ethnic Dance Festival Zellerbach Hall, Berk. and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF. www.worldartswest.org. Times and prices vary. A powerful display of world dance and music taking to the stage over the course of five weekends.
* Berkeley World Music Festival Telegraph, Berk. www.berkeleyworldmusicfestival.org. Noon-9pm, free. Fourteen world music artists serenade the streets and stores of Telegraph Avenue and al fresco admirers in People’s Park.
Huicha Music Festival Gundlach Bundschu Winery, 2000 Denmark St., Sonoma. (707) 938-5277, www.gunbun.com/hmfevent. 2-11pm, $55. Indie music in the fields of a wine country: Fruit Bats, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr, Sonny and the Sunsets, and more.
Union Street Eco-Urban Festival Union from Gough to Steiner and parts of Octavia, SF. (800) 310-6563, www.unionstreetfestival.com. 10am-6pm, free. Festival goers will have traffic-free access to Cow Hollow merchants and restaurant booths. The eco-urban theme highlights progressive, green-minded advocates and products.
The Great San Francisco Crystal Fair Fort Mason Center, Building A., SF. (415) 383-7837, home.earthlink.net/~sfxtl/index.html. Sat., 10am-6pm; Sun., 10am-4pm, $6. Gems and all they have to offer: beauty, fashion, and mysterious healing powers.
* Israel in the Gardens Yerba Buena Gardens, SF. (415) 512-6420, www.sfjcf.org. 11am-5pm, free. One full day of food, music, film, family activities, and ceremonies celebrating the Bay Area’s Jewish community and Israel’s 63rd birthday.
Harmony Festival Sonoma County Fairgrounds, 1350 Bennett Valley, Santa Rosa. www.harmonyfestival.com. 10am-10pm, $45 one day, $120 for three day passes. This is where your love for tea, The Flaming Lips, goddess culture, techno, eco-living, spirituality, and getting drunk with your fellow hippies come together in one wild weekend.
Queer Women of Color Film Festival Brava Theater. 2789 24th St., SF. (415) 752-0868, www.qwocmap.org. Times vary, free. A panel discussion called “Thinkers and Trouble Makers,” bisects three days of screenings from up-and-coming filmmakers with stories all their own.
* Live Oak Park Fair 1301 Shattuck, Berk. (510) 227-7110, www.liveoakparkfair.com. 10am-6pm, free. This festival’s 41st year brings the latest handmade treasures from Berkeley’s vibrant arts and crafts community. With food, face-paint, and entertainment, this fair is perfect for a weekend activity with the family.
San Mateo County Fair San Mateo County Fairgrounds. 2495 S. Delaware, San Mateo. www.sanmateocountyfair.com. June 11, 14, 18, and 19, 11am-10pm; all other days, noon-10pm, $10 for adults. It features competitive exhibits from farmers, foodies, and even technological developers — but let’s face it, we’re going to see the pig races.
* Haight Ashbury Street Fair Haight between Stanyan and Ashbury, SF. www.haightashburystreetfair.org. 11am-5:30pm, free. Make your way down to the grooviest corner in history and celebrate the long-standing diversity and color of the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, featuring the annual battle of the bands.
Frameline Film Festival Various venues, SF. www.frameline.org. Times and prices vary. This unique LGBT film festival comes back for its 35th year showcasing queer documentaries, shorts, and features.
June 17-19 Sierra Nevada World Music Festival Mendocino County Fairgrounds. 14400 CA-128, Boonville. (916) 777-5550, www.snwmf.com. Fri, 6pm-midnight; Sat, 11am-midnight; Sun, 11am-10pm, $60 for Friday and Sunday day pass; $70 for Saturday day pass, $150 three day pass. Featuring Rebulution, Toots and the Maytals, and Jah Love Sound System, this fest comes with a message of peace, unity, and love through music.
Summer SAILstice Encinal Yacht Club, 1251 Pacific Marina, Alameda. (415) 412-6961, www.summersailstice.com. 8am-8pm, free. Boat building, sailboat rides, sailing seminars, informational booths, music, a kid zone, and of course, wind, sun, and water.
Pinot Days Festival Pavilion, Fort Mason Center, SF. (415) 382-8663, www.pinotdays.com. 1-5pm, $50. Break out your corkscrews and head over to this unique event. With 220 artisan winemakers pouring up tastes of their one-of-a-kind vino, you better make sure you’ve got a DD for the ride home.
North Beach Festival Washington Square Park, SF. (800) 310-6563, www.northbeachchamber.com. Sat, 10am-6pm; Sun, 10am-6pm, free. Make your way down to the spaghetti capital of SF and enjoy food, music, arts and crafts booths, and the traditional blessing of the animals.
Marin Art Festival Marin Civic Center, San Rafael. (415) 388-0151, www.marinartfestival.com. 10am-6pm, $10. A city center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright plays host to this idyllic art festival. Strolling through pavilions, sampling wines, eating grilled oysters, and viewing the work of hundreds of creative types.
June 20-Aug 21
Stern Grove Music Festival Stern Grove. Sloat and 19th Ave., SF. (415) 252-6252, www.sterngrove.org. Sundays 2pm, free. This free outdoor concert series is a must-do for San Francisco summers. This year’s lineup includes Neko Case, the SF Symphony, Sharon Jones, and much more.
San Francisco Pride Celebration Civic Center Plaza, SF; Parade starts at Market and Beale. (415) 864-FREE, www.sfpride.org. Parade starts at 10:30am, free. Gays, trannies, queers, and the rest of the rainbow waits all year for this grand-scale celebration of diversity, love, and being fabulous.• San Francisco Free Folk Festival Presidio Middle School. 450 30th Ave., SF. (415) 661-2217, www.sffolkfest.org. Noon-10pm, free. Folk-y times for the whole family — not just music but crafts, dance workshops, crafts, and food vendors too.
June 29-July 3
International Queer Tango Festival La Pista. 768 Brannan, SF. www.queertango.freehosting.net. Times vary, $10-35. Spice up your Pride (and Frameline film fest) week with some queer positive tango lessons in culturally diverse, welcoming groups of same sex couples.
June 30-July 3
High Sierra Music Festival Plumas-Sierra Fairgrounds, Quincy. www.highsierramusic.com. Gates open at 8am Thursday. $205 weekend pass, $90 parking fee. Yonder Mountain String Band, My Morning Jacket, and most importantly, Ween. Bring out your sleeping bags for this four day mountaintop grassroots festival.
Vans Warped Tour Shoreline Amphitheatre, Mountain View. www.vanswarpedtour.com. 11am, $46-72. Skating, pop punk, hardcore, screamo, and a whole lot of emo fun.
Fillmore Jazz Festival Fillmore between Jackson and Eddy, SF, 1-800-310-6563, www.fillmorejazzfestival.com. 10am-6pm, free. Thousands of people get jazzed-up every year for this musical feast in a historically soulful neighborhood.
City of San Francisco Fourth of July waterfront celebration Pier 39, Embarcadero and Beach, SF. (415) 709-5500, www.pier39.com. Noon-9:30pm, free. Ring in the USA’s birthday on the water, with a day full of music and end up at in the city’s front row when the fireworks take to the sky.
Renegade Craft Fair Fort Mason Festival Pavilion. Buchanan and Marina, SF. (312) 496-3215, www.renegadecraft.com. 11am-7pm, free. Put a bird on it at this craft fair for the particularly indie at heart.
Midsummer Mozart Festival Various Bay Area venues. (415) 627-9141, www.midsummermozart.org. Prices vary. You won’t be hearing any Beethoven or Schubert at this midsummer series — the name of the day is Mr. Mozart alone.
Connoisseur’s Marketplace Santa Cruz between Camino and Johnson, Menlo Park. (650) 325-2818, www.miramarevents.com. 10am-6pm, free. Let the artisans do what they do best — you’ll polish off the fruits of their labor at this outdoor expo of artisan food, wine, and craft.
July 21-Aug 8
SF Jewish Film Festival Various Bay Area venues. www.sfjff.org. Times and prices vary. A three week smorgasbord of world premiere Jewish films at theaters in SF, Berkeley, the Peninsula, and Marin County.
July 22-Aug 13
Music@Menlo Chamber Music Festival Menlo School, 50 Valparaiso, Atherton. (650) 330-2030, www.musicatmenlo.org. Classical chamber music at its best: this year’s theme “Through Brahms,” will take you on a journey through Johannes’ most notable works.
July 23-Sept 25
SF Shakespeare Festival Various Bay Area venues. www.sfshakes.org. Various times, free. Picnic with Princess Innogen and her crew with dropping a dime at this year’s production of Cymbeline. It’s by that playwriter guy… what’s his name again?
Oakland A’s Beer Festival Eastside Club at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum, 7000 Coliseum Way, Oakl. www.oakland.athletics.mlb.com. 4:05-6:05pm, free with game ticket. Booze your way through the Oakland A’s vs. Minnesota Twins game while the coliseum is filled with brewskies from over 30 microbreweries, there for the chugging in your souvenir A’s beer mug.
Berkeley Kite Festival Cesar Chavez Park, 11 Spinnaker, Berk. www.highlinekites.com. 10am-5pm, free. A joyous selection of Berkeley’s coolest kites, all in one easy location.
Up Your Alley Dore between Folsom and Howard, SF. www.folsomstreetfair.com. 11am-6pm, $7-10 suggested donation. Whether you are into BDSM, leather, paddles, nipple clamps, hardcore — or don’t know what any of the above means, this Dore Alley stroll is surprisingly friendly and cute once you get past all the whips!
SF Chefs Various venues, SF. www.sfchefs2011.com. Times and prices vary. Those that love to taste test will rejoice during this foodie’s paradise of culinary stars sharing their latest bites. Best of all, the goal for 2011’s event is tons of taste with zero waste.
SF Theater Festival Fort Mason Center. Buchanan and Marina, SF. www.sftheaterfestival.org. 11am-5pm, free. Think you can face about 100 live theater acts in one day? Set a personal record at this indoor and outdoor celebration of thespians.
San Rafael Food and Wine Festival Falkirk Cultural Center, 1408 Mission, San Rafael. 1-800-310-6563, www.sresproductions.com. Noon-6pm, $25 food and wine tasting, $15 food tasting only. A sampler’s paradise, this festival features an array of tastes from the Bay’s best wineries and restaurants.
* Nihonmachi Street Fair Post and Webster, SF. www.nihonmachistreetfair.org. 11am-6pm, free. Founded by Asian Pacific American youths, this Japantown tradition is a yearly tribute to the difficult history and prevailing spirit of Asian American culture in this SF neighborhood.
Oakland Art and Soul Festival Entrances at 14th St. and Broadway, 16th St. and San Pablo, Oakl. (510) 444-CITY, www.artandsouloakland.com. $15. A musical entertainment tribute to downtown Oakland’s art and soul, this festival features nationally-known R&B, jazz, gospel, and rock artists.
* SF Street Food Festival Folsom St from Twenty Sixth to Twenty Second, SF. www.sfstreetfoodfest.com. 11am-7pm, free. All of the city’s best food, available without having to go indoors — or sit down. 2011 brings a bigger and better Street Food Fest, perfect for SF’s burgeoning addiction to pavement meals.
Aug 29-Sept 5
Burning Man Black Rock City, Nev. (415) TO-FLAME, www.burningman.com. $320. This year’s theme, “Rites of Passage,” is set to explore transitional spaces and feelings. Gather with the best of the burned-out at one of the world’s weirdest, most renowned parties.
* Autumn Moon Festival Street Fair Grant between California and Broadway, SF. (415) 982-6306, www.moonfestival.org. 11am-6pm, free. A time to celebrate the summer harvest and the end of summer full-moon, rejoice in bounty with the moon goddess.
SF International Dragon Boat Festival California and Avenue D, Treasure Island. www.sfdragonboat.com. 10am-5pm, free. The country’s largest dragon boat festival sees beautiful man-powered boats take to the water in 300 and 500 meter competitive races.
SF Greek Food Festival Annunciation Cathedral. 245 Valencia, SF. www.sfgreekfoodfestival.org. Fri.-Sat., 11am-10pm; Sun., noon-9pm, free with advance ticket. Get your baba ghanoush on during this late summer festival, complete with traditional Greek dancing, music, and wine.
Folsom Street Fair Folsom between 7th and 12th St., SF. www.folsomstreetfair.org. 11am-6pm, free. The urban Burning Man equivalent for leather enthusiasts, going to this expansive SoMa celebration of kink and fetish culture is the surest way to see a penis in public (you dirty dog!).
Sept 30-Oct 2
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Speedway Meadows, Golden Gate Park, SF. www.strictlybluegrass.com. 11am-7pm, free. Pack some whiskey and shoulder your banjo: this free three day festival draws record-breaking crowds — and top names in a variety of twangy genres — each year.
Items with asterisks note family-fun activities.
In the shifting sea of drink menus around San Francisco, one of the world’s leading cocktail cities, excellent cocktails have long been the standard rather than the stand-out. Keeping up on trends can be exhausting — but staying abreast of a great mixology culture can be well worth the hefty bar tabs. This week, we examine two new shakes to the cocktail scene that hail from outside city limits — and have us asking the bartender for another round.
Thanks to Jeffrey Morgenthaler of southeast Portland, Ore.’s Clyde Common restaurant, the barrel-aged cocktail phenomenon has taken off over the past year. If you’re new to the aging scene, here’s the gist: take an already brilliant drink — Morgenthaler finds his muse in a classic negroni — and age it in a barrel for weeks or months, letting the flavors meld into a more integrated whole.
And barrel-aged cocktails have made it to the Bay Area in a big way. Joel Teitelbaum of Zero Zero launched a barrel-aged negroni of his own earlier this spring. Made with Beefeater gin, Campari, sweet vermouth, and aged in an American oak barrel for three months, it’s a sexy, lush version — even deeper than an iconic negroni when you taste the two side by side. Still thirsty? Head in a slightly different direction with Teitelbaum’s negroni bianco: Leopold’s gin, infused Cocchi, and white vermouth.
On a recent trip across the bay to Oakland’s forward-thinking Adesso, I tried a house barrel-aged martini made with Karlsson’s Gold vodka, an already unusual (read: flavorful and high quality) spirit. The white vermouth and vodka meld into a sophisticated, layered martini.
If you see a barrel-aged cocktail on a menu, order it — and quickly, since a bar’s stock of these beauties can run out rapidly. Even better, sample one next to its young version to fully comprehend the difference a little oak aging can make. It’s a trend whose novelty may pass eventually, but the barrel aging technique can put a new spin on your favorite cocktail.
WINE COUNTRY RISING
Sonoma County has long had one of the best bartenders in the country in Scott Beattie, formerly of Cyrus and now at Spoonbar, even if wine country on the whole continues to be far better known for, well, the wine. But a cocktail renaissance seems to be on the rise.
In early 2009, a wave of new restaurants debuted, including Bardessono in Yountville, whose farm-fresh cocktail menu was assembled by SF experts like Thad Vogler. Around the same time, old school-spirited Jack & Tony’s opened in Santa Rosa, heavy on boozy cocktail classics and whiskey selections. Sweeping change did not follow; nor has the wine country become a cocktail mecca. Yet slowly, steadily, it has been gaining momentum.
Healdsburg’s Spoonbar serves some of the best cocktails anywhere. Recently, beloved culinary destinations like Terra opened a more casual bar focused around — you guessed it — cocktails. At Bar Terra, you can get a Jack Rose or a Rob Roy as easily as a glass of Cep Vineyards rosé.
One of the best places for cocktails in Sonoma county is Medlock Ames’ Alexander Valley Bar. It’s a winery, but if you arrive after 5 p.m., walk around to the back side of the tasting room. There you’ll find a retro-casual bar with design touches of Prohibition and the Wild West mingling with a vintage photo booth and a bar lined with herbs and citrus. Cocktails like the Verdant Virtue/Vice exemplify the garden fresh harvest of ingredients from Medlock’s own backyard. Hendrick’s Gin and green Chartreuse are amplified with mint, basil, rosemary, cucumber, and lime to yield refreshing beauty. A nocino manhattan plays heavier and muskier with Buck Bourbon, Carpano Antica, and the nuttiness of nocino walnut liqueur.
And while wine still reigns in Napa and Sonoma counties, contests like Charbay and Perfect Puree’s second annual wine country cocktail competition, held May 16, showcase the increasing array of talent in both counties. It may not be up with the big cities yet, but the region has caught onto the cocktail renaissance, infusing it with its fresh local flair. It would seem that the wine country is not just for winos anymore.
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“Surface, surface, surface.” Patrick Bateman’ pithy summation of the dominant aesthetic of his times in American Psycho could easily serve as a subtitle for Takeshi Murata’s colorful still lifes currently hanging at Ratio 3 (Murata’s computer animated short, I, Popeye, which plays in the gallery’s backroom, merits less discussion despite its gallows humor).
Seemingly random groups of objects — fruit, knickknacks, VHS cassette tapes of cult films such as Dario Argento’s Opera or Dawn of the Dead, a cow skull, cans of Coors, and what appear to be forlorn, soft-sculpture likenesses of brass instruments and a tea kettle — are arranged against neutral backgrounds and dramatically lit from a variety of angles.
Murata’s images are large and crisp. Their flawless, hermetically sealed perfection recalls certain advertising photography from (to return to American Psycho) the 1980s. Or, to go back a few years earlier, some of the album art created by British design firm Hipgnosis. The catch is that these images aren’t actually photographs of anything; they aren’t even photographs. Murata created these pigment prints — to call them by their proper name — with a computer, individually rendering each object, light source, shadow, and reflection.
The fact that there’s no there there shouldn’t be alarming. Open any lifestyle magazine and you’ll find countless examples of pictorial illusion promising the world. Murata’s images replicate the logic behind the shell game that advertising firms call doing business and Marxists call commodity fetishism. None of the objects in his compositions really make sense together syntactically, but bathed in the glow of a nonexistent photo studio each thing appears as strangely covetable as it does out of place.
This is not say that Murata’s compositions can’t simply be enjoyed for their pleasing arrangements of shape and color, or for the ways the objects play off each other (in Art and the Future, a replica of the Terminator’s chrome skull is paired with a copy of Douglas Davis’ 1975 treatise of the same name). Rather, these carefully orchestrated moments out of time complicate that enjoyment, asking us to reconsider the pleasures we take in looking at and staging displays of taste.
TAKE ME TO THE FAIR
Starting tomorrow through the rest of the weekend, San Francisco will become home to not one, not two, but three — count ’em, three — art fairs. The largest is the San Francisco Fine Art Fair, which returns to Fort Mason’s cavernous Festival Pavilion after its inaugural run last year. Then there are the two newcomers: ArtMRKT San Francisco at the Concourse Exhibition Center, the first Bay Area event put on by the Brooklyn-based art fair organizers of the same name, and the smaller scale, locally-based ArtPad SF, which takes over the rooms, patio, and even the pool of the Phoenix Hotel.
Art fairs are many things: commercial ventures, networking hubs, forums for and targets of critique, and socio-aesthetic petri dishes in which artists, dealers, gallerists, curators, critics, collectors, and gawkers all rub shoulders and share drinks. This kind of close proximity can be rare in San Francisco, which given its size, has a lot of different places to see art and a lot of different kinds of art to see. Sure, individual openings are their own kind of mixers, but not on the scale or with as diverse an audience as an art fair.
Almost every local gallery worth its salt, along with plenty of out-of-town exhibitors, will have a presence at one of the fairs (and to make taking it all in that much easier ArtMRKT and ArtPadSF will be sharing a shuttle service between venues on Saturday and Sunday). ArtMRKT and ArtPad SF, in particular, have also made it a point to involve community arts orgs and nonprofits. Black Rock Arts Foundation is ArtPad SF’s opening night beneficiary and ArtMRKT is hosting MRKTworks, an online and live auction set to benefit several other local arts nonprofits. ArtPAD SF will also host panel discussions on California art and collecting street art with a who’s who of notable locals and feature live performances and video pieces throughout the weekend.
What this confluence of big events means for the state of art-making and consuming in San Francisco remains up for discussion. Art fairs are one indicator of market growth — or at least of the organizer’s belief in a market’s potential, which in San Francisco’s case would mean having to address the fact that local artists have historically outnumbered local collectors. The proof, I suppose, will be in the attendance records and sales figures.
On the other hand, you can view these fairs as a sign of evolutionary development within the larger ecosystem of San Francisco’s art scene. Before last year’s SF Fine Art Fair, there hadn’t been a comparable event in the city for close to two decades. Maybe these are the sort of events SF needs to slough off of the self-deprecatory framework that regards what is made and what goes on here as “provincial” compared to Los Angeles or New York City. After all, “boosterism” needn’t be a dirty word.
I hope to expand on these issues in the next Eyeball, after I’ve had a chance to make the rounds and cool my feet in the Phoenix’s pool.
TAKESHI MURATA: GET YOUR ASS TO MARS
Through June 11; free
ARTMRKT SAN FRANCISCO
Thurs/19– Sun/22; $25 (single day), $45 (3-day)
Concourse Exhibition Center
620 Seventh St., SF
May 19–May 22
Phoenix Hotel; $10
601 Eddy, SF
SAN FRANCISCO FINE ART FAIR
May 20 –22; $20 (single day), $30 (3-day)
Fort Mason Center, SF
“‘I am the carnivore/ The hounded night walker/ Searching for my wings scattered under glass.'<0x2009>” So begins “Blood Penguin,” the first poem in Will Alexander’s latest collection, Compression & Purity (City Lights, 100 pages, $13.95). Alexander is an honest-and-for-true black surrealist. In 2011, he will have three books of poetry, one novel, one book of essays, and a book of philosophy coming out. Even if you’ve never heard his name before, you gotta admit that Will Alexander is a bad muthafuckah. “because of my leaning,” he writes in the same poem, “I know the stark Egyptian soma/ Much as would the blinded cemetery scribe.'”
Invoking equal parts Homer and Ray Charles, Alexander excavates as only a black surrealist can — by revisiting and resurrecting cults and symbols of the past with new eyes while taking a biographic, confessional tone. Many of the pieces coalesce into declarations/definitions for an ever-shifting identity meeting the limits of contemporary classification.
“I am simply without means to conduct my own prism,” Alexander writes in this opening poem. A lament of all artists and creative others who find themselves at this juncture where capability could possibly override access and capital, enabling us to manifest our truest visions.
In “The Deluge in Information,” we once again meet this fluid identity. “I am more like a crow from crucial underwater fires,” Alexander writes, “a crucial underwater crow/ Neither Chinese or Shinto/ But of the black dimensionality as hidden underwater mass.”
Whereas Alexander’s Sunrise in Armageddon (2006) was a whop over the head that only the most Joycean among us could dare to hold with a steady grip, Compression & Purity hovers over a series of consistent, graspable subjects throughout. The treatment of identity/biography in “Blood Penguin” and “Deluge” is fully unmasked in “On Anti-Biography,” where Alexander makes the succinct, clear statement: “I am only concerned with simultaneity and height, with rays of monomial kindling, guiding the neocortex though ravens, into the ecstasy of x-rays and blackness.”
This and the poem that follows, “My Interior Vita,” ring like an Afrosurrealist’s manifesto. When Alexander writes, “Yet above all, the earth being for me the specificity of Africa, as revealed by Diop, and Jackson, and Van Sertima, and its electrical scent in the writing of Damas. Because of this purview I have never drawn to provincial description, or to quiescent chemistry of condensed domestic horizon,” he seems to be speaking for those who have rejected the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and queer folk. Even as he’s speaking from a universal mind with a universal tongue, he always seems to land on the side of “otherness.”
“Yet at a more ancient remove,” he continues, “there exists the example of Nubia and Kemet unconcerned with life as secular confiscation, but with the unification of disciplines, such as astronomy, philosophy, law, as paths to the revelations of the self. Knowledge then, as alchemical operation, rather than an isolated expertise.” Word.
Though Afrosurreal, Alexander is “Afro futurist” as well. “Alien Personas,” the name of yet another strong poem in this collection, could easily be a rubric for the other driving force in this book. Beginning with the personification poem “Water On A New Mars” (“Being water/ I am the voltage of rocks/ Of algid suns in transition/ Flying across a scape/ Of bitter Martian dioxide”), Alexander reaches from the semi-utopian science fiction of Octavia Butler to dystopian Delanyian homage and the expansive cosmology of Sun Ra. What we find is an artist seeking a unified-all-inclusive art theory. A noble, if totally insane, gesture for a better and brighter tomorrow.
Compression and Purity works well as an introduction to Alexander’s black surrealist oeuvre while still engaging and challenging his longtime readers. Though emotionally cold and detached, the poems more than make up for it with a genuine love of language and its power to effect change.
WILL ALEXANDER, CEDAR SIGO
Wed./18, 7 p.m.; free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF
Takashi Miike is 50 years old, has only been active in film since 1991, and since then has directed approximately 80 features for TV, video, and theatres. Eight-zero. Even Rainer Werner Fassbinder on every puppy-upper in the world achieved nothing like that volume (and was dead at 37). It’s not like Miike’s films are cheap knockoffs assembled by a stock company à la the prolific Ulli Lommel or your average pornographer. Though they started off on the low end of the Japanese industry’s budgetary scale — and one suspects he’s still a producer’s wet dream of bang for buck — from early on his projects were busy, elaborate, even frantic with highly cinematic ideas. Not to mention frequently insane.
Miike’s trademark cinema is the gonzo genre mashup as first significantly noted abroad via cult hits like Ichi the Killer (2001) and Dead or Alive (1999) — movies so crazed with jaw-dropping, often hilarious splattersome outrageousness and relentless high energy that they could be both unforgettable and exhausting. (It is perhaps Miike’s only major fault that he often gives us too much of a good thing.) But the breadth of his imagination and stylistic adaptability is amazing. He’s made children’s fantasies, teen musicals, blackest domestic satire, a low-key rural whimsy (1998’s The Bird People in China), formulaic J-horror (2003’s One Missed Call), and one languorous all-boy lockup saga suffused with the homoerotic surrealism of Fassbinder’s 1982 Querelle (2006’s Big Bang Love, Juvenile A).
Miike’s first significant hit here was another stylistic departure, 1999’s Audition — a May-December romance of Ozu-like restraint that only revealed its true agenda in a last few minutes of harrowing violence. Since then the odd Miike film has gotten modest U.S. theatrical release, like 2007’s gonzo mode Sukiyaki Western Django.
But the new 13 Assassins is clearly destined to be his greatest success yet outside Japan. (One just hopes success doesn’t do what it frequently does to hitherto fast, almost impulsive artists — i.e., slow down their future output because the decisions are now more commercially and prestigiously “important.”) It’s another departure, doubtless one of the most conventional movies he’s made in theme and execution. That’s key to its appeal — rigorously traditional, taking its sweet time getting to samurai action that is pointedly not heightened by wire work or CGI, it arrives at the kind of slam-dunk prolonged battle climax that only a measured buildup can let you properly appreciate.
That buildup is long, though, so ADD-addled mall rats should be forewarned. In the 1840s, samurai are in decline but feudalism is still hale. It’s a time of peace, though not for the unfortunates who live under regional tyrant Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), a li’l Nippon Caligula who taxes and oppresses his people to the point of starvation. Alas, the current shogun is his sibling, and plans to make little bro his chief adviser — which could throw the entire nation into chaos.
Ergo a concerned Shogun official secretly hires veteran samurai Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) to assassinate the Lord at one of the rare times he’s vulnerable to attack, during his annual trip home from the capital court. Fully an hour is spent on our hero doing “assembling the team” stuff, recruiting other unemployed, retired, or wannabe samurai for a lean-mean total of 12 (eventually joined by Takayuki Yamada’s comedy-relief rube). This slow, sober initial progress is tweaked by glimpses of Naritsugu’s extreme cruelty, which encompasses rape, murder, and dismemberment just for the hell of it.
When the protagonists finally commence their mission, their target is already aware he’s being pursued. He’s surrounded by some 200 soldiers by the time Miike arrives at the film’s sustained, spectacular climax: a small village his retinue must pass through, and which Shinzaemon and co. have turned into a giant booby trap so that 13 men can divide and destroy an ogre guarding army.
A major reason why mainstream Hollywood fantasy and straight action movies have gotten so depressingly interchangeable is that digital FX and stunt work can (and does) visualize any stupid idea — heroes who get thrown 200 feet into walls by monsters then getting up to fight some more, etc. 13 Assassins is thrilling because its action, while sporting against-the-odds ingeniousness and sheer luck by our heroes as in any trad genre film, is still vividly, bloodily, credibly physical.
13 ASSASSINS opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.
In 1810, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans were divided between white and black (free and slave). In 1910 “mulatto” and “other” were added. Last year’s respondents had the choice among 15 racial categories, in addition to a space for ones not listed. Assigning people to predetermined slots is becoming so complicated — and controversial — that it’s hard not to wonder what the census form will look like in 2050 when more than 50 percent of the population will be “mixed.”
It’s a question that Raissa Simpson grapples with in her new dance installation piece Mixed Messages, running at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora (May 21-28). Choreographed for the six dancers of her Push Dance Company and youngsters from the 3rd Street Youth Center and Clinic and beyond, the work uses a sound score by El Kool Kyle that includes comments from multiracial people who face the perennial question, from others and from within themselves, “What are you?”
Simpson is comfortable with multiple identities: ballet, jazz, hip-hop, modern. “For a while, I was greedy — I wanted it all,” she says. At home she grew up eating Filipino food but once she went to college, she took “a lot of African American history and identity classes.” Among her friends, “mixed” is what she calls a form of “friendly street-slang’ in the sense of “Oh, you are mixed. I am a … ” Part of the inspiration for Messages came from a comedy act in which the performers talked about their multiracial heritage. “It was hilarious and absurd,” she remembers. “Everyone started with, ‘Guess what I am?’ “
Yet when she began to explore the subject, she found a lot of resistance from people who didn’t want to talk about it. It simply was too painful. For many, the word “mixed” still resonates with violence, pain, and something forced on them and their ancestors. Being defined — often by what is still the dominant culture — simply by the way they look, infuriates others. Some also consider multiple backgrounds a loss of cultural identity and pressure to choose one over the other. Simpson insists that “it doesn’t have to be that way.”
As a choreographer, Simpson developed her voice locally by dancing with Robert Moses’ Kin and Joanna Haigood’s Zaccho Dance Theatre, two companies that couldn’t be more different from each other. Her five years with Moses, she says, taught her a strong work ethic as well as “the possibilities of movement and how to build a work.” From Haigood, with whom she still performs, she learned “to go deep into a subject matter. Diving into something helped me edit myself as an artist.”
But she has not finished learning from others. During her 2010 Chime fellowship — the Margaret Jenkins mentorship program that pairs younger dancers with more experienced choreographers — she worked with choreographer and cofounder of the WestWave Dance Festival Cathleen McCarthy, also a graduate of the SUNY Purchase dance department. Choreographing her hip-hop opera, Black Swordsman Saga, Simpson credits McCarthy with “knowing how to tell a story” and “how to bring out hidden mysteries and emotions.”
As a dancer, Simpson is still fearless and fierce, the kind of performer who is unstoppable. Her 2008 whirlwind solo, the appropriately named Judgment in Milliseconds, performed in a straight-hair and Afro wig, thrives on split-second emotional and kinetic changes. Most recently, Simpson danced in Haigood’s The Monkey and the Devil, as painful a work about the soul-destroying effect of racism that I have seen. “In order to perform hate, you first have to be friends,” Simpson explains about the difficulties of performing such unremittingly antagonistic choreography.
Watching this dynamo in rehearsal is a surprise. Soft-spoken, calm, and focused, at times she seems almost reticent, perhaps thinking aloud. As she demonstrates an across-the-stage sequence, she tells the dancers exactly what she wants even as she encourages them to find their own way through the phrasing. At one point, she asks for more articulated details that have to run current-like through the whole body. “I am a quiet person,” she tells them, “but I like loud dancers.”
PUSH DANCE COMPANY: MIXED MESSAGES
Sat., 2 and 4 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 3 p.m.,
Through May 29
Museum of the African Diaspora
685 Mission, SF
Choreographer Barak Marshall knows a thing or two about what he calls “umbilical whiplash.” The son of Yemenite-Israeli choreographer Margalit Oved, Marshall happened upon his dance voice while accompanying his mother for a 1994 visit with the Inbal Dance Company in Israel. Since then, Marshall has been creating his own dances, working as the first house choreographer for Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company in 1999, and more recently arriving with his own company at the Suzanne Dellal Centre in Tel Aviv, the beating heart of the Israeli dance community. The choreographer, who grew up in Los Angeles, enjoys a homecoming to California this week, presenting his work for the first time in the United States with a tour of Monger. The work will be performed Thursday, May 19 at the Marines Memorial Theatre as part of the 2011 San Francisco International Arts Festival.
“I basically spent the majority of my childhood bopping around on a red school bus with 10 to 15 dancers touring as a company throughout the United States … I slept more on the floors of performance halls than in my own bed at home in L.A.,” Marshall recalled. Growing up in the middle of a dance company was one reason Marshall never wanted to dance. It was his mother’s thing. “She is the most prolific dance creator I’ve ever met and also the most powerful performer I’ve ever seen onstage. I have an enormous amount of respect for her.
“And we have the natural tension that goes along with a mother-son relationship,” he added. “She’s incredibly supportive and also critical. She helps me get better, so it’s a good relationship.”
After breaking his leg in 2000, Marshall took a hiatus from choreography, which makes Monger his first work in eight years. “Coming back at a more mature age has allowed me to honestly pursue the stories and the languages and make the statement I want to make. I’m also a little more brave. Monger is about people who do not have any control over their own destiny. The struggle for self-determination. It addresses the issue of how much of our lives are controlled by others.” The narrative work is set to a collage of music that includes works by Taraf de Haidouk, Balkan Beat Box, the Yiddish Radio Project, Margalit Oved, Handel, and Verdi.
Marshall’s culture, as well as his studies in social theory and philosophy at Harvard University, continue to influence the content of his work. “For me it really is genetic and unavoidable to use my ethnic resources — my Yemenite heritage and my Israeli heritage — as a basis for the movement language. I’m excited to constantly go back and research these stories as a fertile resource.” In an effort to develop a distinct vocabulary, Marshall builds his own movement, often teaching it to a single dancer to get a general sense of structure. He then sets sections on a larger group to play with and refine the choreography.
Reflecting on his time as the house choreographer for Ohad Naharin’s Batsheva Dance Company, Marshall said, “A wonderful thing I learned there is the totality of the Batsheva dancer, of the Israeli dancer, that is so much a signature of that company. Ohad as a mentor was wonderful. He really allows you to figure it out with very kind nudges and challenging questions.”
Marshall is thrilled to be involved in Tel Aviv’s thriving dance scene. “Israeli dance is flourishing — I think it’s known especially in Europe as being a hot spot for dance. And it really is amazing the per capita of dance we have and the success rate of these choreographers abroad, from Inbal Pinto Dance Company, Batsheva Dance Company, Kibbutz Dance Company, Emanuel Gat Dance, and Vertigo Dance Company to a lot of other choreographers. We don’t have a long history, so the choreographers are not following a certain genre or style. But they’re very ‘chutzpah-tic’ — bold and unique voices — and I’m excited to be a part of the community.”
BARAK MARSHALL COMPANY: MONGER
Part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival
Thurs/19, 8 p.m., $12–$20
Marines Memorial Theatre
609 Sutter, SF
One night in 2009 I found myself climbing a stairwell to the second floor of the Grotowski Institute’s historic roost at Rynek-Ratusz 27 in downtown Wroclaw, Poland, with maybe 30 or 40 other people hailing from a variety of countries. We entered a modestly large room, plain and hushed like a Quaker meetinghouse, with several ascending rows of benches against opposite walls — the same room where Jerzy Grotowki’s Laboratory Theatre had performed Akropolis in 1965, someone whispered. I was jet-lagged and might have been the one whispering, for all I could make of this somnambulant excursion. But when the performance began, all sleepiness dropped away and one of the most memorable encounters, in a trip filled with impressive theatrical events, began to unfold.
The encounter was with Teatr ZAR, a Wroclaw-based ensemble company founded in 2002 by Jaroslaw Fret (also since 2007 director of the Grotowski Institute) whose unique work arises from years-long investigations into primordial music from the Orthodox Christian world — some of the oldest examples of polyphonic music, culled from a series of research trips to Eurasia and North Africa, including early Christian sites in Armenia, Bulgaria, Corsica, Egypt, Georgia, Greece, and Iran.
“Zar” is the name of the 2000-year-old funeral songs still sung by the Svaneti tribe in the remote reaches of the Caucasus Mountains in northwestern Georgia, which Fret and company visited between 1999 and 2003. Fret and Teatr ZAR rigorously absorb such ancient and distinct religious music (via cultural exchange with practitioners and the adoption or invention of various techniques of notation and transmission that would likely merit an advanced degree in musicology) and then thoughtfully rework it amid movement and themes (some text-derived if not exactly text-based) over a significant gestation period. This concerted ensemble practice, in line with Grotowski’s own “laboratory theatre” approach, has produced three startling theatrical pieces, each lasting roughly one hour, grouped as a triptych under the title Gospels of Childhood.
Many of us in the room that night had come to Wroclaw by special invitation of Philip Arnoult’s Baltimore-based Center for International Theater Development in conjunction with the Grotowski Institute, which was hosting the Grotowski Year 2009, on the 10th anniversary of the death of the internationally renowned Polish prophet of “poor theatre.” (Under the auspices of UNESCO, the Grotowski Year coincided with two major theater festivals, including one built around the EU’s prestigious European Theatre Prize, that year bestowed on the great Polish director Krystian Lupa.) We had all, therefore, been treated to the same buzz about an unusual company working with ancient songs. But it would have been difficult to anticipate the effect on the audience of the intoning voices and thrilling harmonies that filled the room, or for that matter the moody intensity, bounding athleticism, brooding and ecstatic movement, and the quasi-liturgical atmosphere of these exceptionally deft and well-crafted performances.
In a remarkable Bay Area debut this week, the entire Gospels of Childhood Triptych is being performed six times as a must-see showcase of the eighth annual San Francisco International Arts Festival.
The first piece, Overture, which was the original inspiration for the group, is a gorgeously subdued, candle-lit, almost ceremonial work, arising from a shimmering chorus of voices and invoking the cycle of life and death in its fleet and lithesome choreography. It developed from Fret’s interest in Gnostic thought and intertwines the story of Lazarus from the perspective of his two sisters with the testimony of Mary Magdalene, who holds a particular place in Gnostic traditions.
The second piece, Caesarean Section: Essays on Suicide, is a physically and emotionally powerful work whose raw, wild energy animates prodigious feats of dance amid another intoxicating arrangement of music, now accompanied by live instrumentation. It amounts to an emotionally wide-ranging exploration of freedom and the human condition on the brink of self-annihilation.
Finally, the third piece, Anhelli: The Calling (which was still being developed when I saw it in 2009) is inspired in part by Polish Romantic poet Juliusz Slowacki and his journey from Naples to the Holy Land, in which the ensemble made use of a large white sheet in its evocation of an expanse as forbidding as it was liberating.
These pieces, which can be seen on separate nights or all in one go between two venues on Potrero Hill (the perfectly suited St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church hosting parts one and three, and the nearby Potrero Hill Neighborhood House hosting the more volatile and frenetic Caesarean Section), stir up a range of feeling with their arresting amalgam of liturgical song (with a smattering of modern airs from the likes of Erik Satie) and the power and precision of ZAR’s accomplished ensemble. Use of natural light, live instrumental accompaniment, and simple stage properties (simple but strikingly arranged, as in a glowing shaft of broken glass that cuts across the floor in Caesarian Section) meanwhile train a low-tech, premodern set of theatrical elements toward addressing the fundamental facts of life and death. The deep relationship between theater and religion rarely feels this palpable.
But it starts with the music, which as Fret told me in Poland in 2009, gives the path to all that follows, both as a direction and foundation. “Every single action [in Gospels of Childhood] was put on a solid footing because the music was very solid; music is so precise, a structure of breathing. “
That structure, says Fret, is a tool applied to life, just as theater is a tool. “In the extraordinary vibratory qualities of the zar, we saw a column of breathing. It is 2,000 years old. Even the Svaneti people don’t understand it — in that there is no [semantic] meaning — but they have not forgot the ritual function of it, related to the funeral ceremony, to saying farewell, to fulfilling that moment when the coffin is lowered into the earth, sending the soul somewhere. For a moment a society breathes together. This is the most important and central function of singing, to breathe together. The main message of life and of art is a pattern of breathing. We can use emotion to direct our breathing. We can also use some tools, like song, to harmonize, not only in terms of technique but also with what’s inside. The performance is a huge ‘partitura,’ or score, of breathing.”
TEATR ZAR: THE GOSPELS OF CHILDHOOD TRIPTYCH
Part of the SF International Arts Festival
Thurs/19–Sat/21 and Mon/23–May 25;
7 p.m.(part one); 8:15 p.m. (part two); and 9:30 p.m. (part three)
$12–$25 ($48 for all three parts)
St. Gregory of Nyssa Church (parts one and three)
500 De Haro, SF
Potrero Hill Neighborhood House
953 De Haro, SF
Pierre Thoretton’s documentary L’amour fou opens with two clips of men bidding farewell. The first, from 2002, is of the French-Algerian couturier Yves Saint Laurent announcing his retirement in a moving and emotional speech worthy of his favorite writer Marcel Proust. The second is of Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s longtime business partner and former lover, eulogizing his departed friend at the designer’s memorial service six years later.
Thoretton’s film is suffused with goodbyes, many tender and candid, some portentous and rehearsed. To be sure, L’amour fou is a touching portrait of the powerful and tempestuous bond between Saint Laurent and Bergé, a bond that lasted close to five decades and resulted in one of the great empires of 20th century fashion. But it is also, alongside David Teboud’s two 2002 YSL documentaries, another entry in the hagiography of Saint Laurent, one cannily steered by Bergé as much as by Thoretton.
“Every man needs his aesthetic ghosts,” says Saint Laurent in his retirement speech. It is the 2009 exorcism of the various spirits that he and Bergé accumulated over the years — rare art deco furniture and décor; classical African and Chinese sculpture; singular pieces by Brancusi, Picasso, Mondrian, and Braque — from the Rue de Babylone apartment they once shared to the Christie’s auction block that provides Thoretton with a narrative around which to organize Bergé’s remembrances of things past.
Well-spoken and charming, Bergé still comes off as the punchy entrepreneurial foil to Saint Laurent’s dazzling but fragile genius. He can be both hyperbolic (praising Saint Laurent’s gifts) and forthcoming (discussing the designer’s demons). His penchant for grand pronouncements (“I don’t believe in the soul — neither in me or these objects”) is tempered by dark humor (auctioneers are “morticians of art”) and an occasional mischievous twinkle in his eye that suggests we shouldn’t take what he’s saying quite so seriously. Former muses Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux are also interviewed but this is clearly Bergé’s show.
Bergé’s naturalness as a raconteur recalls Alicia Drake’s characterization of him in The Beautiful Fall (2006), her smart tell-all account of the high fashion demimonde of 1970s Paris, as a master rhetorician. Saint Laurent designed the clothes, but Bergé built the YSL brand. He knew the power of image. He saw the money in launching the Rive Gauche ready-to-wear line just as a new youth culture was shaking up the old guard, and spun perfume sales out of the controversy surrounding the launch of 1977’s Opium.
Bergé is still very much proselytizing the gospel of Saint Laurent, acting as figurehead for the house’s archival legacy and recounting its storied history, as he does here. In the end, though, the lavish parties, the jet-setting with the Rolling Stones and Andy Warhol, the gorgeously appointed properties in Morocco and the French countryside, and the staggering cache being boxed up in Paris for “the auction of the century” (which raised nearly $13.4 million in proceeds for HIV and AIDS research), are simply, as Bergé puts it, “how the money was spent.”
It is when Bergé describes sharing a quiet moment with “Yves,” or acting as caregiver during one of the designer’s frequent bouts with depression, or at the height of his drug and alcohol abuse, that he no longer speaks as a historian or businessman. Bergé’s register is of one who has loved deeply, madly even, and has fought greatly for that love. “I will never forget what I owe you,” he says to Saint Laurent during the funeral service and it is the lover’s prerogative that we will never truly know how much that is.
L’AMOUR FOU opens Fri/20 in Bay Area theaters.
Before he’d excuse himself to dance the boogaloo on stage, Soul Brother No. 1 would quip into the mic, often saying things like, “So much soul, I got some to spare!” So in case you’re wondering, James Brown is pretty much the inspiration for the name of this column. As for my intentions, I hope to keep the parameters somewhat loose, but focused on celebrating our local music scene. However, sometimes these Bay Area bands want to celebrate elsewhere.
Take Bare Wires, for example. On my recent trip to Portland, Ore., I unexpectedly caught one of their shows at a bar. Not that I haven’t seen them play here numerous times. It was more of a pleasant surprise, sort of like the tulips that were in full bloom everywhere, but not like the great scrutiny my nearly expired driver’s license went through. Most bartenders would normally just wish me a happy birthday, but nine times out of 10, I’d get discerning looks and these stern words of caution: “You know this expires in a few days?” I conclude that Portland hates birthdays but loves flowers and the way Oakland’s Bare Wires, decked out in ’70s garb, straggle out of their van, a virtual Mystery Machine. It was a solid performance with an engaged audience, complete with an attendee who stole the mic at the end of the set for some shrieking. Way to represent.
Speaking of ’70s-inspired, I was listening to KUSF in Exile’s web stream — which has been available thanks to WFMU for about two months now — and I heard a song that sounded familiar in more ways than one. I didn’t recognize it as a Marc Bolan song at first, until the chorus gave way. The DJ read the playback and the singer was revealed to be Ty Segall. The song, “Fist Heart Mighty Dawn Dart,” was from Tyrannosaurus Rex’s 1970 Beard of Stars album. Segall’s limited edition 12-inch of all T. Rex covers, appropriately titled Ty Rex (Goner Records), is a bold move that almost addresses taboo. The idolizing of Bolan is up-front and out in the open. It’s kind of like saying ‘Screw it, I wanna sound like T. Rex, so I’m just gonna do a bunch of their songs.’ And the result is pretty right on.
“Woodland Rock” — a song I’m less familiar with — is reminiscent of “Go Home,” the opening track from Segall first self-titled album. The explosion of fast-paced energy sounds like fun or the discovery of one’s creative self.
I was glad he chose to cover “Salamanda Palaganda,” partly because of its absurd title. Here Segall chooses to slow down what was once a hyper-frenzied acoustic Tyrannosaurus Rex workout and puts his own twist on it, which consists of lots of fuzz and reverb that was the prevailing affect on 2009’s Lemons (Goner Records). His version of “Elemental Child” is full of distortion and there may even be a slight mimicry of Bolan’s trademark warbled vocal.
I guess it’s interesting that the six tracks chosen on this album seem so carefully picked from a period where the lyrically long-winded and acoustic Bolan would transform his mystical, musical image and persona by going electric and abbreviating the band’s name. Segall even takes on two tracks from the iconic Slider album where Bolan, by then glamorous, had perfected his craft, tapped into the industry, and attained mass appeal.
I managed to get my hands on the record at one of those last packed Eagle Tavern shows in April which doubled as a Save KUSF benefit (Segall being an avid Save KUSF supporter). I saw Segall by the merch booth after his set while Thee Oh Sees were playing and jokingly asked how he’d feel if Marc Bolan covered his songs. He just kinda smiled and said something like “That’d be it.” As fate would have it, Bolan wouldn’t boogie past 1977.
The second half of the Vortex Room’s May retrospective of movies about crazy (or just beleaguered) artists is heavy on 1970s Eurosleaze — a status surely we all aspire to.
First up is a Thurs/19 double bill of a famous classic and, until recently, a extremely hard-to-find cult obscurity. The classic is none other than Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 English-language debut Blow-Up, which as we recently learned from best-tribute-honoree-ever Terence Stamp at the San Francisco International Film Festival, was originally cast with himself and Joanna Shimkus (who gave up a brief acting career for a still-extant marriage to Sidney Poitier) in the leads. The inscrutable Italian fired them without warning or explanation, casting David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave instead.
Blow-Up is one of the most austere, enigmatic films ever to have enjoyed great popular success — somehow it hit the “Swinging London” nerve internationally despite being utterly (if fascinatingly) obtuse. Hemmings plays a decadent mod fashion photographer who accidentally captures images that might be related to a murder in a public park. Or might not. This led to Antonioni’s crash ‘n’ burn second English language feature Zabriskie Point, a 1970 disaster with some unforgettable sequences. But that’s another story.
The photographer as spy on illicit matters was taken further in 1973’s Baba Yaga, a late entry in the annals of European features based on adult targeted comic books. This second and last feature by Corrado Farina — the first was even harder-to-find 1971 occult capitalism = cannibalism story They Have Changed Their Face — is a baroque fantasia in which bob-haired photog Valentina (Isabelle De Funès) is lured into the orbit of seemingly lesbian “witch” Baba Yaga (expatriate American star Carroll Baker), who casts a spell on her camera to the distress of various friends and collaborators.
They include Valentina’s boyfriend, played by George Eastman (a.k.a. Luigi Montefiori) — an underappreciated one-man treasure hunk of Italian cinema lore. He sparked deliciously onscreen and as occasional scenarist for directors ranging from Fellini, Bava, and Pupi Avati to prolific, bottom dweller Joe D’Amato (who journeyed from respected 1973 Klaus Kinski giallo Death Smiles on a Murderer to such telltale titles as 1981’s Porno Holocaust, 1995’s 120 Days of Anal, and 1999’s Prague Exposed).
Often encouraged toward one extreme or another (robber-kidnapper-rapist in 1974’s Rabid Dogs, homicidal monster in 1980’s gory Antropophagus, “Big Ape” in 1983’s dystopian sci-fi knockoff After the Fall of New York), he gets a rare romantic lead role here. Briefly shirtless in Baba Yaga, he merits deployment of that timeless phrase: woof.
The Vortex’s final May program features two commercially failed turn-of-the decade (several decades ago) takes on fashionable kink. Massimo Dallmano’s 1970 The Secret of Dorian Gray stars Helmut Berger — presumably taking an angry vacation from lover Luciano Visconti, who refused to cast him in 1971’s Death in Venice as a much-younger love object — plays Oscar Wilde’s antihero in a “modern allegory” wherein he despoils a whole roster of 1960s Eurobabes. This being Berger, however, his heterosexual passion is about as persuasive as his three-piece salmon-hued suede suit is natural, in retrospect. Stabs at swinging relevance include our protagonist visiting discotheque “The Black Cock Club.” The film gets correspondingly gayer as it goes along.
Finally there’s its cofeature De Sade (1969), a rare big-budget effort from American International Pictures — and a huge flop, though that didn’t stop them from investing further in invariably doomed “A” pictures beyond their usual drive-in range through the mid-1970s. (Trivia note: De Sade was the last film to play Berkeley’s late, beloved UC Theatre in 2001, when its ebbing repertory-theater fortunes finally ran out.)
De Sade is a P.O.S., but an ambitious such. It copies opening-credit graphics from Saul Bass; a theatrical framework and wannabe visuals from the Fellini of 8 1/2 (1963); presumes that lots of slo-mo toplessness will convey limitless intellectual perversity, accompanied by the kind of now-corny audio and visual FX that made Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967) so datedly trippy.
In the title role, Keir Dullea does his best to act seriously — as he had in 1962’s David and Lisa, let alone 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey — but this ludicrous stab at Fellini-esque decadent carnivalia is dreadfully betrayed by cheesebag director Cy Endfield and writer Richard Matheson — though their work was apparently much interfered with. The results reduce a famous literary and philosophical anarchist-tyrant to a misunderstood victim of unfair political and familial circumstance. Whaaah. It’s lavish and trivial — ask anyone who’s actually waded through The 120 Days of Sodom, which remains the toughest literary slog this side of the collected works of Bret Easton Ellis.
ART, OBSESSION, AND FILM CULT
Thurs/19 and May 26, 9 and 11 p.m., $5
1082 Howard, SF
There is no water cooler. There are no memos. In most cases, sex workers aren’t walking into an office on Monday mornings — or even late Saturday nights — to punch in and gab with coworkers about the last shift. Sex work is a umbrella term pertaining to a multitude of professions, including but not limited to prostitution, porn, burlesque, modeling, and stripping. Most sex workers are independent contractors, freelancers, and individuals running their own businesses.
So in a way, the seventh San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival (May 20-29) serves as the city’s whore company party, run with the intention of unifying a community in an ironically isolating line of work. Because whatever your profession, talking to a coworker about the daily grind is always extra-satisfying.
All but a select number of events during the festival are open to the public — we’re not talking about an exclusive trade show here. Organizers have packed nine days with musicals, cabarets, workshops, and parties, so whether you’re in the business, out of the business, curious, or supportive, this sex fest will do the trick.
The decision to base the festival around this kind of openness was intentional. Once the workday is done, where does a sex worker go to compare notes, swap secrets, laugh, or cry? The stigma around sex work can make talking to friends and family who don’t pole dance or film masturbation for pay awkward.
Chloe Camilla, a member of the festival’s planning committee, is still relatively new to the sex industry. She’s been doing a mix of porn and modeling for the past few years and remembers how intimidated she felt in the beginning.
“It’s strange — you’re shooting your first anal scene and you just want to ask somebody, ‘Uh, what do I do? Who do I talk to? Where’s the handbook?'” She and her friends have been talking about putting together a training manual with chapters on things like how to file your taxes, develop a marketing campaign, and learn screen tricks. “There should be a ‘Welcome to porn, here’s what to expect when you show up on set’ book.”
Camilla will be teaching “The Art of Webcamming”, a workshop she put together in response to peer requests. Webcams are a great introduction to the sex industry: cheap, easy, and gatekeeper-free — the Internet is an equal opportunity employer.
“Everyone can find their own market and niche. There’s room for all bodies and genders out there,” Camilla says, hoping her class will get people online and making money fast.
Festival founder Carol Leigh, a.k.a. longtime pro-sex activist, sex worker, and performance artist Scarlot Harlot, started the festival in 1999 to help foster supportive peer relationships while simultaneously urging hookers to use their collective voice to speak out on their own behalf and fight marginalization.
“I’m basically Grandma Scarlot Harlot now,” she smiles, her crimson lips matching the shiny paint on her fingernails. After years of marching up and down capitol steps, Leigh realized the creative potential of the people rallying around her.
It’s what she calls the “whore’s eye view:”
“As a group that’s oppressed with a stigma, there’s a kind of wisdom that grows from that stigmatization. Because we’re not accepted, we might not necessarily buy into mainstream values. Therefore, we do and see things differently,” Leigh says. Through art or film, sex workers can find their voice — even if they can’t be open about their profession because of child custody laws or a conservative day gig.
Now 60, with more than 30 years of advocating for sex workers’ rights behind her, Leigh says the festival’s relevance has expanded to respond to the community’s current needs. The back-to-back workshops at SomArts Cultural Center on May 27 most accurately reflects this year’s current list of hot topics: self-care and eco-sex, building bonds between male sex workers, and love advice for partners and pals of sex workers.
Although parts of the city’s sex worker community are tight-knit, festival organizer Erica Fabulous admits that closeness can depend on where you work and whom you work with. Getting politically active sex workers to attend is a snap, but festival organizers hope to reach past clubs and into the streets, pulling in workers from every corner of the industry.
“Sex work is raced and classed just like anything else — that’s why I’m so proud of the diversity of viewpoints that will be represented during the festival,” says Laure McElroy, the festival’s film curator.
Nearly 40 sex-worker-themed flicks will play at this year’s festival during a one-day marathon. Stories from Canada, Holland, Germany, Cambodia, and the U.S. will lay bare the work and lives of strippers, whores, masseuses, peep show gals, erotic performance artists, survival street workers, and escorts.
The diverse viewpoints echo another of the festival’s underlying missions: “These films are a glimpse of what’s happening out there — the people who are out there,” McElroy says. “I want people to walk away from this festival knowing that there isn’t just one way to think or talk about sex work.”
I shouldn’t be so hard on Kaiser. I myself am prone to misdiagnoses. Example: the knee injury I sang the blues about two weeks ago that turned out to be a hamstring problem.
When I passed out in the bathroom at 5 a.m. and came to, all bonked and a-crumple, my first thought was Too Much Whiskey. Then I realized I hadn’t drunk anything for at least two weeks. So I must have been dehydrated.
Whatever. As you know, my cure for almost anything — including the common cold, uncommon anxiety, hammies, depression, and dehydration — is roast duck noodle soup. So when I saw Thailand Restaurant on Castro Street across from the theater, after all these years, I wondered if they had it.
The last time I ate at Thailand Restaurant, just to give you an idea, might have been the first time I had ever eaten Thai food. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I had tom ka gai. We’re talking early ’90s.
I was hungry. Then, I was always hungry. Now I’m just hungry when I’m awake. Like last week when I renoticed Thailand Restaurant. I was awake, depressed, dehydrated, and hamstring challenged. Plus some other things, so even though it was only 5 p.m., I ascended the steps.
And they did have roast duck noodle soup! Like a regular walking into a bar, I ordered it before I even sat down. Then I sat down. In the window. And I looked out the window and thought about my old friend Satchel Paige the Pitcher.
He lives in Thailand now. Teaches English, is married to a Thai woman named Ann Paige the Pitcher, and they have cute little half-Thai, half-tall kids. Every couple years or so I get to see them, usually in Sacramento.
I would like to go to Thailand one day.
I’m not sure what I would do there, besides eat, but the other day Satchel Paige the Pitcher surprised the pus out of me by knocking on my door.
I opened it and just blinked and blinked.
“Hi Dani,” he said. It’s dark in my apartment. It’s also small.
“Satchel Paige the Pitcher!” I said. And I gave him a big hug and welcomed him to my small, dark apartment. Which he barely fit into.
Embarrassingly, I was still in my pajamas, even though it was afternoon. I was writing; I just hadn’t bothered to get dressed yet because sometimes, you know, I don’t. On writing days. I am rarely visited, and even rarelier by Satchel Paige the Pitcher.
I mean really, the only person who ever drops by besides Earl Butter — who doesn’t count cause he lives upstairs — is the Maze. And the Maze comes at night, so I tend to have clothes on. Lately he brings chicken saag from my new favorite restaurant, Pakwan, because it’s one of the worst restaurants in the city to eat in at, and I happen to live two blocks away.
And I happen to love their chicken saag.
But that ain’t what this is about. This is about me being in the darkest of moods, for the third week in a row, and sitting in a second-story window, looking down on Castro Street, thinking about Satchel Paige the Pitcher and waiting for duck soup to come fix everything.
He’s moving back, you know, he thinks. Maybe. Probably, but to Sacramento. And do you know why? Because in Thailand, he says, girls don’t play team sports.
His cute little kids being girls, and Thai ones, I can’t think of a better reason to move to Sacramento. Where would I be, for example, without team sports? I could draw a line all the way back to my earliest memories: football, soccer, baseball, football, volleyball, baseball, golf. Ironically, that was where I started: golf. But that ain’t a team sport, and I already said I’m not going to golf.
There must be a gene. Before I am a writer, a musician, a woman even, or a queer, I am an athlete. Satch has got it. His kids, probably. And if I don’t get back out there, soon — happy birthday to me — I am going to go absolutely fucking bonkers. Here’s my soup.
Sun.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–10 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m.
438-A Castro, SF
Beer and wine
If the archetypal American success story is, or was, the move to the bigger house in the better neighborhood, then Straits Restaurant (né Straits Cafe) is an archetypal American success. The restaurant, born late in the Reagan years in a modest corner spot in the inner Richmond, moved about five years ago to massive new digs in the Westfield Center, right in the heart of shoppers’ city. It also became a small chain, with outposts on the Peninsula and as far afield as Houston and Atlanta.
Clearly, Chris Yeo, the impresario behind Straits, does not lack for ambition. The question is what is gained at what cost in a transformation of such magnitude. Recently I stepped into Straits full of skepticism, having first had to overcome a slight wave of mallphobia. and found myself in what could have been a dimly lit soundstage where the Sex and the City folk might have been shooting one of their downtown-club scenes. There was a huge bar and an array of dramatic light fixtures dangling from the soaring ceiling as tubes of crinkled paper.
My only qualm about this handsome setting was that the homemade, slightly kitschy flavor of the original place — the lengths of corrugated iron roofing, the false façade of palm fronds — has been lost. Would you rather have a slightly out-of-round cookie that plainly has been shaped by hand, or a perfectly round one from a machine? I favor the handmade, since in our ever-more mechanized world, the hand-finished or homemade article is both a rarity and a reminder that our connections to this earth need not be mediated by machines.
What about the food? Straits for years was a great beacon of Singaporean cooking, itself an attractive blend of influences from east, south, and southeast Asia as well as Europe. And, considering that it served some of the best food in the city — and by best I mean interestingly tasty — it was very reasonably priced. A move to a huge (and surely pricey) space in a mall in the city center would have to be a dim augury.
But no! The food remains recognizable; it is vivid and it is excellent, and while prices have tended up from a decade ago, here as everywhere, they are surprisingly restrained. While some of the beef and seafood dishes do reach dizzying heights (the crab and lobster main dishes push near $40), the chicken dishes are all $14 or less — and let’s remember that because the chicken is native to southeast Asia, the region’s cuisines grew up with and around it and are tuned for it. And I was glad to see the menu still listed an old favorite, roti prata ($7), shreds of griddled Indian flatbread with a rich yellow-curry dipping sauce that had just enough fire to be interesting.
The spiciness of the food is, overall, expertly controlled. Some of the dishes supplied a strong chili kick, in particular the beef rendang ($14), cubes of stringy meat (brisket?) braised with Kaffir lime and served with a wedge of polenta whose pandan flavoring gave it a green worthy of Star Trek‘s food synthesizers. But spicy basil chicken ($12), with shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and Thai basil, was milder, almost cooling — and of a natural color — despite its red-flag name. And the wonderful mee goreng ($14), a bowl of fat egg noodles tossed with tiger prawns, tofu, cabbage, potatoes, and tomato, brought a whiff of fragrant sweetness despite, again, use of the word “spicy” on the menu card.
If you want to be absolutely sure about fire management, a salad would do the trick, maybe the lovely spinach salad ($10), a heap of baby leaves tossed with tiger prawns, crunchy toasted coconut and peanuts, lime, and a deeply fruity tamarind dressing. For striking visuals, there is no topping the Indonesian corn croquettes ($9). The fritters were less flavorful than they looked, so the matter of condiment assistance wasn’t a trivial one. With a more deeply imagined sauce, this could be an unforgettable dish, a signature.
As someone who has been to Las Vegas and lived to tell, I left Straits thinking that it could easily be in Vegas. It has the necessary scale and generic glamour; it’s affordable and good. There’s nothing not to like except that I don’t like Las Vegas, and I did like the old place in its glorified shack, where the touch of the human hand was still palpable.
Sun.–Thurs., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.
845 Market, Fourth Floor, SF
‘Tis the season for big, loud, making-zillions-opening-weekend-then-dropping-off-into-oblivion fare. Summer 2010 was one of the shittiest in years (Iron Man 2, we hardly knew ye). Summer 2011 has the usual array of superhero sequels and remakes, but there are a few seemingly bright spots on the blockbuster schedule. And if giant robots aren’t your thing, there’s plenty more in store beyond the multiplex. All release dates are subject to change.
Superheroes! As always, there are plenty of superdudes (and ancillary dudettes) to choose from. Thor is already out, but anticipation is high for X-Men: First Class (June 3) — a prequel potentially poised to breathe new life into the series after 2006’s meh X-Men: The Last Stand; and The Green Lantern (June 17), which stars Ryan Reynolds and will probably confuse people who thought it came out in January (that was The Green Hornet). There’s also Transformers: Megan Fox Has Been Replaced — er, Dark of the Moon (July 1), and endgame Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (July 15). (Harry’s a superhero by now, even with the glasses.) Though the wizard king will prob make the most dough, look for Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22) to bring the most noise. Red Skull in the house!
Manmeat! Ah, but the boy’s club doesn’t end there! The Hangover Part II (May 26) reunites the stars of the 2009 comedy hit for a sure-to-be-memorable trip to Thailand (the cast list includes a “drug-dealing monkey”). J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 (June 10) looks like a more menacing version of producer Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (May 20) tests my theory that every movie should, in some way, feature Blackbeard as a character. But the most intriguing title in this pile is obviously Cowboys & Aliens (July 29): Han Solo and James Bond gunslinging amid interplanetary rabble-rousers in the Wild West? Could this be something resembling an original idea? Hooray for Hollywood?
Indie intrigue! So you’d rather eat a wadded-up copy of Us Weekly than go to the Metreon. Fear not — summer 2011 also means the release of dozens of movies with budgets smaller than what it cost to make one pant leg of the Green Lantern suit. Just a few: from fake trailer to real cinema is the cult-hit-in-the-making Hobo With a Shotgun (May 27); master filmmaker Terrence Malick releases his latest, the Brad Pitt-starring The Tree of Life (June 3); and quirky Norwegian import The Troll Hunter (June 17) and documentarian Errol Morris’ Tabloid (July 15) open after local debuts at the San Francisco International Film Festival.
Keepin’ it repertory! Rep houses are also ideal summer hangouts for movie fans who don’t need everything that passes through their retinas to be in RealD. The Castro kicks off the season with an Elizabeth Taylor series (May 27-June 1). Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archives offers up tributes to director Arthur Penn (June 10-29) and local heroes George and Mike Kuchar (June 10-25), plus an extensive “Japanese Divas” program (June 17-Aug. 20). Closure rumors be damned (let’s hope!) — the Red Vic has an online calendar posted through early July, featuring everything from Wim Wenders to Woody Allen to the Muppets. The Roxie’s summer slate includes Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s newly restored 1973 World on a Wire (July 29), also a recent SFIFF selection.
Summer fests! Speaking of festivals — if you want ’em, the Bay Area’s got ’em. The big two are Frameline (June 16-26), now in its 35th year of showcasing LGBT films, and the 31st San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (July 21-Aug. 8), but stay tuned to the Guardian for updates on mini-fests, super-specialized niche fests, outdoor film series, and more. Example: the Four Star is currently traveling through 36 chambers of Asian Movie Madness, encompassing everything from Jet Li’s fists to magic swords, monsters, and erotica (series runs every Thursday through July 28). Happy movie-going, and yes, that is me carrying a boat-sized bucket of popcorn into Shark Night 3D (Sept. 2).
SUMMER GUIDE “We definitely try to de-emphasize Iron Man trips,” says Justin Eichenlaub, author of Post-Car Adventuring, the eminently usable guide to low carbon camping, hiking, and cruising trips around the Bay Area, Although Eichenlaub and coauthor Kelly Gregory want to include all fitness levels in the fun, make no mistake — they’re hardcore.
The two met through a Craigslist posting for a multi-day group bike trip to Monterey and now publish guidebooks and a blog under the name Post-Car Press. They’re virtual encyclopedias of info: locations of wide highway berms, how to avoid Devil’s Slide on Highway 101 (incidentally, by a route bikers have dubbed Planet of the Apes Road), and the absolute best for-bikers-by-bikers maps money can buy (Krebs cycle maps, available at www.krebscycleproducts.com).
But they’re adamant that it doesn’t take quads of steel to master the roads — even ones to far-flung campsites — sans car with the help of trains, county buses, and the occasional ferry. Indeed, even if you’re not the biking type, auto-less camping is still within your grasp. Shoulder your backpack and head out to Marin’s Samuel P. Taylor State Park via the Golden Gate Transit express bus to San Rafael, then the Marin Stagecoach No. 68. The stagecoach drops you a quarter-mile from campsites tucked into a redwood grove — where walk and bike-in camping doesn’t require reservation and costs only $3 per person per night.
A few tips for the road, courtesy of Eichenlaub. “Have a bike that you’re comfy on — it doesn’t have to be a road bike, or even have a rack, because you can stow your gear in a backpack. Realize you’re allowed to go really slow and the bike will always feel lighter than you expect.” Always familiarize yourself with your route before you leave, and — duh — bring a flat tire kit, pump, and bike lights. “Even if you’re planning a day ride, it can sometimes turn into a dusk ride.”
Here’s a partial guide to three of the pair’s fave summer adventures. Make sure to look up detailed directions before you roll out to recreate. Transit time and bike mileage numbers are for round trips.
MERCEY HOT SPRINGS
Public transit time: eight hours
Total bike mileage: 68 miles
“This is really a slice of California that Bay Area people don’t go to,” says Eichenlaub of Fresno County’s desert lands, which house a natural spa center that’s been around since 1912. Take BART to the MacArthur Station and bike about 1.2 miles to the Emeryville Amtrak Station. Load your steed onto a train bound for Merced — trains in California never charge fees for stowing bikes — then hop the Route 10 Merced County Transit bus (schedules at www.mercedthebus.com) to Dos Palos. Get off near the Reynolds and Christian streets intersection and begin the 33-mile ride through dry, wildflower-studded lands.
“There are few, if any, trees — only sweeping sandy plains dotted with desert brush,” according to Gregory. After an especially beautiful 12 miles on Little Panoche Road, two lanes of thoroughfare where cars rarely pass — you’ll reach Mercey Hot Springs, where you’ll find cabins (starting at $120/night) and campsites ($30 per person/night) for your well-deserved slumber.
“It feels as though you are far, far away from the city,” Gregory says. The center hosts regular yoga seminars and has a disc golf course that guests can use for free. But if you’re trying to make this a quick jaunt, day use of the pool, sauna, and baths costs only $20.
Side trip: Eichenlaub swears on the Panoche Inn, a “cowboy saloon” 10 miles down the road from Mercey. Hey, what’s better on a detox trip than getting wasted with the cowpokes? Of course, the place does have a website (www.panocheinn.com), so it can’t be too back roads.
PALAMERES ROAD VINEYARD DAYTRIP
Public transit time: 77 minutes
Total bike mileage: 27 miles
Take BART to the West Dublin-Pleasanton Station and then break out your bike for the ride down beautiful, shaded back roads to Sunol, a tiny town whose most famous inhabitant is probably Bosco, a golden retriever who was elected honorary mayor from 1981 until his death in 1994 (and was featured in a Chinese newspaper as an example of Western democracy’s failings).
From there, it’s a gentle hill climb up to a pair of vineyards: Westover and Chouinard. Just, ahem, don’t be expecting a Napa scene. “The first time we went out there, one of the vintners was blowing his own leaves, wearing a muscle shirt,” says Eichenlaub. Vino, sans pretension? Well worth the trip.
Drink your fill from the pleasant tasting rooms and — here’s the beauty of this ride — roll tipsily down the sloping route to the Castro Valley Station, and home.
Side trip: If you’re in the mood to make this an overnight adventure, Eichenlaub recommends taking on the extra 30 miles to the enormous Lake Del Valle, where there’s kickass family campsites tucked into a bend in the shoreline, kayak rentals, and lots of sun.
LOMA-PRIETA SIERRA CLUB HIKER’S HUT
Transit time: two hours Total bike journey: 50 miles
Snuggled into the Santa Cruz Mountains is an A-frame cabin with a kitchen, wood stove, and a tranquil view of the ocean you just can’t find within city limits. It’s operated by the Sierra Club, but non-club members (up to 14 at a time) can crash within its logs at prices starting at $20 per night. Be sure you make a reservation before you go at www.lomaprieta.sierraclub.org.
To become a woodland creature, take Caltrain to the Menlo Park Station and begin riding out Sand Hill Road, toward the mountains. After about seven miles, turn onto beautiful Old La Honda Road (“car-lite and redwood-lined,” says Eichenlaub) a three-mile climb to the ridge line. After summiting the hill, he recommends a pit stop at Apple Jack’s in La Honda, where Ken Kesey used to kick it — “a very quirky, very local, and surprisingly friendly bar.”
From there, continue west on Highway 84 until you get to Pescadero Road and then the entrance of Sam MacDonald County Park. After a few loops and a little climbing, make a left onto the Old Towne fire road (across from a park station parking lot) and navigate 1.2 miles of beautiful trail out to the hiker’s hut and outdoor playtime galore. Return the same way after your stay or use your Krebs map to explore West Alpine Road for fresh scenery on the loop back.
For more info on Post-Car Adventuring and carfree trips to Big Sur, Tassajara Hot Springs, flat routes in Marin County, and even Yosemite, go to postcarpress.tumblr.com.
Since the recession began four years ago, 2,000 homes have been lost to foreclosure in San Francisco. These numbers sound insignificant compared to other counties in the Bay Area, but they primarily have hit communities of color already struggling to remain in this expensive city.
As panelists at a recent seminar on foreclosures noted, the first wave hit the Bayview and the Excelsior, while the second hit the Richmond and the Sunset. And as the recession drags on and more borrowers go underwater, another 2,000 foreclosures are on the local horizon.
Although foreclosures continue to destabilize communities and drain resources from local governments, the banking lobby continues to oppose legislative reforms that would allow more people to remain in their homes. And this deep-pocketed resistance has labor, religious, and educational organizations forming the New Bottom Line coalition in an effort to find grassroots solutions to the crisis.
“Foreclosures are the new f-word,” said Regina Davis, CEO of Bayview’s San Francisco Housing Development Corporation, at SFHDC’s April 29 foreclosure seminar.
Sups. John Avalos and Malia Cohen illustrated that there is no shortage of horror stories about predatory lending and dual tracking, in which borrowers apply for loan modifications while the bank continues to pursue foreclosure. Representatives for Sup. Ross Mirkarimi and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting noted that the banking lobby has blocked even the most modest reforms, even as uncertainty continues to devastate the housing market.
Avalos said his family underwent a housing crisis in 2009, when his wife left her job to home school their special-needs daughter. “We tried to get a loan modification and were told we could only get it by going into default,” he said, recalling how Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) helped them navigate the process. “If this could happen to an elected official, it could happen to anyone.”
Cohen, who lost her condo in the Bayview to foreclosure earlier this year, described foreclosure as “an incredible beast that has ravaged and wrecked the finances of many Latino, African American, and Asian communities who were sold the American dream of homeownership but then had the rug pulled away.”
Mirkarimi aide Robert Selna, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, said the banking industry spent $70 million last year to kill legislation by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) and Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) to end dual tracking. This year, the industry has been opposing SB729, Leno and Steinberg’s latest attempt to require banks to give people a definitive answer on loan modification, identify who owns the loan, and give borrowers legal recourse if banks don’t take these steps.
“SB729 gets to the heart of helping to keep people in their homes, but it’s difficult to combat the spending power of the banking industry,” Selna said.
Ben Weber, an analyst in the Assessor-Recorder’s Office, said approximately 277,000 homes in California are going through the foreclosure process; an estimated 1.8 million California residents are underwater on their mortgage; and California is sixth in “negative equity” nationwide. “Negative equity is one of the best indicators of foreclosures — so can we expect another 1.5 million to 1.6 million foreclosures statewide?” he asked.
Weber noted that Ting is supporting AB 1321 by Assemblymember Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), which would require that all mortgage assignments be recorded within 30 days of their execution; prevent notices of default from being recorded until 45 days after any deed of trust has been recorded; and provide consumers with better transparency about who owns their debt. Yet Ting’s office reports that the banking industry has lobbied against this and other foreclosure-related legislation
Weber said the legislation is a response to problems with the industry’s Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), which was introduced 15 years ago. “The mortgage industry wanted to expedite the transfer of mortgages between entities so that they could be sold and resold on Wall Street,” Weber said, noting that the system also allowed the industry to avoid paying recording fees to counties.
MERS records an average of 6,700 deeds of trust annually in San Francisco, and MERS deeds of trust are usually transferred two to four times, Weber observed. “So MERS members avoided — conservatively — $134,000 per year in fees.”
Grace Martinez of Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment noted that the banking lobby already killed AB935 by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield (D-Northridge), which sought to charge a $20,000 fee to compensate for the estimated cost of a foreclosure to local government. “That money would have gone back to the city,” she said.
In an April 14 letter, the banking lobby claimed Blumenfield’s bill was a tax that increases the costs of homeownership for new borrowers. “It also serves to discourage the importation of capital into California at a time when the federal government is winding down their involvement in mortgage finance and protracts and complicates California’s economic recovery,” stated the letter, which the California Bankers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, and other business groups signed.
But Dan Byrd, research director at Berkeley’s Greenlining Institute, reminded the mostly black and brown crowd at SFHDC’s foreclosure seminar that declining property values due to foreclosures have drained $193 billion from African American and $180 billion from Latino communities nationwide. “Folks from these communities who had credit good enough to qualify for a prime loan were given subprime loans with adjustable mortgage rates,” he said
Byrd stressed that homeowners facing foreclosures need to be more financially literate. “A lot of loan documents are written in language that people can’t understand, and they don’t have the money to hire a lawyer,” Byrd said, as he urged politicians to fund organizations that provide financial counseling and education. “Our elected federal officials just cut the budget that supports SFHDC and similar groups.”
SFHDC housing counselor Ed Donaldson said appraisal values make it hard to sell the below-market-rate units that are coming online. “So if we don’t do something about the foreclosure problem, the housing market will continue to unwind,” he said, urging people to protests banks and show up at City Hall and in Sacramento to support reform.
The Rev. Arnold Townsend, vice president of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said San Francisco likes to pretend that the foreclosure crisis didn’t really affect the city. “But it did,” he said. “It badly hit people of color that the city, by its policies, doesn’t seem to care if they leave.”
Attorney Henri Norris noted that bankruptcy can be an alternative to foreclosure. “A bankruptcy can stop a foreclosure, at least temporarily,” Norris said. He recommends that people make their loans current and try to get a loan modification approved. “But it’s going to take running a marathon.”
Avalos, who is running for mayor, noted that the city does not fund enough affordable housing and he proposed an affordable housing bond that would include assistance for mortgage assistance, ownership downpayment, seismic retrofitting, and energy efficiency. “I understand that voters see no personal benefit, but it would raise wealth in property values,” he said.
Cohen observed that the federal Homeowners Affordable Modification Program (HAMP), which President Obama unveiled in March 2009, “hasn’t worked” and that most of the important reform proposals are “happening at the state level.” She encouraged people to show support for SB729, but wasn’t ready to declare support for Avalos’ housing bond.
“I want to make sure the climate is ripe, that Sups. Carmen Chu and Eric Mar are included, because their districts will be impacted by foreclosures, and that the support is broad-based,” she said. “But folks can divest from banks that have not treated us right.”
Noting that divestment was the most effective way to end apartheid in South Africa, SFHDC’s Davis invited seminar participants to a free screening of Charles Ferguson’s documentary Inside Job, which shows how subprime loans, dual tracking, and mortgage bundling triggered the 2008 financial meltdown — and how many of the main players are still calling the shots.
But despite SFHDC’s informative seminar and the New Bottom Line campaign’s May 3 protest at Wells Fargo’s annual shareholder meetings in San Francisco, SB729 failed to make it out of committee May 4, when Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Van Nuys) announced he would introduce an alternative dual tracking bill. In addition, Wieckowski turned his MERS reform into a two-year bill, suggesting the votes weren’t there to approve it.
Paul Leonard, California director of the Center for Responsible Lending, observed that SB729 supporters include a broad array of consumer, civil rights, labor, faith-based groups, and homeowners, but the only groups in opposition were the California Bankers Association, the Mortgage Bankers Association, and the Chamber of Commerce.
“I find it remarkable that after the exposure of deep-seeded scandals about robo-signing and the systematic shortcomings of mortgage loan service operators, none of the bills intended to address these issues got out of their first committee hearing,” Leonard said.
In an April 20 letter, the banking lobby claimed that SB729 was “unnecessarily complex,” could overlap and contradict actions by federal regulators and state attorneys general, and promote strategic defaults that would negatively affect communities and cloud title for a year following a foreclosure, leaving properties vacant.
Dustin Hobbs of the California Mortgage Bankers Association claims the average time for a foreclosure is more than 300 days. “This would have dragged it out further, and the last thing we need is more vacant homes and more homes in foreclosure,” he said.
Ting noted that Wieckowski made the call to turn AB1321 into a two-year bill. “But you would have thought we were offering the end of home ownership,” Ting said, noting that the banking industry was shocked when advocates produced a MERS memo that encourages banks to record documents and pay fees. “It basically recommended our legislation,” Ting observed.
“Assignments out of MERS name should be recorded in the county land records, even if the state law does not require such a recording,” a Feb. 16 MERS memo said.
Ting describes MERS as “a Wall Street set-up, the ultimate in smoke and mirrors.”
“We did a little poking around in MERS and found that it would help if the name of the loan owner was recorded,” Ting said, noting that the confusion MERS created is bad for consumers, the real estate industry, and homeowners.
“Part of the problem is computer systems doing what banks used to do,” Ting said. “It ended up with robo-signing and foreclosures being sent to the wrong people. I thought AB1321 was a no-brainer, but we had to take it to five or six legislators before anyone would pick it up. This is a prime example of how a particular industry has made a huge amount of money and is unwilling to bend any rules to give consumers any recourse.”
But CMBA’s Hobbs described AB1321 as “part of a broader attack on MERS.” And an April 21 opposition letter from the banking industry describes it as “creating impediments for attracting capital to California’s mortgage marketplace and imposing significant new workloads on county recorders and clerks.”
Ting says he has heard lobbyists make that argument. “But my assessor recorders organization supported it — and they are mostly not elected officials,” he said, noting the group usually doesn’t get involved in promoting legislation.
Ting admits that it’s hard to get the national reforms that are needed. “San Francisco still has a big part to play. And our legislators are still very powerful, so we have no excuse not to be fighting in Sacramento where the Democrats have a supermajority. I mean, how could these bills not get out of committee? It’s not like we didn’t take amendments, but no level of amendments would have made anything happen.”
“Foreclosures typify this financial and political era,” he continued. “They are about all the things we should have seen coming — and some of us did. But even then, and now, there is political amnesia. For all the families that lost their homes, shouldn’t we do something to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Wall Street was bailed out two years ago, but Main Street is still waiting.”
The most contentious and pivotal election ever for the union of academic student employees at the University of California concluded May 8 in a landslide victory for reformers who will now have the chance to deliver on their promise of a more militant and democratic union. In many ways, it was a microcosm for the larger struggle over how to respond to proposals for deep cuts and tuition hikes in the public university systems.
Local 2865 of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), represents 12,000 teaching assistants, tutors, readers, and researchers, making it the largest UAW union on the West Coast. Higher education workers make up 40,000 of the 390,000 active UAW members, just over 10 percent.
The caucus of reformers, organized under the banner Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (AWDU), won all 10 executive board positions and 45 out 80 seats at the Joint Council, taking control from incumbent leaders from United for Economic and Social Justice (USEJ), which has presided over the union for most of its 11-year history.
Voter turnout spiked tenfold over the last triennial election with 3,400 ballots cast this election cycle. Union organizers said the hike reflects intensive campaigning by both sides and a political atmosphere that is threatening both higher education in California and public employees across the country.
“This was the first real contested election our union ever had,” said Mandy Cohen, a comparative literature graduate student at UC Berkeley and the AWDU recording secretary-elect. “There was a huge increase in participation, and it was very contentious. Our leadership never had to fight for their position.”
The intensive campaigning translated into an unusually bitter battle for votes with ensuing accusations of foul play. The allegations include intimidation, personal attacks on the character of candidates, and ballot tampering. But the height of controversy and drama came once all the ballots were cast, when the USEJ-dominated elections committee suspended the vote count midway and AWDU members responded with an office sit-in of the union’s headquarters.
Each side tells a different tale for these 1,500 disputed ballots from UC Berkeley and UCLA, the two largest campuses.
From USEJ’s perspective, the sheer number of challenged ballots and the heated environment in the counting room overwhelmed elections officials, who decided to refer the matter to the Joint Council, the governing body of the local.
“AWDU had 20-plus people in the [vote-counting] room. They were continuing the intimidation and aggression. The elections committee decided that it was too much to handle,” said Daraka Larimore-Hall, outgoing president of the local. He said that USEJ elections committee members have been so harangued since the incident that they are not granting requests for media interviews.
AWDU members, who consider UC Berkeley their stronghold, think the vote-counting freeze was the first step on the road to invalidating ballots from a campus with many AWDU supporters.
“Even though we knew they were really threatened by us, the very idea that we would try to disenfranchise 800 voters from the biggest campus — and that’s how they would try to win the election — was really shocking,” Cohen said.
She defended the AWDU decision to videotape the remaining ballots via webcam and take over union offices in protest. “We weren’t taking a partisan position; we just said we wanted the votes counted. I felt like we were clearly in the right. We just wanted to defend the election — and that position was so strong.”
Counting resumed when both sides finally settled on a third-party mediator, delivering 55 percent of the vote to AWDU.
However, on May 16, USEJ released a statement documenting a slew of alleged misconduct throughout the election and calling for a rerun. “It is critical that our members have confidence that the election process is fair and democratic,” reads the statement. “It seems that several categories of problems, with many more individual examples, occurred that are serious enough to justify setting this election aside.”
Whatever happens, reformers at least will have some opportunity to translate their political platform into action. They say they will focus on two areas: increasing the participation and power of the rank and file, and a more aggressive stance toward the university administration and the budget cuts.
“There is real institutional power in this union that should be better mobilized in those fights [for public education],” said president-elect Cheryl Deutsch. “We are hoping to bring into that debate a more mobilized membership … so that we can be a stronger coalition [with others in California].”
She added that the election was already a huge victory in the long-term plan to increase involvement. A history of member indifference and vacancies in the governing board hopefully will give way to a revival in the higher education labor movement, she said.
But Larimore-Hall expressed strong disagreement with the sentiment that the election was a victory for the labor movement. He said he heard AWDU people tell workers that USEJ represents “centrist sell-outs” and “out of touch union bureaucrats,” tactics he criticized. “Going around and telling people their union leaders are corrupt union bosses … in a culture that is steeped in anti-union rhetoric is an easy thing to sell people on,” he said.
Deutsch said she couldn’t take responsibility for the actions of a few amid hundreds of supporters and activists, but that AWDU as a whole did not engage in personal attacks. She said she is proud that her winning slate came from rank-and-file workers, not from traditional union leadership and staff.
It wasn’t the first time the two factions confronted each other. The origin of the tensions can be traced to the recent wave of budgets cuts at the university, and to the ensuing protests. In the summer of 2009, the UC Board of Regents announced a 33 percent tuition hike; the resulting discontent sparked a student movement with its own fair share of ups and downs. Among the protestors were many graduate students who would go on to become AWDU leaders.
Cohen recalls that in fall 2009, there was a “huge explosion of organizing and activism on our campus trying to organize resistance to the cuts — but not within our union.”
Cohen said that she and other graduate students approached the union to encourage action, but that union bureaucracy stifled their efforts. “It was too top-down and difficult to participate. We realized the local wasn’t structured in a way that could be powerful.”
Larimore-Hall said UAW already was “one of the unions that [the university administration] fears most.” He said that AWDU’s position overlooks the union’s accomplishments on the public education front, citing a petition to Sacramento legislators that USEJ organizers got thousands of members to sign.
Early this spring, the issue of labor properly and sufficiently flexing its muscles came center stage as the UAW and the university negotiated a contract. With no concessions to management and gains such as a 2 percent wage increase and more childcare subsidies, Larimore-Hall said the contract is a resounding success.
But Deutsch says that the contract is a perfect example of her disillusionment with traditional union organizing and the previous leadership. Union members ultimately voted to ratify it despite AWDU criticism that the union didn’t seek enough input from members or push for a better deal. AWDU gained traction and established a significant public presence for the first time with this opposition.
“It’s not that I think it’s the worst contract we could have gotten,” she said, explaining that her problem is with the process, not necessarily with the results. If more members had been consulted and included, she would have been content. She mentioned the dire need for affordable housing at the Irvine campus as an example of member concerns that were not prioritized.
Peter Chester, chief contract negotiator for the university, said that in the “current budgetary circumstances,” UAW did “very well” and expressed concern that the slate, which opposed the contract, did so well among academic workers.
But the victory by reformers probably signals a new militancy in the union, which is expected to resist proposals to privatize campus services and push for a stronger voice in the tough decisions facing the university system. Cohen said that making the case for taxing the rich to pay for public education is the wider goal and the reason she ran for a position at the union.
“It’s eye-opening to be a student and benefit from education here at the UC, but also to identify as a public employee,” she said. “When I got to the UC, I was so proud. And then this struggle came to my doorstep, and I didn’t have a choice in this moment.”
Sit/lie, a law that prohibits sitting or lying on a sidewalk near a storefront, has had a long and tumultuous history in San Francisco.
Forty years ago, it was used against hippies in the Haight and gay men in the Castro. Gay activist Harvey Milk came out against it after 14 gay men were arrested one night outside a gay bar. Thanks to the efforts of the ACLU and LGBT organizations, the law was struck down in 1979.
A little over a year ago, some businesses in the Haight pushed for a new sit/lie, characterizing their neighborhood as a war zone ravaged by violent, drug-crazed homeless kids sitting and lying on sidewalks. It proved a successful strategy for passing a sit/lie initiative at the polls after the Board of Supervisors rejected the measure by an 8-3 vote.
Now police in the Haight are beginning to enforce the new ordinance with warnings and citations, something that was supposed to improve things for the merchants. But the perception of the Haight as a scary and dangerous place has stuck, so tourists are staying away and businesses are losing money, according to a recent article in The Bay Citizen.
Karma is a bitch.
Berkeley businesspeople are traveling down the same path. They’ve convinced some City Council members that the homeless and others sitting outside their stores have caused a drop in sales. Berkeley may soon have a no-sit ordinance to accompany its no-lie law.
What’s a poor activist to do? Organize, of course. This Sunday, May 22, activists on both sides of the bay are holding another “Sidewalks are for People” day (several were held last year during the campaign against SF’s sit/lie), with outdoor events that assert our right to public space. It’s also, not coincidentally, Harvey Milk’s birthday, a state-designated holiday since 2008.
In the Castro, QUEEN (QUeers for Economy Equality Now), a coalition of queer groups and individuals who want to push economic justice to the top of the gay agenda, will stage a QUEEN-In at Harvey Milk Plaza (Castro and Market streets from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.). Participants are encouraged to bring games, picnic lunches, musical instruments, conversation, etc. Live music will be featured, and a soap box (like the one Harvey used on that same corner) provided for people inspired to give prepared or extemporaneous speeches (they don’t have to be about sit/lie).
At 1 p.m., everyone will march to Harvey’s old camera store, which is now being rented by Human Rights Campaign, a group that has come under fire in recent years for excluding transgender people from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and for its complete lack of open meetings and accountability to the community. May 22 is reportedly the official opening of HRC’s new store at that location.
Harvey would indeed be proud that on his birthday, his legacy of resistance is being honored by activists in two cities protesting an unfair law that he fought 40 years ago.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a queer activist for the past 40 years, is a founder of QUEEN and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: the early years of gay liberation (City Lights).
For a complete listing of events, check out the Facebook pages “Sidewalks Are for People: Harvey Milk’s Birthday!” and “Stand Up Against Sit/Lie Berkeley.”
The latest video of a police arrest in a Tenderloin hotel room — this one apparently showing police officers entering a room without a warrant, attacking an unarmed bystander, and stealing a resident’s duffle bag — has set off a wide range of investigations. But what’s really disturbing is that the video is all too typical of what seems to be business as usual among undercover narcotics detectives. In fact, a series of recent security videos show San Francisco cops doing one thing — and reporting something else.
“We’ve yet to run across a single video that matches up with what the police swear to in their report,” noted Chief Public Defender Attorney Matt Gonzalez.
We’re not talking about one police station, one crew, or one rogue cop. This is, to all available evidence, a pattern of rotten behavior in the department. It’s impossible to believe that these are just a few isolated incidents — or that the problems are concentrated in the lower ranks. If command-level officers didn’t know what was going on, then they’re incompetent. If they knew — which is far more likely — then they were covering up.
That’s nothing new in the old boy’s club that is the San Francisco Police Department. While the criminal cases against senior cops in the Fajitagate scandal went nowhere, the evidence strongly suggested that a cover-up had been ordered and executed at all levels.
In that case, Terence Hallinan, the district attorney, took the lead in trying to hold the cops accountable. But now the person running the D.A.’s Office — former Police Chief George Gascón — is politically paralyzed. Gascón can’t investigate systemic corruption in a department that until recently he was running. He can’t, at this point, even seem to figure out which cases he can take and which he can’t. He hasn’t adopted and made public a conflict of interest policy for himself and his office. And any honest policy would make it impossible for him to get involved in any action involving his former employees.
This is, to put it mildly, the exact reason why police chiefs don’t become district attorneys, why Gavin Newsom’s parting shot to the city has badly damaged the credibility of local law enforcement. It’s also the strongest argument possible for the election of a new district attorney.
David Onek, one of the candidates challenging Gascón, has called for a conflict of interest policy saying, “The people of San Francisco deserve and demand a district attorney who will avoid clear conflicts of interest as a matter of policy — rather than personal whim.” That’s a no-brainer. But the problem goes deeper. As Sharmin Bock, a veteran Alameda County prosecutor who is also running for Gascón’s job, noted, there’s no policy that can address this problem. If Gascón punts all investigations of the SFPD to the FBI or the state attorney general, he’s not only giving up local jurisdiction, he’s vastly increasingly the likelihood that nothing will ever happen. The FBI has limited jurisdiction; the Attorney General’s Office isn’t set up to do this kind of work.
“The only answer,” she said, “is a different D.A.”
Gascón needs to deal with this situation immediately, publicly, and credibly. Perhaps the city needs an independent special prosecutor, someone outside Gascón’s office but with full authority to seek indictments (paid for out of Gascón’s budget, since he created this mess.) Because if he can’t find a solution, he’s going to have a hard time convincing anyone he deserves to stay on the job.
When California Senate President Darrel Steinberg introduced a bill this spring that would allow local government agencies to impose a wide range of new taxes, I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously (including the author). It seemed, unfortunately, to be a piece of political theater and possibly some high-stakes poker. With a simple majority vote, the Democrats could infuriate Republicans by finding a back-door way to raise taxes. Maybe that would bring the recalcitrant, obstructionist GOP to the budget table.
Instead, an amazing thing has happened: SB653 is moving forward, and community groups, politicians, and the news media are all getting involved in a critical debate: how should a state with almost 40 million people whose representatives can’t even agree on a basic vision for anything be managed and governed?
Gov. Jerry Brown, in one of his populist streaks, says he wants government to be closer to the people — that is, let local agencies run things. That runs counter to the liberal agenda of the past half-century or so, a time when the federal government stepped in to ensure civil rights in the South, the state government stepped in to mandate educational equality, and all of us wanted to be sure that poor areas got their share of the social wealth. Segregationists wanted “states rights.” Rich conservatives wanted local control over school funding.
But the world goes around and around, and the reality on the ground and in the political air changes, and these days the crucial issue, the defining issue, in the United States is wealth inequality and taxation — and the hard-right GOP has a stranglehold on both Washington and Sacramento. Meanwhile, cities are leading the way on civil rights issues — San Francisco, for example, defied both state and federal law to allow same-sex marriage and continues to fight for a saner immigration policy, even if that means opting out of a federal law-enforcement program.
The San Francisco Chronicle ran an editorial May 15 opposing SB653, arguing that it will benefit wealthier counties (which, oddly enough these days, elect pro-tax Democrats) at the expense of poorer counties (which elect conservative Republicans). That may be true, but there’s another way to look at it.
I’m not suggesting that the state cut spending in rural and low-income areas, and neither is Steinberg. The idea is that the state’s support for local government should be a floor — a solid floor — but not a ceiling. I’m fine with some of my tax money going to areas with a lower tax base and serious economic problems, even if the people who live there elect Neanderthals to the state Legislature. But if those of us in more liberal communities want to pay more for better services, why shouldn’t we have that option?
And if some of us think this state is too big to govern anymore and ought to be split up anyway, this seems an excellent way to start having that discussion.
Christopher Hanson, a 38-year-old single father who lives in Albany, doesn’t have one of those scraggly, runaway beards that one might associate with jam bands or train hopping. He keeps his goatee neat and trimmed, sometimes using scissors to clip back the mustache. Yet Hanson says he got fired last month because his facial hair was deemed a violation of his company’s employee appearance policy. Now, he’s fighting back.
Hanson worked as an audio-video technician for Swank Audio Visuals, a company that does conferences and events at major hotels throughout the Bay Area, including the Westin St. Francis, the Claremont, and the Four Seasons. On the day he was fired, he was on his hands and knees taping down a power cord for an event that was about to start at the Claremont when his supervisor asked to have a word with him. Having spoken with his boss about the beard situation before, he got a funny feeling.
“I just knew what he was going to say,” Hanson recalled. “I thought: are these guys really going to push this, this far?”
For Hanson, having a beard is not a matter of personal expression; nor is it related to religious reasons. He has psoriasis, which prevents him from being able to shave. About a week before he was let go, his dermatologist sent a note to Swank’s human resources department explaining that although he was undergoing treatment, she had counseled him never to shave his beard. It could exacerbate the disease, she explained. Shaving the affected area could cause pain, redness, and irritation on a daily basis, as well as unsightly rash. The doctor urged Swank to grant a medical exception for Hanson.
Hanson says he reminded his boss, Ken Reinaas, and Reinaas’ boss, Todd Liedahl, about that letter when he was approached for their final conversation about the beard. “I said, ‘I have a medical condition,” Hanson recalled. But he says the response he got was, “I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.” Hanson says he didn’t yell or let himself become agitated. “I just kind of stood there and tried to keep a calm and humble mannerism,” he said.
About a week later, Swank’s human resources department issued a letter at Hanson’s request explaining why he’d been fired. It stated: “The reason for [sic] end of your employment is due to the fact that we are unable to accommodate your medical request not to shave because this is a standard of our company appearance policy.” Swank did not return multiple Guardian requests for comment.
The job, which had a strict dress code requiring AV techs to wear ties and shirts with collars, paid around $15 an hour. With a teenage daughter to support, Hanson needed every cent to make ends meet. He also had taken on substantial debt to finance an education at Ex’pression College for Digital Arts — a for-profit school in Emeryville with a tuition rate of $11,200 per semester for full-time students — and he needed to be able to pay back the student loans.
Hanson began to suspect that his former employer might have broken the law, so he sought legal representation. According to a complaint filed May 12 on Hanson’s behalf by attorney Albert G. Stoll Jr., the Claremont Hotel — which houses the Swank office where Hanson was based — has no employee restrictions against facial hair. “The manager of hotel banquets had a goatee; one of the hotel banquet employees had a goatee; another hotel banquet employee had a mustache; and at least two other employees had facial hair,” the lawsuit points out.
However, Swank employees were barred from having facial hair because company policy was pegged to the most conservative hotel employee appearance policy in the region, Hanson said.
In the case of the Bay Area, that hotel is the Four Seasons. Before being hired as a full-time AV tech based in Berkeley, Hanson took on part-time gigs for Swank to set up for hotel events as far north as Sausalito and as far south as San Jose. He says that when he was first hired, nobody informed him of the no-beard policy — and he had sported the goatee at the time he was offered the job.
The first time he learned there was a problem was when he was called on to do a job at the Four Seasons in San Francisco. He completed the first job without incident, yet when he was asked to go back a second time, Reinaas told him he would have to shave. He said it was impossible to do that, so the job went to someone else.
When the Guardian phoned the San Francisco Four Seasons to find out just what its employee appearance policy was — and to ask whether exceptions are granted for individuals who cannot shave due to medical or religious reasons — assistant director of human resources Jason Brown said he could not comment.
Months later, after Hanson had been hired as a full-time staff member based at the Claremont, Hanson says he was informed that Swank was ramping up enforcement of its no facial hair policy. He was told he’d have to comply even though he was willing to opt out of work at the Four Seasons. He asked his dermatologist to send the letter urging the company to grant an exception, and shortly after, he was fired.
The lawsuit charges that it was illegal for Swank to fire Hanson because the Fair Employment and Housing Act forbids employers from discharging an employee for designated reasons, including disability. Since Hanson’s psoriasis is a disability, the argument goes, his termination constitutes a form of illegal discrimination.
However, not all medical conditions are considered disabilities in the court of law. Under state law, a disability is considered a serious medical condition that limits a major life activity. If Hanson is successful in proving that psoriasis constitutes a disability, Swank could be ordered to make a reasonable accommodation — such as retaining him as an AV tech while allowing him to opt out of work at the Four Seasons. Hanson’s lawyer Tim Phillips describes this case as being “on the cutting edge of discrimination law.”
There have been similar face-offs over appearance policies in the past, but none that fit Hanson’s circumstance exactly — and, ironically, it seems that he might have an easier time arguing his case in court if he is unable to shave for religious reasons, or if he belongs to a racial minority that is disproportionately affected by a particular medical condition.
Not all cases brought against employers with similar policies in the past have been successful. In 1984, a Sikh machinist working for Chevron refused to shave his beard, in violation of a company policy, and wound up getting demoted to a lower-paid job as a janitor. Chevron’s no-beard rule was created to ensure that employees had a gas-tight seal on respirators worn to protect against exposure to toxic gases, but the machinist could not shave for religious reasons. The Sikh man sued Chevron and lost.
In 1999, Sunni Muslim police officers in Newark sued when they were required to shave their beards to comply with an officer appearance policy, and the court ordered the police department to create an exception for those who couldn’t shave for religious reasons.
Meanwhile, a spate of cases have been brought against no-beard policies at fire departments around the country by African American men suffering from a common skin condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae. The condition, which disproportionately affects African Americans, leaves pimply bumps on the beard area after shaving and can cause scarring over time — and the 100 percent effective cure is to refrain from shaving. No-beard policies in fire departments are borne out of the need for firefighters to wear respirators when battling infernos. While the results of those cases varied from city to city, some plaintiffs were able to show that the policies were a form of racial discrimination because they had a disparate impact on African Americans.
Meanwhile, staff attorney Linda Lye of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California was willing to weigh in. There are no laws banning no-beard policies on the state or federal level, Lye said, yet courts have ordered employers to make exceptions for religious reasons and to prevent racial discrimination in the case of the black firefighters. She added that certain municipalities such as Santa Cruz have enacted employment laws that prevent discrimination in appearance policies. In general, Lye noted, the ACLU is “troubled whenever employees are penalized because of medical conditions, race, sexual orientation, or other similar factors.”