Volume 45 Number 50
HERBWISE It’s what you would call a recession novel.
The lead character of Tony D’Souza’s Mule: A Novel of Moving Weight (292 pp, Mariner Books, $14.95)has nearly navigated the entirety of the upward-downward spiral to drug kingpin-dom we know so well from Scarface. This is how his story ends, in part:
“And there was the recession and there was not the recession and there was fear from the recession and there was not the fear from the recession. And there was America and there was not America and there was me and there was not me.”
The moment comes after hundreds of pages of violence and paranoia. D’Souza’s James is a successful freelance journalist rendered financially obsolete in the Crash Which Dare Not Speak It’s Name. Reduced from an A-list Austin lifestyle, he decides to drive a pound of marijuana across the country, literally to make ends meet for himself and his young family. His surprising ambition leads to mansions in Florida and reliance on the money-sick and power-mad for business.
Mule reads like an episode of The Wire, drawing from Weeds for some background material. And like those two series, what it has to say about the times we’re living in is worth hearing.
James is a deal-shoot-angst protagonist, a thoroughly middle class character. He wears Lacoste. He can’t get a byline to save his life, hence the drug running. His white skin is an advantage as a mule because it keeps him from being profiled by highway cops.
But if the Obama job plan passes, if unemployment was no longer at 9.1 percent, would James still be hustling? This is where Mule succeeds, its sheer ambiguity making it so much a product of this rightnow. In 2011, it’s not clear if we should be taking deep breathes and job hunting through the madness or straight up losing our shit in the face of economic meltdown, environmental heart attack, and vitriolic culture war.
And yes, Mule is also about marijuana itself. This too is important. How many Cali children have saved their skins by trimming in Mendo?
This is the same substance that supports the professional photographers and glamour shots we profiled in last week’s column. Only in Mule, double murders are performed over the stuff, people lose their minds to transport it. These are the same things that are happening across the hemisphere, despite our privileged Bay Arean cradle where we smoke in the streets and get prescriptions to stoke our appetites. Medicine, felony: marijuana is ambivalence itself these days.
If you’re looking for a novel-length iteration of why cannabis should be legalized, you could do worse than Mule. But you could also do better. That’s because of the book’s omnipresent ghoul, the generation-derailing R-word.
Sure, if selling pot wasn’t grounds for a felony or worse in most of the country, James would never have to smack around that snotty college dealer with the kid’s own textbooks, or been rendered paralyzed by fear in a grotty hotel room in San Angelo, Tex. — but would his world morph to emerald green good vibes? If weed were legal, wouldn’t it be assimilated into that other source of our brave protagonist’s dread? Would it be just one more job field described by our dismal unemployment levels?
Mule is a drug novel. But it’s also a recession novel and it’s not a recession novel and the novel’s about fear from the recession and the novel is not about fear from the recession.
In other words, read it.
HAIRY EYEBALL If you follow Canyon Drive from Hollywood Boulevard all the way up into the hilly territory of Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, you’ll reach a cul-de-sac. Beyond that, accessible by foot, is a small stone bridge which leads to a dirt trail that eventually lets you out in what’s known as Bronson Valley. This is where you’ll find the Bronson Caves.
Even if you’ve never visited the caves in person, you’ve probably at least seen them: they’ve been used in countless motion pictures and television shows. One of the mouths served as the exterior shot for the Bat Cave in the original ’60s Batman TV series. Natalie Wood’s long lost Little Debbie is discovered in one of the caves in 1956 flick The Searchers. The caves also make cameos in plenty of schlocky, B-grade sci-fi and fantasy cheese of both classic (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) and more recent (The Scorpion King, 2002) vintage.
Given their status as one of the film industry’s leading landscape doubles, it’s only fitting that the caves aren’t actually caves. There’s nothing natural about them: they’re all that remains of an early 1900s quarrying operation to supply stone with which to pave the streets of a rapidly-growing LA. On a clear day, from the other side of one of the tunnels, you can get a seemingly eye level view of the Hollywood sign.
This long history of artifice amid geologic permanence is both everywhere and nowhere in Brice Bischoff’s series of large-scale C-prints of the Bronson Caves currently hanging at Johansson Projects. The caves are the photographs’ crispest formal feature, although it’s the dazzling and seemingly supernatural rainbow-hued blurs within and near them that first catch your eye.
The colorful shapes — which vary in form from blasts of light to smoky wisps — evoke both the caves’ history as a site for staged close encounters of the third kind, as well as nineteenth century spirit photography. They’re also simply beautiful to look at. Their origin, however, is more mundane: wearing raggedy costumes made from colored paper, Bischoff gestures before his stationary camera using the space of the caves to suggest a course of movement. The time lapse captured by the camera’s long exposure renders his presence ghostly while setting into relief the surrounding rocky proscenium, although the artist never disappears entirely. (In one photograph, there is the suggestion of a human form wrapped in the Jamaican flag.)
Even though Bischoff’s presence before the camera is required to create each image, his photographs are the opposite of performance documentation. Rather, they are formally and thematically similar to Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ghostly black and white portraits of old movie palaces, for which the photographer left his exposure open for the duration of a projected feature so that the screen appears as a glowing white light that illuminates the ornate architectural decor around it. So to do Bischoff’s photographs collate an accretion of instances which, individually, are less important than the location in which they’ve occurred. They bring to the fore a history which, at 24 frames per second, has always been relegated to the background.
The Bronson Caves aren’t the only natural feature on display in this exhibit organized around California landscapes. Tabitha Soren’s carbon pigment prints that combine crashing Pacific waves into vertiginous tsunamis and Ellen Black’s videos of doctored beach-scapes and mating snakes pack plenty of visual punch but lack the elegant conceptual underpinnings of Bischoff’s series.
For a more strenuous walk in the wild, you have to trek down Broadway to Jack London Square where at Swarm Gallery Colin Christy’s living installation “Wild and Scenic” throws scare quotes around both terms. For this non-earthwork earthwork Christy transplanted native and invasive plants found around the American River from Coloma, California to a dirt mound in the gallery. The plants are watered on a regular basis, and they’re painted with a bio-luminescent pigment to differentiate between native and non-native plants, so that Christy can track their growth patterns by taking long exposure time lapse photographs at night.
Of course, there’s another contender in this battle royale: humans. The pile of wood, glinting with patches of gold spray paint, that forms a sort of bulkhead on one side of the mound, references the role the American River was forced to play during the Gold Rush, itself a massive piece of terraforming that has indelibly altered California’s landscape. While drawing attention to this history of environmental degradation, Christy’s piece — in all of its gratuitousness — cannot help but be somewhat complicit in perpetuating its legacy. There’s life on the line, here, even if it isn’t human.
BRICE BISCHOFF, TABITHA SOREN, AND ELLEN
Through October 15
2300 Telegraph Ave., Oakl.
INVASIVE HORIZON: NEW WORK BY JOSEPH
SMOLINSKI AND COLIN CHRISTY
Through Sept 23
560 Second St., Oakl.
FILM The beatification of Jean Vigo as cinema’s Romantic poet — only four films before tuberculosis carried him off at 29 — is one of the less interesting things about him. As myth it’s maudlin and a little corny, nothing like his films which won’t sit still long enough for you to call them immortal. Whether structured as an exploded city symphony (1930’s À Propos de Nice), commissioned portrait (1931’s Taris), anarchic boarding school farce (1933’s Zéro de Conduite) or multivalent love story (1934’s L’Atalante), they crack open the known world and flash epiphanies like jewels before the camera.
Vigo’s most famous sequences — the pillow-fight processional in Zéro de Conduite, the lovers’ séance in L’Atalante — are lyrical outbursts expressing deep yearning. That desire can be sensual or social; the toppling effect is the same. One might take a page from Vigo’s first film, À Propos de Nice (co-directed with Boris Kaufman, Dziga Vertov’s brother and a brilliant cinematographer in his own right), and consider the intense flux of Vigo’s films as pushing towards carnival. The film’s witty comparison of the idle rich and vibrant working class of Nice goes up in smoke with the fade-in to the street fair. The social fabric suddenly tears, egged on by lusty low-angle shots and intoxicating cuts (more than that, Vigo himself appears doing the cancan).
In Vigo’s little-seen short Taris, the titular French swimmer and early media celebrity demonstrates strokes while explaining their form in voice-over. This instructive track is periodically interrupted by the filmmaker’s beautiful (and at times absurd) close-ups and slow-motion shots. In the end the libidinal again wins out, as Vigo takes advantage of a portal window to film Taris underwater turning corkscrews and circles. This sweet celebration of the body is recast as the more famous underwater idyll in L’Atalante, but here seeing Taris at play here provides a striking contrast from his more regimented athleticism. Stepping outside the rules of the sport, he doesn’t even need to come up for air.
Plenty of ink has already been spilled on Zéro de Conduite‘s joyful student revolt, though I’ve always appreciated that when the emboldened kids hail garbage down on the authorities of church and state, some of the figures below are actual puppets. Even when Vigo’s films are deadly serious, they don’t take themselves too seriously. The censors certainly did: the film was banned for its many blasphemies, though it surfaced sooner than the long shipwrecked L’Atalante. The story of a married couple coming together and apart on a barge is simplicity itself, and yet Vigo embroiders it with delicate shifts in mood and setting. The carnival spirit is here embodied by indelible Père Jules (Michel Simon), the salty sailor who whether playing a record with his finger, trying on a dress, clutching a litter of kittens or showing off his tattoos generates a turbulent vitality that’s a full partner in the film’s romance. L’Atalante is a giving film, with a musical sense of character, a wondrous balancing of melancholy and mischief, and always something new to tell you about love.
There are some who might grumble about the obvious irony of seeing Vigo’s freewheeling work packaged as a tidy commodity, but it’s humbling to think what earlier generations of film lovers would have made at being able to stuff his collected works in their coat pockets (also, Criterion’s transfers are stellar). It’s marvelous being able to explore these particular films at leisure — which is to say every which way. You see all the explosions of fantasy into real life and vice versa, and you think how unusual for someone to seek freedom not only in but through cinema.
FILM Has the landfill, junkyard, and lowly dumpster supplanted the factory as a site of documentary interest and even inspiration? Yerba Buena Center for the Arts features two 2010 docs this week to add to the growing list of recent films centering on scavenging, gleaning, dumpster diving, trash humping, and scrapping — activities illustrating resourcefulness in the shadow of colossal waste.
Scrappers zeroes in on the workaday routines and liabilities facing two laboring subjects, Oscar and Otis, good men who cruise Chicago’s South Side for scrap metal. The film’s three directors spent a couple of years in the passenger seat, long enough for their verité portrait of the scrappers’ lives at work to be anchored in extenuating circumstances: a deportation scare for Oscar, a hospital stay for Otis, and most significantly the collapse of scrap prices as a result of dwindling home construction (the same ton of metal that sold for $200–<\d>$300 in 2007 only brought in 20 bucks in 2008).
Without recourse to a voice-over, Scrappers details economic unrest as well as the complex race and class hierarchies of Chicago’s scrap scene. This is all secondary, however, to the film’s enduring interest in learning how Oscar and Otis actually go about their work — noteworthy in a documentary field crowded with predigested arguments. The filmmakers take liberties in editing together the scrappers’ talk into poetic monologues, but it’s a small price for granting them autonomy in defining not only the necessities but also the dispensations of their work.
While Scrappers works to convey layers of ongoing experience, the Oscar-nominated Waste Land is witness to an exceptional intervention. The film follows Vik Muniz, a successful Brooklyn-based artist originally from São Paolo, as he spearheads a collaborative art project in Jardim Gramacho, a gigantic landfill outside Rio de Janeiro. Muniz first contemplates the site from his Brooklyn studio using land art’s modern surveying tools, Google Earth and YouTube. Once on the ground, his initial disbelief at the scale of the landfill gives way to the more modest realization that many of the pickers working there don’t view themselves as the wretched of the earth.
Waste Land director Lucy Walker omits Muniz’s selection of a handful of the pickers as collaborators and subjects — a thorny process, one imagines — instead fleshing out the backstories of the (admittedly remarkable) chosen ones. They gather material from the dump to help Muniz fashion their iconic portraits back in the studio, with the proceeds of the finished work benefiting the pickers’ labor association.
Muniz’s giving act is more personal and sustained than a benefit concert, but the difference is one of quality not kind. He repeatedly stresses the project as a joint effort in making art of garbage, but the real magic consists of turning garbage into something priced as art, a conversion which undoubtedly helps the pickers but also solidifies Muniz’s privileged position in the world marketplace. In view of this, it’s worth pointing out that many other artists have adapted scavenger aesthetics as a means of dissenting from patronage systems (art or otherwise). In 1965, for instance, Brazilian director Glauber Rocha issued his “Aesthetic of Hunger” manifesto to define Third Cinema’s difference. Some years later filmmakers associated with the Tropicália movement went a step further and called for an “Aesthetics of Garbage.” Needless to say, they envisioned something different than Waste Land‘s sympathetic detachment. It’s not a fair comparison perhaps, but days after seeing the film I’m still bothered by the way it maintains a wry distance from Muniz’s earnest struggle for moral clarity while itself indulging in artsy portraiture of the pickers at work (scored to death by Moby). In any case, magnificent unsigned art grows out of landfill closer to home at the Albany Bulb. There’s a documentary about that too — Bum’s Paradise (2003).
TRASHED: TWO FILMS ABOUT GARBAGE
Scrappers, Thurs/15, 7:30 p.m.; Waste Land, Sun/18, 2 p.m., $8
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, S.F.
DINE On a recent midsummer’s eve, I found myself gazing down the Valencia Street corridor and (with a slight squint of the eye) though: this is just like the Strip! This is like Vegas for hipst — but no. No more H-bombs from me. The question does remain, however, whether a neighborhood can be as utterly transformed as this part of the Mission has been and still remain a neighborhood. One sunny bit of proof that the answer might be yes is the recent opening of Radish, one of those small, slightly-off-the-beaten path, homemade-with-style places that have long made this city such an appealing place to eat.
Just as some of the better restaurants in Las Vegas are off the Strip, so Radish is a few but important steps off the parade route. It occupies a classic corner spot, an L of windows (including transom windows that have been carefully cleaned — not something you see every day), at 19th Street and Lexington. It feels rather far from the madding crowd — Lexington is a lovely, leafy lane — but it is central. There are some impressive oil paintings on the walls, something else you don’t see every day.
The radish as a foodstuff has won mixed reviews down the ages. It is a crucifer and is therefore believed by some to have anti-cancer properties. But Pliny the Elder (the Roman writer and admiral who perished at Pompeii 1932 years ago last month) found the little root to be “vulgar” and a cause of “flatulence and eructation.” Oh dear. Luckily, the menu at Radish doesn’t emphasize radishes. In fact I spotted just one, a lone coin lurking in a side salad amid a swarm of halved pear tomatoes. Maybe it was a stray. Otherwise, the food is a cheerful mélange that moves winningly between all-American and new American — new-all American, if one is permitted to put it that way, with a slight Southern twist — n’all? — since the chef, Adam Hornbeck, grew up in Tennesee.
But someone in the kitchen has been to the north, all the way to Canada, judging by the poutine ($8) we found chalked onto the specials board one evening. Poutine is the dubious but wildly exciting friend your mother always wanted you to stay away from. Radish’s version was a huge plate of French fries doused with gravy (almost a béchamel sauce, it seemed to me) and topped with shreds of crisp bacon and plenty of ripe avocado slices.
“There are 10,000 calories on this plate,” came the complaint from across the table. Yes. And that was not too high a price to pay. If I were a budget-cutter, I might have dealt away the avocado, which brought some pretty color but otherwise was too subtle for such a muscle-y mess of a dish.
Mac ‘n’ cheese ($4.50) seemed to be nearly as calorie-dense as the poutine, but because it was served in a much more modest portion, in a small crock, it didn’t send the needle on our calorimeter spinning. A nice alternate home for the poutine’s avocado slices, incidentally, would have been the boldly tangy old world salad ($9), a neatly arranged English garden of sliced heirloom and cherry tomatoes, rounds of summer squash, smears of goat cheese, arugula leaves, and a full-throated balsamic vinaigrette that, like a compelling speaker, brought the constituents together and held them rapt.
Hornbeck’s baby back ribs ($14) are really first in show. We found them to be spicy, smoky, and — most important — juicy. It was as if the meat were oozing liquid smoke. It doesn’t matter how tasty your sauce or marinade is if you dry the ribs out when roasting them, and it is awfully easy to dry them out. To find them beautifully cooked and smartly seasoned, as here, was a real treat. The accompanying potato salad was, like its partner (a lone cob of grilled corn), very much a sidekick, but it had been carefully made with big, irregular chunks of new potato and plenty of paprika for color and kick.
A steak sandwich ($13) was served on focaccia, and the flaps of meat were tucked in with strips of orange bell pepper and melted cheddar cheese. The side salad of arugula and spinach turned out to be the home of the fugitive radish coin; finding it was like the culmination of an Easter egg hunt.
One of the desserts deserves a special mention, the shortbread ($6), festooned with strawberry meringue and whipped cream. The shortbread had some of the sublime crispy-spongy quality of a cinnamon bun, and I wondered if it might be some version of brioche. No, we were told, it was a biscuit, the same kind the kitchen uses for its breakfast dishes. This is frugal and prudent — also brilliant, or, as the h-folk sometimes put it, rad.
Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m.
Breakfast: Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Lunch: Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
3465 19th St., SF
Beer and wine
DANCE This past weekend, an unlikely double bill once again proved how fertile the Bay Area soil is for dancers’ imaginations. FACT/SF’s Pretonically Oriented v.3 was steeped in critical theory yet physically grounded. Drawing on local history, Lenora Lee Dance’s Reflections offered a window into self-assertion. While employing Asian American images — martial arts and lion dancing — the work resonated beyond its specific cultural context. Both works were developed during summer residencies at CounterPULSE.
“Pretonic,” a program note explained, refers to the unstressed (“pre”) syllable which precedes a stressed one (“tonic) in a word. Charles Slender used this linguistic precept to fold his rehearsal process into the actual piece. While his trio of exceptionally focused dancers — James Graham, Erin Kraemer, and Catherine Newman — performed variations of material they had accessed through free-writing, we also watched and listened to streamed videos, including Slender at his most slyly professorial, of the rehearsal material that had gone into the making of Pretonically. These layers of information sometimes looked as solid as what happened in real time, sometimes as evanescent as memory floating by.
The idea of conjoining process and product is intriguing. Pretonically could prove utterly absorbing. Watching the trio in one corner of the stage in front of videos taken in exactly the same spot (but depicting different movements) suggested a fascinating sense of simultaneity. Listening to Slender’s voice while his face on the wall clearly spoke different words created a disconnect between two modes of communication.
Toward the end, just as the work seemed to have run its course, the dancers returned and went into a retrograde mode, performing some of their material backwards. It looked as if someone had pushed the reverse button, and they had joined their own selves in a different reality.
At 40 minutes, however, Pretonically could not sustain itself. Once you understood the complex structure, the piece needed to communicate beyond what it became. Like so much conceptual art, the idea behind it often proved more intriguing than its physical realization.
Having said that, the dancers were mesmerizing by the sheer force of their presence. Moving glacially, they inexorably focused on something ungraspable. Perhaps Kraemer’s energy originated from the bottom of her spine, Graham lived off percussive lines, and, though ground-hogging, Newman fixated on the above. Slender is lucky to have dancers as excellent as these; they could run circles around most Butoh practitioners.
Lee’s fine Reflections also benefited from excellent dancers. Translating to the stage the difficulties of retaining or creating one’s identity in an unwelcoming environment is a theme that runs through much of contemporary dance and theater. Lee has previously examined the topic with her Chinese American background in mind; she based 2010’s Passages on her grandmother’s life. In Reflections she strikes a fiercer note as she examines the ferocious, even brutal strength required for self-assertion. A male narrator’s voice movingly personalized the struggle of escaping the bondage of being “the good son.”
Lee made a brilliant choice in enlisting two martial arts group, Kei Lun Martial Arts and Enshin Karate, South San Francisco Dojo. They were the warriors who fought each other in the “cold streets of Chinatown,” but also embodied the ongoing struggle within. Raymond Fong, who is as fine an actor as he is at practicing karate, became Reflections’ everyman. Lee’s mixing of her own choreography with pure martial arts worked well; seeing the real thing onstage (and not often-vacuous “martial arts inspired moves”) was thrilling. At the same these performers looked more nuanced than they might otherwise. Weakest was the choreography for the two women characters, Marina Fukushima as the unattainable dream and Lee herself as a compassionate woman warrior.
Making fine use of a lion dance, including bamboo lion heads that imprisoned, Lee strung together the work’s seven scenes rather straightforwardly. Weaving them more tightly together and including better transitions might strengthen Reflections‘ backbone in future performances.
Rarely do we need an excuse to drink here at the Guardian, but we found some damn good ones for Autumn 2011. Raise a glass, willya?
>>ROGUE PAIRINGS The boys from Pacific Brewing Laboratories match local suds with local snacks for your culinary explorations
>>GET NAKED Exploring the natural wine movement from right here in San Francisco
>>GENERATION CORK Small vineyard families make their mark on the California wine scene
>>BOOZE EVENTS ‘Nuff said? It’s our run-down of the best places to be seen swilling this season
GAMER Take a look at your favorite games from the past few years and you’ll find most were released not only on one system, but on two or three. The days of platform exclusivity are waning, and all these multi-platform releases mean console exclusives like Resistance 3 are increasingly important to manufacturers interested in maintaining their position in the industry.
Sony’s Resistance saga traces the path of a space virus sent to Earth to turn humans into alien-beings called the Chimera. The first two games follow Nathan Hale, a soldier who battles the virus across Europe, and eventually America. Resistance 3 kicks off where the second game ended (Resistance 2 spoiler warning): virus-stricken Hale is shot dead by his second-in-command Joseph Capelli.
Capelli is a more interesting protagonist than his predecessor, and killing off the main character allows developer Insomniac Games to create a more compelling story that deviates from the military action of the first two titles, but it also robs the story of its building tension, and the final product doesn’t have the oomph needed for an epic end to a purported trilogy.
Visually, Resistance 3 boasts some impressive animations and lots of detail. Little things, like trees bent backwards and street signs trembling during a windswept shootout on small-town Main Street, create an uncanny atmosphere that is not unlike Half Life 2 — a game that the cross-country trek of Resistance 3 evokes in more than just atmosphere.
Where Resistance 2 had a more modern shooter attitude (maximum of two guns, regenerative health), the third entry flips the switch in a positively old-school way. Health is distributed via health packs and you can carry a vast and devastating weapons arsenal for the duration of the campaign. Much like Insomniac’s other series Ratchet & Clank, the devil is in the arsenal.
Weapons are introduced at an alarming pace, each with primary and secondary fire, doubling the number of options. Even the earliest of weapons, like the Bullseye (shoots around corners) and the Auger (shoots through walls) are designed to create diverse combat experiences, and a limited ammo supply encourages you to try them all.
Three years of polish has done wonders for Resistance 3, but it’s hard to believe this is the end Insomniac had in mind. Despite its Sony exclusivity, consumer hype is not where it needs to be and Insomniac recently indicated that they are ready to move on. On paper, Resistance 3 is easy to recommend: it’s atmospheric, varied, and has a ton of content when you factor in above-average multiplayer, 3D and Move support. But in a sea of options, it’s hard not to be wary of the sinking ship.
THEATER Here’s a preliminary accounting from the San Francisco Fringe Festival, which remarkably turns the big two-oh this year. (There’s a nifty 2012 wall calendar to mark the occasion available somewhere in the Exit Theatre complex, traditional nerve center for the lottery-based festival started by Exit stalwarts Christina Augello and Richard Livingston.)
Opening night’s grab bag was another of those half-arbitrary groupings that ends up feeling so thematically right you can’t help getting a little creeped out. It started with Angela Neff’s sharp and poignant family tale, Another Picnic at the Asylum, the autobiographical story of her childhood (spent partly in the Bay Area) with seven siblings, a much put-upon young mother, and a wild, reckless, manic depressive cowboy crooner of a dad. Life with Father this ain’t, but the story’s gathering darkness is winningly offset by good-natured humor and an offbeat, almost zany embrace of eccentricity. Neff, a local writer-performer, works with only one prop — a simple wooden box — but you have no trouble imagining an entire landscape and cast of characters, including her intense, unpredictable father and his moth-to-flame charm. This is a well-honed show (developed with director David Ford), featuring vivid acting, nicely tailored prose, and a precise gestural vocabulary. A daughter’s complex fascination and frustration with a parent’s madness ultimately becomes not only the basis for a tribute, but a kind of afflatus too, as Neff reclaims a touch of her father’s larger-then-life scope as her own artistic inspiration.
There’s a similar alchemy underway in director Jeremy Aluma’s fantastic 4 Clowns. Rowdy, irreverent, totally inappropriate, slightly dangerous, and very funny, the titular madcaps — wonderfully individual performances unleashed with fine ensemble precision by Alexis Jones, Turner Munch, Raymond Lee, and Amir Levi — take their unsuspecting audience through the phases of life, dwelling on all its hideous temporal suffering with a macabre glee, accompanied by the fancy piano work of Mario Granville. Morbid curiosity, however, proves an invigorating tonic, beating back despair with fierce gallows humor as only a crazed ejaculating demon clown can.
Evan Kennedy’s Quatre-Vingt-Quatre, while the weakest of the three shows caught before print deadline, fits in pretty well with the fine line between terror and transcendence gracefully negotiated in the two shows above. Five actors in messy but iconic garb (a miner, a hunter, a strongman, a farmer, and a soldier) mince and mewl about the stage, counting off in French until they hit the magic number in the title with the aid of assorted instruments including an abacas. The play between order and chaos here extends subtly to various social norms and categories of existence, a clever calculus that offsets the otherwise wearying numbers game reminiscent of the pedagogical Dada of Sesame Street.
“SAN FRANCISCO FRINGE FESTIVAL”
Through Sun/18, $7-$10
156 Eddy, SF
THEATER Last Thursday afternoon, the floor before the stage at Z Space was strewn with dollar-store paraphernalia, neon-colored wigs, and the odd piece of kitchenware. On the stage itself, near the front, ran a long makeshift video screen about four-and-a-half feet high. Immediately behind that, at regular intervals, four small video cameras on thin stands faced the back of the stage. Caden Manson, New York–based Big Art Group’s artistic director, had been leading a workshop all week in performance media techniques for about 15 locals (most of them active in the dance-performance scene) but today they were crafting something that would actually be a part of this week’s much anticipated Big Art Group premiere, The People: San Francisco.
To that end, performers picked through the detritus on the floor and fashioned neo-classical costumes for themselves: a broom brush for a centurion’s plume, pot lids for shields, a colander for a battle helmet, a table cloth for a toga, an incongruous toy gun, a festive pair of streamers on sticks, a black cap with beaded veil, swords, plastic flowers, and other pop neo-classical accoutrement. “If anybody wants a Molotov cocktail, there’s four of them right there,” offers one of the group’s members helpfully.
By the time they had assembled themselves on stage they had become a strikingly photogenic band of miscreants and martyrs, like the crew of the Bad Ship Lollipop. Manson, a 40ish blond with an equanimous mien and contrastingly subdued in black coat and blue sneakers, announces they have ten minutes to produce a narrative tableau in an epic vein. Maybe because most of these folks — among them Evan Johnson, Ben Randle, Honey McMoney, Maryam Rostami, Laura Arrington, Rachael Dichter, and Sara Kraft — have worked together before, this all happens surprisingly on schedule.
Manson — who with a few directorial adjustments soon has them all grandly and neatly materializing on the video screen at the front of the stage — explains to me that the pop-up tableau of civil strife the performers have just concocted will act as one of several backdrops to passages from the Oresteia, the ancient trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, which itself acts as counterpoint to the series of contemporary interviews of random Bay Area citizens that forms a key component of The People.
The results you can see for yourself this weekend, as Florida Street outside Z Space (formerly Theater Artaud) becomes a re-imagined public square where a localized discussion of democracy gets played out in a big way, through massive video projections, personal perspectives, and live performance in a dazzlingly intricate and thought-provoking merger of bodies and images, the epic and the mundane, the spectacular and the quotidian.
Big Art Group’s last appearance in the Bay Area was 2009’s deft and rowdy “action media performance,” SOS, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Founded and led by Manson and executive director and writer Jemma Nelson, Big Art’s distinctive, highly integrated blend of theater and media into something it calls “real-time film” was the basis then for a rousing camp send-up and critique of this culture’s media-immersive materialism and its social ramifications.
The People: San Francisco takes Big Art’s fundamental approach to performance and democratizes it. The fourth installment of a serial project begun in 2007 in Polverigi, Italy (before moving onto Halle, Germany and Salzburg, Austria), The People was designed with two goals in mind, according to Manson. One was to craft a collaborative project that might allow Manson and Nelson greater contact with the communities they’ve been regularly traveling through on Big Art’s annual performance tours. The tradeoff would be some of the precision and expertise on display in shows like SOS for an immediate and interactive bead on a specific locale. In the Bay Area, this contact was managed through three host organizations: Marin’s Headlands Center for the Arts (where Manson and Nelson were in residency a few months ago), YBCA, and Z Space. Through this relationship, the project gathered some 40 hours of taped interviews with 42 subjects (including this writer) who were asked an identical set of questions about terrorism, justice, democracy, and war. (Manson was last week still carefully whittling down those 40 hours to a manageable 16 minutes, but notes the remainder will be archived online).
The other goal was related but more specific and immediate: “At the time we started this, in 2007, Bush was in office and he was always talking about promoting democracy,” explains Manson. “We were touring all over Europe at this time, and we’re wondering: What exactly does that mean, democracy? So we started asking. It’s the first time we’ve asked here, in the United States.”
The timing, coming just after the 10th anniversary of 9/11, is auspicious (if coincidental). As a localized act of public discussion of words like terrorism, justice, democracy, and war, The People reclaims from the centers of power and their diffuse mouthpieces the shibboleths and catchwords that normally act as so many parade floats leading us all down blind alleys, if not over cliffs. Wasn’t this the real discussion we should have had ten years ago? Some did; some tried and were shouted down. This weekend, at least, the conversation continues.
THE PEOPLE: SAN FRANCISCO
Fri/16-Sat/17, 8 p.m., $10
450 Florida, SF
MUSIC Something unexpectedly noisy is happening in the museums of San Francisco. There are two shows taking place in the next couple of weeks that will defy expectations of appropriate gallery sound levels.
The idea for one event was born when artist-quilter Ben Venom wrote a proposal to bring heavy metal music to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Venom’s massive heavy metal quilt, See You on the Other Side, is currently on display in between two motorcycle gang-inspired jackets as part of the ongoing BAN6 exhibition.
The Bay Area metal scene is woven into the fabric of See You on the Other Side. Shirts donated to Venom from local bands such as Hightower, Black Cobra, and Walken — along with old tees for his own collection — were cut up and sewn into his most ambitious design yet: a skull with seven Medusa-style snakes with slithering tongues, multiple pyramids, and lightning bolts.
Venom sewed four other (smaller) heavy metal quilts in the past, so his own collection of vintage shirts has nearly run dry. Along with his friends’ bands, acts such as Gwar, Kylesa, and Red Fang have approached Venom, offering support for his vision or their own collections of shirts to include in future quilts. So far, the only criticisms Venom has faced are from those pissed off that he’s cutting up classic shirts — some of which, like his vintage Testament shirt, can sell for upwards of $80 on Ebay. But he doesn’t see it as destroying something, he’s sees it as giving shirts a new life, a new function. “At the very end of the day, even the beasts of metal need a warm blanket,” he says smiling.
Likely very warm at 13×15-feet, See You on the Other Side includes more than 125 repurposed shirts with vivid and macabre imagery; the red of the snakes’ tongues popping against the white bulls-eye quilting pattern.
The Mission resident takes inspiration from his life growing up in deeply religious, creative family in Southern Georgia, conversely citing heavy metal, the occult, and alchemy imagery as similarly over-the-top exalting. “The way I look at my work is a collision of the outrageous stage antics of Ozzy Osborne collided together with the domestic nature of crafts,” says Venom, arms folded, peering at his work on the high-ceilinged wall.
Another artistic collision of sorts will take place in a few weeks to compliment Venom’s pieces: three local heavy metal bands will play in the sculpture garden at YBCA on Sept. 22, just outside the gallery where Venom’s work hangs.
Venom came up with the event idea when the curator sent out a query to the artists involved in the BAN6 exhibition, to see if anyone wanted to tack on a lecture or performance. “It totally ties into what I’m doing. It’s like, heavy metal at the museum — that’s a little weird,” Venom chuckles. “I contacted Hightower, Black Cobra, and Walken and they were all super amped on it.”
Those three bands are also represented with imagery in the quilt, having donated shirts to Venom, something that the artist notes as meaningful to the spirit of the piece. “I’m hosting the event, but the bands are playing — it’s their night.”
There will be a uniquely different live rock show in a nearby museum this month. The formerly San Franciscan foursome, Deerhoof, is flying in from across the country (New York City, Portland, Oreg., Albuquerque, N.M) to play in the main lobby of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this Thursday, Sept. 15, as part of the SFMOMA: Now Playing series.
Deerhoof — Greg Saunier, John Dieterich, Ed Rodriguez and Satomi Matsuzaki — was documented by filmmaker Adam Pendelton for his video installation, BAND, a reinterpretation of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1968 film Sympathy for the Devil. Godard’s original included scenes of the Rolling Stones working on the track from Beggar’s Banquet, interlaced with clips of the Black Panthers. Pendelton’s three channel video installation, shot in 2009 while Deerhoof was working on its most recent record Deerhoof vs. Evil, includes beautiful close-ups of the avant-garde musicians working on a song, mixed with audio footage of a day in the life of a politically conscious teenager.
The eight-hour shoot caught the band’s first tinkering with “I Did Crimes For You,” a deceptively upbeat, repetitious pop track that kicks off with clean guitar, hand-clapping, and Matsuzaki’s recognizably high girlish vocals explaining: this is a stick-up/this is a stick-up/smash the windows.
“I don’t know what other bands are like when they’re working on music, but it can be pretty high tension,” says Dieterich, from his new home in Albuquerque, “It’s not like we’re in a war zone or something, but at the time it can pretty nerve-wracking.”
Despite the nerves and early unfounded fears about being filmed, Dieterich says the band ended up enjoying the experience. “It’s good to do things like that, to force yourself to be transparent…to be able to operate under any circumstance.” Deerhoof does have a track record of flexibility, whether it be taking risks with new tones or equipment, switching instruments during live shows, or reaching out beyond the traditional album-concert rock band format. The band created and performed an original score to Harry Smith’s silent film Heaven and Earth Magic during the San Francisco International Film Festival a few years back, and its album Milk Man was turned into a piece of modern dance theater by schoolchildren who performed it in Maine.
The SFMOMA event will include Deerhoof’s performance along with a screening of BAND. There also will be a projection of a different Pendelton project; footage of David Hilliard (former chief of staff of the Black Panther Party) touring landmark Black Panther Party sites in Oakland, and an onstage interview with Hilliard.
Deerhoof hasn’t performed in conjunction with Pendelton’s film since the premiere in New York City last year; Dieterich says he’s looking forward to taking it to the museum. “We’re going to be playing in this big entryway, I don’t know acoustically what that room is like — just thinking from a sound perspective, it will have its own strong character.”
Thurs/15, 6 p.m., free with admission
San Francisco Museum of Modern Artist
151 Third St., SF
BLACK COBRA, WALKEN, AND HIGHTOWER
Sept. 22, 6 p.m., free with admission
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts 701 Mission, SF (415) 978-2787 www.ybca.org
CHEAP EATS First time I went to Criolla was with Coach and company and I was just tickled to death to be eating chicken and waffles within walking distance from my home. Chicken and waffles! I forgave them the dry chicken, even though it was all dark meat and dark meat is of course harder to overcook, because the waffle was good. And they offered real, true Vermont maple syrup for one worth-it dollar more.
And it was chicken and waffles. And walking distance. And so forth: sweet potato tater tots, limeade, sunshine, just a beautiful sidewalky San Francisco day at Market and Noe.
I thought: OK, new favorite restaurant. It ain’t Farmer Brown’s Little Skillet, or even Auntie April’s, but it ain’t Baghdad Café anymore, either. It’s chicken and waffles! In the Castro, and that was overall a happy thought.
Next time I went was with Hedgehog on an also-beautiful day, but we sat inside. In the window, and looked out upon the sidewalk there. It’s a colorful corner. Men stroll by naked. Nobody blinks.
But if you are going to make fried chicken anywhere in the world, including the Castro, including walking distance to my house, you are going to need to make it to order. Fried chicken don’t sit well. It never has, and it never will. So unless you’re a place that sells it as fast as you can crank it out, you’re going to serve some hit-or-miss soggy-breading-ed and dry-meat fried chicken. Most of the time.
I don’t know if Criolla Kitchen fries or tries to fry their chickens to order. If they do, they better get better at it.
The good news is, since it isn’t just a chicken and waffle place, or even a fried chicken place, you’ve got plenty of other options. And a lot of them sound kinda good. Almost all of them, besides the chicken and waffles, sound Louisianic: chicken gizzards with pepper jelly, mirliton salad, red beans and rice, shrimp po’oy …
I got the Louisiana farm-raised catfish mojito isleño on the sheer strength of the number of words in its name. If there were green olives in the tomato-ey, onion-y smother as advertised, I didn’t see or taste them. But it was pretty good anyway.
Hedgehog’s chicken was soggy-topped and dry inside. I’d warned her, but she had to see for herself, poor li’l prickly. Anyway, the red beans and rice that came with it were good.
Warning: the black beans are vegetarian, and therefore not very good. Unless maybe if you’re a vegetarian, but even then I think they might could use a little something.
The best thing I’ve had, in my two visits to Criolla, was the mirliton salad. Hedgehog, being an issue-taker by nature, took issue with our waiterperson’s mispronunciation of mirliton. She’s also a former and future resident of New Orleans, so has heard the word more than most of us’ns.
The way she says it sounds like mella tone, as in melatonin — which has helped me sleep once or twice, so I like it. But the salad is something else entirely: almost see-through, thinly sliced strips of mirliton — or chayote, a kind of gourd with crunch, which tastes pretty much exactly like whatever you put on it, in this case a lemon-cumin vinaigrette.
And avocado, which needs no introduction.
Yum! So that was the best thing I have had at my new favorite restaurant. A little tiny starter salad. Still, I will go back, I’m sure, because even though I’m mad at them for their fried chicken, and disappointed in the catfish, there are still the shrimp po’oys and charbroiled oysters to be tried.
If those oysters come even close to the chargrilled ones I ate one day at Acme Oyster House in Metairie after buying some shirts at the mall last spring, then I will be the happiest little glaze-eyed chicken farmer in the whole wide city, and will promise to never ever leave the Bay Area ever again.
Which. Wait. I have promised before, and broken. And broken. And will break again, I promise.
Daily: 7 a.m.-2 a.m.
2295 Market, SF
Beer and wine
BEER AND WINE The other week, I hit up one of the free, bi-weekly Thursday night tasting parties put on by San Francisco nanobrewery Pacific Brewing Laboratories, located in a small garage on a side street deep in SoMa—and was completely smitten. The adventurous atmosphere and swell-looking crowd were part of that, of course. But the small-batch beers on offer (I quickly downed a gorgeously smooth black IPA), the rogue food vendors (I then dove into a box of Nosh This Bacon Crack chocolate), and the almost-steampunk assemblage of tangled brewing equipment, scuffed kegs, and illustrative blackboards really sealed the deal.
Since they seemed exquisitely attuned to the underground brew-plus-food equation, I asked the guys behind Pac Brew Labs, Patrick M. Horn and Bryan Hermannsson, to tell us a bit about themselves and give us a wee menu of street pairings. Here’s what Patrick came up with for us. (Marke B.)
“Pacific Brewing Laboratory started in a garage as a place for us to experiment with new beer flavors, styles, and brewing techniques. What started out as a place to share new creations with friends grew into a twice-monthly, totally free event with hundreds of our “new” friends and great local street food vendors.
“We brew small, 10-gallon batches which allows for constant beer experimentation. Some of our more exotic beer styles include Hibiscus Saison, Squid Ink Black IPA, Chamomile Ale, Lemongrass IPA, Szechwan Peppercorn Red ale, and wine-soaked oak-aged Brown Ale. We’re always on the lookout for new ingredients and inspirations that will lead us to palate-pleasing creations. For our tastings, we often invite a local food cart to attend, in order to pair our beers against some of the amazing varieties of flavors produced by DIY local food vendors. Below are a few of our favorites, which include beers we enjoy from other local breweries.”
Read about Pac Brew Lab’s upcoming free Thursday Night Beer Nights at www.pacbrewlab.com.
WISE SONS DELI PASTRAMI + PACIFIC BREWING LABORATORIES SQUID INK BLACK IPA
“Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom of pop-up Wise Sons Deli (Saturdays, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at Beast and Hare, 1001 Guerrero, SF. www.wisesonsdeli.com) are on a mission from God to bring to us mere mortals the best in Jewish deli. They’ve been serving up their in-house pickles, matzo ball soup, pastries and — most importantly — their weeklong-brined, spice-rubbed, hickory smoked pastrami with home made rye bread to San Francisco and at many of our beer socials since the year 5771. Our Squid Ink is made with darker grains than traditional IPAs and uses West Coast hops to give it a traditional West Coast IPA hop aroma and bitterness. The richness and spices of the pastrami pair perfectly with the citrus-y, hoppy and roasted flavors of the Black IPA. Finish with a house fermented pickle for the perfect sandwich-beer-pickle experience.”
MISSION CHINESE FOOD + TRUMER PILSNER
“Anthony Myint and Danny Bowien have created one of the most creative and community minded pop-up restaurant in the nation with Mission Chinese Food (Thu-Tue, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m., at Lung Shan, 2234 Mission, SF. (415) 863-2800, www.missionchinesefood.com). Their delicious twists on traditional Chinese and Asian cooking include kung pao pastrami, thrice-cooked bacon, tingling lamb noodle soup, salt cod fried rice and cold-poached chicken with chicken hearts. Mission Chinese Food also contributes $0.75 from each entrée to the San Francisco Food Bank. The Trumer (www.trumer-international.com) from Berkeley, with its high carbonation, crisp malt backbone and good hop bitterness, offers a good counterpoint to the exotic flavors and spices of Danny’s cuisine. As the heat and tingling build from chilies and Szechwan peppercorns, a pilsner can really satisfy. (And if you need to douse a flaming palate, the low alcohol content allows for a few brews with minor effect.)”
NOSH THIS CHOCOLATE + 21ST AMENDMENTS MONK’S BLOOD
Beer and chocolate go together like Bert and Ernie or peanut butter, bananas, and Elvis. Kai Kronfield of Nosh This (noshthis.com) makes some of the most creative chocolates in San Francisco. Butter toffee Bacon Crack, salted caramels made with balsamic vinegar, Meyer lemon, or salt & pepper… not to mention the Bacon Bourbon Rocky Road. These chocolates are the perfect balance of sweet, salty, and chocolate-y and pair well with darker, maltier beers. 21st Amendments Monk’s Blood (www.21st-ammendment.com), a dark Belgian ale, fits this bill well. Made with the traditional hops and barley, it also contains figs, vanilla, and cinnamon. It’s a complex beer, in a can, that complements the richness and intricate flavors of Kai’s creations. This combo is a perfect end to an evening, a mid-day snack, or breakfast — whatever, nobody’s judging.
PIZZA HACKER + MOONLIGHT DEATH AND TAXES
“Pizza and beer is typically a no-brainer pairing, but often most choose an IPA, pale ale, or lager to go with their cheesy slice. Moonlight’s Mooonlight’s Death and Taxes (www.moonlightbrewing.com) is a dark lager — but its roasty, crisp and malty flavors lends itself perfectly to the olive oil and salt-covered crust and smoky essence of the Pizza Hacker’s (www.thepizzahacker.com) pies. Jeff, the nominal Pizza Hacker and self-described “occasional Pazi (Pizza nazi)”, has built a custom-made portable wood fired brick oven called the FrankenWeber. He wheels it up outside bar or brewery, assembles, and bakes fresh pizzas on the sidewalk. His sauce is from organic heirloom tomatoes and he uses a method pioneered by Tartine for kneading the dough. Best tasted with a full bodied, flavorful pint of brew!
MAGIC CURRY KART + ALMANAC SUMMER 2010
Almanac’s Summer 2010 Belgian golden (www.almanacbeer.com) is made with blackberries and aged in red wine oak barrels for 11 months. Brian Kimball of Magic Curry Kart (www.magiccurrykart.com) wheels around two burners and two rice cookers on his bike, and whips up the most incredibly Thai-influenced curries in front of you with amazing precision. The ingredients are fresh and the spices are delicious. Almanac’s golden ale will add a nice fruity finish to the spicy and flavorful red or green curry. With an eight percent alcohol count and naturally carbonated in the bottle, Summer 2010 will refresh your palette after every sip without overpowering it, enabling new tastes in every luscious bite of curry. Cheers!
BEER AND WINE The high priestess of natural wines and I are going out for a glass. As is to be expected of a meeting with a thought leader, it’s a learning experience.
Alice Feiring peruses the bar menu in front of her. It’s a nice enough place, the restaurant we’re at, and the wine list includes a few organic pours — but even these, Feiring says, were made with foreign yeasts and an excess of sulfur. The bartender tries lamely to help her order, but it’s apparent that even he is not sure what her criteria for an acceptable wine is. Finally, she finds a rose that will work.
Um, I’ll have the same.
“I’m kind of a bitch when it comes to wine,” she apologizes to me.
Her disclaimer is unnecessary — I’ve invited her here to teach me about a movement in the wine world that is turning conceptions of sustainable viniculture practices on their head. The bartender is to be excused for not knowing about it yet.
Feiring’s new book Naked Wine (231 pp, Da Capo, $24) is a declaration of her personal preference towards wines grown organically — as many wines are, particularly in California where you can find organic vintages wherever local, seasonal foods are favored — but it goes beyond that. Although a wine’s bottle may tell you it’s “made with organic grapes,” this says nothing about its life post-vine. Reverse osmosis, chemical additives, foreign yeasts, and more are all common practices in wineries. Feiring’s beloved natural wines don’t use any of these artificial aides.
For locavores, natural wine would seem like the, yeah, natural choice. But even when bottles say “made from organic grapes,” it’s hard to know what happened to the wine after it left the vine.
As Naked Wine puts it, “A truly natural wine, most natural wine proponents agree, is not possible in every year, but no one ever needs gum arabic, tannin addition, micro-oxygenation, or strong doses of sulfur at every stage.” In the back of the book, a list of chemical additives determined permissible for wine by the FDA are listed.
There are over 60 of these, including ferrocyanide compounds and colloidal silicon dioxide. Each time one of these substances are added, your wine is further away from a true expression of the terroir in which it was grown. All these chemicals are legal in wine “made from organic grapes.” Many conventional producers claim that without these crutches, winemaking can be neither cost-effective or competent — but to natural adherents, their presence obstructs the connection between terroir and taste.
The day after drinking with Feiring, I attended a screening of a new documentary on Californian natural wines, Wine From Here. After we watched the film (a lovingly shot, low budget homage to vignerons who spend their lives in pursuit of purity), the winemakers profiled were invited onstage for a Q&A. They represented some of the best natural wineries in the state — Clos Saron, Coturri, Old World Winery, Edmunds St. John, Dashe Cellars, La Clarine Farm, and the Salina and Natural Process Alliance.
A few of the vignerons said at various points they’d attempted to add an ingredients section to their labels that would read, simply, “grapes.” Officials balked, however, saying that the labels “would imply that other wines were made with things other than just grapes.”
But how do natural wines taste? Even Feiring writes in Naked Wine that “how one treated a wine was not a moral issue, after all.” (A view which possibly negates the environmental dimensions of viniculture; the link between more sustainable, organic farming practices and impact on ecosystems being fairly well established.)
The answer is: varying. Eschewing artificial chemicals and fermentation agents often means giving up standardized product. Natural wine can oxidize more easily than wine treated with sulfites. Reliance on natural yeast means that whatever Mother Earth brings to your grapes is what you end up tasting in the glass.
But for natural wine proponents, this kind of variation can be thrilling.
After my chat with Feiring, we hopped over to Biondivino, a fetchingly designed Russian Hill wine shop that specializes in Italian pours. Owner Ceri Smith stocks many natural wines, which she arranges like books in a library — a visual connection that’s strengthened by the rolling ladder Smith uses to access the top racks.
The tasting featured natural selections from the Spanish wine catalog of importer José Pastor. The man pouring us our sips seemed to be a bit cautious of the wines’ effect on newbies.
“Now this one is really, really unusual,” he told me, doling out a finger of Vinos Ambiz Airén from Madrid vigneron Fabio Bartolomei. He wasn’t kidding — it was probably the most distinctive wine I’ve ever tasted.
Although Airén is the most-harvested white wine grape in Spain, it’s usually made into nondescript wine sold in bulk. Not so with Bartolomei’s version. The winemaker eschews all additives besides some sulfur spray in his vineyard, and bottles the wine unfiltered. The result was a mouth-encompassing herbal wash, almost Fernet-like in its grassy, spicy taste. I was still wide-eyed when the next wine that found it’s way into my glass: Catalonia producer Laureano Serres’ “5 Anys i un Dia” (“Five Years and One Day” in Catalan).
“Is that… gasoline?” I asked Feiring, who was standing at my side. “You’re tasting sherry,” she smiled. Wild. But even more wild? All the bottles featured in the tasting were $25 and under.
Will Feiring become the wine world’s Michael Pollan, launching a thousand natural vignerons? Only time will tell — but regardless of the movement’s future, natural winemakers certainly pour a glass worth writing home about.
BEER AND WINE It’s a unique time in Bay Area winemaking. We see more California winemakers finding harmony between New and Old World-style production, laying off heavier-handed extremes of overly-oaked or high alcohol wines, honing in on our region’s true terroir. While global love for big, bold California wines isn’t going anywhere, it’s ever more apparent that our range is far beyond what might be assumed.
Small, family-run wineries have long undergirded our region’s greatness, and today there are many new wines, from Sonoma to Napa, adding nuance to the landscape. As is the case historically, many wineries are a family affair where parents and children share in the work, from production to business operations. Here are a few we felt you should know about; you can order most of their wines through their websites.
SUTTON CELLARS, SAN FRANCISCO
San Francisco holds a treasure in the person of Carl Sutton of Sutton Cellars. He walks the fine line of approachability and Old World-influenced production style. At 22nd Street and Illinois sits a funky warehouse winery where he throws Jug Sundays, tapping barrels and selling jugs or liters of wine (email directly through its website — www.suttoncellars.com — to be added to the event email list). Carl corrals Dogpatch neighbors to supply grub, like Olivier’s Butchery or the TomKat Asian street food truck. His wife Sharon often pours and works with him, both of them wine aficionados and passionate global travelers.
His grapes grow mostly in Sonoma County (with a little Mendocino in the mix), and are often single vineyard wines. At a time when many claim personal care, Sutton’s brown label wines are actually filled and corked by hand. Often this kind of care implies high costs, but Sutton stays amazingly affordable at $14–<\d>$21 a bottle.
Sutton is heavily influenced by France and Spain. He offers a full-bodied Rattlesnake Rosé ($15), but also the stunning Fizé, a 2010 rosé of organic Carignane grapes. It unfolds with each sip: tart cranberry and pomegranate notes, and a crisp effervescence. With no yeast or sulfites added, fermentation actually happens in the bottle. It possess a bready nose, with a profile far beyond typical rosés on either end of the sweet/dry spectrum (find this beauty at the winery, Bi-Rite, Rainbow Grocery, D&M). As of last week, he has keg preview of the 2010 Rattlesnake Rosé on tap at Magnolia Pub and Brewery.
His 2007 Carignane is an acidic, balanced, food-friendly red (barrel fermented in neutral oak). The aged La Solera is an elegant after-dinner imbibement and one of Sutton’s best creations. A blend of syrah, zin, and carignane wines from 1999-2006, it at turns evokes Madeira, Banyuls, sherry, even whiskey, with whispers of burnt orange, and a golden richness from its time resting in the sun, a classic method he picked up in Spain. La Solera is at the top of his price range at a mere $30, a steal for such a complex wine.
Sutton’s Brown Label Vermouth (unaged brandy-fortified neutral white wine, infused with 17 botanicals, bottled fresh weekly) is a winner. The Alembic was the first place to serve this refreshing aperitif on tap, enjoyed on the rocks, Italian-style. Sutton bubbles over with visions for a wide range of wines and liqueurs, including at least one new aperitif/digestif wine due before year’s end.
KELLY FLEMING WINES, CALISTOGA
Head off Silverado Trail, past vines and olive trees, onto a dirt road that leads to a gate. Beyond a sea of cabernet vines, lies Kelly Fleming’s stone winery (www.kellyflemingwines.com), evoking an Italian villa, similar to many I explored in Tuscany. The winery’s stone walls and wood shutters imbue the space with a rustic character far beyond its years.
In an open-air dining room, I sat under stone arches at a handmade wood table crafted from one tree off the 300-acre property. Kelly and her daughter Colleen, who also works for the company, served a Mediterranean-style spread for lunch, using ingredients from their garden (like a silky jam from their fig trees).
We sipped Fleming’s 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (50 percent French oak, 50percent stainless steel), representative of the Oakville soil from which these grapes grow. It’s a balanced white with a floral and fruity (pear, pineapple) profile, rounded out by a hint of vanilla. 2007 Cabernet is 100 percent estate and CCOF organically grown, rested in 85 percent new French oak. Though fruit plays prominently (warm, dusty raspberries), hints of wood, nuts and spice give it contrast.
Winemaker Celia Welch works with the region’s terroir (this is cabernet country, after all), from vines planted in 1999. The wild beauty of the property’s forests and creeks is kept intact with only 12 of the 300 acres planted with vines. Inside limestone caves, the air is naturally cool, storing barrels and bottles of past vintages (unreleased but which they’ve been perfecting for nearly a decade). At a mere 850 cabernet and 675 sauvignon blanc cases a year, these are truly small production wines.
Kelly is hands-on in so many aspects from harvesting to forklift operation. She and Colleen both were recently certified in forklift driving, highlighting the involved, familial nature of the winery. They are gracious hosts, welcoming guests by appointment.
SWANSON VINEYARDS, RUTHERFORD
Think Parisian carnival, classic French estate, Napa’s rich nature, New Orleans’ roots, and you’ll begin to get an idea of the influences on Swanson Vineyards (www.swansonvineyards.com). The winemaker is Chris Phelps — Clarke Swanson founded the winery back in 1985, planting his first merlot grapes. His daughter, Alexis, works as the winery’s creative director. Wife Elizabeth buzzed about as we sipped wine in their enchanting garden, greeting each guest.
The first sign Swanson is different comes when you enter the Sip Shoppe, with red-and-white striped tented walls, Old World French artwork, and Billie Holiday playing soothingly in the background. Elizabeth and Alexis designed the shop themselves, imparting a playful Parisian spirit to what could just be another tasting room. One wants to linger for flights like “Some Like it Red,” paired with the likes of warm pistachios, Alexis bonbons (made by Vosges with curry and Swanson’s Alexis Cabernet), or a potato chip topped with creme fraiche and Hackleback sturgeon caviar (lovely with their Chardonnay).
The 2010 Chardonnay was my favorite, and a complete surprise as a mineral, French-inspired chardonnay, reminiscent of Chablis. Neutral oak allows crisp, green apple notes to shine, while honey adds a tinge of cream to the finish. At a pricey $45, this one is only available at the winery or to wine club members.
Of the reds, Swanson’s signature 2007 Merlot offers the best price-to-taste ratio at $38 per bottle. It’s unexpectedly balanced with tart tannins, hints of black cherry, currant and mocha. On the pricier end, the 2007 Alexis Cabernet ($75) is bold and layered, while a 2006 Petite Syrah ($70) goes the earthier, spice and gentle black pepper route.
Make an appointment to visit the winery for a Salon tasting ($65) or Sip Shoppe flight (around $25), then finish by lingering in the garden. You can taste at dozens of wineries but the Swanson’s chic shoppe and salon deliver a fun, Parisian spirit to the Napa countryside. *
Virginia Miller writes about the latest food and drink news at The Perfect Spot, www.theperfectspotsf.com
Noe Valley Wine Walk Wed/14, 4 p.m.- 8 p.m., $30 for tasting pass. 24th Street between Diamond and Chatanooga, SF. noevalleywinewalk.eventbrite.com, Facebook: Noe Valley Wine Walk. Wine walk — or wine stumble gracefully — along a bounteous stretch of 24th Street at this first annual great grape affair. Restaurants and merchants will be offering tastings, treats, and specials, plus some entertainment surprises.
SF Cocktail Week Mon/19-Sun/25, various times, locations, and prices. www.sfcocktailweek.com. This one’s the biggie! A whole week of cocktailgating in one of the world’s capitals of the new mixology: events, recipes, panels, entertainment, parties, gourmet food — and, of course, tipple, tipple, tipple for (seven) days. We’re especially fans of the neighborhood bar crawls. After which we literally crawl. But with an amazing assortment of stylish people, and a new knowledge of our fair cocktails of the city.
Oktoberfest by the Bay Fri/30-Sun/2, various times, $25–$65. Pier 48, SF. www.oktoberfestbythebay.com. Bavaria much? Ja, ja, oompah-pah! Hoist your stein aplenty at this almost overwhelming fest at Pier 48, which brings a tall draught of Munich to the Bay for this three-day party. Musical entertainment by the Chico Bavarian Band, the Internationals, and dancing from the Deutscher Musikverei — plus a giant German buffet! Lederhosen not required, but obviously encouraged.
Oaktoberfest in the Dimond Saturday, October 1, 11 a.m.-6 p.m., free. MacArthur Blvd. at Fruitvale Ave., Oakl. www.oaktoberfest.org, Facebook: Oaktoberfest. Oakland’s going (more) beerlicious with this free, neato-sounding, nonprofit, family friendly outdoor event, including trucked-in food from the Oakland Mobile Food Group, three R&B-meets-Bavaria music stages, a kids “rootbier garden,” a “HopTech homebrewers alley,” and tasty beers from more than 30 breweries, restaurants, and associations. Time to get crafty!
Napa Valley Wine Train “Trick or Train” Halloween Bash 1275 McKinstry St., Napa. Friday, October 28, 10:30 p.m., $30. (800) 427-4124, www.winetrain.com. That wine whistle will blow, “Boo! Boo!” at this spirited party for adults only ($30) that includes a costume party (wear something vino-proof, maybe) and dancing until 1a.m. in Wine Country. More adventurous souls can haunt a special gourmet train journey beforehand for $150 starting at 5:30 p.m. — dining by rail, romantically, spookily. You can bet some great wines will be included in all this, as well as the natural fall beauty of Napa Valley.
OPINION The Central Subway is a result of years of grassroots environmental transit justice organizing that San Francisco should be proud of. But in recent weeks, politicos and the media have stirred up a string of unfounded criticisms of the Central Subway — an essential project that will upgrade transit for the long term, create thousands of jobs in the midst of a recession, and expand opportunity for tens of thousands of San Franciscans who need to get to work everyday. Politicians who supported the project for years are now reversing themselves and calling it a “subway to nowhere” and a “boondoggle.” And short staffed newspapers find it easy paint a cartoon picture of City Hall and Chinatown “powerbrokers” who conspired to sell the city on an expensive project it doesn’t need.
But San Franciscans should ignore the overheated rhetoric of the moment and see the future value and need for this critical project — particularly when the Republicans in Congress are attacking us from the right. We need to unite as one city and not squander what might be the last opportunity to access federal funding to make the economic center of the city more transit accessible for all San Franciscans. In this limited space, we offer some of the facts about the project that seem to be missing in the present reporting.
The number of recent critics and media attention about the subway makes it appear that the subway’s costs and design were new news. Planning for the project began more than 20 years ago, and the essential alignment and projected costs have been agreed to and consistent since 2008. There is no new news.
The claims about skyrocketing costs are misleading, comparing different project proposals. The Civil Grand Jury and others fail to do an apples-to-apples comparison. The project costs have increased primarily because, in response to public feedback, the final project is a different project. It has a new alignment, new stations, and more contingency funds built in. The core costs for the project have not changed since 2008, when it was approved with broad support, including some of its present critics.
The critics who claim that not building the project will save future Muni operating costs fail to address the costs of doing nothing. The environmental impact report showed that the no-project option would cost even more. The absence of a subway would require Muni to run and maintain more buses on streets that will be more crowded and more gridlocked. (Ten years from now, if the critics succeed in killing the project, when you are stuck in traffic and late for work you will know who to blame).
Beneath the unfounded criticism about costs is actually a disagreement over values. The grand jury report relied upon by critics makes a only brief and superficial criticism about costs. The report actually devotes more attention and criticism to the location of the Chinatown station. The grand jury prefers a subway that runs closer to the financial district. For critics, the present project is a “subway to nowhere.” But for the Asian, black, and working class neighborhoods that will be connected via the subway and the T-line, this is a subway to jobs and economic opportunity.
Finally, we need to be clear that this is probably the last chance in many of our lifetimes for San Francisco to grow its transit system. While critics talk about alternate uses for the $940 million dollars of federal funding, the reality is we cannot redirect those dollars. The funding process for the subway is nearing the finish line after an arduous ten-year competitive federal application process. Given the federal budget, re-starting that application process may not merely mean a multi-year delay, it will likely mean there will be no funding to apply for and the loss of 30,000 jobs over the life of the project.
We urge all the mayoral candidates and our media pundits to tone down the rhetoric around the subway. We should not let short-term thinking and the heat of political passion of this campaign season kill a project that has had broad support for 20 years and will provide new transit that we desperately need for our city’s future.
Ultimately the subway is an issue about justice and access to jobs. Justice for some of the most densely populated neighborhoods in San Francisco, where 80% of the residents don’t own cars and rely entirely on public transportation. And we’re talking about the potential loss of thousands of construction jobs and access to jobs for those who need the transit to their workplaces.
Stand firm, San Francisco, for jobs and justice.
Rev. Norman Fong is the incoming director of the Chinatown Community Development Center. Mike Casey is the head of UNITE HERE Local 2.
For weeks now, protesters have descended on Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) stations to denounce the fatal July 3 shooting of homeless passenger Charles Hill by a BART Police officer, and to call for the agency’s long-controversial police force to be disbanded. Commuters have had to contend with service disruptions and delays, and costs to the transit agency have exceeded $300,000. Yet it isn’t just bullhorn-wielding protesters who’ve been thrust into the spotlight — BART’s police force is also facing scrutiny for its conduct under pressure.
BART drew the ire of numerous media outlets after a Sept. 8 protest when transit cops detained members of the press along with protesters on suspected violation of California Penal Code Section 369i, which prohibits interfering with the operations of a railroad. Most journalists were eventually released, but the protest resulted in 24 arrests.
Although BART police later contended that they issued dispersal orders prior to closing in, many who were encircled and detained (including me) insisted they’d heard no such announcement. BART police also instructed San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers who were on hand to assist to seize reporters’ SFPD-issued press passes — a move that SFPD spokesperson Troy Dangerfield later told the Guardian was an error that went against normal SFPD protocol.
In a Sept. 10 editorial, the San Francisco Chronicle blasted BART police for placing Chronicle reporter Vivian Ho in handcuffs despite being informed that she was there as a journalist. Ho’s experience was mild compared with that of Indybay reporter David Morse (aka Dave Id), who told the Guardian he was singled out for arrest by BART Deputy Police Chief Daniel Hartwig and isolated from the scene — even though Hartwig is familiar with Morse and knows he’s been covering protests and BART board meetings for the free online publication. Asked why Morse was arrested when other journalists detained for the same violation were released, BART spokesperson Jim Allison told us, “The courts will answer that, won’t they?”
No Justice, No BART — a group that was instrumental in organizing the Sept. 8 protest — telegraphed to media and police at the outset that they intended to test BART’s assertions that people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech would be upheld as long as they remained outside the paid areas of the station, in what was dubbed a “free speech zone.” (Rebecca Bowe)
CHRON VS. WIENER(S)
Scott Wiener tried to do something eminently reasonable, and ask the naked guys in the Castro to put down a towel before they sit on public benches. Although the Department of Public Health hasn’t made any statements about the issue (and people put their naked butts on public toilet seats without creating major social problems), it’s pretty much an ick factor thing — and using a towel is an unwritten (sometimes written) rule at almost every nudist resort in the country.
The whole thing is a bit ironic, since it’s already illegal for fully clothed poor people to sit on the street — but so far, it’s not illegal for naked people to sit on benches. So far.
Wiener’s move set off an anti-nudity campaign at the San Francisco Chronicle, starting with columnist C.W. Nevius suggesting that the nudies are all perverts: “If these guys were opening a trench coat and exposing themselves to bystanders in a supermarket parking lot we’d call them creeps.” A Chron editorial called for a new law banning nudity in the city (an excellent use of time for a police department that already says it can’t afford community policing). The national (right-wing) press is having a field day. The commenters on sfbg.com are arguing about whether the pantsless men are shedding scrotal hair, or whether they’re mostly shaved. For the record, we haven’t checked.
And for the record, in a couple of months it’s going to get way too cold and rainy for this sort of thing anyway. (Tim Redmond)
City Attorney Dennis Herrera has always been limited by his office’s neutral role in criticizing city policies and officials. But as a mayoral candidate, he seems to have really discovered his political voice, offering more full-throated criticisms of Mayor Ed Lee and his policies than any of the other top-tier candidates.
“I think it’s kind of liberating for him that he can talk policy instead of just about legal issues,” Herrera’s longtime spokesperson Matt Dorsey, who recently took a leave from his city job to work on the campaign full-time, told the Guardian.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Herrera’s shift began a little more than a month ago when Lee bowed to pressure from Willie Brown, Rose Pak, and other top power brokers to get into mayor’s race, prompting Herrera’s biting analysis that, “Ed Lee’s biggest problem isn’t that he’s a dishonest man — it’s that he’s not his own man. The fact is, if Ed Lee is elected mayor, powerful people will continue to insist on things. And I don’t think San Franciscans can be blamed for having serious doubts about whether Ed Lee would have the courage to say no.”
Herrera followed up last week by providing an example of something Lee and most other mayoral candidates don’t have the courage to say no to: the Central Subway project, with its runaway price tag and growing number of critics that say it’s a wasteful and inefficient boondoggle that will worsen Muni’s operating budget deficit.
“Fiascos aren’t born that way. They typically grow from the seeds of worthy idea, and their laudable promise is betrayed in subtle increments over time,” was how Herrera began a paper he released Sept. 8 called “It’s time to rethink the Central Subway,” in which he calls for a reevaluation of a project that he and the entire Board of Supervisors once supported.
He notes that the project’s costs have tripled and its design flaws have been criticized by the Civil Grand Jury and numerous transit experts. “Let’s look at this thing and see if it still makes sense,” Herrera told us, a stand that was greeted as blasphemy from the project’s supporters in Chinatown, who called at least two press conferences to decry that they called a “cheap political stunt.”
While the stand does indeed help distinguish Herrera from a crowded mayoral field, he insists that it was the grand jury report and other critiques that prompted him to raise the issue. “Good policy is good politics, so let’s have a debate on it and let the validity of the project stand or fall on its merits,” he said.
Herrera and fellow candidate John Avalos were also the ones who called out Lee on Sept. 2 for praising Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as “a great company that get it” for contributing $250,000 to a literacy program, despite PG&E’s deadly negligence in the San Bruno pipeline explosion and its spending of tens of millions of dollars to sabotage public power efforts and otherwise corrupt the political process.
“It shows insensitivity to victims’ families, and poor judgment for allowing his office to be used as a corporate PR tool. No less troubling, it ignores the serious work my office and others have done to protect San Franciscans from PG&E’s negligence,” Herrera said in a prepared statement.
Now, his rhetoric isn’t quite up to that of Green Party mayoral candidate Terry Baum, who last week called for PG&E executives to be jailed for their negligence, but it’s not bad for a lawyerly type. Herrera insists that he’s always wielded a big stick, expressed through filing public interest lawsuits rather than campaign missives, “but the motivation in how I do either is not really different.” (Steven T. Jones)
JACK IS BACK
The mayor’s race just got a new player, someone who is guaranteed to liven things up. His name is Jack Davis — and he’s already gone on the attack.
Davis, the infamous bad boy of political consulting who is so feared that Gavin Newsom paid him handsomely just to stay out of the 2003 mayor’s race, has been keeping a low profile of late. But he’s come out of semi-retirement to work for Jeff Adachi, the public defender who is both running for mayor and promoting Prop. D, his pension-reform plan.
Davis and Adachi first bonded when Adachi ran against appointed incumbent Kim Burton in 2002. Now, Davis has begun firing away at Mayor Ed Lee, with a new mailer that calls the competing Lee pension plan a “backroom deal.” The piece features a shadowy figure (who looks nothing like Ed Lee) slipping through a closing door, a fancy ashtray full of cigars and an allegation that Lee gave the cops a sweet pension deal in exchange for the police union endorsement.
Trust us, that’s just the start. (tr)
Meanwhile, Adachi sent Lee a letter on Sept. 8 challenging him to debate the merits of their rival pension measures — Lee spearheaded the creation of Prop. C, with input from labor unions and other stakeholders — sometime in the next month.
“I believe there is a vital need — if not an obligation — for us to ensure that the voters of San Francisco understand both the severity of our pension crisis as well as the significant differences between our two proposals,” Adachi wrote, later adding, “As the two principals behind the competing ballot measures, I hope that we can work together to increase awareness of this important issue and work toward a better future for our city.”
Lee’s campaign didn’t respond directly to Adachi, but Lee’s ever-caustic campaign spokesperson Tony Winnicker told the Guardian that the request was “the oldest political trick in book” and one they were rejecting, going on to say, “Voters deserve to hear from all the candidates on pension reform, not just two of them.”
Perhaps, but given the mind-numbing minutiae that differentiates the two measures, some kind of public airing of their differences might be good for all of us. Or I suppose we can just trust all those dueling mailers headed our way, right? (stj)
For more, visit our Politics blog at www.sfbg.com.
If you want to put more money in the pockets of working people, cutting the federal payroll tax — which, for many, is a larger tax burden than the income tax — makes perfect sense.
If you want to create jobs, cutting the payroll tax for businesses is a risky proposition.
Most new jobs in the United States are created by small businesses — and the payroll tax, while significant, isn’t a dramatic hindrance to job growth.
I work for a small business, and I ran the numbers with our controller, and if the Obama stimulus bill passes, the Bay Guardian will probably have enough extra money to hire one part-time employee — as long as we don’t pay that person much more than the city’s minimum wage. That’s something, I suppose. But even multiplied by the millions of small businesses in the country, there’s no guarantee it will lead to millions of jobs — particularly since so many small businesses in this country are deeply in debt, scraping for profits and likely to use the extra money for something other than hiring.
And a lot of big businesses already have the cash on hand to hire new workers, but they aren’t doing it.
That’s because businesses don’t make hiring decisions based just on taxes and cash — they hire people when they need workers to fill demand for their products and services. And the fundamental problem with the American economy today is that the very rich, who don’t spend most of their money, keep getting more of it, and the middle class doesn’t have enough to stimulate demand.
Here’s what makes me crazy: The government knows how to create jobs. If that’s what Obama wants to do, why not just .. do it?
Let’s say you want to create a million new jobs that pay a living wage (say, $50,000). If, instead of hoping that the private sector will be the middleman, Obama directed federal, state, and local governments to hire people to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, teach in public schools etc, that would cost …. oh, about $500 billion.
So for $447 billion, you might only get 800,000 jobs. But that increased economic activity, and the demand it would create, would almost certainly lead to more jobs, probably at least another 400,000 jobs. That’s more than a million; the unemployment rate just dropped a full percentage point, and the recovery is well under way.
Why is nobody even talking about this?
EDITORIAL The BART Board and the new general manager, Grace Crunican, have become so clueless it’s almost mind-boggling. For weeks, demonstrators have been taking to the BART stations to complain about a policy that never should have been in place (the shutoff of cell phone service during an earlier demonstration). The response of the BART Police (and, unfortunately, the San Francisco Police Department) has been so heavy handed and out of scale that it’s just making the situation worse.
For starters, BART could have easily avoided most of the trouble if the agency had simply apologized for cutting off phone service and instituted a policy to ensure that it would never happen again. And the new civilian police auditor can go a long way to establishing public credibility by expediting review of the shooting of Charles Hill and releasing a report quickly.
But BART is doing nothing but further agitating the protesters — and the events of Sept. 8 were a case in point.
The BART Police, with the help of the SFPD, began arresting people who were doing nothing but protesting in an area that BART had previously said would be open for demonstrations. The activists were peaceful — loud at times, but peaceful. And the police had nothing to charge them with except an old state statute that bars interference with the operation of a railroad.
The arrests came without warning — as Rebecca Bowe reported on sfbg.com, the police never declared an unlawful assembly, never warned protesters that they would be arrested if they didn’t leave and never followed normal, proper, legal procedures.
Then the cops went after the press. Reporters who were wearing passes issued by the SFPD were told to line up and present their credentials — at which point the San Francisco cops confiscated the press passes. That left reporters in a bind — if they stayed around to continue to cover the events, they would be subject to arrest. If they left, they’d miss the story — which may have been exactly what BART had in mind.
The episode is just the latest evidence that the BART police lack the training and experience to handle difficult situations. Crunican needs to get a handle on this immediately — and the BART Board, which has been far too hands-off when it comes to police abuse, needs to demand tighter procedures and more direct and effective discipline for the subway system cops.
The SFPD brass knows better than this — and while some officers privately say that detaining the press was a mistake, Chief Greg Suhr has been silent on the issue. He needs to speak out, now — apologize to the reporters and announce a policy change that strictly limits the ability of officers to arrest or detail credentialed journalists (and that bars the confiscation of press passes in all but the most unusual circumstances).
Meanwhile, the incident raises again a question the Society of Professional Journalists, and San Francisco officials, ought to be taking up: Why are the cops the ones who issue credentials for reporters?
Unemployed San Franciscans are now receiving monthly benefit payments through a mandatory Bank of America debit card. While presented as a benefit to both recipients and the state, the initiative is the latest chapter in a long history of banks profiting off of the less fortunate.
In July, the California Employment Development Department (EDD) began distributing Bank of America debit cards to all California residents who receive unemployment benefits, “in what is one of the largest pre-paid card programs in the nation,” EDD spokesperson Dan Stephens tells the Guardian.
The cards, a result of a recent contract Bank of America won to implement the EDD’s new debit card system, replace the monthly unemployment check residents receive. The cards are also being used for disability insurance and paid family leave payments.
“We wanted a faster, safer, more convenient way for our customers to access their benefits,” Stephens says. But figuring out the new system takes time, usage fees can surface, and complaints have arisen.
“Now I have against my will been forced to become a B of A customer, which I don’t like,” says Cliff Liehe, a part time business teacher at City College who collects unemployment benefits during the summer. “I don’t want to do business with B of A. I hate them, and there’s a lot of staff members that feel the same way, throughout the state, not just City College.”
Liehe says that he dislikes B of A because it has a “corporate philosophy that I’ve disagreed with,” as well as, “terrible customer service and high fees.” Bank of America, the largest bank in the nation, angered the public by receiving a $20 billion federal bailout after buying Merrill Lynch in 2009, in the wake of the financial meltdown from which banks quickly recovered but the average American still hasn’t.
Money can be accessed on the debit card through purchases, unlimited ATM withdrawals, or transferred to a bank account. Liehe opted to have the money transferred to an account independent from B of A, but says he found the process challenging, and the information and instructions difficult to find.
Bank of America is not paying the EDD, but the new system will save the EDD approximately $4 million in initial savings due to decreased paper, printing, mailing, and check processing costs, Stephens tells the Guardian. He remains vague about the EDD’s plans for this money, but does make it clear that the agreement is a “no-cost contract” between parties.
However, Bank of America’s participation is far from charitable. “B of A is covering its costs through fees paid by banks and merchants who honor the cards. Interchange fees are received from businesses that use the ATM network,” Stephens says.
With 1.7 million Californians receiving unemployment benefits and using their cards at ATMs and retail establishments, Bank of America will be receiving a percentage off all this money spent, as well as gaining more than a million new customers, unless recipients have the know-how to have their money transferred to a different bank. This adds up to a substantial potential profit for America’s richest bank.
“We generally don’t comment on the profitability of individual programs or products, but we are pleased to be working with the EDD to provide more secure and convenient benefit payments to its constituents,” bank spokesperson Jefferson George told us.
What consumers don’t consider when using a credit or debit card to make purchases is that with each purchase, the merchant is paying a percentage back to the bank or other credit card processor. Here at the Guardian, for instance, we lose a significant percentage of our ad profits when advertisers pay with a credit card. With MasterCard and Visa, we lose 3.5 percent of the sales amount, and with American Express it’s 4.15 percent, on top of monthly processing fees.
“The issues with credit card charges in general is that it’s all about the small print,” says Hut Landon, Executive Director of Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. As with the Bank of America EDD card, unadvertised fees can occur through usage of debit and credit cards. On top of a base percentage, merchants must pay fees for rewards cards, mileage cards, and are sometimes charged for transactions, Landon explains. There is even a fee for manually entering credit card information instead of swiping it. The debit card fee is sometimes less, but merchants still could be suffering from the EDD’s new system.
“While this may be a good situation for Bank of America,” says Landon, “[for merchants] its definitely not a good deal.”
Joel Bleskacek, co-owner of Potrero Hill favorites Plow and Ruby Wine, tells the Guardian he pays between 1.5 percent and 3 percent for credit card transactions at his restaurant and wine store. That’s a significant amount of money lost with each transaction, money that goes directly to the banks or credit card processors. “For what we’re paying at the restaurant, I could hire a general manager to work if we only accepted cash,” Bleskacek says. But credit cards are more popular than cash at both his establishments. “A vast majority is credit card sales. People don’t seem to carry cash anymore. Same at the restaurant. An overwhelming majority of sales are through the credit card machine.” Credit card company’s earnings quickly add up. “Basically 2.5 to 3 percent of our entire economy is going to credit card companies…,” he says. “Somebody’s making some money.”