“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Friday, December 27, 2013


About ten days ago, I attended “Homeless Connect,” a kind of trade show for poor folks.  At a big auto show, all the most important car manufacturers in the world would have exhibits staffed by representatives who engage in conversations with attendees and disseminate lots of information regarding new products from their companies.  It would be the same at MacWorld or at the Consumer Electronics Show -- and it was exactly like that at “Homeless Connect.”

The Bill Graham Auditorium in the Civic Center was packed with tables staffed by representatives from (I would guess) more than 100 agencies or businesses that provide services for the poor.  The show also included a café where we were served a free lunch.  When we were finished, the path to the exit led us by tables laden with food from the Glide Memorial Methodist Church food bank, and nearly everyone left with a big bag of groceries.

I have learned in the last couple of years that there is a surprisingly wide range of resources available to the poor but that accessing them is not often easy.  When I used to go to the UCSF School of Dentistry for my dental care, I told friends that “they operate on the old Soviet system:  instead of a filing costing you a certain number of dollars, it costs you a certain number of hours in line.”  So too most services for the homeless and hungry can be had only after lining up any number of times – and that after traveling (usually by bus) to a remote location where the charity or government agency can afford to rent office space.

The nature of bureaucracies compounds the problem, since multiple layers of oversight and compliance require multiple forms and filings to qualify for whatever benefit is offered, requiring more lines and more waiting.  Sometimes I think that the politicians who write the laws that govern these things just want to be sure that no one is “getting off easy.”  If you are unemployed, they seem to think, the least you can do is show up at multiple meetings or individual appointments at multiple locations over a period of a week or more – just so we know that you aren’t getting something for nothing, even if the work you are being made to do is of benefit to no one, mind-numbingly tedious, and corrosive to your own sense of dignity or self-worth.

Not only that, but all the time spent queuing for this and that only makes it harder and harder to get on with a search for a real job.

Back to “Homeless Connect”:  a friend of mine needed to get a California picture I.D., an item which is necessary if you want to enroll in any government program.  At the DMV, he would have had to wait in line for hours.  Even if he called or went online to make an appointment, the next available one would probably be weeks away.  He would also have had to spend an hour or more on buses getting to and from the DMV office.  But at “Homeless Connect” he got his I.D. after waiting in a line less than twenty minutes.  And I was able to do something I had been meaning to do for months:  I submitted an application for a free phone and free monthly wireless service through the “Assurance” program ( which, by the way, I mistakenly called “Access“ in the post titled “Accounts Payable.”).

“Homeless Connect” was also like other trade shows in that it attracted so many people that the organizers had to issue tickets.  The tickets came in the non-transferable form of wristbands secured on your wrist by the official handing them out.  The wristbands were printed with admission times so that manageable numbers of people would flow through the facility throughout the day.  Men in bright yellow vests began to distribute the wristbands in the huge open square that is the heart of the Civic Center beginning at about 7:45 am.  I got mine at about 8:00, which allowed me to enter at 11:00 am.

Different color wristbands granted entry at different times.  I was looking at my wristband and smiling as I walked back home to eat breakfast.  My wristband was orange.

The last time I had worn an orange wristband, I had been a guest of the county, first at 850 Bryant and then at Bruno.  As I told you in Bruno, this label is affixed to your wrist as part of the dehumanizing and demoralizing process of being booked into the System.  It cannot be removed with anything less than a very sharp pair of scissors -- not something that one is allowed in jail.  Not even the officer who hands you back the clothes that you were wearing and the contents of your pockets at the time of your arrest will lend you a pair of scissors; nor will she cut it off herself.  Apparently, you must not be allowed to be anything more than an object while within the Sherriff’s domain, even if you are walking out the door.

I complained of this to the officer who handed me my property.

“O don’t worry, honey -- you’re gonna want that.”

Her condescension evoked a bitterly sarcastic response which I need not report.

“No,” she said, “that’s gonna get you a free ride on MUNI anywhere you want to go.  Just show it to the driver when you get on.”

Mumbling to myself, I carried my clothes into the alcove provided, stripped off my orange, dressed in my own clothes, and walked through the doors to the waiting area.  There I sat down and laced my shoes.  (When I was processed in, I was allowed to keep my own shoes, because they did not have any size 15 orange slippers, but I had to surrender the laces and shuffle around with my shoes half-fallen off for the ten days I was inside.)

Walking into fresh cool air was sweet not in the way sugar is sweet but in the way that moonlight is sweet.  I wandered away from the jail texting friends with the news that I was out and then began to consider where I should head for the fast-approaching night.  In jail, my Chinese friend (see Accounts Payable) had told me about a place nearby where I could get a room for $50, but there was, so to speak, no room at the inn.  I remembered that I had once been able to rent a room for about $75 at a motel across town on Lombard Street.  So I walked to Van Ness and waited for the cross-town bus.

It was now close to nine o’clock and very dark.  I had been wandering around SOMA and then walking out Market Street for a little more than an hour.  All that time, I did my best to keep my wristband, which was both a bright orange badge of shame and an advertisement to others to “Beware!”, pushed way up on my forearm, where the muscle was thick enough to keep it from slipping down to my wrist.  I wanted it well hidden under the sleeve of my shirt.  I had to keep pushing it back up my arm as it kept sliding down to my wrist.

I have to admit that there were a couple of dicey blocks that I traversed where I decided that I, a middle-aged white man with close-cropped hair and clean, neat clothing, might become a target (beggars; muggers), and I not only let my wristband slide out of my cuff but even casually rolled up my sleeves to just below the elbow so that everyone could see it.  I noticed quick looks that were registering my appearance, sizing me up, judging my potential as prey, relax into subtle smiles of recognition when they saw the orange on my arm.  So I felt more relaxed, indeed I felt safer, walking with my orange wristband through the knots of my fellow creatures along the sidewalk.

When the doors of the 49 Van Ness MUNI bus opened, I held my banded wrist up for the driver to see but pulled it back under cover of the cuff of my sleeve to hide it from the other passengers.  I sat down quickly, in the first seat inside the door, where no one was close to me.  After a couple of blocks, I asked the driver whether he stopped right at Lombard, and if he did not, where I should get off.  He named the stop just prior to Lombard and assured me that he would alert me when we got there.

The trip was quick and uneventful.  As we approached my stop, the driver told me we were there.  I thanked him and said something about looking for a reasonable motel.  As I stepped off the bus, I again thanked him for his help.

“Don’t mention it, Sir” he replied.  “You are my Number One passenger tonight.  Have a good night.  And good luck.”

I was at first confused by what I took as misplaced flattery.  What did he mean by that?  Then I remembered my wristband.  A heat of shame ran through me, leaving me a bit resentful:  was he being sarcastic with me, an old white man who should be a well-to-do retired something but who instead was just out of jail?  I was, after all, so obviously not important.  Then I felt ashamed of having questioned the driver’s sincerity, and I decided that his exaggerated graciousness stemmed from a sense that he did not know what an appropriate comment might be, and he had tried too hard to make up for it.

As the days and weeks passed, however, I came to see the meaning in his words and to appreciate the depth of soul that this MUNI driver had shared with me.  I see now that the moment shone with grace.  He was the angel (the word means “messenger”) come to welcome me into the light with an acknowledgement that I had crossed over into the realm of that “common humanity” I wrote about in my first posting to this blog (“A Cup of Coffee.”)  I realized that his brothers or father or uncles or even he himself probably had had experience with riding MUNI free with an orange wristband.  Even now I feel sadness, gratitude, longing, honor, and truth when I remember his words.

The driver had said what he meant, and I can only hope that the goodwill I feel toward him will be somehow manifest in the days of his life.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Inappropriate Behavior, Part Two

I remember being both mystified and irritated, back when I owned and drove a car, when usually poor, usually black, people would cross the street against the light in front of me, as if daring me to hit them. Their demeanor was almost always erratic, inattentive, and slow. Sometimes they seemed intoxicated; sometimes over-medicated; sometimes mentally ill. They seemed barely to notice me or my car. Only once in a great while would one of them give me a hard, direct look in the eye, as if to say ‘I know exactly what I am doing, and you can’t do anything about it.”

I became upset, in part, because it seemed such a dangerous, even potentially suicidal, thing to do. I would cringe in empathetic anguish at the mere possibility of serious injury, as one does when one sees a dog or a small child wander into traffic. I resented what seemed a toying with my emotions as I was made to feel such fear and anxiety on behalf of someone who appeared so extremely irresponsible and careless of their own safety.

I tried to think of explanations for this annoying behavior. I thought it could be a variation on a set of practices going back hundreds of years; a slave’s strategy. As such, it might be a form of resistance, a willful getting in the way of the oppressor, just as moving slowly, especially while working, had been one of the few forms of resistance for a slave.

I also thought, on a more basic, existential and psychological level, that crossing against traffic might be one of the few expressions of power available to people who have neither money nor institutional position with which to exercise their will. I am enough of a follower of Nietzsche to believe that the ability to realize the power of one’s will is essential to human existence. This rudimentary form of pedestrian civil disobedience is not significant enough to get you thrown in jail, but it is a way to throw a monkey-wrench (or a wooden shoe) into the machinery of a society that has devalued and disregarded your humanity.

Nowadays I find myself smiling with delight when I see a brother saunter casually toward an intersection, arriving at the corner just as the light turns against him, and then stepping smartly into the crosswalk and blocking all those people who had anxiously watched for the green light and stabbed the accelerator with their toes the instant the signal changed. Their cars make a half-jump into flight and then lurch to a stop so as not to hit the errant pedestrian. You can almost hear them cursing him, except that the glass and steel surrounding them is designed so efficiently to cut them off from actually being in contact with us that we cannot hear them. And you can almost see the cartoon-steam blasting out of their ears.

The pleasure I take on these occasions is akin to the anger I feel when, crossing with the light, as I am wont to do, I am startled by a car, especially if it is an SUV, bearing down on me at a reckless speed. These drivers seem to race to the white line that demarks my safety, charging toward a red light and then braking at the last possible moment. My heart always leaps into my throat in the very moment that my peripheral vision picks up this rapidly approaching large metal object. And nowadays rather than scurrying to the curb, which I feel they want me to do (“Get out of my way, low-life!”), I automatically slow my pace to a crawl, sometimes even to a stop, lingering right in front of the offending vehicle’s bumper. I stare through the windshield, sneering at the driver. Sometimes I hold out the index finger of my right hand and shake it at them, as if to say “Tsk-tsk-tsk. Shame on you.”

The drivers who are in such a hurry now seem to me callous, self-involved, and downright rude. Indeed, they have made me realize that the automobile, quite probably the single most destructive invention ever devised by humans, is the actual demarcation of a class line. Here in the Tenderloin, we pedestrians are the poor, and the cars that rush along our streets carry members of classes that lie at least two or three steps above ours. And in addition to being sealed off from us by these multi-ton boxes in which they ride, the speed at which they move is another clear manifestation of their disdain for us and of their intense desire not to have to interact with us in any kind of personal encounter.

[About the automobile: not only has this invention quite likely destroyed the delicate ecological balance that has provided a habitat in which human beings could flourish, possibly leading to the extinction of the species, but it has also torn apart the web of interactions among individuals that defined our societies. In cities born since the beginning of the twentieth century, individuals now glide past one another encased in tons of glass and steel that prevent communication and even recognition of one another. People no longer exchange ideas and goods and services and opinions and themselves with each other in the kind of public spaces -- market, forum, plaza -- that constituted what a city -- and therefore what a civilization -- was.]

I am reminded of the French aristocrats in the time of Louis XIV to Louis XVI who were carried on the shoulders of two or four strong men through the crowded streets in wooden boxes, “sedan chairs,” holding under their noses oranges studded with cloves, or something else that would give off a strong but pleasant odor, so that they would not  have to see or smell the vulgar masses.

And we all know where their disdain for and indifference to their fellow human beings led them in fairly short order.  [See Accounts Payable.]
So you in your BMWs, Escalades, and Priuses -- how’s that workin’ out for ya?

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Our Minds Are Not Our Own, Part Four

My great-great-grandfather was a newspaperman.  He worked on, published, or owned, about half a dozen newspapers in Northern California and the Nevada Territory from the 1850s until his death in 1897.  His death, from heart failure, was sudden, and the city where he lived, Tuscarora, Nevada, felt his loss deeply.  As the newspaper account of his death remarked on the day after the funeral, “seldom has a larger or more sincere  concourse of people assembled to pay their last respects to a citizen as that which gathered yesterday.”  His obituary not only praises his many virtues, as one would expect, but also gives a well-rounded description of his character, rich in details as to his manner, his habits, and his affable temper.

But his obituary then goes beyond this account of the individual man and expands to a philosophical view of human mortality.  I cannot but think that the ideas given here were my great-great-grandfather’s, not only because they are part of his obituary but also because that obituary was most likely written by one of his sons:

"None can say what the future will bring forth. Today we dream of futures, for "hope springs eternal in the human breast." Tomorrow we lay still and cold in death, and the places which knew us shall know us no more.

Generation after generation have felt as we do now, that their lives were as active as our own. The heavens will be as bright over our graves as they are around our paths. Yet a little while and all this will have happened. The throbbing heart will be stilled and we be at rest. Our funeral will wend its way and the prayers will be said, and we will be left in the darkness and silence of the tomb.

And it may be for a time we will be spoken of, but as the things of life creep on, our names will be forgotten. Days will move on, and laughter be heard in the room where we died, and then eyes that mourned for us be dried and animated with joy, and even our children will cease to think of us and remember to lisp our names no more. ‘Tis better so, else the world would be borne down under the burden of grief and woe. 

Let there be life that bears no stain of reproach for an evil deed done or an opportunity missed to extend a helping had to the distressed, downtrodden or miserable, and secure in the record of a stainless life, may we

'Go not as the quarry slave at night, 
Scourged to his dungeon; but sustained and soothed 
By an unfaltering trust, approach our graves 
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch 
About him and lies down to peaceful dreams'"

What I find particularly interesting in this view of our mortality is that it is so thoroughly classical (i.e. Stoic) and so thoroughly un-Christian.  And in addition to the Greco-Roman philosophy underlying this view, I also detect a very Northern, i.e., Scandinavian, tone to the imagery.  (My great-great-grandfather’s parents immigrated to New York state from Wales.) 

I am reminded of the Venerable Bede’s metaphor for our life:  he likens it to a bird who flies into the Mede Hall during a winter night, circles in the warmth of the fire, feeds on scraps dropped to the floor, and soon flies out again into the storm.  

Our lives are but a brief stay in warmth and comfort before we depart again into the dark and the cold.  I confess that this view feels more truthful to me than the Christian Heaven and Hell (the one very bright and the other very hot.)  And reading this obituary makes it seem as though my melancholy take on things might come naturally to me as an inheritance from my forefathers.

The lack of Christian imagery of a heavenly afterlife is even more striking since I recently learned that this man’s father was often called upon to preach on Sunday mornings to the men in the mining camps of California during the 1850s.  What on earth could those sermons have been like?


Like my great-great-grandfather, my father was a writer.  And now, here am I.  


The last time I saw my father was a couple of days before his release from the Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek.  On the following day, I would be flying back to New York, where I lived and worked.

My father and mother had been on their way to Rio de Janeiro aboard a cruise ship, one of the Princess ships operated by the venerable P&O line, when my father suffered congestive heart failure.  When they arrived at Rio, my father was transferred from the ship to a hospital where he stayed for three weeks, until the doctors were confident that he could endure the long flight back of San Francisco.

When I first heard of his collapse, I started planning to fly to Rio.  My mother, however, assured me that he was being given excellent care and that she, for whom a second bed had been brought into his private room, was well taken care of, too.  So by the time they returned to California and I booked a flight to visit them, over a month had passed since his collapse.

I stayed with my mother in their condo for the week, and we visited my father daily.  He was feeling pretty good that last day of my visit.  Like my mother, he was happy to learn that I had begun the process of transferring from the branch office in which I worked in New York to one in Oakland so that within a couple of months I would be back on the west coast and close to them.

On that last day, my mother, my eldest sister, and I had been with him all afternoon.  As visiting hours ended, my mother and sister left the room while I remained standing beside his bed.  As soon as they had gone, my father said, “Look after those two.”

I assured him that I would.

Then he said, “You know, son, last night I couldn’t sleep much.  I spent a long time just lying in this bed, in the dark.”  He paused.  When he continued it was with a tone of voice that seemed as serious, calm, and enduring as words carved in stone.  “And I realized something:  we are not alone.”

I did not ask what he meant, whether angels or ghosts had gathered around him that previous night.  The important aspect of his meaning was clear in the tone of his voice.   The quiet assurance with which he spoke meant that this was a fact that brought comfort, ease of mind, and peace at heart to him.

I probably smiled as I answered him saying “O, I know.”  Although I was over forty years younger than he, I had already buried so many of my friends that I had become familiar with experiencing the presence of those around us who are incorporeal.


My parents had undertaken the cruise to South America that year in part to be alone together somewhere beautiful and comfortable on the first anniversary of the death of their three-year old grandson.  have mentioned his death before with reference to my sister’s grief.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that the death of one’s child is the most horrific and most painful loss imaginable, but I have not heard mention of the pain such an event causes the grandparents.  Their grandchildren are extensions of their own children and no less precious.  So grandparents are wounded in the same way that parents are, and in addition they have the pain of seeing their own child’s monstrous suffering too.

I remember that, in the afternoon of the little boy’s funeral, as mourners crowded my sister’s house, spilling over into the garden and the orchard on their ranch, I caught sight of my father sitting alone in an out-of-the-way corner inside house.  His head was bowed low over his chest and his shoulders rounded as they slumped forward, his entire body appearing literally deflated, as if his head, were he left to sit there just a bit longer, would soon be in his own lap.  I do not doubt that much of his willingness to live died within him that day.

And a little over a year later, he was dead.


I visited Tuscarora, Nevada a few summers ago.  Once the largest town in northern Nevada, with a population of five thousand, it now has a population of at most two dozen.  It is the town in which my great-great-grandfather spent his final years.

I met some of the current inhabitants, among whom the ancient virtues of hospitality and friendly conversation thrive.  I learned from them that the largest ranch in the valley, which he had owned, is still called by his name.  Then as I made my way out of town, I stopped at the cemetery.

As I stepped through the gate, I turned around and looked back over the whole valley.  I was surprised to see how green it was even though it was late summer in a region that is otherwise high desert.  I was also struck by the impression that the view -- from a place that I could not have found on a map just a few weeks before -- seemed familiar to me.  I thought that perhaps “familiar” was not the right word for my feeling and that “lovely” or “comfortable” might be more accurate.  I wanted to name my feeling accurately, and conventional ideas, namely that the mind’s understanding is limited to that which has been experienced by the individual body in which it is believed to reside, told me that I could not possibly regard this view as “familiar.”

About ten minutes later, I found my great-great-grandfather’s grave within a family plot surrounded by a low wooden picket fence.  At the center of the plot stood a white marble obelisk, twelve or fifteen feet in height.  On its sides I read the dates of my great-great-grandfather’s birth and death and the dates of the birth and death of his son and his grandson, who are buried with him.  The grandson, aged two years, had died a day before the son, the baby’s father, died.  My great-great-grandfather died almost exactly a year later.  I thought of my father, sitting slumped over in my sister’s house, and I realized that my great-great-grandfather must have felt much of himself die within him, too, when he had to bury his grandson and his son.

I found one more thing while in that cemetery.  I am surprised now to realize that I do not remember whether it happened before I found the grave, or at the time I turned to look out over the valley, or afterward.  What I do remember is a sudden, vertiginous experience, as if the ground beneath me had opened -- or rather as if from the soles of my feet huge stone or steel shafts had thrust themselves down into the earth far, far below me.  I felt as if the legs on which I stood extended hundreds of feet into the crust of the earth.  And simultaneously, I seemed to view the valley spread before me from eyes that opened way back in my head, as if my head were a mask and my own eyes the little cut-out holes through which this second set of eyes could peer at the world.

I found myself thinking, “O -- I have come back.”

I found myself thinking “O -- he is here inside me.”

Why wouldn’t his thoughts be knitted into mine as surely as is his DNA?

When I returned home from my trip and told my sisters about my great-great-grandfather having lost his son and grandson a year before he died, I learned that none of them had know that fact.  Clearly, neither had my father.  Is it strange then that he should have re-lived his great-grandfather’s tragic loss and have followed the same path to death as well?

Were the two men separate?  Or did one being exist at two different times, like a quantum particle that is in two places at the same time or in two times at once?

Our minds are not our own.

And we are not alone.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Accounts Payable

 I could see the chairs through the windows that ran the full length of the Church Street side of the laundromat .  The chairs were hard, molded plastic of assorted bright colors, and they stood on shiny legs of aluminum tubing.  The obvious function achieved by their design was to lend a splash of color to the otherwise drab laundromat while also creating, for anyone who might sit in them, sufficient discomfort to prevent lingering.

The same ethos was evident outside, where the concrete planter boxes, which also ran the length of the laundromat, had iron grille work arching over them so that no one could make the mistake of getting comfortable while perched on the edge of the box..  (People sitting there would look so unattractive to passers by, don‘t you think?)  It is perhaps the most dominate fact about the design of virtually all public spaces in the United States:  any provision of seating must be awkward to use -- either too low or too high, or lacking any back support at all -- and must be made of hard, uncomfortable materials.

I certainly knew enough not to try to rest outside.  I knew that inside would be better.  I could see that he chairs inside at least had backs and could hold a seated body upright, allowing the legs to bend and the feet to rest flat directly below the knees.  So I entered the laundromat and sat in one of the chairs.  In the moment that I sat down I realized that I could not have continued walking, could not even have stood still, without soon collapsing in a heap on the unforgiving concrete

Our bodies will do most all that we demand of them up until the moment that we relax a bit.  Then the full weight of the burden with which we have laden them seems to settle like a leaden blanket all at once, forcing us to fall inward and sometimes outward as well.  I could not understand why I was so tired.  I had walked only half the length of Dolores Park along the Church street side (from approximately Nineteenth Street to the corner of Church and Eighteenth Streets) and all downhill.  I had waited for the traffic light and had then walked only one more block along Church Street, only slightly uphill, to the laundromat at the corner of Seventeenth Street.  Yet that small effort had overwhelmed me.

The night before I had not been lucky enough to find a place to be inside.  So I had passed the night walking through the city.  Block after block, street after street, crossing dozens of unmarked borders as I moved from neighborhood to neighborhood:  Castro to Lower Haight, Lower Haight to Hayes Valley, Hayes Valley to Civic Center to SOMA and down to the Embarcadero, then circling back up through SOMA, passing the Yerba Buena Gardens and the Moscone Center, looking in the windows of the Four Seasons and the W, then walking on out through the Mission and eventually, as morning broke, returning to the Castro.

I stopped at Dolores Park, where the Mission and the Castro meet.  I had walked for seven or eight hours, both to keep warm and to avoid becoming a target for mean or desperate people -- or rats.  Then, as the sun rose, I put down my backpack and my messenger’s bag, stretched out on the grass using them as pillows, spread my coat over me like a blanket, and at last fell asleep in the warmth of the new day.

When I awoke, I was surrounded by hundreds of people.  They were enjoying the midday sun in the park, talking about work and boyfriends and girlfriends and all the rest of their busy, young, bourgeois lives.  I remember becoming conscious of their voices long before  I opened my eyes.  I lay for a long time in a dreamy and luxurious kind of lassitude, the calm brought on by complete physical exhaustion.

Lying there, I listened.  The group nearest me had at some point all been at school together and had afterward scattered around the country, most along the eastern seaboard and the Pacific coast.  Some combination of business and pleasure travel, perhaps focused on some occasion marked by their Alma Mater, had now gathered them together.  They talked about their travels and their work, and the women gossiped about relationships or the personalities of friends evidently not present at the moment.

I remember being mildly bemused at the energy and seriousness with which they discussed the ephemera of their and their friends’ lives.  I rolled my eyes inwardly at the extended analysis they made of the choices they were facing -- whether to change jobs, whether to go on vacation now or in three weeks, how and where to travel when they did -- all embellished with detail meant to manifest their own importance.

It was when I eventually roused myself from that dreamy darkness and opened my eyes that I saw the throng of twenty and thirty year olds who had the leisure to enjoy a few hours in the sun on a weekday afternoon.  I had lain unnoticed, apparently, among them, some guy who had fallen asleep in the sun.  Did they see me as homeless?  Or did my general cleanliness and neat luggage, which looked for all the world like a gym bag and a kind of briefcase, allow them to take me as one of their kind, albeit a bit older?  Eventually I stretched and stood up, shouldered my luggage, and began that short walk to Church Street and the laundromat.

Sitting at last on one of the hard plastic chairs, I knew that I would not be able to rise without help, no matter how uncomfortable I might become. I pulled my phone from my pocket and for the first time in my life dialed 9-1-1.  My memory of the wait for help is cloudy, but I know that immediately after the call ended, I felt embarrassed, thinking that I hadn’t really needed to call, that I was being weak and self-indulgent, and that the emergency resources were doubtless needed by people who at that moment were far worse off than I.  I felt as though I had called in sick to work when I was really feeling pretty good but just didn’t want to go to work that day.  I know that my stomach and bowels were also increasing distressed.  I felt nauseated and had painful cramps.


The kindest man I met in Bruno was Chinese, with a taut, muscular body and many tattoos.  He had been born in Shanghai and had moved to the United States as a child.  He had, he told me at one point, made some bad moves in his youth, had become active in a gang as a teenager, and as a result had spent thirteen years in prison before being released a few years before our meeting.  He had turned his life around in prison and had lived within the law after his release.  He had completed his parole and was free.

But now he had been arrested for shoplifting, and seeing the long list of crimes on his RAP sheet (Record of Arrest and Prosecution), the cops and the judge were coming down on him hard.  He told me that he had been cheated of a good part of his earnings at work and in a pique of anger, he had made his way through Nordstrom picking up lots of luxury goods and heading out of the store without paying for them.  He was very clear about his mistake and the emotional turmoil that had motivated him to make it.  He was calm and at peace with himself, though he betrayed a sorry regret at having lost his self-control.

He was a strong, self-contained, and thoughtful man, keeping to himself for the most part.  He was the only one of us who did not have to share his cell.  I would watch him doing his exercise routine in his cell while the rest of us were in the central yard, talking, watching TV, playing cards or reading.  His workouts combined elements of western calisthenics and eastern martial arts, balancing strength and poise in disciplined physical actions. 

I attribute much of his kindness toward me to two things: respect, both for my age and for my education, and sympathy for a bewildered neophyte, someone who had no experience with the regime or the society behind bars.  When he saw that I was not getting sufficient food (indeed, I was so hungry that I could not sleep at night), he shared his food with me.  He even offered to let me stay in a spare room in his house in the Sunset District if I had nowhere to go after being released.

I remember that he displayed an attitude almost of astonishment when he learned that I was close to sixty years old and had never been in jail before.  I suppose he wondered how someone who had managed to avoid a life outside the law for so long could end up at this late date in the custody of the sheriff.  I think he had a sense of the Order of Things that served as foundation for building his life.  I think he found my fate to be a sign of a fundamental disturbance in the Order of Things.  And when he learned that I had a Ph.D., he became almost agitated and began to pour energy into finding me the best deal he could from a bail bondsman and telling me repeatedly with great conviction that I would be out within twenty-four hours.  (He was right.)

I will never forget what he said about this country:  “When you live in America, you have to learn to lie.”


I should have remembered his wisdom when the cops questioned me in the laundromat.  How did I feel?  Sick.  Did I need to go to the hospital?  I didn’t know: (I thought they should be telling me what the best course of action would be.)  Had I been using drugs?  Well, two or three nights before I had smoked meth (one of those occasions when getting high and performing sexually with great energy were the price of shelter for the night).  But it wasn’t much and enough time had passed for it to be clear of my system.

I should have lied.  In the moment that the words left my mouth, the cops lost all concern for me.  No longer a senior citizen who was suffering from the sudden onset of illness, I was now a drug user, most likely and out-and-out addict, and therefore deserved neither sympathy nor respect.  In fact I didn’t even deserve this emergency medical response (the ambulance just then pulling up) and was nothing more than a burden on society and the refuse of the streets.

I got the same cold shoulder in the Emergency Room at San Francisco General Hospital.  I was allowed to lie on a bed in a room full of beds and patients.  One patient was apparently a heroin addict well known to the staff who did their best to calm her while deflecting her rants.  After about an hour of neglect, I was told that since they could not identify anything wrong with me, I had to leave.

I shuffled slowly out into the pre-dawn light, bent forward with the cramps in my belly, hungry and aching and most of all tired, too tired to think.  I saw a bus at the curb and boarded it, falling asleep within a few blocks.  I was awakened by the driver telling me that we were at the end of the line and I had to get off.  I lifted my eyes and saw the empty interior of the bus and outside the morning light breaking soft and gray.  We were at Ocean Beach, and the cold damp morning breeze off the Pacific woke me as I wandered slowly toward the dunes.

There I found a sheltered concavity atop the dunes, the sloping walls topped with long, swaying grasses, that was deep enough to block the wind and open enough to let the sunlight, when it finally broke through the fog, warm me and comfort me.  I don’t know how long I slept.  It was not minutes but hours.  And I slept soundly.

I woke up awash in sunlight and quiet happiness.  The sound of the sea and the wet salt in my nose made me smile.  (I have always thought of the ocean as Mother.  I was born under the sign of Pisces, after all, but I also note that the Latin word for the sea, and thus the words of all the Romance Languages, are forms of “Mare,” e.g. mer, mar.  Or should  we say these words are all forms of “Mary”, as in the Mother of God?)

I allowed myself to rest in the warmth of the sun for a time, and only when I felt a positive desire to get on with my day did I rise.  I gathered my heavy clothes, which I had taken off and then piled back on top of me as bedding, and shouldered my backpack and my messenger’s bag.  I began to walk down off the dunes, planning to stroll along the beach for a while before deciding which streetcar or bus to take back downtown.  I had not gone far at all when my bowels let go and my pants filled with shit.  The heat and the stench made me feel helpless and deeply, deeply ashamed.

I tried to find a spot in the dunes where I would be completely hidden but could not.  I eventually found a place where I would be only partially exposed and took off my shoes, socks, pants, and underwear.  The socks were least soiled so I wiped myself as best I could with them.  By now the filth was drying and the stench lessened a bit.  Then I had to put my pants on again (underwear and socks had to be trashed), knock as much sand as I could off my feet, and put on my shoes.  I still stank so badly that I felt light-headed and queasy just breathing.

I called my friend A.B., who has been a true angel throughout these dark times, and he came to pick me up.  Even having opened all three windows of his pick-up truck (two side windows and the window at the back of the cab that gives onto the bed) the air inside was horrendous.  I did my best to sit on things that would protect the seat beneath me.  A.B. took me to a friend’s apartment and I showered there.

Throughout this ordeal, I could not stop mentally lecturing both the cops and the staff at the E.R. angrily.  I longed to be standing right in front of them, close enough to violate their personal space, my right index finger stabbing the air with emphasis at every word while the stench of my diseased shit rapidly filled the entire workplace, bringing them all close to retching.

“You see?” I imagined myself saying.  “I really was sick.  You should have let me stay in the E.R. so that I could run to a toilet when I had to.  Just because I was honest about having been high a few days before, you all judged me, found me wanting, and neglected my very real medical needs.”

Of course I would never have a chance to make my speech.  And even if I did, I doubt that a single instance of speaking truth to power would actually change any of their bourgeois prejudices.  Speaking truth does not always result in anyone hearing the truth.  More often than not, no one is really listening.  Instead of hearing the argument or exposition of facts that a speaker carefully develops, most people hear only the few words that carry the greatest emotional or moral charge at the moment.  So it was that my interlocutors heard bogey-man words (“crystal meth”) and jumped to their conclusions.  I would have been more politely helped by the police and would have received better medical care if I had not been completely honest.

“When you live in America, you have to learn to lie.”


These days calls from collection agencies mostly make me laugh.  Mostly -- but not always.  After all, I do feel bad about being unable to pay my bills.  Even though in years past I did not always pay my bills on time, I always paid them eventually.  But when I found myself actually going broke and getting evicted three years ago, I sometimes lashed out at the caller who was trying to bully me into sending money that I did not have.

I did not want to duck the calls.  I thought that I should answer them because I believed that my creditors had a right to know what the facts of my financial situation were.  I thought that I should explain my situation so that the lender and I could work together on a course of action for the future.  I expected the caller to make notes on my account in order to make sure that when I was able to make payments again, everything would go smoothly.  Some institutions did work in this fashion, but others did not.

I remember one phone call vividly.  A woman employed by Discover Card, in Reno or Las Vegas no doubt, demanded that I send money that I did not have and then began to berate me.  “Did you think you could just buy things even though you didn’t have the money to afford them?  That’s like going into a restaurant and ordering dinner when you don’t have the money to pay for it.”

Already living in a state of panic that did not let up at any time day or night, I lit into her good.  I began, I seem to remember, with a few choice four-letter words casting aspersions on her humanity.  Then I told her that when I had made the purchases on my card, I had every reason to believe that I would be able to make the payments.  I explained that circumstances had changed and that now I was not able to make the payments which I had fully intended to make.  (No kidding circumstances had changed:  this was in late 2008 or early 2009.)

“But some of these charges date back only a month or less.  How could you think you had the right to do that?  Did you think you could get away with that kind of fraud?”

“I guess you have never been hungry,” I replied sarcastically.  When I continued, I lowered my voice and spoke at a measured pace while also forcing each word out through clenched jaw so that the effect might be something like hearing a furnace or boiler slowly building up greater and greater heat, greater and greater pressure, thus igniting the listener’s anxiety as to what magnitude of explosion might be about to erupt.

“When you are running out of money,” I said, “you still pay your bills and rent and things until the very last.  And you do what you must, using every tool you can, to keep eating and to stay in your house.”  I knew that the words were reasonable, but I hoped that what she really heard would be the barely contained fury seething beneath them.  I think I ended by expressing my fondest hope that she would become homeless and find herself starving some day soon so that she might understand what life is really like.

Then I hung up on her.

Well, low and behold, what should I get one day last week but a call from the San Francisco City Government, Bureau of Delinquent Revenue, demanding that I pay over $1200 for an ambulance ride a year ago.  At first I thought it might be the ride I had when my detached retina needed emergency surgery, but the wheedling bully on the other end of the call soon supplied enough detail to remind me that the cops at the laundromat had called an ambulance to take me to General.

I was casually letting her know that she could demand anything she wanted but that she could not, as they say, squeeze blood out of a stone.  Then I heard her say something that flipped my Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder switch from “Bumbling Along in Everyday Mode” to “You Dare to Attack and Belittle Me Like This and I Will Rip Your Tongue Out and Jam It Down Your Throat to Shut You Up Mode.”

She said,  “That’s like going into a restaurant and ordering dinner when you don’t have the money to pay for it.”

My wrath erupted in a lahore of molten rock and boiling mud, carrying within it the remains of half a dozen villages that had previously graced the slopes of the volcano but which now slammed into her mangled body.  But the witch would not give up.  In fact she again disrespected me with a taunt:  “Who pays for the phone you are using right now?”

This time I maintained control of myself and the situation with a split-second decision to tell her that I got my phone through the California State “Access” service, which provides poor people with voice and text services, subject to reasonable limits, for $5.00 a month because my only income is General Assistance..

The entire conversation changed abruptly.  She informed me that if I brought a certain document from the County showing the amount of my monthly income, she would see what she could do to eliminate the bill.

The truth is that I have a simple no frills “Dumb Phone” from  ATT. (i.e., it has no internet capability and so is not a “Smart Phone”) which costs me $65 a month.  I know about the state program but have not taken advantage of it.

“When you live in America, you have to learn to lie.”


One evening last week I watched “Check Please, Bay Area,” a show produced by the local public television station in which three “ordinary San Franciscans” (i.e.,  well-heeled bourgeois) each recommend a favorite restaurant, and the other two go check it out.  The three sit at a round table and discuss their dining experiences with a perky blonde hostess.  All four drink wine throughout the show.  The hostess flaunts her expertise as a connoisseur of wines.

[I have to say that in my ‘hood, the TL, the blonde would be just another drunk and would be treated off-handedly at best.  She would probably be required to attend harm-reduction or abstinence meetings three or four times a week as a condition of having housing.]

I cannot watch the show without fantasizing about the episode on which I would appear, the one that reviews St. Anthony’s Dining Room, the meals served at Glide Memorial Methodist Church, and the frozen meals distributed by Project Open Hand.

On the episode that aired the other night, one of the guests, a black woman who works in an office near Civic Center, recommended the Turk and Larkin Deli.  She must be a conscientious and reliable worker, for she has eaten lunch at the Turk and Larkin Deli for thirty years and must therefore have managed to keep her job in the Civic Center area for that length of time.  She was one of the few guests I have seen on the show who was clearly no higher than solidly middle-class and was also refreshingly down to earth.  She emphasized both the quality of the food and the economical prices.

Both of the other guests loved the food and the atmosphere in the restaurant itself.  One of them, however, doubted that he would return because the neighborhood was dangerous.  I kept thinking that he should be embarrassed to say what he said.  This guest, an accountant (Strike One) for a pharmaceutical company (Strike Two -- and in this case “You’re out!”), got me riled up.  It was only natural that my hackles should rise as I heard him disrespect my ‘hood.  But my reaction went beyond that.

First, I felt that he was  making a fool of himself.  This fellow was a tall, sturdy young man without a hint of weakness or even effeminacy in his bearing.  Nothing about him would mark him as a target.  Keep in mind also that he was going to the Deli to eat lunch, which means that he was walking in broad daylight, and that the Deli is but two short blocks from the huge Civic Center, which includes the Asian Art Museum, the Main Library, City hall, and State and Federal office buildings, all of which are heavily guarded.

My second reaction was bafflement as to why he would have thought or, more accurately, have felt himself to be a target for any kind of malfeasance.  (By the way, the other guests and the hostess clucked and “Awwww”ed sympathetically as he spoke.  I was pissed that nobody argued against him.)

I reminded myself that he was an accountant and therefore probably wildly overcautious about most everything in his life, but his annoying disparagement of my home would not let me end there..  I wanted to tell him to get in touch with reality.  I have said countless times to friends and acquaintances who ask me about the safety of the Tenderloin that unless you have recently burned somebody in a bad drug deal, or are so intoxicated that you start picking fights with the other drunks and the crack-heads you encounter, you really aren’t important enough to notice.  Folks around here wouldn’t have given Mr. Fraidy-cat Big-pharma Numbers-cruncher a second glance, let alone a second thought.  He -- and you -- just aren’t worth bothering about.

I was then led to the obvious question:  what makes these honkeys think they’re important enough for a stranger to go to the trouble of doing whatever it is they are so afraid of?  My neighbors know that throwing a punch is as likely as not going to land them in jail, especially if you do it at noon just two or three blocks from City Hall, and they just don’t do it.  The bourgeoisie must think that they appear to us po’ fo’ as magically powerful presences whose manna we would want to get from them by violence.  The egos!  The delusions of grandeur!

Or could it be, I then found myself wondering, that they project hostility on us because they feel guilty?  Perhaps they feel fearful because their unconscious minds, their moral consciences, tell them that their privileged and luxurious way of life comes at the cost of the suffering of the poor.  Perhaps hidden somewhere deep in their shallow souls they hear the knocking and banging of wood on iron as the wheels of the tumbrels bounce and lurch along the street, laden with them and their kind, standing awkwardly with their hands tied behind their backs, approaching the huge open square in front of City Hall, where the already wet blade of the guillotine is being hoist once again and the latest severed head, having been shown to the crowd, is being tossed into the dumpster behind the platform.


Later that evening the same station broadcast a show about statistics.  A Norwegian professor enthused about the ways that statistics can be used to improve your lives.  He named San Francisco as a place where high-tech innovations are making statistical information available to the general public in easy to use “apps.”  He cited with get excitement the availability from the City of maps showing the locations of all reported crimes.

He showed us video of someone driving down Jones Street, a block from where I sit writing this essay, from Nob Hill to “the flats,” i.e., the Tenderloin, with his GPS device showing the surrounding blocks peppered with tags at various addresses naming the kinds of crime reported at each.  I watched closely wondering whether I would recognize any of the pedestrians they were driving past -- or even catch a glimpse of myself!  But I was disappointed.  The professor bubbled over with a naïve glee at what he took as a matter of citizens being able to live better by avoiding dangerous areas.  He thought that such information would stir people to become active citizens and to press their government to improve the life of the polis.  I just saw another way for people to avoid encountering those of their fellow human beings who might need their help.  It struck me as inhumane. 

The ride down Jones Street was followed by a glimpse of a professor at Stanford University who believes that he has found a way to measure human happiness using the internet.  He is studying human happiness by mining data from blogs, tweets, Facebook pages, etc., and quantifying how many times people call themselves, “happy’ or “better” or “good,” on the one hand, and how many times they refer to being “down” or “not feeling well” or “sad,” on the other.  Leaving aside the obvious problem that the messages he counts are consciously crafted to present a desirable image of the writer to her family, her friends, and the world at large, the idea that the narcissistic self-disclosures coming from the richest segment of our society are good evidence of the society‘s well-being is not only absurd but completely lacking in any moral sense. 

"A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members."
~ Mahatma Ghandi


I have said since I was in high school that we live in a Dark Age.  The 20th (and now the 21st) century, at least in this country, has nothing in common with the Athens of Pericles, the England of Elizabeth I, or the Italy of da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo.  Our times have seen the mechanization of human life, a wholesale rejection of nuance, the deification of the individual ego, and inconceivably brutal violence on a planetary scale.  Our physics has become as convoluted and counter-intuitive as any 13th-century theologians catalogue of the hierarchies of Seraphim, Cherubim, et al.

I would guess that little or nothing we have done will stir the imaginations of future generations.  Our devotion to scientific explanation and technological salvation will be rightly described with the attitude we ourselves use when we speak of the medieval debate as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  I can hear T.S. Eliot’s voice lamenting our “the information Age”:

The wisdom lost in knowledge
The knowledge lost in information