“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, June 29, 2014

Turning Chinese

I remember pictures of Peking from the 1960s and 1970s. The streets were crowded with bicycles with nary an automobile in sight. Now the streets of San Francisco are being reconfigured with fewer lanes for cars and more for bicycles.  I ride my bicycle to work.  I can no longer afford a car.

My commute is not bad.  When I first got the bike, I would start by following Valencia from 15th Street, where I live, to 25th Street, where I would turn left and head straight down to Hampshire Street.  There I would jog over to Cesar Chavez, which would take me to Potrero, then Bayshore, the Jerrold, where I work.

On my way to work, at 3:30 in the afternoon, Valencia was crowded with pedestrians, cars, and, squeezed between the two, bicycles.  I tensed up, my ears pricked to catch the sounds of cars approaching from behind, my head swiveling on my neck like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist” as  I attempted to look in all directions at once.  So I changed my route and now leave Valencia to steer a course through side streets.

When I must use major streets, even the designated bike lanes do not help me feel safe from the tons of glass and steel bearing down on me, guided by people whom I can barely see, ensconced in their juggernauts, their tiny hands gripping the steering wheel as their tiny heads attempt to peer out through the windshield.  I have no way of knowing whether these drivers can see me unless they alter the trajectory of their vehicle and clearly aim it away from me.  This happens about as often as they steer toward me deliberately, taking aim at me.  At such times I often respond by aiming my bicycle and myself right at them, challenging them to join in a spontaneous game of chicken in the hope of causing fear of hurting me to rise in them as a rebuke.  I probably only cause them to get angry at me instead.

So I turn off Valencia onto Sycamore and jog over to Lexington.  Lexington is one of those charming residential streets that one finds scattered through the Mission – indeed, throughout all the older parts of the city.  These streets are usually short, five or six blocks long at the most.  They are not alleys, for houses front on them, but neither are they thoroughfares.  They are not wide enough for two-way traffic, automobile traffic that is, and often they run a few blocks as one-way streets in one direction and then become one-way streets running in the opposite direction.  They also often hit a dead-end at a major street but then suddenly appear again a block or two farther on.

So I take Lexington, on which I am going the right way, to 21st Street, where it ends.  I jog a little bit to the left on 21st and then turn right on Bartlett, where I am now going the wrong way.  I ride the wrong way on Bartlett all the way to 25th, where I turn left and complete the trip as described above.  Only once has anyone complained to me about riding the wrong way on a one-way street, and although I am always guiltily conscious of my violation of the law, I also know that I am much safer doing so than I would be riding in the bike lane between parked cars (whose doors may at any moment be flung open) and the cars rushing past me.


The ride home, at 3:30 or 4:00 or even 4:30 in the morning, presents no such dangers from traffic.  I fear it, however, much more.  What frightens me are the rats.

I encounter them on the path that goes under the freeway.  This path runs under US101 at the intersection of Chavez and Potrero/Bayshore.  It is at this point that Potrero becomes Bayshore:  Potrero rises up as an elevated ramp, one lane of which connects to the freeway and the other lane of which drops to earth again as Bayshore.  Chavez dives down under it all in a great swoop like a sudden dip on a roller coaster.  Indeed, navigating the complex of elevated roadways, ramps, and underpasses is called, especially by cyclists, “shooting the rapids.”  Running this gauntlet in the daytime is no problem, and the night ride home in general feels relaxed.   But at night this little path poisons the whole ride home.  It raises a shadowy fear ut which swirls about one almost imperceptibly until it takes sudden and concrete shape and inspires a spasm of lasting dread.

A couple of weeks ago, there came a night when as I was leaving the taxi yard, I had mounted my bike and then suddenly stopped still, unwilling to put my feet on the pedals and push.  I felt so exhausted that if I could have found a place to lie down at the taxi yard or even a comfortable chair in which to rest, I would have slept there.  The sun would have risen within an hour or two, and then I could have bicycled home in the early light.  Instead I locked my bike to the rack at work and took the bus home because of the rats.

For the next week and a half I rode the bus, or rather buses, home.  It takes two buses to travel between my hotel and the taxi yard.  I have to wait at the point of transfer between the two lines for ten to twenty minutes.  Furthermore, the bus I catch near the taxi yard comes only twice an hour in the early morning.  So a trip that takes twenty minutes on a bicycle takes at least forty-five minutes  and sometimes more than an hour by bus.  It is tedious, tedium is nothing compared to the rats.

I did not see them for the first month or two, but lately – probably because homeless people are camping under the overpasses again – I never see fewer than three each night.  The path is narrow, and ivy grows along the base of the fences on either side.  The rats appear suddenly on the pathway as I ride, scurrying alongside me until they dive into the ivy.  It is the fact that they run alongside me that unnerves me the most.  If they would scatter away from me, I wouldn’t mind so much.  But running alongside me they seem brazen, which makes me doubt the encouraging nostrum from my childhood that such creatures “probably fear you more than you do them.”


Fear excites the imagination, and the imagination in turn compounds the fear.  Because I am riding my bike, I have my right pant legs rolled up to my calf so that it won’t get caught in the chain.  So when the rats come scurrying out alongside me, I become extremely aware of my exposed ankle.  The wind immediately feels colder on it, and I can almost feel sharp teeth clamp down on either side of my Achilles tendon, closing together under it, holding on tightly to my flesh as blood begins to flow into the mouth, and I want to jerk my leg sharply out to the side in an attempt to shake the vicious rodent off, but if I do I might throw myself off balance, fall from the bike, and lie helplessly on the path, stunned for a few seconds, long enough for all of them to come swarming over me, to begin feasting.

After I emerge from the labyrinth under the freeway, I seldom see another rat, except on the nights when garbage is collected.  I hate those nights.  Not only are the garbage trucks terrifying (they are huge, and the drivers charge at great speed from one group of bins to the next) but the rats know that some garbage is always spilled, a lump of this or that fallen in the middle of the street, and so they congregate and feed.

And though I see them on the streets only once in a while, I constantly think I do.  Any dark stain on the pavement – oil or anything else – for the first split second, out of the corner of my eye, is a rat, especially if it is somewhat oblong in shape.  So for a couple of weeks I rode the bus.

In the last week, however, I noticed a footbridge that spans the same distance under the freeway but is on the far side of Chavez and, most importantly, is elevated above the ground.  I figured out that by backtracking on Marin Street for a block and the turning onto Chavez, I could get to the elevated footbridge.  Crossing Chaves and cutting across an onramp to the freeway, I am exposed to huge trucks speeding toward the freeway as they leave the industrial area and the Produce Mart in the midst of which the cab yard sits.  But for some reason I feel safer in their path than with the rats.

Heading home, pedaling uphill and into a headwind so cold that my ears stiffen, feel bloodless, and my head aches, I fight exhaustion.  My days last twelve hours, thirteen to fourteen if you count the whole time that I am gone from home, the hours commuting and  the hours of work.  Often I am sitting here typing long after the sun has come up, for it is the only time that I have quiet time in which to open the gates of my thought and my imagination and let it pour forth onto this page.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Airport Line

Men are strange.  They don’t like to ask for help, and they don’t often offer it.  Men are expected to figure it out for themselves.  In prison, in the military, and here in the taxi line, no one teaches you anything.  You attempt to follow the man ahead of you, and when you make a mistake, someone yells at you.  Each rule is learned only through infraction; you know that there is a rule only when you have broken it -- and you may well misunderstand the shouting and take away the wrong lesson, only to make the mistake again.  And when a man asks another to help, that other will not give it automatically, What help is given will be consciously decided, measured deliberately, and always with some temerity if not misgiving.

[I should make it clear that when I speak of men in general, I refer only to American men of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.  What I say may also apply to American men of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, through the influence and experience I gleaned from my father, who himself was passing on those things that he had received from his father and his grandfather before him.  I can say nothing of the men of France or of Uzbekistan, or even of Canadians and Mexicans.]

Men carry about with them a prehistoric sense of scarcity and a fear that anything given to another man is something taken away from him.  He fears the possibility that he will find himself unable to provide for himself and for those dependent on him.  Thus all other men become competitors, if not for the immediate needs of food and shelter, or for the most fecund and arousing women, then for the positions within any group that carry the power to allocate benefits among the members of that group.  

You often see men walking with studied non-chalance, an attitude that looks more like the sad bravado of pretended pride, like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp brushing off his coat, straightening his shoulders, and walking away from a disastrous failure with a jaunty step, whirling his cane, his chin held high.  So it is with Cabbies.


My first impression of the taxi line at the airport was dreamlike. It was like one of those “exam dreams” – you know, the ones in which you find yourself taking a final exam, but you somehow never attended a single class and did not even read the textbook.  My first day in the airport line was like finding myself participating in a Byzantine ritual with a Disneyesque twist.

You begin the process by going to an office in the airport where you register and receive a “smart card” that will allow you to enter the section of the parking structure in which the taxi line forms.  Having taken your place in line, you sit in your car while more than a hundred taxis pack themselves in around you.  You can see the car directly ahead of you and the first three or so rows of cars to your left and right.  Now and then you glimpse movement in the distance, a string of automobiles rolling quickly along a winding path and flashing with sunlight as they pass out of the parking structure and disappear.  As you sit, many of the drivers around you get out of their cars and walk around, greeting one another, smoking, haranguing one another in a dozen languages, none of which can you identify.  These are not western European languages but ones that come, most likely, from the vast interior spaces of the Eurasian continent, which stretches from the Balkans to Siberia, from the North Sea to Mongolia, or from Africa.  You start to wonder what the hell is going on.

Suddenly you hear engines starting.  Drivers begin to make their way back to their cars, sauntering with a swagger that says “Yes I know that I have to get back to my car, but I want to make it clear that I am my own man; I do not scurry like a fearful mouse.”  You do see some drivers, however, who are running frantically to reach their cabs before the cab ahead of them moves out and all the cabbies behind are stuck and honking and yelling in protest at being delayed.

Then you notice that, two rows over, the line is pulling out, and when the car ahead of you finally moves, you do the one thing that you know you are supposed to do:  you follow it, driving along a tortuous path through the parking structure, a path that winds back on itself senselessly over and over again before finally breaking into the sunlight.  You are now in the open space in the center of the donut-shaped parking structure. Here again the cabs are parked in a series of rows.

Again you park behind the same cab as before and sit and wait while other drivers begin to mill about or recline their seats to nap and wait.  You are reminded of the lines at Disneyland lines that lead only to waiting areas that had been hidden from view and to more lines of which you had no idea before.

Eventually you find yourself rolling into the last waiting area.  Here you hold up to the machine beside the empty toll booth the “smart card” onto which you have loaded money for your $4.00 fees.  Once the gate has deducted $4.00 from your card, you move on to what turns out to be the last line.  When you finally move again, you pass an attendant who either waves you on out into the road that circles from one domestic terminal to the next or stops you and hands you a ticket to go to the international terminal.  If you are assigned to the international terminal, you have one last chance to make a big mistake.  No one has told you that to get to that terminal you have to pass around all the domestic terminals, leave the airport, and then catch a ramp that circles back and drops you at the international terminal.  If you miss that little unmarked ramp, you find yourself back on U.S. Highway 101 and have to begin the whole process over again.


At no point in the process does anyone explain anything to you.  You just follow the guy ahead of you and hope for the best.  On the day I registered for and got my smart card, I tried to use it to open the gate to exit the airport  The clerk who had handled my registration and shown me the instructional video had told me that I could use the card for that purpose.  But the card didn’t work.  I had to back out from the gate, to the annoyance of the two or three cabs that had lined up behind me while I was trying to get the card to work.  I had to leave my cab to one side, its flashers flashing, to trot back to the main lot trying to find someone who could tell me what to do, and then to trot all the way back to the office in the terminal basement where the same clerk/receptionist informed me that of course it didn’t work because I hadn’t gone to one of the machines in the parking lot that would take my cash or debit card and add money to the smart card.  I then had to retrace my trotting steps, find the machines, add the money, trot to my cab, around which an river of cabs was now swirling as it flowed through the gates.

Embarrassed, feeling the way I did so often as a little boy:  shamed, shy, and wishing I could hide.  I was talking to myself, silently, trying to refine an explanation for my mistake that would be quick, clear, and forceful so that I could regain my pride by justifying myself to – to whom? – to some other driver or drivers?  The conversation I was endlessly rehearsing was never going to happen.  No one would even notice or remember me or my stranded, flashing, humbled, and impotent little taxi cab, lying to the side of the river of traffic, trying to regain its strength.  The ridiculousness of the line ritual, the serpentine paths, the institutionalized confusion, leaving each driver ignorant of the overall endeavor and forcing each to rely on following in the footsteps of the man ahead of him:  all of this is nuts -- and very male.


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man will not ask directions.  A man who does so humbles himself not in a virtuous Christian way but in the shameful way of humiliation.  Thus the seemingly instantaneous universal acceptance of GPS technology in automobiles and in mobile phones, for, oddly enough, the information given by these devices seems to belong privately to the person using it.  He acquires the information he needs without turning to his fellow man and asking for it.  He needn’t feel ashamed because no one – or at least no other man, physically present – is involved even as an observer.

As a result, the man trusts his GPS device implicitly.  I remember hearing a news report on NPR when GPS devices were first made available to the general population.  A German driver had driven his Mercedes off the end of an unfinished bridge because he had followed the instruction given by his GPS navigator rather than attending to the road on which he was travelling.  (I think of him whenever I see the passersby on the sidewalk in my neighborhood staring at the screens in front of them instead of looking around at the world through which they move, the world which we share.)

Since I cannot imagine that anyone would design a process as confused as the taxi line, I try to understand it by regarding each stage in reverse order, like an archeologist relating the artifacts found at different levels in a dig.  I assume that the line must have taken shape over a number of years through a process of solving various problems as they arose out of conflicts between men arguing over who had what place in line.  I would guess that these conflicts were adjudicated by one or more other drivers who established various rules and procedures by a general consensus.  he line is like something constructed by a vanished tribe, a Stonehenge or a Machu Pichu, whose true nature and significance can only be guessed at.

I have heard that there was once a Taxi Driver’s Union, and everything about the airport line looks, feels, and even sounds like a union operation.  The sounds I refer to above are specifically the voices of the men who run the line.  Whoever they officially work for now, their accents are pure Teamsters – part Jersey, part Chicago, all brash, forceful, and decisive.  I noticed this when I first went to register for the smart card.  The only instruction I was given, the only information about the line and its operation I ever formally received, was a video that the clerk/receptionist put on in a conference room and told me to watch.

The video is a remarkable artifact.  The camera is trained on the man who obviously runs the line.  He is clearly the authority, the “big boss”.  He looks and sounds like a union boss from the Javitts Center or the Meadowlands.  His mouth seems to shape words by rolling around them without ever really closing down on them, so that they sound blurred and malleable.  In front of him are ranged the tops and backs of the heads of a couple dozen men: this is clearly a recording of a talk given to the drivers years ago.  The big boss has memorized the text and delivers it with a ritualized oratorical style.  For example, after making one of his main points, he stops and says loudly, each word dropped individually in front of the group assembled before him, “Do -- you -- understand – me,” which phrase is uttered without the rising intonation usually indicative of the interrogative voice.  You understand that he is not asking a question:  his phrase is a euphemism for “You better remember this or you assholes are gonna get whacked upside the head.”

The talk explains how the smart cards electronically accomplish various functions previously performed by human cashiers and fee collectors.  You start to realize that the ritual of the line that now exists is haunted by the ghosts of jobs lost to “smart card” automation.  The big boss does still oversee dozens of employees who stand at various stations along the line, herding drivers along with shouts or incomprehensible hand signals.  (Each apparently improvises these hand signals without any correlation to the signals given by his fellow line monitors)  And you understand why you have to pay $4.00 each time you get into the airport line when the boss says “You pay me the $4.00 because you want me to run a fair line.”

Sitting in line that first night, I wondered whether any of the drivers around me knew the history or even remembered personally the union and the way it worked.  I wondered whether it had been part of the Teamsters and had disappeared during the federal persecution of that organization the way people disappeared in Chile under the military dictatorship we put in place after assassinating the duely elected Marxist President Allende on September 11, 1974.

What a sad defeat for us all the loss of unions has been.  How grievous the wrongs done to working people by the union-busting power elite.  All of them, from FDR and the Kennedys to Reagan and the Bushes, bear the blame.  None of them has been a friend to you and me.


I walked among the young on Valencia Street the other night and smiled to myself at all the memories of my own youth, especially my years in New York, that they evoked.  I felt myself slough off the resentment that I have so often felt at their (to me) atrocious manners and their (I think) undeserved wealth.  Instead I found myself wishing them well, wishing them the joy of their youth, of their messy emotions and their anxious labors, and of their flesh.  I too was once young and doubtless appalled my elders in many ways.
Seeing them charge ahead ignorant of the history that hems them in on every side, seeing them let fall by the wayside the standards of reason, of morality, of social propriety, and of politics without which they cannot understand themselves or their lives clearly, I cannot judge or reprimand them.  The world is now theirs, and I leave it to them gladly.  They may very well run it better than I or any of my generation could do or have done.  And in any case, what they do will happen to them and their heirs, not to me.  I only hope that they might forgive me and my –their – forbears.

When I was young, I thought it horrible, and horribly unjust, that people have to die.  Now I only think that I do not want to be here in 50 years.  I do not want to suffer their future.  I will sit a while longer on the hillside, so to speak, at the single window of my tiny room in this SRO Hotel, looking down on the Promised Land, on a future that I will not inhabit, watching the young scurry through the cities and the fields, through the mountains and the plains, living their lives in their time.

Friday, June 6, 2014


Yesterday afternoon my local public radio station, KALW, aired a discussion about the possible adoption of “Laura’s Law” in Alameda County, just across the bay.  The law

“allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment or forced anti-psychotics in most cases. To qualify for the program, the person must have a serious mental illness plus a recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations, jailings or acts, threats or attempts of serious violent behavior towards [self] or others.”
[From the Wikipedia summary of the law, which can be found at the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura's_Law#Supporters.]

One of the interviewees was a minister from northern California who told of his son’s mental illness and increasingly violent behavior.  Under current law, the young man’s psychiatrists refuse to inform the parents of any details of their son’s treatment.  To do so would be to break the confidentiality considered fundamental to the doctor/patient relationship.  But the son in this case lives with his parents, is supported by them, and has physically attacked them in the past.  So the question arises as to what position the State should take vis a vis families such as this.

The recent murderous rampage by a young man who killed six others in Isla Vista before killing himself as well has fueled the passions on both sides of the debate.  I do not intend to take either side here, but I would like to consider the question in light of an historical trend toward greater and greater interference by the State in familial relationships previously deemed to be “private” matters and therefore no business of the State at all.

I remember an old saying that “A man’s home is his castle.”  The implication was that within his home, each man was the law-giver, the ruler, a sovereign whose authority was complete.  Not that long ago, a man’s wife and children were his chattel, and he could do as he pleased with them, including such abuses as beatings and imprisonment.  While men who thus abused their power were scorned by society, the law did not charge them as criminals.  The protection of women and children lay in the power of the community’s moral standards, not in the power of legislatures and courts of law.  Families had to work out their own relations of power, the extent and limitations of each member’s rights and responsibilities, and the realm in which this took place was emphatically not public.

In the course of the last century, the State has gradually insinuated itself into the midst of these family relations.  The functions of the community’s moral standards have been usurped by the law, with the result that there seem, to me at least, to be no widely held moral standards at all anymore.  And we have lost any sense of the difference between what is public and what is private.  People gladly “air their dirty linen” before millions of viewers on television; celebrities are stalked and photographed and gossiped about by the press; and one hears the most appallingly intimate details of other people’s lives as they themselves talk loudly into their mobile phones about anything and everything.  Meanwhile, the government, along with every internet and telecommunications company on the planet, gathers information about everything you do.  They read your emails, record your telephone conversations, and have their cameras mounted in virtually every public space.  “These days,” Mick Jagger sang a couple of decades ago, “it’s all secrecy and no privacy.”

When I was a kid, any adult who saw me try to pocket a candy bar at the grocery store would have grabbed me by the caller and marched me to the shop owner, who would telephone my parents.  I would be in big trouble, terrifyingly big trouble.  Now if an adult reprimands a child, the mother or father is outraged:  how dare you discipline my child!  I am his/her parent and that is my business not yours!  So too, teachers can no longer physically discipline children, and a savvy child has every opportunity to use the law to go after a parent who might dare to spank the little brat on his/her bottom.  “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is now called child abuse.  And the police stand ready to throw either husband or wife into jail whenever one or the other thinks to call 911 and say that he/she fears the other.

I am not trying to argue for a return to any previous social order.  The old way may have been nice for the Man-King who ruled the household, but it wasn’t so nice for his wife, his children, or his slaves.  And the man who, like me, chose not to marry had no good place in that order either.  As I have said elsewhere, we live in a period of flux in our social relations, the old hierarchies gone and the new not yet established.  Such flux is very difficult to bear.  For me, remembering the feeling of security one has in a world of clearly defined and communally enforced social standards, I find the current chaos particularly disheartening.  And for me, remembering the self-loathing and terror I felt at my own unnamed suspicion that I might be gay, I also feel this state of flux as a joyous liberation.

What worries me is the extension of judicial authority and police power into the realms of personal relationships.  It seems to me that the State has extended its power in alarming, totalitarian ways all in the name of the Sanctity of the Individual.  In the name of protecting husbands or wives from their spouses, children from their parents (and from their teachers), consumers from businesses, home buyers from predatory lenders, pets from their owners, and so on, the State has designated itself and its courts as the arbiters of the “right” way for people to live and to interact.  Increasingly everyone who suffers misfortune (which of course means everyone) is seen as a victim – not a victim of bad luck or bad choices, but a victim of someone or something that should pay for it.  Men no longer settle their differences privately, with arguments, fists (governed by Marquis of Queensbury rules), or pistols:  they sue for damages instead.

Look at the language:  we have Megan’s law and Laura’s law and Amber alerts, all judicial powers named for victims which further the development of a police state.  Instead of searching our own souls or hearts or psyches or consciences trying to regain a common morality, we abdicate responsibility for correcting our own and each other’s behavior and pass that responsibility to the State and its police.  And I fear that in doing so we lose the ability and the right to determine what that new, as yet unestablished, social order will look like.  We allow those who hold the brute reigns of power in this society to shape a new order to their own liking, without regard for the common folk like you and me.