Thirteen Years in New York

New York sneaks up on you like a black bear trawling outside your tent at sunrise. As the beast paws through food and ravages the site you staged with immaculate care, you realize that this wily indomitable creature has watched you and known you all along. It is an entity that can never be crushed because another will emerge in its place.

I have now lived in New York longer than any other city. Thirteen years and three months. Which beats my previous record of thirteen years in San Francisco. Not only did the time flit by faster than I ever could have anticipated, but I still very much love this great city and continue to discover so many unanticipated contours and scintillating subcultures. The possibilities and the conversations here remain lively and are rarely dull. There are all sorts of marvelous people stubbornly eking out their dreams and, no matter how many difficulties they face — rats, a rickety traffic grid, a preposterously pompous mayor, gentrification, small-time power grabbers, and assorted human parasites — they can’t be easily crushed. New Yorkers are some of the most resilient people on earth. You have to be tough in order to live here. Nearly everyone is only two paychecks away from sleeping on the streets. And you could be felled by any cosmic force at any time. This may account for why so many marriages are particularly fragile and wildly unstable despite the roseate thump of a New York Times wedding announcement etched in showy affluence and why being single here, much like Minneapolis, is often a steady stream of constantly rotating bodies so that everyone can find a quick fix to survive the natural elements. (Oh well. At least you get to hear a lot of interesting life stories just before you make the morning coffee.) A friend visiting from Europe recently asked me why I still felt some subconscious need to prove myself. I replied, “It’s New York, man. If you aren’t regularly leveling up here, you’re doing it wrong.” (In my friend’s defense, it wasn’t entirely New York. But you see my point.)

I’ll always hold a dear place for the San Francisco that I was lucky enough to live in. I was privileged to live there in the last days of the freaks, when you could actually pay $600 each month to rent your own apartment. I love that city with all my heart. But I’ve been back and it ain’t my town anymore. While it has retained its beauty, San Francisco has become an unaffordable monolithic playground for the rich, more so than even Manhattan. It has chewed up and spat out the weirdness that once made it a remarkable metropolis, surrendering to the lavish obscenity of vanilla techbro millionaires without a sense of history or an intuitive respect for everyday people. Still, I suspect now, with some hindsight, that San Francisco may not have been the right place for me. Or maybe it was a city that didn’t push me as much as I needed it to. If San Francisco helped kick me out of suburban complacency and demanded that I start writing and make radio, it was New York that said, “Buddy, you’d better get moving or I will eat you alive.” I probably needed a city to tell me this much earlier in my life, but, hey, better late than never. This city’s intractable edict, which it whispers into the ear of every New Yorker, helped me to climb out of a very dark and seemingly inescapable abyss and make something of myself. It forced me to find and honor my full and true self. It demanded that I take more chances in my life and my art. It aided me in making my audio drama. New York told me that my existence and ambitions, as crazy as these both were, needed to be pursued. It told me that I needed to look out for others and make sure they were living up. It still demands that I do more — for myself and others — and, of course, I’m constantly learning and I’m regularly humbled.

I’m tremendously grateful to know so many fascinating people, to work with so many talented actors, and to continue to have so many goofy and weird adventures when I’m not toiling long hours on various creative endeavors. It’s possible that I would have stumbled upon this life eventually, but cities often provide those vital murmurs that get you where you need to go. And one should never complain about late timing in life. It’s a churlish pastime that often has one absorbed into some nostalgic ambuscade. Besides, there are always cosmic variables outside your control. Nevertheless, thank you, New York. And thank you to all the kind New Yorkers who kept their faith in me and saw something positive in me and called me on my bullshit and busted my chops. Without them or this city, I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be who I am today.

Ben Tarnoff (The Bat Segundo Show #541)

Ben Tarnoff is most recently the author of The Bohemians.

Author: Ben Tarnoff

Subjects Discussed: Why 1860s California was especially well suited to literary movements, draft riots, Thomas Starr King, how Atlantic Monthly editor James Fields interacted with numerous emerging writers, the New England influence vs. the need to rebel, Charles Stoddard, rustic towns vs. cities battling each other in California over poetic merit, Bret Harte’s aesthetic tastes, how Harte transformed from critic to short story pioneer, how Mark Twain used the door-to-door subscription model to popularize The Innocents Abroad, the influence of the railroads upon what people read, Twain’s inability to command literary respect in America during his time, Twain’s popularity in England, the disreputable qualities of Twain’s appearance, Twain’s drawl, William Dean Howells, the Eastern literary establishment’s regressive assessment of Western style, how Twain used the lecture circuit to generate vital income, early standup comics in America, Artemus Ward the first standup comic in America, New York’s emergence as a media capital in the late 19th century, the development of Twain’s iconoclasm, present day interpretations of Twain as a cuddly avuncular type, Twain’s explosive temperament, Twain’s failed attempts at suicide, how original literary movements can spring from a unique location, present day Brooklyn writers who play it safe, how Twain’s lecture persona allowed him to escape becoming a newspaper hack, Twain vs. Ed Koch as meeter-and-greeter in the streets, the Bret Harte/Mark Twain friendship and feud, Bret Harte’s creative decline upon leaving California, Margaret Duckett’s Mark Twain and Bret Harte, the mysterious inciting incident in 1877 that set Twain off on Harte, Twain’s difficulties in getting his early short story collections published, the death of irony throughout American history, disparaging reports of Anna Griswold Harte (and attempts to find positive qualities about her), how much Bret Harte is responsible for Anna’s alleged sullenness, Bret Harte’s arrogance, Harte’s abandonment of his family, Harte’s aristocratic airs, Harte’s insistence upon a cab when arriving on the East Coast, Bret Harte’s hipster-like sideburns, “Ah Sin,” Twain and Harte perpetuating racist Chinese stereotypes, Twain selling out his principles, yellowface and the Cloud Atlas movie, Twain’s unremitting vengeance against Bret Harte, Twain’s obsessive detail in depicting his grudges, Twain’s tremendous rage and his tremendous love, Twain blaming himself for the death of his son Langdon, parallels between Charles Stoddard and Walt Whitman, Stoddard’s need for approval, Stoddard seeking autographs, Stoddard’s retreat to Hawaii, attempts to determine how much transgressive behavior there was in San Francisco during the late 19th century, Bret Harte rebuffing his literary friends when he moved to the East Coast, Ina Coolbrith as the first woman poet laureate in the United States in 1911, Coolbrith’s “When the Grass Shall Cover Me,” the crushing domestic responsibilities faced by Coolbrith (and stalling Coolbrith’s literary career), grueling library hours in the late 19th century, Stoddard’s South-Sea Idyls, Harte’s remarkably swift dissolution, Harte’s inability to take root in the East, Ambrose Bierce, whether Bierce arrived too late on the scene, pulp writers who lived at the Monkey Block in the early 20th century, Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady in Darkness, and whether any literary movement today can recapture the risk-taking feel of the Bohemians.


Correspondent: Mark Twain and Bret Harte seem to be the big stars of this book. But what do you think it was about this particular area at this particular time that created this particular literature?

Tarnoff: Well, San Francisco in the 1860s has a lot of advantages for a writer. It’s peaceful. The Civil War never comes to California. So there’s no fighting on the coast and there’s no draft. Because Lincoln never applies the draft west of Iowa and Kansas.

Correspondent: And no draft riots.

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. No draft riots. So it’s peaceful. It’s a great place to wait out the war. It’s very rich. Because it’s the industrial, commercial, and financial center of the region. So the massive amount of wealth that’s being generated in the City finances a range of literary papers. And it’s also very urban. It’s got about 100,000 people in the 1860s and that makes it by far the biggest city in the region, really the biggest city west of St. Louis. And that population is pretty cosmopolitan. Because of the legacy of the gold rush, you have people there from China, from South America, from all different countries in Europe. And I think that all of those are important factors behind producing the literary moment.

Correspondent: And for a while, speaking of St. Louis, it had the largest building west of St. Louis with City Hall.

Tarnoff: That’s right.

Correspondent: For a while. Until it got — I can’t remember which building it was that actually uprooted it. But it was a city of great progress and great buildings. I wanted to start off also by getting into the preacher Thomas Starr King. He’s this figure I have wanted to talk about forever. Because I have read, I’m sure as you have, the Kevin Starr books. The wonderful California Dream series. I’m grateful that your book has allowed me a chance to talk about him here. You know, it has always seemed to me that without King, you could not have had the literary culture that emerged. Because he was this really odd figure. He promoted New England writers. So he was kind of an establishment guy. But at the same time, he’s also the guy who introduces Bret Harte to James Fields, the Atlantic editor, in January 1862. Charles Stoddard — this wonderful poet — also held King up in great esteem. So he’s almost this insider/outsider figure who seems to corral the many literary strands of San Francisco that are burgeoning during this time and forming this new kind of movement that you identify as a Bohemian movement. So I’m wondering. What is your take on Thomas Starr King? Do you think that San Francisco would have been San Francisco if it had not been for that? And do you think that when The Overland Monthly appeared, that this was kind of the replacement for Thomas Starr King? Because at that point he had passed away. What of this?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King is a fantastic figure. I think he really is a forgotten founding father of California. He’s so foundational politically, culturally, as you point out from the literary scene. He’s a fantastic mentor figure. You mentioned Charles Stoddard. There’s a scene in my book where Stoddard has just published his first poems in a big literary paper. He’s extremely shy and nervous. And Thomas Starr King comes to the bookshop where he works and tells him personally how much he loved his poems. So he’s a guy with a really personal touch and really cultivates these writers and offers them criticism. He’s an important figure from the point of view from the point of view of the Civil War as well, which is I think how he’s better known today. Because he travels throughout the state during the first year or two of the Civil War and preaches the importance of California staying in the Union. Which it probably would have stayed in anyway. But King is certainly a very persuasive champion of the Union and of abolition.

Correspondent: Yeah. But in terms of his literary contributions, I mean, he was again, like I was suggesting with this last question, this guy who was there to rebel against and this guy to garner favor with so you could actually get into some of the outlets. How did that work? Am I perhaps overreaching with my estimation of King as this great mirror that Twain, Harte, and all these other people looked at in order to find their own voices? To find their own particular perch to break into San Francisco journalism, literature, and all that?

Tarnoff: Well, I think he builds a link between the Eastern literary establishment and San Francisco. You mentioned his introduction of Harte to James Fields, the editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He also is friends with Longfellow and Emerson and all these literary lions who are really the most famous writers in the country at that point. And he gives these wonderful lectures on American literature in San Francisco. So he absolutely is a link between the East and the West. But he’s also someone to rebel against. I mean, he’s the father figure. You’re also trying to kill your father. And a lot of these guys — particularly Harte — you see him strain from that New England mold. Thomas Starr King sadly dies in 1864 young and prematurely. And in the coming years, Harte really develops his own style, which I think contrasts pretty sharply with those New England influences.

Correspondent: So what was essentially taken from King and even the New England influence? What made this particular area of the country the natural place to establish new voice, original voice, a rebellious voice, an iconoclastic voice?

Tarnoff: Well, Thomas Starr King has this great phrase in one of his sermons where he tells Californians they need to build Yosemites in the soul. And his point there, I think, is that they’ve been blessed with this majestic epic monumental landscape. This incredible natural beauty. And they need to create a culture and a literature, an intellectual scene, that’s commensurate with that great beauty. And the Bohemian scene really takes that advice seriously. And the West, I think, is such a fertile place for a new type of literature to develop. Which really does deviate from the path that King himself had hoped it would take. I mean, he wants California to follow closely in the footsteps of New England. He has a letter where he says California must be Northernized thoroughly by Atlantic Monthlies, by schools, by lecture halls. But the scene that he mentors after his death really takes things in a different direction, but I think makes good on his command to build Yosemites in the soul.

Correspondent: Well, it’s interesting how we’re talking about the variegated territories of California. Because Bret Harte would edit this poetry anthology and get into serious trouble. Because some of the rustic towns didn’t like the fact that they weren’t included. And he was flummoxed with all sorts of poetry entries for this thing. And he ended up choosing a lot of poems that dealt in the metropolises. So there was this rivalry and Harte was accused of being this florid sellout by some of the rustic towns. You point out in the book that actually the metropolises and the rustic towns and the mining settlements and all that had actually far more in common than they actually realized. So what accounts for this fractiousness and territorial temperament? Fractiousness in literary voices and literary temperament?

Tarnoff: Well, California’s a place where everyone wants to be a writer.

Correspondent: Like Brooklyn today!

Tarnoff: Right. Exactly. It’s like Brooklyn in 2014. But poetry in particular has a real prestige. Poets are pop stars. Poems are read at every public gathering. You need poetry in the public sphere all the time. And so all of these Californians — people who live in the countryside, people who live in the city — all think of themselves as a poet. So when Bret Harte is tasked with putting together a representative anthology of California poetry in 1865, he is overwhelmed with submissions and has a lot of fairly sarcastic, disparaging things to say about the quality of those submissions and ends up producing this fairly small volume with mostly his friends, like Charles Stoddard and Ina Coolbrith. And this ignites a kind of literary war between the city and the country. But as you point out, the distinction between the city and the country is not actually that great. I mean, the California countryside in terms of the mining and the farming operations is itself pretty heavily industrialized. We’ve got big economies of scale, a lot of heavy machinery. Places like Virginia City, in Nevada, where Mark Twain is for a few years, are highly urbanized areas. So the notion that it’s these kind of he-men in the frontier vs. the effete Bohemians in the city, it’s not totally accurate representation.

Correspondent: Well, in this sense, you’re essentially saying that the sphere of influence in both rustic town and big city is essentially homogeneous. That people are perhaps being inspired from the same physical things? I mean, what of literary tastes? What of the way that people express themselves? I mean, isn’t there an argument to be made that maybe these guys were right?

Tarnoff: Well, there’s certainly a distinction in terms of literary taste. I mean, I think both camps are living fairly urban industrialized lives. But they certainly have very different opinions about what constitutes good poetry. And Harte in particular, who is the editor of the volume, shies away from topics that he feels are too pastoral. That have too much of a certain type of California flavor, which he associates with the amateur poets. And he writes a parody of what one of those poems would look like in The Californian, which he edits. But Harte really wants to push California literature in general to a more metropolitan, to a more Bohemian, to a more sophisticated level and is very dismissive of what he feels is the kind of amateurish literary karaoke quality of some of the countryside poets.

Correspondent: Well, what is that sophisticated nature that Harte is demanding? What are we talking about? Are we just talking about endless poems devoted to being in the middle of nowhere? Essentially that’s what he’s railing against? He’s asking California to take itself more seriously, to write about civil, social, political topics? What are we talking about here?

Tarnoff: Well, the problem with Harte in these years — the mid 1860s — is he’s very good at being a critic. He’s very good at lambasting the quality of California literature, at its climate, at its boosters and philistines and capitalists. But he’s not great at producing good literature of his own. And that comes a little bit later in the decade when he starts to write these wonderful short stories. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” being the best known. And it’s not until that moment that I think he really makes good on his earlier promise to redeem California literature.

Correspondent: So he’s essentially quibbling with what he doesn’t like in order to find out what he does like and what he can actually build from the ashes he demonizes, so to speak.

Tarnoff: Exactly. He’s definitely in a more critical phase at that moment.

(Loops for this program provided by Martin Minor and nilooy. Also, Kai Engel’s “Chant of Night Blades” and Kevin MacLeod’s “Ghost Dance” through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #541: Ben Tarnoff(Download MP3)

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Wayne Shannon: A Video Tribute

A few days ago, I reported the death of Wayne Shannon, whose legacy as a broadcasting innovator and precursor to Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and and Michael Moore had been needlessly overlooked in recent years. Wayne was also a friend. And last night, the cause of Wayne’s death was revealed to be a suicide. Wayne’s body had been found by two hunters in Northern Idaho. His body had been there for many months.

As of Friday morning, the San Francisco TV station (KRON) where Wayne worked for many years, has not acknowledged Wayne Shannon’s death in any way. Last night, I contacted KRON by telephone. I spoke with Bonnie Hitch, who was kind and who offered me a few minutes of her time. Ms. Hitch told me that KRON still hadn’t decided on whether or not it would recognize Wayne Shannon, but that they had learned of his death. KRON had not been aware of Wayne’s suicide.

I also asked Ms. Hitch about how well the KRON news archives were preserved. What was the state of Wayne’s numerous commentaries? His segments in the field? His body of work? She informed me that there wasn’t even an archivist employed at KRON these days. “It’s a very different news station,” said Ms. Hitch. KRON culture had changed. Ms. Hitch wasn’t even sure that the airchecks had been preserved. She told me that she would put me in touch with the person in charge of the news archives, and it is my hope to contact someone at KRON who is even remotely interested in preserving KRON’s long legacy as a major news station.

In his final years, Wayne had assembled a disc containing a small handful of his work. Was this all he had? Unfortunately it was. This disc was all that remained of his considerable work. “It took me months to pile through boxes and boxes of old tapes,” Wayne had written to me. “You got the best of what was available…and some of that — as you have doubtless noticed — is well below par.”

Shortly after talking with Ms. Hitch, I went through my files and located Wayne’s disc. It contained this note:

Yo Ed:

A few weeks before Noel Coward died he held an intimate soiree at his home during which, by all accounts, he performed for the very last time.

Those in attendance, if memory serves, were Lunt and Fontanne, Oliver and Leigh, Oscar Wilde, Jascha Heifitz, the Raymond Masseys and the Rex Harrisons, the latter naming their first born son after Noel.

We are assured that it was an exquisitely memorable night of much wine and laughter and tears born of same, along with a game that developed whereby participants challenged their memories by trying to match some of the more obscure lines of dialogue from his plays — with the titles of his many Broadway and Piccadilly triumphs.

This was followed by a medley on the piano of Coward’s many hit songs, accompanied by Heifitz, which naturally concluded with his immortal, “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”

I am, of course, no Noel Coward and, unfortunately, have more years to live than I doubtless deserve. However, I wanted you to know that to me…you are not only to be numbered among the “luminaries” he had about him that evening those many, many decades ago…but, had I been able to do so…you would have been invited to such a gathering — though you may very well have had the good sense not to attend or, perhaps, admit to it later.

However, if you had done so, you too would have seen my final performance — from virtually my first words ever on American TV — to undeniably my last, “Yahoo!”

I cannot accept Wayne’s work falling into obscurity. I cannot accept his self-deprecatory nature refusing to understand, even in this note, that people loved and respected what he did. And I cannot accept his work not getting its proper due.

So I have uploaded nearly all of the video I have so that people can see how Wayne was ahead of his time. The twenty-one segment salute below reveals that Wayne, who won six Emmys for his work, was a wily reporter, a witty commentator, a skilled performer, a gleeful satirist, and a man who was very good at talking with people.

Star Wars: This is one of Wayne’s earliest television appearances, in which he talks with Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher. He even asks Carrie for a kiss, a move that would be unthinkable in today’s junket climate.

Rocks (1980): This is a great example of the muckraking multipart series Wayne was known for during his days in Detroit. (Indeed, as I learned in a 2008 radio interview I conducted with Wayne, many of Wayne’s pioneering concepts during these days would be stolen by Michael Moore and used in Roger & Me.) Wayne fearlessly took on many of the auto manufacturers and was run out of Detroit for this (despite the fact that his segments greatly improved the evening news ratings). And the “All by Myself” montage where Wayne abandons his “rock” on the freeway and rollerskates away is an unusual break from the hard journalism that local television news was then known for.

Lemons: In Philadelphia, Shannon was known as the “TV 2 Troubleshooter.” His coverage, as we learn here, could be hilariously epic (in this case, the segment above is “part three of his ten part series on lemons,” as Robbie Timmons introduces) — almost as if he was working on one giant documentary film split into neat segments for the evening news. Wayne’s ability to combine consumer advocacy with comedy is in great form here, especially with the concluding Rocky homage.

Hedgehogs: This “TV 2 Troubleshooter” segment sees Wayne fleshing out his satirical journalism. There’s the opening sound gag, along with some folksy banter with a stamp collector (“Ever been took?”).

The Box Top Rebellion: In this segment on coupon clippers (which contains some eerie parallels to post-2008 economic life), we see that Wayne was very keen on highly theatrical introduction sequences. But he was also very good about learning how a system worked, as seen from the fascinating clips inside a coupon clearing house (“where old coupons go for that big redemption in the sky”).

Magic Nails: Not only do we get a quick glimpse of a young Maury Povich, but we see Wayne taking on “Magic Nails” — a dangerous toy manufactured at a Burger King restaurant. Wayne’s journalistic rigor is on display. He talks with pediatrician Alan Freedman and updates the story with some shoe leather reporting.

The Vent People: I don’t know if the success of Wayne’s consumer advocacy had Channel 3 assigning Wayne to more hard reporting. Perhaps they didn’t quite know what to do with him. But this segment also shows that Wayne was a good journalist. He reveals efforts to uncover how the homeless sleep on the steam vents at night, along with the reasons why others aren’t allowed to help the vent people.

Wayne-Bo and Tom: The first part of this clip is rather baffling. It features “Wayne-Bo” entertaining kids and talking with Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. Was this a bona-fide children’s show hosted by Wayne which aired in Philadelphia? The second part features a clip of Tom Snyder extolling Wayne at the end for an episode of The Tomorrow Show, which Wayne made an appearance on. (Note to self: A trip to Paley is in order.)

Santa and Thermatron: The Santa bit is from a bizarre 1981 program that Wayne did called Santa and Son. I have no idea if it even aired anywhere. Then there’s a “Thinking Out Loud” segment on the Thermatron, a precursor to the commentaries that Wayne would be known for during his KRON days.

KRON Clips: Wayne, now at Channel 4, talks with Jonathan Winters. There are three additional segments: (1) a Wayne commentary on how laser beams are being used to cut through clogged arteries (and how Wayne has sought “a revisionist nutritionist”), (2) a closing credits monologue of Wayne on the road, and (3) a Wayne commentary on how to celebrate California adventure (with some inside dirt about then Carmel Mayor Clint Eastwood).

The Merv Griffin Show: Merv Griffin, who lived in Monterey, was a Wayne Shannon fan and invited Wayne to appear on his program. Wayne reveals the trouble he got into for suggesting that dumping atomic waste into the ocean might be a possible solution. “I guess you don’t hear that viewpoint that often.” “Why would you advocate that?” asks Merv. “Well,” replies Wayne, “because everybody else isn’t.”

Claim to Fame Promo: Wayne appeared on another locally produced KRON show called Claim to Fame, in which an assembled panel tried to guess who the person was based on their vocation. Wayne was one of the regulars, along with Ann Jones, Charlie Haas, and Sylvia Brown (later with an E). This promo for the show features Wayne prominently. There is also a ten second clip from the show attached.

Claim to Fame: Here’s a longer part of Claim to Fame, which features a more spartan set than the one with the FAME lights. (Budget cuts at KRON?)

Bay Area Minute: This short KRON segment features Wayne rhapsodizing about the Bay Bridge.

Three KRON Commentaries: In these collected clips, Wayne offers a commentary on Tanzanian chimpanzees getting high on leaves, another commentary on pesticides, and a third commentary on Fleet Week.

CNBC: In these clips from his CNBC days (featuring some charmingly retro graphics), Wayne provides a commentary on Norplant, sits patiently at the ACE Awards (for which he is nominated), co-anchors a Real Estate Report, and interviews Ken Hakuta, the inventor of the Wacky Wall Walker (and self-styled “Dr. Fad”), with absurd results.

TV 25 Vancouver: In this TV 25 Vancouver segment, Wayne investigates a post office branch in Vancouver, Washington, discovering how postal workers toil and the impact of a holiday package influx.

TV 49 Portland: In the first clip from Wayne’s TV 49 Portland days, Wayne probes Nick’s Famous Coney Island, talks with owner Frank Nudo, and contends with hot dogs. The second clip features Wayne’s movie reviews of Mad Love, Judge Dredd, and Crimson Tide>

TV 6 Portland: In this clip from TV 6 Portland, Wayne goes out in search of white deer in Redland.

Ask the Weather Guru: This interview with Wayne Shannon (just after his television days) has Wayne coming out as the “Ask the Weather Guru” man at Yahoo. He attempts to explain what an occluded front is. But I can’t help but focus on just how small his apartment is at this time.

The Memorial Wall: Wayne’s last appearance on television, from August 2011. He was in Idaho, visiting the Vietnam Memorial Moving Wall and wanting to know if three people from his hometown of Moses Lake, Washington had been killed during the war. He didn’t see their names. Months later, he would walk into the woods and never come out.


The San Francisco government had gone out of its way to declare the police station “non-intimidating,” It all started when a young innovator had suggested sending brochures to nearby residents by mail. The City, which was still in the early stages of embracing all things digital, thought that this was a pretty good idea. To save a bit of money, it commissioned this conceptual whipper-snapper to write all the copy. When an administrative official two weeks away from a prestigious (read: more lucrative) post in Pennsylvania caught wind of the young man’s purported background in graphic design, the official, hoping to create a mess for the obnoxious new guy to clean up, replied, “Fire up Quark and knock yourself out.” With “public awareness” still a recurring and not easily identified priority, the plan was ridiculously easy to authorize. But when the brochures came in, accompanied by a dubious $2,000 invoice for “special services” from some guy named Randy, the young man was boxed around the ears and let go. The gaudy brochures had come back with the catastrophic header DON’T WORRY! WE WON’T INTIMIDATE YOU! printed in a large and unfriendly font against a sickly yellow and vaguely green background.

Meetings were held. Protocols and terms were fiercely argued. The City, still bracing from Randy’s invoice, contemplated bringing in George Lakoff from across the Bay, before understanding that there was a certain humiliation in relying on Berkeley to solve a San Francisco problem. Remarkably, this wasteful public spending had somehow escaped Matier and Ross’s prying investigative attentions. Randy had been paid promptly to keep things quiet. Yet despite these setbacks, it was agreed that the “non-intimidating” concept had to be conveyed to the public. Bus shelter ads might scare the living bejesus out of the elderly. So the City agreed to a low-key campaign. Use the word “non-intimidating” at press conferences. Mention it in intimidating situations. Have all the earthquake preparedness professionals use it in relation to unanticipated seismic rumbles. But most importantly, describe Park Station as “non-intimidating” on the sfgov website.

Few people remembered that Park Station, once strenuously opposed by the mindful planner John McLaren during its construction, had spent a good century defying public perception. The building, originally flanked by two wings stabling 32 horses, had maintained its stucco facades over the years, but its interior had been replaced by clinical functionalism.

This transformation may have had something to do with Park Station’s successful bombing by bloodthirsty activists, believed to be the Weather Underground. It was thought at the time that the window ledge blasting was related to the Chicago Trial protests. The bombing had killed a police sergeant. Developing technology would later pin part of the crime on members of the Black Liberation Army, but Bill Ayers’s guilt hadn’t been entirely pegged after four decades of investigation. The station had closed, reopened, remodeled, and reinforced itself. Its look decayed and its fortification strengthened with every fresh generation of cops grousing its halls.

Some of the residents living near Golden Gate Park’s southwestern perimeter had traded in their ideals for relentless equity management during boom times, but they came around to believing that Park Station was non-intimidating. It helped that many of these young starving pups had no sense of history. The station was non-intimidating only if you believed that the police would always do their duty. It was non-intimidating only if you believed that the authoritarians wouldn’t confuse the rights of nonviolent protesters with their more intense, pyro-happy counterparts. It was non-intimidating only if you kept your head down and avoided the hassles, the harassment, and the harried interventions of hotheaded cops too eager to crack a few heads.

Thomas Gladysz Laid Off from Booksmith

gladyszI have learned that Thomas Gladysz, the events coordinator for the now less wonderful San Francisco bookstore Booksmith, has been let go by new owners Christin Evans and Praveen Madan. No explanation given, but presumably it’s “the economy.” Thomas had been at the Booksmith for 21 years, and the man had events coordination down to a science. Not only was he one of the vital guys who held the Haight’s literary community together, but he was always very kind and courteous — even to loudmouth regulars like me. One of his many achievements involved organizing and hosting Allen Ginsberg’s last reading — this, when the man was dying. Without Thomas, the bookstore simply won’t be the same. I recognize the need for change in this ever-shifting economy, but getting rid of Thomas is hardly conducive to making a store “an integral part of the neighborhood,” as the smug Chuck Nevius boasted only a few weeks ago. Evans and Madan owe the San Francisco literary community a transparent explanation for this disgraceful move. Canning veterans like Thomas is hardly “building the independent bookstore for the 21st century,” as the Booksmith’s website now boasts. It’s more like lopping off one of the legs that made the bookstore a serious player in the first place. (Rather criminally, there is no mention of this terrible news at SFist or the ostensibly Bay Area-based litblog, Conversational Reading. What a way to stand up for the little guy. For goodness sake, Smokler, can you look into this story?)

Stacey’s Closes

Stacey’s, the dependable bookstore on Market Street that kept many Financial District serfs reading good books, is going to be closing in March, and I’m more than a little devastated. This was a bookstore that helped me in more than a few small ways to become who I am today. While working any number of dull and brainless jobs in my twenties, both temporary and permanent, in which I had to pretend to be an idiot for eight hours to pay the rent, I would often set off to Stacey’s during my lunch hour and discover some novel that I didn’t know anything about. It was at Stacey’s where I discovered William Gaddis, and where I purchased the dogeared copy of The Recognitions that still sits on my stacks. It was at Stacey’s where I first purchased books by Nicholson Baker and David Markson. It was at Stacey’s where I saw Douglas Adams read from Starship Titanic, among many other authors. My employers at the time paid close attention to the white Stacey’s bags that would proliferate underneath my desk in the late afternoon. There were four incidents when I was rudely asked, not more than twenty minutes into my lunch hour and before I had even grabbed something to eat, to come back to the office to work on some pressing and mundane task, because those who employed me knew that I could be found at Stacey’s, lost amidst all the great books. A few of them resented me for having the temerity to read or get excited about books (one even asking me, “Why are you wasting your time reading?”), but I regularly purchased books for those who didn’t. Because of Stacey’s, I managed to get two very wonderful Ukranian ladies hooked on Dickens and Updike, and even procured slang dictionaries to help them learn a number of key phrases that could help them out. (It occurs to me now that Stacey’s actually urged me to become an informal teacher and an under-the-radar encourager. Good Christ, how many others did the bookstore help to blossom?)

Sure, you could walk up Columbus and go to City Lights, which remains a wonderful bookstore. But with City Lights, you somehow felt that you were cheating. Because you were walking into a different neighborhood. Stacey’s was perhaps the only place within the Financial District that had quirky or experimental novels running deliberately at odds with the base capitalism still sprinkling throughout that area of San Francisco. Stacey’s opened their doors and somehow knew that you were still trying to figure out how to make that great artistic leap forward. They knew that you had a little bit of expendable income from your day job, but they regularly offered special sales to loyal customers and kept you coming back.

Stacey’s not only had a great fiction selection, but an ample nonfiction selection. I must have dropped thousands of dollars there over the years.

It was the oldest bookstore operating in San Francisco: older even than City Lights. And while City Lights could easily dwarf Stacey’s in terms of poetry selection, what was special about Stacey’s was that, if you were a geek, you could get any number of the thick and helpful computer handbooks upstairs. (Stacey’s was the kind of bookstore that convinced me that I could learn JavaScript. And while this proved to be something that I could not do, the fact that I went down that avenue is of great credit to Stacey’s.)

The hell of it is that, in all my years of being a Stacey’s customer, I never knew that Colleen worked there. That working at Stacey’s could lead you down some path as an adept book industry professional says much about the bookstore’s power and draw.

The closing of Stacey’s leaves a terrible cavity in a part of San Francisco that urgently needs knowledge and imagination to help members of the white-collar underclass to get by. Yes, we’ll always have City Lights. But jumping into a Trojan horse is more subversive and liberating.

Ohmigod! City Lights!

Like Mr. Orthofer, I’m both delighted and appalled to see City Lights get the profile treatment. There isn’t time right now to investigate whether Times contributor Megan Walsh has a troublesome history of inserting these corny, oh-so-obvious “comic” observations in her work. But I can assure her that City Lights, while jutting in a diagonal manner along the edge of Columbus, is far from “a cake slice of a bookshop.” This concern for the store’s physical appearance overshadows its more important attribute. City Lights maintains a great poetry selection and also keeps such authors as Eric Kraft, Kathy Acker, Gilbert Sorrentino, and Stanley Elkin circulating in the stacks. And aside from the fact that Mr. Ferlinghetti himself is not what one might call an etiolated individual, countercultures, last I heard, have not faded away. They’re still around if you look a little. Unless, of course, your tastes and perceptive faculties are safer than a reverend who is overly concerned about his stature in a small town.

Cowards Killing Castro

The San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau City and County of San Francisco, apparently, is proud to announce that “There will be NO Halloween celebration in the Castro in 2007,” which is akin to telling a martinet-minded headmaster telling a bunch of eager students that there is no Santa Claus. If this isn’t a sign of how frightened the United States of America is, I don’t know what is. The campaign has been launched because last year, a few assholes proceeded to stab people, despite vigorous police protection.

I cannot believe that my former hometown, committed to celebrating craziness and diversity, is supporting this bullshit campaign. In early October 2001, when I returned to San Francisco after a five week stay in Hamburg, I was extremely worried about the state of my country. But when I went to the Castro on Halloween night, and I saw San Francisco’s determination to have fun and the people dressed in all sorts of crazy costumes, I knew that everything would be okay.

That San Francisco is now determined to wilt in the sunshine of a long-standing tradition, that it cannot defiantly celebrate Halloween in the Castro and tell those who committed the violence that its spirit cannot be stopped, is a sign that San Francisco would rather embrace fear than fearlessness. Stopping Halloween is not the answer. It gives credence to those who were committed to destroying the annual party. It enables the hoodlums. And it demonstrates that Gavin Newsom is a coward who does not reflect the San Francisco I proudly witnessed six years ago.

I certainly hope that the good citizens of San Francisco resist this PR bullshit, and celebrate anyway. Life is too short to give into the bad apples.

[UPDATE: A guy named Joe points out that this campaign is being sponsored by the City of San Francisco, as opposed to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. Which, in a sense, is a good deal worse.]

Chuck Nevius: The Cancer of the San Francisco Chronicle

Forget the horrors of The Family Circus. Do you really think your biggest concern when reading the daily paper is yawning over a comics section that takes no chances?

Frankly, if you’re a newspaper devoting column inches to a far from magnificent man in his flying machine, a far greater danger is that you, your child, or your pets will somehow believe in the xenophobic and thoughtless doggerel that the op-ed columnist in question considers a well-informed take by a responsible citizen for responsible citizens. Step off the paths into ruminative territory, and you’ll have less knee-jerk views on a highly complex situation that won’t go away anytime soon.

I’m not suggesting that the homeless situation shouldn’t be looked at through a critical prism, with criticisms extending to the homeless and municipal failings alike.

But, on a recent Sunday afternoon, I examined the newspaper in my former hometown and found — without trying too hard — a heartless and complacent yuppie writing very much in the thoughtless and vacant manner I used to find in that reactionary cad of a columnist, Ken Garcia. I saw the smiling visage of a man cast lovingly in a blue-toned circle — a smug and self-satisfied man who probably wouldn’t last twenty seconds in a bar brawl, and who certainly wouldn’t attempt to understand those people who were “beneath” him, who were possibly “more common,” and who didn’t sign their columns or their checks with pretentious initials like “C.W.” (If Chuck Nevius thinks he’s some kind of bullshit aristocrat with this preposterous handle, then I’m a small rhesus with a commodious shard of banana up his sphincter.)

Here was a man who was entirely uninterested in coming to terms with the homeless in Golden Gate Park for his piece. (Note how Nevius, like a well-trained corporate bitch, weighs the quotes of city officials and residents over the people who camp in the park.) I saw a man who witnessed needles and ran away and didn’t stop to think that maybe one of the guys he talked to, Christopher Ash, was troubled and didn’t have another place to go. I saw a “journalist” who didn’t have the balls to ask hard questions about where the homeless in San Francisco will sleep or how they will be fed or how they will be cared for. These were questions I asked myself when I lived on the edge of the Park and when I tried to pass along food and a few bucks and when I went out of my way to talk with people and understand a horrible problem. In this wicked web, these were uncertain questions with no immediate answers that sometimes brought tears to my eyes. San Francisco was, in many ways, very cruel in the manner that they threw the homeless to the wolves — now, the coyotes apparently — and in the manner in which they denied organizations like Food Not Bombs the means to disseminate food or help those in need.

With this column, I saw a “journalist” who was more concerned with banging out a piece instead of examining these harder issues, who described “the jewel of a public park” but didn’t consider that the people who slept there simply had no other spot and were just as human as the upper middle-class people who this journalist likewise spoke to.

Inevitably when we write a story like this, there are complaints that we are unsympathetic to the homeless. But this isn’t a homeless issue.

Is Nevius really this fucking daft? Here is a story that involves people camping out in the park and shooting up. If that isn’t a homeless issue, then tell me what is. An unexpected conflagration taking out the many expensive homes above Lake Street and causing San Francisco’s precious aristocrats to check into a hotel? (“Oh dear! I’ve become homeless! Thank goodness I have my driver and valet!”)

In the Nevius world, bravery is attached not to the everyday people who are trying to find a new place to sleep every night and live with their drug addictions, but to those volunteers who work to clean up the neighborhood and who pay $8,500 a year in property taxes. And if Nevius is gullible enough to think that Central Park is devoid of the homeless, he might want to consider this Wall Street Journal item from last month that reported how New York City was undercounting the homeless. Just because Gavin Newsom didn’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

Consider Nevius’s nonsense when compared against the Chron‘s detailed series of articles in February that examined the homeless problem in depth, hitting it from numerous angles. In writing this sham of a column, Chuck Nevius has demonstrated that he is a hack who defames journalism and who defames what is, for the most part, a pretty good paper.

I may have had my quibbles with William T. Vollmann’s Poor People, but if you want real journalism, you’ll find more honesty on this subject in one highly reflective chapter that begins with the line “I am sometimes afraid of poor people,” and that proceeds to explore the problem of maintaining a neighborhood while contending with the equally necessary quality of human compassion.

Gray Lady Slams San Franciscans with Base Generalization

New York Times: “Most plastic grocery bags are made from polyethylene, which is derived from oil, which is considered by many San Franciscans to be the root of most of the world’s problems, from $4 gallons of gasoline to the war in Iraq.”

Actually, not this San Franciscan. I believe that most of this world’s problems stem from peanut butter that you can’t lick from the roof of your mouth, poorly performed cunnilingus, clip-on ties, bad toupees, and, of course, money.

Teo Kridech, My Hero

San Francisco Chronicle: “The posts ‘nearly killed my business,’ said Kridech, a native of France who has worked in the food industry for 25 years and spent $150,000 revamping the Senses space. ‘Everyone has become a food critic. They think they’re real big shots. They probably can’t even make scrambled eggs.'”

I am one of the few cultivated San Franciscans who can, in fact, make scrambled eggs. So I take no offense to Teo Kridech’s charges. In fact, I agree whole-heartedly with them. It’s about time that someone identified those vermin now sitting in restaurants because they are incapable of cooking a basic breakfast. It’s about time that rebels like Mr. Kridech raked these bastard diners across the coals. I believe in a society in which those who cannot make scrambled eggs are massacred by unscrupulous men in Nazi uniforms and epaulettes. I will begin shooting these so-called “food bloggers” in the head, should Mr. Kridech request my services. These uncultured vultures think that can simply place something in a microwave and call it dinner. They think that they can go to a restaurant and describe its problems to people on the Web! Well, what good are these interlopers with good men like Teo Kirdech determining our cultural norms?

So I salute Teo Kirdech’s unapologetic and somewhat strange embrace of Manichean vales. Since I can make scrambled eggs, perhaps I might be styled a “big shot” and even, quite possibly, a “food critic.” (Many years ago, I was asked to write restaurant reviews. Whether these scribblings count as “food criticism” proper, I cannot say. I was a younger man then and I often described how I was feeling in these reviews, which was probably my career as a “food critic” was a brief one. Nevertheless, I shall send copies of these on to Mr. Kirdech, where he can then offer me his opinion about whether these scribblings constitute criticism. Or perhaps I can simply cook scrambled eggs in front of Mr. Kirdech and earn his trust.)

To settle this matter once and for all, I plan to check out Mr. Kridech’s restaurant at some random point during the next three weeks, investigating these claims of “cheap porcelain plates” and the “little butter dish from Ikea.” If this plateware is causing an inordinate amount of stress among San Francisco eaters, and if Mr. Kridech is indeed stiffing his customers, it will be duly reported here. And I will have to abandon the clear homicidal plan implied by Mr. Kridech.

The ball, as they say, is in Mr. Kridech’s court. And he should be a little frightened. For while other food bloggers have been hard on Mr. Kridech, who I hope will be my friend no matter what I think of his restaurant, I am a harder man to be reckoned with. I can make scrambled eggs.

Keep Castro Halloween Going

During Halloween, for those who don’t live in San Francisco, the Castro transforms into a fantastic affair that is held every Halloween: sort of a mini-Mardi Gras in which everybody crowds into the Castro neighborhood and dresses up. Tens of thousands of people are drawn every October 31, and this confluence brings together freaks, drag queens, and everyday people — all of them celebrating the mischievious spirit of Halloween and this City’s rep as glorious weird magnet.

Last night, nine people were shot in the Castro area.

Now, a few years ago, some stabbings occurred and there was some discussion on whether the Castro should be closed down for Halloween. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

But the shootings have now upped the authoritarian ante and now Mayor Gavin Newsom is considering pulling the plug.

I certainly hope this isn’t the case. On Halloween 2001, I went to the Castro with some friends, having just returned from a trip to Germany. With irony declared dead (why?), I had grave reservations about whether or not my country’s innovative and creative spirit would survive the “you are either with us or against us” mentality that followed the 9/11 attacks. Castro Halloween 2001 reassured me, demonstrating that my country’s spirit was there. And I realized then that no matter how authoritarian this country became, there would still be Castro Halloween. There would still be people determined to celebrate their inner Bohemian spirits. There would still be people wanting to have fun and rock the boat, however rightward the national galleon sailed.

But if Castro Halloween is to go or to be seriously restricted because of these treacherous bad apples who spoiled the party for everyone, then I’ll know that my country is dead. I’ll know that our zero tolerance policy, which doesn’t account for the fact that terrible things will continue to occur as long as humans occupy this planet, applies across the board. I’ll know that, much like the great edgy cabaret acts of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s that inspired Christopher Isherwood were completely halted and uprooted by Nazi thugs, this nation has no interest in one of our most precious freedoms: the right to assemble peacefully under the First Amendment.

If we believe in America, that marvelous land of rabblerousers and cultural innovators, then the citizens of San Francisco won’t let Castro Halloween go because of a few thugs.

Witold Rybczynski: Chickenhead of the Month

Journalistically speaking, Witold Rybczynski is like a paunchy, loutish drunk guzzling MGD at a dive that was cool in 1995 but that’s gone steadily downhill, incapable of citing specific examples (Maybeck had plenty of homegrown architectural followers, you foolish fuck), while he’s castigating two thirds of the bar through his rambling and uninformed generalizations and bitter dismissals, and who people would beat the shit out of if he weren’t so pathetic in articulating arguments or if it weren’t so easy to get the hubristic toad to buy you a drink because you smile and nod as he can’t stop boasting about his apparent “genius.”

(In other words, nobody fucks with my city and gets away with it.)

Bartender Bobby Cook Dead

Robert “Bobby” Cook, the owner of the fantastic Owl Tree bar, has passed away. The Owl Tree, if you haven’t been there, is a fantastic bar loaded with all manner of owl memorabilia. Cook was as much of a staple on the San Francisco bar scene as the late Bruno Mooshei. If you didn’t talk with him or contribute to the conversation, Bobby Cook would order you to the other end of the bar.

No doubt Bobby is up there with Bruno mixing martinis in That Great Bartending Place in the Sky and ordering sanctimonious pricks to sit elsewhere.

RIP Bobby. I, for one, dig the owls.

(Thanks, Kim!)

An Open Letter to Andy Ross

Dear Andy:

Thank you for surrendering Cody’s to a corporation. I’m sure that Yohan, Inc., with its concentration on distributing foreign books and magazines, has the experience and the niche interest to keep the two remaining Cody’s stores truly independent. I’m positive they won’t turn the stores into crappy franchises no less distinct than a B. Dalton outlet. Sure.

But I know how you’ll justify all this, Mr. Ross. You didn’t sell out. You bought in. It was the “market,” after all, that killed off Cody’s. Not the fact that you took over Planet Hollywood’s old space on Stockton Street, which probably had a rent that was a shitload more expensive than the original Telegraph Avenue store that you so gracelessly killed. Fred Cody is spinning in his grave right around now. He never would have let this happen.

The fact of the matter is that you didn’t have the courage to tell people that you were ready to hang up your hat. You ran this transaction through fast — without trying to find a responsible buyer who gave a damn about books and bookstores. Someone who would carry the Cody’s legacy into the 21st century.

Well, I hope you’re sitting pretty on that small fortune. You didn’t even have the balls to talk to the Berkeley Daily Planet, the newspaper that broke the story. Instead, you farmed out the duties to poor Fred’s widow, Pat Cody, who had to begrudgingly remark that this was “a good thing.”

Well, it’s not a good thing, Andy. It’s not good that you let one of the greatest indie bookstores that ever graced the Bay Area die and placed what was left well on the path to ruins. It’s not good that you cower away and let others do your talking for you. It’s not good that you betrayed a Berkeley landmark the same way that Justin Herman killed the Fillmore in the 1960s or that Robert Moses tampered with New York.

Very truly yours,

Edward Champion

San Franciso Fringe Festival

As a man who has volunteered his services in the past for various Fringe plays and who even wrote and directed one (and who is, in fact, working on another), it would be unconscionable of me not to point out that this year’s San Francisco Fringe Festival starts tonight.

There are a few things to observe here:

First off, that sexy podcaster Michael Rice has interviewed many of the Fringe participants (and recently reached his 100th show; congrats Mike!).

Second, a number of regulars return to the Exit’s three stages (and beyond). Jeremy Jorgenson, who put on The Thrilling Adventures of Elvis in Space back in 2004 (the year Wrestling went on), returns with a stirring sequel. The nEO sURREALISTS return with Yeastboy and PigKnuckle. Noah Kelly, a cool cat I know, is one of the talents involved in RIPE Theater’s @Six, performed, believe it or not, at Original Joe’s. And if restaurant cabaret rooms weren’t enough to tickle your fancy, why not try out the play performed on The Mexican Bus?

Jimmy Hogg’s Curriculum Vitae is a one-man show outlining Hogg’s employment history. John Rackham’s Exiles, a play outlining a world without bars, cinemas, theatres and other pleasures, looks interesting. Theatre Tremendo offers a Twilight Zone-style play. There’s even a rock opera called Thanatics.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the excellent Banana, Bag & Bodice has returned with a new play entitled The Fall and Rise of the Rising Fallen, in which Jason Craig and Jessica Jelliffe will not be present, but contacted from the dead.

I hope to catch at least a few of these plays next week and I will report back some of my findings.


Annalee Newitz has coined the term “chainshock” to depict one’s reaction when “a store you once thought independent is now part of a chain.” However, I’d like to put forth an opposing term: “indieshock,” when one learns that a place maintaining a troubling chain-store like atmosphere is actually independent. Here are my own “indieshock” moments:

1. Black Oak Books. Far too antiseptic in its layout. Its owners regularly hassle customers, demanding that they hand over their bags or purses in a rude manner that implies the customers are criminal and/or Gestapo victims. This is the kind of treatment one expects from Borders, not a reputable indie bookstore. (Technically, one might argue that Black Oaks is a chain, by dint of having two stores. But I let this discrepancy stand.)

2. Cafe Reverie. You walk into this place, shocked by the fact that you’re the only one wearing a Spam T-shirt and ripped up jeans and probably making a lot less money than the yuppies seated at the tables, who are all hypnotized by the azure glare of their laptops, as if they are awaiting a message from Xenu. You get shit from the staff for not being particular about your order. What chain-like perdition is this? Oh, it’s actually “indie.” Never mind that the people here are scared shitless of anybody who looks even remotely impoverished.

3. Lucky Penny. The decor of this place resembles a Howard Johnson’s circa 1977, steeped in hideous beiges and browns — the kind of layout only a heroin addict would respond to. The staff here are burned out. Nearly all of them have the telltale look of someone who has spent their shift contending with borderline criminals. The food is terrible, and I’m talking worse than Sparky’s at 3AM, where the only edible thing you can get is a grilled cheese sandwich. And even then, you have serious doubts. I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to dine at this place. If ever there was a San Francisco restaurant that slung homogeneous-looking hash, the Lucky Penny is it. And yet, astonishingly, the Lucky Penny is independently owned and operated.