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.
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.
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.
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 he 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?
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:
a wee bit o’ this:
and a whole lotta this:
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:
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,
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.”