Sunday, June 29, 2008

If We Should Live Up in the Trees, Part Two

What else can be said when confronted by the police occupation of Memorial Oak Grove?

To resume, I offer my perspective on the passive tree-sit protest and the University's extravagant overkill response.
When word first spread of UC's plans for the stately, shady oaks on a gentle hillside, a number of people felt compelled to take up residence in certain trees. The first of them was a notorious anti-car activist and mayoral candidate named Running Wolf. He began residing in a redwood slightly north of the grove's center. A Native American himself, he emerged as leader and spokesman for the protest which soon was bound by evidence that this was a First Nation burial ground.
These young people built little human nests in the trees. Challenging of course, but they freely came and went via ropes and climbing gear. The police lurked at a distance. Meanwhile banners were hung between the trees and a table was set up with literature and refreshment. Frequent spontaneous musical events erupted, all in a peaceful, locally-supported manner. Lots of long-time area residents began to frequent the grove to talk to the young raggle-taggle heroes willing to spend each day and night out in the elements to save these trees.
More important, the tree-sitters resist for principles that many, many hereabouts share, principles for benefit of all. Trees are, after all living things that make life possible for all other living things that depend on air. This is opposed to the will and pleasure and financial clout of some for whom competitive college football holds a higher priority. A powerful minority imposes its will over the local popular will and tough luck about it.
Other trees will be planted elsewhere we are told. Fine, but that doesn't replace having our life-giving trees here. The glaringly apparent truth is that UC has plenty of alternate sites for its gridiron gladiators available a short hop away.
These decisions are made by administrators who are often short-timers from the world of corporate finance who walk off then with huge bonuses. They leave the average citizens to live with the consequences of their schemes. This type has been running wild for a long time, but they ran amok in the last seven years. And as of 2001 they have had access to unlimited resources for any ugly move they can paint as an issue of national security.

I found myself more and more attached to the grove, a very pleasant place with a cool breeze and the feeling of a refuge. I found myself in far-reaching conversations with the new inhabitants, including a young journalist with long blond dreads. He went up the main occupied oak for an interview, a sheer ascent aided by rock-climbing apparatus. I would have gone too, if I were maybe twenty years younger. The perches where the sitters spend their days are quite high, a few boards suggest a floor, provisions are tied-up in hanging bags.
On other afternoons, I played harmonica and sang with one other musician or joined a circle of many. I had a nice ground-to-tree-haven chat with a young girl. She had a charming elemental pseudonym, one characteristic of the names chosen by the group such as "Ayr". This was Winter of 2006-2007, extending into the following Spring. There was a lot of joyous activity on the ground: the gentle installation of a whole network of communicating cables, ropes, and hammocks, community democracy, and counter-cultural celebrity appearances. Country Joe MacDonald came and sang the songs of Woody Guthrie. Hand-painted signs and banners etc. mushroomed in the grove, rallying people and spreading the word. And of course the mainstream media came and went, pimping their usual sensationalism. This was followed by gaggles of politicians such as the hobbit-like former mayor and some city councilors who were hoisted to a large makeshift platform in the trees. The town was seen as standing on its hind legs for once.
Meanwhile, UC's calmer heads with colder hearts got their legal, political and propaganda game on. The months went by. Events would occasionally grow tense--the police snatching tables and gear, and then recede again into uneventful stretches. Arrests did happen but they were still scarce in the first six months of the action.

Over near the north side redwood tree-sit, I found an estimable Oak that I could manage to climb. I would pleasantly lie on a lower branch, relax, and watch the scene. Often somewhat caramelized, I just had to pay attention and not roll over. I imagined what it must be like to live in these trees round the clock--the skill and balance one must learn to thwart the constant pull of gravity, mistakes were irretrievable. I wanted to spend time up in these sturdy, elephantine oaks. I put in regular appearances to make a public statement--that we local residents use and esteem this grove. What if we occupied every tree?

While the lawsuits opposing the university plans for a "high-performance" sports training center made their glacial progress through court, UC started to wax a bit antsy. It was as if they were too accustomed to an extremely tilted playing field to accept due process for very long. They were constrained from making changes to the grove by the initial court orders, but were too wound-up to content themselves with just endless patrols and shakedowns, or with merely keeping police spies in the vicinity, slyly videotaping visitors.
The protest had begun on "Big Game Day" at the end of last football season. So to prepare for the new season's opening game, UC made a transparent effort to isolate this widely supported peaceful action. After it was already in place, they announced that they were building an enclosing fence for public safety. Shock and awe, baby.
Gone was public access to the center of the grove. The information and support table was pushed-out to the sidewalk. And with the fence, of course, an expanding number of full-time guards. The plastic rationale for making such a radical alteration to the site, in apparent disregard of the courts orders, was that crowds of football fans might commit acts of mayhem against the tree-sitters.
In other words, they were doing it mainly for the safety of the tree-sitters. To give the devil his due, there had been opportune agents provocateurs from the presumed football fan base who had hurled projectiles into the inhabited trees on a few occasions. Yet I called their rationale plastic because, like the one for the invasion of Iraq, it seems as malleable as a toy Gumby left out too long in the sun.

And of course subsequent events would all bear out the analogy.

I will return to my tale in the forthcoming Part Three.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Sidewalk Struggle

Most crucial for the Flaneur is his pedestrian right of way...

In recent years there has been considerable public controversy over the enforcement of public order on the public sidewalks of central Berkeley. Ah yes, the operative word here is "public", a word like the word "liberty". Without care, such words lead easily to political rhetoric, something which I pledge to keep to a minimum.
Essentially, the forums and the law that resulted were concerned with how the homeless and other problematic types behave on the sidewalks of various business districts. These laws against yelling, lying down, sitting, semi-lodging, defecating, and aggressive pan-handling were apparently needed to add the specificity now required to similar laws which are already on the books. Much fanfare was emitted from the old crony in the mayor's office about the urgent need to keep sidewalks clear.
This bit of laughable hypocrisy seems especially galling from the old newspaper thief in light of unbridled abuse of the right to clear sidewalks not only by the private sector but by the city under his watch. Huge, incredibly intrusive, parking meter pay-here machines now jut three feet into sidewalks along Bancroft. When people stand in front of and puzzle over them they effectively block the busy sidewalks. Most appallingly, the city didn't even bother to remove the poles of the old decapitated parking meters. They just capped them and left them there for people to negotiate around and bump into.
Downtown the city added bike racks, of wavy tubular steel, that not only fully extend into footpath but, when bikes are added, block it entirely. People who dismiss my case as being comprised of trivialities may one day experience additional ache or difficulty walking and be expected to speak from the other side of their faces at said time.
These bike barricades add to the "advanced" obstacle course and traffic death race that is downtown Berkeley today. The motorists not only risk your life by cutting you off on right turns into your crosswalk, they think absolutely nothing of entirely blocking them to force pedestrians out into traffic to cross the street. Oh and if a motorist happens to hit you outside the crosswalk, it is entirely your fault. I was apprised of this by a Berkeley cop after I was knocked down in front of the California Theater in 2005.
The motorized police force doesn't seem to notice much pedestrian endangerment as it occurs, or if they they do, to mind it very much. Recently, they have given out more tickets for jay-walking and have lowered the fine for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Police were not writing them because they were said to considered them to be too high. Then you get this lip service from elected officials and campus what-nots, who drove to work that day, along the lines of "if we could only get more people to walk," by which they mean other people.

Back on the sidewalk, the second issue is the tolerance, not to say bias, for the businesses who block the sidewalks, who privatize them for their commercial hustles. For example, I start with perhaps the most disgusting and just about the closest to my home--the Wells Fargo bank. To see it at its most heinous one should visit it around noon in late September. Tables fronted by street hustlers in white shirts and ties use free pizza grab students and con them into signing up for credit cards. Any sleazy enterprise that wishes to set up a table there and pay Wells Fargo is welcome to ply their trade standing directly in people's way. This is in addition to the constant stream of ATM users there, two huge filthy concrete trash receptacles, and always, always, several large plastic rubbish cans on wheels. Try to walk by sometime when the new students hoards are spawning through and the hustlers with the clip-boards are pushing for eye contact and a greeting.

Like the occupation of oil-rich foreign countries, apparently any shitty grab of the public domain is deemed urgent and necessary in petroleum-based post-late capitalism. Restaurants want to set up tables covering more than half the walk? Why that's redolent of sales tax!

Naturally the biggest most imperious business in town, the University, would be most flagrant. It shows disregard for individuals' right of way, the right to have it be kept clear and clean of the effluvia of greasy hustles, and the right to be free of damned vehicles on the sidewalk. Take a look for example at the sidewalk opposite what is arguably one of Berkeley best structures, the First Congregational Church complex (FCC). This would be Dana street between Durant and Channing Way. The University uses it's sidewalk as a port of excretion for it's massive unsustainable residential towers which fill the entire Eastern side of that block. They have at least two large metal dumpsters at least half and often entirely on the public sidewalk on Dana. Add to this big plastic cans on wheels on the right of way. And when the parking spots get filled, there are often up to two or three vehicles parked on the sidewalk. A general squalor prevails around all these blockages, usually including piles of detritus on the ground. Across the street people congregate at FCC not only for regular worship and church affairs, but concerts and current event forums. It's grounds are well-looked after and several flowering trees thrive despite the busy street traffic nearby. The tower clock has been repaired as well. If only the University would be such a good neighbor, behaving and cleaning up after itself.

What we have seen is the extreme measures the University is willing to take to assert its presumed sovereignty over Piedmont Avenue sidewalks in order to punish the tree-sitters and their supporters. That topic is still to be addressed in this journal, but it will be.
What I don't see is the University taking responsibility for the toxic effects it attempts to externalize.
In their grand disregard for the world's exhaustion, academic elites are concerned with other elites, those to whom others serve meals and for whom others clean up messes.

Monday, June 23, 2008

If We Should Live Up in the Trees

The Flaneur now approaches a topic he has been avoiding...

The Daily Californian is a somewhat contemptible free tabloid associated with the University of California Berkeley. I peruse it over breakfast for bits of local information and to gauge current student thinking. On a day in the Fall of 2006, I read in the Daily Cal that neighbors of the south-eastern sector of the University were astir over plans to renovate Memorial stadium. UC intended to cut down a grove of esteemed oak trees to make an ancillary building for "advanced" athletic training. Academic marketers say "advanced" when their counterparts in commercial marketing would say "extreme."
That afternoon I set out to see the oaks in question whose lives were threatened. There were no specifics on their precise location, so I walked up through the beer-stained streets of fraternity row toward the stadium entrance. From the front entrance area, I scanned a stand of eucalyptus on the hill above but could not determine where the oaks could be.
No reason not to, I entered and surveyed the shabby old spectacle of the stadium for the first time. In its emptiness, it was a nice aerial perch for sky-watching. One couldn't help but feel the precariousness of this giant concrete bowl built as it was on a sheer hillside. And that was before it was well-documented to be on top of the seismic fault most likely to deliver the next big quake.
Now they want to make it bigger and better for the late-Roman Empire-esque society that flocks here in droves pricey tickets in hand to watch the war-surrogate sport of choice. They are hard to miss, the overweight sports enthusiasts in chauvinistic colors streaming through in their rudeness leaving mounds of waste in their wake. The general, or head football coach, that brought them victories now demands this tribute. To off-set the costs of this latest massive building project the University would add a steady schedule of events at the stadium, such as rock concerts too large for the nearby Greek theater. The template for this, one assumes, would the Paul McCartney concert which was held there some years ago. That was when UC assured the neighborhood they had easily managed traffic plans and were confident sound levels would be reasonable. The results were something to the contrary with little or no apology. This eat-our-dust trope is fairly constant in UC's behavior.

I found out soon afterward, that the imperiled oaks were much closer to home. They were part of the delightful peaceful landscaping along Piedmont Avenue as it travels along the University's shoulders. On the hillside just beyond the I-House, they sweep the eye into the curves of their admirable branches. It is as if a patch of the old coastal live-oak forest had been spared for the edification and health of all who come by it. Like the stadium itself, it had been dedicated to WWI veterans and had been named Memorial Grove. As the controversy surrounding it grew, information came out that had also been burial ground for Native Americans and thus sacred another time over.
By the time I arrived there, developments surrounding this example of the disheartening march of "progress" had again made the news. A number of young folks with more allegiance to the earth than to the mad parade of consumption decided to occupy the trees. They were not content to wait like the Mayor and the risk-assessing home-owners, for law suits to optimistically prevent the destruction of the grove. They knew they only way to thwart the arboricidal tendencies of the suits that make the decisions at this pompous self-important corporation called a school, was to physically guard the trees against them.
Does the charge of arboricide sound harsh? Please bear in mind this wanton attack on the aesthetically pleasing oak grove is just one example of UCs coming chain saw massacre. They intend to denude most of the wooded hills behind campus, cutting thousands and thousands of mature trees. The stated aim is to rid the place of non-native eucalyptus and other trees and to replace them with California native plants which are more fire-resistant. Theoretically all well and good, except what would such a massive disruption mean for all the wildlife living in those trees? Moreover how can anyone predict what the immediate ecological effects will be? What if we have extended drought following the deforestation? Or if el Nino washes away the attempts at replanting? And all the while the air-cleaning and carbon absorption of those trees formerly standing will be lost. It may also be taken for granted that development in the form of additional buildings and facilities will accompany this clear cut.
Once again we see the drift between what arrogant authorities in government do and the will of the people, not to mention the good of the environment. This arrogance of power, it is no secret, has gone totalitarian under the current unitary presidency. For the profit of an ever-tightening greedy elite any dirty deed is done expeditiously. UC is now green-washing British Petroleum blood money, competing to develop the next generation of nuclear weapons, and advertising its brilliant human-rights negating law Professor Yoo's close ties to the White House to raise funds. A Blackwater-esque private security firm has now been installed by Homeland Security at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab where they sit with jaundiced eyes looking over UC's shoulder at the rest of town.
Over time I have begun to wonder if the prolonged campaign of aggressive persuasion short of organ failure that UC has steadily escalated against the tree-sitters, hasn't been the brain child of the illustrious Dr. Yoo.

Much more of this dilemma will follow in later entires to this journal.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Still Inside the Museum

This continues an earlier entry on a visit to Berkeley Art Museum...

The Buddhist art gallery was a Bardo plain in microcosm--a cosmological palette-cleanser or a destination of its own. By the next level, the exhibits had returned to conceptual art science projects, so to speak. The effect of the ropes installed in the open atrium got even better from above; they were like oblique harp-strings.
The highest gallery was certainly the most wiggy of them all--Joan Jonas' fun house. Three two-sided flat-screens hung at intervals. They featured tableaux of the artist and her dog superimposed on landscapes of ocean waves or desert chaparral. Beyond them a projection screen rises from the floor with a mountainous landscape, as uneventful as the shoulder of a desert road. In an opposite alcove, another film with sound consisted of a performance by Jonas. She whirled lots of fabric around on poles and was wrapped in it, I was reminded of George Herms' similar art actions. A life-size cardboard cut-out dog keep watch should anyone else try to act-out. Before any sense of meaning in it all could stick with me, I stepped into the small elevator down.

I drifted like a dandelion down to the lowest-level galleries. Matrix Redux, a retrospective of the museums most innovative series, seduced fifteen minutes of my voyeurism. The piece-de-resistance for me was a nearly transparent piece made out of roplex (kind of like rubber cement). A fluted drape of it hung beneath elaborate shoulder panels like humming-bird wings, with almost invisible stenciled decoration. It looked like a an evening gown shed by an insect-fairy.
I noted with relief that those billboard-sized Hans Hoffman monstrosities are now hung in an off-the-beaten-path gallery where few ever venture.

My last stop was to be in the ring-side gallery where Matrix usually goes down. There were the enlarged photographs of space showing the clandestine satellites of our black-budget secret government. They were riveting in themselves but the heart of this work, Trevor Paglen's The Other Night Sky, was in a black chamber of its own. Entered through curtains, the space is dominated by a spinning globe, surrounded by white cubes for spectators to sit on. As the globe spins the continent nearest the viewer gets brighter, and throughout one sees crowded satellite traffic projected onto it, as if observed from deeper in the solar system. I was transfixed for ten minutes or so and I began to feel light-headed, almost zero-gravity.
Paglen is an academic here in geography as well as an artist having his first solo show. He has produced a book based on his photographs taken from great distances of secret government installations throughout the Southwest mainly. It is entitled "I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed: Emblems from the Pentagon's Black World." Another book documents CIA "special rendition" torture flights.
His work makes a statement larger than the one made by Manuel Botero's paintings of chubby people being tortured as inspired by Abu Ghraib. They were exhibited in segregated room at the University library and were almost as cute as alarming, somehow normalizing, evil made more banal.
Paglen's work is unsettling in a way more vague but deeper; it portends an overarching agenda of no-good.

This cultural sojourn just got more and more cosmic as I went along. I was glad I smoked before leaving home.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Garden Idyll Turns Suspenseful

Today I go on a cross-town expedition to Live Oak park where an arts and craft fair was held.

"In fact I bore the burden of life as contentedly as one sometimes bears a heavy load of sleep."
Saint Augustine

It was an agreeable 68 degrees, with the last shreds of cooling fog burning away on the hillsides. I cut diagonally across campus emerging at last at the Babylonian steps of the genetic engineering sector in the North-western corner. From here I could peer into the huge cavity where the public health library building used to be. A broad wall shored up the familiar grove of trees where I had spent many fond hours with take-away dinners from the now defunct Sun Hong Kong. It's a rambling excavation full of enormous generators and trailers, fenced right up to UC's front lawn on Oxford. They continue to slice the open space and wooded areas ever thinner, while trying to maintain a facade of the old sylvan campus.
On Walnut street, experimental agricultural lots grow frankenfoods and soylent green. I walked on past them and past the Bullwinkle gate of the gushing community garden. It is a site I will return to on this walk. But moving me ever on was the desire for my first coffee of the day. This was achieved at the Walnut Square Peet's at 3:00PM (after a 12:15 wake-up today). The girl at the counter had to make a new batch and I enjoyed watching the process which inv0lved a coffee-filter the size of a diaper. Consequently, the new batch first cup I got was quite strong. I sat outside in the cool shade with babies and dogs. A chess game and a guitar were being played on the sunny church steps opposite. It was a bay area day when you can sit in strong full sunlight of June and not feel over-heated.
Revivified, I walked the garden-laden sidewalks the rest of the way to the Park. I have little interest in jewelry and the housewares sold at such a fair. I come to sit and people watch, maybe take in the entertainment. There is a contentment looking at stuff knowing all the while you intend to take none of it home with you. It was a pleasant hour I spent doing this and occupying a shady bench.
One problem with this fair is that, although it has some non-profit/public benefit booths, it is essentially the temporary privatization of a pubic park for commercial purposes. The entertainment and kid attractions were puny. A large portion of the "arts and crafts" was jewelry. And since jewelers thieves go together, there was also a conspicuous security guard in bright yellow jacket. Who stood a hundred feet away letting me see he had an eye on me. Bored by the monotony of his job, he seemed to choose me as the most suspicious character of the moment. Here's a guy, who probably doesn't live in Berkeley, whose long Hispanic mustache made it likely he wasn't even born in this country, barely trained and just making it up as he goes along, deciding that someone who had lived thirty years in this town looks out of place in this public park. Was it my black beret and sunglasses?
And this goes to the talk I attended last night. Jeremy Scahill was at Moe's books speaking about his book exposing Blackwater and the vastly expanded private security now used at home and abroad. He indicted Dyncore, the Wal-mart of private security, that this guy probably works for. They are far more ready to ignore people' rights than even the cops are, and they do the bidding of whoever pays their low wages. I got a chance to shake Scahill's hand after the event. I told him, "At a time when the bully pulpit was barking, 'You're either with us or you're with the terrorists', you stood up. I admire you enormously." He was gracious and modest.

Eventually, I entered into a conversation with an bearded old-timer who sat next to me at the fair. He knew Scahill's work and when I mentioned a political writer I had just discovered James Petras, he said, "Yes, of course." There we were, two anachronistic hold-outs for our rights in the face of the sweeping coercion of the times-- tenacious Berkeleyites. He told me how in the 1950's he would drive from his hometown in Stockton to make the scene in Beat North Beach for the weekend, how it helped him stay sane. We discovered a mutual high regard for the well-turned phrase, for out-moded slang, and for humor served ironic and dry, particularly in dire times. We were both would-be Mencken of the internet, of which he was by far the more avid user--it tires me out more easily. As a semi-retired Surrealist I claim neurasthenia.
He said he was 82, and had lived in Germany--I sensed a good back story, perhaps I'll see him another time. His wife, Asian, younger and dressed in purple silk brocade, asked how old I was. She thought her husband and I talked like people the same age. I have always taken the long view of life, my parents were born nearly one hundred years ago, and I admit to being at heart a 20th Century person. I'm down with the youth too though, when they aren't shy or defensive.
It then seemed about the right time to boomerang back home. I stopped at a virtually open-air pissoir. To alert a Mom and kids a few feet away that it was occupied, I whistled while I went. Everybody was cool though-- is American society finally maturing or is it only in pockets like this one? It often is hard for me to gauge the difference between Berkeley and the rest of the country. I have been here or in San Francisco all but a few months of the last thirty years--you slowly lose touch.

On my way home I stopped a while to sit amid a lavender plant in which dozens of bees were working. It was a blessing, a moment of peace, as I was absorbed in the activity surrounding me, by the scents and the sunlight. How like a dream is the stream of life when you can forget your tribulations and relax in an open state of mind.

I was so intoxicated by the slow-passing afternoon, that I stopped again in the Community garden a few blocks later. Open to all on Sunday afternoon from one to five, the garden has a large colorful folk-art "Welcome" sign. I didn't think to ask the young couple tending some plants if I was cool with them. I figured I still had time before five and they would say something if it was otherwise. The girl came nearby the bench I occupied. When I tried unsuccessfully to say hello, I noticed what may have been a slight disapproving tone in her voice as she talked to her friend. A few minutes later they both circled by me, again eyes averted. She was clearly the one in charge. It soon got very quiet and I could no longer see them. I walked over a path to the sturdy gate. It had been fashioned with cartoon figures by well-known Oakland artist Bullwinkle, but it bore a less whimsical padlock at that moment.
Rather than call out to the person still inside to say that it was closing time, they merely locked me in--merely committed an unlawful imprisonment. They must have felt a little awkward to say anything, so they just said nothing and locked-up. What did they imagine I would do? Did they assume that I wanted to stow-away for the night, to fall asleep in the hay after a meal of raw broccoli?
I called out a few times in case they were nearby. My voice echoed in the quiet, unheeded in the deserted street. I tried to brush off the sand of the sinking feeling that I was trapped.
I might have been able to petition a passer-by with a cell phone to summon the police. Lucky for those thoughtless gardeners, I did not. I am too resourceful for that and too reluctant to deal with cops when I don't need to.
Instead, I looked around at the challenge. I saw it was going to require some effort to escape, but I was confident I would do so safely. A six foot chain-link fence surrounds the field-- the kind without much structural support and therefore quite hard to climb. They grow food here and it is surrounded by a lot of hungry people, hence the place is fairly secure. This again goes to how irresponsible it was for them to lock me in.
I saw my exit point-- the roof of a shed seven feet high. I found a plastic milk box which I set up on a chair to make my attempt. The roof was covered in vines that I was able to use to pull myself up onto it. Up I went and soon was standing on the vine-covered roof as the Berkeley hills spun back into place a split-second later, in my expanded view, in my dizziness. The vines also served to soften the dangerous top edge of the fence and I could hang on to them to lower myself onto the sidewalk. As I stood a moment on the roof, a girl in the land of I-pod passed below, she looked up slightly, not showing surprise or alarm. One must take the unexpected in stride in this town.

Then, after a breath, jump down I did, without harm. And the Flaneur, unruffled and free, continued on his way.

Post script
After discussion with others and after thinking it over again myself, I have had to revise the incident in my mind, to allow the possibility that the gardeners had somehow not seen me sitting on the garden bench.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

An Hour Inside the Museum

Last Thursday was the monthly open admissions day at the Berkeley Art Museum. A show of Bruce Conner's photographs of Mabuhay Gardens Punk scene had just opened. So three blocks up Bancroft I went shortly after mid-day. The town has that refreshed feeling in June. The multitudes of students have cleared out and all the trees are abundantly in leaf.
Down through the sculpture garden, I came around to the back entrance. This was the way to glimpse the cool photo show in the hallway by the theater. Vivid images from the 1968 Paris student uprising by Serge Hambourg were on exhibit. As I moved by they reached out with a pang for what might have been.

On the main floor everything seemed visible the minute I walked in. Ropes had been strung like nets in the open space between the oddly obtruding floors of the cavernous museum. I could hear idiosyncratic sounds and music in the margins of awareness. There were Matrix series greatest hits and quirky MFA pieces on the floor below; on this level, there were satellite photo blow-ups and a billboard covered in reproductions of early punk rock fliers from San Francisco.

Loosely on assignment for Search and Destroy magazine, Conner photographed the larval Punk movement at the Fab Mab in 1978. When I moved here in January of 1979, not only was the Mab going, but new venues had come on. One of them was the Temple Beautiful in a ruined synagogue next door to the former Peoples' Temple. The Clash played their second ever concert in the U.S. at the Temple unadvertised. I had seen them at their first concert the night before in the Berkeley Civic Auditorium. It was a pure and wholesome adrenaline rush and a call to dig what the new breed said. I listened to it all and took part with my own band and my own zine.
The ethos was do it yourself, to try to subvert the culture markets.
This was just after the Peoples' Temple suicide-massacre in Guyana, and right after the mayor and beloved supervisor had been shot in City Hall as well. I had no foreknowledge of the SF scene, the bands had been under the radar in the NYC-Boston Punk world I had experienced. But San Francisco was Punk. It had a stylish, underground, home-grown Punk culture. San Francisco was Punk in the same way it was Noir. It was a culture that was nervous and disillusioned, but whose spirit of resistance was unbreakable. After I got my own place in SF later that year, I voted for Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys for mayor. This was miles ahead of the East Coast Punks.

On my way up, I passed a gallery where diffuse black and white film images drifted across a large grid of LED lights. It suggested a drive-in theater for machines. This was Jim Campbell's "Home Movies". It was the same lineage of altered-state-of-conscious-inducing art as Bruce Conner's own film and optical illusion experiments.

But this show of Conner's work was straight-on black and white photography. It is the subjects of the photographs who provide the phantasmic effects. The fact that these Punk bands are generally in such frantic motion itself does lead to several striking optical effects, captured on the very high speed film he used in the dark club. One entitled "Suspended Animation" shows a beer bottle upright in mid-air while globes of beer orbit around it and a few nearby subterraneans don't even notice.
After thirty years the images of German-Expression-esque De Detroit biting her nails or wrapped in mummy tape writhing on stage, or of the death-defying exhibitionism of Roz still make a feral kind of sense. Conner's action-capture style, and the obscurity of the musicians, tend to make into anonymous archetypes, hieroglyphs of Punk.
Punk may have been that last Bohemian type that escaped instant commercialization. After the Beat movement in 1957, the Psychedelic movement in 1967, came the Punk movement in 1977. After that youth movements were too quickly defined by the identity-marketing media for an underground type to gestate for long.
The movement and the early SF scene could be the subject of a long memoir. I expect to write more about it in the future. But just then I moved on from this gallery, and passed by two middle-aged moms. They looked interested but confused by these images of neurotic youth, unleashed in outrageous attire. I remarked "We knew how to have fun in those days."

Appropriately, the next gallery up was a hall of Buddhas with representations from distant lands of the human realization of peace .

The visit continues after a pause.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Scenes Along Telegraph

Echoes of what happened before in what happens now...

In drear December, my weekend folk and roots music radio programs tempt me to stay indoors and enjoy my prescription cookie. Music is never so felicitous as it is then. But the Christmas street fair goes down those days on a Telegraph Avenue closed to traffic. So eventually off I go, not to shop for holiday gifts but just to take it all in--fanciful crafts, joyful kids, locals out from their cocoons, street music, a huge walking tree costume. By the time I reach Dwight Way I am always a bit cheered and I have usually had enough of it.
Last year as I moved slowly through the midway, I felt a slight leaning against my leg. I assumed a kid had just brushed by. Actually I didn't pay attention until a wee hand clutched my pant leg and I looked down next to me.
"You think I'm your daddy," I said to the startled little girl. "What color jacket does he have?" I tried. Within seconds the father had found her again. He seemed angry at her as if it's only ever the child's fault if they get separated, for not obeying.
I felt sympathy for her and relief that my nightmarish imaginings had not come to pass-- a woman shrieking,"That man tried to walk off with a little girl!" along with fragmentary lynching scenes from films like Frankenstein and M.

Earlier this Spring, I walked up Telegraph returning from Peet's coffee house. I was full of coffee, so my talk-to-strangers threshold was low. I remarked to a young fellow that he had the spiffiest banjo case I'd ever seen. "Back in my day we folkies carried our banjos in a gunny sack." "Where can I get one?" he laughed. We came up to the sidewalk outside Rasputin's entrance where young African-Americans sell mix-tapes. One of them asked the banjo-player what it was he had on his back.
"A banjo? Oh man, I'm from the South, we don't have banjos down there." Fully caffeinated, I chimed in, "What you mean?... it comes from the South...haven't you ever heard, "I'm goin' to Louisiana/with a banjo on my knee," I sang with extra honky twang. He gave it up, physically dodging the sound of "Oh Susanna".
"That white music hurt yo' ears!" I observed.
He agreed with me as general hilarity ensued.

I was up at Willard park with a couple of harmonicas. A bench along Hillegas facing out on a view from Mount Tamalpais to downtown San Francisco offered inspiration. Cozy rooftops and trees, and the lively park with its great redwoods made up the foreground. But, as happens, I ran out of steam for solo music-making and quit.
Willard (known for a time as Ho Chi Minh park) is located a block up from Telegraph and I started home along that way. I passed the cottage behind the super market where Ted Kasinski, better known today as the Unabomber, once resided. Wonder if he left any artifacts?
As I came up to the incredibly fragrant Lhasa Karnak herb shop next door to Moe's, I paused to listen to two bluegrass players. The girl playing mandolin was competent, but the guy playing fiddle was extraordinary. He played sweet leisurely runs with just the right touch--no excited over-playing. I listen to this kind of music year-round on the radio, and every year at the three-day free extravaganza in Golden Gate park known as "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass". I don't mistake talent and authenticity like his.
I listened for a while, threw a coin into their case and, before too long, asked them if I could join in. They may have suspected I was trying to chisel in on their take but that wasn't it at all. We took off. When I later called the tune I asked for "House of the Risin' Sun" and ended-up singing it while the guy played like a Byron Berline in overalls. A young cat passing by stopped and said "wow." He may not have heard music made by real instruments without electricity before that moment. Except for some occasional over-amped "christian" music, street music has always enhanced the area.
We attracted other listeners and were having the proverbial time of our lives when a couple of rare beat cops showed up. They seemed to want to encourage us to quit--there was a lot of lip service about clearing the avenue of malingerers at the time. Caring little for this sort of philistinism, we quit of our own accord soon enough afterward.
Johnny was the fiddler, a recent arrival from Kentucky or Tennessee. He came from a family of traditional music players including some professionals. As a new comrade in music, he pleaded with me for the good turn cannabis-lovers everywhere depend on. There was bluegrass on the radio as we hit my pad for tea--he knew who it was right away. I think I had some enhanced caramels I might have let them try. He went on to tell me about a serious health problem he had. He did have a job and this caring girlfriend. He had also had a recent family tragedy and seemed like someone who was trying to keep his head up while in flux. I admire people like that and try to help when I can. I encouraged him to look into the California medical marijuana program. I spoke of the comfort of being legal with it, the ease of obtaining a high quality supply.

I saw Johnny again some weeks later in People's Park. I was hurrying on my way to five o'clock Mass at a chapel off of College avenue. He was elated to tell me that he had an appointment later that afternoon with my medical cannabis doctor. He then produced a healthy-sized joint and invited me along with himself and a friend. I declined. I was headed to Mass and I have never gone to Mass stoned in my life. I want the highest high in its purest form.
Walking home from Mass, of course, may be another story.

All Across the Telegraph

Telegraph Avenue as it strikes me today, minimally haunted in daylight...

Following a few floating notes, a harpist and vocalist began to play in the cafe downstairs.
There was an international music festival this weekend in various places around Telegraph Avenue and this was part of it. Saturdays such as this one, with its brilliant June sunlight and cool air, inspire me to praise God for the gift of cannabis. The medical grade active ingredient in the shortbread and jam cookie I'd eaten earlier, enabled me to forget the aches of life, to go deeply into its simple joys.

The hills overhead were still more emerald than gold. The famous entrance to Sproul Plaza, a notorious speakers' corner, is the terminus of the avenue that used to go on another block into what is now solid UC territory. I walk there often but rarely on weekdays at noon so I don't know, but my sense is that it still all happens here. I understand the perennial crank commentator Stoney Burke remains ambulatory and still puts in crabby appearances. An over-zealous middle-aged Asian guy gets up on a stool with an antsy sandwich-board screed now and then. His trademark chant of "happy, happy, happy" draws attention to his complaints against China, Israel, and the U.S. (I think). He seems terribly idealistic. Quite often the one called the Artist General plays a large zither with his self-invented bowed finger-extenders. His edgey political statements are available next to his transporting disks for sale.
Mystic arabesques, giant Steppes of jazz, bagatelles of the Turkish hookah, the hidden music of dreams, well up over the incessant traffic like plants over an abandoned way of life.

The first block has been surrendered to corporate franchise, anxious to grab the student cash flow. Some seem at least look stylish or vaguely innovative-- with reality TV screens or with third-hand appropriations of New Wave re-appropriations of Pop Art appropriations. (Gleaming plastic manikins in bright colors like an old Elvis Costello inner sleeve.) And then there is Walgreen's, neither stylish nor vague. Next to it the primordial Rexall sign remains over a new food market--a strange and nearly unprecedented venture for these parts. A relic of a defunct pharmacy, the orange and blue Rexall sign hovers over the block as it has since before Gary Snyder was the first cat to walk to class in sandals and beard in the mid-fifties.
Berkeley's bohemianism is ingrained indeed. Too often in recent times, however, the alternate conformity of youth is fobbed-off as bohemianism. At the same time it has gotten more and more difficult for the young to generate a new sub-culture. This is due to the constant appetite of the life-style entertainment media turning over every stone for something fresh to wear out into something phony and stale.
These first blocks exhibit some of the products of this process, from the precious athletic wear stores with blaring hip-hop, downward to the tattoo and piercing emporiums. The semiotics of rebellion have been marketed for so long no one really falls for them any longer. Everyone is enjoying everything ironically.
Then there is the long-standing issue of the rootless black-clad youth who used to appear on sidewalks in pigeon-like numbers. Perhaps they are the actual rebels--I can certainly see something heroic in the refusal to go along with things. There was a vibe in the early nineties though, when California's economy was hard-bit, when a lot of groups were out there with bad moods and pit bulls, that even a hoodlum priest like myself could not ignore.
The news is that it is not like that now. While the scene is at a low, with its dollar stores and palm readers, with its increasingly vacuous giant record stores--Telegraph is in fact now quite calm. Gone is the anarchy of old.
(A possible exception is the managed thug-life around the bars at night, with a shooting now and then. I'll examine it in a future entry.)
Squadrons of campus and city cops drive through continuously and bike cops show up like the hands of a clock. Buskers are hustled and spare-changers are fewer. Loitering in general is discouraged by dust-cloud generating sidewalk sweepers. Dubbed "green monsters" for their paint-color, these sweepers apparently function only during hours when folks would like to hang out. Between them and the marauding articulated buses that roar past, one could get the impression that someone must be making money from the increase in misery.

Craftsmen and quite a few others still peddle wares from sidewalk tables; the Krishna parade still bomps through. Even the Cafe Mediterraneum, last of the original Beat generation dives, has been re-tamed after it's wild and wooly recent past. Moe's is still thriving, a magnet for many . The old flag-ship building that was Cody's bookstore continues to be a nagging void. Before Peet's Coffee revitalized the corner of bordering Dwight Way, I wondered whether Berkeley was going to cede this block to Oakland.

And as I indicated, this Saturday miserable I was not. I was headed to People's Park where an music festival had a stage. Every few years I'm tempted to pronounce that the prospect of catching good music in People's Park has faded away. Then I'll see someone like Jonathan Richmond get a crowd dancing to his acoustic guitar and have to admit the Park is still beating.

An African-style band was setting up on stage as a drum circle turned the wheel of rhythm in the eastern grove. A sizable crowd had turned out and the mood was high. Hula hoop dancing was big. Booths and tables offered free food and good works to be done. I noticed a sylph-like girl with unusual green suede moccasins at the anti-apple-moth spraying table. Earlier today when we passed each other near the downtown post office. Her hair was long and blonde and fell exactly straight under a straw hat; she wore a long skirt that added to a willowy quality. She seemed lovely, individual, and doing her best to be free.
I headed for some shade near Hillegas where I happened to glance over my shoulder just in time to see a June bride in a billowing white gown walking into the Seminary chapel with her bridesmaid, to the sound of the festival drums. They sounded euphoric and inescapable.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Walk to the Far End

My reverie leads me on to strange places among the known...

In the somewhat chilly, somehow perfect sunlit air of Memorial day, I had come as far as the East Asian Library on my walk. I examined the hugely space-consuming constructions fronting the entrance. They consist of an Escher-like warren of stairways and ramps with plexi-glass barriers. I noted that a ramp had been built on a level with the top of the hill that led up to the front entrance. It ended in a commanding view across memorial lawn to the stately University Library with the campanile looming beyond it. Presumably, the Chinese moneybags that hold the IOUs for the Iraq occupation can now roll up on Hearst, climb into gilded motorized rickshaws and be born over to grin at their collateral with interest. All with minimum effort expended, it would seem, before adjourning to an enormous banquet somewhere. This building has been made the de facto center of Campus even though most undergraduates at least would have little connection to it. Oh well, how long can it be before UC crams another building into its dwindling open space and spoils the view for the visiting mandarins?

I skirted this barn, walking around to the back. And that interesting passage by the creek, a place of contemplation for myself and others, has been transformed in a place that feels like the back of a building. Next door is a traditional building with cool Pegasus medallions on its facade. Around its opposite corner is a wooden ramp down to the creek area. In the chilly deep shade at the bend of the creek five large crows were drinking oblivious to me passing nearby. Crows have multiplied in the area in recent decades to the point at which a lot of people notice them, their squawky squabbles and acrobatic flights amid the tops of the tallest trees.
Recently on Bancroft near Dana, a few crows where whirling around the shady live oak on the corner. As I walked uphill, I passed a Native American (or First Nation as they say in Canada), a woman about 35. She was watching the crows too. "A lot of crows lately," I remarked." "It means changes coming," she replied. "Yeah, big ones," I said and we laughed knowingly. That particular oak tree itself doesn't appear in the architect's drawing of the six-story building proposed for that corner, one sadly notes.

A small bridge there leads to a stairway up the next little hill. From there you can spy into the Chancellor's private garden. It's almost always deserted unless a little elite garden party is in session-- raising funds for or blowing funds on champagne and petite fours for members of the chattering class. The grass is very well-watered as is most of campus. Sprinklers are set high and sidewalks are flooded during a Governor-declared drought. This is at night when enough big lights remain on in certain buildings or shine in front of them, that I'm sure UC is visible from space. Then there is the mini-Guantanamo with its punishing all-night klieg lights up at Memorial Oak Grove which I will address extensively in a future blog.
You can also just glimpse an attractive garden. Dense with flowers in Spring, it is unseen by uninvited eyes. A high fence separates this from the remains of the overgrown area that leads back up toward the central campus path, an area relegated from being a refuge to more of a waste lot by that new Library.

At the top of the stairs and to the right on a circular driveway is the grand facade of the Chancellor's house. This is where the UC Police shot to death a young girl some fifteen years ago. She was upset about development at People's Park and had come to threaten Chancellor Chang lin Tien, the namesake of that new Library. Warning shots and wing-shots are decidedly out of favor in contemporary police science when the well-to-do are arguably in jeopardy. But I have come not to see the pompous building but to see it's grounds' most pleasing feature--a topiary clock. Surrounded by a small circular hedge, two Gothic serrated metal hands emerge from the center ground. They keep time by pointing to the twelve topiary numbers fashioned out of the same dwarf hedges. These small numerical shrubs were perhaps imported from the land of Oz.
Distressingly it is not keeping the right time today. This is unusual and it may reflect a feeble attempt at energy-saving. In my ambulations, I am appalled at the number of public clocks that have stopped and are never fixed. A building at College and Alcatraz is called The Clocktower and its titular clock has never run, ever--mere crap decoration. Its symptomatic.

So back down the hill I went toward Life Science lawn. There was the penis-like base of a remarkable redwood--the incarnadine mighty shaft bursts up over two large testicular growths in a creek-side climax forest. Near a tranquil bench is another tree which I associate with the Blessed Mother and where I stop to say a Hail Mary. Its leaves turn a brilliant yellow in the Fall and a strange thick orange fungal growth fills a lacuna where the bark is gone--maybe where a branch split off. A little path led me toward home along Life Science lawn. A funky wooden bridge over the bright creek took me past an evocative hollow tree inside of which you can totally stand up.
It's a fairy-folk place in the ways of the wild things that live along the creek and go largely unnoticed. My intention is to notice and note as much of it as I can.