Elizabeth Creely

Places, names, and things in California

Category: San Francisco

The Marine Firemen’s Union Hall is being sold.

The Marine Firemen’s Union building sits on the western side of Second Street, an appropriate direction given the union’s relationship with the Pacific Ocean. Second Street itself tips ever so slightly up as it intersects with Folsom. This angle is probably all that’s left of the vertiginous sand dunes clumped around the foot of Market Street in the 19th century. After the dunes were dismantled, boarding houses sprung up in their place, housing men who worked on the docks and in the ships berthed at the Embarcadero, back when it was a working waterfront.

The union, formed in 1883, is formally known as the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association. MFOWW (pronounced em-fau) moved to their current location sixty years ago. Today, the building sits on a large lot next to Linkedin, a hiring hall of another kind, minus the collective action for higher wages and better working conditions. The union is preparing for another move.

“We’re selling the building,” Ivy “Cajun” Callais told me. Callais, who lives in Alameda, told me that once the building was sold, the union would move operations to Seattle. “All the jobs are in the Port of Oakland now, anyway,” he said.

Asked if the building will be torn down, he nodded his head. “The air above it is worth more than the building, honey.” Callais, who still has a southern drawl—“I’ve been here since 1964 and haven’t lost it”—is happy the building isn’t under the confines of historic protection. “We have to sell it before that happens. We couldn’t afford it. All that work we’d need to do. It’d bankrupt us.” The building was described by the Chronicle in 1957 as a “shiny, new … marble-faced construction” and cost $800,000 to build. It’s anyone’s guess how much the parcel will sell for. Millions of dollars is a safe bet: the building, which sits on 21,396 square feet, was last assessed at $1,057,237. Callais was proud of the building and its construction even as he predicted its demise. “This building was built with the best materials. You see that wood?”

Interior shot of the Marine Fireman’s Union hall, 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

The building is home to two other unions: The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians–Communications Workers of America and The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Both unions possess the same sort of mouth-busting moniker made manageable by the phonetic pronunciation of their acronyms, NABET and IATSE (pronounced eye-at-see). The building also houses two prized works of art. A bas-relief sculpture is mounted above the entrance. Made by Olof Carl Malmquist, the noted sculptor whose work was scattered throughout the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island, the sculpture shows marine firemen inside the boiler room of a ship.

Olaf Carl Malmquist’s unnamed bas-relief sculpture above the entrance to the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall, at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

Inside the hiring hall hangs a mural created by the famed sculptor and muralist Lucienne Bloch. It depicts shipping products and their places of origin throughout the Pacific region. The marine themed mural is charming and whimsical, complete with a mermaid and a jellyfish. Noticeably absent from it are images of men toiling over boilers in the guts of the huge ships that carried them from port to port. Bloch, who created five murals in San Francisco between the years 1956- 1963, is famous for photographing Diego Rivera’s mural “Man At The Crossroads” just moments before it was destroyed on orders given by the thin-skinned capitalist Nelson Rockefeller.

Lucienne Blochs’ mural, inside the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall, at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA.

The building has other historic features too, namely lead and asbestos, elements nobody wants to preserve. According to Callais, the building is full of both. “Look at your feet. See that tile?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s what you’re standin’ on. Asbestos. It’s up there, too,” he said, pointing skyward. These are problems the union doesn’t have the money to solve.

“You hear the media talkin’ about corrupt union officials, embezzlin’ and gettin’ paid too much. Well, let me tell you about this job, darlin’,” Callais explained in his languorous drawl. “If I didn’t draw social security, I couldn’t afford to work here.” He mused on the stability that union wages used to bring to San Francisco. “I could get you a job being a wiper—you know what that is? It’s simple.” He mimed wiping a surface. “I could get you a job doing that, and you’d make a better living than me.”

He remembered a time, after the Vietnam war, when members of the union and “casuals” or non-members, would line up outside the door. “There were jobs in those days,” he said “Some of the casuals, they’d go to Shelley’s bar up there at the corner, and wait. And if at the end of the day, there were still jobs to be filled, jobs the members didn’t want, the dispatcher’d go to bar, walk up to a guy and ask him if he wanted the job. And if that man hesitated, why the dispatcher’d walk to another man and ask him. If you wanted a job, you had to say so. Couldn’t hesitate. There was always a man wanting to work.”

These days, the big hall is often empty, although it is still open. “People still get jobs here,” he said. According to the union’s secretary treasurer, the union’s combined assets totaled $2.6 million. MFFOW had 430 active members and dispatched a total of 1,909 jobs in 2016. He thanked me for stopping in—“take all the pictures you want!”—and handed me some newsletters to read. The April 13 issue of “The Marine Fireman” touted the “hundreds” of new jobs coming to the Port of Oakland and announced the newest advance in the shipping trade: automation. The headline read “Danish researchers excited about prospect of unmanned ships.” Before leaving, I’d asked Callais what he thought of the economy. He paused. “The minute the US loses its shipping trade, well,” he said, “that’s the day the US is finished.”

The view from the dispatcher’s desk inside the Marine Fireman’s Union hiring hall at 240 Second Street, San Francisco, CA

“Immigrants and native-born workers wash against each other all the time in the California economy, like the tides moving in and out of the bay beneath the Golden Gate, coming together, only to be pushed apart by powerful forces.
The difference between metaphor and reality is that water and tides are not sentient. Workers are conscious and capable of changing direction together  if the current in which they find themselves is not to their benefit or liking.”
From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement
Fred B. Glass, University of California Press

 

UPDATE: Anthony Poplawski, the President of the Marine Firemen’s Union has disputed the assertion that this building is being sold. In a post published on Facebook, he said that offers are made on the building “all the time” and that there are no plans to sell.
However, this blog post, which recounts a conversation, accurately quotes Mr. Callais, and his remarks on the building’s status.

* Consider ordering not only Fred’s book but “The San Francisco Labor Landmarks Guide Book” as well. It’s edited by Catherine Powell, director of the Labor Archives and Research Center and can be purchased here:https://www.amazon.com/Francisco-Labor-Landmarks-Guide-Book/dp/B008GFRD7O

 

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.

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.

 

Meeting the Empress, part 2: What I saw at the fair.

I went to the Napa County fairground two days ago in Calistoga to check in with—and on—Tim Locke, the cheerful Executive Director of Four Springs Retreat, the small center located where the oaks met the pines on September 12th and formed a flaming alliance. No one was sure if Four Springs managed to escape being burned, but—mirabile dictu!—it had. Tim’s first posting, which confirmed the survival of Four Springs, mentioned Chaz the cat’s continued material existence first. “People are asking about our cat, and he is OK,” wrote Tim. “That rascal wouldn’t get in the truck!” Chaz, the rascally cat, is extremely lucky. The fire burned right up to the vineyard that borders the property. Firefighters used the vineyard’s irrigation system as a firebreak. A much bigger firebreak in the shape of  a storm front subsequently moved in, bringing rain with it, which fell copiously on Middletown and Four Springs. Chaz the cat, inconvenienced by fire and padding around in a rain-soaked compound, is perhaps wondering in his catlike way why things have been so fucking turbulent lately.

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Forty-six miles away, the Napa County fairgrounds in Calistoga had been re-purposed as an evacuee center. It bustled with activity. “Welcome Evacuees” read a hand-painted sign. The large field next to the parking lot was packed with tents. The exhibit hall had been turned into a medical station. Inside the concrete hall, about hundred cots were lined up next to each other. People lay on them, many elderly.

“How are people doing?” I asked a volunteer nurse named Sue, rather lamely. (The supine bodies worried me.) “They’re okay,” replied Sue. “People are mostly dealing with smoke inhalation.”

Sue had a sensible haircut and luminous, kindly blue eyes. I suspected her bedside manner was reassuring. There were a lot of volunteers in the room, which was no surprise: on the Lake County Office of Emergency Facebook wall, there was offer after offer of help, like this posting from Kathleen Bisaccio: “I am a retired nurse and will volunteer where ever you need me.” Sue had clearly heard the call and come down to help. She looked like she’d never become unnerved by the demands on her time and attention; would never scatter and run. She’d stay put.

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I felt an almost desperate gratitude to Sue and the others: the people at the volunteer table, the woman sitting behind the State Farm insurance table, the volunteers who were calmly sifting through all the goods that came flooding in. Everywhere you looked, there were heaps and mounds of clothing, tents, books, pallets of water, art supplies, toys for the kids. It looked like a massive garage sale. The volunteers were picking and sorting and schlepping and dealing with all the stuff that that been donated. The only thing that was missing from the growing pile of stuff was arguably what the people in the camp needed the most. A home.

Lake County is really on the map right now. I’m not sure how the people in Lake County feel about that: the place is mysteriously mysterious. To get to Lake County from San Francisco, you exit from the 101 at Hopland  and take the 175, a dizzying (and potentially nauseating) mountain road and drop down into a long, broad lake basin. Sonoma county lies to the west and Napa county is directly below it. The county is proximate to the wine county, yet… not of it. Lake County is not a wealthy county, though there is wealth in it. The median household income is 36,000 dollars. My friend Gail wrote, “The economy has always been sluggish and a great number of the population is on some kind of assistance. Lots of meth labs and pot farms. But through it all, a core of good middle-class workers. I always liked Middletown. It was diverse with Harbin Hot Springs new-ager’s and blue-collar steam power workers, teachers, farmers, retirees and lately winery folks.” Hard to believe, living and writing from the culturally denuded landscape of San Francisco, that there are still small towns in California that possess this cast of characters; this sort of unconscious eclecticism.

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Lake County has the distinction of having California’s largest natural lake in it, called Clearlake, a startlingly huge body of water that a surprising number of Californians know nothing about. The first time I saw it, I gaped at it. I was in Lakeport for a friend’s funeral, Marla Ruzika, who was a human rights activist killed by an IED in Iraq in 2005. Years earlier, Marla told me where she was from. When I said I’d never heard of it, she told me not to feel bad about my ignorance. “No one knows about it, ’cause it isn’t off 101,” she said.

This isn’t really the time or place to go into a long tangent about the fascinating geologic and hydrologic history of Lake County, but I’m going to, because it’s wild. Did you know Lake County has a volcano, Mount Konocti? It does and it’s still a threat. The USGS says, of the volcano, that “intermittent seismic activity and the presence of heat at depth indicate that the system is still active and eruptions are likely.” (Good to know.) The next time you’re in Calistoga, stand on the main street, and lift your eyes east to perceive the basalt crowns ridging the western escarpment of the Mayacamas mountains to the north, and the Palisades range to the south. Think about Mount Konocti. Then, consider the area known as the “geysers”, the largest geothermal field in California which is spread liberally over the crest of the Mayacamas. It supplies power to Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Napa, and Marin counties. The earth belches steam and heats water because of a large magma chamber that sits four miles below the ground of Lake County. Harbin Hot Springs, Four Springs and probably lots of other anonymous hot springs owe their existence to the eight-mile wide magma chamber of Mount Koncocti.

Lake County averages at least 12 small earthquakes a day, because of Calpine’s practice of injecting effluent into the ground—fracking, in other words—to increase the output of steam. Since Calpine started doing this, the number of earthquake has steadily crept upward. Lake County and its residents experience the by-products of the fiery volatility underfoot each day in the form of cluster earthquakes and the healing waters of the hot springs resorts in the area. I wonder how many small hot springs, not contained in private resorts like Harbin, are known and used by the residents of Hidden Valley and Cobb and the other small settlements of the Mayacamas mountain. I bet if you asked locals, you’d get tips on places to bathe in the healing waters of Lake County; places you didn’t have to pay to access. But they’d have to like you to give that kind of information up. One gets the feeling that the people who live in Lake County like it quiet. They don’t want a bunch of people tromping in and settling down.

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The Lake Countians, though, like being settled down just fine. Arguably, this might be hard to do in a place where earthquakes shake the ground every hour or so. Throughout the Mayacamas, they’ve made places for themselves in small towns like Cobb, and sometimes not in small towns, but in ad-hoc settlements so typical of California’s foothill and mountain communities. This is a pleasant way to live when nature is cooperating. “We always felt Anderson Springs was a safe haven,” a evacuee The Sacramento Bee. When it isn’t, it can be deadly. The Valley Fire was exactly that for three people, as of this writing. There will likely be more. It displaced 17,000 people and destroyed 535 residences. The tents in the evacuees camp are place-markers for the homes that burned as the fire barreled though the hills above Middletown.

In trying to understand the disadvantage of being burnt out of your home, it might be wise to consult with recent census data, math combined with a Google drive down Highway 175 on Google maps. That’s how I found a pre-fire shot of a mobile home tucked away off McKinley Drive, a short street that runs parallel to 175 for a few yards (Lake County, according to the 2000 census, has the highest percentage of mobile homes of any California county.) I’m going to posit a fictional, but totally plausible scenario: A single mom lived in this now-destroyed mobile home, with her two children and several dogs. She works as a sales associate at Walmart. This is also plausible: Walmart is one of the top employers in Lake County. The current wage for a sales associate at Walmart is $9.32. It will rise to ten bucks after January 1st, 2016 because of AB 10, which raised the minimum wage. But as of this writing, it’s $9.32. If this fictional mom —whom I’m sure exists and is maybe even living at the Napa County fairgrounds with her two kids in a tent—works forty hours a week, at $9.34 an hour, she makes, after taxes, 433.90 a week. Annually, that’s 20,827.20 a year. The Living Wage calculator for Lake County says that an hourly living wage for an adult with two kids is twenty-five bucks an hour. Annually, that’s about forty-seven thousand (again, after taxes.) My fictional mom is obviously not making that. She’s probably on assistance, Medical, most likely.

This construct is ponderously tendentious, but you have to start somewhere. It’s hard to re-situate yourself in a dwelling with all the costs it takes (first month, last month, deposit) making 20, 827 a year, especially after losing everything. It’s hard to make ends meet on twenty thousand a year just staying put, but the day-to-day routines, scenarios and situations of life give you at least a chance to plan for the change headed your way.  (If you see it. In this right-to-work state, you may not.) Staying put within your admittedly constrained economic limits at least gives you the ability to think, perchance to dream, of stepping up one rung in the economic ladder. Displacement bursts those limits wide open.

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What is the difference between an evacuee and a refugee in Lake County, CA? Is it just a matter of closing the gap between the current minimum wage and a livable wage? Or is it a designation assigned by time and locale? The longer you sleep on a cot in a concrete room, the more likely it is that your identity, destroyed by disaster, reconstructs itself around other people’s diminished expectations for your long-term prospects. My friend Christie astutely pointed out that volunteer help was more likely to be needed in a few weeks, after the first flush of altruism wears thin, compassion fatigue sets in and people stop volunteering. Do you stop being an evacuee the morning you wake up and realize that the act of seeking refuge for too long has turned you into something troublesome and unwanted, something people build walls to keep out?

Here’s a quote from Jelani Cobb: “History, social science and common sense have made it increasingly difficult not to consider the term “natural disaster” as a linguistic diversion, one that carries a hint of absolution. Hurricanes, earthquakes and floods are natural phenomena; disasters , however, are often the work of humankind.”

Which also means that the work of humankind can prevent disaster. I think of the weird mixture of gratitude and desperation I felt looking into the calm blue eyes of Sue, the volunteer nurse. Later, well-meaning friends thanked me, with the same gasping relief (thank god that someone’s doing something!) I felt fraudulent. I hadn’t performed a single act of support. I just observed.

Later I thought, we’re all so afraid we won’t do the right thing. However we define that.

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Right now, the “right thing” might be giving money to North Coast Opportunities for relief efforts for fire victims. FEMA has given a grant to assist with the huge job of fighting the fire, and providing some evacuee support. But nothing I’ve read makes it sounds like FEMA re-builds homes. How will they get rebuilt? For those with private fire insurance, this might not be a question. But for those without? A natural phenomena—exacerbated by climate change and drought—will do exactly what all the other fires, floods and famines of the past have done: metastasize into a disaster. “Crap! Looks like we’re homeless!” an evacuee wrote on the Facebook page of Lake County Office of Emergency Assistance. “It was a good little house that protected us well.” They didn’t mention anything about re-building it.

 

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Written on the night of the waxing, first-quarter moon, which is moving into Sagittarius. Let’s all be outward-bound. Here’s to Chaz the cat!

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.

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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.