Places, names, and things in California

Chronicles of Ubo: Diddie’s garden

Here is a quick early morning dream I had under the influence of the waning moon: My grandmother Diddie (that’s Virginia Culpeper Wellendorf Creely to the rest of you) was a major influence in my life, a trite phrase that does nothing to capture the importance of our relationship. If I was Harry Potter shivering under the stairs, she was Hedwig. If I was Taran, swinging a sword stupidly while making brash statements about who I was and who I thought I could be, she was Dalben, looking up from her book and offering dry and precise utterances about the truth of the matter. If I was— excuse me,  when I was— lost, confused, frightened, unaware, self-hating, doubting and imperfect, she was there inside my personal ecology, which was characterized by a horrible isolation from myself that I barely survived.

She was the golden woman in the center of my darkness, stern but very human, ameliorative, authoritative and loving. Betsy dear, she would say, have you considered, are you thinking about, have you seen….Betsy dear, she would say, do you know? Usually I did not know.

Virginia C. Creely  in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990 When Diddie died in 2001 I had a dream about her, a common dream for people to have about a beloved who has died. You may know the one: they appear looking well, healthy, whole and happy. Perhaps they have a bit of a glow to them. If your mind whispers to you, this is not possible. This person is dead, you may still comprehend that they are, somehow, extant.

Diddie showed up a week after her death. She was leaning against my parent’s kitchen counter, clad in a crisply ironed white shirt dress, the type she favored (Betsy dear, she told me once, trousers do not suit women. She meant short-waisted women like she and I. And she was right. I look better in a dress.) I noted that she was carefully groomed: she was wearing Estee Lauder frosted apricot lipstick, and her blonde hair was waved. Her face was relaxed and radiant with happiness and good humor. Although I knew she was dead, I also knew that she lived, that she still was. Death is not the enemy, my dad told me.

Diddie contented herself with that one glowing appearance and then took off for parts unknown, until two nights ago when she re-appeared. In the dream, I was wandering around aimlessly in a garden bordered by mucky, swampy mud and filled in the center by two small pools. They were configured like a figure 8 laid down flat. The first pool had some water in it; the second pool had almost none at all. The water was quickly percolating out of it, causing the mud to quiver and shimmer. I didn’t like being in the mucky garden: the mud felt unclean, too organic, too busy with small insects. Putrefaction was afoot in this garden and although I felt I was there on some mission, I was— of course— completely confused about what the mission was, exactly. And then in the middle of my puzzled disgust, Diddie showed up.

Virginia C. Creely  in her garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

It was a dramatic appearance: she stood before me, visible against a dark background with her hands extended toward me. Do you remember the upper garden, she asked and suddenly I saw pink gladiolus, and other flowers bright and blooming and colorful: pink, orange, all illuminated by the sun and as vivid as life itself. Do you remember, she asked again, insistently. I said yes, Diddie I do. I remember! I remember the upper garden! And then I did remember, in one quick moment: there was a garden I had known once and then forgotten.

Get the bulbs, she said. You have to get the bulbs of the, and the words she used to describe the bulb of the flower were words of deep meaning with no equivalent in English or any spoken language on this earth. I repeated the unreal word in hopes of understanding more. Get the bulbs, she said again with some agitation, her hands in front of her, palms up, in the manner of an urgent plea. Get the bulbs. You have to….

It went on from there in much the same manner. She told me more, but I was engrossed in my conversation with her and didn’t remember to remember her directions. I fall into lucid dreaming very easily, but find that when I do, the mythic content of the dream becomes compromised. It’s your consciousness or the dream’s consciousness, I find. The two don’t co-exist.

The next morning I told my friend Tarin about the dream, and she asked, what did she want you to do with the bulbs? I couldn’t answer. I didn’t remember what she said; I only remembered Diddie’s entreaty: the position of her body against the dark and her hands held out that way urging me to get the bulbs and…

Virginia C. Creely  in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

Virginia C. Creely in the upper garden, Newport Beach, CA 1990

What did she want me to do with the bulbs? Plant them in the muck and mire of the Lower Garden? What happens when you take vibrant life and put it in relationship with putrefying death? Death is not the enemy, my dad told me as he choked back tears while his father — my beloved grandfather and Diddie’s husband, Bunny— was loaded into an ambulance after suffering a Transient Ischemic Attack in my parent’s backyard, one sunny Christmas day.

Death is not the enemy: these are plain English words spoken on this earth, words that have been spoken to me urgently in waking life. This sentence, this communication is also gestural and Diddie showed me what that gesture was: hands outstretched, and the urgent repetition of the name of a unknown flower. Maybe I’ll somehow discern and say the name of this flower— correctly and often— and find and plant its bulb. And then I’ll start asking this question: What is this ecology?

Written under the influence of the Waning Piscean moon.
Great for dream-work; not so great for work-work or business communications about non-existent MOU’s and contracts.
By the by, Gladiolus symbolize remembrance and are associated with August according an entirely non-scientific Google search.
Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.

Diddie and I around 1993, Newport Beach, CA. I am wearing trousers.


Dispatches from the 22nd Street Crossroads: Doing drugs with Isa.

yemaya-laura-jamesI have been in a very bad mood for most of the month; expect the worst seems to be the theme of May, 2015. Disaster has been breaking out everywhere*. Cancer made a sudden, lethal appearance in the brain-stem of my cousin; my mentally ill brother decided to send his siblings semi-hallucinatory, eyeball-searing Facebook messages of hysterical denunciation IN ALL CAPS ( in case we weren’t paying attention.) My aunt broke her hip and my husband got laid off. I’m sleep deprived because of the hormonal fluctuations in my menopausal body. Am rapidly reaching the conclusion that I cannot drink any coffee or any alcohol at all, anymore, no if’s and’s or but’s, if I want my sleep back and my hot flashes to chill out, I wrote on Facebook. And yeah, I’m sharing my female trouble. Deal with it. Brave words, Boopsie, but to no avail. I haven’t had an un-interrupted REM cycle since March. “How do women survive?” I asked my mother wonderingly. She promptly told me that women used to die a lot earlier. “That’s how they dealt with it?” I said. “They died?” Good to know.

Sleep, always so precious, always so needed, is also always threatened here in my apartment on the 22nd Street Crossroads. Like the blessed water of California which brings life to whatever it touches, sleep brings succor to my exhausted and over-stimulated brain. I need total immersion in the white canvass of my subconscious and some major attention from Morpheus every night for eight full hours. I know everybody needs sleep, but I really, really do. The Creely brain is a fragile thing. I think our amygdalas, and frontal lobes are troubled. Take sleep away from me and I became a mad dog. And a paranoid one, too. I suffered from insomnia as a young adult; this was because I smoked pot, didn’t exercise and refused to take the advice of my friends to calm down and relax. I am relaxed, I often snapped at them. (Silly me: I was confusing relaxation with disassociation. They’re very different things.)

ANNNyway. Carnaval was this weekend. Carnaval is a two-day South American/Afro-Caribbean celebration of culture which takes place in the Mission District. It’s awesome and terrible at the same time. Mostly it’s just incredibly loud and the sort of event that sends introverts like me running for cover. I was reminded by Mission Local which ran this headline: “SF’s Carnival Kicks Off.” “CARNIVAL IS THIS WEEKEND,” I told my husband in a voice (rendered here in all caps. I wanted to make sure he was listening). “WHY ARE WE HERE?” This was a dumb question: we have no money. There was no leaving. The only way out is through, I thought to myself. There were two parts to Carnaval: the first part which started that day, and ended (theoretically) at 6, and the second installment which starts up Sunday morning, bright and early at 8 a.m., just one block away from my front door.

yemaya-laura-jamesI was going to go hiking with a friend that Saturday, but they got sick and had to cancel. I was left to my own devices. The Irish had just legalized same-sex marriage by popular vote. (61.1%, if memory serves. Erinn Go Bragh!) This victory perked me up and I decided to walk to the Castro and take the  the tri-color out for a victory lap around Castro and 18th. I did this: I walked out into the murk of the unwarrantably grey day, walked into Cliff’s Hardware and bought a small Irish flag. The clerk who sold me my petite tricolor said “Are you buying that to celebrate?” I told him I was. He said “I’m so surprised! Ireland? Who a thunk it? But I’m so happy!”

A fella at the corner of 18th and Castro saw what I was carrying and said confidingly, “I changed my FB profile to a picture of the celebration in Dublin.” He spoke of the rainbow that appeared over Dublin. “It was divinely ordained!” he said. Everyone who noticed my flag expressed happiness that the Irish had returned to their freewheeling, pre-Christian, same-sex-loving Celtic ways, showing their true colors: not just green and orange, but blue, violet, fuchsia and red, too. It was a good day after all. I’d actually gotten more sleep the night before, breaking the cycle of torture my hormone-starved brain was subjecting me to. I felt certain that I’d sleep well later that night.

I walked home. It was peaceful in the house; my husband was hunched over his computer and my mother-in-law was watching television in our guestroom. I decided to continue binge watching 30 Rock on Netflix and did so for about an hour before I heard the unmistakable sound of a car stereo, straining at the limits of its capacity to deliver sound. The thudding bass notes, bouncing off my windows, brought me bolt upright. It was 10 p.m.

I looked outside. Two men, one car, a lot of beer and one car stereo: this could be my unlucky night. They were parked in the crosswalk, in front of the large multi-unit apartment building at 992 Florida Street. A stocky man wearing red sweat pants and a younger guy with a bald head were play-fighting outside the car. Beer bottles lay at their feet. The reverb from the cranked-up bass was bouncing off my bedroom window which was vibrating ever so softly in response, as was my body: it felt as if an animal had lodged itself inside my chest and was trying to punch its way out. There would be no sleep that night if these guys stayed put. I’m going to die, I thought.

yemaya-laura-jamesI did what I always do. I waited to see if they’d move along, and then, when they didn’t, I went outside and asked them to turn it down. The younger one did so, grudgingly, but cranked it up again minutes later (just in case I’d decided to listen? I don’t know.) Then I called non-emergency dispatch, and asked them to send a patrol car. “There’s been a shooting,” the dispatcher advised me. “It may be a while.” I sat on my sofa listening to the rap music with its all-star cast of dicks, niggas, bitches and hos, and waited.

A teenager walked out of the apartment building, carrying a bike. He hailed the man in the red pants, who reached inside the car and turned the music down slightly. They conferred briefly. The music was still blanketing the aural atmosphere with a song that mostly used the word “suck” to get its point across. I couldn’t hear anything until the Man in the Red Pants began to testify, loudly, with force and vigor. “Nigga,” he bellowed, “Let me tell you something; I used to LIVE here. I lived here, my nigga! I had all my homies, all up and down this street, nigga!” He had a tale to tell, a great, strong, bull-like chest and a wild Hemingway-esque manner to him and he told his story in the manner of the returned hero: names, dates, all events, great and small. He recounted all of these as he told the listener The Histories of Florida Street.

The guy with the bike gestured to the apartment building, and said something I couldn’t hear. (It was sold last July and is now advertising an two-bedroom apartment for the 3,495.00.) “Fuck that shit,” roared the man enthusiastically. “Man, these niggas don’t know nothin’ about this place! You see that fucking place? That was Jefferson Market, homs!” He gestured across the street to Local Cellar, now a high-end “bottle shop” and the former location of Jefferson Market.

Let me describe the History of Jefferson Market using this comment on Mission Local’s website: “Jefferson Market – the liquor store for bad people–has been a longtime magnet for truly bad people. Drugs and intimidation have been the name of the game there for several years….I cannot wait to have something in that space with owners who won’t stand for the illegal activities that have long marked that corner.

Jefferson Market was managed by a man I knew as Isa, if by “managed” one means berating passers-by, cat-calling women, and screaming “bitch” into my window after I’d pissed him off by calling the cops to break up the daily 40 oz. malt liquor party. A mellow day at Jefferson Market meant that Isa subjected the neighborhood to bellicose and intricate rants about the state of the nation as he stood behind the bullet-proof plastic shield that ran the length of the counter. A steady trickle of men walked into the store and into a small back room. They would emerge an hour later, blinking at the light of the day, and as high as a kite. That Jefferson Market was a hub for drug dealing was no secret: Officer Keith of the Mission Police Station told me that the SF District Attorney had enough evidence to bring charges against the owners, but had to drop that plan when a “rogue technician” named Debbi Madden tainted police evidence by sampling seized cocaine stored at San Francisco Police Department’s crime labs.

Like Al Capone, Jefferson Market, the “liquor store for bad people” never got busted for its worst offenses. Isa’s father, the owner of Jefferson Market, received too many admonitory notices from the ABC for running a disorderly house and so sold his liquor license to Yarom Milgrom, who opened Local Cellar (a store which goes too far in the other direction, if you ask me. It sells 38.00 gin.)


yemaya-laura-jamesBut back to the Man in the Red Pants. He was just getting warmed up. “Homs,” he declaimed. “Man, I used ta live in fuckin’ Jefferson Market, homs! Man, I was tight with Isa. And now that place, that place is for all them white niggas!” He pointed to my apartment building. Excuse me, I thought indignantly. I can’t afford their gin. But I was riveted. I love a good heroic tale (also the plasticity of the term “nigga” was fascinating me). But it was what he said next that really riveted me. “Man, I used to do DRUGS with Isa! In the store!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. He did a little dance. “I DID DRUGS, HOMS! INSIDE THE STORE!” He pantomimed chopping a line of coke and shouted his confession-boast one more time: “I DID DRUGS WITH ISA! INSIDE THE STORE!” He was the Angel of History, with the winds of the future lofting his wings, blowing him away from the past with his mouth wide open and his testimony bellowing out from him for anyone listening to hear. The remnants of his neighborhood, all those homies, those dilapidated apartment buildings: these were now piled up in the rubble of his memory.

The teenager laughed, and then glanced sharply to his left. “Speak of the devil,” he said. The patrol car rolled up, blue and red lights shining. The Man in the Red Pants stopped talking, reached inside his car and turned the music off. The party was over.

And then it began again, the very next day. I slept raggedly that night and woke up to parade music three times as loud as the car stereo. “Carnaval,” I wrote on my Facebook page. “Bright and early.” A few hours later, still sleepy and stupefied, I let my husband take me by the hand and onto the street. Almost immediately, I saw a vision in blue: Yemaya herself, tall, stately and so beautiful. (Water was the theme of Carnaval this year.) My heart softened just a bit. All around us the crowd moved and swayed and people danced. The block was packed tight. There’s no way out but through. Another Yemaya walked past me and then another. There were bodies everywhere I looked, but small passages too.


“If we keep walking, we can get through this,” said Jay. “And then we can dance.”


Snapshot 2 (5-26-2015 8-37 PM)

Jay dancing his cares away at Carnaval, May 2015

This blog entry is dedicated to my handsome, loving cousin Rick Williams who left this earth on Wednesday June 17th, far too soon. His family loves him.

*The one exception to this month of disaster is the bravery and love that the people of Ireland have shown to each other and to the world. No matter what the Vatican says, the popular vote to establish legal same sex mariage cannot be categorized as a disaster.

The people in this small island off the western coast of Europe have said to the rest of the world: This is what it is to be decent, to be civilized, and to be tolerant! And let the rest of the world catch up!”

Seanadóir (Senator) David Norris, May 22, 2015

Written on May 26th, under the influence of the waxing Virgo moon.

Talk of the Mission Town: Pigeon Eviction

UntitledI own a vase that belonged to my grandmother. I don’t know where she got it. Its only known provenance starts with her ownership and the table it sat on, years ago in her home in Newport Beach. I love it. It’s been knocked over twice and broken twice. The first time, a year ago, I cried Oh no and pieced it back together with Crazy Glue.

Yesterday, an ill wind blew through my south-facing window and broke it again. It has no resilience. When the wind blows, it breaks and that’s it.

The ill wind broke more than a vase. My husband woke me at 8:30 this morning to tell me he’d been fired. Sacked, he said, his body language apologetic, yet tensed. No fault, he said ( No severance either.) References? Unemployment? I asked frantically. yes, yes, he replied. All that.

An hour later, I sat down with my coffee to read the SF Chronicle. The top story was the astronomic price of rents: A new record for S.F. rents: $3,458 a month, the headline exclaimed. Wham, wham, wham: the facts slammed into me, one after another.

I had a heads up. My husband has been dealing with what I call job uncertainty since January and two months ago in a tarot reading, I drew the Tower Card (for a witch who boasts of her innately skeptical nature, I sure do consult The Woo quite often). I can’t quite remember the placement within the schematic, but it had to do with the near future. Bring it, I said brashly. The World card followed, then the Strength card and then the card I pull quite often, The Wheel of Fortune.

Well, it was brought. As of this moment, it’s the Tower that’s in power. (The latter two cards are meant for the future)  Structures are falling, I told my best friend the other night. The Tower is crumbling.

The vase got fixed. I put it in a safer place than an open window. There’s no safe place to put us, me and my husband, especially not now with the threat of unemployment and displacement looming over our heads. We can’t compete with 3,458.00. (can anyone, really?).

The Wheel will continue to turn up and down and up and down. I’m not scared. Mostly, I feel belligerent.

UntitledThis is a lengthy intro to this video (shot on an iPhone!) that I hope you’ll watch. It’s about eviction. My husband first noticed the pigeons two weeks ago, nestling into the hot concrete. They’re courting each other, he said  Look. He’s feeding her. They’re learning to nest. We marveled at their tenderness with each other, their single-mindedness, the opalescent sheen of their pigeon-grey throats and breasts.He dropped to one knee and began to film them. It takes a certain amount of lively intelligence to notice the everyday object. Pigeons are ubiquitous and are, for that reason, excellent symbols of resistance. They are notoriously difficult to displace from their habitat or routine. If the anti-eviction movement in San Francisco decides to use a mascot, it should be a pigeon.

Eviction means you’ve been displaced against your will. The vase falls, breaks. It was evicted. The pigeon is rudely disturbed and momentarily evicted from its warm patch of sidewalk. We have determined that our staffing needs have changed, an email reads. Evicted. My friend’s apartment on South Van Ness was bought by an unscrupulous Irishman, a real gaimbín piece of shit. Evicted. Yes. Another friend’s multi-unit apartment building on Folsom Street is currently on the auction block. Evicted? We’ll see. The pigeons, so rudely interrupted by the dog, paid it no never mind and fluttered back a minute later.

So, pigeons, evictions, the connection between the two? Here’s one. On Tuesday, May 5th, one day before the malevolent south wind broke my vase and brought ill-fortune, I attended a protest. My friend, Chris Carlsson and his neighbors are trying to stop the sale of their home, a huge Mission multi-unit Victorian. The protest had been called so that prospective buyers showing up to view the building, which is known as (and this is a lovely coincidence) the Pigeon Palace, would be discouraged from wanting to buy the building.

As I left, I noticed the multi-unit apartment building across the street from my apartment. Scaffolding had been up all week while a new coat of paint was applied to its blistered surface. My neighbor, Jose, one of the tenants in the building, was standing in the street talking with his friend. I’d buried my curiosity until that moment, but now, leaving to protest yet another sale of yet another multi-unit apartment building, I thought, it’s time to give in to your curiosity, Elizabeth. Ask. Find out.

Jose, I said. What’s going on? What’s happening with the building?

Ah. It’s been sold. They’re cleaning it up!

Are you sure that’s all they’re doing? I asked skeptically.

Yeah. They’re just, you know… making it nice.

Jose, I said sternly, you have rights. You know that, right? You have rights as a tenant. They can’t evict you.

No, no- they haven’t said anything about that. He grinned. I love you, he said, going into his routine of baiting me, teasingly. I yell at him when he blasts his radio. Telling me he loves me is his way of handling the Harridan. He’s a hard-working man. I don’t want him evicted.

Yeah, yeah, I said. You have rights, Jose. Keep an eye on what they’re doing. A pigeon fluttered down on the sidewalk. I headed to the Palace.

Part one of two. Written three days after the Flower Moon of May and with love to Michael Davitt, a man who had his work cut out for him. 

Talk of the Mission Town: Dolores Park’s rehab.

Tuesday, April 28th was hot and clear in San Francisco. Day trippers and sunbathers lolled on the sunny slopes and battered grass of Dolores Park while, a block away, people streamed through the doors of 18 Reasons to talk about the park’s party problem. San Francisco Recreation and Parks was hosting a Dolores Park Action Plan and the room was filling quickly. “Should we utilize another bench?” asked a woman nervously, while the meeting participants signed in and eyed the food: salami, prosciutto, toasted bread, grilled chicken, and a salad of what looked like poached eggs bedded on arugula, all provided by Delfina and Bi-Rite and arranged on a narrow bar inside. “Don’t be shy. Eat the food!” said Shakirah Simley, Community Programs Manager with Bi-Rite. There wasn’t much shyness among the roughly 35 attendees, but there was an air of seriousness, which suited the matter under discussion. The park is nearing the end of a three-year, 20-million dollar upgrade. But the park’s stint in rehab hasn’t stopped the non-stop party: there was an unplanned upgrade in park attendance, too. At least ten thousand people visit the park every weekend, weather permitting. With the amped-up ebullience has come more of everything else, too, including trash which, according to city estimates, costs San Francisco taxpayers 750,000 to clean up.

A now near-iconic image of Dolores Park Trash

A near-iconic image of Dolores Park Trash

A PowerPoint presentation played in a loop on a screen in the front of the room. Images of the trashed park alternated with examples of heedless park visitors: there was a shot of someone’s Instagram showing a drained coconut shell lying on the battered green grass of the park. “Rum coconut and mimosas in Dolores Park! We love this place!” read the caption. Another Facebook picture showed four friends, smiling in the sunshine. “We are avid trash collectors. We don’t want the man up our bum,” it said. The “man”- presumably SF Recreation and Parks staff, was being represented that day by a woman, Sarah Ballard, Director of Policy and Public Affairs. “We let you all down,” she said earnestly thus clarifying the heart of the matter. “We got caught flat-footed. We were really confounded by the park’s popularity.” She was, of course, talking about litter.

Dolores Park midday. Photo courtesy of Andrew Rogers, ‎Friends of Dolores Park

Dolores Park midday. Photo taken by Andrew Rogers, ‎Friends of Dolores Park.

These days, the park’s popularity is measured by the huge amount of trash left behind by its visitors: 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of trash is scattered among the 14-acre park every weekend by park visitors each weekend day. By comparison, Alamo Square, a city park of similar size, is encumbered with only 2% of the trash that accumulates in Dolores Park. “We feel like this closure has created some opportunities to shift the culture of what’s appropriate at the park,” Ballard said intently. “Our challenge is to keep the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff.” The problem goes beyond trash cans she said. “More and more and more trash cans can’t solve this.” The SFRP assessed the nature of the trash dumped each weekend and discovered that 65% of the litter could be diverted to landfill. “Right now, that’s not happening,” she said. “But we know that finger-pointing”– she wagged her finger demonstratively at the room- “doesn’t change anything. We need for this to be an organic process. The question is: how do we change the culture of usage at the park?” People nodded their heads vigorously, chewed their bruschetta and took notes.

Two weeks ago, SFRP and Recology launched an “Eco pop up” station, two large recycling and composting dumpsters to Dolores Park to solve the easiest problem first: where to put the coconut shells, beer bottles, plastic cups and other detritus. This is all intended as a prelude to the gradual re-opening of Dolores Park, slated to start sometime in June in two steps. The north side of the park will open in min-June with an ADA-compliant entryway, new lawns, paths and lighting, newly revamped tennis and basketball courts, and new park furniture: benches, picnic tables and bathrooms. “And in case you haven’t heard, Dolores Park will have the first open-air pissoir in San Francisco,” said Ballard. A woman raised her hand with an air of urgency.
“Will there be new bathrooms for woman?” she asked. (The answer was yes).
“And maybe some attendants,” called out a SF Parks and Rec staffer from the back of the room.
“With perfume and stuff?” Patti Lord, a resident, asked skeptically. (The question was left unanswered.) The south side of the park will then close. “But the playground will remain open the entire time,” said Ballard emphatically.


Use the Dolores Park Eco pop-up

Use the Dolores Park Eco pop-up.

Velina Brown of the San Francisco Mime Troop put her hand up. “I’m here to find out if the Mime Troop will be able to open on July 4th, as we have done for many years,” she said.

“Let’s talk offline after the meeting,” proposed Ballard. She then introduced Ben Lawhon, Education Director from the Colorado-based organization Leave No Trace: Center for Outdoor Ethics, which has contracted with San Francisco Parks and Rec as a consulting organization. “It’s great to see so many of you,” he said. Lawhon, a square-jawed man, wearing an orange corduroy shirt, added: “Clearly this is a park people love.” His slide show also included pictures of Dolores Park’s thick layer of people and litter. “I think you probably recognize these pictures,” he said jokingly. He cleared his throat. Eighty-five percent of the “litter issues” is about behavior, Lawhon said. Peer-to-peer outreach and self-policing by other park visitors is critical to making change happen. “Changing culture is about helping people understand, that, hey. It’s not cool to trash the park,” Lawhon concluded.

“Has this worked in other places?” inquired someone skeptically.

“Yes. But it’s about changing culture,” Lawhon replied. “We gotta take the long view.” Rob Lord raised his hand. “We’ve been hearing about strategies,” he said. “But not about tactics. I want to hear the five things that are gonna be accomplished by the time the park opens. Can we hear some specifics, please?”


The long view: Use the Can campaign flyer

Flyers were quickly handed out detailing the specifics; a campaign launching in May called “Use the Can”, which combines public outreach, added service and rules enforcement to “keep Dolores clean and beautiful.” There are three participation levels the community can choose: Park Visitor, Friend or Champion, each with it own level of participation. Visitors can use social media—”our goal is to create content you can share,” said Ballard— and campaign posters to boost the campaign’s visibility. Friends can add the step of using stickers to place on merchandise that are being brought to the park, and Champions can choose to take the bold step of volunteering in the park on the weekend to “actively meet with, inform and urge park goers” to use the added trash receptacles and abide by the principles outlined by Leave No Trace which are, according to their website “To protect the outdoors by teaching and inspiring people to enjoy it responsibly while enjoying the park.”

“We are asking organizations and groups to pick Saturday or Sunday to go into the park and urge people to use the can,” said Ballard. The meeting broke up after viewing a CAN-paign public service announcement, featuring the Knights of Revery.

Afterward, the Lords seemed doubtful. “I’ll do it,” said Rob, speaking about the campaign. “But I didn’t hear about a service commitment that’s going to be commensurate with increased usage. We’re sixty days from the launch of a major renovation. Park maintenance could have increased before the renovations started.” His wife agreed. “I see a lot more people with tour books. I think it’s a by-product of tourism. More people. And we’re Leave No Trace’s first city partner! I think they’re cutting their teeth on us. Why hasn’t the city spoken with someone from a city where they’ve already dealt with density?” Rob shook his head. “I think we’re in for a bumpy ride,” he said.

Inside, Velina Brown was waiting for her offline conversation with Ballard. “I still don’t know if we’re going to be opening on July 4th,” she said. “Our audience is a usually about 3,000 people. They’re completely dwarfed by the other people who are usually drunk and belligerent. And they’re not paying attention because they have their own sound system without permits! As a permitted event, we get there at 8 am in the morning to set up, to take care of that space. So how does being a permitted event benefit us?”


Chronicles of Ubo: Pirate Cove, Big Corona, Newport Beach, California

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Looking west/northwest at Pirate Cove

Today, I biked across the Newport mesa to Pirate Cove. I go there like a homing pigeon now that I’m older and more cautious about waves and the ocean’s temperament. The ocean is usually pretty mellow at Big Corona. This is by design, of course. The Army Corps of Engineers did a lot of work to calm her down back in the thirties. Still, the ocean always has a temperament, and today, it was a bit feisty.

The first thing I saw as I stepped onto the sand was a used plastic tampon. I see, I thought. The ocean is having female problems today. I walked down to the shoreline.

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona's beach

A used plastic tampon left on Big Corona’s beach

A grey whale was nosing around looking for food a few yards away from the end of the south jetty. People were standing with their hands on their hips, looking entranced but concerned. (Their body language seemed to suggest they were worried the whale didn’t know what it was doing.)

Seagulls fought over the litter left on the sand. I walked towards the water. My first inkling that maybe this wasn’t the day for a swim was the layer of rocky detritus lining the littoral zone. Rocks and shells banged around my ankles, forming a dark line along the zone: it was as if the ocean was daring me to step into it. The waves were glassy green tubes with faces of just about 4 to maybe 5 feet, breaking in steady intervals. The waves weren’t huge, but they had a decisiveness to them that unnerved me. How you doing, mama? I murmured like Barry White to the ocean. I’m just here to have fun. Nothing big. It’s your party. I just want in for a while. I went in and instantly felt the hard suck of the undertow. I got it. It wasn’t in the mood. It wasn’t screaming get out of my room, but neither was it inviting me in. The tide was coming in and the ocean was just doing its own thing. I got my stuff, and proceeded to Pirate’s Cove. I should have just gone there first, I thought.

Pirate Cove is starboard as you enter the Newport Harbor, and is notable for its sandstone cliffs, or bluffs which I assume gave the beach its name. The crown of sandstone and a line of rocks creates a curvy little cove, that has a small beach which totally disappears during very high tides or storms. Pirate Cove became a fixed point in a shifting marine environment sometime in the 30’s because of human engineering: there is a south jetty and a north jetty, both of which were put into place during the Roosevelt administration. The Public Works Administration accomplished what all the private money in Newport couldn’t, namely, building jetties that were stable and stayed put through fierce winter storms. (Yes, Newport has fierce winter storms.) The jetties formalized the harbor entrance: how the entrance was determined way back before the jetties were built is kind of unclear. I think it was a moving target. The bay, left to its own devices, periodically developed sandbars. Some of that topography still feels present, even after years of dredging. The small beach is shallow with a really changeable floor with waves and dips that demonstrate its dynamic response to the tide. I instinctively feel that some of the sandbars must have extended from where the small beach was.

Annotated map of the Newport bay river delta, circa 1915? Photo courtesy of Douglas Westfall

Pirate Cove was derided when I was growing up as a beach for losers or babies or both. Cool kids didn’t swim in the bay in the sixties or seventies. There were some good reasons for this: the bay, even near the mouth, was nasty. The water quality sucked. Too many boats, too many damn houses, too much urban runoff with too much crap in it: too much of everything really, conspired to give Pirate Cove a dubious reputation. That was then. It is now, and has been for some time, an absolutely beautiful little beach, a little gem with smooth sand and mostly beautiful water. Sometimes, though, it get a little bay-y. Often there is plastic crap that floats in the water. And it has more litter than it did when I was growing up.

And it has a cave.

A still from DW Griffith's silent film 'Macbeth", which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove.  Photo from "Corona Del Mar - My Kind of Town", written by Douglas Westfall.

A still from D.W. Griffith’s silent film ‘Macbeth”, which was filmed on location at Pirate Cove. Photo from “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town”, written by Douglas Westfall.

The cave looms large in my memory because of an offhanded remark by my dad. It’s located under a shelf of overhanging sandstone and is no more than a slit, like a downturned mouth. There are impressively old-looking rusted iron bars that block the entrance. I have no idea where the cave goes, if it goes anywhere. Does it burrow underground, through a secret passage and out to sea? Does it deepen and widen into a beautiful grotto, where opal green anemones and purple sea urchins cluster? All I’ve ever been able to see behind the rusted iron bars is an impressive collection of beer bottles and litter that gets pushed in with every high tide. I think the bars only keep people out, not litter (which is a pity.)


Dad, I asked when I was very small, maybe 4 or 5 years old. What is that? I pointed to the dark slit in the rock.
It’s a cave, he replied.
Why are there bars on it?
To keep people out. It’s dangerous.

And then he told me in words unremembered by me, but with an emphasis that carried the message explicitly, that teenagers used to party in the cave and then one day the tide came in and they all drowned. I gaped. I looked at the cave and imagined the long blonde hair, the smell of Coppertone, the flashing white teeth, the puka shells encircling the tanned necks of the heedless teenagers WHO WERE PARTYING. AND WHO DROWNED. Did they know what was happening? OR WERE THEY ON DRUGS? In any case, I believed my dad. Weird things were happening to teenagers in the late sixties and early seventies. The beach was sunny and so was the rest of Southern California, but there was darkness, too, if you knew where to look. The cave was dark, and The Teenagers ( I could never think of them any other way) had crawled into its darkness to do bad things. The lesson I took from this ghosty story was: Don’t party, especially in beach caves and you’ll be fine. This didn’t stop me from partying and doing drugs in beach caves when I was a heedless teenager, but I was responsible. I chose Little Corona because those caves were not flush with the waterline. None of my friends ever drowned. SAM_4539

The wonderful thing about Pirate Cove is the rock, that pliable, friable sandstone and sedimentary rock made of thousands of geologic years of compressed sand, clay and the chitinous exoskeletons of tiny sea creatures.  The bluffs are gorgeous— golden yellow in the late afternoon sun— and fragile. The tawny sandstone has been carved and whittled down by the ocean, the wind and the rain over thousands of years. It’s easy to gain a toehold in the round hollows of the stone crown of Pirates Cove because of years and years of beach goers swarming up and down it. It’s also easy to fall off of it.

I fell, once. I was there with my Girl Scout troop. In my recollection, I was up very high and then suddenly I was down on the sand with the wind knocked out of me. My pain was equal to the chagrin I felt. There’s no dignity to falling, especially when you’re wearing a green Girl Scout sash with no badges sewn onto it. (I was a unambitious girl scout who didn’t understand the whole badge thing. I was supposed to want one, but getting one involved doing things with people. I liked to read.)


The cliffs of Pirate Cove.

Today I scramble up and down the cliffs (cautiously) and wonder how much longer they’ll be around. The bluffs must be the barest nub of what they once were. It’s now listed on climbing sites as a place with “juggy” and “greasy” cliffs: I have no idea what this terminology means, but I assume that climbers clambering up the sides is going to be a factor in its eventual erosion. SAM_4535

The city of Newport Beach, ever concerned with the quality of life in Newport, keeps an eagle eye out for the potential dangers of living along the coast of Newport. The report “Safety Element” which is part of the city’s general plan, takes pains to detail exactly how the shit might hit the fan in the serene and sunny city of Newport Beach. There’s an assortment of big waves that could erode beaches and ocean bluffs: tsunamis, rogue waves and storm surges are all mentioned as actors in the future of Pirate Cove and other ocean bluffs. Local tsunamis, are apparently enough of a potential reality to be discussed in this document. “Modeling off the Santa Barbara coast suggests that locally generated tsunamis can cause waves between 2 and 20 meters (6to 60 feet) high…” That could do it; that would wash some of that beautiful sandstone away. You’ll be comforted to know, by the way, that foreign tsunamis coming in from the south— say, Chile— take at least 12 hours to arrive in Newport Beach, which is plenty to get the hell out. If I’m at Pirate Cove when the call comes to flee a Chilean Tsunami, I plan on taking the Tsunami evacuation zone on Dover. I think Jamboree will be really crowded. And who wants to be in a panic on Jamboree Road? Pas moi.

Given the concern over super storms that climate change is expected to trigger and the fact that the Balboa Peninsula and Big Corona get really big surf every summer because of storms in the southern hemisphere, it’s anyone’s guess what will erode the cliffs the most, or first. Rodentia, burrowing away in bluffs? Maybe. Seismically induced slope failure caused by a strong earthquake on the Newport Inglewood fault? Back in the nineties, a mild earthquake on this fault shattered my grandmother’s china in Newport Heights. Just think of what it would do to Pirate Cove.


Today, it was untroubled, except by climbers dusting their hands with chalk and looking speculatively at the sheer wall. Someone had left an open can of pickled jalapeno peppers (really?) for someone else to throw away. I saw the can as I was taking a picture of the Haunted Cave of The Teenagers. I snapped my picture and then prissily picked up the can and carried it to the trashcan up the stairs, making sure that everyone on the beach could see me do this. (I hate litter and I go into rages when I find it.) Boastful men stood on the rock that’s just to the left of the now unused lifeguard’s chair; in silhouette, they looked like Douglas Tilden bronze statues until they jumped, with clownish bravado, into the clear green water of the bay.


This is actually looking west out the harbor mouth.

Sometimes the wealthy residents of Corona del Mar complain about the popularity of Big Corona and Pirate Cove, and I understand some (but, for sure, only some)of their discomfort. The litter— I can’t say this enough—is bad and seems to have gotten worse. I think because of this and the increased density in general, the fire rings suddenly became suspect three years ago and almost got completely banned. The fire rings are public resources. That is, I believe, their actual classification. Banning them was a step towards making the beach less accessible, less desirable to the masses. There are more people in Orange County now, and hence there are more people at the beach. I’ve never trusted the wealth in Newport Beach, nor have I ever liked the drive to privatize. What would it take for homeowners to try to shut down Pirate Cove? I doubt it will happen- it’s a city beach- but if it could happen anywhere in California, with its old tradition of public access for all beaches, it could happen in Newport Beach.


I’m okay with the bars over the cave. I don’t need access to it. But I would be destroyed if there was no access to Pirate Cove. I’m not sure why I thought about that, looking at the cave and the garish red can of pickled peppers sitting in the sand next to it. The beach is loved and used and littered and battered over and over again with people, with wind, with rain and possibly in the future by ARKstorms, great mega-storms which will bear down on the little beach and its proud crown of sedimentary rock. There are always forces at work (I guess) to limit, to bar, to change. I hope this part of my world and the California coast survives most of them.


 Many thanks to Douglas Westfall, the author of two books I plan on reading: “Corona Del Mar – My Kind of Town” and “The Costa Mesa Bluffs”.


824 Florida Street


Sunday, after a late morning breakfast of hot cross buns and coffee at Joey & Pat’s, my husband and I slowly perambulated the Mission, doing errands in a desultory way. On Florida Street, between 20th and 21st, we encountered a scrum of people on the sidewalk.

Two men in their fifties or sixties were presenting a building plan to the neighborhood. Blueprints were on a folding table. You could take a copy. The men and the table were in front of an old, white house with a garage door right at the sidewalk. We stopped to see what was happening. Why were they sitting in front of the house with an attitude of resignation?

The “house” is, or was, a dwelling for someone, but when it was constructed (in 1908, as it turns out) it wasn’t built to house people. It was clearly a garage or a space for light industry.

Two women were looking at the plans. The table was in the shade of the building, a nice place to linger. Two children biked around the women. We walked over to the table.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“We’re presenting these plans to the neighborhood,” replied the sitting man. He was older, maybe in his late sixties. “We’re adding a vertical element.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the plans. “Are you the owner?”

The man shifted in his chair. “We’re the designers,” he replied. “We’re going to add a couple floors.”

Sensing circumvention, I tried again. “Who owns this place?”

The heavyset man sighed and moved in his folding chair again, almost imperceptibly. Evasion hung thick in the air. Crosstalk prevented the moment from becoming too acute.

One of the women knew the building’s history. The Travertini family had made pottery there. A truck used to pull into the garage and load up, she remembered. She moved to Florida Street in 1965, when she was eight years old, and has lived here ever since. “I’m first generation,” she said. Her parents were from Puerto Rico. The neighborhood was full of Italian families when her family moved to the Mission, she said. “We were the minority. Can you imagine that?”

I said immediately, as I always do when Mission history comes up, “My great-great-grandparents lived down the street!” The woman and I beamed at each other, pleased to find another ancestral Missionite.

The standing man said the building was originally a gymnasium.

Back to the question hanging in the air. “Are you the owners?” I asked again.

The sitting man sensed that I wasn’t going to let it go. “There’s a group of owners,” he said. “I’m the face of the owners.”

He wasn’t going to say who. He wasn’t going to name names. Eleven owners? Twelve? Three? We thanked the men and left.

At home I went online. The San Francisco Public Library has online city directories from 1850 to 1982. I searched the 1963 Polk’s City Directory and found Travertini & Co. Mfg., “plaster casting,” owned by Gino and Ulaldina Travertini at 824 Florida Street. No pictures emerged on Google of Mr. and Mrs. Travertini. The only picture of them with their plaster and lathe and delivery trucks is a memory held in the mind of the woman who moved to the Mission in 1965, the year I was born.

My husband went back to get a blueprint at 2 p.m., perhaps thirty minutes after we’d seen them, but the men were gone. Nothing was posted on the building or the telephone pole in front of the building. Apparently, the men had given notice to the neighborhood.

The men were nice, and spoke to us in a civil fashion about the change in the neighborhood, the alteration of the Travertini place. But a description posted last year on Zillow seemed offhandedly callous. It described the structure as a “Great one open space with bathroom, kitchen, lots light and huge backyard. . . . We will tear down place in 22 months.”

It’s bewildering, this speculative wilding in the Mission, where prices are so high that groups of investors need to pool their money to purchase property, where the blueprints detailing changes to the neighborhood are grudgingly unveiled for a few minutes on hot, sunny Saturday afternoons and then folded up and secreted away so that neighborhood re-visioning can start, and where the perfect moments of the Mission stay preserved in memory.


This article originally appeared in on March 10, 2015 as a feature in Mission Local, San Francisco’s finest local newspaper. Many thanks to Lydia Chavez.

From the wayback files: Imagined Nation

  Imagined Nation


The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which was the first pass made by the Allied Powers of the West at dismantling the Ottoman Empire after WWI, made certain promises to the Kurds; then and now a people of a virtually realized nation. Virtual, be cause if you go to the website http://www.kurdishyoungsters.com, you will see an animated image of the boundary line of the imagined nation, Kurdistan, springing forth from Syria, and snaking through Turkey, Iran and Iraq before coming back to Syria and vanishing. The Treaty of Sevres offered the Kurds conditional steps towards full nationhood, starting with dedicated territory and ending with Turkish recognition of their independence. But it was a halfhearted gesture. The bureaucratic doubtfulness of a phrase like “if the Council then considers that these peoples are capable of such independence” reads like a sentence of foretold disappointment for the people under discussion, and so it was for the Kurds. These promises were banished completely from the treaty that was ultimately adopted, the Treaty of Lausanne. It did not mention the Kurds at all.

On June 26 of this year, The New Yorker ran an article by Seymour Hersh, which detailed alleged new alliances between Kurdish regional authorities in Iraq and Israeli intelligence agents. It is possible that Sharon’s government, worried that the Americans could not contain the hornet’s nest stirred up the Bush administration, has decided to do that magic certain nations do, namely, to try to transform a semi-autonomous, regionally-based government into a full-fledged nation, complete with militarily defended map coordinates.

I went looking for a map of Kurdistan. Reading descriptions of where the Kurds were located-North of Iraq, South-East of Turkey-wasn’t enough. After all, these coordinates contain their own confusing and highly mutable polarities Eastern Syria turns into Western Kurdistan or South-Eastern Turkey can transform into Northern Kurdistan, depending on who is doing the describing. I needed to see an enclosed chunk of land, with boundaries and fixed dimensions. I need to see and assess Kurdistan’s spatial relationship to the other countries. Seeing Kurdistan next to or in between Turkey/Syria/Iran/ Iraq would give me a instinctive sense of what it would mean for Kurdistan to heave upward and outward, from the Treaty of Sevres, into the reshuffled and re-mapped Middle East.
Finding one, I found that I have an instinctively fanciful reaction to maps. When I think about The Green Line, I see a line, twanging like a taut harp string, sounding the notes of raging parliamentary debates. Ireland looks like a sow laying on her side, with the jagged outline of the rocky west coast fanning off like multiple teats toward her offspring parishes in America. England reminds me of an ink blot, and America looks like a creature L. Frank Baum invented for his second Oz book “The Land of Oz”, which he called a “Gump”: a flying creature with a bad temper and an enormously over- sized body. The proposed map of Kurdistan looks like an exaggeratedly drawn hominid skull with the occiput jutting into Syria and Turkey and the long jaw facing east.

As a peace organizer in the nineties, it was my job for a while to alert the American public to the fact that Turkey was attempting to massacre the Kurds with American-made weapons. My job was to a provide a vastly oversimplified analysis of the contradictory position America had towards human rights- denouncing, on the one hand, dictators and human rights abuses in the Mid-East, and peddling, with the other hand that was frequently clutching expensive loan guarantees, as many missiles, helicopters and tanks to allied nations like Turkey as we could. I described the Kurds as a distinct people living within Turkish borders, even though describing them this way extended the conversation by a good ten minutes. Most people didn’t understand the idea of a landless nation and I hadn’t heard the word “diaspora” yet. It was hard to prove that Turkey wasn’t simply attacking itself without recourse to that most basic of explanations: a map.

When you view a map, you see circumstance and consequence in one fell swoop handed to you, enclosed and intact, by virtue of the impossible view from the heavens, which is where viewing a map will place you. A map tidily collapses the what-ness, and the why-ness of a people into a concise acknowledgment of their place on this earth. We know the country by the company it keeps (or is forced to keep) as much as we know a country by articles in The New Yorker. Maps leapfrog the endless to-ing and fro-ing of the world’s securocrats, stoking the fires of unrest here, placating them there, reacting militarily there and there and there. Image is everything to finalizing— dictating, really— comprehension. The very word “map” snaps with finitude. The map I stared at the longest was a transparent beige outline. It was superimposed onto the other countries, but still helpfully transparent, so that the boundaries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the boundaries that would likely be re-drawn at the behest of America and her allies (a prospect that worries me) were not obliterated, yet. They remained distinct.

The map of Kurdistan is, at this point, floating somewhere between a proposal and an outright demand. It hovers above the Mid East, a nation-in-waiting to itself, and an reminder to other countries, like Armenia or Ireland, whose ancient territories still languish under Turkish and British possession, that some small nations may matter more, especially if they have oil reserves.

In the Treaty of Sevres, the proposed outlines of Kurdistan are described this way: “east of the Euphrates, south of the Southern boundary of Armenia, as it may hereafter be determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia.” It is an appropriately mystical description of a mysterious land. It is suggestive, too, of the beginnings of a Kipling poem. Kurdistan, the hidden land hiding under four different countries. Go forth and discover it. Who will the Explorer be?

Reprinted from: Mississippi Review, Vol. 32, No. 3
Fall 2004

Balance from Division: the water of Potter Marsh in Anchorage, Alaska

A note: although this blog normally only concerns itself with people, places and things in California, occasionally the Californian who authors it goes out of state and see places and things elsewhere. And then writes about them. I wrote this essay last September. I’ve updated the verb tenses for the below post.
This essay was first published in Aontacht, book 7, issue 1

Potter Marsh, in Anchorage Alaska,looking west

In September of last year, my husband and I visited my sister Emily, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. On the 22rd of that month, the day of the equinox, she urged us to get out and see things. “Go south,” she said, in her decisive way. “Go to Potter Marsh. It’s a wetland. It’s beautiful.” Emily knows what I like: water. We took her advice and drove to Potter Marsh, or Hkaditali in the native Athabascan language, which means “Place of the Driftwood.” The driftwood they referred to used to be washed up into the marsh. It still would were it not for a railroad track that keeps the two watery sites apart. As we drove to the marsh, my husband and I saw the work of thousands and thousands of years of glaciation and rain: sharply carved, incised mountain ranges that were shaped by water, both liquid and frozen.

We pulled into the parking lot and looked around. From the lot, I could see the long, blue water of Cook Inlet. The water in the marsh wasn’t visible yet. A man who was leaving told us there were bald eagles roosting in the trees on the north end. “You from here?” he asked. We told him we were from San Francisco. “Welcome to Alaska,” he said. “This marsh is great for birding.” He secured his toddler in a safety seat for the ride home. My husband and I walked into the marsh.

Potter Marsh exists as a freshwater marsh now, but it used to be an estuary. It’s part of the Alaska Coastal Wildlife Refuge, which stretches for 16 miles along Cook Inlet, southwest of Anchorage. The slopes of the Chugach mountain range rise above the marsh in the east . The foothills are dotted with houses, and riven with watery streams. Three of these creeks flow into Potter Marsh: Rabbit Creek, Little Rabbit Creek, and Potter Creek. In 1917, the Alaska Railway built an embankment for the railroad track and so impounded the fresh waters of the creeks. This division ended the marsh’s existence as an estuary, a place where salt water and freshwater meet and mingle.

It is an oft-quoted fact that estuaries contain some of the most life-sustaining habitat on this earth, equaled only by rainforests and coral reefs. Some estuarine conditions still persist in Potter Marsh. In nature, it’s tough dividing whole ecosystems, especially when they’re as watery as a wetland. But the partition happened, and now where there was once a mingling of different waters, there is a freshwater marsh on the east and a saltwater mud flat to the west. The heterodox, estuarine nature of the place has changed.

There’s a lot of water in Alaska, especially in September, which is the tail end of the rainy season in Anchorage. “It sort of rains all the time,” my sister told, sounding both exasperated and proud. This seems miraculous to me, a Californian, who is living in a state which is enduring its fourth year of drought. “Forty-three percent of Alaska is wetlands,” a friend of my sister’s told me. My sister’s house (built long before she moved to Alaska) is situated over a now-buried creek which used to be former spawning grounds for salmon. There’s water everywhere you look: in the streambeds, trickling out of cliff walls, falling from the sky: it’s a very pluvial place. The mountains of Alaska loom over broad flat lowlands, which were made by rivers scouring silt and carrying it in their water columns; this silt, which was the mountain’s rocky skin, got dumped on the lowlands the minute the grade changed and the water was forced to slow down.

The ocean is a master builder, too, using its vigorous tidal prism to push finely ground sand and silt ashore. The tidal fluctuations in one arm of Cook Inlet, by the way, are among the highest in the world with a mean range of 30 vertical feet. There’s a tidal bore that surfers have discovered. “It’s kind of dangerous,” another friend told me. “But it hasn’t stopped the surfers.”

From 1917 to 1971, the marsh was a place of little interest, an accident made by man. To construct the railroad embankment, the builders dredged silt from the estuary, creating deep pools which are now freshwater ponds (and still slightly brackish; as I said, it’s hard to partition water). In 1971, the Alaska legislature decided to recognize what salmon, eagles, ducks, and other animals had signaled through their stubborn habitation of the marsh, namely, that the site had maintained some ecological integrity, even in its mutilated and partitioned state. You could argue that the animals created the refuge first, simply by refusing to leave. The legislature took its cue from the animals and legally formalized an informal and semi-historic ecological arrangement.

In Potter Marsh, nature exists on its own terms. This is the meaning of the term “refuge.” Human activity is limited. There is no hunting. No fishing. No domesticated animal can be grazed there; no mud, silt, sand, oil, or any other mineral from the marsh can be extracted. No houses, office parks, or hotels can be built along its ragged edges. What there is to do in the refuge, most days, is watch, listen, and learn. You can stand on the elevated boardwalk that the state built, and peer through the viewing glasses to try to identify all there is to see.

And all that one can see the marsh is enabled by water. Transport, habitat, nursery, nourishment: water builds, water moves, and water shields and protects. From conception to death, the waters of Potter Marsh maintain life and seek balance.

Although the waters were divided, the capacity of the wetlands to support life remains. It isn’t clear from the available studies how much biodiversity was lost after the building of the railroad: a lot, most likely. The salinity gradients changed. So did the water quality. The rapid urbanization of Anchorage and the surrounding areas infused the water with oil, leached minerals, and other nasty mid-century toxins. But the creeks that run into the marsh and fill the freshwater ponds support a cohort of flora and fauna that are dependent on each other. There is a food chain. We wouldn’t have seen two bald eagles sitting in cottonwood trees on the northeast end of the marsh if there were nothing there to hold their interest. One was an adult, with a shining white head. The other was a dun-colored juvenile. Both cried out at least once, with their odd, high-pitched cry. The juvenile, perhaps sensing the eyes scrutinizing him from the viewing deck, flew away. Bald eagles lose a bit of their innate dignity when they take to the air they fly with great, loosey-goosey flopping strokes, so huge is their wing span. But the power of their wings is remarkable.

Bald eagles, of course, eat salmon. And the salmon, that deeply totemic creature of Native American and Celtic cultures, are present in the marsh. The marsh is spawning habitat. Two culverts, put into place by human beings, link the marsh with Cook Inlet, creating access between the two formerly conjoined sites. We might have been unaware that we could actually see the salmon, were it not for a chance encounter with a little boy named Adrian. He told us in an exultant tone that, if we liked, he’d show us a salmon. Together, we peered over the railing. Below us were a few darting fingerling salmon—juveniles—and the ruddy, glistening back of what appeared to be a coho salmon.

“He’s spawned out,” said Adrian’s grandmother, who was standing nearby. I sensed exhaustion coming from the fish, although this might have just been my overly empathetic projection. But maybe not; if anything on this planet has a right to be exhausted, its gotta be a spawned-out salmon. They’ve swum hundreds of miles while their bodies slowly disintegrate, all in the service of reproduction. The grandmother, who was Native American —“Aleut,” she told me— said that the salmon was disoriented. “He’s confused,” she said affectionately. “Usually, they aren’t in this pond. They’re over in that one,” and she waved her hand southward toward another pool. It was really something seeing a salmon dying, in the crystal clear water, a native of that place, coming back to a point of origin that was greatly changed but still existed. The water hugged the salmon’s body and rocked it side to side with the current. We walked on, along the boardwalk. The late afternoon sun shone on the water in the deep ponds, making them glint like silver glass.

A creek rushed underneath us, flowing from the marsh downstream through two steel culverts. We glanced over the railing again, just in time to see the strong body of another salmon flash past us, swishing its powerful tail, pushing its way past the opposing current, moving upstream in the ancient pattern. It could do this because it had the means: a stream that flowed and an instinct to swim, a quality closely associated with the west, and the element of water. That was what I saw in the marsh that day: the persistence of instinct. This marsh was heavily engineered and divided critically from itself, and yet the ancient urge to reproduce and die in the traditional way still led the salmon from the ocean to the marsh. We could tell what here, long ago, by what is here, now.

In the living waters of her womb the salmon swam, insistent and instinctive. We watched it move away from us.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size, my husband once told me. That’s true, I thought. I just witnessed that. The salmon was small compared to the size of the ocean. The creatures in the marsh were in some sort of equilibrium with each other, and in relationship with two enormous hydrological systems, one riverine, the other oceanic.

Nature is plastic: it makes endless adaptations, seeking balance. This capacity can be pushed too far. What would (what will) change if the freshwater flowing down the mountain dries up? What will happen if the rushing bore tide inundates the marsh? Both things are likely to happen, someday. What deal will be struck then?

And what would we be without water? Would we live without instinct, dry-brained, and witless, a wandering species with no home to return to and no way to live? It’s a horrible thought, and yet, it might happen. I’ve seen large swathes of California go up in flames. Communities in West Marin in California have had their wells run dry. And as of this writing, there is no rain in the forecast for California.

Water needs balance, from us, really: balance between the city and the wetland, between real need and mere desire, between what rains (or does not) down on us from the sky and into our homes and bodies.

Balance can be achieved between two objects of unequal size. A raindrop and a human body; different objects, vastly differing in size. What is that relationship? What can, what will, that balance be?

Potter Marsh, looking east


– Written on Mabon, 2014 and re-posted on the first day of the new Snow moon, January 21st, 2015


Ready to wear: vintage clothing and the ILGWU.

I got an early Yule giftie: a lovely vintage dress, given to me by a friend who got it from a vintage clothing store named Tippecanoe’s, which is now closed. The dress itself is an artifact from the history of unionized labor. It’s likely that a skilled garment worker living and working in New York City put this dress together.


Tippiecanoe’s was housed in an old beach cottage in Laguna Beach, CA. Three flights of rickety steps took you up to a small room that smelled of cigarette smoke, mildew and old wood. We’d walk on the uneven floor and, turning to our left, walk into an even smaller room which was crowded with clothing. We’d marvel at what we’d find there: ratty furs, suede gloves, boxy silk shantung cocktail dresses, narrow-soled Sabrina heels encrusted with dirty rhinestones. The collector in me wishes I could time travel to buy half of what I saw. There would be women’s suits from the forties, sober and mannish, yet still feminine, with wide lapels and A-line skirts. I’d look at Adrian-inspired dressing gowns made of polyester (and sometimes wool: the moth holes were the tip off) with wide shoulders, billowing sleeves with leg-o-mutton cuffs and tightly fitted armscyes. (Don’t be lazy. Look it up.) And, especially, and most tantalizingly, wasp-waisted “New Look” dresses made from thick satin, or pebbly wool crepe, or lightweight wool, sometimes in pristine condition, mostly moth-eaten with a tattered crinoline dangling below the hem. They were still beautiful and structured expertly, with the tightest and surest seams I’d ever seen. Often the only thing that was still intact were the seams.

I viewed all of this glamour through the eyes of a slightly overweight goth girl who loved fashion illustration, especially Rene Grau’s illustrations for Vogue. I knew what these dresses demanded: an elongate spine, slim hips thrust forward insouciantly, a narrow ribcage, a small waist and a curved neck rising elegantly from between the crest of the clavicle. I couldn’t give the dresses any of this. I was five feet four inches tall, and stout, thanks to my pot habit and the late night fast-food trips my friends and I took through the Naugles drive-through at 3 in the morning. We’d stuff our faces with cheap Mexican food and drink chocolate milkshakes, hungry with the munchies and tired after partying all night. I was feral, yet a part of me felt strongly that these dresses must have something to do with me. We were both allied in our desire to be seen, elegantly poised, out in the world. justbetsyblackdress

I did manage to find some garments that fit me. A near-pristine Jacques Fath petticoat was one. Another was a silk shantung three-piece suit, an Oleg Cassini-knock off. I wore it to work, to parties, anyplace that would have me. I wore dresses and coats that today I’d encase in archival bags, only to be worn at the opera, dresses that probably garbed housewife-socialites in Lido or debutantes in Glendale. I traversed the underground scene wearing these clothes, taking them into social situations they weren’t made for, like the illegal one-night-only dance clubs of Los Angeles and Santa Ana. I still find treasures. Last week, I found a navy-blue jacket, made by Alvin Handmacher, from his “Weathervane” line. Now that I exercise and eat sensibly, I fit most of what I find.

This will be a lengthy aside, but I must ask: Does anyone remember the color “cerise”? Not fuschia, not hot pink, but a soulful pink infused with deep blue. My mother had a gorgeous cotton velvet skirt which I wore during my stint as goth in eighties-era Orange County. I loved how the color set off my dyed blue-black crew cut and pale skin. I called it pink once in front of my mother, and she quickly corrected me. “It’s Cerise,” she said, dragging out the last syllable: Ceer-eeeze. “It means cherry.” It was a very popular shade in the fifties, she told me, and one of her favorite colors because of the way it set off her dramatic coloring achieved without my level of artifice: chestnut brown hair, pale skin and snapping dark eyes.

Back to the dress: it’s made of pin-striped, densely woven cotton and it has an extremely fitted waist. I have an up-and-down relationship with fitted waists. I approve of the design’s dictatorial editing of my torso: the tailored, nipped-in waist organizes the terrain of my stomach and hips into two sharply edited geometrical shapes— an inverted triangle resting atop an upright one. It has ten darts around the waist and two hook and eye closures that ensure that the dress fits snugly. There are some assumptions that drove the design of this dress. One is that the young lady who purchased this dress would willingly wear a girdle and bra that tipped the breasts up and straight forward, allowing the space between the bosom and the hips to emerge. She was assumed to be out and about in the vita activa, public places of work and action located outside the confines of private domesticity. She was probably a mid-level, possibly unionzed worker of some sort (a clerical worker? A teacher?) who needed a well-made, affordable and becoming dress to waltz blithely out into the post-war world. The other of course, is that there would be garment workers who had the skills to handle all that meticulous tailoring. (Try hand-setting a dart, sometime. It isn’t easy.)

There’s a large label in the dress that reads Gigi Young New York. Manufacturing tags, sometimes made from a SAM_4014high-gloss sateen, are usually sewn into the collar of the garment and often have the designer’s name spelled out in a brash script: Lilli Anne from San Francisco. Eleanor Green of California. Irene (I’ve seen this label a few times, and, I think, actually owned a few garments. I had no clue what I had. Ouch.) Alfred Shaheen. A month ago, I found a mint-condition, navy-blue cashmere trench coat. The word “Ransohoffs” tells you everything you need to know about the provenance of the coat: It was obviously manufactured for Ransohoff’s, the extremely glamorous department store made famous by one very uncomfortable scene in the film “Vertigo”. It’s a dream of a coat.

These labels, the imprimatur of industry leaders who made it big in the heady mass-production years following the war, were not the only historic markers sewn into the garment. Often I’d find a small label bearing an unusual insignia sewn into the side seam. The label had a highly abstracted symbol of a needle pulling thread with tiny words arranged in a circular pattern around the letters ILGWU. I know now that this is a label for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, the powerful union founded in 1900 to combat dismal working conditions of workers in New York City. This small label was sewn into place by a unionized worker working in New York’s and Los Angeles’s garment districts. They worked an eight-hour day, with a union contract, in (hopefully) safer working conditions than had existed previously, doing the work to mass produce these highly designed pieces.

1348816860_official-seal-of-the-international-ladies-garment-workers-unionRose Pesotta, an anarchist labor organizer, was sent to Los Angeles from New York in 1933 to organize the supposedly un-organizeable Latina workers in Los Angeles. The powerful Associated Apparel Manufacturers of Los Angeles insisted on ignoring the state minimum wage of 16.00 dollars a week and instead preferred to pay their workers a wage that was sometimes as low as .50 cents a week. Rose PesottaPesotta wrote a book about her experiences organizing labor on both coasts.

In the second chapter of California Here We Come! she described the crazily inefficient manner in which dresses were manufactured in “open” (non-union) factories: women were given the “freedom of the building” which meant they were forced to wander around the multilevel factories looking for work. “Doors leading to staircases were left unlocked, so that they could take the elevator to the top floor, ask at each shop if there was work, walk down to the next floor, and repeat the performance until, if lucky, they found a few days’ employment for the price offered.” The idea that the women were unable to stand up and fight back was proven false: Local 96 of the ILGWU was given official union recognition in September, and went on strike a month later, in the famous 1933 strike, shutting down the garment industry for 26 days. They won the concessions they’d sought from the employers. By 1950, which is about when my Gigi Young dress was made, most garment workers in New York and Los Angeles were unionized. They sat at their machines, attaching the swank labels of their employers as well as their own ILGWU bug to dress after dress. The label is a another assumption embedded into these dresses: that there would be a union, and no more horrible deaths by fire or industrial accidents. And no more unpaid labor.

It’s hard to tell, without access to the ILGWU archive, which garment manufacturers cooperated with the ILGWU. My Gigi Young dress, which probably cost about ten dollars (maybe less) has no union bug in it. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t union made. In fact, as I write this, there are dresses for sale from online vintage retailers that list Suzy Perette (the parent company to Gigi Young) dresses as having the union bug sewn inside. I think it’s probable that my dress was made in a union shop—it’s clearly a design from the early to mid-fifties, which in when the garment industry was mostly unionized in New York. The availability of other union-made dresses from this time on second-hand vintage clothing sites is enough to reassure me on that point. But without research at the archive, it isn’t possible know this with certainty.

But. If the gorgeous Gigi Young dress is union-made, it exposes the untruth in the idea that in order to purchase a gigiyoung beautiful, affordable, well-made garment, some worker somewhere has to suffer. My dress, along with every other piece of vintage clothing I own that has a union bug sewn into it, puts paid to that awful lie. Every dress, every coat is better made with higher quality fabrics through the skill of fairly paid workers who had recourse to collective decision making. The dress could have retailed from between from 6.00 to 10.00. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 60.00 to 80.00 dress, which is comparable to today’s prices. I’d certainly never find anything like it for sale in today’s department stores produced by a worker who had union representation, a contract and a decent paycheck.

The impoverished vision that only hires the most desperate worker in the most unregulated environment turns out, with depressing precision, crappy and hastily produced clothing, dispirited in design and construction. The fabric is horrendous, too: it’s adulterated with Lycra (blech) to provide stretch. This innovation, which serves to soothe women’s fears of being the “wrong” size, also usurps the skill of the (missing) unionized garment worker who could actually tailor clothing (ah, for the days of precision darting!). The crappiness of the clothing is matched by the shoddiness of the illusion, promoted by manufacturers like INC, or Guess! that because we can afford the clothes they sell, we are somehow well-garbed and living in an age of unheralded luxury. We are not. My beloved grandmother, petite, blonde and reflexively anti-union, sailed in and out of Bullocks Wilshire, when she could, purchasing dresses that were union made and which suited her trim figure. Today she’d be confronted with slip shod dresses with the barest trace of design. The union bug has disappeared and the clothing it has left behind has nothing to recommend it.

The aftermath of the 2012 Tazreen Fashions factory fire. Photo by Andrew Biraj/Reuters

Let me pause to wipe the beads of sweat from my brow (the above peroration has been brewing for some time). If you want the precision of a waist seam that defines your waist to perfection with twelve darts- six in front, and six in back-surrounding it- you must pay for it. And maybe this is what people should do. Find out how much it costs, truly costs, to make a beautiful garment under decent working conditions. Shop vintage if and when you can. Consider bespoke clothing whenever you can, especially for clothing you know you’ll wear for years. Or learn to sew. (The above mentioned anti-union, beloved grandmother was a dab hand with a needle, and made many of her own dresses, probably as many as she purchased.) Find out what it costs in terms of time and labor to make this princess-seamed dress, a classic design from the fifties. Or, for those of you who prefer to stay in the present moment, perhaps this un-constructed Lynn Mizono pull-over dress is more your style.

Take any pattern you want to a skilled garment worker and find out much it costs to be well-dressed. And then pay for it.


I wrote this whole thing, and then found this excellent article written by Elizabeth L. Cline in 2011 that really breaks it down, to wit: “In 1930, the average American woman owned an average of nine outfits. Today, we each buy more than 60 pieces of new clothing on average per year. “ Fabulous. And here’s her book. I’ll be purchasing this, but NOT from Amazon. Special order it from your local bookstore. They’re still out there.

-written in San Francisco, CA, on the night of the Wolf Moon.

Crisis at the laundromat

A Clean Slate

It’s Monday, December 15th, and it rained hard all morning. The clouds cleared at about two. I went to the laundromat to wash my clothes, walked in, and saw a crowd of people standing in the smallish space. My heart sank. Nobody loves a crowded laundromat, especially not when you have a week’s worth of washing to do. A man sat slumped on the metal folding table. Earlier, he’d walked past me on 22nd Street and greeted me with a low hello. Now he was munching a bag of Fritos and watching man pile clothes into a large front-loading washing machine.

I eyed the top-loading machines, the one I like to use because you get a 30-minute wash. The man who was piling his clothes into the washing machine stopped me. I don’t know if you want to use those, he told me, because the display wasn’t on. I think it’ll eat your quarters. This is how you know who your neighbors really are, as opposed to those taking up space in the neighborhood: do they care about your quarters?

Thanks, I replied. Shit. The Frito-eating man said, You could use those other machines, indicating the row of top-loading machines against the northwest wall. But I don’t like them. They’re 3 bucks a wash and you only get fifteen minutes of a half-hearted swishing. I have sensitive skin. I need all the soap to be washed away. Eh, I said. Those machines are sketchy.

Another woman walked in with a bag of clothes on her back, looking determined.

The clothes washing guy said to me don’t try to use the soap dispensing machine either. It’s broken. I had detergent, so it didn’t matter. But this laundromat, which always has something wrong with it, suddenly seemed unusable. Three washing machines down. A broken soap dispensing machine. An older man, wearing a beret at a rakish angle turned around and said the dispensing machine is broken ? in tones of dismay and disbelief.

I have to leave, I thought. There are too many people in here, and too many mechanical failures to accommodate us all. Before last week, I might have staggered with my heavy laundry load to 23rd and Bryant street to the spacious Super Lavar laundromat. But it was gone. A new restaurant was opening in what is now an empty space under construction. The commons are shrinking, I thought, with a surge of irritation. The enclosures are being built.

SAM_3800I saw the new red awning while walking down Bryant Street with my husband a week before. We stopped and scoffed at the name of the restaurant: “Buttermilk Southern Kitchen”. We stood there for awhile, feeling dismayed that the laundromat had closed. We use A Clean Slate, the overcrowded, mechanically challenged laundromat at 22nd and Alabama, because it’s close to our house, but in a pinch we knew we had the option of walking two blocks to do our laundry. Not any more, said my husband grimly, as we stood on the corner. Now there’s just another expensive restaurant.

Laundromats are basically external domestic spaces for urban dwellers. I grew up in suburbia, and had to adjust to them. Even after 23 years of living in San Francisco, laundromats still seem like a major pain in the ass, and indeed, A Clean Slate is a major pain in the ass. I have had to call the number tacked up next to the change machine several times. Your dryer has eaten my money! I’ve barked. Your washing machine just stopped in the middle of the cycle! I want my money back, I’ve said curtly, acting the part of the entitled consumer whose panic over losing four quarters belies that facade.

Laundromats always meant to me that I had a place to live but with some contingencies: in my case, no washer and no dryer and a weekly walk down the street to the closest laundromat. What is the closest laundromat isn’t down the street? What if the closest laundromat is several blocks away?

And what is the meaning of Buttermilk Southern Kitchen, a restaurant whose owner has described it as not expensive? (Most dishes will average 15 dollars, which is, in my opinion, fucking expensive, especially when you’re talking about a cuisine heavily dependent on green leafy vegetables, legumes and corn. Do you know how much cornbread is per serving? About four cents. Hopping John? Two bucks.) This: the domestic spaces of the Mission are changing to accommodate a work force which is highly paid and rarely at home. The restaurant is perhaps, the most relevant external domestic space right now. Whipping up a meal of oven-roasted sweet potatoes finished in sage-garlic butter and walnuts and served with farfalle is, I guess, out of the question. This is what I’m cooking now, as I write this. The traditional coming-home time of 6 or 7 doesn’t exist any longer, so instead of making a dish like this, most people are trooping off to the nearest restaurant, and paying 18 staggering dollars for it. The contingency of not having access to a kitchen with which to cook because of insane work hours seems far worse to me than the contingency of an apartment with no washer and dryer. But not having a laundromat would really suck.

Anyway. I just went back to A Clean Slate and started my laundry. The man who was eating the Fritos was asleep on the floor, his face soft and childlike in repose. When I went back to throw my stuff in the dryer, I brought him some of my farfalle/sweet potato/sage-in-brown-butter sauce with a sausage added to it.

He thanked me and said yeah, I saw you leave earlier.
I was annoyed, I told him. There was too much going on!

Laundromats are a pain in the ass, but they have this going for them: the comfort of domestic labor, and evidence of family relationships, hearth and home. I see children’s clothing being washed by adults and watch as mothers chase their scrambling, squirmy children around, barking at them to watch their sister— ver su hermana! Get down off the washing machine! Everyone is working together, however unknowingly, as we bend to the demands of the material world and the traces it leaves on our clothing, food, shit, baby puke and stubborn ink stains. There is nothing seamless, nothing not real, as we wash together, dry together, fold together, moving in the unconscious rhythm of the body at work in an atmosphere rich in the polyglot language of Mission laundromats.

Once, the gentleman who ran Super Lavar gave me a small scented candle at Christmastime. Para ti, he said. Gracias, I said. Yep. I don’t think I’d get anything for free at Buttermilk Southern Kitchen.

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton http://www.sarahmnewton.com/

Super Lavar, by Sarah Newton. Go to  http://www.sarahmnewton.com to see more of her work.

This is a good recipe for a squash/pasta/sage dish. Make it some night. Feed yourself.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 432 other followers