53. On the Rain

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On Thursday, December 11, 2014, a colossal storm hit the city of San Francisco. I had to wake up at 6:30 AM and when I looked out the window, the sky was all yellow (please don’t sing Coldplay. Please). It was the most beautiful thing I’ve seen in the past month (well, maybe second most beautiful thing…but that’s another story for another time), and the soft pattering of rain on concrete below sounded like a cat purring, but in a way that enticed me out of bed. I threw on my black wool pants and black jacket, the same jacket I wear every day, with this pin:

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I have a small black umbrella I’ve had for a few years now. Many other umbrellas have come and gone out of my life, but for whatever reason I keep losing them and returning to this one. The release button popped off last year and so I have to jam a pen into the handle to open it, and one of the spines is broken and juts off at an awkward angle so that whatever body part is directly under it will not be protected. I initially forgot the umbrella when I left my apartment but I ran back upstairs to retrieve it when I arrived at the front door and realized that, indeed, it was raining outside. When I finally stepped out the front door with umbrella in hand, the rain instantly ramped up from a “stage 4 drizzle” to “raining large marsupials and pachyderms.” My feet got wet.

Nobody was on Muni. Usually Muni is packed and I have to push my way on, reminding people to step back into the middle of the train cars. “Come on San Francisco,” I sometimes yell, “if you can still breathe, we can fit one more on. Nobody needs to be left on the platform!” I sometimes get laughs; I always get stares. Today there were only four or five other people on the train: one really beautiful woman in black tights and a faux-fur coat (at least I hope/assume it was faux) and three or four other people to whom I wasn’t really paying any attention. Oh, and a Muni employee, who announced in a surprisingly high and squeaky voice (he was a big dude) that the Montgomery stop (which happens to be my stop) was closed due to power outage. I got of at Powell instead and decided to walk the extra few blocks. The station was filled with homeless people sleeping—the police often kick them out of the train stops but on this day they made an exception.

When I emerged above ground, I found myself in a hauntingly mesmerizing world where thick black rain enveloped me, drowning out all noise so that the city was filled with an eerie silence. There were no cars on Market Street and no other people except one young man in a 49er jacket who bolted past me at top speed. The street lights weren’t working, but the gaudy obnoxious LED snowflakes on the lampposts were all lit up—I guess auxiliary power in San Francisco is used for ornamental purposes only.

A gust of wind inverted my umbrella, and as I felt my arms and chest getting wet as my jacket and purple Banana Republic dress shirt became saturated, I remembered that at home in my closet I had a perfectly functional rain slicker. At that point, I really needed a fucking donut. I quit eating sugar for the most part a few months ago, and out of everything, I miss donuts the most. I used to have a tradition called “donut Fridays,” in which on Fridays I’d walk to work and stop at Happy Donuts on Sixth. Although I quit sugar and it wasn’t a Thursday, I decided that, given the circumstances, I was entitled to one chocolate and one glazed donut. Besides—going inside Specialty’s would give me shelter from the storm.

But Specialty’s was closed. As was Razmindi, and Venue, and Lee’s. I realized that I was getting neither my comfort donut nor any respite from the torrential downpour, which by that point had escalated into a Class-3 Kill Storm.

I finally made it into my office building, but the power was out and the security officers were not letting people use the stairs to go to their offices. During the changing of the guard I snuck into the stairwell and climbed up ten flights to my office to retrieve some documents I would need in order to (ostensibly) do some work from home. On my way down a bleary-eyed red-haired woman who looked to be in her late forties/early fifties told me she was an AP reporter and asked if she could interview me about the storm. For some reason I had always pictured AP reporters as young and hyperactive.

I’ve been Googling my name even more than usual since then, but I don’t think she used any of my mildly witty quotes. The only one I remembered was when she asked why I didn’t stay at home and I responded, “I’m a lawyer—you know the old saying, ‘neither rain nor sleet nor snow,’ and so forth.”

Then I took a cab home, put on my Star Wars pajama bottoms, ordered some Indian food to be delivered, and plopped down on my couch, where I remained for the rest of the day. I spent a fair amount of time on Facebook to see other people’s reactions. This was the best one:

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Yes, it’s funny. Our worst storm during a particularly nasty El Niño is a joke compared to the weather much of the country experiences every year. In fact, I mentioned to a friend of mine from Minnesota that I was going to write a blog post about the rain and she let me know, in no small words, that I didn’t know shit about weather. While that may be true, it doesn’t make the fact that a third of the city was without power for much of the day any less scary/fun (a large transformer exploded during Union Square—not really the same as Hurricane Sandy). In any event, I loved the downpour. The sound of fat raindrops on my windowpanes has a soothingly romantic quality that makes me reminisce back to the days of my youth, when I first fell in love with the rain. Now, to fade back to the early ‘90s in the most appropriate manner possible…

By 1992, we Californians were getting pretty darn fed up with the drought situation. For me, it had been going on since second grade, which constituted the vast bulk of my cognizant life. Oh sure, it was fun at the beginning, when “if it’s yellow keep it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” became a state-wide mantra and everybody had “navy showers” with quick-stop valves installed.   But by year four, when “Shower Together Tuesday,” “Waterless Wednesday,” “Thirsty Thursday” and “No-Flush Friday” had become the laws of the land (thank you very much, former governor George Deukmejian), many of us were mighty fed up.   When they threatened to take away our golf courses and swimming pools—basic human rights to which all residents of Marin and Orange Counties—that was the last straw.

Realizing that the government was intentionally holding back the rain in an effort to take away our Constitutional freedoms, the California State Militia [http://cal-militia.com/home] instituted a state-wide program of firing silver iodide into the clouds out of nineteenth-century cannons that were originally used in the Mexican-American War. This practice, combined with a bizarre new dance craze known as the “El Niño” (popular with teenagers at sock hops and box socials), inspired the rain g-ds to piss all over our fair state. The northern half of it, anyway. Palm Springs then went ahead and stole a sizable chunk of it–SoCal folks have always been mooching off of us.

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As a twelve year-old who had not yet discovered girls or intoxicants, the great Storm of Seventh Grade was a watershed moment in my life. Get it? Watershed? I slay me. A large creek ran through my entire hometown of Ross/San Anselmo (we lived on the border), and when enough rain would fall the waters from the creek would rise up to the bridges that were supposed to span them and overflow into the road. So first you’d get this:

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and then you’d get this:

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Streets were flooded. Cars were ruined. Schools were closed. There’s nothing worse for a parent than to have a son who is on the verge of a hormonal explosion stuck in the house all day with hyperactive cabin fever, so my mom sent me out to go play in the rain with my friends. I didn’t own rain boots or rubber pants or whatever the hell else people in places with inclement weather wear, but my torn black jeans, gray hoodie and Converse One Stars were just fine for whatever elements the Bay Area storm of ’92 had to offer. By the way, I owned the same pair of black Cons from fourth grade through ninth grade. By the time my parents finally threw them away, they had turned green from grass stains and the soles were 75% torn off, the last scraps barely held in place by the thinnest thread of rubber. I guess I have trouble letting go of things.

I met up with a couple of friends who lived nearby. One of them had a crush on a girl who lived one town over. Her family had a large house on a hill with a hot tub, so we decided that it would be a fun rainy-day destination (this was before anybody told us that hot tubs are not good places to go when there’s a chance of lightning). Umbrellas were useless, as the rain was not falling from the sky, but rushing towards us from all sides, parallel to the ground. Although the Quick Stop parking lot was completely flooded (as we discovered that day, many parking lots in Marin were unfortunately designed to be slightly concave), the store itself was open. While others were stocking up on bottled water, batteries, and canned goods, we bought Icees (cherry coke, of course). Even as a young lad, I enjoyed this type of contrarian humor.

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We walked along the main road until we reached the Post Office, at which point we decided that the quickest route was to cut down the bike path that goes alongside the damn creek until we reached the College of Marin parking lot (which was concave, surprise surprise), at which point we would cross a freakin’ marsh to get to the girl’s house. About 5 minutes in, we reached a puddle that was impossible to step across, so our feet got soaked. 5 minutes after that, there was a mini-lake and we waded through, our jeans becoming saturated with water and instantly weighing us down. By the time we reached the marsh, we were already swimming in our clothes (despite the hood, my cotton sweatshirt did not actually do a good job of repelling water), so there was nothing left to do but dive head first into the mud and trudge our way across. When we reached the opposite edge of the marsh, but clouds parted and the sun beamed upon us, instantly baking the mud into our clothing.

The girl wasn’t at home—she had gone to another friend’s house. Her mom flipped out when she saw the three of us, looking like little mud monsters, and yelled of us to get off the fucking porch.

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Naturally we hadn’t bothered to tell the girl we were coming over—this was an era before cell phones, and even before pagers. I miss the days of random drop-ins. If any of you in San Francisco are reading this now, please feel free to come visit me without warning. My doorbell doesn’t work, but if you wait a short bit you can always find somebody entering or leaving the building who will let you in, and the door to my apartment is always unlocked if I’m at home.

That’s my earliest memory of an unrelenting rainfall—clinging to the last days of innocence with one last adventure in a swamp-like land. To this day, rain awakens my inner child (who, let’s face it, was never a big fan of naps anyway), and when it pounds against my window I want to completely disregard my jacket and booties and go outside and get sopping wet. While we’re on the subject here are some of my fonder, if not more hilarious, rain-related memories that help explain how I grew to love the storm:

–At Jew camp in upstate New York, an impromptu slip-and-slide made out of garbage bags during the warm summer showers.

–After hearing that Ricky Martin song, taking my clothes off and going dancing in the rain. To music other than that Ricky Martin song.

Storytime! When I was at Columbia, I was in the Columbia Bartending Agency, which meant I got paid a good deal of money to serve wine at swanky Manhattan shindigs. One client threw an annual fourth of July party in a ritzy Upper East Side penthouse. She was on the board of a nonprofit that provided aid to victims of spinal injuries, so a number of the party attendees were in wheelchairs. I was in charge of cooking burgers on the expansive balcony (we were a pretty full-service bartending agency), and many of the party-goers converged around me, anxiously awaiting their delicious grilled meaty treats. I enjoyed wielding that kind of power and the attention that came with it.

One of the wheelchair-bound party attendees was a rather portly fellow, who needed to be lifted out of his wheelchair (by several people) in order to make it out the door to the balcony. The whole operation took several minutes. He was incredibly eager to get his burger and managed to shove his way to the front of the food line. As I handed him his beefy reward, there was a loud crack of thunder and the skies lit up with violent purple streaks of lightning. The air pressure plummeted so fast that my ears popped and seconds later rain was pouring down. A mass of people in wheelchairs pushed towards the tiny door, and somehow the aforementioned portly man got to the front and bellowed to anybody who would listen to come and help him inside. We bartenders did our best to lift him out of his chair and through the door quickly, as he was creating a log-jam at the door and several dozen other party attendees were getting soaked, but as the leather of his wheelchair became wet it was difficult to slide his massive body out of it. The whole operation ended up taking nearly five minutes, with the man yelling at the top of his lungs the entire time, and by the time we shoved him through the door, everybody else who had been stuck on the balcony was completely soaked (and several electric wheelchair motors had short-circuited). We eventually got everybody inside, and the band struck up a lively rendition of “Purple Rain.” Very few people danced.

–For two years I lived in Toyama prefecture, which is the second-rainiest prefecture in Japan (after Niigata, directly to the north). Staring in September we had typhoon season, which in December finally bled into Winter, during which we had some snow and a lot more rain. After Winter we had a 2-week Spring before “rainy season,” which directly preceded Summer, which was also rather rainy. Then it was back to typhoon season.

In Toyama, bicycles and umbrellas were communal. You’d park your bike at a train station and somebody else would take it, but then when you needed to ride home you could just take somebody else’s. Because we all knew that we were likely to be trading bikes, everybody rode the same model, which was affectionately known as a “Mama Cherry.”

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Similarly, whenever you went into a building, there would be a bucket to deposit your umbrella. While you were inside, somebody would inevitably grab your umbrella, so when you left you’d just grab one that somebody else left behind. You were disincentivized to buy a nice umbrella, so everybody just used this crappy number you could buy at a conibini for 300 yen:

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There’s one typhoon moment I’ll never forget. On my way to the train station, I popped inside of a conbini to grab some breakfast (shyake onigiri and peanutsu bread), and when I went to leave my umbrella was gone and there was no replacement. I bought a 300 yen plastic special, stepped outside, and opened it up in the pouring rain. One freaking second after I opened my umbrella a tremendous gust of wind shot into me and my umbrella exploded, with plastic and metal spines flying everywhere. I ran to the train station and arrived at work sopping wet—there was no way around it. I loved every minute of it.

–On the first night the Bay Bridge lights were activated (March 5, 2012) it was raining, not too hard, but raining nonetheless. I was with a pretty girl and we didn’t have an umbrella, and there was nowhere we could go where could see the lights and be sheltered from the rain at the same time, so we stood in the rain when they turned the lights on and we kissed.

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Even without the drought, even when I get wet, I still love the rain. Something about the sounds, the smells, the memories.

Stay damp, San Francisco.

52. On Movies

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I started working on this post about a year ago (at least conceptually) but, for whatever reasons, put in on the back burner. Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I was invited to a “Film Chat” group on the Facebook. I participated in a few of the threads (e.g., “Best movie of 2014” (Nightcrawler), “Most Overrated Movie of the Past Few Years” (Children of Men), “Favorite Soundtrack of All Time” (Singles), “Favorite Movie of All Time And You Only Get To Pick One” (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?—yes, I’m not joking)). On one of the threads somebody mentioned Strange Days, which made me giddy with excitement. I only saw that movie once, when it came out in the 90s, but I remember it being one of those flicks that made me feel like I was on crystal meth after watching it. I’ve never actually done crystal meth, but I can appreciate a movie that gets me so amped up I want to run around the block and break things (hey, I was 14 years old—what do you expect?). Despite having only watched it once, I remember the movie very well, in particular, the kiss at the very end. I was actually going to write an entire blog post entitled “On The Kiss At The Very End of Strange Days.” As far as I’m concerned, it’s the single greatest kiss in cinematic history, beating out the “purest kiss in the history of kissing” in the finale of The Princess Bride, Han and Leia’s smooch before Han is frozen in carbonite at the end of Empire, and, dare I say it, even trumping that scene with Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly in Bound. For those of you who don’t remember, let’s take a look (and I apologize–I couldn’t embed the video):

http://www.metacafe.com/watch/9751832/strange_days_1995_the_end_scene_fall_in_the_light_celebration/

First of all you have Ralph Fiennes, who is coming off of serious roles in Schindler’s List and Quiz Show to transform into a washed-up, heartbroken, drug-addicted (if we can call SQUID a drug) loser with long flowing hair and a “fuck it all” ‘tude. Is there a heterosexual man in the 90s who did not have a man crush on Ralph Fiennes after watching this movie? And then you have Angela Bassett, who taps her inner Pam Grier to portray a seriously badass limo driver/bodyguard wearing a tight black cocktail dress while kicking ass and inciting a riot—the stuff adolescent fantasies are made of. It’s New Year’s Eve, the ball drops (so to speak—the movie actually takes place in LA), confetti is flying everywhere, and Fiennes puts Bassett in a car as if to send her away. At that moment, my buddy with whom I was watching (on VHS in his attic) yells out, “aren’t you going to fucking kiss her?”, and Ralph Fiennes turns around, opens the car door, pulls Basset out, looks in her eyes, and kisses her like only Ralph Fiennes can. I’ve had a number of New Year’s Eve kisses since then and I’m ALWAYS thinking of (and trying to emulate) that passion. Not sure I’ve ever quite gotten there, but I’d probably go the extra mile if Angela Bassett were involved.

I’m just setting the mood here—this post is going to be broader in scope than that one kiss. Movies have affected me profoundly throughout my life, providing inspiration, entertainment, and distraction, making me laugh hysterically, lock all my doors and sleep with the lights on, and shed more tears than I’d like to admit (damn you, Armageddon!). Without giving away too much here (because I do want you to actually read the damn post, and none of this “TL:DR” bullshit), I’ll say this much: if you’re in your early-to-mid thirties, be prepared to be nostalgic as fuck.

One more note before we begin our stroll down celluloid memory lane (not to be confused with “cellulite memory lane,” which is the subject of a much different post). I use the word “movies” and not “films”; unless you’re British, I find use of the latter term to be obnoxiously pretentious (and this is coming from an insufferable snob). I remember back in college there was this one girl I thought was really cute, and near the end of sophomore year we had to declare our majors and she explained her decision. I don’t recall her exact words, but it was something to the effect of this: “Yeah, at first I was thinking I wanted to be a history major, then I wanted to be a lit major, then a science major, and then I decided on film because it’s really a combination of all of those and all the other majors. Majoring in film is like majoring in life.” After that, (1) I didn’t find her to be so cute anymore and (2) I became repulsed every time I heard that particular f-word.

I just Facebook stalked her. Okay, she’s cute—in fact, I probably lied when I said (1) above. Also, she has the same last name she had in college (not that that means anything in the year 2014).

But I digress. When you’re talking about movies with a child of the 80s, you need to start with the 3 greatest children’s movies of all time from the 80s. You know what they are already, and if you don’t, I’m embarrassed for both of us.

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I already mentioned the first one above. Although it might not have the best movie smooch of all time, there is no doubt that no post on movies would be complete without

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When this movie first came out, the film critic for the SF Chronicle gave it an empty chair, thus sparking my life-long hatred of film critics and distrust of SF’s daily rag. It’s difficult to express in words how much I love this movie. Oh wait, no it’s not: I love this movie “a shit-ton.” Is there a human being among us who does not think of this movie every single time we hear the word “inconceivable”? Have any of us never looked into our love’s eyes and said “as you wish”? And when was the last time you went a month without being prompted to shout “my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”? Yeah, that’s what I thought.

And then there was

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Actually, if we’re gonna talk about this movie, we really need to include the theme song:

That’s gonna be stuck in your head all day. You’re welcome.

For some reason I saw this movie in various pieces when I was younger and never watched the entire flick from beginning to end until I was around 12. Because of the weird time lapses, I think I was convinced that the movie was truly never-ending (my older sister probably also convinced me of that fact—she managed to trick me into thinking all kinds of crazy shit when I was younger, but that’s another story for another post). Also, Gmork (the wolf-servant of the Nothing) scared the bejeesus out of me and gave me all sorts of nightmares. Other movie bits that scared the bejeesus out of me and gave me all sorts of nightmares in the 80s: the end of The ‘Burbs, Large Marge from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and the opening library scene in Ghostbusters.

Speaking of “bits” in movies:

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Obviously this rounds out the trio of important childhood movies of the 80s. When I was in the drama club in high school, I was in an artsy interpretation of Maurice Sendack’s “Outside Over There” and I’m convinced that this book must have been an inspiration for Labyrinth. In fact, according to Wikipedia, “The closing credits of the film state ‘Jim Henson acknowledges his debt to the works of Maurice Sendak.’” Go figure. If you haven’t read OOT, check it out—it’s actually the third in Sendak’s “childhood development” trilogy, after “In the Night Kitchen” and of course “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Speaking of Jim Henson, when I first started doing this blog I at one point contemplated doing a piece “On the Muppets,” but instead I decided it would be more fun to intersperse Muppet clips throughout various posts. For this post, I include my favorite Muppet movie clip, which happens to come from my favorite Muppet movie, The Great Muppet Caper:

Down the street from where I grew up there was a woman named Betsy who owned a video store called Intavideo. I think Betsy was the first crazy cat lady I ever encountered, and her feline companions would often be strolling among the VHS racks, popping out and surprising you from behind a copy of Caddyshack II. Betsy knew each of her customers likes and dislikes and would make individualized recommendations. You’d come in and say “Betsy, I’m kind of sad today, give me something to cheer me up” and she’d recommend LA Story. Or you’d tell her “Betsy, I want to laugh harder than I’ve laughed in months,” and she’d hook you up with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Or maybe you’d confide in her, “Betsy, I want a movie that I’ll watch dozens of times right now as a nine year old, and then when I’m 33 and watching TV at 1 AM on a Thursday it will be on FXX and I’ll get super-excited to watch it, even though it’s kind of stupid,” and she’d point you to Three Amigos.

Wait a minute—did Betsy recommend all of these Steve Martin movies to me because she knew I liked him, or did I like Steve Marin because of Betsy’s recommendations? I suppose it’s a chicken-and-egg question.* All I know is that my parents were mighty confused when I approached them in my Darth Vader PJs after watching The Jerk and said, “I was born a poor black child.”

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Betsy had a huge projection TV in her store that was always playing one of her favorite flicks (if you’ve ever been inside a video store you know what I’m talking about, but it just occurred to me that my 6 year-old nephew may very well never actually set foot in a video store). One day, when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, I went into Intavideo with my dad and Betsy was showing The Empire Strikes Back (speaking of my Darth Vader PJs—so yes, chronologically, this was before I first watched The Jerk). We walked into the store during that scene where Darth Vader has just finished talking to the Emperor and the mechanical arm places his helmet back on his head. I was really confused, and my dad tried to explain what was going on, but my pops has never been very good with details and he mistook the Emperor for Darth Vader (I know—I know). Needless to say, the only solution was to rent the whole trilogy.

It’s cliché to be obsessed with Star Wars, but I can safely say that the study of the Jedi and the Force has been somewhat of a lifelong obsession of mine. During middle school and high school, my father and I had a tradition in which, the night before my first day of classes, we’d rent the trilogy and begin watching around 9 PM. My dad would usually pass out during the Battle of Hoth but I’d stay up until 3 AM watching, and then arrive at school 5 hours later ready to face another year of painful organized education. Ironically I was a straight-A student in middle school and high school—perhaps I should have kept up the tradition in college and law school.

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But there was more than that, of course. You’d better believe that I read the Timothy Zahn novels and Dark Empire comics and owned/memorized the Star Wars Encyclopedia. Rebel Assault was my favorite video game when it came out (by that point, I had finally gotten over Day of the Tentacle and Sam and Max). I had a friend in high school who broke up with his girlfriend because she had never seen the trilogy and refused to do so. This instantly became part of my battery of litmus tests (along with “name all four members of the Beatles.” On an unrelated note, I’m still not married). Episodes I-III came and went—I saw each one once and immediately forgot about them. I’m mildly excited about Episode VII, but I did not watch the teaser that came out last week and I have no intention of doing so.

Other than Star Wars, my father’s main contributions to my cinematic upbringing were introducing me to Hitchcock, Mel Brooks, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (we had a VHS tape with an IAMMMMW / My Cousin Vinny Double Feature—arguably the most hilarious 5 hours ever), and A Thousand Clowns, which is my favorite black and white movie ever (and don’t worry, it has nothing to do with clowns). My sister tried to introduce me to horror films, but I was a scaredy-cat and couldn’t fully appreciate them until I was older (now horror is my favorite genre—but the only time I will ever lock my door when I’m home is after watching a scary movie). By the time I was 10, I was ready to develop my own tastes. After a rather disastrous/embarrassing foray into the Police Academy movies (“Why do you think I took you to see all those Police Academy movies, FOR FUN? I DIDN’T HEAR ANYONE LAUGHING, DID YOU? except at that guy who made sound effects”), I discovered Monty Python (and Terry Gilliam in general), and those films gave me years of enjoyment until 1994 came around, bringing Pulp Fiction and Hudsucker Proxy into my life. These introductions to Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers would, of course, be life changing.

I’ve seen Reservoir Dogs well over 20 times. I owned the screenplay and used to read it non-stop. There was a time when I had memorized the entire opening diner scene, and would recite it on command (or usually, not on command).

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And then there’s The Big Lebowski.

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David Lynch fits in there somewhere too. Mulholland Drive is probably my favorite, followed by Blue Velvet. When the former came out I was in college and Lynch came to my campus to promote it. He spoke in the big physics lecture hall and the administration allowed him to smoke cigarettes while giving his talk. I remember thinking he was so badass because he could smoke in the classroom while nobody else was allowed to do so. He talked about the new movie (which I had already seen in a preview screening) for about 5 minutes and then spent the next 55 minutes talking about Dune and how although it was the biggest failure of his career, he learned more from it than any of his other projects.

My movie interests would eventually become more obscure. While I was at Columbia they opened a location of Kim’s, formerly the largest independent video store in New York, right by our campus and I burned through all of the cult movies I had time to watch (with a focus on Troma films). I spent three years of Japan and watched dozens of Japanese horror films—not just Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge), but also a bunch of esoteric shit of which you’ve never heard. These days I’m mainly watching random independent thrillers on Netflix. I think Pontypool is my favorite so far.

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For the most part, though, my favorite movies, the ones that had the most impact on my development and understanding of pop culture and the world around me, were those I mentioned above before that last paragraph (oh, and during the Steve Martin years, there was also a healthy amount of Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy). I think this is common—most people my age can identify with these movies—and I believe they are, in part, what defines our generation.

My screenwriting instructor at Columbia is the one professor I had in college with whom I am still in contact (and bear in mind that I majored in math, not film). He grew up with classic romantic comedies like All About Eve and His Girl Friday and gangster films like White Heat and Rififi. He still watched most interesting movies (read: non-Hollywood blockbusters or cheesy rom-coms) that come out, but when he was trying to give us inspiration in class he would always reference his classics—and I always thought it was cute that he assumed that Columbia students had actually seen all (or any) of those films. When somebody would sheepishly admit that he hadn’t actually seen Bringing Up Baby (you know—the classic ‘screwball comedy’ with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn?!), the professor would shake his head and say “the ‘generation gap’ is a misnomer. It’s really a ‘generation abyss.’”

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While this may sound like the desperate rant of a senile curmudgeon, I can definitely relate whenever I talk to somebody younger than I. Think about it—how can you possibly pretend to relate to somebody who doesn’t see a hole in the desert and immediately think of the Sarlacc Pit? How can you make any meaningful connection with somebody who doesn’t understand what you’re doing when, at a campfire, you take a bunch of marshmallows and form them into a little humanoid figure and say “Look, it’s the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!” And in the legal world, how can you expect me to work with somebody who doesn’t catch the reference when I refer to a pair of teenagers as “two yutes”?

For all you parents out there, this is why you must teach your children well. Raise them on a steady diet of Transformers (the original cartoon, of course, not the Michael Bay travesties) and The Secret of NIMH in their infancies. Introduce them to the most important cinematic trilogies (Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Back to the Future) long before you corrupt their minds with Lord of the Rings or, G-d forbid, The Hunger Games. Show them Coming to America, Animal House and Strange Brew and shout to them “THIS, MY CHILDREN! THIS IS WHAT IT MEANS TO LAUGH!” But don’t take it too far: when I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy (which was a completely boring, trite, pathetic drip of monkey spum), I was seated next to a man in his forties with a son around 12 or 13. After the “bonus scene” at the end of the credits, the son asked “who was that” and the father answered “that was Howard the Duck–we’ll have to see if they have it on Netflix.” Absolutely not necessary.

And there you have it: my musings on movies. In short, I don’t know about y’all, but I’m sure as hell glad I was a child of the 80s.

I know this piece was kind of jumbled and didn’t really move in a linear manner, but I’m not going to apologize. Did you miss the part where I talk about how much I love David Lynch?

*A chicken and an egg are lying in bed when the egg pulls out a cigarette and lights it up. The chicken says, “well that answers that question…”

51. On Arguments I Have with Myself

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A while ago there was a list floating around the Facebookosphere of “23 Hilarious and True Pie Charts.” Of the 23, I would say that only one was truly hilarious, and that was the chart entitled “What Happens in the Shower.” I know what you’re thinking: it must have contained some kind of masturbation joke. That’s what I assumed too. This was not correct: the chart instead had one small section (roughly 5%) that said “washing my body” and one larger, encompassing section that said “winning fake arguments.” I suppose you can say that the latter is a form of mental masturbation—which happens to be my second-favorite type of masturbation. I’d show you a picture of the pie chart but the only one I could find on Google is tiny and I’m pretty sure my explanation was sufficient.

I am a huge fan of the imaginary shower argument. It is in the shower that I am at my most witty and persuasive, whether arguing the merits and shortcomings of the current American intellectual property regime, the best season of Temptation Island, or my favorite argument, the income gap (or really, the income abyss) in San Francisco. Indeed, I often find myself coming up with brilliant retorts as I’m rinsing off lavender-scented body wash, leaving my imaginary opponent (a libertarian who fancies himself as the heir apparent to Ayn Rand) speechless with my air-tight logic and melodious rhetoric (because I also like to sing in the shower—I’m a man of many talents). Then again, occasionally the devil’s advocate throws a curveball I can’t hit, and I find myself questioning my particular brand of recycled liberal bullshit.

For this point, I’m going to try to piece together an example of a more-insightful-than-usual shower argument I’ve had with myself. It’s really a composite of multiple shower arguments, since we’re in a pretty serious drought in California and are encouraged to take shorter showers (or to skip the whole ridiculous ritual altogether). For this argument, let’s call my usual, bleeding-heart lefty, outward-facing self “A” and the imaginary conservative friend/evil twin “B.” If it helps, try also imagining me, naked, in the shower, with soapy lather glistening in my manly chest hair. Now there’s an image you ain’t gonna forget anytime soon. You lucky dog, you.

* * * 

A: Oh man, did you see that new place on Market Street where they sell $6 french fries?
B: No.
A: It’s on maybe 8th or 9th.
B: Oh yeah?
A: Yeah. At some point, when we weren’t paying attention, fries and ketchup became a $6 item.  Sorry, not “fries”—“baked potato wedges,” and not “ketchup,” “pesto ketchup” or “garlic and black pepper mayo.”  They don’t taste quite as good as McDonald’s fries, but supposedly they’re healthier.  Frankly, I say if you want a healthy snack, you should eat fruit. 

Note: When I said “fries” and the whatnot, I was definitely making air quotes.

B: So you’re not a fan.
A: No, I’m not, for two reasons: number one, the fries really don’t taste that good.
B: Maybe you don’t know how fries are supposed to taste?
A: Screw you, I’m a fry connoisseur. But more importantly, the number two reason I don’t like it is because it’s an obnoxious, brightly-colored yuppie/tourist attraction built on Market Street, when it is more suited for–I don’t know–Fisherman’s Wharf.
B: Now that you mention it, I do know the place you’re talking about and I actually think they have a location in Fisherman’s Wharf—no joke.

3potato4

A: Perfect! Meanwhile, Kaplan’s, which had been there for 75 years and actually brought real, genuine character to the neighborhood, can’t afford to pay rent and they’re putting in some fancy boutique hotel.
B: I thought Kaplan’s was closing because the Kaplan family finally sold the building, voluntarily.
A: Whatever. The point is that Market Street, which used to be an affordable, albeit colorful, part of the city is being completely Disney-fied by Twitter, Uber and the other techies, and it sucks.
B: What do you mean by “colorful”? Does “colorful” mean having to play “dog or human” when I’m walking to work? 

Note: For those of you who don’t live in San Francisco, “Dog or human” is the “game” of guessing whether feces you see on the sidewalk is of the canine or human variety.

A: “Dog or human” is such a tired cliché. If you see a piece of shit on the ground, why does it matter whether a dog or human produced it? Are you insinuating that you’d happily step in dog shit but that human shit is off-limits? Or will you gladly step in human shit if it comes from $6 french fries?
B: Baked potato wedges. And the people who shit on the street aren’t eating those. They’re probably eating McDonald’s or 7-11 hotdogs or other crap like that.
A: Yes—because that’s all they can afford. And it’s not just homeless people, people who aren’t rich in general, who live in the Civic Center area, need affordable food, not $6 “baked potato wedges” designed for self-professed “foodies” who work at Twitter.
B: People who work at Twitter eat Twitter food.
A: You know what I’m talking about. It’s bullshit to put in expensive eateries and bars in poorer neighborhoods. It’s like Rye, Swig, and those other new, super-shishi bars opening up in the Tenderloin, where anybody who actually lives in the TL could never afford to drink.
B: Neighborhoods change—that’s just the nature of the city. North Beach used to be the bohemian center of the city, back in the beat poetry days. Then, as land there was getting more expensive, the city threatened to build a freeway through the Panhandle and property values dropped there—that’s why the bohemians emigrated to the Haight. 

Note: Clearly, my evil conservative alter-ego knows his shit.

A: It’s one thing when the change is gradual and organic (although it’s not that much better), but putting the swankiest establishments in town amongst the poorest neighborhoods in the city is a huge fuck you to the people who live there. It’s made worse by the fact that you then have these rich tech kids who say they “like to hang out in the TL” but don’t like dealing with the poor people who live there, playing “dog or human,” etc.
B: Well I’m sorry—I like to be able to go out with my friends without having to worry about getting robbed or stabbed or stepping in human feces. Excuuuussseee me.

poop_problem_hero2

A: Also, you do realize that the widening income gap is actually making the TL, Mission, Haight and other areas less safe, as more and more people who before were just barely getting by are now having to resort to crime? Crime is actually on the rise in those neighborhoods.
B: So we need to get more police.
A: That’s difficult to do, because cops in SF, despite being the highest-paid in the country, still have trouble affording to live here.

Note: The starting salary for an SF cop is $80k. For somebody who just moved to SF and doesn’t have rent control, this salary is limiting. I know, I know—that’s pathetic, but true.   

A: Not to mention the fact that the city can’t pay for more cops because certain companies that we need not name—

Note: E.g., Twitter

A: don’t have to pay payroll taxes, despite taking up extremely large swaths of prime real estate and pulling in a shit-ton of money. The worst part is that the few cops we have in this city are focused on making sure that “Mid-Market” is “clean” for the Twitter-folk who don’t want to see those “unsightly” poor folk.
B: I’m not saying that I think poor people are “unsightly,” but the streets of a city should be clean—go to NY. That’s how a city should look. We seriously need a Giuliani.
A: We have Lee—and he’s doing his best. But the problem is that homeless people are people, and people don’t just disappear if you kick them out of one area. The homeless people who used to be in Mid-Market are now creeping up into Hayes Valley.

Note: No joke.

B: Boo-fucking-hoo. We spend more money on services for the homeless here than any other city in the country, and all that does is draw more of them here. Seriously, the homeless people here have it great.
A: Sure, if being constantly hungry, having to sleep on the street, getting beat up, abused, raped, and looked at like animals by people like you means “great.”

HomelessSign

B: Fine—so get them more help. But give them actual mental health services, not just food and money that they’re going to spend on booze and drugs.
A: We tried doing that before, until your hero Ronald Reagan decided to close all of the state hospitals because of his utter contempt for the poor.
B: So build more.
A: It’s going to be nearly impossible as long as California is bankrupt, as it will remain as long as Prop 13 is in effect. 

Note: Prop 13 was an amendment to the California constitution in 1978 that caps property taxes at 1%, by far the lowest in the country.   

B: Sorry, I paid way too much for my shitty condo, it’s ridiculous if you’re going to tell me that I then have to take out a second mortgage to pay my fucking property taxes. 

Note: Of course B owns a condo.

A: You don’t have to take out a second mortgage. Everybody else in the country handles 2-4%, you can too.
B: This city is so fucking expensive, the condo cost me an arm and a leg. I’m not even making it all back from the rental units, even though I’m charging $2800 each for one bedrooms.
A: …
B: Not to mention the pain in the ass I had to go through to evict the tenants when I bought it.
A: Are you fucking kidding me?
B: Am I fucking kidding you? They were paying $800 a month for one-bedroom apartments in the Mission! Because of your stupid rent control, I couldn’t afford to let the tenants stay in their units. I would have lost a shit ton of money.
A: How long had they been living there?
B: I don’t know…the one old Mexican dude had been there for like 20 years. Whatever, he was a shitty tenant. I offered him 20K to leave, and he refused. I had no choice but to evict him.
A: You could have let him stay—that was his home. You do realize that when you kicked him out, he can no longer afford to live in the city.
B: I’m sorry, since when does renting an apartment mean you have the right to stay there forever?
A: So how should it work—somebody who has never lived in the city and has no ties here, but who is rich, has more of a right to live here than somebody who has lived here his whole life? 

evict yuppies

B: That’s the way free markets work. It’s not my problem that he didn’t buy a place here. He knew when he moved in that he didn’t automatically have a right to stay there forever.
A: And because he doesn’t make enough money to live anywhere in SF without rent control he has to leave, just so you can own a condo here?
B: Dude, rent control is the reason that rents are so high here! If you have units in your building pulling in below-market income, you need to increase the rent in the other units to make it worth your while.
A: Not really—your mortgage doesn’t go up.
B: Why should you not be able to make more money as an owner? That’s the reason you buy apartments in the first place—as an investment to make money. And furthermore, as a new buyer you shouldn’t be forced to inherit tenants with ridiculous rent control.
A: Why not? It’s like when you buy a patent, you need to take it subject to any licenses that may have been granted under it that are still in effect.
B: I don’t understand your analogy. At all.
A: And furthermore, removing rent control would not decrease rents in the city. There are enough folks at Google and Facebook and wherever who want to live in SF that even if they got rid of rent control today, all rents citywide would still be ridiculous.
B: So let’s build more housing in SF!
A: We can try, but (1) there are tight building codes in SF that restrict all kinds of development—
B: so get rid of those anachronistic laws—
A: you know that takes forever, and greedy developers who control Lee’s govenrment don’t want that because the artificial scarcity means they can sell condos for much higher prices. More importantly (2) so many wealthy people want to move to San Francisco right now that even if the city’s housing stock doubled, rents still wouldn’t decrease. You see it now—there’s tons of construction, and it’s all for luxury apartments and condos. The city’s infrastructure is not equipped to handle that many people.
B: Okay, then fix the city’s infrastructure.
A: It would take forever.
B: So start now. Don’t you remember the beginning of the first new Star Trek movie, where it shows Riverside, Iowa in the 23rd century and it’s a thriving metropolis? That didn’t happen overnight, but San Francisco can undergo the same size increase.
A: I don’t understand your analogy. At all.
B: And all of these new buildings come with required BMR housing.
A: “Required,” unless you can finagle your way out of it. Which you can. And even if you can’t, there are plenty of people who make too much money to qualify for BMR, but not enough to afford to live in the city otherwise. You know—teachers, waitresses, nurses, artists, cops, entrepreneurs who don’t have trust funds…
B: There are plenty of those people in SF.
A: Not for long—they’re moving out because they can’t afford to live here anymore. Or in Oakland, for that matter. Now you have nurses who live in Tracy and have to drive an hour and a half each way to come work at UCSF every day. People who were born and raised in SF but now must move to fuckin’ Tracy to let the Twitter folk move in. Or the Google folk, who of course live here but take the free bus to work—the bus, I might add, that uses SF public resources. 

tech not culture

B: And Google pays for them now, as you know. Not to mention the fact that Google donated millions of dollars to allow kids from low-income families to ride the bus for free.
A: A small price to pay if it justifies gentrifying the hell out of low-income neighborhoods. In not too many years there will be no low-income families left, and then Google won’t have to pay for buses anymore.
B: Ah, now he finally mentions the dreaded G-word.
A: Google? I was talking about Google hours ago (or minutes ago, whatever).
B: No, “gentrify.” I can’t believe it took you 5 pages to bring it up. Listen, I’m sick of people talking about gentrification like it’s a bad thing. I like living in places that are safe, have restaurants where I actually want to eat, and where the streets aren’t lined with piss, shit, vomit, and heroin needles. What you call “gentrification” is really just “neighborhood improvement.”
A: Or maybe “urban renewal”?
B: Something like that.
A: You realize that by making the neighborhood safer for you and your white friends who are afraid of all things “sketchy,” you’re often tearing apart a community of color. Like James Baldwin said when the Fillmore was torn apart in the 60s, “urban renewal means negro removal.” Now the same thing is happening to the Hispanic population in Mission, thanks to you buying up buildings and charging $2800 for a one-bedroom apartment.
B: Dude, you live in Hayes Valley. 15 years ago you wouldn’t have dared to walk down your street.
A: Hey, I played no part in the gentrification of Hayes Valley—it was like that when I got there.
B: Which is precisely why you went there in the first place. You didn’t choose to live in Bayview.
A: Bayview isn’t very convenient to where I work.
B: And where is that? In a fucking technology and internet lawfirm downtown, where you represent all of the tech companies that you claim are ruining the city so much.
A: Well, I would be a public defender if you people didn’t make it so fucking expensive to live here. 

Note: Also, public defender jobs are way more competitive than biglaw jobs in San Francisco and I probably couldn’t have scored one if I’d tried.

B: I don’t understand what you’re suggesting? Where should all of the Google employees go? To Tracy?
A: That’s an idea. Why not Mountain View? Most Google kids don’t appreciate San Francisco’s city, politics, culture, or anything the city has to offer except for new expensive restaurants and new “hole in the wall” restaurants that are also expensive. You can build establishments like that much closer to the Google campus. Seriously, the suburbs should be bedroom communities for the cities, not the other way around.
B: You’re the one who doesn’t appreciate San Francisco’s culture. The tech industry has brought a new kind of vitality to the city. There is more creativity here than you can possibly see sitting in your swanky Hayes Valley gentrification cubical typing away on your MacBook. 

valencia-increased-segregation

A: Creativity? Try homogeneity. You’re not “creative” if you’re doing the same thing everybody else is doing, like putting on a Santa costume and getting drunk or dressing up like Mad Max at Burning Man. And please don’t tell me that EDM is a viable form of music. Even if there is a “new San Francisco culture,” that’s no excuse for forcing out the old culture and the people who created it just because they’re not rich.
B: And what culture are you referring to? The Black jazz culture of the Fillmore that died in the 60s? The hippie culture of Haight that really died in the 60s? The punk rock culture that died in the 70s?
A: The Dead Kennedys and D.R.I. were still thriving in SF in the 80s…
B: The Latino culture that died in the 90s? The gay culture, that is still strong today and not going anywhere?
A: Well, they did close down Marlena’s and replace it with a totally cheesy Marina-style bar. 

Note: Marlena’s was a drag queen bar that was a Hayes Valley institution since the 1970s. Two years ago it was replaced by one of the douchiest bars in the city, and that’s saying a lot.

B: A, get over yourself. You’re not Black. You’re not Hispanic. You’re not gay. And you’re definitely not Punk Rock. You’re a straight white male lawyer from Marin County who works in the tech industry, just as bad as (if not worse than) the rest of us.
A: Don’t forget Jewish.
B: How are you not just as bad as everybody else you constantly rant about?
A: It’s about empathy, dude. Just because you’re not undergoing the same shitty experiences as somebody else doesn’t mean you can’t try to understand how he feels.
B: You’re the least empathetic person I know.
A: Not true at all. Did I mention that I give culturally-aware walking tours of San Francisco, and hand out muffins to homeless people on my way to work every Monday?
B: Only every five fucking minutes for the past year. 

*            *            *

So there you have it folks—an argument I often have with myself. I know that I left a ton of shit out, but we’re already over 7 pages and there’s only so much I can write about these issues without citing (or researching) a single fact. I’m guessing that, no matter where you fall on the SF political spectrum, I’ve made some point that has pissed you off and you can’t wait to tell me all about it. I welcome your opinion—please feel free to leave a comment or email me at sfloveaffair@gmail.com. Or we can have yet another obnoxiously-long flame war on my Facebook wall. Whatever works for you.

And now, your Muppet clip: 

50. On the Great Ones of San Francisco

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My fiftieth post! The big 5-0! My oh my that’s a lot of love. I think this milestone calls for something BIG, like those old Mad magazine collectors’ edition Super Specials.ss011I’d like to do a listicle, and it should definitely be San Francisco-based…something that will make those Bold Italic folks regret not hiring me when they had the chance (i.e., before I went to law school, which was likely before the website even existed). 50 best burritos in SF? So cliché, probably done before, and now not as special because of that whole Nate Silver thing. 50 best record and/or bookstores in SF? Could be fun, but I really only ever go to two stores from each category. 50 best murals in SF? Great idea, but I don’t think I’m knowledgeable enough to pull it off (although if you have any interest in the murals of San Francisco, I highly recommend this site).

I think I’ll go with something that will appeal more to the history buffs than the hipsters, more to the natives than the naives, and more to the intelligentsia than the no-common-sensia. And since a quick Google search reveals that nobody has done this before, I now present to you, in alphabetical order by first name, the definitive list of THE 50 GREATEST SAN FRANCISCANS OF ALL TIME!!!* Yes, it’s a damn long list, and this post is thus far longer than any I have posted before, so don’t feel like you need to read through all 50 at once.

*Note: I’m using a broad definition of the term “San Franciscan.” Somebody need not be born in SF to be a “San Franciscan”—if San Francisco was a significant location in his or her life, that’s enough to make this list.

1. Al Robles

al-robles

Al Robles was a brilliant poet and a powerful community organizer who was instrumental in the fight to protect the International Hotel, the last bastion of San Francisco’s once large Filipino population. When Robles witnessed the “urban renewal” that was destroying the black community in the Fillmore, he galvanized low-income Filipinos to protest and resist the development of Little Manila (Jim Jones was a key ally of Robles in this battle, but he sure as hell does not make this list). Eventually, the bad guys won: all residents of the I-Hotel were evicted by the end of 1977 and the building was razed in 1981, with much of San Francisco’s Filipino population being shoved into Daly City. Today, the non-wealthy residents of San Francisco continue to be threatened with eviction, and the poets are fleeing the city in droves for cheaper pastures. In times like these, San Francisco needs another Al Robles.

2. Alice B. Toklas

toklas

Leave it to San Francisco to name a street after the culinary mastermind who invented the pot brownie—Alice B. Toklas’ true claim to fame, beyond being Gertrude Stein’s lover. Further, San Francisco’s ultra-liberal LGBT political group is called the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club (not to be confused with the more centrist Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club). You don’t see a “Gertrude Stein” street in SF or Oakland…apparently the Bay Area values pot over poetry.

3. Andre Nickatina

AndreNikatina

Although the Bay Area at large produces a fair amount of hip hop hits, most of the rap talent is concentrated in Oakland (and then of course there’s E-40 in Vallejo). However, at least one hip hop star did come out of SF proper, from the Fillmore district at that (okay, RBL posse came out of Bayview, but they were pretty much a one-hit wonder). I’m not the biggest fan of all of Andre Nickatina’s songs, but he was prolific enough that there are a few gems here and there.

4. Ansel Adams

Ansel_Adams_and_camera

Ansel Adams grew up in the Western Addition, and supposedly broke his nose in the 1906 earthquake as a young boy, giving it that crooked shape that lasted the rest of his life. Obviously we all know and love Adams for his photographs of Yosemite—honestly, I’m on the fence as to whether the Sierras are more beautiful and majestic in real life or through the lens of Adams’ camera—but he also took some pretty stunning pictures of the San Francisco Bay.

5. Bill Graham

Bill-Graham

If it weren’t for Bill Graham, then the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin never would have reached the heights they did. Some people may argue that this would have been a good thing, but to hell with those people.

6. Bill Russell

Bill Russell

There was a time when defensive players were recognized as the lynchpins in successful basketball teams. There was also a time when the University of San Francisco had a successful basketball program. On top of that, there was a time when black players were not welcome in sports or in certain parts of country. Bill Russell was instrumental in bringing about the first two of these eras and crushing the third. Sadly, USF’s basketball program has never been as dominant as it was during Russell’s tenure there, but believe me, they still talk about him north of the Panhandle. A lot.

7. Bruce Lee

brucelee62

Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco. Therefore, San Francisco wins.

8. Bruno Mooshei

bruno

I love Zam Zam, and will often take friends or dates there for a late-evening martini. Sadly, I missed going to what was then called Persian Aub Zam Zam during the reign of Bruno, the Soup Nazi of martinis, who was apparently a bitter, hippie-hating, straight-laced one-man unintentional comedy show for nearly 50 years. If you ordered beer, he’d kick you out. If you tried sitting anywhere but the bar, he’d kick you out. If he didn’t like the way you dressed, he’d kick you out. But if you managed to stick around, you’d get a delicious martini for $2.50. That’s the kind of quirkiness we need more of in present-day San Francisco.

9. Cosmic Lady

cosmic

If you mention “Cosmic Lady” to anybody who lived in San Francisco in the 60s, I mean, anybody who was cool who lived in San Francisco in the 60s, he or she will inevitably smile. Cosmic Lady was the personification of the ultra-consciousness of the era, of the time and place where people realized it was time to question all of the bullshit. She’d stop strangers on the street to ask, “Are we civilized yet?” I really want to start doing that, but I’m a little too self-conscious. Damn you, society and corporate job!

10. Dave Righetti

DaveRighetti

Truth be told, I go the idea for this post when I was at a Giants game a few weeks ago and Dave came out to talk to Lincecum on the mound. It occurred to me that all of the success the Giants have had in my lifetime has come from their superb pitching (when the pitchers are on, of course), and this excellence on the mound can be attributed in great part to an excellent pitching coach. So although I could have chosen Willy Mayes (really more associated with NY Giants), Juan Marichal (never won a World Series), Barry Bonds (too controversial), or Buster Posey (too young, too soon), the San Francisco Giant to make my list is Dave Righetti.

11. DJ B. Cause

bcause

I have a love-hate relationship with mash-ups. On the one hand, Bootie SF, which is basically a bunch of white people getting really excited when they realize that they recognize which songs are being mashed together, makes me kind of nauseas. On the other hand, DJ B. Cause’s mixes of soul and disco with Hyphy are insanely dope. After the second Night of the Remix came out, DJ B. Cause was doing “first funk Fridays” at the Elbo Room and I saw him once and bought him a drink. I was totally star-struck and awkward.

12. Dick Vivian

Dick Vivian

When I first started going research for my Haight Street Muffin Man Tour, I interviewed Dick, owner and proprietor of Rooky Ricardo’s Records, because a friend told me that he was friendly, and most other people I tried to interview had no desire to speak with me. Since that interview, I have gone into Dick’s store nearly every week for records and, more often than not, some kind of therapy. I encourage everybody to go to his store and learn why it is that human beings truly love music. And if you don’t believe me, read this article GQ ran about Dick and his store. One note: when you walk into Dick’s store, don’t you dare utter the word “awesome.” That kind of language is not tolerated in Rooky Ricardo’s Records.

13. Emmett Grogan

emmett_grogan

Emmett Grogan is one of the founders of the Diggers, a radical group of improvisational actors and other hooligans who decided that capitalism was a crock of shit and attempted to do away with the antiquated practice in the Haight-Ashbury of the late-sixties. The Diggers threw concerts in the Panhandle and distributed free food every day—hungry hippies could eat for free, as long as they were willing to walk through a giant yellow picture frame known as the “Free Frame of Reference” in order to receive their meals. There were several other founders of the Diggers (including Peter Coyote and Peter Berg), but Grogan made the cut for this list because he is the founder memorialized on the “Anarchists of the Americas” mural on the side of Bound Together, the Haight Street anarchist book collective.

14. Francis of Assisi

St-Francis-birds-2

Francis of Assisi never actually made it to the New World, let alone northern California, but we did decide to name our town after him so I think he makes the cut for this list. Francis was a rich spoiled brat who, after suffering an injury in combat, decided that he would devote his life to helping the poor. He’s pretty much the most charitable saint in the canon and it’s no coincidence that Jorge Mario Bugoglio, who is pretty much the best pope ever, chose “Francis” as his papal name.

15. Frank Chu

frank_chu

If you go down to the Financial District on any given morning or weekend afternoon, you’ll probably find a handful of men holding signs packed with gibberish that seems to be preaching awareness of some odd conspiracy, but make no mistake, there is only one Frank Chu, harbinger of doom wrought by the aliens of the 12 galaxies. Apparently (or at least according to Wikipedia) Frank was an accountant before he quit that humdrum life for the exciting world of eccentric protest. Makes sense.

16. Harry Callahan, a.k.a. “Dirty Harry”

DirtyHarry02

I’m not going to say that the size of a man’s gun is directly proportional to the size of his wang, but if that axiom has ever been true, it was with relation to “Dirty” Harry Callahan. I know he’s not a real person—but I don’t believe there’s a rule that all entries on this list must be real people, is there? I always loved the end of the first movie when Dirty Harry chased the bad guy into Marin, because when I was little I would watch it and say, “whoah! There’s a bad guy in Marin!” I’m from Marin, by the way.

17. Harvey Milk

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My favorite Harvey Milk anecdote (which I stole from Season of the Witch by David Talbot—required reading for anybody interested in SF culture) is from a debate in his 1977 race for supervisor against Rick Stokes, a very conservative gay man. Rick Stokes said “I’m very concerned about Harvey Milk. One time I was outside his camera shop, and a man and a woman walked by with their child, and Harvey used a profane word…I don’t want to be referred to as the gay candidate for supervisor. I want to be known as the candidate who happens to be gay.” Milk then stepped up to the microphone and said, “Fuck that shit, motherfucker! I’m gay!” 

18. Herb Caen

herb caen

Beyond the overly-repeated “heaven” quote and that quip about LA in the picture above, Herb Caen had plenty of other choice reflections on our fair city. Here are two I particularly like:

“Old San Francisco – the one so many nostalgics yearn for – had buildings that related well to each other.”

“A city is where you can sign a petition, boo the chief justice, fish off a pier, gaze at a hippopotamus, buy a flower at the corner, or get a good hamburger or a bad girl at 4 A.M. A city is where sirens make white streaks of sound in the sky and foghorns speak in dark grays. San Francisco is such a city.”

19. George Moscone

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He got high with the Haight Street hippies in order to prove that he had street cred, and then he became the most liberal mayor San Francisco had ever seen in a time when San Francisco, believe it or not, was actually not all that liberal. Much to the dismay of SF conservatives, Moscone appointed women, racial minorities, and gays to a number of city commissions and advisory boards, and an uncommonly soft-on-crime cop as police chief. Yes, he also appointed Jim Jones as chairman of the SF Housing Commission. Mistakes were made.

20. Hibiscus (George Harris)

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You’ve seen the famous photograph of George Harris inserting flowers into gun barrels, but Harris went on to do even greater acts, transforming into Hibiscus and founding the Cockettes, one of the premier drag acts in the psychedelic San Francisco of the 60s and still today. Hibiscus was an early victim of AIDS in 1982, back when the disease was still referred to as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency…yes, they really called it that), but his memory (and the Cockettes) lives on today.

21. Inez Burns

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Inez Burns, nee Brown, came to San Francisco from Philly in the early 1900s with her mother after her parents separated. She had an unwanted pregnancy and, although abortions were illegal at the time, met an elderly physician named Dr. West who was willing to perform the procedure. Seeing a market from the practice, Inez had Dr. West teach her the part of fetus removal and opened up an abortion shop in the Lower Haight. To make a long and very interesting story short, Inez Burns soon was the proprietary of the most successful abortion mill in California, performing up to 30 abortions a day and pulling in $50,000 a month—over $600,000 by today’s standards—while (allegedly) servicing such high-profile clients as Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth.

22. Janis Joplin

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I know she was from Texas, but can we please claim her as one of our own? Living out of 122 Lyon, giving impromptu concerts with Big Brother and the Holding Company in the Panhandle, sharing her bed with Country Joe McDonald and half of the Haight-Ashbury (as the old saying goes, “everybody knew Janis, or knew somebody who had slept with her”), Janis Joplin was the ultimate flower child. Also, go back and listen to your dusty old Janis records—the girl had serious pipes.

13. Jay and Ron Thelin

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If you go to 1535 Haight Street today, there’s an establishment called “Big Slice Pizza,” which was formerly “Fat Slice Pizza” (I assume that there was some dispute with the original Fat Slice in Berkeley that led to the name change). But before pizza, for a very brief time (less than 2 years in fact), the storefront was home to the Psychedelic Shop, the world’s first-ever head shop, which sold art and literature related to psychedelic drugs as well as drug paraphernalia. There was also a back room where you could buy (and take) acid, although I only know about this from the accounts of friends and relatives. The Psychedelic Shop may have been the most important business in the entire hippie movement, and it was run by the Thelin brothers, Jay and Ron. I can’t do them justice in this measly paragraph, but I highly recommend reading this interview with Jay to get the full story.

24. Jello Biafra

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It bothers me that, with all of the renewed discussion about wealth inequality in San Francisco and the roles that tech newspeak and addiction to electronic devices play in our everyday lives, there is no Dead Kennedys equivalent in the year 2014. The city has pretty much (d)evolved into everything that Biafra stood against in the 70s. He’s probably rolling in his grave—even though he’s still alive.

25. Jerry Garcia 

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Let’s get something straight—I’m not a huge Grateful Dead fan. I’m more of a medium-sized fan; I’ll listen to my American Beauty record every now and then, but I’m not lining up for tickets to RatDog or Phil and Friends or Further Festival or whatever the hell the remaining members of the Dead are doing these days. However, I know if I don’t include Jerry Garcia on this list, I’m going to get all sorts of angry “oh my G-d how could you include Janis and the fucking Residents on this list and not include any member of the Grateful Dead!!!” type of emails, and I just don’t want to deal with that.

26. Jerry Rice

Jerry Rice

There are a number of cities have multiple professional sports teams, but that, in the end, choose one sport above the others. New York is definitely a baseball town. From my experience, LA is a basketball town. Apparently Detroit has tried to brand itself as a hockey town (although a friend of mine from there is vehemently opposed to the notion, saying that Detroit has always been, and will always be, a baseball town). Since the 80s, San Francisco has been a football town, largely due to the brilliant play of number 80. I will echo what many others before me have stated: Jerry Rice was the Greatest Football Player of All Time. It is truly an honor to have him associated with my fair city.

27. John McLaren

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 If you ever enjoy Golden Gate Park, you have Mr. McLaren to thank, as he helped design the park and then presided as its superintendent from 1887 until 1940. When he took the job, McLaren declared that there would be no “keep off the grass” signs in the park. John McLaren displayed rare longetivy—the city wanted him to retire when he turned 70 but he stayed on for another 23 years because he was a badass crotchety old man.

28. Joshua Norton (“Emperor Norton”)

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When Joshua Norton first arrived in San Francisco from South Africa in 1849, he was wealthy with inheritance from his father and prepared destined to expand his fortune. After a misinformed investment in Peruvian rice and a subsequent legal battle left him bankrupt, he did what any Horatio Alger-following American would have done: he exiled himself from the city for two years, then came back, declared himself Emperor of the United States, issued orders to disband the U.S. Congress by force, and became a celebrated hero in a city that embraces eccentrics. Patrolling the streets in an ornate uniform donated by military officers in the Presidio, Norton was beloved by all in the city, and although he was penniless, he was often invited to eat at the fanciest dining establishments San Francisco had to offer. Norton’s greatest accomplishment (in my humble opinion), more than dreaming up the idea for a bridge and tunnel system connecting San Francisco to Oakland, was issuing the following imperial decree: “Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word ‘Frisco,’ which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”

29. Lawrence Ferlinghetti

ferlinghetti

Recipe For Happiness Khaborovsk Or Anyplace 

One grand boulevard with trees
with one grand cafe in sun
with strong black coffee in very small cups.

One not necessarily very beautiful
man or woman who loves you.

One fine day.

30. Magnolia Thunderpussy

Note: I was unable to find any photos of Magnolia Thunderpussy, so admittedly I have no idea what she looked like. If anybody has a photo of her, please hook me up! 

Born Patricia Donna Mallon, Magnolia Thunderpussy was a prominent SF burlesque dancer and radio personality who, among other things, set up a bakery on Haight and Masonic in which she sold eroticly-shaped desserts (and yes, she is the namesake of Magnolia). She had that free spirit, razor-sharp wit, and raunchy sexuality that makes me nostalgic for San Francisco of the 60s (even if I wasn’t actually alive at the time).

31. Marc Beniof

beniof No matter what your feelings on tech are, I think we can all agree that the few who have made billions from tech should, not out of obligation but out of the kindness of their hearts, partake in philanthropy. Marc Beniof certainly feels that way, donating $200 million to children’s hospitals in SF and Oakland and developing the 1/1/1 model in which companies donate 1 percent of their profits, equity and employee hours to bettering the communities they serve. He’s doing his best to get other high-up tech types in the Bay Area into the giving spirit…I really hope they listen to him.

32. Marian and Vivan Brown

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When I was an undergrad there were twin sisters a couple of years below me who lived together, were almost always seen together, and often wore matching outfits. A lot of students described them as “creepy” and/or “weird.” And yet, nobody ever said anything about Marian and Vivan Brown, who were seen together around San Francisco in matching outfits for over 40 years. Why not? Because the Brown twins were freaking adorable and you always felt special when you’d see them in person, that’s why not!

33. Mark Twain

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Mark Twain never said “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”—this is a common misattribution. However, he did launch his writing career in San Francisco (where he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”). He also coined a plethora of brilliant quotes. The one that most speaks to me is: “I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

34. Mel Blanc

mel blanc

Seriously though, how the heck did one dude voice Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Elmer, Foghorn Leghorn, Yosemite Sam, Pepe Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, Speedy Gonzales, Tweety, Sylvester, and Taz?

35. My Grandfather

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Note: I know I have a better picture of my grandfather somewhere, so this one will likely be updated.  Or not, because I’m lazy.

When the Contemporary Jewish Museum opened in 2008, there was an exhibit on “Jews of San Francisco,” in which a large swath of wall was covered in a collage of photographs of well-known members of the San Francisco Jewish Community. Featured there was a picture of my grandfather, in his Sunday jacket (tweed with leather elbow patches—no irony intended) helping a child hang a pomegranate in a sukkah. That photograph really said a lot about my grandfather. I mean, he really loved that jacket. If you haven’t read the piece I wrote about him yet, I highly recommend it.

36. My Grandmother

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I’ve mentioned my grandmother a few times in this blog—she was a world-renowned poet and translator of Israeli legend Abba Kovner, she attended the first reading of “Howl” (unconfirmed) and was friends with Gary Snyder, and City Lights still carries more than a few of her poetry collection (I think). Although she composed the bulk of her printed ouvre in Jerusalem, she got her start in San Francisco. In fact, her first poetry collection was entitled “The Floor Keeps Turning,” a reference to the pendulum at the California Academy of Sciences. Check out this letter George Oppen wrote to her upon reading it.

37. Nancy Pelosi

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I loved it when she said, “today we made history. Now, let’s make progress,” although it got kind of old after she repeated that sound bite for the sixth time during yet another interview. Still, you gotta love Nancy Pelosi—I mean, she keeps Ghiradelli chocolate in her desk drawer in Washington! I know a lot of people who don’t like Nancy Pelosi, but they’re pretty much all men who are afraid of women.

38. Pablo Heising

heising

Ten years after the Summer of Love, the Haight was pretty deep in the dumps, and Pablo Heising, nostalgic for the glory days of one of the most storied neighborhoods in the city, started the Haight Street Fair to remind people about peace, love and understanding. The street fair craze took off, and now every single neighborhood in the city tries to emulate it. Heising was dubbed the “Mayor of Haight” and ran the fair for 29 years until he died of a heart attack much too young at 61.

39. Penn and Teller

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My parents saw Penn and Tyler at the Phoenix Theater when the two were just beginning their collaboration, and then took me to see them at the Golden Gate Theater years later during the “Refrigerator Tour” (in which they introduced “MoFo the Psychic Gorilla,” if you remember that particular bit). Up through about 2008 I think I had seen all of their movies and TV specials, read all of their books, and were generally pretty well-versed in all things P&T. I should probably catch up on what they’ve done in the past 6 years soon—apparently they’re now doing the ol’ “catch the bullet in your teeth” trick both ways.

40. Phatima Rude

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What qualities do you look for in a drag queen? Should she be beautiful, provocative, abrasive, deep, gritty, shocking, repulsive-yet-magnetic? All of these adjectives can be used to describe Phatima Rude, to whom I was recently introduced via a documentary made by a dear friend of mine. For those of us living the privileged life in the corporate world, Phatima Rude reminds us that San Francisco once was, and should still be, a refuge for people who don’t quite fit in anywhere else.

41. R. Crumb 

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Every man in my generation remembers that day that his father, or his perverted uncle, or a friend who had a perverted uncle, first handed him a book of Zap Comix, R. Crumb’s comic creation inspired by his living in San Francisco and having a front-row seat to its counter-culture. After meeting Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, and a multitude of amazon women performing various intriguing sex acts on caricature-like men with giant, highly-detailed cartoon shlongs, his life was forever changed.

42. The Residents

residents

I know that The Residents is band and not really a singular “San Franciscan,” but I would argue that they kind of operated as a cohesive unit. I remember when a friend with much more obscure (and therefore “cooler”?) musical interests than I played me the Eskimo record when we were 13 years old. The walrus hunting scene (or whatever the hell that was) gave me nightmares for weeks. The best thing about the Residents is that, 45 years later, we still do not know for certain the identities of the men behind the eyeball masks. Sometimes when I see an older, weirder gentleman on Market Street, humming to himself, I like to think that he just might be a Resident.

43. Richard Brautigan

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There are a few poets on this list, because poetry is an intrinsic part of San Francisco and if you don’t agree than I don’t want you in my town. I didn’t include Allen Ginsburg because even though he did first read Howl in San Francisco, let’s face it, he was a New Yorker through and through. Anyhow, here’s a little sampling of Richard Brautigan, one of my favorite San Francisco poets:

The Pumpkin Tide

I saw thousands of pumpkins last night
come floating in on the tide,
bumping up against the rocks and
rolling up on the beaches;
it must be Halloween in the sea 

44. Rose Pak 

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It’s pretty awesome that the most powerful political force in San Francisco for the past decade is this badass, cigar-smoking little old Chinese lady. Since the 1980s, Rose Pak has fought for the rights of Chinese immigrants, protecting old Chinatown (and its poorer residents) from evictions and development while helping Asian-Americans move forward in city politics (although she would deviously deny it, many attribute the fact that the mayor and 5 out of 11 supervisors are Asian to some of the workings of Pak). I just wish she’d do a bit more to whip her boy Ed Lee into shape…

45. Dr. Rupert Blue

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Little known fact: San Francisco was hit with the bubonic plague—twice. Once from 1900-1904, when it was confined mainly to Chinatown, and again in 1907-1909, where it was city-wide. To combat the plague, Surgeon General Walter Wyman dispatched Dr. Rupert Blue to San Francisco. Holed up in a Lower Haight (woohoo!) house affectionately known as “the Rattery,” Blue developed a system for tracking the outbreaks and educating the public that eventually drove the plague out of the city forever. It’s a fascinating story and I encourage you all to read more about it. For his valiant efforts, Dr. Blue was rewarded by being appointed the fourth Surgeon General of the U.S.

46. Thea Selby 

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By now, you may have noticed that people associated with the Haight (Upper and Lower) have disproportionately high representation on this list. What can I say—I play neighborhood favorites. Thea Selby is a Lower Haight political leader, and if you’re anything like me, you probably agree with her political views: pro-public education, pro-environment and biking, pro-public transportation, pro-small business, pro-affordable housing, etc. I’m only a little bitter that I tried to get her to give me an interview when I was planning my Haight tour and she rejected my advances through three different channels. I’m sure she’s a very busy woman.

47. Tony Bennett

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Although Scott McKenzie’s 1967 hit was the anthem for the Summer of Love, the true theme song for the city was written and sung by Tony Bennett 5 years earlier. I don’t care if Tony was actually a New Yorker and never lived in SF. When the Giants win, they play Tony’s song, and they even made a bobblehead in his honor.

48. Vince Guaraldi

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Back when North Beach was an Italian neighborhood known for its hoppin’ jazz clubs, an Italian-American named Vince Guaraldi played jazz there. Go figure. As a former (although not that great) jazz pianist who loved old Peanuts comics and cartoons, there was no way I could leave Guaraldi off this list. Reading his Wikipedia page, I was clued into the fact that he did a cover of Eleanor Rigby, which is so darned incredible that I need to link it here.

49. Virgina Ramos

tamaleYou probably know her as the Tamale Lady (and admittedly, so did I, until I Google’d her real name just now), but Virginia Ramos is a true SF icon, and her tamale cart is an institution. I’ve been all over the world, and I’ve eaten some of the best drunk food humanity has to offer, including pizza in NY, danger dogs in LA, kebabs in Sydney, and 7-11 fried chicken in Tokyo. These are all delicious, but when I’ve had 5 pints of IPA in the back of Zeitgeist on a freezing San Francisco summer night, there is no delicacy more tempting than one of Virginia’s chicken tamales, served hot in the husk and doused in hot sauce.

50. William Sleator

william sleator

Young adult science fiction seems to be a perennial hot genre, and as far as I’m concerned, William Sleator is the best YA Sci-Fi author who has ever been or will ever be, and House of Stairs might be the greatest novel in any genre on the subject of the human condition. Sleator grew up in San Francisco, and when he was a kid his dad taught him how to navigate the city by driving him to a random location, pushing him out of the car, and telling him to find his way home. And this was before iPhones with GPS and all that. Kids today are too darn spoiled.

So there you have it, folks. If you actually read all fifty of the entries, then you are a true trooper and I respect and love you. It’s important that we recognize that San Francisco is not a great city due to its geography or its weather (that’s for damn sure), but by virtue of its amazing, inspiring, creative, and eccentric inhabitants of the past, present, and hopefully future that have put their hearts into creating magic in the city.

49. On My Grandfather

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A few weeks ago I went to the symphony.  It was quite an incredible show: a solo performance by a German violinist named Christian Tetzlaff, who performed 6 Bach sonatas (5 of them from memory) over the course of 2 hours.  This is Christian:

Going to the symphony is a very different experience for me than going to a rock concert.  At a rock concert, if it’s a band I love I lose myself in the music, sing along, dance, cheer, and become completely immersed in the moment.  I immediately go home and listen to the band’s CDs or watch their Youtube videos, and become obsessed with them for a week or so because I’m in denial that the show is over. At the symphony, on the other hand, I often get so mesmerized by the music that I almost cease to hear it.  My mind wanders to a different place and the music acts as my guide.  With rare exception, I can’t remember the music after the show is over—I can’t hum the tune unless it’s something recognizable to the point of being cliché (like the time I saw MTT conduct Beethoven’s Seventh), but I remember the journey on which it took me.

I saw Christian Tetzlaff with a beautiful young woman.  I’ve found that it’s best to go to the symphony with a beautiful young woman, especially one who is likely to wear something sexy yet classy.  Besides, I’m nearly 33 years old, and I don’t have that many years left when I can still bring beautiful young women to the symphony without seeming creepy (like the man in front of me who looked to be 20 years my senior, with a woman who was likely 10 years my junior).  My date was wearing a gorgeous little black dress.  Let’s be clear here–there are little black dresses and there are little black dresses.  She was wearing the latter. Her brown jacket lay draped across her shoulders for the entire evening—the dress was sleeveless and she was covering her tattoos.  Her tattoos are simple and elegant and it was a shame to keep them hidden, but on the other side of her was an elderly growling man with angry, twitching eyebrows, and we both knew that he would be offended by the side of her young, lithe, bare shoulders even without the ink, so it was better for my date to play her hand conservatively.

When the music started, I slid my hand up her leg and took her hand in mine.  She had tiny hands, and as the playing got more intense and I became more immersed in my journey, I practically crushed her hand in mine and she yanked it away.  Shortly after Christian Tetzlaff took his bow after the first half, she asked me what I was thinking about during the concert that had caused me to grip her hand so tightly.  I tried to look into her eyes but I was still coming back from my mental stroll and it was difficult to focus on anything in the real world.  Eventually I stammered out the answer: “My grandfather.”

My grandfather passed away 6 years ago.  For the first six months or so after he died, I thought of him every single day.  That was back when I was in law school, when I was always looking for a reason to not focus on what I was supposed to be doing.  Gradually, my life got busier and my grief waned, and eventually I got to the point where I was only thinking of him on the weekends, then every other week or once a month.  Now I only think of my grandfather every now and then, maybe once every other month when I ride my bike up to Forest Hills where he used to live, or when we have a large family gathering for a Jewish holiday in which he would have played a patriarchal role had he been alive.  2014 would have been my grandfather’s 99th year on Earth, and although I don’t think about him all that much these days, when I think about my grandfather, boy do I think about him.

And now I’m going to tell you about what I was thinking during the symphony.  This is not an obituary about my grandfather—the J Weekly already wrote a nice one about him so that need not be done again.  I’m also not going to re-post any of the three eulogies I wrote about him when he died—if you’re a close friend or family member, you’ve probably already read or heard at least one or two of those.  No, for this post I’m going to tell a story, because if there’s one characteristic I inherited from my grandfather, it’s a love for spinning a good yarn.  Towards the end of his life, my grandfather began writing his memoirs.  He published two volumes, covering mainly his experiences in World War II and 50+ years of practicing medicine.  There was, however, at least one story that did not make it into those books.  I think my grandfather would be happy to know that his grandson, who is not nearly as good a writer as he, is at least attempting to do this tale a modicum of justice. 

Since I know you’re going to ask, I’ll just come out and say it: I’m going to take a few liberties with my grandfather’s story.  This is okay—my grandfather himself was a master of adding exciting and fascinating elements to otherwise mundane occurrences. We once ran the numbers and determined that approximately 85% of my grandfather’s stories were bullshit.  He made exaggeration into an art—indeed, this is a trait shared by the majority of extremely interesting people whom you meet.

Just as the symphony had two halves, this story has two parts.  The first part was narrated to me by my grandfather about a year before he died.  I was staying with my parents in Marin for a few weeks in between returning home from Japan and starting law school, and I had a friend who needed a ride from San Francisco to Marin so I decided to drive into the city, pick her up, and bring her back over the bridge.  Since I was in the city and I knew my grandfather was getting old, I decided to have dinner with him, and my friend came along.  My friend, incidentally, was a beautiful young woman, and my grandfather was chatting with her in a flirtatious-yet-adorable manner, as was his wont in his older years.  I think there’s some rule under which from the ages of 35ish to 75ish you’re creepy if you flirt with beautiful young women, but after you reach a certain age it becomes endearing.

He was asking my friend about herself, and it eventually came out that she was a violist.  “Is that so?  You know, I grew up with Yehudi Menuhin.  In fact, he was a childhood friend of mine.  Our mothers were very close.”  My friend was quite interested—“really?  I love Yehudi Menuhin.”  I just smiled and nodded, pretending to know how Yehudi Menuhin was.  My grandfather explained.

Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York to Belarussian immigrants, and his family moved to San Francisco when he was still an infant.  Like all Eastern European Jewish immigrants, upon arriving to a new city they immediately found the local synagogue and became prominent members of the Jewish community.  Yehudi’s mother, Marutha, took a liking to my great-grandmother, and the two quickly developed what my grandfather described as a “tenuous friendship,” mainly because Marutha was a nut-job.  Not to say that my great-grandmother wasn’t a little crazy herself—when my grandfather was a toddler, she dressed him up in little girls’ dresses to confuse the Ashmedai, the Jewish demon who kidnaps little boys.  Yehudi was two years younger than my grandfather and when my grandfather outgrew his dresses, my great-grandmother gave them to Marutha, who used them to dress up Yehudi when he was old enough to be a potential kidnapping victim.

Yes, that’s right.  My grandfather and world-reknowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin wore the same little girls’ dresses when they were toddlers.

When my grandfather was a little older, he became friends with young Yehudi.  Actually, that’s not quite true.  His mother insisted that he play with young Yehudi, because Yehudi’s mom was worried about Yehudi not having any friends.  This was ironic, because Yehudi’s mom did everything in her power to make sure that Yehudi would never become a normally-socialized young boy.

My grandfather was already not thrilled about having to hang out with a boy two years his younger.  Really—when you’re nine years old, is there any bigger pain in the ass than a seven year-old?  But Yehudi was even less fun than other younger boys, because when one had a play date with the prodigal son of Marutha Menuhin, his options were limited.  Yehudi was strictly prohibited by his mother from doing anything that would befoul his immaculate, violin-playing hands.  Yes, Yehudi was a seven year-old boy who was not allowed to get his hands dirty.  That meant no playing in mud, dirt, sand, or grass.  That meant no throwing balls or playing sports, no fighting, no cartwheels.  I suppose that today, many 7 year-old boys just play video games all day and possibly (and pathetically) keep their hands clean, but in the year 1923 this was not an option (and Marutha Menuhin probably would not have been a fan of video games had they existed).

When my grandfather did actually find an activity to do with Yehudi Menuhin (perhaps playing jacks…no wait, that wouldn’t work…perhaps playing Snakes and Ladders), Yehudi was required to keep his hands engaged on a practice fingering board, constantly repeating the hand positions for various different classical sonatas, overtures, and fugues.  My grandfather would be in the street playing with his stick and hoop, like this:

LA23KIDS 3

Yehudi, meanwhile, would be sitting on the sidewalk, playing “air violin” while humming to himself.  I bet my grandfather would get some pretty nasty wedgies if the older boys found out he was friends with that weirdo Yehudi Menuhin.  

There was one day that Yehudi was visiting my grandfather’s house for tea and my grandfather convinced Yehudi to put down his fingering board and come kick a ball around for a while in the back yard (my grandfather was a soccer player. He would eventually play on Stanford’s varsity squad, which won three games in the four years my grandfather played for them).  Suddenly, out of nowhere, Marutha Menuhin, who was in the parlor with my great-grandmother, appeared in the yard, yelled “YEHUDI!  WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!” followed by a string of Eastern European cursewords, snatched Yehudi’s fingerboard with one hand and his ear with the other and yanked him all the way home, not letting go of his ear for three blocks while poor Yehudi squealed in agony.

Yehudi Menuhin would go on to do incredible things. 

There was this:

And then there was this:

To Marutha Menuhin, I’m sure the ends justified the means.  It makes me wonder how many brilliant musicians, dancers, athletes, and other performers would not have achieved greatness had it not been for overbearing, borderline-psychotic parenting and a lack of a true childhood experience.

What is written above is all I learned from my grandfather about Yehudi Menuhin.  Although it’s not much, thinking about my grandfather and Yehudi, and in particular my grandfather shouting “YEHUDI!!!” to imitate Marutha’s voice, kept me occupied over the course of the first half of the symphony.  During intermission, I bought my date (the beautiful young woman in the little black dress—you haven’t forgotten, have you?) an $11 glass of shitty red wine and we discussed how the Warriors would improve in the 2014-2015 season.  Or rather, she discussed and I smiled and nodded, pretending to know about basketball.

When we returned to our seats and Christian Tetzlaff took to the stage again, I went back to thinking about my grandfather.  Before I get into the exact nature of part two of my music-inspired mental trip, I’d like to take a moment to discuss an important part of being a heterosexual male in the age of television: the “what kind of man are you” choice.  The most famous WKOMAYC came about in the 1960s, when men around the world were suddenly faced with the epic quandary: are you a “Ginger man” or a “Mary-Ann man”? 

gingermaryann

By the way, I don’t think that is the correct use of the term “litmus test,” but what do you expect from a Google image search? Anyhow, in the 1970s, men were once again forced to make a choice… 

chrissy janet

and again in the 1980s… 

Bosom_Buddies_Hanks_Scolari and the 1990s…

rachelmonica

and so on…

Betty-Draper-Joan-Holloway (1)

b&v

mariah nickiDon’t be fooled, though—the WKOMAYC existed even before Gilligan’s Island.  Yehudi Menuhin had two younger sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah.  Both were brilliant and accomplished pianists before they reached double-digits, to the point that famed French piano instructor Marcel Ciampi noted “Mrs. Menuhin’s womb is a veritable conservatory” (overlooking the fact that it was the nurture just as much as the nature that contributed to the musical successes of the Menuhin children).  However, even more than their talent at the keys, the Menuhin sisters were known for their beauty, to the point that the question was regularly asked, “Are you a Hephzibah man or a Yaltah man?” 

Hephzibah:

hephzibah

or Yaltah:

Yaltah_1960's_2

My grandfather was a Yaltah man—I learned this shortly after his death.  When we were sitting shiva for him (a Jewish tradition wherein, after a family member dies, you have a 7-day long somber brunch), I picked up a small leather-bound volume my aunt had put on the coffee table.  It was my grandfather’s journal, in which he started writing while in London during World War II when he was 29 years old, and picked up again 50 years later.  After eating, I retired to my aunt’s childhood room with my grandfather’s writings—fortunately his penmanship was much better than mine, so I could actually read his words.  The first entry was about how my grandfather was smarter than everybody else in the army, and that he was thus without friends and lonely.  I used to blame my own loneliness on similar circumstances, but my intelligence pales in comparison to his so my problems must lie somewhere else.  

The second entry was entitled “Girls and Music” and was about five of my grandfather’s early romances.  The piece takes up 36 pages of his journal, and 20 of those pages are dedicated to one particular woman: Yaltah Menuhin.  Yes, not only was my grandfather a “Yaltah man,” he actually fulfilled the fantasy by dating her…kind of.

My grandfather had known Yaltah in her infancy, but reconnected with her years later, when she was 19 and he was 26.  Yaltah, recently divorced (married at 18, divorced at 18 ½), was living with her family in Los Gatos, and when my grandfather went to visit Marutha (I struggle to think of why) one weekend, he became reacquainted with, and instantly attracted to, Yaltah.  At that point Yehudi and Hephzibah were already world-renowned musicians, and although Yaltah was no slouch at the piano, she was focusing mainly on her poetry, which she wrote in six different languages.  Sadly, I cannot find any of her poems online, or even find any references to any of her collections (according to my grandfather’s journal, she was getting a collection of her French poems published while he was courting her, but that collection does not seem to be presently available on Amazon).  

Yaltah and my grandfather became friends, and after a number of weekends spent together in San Francisco and Los Gatos, they took a trip together to Santa Cruz.   After dancing cheek-to-cheek in a fancy nightclub just off the boardwalk, they retired to their bed and breakfast, where they had gotten separate rooms.  As my grandfather lay in bed, unable to sleep, Yaltah came into his room, wearing nothing but a sexy pink nightgown.  She crawled into bed with him and began showering him with kisses.  My grandfather wrote this about his feelings during the experience: “I for my part was gradually slipping into a state which in the Bible is described as ‘causing a man to forget his Father and Mother.’” 

For the record, he did not have sex with her. I’m not exactly sure why he abstained.  My uncle once spoke of my grandfather upholding the proud “amorous tradition” of males in my family, and it’s known that after my grandfather got married, he indulged in extra-curricular activities with ladies whom my aunt described as “the loose Jewish women of San Francisco.”  This is all to say that refraining from carnal indulgences was not exactly my grandfather’s forte. However, when he was in bed with the goddess-like Yaltah Menuhin, he resisted.  From his writing, it appears that he refused her advances in an attempt to demonstrate that he had willpower, so as to assert his dominance.

In the end, his strategy backfired; Yaltah interpreted his actions as rejection, and no longer wished to spend time alone with him.  I’m reminded of a recent scene from the show “Louie.”  I think the show is starting to go downhill this season, but there was one hilarious moment a couple of weeks ago when Louie’s elderly Eastern European neighbor tells him, “In Hungary, we have a saying: if you didn’t screw the cow, she’s not your cow.”  

On top of unceremoniously dumping my grandfather, in an act that may go towards proving the old adage about hell’s lack of a certain kind of fury, Yaltah eloped with a man named Bud Rolfe.  Not long before that, my grandfather had introduced Bud (then a friend) to his younger sister (my great-aunt, for those who are getting confused by the genealogy), and the two of them had started dating somewhat seriously.  Yaltah snatched Bud away from my great-aunt, and my grandfather was convinced that this was an attempt to further hurt him, as he was quite close with (and protective of) his little sister. 

Yaltah Menuhin’s second marriage lasted only slightly longer than her first.  My great-aunt met another nice Jewish boy shortly after Bud slighted her, and they were married happily for over 50 years.  My grandfather married another poet (or “poetess,” as female poets were called at the time).  His wife (my grandmother) may not have been as famous as Yaltah Menuin, but at least you can find her poems easily on the Internet (she’s also, as far as I know, the only person in my immediate family to have a Wikipedia page).  Also, I’ve seen photographs of her in her younger years, and she was way hotter than Yaltah Menuhin.

My grandmother published 9 books of poetry and wrote enough poems for one more collection before her dementia took over and left her a shell of a human being.  When I visited her in Israel four years ago she read me the following poem, which has never been published before today: 

POEMS ARE SERIOUS

How many people  no I mean women
young women  do you know
no I mean understand  which is
different  very  from just plain
knowing  well enough to write
about them  even a poem  something
serious as that  and if you don’t think
poems are serious  you’d better
stop reading right now.  That’s if
you can  because I’ve probably
hooked you like any fish on my
line.  Though I didn’t plan to write
about fish.  I never plan to write
about anything and certainly not
about fish which are cold and slimy
until they are cooked and I wasn’t
planning to cook one for dinner
tonight.  I  wasn’t even planning
to cook. If I can’t help it. Which
I probably can’t.  Because every
loud mouth around here is
always clamoring to be filled.
And it doesn’t matter with what.

Despite the fact that they were both amazing human beings, my grandfather and grandmother did not have the best marriage.  I’m sure they were in love at one point—each was the kind of passionate individual who would never subscribe to a marriage of convenience—but I’ve heard enough stories from my mother and her sisters to know that their love died early on and their divorce after 26 years was not a huge surprise to anybody (except my grandfather, who was completely shocked).  My grandmother met an Israeli, fell in love with him, and moved to Jerusalem.  My grandfather met a German woman, a Holocaust survivor, married her, and she died not too long thereafter.  Then in his 80s he met a beautiful young(er) woman (she was in her 70s!) and although they never married, they were quite the hot item in the San Francisco Jewish seniors scene until his death.  She’s Hungarian and still alive, but I don’t think I’ll ask her about the cow-screwing thing.

My aunt told me that the younger Hungarian was the first woman with whom my grandfather had truly been in love, but I wonder if that’s true.  In my grandfather’s journal he devoted several pages to listing the reasons why he’s happy that he didn’t end up marrying Yaltah Menuhin.  He called her “unworldly” even though she could write poetry in six languages. He said she lacked persistence and was unable to carry her endeavors to completion.  My grandfather was also annoyed at her competitive, argumentative approach to their relationship.  “There was nothing that irritated her more than to have to admit I was right and she was wrong about something,” he wrote, “and I was very seldom wrong.”

I’ve seen this kind of list before.  When I was going through my last hard break-up, a friend instructed me to write down all of the things I disliked about my ex.  I wrote about her crappy taste in music, her superficial obsession with expensive bars and restaurants, and her inability to make decisions.  On a quick glance, somebody might read the list and think, “wow, you really dodged a bullet there,” but anybody who knew me at all would have taken one look at that list and known that I was on the verge of tears when I wrote it, struggling desperately to come up with a few minor annoyances that I could stretch into reasons to feel happy even though my heart had been shattered.

I knew my grandfather well, and believe me, his petty reasons for why he couldn’t marry Yaltah Menuhin were a thin attempt at convincing himself that he was over her—the 20 pages devoted to her spoke wonders about his true feelings, as did the fact that he prefaced his narrative/diatribe by noting that he could write an entire book about her.  When he met my grandmother 3 years after his courtship with Yaltah ended, was he over her? Or was he still fawning over his beautiful poetess and trying to use my grandmother as a replacement?  Is that why my grandfather’s marriage with my grandmother ultimately failed?  Because she wasn’t Yaltah Menuhin?

My grandfather is one of the smartest human beings I have ever met or likely ever will meet.  Did that make finding love more difficult to him?  Did his genius breed loneliness when it came to women in the same way it stymied his ability to make friends in the army?  Shortly before he died he stated “my regrets are as high as a mountain.”  Was his unfortunate affair with Yaltah a regret he carried in his heart for the duration of his life?  Believe me, friends, these questions are quite a lot to ponder during the symphony, even while holding hands with a beautiful young woman…

48. On Muffins

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Hello friends, lovers, and people who discovered me through Jason Evanish’s blog.  I know, I know—it’s been a while.  The truth is that I’ve been busy on other creative endeavors to the point that I have been inadvertently kind of slacking on my blogger duties.  That’s a lie—my slackage has not been inadvertent, in fact, it’s been quite advertent.  Which, apparently, is a real word.

In the past 6 months or so, I’ve been working on a side project.  It’s not a huge endeavor and I probably could have planned it all in 2 months had I not been a lawyer, but I am a lawyer, so I have a lot less time to devote to side projects.  That’s the sacrifice I make—but hell, I’m lucky to have any side projects in my life at all.  Many of my legal brethren do not, unless you count taking care of your kids as a side project.  And if you do, you’re probably a shitty parent.

I first got the idea for this side project on Yom Kippur of last year.  I don’t go to shul on Yom Kippur; instead, I like to go on a long walk.  This tradition started my sophomore year of college.  Freshman year I went to shul with a friend and her family in New Jersey, and I felt incredibly out of place—east coast Judaism is very different from west coast Judaism and I felt like I was lost in a sea of Woody Allens (pre-pedophile days) and Fran Dreschers.  And that, my friends, is not a sea in which you want to be lost. Furthermore, in my shul growing up, we all sang the Yom Kippur prayers together, but in this synagogue the cantor sang solo while the masses shifted uncomfortably in their seats and gossiped about who was getting fat or whose son was dropping out of college.  Sophomore year I decided that instead of going to shul I’d just take a long walk through Central Park, and I found the meditative and reflective powers of a solo stroll in nature to be far better suited for the deep introspection Yom Kippur is supposed to inspire than listening to a cantor belt out a bunch of Hebrew prayers by herself in a tune I did not recognize.

Since I moved back to San Francisco, my annual Yom Kippur walk has been from my Hayes Valley apartment, up the panhandle, through the park, and to Ocean Beach.  As I get further and further west the intensity of my atoning increases until I reach the sand, where I take off my shoes, say a final prayer for forgiveness, and then wash my feet in the water as my name, hopefully, gets written in the Book of Life.  

This time around was special, because for the first time in my life, I had a California driver’s license with a San Francisco address.  After using my parent’s Marin address for 15 years, I finally got my license renewed with my new digs, and in case you’re a transplant and you’re unaware, having a San Francisco driver’s license can get you all sorts of discounts in Golden Gate Park.  Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden, Academy of Sciences—all of these places are so fed up with obnoxious tourists that if a local is willing to visit them, they roll out the red carpet.  On this day I went to the botanical gardens, where a person carrying a California driver’s license with an address in San Francisco gets in for free.  Yeah, that’s right—zero dollars and zero cents. 

As I was leaving the African plants section and entering the Australia/New Zealand area, I stumbled upon a tour group, and after listening for about half a minute and getting extremely bored, I started, in my head, creating my own tour of San Francisco.  I started on the Golden Gate Bridge, and went through the Presidio and then over to North Beach (I sort of skipped the Marina because fuck the Marina), then down into Soma and Folsom, and back up to the Tenderloin, into Hayes Valley, up Haight Street, through the Park, and down 19th Avenue into the Sunset, then through West Portal and finally up to the top of Twin Peaks, for one last spectacular view of the city, followed by some hardcore making out.  Oh, I forget to mention that in this imaginary tour I was with a cute girl, and she was totally impressed with my vast knowledge of all things San Francisco.

Bear in mind that I had not eaten or drunk anything all day.

My aunt and uncle hosted a break-the-fast at their house in Berkeley, and after drinking 10 glasses of water (the hunger I can handle, but the thirst always kills me) and gorging on bagels and kugel, I popped into the kitchen to grab some scotch (because that’s how we roll in my family), and I noticed my uncle hovering over the counter with various bowls and cooking utensils, measuring out flour, melting butter, and casually tossing about blueberries.  I asked what he was doing, and he replied, very deliberately, “I’m making muffins.”

It may have been my stomach, overly-stuffed too quickly. It may have been the scotch.  It was probably the scotch.  But seeing the look of determination on my uncle’s face as he mixed together the muffin agreements and thinking about my incredibly romantic and life-affirming tour of San Francisco set off something in my head, like that moment when you figure out that 10-letter crossword puzzle clue and suddenly you start making connections all over the board (“poor as twist,” _ _ C _ E _ _ _ A _).

At that moment, Muffin Man Tours was born.

“And what is Muffin Man Tours?” you may ask.  Well, chances are, if you’re reading this blog right now, you are either (1) a dear friend or family member of mine, (2) a girl whom I’m trying to impress, or (3) a stranger who found my blog through that post by Jason Evanish.  If you’re (1) or (2), then I’ll bet dollars to donuts that you’ve already heard me talk about MMT ad nauseum (and if you fall into the (2) category, is it working?).  For the rest of y’all, “Muffin Man Tours” is really a multi-word portmanteau (if such a concept exists…and I believe it does not), comprised of the two sub-words/phrases, “Muffin Man” and “Tours.”  Let us discuss each in turn.

Muffin Man 

I’ve always enjoyed cooking, but until recently I was never much of a baker.  In fact, the only baking experience I can recall having before I became the Muffin Man was when I bought some white chocolate chunk cookie mix from Specialties and made that big dong-shaped cookie, which, sadly, came out kind of chode-like. 

dong cookie

Nonetheless, my uncle assured me that making muffins was simple, so one Sunday night in October of last year, I epicurious’d “apple cinnamon muffins,” found a kick-ass recipe, and whipped up my first-ever batch of muffins.

IMG_0521

I baked a dozen, and the next morning I placed them in a sack and walked down Market Street to work, with the intention of handing them out to homeless people.  Strangely, I had trouble finding homeless people on Market Street, or at least finding any whom I thought would be interested in muffins.  By the time I got to work, I still had two muffins leftover, so I had to backtrack half a block and give the last homeless guy I saw the two extras.

The next week I found more homeless people, and I ran out of muffins two blocks before I reached my office.  The week after that I brought two dozen muffins and ran out just as I was arriving at work.  The week after that I brought two dozen and ran out three blocks away.  I am still only baking two dozen muffins per week (that’s all I have the capacity to do in my kitchen), but if I had unlimited muffin-baking resources, I would bake fifty a week, and I’d be able to give them all out on my morning walk down Market Street.  And yes, I’m talking about one per person.  The truth is, after several weeks of handing out muffins to homeless people, I started to notice far more of them.  I look around for shopping carts, and unwashed hands, and people just standing in the middle of the sidewalk—most people on Market Street who are not homeless don’t just stand still; they have places to go.

I do muffin runs every Monday now—I have for the past 5 months.  People know me and expect me.  People talk to me.  People talk about me—“oh hey man, you must go far—I was talking with a buddy at Montgomery Station and he was telling me about some white dude who hands out muffins!”  Not everybody likes me—old Jim who sits in a wheelchair outside of Powell station stopped accepting muffins from me, telling me he “just didn’t care for them.”  I guess what they say about beggars is not true.  A lot of people complained when I put nuts in my muffins so I stopped.  Many of my customers don’t have teeth, so eating muffins was nuts was difficult…although one transsexual did grab my arm, look me in the eye, and tell me she loved nuts.

I’ve tried to talk others into making baked goods for the homeless, but the trend hasn’t caught on yet.  Most people say they give money to food banks, and that’s enough.  I don’t entirely disagree—giving money to foodbanks is great.  But when you spend time actually baking (and believe me, on Sunday nights it’s often a real pain in the ass), it shows you care.  And when you physically put a muffin in a homeless man’s hand, it shows that you actually see him as a human being.  

The best compliment I ever received on a muffin run came the week of the big Dreamforce conference last year.  Around the Civic Center BART station, a couple of attendees fell into step with me, and they were sort of following me for a few blocks, watching as I distributed muffins.  As they turned down Fourth to go to the Moscone Center, one of them ran up to me and tapped me on the shoulder.  “Thank you for doing what you’re doing,” he said to me, “I learned something from you today.”  I thanked him back, and said, “you didn’t learn anything today you didn’t already know.”

Speaking of learning, on top the education I’ve received regarding empathy and the homeless, becoming the Muffin Man has also allowed me to learn quite a bit about making muffins!  Here are some choice tidbits for y’all:

  • Always use the “10 stroke” method.  Mix your wet and dry ingredients together separately (yes, I did just use the word “together” followed by the word “separately”—I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure out what I mean), then when you’re ready to combine the wet and the dry, use only ten strokes when stirring.  Stop after 10 strokes, even if the batter is still lumpy.  Over mixing your muffins activates the gluten in the dough and makes the muffins less moist.
  • Use a whisk instead of a wooden spoon when mixing.
  • If you can, use butter instead of canola oil.
  • Canned pumpkin mix is okay.
  • Banana muffin batter is the most delicious substance on Earth.
  • Organic sugar actually tastes better. 

I do have one silly question for any more advanced bakers reading this: how come some recipes call for baking powder, some call for baking soda, and some call for both? 

Tours

As I mentioned before, seeing a tour group in the botanical gardens was the catalyst that inspired me to start a tour company of my own.  What I didn’t mention is that while I was wandering about the park that day, feeling a little weak and extremely thirsty from my fast, in between sessions of apologizing to myself and others I was thinking about the “San Francisco Problem” and what I could do about it.

My first idea was to set up some sort of program in which people in the tech industry could volunteer at local low-income public schools, homeless shelters, and jails/prisons to teach underserved populations how to code (and yes, I was influenced by this heartwarming story).  The organization would be called “Teach a Man to Fish” or something like that.  Maybe “Teach a Person to Fish” to be more P.C.*  I was getting kind of excited about it, but then I realized that in the end it would bother me, because I myself don’t know how to code, and I would feel kind of like a hypocrite.  

Then I had the idea of a homeless book-of-the-month club.  It came to me after watching this incredible piece about a young woman in Philly who started a homeless running club.  As much as I liked the idea of doing the same thing here, she mentions waking up at 5:30, and that’s not going to work for me.  Reading books, however, does work for me, and I have seen a fair number of homeless folks enjoying some quality literature (or complete crap—I once jokingly chastised a homeless girl for reading 50 Shades of Grey), so I thought it would be fun to organize a forum where these readers could meet up once a month, get some food, and have an intellectually stimulating conversation about a great book.  I still plan on doing this someday.  It really doesn’t have anything to do with the tech industry, I just felt like sharing it with you right now, in the hopes that one of you readers would assist me with the endeavor.

After seeing that tour group in the botanical gardens on Yom Kippur, everything finally came together, and the ideas in my head solidified.  Well, not quite.  I guess, more accurately, they went from “jello that’s still one hour away from fully setting” to “semi-firm tofu,” but that was good enough for government work.  Here is the general train of thought:  The number one complaint about folks in the tech industry is that they are driving up rents in the city, and unfortunately, I am not in a position to help with that particular problem.  The number two complaint (based mainly on the musings of Rebecca Solnit and other like-minded-but-not-nearly-as-articulate bloggers) is that people in the tech industry “do not understand San Francisco culture.”  To me, this presented a solvable problem: I could teach others about San Francisco culture; it’s not all that complicated.  The classroom would be the streets of San Francisco herself—walking tours in the most interesting neighborhoods in the city, those that remain and those that have been gentrified to the point that SF culture is on the brink of eradication. I thought of the different locations for my tour: SOMA—a haven for Filipino immigrants and once home to the most hardcore LGBT revolution the world has known, now a sterile landscape of start-ups and rich people who did zero research before moving to the city; the Mission—where the hipsters who priced out the Latinos are now getting priced out by rich people who happened to read a Lonely Planet; the Tenderloin—the raw, gritty, streets where I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical (and so forth); the Fillmore—where, as James Baldwin phrased it, “urban renewal” meant “negro removal”; but before all that, the Haight, where I came as a teenager to revel in the land where the sixties never died, and where I come today to drink reasonably-priced Belgian beers at Noc Noc, my favorite bar in town.

Okay—the real reason I chose to start with the Haight is because I essentially live there, and it was the most convenient location for me to research.  But honestly, the area is incredibly interesting, even without the hippies and the Summer of Love.  I quickly realized that tours of the Upper Haight (Haight-Ashbury) were saturated, so I shifted my focus on the Lower Haight (Haight-Fillmore).  Unlike the Upper Haight, there is very little written history on the Lower Haight area, so much of my research came from interviewing local residents and business owners.  I walked up and down Haight Street every single weekend for 5 months with a pad and pen in hand, chatting with anybody who would talk to me.  I reached out on various online fora and conducted taped interviews.  For whatever reason, most of the folks who would actually talk to me fell into the “gay white males over the age of 60” demographic, so in some ways, my tour is of the Lower Haight from the gay white male over the age of 60 perspective, which basically begins with stealth intercourse in Buena Vista Park and ends with the LGBT senior center under construction at 55 Laguna.

Of course, sexagenarian same-sex love is not the only aspect of the Lower Haight I studied for the tour.  I learned about ancient history and the different populations that came and went, the communities torn apart by violence and drugs but then reformed to become, in some cases, stronger, the homeless, the displaced, the artists, the innovators (ugh, I hate that word), and the political action and apathy.  Although my focus was on the Haight, my research spread the gamut of San Francisco, as I sought to answer the question of 2014: what is “San Francisco culture,” and how can we save it?

There was a time when I thought I knew all there was to know about San Francisco culture.  This was in 2005, when I went to a party in a basement in the Mission where I saw a little bit of this:

Picture 103

a wee bit o’ this:

Picture 107

and a whole lotta this:

Picture 108

To me this party epitomized San Francisco: it was underground (literally), had kick-ass music by a man in a mask a la the Residents (the act was called “Cookie Mongoloid”; apparently they were on the gong show), sexy go-go dancers (“The Devilettes”—San Francisco’s sweethearts!, and a Darth Vader Mr. Potato Head.  All we needed was a poetry reading, some marijuana, and dim sum and it would have been a one-stop shop for all of your San Francisco cultural needs.

9 years later, I’m not sure if that party is an accurate depiction of “San Francisco culture.”  It hits on several important SF cultural facets: the weird, the naughty, and the Star Wars, but some of the more important patches in the San Francisco culture quilt were not represented, such as:

  • San Francisco as a place accepting to all, whether you be a dirty, pot-smoking hippie, a sexual deviant, or a dirty, pot-smoking sexual deviant;
  • A melting pot of ethnic diversity, with different waves of immigration spanning nearly all corners of the world; and
  • A hotbed of creativity, both in the marketable and less profitable senses of the word.

Oh wait, there’s another one: 

  • A place where people are liberal in both mind and spirit, always willing to help the downtrodden.

I like to think that one is part of San Francisco culture—after all, we led the LGBT civil rights revolution, and we provide more services for the homeless than possibly any other major city in the country (which, in turn, is part of the reason that we have such a large homeless population).  However, as we human beings become more and more ensconced in the individual worlds of our smartphones (and I am not suggesting that this phenomenon is unique to techies), it becomes easier to not notice (or pretend to not notice) somebody in need.

That is precisely why pulling out your cell phone, even to take a picture, is prohibited on Muffin Man Tours.  Further, I provide my tour participants with muffins and instruct them to distribute them to hungry people we meet along the way.  I also provide dog treats, because there are a lot of hungry dogs in San Francisco too.  For a while I was using vegan dog treats, but most of the dogs that received them would immediately spit out the green, chalky atrocities, or just reject them.  That makes sense—I’m sure that humans would do the same if I offered vegan muffins.  Yeah, I went there.

So that’s what I’ve been doing—making a tour experience in which I teach Bay Area residents about the San Franciscesque culture of giving (and if you don’t believe that giving should be an intrinsic part of our city’s culture, check out our namesake). I also point out the beauty of their own backyards, and how this beauty is in some places being destroyed and in some places being reborn.  My tour is decidedly not anti-tech, because, as I did more research, I became (slightly) less anti-tech myself.  I do teach about the horrors of gentrification, and how non-rich folk have been getting f’d up the you-know-what since the 50s because of it.  And I do teach about how what is new is often not great, and how we San Franciscans fear change, but in a good way.  I also teach about the oldest home in the city and the most famous abortion clinic in California, both of which are found in the Lower Haight.

Friends have suggested that I quit my day job and try making Muffin Man Tours into a real company.  For now, although Muffin Man Tours is just a hobby, I do take it kind of seriously.  I paid a friend to make me a logo and my first flyer—check it out:

muffinman_8x8

It’s been an amazing journey for me, and researching about the city has been fascinating.  But to do this full time would likely not work.  In my initial run, I gave a tour every week for 6 weeks (except for one week when we were rained out and I had too much work).  The tours were three hours long and left me euphoric but completely exhausted.  Maybe I’m getting old, but being “on” for extended periods of time, in particular being energetic and silly, wears me the fuck out.  I can’t believe I used to do that all day every day when I taught English in Japan.  Also, doing the same tour every week left me kind of bored.  Say what I will about my lawyer job, I do learn new things every day, and I truly love that feeling.  There is only so much to be gained telling the umpteenth group of people about the sexy legs in the window of the Piedmont Lounge.

Also, to make the operation economically viable, I’d have to do 10 tours a week with 10 people each for $25 a pop, and, well,

crazytalk

Thus, for now, it remains a side project.  I’m beginning research on my SoMa tour, looking to launch in September, but I might do a reprise of the Haight tour in June and/or July, so if you’re interested, shoot me an email at sfloveaffair@gmail.com and I just might save you a spot.

*The other day I heard a hilarious quote: “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, give a man a poisoned fish and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.”

47. On Oakland, and Why I’m Not Moving There Anytime Soon

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I’m sure that many of you saw that article in Vice last week about how San Francisco sucks and all of the cool people in the city are moving to Oakland. Perhaps you also saw the story in SF Weekly about how SF’s historic music scene is emigrating across the Bay (and to Portland, Austin, etc.). And of course, there was this great piece on the Bold Italic last year about why all of our friends are moving to Oakland. 

Many of my friends and close family members have left their tiny SF studio apartments for the greener pastures (and baseball uniforms) of the East Bay, and more than a few of them are telling me that the writing is on the wall in San Francisco and it’s time for me to take the plunge too.  Don’t get me wrong—I dig Oakland, it’s a fun town and it does have a funky, up-and-coming vibe to it.  However, Oakland is simply not the right place for me right now.  I moved out of San Francisco when I was 6 months old and spent the next 29 years fighting to get back.  Now I am finally settled here (or as “settled” as I’ve ever been), and although there’s an off-chance that I might buy a house in the East Bay at some point in the future, I’m trying to preserve my time within the confines of the 7 x 7 for as long as I can. 

Why am I so stubborn about this?  There are plenty of reasons.  In fact, here are the top 10 reasons why I am not leaving San Francisco to move to Oakland:

10.  My commute to work is virtually non-existent.

On Mondays I walk to work, and hand out homemade muffins to homeless people on the way.  That takes about an hour.  On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays I ride my bike to the office.  That takes about 15 minutes.  On Fridays I walk to work, stopping for a donut on 6th Street.  That takes about 43 minutes.  On all of these days I arrive at work feeling refreshed and energized, with my heart rate slightly elevated.  My commute is a straight shot down Market Street, where the green bike lanes are so safe that even our mayor will dare to ride in them:

biketowork

I’m a lawyer, which means that if I want to stay in the Bay Area, I’m probably going to work in downtown SF.  I have friends and coworkers who live in the East Bay and commute.  They say that it’s really close—the BART stop is just a quick 15-20 minute walk from home, and the ride itself is a mere 24 minutes.  That seems far to me—in the time it took you to walk to BART, I already made it to the office and now I’m eating my Special K with dried strawberries.  I used to eat Honey Nut Cheerios, but I’m trying to be a bit healthier these days.

9.  I don’t need to drive or use public transportation. 

My lack of a need for driving, training or bussing, although related to my short commute, is significant enough to merit its own item on this list.

A lot of people complain about driving in San Francisco, but having lived and driven in Japan and LA, I can tell you that it ain’t so bad.  Parking’s a bit of a pain in the ass, but as long as you stay away from certain neighborhoods at certain times of day, it is much less of a problem.  People also complain about our public transportation.  Yes, it’s not as good as public transportation in New York.  You win.  Good job.  It still gets a lot of folks from point A to point B, often with a hilarious story about a drunk homeless man touching himself.

The wonderful thing about San Francisco is that you don’t need to drive or take public transportation.  San Francisco is a compact city and no matter where you are, you are likely walking distance (and you are definitely biking distance) from wherever else you want to go (except maybe if you live in Bayview).  Walking and biking are both great for your cardio, and those hills do wonders for your glutes!  I own a car, but my main use for it is driving across the street once a week to avoid getting a ticket from the street-sweeper.  If I lived in Oakland, I’d probably have to drive or take the bus everywhere…at least that’s what all of my friends who live there do.  What’s the point of having that great weather if you’re stuck inside your vehicle?

8. I’m 32 years old and I don’t give a rat’s patootie about being “cool.”

Every morning, after I shower, I spend a moment staring in the mirror at my badass phoenix tattoo on my back.  Then I go to my record player and pick out some soul on vinyl to listen to while I get dressed.  Before I go to work, I pick out a button from my extensive collection, a sampling of which I will show here:

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Then I go to my corporate lawyer job.  The “cool” me disappears the moment I leave my apartment, and I don’t spend all that much time in my apartment.  And that’s okay.

A lot of people say that San Francisco is no longer “cool” and “edgy” and that all of the truly interesting San Franciscans are going to Oakland, which is totally the Brooklyn of the West Coast.  Oakland is like Brooklyn, in that it once had a predominantly African-American population that is being rapidly displaced by white hipsters who think they are being “cool” and “edgy” by moving there.  Frankly, I don’t need to move to Brooklyn—last I checked, Cherry Tavern, my favorite bar in the world, was still in Manhattan.  I’m 32 freaking years old, and I really stopped caring what “cool” people thought of me years ago, if I ever cared in the first place.  Seriously, fucking Oakland hipsters.  You’re into the Pixies?  I’ve been listening to the Pixies since before you were born.  Literally.

7.  I need ocean access, preferably from Ocean Beach. 

I’m not a beach bum by any means.  In fact, for the most part, I don’t particularly like the beach–I particularly hate how whenever I go there, even for ten minutes, sand somehow permeates every crevasse of my being regardless of what I’m wearing.  Nonetheless, there is something undoubtedly therapeutic about being able to dip your toes into the Pacific Ocean and stare out into the endless abyss of bluish-green.  It’s humbling yet infinitely peaceful.  Ocean Beach is the perfect beach for me—it’s chilly and you can’t go there wearing your G-string (although that doesn’t stop me), but it’s quiet, calm, and contemplative, with drift wood that tells tales of pirates aboard gold-plated ships and sunsets that form the city’s aura.

Ocean_Beach_in_San_Francisco_at_sunrise

See the big, beautiful body of water in that photo?  That ain’t the Bay.  And that sure as hell ain’t Lake Merritt.

6. Oakland is kinda not safe.

Part of what makes Oakland “cool” and “edgy” is the fact that there’s still a substantial likelihood that if you spend a year or two there, you will get robbed at gunpoint and/or burglarized.  This has a particular appeal to white kids from Marin who want to get some street cred, especially if they don’t have any assets worth stealing.  It’s a badge of honor to say something like, “yeah, last month somebody threw a big rock through my door and stole my laptop and bike.  It’s all good—this is just the tax you pay for living in Oakland.” 

Setting aside the fact that making statements like that is extremely insulting to people in Oakland who have to live with crime every day and who do not think it is “all good,” I don’t want to get mugged or have my place broken into, and I already pay a shit ton in taxes (damn you, tax-and-spend California liberals!).  San Francisco may be full of homeless people shitting on the street, crackheads yelling at passersby, and folks shooting heroin with impunity in front of City Hall, but I can still pull out my iPhone on Market Street to check a text without worrying about somebody nicking it, and I never lock my door when I’m home.  There are people out everywhere at night and I never feel unsafe walking home at 2 AM.  I simply can’t say the same about the Oakland experience.

Maybe I’m weak.  Maybe I’m old.  Maybe I’m secretly Republican.  I’d just like to minimize my exposure to crime, that’s all.

5. I will never change my sports allegiances.  

The Bay Area only has one basketball team and one hockey team, and it is very exciting that both of them are currently in the playoffs. However, we have two baseball teams and two football teams, and although one can casually support multiple teams in one sport in theory, you can only have one baseball team that is “your team,” and the same goes for football.  Thems the rules! 

I did not select my baseball and football allegiances; they were chosen for me.  I grew up in the Bay Area in the 1980s, when the Raiders were in LA and the Niners were the greatest team in football history, so football was a no-brainer.  Baseball was a little trickier: in Marin, we could go either way, and the fanbase split in my elementary school was about 50-50.  At that time the Giants had Will the Thrill and Rod Beck, but the A’s had Pretty Rickey and the original Bash Brothers.  The schoolyard was filled with green and orange during the ground-shaking ’89 World Series.

battle-of-bay

So how did I make my decision?  My father was a Giants fan, and thus I was a Giants fan.  That’s the way it works.  I still am a Giants fan, and I love it when the Giants are hot and people proudly wear their Buster Posey jerseys in the streets and slap each other five when they encounter another fan, which happens every five steps you take during an Orange October.  I know that SF is not the most community-friendly city, but we do rally around our Gigantes.  I’m sure people do the same in Oakland for the A’s, but I wouldn’t be a part of that and that would suck.  I can’t just become an A’s fan after 25+ years of Giants fandom.  That’s not the way it works.

P.S. All of the stuff I said about the Giants also applies for the Niners…I just wish that our QB wasn’t such a freakin’ douchebag.

4.  There’s more San Francisco than Oakland.

There are more great restaurants in San Francisco.  There are more chill dive bars in San Francisco.  There are more museums and galleries in San Francisco, even if all of the artists are moving to Oakland.  There are more record stores in San Francisco.  There are more music halls in San Francisco, which means there are more concerts in San Francisco. There are more festivals, street fairs, and farmers’ markets in San Francisco.

I know what you’re going to say: “In Oakland we value quality over quantity.”  I will concede that there’s a lot of crap in San Francisco.  However, I maintain that you can add the word “good” or “awesome” or “dopetastic” after each instance of the word “are” in the paragraph directly above this one and it would not affect the veracity of any of those statements.  Granted, you can do the same with the words “bad” or “lame” or “craptacular” and that also would not diminish the truthfulness, but this writer knows enough to separate the shit from shinola, if you know what I’m sayin’.

By the way, I did a search for “quantity quality cartoon” and came across the gem:

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It ends up that the late, great Roger Ebert came up with the caption!

3. I have some pretty sweet rent control.

If you clicked on the Bold Italic link in the preamble to this post and read it in its entirety, you would have noticed that the punchline is “all of my friends are moving to Oakland, but I’m not going to because I have kick-ass rent control.” I can certainly identify with that sentiment. I live in the best part of the city (Hayes Valley/Lower Haight border) in an adorable, functional, and perfectly sized and shaped apartment, for which I pay a lot by non-SF standards but very little compared to my neighbors.  For the same rent amount, I would probably get a similarly-sized apartment in what I suppose might be a comparable part of Oakland, but I would not be upgrading at all.  Granted, if I moved to the city now, for the amount I pay I’d have to live in a shoebox in the TL with 4 roommates so the East Bay would be a heckuva lot more appealing, but I didn’t move to the city now, I moved here three years ago.  Your loss, Oakland.

2. I know San Francisco.

I’ve been coming to the city since I was knee-high to a june bug and I’ve thoroughly explored most corners of it.  I’ve spent years researching the background of the city and can honestly say that I know more about San Francisco history than most of its residents.  I give walking tours in the Lower Haight and am expanding to other neighborhoods.  I know all sorts of bizarre events going on in any given week.  I volunteer here.  I can take a girl on an amazing date here.

This connection was not consummated overnight, like an awkward arranged marriage.  It takes quite a while to form a meaningful relationship with a city; hell, it can take a lifetime.  San Francisco and I were doing the long-distance thing for a while: before I lived in San Francisco I lived in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, 3 places in Japan, Sydney, New York, Israel and of course Marin County.  During all of my journeys away, we kept in touch.  I visited as often as I could, and when I could not be with her physically I continued to get to know her, read about her, watched movies about her exploits, “cybered” with her—if you’ve ever been in an LDR before you know what that’s all about.  By the time I finally moved in with her, it was as if we’d been together my entire life, and our relationship has only flourished and become more intimate over the past 3 years as I’ve gotten to truly know San Francisco, both in terms of the kind of city she was in the past and what she has become/is transforming into today.

I’m sure that Oakland is a groovy place to live.  I’m sure it has a rich history and all sorts of marvelous things to see and people to do.  I just don’t know Oakland, and frankly, if I had to commute to work every day, drive or take public transportation everywhere, and devote at least 1-2 hours every day to trying to look cool while avoiding being mugged, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to get to know it.

friscoaintnopunks

I know that picture may have been more appropriate up at number 5.  I also know that San Francisco doesn’t like to be called “Frisco.”  That’s okay—we’ve been together long enough that I can call her that.  Oakland would probably kick my ass for such a transgression.

Moving on, the number 1 reason I’m not moving to Oakland is…

1. I’m no quitter.

Okay, that’s not true.  I’ve quit a ton of things in my life: piano, math, marathon training, jujitsu, water polo, improv, writing screenplays, creating my board game, watching Orange is the New Black…the list goes on and on.  But this is different.  A lot of people are heading to Oakland because they’ve given up on San Francisco.  “This place sucks now, man.  The tech bros have come to the city because of its culture but now they’re killing the very culture that enticed them here in the first place, with their over-priced food trucks and Google Glass…”  We’ve heard that shpiel plenty of times.

I’ve actually started collecting articles on San Francisco gentrification and its discontents.  In the past 6 months, I’ve collected 92 of them (several of which were actually not written by Rebecca Solnit), and at this point I think most of the arguments have been overstated ad naseum (in fact, SFGate’s hilarious piece about how out-of-town reporters should write about the city is probably the most pertinent article in my collection so far). We’ve done an excellent job diagnosing the problem, now it’s time to fix it, not to run away from it.  Grow a pair and make the city a better place.  The city is going to suck if all of the people who love it emigrate, so if you love your city, the best thing you can do is stay right here.

loveyourcity

I know that San Francisco is not the same city it was 20 years ago.  Guess what—neither is Oakland, and a number of the locals think that you’re making things worse by moving there.  In the end, I have nothing against Oakland—it’s a fine town, and I will happily go there to visit my friends and family.  But I’m not giving up on San Francisco, and I will stay here and do everything in my power to make it a city my friends do not want to leave.  When it comes to things in life I truly love, I’m no quitter.  

I think this sums up my feelings on the subject rather nicely: 

 

45. On Other Places in Which I Have Lived: Washington, D.C.

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Before I forget, HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!!!

I’ll warn you in advance: alternative titles to this post included “On Not Being an Adult,” “On Friendship,” and “On Being Single.”  In fact, this post may end up being a little more personal and a little less about a city.  That’s okay—if you’re my close friend, you’ll totally dig it.  If you’re a complete stranger, you’ll also dig it, unless you’re some kind of Philistine who wouldn’t know brilliant writing if it bit you in the ass.  It’s like the emperor’s new clothes—if you can’t appreciate the sheer genius of my blog, then you must be a fool.  Also, I’m writing this piece in the nude.

There’s sort of a “young liberal U.S. city circuit,” and when you meet somebody between the ages of 25 and 35 in SF, chances are that she has lived in at least one of the following before arriving in the city by the bay: LA, NY, DC, and/or Chicago.  I am proud to say that I’ve lived in all but the last, mainly because Chicago is too darn cold (note: she may have also lived in Boston or Philly for school, but those don’t count, mainly because I never lived in either and I don’t want to bring my average down).  Many people know about my time in NY and LA (particularly if they’ve been closely following this blog), but not everybody knows I spent time in DC.  Admittedly, I was only there for four months—is that enough time for me to truthfully say that I “lived” there?  Yes, I think it is.  And I make the rules.

frabz-This-is-my-league-I-make-the-rules-ceb650

As you may remember from my insightful post on El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciúncula, I was not a huge fan of the city of broken dreams, so after 2.5 years of law school at UCLA I made my escape.  UCLA has this wonderful program in which students are allowed to spend four months externing for a government organization in D.C. all while receiving a full semester’s worth of school credit. When I was in law school I thought I was going to be an environmental lawyer, so I did my externship at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (the “CEQ”).  That’s right, ladies: I worked at the White House.  Kind of.

It was a dream job.  I got in at 9, left at 5, and while I was at work I spent my time meeting with intimidatingly intelligent people to discuss incredibly interesting things, like carbon sequestration and Asian carp and adaptation-based approaches to climate change.  I wrote a couple of memos, helped write (one short paragraph of) a Supreme Court brief, responded to FOIA requests (in a sort of rude manner, when necessary)…you know, the whole government lawyer shebang.

Even though I’m now writing about the political center of the U.S., I don’t want to make this into a political post.  However, I should say that after working in the government for just four months, I can start to understand where Grover Norquist is coming from.  Under George W., the CEQ had at one point as few as 3 people.  When I came on in January 2010, one year after Obama was inaugurated, there were 46 people in CEQ.  Were they all necessary?  I don’t think so.  I went to a lot of meetings in which a lot of nothing was discussed, and everybody would leave and turn to their colleagues from their various agencies and say, “goddamn Department of ________!  Wasting our time again!”  Each agency recognized that these meetings were 90% useless (plus or minus 10%), and was doing its best to blame the lack of progress on somebody else—Forestry Service, Fish and Wildlife, and Department of the Interior were always good targets.  Your tax dollars at work. I’m sure there were a few other agencies that are also useless, but I can’t remember them right now.

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When I was at the CEQ, the agency had about 20 interns, and they were rapidly multiplying.  Do interns ever provide any sort of value add?  Not really.  True, they cost nothing, but they take up valuable space, and they actually did end up costing the CEQ money because a number of the “more important” interns insisted on traveling with the Chair to various “events” (i.e., mediocre publicity opportunities) in national parks across the country.  I remember that there was this one kid, maybe 22 or 23 years old, who was appointed as the Chair’s “Chief of Staff,” which meant that he would organize meetings, wear suits, and attempt (unconvincingly) to speak with authority.  You’d better believe that when I was 28 years old, I had a rough time not laughing when a 23 year-old kid with an expensive suit and a bad haircut tried to boss me around.  And our tax dollars were paying to fly this kid all across the country.  Damn you, Obama.  Damn you to hell.

D.C. is full of 23 year-olds who think that they’re really important.  They inhabit this space known as “The Hill” and apparently there’s a whole “scene” there.  I avoided it like the plague when I was there, but every now and then you’d meet a kid who spoke like he owned the damn town, and you knew he was probably a staffer.  I never understood the appeal—does not having any money and being really boring get a guy laid in D.C.?  There’s a reason why female inhabitants often refer to the town as “Douchebag City.”

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I want to get off of this topic, but I feel the need to narrate one little anecdote of district douchebaggery, because it’s a story that begs to be told.  Towards the end of my time in D.C., I was at the 4 Ps Irish pub (which has since closed down) in Cleveland Park, my old stomping grounds, with a good buddy of mine.  We had been putting away pitcher after pitcher and were pretty far gone, when we noticed a pair of attractive young women and decided to chat them up.  I had a girlfriend at the time (more on her later), but my buddy was into one of them and I was being a good wingman.  Things were going pretty well and we decided to go out front for a cigarette.

4 Ps had a narrow front porch, and so we found ourselves sharing relatively tight quarters with a pair of young, Aryan-looking gentlemen in collared shirts and knit sweaters (my buddy and I were both wearing hoodies).  One of the young men grabbed the woman my buddy was into by the arm and asked what she was doing.  Shaking him off, she replied that she was talking to her friends and turned away from him.  My buddy, ever the friendly one, turned to the Mayflower-descendents and asked what they did in D.C.  “We’re lawyers,” the grabber replied.  “That’s great!” my buddy said, “we’re 3Ls in law school.  I go to American and my friend goes to UCLA.”  Knit sweater #2 then turned to the women and said, and I’m not joking here, “the guys you are talking to go to crappy law schools.  We went to Georgetown and now we work at [insert names of biglaw firms].  We make way more money than your friends are going to make, so you should talk to us instead of them.”

The women said no thanks and the four of us went back inside.  When our new ladyfriends went to the bathroom, my buddy looked at me and said, “we should go outside and beat the crap out of those dudes.”  We discussed it for a minute and decided against taking that action.  After all, we were both taking the bar exam in the summer and if the cops were called, that could put our future legal careers in jeopardy.  Also, we were both the products of suburban upbringings and Ivy-league educations, and thus not accustomed to settling disputes with fisticuffs.  Still, one of my biggest regrets in life was that we did not go back and pummel the crap out of those dudes.  By not beating the shit out of them, we were denying them an important life lesson, and I honestly feel bad about that.  Then again, they probably would have sued us.  Fucking pansy-ass lawyers.

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I’m writing this piece on an airplane, as I’m flying from D.C. back to SF.  After taking virtually no vacations my first 3 years as a lawyer, I decided to take one for the New Year.  My co-workers were quite confused at my choice of D.C. for my vacation destination, because apparently when you go on vacation in the wintertime you’re supposed to go somewhere where the climate is warmer, not colder, than where you live.  What can I say, I don’t do what everybody thinks I should; I’ve always been a loner Dottie, a rebel.

A number of my friends from different walks of life have moved to D.C. over the past 15 or so years, and as a result I had so many people to see during my trip that I literally did not do any D.C.-related things.  I did not see a single monument, and the only time I entered a museum was to visit my friend who worked in the Postal Museum, but we just sat in the staff lounge and talked the whole time so I didn’t see any actual exhibits.  A friend in San Francisco had requested that I go to H Street NE and compare what is happening there to gentrification in the Mission/Western Addition, but I barely left the general Columbia Heights/DuPont/Chinatown area.  My one semi-touristy endeavor was going out to Annapolis to visit a friend, but while there all we did was go to a couple of bars (I mean, I wasn’t about to miss the 49er game, right?).  The trip to the bar was a success on multiple levels: the 49ers won, and I saw this street sign:

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I was nervous about going to D.C. because I was afraid that it would make me think of my ex (the same woman whom I was dating during the 4 Ps douchebag incident…I told you there would be more on her).  She stayed in D.C. after I left and we tried the long distance thing for about a year and a half.  Our break up fucked me up pretty badly, and I was hesitant to return to D.C. because I was afraid I would (a) bump into her or (b) be reminded of her in a painful way.  However, two years after the fact, I am happy to say that I managed to go to D.C. without any painful memories (I also know that she goes to the Bay Area every year for the holidays, so by going to D.C. during that time I managed to avoid bumping into her on both ends).  Because we were only together in D.C. for a short time, there aren’t really any places in the city that remind me of her.  In fact, the only time any memory of her was triggered was when I passed by the Royal Palace strip club.  I took her there once on a date—it was her first time in such an establishment.

But enough about her—back to my trip.  All I did during my D.C. vacation was meet up with friends, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in small groups, for meals, drinks, coffee, or to party.  I engaged in many intense and scintillating conversations that made me reflect deeply on life, myself, and my relationships with others.  I laughed more last week than I think I had in the 50 preceding weeks.  The whole week is kind of like a blur, but in my mind I am replaying the highlight reel, a series of vignettes and epiphanies that I hope do not fade from my memory anytime soon.  And in order to ensure that they do not, I am going to recount some of them here, in this very blog.  I know, I know—you came here to read about D.C., not the rantings of some oft-lonely, always-depraved, hirsute Jewish San Franciscan, but trust me, friend, there are plenty of pearls of wisdom to be cleaved from the oyster that is this blog post.  If not pearls, then certainly nuggets.

I stayed at a friend’s house in Columbia Heights.  She and her husband were out of town until my final night in town, so I had the place to myself, which was nice. As I was giving myself a tour of the digs, I noticed that they had a credenza on top of which sat about two dozen Christmas cards from various couples, about half of whom had children.  It then occurred to me that my friend and her husband were adults.  They are married.  They own a house.  They receive Christmas cards from a bunch of happy couples, some of whom have successfully procreated, and they put them on a credenza, which they also own.  I didn’t mention it yet, but my friends also own a dog (he was at doggie daycare when they were gone.  At first I was bummed, but it was probably for the better, given that I spent very little time at their place during my vacation).

I thought of my own station in life.  I am single, and I’ve been single long enough that I (and my parents) often wonder if I’ll ever get married.  I live in an apartment.  I think this year I received two Christmas cards, which I placed on top of my desk for about a week, next to my car insurance bill (the Christmas cards were thrown away when the bill was finally paid).  I don’t have a dog, and I’m actually afraid that my plants may be dead when I arrive home (note: arrived back home—one out of two of the plants survived).  I am years away from ever remotely considering having children.  When I see my contemporaries (and people 4-6 years younger than me) achieving all of these milestones, I’m not necessarily jealous, but I do feel kind of like I’m not an adult.

In San Francisco, nearly all of my coworkers have achieved or are in the process of achieving these societally-accepted (if not arbitrary) indications of adulthood, and many of my non-work friends have as well.  Thus, much of my time is spent drowning in conversations about wedding photographers, mortgages, and poopy diapers.  I’m not gonna lie—it kinda sucks.  In D.C., on the other hand, with the exception of the couple at whose house I was staying, all of my friends are unmarried (although a few are in long-term relationships), childless, and still renting, despite being in their early thirties.  There’s some sense of comfort that comes from having other friends in the same boat at this magical stage in life, and this commonality (combined with high-quality whiskey) led to a few enlightening moments, which I will now share with you, dear readers.

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I met up with my former roommate (and dear friend) for coffee at Tryst in Adams Morgan.  We had lived in Cleveland Park together and used to frequent the cafe (not all that frequently).  Last year I had seen on the Facebook that this friend was participating in a “vegan lunch club,” which is something that young professional liberal women do in D.C. (I say that based on the fact that I know two people who fit who description and who do it).  In a vegan lunch club, every week (or day), one member will prepare a vegan meal for everybody in the group, and the group will sit together to enjoy the meatless, eggless, dairyless bounty.

My friend had quit her VLC.  I asked her why, and she said that while she had no qualms with the “vegan” aspect of the arrangement, the “lunch club” bit was starting to get to her.  In short, she did not enjoy the obligation of spending an hour every week with this particular set of colleagues.  “When I joined vegan lunch club, I was excited,” she explained.  “I thought we were going to discuss current events, movies, books, things like that.  The rest of the group wasn’t interested in discussing these things.”  “What did they want to talk about?” I asked.  “Other people,” my friend answered.

This point really registered with me.  Talking about other people is unbearably tedious compared with pretty much any other subject of conversation (besides the weather), and yet it’s probably what we talk about the most.  Some amount of talking about other people is appropriate—for example, on this trip I obviously had to show all of my friends a recent photo of my nephew and gush about how he’s simply the awesomest kid ever.  Also, we often learn funny stories about other people that are worth sharing.  However, it’s very easy to slip into lashon hara (that’s Hebrew for “talking shit”)—sadly, this sometimes helps us to feel connected with others.  While it’s important to feel connected, I’d rather feel inspired, and lashon hara may effect a lot of emotions, but inspiration is not one of them.  At the request of one of my best friends, I have made a new year’s resolution to surround myself with people who inspire me more, but I realize now that anybody can inspire me if we can shift our conversation to something, anything, beyond other people.

lashon hara comic

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I got pretty fucked up with my friend in Annapolis.  We started by going to a tavern a little off the main drag so that I could watch the 49er game.  My friend had been told that it was a “hipster bar,” but it was really just a sports bar, filled with Ravens fans who reminded me that outside of the liberal cities I mentioned at the beginning of the post, much of America is pretty darn obese.  However, they had “Sweet Baby Jesus” (peanut butter chocolate porter) on tap and some darn good buffalo wings, so we really had no choice but to start drinking at 4 PM.  After the game my friend took me to a bar that brewed a number of beers in the 8-12% ABV range, and then we went back to his place where he had a bottle of Woodford Reserve waiting.  In college we used to drink a lot of Jim Beam, but I’m proud to say that at the very least, we’re now adult enough to afford better quality booze.

“You know what sucks the most about being single?” my friend inquired.

“The loneliness?  The lack of regular sex?  The fear that you’ll be alone forever?  Not having a second person to help pay the rent?  Going to restaurants and movies by yourself?  Bitterly cooking for one every night?  Trying to date and realizing that all of the best women are taken?  Getting bitter every time you see an ad for a romantic comedy?  Having no one to kiss on New Year’s Eve?  Everything about Valentine’s Day?”  So maybe I had thought about this before.  Just a little.

“No!” my friend shouted.  “It’s when your friends who are couples are so fucking condescending!  Do you notice how they do that shit?  How they look down on you and make fun of you for being single?  Like you’re some kind of freak or something?”  I had to agree—in fact, just last week I had been the butt of a joke of a pair of couples friends due to my singledom.  I won’t go into details, but it really chapped my hide.

Single Man Seeks

The truth is that in your thirties, it can become hard for singles to remain friends with couples.  Couples like doing shit with each other.  It would be weird for me to go on a ski trip with three couples.  Sometimes it’s awkward going to dinner with couples…or if not awkward, annoying.  There’s often a sense of “you don’t understand—you’re single,” and while this is probably true, y’all don’t gotta rub it in, okay?  Soon some of these couples will start having kids, and the ever-endearing cries of “you don’t understand—you don’t have kids” will begin.  I can hardly wait.

“Put that shit in your blog!” my friend shouted, slamming back another bourbon and laughing so hard he nearly choked on his ice cube.

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For New Year’s Eve, a friend of my friend threw a private party in a DuPont watering hole.  We had the upstairs to ourselves with an open bar, and everybody took advantage of the situation. It was an interesting collection of people, with the core group being my friend’s Skeeball team (see: stuff white people like), and all of their friends.  There were many people over the age of 30 who were not married, who did not own homes, and who did not have children.  In fact, I’m fairly sure that nobody at the party had kids—because once you have kids, you don’t go out to wild parties.  As far as I could tell, there was only one married couple, and they had gotten married earlier in the day.

I think if we were all 5-10 years younger, the whole scene could have erupted into a Bacchanalian orgy.  Instead (and to my slight disappointment), when midnight rolled around, the atmosphere was somewhat subdued, and most people who had came alone did not engage in a smooch (sadly, I was included among these ranks), except that one chick made out with the Russian dude.  There’s always that one chick who makes out with the Russian dude.  Another highlight was the 23 year-old girlfriend of one of the Skeeball folks flipping out because she wasn’t getting enough attention and shattering her champagne glass on the ground.  That relationship probably won’t last…but I suppose that’s what happens when you try dating a 23 year-old.

It made me very happy to be in a room of belligerently drunk 30-somethings.  There was no vomiting or overly-obnoxious behavior, because we 30-somethings can hold our liquor, but there was plenty of ribaldry and bawdy conversation, and a fair amount of dancing (although not as much as I would have liked).  All in all, a damn good time for this old man, and it gave me hope that although all of us are becoming adults at our own paces and in our own manners, I will always be able to find kindred spirits with whom I can get shitfaced.

thirtysomething

One final note: on NYE, prior to heading to the party, my friends showed me the video for Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”  It was my first time hearing the song or seeing the video, and I will admit that I wept.  After seeing that video, I was so disgusted with the present state of female singer-songwriters that I insisted that we watch the videos for Lisa Loeb’s “Stay,” Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn,” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” all in quick succession—whenever I start to panic at the state of music in this day and age, I just revert back to the early 90s version of the applicable genre.  Fiona Apple had more sexy in the top joint of her pinky than Miley Cyrus will ever have in her whole naked body (which I guess I have now seen).  However, I admit that Fiona Apple, and Natalie Imbruglia, and probably Lisa Loeb were all waaaayyy too skinny.  I’m really glad that as a society we have moved away from that whole “thin is in” thing.

*            *            *

I’m sorry if you clicked on this post expecting more about Washington, D.C.  Once you get away from all the monuments it’s a pretty nice town, with a few good restaurants, some excellent museums, decent live music and no shortage of fun bars.  Everybody is really smart—in fact, I fear that D.C. could potentially beat SF in a trivia contest.  D.C. has a burgeoning tech scene (supposedly) and I could waive into the D.C. bar without taking another test, making it one of the few places in the country I would consider moving.  But then again, the fact that I stepped off my plane (which had been delayed at Washington Dulles for 3 hours for “de-icing”) into balmy 47-degree weather and felt warm is an indication that D.C. is no place for me.  Also, “Washington D.C. Love Affair” does not have the same ring to it.  So it looks like I’m going to stick around SF for a little while longer.

Right before I got on my plane to come home, I received a group email invitation from a friend back in SF.  She was organizing an impromptu get together to celebrate the closing on a house she bought with her fiancé.  The gathering was to take place at a restaurant in Oakland that was “baby friendly.”  I just laughed.

And speaking of Russian dudes:

Yes, I understand that the band itself is German.  Stop overthinking this shit.

44. On Patent Trolls

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Before I begin this post, I really need to share this:

Great version of a great song.

As some of you may know, outside of being a world-renowned blogger, I live a secret double life as an intellectual property (“IP”) lawyer.  I’m not joking!  It’s my 9-5, just a little something I do on the side to pay the bills.  I’ve been tempted in the past to write about IP-related issues, but I hesitate because if I were to write a post about IP law, I’d have to include a disclaimer that explains that I AM NOT YOUR LAWYER and NOTHING I WRITE HERE SHOULD BE TAKEN AS LEGAL ADVICE and of course NOTHING I WRITE HERE IN ANY WAY REPRESENTS THE VIEWS OF MY EMPLOYER, and I’d have to mention that YOU SHOULD NOT AND CANNOT ASSUME THAT ANYTHING WRITTEN IN THIS POST IS ACCURATE and that HALF OF THE SHIT IN HERE IS MY OPINION—HONESTLY, CAN YOU NOT FIGURE THAT OUT?  And I’d need to mention that THIS POST AND ALL TEXT HEREIN IS DELIVERED “AS IS” AND I DISCLAIM ALL WARRANTIES, EXPRESS AND IMPLIED, INCLUDING THE WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND OF FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE and most importantly, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE OR LIABLE FOR ANY LOSSES OR DAMAGES YOU SUFFER AS A RESULT OF RELYING ON THIS POST.

In other words, if you read my post and then get in an argument with your extremely irritating libertarian uncle at Christmas and he pulls out his iPad and provides evidence disproving one of your arguments that is based on something you read in this post, then I am not responsible for any pain, suffering, humiliation, or distress that you may suffer.  Besides, you probably interpreted my post wrong.  Schmuck.

But enough fine print.  As I mentioned above, this post is about IP law.  The story of how this anti-technology Luddite became an IP lawyer is kind of bizarre—I tried to become an environmental lawyer and got lost along the way.  I will say that in the end, even though I often bitch about my job, I find the field of IP law to be endlessly fascinating.  Technology is evolving at an insane and unprecedented rate, and the law is struggling to barely keep up.  Unlike environmental law where there are clear bad guys and good guys, the distinction between right and wrong in IP law is not as easy to demarcate, and I often find myself taking both sides in solo philosophical arguments (a.k.a. “two-handed mental masturbation”) after I hear of a new case or issue.  If I’m on Muni at the time, this causes people to stare at me…standing on a packed train car, muttering something about copyrights and the right of first sale to nobody in particular.  It happens.

Today’s “audible conversation between J and J” had to do with the new anti-patent troll legislation, H.R. 3309: The Innovation Act.  Don’t worry, you don’t need to read the whole thing…I didn’t.  As I discussed the merits and problems with the bill (speaking in a low, gorilla-like voice for the “yay” side and a chirpy, squirrel-like voice for the “nay” side), I recalled that in the past few weeks, I’ve had to explain the concept of “patent trolls” to three laypeople.  In my mind, that was enough to justify writing a blog post on the subject…so here it is!

Hold onto your hats and glasses; I am now going to completely over-simplify some very complicated concepts.

First thing’s first: What is a “Patent Troll”?

troll1

No, it’s not that.  In short, a “Patent Troll” is an asshole.

Wait, before we get any further: What is a patent?

I think we should probably settle this first.  Unless you’re an inventor or an IP lawyer, you probably think that a patent is a piece of paper that says that you created something and own it.  This is not quite true.  A patent is nothing more than a right to exclude.  It’s the right to say, “I invented this whatchamahoozit, and for the next 20 years, you’re not allowed to use it, make it, sell it, offer to sell it, or import it unless I allow you to, bitch.”  If somebody wants to do any of the aforementioned verbs with your invention, he or she (or more likely, it) needs to obtain a license from you in order to do so.  You can give away licenses for free, or you can receive payment in a lump sum or in the form of royalties (i.e., for every whatchamahoozit you sell, you owe me five dollars). If somebody uses, makes, sells, offers for sale or imports your invention without a license, that person (or company) is infringing your patent, and you have the right to sue his or her (or its) ass in court.

Curly_Sue_Giant_7500_24439

In short, the point of the patent is to allow you to make and sell a product you invented without worrying about others doing the same and taking away your business.  I repeat: the point of the patent is to allow you to make and sell a product you invented without worrying about others doing the same and taking away your business.  I wrote that last sentence twice and put it in italics because it’s a very important concept that we will return to later.  Here is the most amazing video ever made about patents (although it’s cut off):

A patent seems really helpful right?  You invent something cool, some jerk steals your idea, and then all you have to do is wave your patent around in court and you get all sorts of cash money—easy peazy lemon squeezy, right?  It would be…except there’s one thing you need to take into account.  That jerk who stole your idea is probably going to hire a lawyer.  The lawyer will stand in the front of the courtroom, and say, with a straight face, “ladies and gentlemen of the jury.  The plaintiff’s claim of infringement is completely preposterous, absurd, and downright insulting.  The plaintiff has a patent for a mousetrap in which a mouse tugs on a piece of limburger cheese and a 500-gram lead weight is released onto the mouse with a steel spring.  This is not remotely similar to my client’s mousetrap, in which a mouse tugs on a piece of limburger cheese and a 500-gram lead weight is released onto the mouse with a titanium spring.”  And if the lawyer is expensive enough, the jerk will probably win, and will possibly have your patent invalidated in the process.

The US Patent and Trademark Office will tell you that filing for a patent costs somewhere between $200 and $2000 (depending on a variety of factors we need not get into).  What they don’t tell you is that in order to obtain a patent that’s worth anything in a courtroom, you need to have an expert attorney draft the dang thing, and that’s going to cost you between $20,000 and $200,000 depending on the complexity of the invention.  And then once you obtain the patent, if you want to use it to sue somebody, you have to prove infringement, and as my boss told me early on in my career, “proving infringement is a one-to-three million dollar endeavor.”  Why?  Because lawyers, that’s why.

So if obtaining and enforcing a patent is so bloody expensive, who the hell can afford to use the patent system to actually protect their inventions?

Very wealthy corporations.

Oh.  That sucks.  Well, can anybody else use the patent system to get money?

Yes indeedily-do.  It’s time to talk about the focus of this post: PATENT TROLLS.  As I mentioned before, patent trolls are assholes.  Why?  Allow me to explain.

There are two kinds of people in the U.S.: makers and takers.  This is a very simple concept that the Republicans have been chanting for years, and yet it’s pathetic how few people have actually espoused the philosophy.  It’s pretty intuitive: makers are people who make things, and takers are people who don’t make anything and just mooch off of makers.  One would think that society would reward the makers and punish the takers, and yet we do the exact opposite.

Consider the example of the dude who works at McDonald’s.  He makes hamburgers, thus, he is what we’d call a maker.  I am not a huge fan of McDonald’s hamburgers, but I acknowledge that the company has served billions of hamburgers to hungry customers over the years.  These hamburgers are not made by robots (yet); there are human beings required for the hamburger cooking and assembly.  And how do we reward these makers, without whose hard work millions of people would starve each and every day?  By paying them the bare minimum required by law, which is not anywhere near enough to support a human being.

McDonald’s justifies this by repeating the taker mantra—that every dollar given to a maker is a dollar taken away from the shareholders, who are more important than those serving on the front lines.  These shareholders are the ultimate takers—in the past they have acquired large sums of money (perhaps by being makers themselves), and now they can sit back and do absolutely nothing, while taking money from the makers (because if anybody needs more money, it’s the rich).  Do investors deserve some kind of return on their investments?  Yes.  Should it come at the expense of the makers?  Absolutely not.  As the wise Republicans have taught us, we cannot live in a society where the makers are forced to give up money that is rightfully theirs to the takers.

makerstakers

Patent trolls are another form of takers.  They obtain patents through various means, occasionally by inventing something, but usually by just waiting for somebody else to invent something and patent it and then buying the patent from the inventor.  Once the patent troll has obtained a patent, it does not use the patent to make and sell a product it invented without worrying that others will do the same and take away your business, which you will recall is the bloody point of having the damn patent in the first place.  Instead, the troll will wait for another person or company to make and sell a product that might be similar to the product covered by the patent, and then will sue said person or company.  This other person or company likely does not even know that the patent exist, because the patent troll is not making anything that is covered by the patent.  In other words, rather than making anything, the patent troll will use the patent solely for the purpose of taking from others who make.  The worst part: by bringing these suits, the patent trolls have fundamentally changed the patent system, as now more than half of all patent lawsuits are brought by patent trolls.

Patent trolls come in a variety of flavors.

troll variety

In the interest of time, I am going to focus my analysis on just two: the “Nagging Little Bitch” patent troll and the “Big Fatass” patent troll.

1. The Nagging Little Bitch Patent Troll

I mentioned above that proving infringement is a one-to-three million dollar endeavor.  The corollary to this statement is that defending yourself against somebody who is trying to prove patent infringement is also a one-to-three million dollar endeavor.  While this is great for lawyers, it is not so good for a maker who doesn’t happen to have one-to-three million dollars saved up.  The Nagging Little Bitch patent troll (“NLB”) is well aware of this fact and will use it to his advantage. For years he lay in wait, watching the rich drive up the costs of patent litigation.  Once it got to the point that the average Joe could in no way afford to enforce a patent or defend against a patent suit, he pounced, and as noted above, he has completely fucked up the patent system.

Here is the general idea: he finds somebody who is making a product that bears a modicum of similarity to what is covered by his patent (for example, if the patent is for a paperclip, he might sue a company that makes devices for fastening paper, such as staplers and brads).  Even if the case is absurd, the defendant does not have the time or money to fight the suit, so the NLB offers to settle.  The settlement will likely not be completely crippling, but it still sucks to have to pay somebody just because you’re actually making something, while he sits on his ass armed with nothing more than a lawyer.  If the defendant refuses to play ball, the NLB will continue to file motions and push the lawsuit forward.  It’s like when you get a rock stuck in your shoe and it’s really bothering you but it’s not quite worth the energy to remove your shoe and dump out the rock.  Then the rock gets bigger and more uncomfortable and you have to pay a few thousand dollars to make it go away.

The worst part is that these NLBs don’t just go after makers, they also go after customers of makers.  And the worst worst part is that there are lawyers out there who will assist them in their efforts to make the world a shittier place.  As I am wont to say, the 95% of lawyers who are assholes make the rest of us look bad.  If you are looking for another reason to dislike those members of the “noblest profession,” this article is a good one—it seems that some guy has claimed that he invented the concept of sending scanned documents as emails and claims that every single person who has ever hit “send” on a scanner owes him money (so yes, that includes you).

NLBs are little pains in the ass, and are the reasons that most people hate patent trolls.  But what most people don’t realize is that there are much larger patent trolls out there who are taking millions upon millions of dollars from large tech firms and driving up the costs of nearly all consumer goods (and certainly electronic devices).  These trolls, which are huge, multi-national companies, seem to avoid all of the blame associated with other patent trolls, and are skillfully avoiding all of the current legislation.  So what exactly do they do?  Allow me to introduce…

2. The Big Fatass Patent Troll

One thing that has always bothered me is that as a society we demonize small-time crooks but allow, nay, encourage, theft of millions if not billions of dollars to occur on Wall Street every day.  There is a parallel concept in the patent troll world where the House has passed the Innovation Act, which is mainly targeted at NLBs, and yet nothing is done to address the biggest patent trolls who do their best to make life miserable for large companies and consumers alike while contributing nothing to society.  Whereas some of the NLBs may have at least made something at some point, the Big Fatass patent troll (“BFA”) simply has a lot of money, and does what those with a lot of money do best—takes from others in order to make even more money.

BFAs lurk around, waiting for companies to go out of business, and then snatch up as many patents as they can from these vulnerable companies that need quick cash.  BFAs will also sometimes buy patents from smaller inventors, pointing out that enforcing a patent is very expensive, so it’s worth it to take a smaller pay-out.  BFAs have a ton of money and are not afraid to litigate.  In fact, they’re able to expend most of their resources on litigation because they’re not busy actually making anything.

Also, chew on this: in many cases, a large company that owns many patents will refrain from suing another company because that other company owns patents as well, and when we’re talking about the top industry players, you can assume that everybody’s products are infringing on somebody else’s patents.  In a way, there’s a bit of mutually-assured destruction (although, obviously, this doesn’t stop a number of large technology firms keeping folks like me in business with patent suits and settlement agreements).  BFAs can sue anybody with impunity.  After all, they don’t have any products that can possibly infringe another company’s patents…because they don’t actually make anything.

BFAs usually go after big companies that you’ve heard of, and while of course we need not be too sympathetic to an electronics giant that is getting sued, the prices are taken out on the consumer (of course).  In other words, your new tablet would be five dollars cheaper if it weren’t for some damn BFA…and would probably be a hundred dollars cheaper if it weren’t for 5 damn BFAs.

burnsmoney

What bothers me the most is that BFAs advertise themselves as though they are taking morally righteous positions, like they are the ones responsible for allowing companies to develop technology. If you go to a BFA’s website, it may claim that it spurs innovation…because nothing spurs innovation like getting sued.  Perhaps the theory is that launching a patent suit against somebody is analogous to poking her in the ass with a big-ass cartoon trident in order to make her run faster.

Hmm, I was hoping I could find a good image of that with Google, and I did not.  However, I did find this:

Pluto_ass_001-794044

Alright, so now can we please talk about the Innovation Act, and what it’s doing to stop patent trolls?

Sure!  The Innovation Act (which has passed in the House since I began writing this post) will make it more difficult for NLBs to bring patent infringement suits.  Here’s a (not-so-helpful-but-kinda-cute) video made by some folks in favor of the bill.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (“EFF”) has written a pretty good summary of what the Innovation Act will do [https://www.eff.org/cases/six-good-things-about-innovation-act].  Assuming that you’re too lazy to click on the link, the EFF lists six positive aspects of the bill:

1. Heightened Pleading – Patent plaintiffs actually need to specifically state why they are suing defendants in their complaints (they don’t really have to now).

2. Fee Shifting – If a patent plaintiff loses, then it could have to pay the winning defendant’s legal feels (it wouldn’t have to now…which is kinda ridiculous).

3. Limiting Discovery – The Innovation Act limits both the amount of time spent on and scope of discovery.  This will lower defendants’ legal fees…which is the main leverage point NLBs use to drive settlement.

4. Transparency – Patent plaintiffs will need to state which patents they own that defendants is allegedly infringing (apparently they don’t have to now…wtf?).

5. Customer Suit Exception – Allows manufacturers to step in to defend their customers (so Hewlett Packard would be able to defend you against that bullshit scan-to-email troll).

6. Covered Business Method Review – I don’t really know what this is all about, and I think it may have been removed from the Innovation Act or limited or something, but I spoke with a patent prosecutor about the bill and this was his favorite part, so it must be good.

Also, if you didn’t click on the EFF link, here’s a rad image that you missed:

eff troll-2 The EFF doesn’t mind that I posted that picture.  In fact, just about everything on the EFF site is available to copy on an open source basis [https://www.eff.org/copyright].  That’s the thing about the EFF—in general, they are for the abolishment of most intellectual property protections.  Dirty socialist hippie commie pinkos…gotta love ‘em.

There are two general complaints about the Innovation Act.  The first is that it addresses the NLB problem but does not deal with the BFAs.  You can read more about that here.  The second is that, just as the Innovation Act makes it harder for patent trolls to bring suits to enforce patents, it also makes it harder for small businesses to do so.  Most of what I’ve read regarding this argument has been by Fox News, so I tend to take this position with a grain of salt.  However, I admit that it does make sense to me—a patent is only worth something if you can enforce it, and if it’s now even more difficult to enforce a patent, a small business owner will be even more likely to sell off the patent…possibly to a BFA (ugh).

I think I’m generally in favor of the Innovation Act, although my opinion could easily be swayed if somebody were to send me an article arguing the other way written by an intelligent liberal (and if you have any such articles, please feel free to send my way).  As for dealing with BFAs, there’s some stuff going on in the wild world of corporate IP law that’s pretty interesting, but I want to wait and see how it develops a bit more before writing a blog post on it.  Also, I think this post is way too long, and if you read it all, you are a fucking trooper.  Here is my favorite Swedish Chef skit:

43. On Black Friday

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I was originally going to title this post “On Fellatio and Cunnilingus.”  It was going to begin as follows:

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Last night we had a big Thanksgiving dinner at my parents’ house in Marin, with 17 family members ranging from 5 to 70 (or maybe 71) years of age.  The turkey was succulent, the cranberries (prepared in 3 ways) were sweet and tangy, and the pies (apple, pumpkin and pecan) were the stuff of which dreams are made.  To answer your next question, yes, there were also latkes for Hanukkah, with cranberry applesauce. During dessert, I mentioned that recently I had been buying more records, and my dad took it upon himself to dig through some floor cabinets and retrieve his old, dusty vinyl LP collection.  After leafing through some Dylan, Limeliters and my dad’s personal favorite, “Double Time!  The Sounds of Basic Training” (an army training simulation record from 1959), he got to the musicals, which were always favorites in my family (yes, we were that kind of family).  After briefly singing refrains from Mame and The Music Man, we came across Hair, which was immediately selected to be the soundtrack for the rest of the evening.

My mom told a story about how in 1966, during a wine-soaked Shabbat dinner, her mother (a poet) had enlisted our cousin (a musician) to help her write a musical about the San Francisco hippy experience of the 1960s.  The group present at the dinner had ultimately decided that this was a silly idea, but then Hair came out the very next year, and 46 years later, there we were, belting along to “Age of Aquarius” in the living room.

There was about 2 seconds of anxiety preceding “Hashish” and “Sodomy,” as we acknowledged that three children under 10 were present and the lyrics were about to get decidedly R-rated.  But hey, they need to get exposed to drugs and sex somehow, right?  It may as well be through a musical!  When they’re a little older, we can use Rent to teach them about AIDS.  The lyrics to “Sodomy,” in case you aren’t familiar, are as follows:

Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Masturbation, can be fun
Join the holy orgy kama sutra—everyone!

Oh wait—you can just watch the video:

When I first heard that song when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old, I think I was only familiar with maybe 1 or 2 of the seven or so sexual terms rattled off in that list.  20+ years later, I know a tiny bit more, and I feel that I have enough knowledge to focus a post on two of the terms: “Fellatio” (referring to the oral sex act, not the Shakespearean character), and it’s counterpart, “Cunnilingus” (Latin for…well, you can figure it out).

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After that, I was going to accuse you all of being perverts, then point out that the beginning of this post was just a ruse to get you to check out this post in the first place.  I decided against this after speaking with somebody who pointed out that a number of people would not read a post entitled “On Fellatio and Cunnilingus” written by me, because believe it or not, people have no desire to read my pontifications on that particular subject.  Whoda thunk?

Those of you who have been paying attention recognize that it’s Black Friday (or really the day after Black Friday—sorry, I got really busy yesterday hiking with my family and making more latkes), which can only mean that it’s time for (drum roll please)…

J’S THIRD ANNUAL CHARITY CONTEST!  HECK YES!!!

Admittedly, I was thinking about not doing the charity contest this year.  Last year I received some backlash from friends and family members who said that my charity contest was gauche and disingenuous.  “There’s a difference between being righteous and being self-righteous,” I was told.  Real mensches donate anonymously—that is the highest form of mitzvah.  And so on.

And so I thought, if people don’t like me asking friends and family for advice on causes to which to donate, then maybe I shouldn’t take that route.  I can still donate, of course, I just don’t need to make a show of it.  I was just about to crawl off into my cave when a couple of my dear friends emailed me last week and asked if I was doing the charity contest this year, saying that they had some great ideas for worthy causes.  It was kismet—I realized that I had to continue the tradition.  After all, I believe that I said I’d continue doing it as long as I worked for the big evil law firm, and 3 years later I’m still there.  Besides, I make a show of everything.

For those of you unfamiliar with the contest (“n00bs,” as I believe is the common parlance), here’s the quick and dirty:  The concept of Black Friday and consumers pushing, shoving, and literally killing each other over flat-screen TVs sickens me.  I feel like people should do less consuming and more giving, period. I love the idea of donating to charity during the holiday season, but I am too busy to really do proper due diligence to ascertain which charities are the most worthy of my limited donation dollars.  Every year I ask my friends and family (note: if you’re reading my blog, we’re “friends,” even if we’ve never met) to advise me on their favorite organizations.  I do some research and choose the top 5, then donate accordingly.  Each donation is made in honor of the person who suggested it.

Please send your ideas for charities to sfloveaffair@gmail.com or any other email address you may have for me, or shoot me a private message on Facebook.  You can send more than one idea.  If you’ve sent me a charity idea in past years that I didn’t select, feel free to send again—it may have been a great idea that was narrowly edged out.

For avoidance of doubt, you don’t need to donate money—just give me names of charities.  However, if you were able to not spend all of your money on Black Friday, then I highly encourage you to consider donating to some worthy cause this year.  If you are a lawyer working in a big law firm, please consider giving to charity—I know you can afford it, and your donation will most likely be tax-deductible, which is awesome.  If you don’t know where to donate, please consider the California State Bar Justice Gap Fund (if you’re in California) or your state’s equivalent.  Yes, the bold font was necessary there.  We all know that lawyers only read the conspicuous text.

Tips for winning the charity contest:
–If you work for an org or have a close connection to one, that helps.
–I prefer local charities that focus in on a particular problem in one city or area, rather than those that collect money for nationwide disbursement or a more general, nebulous cause.  I’m partial to charities based in the Bay Area but open to other areas as well.
–These days, I’m most interested in charities that help underserved humans, but I have a soft spot in my heart for environmental organizations as well.
–You can increase your chances of winning by providing me with some background information of the charities you send, in particular, why they’re special to you.
–International charities are totally okay too!

To give you an idea of the kinds of charities that I dig, here are last year’s winners:

Fifth Prize, $50: WildCare Bay Area (http://www.wildcarebayarea.org/site/PageServer)
Fourth Prize, $100: New Mexico Library Foundation (http://www.nm-lf.org)
Third Prize, $250: My teacher friend’s donorschoose.org project.
Second Prize, $500: Women’s Community Clinic (http://www.womenscommunityclinic.org/)
First Prize, $1000: Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto (http://clsepa.org/)

I will accept submissions until the Winter Solstice (December 21), and winners will be announced within seven (7) days after that date.  Send in your entries today, and soon you can be guzzling down the creamy, salty, white, sticky juice of charitable victory!

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