Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Another Visit to the Oak Grove

This entry continues a thread still in progress on the Berkeley Tree-sit protest in Memorial Grove on the UC campus, also still in progress...

Every night for a year and a half something looms in the Eastern sky--either the bleached black of a clear night or else a brilliant night fog or white ominous clouds, all three illuminated by the extreme light pollution used in the police occupation of Memorial Grove as a form of slow torture.
And now what could be a sea-change in events was augered by the court date looming on Monday 25 August. The weekend of the 23-24th seemed like it might be the last time to make a video showing what "Guantanamo Berkeley" was like on an uneventful night, before any actual endgame was in play.
The police siege was just about a year old. It had started one razor-topped fence, stated to be for the mutual protection of football fans and tree protesters. Prior to this the grove had become a jolly meeting spot for many supporters and the curious. Wearing an impromtu but disturbing paper mask I toured the scene on the night of Hallowe'en. The area was filled with boisterous students--the grove was quieter but for the relentless traffic that passes below it, relentlessly dumping CO2 and particulate matter. That night there was an unusual lot of noise 11PM Hallowe'en. One could sit on the stone stairs which were cut off by the fence. A few cops milled around in the background, embarassed to be there one might think. Without interference I could call up my customary "God bless you, tree-sitters," into the leafy dark and they would generally answer back.
After the first fence came additional police barricades, followed by two fences with the barricades in November. I suppose motivated in part by the long nights and traditions of a Festival of light, around December the University set up its own light display among the stately oaks, a scene familiar to campus for 80 years. This year they hauled in the new anti-terrorist klieg lights in batteries of four, all pointed up into the trees where the little elves dwell. And to run such industrial light and add to the magic two large diesel generators for round the clock air and noise pollution enhancement. They positioned these as well right below the arboreal sleepers.
Barred from the grove and eventually barred from the public sidewalk, my visits fell off. I would get annoyed and start annoying the increasing number of armed round-the-clock cops and other guards. I would yell out "Guantanamo!" from the other side of Piedmont as I walked by.
The excuse now for usurping the sidewalk and depriving citizens the right to use it for protest as well as everyday life was that because the UC cops had arrested people for crimes such as tossing a sack of food or as little as an orange to the tree-sitters--it was now a crime scene. Day by day as I see how a police state carries out the will of a secretive government owned by the wealthy who long ago abandoned the idea of a livable commons if they ever held one. It reminds me of the type of mistreatment of its citizens engaged in by the U.S.S.R. --stories they used to scare us with in grammar school. The idealistic rhetoric touting America's freedom and democracy was piled high in those days in contrast. This was before spying on US citizens without warrant was fast-tracked into the law of the land.

I had been to several demonstrations at the grove that had been publicized--as opposed to the daily struggle and occasional UC-created crises. The recent concerned attempts to continue to provide food to the protestors. A group of Berkeley grandmas had been succeeding for months despite the University's resolve to begin starving the tree-sitters out. When local humanitarian pressure and threat of legal proceedings applied sufficient pressure, UC agreed to provide them with nutrition bars and water, but firmly resolved to end all other supplying.
At this sad event a large number of well-paid uniformed cops formed phalanx to prevent the kindly old flower-children from giving the poor kids in the trees something wholesome to eat.
One of the these semi-starved young tree-sitters went as far as to climb across branches and down a telephone pole to try to grap a bag. The over-fed, flinty-faced cops would prevent this like it was do-or-die. The kid on the pole would then scurry back up un-molested at least. He looked somewhat thin and strained, but he was illuminated by his bravery.
The UC cabal not only built the so-called security fence but built an entire complex of fencing for their anticipate construction. This requires in their scheming minds guards every 20 feet along what is a very long stretch of fence. They are using the unreal cost of such "security" to add to their theoretical costs of delaying construction and in order to gain leverage over the plaintiffs, have asked the court to force the Ciyy and the neighborhood groups who sued to pay all these costs, real and imagined.
As I walked off home that day, I chanted in the direction of these champions of homeland security; "Food and water is a human right!". If I saw a middle-aged one I added, "Those poor kids."

On some afternoon as I walked uphill home, six helicopters were stationary at high points over the Southside of campus. There had been daylight homicides, bank robberies and such often enough these days--I assumed it was a very dedicated dragnet. I laughed with a passing skate-boarding teenager about the paranoid siege feeling such long-duration helicopter grids inspire. On my I learned from a resting street activist that it was an assault on the grove and that the majority of the choppers were news copters filming, co-ordinated no doubt with UC mouthpiece Mogulof and their over-funded police.
It turned out that they had sent in cops with professional-tree-trimmers who tried to grab the kids as the other guys sawed-off the limbs supporting their platforms. A great video image from below shows the resilient and feisty gal called Dumpster Muffin climbing to a little wooden box they built on the highest oak branch and just shaking the hell out of it as a cop in a hard-hat swoops in in a cherry-picker. He backed down.
But UC's recent onslaught of insult, deprivation, and torture had succeeded in reducing the heroic population in the trees. The craven Mayor and Berkeley City council had caved-in, choosing not to pursue their lawsuit. And the oak conservationist and neighborhood interest groups' situations seemed weakened. The Republican party has been stacking the courts with judges unsympathetic to democracy and equality under the law for the less powerful since 1980. And they fought every appointment a Democratic administration made with methodical ferocity. The recent disclosures of Justice department skullduggery in furthering GOP objectives only begin to scratch the surface. Their cynical attempts to make the playing field favor themselves and their cronies have run rapacious and rampant over everybody's everyday lives--especially when you have an exceptionalist corporate entity the likes of UC Berkeley.

Meanwhile Tedford, the coach who must be appeased, the highest-paid individual at UC Berkeley, has led the team on rather a losing streak recently hasn't he? Let's see.

All of this is to introduce the following video made by a colleague of mine who calls himself cheapsurrealist with urging and assistance from myself. In a future entry I'll tell the "making-of-the film" tale.

I miss the Oak Grove.
Those who destroy life curse themselves

Saturday, August 9, 2008

I Walk On

Resuming the story of 2 August 2008, in which I visit San Francisco for an afternoon of diversion...

Coming back to myself, I was standing in the virgin vinyl aisle of Amoeba records on Haight street remembering Joe Strummer there six years on. I had arrived at three for an in-store set of songs and was enduring the final wait with a crowd of young folks who looked smart and sensitive. Then, the always precocious, only occasionally precious, troubadour Conor Oberst and his band men walked out to the general delight. He was in town playing two small sold-out shows at a club starting a tour behind dropping his new joint (to employ the linguistic hype of the jumpy record industry.) The album was recorded in Mexico at some distance from his Wisconsin base and his regular band, Bright Eyes. Like many Americans including myself years ago, he exhibited the telltale sign of having gone native and was seen in photos sporting a shirt from Michoacan.
Appropriately, the opening song reflected this new Kerouacian figure. His singing voice and his band sounded more roots and country than his usual cosmopolitan sound. It was entitled "Moab" presumably after the town in Utah. Kerouac had naturally passed through there himself once or twice and wrote a line in a haiku, "Who's Moab?", trying to recall this lesser known Old Testament figure.
It's refrain was an aphorism, "There's nothing that the road cannot heal." I know what he's driving at: the liberation and responsibility for survival that the road can offer, as well as the distance it imposes, psychic and physical, between ourselves and the situation that made us feel ill. I was feeling somewhat in need of healing myself recently and by that point in the song the music hit me. And as most of us have heard Jah Marley sing:
One good thing about music
when it hits you feel no pain.

In my stonedness and in my not having gone to hear live music much in the last nine months or so, my aesthetic-emotional response was tender and acute. It was a mild struggle to hold down tears. Oddly, in my not profuse recent reading on him since the show, I happened to read that tears are frequently seen at his shows. Who knows why?
I also happened to see an interview with Conor in which he confessed that it was hearing Robert Smith of The Cure as a youngster that made him resolve to be a singer. A certain plaintive, keening quality in Smith's style that is also in Conor's, it's something that can touch the heart of some of whom I am one. My New England upbringing prohibits such displays, however, and I quickly resumed my groove in a composed manner. There is also the matter of having at least twenty years on the next oldest person, so the young scene-makers may already wonder if you're a bit daft.
The show consisted of all new material, as befits a prolific "new Bob Dylan" prodigy. It sounded fairly distinct from the songs of his I had heard before. Truth be told, I'd really only heard his television appearances and some radio play on KALX Berkeley's "college station." I found him quite talented and appealing, but hadn't felt that owning any of his records was essential to my appreciation of him. Meanwhile Conor seems intent on filling a hypothetical record shop with his discography. I was checking him out at this whistle stop in his progress.
Many of the others, it appeared, felt that taking a large number of photographs or phone-videos was essential to their own appreciation of the event. They want to preserve their memories of taking photos at it. I suppose some of the phones being held aloft were for absentees to listen in. It is difficult not to tell them to get a clue and be here now for once in their lives but I try.
That said, the music hit the spot. I did dig the new direction detecting notes of the time-honored music of The Band in the organ, guitar, and deliberately restrained drum sound. When Conor came out, he put on his sunglasses saying, "Just until my eyes adjust." He didn't remove them again until, in vigorous strumming huddle, they flew off. He put them on again immediately. At this summer afternoon gig, he came on like a friend to all, played with passion, waved, and was gone-- no autograph party.
A decent fellow, my hat's off to him.

But in fact my hat was back on as less than an hour after I walked in, I walked out again. A brilliant sunny and moderately warm day transpired out of doors, populated by the colorful cast of characters who are attracted to the area on a Saturday afternoon. My stride led toward the park, the great sprawling heavily-used patch of manufactured greenery we know as Golden Gate park.
Rested up on Hippie hill, where a considerable crows of people radiated out on the lawn arond a group of conga drummers. A guy blew a few bleets, panic notes of the Afrique, over the top of rhythm pulsating agreeably this summer day. Sitting in the grass over them, I devoured my cut-half segment of a bartlett pear. Walking up some tough but restful looking Mexican-Americans had lost control of a soccer ball on their blanket. It rolled downhill past me and I didn't try to kick it back. As I passed hem I said I was afraid I'd fall and hurt my back. they just returned silent serious looks. I kind of noticing them keeping an eye me afterward--might have pegged me for a cop. I understand this is a place where people come to stop and cop, which, of course, attracts cops who'd like it to stop.

I lingered not, I had another goal in mind. So by sidewalk, roadway, and dirt path, I found my way to the concourse to check out the two new buildings for the two old museums there. The Academy of Science is not yet open but I had seen a tour on television. Begun as a Victorian specimen collecting society for area professional and arm-chair scientists it then became a popular museum wildly loved by children. It looked vastly improved from the old funky but kind of cool set-up--most notably in the new deep-water observation tank with scuba-diving fish-wranglers. I'll go a year after it opens on a rainy week-day in mid-Winter, hopefully to won't be over-crowded by then.
As I reached the top of a hillock nearby, I got a great view of the other most remarkable new aspect of the place; the roof is comprised of several hills of earth with a multipicity of plant-life already growing on them. With it many round port-hole-style skylights, it looked both futuristic and like something out of the immemorial past, part Dune planet part Hobbiton. The structure's many complex rippling facets and facades make it plain that this is in a sense a time-machine. It is one that attempts to smuggle biological specimens, preserved and alive, archives of DNA into a menacing and uncertain planetary evolution.

Japanese tourists were snapping photos of an elaborate ceremonial bust in its own ornate marble gazebo which was being refurbished and was partially masked. I have to have it to them, they recognize the de facto surrealism of the West when they see it. Most of the locals walk right by.
And so onto my destination, the new de Young museum with its viewing tower open to all free of admission fee. (Free admission being a quality in many of my entertainments, a faithful reader may glean.) On the way in I passed a decorative pond with a column of blown and twisted yellow glass rising from its middle, a work by glass artist Dale Chihuly who had a big show in progress. Nearly 4:30 by then, I noticed I had just made it and that they began to prevent people from joining the line after me. We were then enclosed in a black-stone chamber with wire scuptures of bio-morphic forms. (Did I mention I once saw King Tut here?) It was mildly amusing to observe the art administration types having to marshal the tourist-like visitors to the tower while preserving their air of sophistication.
One waits in line as successive groups board one of two elevators up. It went quickly enough and as we stepped out an officious docent immediately asked us not to roam around freely but to step into the queue for the elevators back down. I laughed with a woman next me and we generally ignored this bit of social control. Wow and what an experience it was! Surrounded by a ground cloth of the park's tree tops, you look out and suddenly grasp a new, comprehensive perspective on the city of San Francisco.
Facing east, I saw downtown peaking in the Trans-America building with the the distant East bay and a vivid Mount Diablo over its shoulder. Turning west, I could see the miraculously vertiginous ocean hovers over the trees, mercifully spare of fog this day. Most thrilling of all was the section of the straits leading to the Golden Gate abutted by the Marin headlands soaking their feet. The bridge is visible only as two Loch Ness monster humps protruding over an occluding hill. All a heady and happy arrival and long enough after fifteen minutes before the graceful ride back down. The pretty, all-dressed-up docent was back as we boarded and said over-emphatically, "Have a really wonderful evening, all of you." "Yeah, buh-bye," said I as the doors closed.

I waited for a bus out front observing that band shell between the museums was also experiencing a make-over. A young male couple from France were having a discrete spat on the next bench--one walked off. The bus came-- the driver a self-possessed black man wouldn't let me pay to board it. But he did want to chat, literally asking me to stay up front with him, ostensibly so he could tell where my stop was. "Nice day in the park," I remarked. "I don't think about all of that when I'm working.'" He was a kick and he wouldn't stop talking when we got to Irving street and my stop. I was glad to relieve both of our loneliness for the few minutes it took to drive out of the park.
I walked up Irving enjoying it's commercial bustle, but I was tired. I bought a few fat-free whole wheat fig-newtons at a tiny shop--so small a bitty corner shelf held just one bottle of pepto-bismol, nevertheless something a neighborhood person in need would be gratified to find. Then I hopped the lively N-Judah train to the BART train for sleepy trance travel through tunnels toward home.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Walking the City

A walk today mainly in the fabled city of San Francisco...

In this unusually cool Summer, venturing out of the pad for me can be tricky. But I was determined not to loll around town--I needed some diversion. I often use a back deck at my home to gauge how warm it will be when I hit the street. It can deceive because it is wind-protected to the North and sunny. You can see downtown San Francisco like an arrangement of various geometric shapes in a drawing book. Saturday I could see that although the fog was looming behind it, it did not besiege the City as of mid-day. Nevertheless, in addition to long-sleeved shirt and black trousers I wore a lined wool shirt-jacket and my trusty black beret. People outside the bay area generally don't realize the precautions one must take her in mid-summer.
Down through the great twisting oaks of campus to Center street BART. I had been a little off my game due to a low-level bug that seemed prevalent lately--post-nasal drip, spaciness, and a stomach quease. But walking and seeing people were revivifying after a groggy wake-up. I had decided to have four puffs before leaving rather than wait until I neared my destination. It makes the train rides more interesting and I man-upped for a fun day.
A direct train dropped me at the Embarcadero station in short order where I descended again to the Muni station to await the phantom "N Judah" street car. It's borderline meta-reality is attested to by the fact that the robotic voice that periodically announced expected trains never mentions it. Yet it is quite a busy central line. The screen with information on the trains read that one was due in one minute--but I suspect it was at least a minute gone when I arrived. Odd but after a longer wait one came and I got a seat for the familiar ride.
You emerge into half-remembered daylight along the serpentine cliffs of the Old Mint. Then the tracks head along the populated streets. It passes the small hilltop park that I recognized the minute first I saw it from a Robert Frank photo in his book The Americans. In the photo a black couple reclining in the grass look at the camera with suspicion.
Another subterranean stretch goes by and there was Cole Street-- time for me to disembark. Many shiny happy people were also making their way toward the storied Haight-Ashbury as they have since time immemorial or at at least 1965. The brightly-painted shops sold a lot of very similar stuff to the psychedelic era shops; and the sweet young people walking around look much as they did when all of it was new. Naturally there are quite a few crustier, hard-luck or devil-may-care types too. They followed in the wake of the original flower children and stayed. It all went pomo along the way with a tough looking hippie-punk colony now floating at the edge of Golden Gate park across Stanyan street (& other sorrows).
My goal, and it seemed very well-timed and accessible, was Amoeba records on Haight street by three o'clock. There the prolific and charming singer song-writer Conor Oberst and his Lost Valley Band were about to play an in-store set. I sailed in into the hectic Saturday shopping and live-music scene at this huge enterprise in a former bowling alley, fashionably on-time. I knew the lay of the place, which has an actual permanent stage for these shows, and quickly got my spot in the last row of records off to the right of the stage. I had seen Gomez, Kelly Willis, and Richard Thompson perform here, others slip the mind.
I had also spent a few minutes with Joe Strummer here on my birthday, July 28, in 2002--we were both Leos of the same vintage. I missed his set with the Mescaleros that day, but I got a real heart-felt charge out of seeing him again. I had met him once before also at a record store. He and Paul Simenon of the Clash had showed-up at Berkeley's Tower records to sign records dressed like hoods. They had remained rather stone-faced behind mirror shades and seemed put-upon to be there. It was just before the first show by the Clash in the U.S. at the Berkeley Community theater, an incredible triumph. Following it I saw every West Coast tour the band did (except for the US festival) and they got better musically, but they never topped that first show for sheer excitement, just raw punk energy. I had used all my favors getting a lift home after the show that night back in January 1979, so I had to miss the one the next night. They played unadvertised as "the only band that matters"at a great punk venue in San Francisco, Temple Beautiful. Of course, the consessus in the demi-monde was that the second night was the one you really should have seen.
Amoeba had helped them out by discouraging Joe's fans from asking him to sign Clash items while they ignored the Mescaleros. But when I arrived they'd just had several hundred meet and greets and were tenderized. Joe was tender at least. He signed the Clash's Complete Control single sleeve and when he saw I had also brought an even earlier 45 sleeve by his band the 101ers, he wanted to sign that one first. The waggish one of the Mescaleros asked why didn't I get Joe's new CD putting me on the spot. I admitted I had just made rent and was skinned, that it was a grand a month per person to live here. "Sounds just like London...why don't steal it?" I told Joe that the producer of a Kerouac homage CD that he had contributed to had contacted me for my expertise on the subject. When he sent me an advance CD he said he thought maybe Joe's cut, an electro-rhythm behind an old home tape of Jack Kerouac reading, might not have worked. I told Joe that I had replied that it was the best track in the collection.
After all it was the only one with Jack's voice on it. Joe said he thought he did a pretty good job on it and I agreed. "It's appropriately spaced-out music for a spaced-out reading."
Before cutting out I gave Joe an original color photo of him playing with the Clash that someone had been selling as a postcard in a New Wave shop back in the day. He said, "Look at that shirt, I had just painted it." It was wild with slogans and Jackson Pollock red streaks. He signed another copy of the photo for me, fondly I thought.
Joe died later that year. God bless him. His eyes grew kinder over the years. He was unmistakably a big soul.

Well, this walk will continue in a future session...