“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).

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Food for Thought

In the months between finishing my undergraduate work at Berkeley and beginning my graduate courses at The Johns Hopkins University, I waited table at a restaurant called "The Deli", which was on Union Street in the Marina district of San Francisco.  I had not worked there long when I realized one of the ironies of my job: people came to me hungry and irritable.  I gave them food that satisfied their appetites and comforted them.  And just when the food I served made them happy and relaxed, they left.  And then I had to deal with another group of hungry and irritable folk.


This morning I woke up hungry.  I had not eaten as much as I should have last night because I was having a fruitlessly busy night driving my cab.  The huge "Dreamforce" conference occupied the center of downtown for five days and caused traffic jams throughout the Financial District, Chinatown, Union Square, SOMA, Nob Hill, and the Embarcadero.  I answered numerous calls from Dispatch only to find no one there wanting a cab.  Either the passenger had caught another cab because, given the traffic gridlock all around, they had had to wait longer than they thought they should have, or the call had been placed by an Uber driver in order to knock a cab out of the competition -- in other words, as a Nixonian Dirty Trick.

Furthermore the fares I did get were either short ferry-rides between one downtown hotel and another, yielding maybe six or seven dollars, or treks to a hotel out by the airport or out by the ocean, which then necessitated a return to the city empty, i.e., a "Dead Head."  I made no money at all last week, and by the time I got home last night, I was angry, frustrated, anxious, and depressed.  I had no food in the house and since I got off work at 5:00AM , no restaurants were open nearby.

So I went to bed hungry.  I was so exhausted that I barely knew that I was hungry.  I registered the fact when I woke up during the night (well, morning actually) but each time I quickly went back to sleep.  When I awakened for good in the early afternoon, however, I felt the kind of hunger I had known during my most penurious days on the street a little more than a year ago.

The experience of hunger calls into question the Darwinian hypothesis, or at least the most common understanding of that theory.  The early stages of hunger, the jittery sleeplessness and the anxious, restless waking, can be understood as prompting one to hunt for food and therefore as factors that increase the chance of survival.  These incitements to action are fleeting, however, and quite soon they are replaced by a lethargy that overwhelms any motivation to action at all.

Within the body that lies on the bed one senses only an emptiness void of both substance and energy.  You are aware of yourself as an empty sack, and the cool absence at your center brings on a sense of relief.  You imagine yourself lying where you are for hours and then days, the body cleaning itself out and then beginning to shut down.  The sensation is seductive, even luxurious, as you release all effort and all the tension in which you have bound yourself for a lifetime.  You imagine them finding your body in a few days, clean and empty on the white sheets, and all the ambitions and all the shame that you have carried all your life have disappeared, leaving you pure in death, peaceful, even happy.
Such hunger cannot be understood as enhancing one's chances of survival.


Among human beings, the commandment to share food, to share it with anyone who appears at your door or at the opening of your tent or your cave, is both prehistoric and absolute.  The most ancient myths and the most sacred rituals celebrate this imperative as the founding principle of humanity, as the cornerstone of all morality.  True communion is the sharing of food, simple bread and wine, which are themselves the Divine Substance, the body of God.


Zeus and Hermes, always fond of dressing as impoverished mortals and roaming the countryside (in modern terms, appearing as homeless men wandering the streets of an inner city) knock at the door of a rude hut, isolated in a remote countryside.  The aged man and woman who live there invite the strangers into their home, insist that the visitors sit at their table, and serve them the meager meal of watery soup and dry bread which they had prepared for themselves.  The hosts go because hospitality is the obligation that defines being human.  To share food and shelter with another, especially a foreign and unknown other, an immigrant, an outsider, is perhaps the most fundamental virtue of all.

These days, one often hears about "the problem of homelessness."  Let me say this:  there is no problem.  There is nothing to figure out, nothing to discuss.  It is not a matter of problems and solutions:  it is a matter of people who are hungry and people who have food, people who wander the open spaces of the world unprotected and people who have shelter, people who have money and people who have none.

We should all be ashamed before the two old peasants who open their door to, and share their food with, Zeus and Hermes.  They are truly good, and they appear again and again in the most ancient stories of human cultures everywhere.  Even the Good Samaritan is but a variation on these two.

And as we admit our shame and our failure to live as courageously and as honestly and as generously as the peasant couple, see how the Gods themselves react to the truly human.  The old man and woman, and the ruler of Mount Olympus and his messenger, go to sleep in the little hut, the Gods in the bed and their hosts on the floor.  In the morning, the Gods reveal themselves to the couple and in honor of their virtue, the virtue of hospitality, in which all moral strength is rooted, the Gods offer to grant them any wish they might ask.  And the wish of these aged lovers is as simple, as pure, and as achingly beautiful as their hospitality the night before:  they wish only that they would die at the same moment so that neither will ever have to live on without the other.

Their wish is granted.  And some years later, in the late afternoon of a golden day, as the evening stretches across the sky, preparing to settle down into the relaxation of oncoming darkness, the two stand side by side on a hilltop looking out over the fields and forests spread before them, and their stillness takes on a subtle change.  Then bark begins to form, curling around their feet and ankles, their legs and torsos, their arms and necks and faces.  Their arms become branches, twigs stretching out from their fingers, until at last they stand together as two trees, a linden and an oak, both growing out of a single trunk, together.


Put food out.
When people come to get it,
organize them.

[This last quotation appeared on bus shelters in New York City in the mid-1980s.  I believe that Barbara Kruger might have been the artist responsible, but I have been unable to find a definitive source.]

Sunday, October 12, 2014

How to Use a Taxi Cab

I have said that in the past I myself never used taxis in this town because they were never available.  One never saw an empty cab glide by nor did they come to pick one up even after having telephoned the dispatcher time and time again.  Now that I drive a cab, I realize that the failure of the taxi industry to serve the public of this city in the past has had an ancillary effect:  San Franciscans have no idea how to hail a cab or how to behave when riding in one.

I therefore offer the following words of advice:

1.  When hailing a cab, step to the curb, hold your right arm outstretched at an upward angle over the street, one finger extended as if pointing at a cloud on the horizon, and shout the single word "Taxi!", with an emphasis on the second syllable.  Do not whistle:  I am not your dog.  Do not shout "Hey!":  I have no way of knowing that you are calling to me and not to a friend across the street.  Besides, hay is for horses.

To make this action most effective, perform it with utmost confidence:  think of yourself as Claudette Colbert or Cary Grant, an unutterably beautiful star of Hollywood's Golden Age, back when they made movies for and about adults rather than overgrown children.  After all, you are trying to attract attention to yourself, the attention of someone who is already fully concentrating on variables that include but are not limited to pedestrians, bicycles, parked cars that may pull out into traffic, signal lights, and oncoming cars.  You have to compete against all other factors for notice.  Do not be shy!

[NOTE:  I wonder whether a preference for using apps as opposed to encountering people directly, or even encountering them telephonically, comes from a lack of self-confidence, a shyness fearful of doing something wrong or doing it the wrong way.  Machines, after all, provide the cold comfort of being non-judgmental, even if that means that they are also unsupportive.]

2.  Make yourself easy to see.  For example, if you are hailing a cab at night, stand under a streetlight, or in some other well-lit place.  Remember that the driver you are trying to hail has the lights of all those oncoming cars in her or his eyes, and their dazzling effect can make you difficult to see especially if you are dressed in dark clothes.  (Didn't mother teach you all to wear white at night?)

3.  Make yourself easy to get to.  Do not stand at a corner, where traffic is flowing in four directions (or on Market street sometimes six) thereby causing the cabbie who wants to pick you up to risk hitting or being hit by multiple other drivers.  Stand away from corners and if possible at an empty parking space (oops -- I almost forgot that this is San Francisco and such spots are merely mythical) or at a loading zone, a fire hydrant, or a gap in the line of parked cars.  This placement gives the cabbie a place to pull as far as possible out of traffic and allows other cars opportunity to change lanes and go around the cab without worrying about how they are going to make a turn at the same time.

4.  Enter the cab only from the curb side.  Do not walk out into traffic lanes and open the door into said lanes to get in the cab.

5.  Do not, unless you are in a large party of passengers, sit in the front seat.  The cabbie's dignity, stretching back through history to the drivers of horse-drawn carriages and wagons, rests in large part on the mutual recognition of the terms of his or her hire.  Just as the hackney driver sat on the raised bench at the front of the carriage and the patron sat in the cushioned seats behind, the cabbie has his or her workspace or office, as it were, in the front of the car.  You are the patron, she or he is the teamster.  (One who steers a team of horses is a teamster.)

Americans have a hard time with service relationships.  (Remember Auntie Lee?We like to pretend that there are no differences of class because we believe that differences of class would be barriers that separate us from one another.  But the hypocrisy -- nay, the outright lie -- of equality erects an impenetrable barrier of silence between us, the silence that encases all taboo subjects, and thereby prevents honest dealings among people.  Many of those who work for you in service positions have a perspective of which you have absolutely no idea because of the barrier of false equality.  

You the passenger have hired me, the driver, to take you to the destination you name.  My job is to carry you there safely and quickly, in that order.  I have no authority to drive to a place of my choosing.  It is your right to request music or, if I have the radio on, to request that it be turned off.  You decide whether the car is too warm or two cold, and I adjust the heater or the air conditioner accordingly.  I may ask something to indicate a willingness to converse, but you decide whether or not we have a conversation.  In all of these considerations, the power is yours.  To pretend otherwise is to enforce a lie.

Indeed, to pretend otherwise is grossly unfair to me.  I want only to perform my duty of transporting you and to make your ride as comfortable as possible.  I want you to tell me if you are too hot or too cold.  Otherwise you leave me guessing whether you are or are not happy, and that guesswork makes me anxious.  After all, what I want most of all is a generous tip, which I can earn only by pleasing you.  Any clue you can give me as to what you want gives me an opportunity to do my job well.

At a meeting of transportation workers last July during Laborfest, I heard a panel made up of drivers from traditional cab companies, drivers from Uber and Lyft, a union member, and a graduate student studying labor issue in the taxi industry in San Francisco.  One of the most interesting comments came from a taxi driver who had switched to driving for Uber and then switched back to driving a cab.  "When I drove for Uber," he said, "what I missed most from driving a cab was the conversations.  You can't talk about anything serious with Uber customers.  All they want to hear is how wonderful everything is.  In a cab you can be honest about your work and about the city and about life."

That remark gets to the corrosive effect of the myth of equality. I want my passengers to think of me as a good driver and a pleasant person to pass the time in a car with. If they ask my opinion on some controversial topic, I will be honest but not argumentative. The last thing I would want to do would be to offend. Such behavior is normal. At the extreme,  how many would tell Hitler that his plan to invade Russia was stupid. And how many husbands want to be scrupulously honest when asked whether that dress "makes me look fat." Relationships of power require different standards of honesty. 

[The word "truth" comes from the word "troth" -- a quality of a relationship between two individuals.  Truth is measured by the relationship between the speaker and the audience. ]

We adjust our opinions based on the company we are in, and the adjustments are shaped by the dynamic of power among the members of that company. To pretend equality blinds everyone to that reality and can lead to distortion and conflict.  See what Nietzsche had to say about "the pathos of distance".

Pretending that we are all just friends helping each other out denies and makes invisible the facts of power.  The passenger (or at a restaurant the diner, in a barber shop the customer in the chair, and so on with other commercial relationships) is the employer and the holder of power.  It is in the employer's power to improve the employee's life by paying wages or tips.  It is also in her or his power to make the worker's life more difficult by withholding payment.  In the former case, the worker feels happy, feels proud of having done the job well, and feels respected for the effort.  In the latter, the employee feels disappointed, feels like a failure at the job, and feels as though reprimanded for having failed in some way.  

Do not let an ethic of false comradery blind you to the power you hold and lead you to disrespect another person or to ignore your server's needs.

Please remember that these reflections apply to all service workers who aid you in accomplishing the tasks you face every day.


I have often wondered at the curious fact that when the self-consciously democratic Americans dropped the distinction between the formal and the informal second person (that is, between "thee and thou" and "you and you") we kept the formal term and lost the informal one.  In earlier times, one addressed close friends and family members as "thee", thereby showing a tenderness of feeling and intimacy in the relationship.  One used "you" when addressing strangers or those of a higher class.  But in America people started using "you" for everyone.

I suppose that the usage is a little like to Communist use of "Comrade" as a title of respect for everyone equally, whether husband, wife, elder, child, stranger, or best friend.  The newly "equal" (though falsely so) citizens of the young democracy began addressing everyone with a term of respect:  "you".  Nowadays I think that most people think "thee" and "thou" are terms for a superior person because the only place they are still used is in addressing God.

I think the whole change rather sad.  I cannot now indicate a level of friendship or love or warmth of feeling to someone by addressing her or him as "thee".  I would, dear reader, that I could here so simply show thee such kindness.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Jobs and Reagan

Because I drive a cab, people say, “You must have a million stories to tell.” I don’t.  But this morning I realized that I have one story that needs to be told.  It is the history of the taxi industry in San Francisco.

Once upon a time there was a chauffeur's union (and before that a union of "hackmen" which ended with a strike in 1904 during which one driver was killed), but now we are "independent contractors" and technically not employed by anyone. So cabbies have no set wages, no medical or dental insurance, and no retirement benefits. Instead we guarantee the business owners a fixed income -- fixed, that is, until they decide to raise it. And on the other side of things, web-based apps such as Uber and Lyft have cut our ridership by more than half. (We're not likely to get much help from the city in fighting those completely unregulated and unlicensed businesses:  too many local politicians have family members who have been given jobs or places on the board of Uber and  Lyft.)

A book about the history of the taxi industry in San Francisco could enlighten many about the realities spawned by the triumphs of Reaganomics and the internet.  Few people realize that Steve Jobs could have been a founding member of the Tea Party, with his ruthless pursuit of wealth couple with a Libertarian attitude toward social issues.  Silicon Valley companies have dazzled everyone with their whizz-bang technologies, and they have charmed Liberals and Progressives with their libertarian attitudes toward homosexuals, with their willingness to allow flexible work schedules, to provide daycare on site, to treat women equally (or appear to), and to foster casual dress and informal corporate etiquette in their operations.  They have allowed employees to form “affinity groups” that create good will toward management among various groups of employees who share personal, religious, or social concerns.  The companies also provide free restaurants and all manner of games and amusements to allow (force?) their employees to work endless hours.

But such window-dressing aside, they have been ruthless in refusing to allow their employees any real power by forbidding the formation of unions, by fighting any government regulation of their businesses or their products, and by promoting the “celebrity CEO” culture.  As class-oppressors they have triumphed.  I remember a long conversation I had one evening a couple years ago when I was homeless.
A friend had invited me to stay with him for the night, the weather being cold and wet.  While my friend did his laundry after dinner, I sat with one of his roommates who told me about the horrible injustice that was being done to him at work.  He had been a very early hire at Twitter, had worked hard and received great evaluations, while the company was developing and scaling up its systems.  Then, when the big venture capital money came in, he and his peers began to get bad evaluations and to be forced out.  Fired.  He still had his job but could see that the process was grinding on for him, too.  The problem with these earl hires was that by law they would have to receive the same stock and stock option benefits that the upper management received, and management did not want to share the spoils of the upcoming IPO.

This man’s experience has been repeated over and over throughout corporate America.  I remember when companies like General Electric were suddenly giving bad evaluations to previously model employees because they had learned through their insurance carriers that these men had HIV or AIDS.  No individual worker can fight such tactics.  Indeed individual workers are always powerless because as long as employment is governed by a “free market” for labor, there is always someone else to take the job of any employee who com[plains of injustice.

During the Great Depression, workers driven to desperation by poverty stood together for fair pay and safe working conditions.  They struggled through protests and strikes, some of them dying at the hands of police and such thugs as the Pinkerton men.  Their heroic efforts established labor unions in this country and led to the passage of laws limiting the work week to 40 hours and setting requirements for workplace safety, overtime pay, etc.  But by the late 1970s Corporations and Capitalists had gained enough influence in politics to begin turning the tide against unions.

When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 he signaled that the government would no longer support the rights of working people by busting the Air Traffic Controllers union within days of taking office.  Since then a steady campaign of misinformation about unions, of political and legal oppression, and of the reclassification of workers as “independent contractors” has castrated the union movement.  We are back to the injustices of the 19th and early 20th centuries.   Steinbeck told stories of the injustices done to farm workers in the agricultural industry in the 1930s that expose the same tactics and the same ruthless greed of the owners that we see in every industry today, tech included.

Nothing has changed.  Senior managements pay themselves outrageous amounts through sleazy stock and stock option deals while at the same time constantly trying to cut labor costs.  Without unions, workers have no recourse when they as individuals are forced out by such tactics.  The false ideology of Individualism – the myths of meritocracy and of free market entrepreneurialism --  is used to establish Fascism.

Mussolini defined fascism as “the perfect marriage of the corporation and the state”:  that defines the high tech industry in a nutshell.  Just ask the NSA.  (See the Frontline Report “United States of Secrets.”)

Maybe someone in Hell is planning a gay wedding for Jobs and Reagan just to make the point.  I’m sure they are both there.