Volume 48 Number 47
THE WEEKNIGHTER “This place sucks now. I mean what the fuck is going on in SF?” Chloe was visiting from either Portland or LA or wherever it was she was living that wasn’t San Francisco anymore. A few of us were sitting around, drinking in the 4pm light at the front window of The Sycamore (2140 Mission, SF. www.thesycamoresf.com). A handful of folks had come out to see Chloe since she was just around for a couple days and as usual when you don’t see someone for awhile, it became a “remember when…” conversation.
“I think San Francisco is better off since the Arrow Bar closed down,” I was telling Richie Panic. “Yeah,” he responded, “you didn’t hang out at the Arrow Bar, you did time there.” In the early and mid 2000s The Arrow Bar was the ultimate hipster den of vice and many of the people around the table had all met each other there and somehow survived. Considering the bar had been on Sixth Street near Market, someone at the table made a joke about more blow being done in the bar than crack being smoked outside it, to which we all laughed. It was probably true.
Somebody got up for another round of drinks. Since The Sycamore only has wine and beer he brought back a clutch of Miller High Lifes and we resumed the game of Cards Against Humanity that we weren’t really playing. The Sycamore is perfect for this kind of afternoon. Art lines the walls and beer handles that aren’t being used at the moment hang from the ceiling. Board games are conspicuously stacked so that anyone can play them and a jukebox is stuffed with all the right tunes. It’s good for place to while away an afternoon with friends and watch the wackjobs of Mission Street putter by at a laconic pace.
“Have you been over there lately?” I asked Chloe, bringing the conversation back to The Arrow Bar. “I mean, they’ve by no means cleaned it up, but it is actually getting slightly better.”
“Ha! Could you imagine that?” she laughed. “How many seismic cultural twists would San Francisco have to go through to see a cleaned-up Sixth Street? The day Sixth Street isn’t the shadiest street ever is the day San Francisco is officially dead.” She had a point.
I headed to the bathroom and along the way saw one of my stickers on the water cooler. I didn’t know if I’d put it there or if someone else had. It’s often hard to remember details about the last time you were in a bar. When I got back to the table I was excited to see that the magic trick had worked again. You know the magic trick: It’s when you come back to the table and the food that you’d ordered earlier is miraculously there. We all dived into the fries, sliders, and pork belly doughnuts like the drunk people we were.
After eating and drinking some more, people began to head off in their own directions on whatever adventure their day-drinking would lead them on. I said bye to whomever was still left and gave Chloe a hug. “It’s really weird,” she said. “I basically grew up here, and it’s like every time I come back to visit, it’s so drastically different that I barely recognize it.”
I walked out Sycamore’s door, turned around, and did my best Humphrey Bogart, “At least we’ll always have Sixth Street.” And then I went home.
Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com
Mmmm, what’s that smell? No, it’s not ganja (well, actually, it probably is) but there’s also the delicious wafting of the other kind of baked goods coming from the newly opened location of TwoFish Baking Company (240 Ritch, SF. www.twofishbaking.com) in SoMa. For those familiar with the popular Sea Ranch bakery, you can expect its signature sticky buns, along with scones, cakes, banana bread, and more, plus some lunch plates like salads and a range of calzones, including a white calzone with olive oil, garlic, mozzarella, ricotta, and basil. Equator coffee, check. Swing by (for now) Mon–Fri 7:30am–3:30pm.
People love to complain how there’s nowhere to eat in the Castro, but now there’s a brand-new Spanish joint you can check out called Beso (4058A 18th St, SF. www.besosf.com), where you can eat as much cut-to-order jamón as you can afford. It’s from the same gents who own Bisou around the corner — they seem to like kisses. The tapas menu features some updates of classic dishes, like steak tartare, plus seasonal paellas and other plates; A cool feature is that many of the fresh ingredients come from the owners’ Napa Kitchen Garden in Napa Valley. The 54-seat restaurant has some counters where you can sit and enjoy a glass of cava, making it a good date spot (I mean, come on, the name kind of begs for it) but there are some group tables where you can dine with your amigos too. Open nightly for dinner.
BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET
Fans of the awesomely affordable, vegetarian thali plates and dosas at Udupi Palace (3242 Scott, SF. www.udupipalacesanfrancisco.com) should know there’s now a third location that just opened in the Marina.
Looking for some flavor-packed late-night eats? Over at Hog & Rocks (3431 19th St, SF. www.hogandrocks.com) in the Mission, there’s a new Korean pop-up on Thursday nights (through Aug. 28). Starting at 10pm until the bar closes, chef Robin Song is offering hangover-squashing dishes like bibimbap to kimchi tofu stew.
While I normally like to focus on what’s new in this column, an upcoming closure is too important to not note here. After 20-plus years of holding it down under the freeway overpass in the Mission, the beloved Woodward’s Garden (1700 Mission, SF. www.woodwardsgarden.com) will be closing in the next month or so — the exact date hasn’t been set yet. As we’ve been hearing far too much these days, the ladies lost their lease and it won’t be renewed. Co-owners Margie Conard and Dana Tommasino are currently looking for another location, so time will tell. (They’re open to any leads or suggestions!).
Ask anyone who has lived in the city for some time, and they’ve had a romantic, memorable, or heartfelt meal here — it’s what happens when you’ve been open and serving soulful cooking since 1992. So make a reservation to come in, say thanks for the memories, and bid farewell to the ladies in this location while you can. They plan to throw some pop-ups and artistic salon events in the future, I’ll be sure to keep you posted.
Marcia Gagliardi is the founder of the weekly tablehopper e-column; subscribe for more at www.tablehopper.com. Get her app: Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats. On Twitter: @tablehopper.
LEFT OF THE DIAL It’s a common refrain among the bundled, peacoat- and scarf-sporting masses around this time of year that San Francisco doesn’t really have a summer. But those of us who’ve been here a while know this isn’t exactly accurate: Summer just kinda takes place during fall. If seasons were party guests, San Francisco’s summer would be the guy who shows up at 2am, bearing a bottle of good tequila, ready to dance. Unless you’re college-aged or younger and have to go back to school just as the weather turns toasty, only to stare longingly out the classroom window imagining the fun you could be having — my apologies, I’ve been there — there’s something really special, almost secretive-feeling about a warm September late afternoon.
On Saturday, Aug. 23, consider the 20th Street Block Party, brought to you by Noise Pop, to be your gateway — a kickoff, really — to “real summer.” This free annual shindig, now in its second year, will see a mighty fine lineup of local bands (ones that don’t usually play for free, like Rogue Wave, Cayucas, Melted Toys, The Bilinda Butchers, etc.) entertaining all afternoon long, while food from the veritable gourmet wonderland that has sprung up on 20th street in the Mission will be available in wallet-friendly, portable portions. What more you could ask for?
Among the acts we’re most excited for is Myron & E, a soul duo that’s had a pretty big year. After the release of Broadway last year — a 10-track powerhouse of a debut, featuring warm, plaintive vocals dancing the line between neo-soul and R&B from both singers, the Soul Investigators as a backing band, and the overwhelming sense of having arrived in a time machine from another era — the two have gotten used to life on the road during a whirlwind of touring, making fans in some surprising places. Russia, in particular, went well recently, says Eric “E da boss” Cooke.
Still, “[The record’s] been a slow-burner, a lot of people are just finding out about it. Which is great, it still has momentum, people are still discovering us,” says E, a New Jersey native known for his gargantuan record collection, who’s been producing hip-hop records in the Bay for nearly a decade and a half now — alongside DJ Nick Andre, he’s known in the Bay as the producer of more than a dozen on the Slept On label. E also doubles as a member of the Oakland independent hip-hop royal family Blackalicious; members of which guested on his underground 2007 hit, “Go Left,” while signed to the SF-based Om label.
When label heads there were interested in a follow-up using instrumentals instead of samples, he reached out to the Soul Investigators; they asked him to sing on one of their songs in return. E reached out to Myron (Glasper), a dancer-turned-singer who came up in LA (he cut his teeth dancing on In Living Color), another sometime member of Blackalicious, to join him on the track. Something clicked. Broadway had the sound of instant, organic hit when it dropped last summer on Stone’s Throw records, with disco basslines, bright horns, and classic soul grooves for days, anchored by the pair’s call-and-response vocals, which are by turns seductive, goofy, unconcerned with being perfect but somehow, simultaneously, almost too smooth. These are party starters, these are roller disco anthems, these are love ballads; they are everything in between. The live instrumentation gives the tunes an organic sensibility that’s (unfortunately) all too rare in soul/hip-hop hybrids as of late. Whatever the reason, you honestly can’t help but dance.
“Sometimes we write together, sometimes we write separately and come together after,” says E. As for how their relationship’s evolved after the last year of nearly non-stop touring together? Do they ever butt heads while writing?
“That’s maybe the only time we don’t butt heads,” says E with a laugh. “No, we have a certain chemistry. And, you know, we’re having fun. It just works.”
As for the rest of the year, E says they hope to get back into the studio to start working on a follow-up by December. Until then, we’d recommend taking advantage of any chance to see ’em you get.
MYRON & E
1pm on the main stage
Noise Pop’s 20th Street Block Party (with Rogue Wave, Cayucas, many others)
Aug. 23, noon – 6pm, free (unless you opt for the VIP package)
Oh, and food-wise? The workshop tent demands that you come both hungry and ready to learn. Maybe it’s because Chino’s bite-size, savory broth-filled soup dumplings have been haunting our dreams lately (in a delicious way), but we especially can’t stop looking at the workshop called “Dumplings with Brandon Jew.” He had us at “cooking secrets” and “techniques of dumpling creation.” That’s at 2:30pm in the Workshop Tent. Education never tasted so good.
FILM Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is so popular that by now it’s acquired the seemingly inevitable backlash against such overwhelming critical support — god forbid “the critics,” that mysterious, possibly secret-handshaking Masonic elite, should tell anyone what to think. It’s a lucky movie that invites hostility by being so widely (and, admittedly, a bit hyperbolically) considered a masterpiece. Whatever your parade, someone will always be dying to rain on it.
Everyone should go see Boyhood, ideally with expectations kept low enough that they won’t feel betrayed by its admitted, even flavorful flaws. But meanwhile, everyone should also see two movies that open at the Roxie this Friday. Equally striking portraits of male adolescence, they couldn’t be more different in nearly every respect, but both are completely enveloping.
Documentarians Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos’ exquisite Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Rich Hill spends some months in the company of three boys living in particularly problematic circumstances in the depressed titular Missouri small town. The future doesn’t look bright, but then their present is already pretty bleak. Harley is a rather thick teen with serious anger-management issues (and an ominous fondness for weaponry) who’s fallen into the weary care of his grandmother. His mother is in prison. When we learn why, it explains a great deal about why he always teeters on the edge of violent rage.
The younger Appachey, barely adolescent but already dropping f-bombs like a cranky Teamster, lives in chaotic near-squalor with his mother and junior siblings. Ma is no shrinking violet either, and one is tempted to blame his state of perpetual hyperactive tantrum on bad parenting. But she’s doing the best she can — her own dreams long ago scotched by having kids way too young, now working multiple crap jobs to support the brood with no father in sight. Of course their house is a mess. Stuck in a hamster wheel of even more basic daily obligations, where would she find the time or energy to clean?
You can tell the filmmakers’ favorite is Andrew. How could he not be? The adorable 14-year-old is an oasis of faith and positivity despite the shitstorm of bad luck life’s already dealt him. His mother seems murkily incapacitated mentally and physically; his father is a genial layabout who can’t hold onto a job, or housing, for very long. Worse, he doesn’t seem to grasp that those things are his responsibility. So Andrew is the default grownup. (His situation is eerily similar to that of Tye Sheridan’s fictive character in David Gordon Green’s underseen 2013 Larry Brown adaptation Joe.) “We’re not trash, we’re good people,” he says at one point, though one imagines his hapless, transient family might be regarded as the former by some of Rich Hill’s more respectable 1,393 citizens. (We see them on display in a Fourth of July parade, and at an annual auction where donors bid up to the thousands for a home baked charity pie.) Later he rationalizes continued dire straits by musing, “God must be busy with everyone else,” a statement of dogged hope rather than bitterness.
Rich Hill is more beautifully crafted, notably in the realm of Palermo’s gorgeous cinematography and Nathan Halpern’s musical scoring, than documentaries are supposed to be these days — as opposed to when you could get away with staging some elements for “atmosphere” and “greater truth.” (Check out such arguably nonfictive past Oscar contenders as 1957’s On the Bowery and 1966’s The War Game.) The lyricism never seems forced, however. This is a movie about young American lives orphaned by globalization and trickle-up, among other factors — the kinds of small-town heartland existence they were born into has already been written off as unprofitable.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s Me and You is this once-towering director’s first feature in over a decade spent sidelined by crippling back pain. But it’s also his best since at least 1990’s The Sheltering Sky, despite some limitations to the material adapted from Niccolò Ammaniti’s novel. Though he no longer works with Vittorio Storaro, the extraordinary (if allegedly over-perfectionist) cinematographer of his acknowledged classics (1970’s The Conformist, 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, 1976’s 1900, 1987’s The Last Emperor), there’s a hypnotic, poetical mastery of the visual medium here that Bertolucci’s sketchier post-prime projects seldom approach.
In some respects, it’s a flashback to 1979’s cultishly adored, popularly reviled Luna, again mixing up awkward male adolescence, heroin addiction, and diva behavior. Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) is a more-than-usually withdrawn teen, perhaps due to major acne and his parents’ separation. When the mom he’s exhausting with his attitude (Sonia Bergamasco) sends him off to ski camp, he quails at joining so many prettier peers. Instead, he sneaks back for a week of blissful solitude in their apartment building’s conveniently well-supplied basement.
This curmudgeon’s idyll, however, is interrupted by another fugitive. Lorenzo’s older half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) is a decadent wild child temporarily out of allies, and horse. She needs a place to crash and withdraw. Yelps that he’d prefer being alone don’t get pimply Lorenzo very far, as Olivia is “not exactly dying to be in this craphole.” She’s here because it’s her only option.
Bertolucci embarrassed himself with a couple of later movies (1996’s Stealing Beauty, 2003’s The Dreamers) in which he seemed a stereotypical old artiste ogling young flesh. Me and You doesn’t go where you might expect, but neither do its characters develop in otherwise sufficiently surprising or revealing ways. Once they’re trapped in the basement, the movie remains fascinating, but the fascination is all directorial rather than narrative. It’s a master class in execution with a definite minor in content. But sometimes sheer craft is a thing you can sink into like a shag carpet. Me and You is the kind of film you just want to roll around in, luxuriating in its plush pile. *
RICH HILL and ME AND YOU open Fri/22 at the Roxie.
FILM Consider the zombie comedy — more specifically, the zombie romantic comedy. Simon Pegg of 2004’s Shaun of the Dead famously coined the term “zomromcom,” and it makes sense that the genre has only continued to grow. Even the best zombie movies hit the same ol’ story beats: the dead rise up, a dwindling group of survivors bands together to fight back, someone gets yanked through a window and devoured by a hungry horde, etc. The variables tend to be things like cause of outbreak (disease, aliens); speed of ghoul (from lumbering to sprinting); and outrageousness of gore (the gold standard remains Lucio Fulci’s 1979 eye-gouger, Zombie). But just add in some laughs, or better yet, yearning young hearts, and you’ve got new sources of tension and plot twists galore.
The 2013 Warm Bodies (zombie meets girl, girl loves zombie back to life), 2004’s Zombie Honeymoon (self-explanatory), and the 1993 Bob Balaban-directed My Boyfriend’s Back (in which Matthew McConaughey appears as “Guy #2,” shortly before his breakout role in Dazed and Confused) are other zomromcom examples. Now there’s Life After Beth, which keeps the pun-tastic naming tradition of the genre alive. Like Shaun of the Dead, it’s about a relationship on the rocks that happens to coincide with a zombie outbreak. The twist is that the girl, Beth (Aubrey Plaza), is among their numbers, and may even be Zombie Patient Zero. Her boyfriend, Zach (Dane DeHaan), and parents Maury and Geenie (John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon) are just happy she’s alive again. Or is she?
Beth’s “resurrection” (as her dad puts it) unfolds like something out of The Monkey’s Paw, only when she knocks on her front door after apparently bursting out of her grave, she’s suspiciously preserved and has no memory of suffering that inconveniently fatal snakebite. At first, everyone’s overjoyed; Maury can mend fences with the daughter whose final words to him were “Dad, you’re being annoying,” and Geenie can finally snap all the photos she regretted not taking. It’s more complicated for Zach, whose last conversations with Beth 1.0 included the revelation that she wanted to “see other people,” not that she remembers any of that — and whose own family members (Paul Reiser and Cheryl Hines as his distracted parents; Criminal Minds’ Matthew Gray Gubler as his aggro-nerd brother) are too self-involved to offer any support.
Not that they’d know where to begin, since Zach’s romantic troubles soon become supremely spooky. Maury is as dead-set on keeping his undead offspring a secret (“She died, and she’s not dead now. I don’t know why. Who cares why?”) as he is with keeping her in the dark about the fact that she’s back from beyond. Though Zach would rather be honest with Beth — he’s bummed he wasn’t more open with her the first time around — he goes along with the ruse until things get weird. Like, bellowing-fits-of-anger, window-smashing, decaying-skin, smooth-jazz-obsessed weird. “I kinda wish she’d stay dead,” he admits. It isn’t long before Beth’s affliction begins spreading through the greater Los Angeles area, and the inevitable chaos reigns.
Life After Beth was written and directed by Jeff Baena, whose biggest prior credit is co-writing David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004), but who also happens to be dating Plaza. Known for her dry, deadpan delivery, Plaza (2013’s The To Do List, 2012’s Safety Not Guaranteed) is more prickly than other leading-lady comedians, like her Parks and Recreation co-star Amy Poehler. Even dressed in Beth’s sweet polka-dotted dress, Plaza is equal parts snarky and unpredictable, a vibe that perfectly suits the scene where Zach tries to woo her with a song he’s written for her. “This fucking sucks!” she growls, before exploding into a rage that ends with a beachside inferno involving an unfortunately situated lifeguard stand. She’s high maintenance. She’s shrill, demanding, jealous, and terrifying. And her boyfriend may have written her the part, but Plaza is 100 percent in control of this character — even in the scenes after Beth has morphed into a teeth-gnashing monster, she appears to be having a blast. Did I mention that zombies in this movie are obsessed with smooth jazz?
Zach is the first romantic leading role for DeHaan, who’s best-known for sinister turns in Chronicle (2012) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though he spends most of his scenes with Plaza recoiling from Beth’s antics, his emo intensity is the perfect foil for the easygoing Reilly, whose cool-dad persona (he keeps a joint stashed for emergencies) starts to crack as Maury becomes more desperate to protect his daughter.
Life After Beth could have dared to shove the skewer a little deeper into the zombie genre — the notion that Haitian voodoo causes the dead to rise does get a well-deserved knock, and there are some funny bits with zombies who behave in non-traditional ways (some of them even deliver the mail). But aside from Plaza’s oversized performance, the humor here is surprisingly subtle, and often of the muttered-under-the-breath variety. As for the romance, the movie cops out a little bit by bringing Anna Kendrick in about midway through as Zach’s childhood friend Erica, a living, breathing alternative to Beth — who by that point is displaying aggressive mood swings and giving off killer death breath. But there’s also the suggestion that giggly airhead Erica, who agrees with everything Zach says and whose favorite word is “Ohmygod!”, isn’t much of an upgrade. A different kind of zombie, perhaps? *
LIFE AFTER BETH is available for viewing on DIRECTV.
THEATER Theatre Rhinoceros had a big enough success with The Habit of Art last spring to bring it back for a final run, allowing more people, this reviewer included, the chance to see the 2009 follow-up to The History Boys by England’s rightly beloved Alan Bennett. Judging by the production, it’s also possible they were just having too much fun with it to stop so soon. But then that would speak as much to the themes of the play as to its decidedly playful construction. As a play-within-a-play-within-a-rehearsal, The Habit of Art ends up, among much else, a cleverly crafted paean to the lure of theater itself.
As with several of his other well-known plays, including the Madness of King George III and Single Spies (the latter, a shrewd pair of one acts on the Cambridge Five spy ring, was essayed by Theatre Rhino in 2004), Bennett finds inspiration in the real lives of eccentric Englishmen, whether long since passed or roughly contemporary. Here, the playwright imagines a fictitious meeting between two giants of his own time: W.H. Auden (Donald Currie) and Benjamin Britten (John Fisher).
The poet and the composer did know each other in real life, and had been collaborators at times. But Bennett brings the two men together for one more tête-à-tête, in 1972, a year before Auden’s death and some quarter of a century after they had parted ways in the wake of their work on the operetta Paul Bunyan, a critical failure. Interestingly, their meeting has many brokers — a biographer (Ryan Tasker), a stage manager (Tamar Cohn), a playwright (Michael DeMartini), and the real playwright, Bennett himself — yet feels personal and vivid, at once jocularly familiar and freighted with a sad awareness of time spent.
But that encounter takes place only in act two, sandwiched in a lively rehearsal of the play-within-the-play, a work called “Caliban’s Day,” inspired by Auden’s long poem, The Sea and the Mirror. That poem, which imagines the characters of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in dialogue with the author and his audience, is itself partly a meditation on the tangled natures of life and art. And in the back and forth between the “play” being staged and the actors and crew rehearsing it, we get Bennett’s subtle, witty, unflinchingly raunchy measure of a life lived in artistic creation.
Act one, which sets up the turmoil that act two engages and in some sense subdues, belongs to Auden as well as the addled actor playing him, who can’t quite remember his lines (both embodied with a lively and beautifully measured insouciance by Currie). Having recently returned to Oxford, Auden lives at his alma mater in a cluttered and untidy room like a rowdy teen. His less than sanitary disposition comes coupled with an abrasive temperament that wins him few admirers despite his status as a grand master and living legend. At one point, he tactlessly and unapologetically mistakes a visit from BBC reporter and future biographer Humphrey Carpenter (an excellent Tasker, replacing Craig Souza in the role) for his rent boy (an even-keeled Justin Lucas) — a figure who comes to stand, defiantly, for all those left out by posterity.
Act two finds Britten (played with an almost wooden reserve by director Fisher) approaching his old friend in an anxious mood over his current project, an opera based on Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Here the play’s true themes come into view, as the two aging artists, under the gaze of their mutual biographer and very much opposites in most ways, circle a common need for the certainty of art like desert vagrants at a watering hole: It may be a mirage, but it’s a life-saving one just the same.
If the disheveled book shelves, garden of crumpled paper balls, and two upstage pianos (in Gilbert Johnson’s scenic design) seems to belie the neatness of the play’s construction, Bennett’s care and control evoke precisely the untidiness of life. It’s maybe this that attracts him more than anything else — the messiness of personality, love, sex, art, loyalty, and all of the things we’d like to think of as pure and inviolate. *
THE HABIT OF ART
Wed/20-Sat/23, 8pm (also Sat/23, 3pm), $15-$25
215 Jackson, SF
SUPER EGO “I’m starting my own line of lipstick called Freak Flag, the proceeds of which will go towards funding sex change operations,” 24-year-old tech house sensation Nick Monaco told me over the phone, as he drove to his studio in San Rafael. “I started wearing lipstick onstage and to afterparties as a kind of shtick, but I began to notice all the hypermasculinity that’s present on certain house scenes, the quasi-homophobia. Which is so weird, since house music was nurtured by the LGBT community. So this is my way of being a better ally.”
Monaco’s fresh-faced idiosyncrasy in a tech house scene rife with unfortunate conformity extends not just to his goofy stage persona — part bargain-basement Lothario, part kids’ Halloween costume closet — but, essentially, to his music as well. Hypercool new album Mating Call (out on Crew Love Sept. 8) is a loose-limbed squiggle of neon pop ideas, slippery grooves, and good jokes that plays off the styles of Monaco’s mentors, Soul Clap and the dirtybird crew, while going off in a few great, woo-woo directions all his own.
Monaco grew up in Santa Rosa. (“You can imagine what my exposure to club music was like out there,” he laughs.) But at 17 he wandered into a house club in Switzerland and was hooked. “I had to go to Europe to discover this American music, in Euro-house form. Then after college, I was working as a DJ in Barcelona — on the beach at Sitges, I heard [Boston duo] Soul Clap for the first time and thought: That kind of sound is exactly what I want to do. So I wrote to them out of the blue. And they took me under their wing.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of early ’90s New York house records from the likes of Masters at Work, who combined Puerto Rican music with house, and acts like Freddie Mercury, Arthur Russell, Talking Heads, and Deee-Lite,” Monaco said. (Russell’s mellow experimentalism seems to be the guiding force on Mating Call.) “But I’ve been recording at TRI Studios, the Grateful Dead’s old studios, and there’s all these great old-school musicians there jamming. I think as a result this album was a lot more organic, in sound and structure. I started out with clear ideas, but things really expanded to other places.”
For an album called Mating Call, there’s a lot of erotic ambivalence powering the tracks, including a symbolic dissolution of Monaco’s own voice. “I did this thing where I recorded three versions of myself and combined them: a falsetto higher one, a more middle talking one, and a lower one. I play with my voice all throughout the album — and then there are tracks like ‘Private Practice’ [the first single], where I don’t think I’m singing real words at all.”
Other tracks play with sexual stereotypes. Jaunty, kwaito-tinged “Maintenance Man” riffs off an eternally tacky porn trope while steaming up the windows. Instead of “I’m sooo drunk,” “TooHighToDrive” offers its own full-steam version of the punchline answer to the old “What’s the sorority girl mating call?” joke.
Monaco’s been developing a live show since March, taking the one-man-band-with-visuals approach, and will be touring extensively in the months ahead. “You have no idea how many nightmares I’ve had where I press the wrong button onstage,” he says in mock terror. “But I’m ready to do this.”
Oh, and the shade of that lipstick he’s planning to sell? “Mating Call red, of course.”
NICK MONACO LIVE with Baby Prince. Thu/21, 10pm, $10. Monarch, 101 Sixth St., SF. www.monarchsf.com
FOUR TET B2B JAMIE XX
Kieran Hebdan, aka Fourtet, jazzy intellectual of the UK bass scene, goes head to head with Jamie xx — yes, of ruminative indie erotics The xx — whose own deep electronic explorations have taken him to the limits of pop. Two biggies, lotta bass.
Fri/22, 10pm-3am, $30–$50. 1015 Folsom, SF. www.1015.com
Norwegian Terje has updated the classic Scandinavian cosmic disco sound with blorby ’80s splashes, piano-lounge mystique, and kids’ show theme music nostalgia (“Inspector Norse”). He played here seven years ago in an old gay square dance bar; now he headlines the As You Like It crew’s massive fourth anniversary party, with Maurice Fulton, DJ Qu, and a ton more.
Fri/22, 9pm-4am, $20–$30. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
“There’s a kind of cultural compression going on, similar to audio compression, where everything has to be ‘punched up’ to the same intensity or people feel lost. What the fuck is so wrong with being lost?” Terre Thaemlitz, aka trans musician and philosopher DJ Sprinkles, told me last year. Then she proceeded to send the Honey Soundsystem party into an intense, wonderfully deep spiral. Now she’s back to do it again.
Sat/23, 10pm-4am, $20. F8, 1192 Folsom, SF. www.feightsf.com
The first day of school was Aug. 18 in the San Francisco Unified School District, but a group of teachers started the day with a press conference announcing the possibility that they could soon go on strike.
The teachers union, United Educators of San Francisco, announced the results of a strike authorization vote held the previous Thursday. The vote, which was the first of two required to authorize a strike, resulted with an overwhelming “yes” with 99.3 percent of teachers saying they would take that step if necessary.
UESF President Dennis Kelly noted that 2,251 teachers had voted, and all but 16 were in favor of authorizing the union to go on strike if contract negotiations with the school district do not result in an acceptable settlement. “It’s pretty unequivocal,” noted UESF spokesperson Matthew Hardy, “and it demonstrates the need for teachers to have a wage that allows them to live in San Francisco.
On Aug. 14, teachers streamed onto the grounds at George Washington High School to cast ballots for the first strike authorization vote. Among them was Kelly Lehman, a first grade teacher at Mira Loma Elementary, who said she’d recently been forced to leave her longtime Mission District residence under threat of eviction.
“I am one of those people who has been ‘Googled’ out of the city,” she said. “I used to be able to afford the city.”
Since she relocated in Marin County, Lehman said her commute has gone from 10 to 40 minutes each way. “It means either less time with my family, or less time with my class,” she noted, adding that she ended up purchasing a car and now drives to work.
Public school teachers’ contract ended June 30, but contract negotiations began months earlier, in February. In June, the negotiations went into impasse, which means the union and district were unable to meet without the presence of a mediator. If mediated negotiations now underway don’t result in a settlement, the process would move to fact finding, where parties on either side of the bargaining table would make presentations to a neutral party, who would in turn prepare a report and make recommendations. If that still doesn’t result in an agreement, the district could impose its last and best contract offer and the union could opt to go on strike, provided it wins approval in a second strike vote.
Hardy said it would likely take weeks before a final outcome is determined, but he stressed that “the goal is to get a settlement.”
While there are several issues of contention, the major point of disagreement comes down to teachers’ salaries. Teachers have demanded a 21 percent pay raise over three years, saying that amount is necessary for educators to be able to provide for themselves in San Francisco. But the district, which has made an offer that would raise pay by 8.5 percent instead, maintained in a statement that it “has not received increases in revenue sufficient to raise salaries enough to keep up with the high cost of living in San Francisco.”
Ken Tray, a UESF organizer and longtime social studies teacher at SFUSD, said he was alarmed by the trend of schoolteachers being forced out of the community. “Today there are many, many teachers facing eviction,” he said. “One of my oldest teacher friends, who was voted best teacher at Galileo High School and then at Lowell High School, is leaving San Francisco because he is losing his apartment. So that is a loss not only to him and his wife, but it’s a loss to his community. What kind of community drives its…best teachers out of town? What about the soul of San Francisco?”
The next mediation session is scheduled for Sept. 2. “We are currently in mediation with UESF and remain hopeful that we can resolve our differences and reach a fair and equitable compensation agreement,” SFUSD Superintendent Richard A. Carranza told the Guardian via email. “We are a public agency and our revenues and expenditures are carefully monitored and audited on a regular basis. Anyone can view our detailed budget and auditors reports online. We are committed to giving our employees much deserved raises but we are also committed to being fiscally responsible which means submitting a balanced three-year budget to the state with a minimum reserve.”
The SFUSD statement indicated that the district expects the total cost of salary and benefits for teachers to increase by at least 18.5 percent over the next three years. But Hardy was skeptical of those figures. “That’s crazy,” he said after reviewing the district statement. “I don’t know how they ran those numbers.”
Claudia Delarios Moran, a former paraprofessional at SFUSD and Restorative Justice coordinator, started her comments at the Aug. 18 press conference by saying she was excited to be taking her kids to their classrooms for the first day of school. “They’re so eager to find out who their teachers are, which of their friends are assigned to their class, and to settle back into the warmth and familiarity of their school site, which is filled with staff who are consistently affectionate toward them and interested in their academic and social development,” she said. “These days, that kind of environment for students and families is more crucial than ever, given what they’re up against. Many of our students and families are living on the margins, due to their immigration status, their language capability, and their limited income. They’re stressed out — due to fear that they’ll be displaced from their homes and never find another place in their neighborhoods that they can afford. … And though the work is hard, educators know that it is a great privilege to serve our children — to help the working families of San Francisco survive here.”
STREET FIGHT San Francisco’s politics of mobility devolved into a cesspit this summer. Beginning with Mayor Ed Lee’s retreat on Sunday parking meters, purportedly to garner support for his transportation bond and vehicle license fee proposals, Lee’s bait and switch ultimately backfired.
Rather than nudge the city’s transit finance debate in a sensible, progressive direction, confusion and duplicity by the mayor and some supervisors over parking policy has instead empowered a Tea Party-like faction that’s placed a backwards initiative on the November ballot.
This Restore Transportation Balance Initiative (Proposition L) is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It’s got nothing to do with balance, but would instead seek to substitute a “cars-first” policy for the city’s longstanding “transit-first” paradigm. Although only an advisory measure, its main effect would be to provide the mayor and supervisors more cover to do nothing except shrug and kick the can of sustainable transportation policy down the road.
This is exactly what the car-firsters want, just as Republicans in Congress have thwarted President Obama’s agenda for mitigating climate change. These local drivers hope to stall efforts to make San Francisco more pedestrian-friendly, block Muni improvements, and make sure bicycles don’t slow them down or get in the way of unfettered, gluttonous free parking for private cars on public streets.
In that vein, the Restore Balance crowd has lifted a script from the infamous Koch brothers, securing finances from a Facebook billionaire (Sean Parker funded the measure’s signature-gathering effort) and speaking about transportation policy in a manner reminiscent of climate change deniers. Any bike lane, parking management effort, or Muni improvement is, in their eyes, out of balance with a city that should be betrothed solely to cars.
Meanwhile, as Muni fares went up this summer without any objection from mayor “nickel-and-dime,” a ballot measure put forth by Sup. Scott Wiener joins the crowded field as Proposition B. His proposal would devote more General Fund monies to Muni operations, but it’s unclear what impact this might have on other important city programs like housing or social services.
It’s a good thing City Hall went on summer recess, because we’ll all need some time to sift through all this muck.
TOWARDS CAR-FREE VACATIONS
Speaking of vacations, let’s talk about the good, bad, and ugly of car-free vacationing using Amtrak and a bicycle. I recently took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight north from Oakland to Portland, with my touring bicycle in tow. In Portland, I surveyed some of the bicycle and transit infrastructure before a 950-mile bike tour back to San Francisco along the Oregon and California coasts.
The Coast Starlight is a relaxing way to travel up to Portland. It has comfortable and roomy seating with outlets for plugging in phones or other devices, and the views of Mt. Hood and Oregon’s verdant forests and valleys are breathtaking. Most importantly, taking the train from Oakland to Portland produces far fewer carbon emissions than flying or driving the same distance.
A flight to Portland produces 14 times the carbon emissions compared to the train. Driving up I-5 in a new car with decent fuel economy produces 26 times the emissions of the train. This is an incredible difference that must be factored into national transportation policies, and it does not include the full life cycle assessment of each mode, such as petroleum extraction, manufacturing vehicles, waste disposal, infrastructure (concrete is a huge CO2 emitter), and so on. While carpooling might reduce per capita driving emissions, traveling with friends or family on Amtrak reduces them even further.
But Amtrak has some bad aspects. The coffee needs immediate mitigation! It’s an easy problem to solve, and I’ve had delicious coffee on German and Swiss trains, even in ceramic mugs.
Getting a bicycle on many Amtrak trains is annoying. Unlike the Capitol Corridor or San Joaquin trains, on which you can simply roll the bicycle on board, Amtrak’s long-distance trains require boxing the bicycle as checked baggage. This means additional charges, and you must arrive and disembark at a station that handles baggage, so many stops are not bicycle-accessible. And the cardboard bike box is not reused by Amtrak but put in recycling, which is rather silly and wasteful.
Fortunately, Amtrak is starting to get it, and soon will be introducing bicycle roll-on service on many trains on the East Coast. Let’s hope Amtrak does the same for the Coast Starlight. There’s plenty of room on the multilevel rail cars to squeeze in a few bikes, and that would probably attract more people to use the system while making it more flexible.
Now for the ugly. The trip to Portland takes more than 17 hours on a good day. I’m not necessarily arguing for high-speed rail, but this length of time is a big problem for Amtrak. It’s not a technology problem — it’s politics.
Amtrak is caged by the timetable of freight railways that own the tracks. This often results in delays since the freight railroads have eliminated double tracks and rationalized their routes to maximize profit while having little concern about passenger rail.
Over 100 years ago, Edward Harriman, who merged Southern Pacific with Union Pacific into a continent-wide system, had it right on running a railroad. Instead of focusing on shareholder wealth, Harriman argued that profits from railroads should be shoveled back into reducing grades, strengthening bridges, improving curves, double-tracking trunk routes, and building new bridges, cutoffs, sidings, tunnels, stations, yards, cars, and terminals. Harriman even proposed a rail tunnel under San Francisco Bay, which as I’ve written about before and which should be a priority in the region today.
Rail is critical infrastructure and key to our national energy and climate policy. It should not be left to the whims of freight haulers and private profit. It’s time for the political will to coordinate the right-of-way to improve travel times as well as increase frequency of passenger trains.
Six years ago, improving Amtrak was a signature platform of the Obama Administration. But Republicans — many filled with racist vitriol — have fought anything he stands for. And they hate Amtrak almost as much as they hate Obama.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans vowed to gut Amtrak and mocked Obama’s pro-Amtrak policies. In Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, the hate ran so deep that funding for rail was simply sent back to Washington, even as cities in all of those states pined for rail as an economic development strategy. This kind of zombie-like Republican hate towards Obama and Amtrak is remarkably similar to the posturing of the anti-transit, car-firsters pushing Prop L.
THE PORTLAND COMPARISON
But I’m on vacation, and problems of Amtrak’s ugly politics aside, once in Portland it all got beautiful. Cycling around Portland is fantastic. With excellent, well-connected bicycle facilities coupled with attentive and polite drivers, bicycle-oriented innovation and businesses flourish in Portland. I’ve never seen so many cargo bikes and families with children out shopping, cycling to school, and making other utilitarian trips by bicycle.
Sure, it’s flatter, but more important is the traffic density and allocation of street space. Compared to San Francisco, Portland has lower residential density, a low density of automobiles, and more capacity to reallocate road space for bicycling.
To get to Portland-style cycling, we need to recognize that San Francisco’s 9,000-plus cars per square mile is extreme and out of control, and San Francisco politicians need to embrace much tighter parking management and street management policies.
I should also add that Portland does have its own ugly right-wing backlash against bikes and transit. For example, in suburban Clackamas County, dubbed “Clakistan” by some, Tea Party-types voted to stall light rail expansion. But in the city, the bicycle and rail transit are embraced with enthusiasm.
Oregon is also refreshingly welcoming to bicycle tourists. For those leaving Portland by bicycle, state and local transportation departments have produced wonderful maps with route suggestions, and the official state highway map includes a bicycle map showing highway shoulder widths and identifies state parks with bike-friendly camping, hot showers, and other services. One state park bike campground even had a solar-powered charging station so cyclists can check their phones.
Unlike California parks, which also have affordable and accessible bicycle camping sections, Oregon places sites away from the noisy RV and automobile campsites, providing peace and tranquility and level ground for tents.
Since cycle tourists don’t always know their timing or exact route, Oregon and California do not require reservations, which enables flexibility for bike touring. And the sites are cheaper — usually $5 in both states, but some California campgrounds charge $7 — because bicyclists have a much lighter impact on parks compared to cars and RVs.
SHARE THE ROAD
All of this made bicycle touring from Portland to San Francisco inspiring, energizing, invigorating, revitalizing, and really just a whole lot of fun. Waking up early to pedal through the Cape Lookout area of Oregon or the Avenue of the Giants in California was truly amazing.
But the big downside was high-speed traffic whizzing by at certain points along the coast (but not all). So the same methods used to make city streets safe for cycling could apply everywhere, including for bicycle touring. Rural traffic is faster than city traffic, so we really need to separate cyclists from speeding traffic if substantial numbers of people (including families) are to take on bike touring.
Rail trails and fully separated cycle ways in parts of Oregon (Banks Vernonia) and California (near Arcata and also Samuel P. Taylor Park) should be expanded and made part of a coastal bikeway using the rights-of-way along Highway 101 and 1.
Where full separation is not possible, wider shoulders cleared of the nasty detritus of car glass or metal should be provided. Shoulders should be regularly cleaned and crumbling edges patched. At tight spots, such as on Highway 1 between Fort Ross and Jenner, narrow portions of roadway could be made into signal-controlled one-way segments such as what is done in construction zones.
Reducing the speed limits and using traffic calming should also be promoted on the coast highways. This is a tourist route, not Interstate 5, so even the Subaru-driving weekend warriors and RVs can slow it down. Rural areas in California and Oregon can benefit greatly with more bicycle tourism (as well as auto tourists slowing down).
We cyclists don’t drag a ton of Costco provisions up to the campgrounds. We shop and eat locally, at each increment, and spend hard cash in small towns. Slowing the cars and RVs down would draw them into the local stores and restaurants as well. And every few days, we cycle tourists get a motel or bed-and-breakfast room.
I saw and spoke with several families with children touring the Oregon coast, with no motorized vehicle support. In Oregon and parts of California, buses also accommodate bicycles, so getting to the coast is easier than you’d think, even if greater frequency would be helpful.
As I pedaled the Avenue of the Giants, I saw an old Northwestern Pacific railway bridge over the Eel River. It would be so civilized if the Sonoma-Marin (SMART) rail line were extended north to Eureka and Arcata, with a spur to Fort Bragg, enabling one to access (and bicycle tour) the Redwoods and California coast from the Bay Area without a car.
Pedaling through Marin and towards the Golden Gate Bridge last Sunday was also truly inspiring. There were hundreds of cyclists out on the regular Marin circuit, many with friendly waves and greetings. The Golden Gate Bridge was packed with smiling cyclists out for a rigorous Mt. Tam ride or rental bikes heading to Sausalito.
If you share in the dream of car-free vacations and bicycle touring, I urge you look at the California Bicycle Coalition’s upcoming organized bike tour from Santa Barbara to San Diego. This could be your launching point for rethinking how we vacation in America.
Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.
By David Hegarty
OPINION San Francisco made $87 million in parking citation revenue in 2012; roughly double what the city made off actual paid parking meter revenue.
Let that sink in for a minute.
It’s become so hard to park a car in San Francisco that its citizens are paying almost $281,500 a day simply to park, and then they’re cited for doing it wrong.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency should be responsible to the people — to create and maintain clean, orderly streets and transit systems that work for the people who use them.
The responsibility of the SFMTA is not to incentivize government agents to write more tickets and make citizens a passive revenue stream because it’s convenient. Parking citations, in their current form, do not support an ethical citizen-focused approach by the city to parking law and violations.
The simple fact that revenue gained for parking citations is roughly double that of legal, paid parking meter revenue shows an inherent flaw in the system. If it is easier for the city to make money by writing citations, why would it change its systems to create more revenue through meters or alternative means such as license fees or permitting, even if it significantly benefitted citizens of San Francisco? It makes more financial sense to incent its relatively small fleet of parking authority officers to write more tickets.
But is this ethical? Absolutely not. Is this the way a government agency should make decisions? Absolutely not. Purposefully criminalizing citizens and then slapping them with the highest citation rates in the country due to convenience is not how a government agency should be “serving” its people.
Parking ticket fees in San Francisco are the highest in the country by nearly 14 percent and they continue to rise, a punitively expensive bandage on a citywide transit problem. There are 111 ways to violate the parking code, a parking code that is so intentionally opaque and vague that 3.9 tickets are written per registered car per year, nearly 1.5 million tickets total.
Our parking law should not be so confusing that it can’t be followed consistently — including by its own agents. Of the tickets processed by Fixed, we are able to contest 85-90 percent — 75 percent of which due to enforcement error. The city’s own parking authority agents are unable to accurately (and consistently) enforce the existing parking code.
Conflicting rules and regulations between systems are also a common issue in San Francisco — often signs will contradict themselves or other SFMTA systems, with no clear indication of which rules precede the others. Meters are inconsistent with other regulatory systems in use, permanent parking restriction signs are sometimes missing, hidden, or poorly maintained, and temporary restrictions are often inaccurate — creating grossly unfair conditions for people parking, and incorrectly written tickets by parking enforcement officers.
A recent anecdote is a clear example of this problem. A Fixed user’s car was towed after parking in a variable tow away zone — the tow away zone was in effect for only two blocks of the street during specific hours. The street-level parking sign of the spot in question stated “no parking” 4-6 pm, but the meter allowed the user to pay all the way up to 6pm with no indication of a tow away. This error, due to conflicting systems and misleading meter information, cost the user (but netted the city) $500.
Both driver and parking control officer are victims of a system that turns parking infractions into a revenue stream instead of a tactic to discourage behavior that doesn’t benefit the public at large.
Ethical parking law would be a clear, mutually fair system which benefits citizens of San Francisco, creates revenue for the city through legal, noncriminal means, and enables a parking environment where citizens can easily follow the rules. Parking law should be optimized for clean, orderly streets and transit programs that are profitable and reliable — instead of convenient revenue.
There must be another way to achieve SFMTA budget requirements than to make the people this government agency should be serving into unintentional criminals.
David Hegarty is the founder of Fixed (www.getfixed.me), a company that helps customers contest parking tickets.
EDITORIAL Burning Man and San Francisco have developed a close and symbiotic relationship in recent years, with members of the Board of Supervisors doing whirlwind VIP tours of the playa, burner artworks temporarily placed on city land, and event-sponsoring Black Rock City LLC supporting the Mayor’s Office campaign to transform the Tenderloin into a nascent arts and technology district.
In many ways, it’s been good to see city officials finally welcome burners and their art and culture back from the desert, where local authorities helped cast it into exile in 1990 after its early years on Baker Beach. But there’s also something a little disturbing about the mutually beneficial relationship that has formed between the ultimate political insiders and outsiders.
Then-Mayor Gavin Newsom helped install Burning Man artworks in Hayes Valley and Civic Center Plaza starting in 2005, finally giving Burning Man official city recognition and bumping up his own cultural cred. Mayor Ed Lee has continued the trend and helped forge closer city ties with the LLC, even helping it find a new headquarters and trotting it out in 2011 as a beneficiary of its Mid-Market Tax Exclusion Zone, along with Twitter.
When Lee and Board of Supervisors President David Chiu shared a burner-built stage with Burning Man founder Larry Harvey in August 2011 to announce the creation of a new nonprofit, The Burning Man Project (see “Beyond the playa,” 8/9/11), it was a kumbaya moment.
“Burning Man has been a wonderful contributor to our central Market cultural district,” Lee said told the colorful crowd, while Harvey said, “Working with the city of San Francisco, we can do many things.”
But there was a problem with the rhetoric then that has only become more clear since: It’s exclusivity masked as egalitarianism. The city’s Central Market Partnership program was used as a fig leaf to cover the designs that developers, landlords, Realtors, and tech companies had for once-low-rent mid-Market properties. And so far, The Burning Man Project seems to have benefited Harvey and the LLC board members more than artists or city residents.
Mid-Market isn’t a thriving arts district. And Burning Man operates the same way it always has. What San Francisco and Burning Man both need right now is to drop the gimmicks and deceptive rhetoric and to get real with their communities about what they’re doing, why, and who’s going to benefit from their plans.
The “San Francisco values” that have infused this city’s culture in its best moments have always been communitarian, based on principles of openness and inclusion. Process matters. Progress isn’t measured just by what gets done, but how it happens.
Burning Man and San Francisco are both experiencing rapid growth and its attendant growing pains, and the leaders of both need to remember and respect everyday citizens as they pursue their grand visions.
Roll up a dollar bill, snort a line of coke, sit back and smile: If your cocaine use leads to a conviction, your drug of choice will be spared from the harsher penalties associated with inhaling the substance through a glass pipe. When it comes to busts for cocaine possession and dealing, those caught with a rock instead of the powdered stuff are kept behind bars longer. But that could soon change.
The drug is the same, the punishment is not — and a new bill may soon end that decades-long disparity, one that critics have called racist. But crack cocaine use is now at a historic low in San Francisco, raising a question: What took so long?
The California Assembly voted 50-19 Friday [8/16] to pass the Fair Sentencing Act, which aims to lower the sentence for possession with intent to sell crack cocaine to be on par with that of powder cocaine.
The bill, authored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), is seen as championing racial justice.
“The Fair Sentencing Act will take a brick out of the wall of the failed 1980s drug-war era laws that have devastated communities of color, especially black and Latino men,” Lynne Lyman of the Drug Policy Alliance said in a prepared statement.
Crack cocaine rocks have tended to be more heavily used by African Americans, while powdered cocaine tends to be the province of rich white folks. The bill would lessen the maximum sentence for crack cocaine possession with intent to sell to four years, down from five. It would still constitute a felony.
In California, having a drug-related felony on record can prevent the formerly incarcerated from accessing housing assistance and food stamps, further feeding a cycle of poverty. The Fair Sentencing Act now awaits Gov. Jerry Brown’s pen. But some say this disparity should have been addressed some 30 years ago.
The 1980s gave rise to the “crack epidemic” narrative, a supposedly sweeping addiction promulgated by media reports on crack’s outsized harm to pregnant women and newborn babies. But those health impacts are now understood to be on par with tobacco use during pregnancy, rather than the terrifying danger it was presented to be.
Still, the images and narratives from that era were powerful.
In a television news report that aired in the 1980s, an unnaturally tiny baby quivers and shakes on the screen. Then-First Lady Nancy Reagan appears and hammers the point home: “Drugs take away the dream from every child’s heart, and replace it with a nightmare.” Flash forward to the future, and university researchers have produced studies showing that the babies born to crack-using mothers that so frightened the country were simply prematurely born, and went on to lead healthy lives.
True or not, people were outraged. The change in laws happened “virtually overnight,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi told us. Crack cocaine hit San Francisco hard.
Paul Boden, executive director of the Western Regional Advocacy Project, remembers it well. He had just come out of homelessness in the Tenderloin in the ’80s. Just prior to starting as a staffer at Hospitality House, he saw the worst of it.
“People were killing each other over the stupidest shit. It got really violent,” he said. “What crack cocaine did is it divided a community against itself. I never thought I’d get to a point where I missed heroin.”
But, he added, “I do think the advent of crack and the assumption that every black male was doing crack gave the cops carte blanche for all of their racist patterns.”
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, people of color accounted for over 98 percent of men sent to California prisons for possession of crack cocaine for sale. Two-thirds were black, and the rest were Latino.
Long since the days when cops regularly raided the Tenderloin on a hunt for every glass crack pipe, the SFPD is now a somewhat more lenient beast in the drug realm. Drug arrests in the city dropped by 85 percent in the last five years, according to California Department of Justice data. Police Chief Greg Suhr downsized his narcotics unit, shifting to focus on violent crime.
“People that sell drugs belong in jail because they’re preying upon sick people,” Suhr told the Guardian, although he added, “People with a drug problem need to be treated, as it’s a public health issue.”
Suhr said he supports the lower sentencing for crack cocaine to make it on par with powder.
“Cocaine,” he said, “is cocaine.”
District Attorney George Gascon’s office also prosecutes mostly violent and property crimes as opposed to drug possession, reflecting a rare show of agreement between the Public Defender’s Office, the SFPD, and the DA. San Franciscans battling drug problems are often diverted to drug courts and rehabilitation programs.
Crack cocaine has largely moved on from San Francisco, leaving its ugly legacy. Meanwhile, heroin use is on the rise, but nevertheless carries the same harsh sentence as crack cocaine for possession with intent to sell.
“It’s the pathetic state of politics today that it took this long for this to happen,” Boden told us, on sentencing reform. “Now it won’t cost me anything, I’ll show what a great liberal I am.”
The question of when Burning Man jumped the shark is a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a philosophical question, but these are waters worth wading into as burners pack up this week for their annual pilgrimage to the playa.
The meme that Burning Man has jumped the shark — that is, that it’s gotten ridiculous or strayed from its original ethos — circulated more strongly this year than most after conservative firebrand Grover Norquist last month tweeted that he was “off to ‘Burning Man’ this year. Scratch one off the bucket list.”
But burners and media commentators have been saying it for years, sparked by developments ranging from the increasingly top-down control over a temporary city built with volunteer labor from the bottom-up to the sheer scale and inertia of an event that is now pushing 70,000 participants.
John Law, who co-founded the artsy Nevada desert bacchanal, walked away from Burning Man after the deadly and chaotic 1996 event, believing that the commercial and regulatory structure that followed was antithetical to the countercultural, DIY values on which burner culture was based.
The population of Black Rock City then doubled in size within two years, and doubled again within four more, prompting some burners to say 30,000 people — including a growing number of straight-laced newbies drawn by mainstream media coverage — was just too many.
At the end of 2004, dozens of the event’s marquee artists and performers launched a high-profile revolt against how Black Rock City LLC was running the event (see “State of the art,” 12/20/04). “The fix must address many issues, but the core issue for the fix is the art,” they wrote in a petition that ran as a full-page ad in the Guardian. “Art, art, art: that is what this is all about.”
But little changed. Burning Man had caught fire and the LLC was more interested in stoking the flames than controlling the conflagration. It promoted more regional burns around the world, created new offshoot organizations to spread the burner art and ethos, consolidated control of the brand and trademarks, and spelled out the “Ten Principles” that all Burning Man events would live by.
The burner backlash against that trend took many forms, but the most fiery dissent came on Monday night during the 2007 Burning Man when Paul Addis torched the eponymous Man to bring the chaos back to an event that he felt had grown too staid and scripted.
Burner officialdom responded by simply building a new Man and helping secure a four-year federal prison sentence for Addis — both decisions made without soliciting any input from the larger burner community. Coming after some corporate-style chicanery earlier that year involving control of the event’s trademark and logo (see “Burning brand,” 1/16/07), that’s when Burning Man seemed to peak, like the ramp that launched Fonzie over the sharks.
At the time, I was deeply involved with covering Burning Man culture for the Bay Guardian, reporting that would later go into my 2011 book, The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture.
But if jumping the shark is an idiom based on when things get really ridiculous, a point at which self-awareness withers and something becomes a caricature of what it once was, then the events of 2007 were just warm-up laps for the spectacle to come.
COMMUNITY VS. THE COMPANY
At this point, let me be clear that Burning Man is still one of the greatest parties on the planet. The Black Rock Desert is a spectacular setting, much of the art created for Burning Man each year is innovative and mind-blowing, and the experience of spending a week in a commerce-free, open-minded temporary city can truly be transformative, especially for those doing it for the first time.
I also have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for the community members who give so much of themselves to creating Black Rock City’s art and infrastructure. And I give credit to founder Larry Harvey and other event leaders for creating such a wondrous vehicle for creative expression and community-building and keeping it running for nearly three decades.
But when an organization asserts a set of high-minded utopian values, it’s only fair to judge it by those standards. And when it claims the economic value of the labors of tens of thousands of voluntary participants as its own company assets, questions of accountability and commodification naturally arise.
For example, Burning Man has always asserted the value of “Decommodification,” which is one of its Ten Principles: “In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation.”
Yet the LLC has closely guarded its control over the Burning Man name, logo, images, and associated brands, resisting efforts to place them in the public domain and even waging legal battles against longtime burners who try to use them, including a current conflict with Canadian burners over how much the company can control a culture there that it didn’t actually create.
Licensing of the Burning Man brand and images has been a secret source of income for the company, which doesn’t publicly disclose its revenues, only its expenditures. In recent years, those brands and commodities have been transferred to a new entity controlled by the original six LLC board members, ironically named Decommodification LLC.
Some of the other Burning Man principles can seem just a farcical, including Radical Inclusion (“No prerequisites exist for participation in our community,” except the $380 ticket), Communal Effort (but “cooperation and collaboration” apparently don’t apply to decisions about how the event is managed or how large it gets), and Civic Responsibility (“We value civil society,” says the organization that eschews democratic debate about its direction and governance structure).
Meanwhile, Harvey and company have promised greater transparency and accountability at some future point, through The Burning Man Project, a nonprofit organization formed a few years ago ostensibly to take over running the event from BRC LLC (see “The future of Burning Man,” 8/2/11) .
But it hasn’t exactly rolled out that way. As I’ve reported (see “Burning questions,” 6/4/13), the original six board members have maintained tight control over all aspects of the event, appointing new nonprofit board members mostly for their fundraising ability and willingness to toe the company line, rather than seeking representation from the various constituent burner communities.
Even then, with a board hand-picked for its loyalty (which apparently goes both ways, given how the LLC has supported hagiographic Burning Man film and book projects by two of its new nonprofit board members), Harvey still remains wary of “undue meddling” by the new board, as he put it to me.
On top of that sundae, add the cherry that is Harvey’s public admission that all six board members have, as part of this transition, awarded themselves large financial settlements in amounts that will never be disclosed, and one might expect burners to revolt.
But they haven’t. Most just don’t care about these internal company dynamics (except for a few brave souls at the excellent Burners.me blog), no matter how questionable, as long as their beloved Burning Man still happens on schedule. And that’s why I think Burning Man has truly jumped the shark, launching from the ramp of a high-minded experiment and splashing down into the tepid waters of mass-consumed hedonism.
Today, almost every bucket list on the Internet — those things that everyone is advised to do before they die — includes Burning Man. It has become the ultimate commodity, a product that everyone, from all walks of life, is encouraged to consume. Doing so is easier than ever these days.
After tickets sold out for the first time ever in 2011 — and a flawed new ticketing system unilaterally created by the LLC in 2012 triggered widespread criticism and anxiety — the company opted to just increase the population of Black Rock City by more than 20 percent, peaking at 69,613 last year.
Everyone felt the difference. Popular spots like the dance parties at Distrikt on Friday afternoon or Robot Heart at dawn on Saturday reached shit show proportions, with just way too many people. And this year will be more of the same.
In the old days, going to Burning Man was difficult, requiring months of preparation with one’s chosen campmates to create internal infrastructure (shade, showers, kitchen, etc.) and something to gift the community (an art car, a bar, a stage and performances to fill it, etc.).
But with the rise of plug-and-play camps in recent years, those with money can fly into Black Rock City and buy their way into camps that set up their RVs, cook their meals, stock their costumes and intoxicants, decorate their bikes, and clean it all up at the end. Such camps have become a source of employment for entrepreneurial veteran burners, but they cut against the stated principles of Participation and Radial Self-Reliance.
While LLC board member Marian Goodell told me that “we’re big into listening mode at the moment” as they decide what’s next for Burning Man, she also claims to have heard no concerns from burners about the event’s current size or direction, and she denies the nonprofit transition was ever about loosening their grip on the event.
“We’ve never talked about turning Burning Man back to the community,” Goodell told me last week, accusing me of misinterpreting comments by Harvey when he announced the transition, such as, “We want to get out of running Burning Man. We want to move on.”
This is the world that Grover Norquist will enter next week, after being personally encouraged to attend Burning Man by Harvey, as Norquist told the National Review last month. Norquist was drawn to the event’s libertarian image rather than its stated communitarian values, a dichotomy that its leaders have never sought to resolve. Norquist even compared Burning Man to his right-wing Americans for Tax Reform, which has pressured most Republican politicians to sign pledges never to raise taxes.
“There’s no government that organizes this,” Norquist said of Burning Man, an event held on federal land, accessed by public roads, and actively regulated by local, state, and federal agencies. “That’s what happens when nobody tells you what to do. You just figure it out. So Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.”
Yes, kiddies, the shark has been jumped. But I hope all my burner friends still have a great week in the desert.
BURNING MAN On July 9, Burning Man’s White Ocean sound camp officially announced its DJ lineup. The outcry came loud and swift. White Ocean, helmed by Timur Sardarov, founder of private jet service Ocean Group International, had broken informal protocol by releasing its lineup ahead of the traditional couple-weeks-before with the other camps. But those kinds of Burning Man rules are meant to be broken.
No, what got burner sarongs in a twist was the way the lineup was announced: A slick, professional-looking graphic containing, Coachella-like, a panoply of DJs and genre styles. And emblazoned above it all was “Timur Sardarov and Paul Oakenfold Present” — as if Burning Man was another Outside Lands or Electric Daisy Carnival, complete with famous headliner (Paul Oakenfold) branching out into “event branding,” and questionable promoter (Sardarov) making sure his name was the first one everyone read.
“Dear Burners,” came the inevitable Facebook apology. “As you know, a few weeks ago the entire White Ocean line up went public, in a relatively big way. To add insult to injury, it also listed ‘Presenting’ parties in the most un-Burner like fashion! We know that this greatly upset each and everyone of you, and for good reason! We agree this is a huge failure, on our part! There’s no excuse!!!”
The post went on to say the camp had hired a mainstream promoter, who “proceeded to create and implement a full promotions campaign, as if he was working for some music festival in Europe. That was his perception of Burning Man, an elaborately modified festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer.”
But burners were forced to confront the question, “Are we actually becoming just a music festival in the desert that doesn’t sell beer?” As a nightlife writer, I’ve been getting emails for years touting different pre-BM fundraisers, innovative theme camp designs, and dance performances. But it’s only been in the past couple that I’ve been getting press releases from record labels announcing artists “appearing one night only!” at Burning Man. DJs routinely brag about multiple BM experiences. (One PR person even accidentally offered me press tickets!)
“It’s true that the current generation does see Burning Man mostly through the prism of music,” Syd Gris of the music-powerhouse Opulent Temple camp told me over the phone. “Most of the draw now may be not for the original communal experience, but the mind-blowing spectacle of seeing so many of the world’s biggest DJs playing on giant fire sculptures.
“Ever since the music festival circuit became such a huge thing in the past decade, there’s been the possibility that Burning Man may end up just another stop on it.”
Opulent Temple itself is boasting a jaw-dropping lineup — I can’t say the secret surprise headliners’ names (one’s that dubstep whizkid with the lesbian haircut, and the other helps put you Pon de Floor), but Crystal Method, Carl Cox, and Infected Mushroom will be there — Moby had to cancel, alas.
These kinds of superstar DJs always give me bad ’90s flashbacks. Sure, one of the ultimate Burning Man experiences is making out with several people as the sun rises and seeing someone unexpectedly unbelievable in the booth — really just counting down until Beyonce rides atop the giant BAAAHS sheep art truck. But is all this starpower needed? Is Burning Man just a badge of authenticity for electronic artists, now that electronic music has seized the mainstream?
“Really, most of the artists approach us at this point,” Gris said. “We don’t pay them anything, and we let them know that as part of the camp, they have to work. It can be an education process. Other camps can afford to fly people in and treat them to perks. But sound camps don’t get cash grants like art camps, so once we build the stage and sound system, there’s no money left for egos. Tiësto actually donated to us after he played one year, to help cover expenses.”
“I look at it as a fun act of subversion,” Gris said. “Opulent Temple is dedicated to sacred dance. So if people come for the headliners but leave with some of that original spirit and intent in them, it’s worth it.”
An Israeli ship that was scheduled to dock at the Port of Oakland was prevented from unloading its cargo on Aug. 17 when activists picketed at the dock entrances in protest of recent violence in Gaza.
The Zim Piraeus vessel, operated by Zim Integrated Shipping Services, Ltd., had come into dock earlier that day after the postponement of its scheduled arrival on Aug. 16, when a large crowd went to the port to participate in a march and rally dubbed Block the Boat for Gaza.
The Aug. 16 protest, which was originally planned for 5am when the ship was initially scheduled to come into port, was pushed back until 3pm after its arrival was delayed. Mainstream media outlets reported that as many as 5,000 protesters turned out for the Aug. 16 event, but Port of Oakland staff and the Oakland Police Department pegged the count at just 500, according to port spokesperson Marilyn Sandifur.
The march, which progressed from the West Oakland BART station to the main entrance of the port, culminated with speakers sounding off at a rally instead of staging a blockade as planned, since the ship remained at sea. An online ship tracking service showed that as the crowd was taking off from the West Oakland station, the vessel was still off the coast of Santa Cruz.
In the early evening on the following day, in a hastily planned action organized via Twitter and text-message alert, groups of 20 to 50 protesters bearing signs and flags showed up and began picketing outside four entrance gates leading into Berths 57 and 59.
“Since the end of the day yesterday, we had kind of been monitoring whether or not the ship was going to be coming,” explained organizer Sharif Zakout. “We weren’t sure whether it was going to skip Oakland entirely, or if they were going to try and come again today, as they ended up doing. … When we first got here, there were about 10 to 15 of us, and about 10 cops. We just started walking in circles.”
The picketing continued about 5-8 p.m., while a small number of Oakland police officers stood calmly in lines blocking the gates to dock entrances. The small picket line nevertheless prevented dockworkers from beginning their shifts and unloading cargo. The shipping company did not respond to requests for comment.
A member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, who stood nearby observing the protest and declined to be named or quoted, explained that there is a low threshold for the union to deem a picket line to be unsafe to cross. That’s partially due to a history of police use of rubber bullets at the port, causing dockworker injuries when a 2003 port shutdown was mounted in response to the first Iraq war. Normally, an independent arbitrator would have made the call, but since union members are currently working without a contract, that decision was made independently.
Around dusk on Aug. 17, organizer Lara Kiswani, executive director of the San Francisco-based Arab Resource & Organizing Center, confirmed to reporters that she’d gotten word from ILWU Local 10 that dockworkers arriving for the evening shift had been turned away and sent to the union hall instead.
“Our members have been going to the union halls every morning, at five in the morning, to the hiring halls, where the workers go and get their assignments for the day,” Kiswani explained in an Aug. 16 interview. “We go there … to leaflet, and let them know about this action, because we didn’t want to just show up.”
Clarence Thomas, speaking on Aug. 16 as a rank-and-file member of ILWU Local 10, noted that the union had supported a similar blockade of an Israeli vessel that took place in 2010, in response to an Israeli attack on a flotilla that was ferrying humanitarian workers to Gaza.
“I think it was remarkable because it was the first time that organized labor had actually ever taken a position against the Israeli government,” Thomas said. “And they passed resolutions supporting that action, and that vessel didn’t work for 24 hours. Now, four years later, another action is taking place against the Zim vessel, this time for the atrocities that have taken place in Gaza.”
Thomas said this protest could become part of a broader movement: “The Zim vessel doesn’t just come to the Port of Oakland. It goes to other ports. What will the community do, and what will longshoremen do, when that vessel goes to those ports? If they followed the example here, they’re not going to work it.”
In a statement that was included in a press packet prepared by protest organizers, Jack Heyman, a retired member of ILWU Local 10 and chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee, noted that Aug. 16 was selected to commemorate striking mineworkers who were killed in 2012 by the South African government in what became known as the Marikana Massacre.
“It has become a seminal event in the history of South African working class struggles,” Heyman wrote. “The Transport Workers Solidarity Committee calls on transport workers the world over to refuse to work Israeli cargo on ships, rails, planes, or trucks on Aug. 16.”