Volume 47 Number 23

Sink and swim

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le.chicken.farmer@gmail.com

CHEAP EATS At first we called her Papa, and then Center. Not only was she the central figure of a particular circle of friends, she was also the center on our football team. Then she and our quarterback split up, which happens — only afterwards it was too hard for poor Center to have her ex’s hands all up in her stuff, saying “down” and “set” and so forth (I am speaking metaphorically) so she quit the team, and since then I don’t see her as much.

Which sucks, cause I really, really like her.

And now I am going to change her name to Sinker because she doesn’t. She swims. But we’ll call her Sinker in the same spirit in which really gigantic people are sometimes called Tiny. Against all odds and crazy currents, Sinker swims. She swam Alcatraz. Next, she told me over lunch at My Father’s Kitchen, she swims from bridge to bridge.

That’s six miles! In the bay, which is (as I understand it) not no swimming pool.

I am thinking of taking up water polo. Does anybody know how to play water polo? I don’t, but if I get to choose sides, my first two picks will be Sal the Pork Chop and Sinker. My two badest-ass bay-swimming buds.

Anyway, after dating herself (as she puts it) for the past year-plus, Sinker has started to step outside of that relationship. You can see this just from looking at her. She’s glowing a slightly brighter shade of “gettin’ some” these days.

She showed me a picture of her lucky co-getter, who was for sure a babe, but I was more interested in the dating herself thread.

“So, did you bring yourself flowers?” I said. “Did you eat alone in nice places on purpose?” I wanted to ask a million other questions: Where did they meet? What did her mother think of her? Did she ever go out on double-dates with other people who were dating themselves, and then swap partners?

But before I could ask most of these stupid questions, she set me straight: This was more just a way of looking at things. Taking care of business, getting good with yourself, which everyone has to do at some point if not many many points in life, turning self-hatred into self . . . well, likedred, in my case.

What I love is pho.

So, yeah, My Father’s Kitchen. Vietnamese comfort food. It’s a tight, warm, friendly li’l place on Divis near Sutter, in the Medical District — where I have to go for physical therapy for my knee, or in this case a mammogram. Before and after which, comfort is a pretty good idea. Right?

There are only twelve things on the menu, and three of those are appetizers. I got pho, and Sinker got imperial rolls with rice noodles. How she stayed happy, I don’t know. For 12 clams, it was just imperial rolls with a plop of plain vermicelli next to a pile of lettuce and mint. No grilled pork. No chicken.

And she needed comfort food, too, having just had a weird time with a second-string gynecologist.

They did look good, though, those imperial rolls. Just a little bit paler than golden, but still crispy. And I think Sinker said, in fact, that they were great. But I forgot to get me a taste.

I was a little overly focussed on pho.

To warn you, my fellow soup-dwellers: if you plan to drown any medical sorrows (or brace yourself for getting your boobs squished) in a giant bowl of pho, this ain’t that. It’s northern Vietnamese style, meaning small means small.

So get the large.

Also: The rice noodles are wide ‘uns. BYO basil and bean sprouts, if you are a devotee of the southern-Vietnam style pho, which is apparently what we are accustomed to here in this here country.

The broth was subtle but delicious, once I tacked on a couple jalapeno slices. And no, I didn’t mind the absence of everything else. It was the not-at-all-rare rare beef — and not a lot of it, at that — that discomforted me.

But not as much as what was to come, damn the heavy-handedly careless crank.

MY FATHER’S KITCHEN

Mon-Fri 9am-7pm, Sat 11am-7pm

1655 Divisadero St., SF

(415) 829-2610

AE/D/MC/V

Beer & wine

 

Eats everything

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culture@sfbg.com

THE BLOB This coming week sees most of our smaller neighborhood farmers markets resuming their merry little trade, the familiar young faces behind the stalls and bushy green produce spilling forth a sunny welcome after grueling — grueling — months of eating only in-season citrus and avocado. OK, this is California, so pretty much everything’s in season all the time, which is great news for an ever-voracious Blob. But it’s nice to meet with your neighbors on the street for reasons other than complaining about dog poop. (The Blob usually just devours its problem neighbors, but the point is farmers markets are nice.) Here are some tasty eats that also have us communing with a spring-like vibe.

 

ARTICHOKE RAVIOLI, DUARTE’S TAVERN

Recently, the Blob had the occasion to experience a NorCal classic — a warm creamy bowl of artichoke soup at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero, about half an hour towards Santa Cruz. The Blob’s in-laws were visiting for a sunny coastal drive, but the Blob did not eat them, much as we may have wished. Instead, we feasted on another of Duarte’s tributes to its famous local vegetable, a spectacular artichoke ravioli ($14). Its enveloping pasta perfectly al dente, the rich, peppery artichoke-ricotta stuffing had an unexpected granular texture that nonetheless melted on the tongue. (The Blob topped it all with zesty marinara, a special request.)

Plentiful deep-fried calimari, baked Pacific oysters erupting with hot butter, local ollieberry pie (think blackberry-meets-raspberry with a pinch of tart), a biker-family clientele, and that famous soup are Duarte’s stock-in-trade. Add a walk around Pescadero’s vintage California-quaint downtown, presto! A day trip to content any in-law.

202 Stage Rd., Pescadero. (650) 879-0464, www.duartestavern.com

 

MANGO SALAD WITH PRAWNS, KITCHEN STORY

Kitchen Story replaced midrange white tablecloth stalwart Tangerine last November, bringing an Asian fusion sensibility and some comfy decor — granite tile, wood bookshelves — to the Castro spot. (It also brings a hint of panic: “Due to high volume, we respectfully request no substitutions on the menu,” it announces repeatedly.) Although it’s open for Thai-heavy dinner, so far brunch is the name of the game for regulars. And the brunch items of choice are stuffed-to-perfection ricotta pancakes, a sweet yet satisfying banmi panini, and millionaire’s bacon, a sassy little item consisting of thick bacon slices marinated in brown sugar syrup and chiles that’s popular at the owners’ other restaurants, Blackwood and Sweet Maple.

The Blob is a contrarian however, and also a sucker for a good salad, so the mango salad with prawns ($13) was our chosen victim on the most recent visit. It took a few minutes to get some attention, but the food came out of the kitchen fast (1:30pm on Saturday is a great time to go). The Blob’s companion Krispy substituted anyway — gasp! — asking for an extra two poached eggs placed atop his grilled veggie and cilantro aioli “morning melt.” He found the kitchen willing and the combo delicious. The mango salad, a riotous heap of bright color, was brimming with mango. Grilled prawns, however, were scarce, and the smoky-lime dressing a tad too acidic: fruit-based salads need only the merest brightening hint of vinegar; this was over the top.

Nothing a giant mimosa ($8, bottomless $16) couldn’t cut through, but we eagerly await the chance to dive into chapter two of this story: dinner.

3499 16th St., SF. (415) 525-4905, www.kitchenstorysf.com

 

PISCO SOUR, LIMON ROTISSERIE

Maybe it’s because we ate our way through Peru a few springs ago, but pisco sours always put us in a warmer mood. The Blob defaulted to this classic at Peruvian pioneer Limon’s outpost on South Van Ness when purple corn miracle drink chicha morada had sadly run out. (Weird, since Limon possesses its own house brand, Inca Blu.) SF has a long and passionate relationship with the spunky Peruvian brandy — the pisco punch was invented here around 1893, and there are several versions on Limon’s menu. And to no Blob’s surprise, the basic pisco sour ($8), with lime juice, angostura bitters, and simple syrup was excellently sweet-tart without cloying or spiking. And it came with a smiley face drizzled into its heavenly egg white foam. Unbeatable accompaniment to crispy pollo empanadas and meaty tartara de tuna.

Limon Rotisserie, 1001 S. Van Ness, SF. (415) 821-2134, www.limonsf.com

BLOB TIP: Hey kids, tired of bologna-on-white and bit-sized Snickers in your bag for lunch? Tell your parents that Hayes Valley’s too-cute, newly spiffed Talbot Cafe (244 Gough, SF. 415-553-4945, www.talbotcafe.com) will pack your bagged lunch for them. Simply order from its regular menu — grilled cheese, BLT, chicken and havarti sandwich, mixed greens ($6–$8) — fill out a paper bag with school, name, grade, class, and date, and the Talbots will deliver something fresh and yummy to your school before 10:45am. They can’t deliver spring break early, however, so sorry.

 

Who am I?

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE CounterPULSE always makes a point of thanking its volunteers. One can only hope that they’ll turn up en masse to help clean up after Faye Driscoll and Jesse Zaritt step off the stage this coming weekend. Their You’re Me is not exactly what might be called a clean show. Still, if the work-in-progress preview, presented at the end of their residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts almost two years ago, is any indication, the mess is more than worth it. After all, most of us will recognize a mess when we see it.

The Los Angeles-born Driscoll lived in San Francisco from 2003 to 2005. She put in a shift at the ODC/Pilot Program — for on-the-verge choreographers — even though dance was not her primary focus at the time. As she explained in a recent phone conversation from her home in Brooklyn, in San Francisco, “I really was inspired by the music and art scene, hanging out with people who were putting band together that were kind of art bands.” At the time, she was in recovery mode from two years of performing and touring with Doug Varone and Dancers. Apparently it had not been all that happy a match — too much structure, too much energy from the top down.

So San Francisco — where the mantra is “you can do anything you want,” and where you go “to find yourself” — proved to be liberating experience for her, particularly because she had been so “serious and disciplined about dance” since her childhood.

In some ways Driscoll is still trying to find herself. On the most visible level You’re Me is a piece about a relationship — after all, it is performed by a man and a woman. But it’s also a work looking at identity: the one you claim for yourself, that one you are working toward, or the one that is imposed on you by the outside world. For many people that is unstable territory that tends to slide away from under your feet.

Partly because she “had a lot going on in my home that was kind of crazy,” and because she remembered people reflecting an identity back to her that was quite different than the one she experienced herself, Driscoll was drawn to dance early on. “Dance had the structure that allowed me to express what I am in the world,” she says. “It was the place where I could go and practice my movements and make myself open to other people’s bodies.”

You’re Me is inspired by the in-between spaces Driscoll observes in non-verbal human communication, as well as by fixed historic representations she and Zaritt collected in the visual arts, from Renaissance paintings to contemporary magazines. In the process they became fascinated by how ideas of what is masculine and feminine have changed over time. Finding much that resonated but also created dissonance within themselves, the experience fed into their appetites for trying out other identities.

To do that choreographically, in one section of the five-part 80-minute duet, the two performers also draw on one of the earliest ways kids try to tell us something about who they are. A little girl who wobbles around in her mother’s heels is considered cute. A little boy who prefers dresses to pants rings alarm bells. Role-playing, fantasy games, make-believe, dress-up —whether in a playgroup or the theater — are serious business. They present way of talking about being or becoming in the world. But they are also a lot of fun.

Driscoll describes her working process as taking “things and blowing them up, creating them to excess and putting them into rhythmic structure and try to pull them apart and grapple with them.” Here, in addition, to the physically demanding movement interactions, the dancers have to don, strip off, and exchange parts of props and costumes, often at dizzying speed. They rehearsed a lot, she says, and they have a prop master who makes sure that the final mess is nicely controlled.

Pulling You’re Me together, however, was a different challenge. Like many artists, Driscoll is homeless, scurrying around from one studio to another. “I could never rehearse with all that stuff I had to lug around.” That’s why the residency at Headlands became such a respite: they gave her a closet. *

YOU’RE ME

Thu/7-Sun/10, 8pm, $20-$30

CounterPULSE

1310 Mission, SF

www.counterpulse.org

 

Trip history

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SUPER EGO As Maria von Trapp sang at the climax of The Sound of Music, “Whenever the goddess closes a rave cave, somewhere she reopens a gay leather biker bar.”

That sad closure is upon us, as the wonderful 222 Hyde (www.222hyde.com), the city’s thumping bass-ment in the Tenderloin, wings into history. Owner EO emailed me a couple Saturdays ago to tell me he was closing the precious, risk-taking little venue due to pressure from the ABC state liquor board over a license technicality and uncertainty about cooperation from the 222 building’s new owners. In short: sucks.

But EO’s off to pursue his musical destiny — he killed it playing live at Robotspeak at Saturday’s Lower Haight Art Walk — as one half of upcoming analogue electronic duos Moniker (with Kenneth Scott) and Polk and Hyde (with Jonah Sharp). And you can say farewell to the lovely space, rumbly Turbo Sound system, twinkly LED dance floor ceiling, and gorgeous staff this week: a special guest superstar (cough DJ Fark Marina cough) is supposed to drop by Thu/7, the As You Like It crew brings in Dutch techno wiz San Proper on Fri/8 (9pm-2am, $20) and 222 hosts a huge closing blowout on Sat/9 (10pm-late) full of surprise guests, gushing tears, and yummy pizza. The space itself has an amazing history — as the “Three Deuces” from the 1940s-’60s, it played hst to jazz greats and wild gals. Whatever it becomes now, 222 will live 444 ever in our raving hearts.

Throwing open its gay SoMa leather biker bar sash, however, is legendary rock ‘n roll watering hole SF Eagle (www.sf-eagle.com), reopened after a final passing grade on inspections last weekend, just in time for a Sunday beer bust of epic proportions — and 45-minute-wait lines — celebrating the victory of our new Mr. SF Leather, Andy Cross. (The true crown, I heard, went to anyone who made it through the four-hour Mr. SF Leather competition.)

I latched on my Nasty Pig kneepads and checked out the space (and the returned staff!) on Saturday night, and happily found myself there all Sunday as well. New owners Alex and Mike, inheriting the gutted space once slated for a pizza restaurant, have really opened it up by exposing the vaulted ceiling of the interior, pushing the main bar against the wall, and removing the trees from the patio (sad face). Everything is painted semi-gloss black — it looks like a beerhall designed by Anselm Kiefer. Although the mirrored bar is a wee bit ultralounge and there is as of yet no crusty, comfy decor, that good ol’ Eagle spirit is alive and well-drink drunk.

The beer bust was roiling delightfully with grateful scruffs and old school fetishists. Indie kids will rejoice at the return of Thursday Night Live on Thu/7 (8pm, $7, www.tinyurl.com/thursnightlive) with bands Beard Summit, the Galloping Sea, and Reliic, hosted by the Eagle’s ace music programmer Doug Hilsinger. (The space’s new layout is perfect for live music, and more regular parties will pop up soon, I’m sure). The Eagle reopened on the final weekend of fabulously festive Hayes drag dive Marlena’s, set to become another concept bar eesh, and the tail end of Soma’s fetish-friendly Kok Bar, also closing very soon. It’s a bittersweet trade-off for sure. Meet me at the Eagle’s patio trough and we’ll commiserate.

 

STACEY HOTWAXX HALE

I am freaking the funk out that Detroit’s own Godmother of House is going to vibe up the Housepitality weekly’s dancefloor — along with Chicago legends Gene Hunt and CJ Larsen? Try to pry me away!

Wed/6, 9pm, $5 before 11 p.m., $10 after. F8, 1192 Folsom, SF. www.housepitalitysf.com

 

DJ PIERRE

Following the Godmother of House comes the Godfather of Acid, one of the ones who started it all, Chicago Afro-Acid pioneer Pierre, whose sets are blissful rollercoasters to another, darker side.

Fri/8, 8pm-3am, $15. 1192 Folsom, SF. djpierre.eventbrite.com

 

DELHI 2 DUBLIN

Kick off your weeklong St. Patty’s Day binge the bhangra way, as great monthly Non Stop Bhangra brings in this beloved five-piece live band, a true multiculti mashup that meshes the Celtic with the Indian. Somehow, it works splendidly.

Sat/9, 9pm, $15. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com

 

PARIS IS BURNING

“Shoot and arrow and it goes real high, well good for you.” SF’s Mistress of the Gay Night Peaches Christ and formidable NYC queen Patrice Royale host a screening of the all-the-rage-again 1990 doc and a vogue ball to die for. It’ll be an ex-travaganza.

Sat/9, 8pm, $22. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF. www.peacheschrist.com

 

The Nonconformist

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Most observers of last week’s Oscar telecast assumed elegant 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva was the star of the movie she’d gotten a Best Actress nomination for. Conspicuously absent — from that and most other awards events — was Amour‘s real performing lead, who’d gotten crowded out of the field by the usual surplus of major English-language roles for men. As the dignified elderly husband decreasingly able to care for a longtime spouse’s dignity-robbing failing health, Jean-Louis Trintignant grows more dominant in his character’s helplessness as Riva’s recedes into illness. It’s a powerful performance made all the more so by the simple shock of seeing him. Hasn’t he been, er, away a while? Or to put it bluntly: he’s still alive?!

The last time wide audiences would have seen him was in the large ensemble of Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. Already nearing 70 then, he remained somewhat active in theater while staying mostly off screen for the next 14 years. In honor of his return, the Pacific Film Archive is providing a retrospective that runs through April 21.

“And God Created Jean-Louis Trintignant” offers a mix of popular hits, agreed-upon masterpieces, and rarities that give fair measure of a long, prolific yet discriminating career. It’s surprising to see the wide range of films he’s played in, since Trintignant is so often the still center of them — he communicates such reserve, thoughtfulness, and economy of craft that it takes seeing numerous roles back-to-back like this to realize how very different his performances are. They’re just not flamboyantly different, in the way of a Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep. He’s said “The best actors in the world are those who feel the most and show the least,” a rule one could argue with — but it’s certainly true in his case.

Short, slight, handsome in a slightly nondescript way, he couldn’t have struck anyone at first as natural movie star material. But he did intrigue Roger Vadim, when the latter was looking for a newcomer to play off his female discovery in 1956’s …And God Created Woman. The woman was Brigitte Bardot, introduced completely nude (albeit laying on her stomach); it was Bardot and Vadim’s shared gift that though she spent the rest of the story clothed, one imagined with an indolent shrug those rags might tumble at any moment and she’d be starkers again. As the village lad who marries “that little slut” lest she be sent back to the orphanage (!), while she exerts a siren pull toward every other man around, Trintignant sounded a modest note in one of the most garishly silly yet influential films ever made. Yet the global sensation Bardot caused cast a public glare on anyone with a connection, let alone a purported inamorato. He voluntarily fled for military service.

When he returned — with rather less fanfare than Army-sprung Elvis — he set about building a serious actor’s resume with diverse projects and interesting directors. He was suddenly blond and uncharacteristically glamorous as a golden youth of Italy’s fascist elite in Valerio Zurlini’s Violent Summer (1959), so in love with an older woman (Eleanora Rossi Drago) they’re barely aware there’s a World War going on. But more typically he was creating anti-romantic characters typical of the 1960s — variably neurotic, eccentric, conflicted, always with more going on under the surface than one could fully grasp. One lesser-remembered PFA selection is Alain Cavalier’s 1962 New Wave triangle Le combat dans l’ile, in which his marital discord with Romy Schneider is eventually explained by his secretly belonging to a far-right terrorist cell.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WQhJyse4hg

Trintignant was in two of the most wildly popular “art” export hits of the decade, Claude Lelouch’s gauzy swoonfest A Man and a Woman (1966) and Costa Gavras’ political thriller Z (1969). Yet his race-car driver in the former tempers its Eurokitsch atmosphere with impenetrable cool, while in the hyperbolic latter he’s almost monastically austere as the investigator who patiently picks apart an assassination cover-up. Perhaps his ultimate role as a man of decisive inaction was as The Conformist (1970), again as a Mussolini-era fascist — one who betrays his friends as ruthlessly and usefully as director Bertolucci does the original Moravia novel. Amid that film’s ravishing baroque excesses, he’s as reptilian, quease-making, and pitiable as a Gollum, if better-dressed.

While he continued to make the odd all-star purely commercial project — a good one being rare 1973 American foray The Outside Man — he usually chose riskier fare. Thus he was the first major star to work with Eric Rohmer (as the Catholic fussbudget sorta-seeking romance in 1969’s My Night at Maud’s), and an early ally to figures as disparate as Jacques Demy, Claude Chabrol, Tinto Brass, Umberto Lenzi, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and André Téchiné.

Barely slowing despite the transition to character support, he’d found perhaps a definitive pre-Amour farewell role (and chronological end to the PFA series) as the retired judge busy bending laws for his personal amusement in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy (and career) finale Red (1994). It might have served as a perfect capper — but you’ve got to hand it to any 83-year-old savvy enough to realize Michael Haneke was worth coming out of retirement for. *

“AND GOD CREATED JEAN-LOUIS TRINTIGNANT”

Through April 21

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

bampfa.berkeley.edu

 

Do want

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC Someone shared a song, with the caption “I’m pretty sure this is what the future sounds like.” At first I scoffed at the hyperbole, and idea that progress meant New Age-y Enya harmonies, speedy trap hi-hats, and stomping chant-along choruses all fitted into a progressive, genre blurring R&B/electronic package. But a little piece of the track, “Counting,” stuck with me, a familiar sounding free-jazz squonk of atonal saxophone, and I soon found myself starting a conversation with Autre Ne Veut, a.k.a Arthur Ashin, to identify the sample, and find out more about his sophomore album Anxiety.

“I actually don’t use any samples at all in my music,” the response came (surprising, since I’d seen Autre Ne Veut filed under electronic). “Not just a party line, but actually because I don’t have the slightest idea of how to build songs around them. Al Carlson, who engineered the bulk of the record, is also a very fine jazz sax player. Plus there is some extremely dry atonal guitar that I played mixed in with the baritone sax. Obviously, it was cut up a bit, but we both just played along to the whole track, and then stripped the bulk of it away.”

This refining, reductive process differs from Autre Ne Veut’s 2010 self-titled debut. “My previous record was kind of the opposite,” Ashin said “I would keep globbing more on in different places to kind of create song dynamics. With this I tried to create a big slab and kind of chip away at it, and the sound was kind of defined by that.” It’s a contrast that’s led Autre Ne Veut to be at times labeled as both minimalist and maximalist, although he shrugs at the categories. “Somebody compared me to Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, which I felt a little uncomfortable about just because I seem really different to me than that. But what do I know?”

Regardless of process, the result is an album of stark emotion, conveyed primarily through Ashin’s dynamic diva-esque falsetto. This is obvious on the album opener “Play By Play,” where a potentially repetitive chorus is carried beyond expectations to become irresistibly catchy. On “Gonna Die” the singer goes well into Whitney Houston ballad territory over the most open, airy track on the record, while somehow getting existential over seemingly little more than looking in a bathroom mirror.

Musically there’s a tendency to lump Autre Ne Veut in the latest wave of R&B, but the instrumentation (when it’s familiar) recalls Ratatat (“Don’t Ever Look Back”) as much as Prince (“Warning”), while the disparate, layered production puts Ashin in league with the aforementioned maximalist company. As a result of everything going on, the mix of elements occasionally threatens confusion or invites alternate interpretations. The husky singing and banging rhythm on “Counting” lends it a sensual tone that without context could be surprising: Ashin was inspired by the difficulty he had making a phone call to his aging grandmother, fearing it might be the last time they talk.

It didn’t help that prior to this album, Ashin insisted on embargoing his real name and only using the Autre Ne Veut moniker in the press, hoping to maintain a clean Google record, separate from his academic life, where he studied Clinical Psychology. Now he’s putting himself out into the open. “I basically for this record realized that if I was gonna end up doing music — if that ever became a legitimate problem than I would have done pretty well for myself, and there’d be no way to fight that if I decide to have a second career in Clinical Psychology.”

The new stance is a better fit; given the personal quality of Autre Ne Veut’s new record, there’s now an actual person to associate with the experience. (Although Ashin is fine with not being the final authority, saying “I’m not gonna sit down and tell somebody who’s sure ‘Counting’ is a sex jam to stop having sex to ‘Counting.'”)

If a second album is a chance to refine not only the music, but also the image, and Ashin seems to be doing the latter with unexpectedly little apprehension or nervousness. The press release accompanying the new album has the following heady quote: “Anxiety in children is originally nothing other than an expression of the fact they are feeling the loss of the person they love.” Freud is alright, but I think this one is more appropriate: “To feel anxiety is to be blessed by the full wash of existence in its ripest chancre.”

AUTRE NE VEUT

With Majical Cloudz, Bago

Mon/11, 9pm, $12

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF (415) 771-1421

www.theindependentsf.com

Volume 47 Number 23 Flip-through Edition

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Sunshine superheroes

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From the nation’s Capitol to local city halls, requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and local public records laws tend to be stymied by bureaucracy. Protecting the public’s right to know requires fierce dedication, and for 28 years, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) has honored journalists, lawyers, citizens and others who have successfully used public records to hold government accountable. In an era of steep budget cuts and assaults on transparency laws, these first amendment champions deserve serious cred.

On March 12, during national Sunshine Week, the winners of the annual James Madison Freedom of Information Awards will be honored at a banquet hosted by SPJ’s local Freedom of Information Committee. Here are a few of the first amendment champions who will be honored for their work.

UP AGAINST THE FBI

Before embarking down the path of a FOIA request, it’s worth considering what sort of rabbit hole you might find yourself down. When then-undergraduate Seth Rosenfeld began investigating FBI activities on UC Berkeley’s campus for his senior journalism project, he started with a mere nine thousand pages of FBI files obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by his university’s newspaper, The Daily Californian. Thirty-one years and five lawsuits later, he ended up with a total of more than 300,000.

Rosenfeld, who has worked as an investigative reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle, enlisted a team of pro-bono lawyers to pursue his case. The FBI resisted, claiming that the records were of little public interest and demanding that Rosenfeld pay thousands of dollars in processing fees, then by heavily excising any documents they were forced to release. The agency, which spent more than $1 million trying to withhold the information from Rosenfeld, argued that redactions were necessary to protect law enforcement operations, national security and the privacy of people named in the records. On one document, Rosenfeld found scrawled by former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover himself: “I sense utter fright as to the Freedom of Information Act. It doesn’t open up the flood gates to every ‘kook,’ ‘jackal’ and ‘coyote’ to all our publications, files & records.”

Rosenfeld’s research led him to publish Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power, which details how the FBI, under Hoover, used Cold War-era tactics to target political dissent on the UC campus. The book reveals Hoover’s close relationship with Ronald Reagan and a plot—ultimately successful—to fire then-UC president Clark Kerr. Rosenfeld is this year’s winner of the Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award. (Dylan Tokar)

OUTING CONFLICTED JUDGES

Using information obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, Jennifer Gollan and Shane Shifflett of the Center for Investigative Reporting examined conflicts of interest in California’s federal judiciary. Using financial disclosures, court records and judicial budgets, Gollan and Shifflett cross-referenced the financial investments of federal judges with cases in which they filed rulings.

They discovered that, since 2006, judges had entered more than two dozen rulings in cases involving companies in which they owned stock — a violation of federal law and the Judicial Code of Conduct. Their investigation revealed flaws in the system that should prevent conflicts of interest. In California, Gollan and Shifflett found, judges are allowed autonomy in deciding who and how their financial interests are monitored.

Their story also demonstrated that FOIA doesn’t always function the way it should. According to the reporters, the federal government inhibits public access to what is supposed to be public information, by collecting fees from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) valued at nearly five times the cost of running the system. The federal judiciary also refused to cooperate with the investigation. Fee waivers for PACER records were refused, judges were notified of requests for financial disclosures, and financial figures regarding PACER fees were withheld. (Tokar)

REALLY, BERKELEY? AN ARMORED VEHICLE?

Copwatch is a Berkeley-based advocacy organization dedicated to monitoring police action and opposing police brutality. Last May, Copwatch filed a FOIA request and received documents revealing that the Berkeley Police Department had requested a $170,000 armored vehicle from the Department of Homeland Security. The vehicle — a Lenco BearCat G3 — resembles a military-style armored truck and was intended to assist the Berkeley, University of California and Albany police in suppressing civilian protests and potential civil unrest. Thanks to the vigilance of Copwatch, the local community mobilized to oppose the introduction of the BearCat and convinced Berkley lawmakers to withdraw the request for funding. (Avi Asher-Schapiro)

For a full list of winners, visit tinyurl.com/sunshine13. The James Madison Freedom of Information Awards Banquet will be held at 5:30pm, Tues/12. To purchase tickets, visit tinyurl.com/2013spjFOI.

Editor’s notes

5

EDITOR’S NOTES Way back in the early 1980s, when I had a lot more hair and it wasn’t so grey, I got a tip that the San Francisco school district had a serious problem with asbestos contamination. My colleague Jim Balderston and I checked it out, and yes indeed — the toxic stuff was in so many classrooms that thousands of students were at risk.

After we broke that news, and the district started scrambling to clean up the mess, we asked ourselves: How were things allowed to get to that point? Who screwed up? Who let it happen?

We knew there was a paper trail, and we were all set to put together a detailed request under the Public Records Act, which would have taken months to process. But first we met with the recently hired school superintendent, Ray Cortines, and asked him how much he knew about the past few years of school maintenance.

“Very little,” he said. “But I know where you can find out.”

He took us to a huge room, filled with maybe 50 filing cabinets. “All of the building history and maintenance records are in here,” he said. “If you need to use the copy machine, just let me know.”

And that was that. No scrutiny from a district lawyer, no redactions, no documents withheld for shadowy reasons … just two reporters with full access to public records. He literally told us to turn out the lights whenever we were done.

We got some amazing stories. I’d like to think we hastened a lagging asbestos abatement program and revealed who was at fault .. but nothing bad happened. I guarantee that the district could have found a way, maybe even an arguably legal way, to keep us from seeing half the records we reviewed — but as Cortines saw it, what would have been the point?

And guess what? It was 1987. There wasn’t any fancy software program or nifty, expensive app. Just an open door.

That’s how a public agency should think about public records.

Now its 2013, and San Francisco is the epicenter of the Information Revolution. And as we note in this issue, it’s harder than ever to get the folks at City Hall — who love the tech world and all it offers — to turn over basic information about how they’re running the city.

That’s about as crazy as it gets.

Compromised position

16

steve@sfbg.com

When Mayor Ed Lee came to the Board of Supervisors for his monthly “question time” appearance Feb. 12, Sup. David Chiu tried to get some sense of where the mayor stood on a controversial piece of legislation that would allow more condominium conversions.

Chiu explained the complexities and implications of an issue where the two sides have dug in and appear to have little common ground, and he asked the mayor for some guidance.

“What is your position on this pending legislation?” he asked. “What protections would you support to prevent the loss of rent-controlled housing in our increasingly unaffordable city? How would you address the concern that if we allow the current generation of tenancy in common owners to convert, we will replace then with a new generation of TIC owners and additional real estate investments that will lead us right back to an identical debate within a short time?”

But if Chiu and other board members were looking for leadership, direction or a clue of where the mayor might stand, they didn’t get it. Lee said he understood both sides of the issue and hoped they could reach a consensus solution — without offering any hints what they might look like or how to achieve it. “I can’t say that I have a magic solution to this issue that will make everyone happy,” the city’s chief executive explained.

Asked by the Guardian afterward why he didn’t take a position and whether he might be more specific about how he’d like to see this conflict resolved, he replied, “I actually did take a position, even though it didn’t sound like it, because I actually believe they have good points on both sides.”

That’s a typical answer for a mayor who rose to power preaching the virtues of civility and compromise and striving to replace political conflict with consensus. But now several major, seemingly intractable issues are facing the city — and insiders say Lee’s refusal to take a strong stand is undermining any chance for successful.

The lack of mayoral leadership has been maddening to both sides involved in the negotiations over the condo-conversion legislation. Tenant advocates say the mayor’s waffling hardened the positions on both sides and emboldened the group Plan C and its allies in the real estate industry to reject the compromises offered by supervisors and tenant advocates.

“It’s very unhelpful,” San Francisco Tenants Union head Ted Gullicksen said of Lee’s refusal to take a stand. “Someone needs to kick the realtors in the butt, and that’s not happening. They have no impetus at all to compromise.”

Then there’s the case of California Pacific Medical Center’s proposed new hospital, a billion-dollar project that would transform the Cathedral Hill neighborhood and have lasting impacts on health care in San Francisco.

The mayor’s eagerness to get the deal done — even if it wasn’t the best deal for the city — led to a proposal that fell apart last year under scrutiny by the Board of Supervisors. That project has now been in mediation for months — and sources tell us they’re getting close to a deal that has little resemblance to the anything offered by the Mayor’s Office.

California Nurses Association Director of Public Policy Michael Lighty, who has been involved with the CPMC negotiations, said Lee’s unwillingness to take a strong and clear stand, or to help mediate the dispute once the deal blew up, is why this negotiation has been so difficult and protracted.

“If he had engaged stakeholders and the supervisors, we wouldn’t have had to go to the brink last summer,” he said. “You’ve got to have clear objectives and be willing to fight for those, and that means saying no…If you’re willing to accept any deal and just put political spin on it, this is what you get.”

 

 

ADMINISTRATOR-IN-CHIEF

Neither Lighty nor others involved in the CPMC negotiations would discuss details of the pending deal, as per the instructions of mediator Lou Giraudo. But they did talk to the Guardian about the political shortcomings that led to such a protracted mediation process on a project that has been in the works for many years and involving a looming state deadline to replace the seismically unsafe St. Luke’s Hospital.

Lighty called Lee’s conciliatory approach to CPMC “an administrative orientation and not a political one,” noting that what worked during Lee’s long career as a city administrator may not be working well now that he’s in the Mayor’s Office dealing with issues where consensus isn’t always possible.

“I don’t think it’s a very sophisticated view and I don’t think it’s one that produces the best results,” Lighty said.

Lighty did say the negotiations were getting close to resolution. “What comes before the board is going to be vastly superior to what the mayor and CPMC proposed,” he said. “I think what you’ll find whenever this comes out is it will repudiate the mayor’s approach.”

He contrasted Lee’s style to that of his predecessor, Gavin Newsom, who took positions on most controversial issues and would often get involved with forcing his allies to cut deals. For example, shortly after taking office on 2004, Newsom demanded that his allies in the hospitality industry end their lockout of hotel workers, and when they refused he turned on them and even famously joined workers on the picket line, pressuring the hotels to soon end the lockout.

“Why did you need to bring in an outside mediator for CPMC? Why didn’t the mayor do that?” Lighty asked, noting that Lee has stayed away from the current negotiations.

Ken Rich from the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development has been in those meetings but didn’t return our call. Mayoral Press Secretary Christine Falvey has also ignored repeated messages seeking comment on the issues raised in this story.

Rudy Nothenberg, who negotiated big deals on behalf of five successive mayors before Lee and who has been critical of the Warriors Arena deal that the Mayor’s Office has negotiated, said Lee’s unwillingness to take strong stands with developers is hurting the city.

“I was able to say I’m going to get the best deal I can for the city,” Nothenberg told us, saying he approached all negotiations, including the construction of AT&T Park, with the understanding from the mayors he worked for that he could simply say no to bad deals. “You need to bargain for the city as if these guys walked away, well, then that’s okay too.”

Sup. David Campos, who has been trying to get CPMC to strengthen its commitment to keeping St. Luke’s open as a full-service hospital, agreed that, “There have to be times when you’re willing to say no.” And on the CPMC project, Campos said that fell to the supervisors when the Mayor’s Office wasn’t willing to. “It was clear that the board was not going to approve it,” Campos said, “and sometimes you have to do that to get to a result you can live with,”

UCSF Political Science Professor Corey Cook said the problem is less with Lee’s overall philosophy than with what is strategically smart on individual issues.

“The mayor’s strength is in trying to come up with consensus measures,” Cook told us, calling the approach “generally a good one” and saying “the decider isn’t always who you want, then you get George W. [Bush].” Yet Cook also said intractable problems like the condo conversion debate may require a different approach. “Sometimes you do need to stake out clear ground to limit the terms of the debate.”

 

 

CHIU’S CENTRAL ROLE

Chiu has at least been willing to put his energies behind his belief in compromise, taking an active role in the CPMC and condo negotiations, as well as complicated current negotiations involving how to legalize but limit Airbnb’s shared housing business in San Francisco, which involves landlord-tenant-neighbor dynamics, regulation of private leases, and complex land use and taxation issues.

“It’s been a very long month. I’ve been going around the clock on several challenging negotiations,” Chiu told the Guardian. “The most important things to work on are often the ones that are the most difficult to get done.”

Chiu was reluctant to discuss the negotiations, calling it a sensitive moment for each of them. But he did admit that he was disappointed in Lee’s non-answer to his publicly posed question. “I had hoped for a little more direction,” Chiu said. And while these negotiations haven’t shaken his faith in compromise, he did say, “It depends on the substance of the issue whether there are common ground solutions that are superior to two warring sides.”

But all involved in the condo debate say it appears we’ll be stuck with the latter. “The two sides are so far apart that I don’t know what a compromise that both sides would live with would even look like,” Campos said. “There are certain issues where I don’t think compromise or consensus is possible.”

On this one, tenant advocates are trying to protect a finite supply of rent-controlled housing and real estate interests want to convert that same housing into condos. “If the issue was just existing TIC owners, we would come to an agreement,” Gullicksen said. “But clearly the agenda of Plan C and the realtors is they just want more condos.”

Plan C board member Kat Anderson told us, “I have a simple approach to this: Home ownership is important to me.”

She was undeterred by arguments that thousands of new condos are now being built in San Francisco, but there’s a steadily dwindling number of rent-controlled apartments in a city where two-thirds of San Franciscans are renters.

Anderson made it clear that she wants to not only allow the backlog of condo applicants to be approved, but she doesn’t want to slow the flow of condo conversions for a few years thereafter or place TICs themselves under the cap, compromises offered by Gullicksen. “The worry is that if you change the system, it will never come back and we’ll lose our tiny toehold of 200 units [that the lottery allows to be converted to condos annually],” Anderson said. And so we end up with the very thing Lee sought to avoid: a big, nasty, divisive public fight that will probably end up being decided by big money and deceptive campaign mailers rather than a civil, deliberative political process. And the mayor has nobody to blame but himself.