“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 cafĂ© 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.