San Francisco—July 1, 2007
Cafe Bastille. I strike up a conversation but there seems to be no real interest. Words are spoken but elicit no exchange. I let it drop. The smell of food, the noise of the kitchen, the colors of the bottles in back of the bar, the polished glasses; on the walls, Picasso, Toulouse Latrec ... Fullness of the senses but not a word of expression. The void in the middle of the feast. Or the appearance of the feast. Communion withheld.
I sometimes run into people who have no interest in other people or conversation. I can't see where they are at, if they are at anything. If you are living in the country, I can understand this. You go down to the creek, take a slow walk, contemplate. But the city is people. If you have no interest in people, you have no interest in anything. Well, maybe art, architecture, music, food ... But it is conversation, a dialog, that ties it together, declares its value. So when I run into someone who has no interest in conversation, it seems like I have run into the living dead. They are walking about, doing a job, but they are really in the grave.
The weather is nice but what else?
And being nothing said nothing.
I walk the Tenderloin late at night. No murders this evening. No gun shots, not even a flashing blade. The bad cop is out and has stopped a ragged looking black guy across from one8one club, but when he sees the video camera on him, he hesitates, does nothing. Maybe here is the conversation that I'm missing: "Go ahead, smack him," I say. "Lights, camera, action ..." But he lets him go, as if to say, "No, you win this one. But you're not going to always be around. Then we'll see some blood." Not a real conversation but at least one that says more than "Hi how are you goodbye."
Morino is over at Club 65 but he "ain't seen nothin'" so I don't stick around.
There are two kinds of hanger outers in the Loin: The down and outers, who are drugged or drowsy or both; and those who are alert, on edge, the dealers, I suppose. They are a different class. But that's the sum total of my observation this night.
One other observation: Some people like to talk, other don't. Life is long without conversation. It is like wrapping your head in gauze.
It's late afternoon and I'm over at the poetry session at Cafe Prague, but again I'm told no alcohol. This time I'm told they will start selling again on Wednesday. Last week it was Thursday, so I translate Wednesday to mean sometime. I listen to a poet from New York read from a big notebook of his poems. He's not bad but I'm really thinking about a glass of wine. Then Mark Schwartz reads two short ones and I leave, heading for North Beach. North Beach has wine, plenty of it.
Heading up Grant Street, which in North Beach always smells like wine, beer, and Whiskey, I come to the open door of an art gallery with a lot of people inside. It's an opening of a show. I really want wine more than I want to look at art, but then I see a table at the rear wall of the gallery with bottles on it. I go in. I look at the art on the walls, steadily working my way toward the rear wall. When I get to the back, I see there are only bottles of Pellegrino on the table. What kind of wimpy artists do we have here? Well, one is good, I see. I quit thinking about wine and start looking at some ceramic tile pieces by an artist from Potter Valley in Mendocino. They look kind of bucolic. Mendocino is wine country. Actually, she is good. We discuss pot growing in Mendocino. She tells me that CAMP, or something like it, is still around. I used to live in Mendocino and am curious. CAMP is the Campaign Against Marijuana Production. They seek out plots of marijuana and destroy them. What a waste! But these days, she says, they go after the big producers, not the little folks. The big producers grow large plots in parks or on logging lands, and usually the plots are protected by armed guards, mostly Hispanic. Tamper with someone's crop and you are likely to get shot. As a reporter I used to follow the business. In the fall it was considered best to stay out of the woods in certain areas, as your presence might be misconstrued.
While we had a nice conversation, I still had a glass of wine in the back of my mind, so I headed on up Grant, past the Grant & Green Saloon, which was far too noisy to go into, then went over to Sodini's on Green. It is quiet, cool, and comfortable there with just a few regular customers at the bar. The bartender, who had been talking to two guys at the other end of the bar about auditioning in New York the week before, came over and I ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio. Her smile seemed to say "good choice."
Now here was a place I had paid little attention too. It was a little off the beaten path and not on anyone's hit list of trendy bars. The dinning room was empty. I looked it over. It was rich in soft dark colors. From the ceiling near the front window a little stage for some puppets was suspended. The curtains, I believe were red. I don't know what that was all about but I'm sure there is a "history" to it. The place actually looked Italian, and so did the bartender and the waitress, who was now getting ready for the evening dinner crowd. North Beach is a mix these days of authentic Italian and nouveau something. A good example of the change is Dante Benedette's old place just down the street. The old place could not have been more Italian, with the dark wood, the beautiful old bar, and the paintings on the ceiling like a miniature Sistine Chapel. But that has all been gutted and replaced by a wine bar. The new place is not bad but the old place was like a church. You don't just gut a place like that and remodel it; you have to kill it first. It contained two generations of sports trophies and photographs. But of course Dante is dead and that stuff probably meant less and less to the new generation of customers.
Two older ladies came in and both ordered cocktails. The bartender seemed to know them. We talked a little about traffic; they had just gotten stuck in the stuff. Then I took off. I had a dinner date with a kid I sponsor. We were having dinner at Hang Ah Tea Room on Sacramento. But I stopped by Cafe Prague again for an espresso, as it was on the way. It was now empty but the waitress, who was closing up, said to come in and she would fix it. I noticed her accent, which was a little different. She looks Chinese but her English had a clipped quality to it, almost like Canadian English. I asked her where she was from. "Mongolia," she said. I'm sure there are a number of Mongolians in San Francisco but I had only met one other. "You're a student?" I asked. I guessed right. She was going to art school over in Berkeley and studying multimedia. She wanted to do web design. Who didn't? It seems to be the next big bubble. Web 2.0, was it real? I'll wait for Web 3.0 and drink wine in the mean time. She had also studied in the Ukraine. "There is a shortage of fast computers there," I said, "or at least there used to be." I once worked with some Ukrainians and know. Multimedia requires fast computers. Old clunkers work as word processors but not for "high-end" graphics. Get into multimedia and you're going to need a new computer. But she said, "Better now. "
Cafe Prague always hires students from foreign countries, often from the Czech Republic or Slovakia. I knew almost nothing about Mongolia until I met Basa, who worked over at Yong San Lounge on Bush Street. She described typical Mongolian food while having dinner with me one evening over at North Beach Restaurant, and we almost laughed ourselves sick. I know that is not very nice. But she did not make it sound very appealing: "A big pile of potatoes ... ha ha ... and a big pile of meat ,,, ha ha ha...and maybe a carrot ..." So if this is a stereotype, it is her fault. And she did more of the laughing than I did. I think we were having prosciutto wrapped mellon and baby lobsters in lemon-butter sauce ... and the description of typical Mongolian bill of faire really did not sound appealing. Anyway, I would have to return to Cafe Prague to find out more about Mongolia. Basa did not work out. She was too greedy.
I am turning to craigslist.org more and more these days for amusement. Some of the job listings there are about as weird as they get. Consider this:
Ever heard of Naruto? Ever heard of mango or anime? And what about this "deep knowledge" nonsense? Deep knowledge of something no one has every heard of? Are these folks human?
I have been in the publishing business for some years and none of this rings any bells or blows any whistles? I called up my friend Harold, who is heavily involved in technical writing and publishing, to ask him.
"Harold," I said, "ca va?" (how's it going?)
"Ca va," (okay) said Harold, "but please quit practicing your French on me. I'm purely Anglo this week."
"D'accord, Harold. Okay, we speak English today. She is our mother tongue and sexy enough for me. Ever heard of Naruto? And if so, do you have deep knowledge of it?"
"Who's Naruto?" asked Harold. "Sound like a guy, though, and I'm into women. At least this week here in San Francisco."
"Very funny, Harold. But no, I don't think Naruto is either male or female. I think it is the latest thing, and some employer is looking for an individual who knows a lot about it, or at least says he does."
"Well, then they are not looking for me. Never heard of it."
"Merci beaucoup, Harold. Au revoir."
I looked down the list of qualifications for this job. One was this:
I always cringe when I see that: faced-paced environment. It of course means they are planning to work you to death. Just about every ad these days includes that in one form or another. The other phrase that makes me cringe is "hit the ground running." Oh, what fun. And are you supposed to parachute out of a plane and when you hit the ground, they shoot at you like in some World War II movie? The first rule for job seekers is to search on those two phrases, and if either is found, move on to another ad. Your life and mind are worth more than that.
Here's another you might want to avoid:
Travel and software? How about cooking and automobile maintenance? And what is the compensation for this? $.025 to $.05 per word! Are they trying to set an all-time low in pay for writers? Or is this "job" aimed at offshore or H1B candidates?
"Hi, Harold, it's me again. Just wondering how your job search is going."
Harold, despite having a PhD in physics and one of the best resumes I have ever seen, has been out of work for awhile.
"Not well," he said, sounding depressed.
"How bad is it?" I asked.
"Six months and nothing."
"You're kidding?" I asked despite the fact that Harold never kids.
"I wish," he said sounding even lower.
"What's the problem?" I asked.
"Not totally sure," he said. "But I'm getting the feeling that some of the ads—maybe all of them—are fakes. That they are not really looking for anyone, or for an American worker anyway."
"You don't think they would really run fake ads, do you?"
"I didn't used to, but now I do. And sometimes they do fake interviews too. That annoys me more than the fake jobs. I spend half the day driving to an interview so they can disqualify me."
"That sound outrageous," I said. "Why would they do that?" I asked. But I already had an idea.
"Well, it's pretty simple," said Harold. "They do if for 'compliance'; before the Department of Labor will let them bring in an H1B worker, they have to prove that no one was qualified for the job. I'm that person. The only thing is this: I'm qualified and I want the job."
"That's shameful," I said. "Would our government actually allow that?"
"Would and does," says Harold. "It's what our business leaders want, and anything they want is fine with DOL."
"Harold, I hope things get better for you," I said and hung up.
I had heard of this but now I began to do some research. Was it really true? Would our government actually do this to it's own workers? To its trained workers? To the elite? Then I ran across this video.
"Shameful, simply shameful," I found myself shouting at my new wide-screen terminal. I sounded like some spinster forced into witnessing a lewd act.
Recently I have been doing some reading on California labor. It has quite a history. A week or so ago I ran into a few essays by John Steinbeck. One, "Starvation Under the Orange Trees," was quite shocking. Steinbeck describes how farm workers actually starved to death in Tulare County. This was back in the 1930s. While the county listed the deaths as due to malnutrition, or an imbalanced diet, it was really starvation, according to Steinbeck. Workers had little or nothing to eat and many were sick. Steinbeck says, "I heard a man tell in a monotone how he couldn't get a doctor while his oldest boy died of pneumonia but that a doctor came right away after he was dead. It is easy to get a doctor to look at a corpse, not so easy for a live one." A death certificate was cheap and allowed the coroner to come out and do his job. Disposing of the dead was a much easier task than caring for the living.
Agriculture is the largest economy of the state. At different times, the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Filipinos have worked the fields. All have suffered abuse. These days, most workers are of course Hispanic and predominantly Mexican. While workers have gotten somewhat better treatment under small growers, under the big growers it has been virtual slavery. Work is back-breakingly hard, pay is low, and living conditions for workers are often worse than those of farm animals. The Associated Farmers of California are largely responsible for this, as they represent the large growers. Profit is the driving force behind it all and has apparently been so since the beginning.
I read also of a most interesting account by Carey McWilliams (1905-1980), lawyer turned reformist of the 1930s and 1940s. It is an account in a book called Factories in the Field of a riot at the Durst Ranch at Wheatland, California. Abused workers revolted and the district attorney, a deputy sheriff, and two workers were killed. That was followed by the organization of "Kelly's Army" in San Francisco, composed mostly of out-of-work farm workers. Though nothing came out of Kelly's Army, it certainly got notice when it marched on Sacramento.
So what does this have to do with Harold's situation? After all, he is not starving, is he? And he is well educated and can adapt. I made a third call.
Bonjour, Monsieur Harold. J'encore (Me again). Are you hungry? How would you like to have lunch tomorrow?"
"Je ne peux pas," (I can't) said Harold, "J'ai n'ai pas le temp" (I don't have the time).
"Jeudi?" (Thursday) I asked.
"Qui, ca va," (yes, that works) said Harold. Now he was practicing his French on me. Was he planning to leave the country? With Bush still in office and no job, why not? Could Sarko be worse?
Two days later, on Thursday, I met Harold downtown at Cafe Claude. He had the tired look of someone who maybe drinks too much and stays up late at night, but otherwise I thought he looked well. I kind of enjoy his depressions. They never last more than a week or two, and he's so refreshingly honest when he is depressed.
Harold ordered Woodford Reserve and I ordered Maker's Mark just to be different. I don't really like Maker's Mark. I think it is mostly marketing with its red waxed top. I think we also ordered lunch, but I don't remember what we ate. At the little table in the corner away from the window, I asked Harold:
"So no work yet?"
"No, only calls that lead nowhere."
"Nowhere?" I asked.
"Maybe a phone interview. Nothing more."
"Well, what do you think that means?" I asked.
"I think it means they don't want to hire me. They are just going through the motions so they can get another H1B worker or a green card for somebody who is already here."
"What's wrong with that?"
"Well, it means I'm out of work. Or I work for next to nothing. I thought I had a valuable skill set. I thought I was a valued resource. But not anymore."
"That bad. Now don't get me wrong. I don't mind spreading the work around. I like many of these H1B folks. The Indian folks are intelligent and have good "character," something Americans often lack. But I would also still like to have a job."
"And why do you think they are doing this?" I asked. By "they" I meant the corporate bosses.
"Oh, it's obvious to anyone other than the President of the United States and the Department of Labor. To drive costs down and profits up. All they care about is their "bottom line." They don't give a damn about their workers anymore."
"You make yourself sound like farm labor," I said sipping a little Maker's Mark and sighing.
"Well, there isn't much difference these days. Not to the guys at the top. It's just a matter of paying as little as you possibly can for the most amount of work."
"You make us sound like a valueless society."
"Sorry," said Harold. "But that's the way it appears to me. I went to school and trained to do what I do. And I love what I do when someone lets me do it. I'm afraid I would not be much good at picking strawberries now. "
"No," I said, "Don't expect a call from the Associated Farmers. I don't think they would want you either."
I didn't know what else to offer Harold other than another drink.:
"What say we have another one of these? You have Maker's this time, I have Woodford. We'll compare notes. Then we can go over to Le Central and do the same. They just got in some Elijah Craig."
"Sounds good to me," said Harold, a little more cheerful now.
Later in the evening over coffee I sat down and thought about this. There were a lot of "issues" involved. There always are. There was also the recently failed immigration bill. I tried to go through all the arguments, the counter arguments; I even maintained the idea for awhile that farm workers were at least better off than they used to be. Then I listened to an interview (Farm Industry to Struggle without Guest Workers) with a young female worker who was working 10-hour days picking strawberries in the mud wearing rubber boots and having trouble, she said, just standing up; and the idea of progress kind of faded out of my mind. California was rich, it was creative; it was also enveloped in a dream that kept people going. It was a kind of "Just maybe, just maybe I might get somewhere ..." And just maybe you can and I can and they can too. But that ain't the way it works out for most people. It is more like a drug-induced nightmare where the "bottom line" is the bottom line: money and nothing else. Big business has no intention of sharing. The deck is stacked form the beginning. You're going to lose, sucker, but we ain't gonna tell you how and where and why. The jackpot is ours, all ours, and don't expect to walk out of this casino called California with a cent.
But let's move on. I don't think Harold is going to cut his throat. Let the "foreigners" design security software, let them make gadgets for teenagers, let them make all the valueless merde that benefits no one other than the industrialists and the shareholders. How about Harold's Army? Or Harold's Foreign Legion? Take up residence in France and attack from there!
The Association of Farmers and the Semiconductor Industry Association, let 'em grab it all, let 'em hoard. They know only money, not the moon.
We will not eat their oranges. We will eat chilled green fruits. Esto es preciso. (That is the right thing to eat.)
(1) From The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot.