Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

The Witch sees the Tail of Newt and knows that it is Spring.

Yesterday was the first day of spring, and after a cold hard winter, I welcomed it. The wildflowers of California are out-performing themselves in terms of bloom. Pictures from California’s 58 counties show streaks of pure poppy orange coloring the hills and plains, and mountain meadows, punctuated by purple, pink, blue, white, and red. Every color and every flower I’ve ever seen is punching its way to the surface, encouraged by the water that’s been pouring from the sky and the heat of the sun. It works, this relationship between sun, seed and rain. It’s amazing to see a system do the work, like clockwork, of seasonal production.

I went hiking with my best friend Elyse in Tennessee Valley, one of the many glens—I counted at least 51 on a map between the Marin Headlands and Point Reyes station—that run from the ridges of the Marin hills down to the sea. These long narrow spaces usually have water running through them that forms a lagoon which drains into a pocket beach.  You could almost describe this system in a pictograph.

As you can see, dear reader, I did exactly that and while it wouldn’t be the simplest pictograph to hammer into a rock, it gets the job done of describing what a person could reasonably expect to find in terms of landforms at the bottom of the ridge line of a coastal range. My pictogram has the added benefit of some totally accidental symbolism: the lines depicting the creek, the lagoon and the lagoon’s outlet to the ocean look like a snake. Which you could reasonably expect to find in a natural system like this.

Of course, reasonable expectations get thwarted all the time. The natural system of a glen/creek/lagoon/ocean outlet are often waylaid by the non-natural system of urban development. People just love building houses in beautiful natural spaces, and Marin for all its love of environmental 501 © 3’s is no different. The hills above Muir Beach are thick with expensively designed homes, modest and sleek, all of which depend on urban systems, like sewers and power lines, to house their owners in comfort.

The lagoon that drains into Muir Beach is but one part of the Redwood Creek Watershed. The total system is composed of the creek, the wetland, the lagoon and the tidal dunes, and ultimately, the ocean. It’s all one piece and as such responds to disruption and connection systemically, which is to say that if the water is stymied in its flow, there will be floods, fish will be blocked from building their redds and depositing their cache of eggs, and native plants and animals will lose habitat. If the water has the room it needs, it will run over and through undeveloped land, and create a floodplain, which gives the water that space it needs to spread and meander.

That’s what water does. It also creates topography, which is great for animals that need water to reproduce but also dry land from time to time. The water has the added responsibility of disseminating and germinating native seeds which—at this location anyway—don’t have to compete with invasives for the land and the water they need to grow.

This refreshing lack of competition comes courtesy of some volunteer, or volunteers, more likely, who worked tirelessly to clear it of nasty things like Himlayan blackberry and its whip-like canes, which will take over an area in no time at all. Land management is a critical element in habitat restoration.

Thus it was that a ceanothus bush greeted me and my friend Elyse as we descended from the trail. It might have been planted, but it’s more likely that the seed bed in the soil yielded it up naturally and it survived because of the management practices described above.

“A ceanothus!” I yelled when I saw it. I see them in the city all the time. There’s one blooming right now just down the street from me, a ceanothus foliosus, from the looks of it. But I never see them in the wild. I was so was excited to see it because of where I was seeing it. It was a Ceanothus thyrsiflorus, a thrilling name for its Dionysian connotations. It made me momentarily ecstatic, anyway. My friend, Elyse also recognized it, but had to wait for my rapture to die down in order to tell me that.

“I know this plant because someone called it a see-you-know-us,” she informed me. We laughed at her silly friend.
“You never see this plant here. But this is exactly where you should expect to see it,” I said, proving that it takes more than a rainy two-mile walk uphill to knock value judgements out of me.

We walked across the small bridge that spans Redwood Creek and its floodplain. I heard the croaking of frogs almost immediately. The interpretive signs advised me that these were probably, hopefully, the endangered California Red Legged frog (Rana draytonii)which, again, you would —should—expect to hear in this location, because of this creek, this lagoon and the wetland. Where else would frogs be?

Almost immediately, I saw something large moving through the bushes in the wetland, something big enough for its silvery grey-brown fur to be visible above the low-lying shrubbery. There were some other hikers on the other side of the bridge looking at the animal intently. I walked across the bridge with the chorus of frogs croaking away, and asked one of the hikers what he was looking at.

“A coyote,” he replied. The coyote, as if on cue, stepped out of the scrub and into a small clearing. It was a big one, probably a young adult, with a thick bushy tail and the narrow muzzle that coyotes have.

What you could reasonably expect to see and hear was exactly what we saw and heard all within twenty minutes: a ceanothus, one of the most common plants of coastal scrub, a red-legged frog once incredibly populous and now federally listed as an endangered species and a coyote. I reacted to all these with delight, but surprise.

I say “but surprise” to acknowledge how bereft California’s natural history is of the “history” part. The frog, the coyote and the ceanothus bush were common elements in places like Tennessee Valley before 1849. The frog’s habitat contracted and worse, people developed a taste for its legs.

I don’t have the evolutionary history of any of these animals or plants to hand, but it’s safe to assume thousands of years of habitation in the bay area. The bay itself is 9,000 years old and its baylands developed about 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. It took less than 200 years to make the bush, the frog and the coyote strangers in their own land and novelties for hikers like me to encounter. It’s taken about seven years for the staff and scientists of the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to put the pieces of the Redwood creek ecology back together. And guess what? It’s working. The moral of the story…well, there’s more than one, but one of them is this: restoration works and it can be a mighty work.

We left the lagoon and walked a trail that edged the cliffs and then dropped down into another glen. And that was the final surprise, final proof of a ancient system working to produce life. I started seeing newts, many newts, all with knobbly skin and bright orange undersides. They scrambled off the path at our approach, away from the peril of our heavy feet. I squealed. I’ve only ever seen newts (a type of salamander) once on a hike. And that was a long time ago (and I wasn’t walking. I was swimming) Again, the question danced in my head. What do you expect to see? I took a picture of the first few little beasts I saw, assuming I wouldn’t see any more, and then continued to see them at such a rate that I knew I would find at least one dead. (I did.)

By the time we walked out of Tennessee Valley, I’d seen at least 40 salamanders. They were endearing, the way they moved: they threw their short stumpy limbs up and out, as they left the path and clambered into the damp underbrush. The salamanders with their glistening, toxic skin seemed inseparable from the environment that they started life in. It was as if the water flowing in Redwood creek had changed into thousands of watery little gods, running like rivulets down the muddy path.

I was surprised by my surprise the entire time I was walking by the things that were there. After all, the “there” that I’m thinking of is made of them. The animals and plants of Tennessee Valley, as they blink in and out of existence, and as scientists and land managers struggle to rebuild ecologies from scratch in order to give amphibians like the Rough-skinned and California newt a home, are the valley as much as the crumpled chert formations that give it form or the water that flows through it.

I do want to be surprised, though. I don’t want to tour natural spaces with animals and birds and insects and all the rest appearing at punctual intervals to assure me I’m outside.

I want to continue to be surprised by everything I see everytime I venture out: the uncontained, the rebounded, the natural, the wild.

Written in the muddy muddy month o’ March, the greenest month we have. These newts are out now and about….

This little guy made right for me and walked steadily between my feet….

They are so dear. And they don’t have much space. So if you go walking the Marin Hills, step lightly and look out for them. 

San Francisco,March 21st, 2017

From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Robot Wrangling in the Mission District

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I saw the robot before it saw me: it looked like a cross between a Travel Pro 3-Wheel(™) mobility scooter, the kind my elderly cousin uses, and a mini-fridge. Upon closer inspection it appeared to be a hastily assembled, somewhat jerry-rigged robot: not top shelf, really. More bargain-basement. A man was trotting along after it, in the way of a pet owner chasing his unleashed dog.

I biked up to the man. “Can I ask you what that is?” I asked, knowing which answer I’d get. This is the New Mission: no one talks about their business, particularly if it’s funded with venture capital. The man, who had long, slightly stringy brown hair and brown eyes smiled. “I can’t tell you,” he replied. “Sorry.” I smiled back at him. I wasn’t surprised. The Mission District is in the grips of a massive Non-Disclosure Agreement these days: automated cars and robots are common sights on sidewalks and streets, and yet no one can or will tell you what they are or what they are meant to do.

“Can I follow along and ask you some questions?” I responded. The man winced. I was on my bike, so it was easy to shadow him and his pet-robot as they traveled down Alabama Street. The man, who also couldn’t tell me his name, said he was from New Jersey and that his company’s headquarters was in the Mission. “But I can’t tell you where. I’m not sure I could, anyway. I’m new here,” he said. “I don’t know San Francisco yet. We’re close to Potrero and some street named after a state.”

“York? Hampshire?” I asked.
“Yeah, maybe one of those. But really: I can’t tell you,” he said.

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I’d been primed for this encounter by a Mission Local story written by journalist Laura Wenus about a “Carry” robot—a different one than the one I was looking at— that she encountered on Valencia Street. Tech companies are routinely using streets and now sidewalks to test and develop and profit from their technology, and yet none of them will disclose what they’re doing.

I flashed back to a New Yorker story about Jim Dyson, the millionaire design engineer who invented the Dyson Supersonic hair dryer. “No humans, completely automated,” he said, about the making of the hair dryer. “Can’t have any humans.”
“This is meant to be a delivery system, right?” I said, adding “Bye-bye subsistence capitalism!”
He laughed uncomfortably. “Yeah, right. This will definitely take someone’s job. Well…” he shrugged his shoulders. What are you going to do?

“How do you feel about tech firms using public space to develop their technology?” I asked.

“Well, we have to worry about competition,” he explained. “If we talk about what we’re doing—what this is”—he jerked his chin at the robot—“we run the risk of competitors stealing our ideas. I sympathize with people’s need to know, but I just can’t tell you anything. But I can say this is meant to help people, and that I would never work for a company to didn’t intend to help people. I wouldn’t be a part of that.”

We were having this discussion on Alabama street, which has the distinction of having some of the oldest houses in the Mission District. A PG&E serviceman was kneeling on the sidewalk in front of a cottage built in 1862, attending to some subterranean problem. The robot zoomed gaily ahead. “You gotta be careful,” said the man. I realized that he was talking to someone else.

“Are you controlling this thing?” I asked.
“No. Someone back at headquarters is,” he said.

The worker saw the wheelchair-mini-fridge contraption coming his way and sat back on his haunches. His eyes widened.”

Whoa!” he said. “Is that a robot?”

“Yes it is,” said the man, whom I had started to think of as the robot wrangler.
“Do you want to know what this is?” I asked the worker. “Ask him.”
“What is it?” asked the PG&E repairman.
“I can’t tell you,” said the wrangler, who looked a panicked. I could see him wondering about my persistence. When is she going to leave me alone?

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The robot moved confidently down 23rd, turned right on Harrison and made a beeline for the intersection of 22nd and Harrison. “That’s quite a curb,” the man muttered into his headset. The robot made its way into the crosswalk and, tottering a bit, managed to mount the curb cut. It veered around the woman who sits on the corner selling oranges. She eyed it with calm suspicion.  “Naranjas?” she asked to the robot wrangler as he herded it across the intersection.

“Do you think that companies that use public resources should pay for the privilege of using public sites to develop their technology?” I asked the wrangler.

“Well,” he said, “I think that fact that we’re providing some kind of benefit,” he said breathlessly (it was clear that he wasn’t used to all this running; he had the hunched posture and pallor of an tech engineer)—“to people …I can’t tell you what that is but I can say that this will provide some kind of benefit. So I dunno. If we had to pay a special tax we might want to go somewhere where we didn’t.”

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I wasn’t surprised by his answer: this is the era of the Libertarian New Deal which has evolved a formula exactly opposite to the three R’s: instead of Relief, Recovery, and Reform, it’s Deny, Deconstruct, and Dissemble. Small “l” Libertarianism, as I’ve seen it practiced by start-ups in the Mission District, is avoidant, anonymous and prefers to to create things—cars and miscellaneous gadgetry—that make more private space.

This is how I view “innovations” like automated vehicles; the self-driving cars Cruise Automation has spent the last two years test driving around the Mission (and I do mean around, and around, in dizzying regularity) function like private BART cars. Included in this avoidance of common space is a suspicion of public safeguards, permits, in other words.

Uber’s decision to place their driverless cars on San Francisco streets in defiance of California’s entirely reasonable vehicle permitting laws is a perfect example of the tantrumy we’ll-do-what-we-want-to-do-you’re-not-the-mother-of-me reaction to public safety laws.  I asked the robot wrangler if the anonymous tech company had checked in with the city or sought any sort of permitting. “No,” he answered.

I recounted this conversation a day later to Nicole Ferrara, Executive Director of Walk SF who said immediately: “They are not legal. They are not permitted to be on the sidewalk.” She’d read the February 21st Mission Local story about the “Carry” robot, and thought I had seen the same robot.

“This was a different robot,” I told her. “It looked like a mobility scooter.”

She sighed. “We’re concerned that this is the beginning of the era of Wall-E. More and more public space is being taken away. People that live in the city enjoy the fact that they can walk places, like the grocery, for instance. Maybe you bump into a friend on the way. Sidewalks form social spaces and are part of the fabric of urban culture. To stop that culture from unfolding is detrimental to urban life. And it has an impact on the elderly and disabled population.” I asked her if they had a plan to deal with scofflaw robots. “Yes,” she said. “We’re working on that.”

The robot and the wrangler crossed the street and entered the crosswalk. I decided it was time to stop talking and start documenting. I laid my bike down next to the woman selling oranges and grabbed my cell phone.

“I don’t want to be in the picture,” said the wrangler.
“I can crop you out,” I said and then thought wait a minute. He’s walking around with this thing on a public sidewalk. Sorry, guy. The robot vroomed past me and churned down Harrison street. The conversation with the wrangler was over. He was nice, but I knew there was nothing for me to know; all I was required to do was watch the spectacle of a robot, zooming through my neighborhood.

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But I followed them, anyway. We came to the corner of 23rd and Harrison.  A nattily dressed man wearing a porkpie hat stood on the street corner. His eyes lit on the robot and his eyes widened.

“Woah! Is that a robot?” he asked.
“Yes!” I said, answering for the wrangler, who was busy running after the robot.
He looked happy. “Is that like R2D2’s great-great-great-great Grandfather?” he asked gleefully. His name was Eric Peralta. “I’m a furniture designer and sci-fi geek,” he told me. He was enchanted by the robot.
“Do you want to know what that is?” I asked Eric.
“Yeah! Hey! What is that?” Eric called after the wrangler.

“I can’t tell you,” answered the wrangler. He and the robot zoomed off. Eric’s eyes were alight: the future was all around him in the Mission and it was awesome. Eric, a self-identified extreme-Left-Libertarian didn’t see a problem with the robot’s developers using the sidewalks and streets for product development or financial profit. “That’s what most companies do, right?” Neither did he mind the secrecy of tech culture. “When you’re working on sensitive technology, you need to be able to protect your design to keep your work from being stolen.” Who’d want to steal that thing? I wondered. What evil tech competitor would be interested? It looked so slapped together a Jawa might have second thoughts about scavenging it. In comparison, the “Carry” robot that Wenus encountered looked sleek, definitively high-tech and convincing in its role as the delivery person of tomorrow.

Eric looked thoughtful as he gazed at the rapidly vanishing robot. “It’s strange to be alive in this time. I can remember when computers were barely a thing…they fit in closets, not people’s hands. I grew up in the forest and love nature, love the environment. But the earth has become a human sphere. We are changing it.” He seemed to think that the future was upon us, in all its glory, unmovable, unchangeable and suddenly just present. I felt differently, of course: the future that tech companies seem to be building seems to be concerned with banishing the quotidian in favor of a future free of human activity and monopolizing my environment with a monoculture of non-disclosure and anonymity. Gee, no thanks. Like St. Joan of the Stockyards, I Want To Know.

What seems to be at-large in the streets of the Mission district (aside from unpermitted robots) is a culture that is at once voluble, and cagey: the public humble-brag and carefully scripted candor of the tech community when it speaks of the future at tech conferences vanishes when you encounter tech engineers roaming around the Mission District sitting inside self-driving cars or running after robots. They are legally and culturally tongue-tied. When asked what they’re doing, and what the things they’re developing will do, they can only say I can’t tell you. This is probably the truth. They probably don’t know.

Which is weird. An opaque, undisclosed future is at odds with the kind of Futurism I grew up with. It took delight in explaining everything: there will be ansibles, veldts, holo-decks. There will be genderless societies, black obelisks, undiscovered galaxies far, far away, monsters made from cadavers who need to be loved, tiny green people in elongated spaceships that either want peace or to destroy us. The authors and writers of the movies and the books I love (I’m a sci-fi geek, too) are in the business of description: new worlds, relationships, and environments. Some of the stories were cautionary. Some were frightening. But the makers of these scenarios wanted me to consider, to anticipate, to know.

The tech community of the Bay Area do not. They only ever show a bizarre mix of squeamishness and surprise—You’re only here to witness. We Can’t Tell You— as they develop an undisclosed future on the streets of my neighborhood.

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Written after a long time of not writing. The Moon is brand new and in Pisces. Venus is in the evening sky these days: go ahead and blow her a kiss.
Here’s to unsettled exoplanets!

Riding with Mary.

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Mary above the Puerto Alegre restaurant at 25th and Bryant

I went riding with Mary today, on my bike, through the neighborhood and hailed her every time I saw her. She’s a constant in the neighborhood, a genius loci, who’s been up in everyone’s business in the Mission —the Ancient Hibernians, the Latinx, —for a long time. (sometimes I think people think the Mission has only ever been either Irish or Mexican.) During my marathon Irish Walking Tour someone asked me what had changed in the mission …really? They posed this question to me sotto voce. I don’t know why: were they hoping for secret knowledge? I said It’s not that the Mission used be Irish…it’s that this place used to be about family. Multi-generations in one house. That’s what the Mission used to be.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe above El Farolitos on 24th Street

(The Mission was always a place to party. During prohibition, the Mission had speakeasies called “blind pigs”. The Quinn family who hailed from Cork, lived above a blind pig on the corner of 24th and Alabama. A shot of moonshine went for about 25 cents, according to Frank Quinn. Wonder what the operators of the gambling den/brothel in Lilac Alley charge? )

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Mary at the south end of Balmy Alley

I had this slightly surreptitious conversation while standing in front of an image of the Mary of La Reyna Panaderia on 24th street. Mary is one thing that hasn’t changed. She’s always been here and people have always worshipped her and loved her I told this person, who really needed to know that things are not so simple. People have been talking to Mary in Irish, in Italian, maybe in German, obviously in Spanish, obviously in English, for a long-ass time. Right? There’s a good reason that sightings of her are so common. All the prayers, all the fervent petitions to her, all of the apologies that stern Irish priests in the olden days of the Mission made you go down on your knees to say (I’m not catholic, so I don’t know how this goes, exactly.): all of this has left an imprint on the neighborhood.

St. Peter’s was founded in 1867, which means people in this “Peterite village” (so-called by Rev. Nicholas Farana, assistant pastor at St. Peters) have been talking with Mary for nearly a century and a half.

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Lourdes Mary and Mary with a fabulous Crown, also in Balmy Alley.

Sé do bheath’ a Mhuire, atá lán de ghrásta. Tá an Tiarna leat. Is beannaithe thú idir mná

(Oh, speaking of sightings. We had an actual, un-official Marian visitation in July, 1996. I was living on Precita Avenue, which is down the street and around the corner from the Chapel of Immaculate Conception. This chapel—which is gorgeously adorned with mounds of glazed terra cotta fruits, flowers and cherubs with round cheeks, blank eyes, and mouths frozen in a perfect “o”— has had a couple of mystical things happen: the current priest is an exorcist, an altar boy began excreting oil of rose through his pores and may have been in the early stages of developing stigmata. Also: Jesus was caught smoking a cigarette in the bathroom. Mary made an appearance on the brass roof of the chapel and the devout answered this unexpected visit by appearing in the hundreds each night for a week, holding candles, clicking beads, murmuring prayers and staring at the intersected scratches on the brass panel that became a hooded figure with a drooping head the longer you looked. The panel glowed softly but distinctly. I saw this with my own eyes.)

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Our Lady of La Reyna Bakery and coffee shop on 24th street, between Folsom and Shotwell.

Hail, Mary. If there wasn’t so much talk between her and the people who lived here, she wouldn’t hang out. There are at least 13 different images of her in the neighborhood, with different expressions: patient, bland, stern, muy doloroso, kind of annoyed, kind of bitchy with raised eyebrows. I know better than you she seems to say, like an uptight church lady, and I’m like well, yeah, you’re the mother of Jesus, so you better! She bridges cultures, she leap-frogs over history. She’s everywhere: in back alleys, in store windows, on bright yellow awnings. All the Marys: the Lourdes Mary, the Medjugorje Mary, the Virgin of Guadalupe Mary.

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This is a Mary who got invited to Chata Gutierrez’s going-away-party mural on 24th street. She’s so serene.

 

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This is a stealth Mary, who is hard to see. She is painted on the side of 899 Capp street, which is diagonal to accommodate the Southern Pacific’s San Jose Railroad, which used to run through the Mission.

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.

Prompted by my friend, I muttered these words to her in Balmy Alley on the night of Dia de los Muertos. My sister was having a health care crisis, and I was like a child in the face of my fear. Mary was all over the place that night, not just in paintings, but in the faces of people and their shining eyes. The procession was quiet this year: everyone was holding their breath a bit because of the election, and there was something else going on, too, some other event that had drawn people away. The mood of the crowd felt more settled, more calm, as if the celestial blue of Mary’s mantle had settled on us all.

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I think this Mary of Lilac Alley. She’s pretty close to the blind pig.

(one note, written 2 days later: six of these Marys are versions of Our Lady of Guadalupe, or “Reina de Ambas Americas”, or, Queen of both Americas. The popularity of this version of Mary speaks to that time when the Mission transitioned: older immigrant groups, the Irish, mostly, headed into the hills of Noe Valley, Glen Park and the western parts of the city, as “large scale immigration” from Central and South American increased. There was conflict in the parish. The old Irish Peterites were unhappy with the changes sweeping through their little sráidbhaile and the immigrants from Mexico, Salvador and Nicaragua contended with each other. Father Leopold Uglesic, pastor at St. Peters in the fifties, and survivor of fascist violence in Eastern Europe, worked with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in an effort to unify the parish.*

 

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Mary, holding her own in a shop window on Mission Street.

Ave María, llena de gracia, el Señor es contigo, bendita tú entre las mujeres

I took these pictures today because I think when you start noticing things—like the prevalence of Marian iconography in your neighborhood, or horrible things, like white nationalists holding meetings in Washington D.C., throwing the fascist salute—ya oughta notice that you’re noticing, and talk about it a little, in the middle of your fascination. Or your panic.

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This is a fierce pagan Mary in Balmy Alley.

I’m not Catholic. I don’t intend to be Catholic, either. But I’m noticing Mary because I’m noticing my neighborhood, toda la gente, the laborers, los trabajadores, the Fenians, the Sandinistas, both of whom ran military drills in the Mission, both of whom perfected the art of resistance in the Mission, before returning to Ireland or Nicaragua to kick out oligarchs and pinche shitheads.

I rode with Mary today, in my neighborhood, because I love my neighborhood and people love her and because she knows all these the families, the Quinns, the Gutierrezes. She’s something that hasn’t changed.

I addressed her the way she’s used to, with desperation which can be equally composed of hope and fear and probably said over and over again something like Hail Mary, full of grace. Lady, hear us in the hour of our need. Her face looked at me from the center of her labial corona, her hands folded together patiently or spread apart in entreaty.

Come to me, talk to me. I’ve heard it all. I want to know what’s happening. Lay it at my feet. I’ve seen you before.

Talk to me.

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I am including this, because it feels like a Mary. All that beautiful blue, plus the cherubs. This is at 24th and Mission, right next to the intersection of 24th and Lilac Alley.

*When I write about the Irish, or St. Peters, I depend upon Jeffrey M. Burns’s excellent essay entitled “St. Peter’s Parish in San Francisco: The rise and eclipse of an Irish Parish, 1913-1965” which is included in the anthology “The Irish in the San Francisco Bay Area: Essays On Good Fortune”, published by the Irish Literary and Historical Society.

 

Written from the 22nd street Crossroads on a dim November day, the 22nd to be exact, in the year 2016, during the last quarter of the old moon. Everything is cuspy: planets, people’s understanding of the political system and their place in it, my heart.
In eight days, a new moon comes. Prepare your work.

From the 22nd Street Crossroads: Betsy the Katastrophé Chaser

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χρήσιμον ἐπὶ καταστροφῇ τῶν ἀκουόντων*χρήσιμον ἐπὶ καταστροφῇ τῶν ἀκουόντων

On November 11th, the morning sky was crowded with sullen, yellow-grey clouds. It was shaping up to be a windless day, and the air felt congested, as if it had no intention of ever moving again. I understood this. I have not been moving: my soul and my stomach have been clenched like a fist since about 7:30 pm on November 8th, which is when I grasped that things, like the American presidential election, were going very badly. Since then, my eyes seem turned permanently inward. What was it Gertrude said? O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul/And there I see such black and grainèd spots/As will not leave their tinct. This is not an admission of guilt, you understand. I didn’t vote for Trump; neither did I wallow in indecision over whom to cast my vote for. But my vasty interior is black: black as night, black as the tomb, black as sin, black as anything. There has been no crack to let the light through.

Jay and I decided to do laundry. I set about doing this hated task very grimly. I don’t like doing laundry during the best of times. During the worst, it’s hard to do anything at all, but the house must be kept, and in any case, messy kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms seem claustrophobic. So we gathered our things together and got to the laundromat, the one we use at 21st and Bryant. I don’t like this particular lavandería. The dryer only gives 7 minutes of drying time per quarter and the washing machines are unreliable. I put my clothes in a washing machine with a scrap of blue tape stuck to it. I didn’t see the words “no water” scrawled in tiny letters until after I’d put my clothes in, poured in the soap, pushed the quarters through the narrow slot and hit “hot”. The clothes began to tumble dryly. “Goddammit,” I yelled. Jay looked startled and tried to calm me down. “Don’t tell me what to do when I’m angry,” I hissed. “It never ends well.” (Is this what Trump voters were telling the rest of us, the petulant fuckers?)

That morning, I’d read that Paul Ryan wanted to replace Medicare with vouchers, and my blood ran cold. All I could think of was my mother, and my older siblings who will definitely need Medicare. I will, too. That news story got past my defenses and I leaned against my husband’s warm belly and cried, seeing Ryan’s weirdly detached blue-eyed gaze in my head and getting—for the umpteenth time this year— that those who do the most harm are usually convinced that they’re doing the most good. Ryan maddens me: his theocratically-based Conservatism makes me so bellicose as to potentially eclipse my soul.

Lately (and about twenty years later than everyone else) I’ve discovered Joss Whedon and his multiverse, thanks to Netflix, and I’m starting to do that geeky thing where suddenly everything is explainable as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel character. The two characters I really relate to are Anyanka the Vengeance Demon and Bad Willow, whose black eyes turn to the furthest regions of her eclipsed soul when the shit hits the fan in Sunnydale. Last week, someone nailed a plastic skull to the telephone pole on the southern corner of the 22nd street Crossroads. After election day, I looked at it with black and eclipsed eyes, and posted a picture of it on my Facebook page along with a short epigraph to the Goddess of the Crossroads, Hekate. I’d downloaded the Theogony of Hesiod, and—before I really understood what I was doing— had started composing a laudation to her which, unless I’m totally mistaken about how these things work, would also function as an invitation. I caught myself. Woah, girl, I thought. Woah.

Back to the laundromat: I walked home to hang some freshly-washed dainties on the line and was hoofing it back when a wailing fire truck slung itself around the corner and hauled ass down Florida Street. I smelled smoke wafting through the swampy, moist air. Right, I thought. A fire. I broke into a brisk trot—can’t keep a Creely away from the action!—and ran towards 21st street. I stopped at the intersection. There was no fire, but something was happening. An ambulance was parked in front of Doña Teres’s market. A man with large brown eyes was striking a pose of some sort while paramedics and police officers milled around him.

The man looked at me with tragic eyes. “Help me!” he cried. “Help me!” What the fuck is happening?, I thought. “What’s going on?” I asked the policeman. “Where’s the fire?”

He shrugged. “Not here,” he said briefly and muttered something into the walkie-talkie clipped to his shoulder. The man who’d pleaded with me sat down heavily on a chair. I ran on and passed another paramedic van (another one? what was going on?) on my way down Florida street, moving towards the smell of smoke. The fire was out by the time I got there.

It had started in a small building behind Design Map, a software company located in a newly-built structure behind the old Crescent Mattress Factory at 19th and Alabama. Firefighters were lugging what looked like a burned air conditioning unit out of the building. “What happened?” I asked a man standing next to me. “Construction,” he replied. He went on to tell me that a worker laid his blowtorch down next to the air conditioning unit which sucked up—and subsequently burst into—flames.

There was no danger anymore; just a burnt building, some temporarily displaced workers and the languorous, but unpredictable day itself, grinding on. But I was unnerved. There had been increasingly bad news from election day, a spate of interpersonal conflicts, screaming fire engines, conflagrations, crazy men pleading for help, all within the last hour, and the hot stillness of the day itself, which Californians call earthquake weather. It felt like the calm before a storm.  This was a Whedon-esque day indeed. In fact I could write the episode myself: a new deity-goddess named Katastrophé who inhabits a adjacent universe has come through a temporary portal created by an ancient sigil, the numeral 60,371,193, which was raised by Trump voters mumbling his name as they cast their spell-vote. She was obviously whipping through my neighborhood, raising alarms, shattering people’s nerves, and setting things on fire. Why was I chasing Her? What would I do if I caught up to Her? Fight? Or would She look at me with love and claim me as Her daughter?

I walked back to Florida Street. Two women stood on the corner, with their arms crossed and their brows wrinkled in consternation. I knew what they were looking for: the fire (and Katastrophé, who was clearly asking people to come out and play.) “It’s out,” I told them. “It was at 19th and Alabama. But it wasn’t a big fire.” They looked startled to be spoken to by a stranger, but that’s my way: talk to people you don’t know, often, is an unofficial motto of mine. We fell into discussion. We told each other our names, where we lived. “I live in the purple house,” one of them, a woman named Angela, told me. I knew the purple house. It was right next to the laundromat. I often looked at it as I walked into the laundromat. It’s a dark pansy-purple, with neat trim and it radiates tidy domesticity. We hit all the points Missionites hit these days: how long we’ve been in the neighborhood, where we’re from, maybe a bit about what we do, observations on the aftermath of the election. Angela told me she’d cleaned her bathroom and had snapped at her partner. I said “I’ve been trying to vacuum my house for four hours.” We didn’t say A fog of misery and fear is keeping me from doing much, but it seemed to be plain, the protective crouch we were all holding.

 This is where the Whedon-esque part of my day ended. Were this an episode, it would have been one of the famous ones, where Whedon and his writers flipped the script by using anti-climax: that moment when everything doesn’t go wrong and the quotidian world re-asserts itself. I walked back down Florida Street, and met my neighbor Melvin, who was talking to a woman with his arms folded over the fence in his front yard. Melvin’s house is one of my favorite places on Florida Street. It was built in 1885 in the Fillmore and moved to the Mission at some point thereafter, and it is notable for its incredibly fecund chayote vine. He’s a night mechanic for MUNI.  Are you in a union? I asked breathlessly, and he nodded and laughed and said oh, yeah. We all stood and talked, finding comfort in the normalcy of meeting our neighbors. Melvin clipped some chayotes off the vine and handed them out. I took two. They are very good to eat, and they are beautiful: a gorgeous translucent green. If you take one in your hand and hold it up to the sun, its thin skin is filled with so much verdant light, that you can almost forget what darkness looks like.

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That being said, darkness knows itself very well. It will take more than marveling at the grace and beauty of the natural world to fend it off. I did not catch up to Katastrophé that day: did not look into Her black eyes, and fall prey to Her power. I did not, and will not, become Her, although other transformations may take place, especially concerning my will (which is mighty.)

But catastrophe is afoot: in our hearts, in our neighborhoods and cities, in our legislative chambers and, sadly and terribly, in the office of the President of the United States. And there is no one and nothing to save us from ourselves, but ourselves.

So we have to know who we are.

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Here are my neighbors, Melvin and Angela. The fabulous chayote vine is right in back of them.

 

 

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The chayotes of Florida Street. They’re as big as my head.

Written under the influence of the Full Moon in Taurus and with love and appreciation for the incredible Andy Hallett, who played the good-hearted green-skinned demon Lorne (or Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan if you’re nasty.) I’ve wished, more than once this month, that I could sit in Caritas, and sing a song for him.

Three dreams for Hallowe’en.

February 19, 1998
The Family of the Rotten Potato

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I’m in a kitchen which is bright and full of sunny yellow formica and other people, whose faces I cannot see. The perspective is that of a child, sat at a table and waiting, as adult bodies bustle around me, getting, placing, working: all the absent-minded, purposeful movements of women (I think) in the kitchen doing the work of home. They are cheerful and content, and the kitchen itself is good, a warm, clean place, fine and bright. I sit, waiting. Someone is going to give me something.

Someone puts a plate in front of me. Placed on it is one potato. The outside is fine, but on the inside, there is a big ugly blot of black rot. It’s a sickly little white potato that is rotten. And it has been given to me. I look around to see if anyone has noticed what I’ve been given, what I’ve almost eaten. I feel an excited pride, and no disgust, and no horror. I want the other busy bodies in the kitchen to notice what has been given to me: a rotten potato. I belong to the family of the putrid tuber. I am happy about this.

April 2010
An Púca

(I have no pictures of the Púca. Sorry)

I am relaxing in a bathtub, which is filled with pleasantly hot water and, I realize in a slow fade of comprehension, dirt. And earthworms. I am in submerged in an warm, earthen soup.  There are other things, too, one of which looks very much like a very large coelacanth—a pre-historic walking fish, with stiff fins that looks as if it’s been made from seaweed. This walking fish wants out, and so I oblige it by  unlatching the door. It walks and as it walks, it changes.

Whatever force is directing its transformation—which is rapid and whirling—it is a force fixed on its own event horizon, and has nothing to do with me.  It passes me and steps outside, moving with determination, away from the bathroom and down the hall.

I walk into the kitchen and, lo and behold, my dead Dad strolls in. He is much younger than he was when he died. His eyebrows are black and sharp, and his green eyes vivid and direct. (He almost never makes guest appearances in my dreams, because he doesn’t believe in this stuff).

I say, complainingly, “Dad! What’s happening?” He directs his sharp gaze on me and he replies, “It’s the Púca. That’s what has caused everything”. I realize he is referring to the large walking fish (and maybe himself, too?  with his newfound alacrity and sharp waggling eyebrows and a warning way to him, which is also….light-hearted, and mischievous. Does he mean the fish?)

That isn’t what I thought that was, I think. I thought that was a coelacanth. Welp. Better investigate. At that, I go outside and find the Púca, which has made a shelter for itself under a small grassy knoll in the front yard. It is still fishy-looking, but is starting to look like a young woman, with direct and friendly eyes. We are friendly towards each other, and speak to each other in general pleasantries. I decide to show hospitality to it; to aid it. It is vulnerable and needs things: acknowledgment, food. And wine. Which I brought.

(And then my waking mind asserted itself, and asked  me to reflect on what it might mean to have one of the “gentry” living in a cave, located on my imaginary front lawn. In my ancestral world, fairies are not things to cozy up to. They have their world and we have ours, and although there is a magical tradition that seeks traverse the two worlds, I myself follow the way of my ancestors and prefer to treat them with, to quote Eddie Lenihan, the great seanchaithe of County Claire, with a mixture of “respect, doubt, fear, hesitation, and conviction.” I will always offer hospitality when it is called for and avoidance when it is wise.

In any case, I woke up. As far as I know, the Púca is still there, lonely, but well-provisioned.

 

Florence
When I was eight years old

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When I was eight, my great-Grandmother Florence Cerini Creely, whose portrait hangs in the living room of my apartment, introduced herself to me in a dream and we have been friends ever since.

We met in the South Coast Plaza mall, which had just been built and was not the agonizingly glitzy space it is now. In my dream, I sat in a bench, with my hands in my lap in a posture of waiting patience. The light was soft and bright. Florence walked over to me and sat down. I looked up at her. I saw a kind and gentle lady, who was much older, but in a soft, plump, elegant way: there was no wasting of her bones, no harsh marks of age on her face. Her hair was coiffed and softly white and she was dressed the way women used to dress to go out shopping; to be seen in public. I looked up at her, like children look at grandparents, with respect and deference and attention. She spoke to me, and we talked for some time in that bright place. There is no dialogue that I carried back with me, no remembered scrap of information, other than she was Florence, my great-grandmother and she was there specifically to meet me. And that she loved me.

Here is a small, quick story that my grandfather Bunster swore was true. When he was young, Bunster and his friends liked to jump on freight trains passing through Berkeley and ride on them for short trips throughout Alameda County. (He was not supposed to do this.) Florence came to him one night as he was laying down to go to sleep. “Bunny,” she said. “Your father came to me last night and told me you have been jumping on the trains again. You know you are not supposed to do this.” The rebuke was coming from a dead man: Bunny’s father (my great-grandfather) suffered a major heart attack in 1916 and died straightway. Bunny never rode the freight trains again.

Firenze Maria Cerini—her name was Americanized later— my Italian/Irish nonna died in 1950 in Piedmont, CA at the age of 80, fifteen years before I was born. But I have always known her. And this is because she has always been spoken of and remembered with love. Her gentle soul has stayed with us.

This is how I know that this saying is true: what is remembered, lives.

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Florence C. Creely with all her children: (from the left) Cerini, Claire, Marion and I think Frank. I’m not sure who the baby is.

October 31, 2016
Oiche Shamhna Shona Daoibh. Happy New Year. Open your doors, light your lanterns and go on a cuaird with your beloved dead. Just remember to come back. Boo!

Mudlarking

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My friend Vicky, who leads the Bernal Heights History Project, just returned from England, which is where she was born. She “mudlarks”, which is to say she goes looking for the past in the mud of tidal marshes or on the banks of rivers. She found an oyster shell and gave it to me, explaining that the hole in the center of the shell might have been made by a person making a button. She also found these pins which are very old, probably Tudor-era, and brought them for me as well. The pins were hand-crafted, as we say today when we want to market an object—chocolate, or beer, or some other comestible— carefully, to separate it from mass production and endow it with artisanal fussiness that is supposed to confer authenticity. A pedigree.

She gave the pins to me and I felt a rush of pure pleasure and love. Oh, I love these! Thank you! I gasped. Pins, needles, and thread are domestic objects I always have on hand. I learned to sew when I was little; basic sewing, like hemming pants, or using a whip-stitch to join cloth together. (My cousin Piet has inherited this industriousness too, and makes entire garments, which I have never done). I have the homely habit of keeping my clothes intact and always have done, even when that was the only part of me that was, especially in the tumultuous years of the nineties when I lived on the corner of 22nd and Valencia Street, frightened at a world which moved at a pace I was unaccustomed to. I remember waking up at 3 AM because the Red Man was sat on a fire hydrant, kicking his legs and singing a song. Fog rolled down Valencia street in thick sheets and I wondered, what will become of me?

Well, one thing that has happened is that I answered the call of the olden days and started working with local history. I have been toggling back and forth between the past and the future this year, with Irish nationalists repping the past, and the San Francisco Bay and the upcoming climate dramas ushering in the (my?) future. There’s been a sense of duty that’s attached itself to both projects. I work with the Irish-American past because their voices have always spoken to me. And it’s easy. I know where the bodies are buried, so to speak. I know where the Project stands, the project of dealing with the Irish in America with their florid patriotism, their long-ass letters to each other, their officious meeting minutes, their pain, their anger, their parades, their picnics. Their determination to not let go.

And the bay? I grew up next to one that was half deep-water harbor, and half engineered estuary, and even though I have a hard time remembering is it 200 or 20 million cubic meters of sediment that needs to be sourced and placed in the San Francisco Bay so it doesn’t drown?, I know in some ways that fact is there and non-negotiable and even if I forget it, I can find it, and what is not so easily retrievable is what I know, personally, about bays: the gloppy mud, the minute and often unlovely plants, the fish that flash through the water unexpectedly, and the mudflats that will grab you and pull you down into an underworld of crablike invertebrates, and the bones of animals and ancient fish and refuse from other people who lived among them thousands of years ago. I, Elizabeth C. Creely, know what belongs to me: that cold mud.

1485 is when Henry VII killed Richard III and in doing initiated the Tudor period. My Tudor-era pins could have been made at any point between 1485 and 1603 on any day, by anyone. These pins ended up in the mud somehow. (I don’t know why people throw useful things away.) When I saw them, I thought oh I want to go to England, I haven’t spent enough time there. I saw the flat yellow light of the air of England and saw out over the North Sea and felt cold air hit my face, and felt my solar plexus contact with love for the homely objects thrust through the red cloth and the history they make because they were made.

A pin is a finicky thing and slips out of your hand easily unless you have something to grasp. That’s what the tiny head is for: to help you push the metal through the fabric, and sew and sew and sew and bring the thing together. Whoever made these pins knew that and shaped the round heads carefully, so they’d have something to hold onto.These pins and this shell have been buried in the mud of the Thames for a long time, and now, improbably, they’re here, in my house, tiny scraps of a small nation with big problems of its own.

They are small and real, and corroded by time and water and the usage of many hands. They are magic. I am so happy to have them here.

pinsandshelk2
this is the shortest and quickest post I ever wrote, but the days are short and the shadows are quickening. a storm is coming; is your house in order?
Happy October!

Talk of the Mission town: The Memory Club

The burnt building at 22nd and Mission street.

The burnt building at 22nd and Mission street.

Last Friday the 13th, I walked past a place of great misfortune: the intersection of 22nd and Mission where there had once been an old building wrapped protectively around the intersection. Built in 1907, it had apartments on the top, and shops on the bottom in keeping with the post-earthquake “intensification of commercial properties”, which is how the SF Planning Commission characterizes the urban development that took place on Mission Street. The building burned down in the evening of January 28th, 2015, killing one man and displacing 60 people, among them a boy, who stood on the fire escape for several minutes on that fiery night, with the burning building behind him. He jumped;  like the victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, there was no other escape open to him. (He was caught safely by a neighbor). There were hopes that the landlord, a man named Lou Hawk, would re-build, but he steadfastly maintained the same level of indifference towards the ruined building that he showed towards his tenants. The building had locked exits, awnings that prevented the fire escapes from descending properly, no functioning fire extinguishers or smoke detectors.

The building caught fire again twice this year. It was finally ripped down by the city a day or two before I walked by it, laying in a heap of huge wooden splinters and twisted rebar and stinking of moldy wood and raw sewage. I continued to walk north on Mission looking at the people milling around in the shadow of the disaster, walking the blocks of Mission Street now as they did one hundred years ago, with one difference: they seem to tour the street more than shop, which is different, I think, from its heyday as a shopping district. The street has become a destination and the demands that people make of a destination are different: while they may crave discovery, they do not want to be too surprised, too affected by unpredictability. The burnt building, which had been an awful eyesore and monument to unpredictable and terrible surprise, was gone now. Soon everyone’s eyes would become more accustomed to the space left behind by the absent building.

Mission Street was called for awhile the “Miracle Mile”, and was the core shopping district between 14th and what was then Army Street, a place where to confirm one’s middle-class prosperity through the act of purchasing.  When I moved into the neighborhood in 1991, the street had lost its luster and was a scrubby mix of Latin American grocers, stores selling Jaffa cosmetics and money orders for remittances, which would be sent back to the cities and villages in South and Central America. Clothing stores lined the blocks, some featuring display mannequins with round, voluptuous butts, all wearing tight pants and facing outward, onto the sidewalk, the better to display the clothes. The stores that sold quinceanera dresses were my favorite: the dresses were opulent and princess-y, with their rhinestone work, and saturated colors. There were jewelry stores, automotive repair garages, and restaurants that served the working class and indigent alike. If I encountered any of my friends on Mission Street, which normally I did not—Valencia was much more of a host to the social scene of the late eighties and nineties—it was in passing, coming in and out of four places: Goodwill, Thrift Town, El Farolitos or the Walgreens at 23rd Street.

For me, Mission Street was not memorable; it was hard and bright and reminded me of too much of downtown Santa Ana, the place I lived before moving to San Francisco, which is to say it reminded me of Southern California, a place I did not want to live. I avoided Mission Street, which remained, for a long time, a series of disconnected locations, with no sense of place. I walked between its blocks without any other consciousness than the desire to arrive at my destination. Siegal’s Clothing was proof that I was at a midway point between 20th and 19th streets. The Dore Studio was the one place I’d stop and stare: its unapologetic depictions of female beauty were arresting, and I’d often wonder what the photographers could do for me. Could they make me as pillow-lipped and doe-eyed as the dark-eyed Latinas featured in their windows, with their flawless skin and that tumbling raven hair?

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The Mission’s past was unknown to me mostly because it hadn’t developed a “past” yet. It has now: the story of the neighborhood, told in its marquees, obscured facades and burnt buildings—two actually— is being rapidly overwritten. The disaster site at 22nd and Mission creates a interesting space; sort of a temporal overlap which the onlooker can use to assess where they are in the history of the street, while the ruins are taken away and the past shifts into the future. Can you remember what the building looked like? Did you ever enter the subterranean Mission Market to buy rabbit from the butcher? Had I crossed Mission and walked east, I would have walked in a neighborhood that had hosted my family until 1915. But the caprices and accidents of family memory had discarded any memory of the blacksmith, his wife and their eight children, and their life at 916 Florida Street. Whatever had happened, or not happened, to the Creelys was totally forgotten, and so there was no inducement for me to explore my surroundings more wholeheartedly.

Another sad fact was that I was a suburban xenophobe, something I carried with me into San Francisco, along with my other possessions. And this is weird as well as sad: I was always waiting in those days for a street to turn into a something undiscovered. I didn’t understand that this was impossible: since the city was a man-made artifact, everything that was there—every street, sign, building or alleyway—was known, or had been known to someone. I’ve since realized that the longing for something undiscovered is common to city newcomers: they want to belong and one way to belong to America’s cities is ferret out its secrets, its forgotten locations which, having been located, serves as proof of belonging. The newcomer can claim, as a prize for themselves, the idea that they alone have discovered and deciphered the hidden meaning of the alley that goes nowhere and the old cobblestones that pave it.

Cities that are healthy don’t develop enormously distended underbellies of secret, inaccessible spaces; this happens after they develop great wealth disparities. The city as I knew it in the late eighties and early nineties lacked this particular neurosis: it felt like a stage on which people encountered each other in unrehearsed play. The Redwood Room on Geary had this great Saroyan-esque sweep of humanity: under the panels of redwood and the fake Klimt paintings, there would be fierce drag queens wearing vintage finery, prostitutes having quiet drinks with their clients, men in PG&E uniforms shouting happily at each other, and the bridge and tunnel crowd at the end of their Big Day in the City having a drink, and me, too, canoodling with my current lover or gabbing away with one of my best friends, eating olives, crackers and salted nuts from the little silver cocktail plates that appeared with your drink, which was always good, and never cost more than six bucks.

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Maybe Original McCarthys on Mission Street had this wildly eclectic social atmosphere, but I don’t think it did. It was an working-class Irish-American bar with all the clubby insularity of that community, and it was beautiful: wide and deep, brick-lined and cold. Old men with slowly blinking eyes sat at the bar as if they’d never left, speaking briefly to the bartender and the other old men. I never went in until I was enrolled in the Irish Studies Program in New College, in the late nineties. I had just begun to grasp the residual presence of Irish-American culture in the Mission District and I stared at the old alcoholic men and listened to the bartenders with their chewy, growling Mission District accents, and wondered what I’d been missing, being so Valencia-centric.

All lot, as it turns out. But it wasn’t only because of my ignorance. The beautiful, derelict interiors of Mission District businesses were often secured behind locked iron gates, or, as was the case with the New Mission Theater, obscured behind mounds of cheap futons. Now these spaces are being excavated. The lobby of the New Mission theater was cleared of the futons and the doors were open and after some hard work, there emerged a gracious theater that is now in business again, its previous skin of scarred, scrawled-upon mosaic work enclosed in Plexiglas cases as a means of authentication, of provenance, age; to show, literally the scars of its history.

At the other end of Mission Street, past the site of the old Sinn Fein Shoe Store, now a Metro PCS outpost, I walked past a new condo development, located at 1875 Mission. Banners, fluttering in the wind above my head in the unassailable sky, had three words written in bold black: Eminent. Posh. Bold. It was the second word that snapped me out of my reverie: such a gauche and naked appeal to snobbery needs attention paid. What reality, I wondered, do they think they can obliterate by using this ridiculous word? The Navigation Center for the homeless down the street? The tent villages lining the sidewalks? How can a term like “posh”—a word which seems to mock itself every time it’s uttered —exist in a working-class neighborhood?

posh

I came to 14th and Mission where the Armory squats solidly, another building that wraps around the intersection. Across the street is a bar. On the outside wall is a sign, looking vaguely like a heraldic device. My near-sighted eyes lit on the sign, which I automatically tried to read, even I knew I’d read it before, and should have known what it said. But the tour of Mission Street, with its absences and additions, had obliterated my memory and created a amnesia-like feeling. I am forgetting what used to be anywhere, I told a friend last month. Every time a building is resuscitated or new building gets constructed, my memory seems get wiped clean.

I stared at the sign which swam into focus as I moved closer to it. Memory Club, I read. I stepped closer and read it again. Armory Club, it said.

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“How noisy everything grows”
—Karl Kraus

I Wanna Be Your Lover.

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The first time— let me emphasize: it was the absolute first time— I heard Prince, I was an awkward twelve year old heading awkwardly into adolescence: a terrible time of life in my opinion, a unlovely & ignorant state, where one doesn’t know what one doesn’t know. Some people had a better time. Not me. I didn’t love it, that raw, unfinished ignorance.

I like knowing.

I was spending the night at my friend’s house in Hemet, California, which is the low desert. In those days, Hemet was almost wholly undeveloped. There was no ambient light. There was no urban noise. It was still.

We had opted to sleep in the family RV, the better to talk and giggle and complain and muse over all the stuff: boys, relationships, discontents, our annoying siblings, lies about who we’d kissed, fictional boyfriends, wonderings about our period (when?) breasts (WHEN? And how big?)…all the stuff. She fell asleep. The scratchy radio was still on. I was still awake. I was laying under a window and I could see the stars, the ivory-colored stars in the midnight blue sky of the desert.

I can’t describe the opening strains of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”; I don’t remember them because I heard Prince’s voice first, breathy, high-pitched and telling me things. I ain’t got no money, he informed me, and then went on to muse, complain, and finally declaim: I don’t wanna pressure you baby. But all I ever wanted to do…He wanted to be my lover. I said yes to that voice.

It’s a full body memory, remembering that amazing voice, which I knew was not his “normal” voice: he was singing that way because he was possessed of desire and was encouraging the listener to be possessed as well. The synthesizer, the bass, the voice, the words…they all combined to create the amazing and terrible beauty of sexual desire, which was so strong and so beautiful to me, as I lay there in my unfinished state, that my heart seemed as if it was pushing aside the bony confines of my body, to leave me and my child’s body behind, to float through the aether, to join the song, humming and swimming through the air.

It was the first time I ever felt beauteous desire and yearning. And it strikes me how inadequate any other word is for what I felt: beauty is the only word that suits. Glamour, grace, exquisiteness, elegance: none of these terms work to describe the absolute beauty of desire in his voice. I was in the presence of pure beauty, such as drives Salieri to tears in that moment in the movie “Amadeus” when he reads Mozart’s music and is thunderstruck: he is humbled, yet elevated to state of shocked exhilaration and astonishment. It was beyond belief. As if he were just taking dictation. And music. Finished as no music is ever finished.

I closed my eyes, and my heart trembled and leapt. This is what I don’t know, I thought. I don’t know this. What is it? I understood desire in one moment and it entered me, piercing my heart. I was listening, through the cage of my unfinished & unknowing mind and body, to an absolute beauty.

prince

Years later, I moved into the Mission District in San Francisco. There was an apartment on the corner of 24th and Bartlett, and in the door of that apartment was a full length poster of Prince from the album cover of Controversy.  The impact of the poster was always exactly what he intended: you were forced to run your eyes over Prince’s beautiful, wiry, small-framed body, with that chest, those doe eyes, those thighs. He was dressed in black bikini thong and his eyes looked straight at you. My friend Alexis and I often remarked on the sense of place the poster evoked: you knew where you were when you saw it—in the Mission, probably running for BART. The poster (which got progressively more sun-bleached and faded as the years went by) made Prince the unofficial genius loci of the neighborhood in that spot, to our way of thinking, capturing the Mission as it was, sensual, embodied, louche, smutty, occasionally orgiastic in one way or another, but always with a sense of purposefulness.

It sounds glib to say that the Mission went when the poster got taken down, but it feels  sort of true for me, anyway. It was at least a strong sign that a corner had been turned. There was no going back. Alexis and I and everyone else who lived in the Mission for a long time had been watching the changes come, and we knew that the cleaner-whiter-brighter tide which was busily scrubbing down the Mission was going to take cherished placeholders like the poster with it. This is exactly what happened. One day, not long after the turn of the century, the poster and the apartment (and probably the tenants, too) vanished under a thick shroud of black netting and scaffolding. The apartment re-emerged a few months later, with a shiny new paint job. The door where Prince’s body was displayed, was painted in sober shades of brown with an tasteful accent trim of marigold orange. No more Prince in all his glorious provocation, inviting  passers bye to—just for a minute— hear, in their heads, his music, those forbidden and frequently censured words, hear that knowing and amused voice, feel for a just minute, in the middle of their busy workday, a flash of ecstasy, a bolt of rapture. The pure, pure beauty of total desire.

Revelation is total disclosure immediately unified with absolute comprehension; a sweet, sweet union, indeed. It is divine intervention, essentially, and Prince and his song of pure undiluted erotic longing intervened with me in the best possible way. I did not know what erotic desire was before I heard him sing, and afterward I was filled with the knowledge of it.  “…so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it…” said Saint Theresa, speaking of her encounter with the seraph and its golden lance.

I know how Theresa felt. I felt as Prince intended I feel, I think. O Holy, O most Holy. Beauty, beauty, beauty.

I have never wished to be rid of it.

Rest in peace, Prince. Rest in pure beauty.

Prince artworks-000023659152-4045nb-original

The news is breaking and so is my heart; they don’t know yet why he died, but what really matters right now is that people are listening to his music. And a rainbow appeared over the Paisley Palace this afternoon.
written as the moon strains towards full in Scorpio.

 

Talk of the Mission Town: The Death of Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat

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The Laborers Local Union 261 on 18th Street was full of angry people on Wednesday, April 13, at high noon. Around the corner, on Shotwell Street, six days earlier on April 7, Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, a slightly built, 45-year-old Yucatec Mayan man, was shot and killed by San Francisco police officers after staff with HOT (Homeless Outreach Team) had summoned them. HOT staff decided Gongora was acting erratically—they described him as swinging a knife and bouncing a ball with too much vigor off walls and cars. The police responded. Within 30 seconds he was dead. These are the facts.

The Mission District been the scene of some high profile police killings in the last year. Alejandro Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Mario Woods, all black or brown men, are also all dead. None of them were armed with a gun. These are also the facts.

The angry people had gathered because Police Chief Greg Suhr had convened a “town hall meeting”: a panel of police officers to discuss these facts and the state of the investigation with the community. Accordingly people crowded into the hall, which looks different from labor halls of yore. No more wood-paneled walls with men smoking, sipping coffee, and squinting at the jobs board. It’s a modern and airy space with open floor plan and lots of natural light. Large posters hung on the wall, showing the laboring men of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, which describes itself as “The Most Progressive, Aggressive and Fastest-Growing Union of Construction Workers.” The men wore the uniform of the blue collar worker: hard hats, big boots, and work-shirts, looking hunky, healthy and cheerful, outtakes from a beefcake calendar, perhaps. The grins in the posters contrasted sharply with the grim faces of the people sitting in folding chairs or leaning against the wall, arms folded or thrust into the air holding signs. No one was smiling. Some participants were holding black and white Xeroxes of Luis Gongora’s only known photo. His face, unsmiling and spectral, hung in the air.

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Adriana Camarena was querying the police, politely, but pointedly. They know her; she knows them. She’s an attorney, author and human rights activist who became involved with police shootings after the death of Nieto on March 21, 2014, one day after the vernal equinox. Nieto was eating a burrito on Bernal Heights when a man walking his dog decided he was “behaving erratically” (Nieto had just encountered that scourge of San Francisco’s open spaces, an aggressive and unleashed dog and an indifferent owner) and called the police. They arrived and shot him 59 times. Camarena helped his parents to mount a civil suit, which they lost this year.

Almost a year later, Amilcar Perez Lopez, a 20-year-old Guatemalan immigrant, was shot four times in the back and in the back of the head by the police on Folsom Street, about four houses down from where Camarena lives.

Camarena visited the homeless encampment on Shotwell Street three days after the shooting, filming the police and a worker with the Department of Public Works as they dismantled the camp at night, smashing candles and ripping tents. As she filmed them doing this, a police officer shone his flashlight in her face and her camera until she moved. Later, she described her encounter with the SFPD. “When I questioned him, he said … he was concerned for his safety because I was pointing an object at him. In other words he used the SFPD General Order language that would justify him shooting me to death.”

At the meeting she was quiet, focused and imperturbable, impressive for someone who’d been threatened with summary execution four days earlier. She quizzed the police: What prompted officers to go to Shotwell Street? Did they describe the person as Latino and possibly a Spanish speaker? What is the crisis intervention protocol followed by the police station in confronting escalated individuals? Did the SF HOT Team refer to a person with a knife or a person brandishing a knife? And, importantly: What exactly did they say about the presumed weapon?

“Chief Suhr, one of your men threatened me last Saturday,” she said calmly. “Are you going to investigate this threat? I have the badge number.” Suhr said he would. Her allotted time was up, she sat down.

The small noises in the labor hall suddenly coalesced and became one noise, a roar of anger. “Fire Chief Suhr! Fire Chief Suhr!” People walked through the door and got into the line of speakers waiting to give testimony. A woman wearing a red baseball cap yelled, “You have blood on your hands!”

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A man in a green sweater turned to me. His eyes were bright. “I can’t believe so many people are here,” he said, almost conspiratorially. “What do you think they’re thinking?” He meant the police officers, who mostly looked impassive. Chief Suhr, who has the fierce and fixed gaze of a hawk, looked at the crowd and waited. The police rested their hands on their belts and rocked back on their heels, carefully looking at nothing, their faces impassive, their gazes directed skyward. The man in the green sweater said bitterly, “I think this is all a bunch of bullshit. Nothing’s going to change.”

David Campos, San Francisco Supervisor for District Nine, which is where the killing took place, was the next speaker. Campos, a thoughtful, quiet man, was visibly annoyed. “Chief, I have to tell you: I’m very disappointed. If this town hall meeting is so important, why wasn’t my office informed?” The crowd erupted. “I know if I wasn’t informed of it, then there are many members of this community who don’t even know that this meeting is happening.” More shouts of encouragement. “If the objective,” Campos went on, the sternness in his voice increasing, “is to maximize community involvement, why would you have a community meeting at noon?”

“Supervisor Campos, when we have these town halls, they are in the area and at the time that’s closely proximate to the officer-involved shooting,” Suhr replied flatly.

“I’m sorry, chief, but if someone gets shot at two in the morning, I doubt you’re going to have a meeting at two in the morning,” Campos replied. Angry shouts of “liar” rang through the hall. He pressed on, in sentences that were increasingly staccato, and compact. “This is really important. This is really important. You have an ongoing investigation. Supposedly to find out what happened in this incident.” He paused, staring at Suhr. “And yet, you’ve had a number of press conferences where you are already prejudging what happened in this case.”

The audience started chanting. Suhr’s eyes widened, and for the first time, he unfolded his arms and put out his hand. “I’m not going to allow that,” he said sharply. Was he referring to the tumult in the audience, or the charge that his department was spreading misinformation? The audience yelled back in disbelief and defiance: You’re fired. Murderer. Liar.

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Campos spoke above the shouts. He pointed his finger at the chief. “I’m asking the SFPD: stop putting out facts until your own investigation is completed, because it is absolutely doing a disservice.” The clapping continued. Campos’s voice was momentarily drowned out by the waves of sound sweeping through the halls. The policeman sitting next to Suhr looked at the crowd, his eyes round and his face blank. Campos continued to press his point. “…You’re really saying, This is what we believe happened.”

Suhr interrupted Campos. “I didn’t say what I ‘believed’ happened. I’ve given the facts that came from interviews, simply.” He hit the word “simply” hard, as if to say: I’m trying to keep this simple.

“You are prejudging,” Campos responded. A man yelled something, the syllables of his words distorted by the acoustics of the spaciousness and hard concrete floor of the hall. Campos held up his hand. “I want to say this.” The restive crowd quietened. “I’m saying this as a former police commissioner, and I’ve said this to the president of the police commission. I think that we need to change this policy. Of actually having police come out and hold these press conferences. I don’t want you to prove anything. I am not jumping to conclusions about what happened. But I also think it’s irresponsible for SFPD to do that. So I ask you: PLEASE. Stop saying anything until your own investigation is complete.” Clapping, shouts. “And if you are not willing to do that, I ask the police commission and I ask the Mayor to, please, direct the police department to stop trying this case in the public.”

A cheer went up. A woman cried out in ringing tones: The police cannot police themselves!

“We need the Mayor to step up and show leadership on this point. Why isn’t the Mayor calling on the Federal government—not the cops!—but the civil rights division of the Justice Department to come in and actually do a legally binding investigation of this police department.” A policewoman next to him indicated that his time was up. He nodded. “I will end by saying this. Blaming the homeless for what happened, by cracking down on the homeless, is not a solution.” He stepped away from the microphone and walked to the back of the room.

More speakers stepped up to the microphone: Brother Damien Joseph, a Franciscan brother wearing his brown robe, works with the homeless in the Haight. “I need to know that your officers are going to act rationally, slowly and in a measured manner,” he told Suhr. “If they won’t, I would risk my safety rather than that of the person on the street.” Daryl Rodgers, a third-generation San Franciscan, and activist, asked what “excessive force” was. He didn’t get an answer. Another man described being harassed by the police as he ate a sandwich. “This harassment is nothing new! This has been happening for a long time,” he said, “but now we have video. We deserve to live,” he yelled. “Stop being so trigger happy! C’mon! What happened to batons?” An organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition fired Police Chief Suhr. The statements of fact came thick and fast from the speakers: You don’t care. You aren’t changing. You’re lying. You are attacking our bodies. We deserve to live.

The man in the green sweater, who had been standing next to me, appeared at the microphone. He started to speak, then stopped and tried again, though his throat was constricted with tears. He’d worked with Luis, he told the panel, in a diner. In a voice that wavered with grief, he described his friendship: “We worked together. I’d have him over to dinner. We were friends. He was docile. He didn’t have an aggressive bone in his body. He would never hurt anybody. Luis was kind.”

The audience stilled for a moment, listening to the words that re-made the dead man: Gentle. Docile. Kind. He would never hurt anybody. The rage left the room as the man spoke and grief crept in. People wept.

In less than three years—25 months to be prissily exact, starting with Nieto’s death and pausing (only temporarily, one fears) with Gongora’s— six men have been shot and killed in what amount to public executions. All were witnessed by at least one member of the public. One death (Mario Woods) was documented, cinéma-vérité style, with a cell phone standing in for a hand-held camera, held by an eyewitness who swears and sobs as she is forced to witness the extra-judicial killing in broad daylight. Last Thursday, a woman named Ellen can be seen in the grainy video, scrambling to get out of the way as shots ring out which killed Gongora.

There are black-and-white posters of Nieto, Woods and Perez-Lopez hanging on the wall of the Red Poppy Art House on Folsom at 23rd. The posters were created by Justice For Our Lives, a collective that has immortalized the faces of 49 black and brown men and women killed by police violence nationwide.

Will Gongora be the fiftieth in the series? Probably. Will he be the last?

 

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From the Justice for Luis site: Luis Demetrio Góngora Pat was born in Teabo, Yucatan on 4/25/1970; he was nearly 46 years old at the time of his death.  A Yucatecan Mayan, he is survived by his spouse, three grown children and his elderly parents in Yucatan, Mexico. Luis is also survived by brothers and cousins in San Francisco. Family called him Luis or by his nickname Sapo.

Luis’s wake is scheduled for Saturday April 23. 5-9pm Duggan’s on 17th and Valencia in the Mission.

Yabilaaj yeteel jeetsambaal u tial Luis Góngora Pat.

 

Sarah Maria Griffin: Eat Your Heart Out

Oh, yeah. This is great.

The Coven

My mother cuts a hole in the bottom of a black plastic bag, and places it over my head. I surface, my hands by my side, the deep smell of it all over me.  She cuts a hole at each shoulder for my arms, which I pull through. The kitchen scissors at the time had a deep red handle and long, blunt blades. You can see the sleeves of my sweater now, pink and teal and patterned. Mam tapes me in at the waist with sellotape to give an illusion of a skirt. It almost goes to my feet – my ankles, my white socks, my shiny patent leather shoes from Clarks. My eyebrows are penciled dark, a long, severe plastic nose from the pound shop placed over my own – the elastic white and catching in my hair, still curly, still mouse brown. On my head she crowns…

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