The Like at the End of the Tunnel

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In the afternoons, the eyes glass over, losing the ability to focus, and gravity becomes particularly gravitational. The limbs of the desk dweller atrophy. The core aches. The PSOAS muscles–particularly the right side in my case, in alignment with the mouse arm–tighten, and you get the feeling of a decaf appendicitis.

At this time, usually a half hour after a feeble attempt to revive myself and a handful of others by G-chatting a YouTube link to a metal song—usually thrash or technical death to get the most bang—I head out to walk on Park Ave. It’s about eight blocks long, some traffic, and crossed by small side streets that have little traffic. I’ve walked it almost every business day for three years, and in almost every combination of routes possible. Typical of my ideas, I considered recording each route and comparing them, but we’re all pretty tired of everybody doing something every day for a year or doing every variety of this and that, i.e. Conceptual Art Lite. The walks are just to escape the tyranny of the screen and perhaps get shat on by a bird, if one is lucky. Sometimes I feel that if you’re not in the line of fire from birds you’re in the wrong place (a/k/a indoors).

The newest route is to head west on Park. The easterly direction ends a mere block away and is the way you’d go in order to eat at the same three restaurants day in and day out for, say, three years. Then hang a right on Hollis. Head way up and take the second left offered, at the traffic light, and cut through the strange little public/private parklet established by the pharmaceutical research company. There are giant stones and long, synthetic-looking grass, making it look like the most artificial natural landscape ever. Then turn left again to head south down Horton. In this way you eventually get back to Park Ave.

Before describing what happened on this new route (or what passes for novelty in the neighborhood of the office), what can be said with almost statistical certainty about any of these walks is that you’re unlikely to meet anyone, much less anyone of interest, and that nothing is likely to happen. Whether you walk up Horton with the giant, vacant, gravel-covered lot on your left or down Horton from the pharmatown with that weedy, chainlink-protected lot on your right, the most that’s likely to occur in this company town is an encounter with—you guessed it—a bird.

The third time I shuffled along this route, however, I once again peeked into a sort of drainage pipe that runs under the giant lot. Almost large enough for me to stand in, its entrance and interior as far as you could see were covered with graffiti. I wondered why anyone would bother to hop the railing and shimmy down the cinderblock into the well, which served as the square-shaped pipe’s foyer, to go tag in obscurity. Ah, artists!

It was completely still. Even the large graffiti words shouting in all caps were silent. Still, as I turned to press on there was a kind of groan. Must be some random sound of industry, from condo construction or Amtrak. Again I began to walk away, yet another sound of a different quality emerged from the same sonic place, somewhere in the pipe, this time more like a whine.

Excited for some sign of life, or at least diversion, I almost unthinkingly hopped over the railing, went down the half-formed steps, and confronted the pipe, which faded into darkness. Again a sound, this time unmistakably either animal or human. Everybody has their own thing they shout in a long tunnel, so I said “ding!” A dull “uhnnn” came in response. “Holy shit,” I breathed. Stepping in further and avoiding the garbage, plastic bottles, a smashed TV, empty spraycans, a wet sweatshirt lump, and such, another gasp sounded that tailed off into a gurgling.

As it grew darker, I stumbled ito something that I assumed was a damp garbage bag full of clothes, but a whimper told me otherwise. I almost fell backwards in surprise, realizing it was a person. As my eyes adjusted it became clear it was a homeless person. There was a large beard and, attached to it, a homeless guy.

“Hey, are you okay?,” I asked, stupidly.

“Huhhnnnn…,” he responded.

“What are you doing here?”

“[heavy breathing] Llllll….hhhnnnnn…”

“Hey.”

“Lllllliiiiiike….hhhnnnn”

“What? Life?” I bent down.

“Like me….”

“Light you? Do you want a light? Sorry, I don’t smoke.” (Why are non-smokers always sorry they don’t smoke?)

“Like me. Like. Like me on….ohhhh”

“Like you.”

“Uhhnn-huhn. Like. Me. On……”

“Hey, let me get you some water.”

“Nnnnnahhhhooohhhh. Like. Me. On. Face. Book.”

“Whaaa?!”

“Like. Me. On. Face. Book.” He repeated, trying to hand me a brown scrap of paper with a web address on it.

“Ha ha, what the hell? Facebook? Jesus! I thought you needed help.”

“huhhrrnnhhh…”

At that point relief flooded in, mostly in realizing I didn’t need to deal with the guy. My “coffee break” was over, after all. I about-faced and got out of the urine-soaked pipe, half-cursing the bag of bones under my breath. Of all things, it was the last statement I expected to come out of that greasy beard. But hey, thought I while making the inevitable march back to my grey cubicle, we’re all just trying to survive in this crazy world.

Clear and Present Danger

Actor Harrison Ford

Swathed in a flag, Harrison considers his next move. Originating in and zooming out from the two-part scar on his chin is a face of concern. The concern usually precedes or follows a look of alarm, which always oddly emerges from amusement. Amusement as a variation on cockiness. Cockiness as a fur coat wrapped around patriotism. The data is encrypted but Jack Ryan’s got a guy, just a kid but not to be confused with a punk. The kid is a necessary accessory to the obvious, a keycard in this hotel of a hellhole built by psychobureaucrats like Ritter. (What have we come to in this world where the bad guys have names like Ritter? At least it’s German.) Watch out, you wouldn’t want to get a paper cut on my get-out-of-jail-free-card, now would you. Now that he’s seen the files it’s time for an end run: drop a couple mil on a chopper and get those guys out of there, disengaged com-sat be damned. Descend into this disorienting country where they don’t have grey buildings and they’re always shooting at you. The sniper emerges before their trudging, leaves bunched on his head, face camo-ed like a greasy throw pillow. God dammit! Multiple blood trails draped over the rocks of the river. The jungles of Colombia are beautiful.

Live/Workers of the World, Unite!

Doesn't the phrase "luxury live/work" say it all?

The phrase “luxury live/work” is a dead giveaway, n’est-ce pas?

With great hesitation I want to make some remarks about gentrification, and presume to make them because I don’t see anyone else doing so in weeklies, blogs, etc. I’ll make it brief since typing necessitates putting down my hand-ground pour-over coffee, bacon scone made with all locally-sourced ingredients, and having to swish my fair-trade, hand-woven faux-Pakistani/deStijl shawl over my shoulder so the fringe doesn’t get between my fingers and the keyboard, causing me to mistakenly type phrases like “reactionary bourgeois ignoramuses.” You know what they say about honey vs. vinegar.

In the interest of due diligence, and since many have surely written about the subject with far more erudition and research than I have, I looked some basic things up on this topic. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “gentrify” as to “renovate and improve (especially a house or district) so that it conforms to middle-class taste.” According to a Wikipedia entry that presumably reflects a current understanding of the term, “Gentrification is a shift in an urban community toward wealthier residents and/or businesses and increasing property values. Gentrification is typically the result of investment in a community by real estate development businesses, local government, or community activists.” In territory located somewhere between the OED’s rather politically uninflected definition and Wikipedia’s immediate acknowledgment of the topic’s web of social implications, Merriam-Webster defines it as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” The only phrase that is glaringly problematic in any of the three characterizations is “middle-class or affluent people,” suggesting that the two classes are interchangeable or even in the same species.

All seems well and level-headed in that initial paragraph on Wikipedia, but scrolling down to the contents of the article reveals the heading “Gentrifier Types” and the subheadings “Women,” “Gay and lesbian people,” and “Artists.” Before following the link and thereby diving into the depths of the hive mind, I give myself and you time for a hearty laugh and a girding of the loins. But our alarm generally goes unrewarded. It turns out there are theories about certain kinds of single, childless and/or gay, and working people who seek cheap housing in a city so they can be close to work. Huh! The “Artists” section recognizes that artists are usually not “first-stage” or “prototypical” gentrifiers, but rather “marginal” gentrifiers, which is a subset that’s the first to get pushed out of a neighborhood by rising property values. The article also states that “Just as critical to the gentrification process as creating a favorable environment is the availability of the ‘gentry,’ or those who will be first-stage gentrifiers. The typical gentrifiers are affluent and have a professional-level, service industry jobs, many of which involve self-employment.”

Which gets to the major point I have to make. The agents of gentrification are real estate developers and landlords, not artists, writers, musicians, restaurant or bar owners, or anyone else. The point must be made here because I have never once read it in print or online, and rarely heard it even in casual conversation. That may be because it isn’t true, but the process seems to me very clean cut. Creative types move to a given neighborhood for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it is what they can afford. They may seek a live/work situation or a place to make messy work. Like my wife Lexa, a longtime resident of West Oakland, they may be attracted to living among working class people and not suburban or more well-to-do types, since they can relate to the former. Their presence gives a neighborhood a bohemian flavor. They set up galleries and a shop or two so they can sell each other art and things. So then how the artists do what they need to do and how they live the way they want to attracts people from outside the neighborhood who need amusement and things to spend their money on. This gives rise to a restaurant and a bar, because wandering around makes you hungry, and a neighborhood suddenly getting its own name, which is when it becomes a “thing.” Which is when landlords and developers smell money and raise property values, sometimes accompanied by “improvements” and new construction. Seem reasonable?

Artists are usually renters–rarely property owners–who live in a neighbo because they can afford it, and they have no direct control over property values. They are also the first to get priced out, and the last to profit from a neighbo rising up. Articles like the ones in the current “Oakland” issue of SF Magazine issue portray this happy society of artists selling expensive pieces and making a living, but it’s not happening in any statistically significant numbers.

The minor point I have to make is only that there may not be such an entity as a gentrifier–in the sense of a conscious, intentional agent of gentrification–of any kind besides a real estate professional. Creatives in the renting class have absolutely nothing to gain by rising property values, so they cannot be said to be gentrifiers. Neither can tech industry employees be described as gentrifiers: the fact that they are paid a certain amount of money for doing certain work reflects only a market tendency in compensation, not an intention for how the money will be spent. It would be surprising if a techie wished to spend any more money than an artie on any given good or service. Besides, only an artist would think that a low six-figure salary guarantees anyone the power to influence or direct events outside their own life.

A coffee shop just opened in West Oakland, which makes the number of grocery stores and coffee shops in the neighborhood equal. Fear not, though, since it isn’t until they pull up all the disused railroad tracks crossing Peralta Street, which rattle the skulls and shred the bikes of those who pass over them, gates and barriers that they are–not until then will we really have something to worry about.

Oakland Forced to Have Another Relationship Talk

An example of the some of the rad art happening in Oakland these days--you won't see this in SF magazine.

An example of the some of the rad art happening in Oakland these days–you won’t see this in SF magazine.

I really hesitate to say anything about the current “state” of Oakland, meaning about the city’s supposedly contentious relationship to San Francisco, about its explosion of restaurants and bars, about its nightlife, etc., all the stuff that is fodder for lifestyle glossies such as San Francisco Magazine, whose current issue is devoted, strangely enough, to a city other than SF. The big message lying in a two-page spread amidst all the newspaper-weekend-section-things-to-do-for-25-year-old-thrill-seekers-in-a-pabst-blue-ribbon-orgy-in-progress dreck seems to be that it took Oakland shops selling $200 jeans and $2000 chairs to be finally “taken seriously” by our Manhattan across the Bay.

Two points, however, should be made about what’s actually a somewhat multi-culti, multi-camera approach of the issue in question. The first is to point out how lovely, levelheaded, and to-the-point Chinaka Hodge‘s reminiscence about growing up in different neighborhoods in Oakland is, and her message(s) to the new “gentrifier” residents. Her suggestion to be involved and present in (apologies for the utterly caucasian slash hippy term “present” but I do read Buddhism) and open to the neighborhood you live in has me seriously ready to follow her advice about volunteer mentoring students from nearby schools.

Hodge is about the last person to whom I’d direct remarks about who does the gentrifying in any given neighborhood in any given city across the country, not least because her piece transcends the status of click-bait and provides a light somewhere in the middle of the tunnel. Not being an urban planner, politician, real estate mogul or other big picture influencer, hers is in the voice and tone that really matters in this kind of discussion, which is a personal one. By talking about people as free agents who have particular lives and who happen to have different economic, social, and racial backgrounds that lend themselves to all sorts of grandiose comments and Tweets, she laser-points at the spirit of the age: that no leader or organization or party or country is going to do jack for anyone but titans and lobbyists.

Change happens on the level of the personal. As a white hetero artist (would someone just kill me now b/t/w and help save the world?), I expected to be the target of yet another piece calling me out as an agent of gentrification, but nothing of the sort happened. Not sure if Hodge would agree with the previous paragraph, but after setting up an expectation that she would talk theory, she talked story instead.

The second point is that if there is a relationship between Oakland and SF, Frisco is in the position of the partner that always wants to talk about the relationship, while Oakland just wants to have fun and enjoy it. As long as there’s a bridge and BART trains, none of us have to choose between the two, and where each city is on some imaginary pecking order makes no difference. There’s too much sunshine, too many films to see, too many of my friends’ books to read, and too many people lying on the grass drinking beer at 2 in the afternoon for anyone to be tied up in knots about how “we” compare to SF.

Maybe SFers feel they used to have an Oakland-type deal some years back before the dreaded internet. Now it’s not like that, but where does the guilt come from? Nostalgia? As we know, nostalgia is a disease, just as guilt is. At least with guilt there’s a whiff of personal agency: you should have done something and didn’t. Ironically, anyone experiencing guilt about what’s happened in SF and/or Oakland probably had no direct responsibility for it. Artists, I’m talking to you. (See my post later this week about gentrification.) The only value of guilt in this scenario is in helping to identify the self-aware.

Nostalgia, though, is just fretting over things that inevitably slipped away. That old relationship that was fun but just never worked out? Maybe it had to end, and maybe this one now has to end too. San Francisco, it’s time we broke up. We’re going to let you down easy, though, and start just by making the last BART train at 11:30 instead of 12:30. Plus your people are not allowed to come over here in those funny retro hats.

31 Ways of Looking at Noise

Noise Rainbow
Hymn To The Internet
Our Inheritance
I Sold My Drums To Pay For A Nite With Your Mom
I Made This In A Day
Get What You Pay For
Sound
Fall Asleep
The End
The Beginning
Be The First To Listen
The Sound Of My World
Shut Off
Listen To With Scotch
White Violet Blue Pink Brown And Grey
Oh Jesus God Who Cares
Fuck Everything
Fuck Everything, Love Everyone
Dowloadable
Innominable
You’ll Never Find Me
I Dare You To Listen
Listen With Scorn
A Soothing Sound
No Mind
Never Mind
Pretend This Never Happened
Pretend You Never Heard It
Ungold
Unfold
Furnitures Of Tomorrow
Heilige Schweigen
Tigers Above, Tigers Below
Nowness

[title ideas for a 34 minute piece using different colors of noise - what's your vote?]

All Known Metal Bands T-Shirt and Launch of New T-Shirt Line!

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Pre-order the “All Known Metal Bands” t-shirt and join me in launching my new line of t-shirts called Custom Flotilla. This is the 6 year anniversary of the book and I’m finally getting around to making a shirt that lists all the names from the book that start with “black.” Hallelujah! Err, I mean, Hail Satan!

This campaign will also help me launch my new line of t-shirts called Custom Flotilla. If you’ve ever found yourself in need of a humorous t-shirt but don’t want to look like a tourist in some baggy, scratchy shirt that says “Property of Alcatraz” or “1 Tequila, 2 Tequila, 3 Tequila, Floor”, then Custom Flotilla is for you. We’ll be making shirts that reveal you to be the clever, cool individual you really are.

Go here to see the Indiegogo campaign!

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The Peach Pie of Destiny

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“Labor Day” was a fine movie to see on a rainy Sunday. Josh Brolin as the lovable fugitive with an undershirt clinging to his sweaty muscles and Kate Winslet as the troubled mother with a sun dress clinging to her sweaty…um, sorry, what was I saying? It’s an absurdly compelling blend of film noir and Hallmark TV movie. To paraphrase Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review: “Yes, Josh Brolin, tie me to a chair and bake me a pie, yes! Yes!”

Film noir is one of, if not the, classic American film style in that it reflects certain attitudes that we Americans have. Pretty obvious, right? Watching the two protagonists in “Labor Day” was a chance to observe two of the conceits that are the basis of all film noir. One is the idea that “if I can just do this one thing, it will all work out.” Whether it’s a heist, that “one last job,” taking someone out, getting the money, getting the girl, revenge, etc.: like gambling, it’s that one big chance to win big and forever. Also to make good in the face of all the suckers who ever doubted you. In a lot of movies the protagonist is considered guilty but actually innocent (an interesting tangent that might end up being a denial of original sin…?). In film noir it seems to be reversed.

The other is the inconvenience of other people and their agendas in the pursuit of the One Big Thing. Once you’ve sympathized with the character who’s taking the big risk in a film noir, other characters start to intrude with their sensible but maddening behavior: how dare that bank clerk wonder that our heroine wants to withdraw all the money out of her bank account! Well yes our heroine is acting suspicious, but going to get your supervisor’s approval is messing with the carrying out the One Big Thing, you idiot!

“Labor Day” puts us in the odd position of rooting for the protagonists while understanding the behavior of these side characters perfectly. As audience members, we’re allowed to not only root for them but buy into their crazy non-logic in a way that the characters themselves are not. In the case of “Labor Day,” holding those two attitudes at once creates tension, alongside the tension of wondering will they get away with it.

The idea that one action would ever solve everything in a life is alluring but ridiculous, like the attache case with the golden, glowing but never revealed contents in “The Usual Suspects.” It’s an escape fantasy in a reality that requires hard work, persistence, and a dizzying variety of actions, plans, and strategies. The Money, the Girl, the Heist, the Last Train: what we wish most as the Solution is not, and often twists Maltese falcon-like into the Problem and/or the Downfall.

That our multifarious actions and plans are entwined with those of other people, and that we succeed exactly to the extent that we finesse our relationships with them and mesh our actions with theirs is what film noir denies on the surface. But it’s the truth that is always proven in the film’s action, which is the ironic wall that we and the characters hit at The End. Take heart, though, because sometimes that wall is just vinyl siding with a brick pattern. And you never know what’s on the other side.