“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).

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Pedestrian Thoughts

I just got back from a walk to Amigo’s for milk and sugar, to add to guess-what. 

On the way there, I saw a man sauntering up the block ahead of me, wearing the dark clothes, cap, and heavy, accessory-laden belt of a policeman. I noticed how vulnerable he looked. For a second I asked myself whether he was male of female. When he passed into a patch of sunlight, the sight of his auburn colored, precision-cut hair beneath the back of his cap confirmed the former.

I hoped that I would reach him before the light changed at the corner at Ellis Street. Casually coming up beside him, I could greet him and tell him that it is nice to see an officer out for a walk in the neighborhood. I wondered whether he was on patrol or perhaps just talking his break by going for a walk. I hoped to ask whether the cops were on foot patrol these days but did not speed up my pace to reach him before he reached the corner.

Can you imagine? A policeman in uniform, because still on duty, leaving his loud, back-slapping companions at the station and taking his break not at the proverbial water cooler but out in the sunshine, walking in the plain air, and looking around the same way I do? He did not stop at the light to cross the street but turned left instead.

I reached the corner as the light turned green and crossed to Amigo’s. I looked to my left as I did but could not see him. Then as I stood at the register paying for my milk, sugar, and pan dulce rolls, I saw him walking east on Ellis. I asked the shopkeeper whether the cops were on foot patrol these days.

“No. Something happened. He is just looking around,” he answered.

“I was just thinking,” I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have them just walking around, so we could say ‘Hi’ and they could get to know us and feel like regular humans?”
I lived in Baltimore in the 1970s, in Manhattan in the 1980s, in Oakland in the 1990s, and in San Francisco since the turn of the century, and I have read a lot of articles in newspapers and magazines, from the Baltimore Sun to the New Yorker, about Community Policing. Today I have a gut-level understanding of it. I really wanted to introduce myself to the cop, maybe start to get to know him a bit, and be known to him myself by name eventually.
Crossing Ellis heading home, I saw a squad car parked on the other side of the street, probably his. I began to imagine a world in which everyone encountered the police routinely, day to day, and the police walked around as ordinary citizens, albeit armed and in uniform, like the rest of us. (You might argue that being armed precludes their being ordinary citizens, but believe me, there are plenty of gangstas walking around this neighborhood right now in uniforms of huge baggy clothes, one hand holding up their pants, who are themselves heavily armed.)
In this real world, a two-ton monster made of vicious metal and glass, screaming and flashing pitiless lights, descends on you and disgorges two policemen who accost you, block your freedom of movement, and more likely than not cuff you while intoning the ritual chant, the magic formula, “Under Arrest”. By the magic of those words your identity, your innocence, your intentions and your needs become irrelevant. Your descent into the Inferno of dehumanizing powerlessness (see Bruno) has begun.
And the men and women vomited onto the street by the squad car must feel like big, juicy, delicious targets. They must live each day with the wariness of small rabbits or fawns, desperately trying to see in all directions at once lest they be blindsided by the pounce of the cougar hidden atop the rock ledge overhead.
What if we were all humans? What if we shared the streets, parks, and other public spaces with people just like ourselves, some of whom were equipped to help any of us who were in danger, whether by accident or at the hand of another? What if we weren’t always isolated in boxes of stone or of steel and glass?
Wouldn’t we be less fearful of one another if we were more vulnerable to one another?
And would not the small chance that frail, timid Justice has to lay her healing hand on us all be made just a little bit stronger?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

An After-Dinner Stroll

I passed a corpse a few minutes ago, walking home from Pearl’s at Sixth and Market, where I had dined on a ¼  pound cheeseburger, perfectly cooked, and topped with lettuce and tomato but no onion or mayonnaise.

I had left my hotel a little over an hour before and walked first to the Main Library.  I dropped the volume of Proust that I had finished reading yesterday, a volume containing the fifth and sixth books of In Search of Lost Time, into the Book Return Box in front of the library’s closed doors.  I continued to stand at those doors for about twenty minutes more while using my handheld device to check email, since I no longer have internet access in my room and the library‘s free wireless is on 24/7.

Uncertain about where to eat with only $28 dollars in my account and no income until day after tomorrow, I wandered down Market Street until I remembered that Pearl’s was just ahead and settled on eating there.  I limited myself to a Mini-Burger to keep my tab at $6.00.  I drank the complimentary water and helped myself to five complimentary spears of the best half-sour dill pickles that I have tasted since moving back west from New York in 1990.

As I made my way up Taylor, I was undecided about whether to turn onto Eddy and walk out to Leavenworth (the most direct way home) or to walk up to O’Farrell before turning west (in order to check the prices at a Laundromat/Internet CafĂ© I had passed two days ago).  I knew that I would stop at Amigo’s Market in either case, since I wanted a small sweet for dessert so that I would feel content and fall more easily to sleep.  I knew that I could get two little bags of gummy candy for $1.50 there, and as I have said before, I try to spend my grocery money at Amigo’s because the prices are very reasonable and the countermen are kind to the point of charity.

I crossed Eddy at Taylor still unsure which route to take, but stepping onto the curb I turned west.  Half-way out the block, I noticed that the fence on my right was covered by dark green heavy plastic sheeting and remembered that the corner park that takes up that half of the block was being renovated.  I looked ahead and noticed flashing lights atop an emergency vehicle that was parked at the right hand curb, facing me and against traffic.

A street dweller just ahead of me was huddled over a very large pile of possessions that leaned against the covered fence, arranging things.  Two other men, who had approached from different directions, had stopped and were asking him something.  As I reached the men I saw that police tape was strung from the covered fence across the front grill of a parked car, cordoning off the sidewalk.  At the same moment I heard the words “dead body”, and I then took a harder look up the sidewalk, into the bright white headlights and the flashing roof lights against the glare of which I had previously been unwilling to stare.

At the corner of Jones Street, diagonally across from the SFPD Tenderloin Precinct Station and in front of the closed off entrance to the little park, I saw it lying, covered by a sheet whose yellow was deep and brilliant enough to suggest vinyl but whose folds fell stiffly,  like some kind of angular drapery, characteristic of lighter plastics similar to the kind we used to cover the swimming pool in our backyard during winter.  I turned to cross to the other side of the street as one of the men asked whether the deceased had been stabbed.  “No,” said the street dweller, “He O.D.ed.”

As I crossed the street I saw another two or three people walking along the middle of he street, heading the other way.  I heard the word “boy”, and stopped again to look at the shrouded figure with as much focus and attention as I could.  From this angle, it did look rather small, but well within the average range for an adult.  I noticed too that it lay right in front of the door to one of the sidewalk restrooms The City imported from France a decade or two ago in order to provide facilities for those living on the street.  His feet were at the door, and he lay with his head pointing away from it.  Had he died inside and been pulled to the sidewalk by emergency responders?

I was glad the he was covered, and although the intense yellow seemed jarring in circumstances where black or white would have been more appropriate, I was glad that the dead was being afforded his natural dignity.  He could lie in his death privately, without violation, as is both meet and kind.

Had I ever seen him?  Was he and he or a she or a tranny?  Had she stopped me and asked for change as I left Amigo’s?  And had I, explaining that I had only my EBT card loaded with food-stamp credits, offered a pan dulce roll, which she accepted, instead?  Had he been inching his way up the sidewalk ahead of me the night before, his bare calf below his shorts wrapped in a dirty red neckerchief to cover a cut or abscess perhaps? 

Had the overdose been one of heroin or methamphetamine?  Had it resulted in a heart attack or in a relaxation of the diaphragm so profound as to end breathing and result in suffocation?

Had it hurt?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Difficult Day or Two

Yesterday, hunger made me by turns restless and tired all day.
I awoke at 7:27 yesterday morning, just three minutes before my daily “Wake Up!” alarm would sound on my phone. I waited for it, stopped it, and stayed in bed, dozing as much as I could, until late morning. I had that first feeling hunger brings: enervation, a lack of energy profound enough to make you feel that if you got to your feet you might totter and even fall down before you could walk anywhere.

I had three possible sources of hope to look forward to. At 1:30 this afternoon, I would be able to pick up seven frozen dinners, my weekly allotment from Project Open Hand. Sometime around 3:00, the mail would arrive, and it might include a check for $25, payment for a piece of writing I sold, or a check for $400, payment for working as an Event Coordinator for a company that holds seminars at the Grand Hyatt once a month.

I stayed in bed to conserve energy until it was time to walk the four blocks to Open Hand. While waiting, my hunger progressed to the stage of nervous energy, a restlessness bordering on anxiety that prevents sleep but does not provide resources for much physical activity. I used that time to text my supervisor at the seminar company to ask whether this week’s seminar was still scheduled and to ask when I would get my check for last month. I then learned that I was supposed to have sent an invoice for the seminar three weeks ago. So I had to give up hope for the $400 check, but the meals and the possibility of $25 still lay ahead of me.

I brought the meals home shortly after 1:30. Back in my room I heated one in the microwave, ate it, and then heated and ate another. I knew that I would be doing yard work and getting paid for it tomorrow, so I didn’t have to worry that a second meal now would leave me short at the end of the week.

Reinvigorated at last, I went down to the community room and used the computer there to send the required invoice by email. Then I walked to Walgreen’s to pick up my HIV meds. (I had missed taking them for two days because when I got there Saturday evening, the pharmacy window was already closed, and yesterday I had no time even to try to get there.) Walking there, I phone my sister PD and told her about this blog and the two writing jobs it has brought me. On the walk home, I had a conversation with a stranger that led to a blessing.

When I got home, I discovered that the mail had arrived with nothing for me. I counted the pennies in the little bowl where I let change collect, and found that, with the few quarters, dimes, and nickels also in the bowl, I had a total of $2.07. I checked my bank balance by phone: $2.84. Since it costs $.50 to use a debit card for less than $5.00, I would have to make do with the $2.07 in cash. I wanted something filling and something sweet, the latter to comfort me before bed. I settled on a large baguette, which cost $1.50. I ate about half of it with some cheese I had in the fridge. Later I will finished it with sugar and cinnamon for my treat before bed.

But let me return to the conversation and blessing I mentioned above.

I stopped to look at the menu in the window of a sandwich shop on market at Ninth Streets. I had noticed the place before but had never looked to see their prices. The first number I saw was $7. I didn’t even bother to see what it was that cost that much. I already knew it was out of my league.

I heard a voice asking directions and thought it might be directed at me, so I remained engrossed in the menu. Then I heard the voice being answered by another voice, and they conversed. I turned and glanced at the two women, one in white, with dark glasses and a deep tan, and the other in blue, fair, with hair mussed by the wind. The fair one directed the other to me for directions, and I pointed her in the most direct way to her destination. As we two who remained began to walk down Market, we began to talk.

For some reason we talked about the birth years of the people who raised us, my parents and her grandparents, who were contemporaries. I said how glad I was to have been raised by people who lived through the Depression and who knew how to make things, how to repair and restore things, and how to keep things and keep them up. She agreed with me, and as we came to part at the dentist’s door (she was going for an extraction, on which topic I commiserated with her), she was saying that she had considered giving classes on basic survival, or rather self-dependence, skills. We said goodbye, and she said, “Bless you.”

“Bless you,” I said.

That was yesterday. Today I awoke at 7:30 hungry. I had an appointment with my therapist at AHP at 9:00. I struggled, not wanting to get out of bed to go. I decided to call and leave a message explaining that I needed to find food instead of keeping our appointment. I had just $2.84 available on my debit card, and if I spent $2.00 on a MUNI ride to therapy, I would have to walk to work later. I would arrive to do strenuous yard work already tired.

As I lay there my hunger moved into yet another mode, the one of physical pain in the mid- abdomen. I let myself sleep again.

When the time for work came, I made three cups of coffee, loaded each with sugar, and drank them in the half-hour before I left. I had plenty of energy to work 4 hours and left with cash to buy food on the way home.

It had been a difficult but brief period.


Monday, May 13, 2013

A Cup of Coffee

Yesterday afternoon I sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of the Maxwell's House of Caffeine on Dolores Street at 17th.  I had spent my last two dollars on a cup of coffee and sat with my two bags, one of which holds three days worth of clean clothes while the other holds my papers, the book(s) I am reading, stationery, stamps, notebooks, tools (tiny LED flashlight, screwdriver, etc.) and toiletries.

I had spent my last two dollars on coffee for a couple of reasons.  For one, I was tired and yet not ready to rest (that is, I had no place to rest, no place to go except the street).  For another, I wanted to stay within a few blocks of where I was while waiting for a return call from a friend who lives around the corner. The cup of coffee was a way to rent a table at which to sit while I waited.  And beyond these reasons, coffee assumes a special importance when you are as poor as I.

I grew up drinking coffee black.  I even believed in the moral superiority of those who drink coffee black.  I looked down on those who polluted the brew with cream and sugar as weaklings who could not take the real thing.  But when I became poor, I quickly learned that there are big jars of sugar and entire pitchers of milk available free to anyone who buys a cup of coffee.  If you can get the barista to leave enough room in the cup, you can add enough sugar (carbohydrate) and milk (protein and fat) to relieve your hunger for a couple of hours. So there I sat, sipping my meal and reading the novel I had checked out from the library.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an African-American man pulling himself along the sidewalk sideways.  He approached me deferentially.

"' 'Scuse me, Sir," he said.  "I'm not tryin' to rob you or nothin'."

"O," I said, "I know that."

"Do you have a dollar or a quarter you can spare?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't," I said.

He had not paused for my reply but continued his probably oft-repeated appeal.

"'Cause I just got released --"

I cut off his pitch.

"Yeah, I got released two days ago," I said.

His tone of voice changed completely, no longer pleading but simply direct and familiar.  "From where?" he asked.

"Bruno," I said, dropping the "San" from the name of San Francisco County Jail 5, which is in the city of San Bruno, and thereby establishing my bona fides as a former inmate.

"And now I'm homeless," I went on, "and this cup of coffee is my dinner."

He looked at me kindly as he slid past me, continuing to sidle down the sidewalk on his way.  As he passed me he leaned in close, tapped me gently on the shoulder with a closed fist, and spoke softly, close to my ear.

"Take it easy," he said.

"You too, brother," I heard myself reply as he walked away.

It was the first time in my life that I had ever called a black man "brother", and I had done so instinctively, without thinking.

As much as I might have wanted to use that term in the past, I had always felt self-conscious and afraid of giving offense.  The shame of privilege had restrained me. That shame had kept me from expressing a common humanity into which my incarceration had now set me free.


Today is Mother’s Day, in honor of which an art show was held last Friday in the foyer of County Jail #2, the women’s jail, at 425 Seventh Street. (It was through this foyer that I was released from custody both when I had been held for only 2 days at 850 Bryant and when I had been held for 10 at Bruno.)
The artworks were by inmates of the San Francisco County Jails and by Evan Bissell, an artist who worked with groups of inmates and children of inmates to create portraits of these inmates, portraits that tell the stories of the impact of incarceration on all of them.  Almost every work brought tears to my eyes.   A quilt made of pieces of prison clothing, all that particular orange, brought back a vivid memory of the feeling you get when you are allowed, after the search, to cover your nakedness with ill-fitting orange socks, briefs, drawstring pants, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt.
Many of the artworks told stories of the new lives people have built after their release, the lives they began building even while incarcerated.   Some memorialized those who died behind bars.  All told of the struggle to retain dignity and purpose under those circumstances.  I gave my contact information to one of the volunteer organizers of the show and hope to have photographs and more detailed information to share in another post soon.
For now, though, let me tell you a thing or two about jail.


From the very moment in which the words “under arrest” are uttered, everyone you encounter contributes to rendering you powerless.

When I was preparing to begin student-teaching, I talked to a number of experienced teachers who advised me to remember that the most negative response you can give a student (or anyone else for that matter) is to ignore him or her. Not to rebuke, nor to deny, but to ignore. If you have a student who speaks up too frequently and too often without a point, and who is generally disruptive, the best response is to say nothing at all. Let their talk be answered with empty silence. Render them invisible -- non-existent -- by treating them as such.

The police who arrest you, and then the sheriff’s deputies who are your jailers, similarly negate everything that constitutes your sense of self: your will, your intellect, your emotions. They do so by ignoring you completely. No answers to your questions, whether about the charges, about the process you are going through, about your ability to communicate with anyone outside -- about anything. You are something that they process, the ultimate objectification.

Everything is uncomfortable and debilitating. The handcuffs hurt, and having your arms behind your back makes it hard to get into the back seat of the squad car without falling into it. The back seat itself is hard molded plastic, without upholstery of any kind. You can’t sit with your back supported by the seatback because your manacled arms are in the way. You slide across the hard plastic with every turn, every acceleration or deceleration the driver makes.

At the precinct station house, they hold you first in a tiled room with hard wooden benches bolted to the shiny concrete floor, in the midst of which, as in every room you will now occupy, you see a drain toward which the floor slopes from all sides. Through a small window with holding wire mesh suspended within it, you can see someone going through papers in the adjoining room. She occasionally looks up at you, and occasionally others appear in the room with her. Eventually a cop or two, their equipment swinging and rattling heavily from their belts, enter the room you are in and, still refusing to answer any questions, take you back out to the car, load you in, and drive you to the county jail.

There it is the sheriff’s department which treats you with the disrespect of ignoring your humanity. Although you listened to the driver radio ahead to them before you were out of the precinct station parking lot, you must wait in the car, cuffed and folded on the hard back seat, while the two offices who brought you there talk to their counterparts at the door, chat to other waiting officers aabout the times they worked together or did this or that or knew so-and-so. When you are at last admitted to the building, you begin waiting at the first of a series of desks, counters, or office cubicles that comprise the stations of your entry into the system. Your privacy is stripped away, and whatever interior selfhood you have is violated, during the photographing, the fingerprinting, and the questioning about your birth, about your residence, about your workplace, about your medical history, about your current medical care. Then the stripping and the violation culminates in the taking away of your clothes and the ensuing inspection of your naked body, including any possible hiding places on or in it.

The cops have added a further refinement to the dehumanizing strategy, one that would never have occurred to me. During the hours and hours that this process takes, the cops are cracking crude jokes, telling stories about one another (or worse, about poor souls they have arrested or seen in jail in the past) which they consider amusing and at which they laugh loudly. They toss around every kind of racial, ethnic, sexist, etc. slur you can think of and they guffaw.

They ought to be ashamed.

Instead they think it is you who is in the shameful position.


Once you have been entered like data into the system, the castration of your will grinds on through the mindless routine of day after day. You cannot do any of the things you need to get done to keep your life, the life to which you hope, perhaps quixotically, to return, together. I had no idea whether any of my friends or family knew what had happened to me. Had they noticed my absence yet? Because I was homeless, no one was waiting to hear me come through a door somewhere.

Having had to surrender my mobile when arrested, I didn’t have anyone’s phone numbers. Even if I had, I soon discovered, you are allowed access only to very expensive pay phones for which you need to buy payment cards from the commissary, something you can do only once a week. You can make very expensive collect calls, but since most cellular service plans block collect calls, you need to know landline numbers Once upon a time I knew dozens of phone numbers, but nowadays we call someone by touching their name on our phone’s display screen, not by entering their number. After a couple of days passed, I was finally able to remember the number for the landline at my sister M’s house, and after a couple of tries I was able to speak to her.

One of these days I’ll tell you how that went.


I mentioned mindless routine.

You are awakened at 4:30 AM, ordered to dress and make your bed in the exact manner of this particular institution, made to wait standing for the carts to arrive, and then called one by one to get a tray of food from the guys who came with the cart from the kitchen.

As for the food, I must tell you about the peanut butter. You get a wad of it, wrapped in wax paper, about the size of a lemon an egg, with some soft, easily torn white bread and no utensil to help spread the was, which is itself only semi-soft. In every holding cell in the system, you see wads of peanut butter stuck to the ceiling overhead. The ceilings are always 15 or more feet high. It takes a powerful arm to launch a stiff, hard wad of peanut butter at that ceiling hard enough to get it to stick. Once it is there, however, it seems to stay for perpetuity. I never saw, or did I ever hear tell of, one of these peanut-butter hardballs coming down.

I won’t bother describing the rest of the food. To do so would be of as little interest as was the food. And as in the joke Woody Allen tells in “Annie Hall”, there is never enough of it.

At about 5:15 AM you are ordered back to your cell and locked down for a few more hours of sleep.

The rest of the day consists of a rotation of time spent locked down in your cell and time spent in the common area, where you can find conversations, card games, books, magazines, and loud televisions tuned either to movies (action pictures, crime, jails, violence -- lots and lots of violence) or to sports.

This common area is semi-circular and two stories high, the cells ranging along the rim of the circle, their interior walls all glass. A steel staircase and catwalk provides access to the upper story of cells. Everyone is visible at all times. The only nod to privacy is the pony-wall, about 24” high, in front of the toilet in your cell. It assures that when you sit on the toilet you are visible only from the waist up.

The guard’s desk, a miniature command center, stands at the hub of this semi-circle. She or he is watching you all the time.


I spent the lion’s share of my time reading. I read a P. D. James mystery called “
The Lighthouse”, a book by Robert Reich called "The Work of Nations”, and a sci-fi adventure by Michael Crichton called “Timeline”. They were long enough, engaging enough, varied enough, and well-written enough to occupy my mind through the ten days I spent at Bruno.

I also played a kind of solitaire that my cellie, EE, taught me. He was arrested on a domestic violence charge because he left some food and clothing for his infant son on the doorstep of the house where his son and his baby-mama still live while no one was home. The Restraining Order issued by the court, however, forbade him from coming within 100 yards of the house. And since he was in the country illegally to begin with, he was put on an ICE hold immediately upon his arrest. I am sure that within no more than a week after I got out on bail, he was being put on a plane back to Honduras. He said that he would have to wait a year and a half, maybe two, before he returned. It would cost $5000. It will be his third or fourth border crossing.


Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I had attended a fund raiser for Robert Reich’s campaign to be Governor of Massachusetts. He was running against Mitt Romney. I contributed $250. I remembered how delightful our conversation had been, as only a conversation with someone who has great intelligence, a kind heart, and deep knowledge of the world can be.


While incarcerated, I was lucky enough to find myself in a holding tank waiting for transport from 850 Bryant back to Bruno.  I waited there with, among a group of about 15 men, two of the best storytellers I have ever heard.  I was still new to the system and was keeping my eyes downcast and my thoughts off my face.  But these two made me smile to myself and soon look up to watch them as they played to the exclusive audience gathered there.

I quickly realized that they were competing with one another the way break-dancers did when I lived in Manhattan in the 1980s.

After finishing one of his stories, as a kind of interlude I think, one of them started asking the other whether he remembered certain guys, listing names like Jerry and Damon and John.  He mentioned having seen so-and-so a few days before, and had been glad to see that the guy was doing well, had a nice car, a good job, and nice home and family.  "You know," he said, "back in the 70s I always told those guys 'I will not be the last crack dinosaur on the streets!' and here I am, the last Cack Dinosaur on the streets!"  Everyone laughed, and our burdens were lifted a little.

But this was a competition, and before our laughter died down, the challenger spoke up.

"O I got off that crack.  Gave it up completely."  He paused and and after a two count declared with voluble glee: "'Cause I found out about that crystal meth!"

Shouts, laughter long and loud.  "You can fuck all night and the next day and at the end of the weekend you still got money in your wallet!"

Many stories were told that day, and I will share more of them in the future. 

Let me just add here that "Sullivan's Travels" was never far from my mind.


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Morbidity and Mortality*

Last Friday, May 3rd, was the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth.  She died in 2002, but she has been with me a lot since then.  T.S. Eliot says that “As we grow older/the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated/Of dead and living.”  And Leonard Cohen sings hauntingly about what I mean:

Also on last Friday, the PBS Newshour aired two stories of particular interest to me.  The first concerned a report from the CDC concerning a jump in suicide rates.  For the year 2010, the number of Americans choosing not to live increased by 28%.  Among white Americans, the increase was 40%.  And among men in their 50s (my age) the jump was 48%.

This story was followed by one on the difficulty that unemployed older Americans, especially those who lost their jobs in the recession following the 2008 global financial collapse, are having finding employment.  This report included clips from a discussion which the reporter, Paul Solomon, held with a group of unemployed older Americans. One of them was a man who said that he had run through his entire savings, including his 401K, and had only $2000 to his name.  He was to be getting his last unemployment check this week.  He was already getting help in the form of financial hardship pricing on electricity and gas and in the form of food stamps, but he was behind on his mortgage.  He did not know what he was going to do.

At the end of the segment, the man who runs the counseling agency to which all these people had turned, Joe Carbone, said this:

"I love this country so much, but I can't imagine that we would ever leave any of our citizens, any of our brothers and sisters, to be part of a process that's declaring them hopeless. And that's what's going on."

The link between these stories was noted, though not discussed at length.  I was struck by the fact that the report on suicide identified sub segments of our society by race and by age, but not by class.  (I must note that I do not know whether the research paper published by the CDC included economic as well as other analyses, but the news report for the general public did not.  The Director of the CDC did talk about the impact of drugs and alcohol on an individuals risk for suicide.  He said that it was important that health care providers be aware of their patients’ substance abuse, etc.  He did not say that a more equitable economic system might have huge and even life-saving medical benefits

Nobody on television that night said that poor folk have little reason to go on living in 21st century America.  The notion that "they" can work their way out of poverty and upward into prosperity is a vicious (I mean that word quite literally) lie.  And the society as a whole, the “nation” (if indeed one can talk about this country as a unified community at all), does not want to help support those who can find no way to support themselves adequately.  The myth of the Rugged Individualist (Rand, Reagan, et al.) has conveniently given the housed and fed an excuse to wash their hands of any responsibility for the rest of us.

*My title. "Morbidity and Mortality" is also the title of the prestigious medical journal published by the CDC in which the report on suicide appeared.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Visible and the Invisible

Walking home the other day, I saw a long line of people on the east side of Jones Street, stretching up the block from the corner of Ellis.

I remembered a late afternoon sometime in the mid 1980s, when I lived in Manhattan. Day was melting into a warm summer evening, the late sunlight stretching its long arms down the canyons of the east/west streets, the air beginning to cool, the moisture your skin had carried all day now settling on it, a thin, cool layer under your clothes. My partner JC and I were walking with a friend in SoHo. The neighborhood was only newly named. The transformation had just begun. Abandoned industrial spaces were being appropriated by poor artists, whom real-estate moguls and reporters referred to disparagingly as “squatters”. These squatters were making livable endless blocks of commercial lofts, and by doing so they, in turn, created fortunes for those real-estate moguls.

The three of us were talking about the phenomenon of lines, chuckling at the silliness of so many New Yorkers in their frenzy to be au courant. They had to be among the first to have experienced the newest club or bar or restaurant -- or to see a show or attend a gallery opening or a book signing or whatever. One would, from time to time, see a line of people standing on the sidewalks, often stretching for many blocks. We joked that people would get into a line even when they had no idea what it was for. The fact that people had lined up must mean that something new and exciting was taking place. People would join a line just so that they could brag to their friends, nonchalantly, of course, that they had already seen/been to/eaten it.

We -- there were a half dozen or more of us -- formed a line outside a meaningless doorway and watched as people got into the line. They chatted about trivialities for quite a while before they ventured to ask what everyone was waiting in line for.

We were delighted with the success of our sociological experiment.

I remembered all that as I passed the line. But I had no need to ask what this line was for: I knew that this line was for a hot meal at Glide Memorial Baptist Church.


My friend MP is a poet. MP’s art is one of closely observed and simply described details that illuminate human relationships, personal and social. He recently shared this short prose piece with me:

On the way to work I saw a homeless man flatten a piece of cardboard he had retrieved from a recycling bin. With intense concentration he wrote on it his plea for survival.

I walked by another homeless man who was securing things to his bicycle; I think they were all of his worldly possessions. He complained, talking to the air surrounding him, about being harassed every morning by another man who stood in an alley across the street.

I watched people hurry along the sidewalk. I saw some of them descend below the street to the BART station where they will board a train that will take them to their place of work. Hurrying to the train out of fear of becoming one of those who hold up a cardboard sign on the sidewalk, gazing into the eyes of those who pass by, hoping for salvation. Hurrying out of fear of becoming one of those they avoid; one of those they wished did not exist.

When I read it I was struck by the accuracy with which he describes something I remember quite clearly: the way I used to feel when I had to pass close enough to a street-dweller to risk having to interact with him or her.


There were many reasons to love my Aunt Lee. Like both of my parents, she was born and raised in Oakland and graduated from U.C. Berkeley. To me, however, she seemed unlike anyone I had ever known. From my early childhood through my mid-40s, when she died, Aunt Lee brought me glimpses of a very different world than the one in which I was raised, a world of adults, sophisticated, witty, imaginative, and wise.

After college she had worked as a secretary to the President of a shipping line in San Francisco and then married a man much older than she, who had been born in Britain but lived in Canada, where he was Chief of Protocol for British Columbia. She lived in the company of officers, politicians, and dignitaries. (I have a photograph of her entertaining a group including the Lord High Mayor of London at tea in her garden.) She met royals. And she had no children.

So when she spoke to me, even when I was quite young, it was as an equal, expressing interest in my ideas and curiosity about my life, and never judging or seeking to discipline me in any way. She told stories about parties that she and her husband attended with a special group of close friends, men who had been in the R.A.F. with her husband during the war and their wives. I loved hearing about the things that grown-ups did that had no reference to children and family, per se, because family was the sole organizing principle of social life in the suburban America of my youth. Furthermore, Aunt Lee never became overly emotional or sentimental. She never reproached me with making her “worry”. And Aunt Lee knew -- and taught me -- wonderfully funny and quite bawdy music-hall songs.

Once when we all went out to dinner during one of her visits, I was a bit scandalized, and therefore completely delighted, by a remark she made as we opened our menus. The waitress had just brought them to the table, told us that her name was “Sarah” (or whatever it was), and that she would be our server.

“Why on earth would she think I would want to know her name?” Lee said under her breath, as she opened her menu.

I tried to hide my glee, lowering my smiling face into my menu.


You can find all the incest porn you want on the Internet, and the most (erstwhile) shameless deeds are confessed aloud, even shouted, by their perpetrators on almost every show on television. Abuse, adultery, lying, cheating, and manipulative spouses and parents and children have no shame any more. Racists and demagogues of every sort proclaim their prejudices and hatreds on radio and television, not to mention the Internet.

Yet one taboo remains. No one talks about the American class system, and its power is made enormous by the hush that surrounds it.

I always knew it existed. I tried to be aware of it. But its terms, their definitions, and their interrelations, kept shifting, defying clear analysis. But now I know it. It is clearly outlined, hard, and sharp. I feel it. I can tell you how it defines who you and I and everyone around us is; how it dictates our behavior to one another; and how it leads everyone, from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low to do evil every day.

I can, and I will.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Excess of Black Bile

I apologize for not having posted anything here for a week.  I was told when I started that if I let more than a few days go by without posting, I would lose my readers.  I am once again writing to “those wonderful people out there in the dark”, having no idea who, if anyone, is actually there.

For the last three or four days, I have had to struggle with myself to get out of bed.  I have felt physically exhausted in part because of the heat we have had.  (Our big, cold neighbor, the North Pacific, being temporarily bested by the solar heating of the unusually dry, i.e. drought-ridden, landmass.)  I have also been exhausted because I have not had enough to eat for the last four or five days.  And a long-time companion of mine, depression, has kept me down, too.

I do not understand the prejudice against depression, which I have always thought of as my melancholy humor.  A sanguine humor, that is to say endless optimism and cheerfulness, is actually extolled as virtuous but is no more realistic -- and no healthier -- than melancholy.  Even the choleric soul, if she or he be a politician, a top executive, or a member of the armed forces, is praised and finds success in part because of his inappropriate response to reality.

Depression, however, seems to threaten people.  Americans habitually ask “How are you?” when first greeting one another.  Of course, they do not really want to know.  Katherine Hepburn used to respond to the question by saying “Fine -- if you don’t want the details.”  I am one of those quirky eccentrics who always answers truthfully, albeit as briefly ass possible.  In the months after my mother died, I would answer by saying that I was depressed and sometimes found it hard to get out of bed.

I was surprised by the frequency with which people responded to my answer by asking whether I had seen my doctor about it.  “They can prescribe something to help you with that,” they said.  Offended by the disrespect (for my mother and for me) implied by the suggestion, I would say, “My mother died.  There would be something wrong if it didn’t get me down.  I’d be worried if I weren’t depressed.”

What is the point of avoiding sadness, anger or frustration?  Is one fully alive if one avoids the pain of living and admits only the kind of giddy euphoria called “happiness”?

My final reason for having failed to post for so many days is that I no longer have an Internet connection at home.  I had one while a man in my building was generously leaving his wireless network unsecured so that anyone of us could use it.  He has now moved on.  So these postings have to be saved to a memory stick which I will plug into a computer at the library in order to upload to this blog.  I never know for sure how long it will take to get a computer at the library, so I beg your indulgence: bear with me through my occasional silences, please.

And if you can, please comment or follow or somehow let me know that you are there.  Hearing from you will do much to get me out of bed on the difficult days.