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I Left My Heart In the Mission District

I ended up with an extra two days off from work so my best buddy Ray and I decided to take a much coveted vacation in my favorite city in the world, San Francisco. Never mind that S.F. is less than an hour from my doorstep. I saved the money on a plane ticket so I felt free to spend carelessly all week.

My vacation started off slow, as we went to three places that were closed. Our first stop would have been the South Park Cafe. But being closed, I enjoyed watching artists work their easels in the park. Leaving South Park, we happened upon a fantastic gallery that runs there own printing press. I watched the machinery print rather unspectacular cards and realized that I am in love with every part of the book-making process. This gallery had, in addition to standard art, many hand-made books.

Failed destination #2 was the Arkansas Friendship Garden. We climbed high on Potrero Hill to not get there. On the steepest streets, instead of sidewalks there are stairs. No wonder the people of this city are more friendly and tolerant. I would have been impatient at all the false starts if the views weren’t so spectacular. The sun glinting off rows of cars on distant city streets looked like mercury floating in rivulets down the side of the hills. And this isn’t Nob Hill; this is standing next to project housing. Already tired and hungry, we trek to the Mission to sign up for a mural tour, which only runs on the weekends (It was Thursday).

Backtrack a bit, the Mission and North Beach have been in competition for my favorite ghettos of the city. The former is Mexican and the latter is Italian, though also known for being the site of the Beat Rennaissance in the sixties. I had been to some mediocre bars in the Mission, primarily around 16th and 17th St., but I had never spent a day walking through the neigbhoorhood’s South side. Every other building is brightened by colorful murals, most of which honor revolutionaries, activists and their ideals. 24th St. is mostly restaurants and small groceries, with the ocassional shop or gallery.
We got a banana for a quarter at a local bodega and some fantastic pastries for a dollar each. Then we caught lunch at La Nueva Fruitlandia. I haven’t had Cuban food so good since eating my Cuban bisabuela’s recipes as a child. We tried to stop at a gallery for local hispanic radical artists but, keeping with the theme, they were closed to prepare for a big opening night. So instead we happily browsed the shops. One shop sold mostly carnival accessories for Day of the Dead and little Mexican dresses for girls to wear to church. But they also carried a lot of Zapatista products and we walked out of there with Zapatista (light roast!) coffee and coffee flavored honey. I also acquired a wrist warmer with Che’s visage for only $2.50. That’s something you won’t find in North Beach.

We turned North onto Valencia, which is more of a commercial main drag. Valencia St. is low-key bars, vintage and kitsch shops, shamelessly radical bookstores and vegetarian chow.

Ray and I happened upon a small side street, more like an alley that goes through, that was entirely covered in graffiti art. I should say, murals, because most of the work was not stylized in the typical graffiti style and you could tell they were all by different artists. Stepping into the alley, we could hear a woman wailing but this did not deter us from taking in the artful walls. I thought the woman was in the thin walls of one of these muraled studio apartments but about half way we found her sitting indian-style with her head in her hands. She appeared to be holding some sort of pipe. Her face was ragged and wrinkled and dirty. She was likely homeless. Her suffering moved me. I asked her if she wanted a hug. She said “sure.” Then she stood up and I held this her in my arms while she sobbed and sobbed. I held her tightly and didn’t let go until she did first. She asked if I had a cigarette and of course I didn’t. We left her still tearful, but no longer filling the corrider with her anguished sobs.
Then a strange coincidence happened. I have hugged a tattered old San Franciscan once before, when I was drunk at the Bar in the Castro. This was after a conversation about her manic depression, as I recall. The first place we went after the alley of art was a small boutique. As I was entering the shop, that same woman I hugged in the Castro was leaving. She didn’t recognize me.

We stopped in 426 Valencia, which is Dave Eggar’s program that teaches creative writing to kids. The project is partly funded by the pirate shop at the entrance. The pirate motif is also a ruse to entrance the kids into getting excited about writing (426 Valencia has been very successful, so you might have heard of other centers around the country). I was hastily filling out a volunteer application when I heard the guy behind the counter telling people it was closing time. I didn’t look up, but I overheard a dejected couple responding. In coindidence #2, the dejeced couple was Lawrence and Cecily; they were staying at my house for a few nights before they move to L.A.
Later we meet up with Lawrence, Cecily, Jeremy and my sweetie at Delirium to have drinks. We barhop to Zeitgeist, a biker bar with fantastic bloody marys and terrible music. Day two of my vacation continues with a youth hostel, North Beach and the search for the perfect San Francisco bar.

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.

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.

Veggie Tales

No wonder Light Life makes the crappiest organic foods. They are owned by ConAgra, one of the biggest crappiest, icky, evil industrial farmers. Pardon the understatement. By crappiest, I mean that consistently in every category: veggie dogs, veggie burgers, fake meats — everything.

If you are curious which big corporation owns the organic/veggie processed stuff you’ve been buying, check out this handy chart.


Keeping Up With the Joneses

On a joyride through Oakland yesterday I saw my very first gated church. That is, I saw a huge church with a big electronic gate surrounding the exterior. I’m sure Jesus will make sure that all of those suffering and in need will be administered a gate pass.

Shame on you, Oakland. And shame on Atlanta. As the rumor goes, one of the suburbs outside of that city is now the first to have a gated community… wait, no, could it be? a gated community within a gated community. So that the residents can protect themselves from those other uppidity, white-bread gated community residents.
Who knows? You can’t trust those foks living near the exterior. They could riot. Better
lock down the big screen TV.

I was reading the Bad Astronomy blog’s list of best photographs of space for 2006. The winning picture was of Saturn:


Far away is this little speck in the center left. It looks like this:


That little particle of dust is our little sleepy planet. From here you can’t see the bitchy office politics or the drama of personal failures. You can’t see the difference between Democrats or Republicans, Russians or Argentinians. You can’t even see the polar ice caps melting.

I hope your New Year’s Eve brought you all the hope and promise of a new year: grandiose visions of your own future greatness. I hope you have an image of yourself as more motivated, more beautiful, shedding your secret identity as you leap from tall building to tall building, rescuing damsels and pouncing villians with an ounce of wit to boot.
Now for day one: a little persective.

A Very Special End of Civilization Christmas

Stop global warming street artI remember when I was nine or ten how exciting it was to have a record-breaking heat wave. I took pride in the blanket of hot water that lay in the air, and in my abilitiy to withstand it. We fried an egg on the sidewalk, just because we could.
It was around this same age that I first heard about global warming. I would be in my twenties then. Such a strange thing to imagine for a child: being an adult, having responsibility for your life, knowing all about kissing and make-up and other grown-up things I was too innocent to conceive of. The juxtoposition of the wild concept of me all-grown-up and the wild concept of the end of civilization was more than my little brain could handle. At most, I thought I would be wearing sunscreen all of the time. Ever since that supple age, I have wondered if the ever-hotter summers are connected to the climate change we are bringing on ourselves. At last, I have grown into a sunscreen-lathered twenty-something and news reports daily are confirming the suspicions I’ve been harboring since before puberty.
The last month of 2006, the news and the blogs have brought one blow after another in the bad news department. December was welcomed with the flood in Somalia that has already taken more than five hundred lives. It used to be folks would blame the fates for terrible floods; now scientists are saying that this is just another sign of global warming. Then the UK Gaurdian informed me that the EPA is considering rolling back the regulations that keep lead out of gasoline, though it is a neurotoxin and a significant source of air pollution. It was equally disturbing to learn of the extinction of the Chinese River Dolphin.
The knock-out punch came from my friend Joel yesterday. He told me about the world-wide extinction that is happening faster than that at the time of the dinosaurs. I must have been sick the week they covered this in Life Science class because I didn’t know a thing about it.

From Wikipedia:

“According to a 1998 survey of 400 biologists conducted by New York’s American Museum of Natural History, nearly 70 percent of biologists believe that we are currently in the early stages of a human-caused mass extinction,[10] known as the Holocene extinction event. In that survey, the same proportion of respondents agreed with the prediction that up to 20 percent of all living species could become extinct within 30 years (by 2028). Biologist E.O. Wilson estimated [4] in 2002 that if current rates of human destruction of the biosphere continue, one-half of all species of life on earth will be extinct in 100 years.”

In honor of the coming end of civilization, I’m posting my all-time favorite speech (and as a former SGA devotee, I’ve heard plenty). When I first heard this compelling bit of environmental activism, I sat in my car after I arriving at my destination, riveted by Derrick Jensen’s words.
After you have cleaned up the shiny, non-recyclable gift wrap and are wallowing in the digestive frenzy of seasonal gluttony, please take some time to give this a listen. Haven’t you seen Miracle on 34th Street enough already?

Derrick Jensen – Bringing Down Civilization Part I

Derrick Jensen – Bringing Down Civilization Part II

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.