6 – Nov - 2012
We forget, or at least, I forgot that our cities have two sides. It becomes so easy to focus on creativity, expression, and production, while ignoring their costs. San Francisco cannot improve our lives without destroying others. Some will be devoured in order for others to flourish, that is the nature of the American city. There are homeless here that see the beast with perfect clarity, with a degree of drunken acceptance bordering on enlightenment, but there are others who have been drained, slowly, and never understood the change was happening. There are the old, skinny brothers in the sanitized projects on Valencia, near the mission, who roam the streets muttering bits of old song lyrics to themselves, half laughing, half-begging anyone who crosses their paths to stay a while, and listen. There are the shrunken women, the women whose muscles have melted like tallow until the skin of their arms tightened like cling-wrap around the rickety bones, who shamble like discarded extras from B-rated zombie flicks. They struggle once to get a smoke from their packs, their fingers as rigid as a rigged arcade machine half heartedly reaching toward its prize, and struggle again to move with more solidity than the smoke, peeling and curling toward the dark horizon.
I forgot how big a group “the rest of us” becomes, once I reluctantly became a member again. It doesn’t take a long time to measure what I can’t afford, likely will never afford, and the opposite end too, assaults all the senses at once. It is interesting to think that the winners in every American city only show themselves if they choose to. To become invisible is the privilege of success. To eschew neighbors and neighborhoods, crowds, and the flesh and sinews of the city. On the other side, those poor muttering bastards die of disappearance. They become the walking, talking dead. They are specters in flesh, writing cardboard signs in invisible ink, begging for scraps with silent cries, cloaked in the collective guilt of a million people who’ve decided it’s not their place to help.
We used to scoff at the Aztecs for putting virgins upon the stone altar and cutting out their hearts in order to appease the Gods, to convince them to keep the world spinning for another harvest, but what are these scraps of humanity clinging to the corners but our virgins? Do we not make the same choice, day in and day out? Do we not offer up our own sacrifices to the city of San Francisco, of New York, Chicago? We may not collectively decide who the winners will be, the field mice do not choose the vultures, but we do decide who will be the carrion. We do not witness their executions and we do not cheer their deaths. We are worse. We ignore them.
07 – Nov- 2012
Last night I could hear the screams and shrieks erupting from bars and apartment buildings. Random camera crews scattered around the mission waiting to interview voters for this or that, exit polls, post-pre data to feed into the 24 hour news machine. The day was quiet though, people strolled through the streets with stickers on their shirts and the lapels of their coats that proudly marked them as a voter. I can’t be sure, but I think I know who the heavily tattooed lesbian couple voted for. The stickers are a good idea nonetheless.
This is the second presidential election I’ve watched on computer. The first was in Shanghai, when Obama won the election practically before it started. This time I had five websites running their models, interpreting their data, coloring in the map. Some had Florida shaded red, others blue. The East coast came in all at once, and New York was checked off with 0% of the votes even counted. The same with the strip from North Dakota to Texas, and the same with Washington to California. In the end it was an electoral landslide, but a part of me still feels acutely alien. I was in America for an election, still homeless, moved three times in as many months, not registered to vote, not even at a bar with friends or someone’s apartment to watch the votes roll in. There is still the solace of her face, and her body, more than enough to compensate.
It occurs to me that hope is what we have left when we’re done celebrating and found that nothing has changed. Maybe those indecipherably undecided people of Ohio and Wisconsin have staved off another great dent in the beat up Pinto of freedom coasting along the legalize of the American system of government. Maybe some of our worst Supreme Court Justices will have the good grace to die while we can replace them with those who will help turn the tide. Maybe the war on drugs, like a body’s immune system attacking its own cells, will finally get the vaccination it deserves. Unfortunately, all we have is maybe. All we have is hope, the ticklish spark plug in our lemon that has only so many more rides to offer. Hope and the small joys this tech-crazy world provides, those tweets and status updates of the panicking conservative masses. It’s a brave new cowardly old world out there, but most of us remain happier with it when our team is in the white house.
8 – Nov – 2012
Despite the near infinite amount of information my phone can fetch for me I still explore the old fashioned way. I walk in a straight line. I pick a direction, pick an album, and pick a path through the hilly grid of San Francisco and go. I’m not looking for anything, nor have I found it. Mostly, I’ve probed for the ethereal walls of the fortress of gentrification surrounding Valencia Street in the mission. I search for the roving points where the padded syllables and sighs of fluent hipster dissolve into the clipped gibberish of the street people, somehow kept at bay by the same specters that complete their conversations, and mumble along the choruses to the songs they shout into the distance.
A map of the city begins to grow and pulse in my mind, peopled with bizarre landmarks, mostly stores that are named with ironic puns. Where the quiet coffee shops and vegan restaurants give way to the bleak car-repair garages and pawn shops -- the map stops. As I walk these routes I realize how little my other senses mean. My ears stuffed with grunge rock and the winter winds blocking my nose, all the world is what I see. When there are no walls we become them. Where we feel uncomfortable, unsafe, no longer in control, we erect these barriers with our eyes, lowered to the pavement.
From a hot air balloon you could watch the darkness of sunset creep at a thousand kilometers an hour across the equator. I imagine the walls of “nice neighborhoods” spreading and retreating like this, a sunset in slow motion. Pulsating and marching, shimmering and retreating, but always as fuzzy as the heat shimmers above the desert highway, the arc of darkness pulsating beneath a swinging light bulb.
17 – Nov – 2012
On the BART a hoodlum gets on at the airport. He proceeds to give directions and advice to an old couple, staring blankly at the transit map, before he pulls an Ipad out of his pack. He repositions the dark gray cowl of his hoodie over his head and eyes and starts reading the rap from his screen. His head bobs and as the train begins grinding and screeching he screams his words over the din. What better way to practice overcoming the noise of a frenzied crowd? He closes his eyes and lets the words flow through him from the screen, from the parts of his memory that forged the rhymes and from the parts of his imagination adding the beats, and the adulation of a million phantoms across the packed auditorium of his mind.
I wonder about the old white couple, and what they would feel about this young, black man screaming a great many “n-words” and words that rhyme surprisingly well with the “n-word”. How would they feel about this man had he not navigated them through the city map on the wall? When he runs out of steam I think that to go as long as he did was admirable, but two stops on the BART is hardly enough to blow away a sold out crowd. When he finished and pulls back is hood, the young, frenetic man disappears, and the short salt and pepper hair seems almost unfair, like an errant beauty mark on a perfect face. It was sad that age should strike someone still willing to perform for free on the train.
Immediately, I see myself sitting in a seat like this, grayer, older, still trying to put some worthwhile words on paper and failing. But maybe he’ll make it, maybe his train song will blast up the charts to #1. I don’t really know why this stranger’s semi-impossible journey has been hitched to mine, he’s certainly braver about it than I am, but back in a real city for the first time in a long time I think I’ve become obsessed with how many can fall, so far and so fast between the cracks.
And if a human being can be so utterly forgotten in the midst of swarms of others, how easy is it then to forget words? His words, my words, all of them, criss-crossing around synapses like errant daggers of light between the stars.
18 – Nov – 2012
The mission. I can’t count the interpretations. The renovated relic looms beautifully over Delores Street. It is surrounded by swarms of gentrified townhouses, of post-racial, new-age, retro, hipster, middle-class transplants from the suburbs beyond or below the bridges and BARTS and CALTRAINS. The street is both barrier and gradient. In the area known as the mission, an oddly shaped mass on the map about a square mile or two around, the street bearing its name has its own barometric pressure. It makes sheltered white people like me bristle, and put up my guard.
The bubble is as real as a rushing cold front that forms goosebumps on exposed skin. At the BART station swarms of homeless, addicted strangers celebrate the birth of the day and the death of yesterday in equal measure. It occurs to me that the strongest defense the relatively affluent people like myself employ, most of us without knowing it, is the barbarity of our prisons, and the fear they engender. At least it seems this way, when I think of what I would do to me if I were them. Maybe it’s still shock, that the chasms separating us can be physically breached in a dozen steps. But I know, as true as a river, Mission Street has an east and west bank. I walk downtown on this road that like a pinched artery finds its life again as it gets closer to the heart of the city. Before it can get there though it follows a no-man’s land of auto-repair shops, bulk discount restaurant supply chain warehouses, and social program offices at the city, state, and federal level. I become convinced on the slow walk down mission street that madness manifests most obviously in groups, when the people are all staring at one another, but talking to themselves.
As the banks and office towers grow and distort the horizon I pass a group of seedy hotels where dozens of young, black men emerge onto the streets while taking hits out of their glass pipes. Wedged between the San Francisco Chronicle, shedding its writers like the halfway houses and crack dens shed their vagabonds, and the gleaming new apartment buildings are a slew of pawn shops with their menageries of bling, staring out the like so many albatrosses that had capsized the lives of those who made some bad choices. Or of those to whom there were never any good choices available.
It seems ironic that the Chronicle stands at the corner of 4th and mission, at the block where people stop patrolling pawn shops and start navigating the racks of Nordstrom’s and Bloomingdales’. The Chronicle housed one of the last bastions of rearguard warriors fighting a phalanx of developers and short-sighted local politicians with their volleys of anecdotes and uncovered schemes. Now the building stands like a granite lion between the Metreon Mall and the gates of the Tenderloin. A warning to the direly disenfranchised that they’re still trying to help, but they can only do so if the down and out stay on the down low.
4 – December – 2012
I watch the people of the DeYoung Gallery, taking pictures of pictures. Some seem to be cataloging the museum for a later date, but there are 25,000 pieces to this copper labyrinth. And I try and fail to remember anything specific about any of the dozen or two museums I’ve visited in the past. Nothing comes. It occurs to me that it will always be like this. Like everything else about the world there is far too much of it to ever internalize. But that’s the beauty of art and artists. They can focus on a single moment, a single shard sent up from the dead world of the past and use it to create a single new moment in the present.