Jul 16, 2010

Just back from lunch with the city's 'last icon'. After all, who better represents the incestuous, convoluted, and contradictory nature of this city? Who better exemplifies its heart and total disregards?

As we sat down he asked if I had any appointments for the afternoon. I shook my head so he ordered drinks and when we finally left the restaurant an hour and some later we were both bobbing and weaving. He was once a middle-weight prize fighter, and showed he could still bob and weave with the best of them.

He looked great by the way. And for a man in his 70s he said he was feeling well, although his left shoulder still gives him fits and a few times I noticed he had difficulty lifting his arm. I told him it was just as well; he shouldn't be diving off any more cliffs up at Yosemite. He did that once, in his 50s, dove off a high cliff into a shallow mountain lake and should have died.

"Yea, don't count me out," he said.

If there's one thing you know about the boss, it is that you never count him out.

He had his characteristic smile; his hair was long and majestic. But at the very top of his forehead the hair turned in a curlicue and from time to time he looked like a laid-back toddler, but salty-mouthed and feisty. He was ever so glad, giggly at the thought, that Ms. K was having some bad hair days lately.

"That little shit," he said.

We traded stories, gossip. Just like the old days. But it was the last story you want hear. I asked him to clarify a long-standing rumor that he'd had a 3-way with Janis Joplin and one of her Lesbian lovers. He smiled his mischievous smile and said that actually there had been a third woman involved and that was the one he fell in love with and who later "saved" him.

Saved you? I asked.

Yes, he said, Janis had gotten jealous of his wandering affection for her friend, woman no. 2, and so gave him a stiff shot of heroin. An injection not to kill him but more to throw strange sand in his face. In that purple haze he remembers being with a lot of people in a public space and then seeing a huge shadow, which at first terrified him and then turned out to be the shadow of an enormous bird that picked him up in its clutches and flew off. He remembers looking down at the world and then it was as though the bird was clobbering him with its wings. The next thing he knew he woke up and there was a woman slapping his face, trying to get him to come to.

Which he did finally, he was saved, and then sometime later he fell in love with that woman, woman no. 3.

I told him it was high time to write his autobiography. He agreed and added that this was probably the right moment because the statute of limitations has run out on most of the crimes he's ever committed.

Jul 4, 2010

If you're a petition gatherer with white hair, listen up. First thing you need to know is, you're threatening to people. That's why you're not having a lot of success. Now don't get excited. Throttle back. This is not personal, but you need to get a hat.

I got this advice earlier today from Martin at the Fillmore St. Jazz festival while trying to sign up people in support of Wall Street financial reform. This was at the Organizing For America booth in front of the Junior League thrift shop. You couldn't miss it because there was a life-sized cardboard replica of the president, in a superman outfit.

Martin explained this to me. He's an old hand with petitions. First thing is you have to accept that you can be threatening just by the way you look. You could have the heart of a Golden Retriever, the animosity of a shag carpet, but the white hair throws people. It reminds them of the future. If you're 25, even 35, or God help you if you're 45, the last thing you want to think about is getting old. You want Comedy Central. You want cheery. You keep going back to, "There's something about Mary."

But I can hear you saying "yes, but I'm asking people to sign a petition for Wall Street reform and if you've read Paul Krugman we're in for the third great depression since 1873 and there's absolutely nothing we can do about it. The 'Repubicans' are going to block any policy they didn't intuit from watching Ronald Reagan doing 20 Mule Team Borax ads. The world is deserting us. This is serious. The whole culture is bankrupt. And bankers are the most bankrupt of us all, morally speaking."

All true but that's why it's so important to be calm and friendly. You want to think of 'Good morning, America' as you say to people, "Would you like to sign a petition in support of Wall Street financial reform?"

That's actually long winded, because by the time you've said, "would you like to sign a petition," the person or the couple are past you and they're saying over their shoulder, "No thanks." Or, "maybe when I come back." Or, "I did already." Or, "Nope, leave the banks alone and why don't you get a real job."

But isn't activism a real job? It's not what Mark Levin does but it seems like a real job.

Martin says not to go there. "Don't ever be sarcastic. Someone says that and you wish them a happy day with all the genuine good feeling you can. Pretend everyone is your grandmother."

Now by the same token you don't want to look like a smiling psychopath, but you want to look easy, you want to look like what people see when they look in the mirror: wisps and filaments of themselves, a flattering hologram, a fond memory of cheek, an abstraction of neck.

So, you buy a hat and the next thing you might want to do is put on a lot of stickers. Put 'em everywhere. All over your shirt, your hat, make a boa out of a sticker strip. Look a little disorganized. Practice dishevelment. Look harmless but not clownish. Have a couple of clipboards but be careful that the sign-up sheet has at least one signature. Nobody wants to be first. You're looking for the follower. Remember that the Willy Loman in you is always in search of the Willy Loman in someone else.

Now for example here's a man coming toward you but it's the couple behind him that you really want so you say to the man you know you won't get, "would you like a Vote 2010 sticker", so that the couple behind him is now put at ease, they think they're going to get something, and then when the man passes — and says under his breath, "get away from me, creep" — you say, "well have a great day, sir", and now the couple thinks that that man was rude and they've arrived at the IHOP and everything is cool. So then you say to them, "and would you like to support Wall Street reform, as though you were saying, "would you like to support motherhood?" "Would like to put in a good word for Jesus?"

Now there's a couple of other tricks. Don't bother to ask Asian-Americans to sign a petition. Don't approach white men over 50. If in doubt you want to kowtow a little more. You want to remember that every kid under three is the cutest you ever saw. You want to remind people that even on the Fourth of July it's okay to be conscious. It is a holiday, and this is a jazz festival, and you know people are busy and even though they call it Independence Day it's really just a holiday and you know you don't ever want to get heavy and talk politics. That's for Thanksgiving.

One last word of advice: be politically androgynous. This is San Francisco but remember there's a lot of closet conservatives. What they won't say to you, or even their good friends, is that they believe that anybody without a job is lazy and extending unemployment benefits is just playing to people's base instincts. So sound moderate.

And don't mention Obama unless you're talking to black people. Just say, "this is not about socialism. This is not about the end of free markets." which is true, but it sounds better, more neutral if you don't mention the president's name.

Above all, what you don't want to do is to defend the president. What you don't want to say is, "the president is not a socialist", or "Obama has no intention of ending free markets". Why? Because people just don't believe that and they won't believe YOU. They'll think you're just another spitting liberal.

Like the short Jewish man who got right up to my face. "Afghanistan?" he said. "Afghanistan? Do you have any idea how much money we've spent in Afghanistan? Do you even know who the Taliban are? Do you? Ok, then don't talk to me about Afghanistan."

But you wonder how it is the President has gotten such a bad rap. Well, it's the times, it's just so easy to fall in to line. people don't know where they even got it, or where they first heard all these bad things, somewhere they did, they heard that this effort to bring the banks to account, to make them take responsibility is not as simple as it seems because the banks have to lend money, they're just businesses, like the bakery down the street, and they're already regulated, taxed half to death, and it really is all Obama's fault we got in this mess. We knew he knew Lew Ayres but we didn't know the rest of the story and now we do.

The little Jewish man is back in your face. He's got his cell phone up to his ear. You can hear his wife saying, "I'm lost, I'm lost. Where are you?" He's going to clear that up in a minute but first he's got to tell you something. And you realize that even the old guard has turned. "You want people to sign up for financial reform? Are you kidding me? You think Obama is interested in financial reform? He's another Judas. Have you ever heard the names, Geithner and Summers? Have you? Well look them up and get out of my face."
A four-bedroom villa at the end of a cul de sac, around Redwood Shores, in the shadows of Oracle, a boat tied to the dock, Huis Clos literally and figuratively; a two story facade over the mantel; a heartland inside. Good people, the hosts, very good people, kind and straight, hard working, and not vulnerable to nonsense, what can you say. Sometimes, our friends don't reflect who we are.

The sign in the often remodeled kitchen, set above the sink, says, "Happy Fourth." The center of this kitchen is a 25-foot-square island of stone. Nearly a dozen women are holding on for dear life. Drinks in one hand, dipped chips in the other. And on the tip of their tongues: Brazilian wax, unsightly moles, viagra for women, tattoos and Pilates.

"Is that Pontius Pilates you're talking about?" asks one of the outlier husbands moving uneasily through the area, leaning on the back of a high chair, then reaching for the top of the refrigerator, as though he were lurching down the passageway on a sinking ship.

"There's my baby-Jesus," says the man's wife, with a mock Southern accent. "You just let him through there. He'll pass out in a little while."

Much is mock here, or to be mocked. But of course you get anyone alone, pick them out of the pack and they'll tell you about their breast cancer or the mother with dementia, or the real financial situation at home, or some excruciating bed death, or really and truly, they would tell you, even if they can't look you in the eye and hold it that they're just so damn tired of spending and spending.

You'd never imagine it but right in the heartland of the material world, folks are sick and tired of it all.

Even the men are tired of it. Sure, they're tea-party regulars underneath, which is about the right to and the rightness of spending,  but even the head of a local nonprofit that sends recycled medical supplies to the poor black folks in old Africa, and thinks this administration has got to get its checkbook in order — and if millions of people have no jobs as a result, it's a horrible shame, but it has to be, and it would all be fixed over night if the Government would finally just scrap taxing business.... Even he will tell you that materialism has gone too far.

And if you don't think he's serious, why recently he and his wife throttled back from more than 5,000 square feet to less than 3,000 square feet. And they bought a Prius. They're so proud of what they've done. And if they can do that, you see anyone can do that. It's all proportional. It's just common sense.

Meanwhile, the house we're talking about is at 68 degrees. Just the way the wives like it. But the pack-husbands have gone outside, where it's 80 degrees in the shade, two hours from dusk, no breeze, still as still, not even a far away sound of firecrackers, not a single song bird, just the murmur of males on Independence day.

By the way, they're all wearing coordinated shorts and long shirts, high end sandals. Everything is the finest beige: skin, clothes, temperament — except for one gentlemen in his teal best and wicked tongue.

These middle aged men look seven months pregnant is what they look. One man is standing with the palm of his hand on the top of his hip, the way women do when their bone-carriage is about to break. They're all good Catholics by the way.

And they're all mostly salesmen. They work in large corporations or large dealerships. They have long commutes and closely cropped hair. Their children are the pride of Pleasanton, although lately there's been a rash of car crashes, including one in an empty parking lot at the mall.

"Yea," says Alpha-in-teal, "when the police called me, I said, 'hell, it may be the same last name but that meat-head is no relation of mine.' I said, 'maybe you could use some of that overtime you guys are getting down there to look it up in the phone book. There must be ten thousand Corey Mosbeckers on Night Hawk Lane. Why pick me? Whose ever kid that is I wish 'em luck."

One man is crying it's so funny to hear that. Funny and true. Because in middle age it's not only materialism you're fleeing, but teenagerism.

Then everyone tells a story about going to Europe with their kids and how tough it is to see nine countries in eight days and, 'yea, no we had a ball, but you know what? I was glad to get home. Joanne says, 'why don't we stay over a week?' You know, yea, but I'm thinking... I mean I like Europeans and even if they've been done in by Socialism, which I just keep thinking is gonna happen here with this jigaloo in the White House, there is something to be said for that culture. But I just wanted to get back. You know why? Go out to PacBell and just watch Tim Linescum throw. Right? Just watch him throw a ball. I mean to me that's beautiful. That's as beautiful as....."

He checks himself because he doesn't want to sound ignorant, he's never forgotten that he went to Cal Poly not Stanford, and so he dutifully adds, "Well, maybe not the Mona Lisa but who's then who's that guy that does the horses rearing up on their hind legs?"

A senate of nods. Everyone takes another sip and thinks, "aren't we lucky to be sitting right here, right now"

"Did I tell you," asks one of the men, a wannabe-an-alpha-so-badly-but-I-just-can't, "that when I was in Russia I had to have half a dozen body guards. That place is intense."

"Well that's because everybody knows how scary you really are," says the real Mr. AlphaTeal, an especially big man with ferocious lips and a strange little mustache that smells of Grecian formula. You can smell it no matter where you're sitting.

"Speaking of you," he goes on. "I looked you up the other day."

He turns to the others at the table to explain. "Whenever I meet someone I always look up their company. I go right to the web site, find the organizational tree and see where they are, and then I find out if maybe anyone's leaving that division because there might be a spot and now I know somebody who maybe can help me get in."

"But now in your case," he says, and suddenly you realize that the lingual toreador is preparing his first kill of the evening — even as the bull has no idea, he's getting the cream cheese with strawberry jam smeared double thick on his wafer, and he's just opening his mouth.

"I could hardly find you," says Senior Alphanso, sticking the pica in as far as he can. "You are so deep down in that place. I mean it must have taken me an hour to get down that deep. What do you do there anyway?"

The man who was crying before is crying again. "He is so funny, isn't he?" he says to no one in particular.