“First they came for the subway jumpers, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a subway jumper.
Then they came for the smut shops in Times Square, and I did not speak out –
Because I didn’t go to the smut shops in Times Square (that often).
Then they came for the people pissing in the streets, and I did not speak out –
Because I did not piss in the streets.
Then they came for CBGBs, Kim’s Video, M&G Diner, Bleeker Bob’s Records, Max Fish, Big Nick’s…you know, pretty much every place I ever liked to go in Manhattan, and then the whole island was just one giant grid of Chase locations and overpriced “gastropubs,” and then they did the same to Brooklyn and the next thing I knew, the only place I could afford to live was in some crappy shoebox in Queens with 4 roommates. And it’s not even in Astoria, it’s in one of those weird parts of Queens you’ve never heard of. Fuck this shit.”
–Pastor Shmuel Horowitz III
Hi sports fans. I know, I know, it’s been waaayyyy too long since I’ve exercised my creative writing muscle, but between National Muffin Day, Muffin Man Tours, and other muffin-related happenings that I need not get into right now, I haven’t been inspired to sit in front of my typewriter-with-a-TV screen and write for quite some time now. However, since I now plan on researching and writing a San Francisco-related book in the next two years (setting a deadline for completion by my 36th birthday—and now that it’s online, I’m bound to it), I need to keep generating as much of my particular brand of mumbo jumbo as possible. All skills go stale if you stop performing them, and creative brilliance with the written word is no exception. Or in my case, mild creative wit.
Every year I celebrate my birthday with a karaoke party. This year, it looked a little something like this:
I am now 34 years old. Mid-thirties. An “adult,” by most traditional metrics, although I still act like a child occasionally and think like one most of the time. For example, I’m watching the baseball game in the background right now and I definitely chortled audibly when the announcer asked, “do you know what the ‘B.J.’ in ‘B.J. Upton’ stands for?” But despite my lack of maturity (which I assure you manifests itself in various ways beyond my enduring fascination with sexual innuendo and double entendres), my body is certainly 34 years old, and has become the case annually, my post-birthday hangover was worse than the one from the previous year. It’s agonizing and also irritating; I’ve reached a point where my seasoned tolerance allows me to guzzle down a large amount of beer without getting drunk, but I still wake up feeling like I was simultaneously trampled and shat on by an excited parade of mid-sized pachyderms.
Getting off the couch was clearly not an option that day, so I did what any other red-blooded American would do: I binge watched a TV program. My coworkers had recommended Wayward Pines, so I gave it a shot, and burned through 9 episodes over the weekend—needless to say, I enjoyed it. For those of you not yet in the know, it’s about a guy who wakes up in a strange place where everybody is paranoid and nobody is allowed to leave. It’s certainly derivative of The Prisoner, although it has a big reveal in the fifth episode that changes the course of the show (the brilliance of The Prisoner was that there was no big reveal, but that could be the subject of an entirely different post). I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but at one point the main antagonist says something to the effect of, “you can be free, or you can be safe…but not both!” Coincidentally, I had been dwelling on the freedom-safety dichotomy that day…and nearly every day for the past 11 years since I first set foot in the robotic wet nightmare* that is Japan. Now it’s high time I wrote something about it.
Freedom is something that everybody wants (or so says Party of Five). In America, freedom has become a bizarrely perverted (or pervertedly bizarre) political obsession, with liberals and conservatives frequently claiming a monopoly on freedom and stating unequivocally that the other side abhors it: liberals strive to abolish freedom by forcing the populace to submit to a metaphorical prison of cameras, regulations, and other instruments of the nanny state, while conservatives yearn to eviscerate freedom in America by placing as many people (of color) as possible into literal prisons. Nonetheless, while governmental policies and societal mores may reflect otherwise, it’s a fact of life that humans want to be free to do what they want, any old time.
When people speak about the battle between freedom and safety, they traditionally discuss this split on a personal level: I can be safe, or I can be free. If I follow the rules then I am less likely to get hurt, but if I take risks I am more likely to feel liberated. There’s an enticing mystique surrounding freedom—everybody knows what safety entails, but due to our worldly constraints, few people, if anybody, can comprehend what it would mean to be truly “free.” This concept is succinctly summarized by Louis Sachar in the “Freedom” chapter of “Wayside School is Falling Down” (one of the greatest children’s books of my generation). Myron, former class president who was demoted when he was late to class, is sick of being caged up in his desk and, after recess, goes into the basement instead of retuning to the classroom on the 30th floor. There he encounters three strange older men, who present him with this classic pseudo-Faustian bargain:
“Well, do you want to be free, or do you want to be safe?” asked the bald man.
“Huh?” asked Myron.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said the bald man.
“Do you want to be safe?” asked one of the men with a mustache. “Do you want to sit in the same chair every day, and go up and down the stairs every time the bell rings?”
“You’ll have to go to school five days a week,” said the other man with a mustache. “And you’ll have to go to bed at the same time every day.”
“But first you’ll have to brush your teeth,” said the other man with a mustache.
“And you won’t be allowed to watch TV until you finish your homework,” said the other man with a mustache.
“You’ll have to go inside when it rains,” said the other man with a mustache.
“But first you’ll have to wipe your feet,” said the other man with a mustache.
“Or you can be free,” said the bald man.
Myron chooses freedom. Because the Wayside School books focus on a different character in each chapter, we don’t hear much more about Myron’s freedom, except that Myron decides not to go to Mrs. Valoosh’s tango class and regrets his decision when he learns from his classmates that it was simply the most fun event at school ever. This was to be expected—freedom includes the freedom to make stupid decisions; indeed, that is often its predominant characteristic.
When we talk about freedom and safety on a personal level, we often think of the dual “conservative” vs. “liberal” comportments. I hesitate to use those terms because at this point they carry heavy political connotations, but imagine that a “conservative” person is one who cares deeply about her future economic well-being and thus takes a “safe” educational and career path that will provide her (and her future family) with long-term financial security. Provided that she works hard and diligently, she will have a steady and strong income. She’s a lawyer, or a doctor, or maybe she works in finance. She’s probably happy with her life choices—her type-A self wanted to be married with child and a nice house by the age of 33, and she’s achieved that goal.
The “liberal” follows his dreams and takes more risks. He went to film school and does freelance advertising work to pay the bills while working on his experimental pieces at night. Or maybe he makes a lot of apps and hopes that one day he’ll strike gold. He’s probably happy with his life choices—he doesn’t make too much money, but is doing what he loves, and has a large group of friends with whom he can guzzle cheap wine and bitch about the decline of culture in San Francisco. Perhaps he’s polyamorous too. That could be a lot of fun.
The “conservative” lives a “safer” life. She occasionally dreams of a life less ordinary but is not about to go pursue that. The “liberal” lives a “freer” life. He often wishes he had more money, but wouldn’t trade his freedom for a buttoned-down existence (and couldn’t if he wanted to).
Of course, you get the not-so-rare character on either side who wishes for more of the other. The starving artist who has the talent to get a high-paying job as a designer in a tech company but who fears being ridiculed or even ostracized by his friends if he follows that path—the label of a “sell-out” is potentially a scarlet A in his community. Or the corporate lawyer who fantasizes about quitting his 9-5 (which is more of a 9-10) and working full-time on his writing, but can’t pull the trigger because he needs income to stay in San Francisco, which is such a fucking expensive city, even if you have decent rent control.
But I wouldn’t know anything about that. Besides, that’s not the main point I wanted to raise in this post.
And I also don’t want to talk about the Wayward Pines/Brazil/1984/Brave New World archetypical universe where the government controls everybody and allows them to be “safe” from harm as long as they live a life with minimal freedom, constantly paranoid that they will be “disappeared” if they don’t conform. According to a not insignificant number of American “conservatives” (in the political sense of the word—not to be confused with the use of the word in the preceding paragraphs…actually, let’s just call them “libertarians”), this is the future of the United States of America if we do things like provide health care to the poor (because if the government provides healthcare, this is tantamount to them controlling what we do with our bodies), place restrictions on people with histories of mental illness purchasing firearms (because this is one step away from the government stealing all of our guns, which are necessary to maintain things like our freedoms of speech, religion, and states’ rights), and increase taxes on the rich (because the freedom to accumulate obscene amounts of wealth is a fundamental principal upon which this great nation was founded). The word “Orwellian” is often tossed about to describe any “liberal” positions. I once even heard a conservative claim that allowing same-sex marriage is “Orwellian,” because it takes away his freedom to use the word “marriage” as it has been used for thousands of years, and instead places the word into the dictionary of “newspeak”—the nomenclature of oppression devised in 1984. In the minds of these folk, liberals think they must save us from ourselves, and with every regulation that supposedly increases our “safety,” such as requiring bicyclists to wear helmets or forcing factories to undergo environmental reviews, the government is taking away our precious freedom.
To these people, I’d like to point out two things: number 1, George Orwell was a socialist. He would have gladly supported any measure that empowered the working class and the downtrodden, even if it meant taking away from the aristocracy. Hell, especially if that’s what it meant—Orwell was quite supportive of Lenin and Trotsky. Like any sane human being, Orwell recognized that Stalin’s Soviet Union was far from being “socialist,” and that the line between socialism and fascism was quite thick. 1984, the novel from which the term “Orwellian” was spawned, was meant to depict the latter.
Number 2, George Orwell’s “socialism” in 1984 sure as hell was not safe. It entailed a whole bunch of people getting kidnapped, tortured, blown to smithereens, and otherwise injured, maimed, and assassinated. It was a world with neither freedom nor safety, which is not really the goal of anyone.
On the contrary, the goal is to live in a society that is both free and safe, where you can do whatever you want without the fear of getting hurt…and on that note, we get to the meat of this post. In San Francisco circa 2015, this goal is becoming a reality for many people. This is because San Francisco is becoming an island of affluence, and affluence brings you both freedom and safety. Freedom to, as an adult, dress up in costume and get belligerently drunk in the middle of the day with no societal repercussions. Freedom to eat and drink the best that the culinary world has to offer, any time you want to do so (and not just on special occasions). Freedom to have any external need met with the click of a button or swipe of a screen. All with the knowledge that you will not be harmed, attacked, mugged, raped, hurt, or killed, because San Francisco is a very safe city (as long as you stay out of certain neighborhoods).
Of course there’s a flip side to this utopia. In an environment where money buys freedom and safety, the lack of money leaves one without. More freedom and safety for some means less freedom and safety for others. Without an affordable place to live, artists are not free to create as they wish, and those of us who patronize the arts are having more and more of a difficult time experiencing the liberation that brilliant creation can bring. Very few people who are not rich can afford to pay more than $8 for lunch every day—a store clerk working in Hayes Valley is not really free to eat at any of the establishments in the area. As more and more of the wealthy choose to take Uber or Chariot, the waning investment in Muni has led to its disrepair, so people who are not wealthy are not free to move about the city in an efficient and clean manner.
Without money, San Francisco is not a safe place to live. There are fewer and fewer options for housing in safe neighborhoods if you are not rich, and those without a ton of cash are often pushed into less desirable locations. Yes, San Francisco does have unsafe neighborhoods. There was an uproar about a year ago because some company had developed an app that helped people identify and avoid “sketchy” neighborhoods (with “sketchy” calculated based on crime rates). People attacked this app as being everything from “racist” to “douchey” (I certainly agree with the latter accusation). But I’ll tell you this much—I know two people who were mugged at night on the eastern edge of Alamo Square, and I try to not walk past there too much after dark.
Of course, just as New York managed to Disnefy seedy Times Square, San Francisco is doing its darndest to aristocrify its poor neighborhoods. Setting aside what happened to Hayes Valley (a snarky comment from this HV resident who recognizes the irony), one thing that makes me uncomfortable is the recent rash of super-swanky bars in the Tenderloin, traditionally one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city (for those of you who are not San Francisco residents, it’s called the “Tenderloin” because cops working the beat there got paid extra, and thus could afford better cuts of meat). It started with Bourbon and Branch, which admittedly has been in the neighborhood for a long time. B&B calls itself a “speakeasy,” which is somewhat irritating (they have a liquor license, for chrissake). You need to make reservations to go there and drinks are VERY expensive. Still, I guess you could say it is an “experience.”
That is more than can be said about Rye, Swig, Redwood Room, Tradition, and Chambers (in the Phoenix Hotel), trendy drink spots in or near the Tenderloin where a hand-crafted gourmet cocktail will set you back $14 or more. I’m generally not into this type of establishment, but it really burns me up when there is a bar nestled amongst SROs, a huge fuck-you to the people who actually live in the area. Nobody who lives in the TL (or I suppose nobody who lived there three years ago) can afford to go to these places—you get a bunch of you-know-whos who live in SoMa or the Marina who want to go to the TL and “slum it” at these over-priced waterholes. The next day, they will tell stories about how they had to dodge crackheads and human feces in order to get to the bar. Such bravery! However, once these adventurous drinkers can get through the gauntlet, they are treated to an overly-sanitized imbibing experience. It’s very safe—at the cost of the freedom of the locals to go to bars on their own damn block. And if you want to tell me that Tenderloin residents are “free” to go into these fancy bars, then you haven’t met the bouncers.
When I moved to New York in 2000, it seemed like everybody was thanking Giuliani for “cleaning up the city,” but that was because I was talking to young people who moved to the big city seeking adventure but wanted the kind of adventure that came with cocaine, champagne and pretentious modern art, not the kind that came with crack, homeless people and poetry. A city that’s both liberated and safe—what more could you want? Then I started talking to older folks who missed the days of Lou Reed and Patti Smith and Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsburg and Gil Scott-Heron, and who lamented the sanitized version of a once very real city. It dawned on me that, while safety, growth and opulence brings a sense of “freedom” to many people, it leaves some behind. And I liked those people—the ones who were left behind. They had much richer sense of humor.
10 years later, Manhattan was out of control and everybody hated it. The house that Giuliani built had become a three million dollar penthouse that nobody could afford except for Demi Moore, and honestly, what has she done worth watching since Nothing But Trouble? My G-d I love that movie.
People talk about the “Manhattanization” of San Francisco—hell, they’ve been talking about it since the 80s. Is Ed Lee our Rudy Giuliani? Or was that Willie Brown? Neighborhoods that were formerly “sketchy” are being rebranded – the Fillmore is now “Lower Pac Heights,” Western Addition is now “NoPa,” the area south of the Civic Center is now “Mid-Market,” the Mission is now “Hipster Marina,” Hayes Valley is now “Hayes Valley, but with Brass Tacks.” The reaction among old people is mixed—those with businesses appreciate the influx of young people with plenty of discretionary income who enjoy spending it, those without miss all of their artistic friends. In 10 years, or maybe 3, there won’t be many people left in San Francisco who care about the loss of the misfits.
Except for me. Cuz I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch.
I’m a bit hesitant to post this piece. It kind of fell apart at the end, and I anticipate, if anybody actually reads it, that there will be a barrage (i.e., one or two) comments to the effect of, “what do you know, you straight white male yuppie lawyer Marin County Hayes Valley Jew-boy hypocrite?” To anybody who wishes to make such a comment, I give you my reply in advance:
*A “wet nightmare” is a wet dream that is also a nightmare. You wake up with a gasp of terror, your heart beating with panic and your body covered in sweat, and then you notice that your sheets are also sticky.