“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, November 8, 2015

Another Cup of Coffee

A few days ago I sat down in the mid-afternoon to have coffee with a recent acquaintance, G.  I met G at my friend J's house.  G and J are old friends, and G, who has lived in New York for the past ten years, has been staying with J while he looks for work here in the Bay Area.  G has been here looking for work for over six months now.  In that time he has interviewed for over fifty positions, one of which encouraged powerful hopes as he had sixteen interviews with that company.  In the end, they hired internally, and except for a couple of short-term contract jobs, G has not been able to find work.  G is 49 years old.

As we sip coffee, and stir it, and sip a little more, we get to talking about the current job market, the economy in general, and our personal experiences in trying to find work.  What strikes me about G's story is that he has done everything right.  I look back at my own long slide into poverty and see the errors of my ways:  bad relationships, procrastination, laziness, magical thinking, over-confidence, and spendthrift habits.  G, however, has managed to support his wife and daughter as the family's sole breadwinner, to save money, to buy a house in Warwick, New York, and to build a sizable retirement nest-egg, all at the same time.

G graduated from college with a degree in design and went into marketing.  When computers first entered the business arena, he immediately devoted himself to mastering the new way of doing things, and he has stayed current with technology for over two decades. At the height of his fortunes, during the period from 2005 to 2009, G was Executive Creative Director for a digital marketing firm in Greenwich, Connecticut.

At the beginning of this period, in December of 2004, G suffered a massive heart attack.  Luckily, he did so in front of a cardiologist who saved his life.  Luckily, too, he had just purchased a 20-year life insurance policy which he has managed to keep in effect to this day.  So even despite that huge piece of bad luck, G had every reason to believe that he was managing his destiny responsibly.  Although the heart attack in December might have led him to worry about the fact that he had purchased his house just two months earlier, in October, G did have unemployment insurance and health coverage to see him through the six months that it took him to recover.  Soon thereafter, the job in Greenwich came through, and G was once again sailing along a rational, responsible, and honorable course.


Not far from Greenwich and Warwick, and some 25 years earlier, I began my first full year of teaching at Union College in Schenectady, New York.  In the first term, I taught, among other things, a course in the foundational literary works of Western Civilization.  I vividly remember teaching Sophocles's play "Oedipus", a work with which I thought I had been familiar for a decade by then.  But it was only then that I understood the heroic virtue of Oedipus.  Like everyone else, I knew that he had saved the city of Thebes from the ravages of the Sphinx and that he had ruled the city-state as a good king.  But on that reading I realized how hard he had struggled to be good.

Having heard as a young man a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, he ran away from home, not knowing that the father and mother he left were his adoptive parents.  It is in sacrificing his home and family and position in society in order to be a good man and avoid his terrible destiny that he finds himself at a cross-roads killing a stranger with whom he has quarreled and proceeding to save the city of Thebes and marry that stranger's widow.  It is in the very effort to remain good that Oedipus sets out on the path that leads him to kill his father and marry his mother.  The tragedy of Oedipus is that right action, undertaken for the best of motives, with true moral integrity and a heroic heart, leads the best of all men to the most horrible loss and suffering.  As Shakespeare's Gloucester says in "King Lear", "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.  They kill us for their sport."


And so my friend had done everything right, and yet 2008 came along, and the financial system imploded, and the company in Greenwich lost its major clients, and in 2009 G lost his job.  Half of the men living in G's neighborhood in Warwick lost their jobs too.  So G knew that it was not a matter of personal failure.


I heard Hillary Clinton say, after Bernie Sanders had criticized a capitalist system in which the rich suffer no penalties for their misdeeds and only grow richer while the majority of citizens descend deeper and deeper into poverty, that she celebrates small business entrepreneurs, who have created most of the new jobs in our country for the past few decades.  This bit of proverbial nonsense is the nostrum offered up by the quacks of both parties:  it relieves the government and the society at large of having any responsibility for the economic well-being of us citizens.  What la Clinton is saying is "Let the little people take care of finding employment for one another."


A couple of years into his ordeal, G sank a good piece of his savings into starting up a new marketing company.  He developed an app which would allow those who had food to sell that was near or at its "sell by" date to offer it at hugely discounted prices to nearby buyers who could make use of it before it spoiled.  Realizing that much of this food ended up, at the time, in the pantries of various charities and non-profits that feed the poor, G built in an automatic donation of cash from the sale of this food to those charities.  Despite great enthusiasm from all sectors that would potentially be affected, the business failed to take off.  G did not have and could not get access to the capital necessary to develop this business to a point where it could survive and succeed on its own merits.

And so G went into debt for the first time in his life.  He has had to draw down nearly all of his retirement savings.  He was able to refinance his house, lowering his monthly payments by getting a new mortgage at a lower rate, but the length of the mortgage was extended from thirty years to forty years.  As G pointed out, the banks lose nothing.  G has lost his savings, his retirement, and, by the way, his marriage as well.  He has not lost his house -- yet.  But unless something changes soon, even that will go.


Jamie Diamond remains at the head of J.P. Morgan/Chase and continues to rake in hundreds of millions in "compensation" annually.  He has become big buddy-buddies with President Obama.  Alan Greenspan, Henry Paulsen, Tim Geitner, and Ben Bernanke remain at large.


                                    "Everybody knows the fight is fixed:
                                    The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.
                                    That's how it goes.
                                    And everybody knows."


"What really gets to me," G says, "is having to wake up in the morning and do another round of applications and interviews, to smile and act enthusiastic and energetic about these prospects that remain only prospects.  Sixteen interviews -- sixteen interviews -- and they hire someone else.  Or they decide not to fill the position.  Or most often they don't even tell you what they are doing.  You go to interviews -- I had one with the CFO of a company, supposed to be the final green-light moment, and she seemed to really like me, we were scheduled for a half-hour and she kept me there for over a full hour, and then you hear nothing.  These companies don't even have the courtesy to let you know that they are not going to hire you.

"And if you are hired, they expect you to work for them 24/7 but there's no loyalty from them in return.  I remember when I was just starting out and I was working at a big corporation in New York, a global marketing firm, and at one point they let all these senior people go.  I saw these guys who had given thirty years of their lives to this company filling cardboard boxes with all the personal stuff from their desks and crying.  I saw that and right then I knew that you couldn't trust any of them.  They'll throw you out like trash any time they want.

"But harder than that -- let me tell you a story.  So my marriage has fallen apart, and I'm out here dealing with all this stress, and I've already had a massive heart attack.  So I just don't know how long I can take it.  I can stay on J's floor on his air mattress, or I can stay at my sister-in-law's apartment when she's out of town, and J's a great guy but I need some more human contact than just that.

"So I go on a date with this woman, really beautiful woman.  I met her on Match.  And she's going through a similar thing where she and her husband are separated but they're still living in the same house because real estate is so crazy out here.  And on her profile are pictures of the house which is really big and beautiful, and she's wearing beautiful clothes that are obviously really expensive, and she's driving a Lexus.

"And we had great conversation, really connected, talked about all kinds of things, but, you know, I took her out for drinks at this place in the Mission -- and she offered to pay but I'm old fashioned and insisted on paying for us both -- and we had two drinks each and the bill was $60.  When it ended. she offered to give me a ride home.  I tried being evasive but she insisted.  So I had her drop me at J's place and, you know, the front door is under the stairs to the flat above, the original house.

"We got together again and had a good time, but I could tell she was wondering about my situation.  She knows that I'm not currently working and she was asking about J's place.  She wanted to know if that was the basement or something.  I told her that it was a ground-level flat, but still I could tell.  And she knows that I don't have a car and I'm staying with a friend.  So at the end of that date I said something about getting together during the week and she said that she was busy.

"I said, 'I know, I know, I get it.  Listen, you're a very attractive woman, and I enjoyed our time together a lot . . .' and I said goodnight and I'll never see her again.  I've always supported my wife and daughter, just a one- income family.  But people don't know that.  That's not what they see.  And I get so depressed and even suicidal . . . ."

G's eyes looked wet.  We were silent for some minutes.  I don't know what banalities I muttered then, to bring our conversation to a close.  I felt honored by his honesty, by the trust in me it evidenced.  And I felt moved to share his story, or rather this ragged approximation of it, with you here.

Listening to G, I felt my rage at the moral bankruptcy of this America in which we live.  I thought of the hordes of young people who have no idea what is going on as they order their Uber cars, condemning hundreds of thousands of good men all across this country to fates like G's.  I thought of the politicians and the pundits who assert that the solution to such woes is to provide educational opportunities so that the unemployed can learn new skills and find work in the information economy.  All of which is not just bullshit but elephantshit.  I can see in my mind's eye the lines of men and women who enroll in and complete the re-training courses offered by county services and non-profits filled with utterly false hopes and coming face to face with those disappointments when they enter a job market where even those with decades of experience and up-to-date knowledge, intricate expertise, in technology cannot get work.  I shudder to think how, when they have been sold false dreams by callous civic leaders, their inevitable disillusionment may break their spirits and even end their lives.

And then I think too of those hordes of young people who believe that they sit atop the world and that they have earned the tremendous sums they are paid, who believe that the labor market that pays them so handsomely is proof of their worth, and who believe that they will always be worth -- and be paid -- what they are receiving now.  I think of their disdain for unions and their refusal to identify with their elders, like G.  He understood, all those years ago, that one day he might be cast aside as were the men older than he who were clearing out their desks on that sad morning in New York.  I have doubts that the present crop of (blissfully unaware) wage-slaves understand their position at all.  I suspect that they believe in their cohort, the Millennials, as a highly aware, highly creative force that is giving birth to a whole new world, the digital world, which will itself bear fruit as a whole new way for human communities to flourish.

Their generation is likely to be brought up short by the cruelty of America's deified market economy at an even earlier age than my generation has been.  Despite having studied "Death of a Salesman" and "Grapes of Wrath" in school, we failed to understand our own lives as re-enactments of those stories.  We thought that organized labor was irrelevant to the shiny and brave new world that we were building.  We thought that Apple was liberating us from Big Brother when in fact Apple has developed even more effective means of totalitarian control than any that Orwell imagined.  In a culture that reveres youth and the new, the wisdom of age goes unheard.  The generations repeat the same mistakes just as the generations of a dysfunctional family repeat the same abuses endlessly.

And a dark corner of my heart is gladdened to imagine the Millenials suffering when their companies and their technologies and their children abandon them in turn.  Such is the solace of schadenfreude.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Housing Crisis

Why has the real estate market failed to serve the people of San Francisco?

The chattering classes proclaim that the San Francisco real estate market is "excellent," "healthy," and "strong" because the market has enriched owners of real estate.  Yet it has also failed the majority of San Franciscans, who must pay exorbitant rents that are currently the highest in the country.  More significantly, the real estate market has failed an alarming number of San Franciscans whom it has left many without any place in which to live at all.

One can hardly take seriously the idea that free markets provide goods and services efficiently, balancing demand and supply automatically, in the face of this failure to supply one of the most fundamental -- and universal -- of demands:  shelter.  The reality for most of us is that this particular "free market" is infecting the whole life of the city with envy, rancor, rage, resentment, and an explosive degree of social tension.

Driving a cab, I hear or over-hear the opinions of people from almost all segments of our society.  Riding buses, living in an SRO Hotel, shopping at thrift stores, and walking the streets, I hear or over-hear the rest.  I have heard an attorney complain that she and her architect husband, both hardworking and fully employed, cannot find an apartment that they can afford.  People who have service jobs, such as bartenders, retail clerks, house painters, mechanics, and hair stylists, share their homes with roommates not always to their liking.  And the rich say, "Don't blame me.  My taxes pay for all the poor people's social services, and I'm the one creating jobs anyway!"

I certainly cannot blame any person or group of people.  The enemy here is clearly institutional, historic in origin, and susceptible to remedy only through legislation.  I cite these examples of discontent to make the point that what many consider to be an economic problem is in fact the source of dangerous animosities, among individuals.  People are feeling pressured at every level and are increasingly angry at other people, those "above" them on the social scale and those "below."  Their anger frequently erupts in little sparks of violence, verbal and physical, and it is building so rapidly that it may erupt in large scale mayhem before long.  If the real estate market functioned efficiently and supplied housing that met the demand, most of what San Franciscans find wrong with their city would disappear overnight.

These animosities bear no relation to the healthy competition among athletes or among rival businesses that may spur each on to greater achievements by adding the secondary motivation of pride to the original motivation to perform the task well.  No, these animosities are the beginnings of hatred, of class warfare, and potentially of violence.  The social friction caused by the failure of the real estate market is wholly destructive.

The ideology of "Free Market" capitalism must be seen for what it is:  a myth.  While the markets for ordinary consumer goods function adequately, such is not the case in markets for the most important aspects of our economic life:  employment, housing, and medical care.  In functioning markets, one finds a range of goods of the same type.  Some people buy Porsches and Mercedes, others buy Camrys or Passats, and still others buy Kias and Fiestas.  At the supermarket one finds luxury brands, name brands, store brands, and generics.  In San Francisco, however, the real estate market is creating only "high end", i.e., extremely expensive luxury housing.

As recently as the 1960s and 1970s, people like John Daly John Foster were mass-producing housing priced for blue-collar workers.  Fifty years later, no one is developing supply to meet similar demand.  So what has gone wrong?  [Note:  Although Daly and Foster built their eponymous cities outside of the city limits of San Francisco itself, most of the people who bought those houses were the middle and lower-middle class people who worked in San Francisco and regarded themselves as San Franciscans.]

Is it a matter of space?  Daly and Foster, and the Stone family as well, were able to purchase large tracts of land that had been in agricultural use and convert them to neighborhoods (or "subdivisions") so that they realized economies of scale in producing hundreds and thousands of homes at once.  Mass production brought down the cost of construction as surely as it had the cost of an automobile.  Now, since everything but the rightly-preserved parks and open spaces that dot the cityscape, the entire northern end of the peninsula is developed.  Are housing costs high because mass production is no longer possible?

I think not.  First and foremost, while the last agricultural enterprises disappeared from the city and its environs in the 1960s and 1970s, the same period saw the collapse of the Port of San Francisco and of the light industry and warehouse services that had surrounded the waterfront, resulting in acres of unused industrial and warehouse structures comprising South of Market area.  This is surely enough land for a Daly or Foster City.  Instead, the vast railroad yars that stretched from Mission Bay to Potrero Hill have become the China Basin and Mission bay developments -- luxury housing.  So the question remains:  why does the real estate market not supply the demand for lower cost housing?


For a time in the 1960s and 1970s, when the wealthy had not yet decided that they wanted to own the inner cities once again, an ad hoc real-estate market whose legality was sketchy did develop organically, meeting the needs of people who wanted to live in the urban core and who made homes and neighborhoods and communities of their own without attracting much attention from government and the press.  As in every other major urban center at that time, the decaying buildings of the inner city were occupied by squatters, musicians, homosexuals, artists, sex workers, and other marginalized people and businesses.  Dance clubs, gay bars and sex clubs, and inexpensive living quarters were created by people to meet their own demand for affordable spaces in which to live and work.  These marginalized people made use of a decaying but nevertheless existing infrastructure.  Theirs was a truly free market response to the demand for housing and not a matter of banks and developers chasing profits for the purpose of their own enrichment.

Eventually the city government, like the governments of London, New York, and other major cities, tried to prevent the squatters from taking over these unused resources, and even after the squatters had fixed the up the empty buildings tried to take the homes they had made from them by legal force.

I remember living in New York in the late 1970s and hearing about the "fixture fees" that people paid when they moved into a loft in SoHo.  The landlords who owned the empty buildings, which they had neglected entirely, leaving them to fill up with garbage, rats, used needles and filthy mattresses, went to court fighting to evict the squatters who had rehabilitated these buildings, installed kitchens and bathrooms, cleaned and painted and created huge, light-filled interiors in which to live.  While the legal battles went on, any squatter who decided to move out of the home that she or he had created charged the person who wanted to move in for the improvements, the "fixtures," such as electrical wiring, plumbing, toilets, tubs, sinks, and kitchen appliances.  They could not sell the real estate because they did not hold title, nor could they transfer a lease because none existed.  But in a fair, orderly, and reasonable way these people developed a civilized real-estate market without benefit of courts, police, or any of the other apparatus of control exercised by governments.  In the end, the courts for the most part sided with the squatters and "legalized their property rights, because the law recognized that the landlords, in neglecting to maintain the property, had forfeited their right to claim ownership.

Again, these were marginalized people to begin with.  And at the time, people of the upper middle and upper classes had no interest in living in the inner cities.  Content in their far-flung suburbs, untroubled by the poor, the "colored", and the immigrants, the well-to-do were happy to let the cities decay, burn in race riots, and, as in the case of New York, go bankrupt.

The history of the period is interesting, but the creative efforts of those who took possession of those properties did not amount to the production of a housing supply such as that which is needed today.  We are talking about the ad hoc appropriation of abandoned resources by people unable to afford participation in the regular market.


At the same time, individual builders were producing housing on a small scale in many parts of the city.  For example, you can find this house  

all over the Mission and in Bernal Heights.  Apparently a General Contractor found that he could buy run-down houses, demolish them, and build a new house on the property and sell it at a profit.  He saved the expense of an architect by reusing the plans he had already paid for, building the same house again and again in these neighborhoods.  Since he may in fact have built fewer units than he demolished, I cannot cite the houses as a proof of the market efficiently providing supply, but I can point to them as proof that demand, i.e. buyers, did exist even in the midst of the white middle-class exodus to suburbia.


The brave souls residing in the no-man's land beneath the elevated roadways that braid Bayshore Boulevard, Potrero Avenue, Cesar Chavez Street, and U.S. Highway 101 were lodging, until about a month ago, in lean-tos constructed of cardboard, plastic sheeting, and shopping carts, or they took their rest in sleeping bags under -- well, not the starry sky -- under those elevated streams of roaring traffic, of tons of steel and glass hurtling along at lethal speeds, spewing noxious fumes.

You may remember my description of this wasteland, for it is where the rats used to come out of the ivy and run alongside my bike when I pedaled through in the dark of the early morning.  In the year or so since I last rode through "La Calle de Raton", I have noticed that the police came through and cleared out the encampment.  That is, they rousted the people living there and then swept those people's homes and possessions into garbage trucks and took it all away from them.  The few things that these people owned were stolen from them ("stolen" is not a strong enough word) by the state which, no doubt, justifies this outrage with sanitary and aesthetic reasons.  Rage is the only humane reaction one can have to this injustice.

Lately, however, I have noticed that the residents of this neighborhood are returning, and this time they have tents.  Well over a dozen large, attractive, and clean tents are spread across the site.  I grin and practically laugh aloud each time I pass those tents, for to me they are proof that in the darkest and most powerless corners of this city's life, the human spirit remains indomitable.

If the City cannot or will not (the latter being, I believe, the case) provide real housing for these folks, then why not let them live in peace in the place that they have chosen, a place that is not anybody else's neighborhood, not "my back yard" or yours.  And as for public health "concerns", why not truck in a dozen portable toilets and have one of those trucks with showers come round three times a week.
The land itself must be property of the state since it is a freeway right-of-way, and if it belongs to the state, doesn't it belong to all her citizens?  Doesn't that land belong to those urban campers as much as to anyone -- and more so by right of possession.

I say that if a building stands empty, people who need homes should move into it and make it their own.  If land stands empty -- those vacant lots surrounded by cyclone fencing or old parking lots similarly fenced -- people should build on it.

Title to land is nothing but a monopoly for use granted by the state to an individual it favors.  If that individual is not making use of this government handout, then the title should be considered forfeit and the land be free to anyone who will use it.

Shame on those who would dispossess the poor of what little they have.  Shame on those who would drive them from their homes.

And to hell with those who hold land unused in hopes of selling it later for a higher price without making any use of it for the benefit of the community.

Read Henry George!  Read Tolstoy's last novel, "Resurrection"!  Awake!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

What Remains

I felt good yesterday afternoon.  My friend S and I had spent a couple of hours going over the application for a two-bedroom Below Market Rate apartment that was available in Dogpatch.  I was glad to have seen a property that I might realistically afford, but I did not feel excited in the way that I used to feel about any number of places that I had found to rent in years past.  I remember that I would fall asleep thinking about all the great things in what was to be my new neighborhood and picturing where various favorite pieces of my furniture would go in the new place with a giddy sense that it was just perfect and that I was meant to live there.

There were a couple of reasons not to feel giddy.  First, S and I were applying for this apartment together because neither of us has enough income to qualify for the Below Market Rate (BMR) studios and one-bedrooms that become available from time to time.  The rent on such units is $950 to $1050 per month.  (The market rate for a one-bedroom apartment is currently $3500 to $4000.)  The discount is good, but the Mayor's program requires that one show proof of income that is at least twice the rent, and on apartments with really low rents, the program usually requires income of two and a half times the rent.

Since many San Franciscans pay considerably more than 50% of their income in rent, it seems unrealistic to restrict the poor in this way.  The underlying assumption is that one needs 50% of one's income for other expenses, but such may not be the case.  For one thing, food is available free in many places throughout San Francisco.  So even for less expensive apartments, it is not true that a tenant would have to spend $1000 a month on food.  And if we are talking about a place renting (below market) at $2,000 a month, it would be hard for most poor people even to imagine spending $2,000 on food and other expenses.

Furthermore, since many poorer San Franciscans work at informal jobs (e.g. house painting, gardening, cleaning, running errands as a personal assistant) for which they are paid in cash that goes unreported, the Mayor's Office again discriminates against those whom it is supposed to help by requiring them to prove their income by showing pay stubs or a copy of their tax return from the previous year.

Luckily, the unit for which S. and I were applying was a two-bedroom renting for $1084 and requiring only $2168 in combined income, which together we could show.  

The second factor keeping our animal spirits from optimistic volatility was the fundamental fact that we were applying to be in a lottery for the property.  Our application would, along with many hundreds or even thousands like it, be merely tickets in a game of chance, and the chances that our application would win were so slim that they would (as my father used to say of skinny people) have to stand twice to make a shadow.  What's more, my personal experience has been, I am sorry to say, that the only lottery I would ever win is the one Shirley Jackson describes in her short story of that name.

Still, S. and I felt good because we were taking concrete steps toward a better life in better housing.  We have both been homeless in the recent past, and living in that kind of poverty takes its toll on one's ability to do anything.  Poverty, like incarceration, drains the will out of a person, and being released from either condition does not restore the will power that has been lost.  Even though I am no longer homeless, it is still easy to leave important tasks undone from day to day.  Day to day becomes week to month -- and longer.  When you have endured for a long time without a place to set your feet, it isn't easy to start taking steps again, no matter how small.  But there we were, huddled over the stack of papers we had to assemble, Xeroxing extra copies of everything.  We felt happy to be making some headway on our wobbly little legs.

Then this afternoon what little hope we had for this spin of San Francisco's "Wheel!-of!-Housing!" dissolved.  S. had taken our papers to the designated office while I was at work.  The girl at the counter rejected us immediately.  She said that our application lacked the proper documentation establishing residency.

As proof of residency, I had included a letter from the Housing Authority addressed to me which stated the amount of my monthly rent.  This official letter was not good enough because it was not one of the three documents listed on the application as establishing residency.  Nowhere on the list could one find "Official Letter from the City's Housing Authority."  Acceptable forms are (1) a utility bill for a San Francisco address; (2) a paystub showing a San Francisco address; or (3) a completed lease for a residence in San Francisco.  As for the first option, I live in an SRO and utilities are included in my rent, so I receive no utility bills.  As for the second, I drive a cab and as an Independent Contractor receive no paychecks and have no stubs.  I do have a lease, but I will need hours to search through the dozens of boxes in my storage unit for a copy of that lease which, after all, covers the room to which the Housing Authority letter was addressed and for which that letter stated the current rent.

You might think that given the depth of The City's housing crisis and the appalling spectacle of thousands of people sleeping on sidewalks and in doorways every night, the "Mayor's Office on Housing" would think its mandate included working with applicants such as myself whose particular lives do not fit so easily into a few bureaucratically defined boxes, but such is not the case.

God forbid that anything should be provided for the poor easily!  Handouts lead to moral depravity!  Make the lazy sons of bitches work for their food stamps and their SRO rooms, even if the work consists of shuffling papers and meeting arbitrary deadlines, waiting in endless lines in dreary offices.  Ronald Reagan taught us all about those Welfare Queens and Kings, and thank God the Clintons ended "welfare as we [knew] it."  We have got to do everything we can to keep them from getting their idle hands on our money! 

Why can't they just get a job!


It seems to me as though what is unraveling is the illusion of America.  The myth and the propaganda originate in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson's rallying cry designed to sell the lower classes on the idea of going to war against their king for the benefit of a landed aristocracy.  The actual founding document of the nation-state, the rule book setting forth the operations of the federal government, is the Constitution, which in its original form (i.e., before the first ten amendments) mentions no rights or liberties belonging to individuals but instead concerns itself with property and the interactions between the various state governments, through which the landowning aristocrats already ruled each colony.  The Declaration's blather about liberty and about the rights of man was forgotten in the formation of the government.  The government concerns itself only with power relations and property.  The "American Dream", it turns out, has been just that -- a dream.  The reality is property.  What is real is real estate.

But every revolution that stirs up the common folk to fight and die on behalf of the upper classes ends up suffering the consequences of the rhetoric it used to do that stirring up.  And so we live in a plutocracy whose stability is threatened by the promises its founders made and never delivered on.

The promises of the Declaration live on, inspiring the people to keep pushing the government to realize the powers which the Declaration says belong to the people by divine right.  Despite institutional resistance, "we the people", organized and willing to sacrifice even our lives, as has often happened, keep moving the United States closer to its promise.  We expanded the electorate to include men without property, members of minority races including former slaves, and women.  Nevertheless, the full realization of the Declaration, the dream that called the masses from around the globe to these shores, the American dream, continues to be deferred.

We must ask with Langston Hughes, "What happens to a dream deferred?"  To Martin's dream?  To my dream?  To yours?


In these United States, there is a level to which neither charity nor common humanity descends.  America has its Untouchables, as is necessary in any society whose goods are not shared unconditionally.  What little "safety net" still exists in this country is not available to those who are most in need.

Mayor Lee, like so many of the tech industry's other cheerleaders, touts "The Sharing Economy" (a bit of Orwellian doublespeak) as an example of technology opening new opportunities for work.  He suggests that it may provide a remedy for unemployment and under-employment.  But the "sharing" companies do not benefit the poor.  They benefit the middle class, which is rapidly being driven into poverty, but not the untouchably poor.  You have to have money to earn anything in this new economy:  you have to own a car to drive for Uber and you have to have a place to live to make any money through "Airbnb".  The so-called "Sharing Economy" has no place for the homeless.

The sharing economy does not offer an alternative to regular work.  Instead it allows the increasingly pressured middle class to monetize assets.  Although I personally suffer from the decline in the taxi business due to the (I think) illegal operations of Uber, Lyft, and other "ride share" companies, I cannot blame the people who are ferrying rich kids around town in their own cars.  I doubt that they are following their passion by doing this work.  I doubt that they would be giving up their homes to Airbnb or working extra hours driving for Uber after their regular jobs if they could make a comfortable living without doing so, in other words, if they were paid a living wage.


Class trumps all other considerations in this town, and at this point class has come to determine one's eligibility to call oneself a San Franciscan.  Our avaricious and mendacious Mayor, a true Gollum*, fawns on the rich and casts the poor aside.  In his San Francisco, those who can least afford to lose their home, those most dependent on social services both private and public, are being evicted left and right, by Ellis Act, by fire, and even by neglect.

The Mission neighborhood's bi-lingual newspaper, "El Tecolote", in Volume 45, Number 16, tells the story of 20 people evicted from a boarding house because the landlord had failed to make repairs mandated by abatement orders dating back to 1995.  Eventually the city's building inspectors ruled it uninhabitable.  The landlord who failed to make the repairs died; his daughter inherited the two unit structure and sold it to a developer who has also failed to make any repairs.  Instead he evicted the 20 residents, giving them no time to pack their possessions or find new accommodations, and then chained and locked the doors.  The following day he removed the front staircase, which allowed access to the building, without bothering to get a permit for the work.  He then sent checks for $1800 to each of the evicted residents, but the day after mailing them stopped payment on them all.  The various parties involved, the former and the present owners and the city, argue in court about who is responsible for what, but still none of the repairs have been made and the 20 people who used to live in the building are unable to gain access to retrieve their belongings.  Ignored by the government and the land owners, they continue to live on the streets.  
In Ed Lee's San Francisco, the poor are not wanted.  If there were a newspaper in this town that was not owned by the same bosses who own City Hall, we might see headlines such as this:

Or perhaps


[*I heard Lee interviewed on the radio a couple of weeks back and noted that he pronounced sibilant terminal consonants with a prolonged quiet hiss.  I almost thought I heard him muttering under his breath, "My Precious, My Precious."]

One of the cruelest things about poverty is the havoc it wrecks on your will.  It galls me when I hear people suggest that the poor are lazy and have rightly earned their poverty because they don't have the will to work hard.  These people have got it backwards:  they have confused the cause with its effect.  It is simply not the case that hard working and motivated people make money and that lazy people do not.  If poor people are lazy at all, it is because poverty has made them so, and not the other way around.

Poverty erodes the will.  Not having resources means that you gradually give up on things, give up on your hopes to do X, Y, or Z.  A musician who cannot afford the equipment necessary to offer her music for sale online must soon lose her motivation to create music altogether.  She may even have to pawn her instrument to pay for food or a month's shelter in an SRO.  The more difficult a thing is to do, the easier it is to give up on doing it.

I cannot allow myself to think about how far I have to go before I will have what I used to consider a "normal" life again.  If I think about that distance, I want to throw in the towel.  So I have to break things down to the smallest steps and focus on doing those things one by one.  People say "Don't sweat the small stuff," but often that is precisely what you must do.  Do the small stuffs and let them accumulate over time to become the big deal.


"Them thats got shall get.  Them thats not shall lose.  So the Bible says, and it still is news.  Momma may have, and Poppa may have, but God bless the child that's got his own."


I hear much enthusiastic talk about "disruptive" businesses and technologies.  The talkers imply that this wave of "disruptive" products and business practices is something new, born from innovations that computer technology has made possible.  Nonsense.  The invention of the steam engine or of the internal combustion engine, the development of the electric power grid, the introduction of the telephone, of railroads, of literally thousands of products of the industrial revolution were just as disruptive to the ways people lived and the ways they made their living as mobiles, mega-data, and "The Cloud" are now.  And all the disruptions of the last 300 years have not been progress:  the have only manifest the capitalist industrial social order that ignores human values and counts only profit.  It is an order that chews up and spits out individual lives.


I heard a history program on KALW a couple of weeks ago which included a discussion of the history of containerized shipping.  The story is told in Marc Levinson's new book, "The Box".  Levinson talked about the unintended consequences of containerization, among them the disappearance of large factories from the United States and the emergence of China as the workshop of the world.  This was truly a disruptive technology.  Levinson did not talk about the disappearance of the men who worked along the shore, the "'long shore men", who unloaded cargo by hand in the days before containers.

Actually, I should not use the word "disappearance":  those Longshoremen did not "disappear" any more than the middle class in this country has "disappeared".  True, the once powerful Longshoremen's Union may have disappeared (only a vestige remains), but the men did not.  Those Longshoremen who lost their jobs stayed on in San Francisco.  They became an invisible community of impoverished souls who stuck together, supporting and caring for one another, living in SRO hotels south of market.  These proud workers who had struggled for a decent wage and decent working conditions, having lost their jobs to a "disruptive technology", found themselves disparaged as "bums" and their community looked down on as "Skid Row".

The men remained in SROs south of Market Street until the same elites who had "disrupted" their livelihoods and the work in which they took pride, got the city to exercise eminent domain and scrape clear the blocks where those hotels, those men's homes and community, had stood.  The capitalists called this brutal displacement of people "Urban Renewal", and where the SROs had stood they built Yerba Buena Gardens and the Moscone Convention Center.  Economically broken and separated from each other, the scattered individuals lost the power that they had had in solidarity with one another, the power that they had used in 1934 to win decent living wages for workers all up and down the west coast of the United States.

The Longshoremen's jobs were exactly the kind of jobs on which the foundation of the American middle class rested.  Today the "disruption" of those middle class jobs continues apace, as corporations continue to drive down wages and cut payrolls.  And again the workers whose jobs are lost to increase corporate profits are abandoned by the society at large.  Politicians propose strengthening the middle class by granting tax cuts for education and by instituting programs of "reeducation" and "retooling", responses that are entirely beside the point.  The jobs that paid a decent wage are gone, and the jobs being created are mostly low-paying service jobs.  Few high-paying technology jobs are being created.

So the people who made up the middle class did not "disappear" like honey bees and Monarch Butterflies.  The middle class was a cohort of individuals, and those individuals live on as the newly poor.  We buy groceries with food stamps and live in whatever marginal housing the State is still willing to subsidize.  And we too, like the Longshoremen before us, are now being subjected to the second step of the program:  we are being driven apart from one another, and our communities (the Mission, the Tenderloin) are being broken up by gentrification, while we ourselves as individuals are scattered in a general diaspora.

Communities are being broken up and the nexus of relationships in each of them destroyed.  Evicted and driven from our homes and neighborhoods, we are forced to move to places where we do not know our neighbors and are not known by them.  Thus are we prevented from coming together in trust and solidarity.  Thus are we kept from organizing and from resisting.

A viable resistance can only grow up among people who know each other and know that they can trust each other.  Such trust and such knowledge are possible only among people who live together in one place and can observe one another day to day and month to month and year to year.  The much heralded new "connectedness" that people think they find online cannot replace the connections people make by living in a shared public space.  Online, you can never be sure who the person with whom you are chatting really is.  Men create online personalities as women, and women as men.  Pederasts pretend to be teenagers.  The person with whom you are planning political action may be an officer of the law.  The person may be a robot.  The online world is one of smoke and mirrors, not one of truth.


The revolution will not be televised.

The resistance will not be organized online.


We have become commodities consigned to trash bins of remaindered items.  And I don't care what industry you work in, what company you work for, or what things you own, you too will be tossed aside for a newer model long before your spirit or your mind are ready.  In our economic system, nothing about you specifically is unique or uniquely valuable.  You can easily be replaced.  And you will be.




 Work is first and foremost one's means of surviving.  Genesis tells us that labor, whether woman's in childbirth or man's in earning his bread by the sweat of his brow, is Yahweh's curse on humanity.  Like any curse, labor is something to be endured.  What is more, one cannot endure without labor.  As they say, there is no free lunch -- or breakfast or dinner for that matter.  No free shelter or clothing or regular dental care either.

One of the fundamental injustices in "free" market capitalism, specifically in the handling of labor as a marketable good, is that the relationship between employer and employee is completely one-sided.  The boss holds the power of life and death over the working woman or man who is powerless.  If I quit my job, my employer faces the minor inconvenience of hiring a replacement.  If my employer fires me from my job, I face possible homelessness and starvation.  Believe what I am telling you because I know.  I have spent nights walking street after street through the city because falling asleep in a park or on a sidewalk or in a doorway leaves one terrifyingly vulnerable to predators.

I have been hungry enough to experience the struggle between hunger's weakness (the body's fuel spent, the lamp flickering out) and hunger's deep, visceral, aching pain.  I wanted only to surrender to my fatigue and stay in my makeshift bed, however uncomfortable, and let the cold and the darkness rise like water around me, lapping at my sides, yet the knife and the rack and the thumbscrews of hunger drove me to stumble out and search for food.  This is the condition in which humans subsist when we cannot find work.

Those who know this condition, those who know poverty, know also that rising above such a level, acquiring housing and food, is not the same as a cure, that a reprieve is not exoneration.  Those who have lain in their bed listening to poverty scratching at the doorway, heard it pacing on the other side of the cardboard box in which that bed is made, smelling its rancid hot breath in the cold night air, know that the relative safety of climbing a step or two up the ladder is just that: relative safety.  Those of us whose parents struggled through the Great Depression know that the behavior poverty necessitates does not change with subsequent wealth and comfort.  My mother and father spent their retirement touring the world by air and by sea, traveling first class, and yet they still scraped every last bit of jam from each jar, kept every rubber band, used and repaired and reused everything as a way of life.

Once poor, one cannot breathe freely or live without a debilitating degree of anxiety until one can feel secure in having a regular income that is sufficient to one's immediate needs and additionally includes enough to pay for the unforeseen necessities, to cope with accidents, with disease, with upheavals of society and of nature.  People need a secure predictable wage in order to enjoy physical and mental health and to have at least a chance at happiness.

The "gig" economy, piece work, the treatment of employees as "independent contractors", in short, the "Uberization" of work, is nothing but vicious oppression of the working man and woman.  This new economy of "disruptive" businesses is celebrated by the capitalist class, who are made richer by this aggravated exploitation of labor, and by the media whose mouths are fed by the capitalist's checks, and by politicians, who are on the payroll of the rich as surely as anyone else.  But here in San Francisco, under the heel of this booming tech economy, as that heel grinds down on us harder and harder, the talk about having the "flexibility of making my own schedule" and "being able to work when I want to, allowing me to pursue my other interests as well" is the rhetoric of a macabre Doctor Pangloss.  Those phrases are a cruelly disingenuous pretense that "All is right with the world."  The reality is that we struggle to find opportunities to work, and when we find them, we exhaust ourselves working every minute that we possibly can trying to afford the minimum necessary for subsistence -- and working just as hard trying not to collapse in despair.

And the attitude toward those of us who cannot find work -- because of their age or race or gender or the educational system that neglected them in their youth -- is, as a young man in my taxi said one night, that "they'll die off soon anyway."