Category Archives: Bay Area

Life is Beautiful; I do nothing to Stop the Blaze

We go into the city to celebrate my fantastic new job, bar hopping in the Mission with Jeremy and Jenifer.

Jeremy and Jenifer are a bit older than my sweetie and I and they have the kind of financial stability we are striving for and the suburbanism we are trying to avoid.

The bars close at two and we go up to their hotel. It occurs to me that my visits to hotels have mostly been connected to conferences and road trip stopovers. The very idea that my friends are paying to spend the night in the city is exemplary of the kind of luxury that makes me bashful.

At the room, we spend a lot of time bitching about the motion sensor refrigerators. They have fridges in every room but they are already fully stocked with drinks. If you take one, the sensor records it on your bill. This is a good way to take advantage of wasted partiers and it also means that every room has a refrigerator that can’t be used. If one wants to use it, they charge a twenty dollar fee to have its contents removed. This resonates with me as a symbol of what’s fundamentally wrong with this society: the hotel pays for every room to have an unusable fridge while so many people in the world still don’t have refrigeration. It is the same as the empty houses in a city with so many homeless, the same as the wasted, unpurchased food that rots in the trash while so many people starve.
The only word to justify such logic is profit.

I have been reading Derrick Jensen and he is caught up in the idea that the dominant culture is insane. The only way to choose sushi and freeways over birds and tuna and the preservation of the climate, he argues, is to be crazy. It is crazy to destroy one’s landbase for any reason, much less so we can all pay for minibars in our hotel rooms. But I don’t think the dominant culture is crazy. It does not have, as Jensen puts it, a death wish. I believe we are merely short-sighted.

Leaving the hotel room I couldn’t help but see how easy it is to fall into this luxury, how very second-nature it is to me.

Standing in the big glass elevator, I hear its mechanical WOOSH and we are swept past eight floors, each one arranged precisely to be sterile and beautiful and non-offensive. Everywhere I look I am surrounded by artifice. There was no elevator muzak, but in such a moment there should have been. Sean was saying something about how all these hotels are designed the same way, like a formula. Briefly I feel science fiction, like this can’t be real, these smooth and perfect elevators in this smooth and perfect structure. Some day people will look back in awe, trying to imagine living in a world so pristine, in the same way impoverished Cubans wonder at the splendor of Batista’s muraled and gilded palace. Some day this same building will be dark and dirty and people will try to imagine how beautiful it must have been to ride in those glass elevators (It’s the same hotel featured in the 1977 Mel Brooks movie, High Anxiety).

Yet this kind of luxury has been omnipresent my entire life. Even as someone that has tried to take a step back and evaluate where my culture has come from, where it is going, the electric glow of the hotel lobby is expected, commonplace. Nature is what’s alien.

Humans are not good at connecting the dots. Even if I can see the connection between eating sushi and the “clear-cutting” of the oceans, it doesn’t touch my life. I have my own dreams, things I’ve been aspiring to as long as I can remember. Everyone does. Rarely does the trajectory of our lives come unhinged by the things we read about in the news. I know the polar bears are dying but there are so many things I want to do with my life that have nothing to do with polar bears. These few who say, “this is more important than my life, more important than anything I have ever wanted for myself,” are far out-numbered by those who are following their dreams in the system that perpetuates the destruction. Not sinister desires: musicians and writers, lawyers and firemen, chefs and film makers all rely on the continuation of the current system. And how could they not? Their dreams are born in it, they have never known anything else.

I am consumed by these thought as we drive home over the bay bridge. Sean is talking about how much he enjoys the ride. It is all downhill and easy turns. The cars speed at 80. The bridge has two levels and we are on the lower. In the distance there is a column of smoke. It goes higher than the concrete ceiling that limits our view. The smoke is so black it stands out against the navy of the night sky. It is four a.m.

As we leave the covered part of the bridge, the traffic slows to gaze at the biggest fire I have ever seen. Flames are easily shooting seventy feet into the air (later figures are 250 feet). The onramp we are passing is on fire. People are pulled over to look and take pictures. A firetruck is arriving at the scene and even the fireman is using his camera phone to take pictures. The fire is on the “maze,” a cluster of ramps that go onto the bridge. It has entirely consumed whatever started it. The lower ramp is broken in two and, as we drive by, the people gawking gasp: there is a crack as the flames consume the higher overpass like so much kindling in a giant campfire.

This awakens me from my daze. Through the glass and steel encasing of the car, the fire beckons, a bright bold reminder of nature, powerful and awesome. It is enormous. The firetrucks are powerless to stop it, at most they can only hope to contain it.

Tomorrow, I will hear radio recordings of of penguins making distress calls because their ice is melting. I will learn that the bluebell flowers are dying and thus so are the orange tipped butterflies and the birds that eat those butterflies (and so on). Just as every day I hear of the disappearance of some frog or the bleaching of the coral reefs. And I will go on singing and blogging and drawing.

But on this night my animal instincts are touched, the blaze attacking my artificial world like a giant pillaging the village. Still, I am civilized. I know there are firemen whose job it is to confront this giant. My job is to stay in my car. This is my place, our place, to sit by and watch as the whole world burns.

A Beautiful Day To Be A Homeless Man Who Thinks the Girls All Resemble Starlets

We can hear Omar coming from a block away, shouting to someone in the street or to the owner of other shops. I wonder what he says to them. To us, he always says the same thing. That is, if he gets inside. Some days we close the door. He stands outside shouting and we shake our heads and say, “Omar, go away,” or “Omar, go home.”

This is silly because Omar is home. I wonder what part of Telegraph Ave. he sleeps on, if he has blankets. The owners of the hat shop are his neighbors and his daily routine is to walk down Telegraph, sharing the natural exuberance and extraversion that would have served him well in the working world.

Omar is not too drunk today. He walks into the hat shop, gap-toothed and smiling with a Miller High Life. It is a shamelessly beautiful afternoon and Ed, the owner, is eager to be combative. So Omar is allowed to stay, if only for a minute.

Omar says: “Jess’ca!” not talking to me, but talking to Jessica, “you know who you look like?” He turns to me, “She looks like Fae Dunaway!”

Jessica rolls her eyes. “I know, I know, me with my beautiful blonde hair. Good-bye Omar.” Jessica has simple, brown hair.

He insists that I look like someone too. I tell him to come back when he thinks of it.

He does leave but comes back minutes later to tell me that I look like “A YOUNG ELIZABETH TAYLOR! THAT’S JUST WHO YOU LOOK LIKE! ELIZABETH TAYLOR WAS BEAUTIFUL. But not as pretty as Fae Dunaway.”

It is not too hard to get Omar to leave unless Ed is around. I thought today would be the day that there was a break in our ritual conversation, we might discuss how much hat shop girls look like old movie stars. But then Ed sees Omar and smiles, eager to have someone to josh on. It doesn’t matter what Ed says, no matter how hateful, cruel or dismissive, Omar’s response is always the same.

He doesn’t speak to Ed, he speaks to everyone in sight, all the people in the shop and on the street. He says, “THIS MAN SAVED MY LIFE! I MEAN IT! I love this man, I mean, HE REALLY SAVED MY LIFE!”

“What ‘ya got there, Omar?” Ed asks, pointing at the Champaign of beers, “Got one for me?”
“You don’t want none of this!” Omar protests.
“Come on! Saved your life can’t even give a guy a beer?”
“Carol will kill me for sure if she ever found out!” Carol is the other owner and Ed’s wife.
“Come on, can’t even give me a beer?”
But no one looks because who would believe for the shop owner is going to rob a drunk and they’re all smiles anyway.

It makes me happy to see Omar smile. I think how sad it must be to wake up every day and get drunk and set out to find the shop owner so that he can really understand that he saved your life. I wonder how he became this man, what trials changed him from an innocent boy, someone with hope. And how young, and was it a million small injustices or does he strive to blot out a particular memory that haunts him?

But today Amoeba Records has a band playing and the street vendors are happy just sitting in the sun and the punks are selling jokes for change and in short, it is a stunning Spring day. Even a man without a literal or proverbial pot to piss in grinning from ear to ear and relishing the sunshine.

I Blame Starbucks

After living in the Bay Area for more than half a year, I finally found something to complain about. Sure, California has mountains and sunsets on the ocean and a temperate climate but–


the coffee is terrible. It is Texas terrible, which is my way of saying it is not only bad but the people there think it is good which makes it so much worse. If you walk into a random San Francisco coffeehouse, the coffees of the day will be dark roast, dark roast and french roast. No sensible medium roasts or light roasts. No. They want their coffee burnt. If it was good enough for Alan Ginsberg,..they..think, it is good enough for me.

I seriously doubt Ginsberg drank dark roast. The popularity of dark roast was spread by Starbuck$ which, thankfully, did not have a hold on American coffeedrinkers when the beats were sipping at the Vesuvio in the sixties.

I’m sure many readers are skeptical already, they say, “but Karma, you are not a connoseuir.” No, I’m not a coffee snob* but I lived with two of them, one of whom worked as a barista in an upscale coffeebar for five years. I still willingly drink all kinds of sludge but I have been carefully lectured in the ways of good coffee. Coffee should not cause a physical reaction like cheap scotch. It should be pleasurable. French roast is seldom the latter.

Now my skeptical readers, the history of french roast, the darkest of dark, ze cafe zat makes le merde run like ze Rhine Rhevher.

French roast coffee was born out of wartime rationing. French citizens had to make do with a little bit less of everything. In order to stretch their coffee quantity to the next far away ration, they would burn the coffee beans. You get a bit more coffee that way. They grew accustomed to drinking their brew burnt. French roast is nothing more than nostalgic masochism, the way some like to listen to noisy, crackling vinyl**.

The big coffee chains would have you believe that burnt coffee is more exotic, as if it is peppered with Bridget Bardot’s bikini bits. If it is too difficult to drink, it is because you are not man enough to digest Mediterranean beauties.

And it is difficult to digest. I drink two cups daily and french roast can still make my tummy flip flop. It also has less caffeine then a lighter roast (now who’s hard core?).

Lovers of the more pungent brew believe that there’s more coffee in their coffee, as if those who can’t stomach singed beans aren’t real java drinkers. But the truth is the opposite. One can appreciate a medium roast in the same way they can taste wine: weather and soil conditions give it a flavor that is distinctive to that region. This is why some of the more famous coffee-producing regions brew light roast (Kona, Jamaican Blue Mountain, Kenya). As the beans become darker and more oily, that origin flavor is lost. At the the point of french roast, the coffee tastes primarily of the roasting process. Medium roast has complexity. All french roast tastes the same.

I imagine it is a bit like trying to distinguish between sourdough and rye when you have toasted the bread til it is black. But, oh, that burnt sourdough is so much tougher to eat. Doesn’t it taste rugged and sexy?

The reality is that coffeeshops can make their coffee last longer by roasting the beans longer. This means more money for them. And all these west coast french roast fanatics are the same suckers that smoke Philip Morris and drink crappy scotch.

*You can call yourself a coffee snob if you insist on grinding it yourself. Those who buy their coffee in a can or a bag labeled with the name of your supermarket need not apply.

** I appreciate vinyl as much as the next gal, but some take nicely produced music and digitally add the pops and scratches to make it sound old. Now that’s just silly.

I Work In A Hatshop

I’m participating in National Novel Writer’s Month so all of my blogging time is more likely to be dedicated to producing a terrible work of fiction: 50,000 words in one month. Additionally, I have been working every day of the week, as my two days off I go to my internship. So here is a quick summary of my life, currently.

I am working in the Berkeley Hat Shop. The business has been owned by the same couple for 27 years. I can’t explain to you how many hats these people have. People who walk into the store are amazed at the variety and abundance of hats that are shoved, stacked and hanging from celing to floor. But the truth is that there are easily four times as many hats in the back as there are on the showroom floor. The back room (really, two rooms, but it’s called “the back”) has boxes of hats that are literally stacked to the ceiling. Sometimes there are a full stack of hats behind them. There are two lofts that are reached by ladder, both of which are filled with boxes and bags of hats. The ladder and the flashlight are my tools. The staff jokes that the daily battle is against gravity.
The store is located on Telegraph, which is the bohemian neighborhood of the most bohemian city in the country. Punks, hipsters, hippies all get there hats here, as do Krishnas, churchladies, DJs, and UC Berkeley students. The other day I was helping some customers when they talked about the concert they had that night. It was Sufjan Stevens and his band. The people who come into our shop are interesting to look at and talk to. We also have bums and drunks that occasionally cause a scene. musicians, punk spangers, tarot readers, and street vendors all vy for my money on my lunch break.

The female-half of the partenership that runs the shop is very active in local politics. And why shouldn’t she be? Her shop has more clout then the fly-by-night city politicians. People come into the shop to argue politics. She starts petitions and lobbies votes out of customers. She knows all of the people with their hand in the honey-pot and all of their gossip, too.

Alas, I’m still poor. But at least life is interesting.

Wish You Were Here

On my bike ride home, I passed a neighborhood community dinner. They were all sitting in the street with children running about. Because Berkeley has traffic calming, this is actually safe and not bothersome for drivers. They also had an art bike that was made of two bikes attached with a pallette in the middle to stow things like groceries. Art cars and home-customized bikes are both common in Berkeley so this bike was a delight but no surprise.

About two blocks from home I began to see bubbles. I followed them. Someone had turned on a bubble machine from the second story window of their house, on a Sunday afternoon for no apparent reason.

I don’t care what the cost of living is; I’m convinced this is the greatest place in the world.

Ganja brownies

While I was reading tarot cards at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, my pal Joel was wondering between concert stages. He noticed a man selling cannabis. This wasn’t too difficult because the man was standing in the middle of the path yelling, “Ganja brownies! Ganja brownies!” Now, MaryJ may be legal in the golden state but it’s not that legal. The only people legally allowed to partake of the green are those with a prescription card. And I don’t think this guy was checking any credentials.
Joel noticed that a woman was talking to a police officer and pointing at the man. Was there about to be a scene? He watched as the police officer walked over to the salesman. Then the police officer bought a brownie and ate it himself.

Bienvenidos a San Francisco.