Gimme That Old-Time Piano Playing

Even if I don’t play in public (or private) much any more, I’m still a pianist. It’s sort of like being a Texan. It doesn’t matter how long since you’ve left the place; born there, you’re it, period and forever always. Ergo, I’m a Texan. Ergo, I’m a pianist.

As part of preparing for a session on Chopin for my class “The Early Romantics” at San Francisco’s Fromm Institute, I put together a comparison of a number of pianists playing the first two phrases of Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9 No. 2. It’s a familiar piece, possibly a bit hackneyed by now, but nevertheless a gorgeously well-written bit of aria-like witchcraft for the piano. In listening to newer pianists and older pianists, I was struck anew by how much we have lost by generations of beady-eyed piano teachers cudgelling their students away from certain “bad habits” that, to my ear, are anything but bad.

Item: “breaking” the hands, or playing the melody note (typically in the RH) just a fraction of a beat after the accompaniment. It’s generally condemned by piano teachers—sometimes for good reason if it’s merely the result of inattentiveness—but actually it’s quite an effective way of getting around the piano’s inherent percussiveness. It’s also a time-honored practice, not only on the piano, but on the harpsichord as a method of bringing out a melodic line.

Item: right-hand (melody) dragging behind the left (accompaniment). Stock in trade for pop singers everywhere, it’s a classic method of keeping a melody from becoming too square and too resolutely attached to the underlying beat. Just a bit of lingering behind the beat can work wonders. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald. Listen to Frank Sinatra. Listen to just about everybody. And then listen to masters like Rachmaninoff do more or less the same thing.

Item: arpeggiating left-hand chords. We’re dealing with that pianistic percussiveness again, and rolling a left-hand chord ever so slightly can work wonders to ameliorate the piano’s fundamental brutality. Instead of three notes going BANG all at once, spread them out a bit. It’s like spackle over a hole in the drywall. Some later piano composers such as Scriabin wrote in deliberate polyrhythms as a way of filling in all those gaping holes left by the piano’s inability to sustain in any way other than descrescendo.

Item: taking as much time as you want for melodic ornamentation. At some point during the 20th century pianists changed their overall focus from the melodic line to the underlying beat. They started spouting zero-sum crap along the lines of: if you slow down somewhere, you have speed up somewhere else to make it up. What utter tommyrot. It’s not accounting, you know, and the rhythmic books don’t have to balance. There are no rhythmic books. If Chopin writes a 22-note ornament over three beats, for heaven’s sake don’t get all weird and try to play a perfect 22:3 polyrhythm to an unruffled steady tempo. When Chopin writes something like that, he’s telling you to indulge yourself. Just play it however you want—and if that means adding extra beats, or extra beats plus some unfathomable extra portion of another beat, then you just go right ahead. Let those 22 notes sing out as you will, and to hell with the beat.

Item: bending and changing notated rhythms to suit yourself. Boy, is this one a hot tamale. But many of our great pianists of the past did precisely that without the slightest worry. Again I offer the example of great pop singers. The rhythm is more or less there, but they’re not rigid automata about getting everything spit-spot to the notated score. It’s a melodic line, not a dictation exercise, in other words.

Item: juicing things up with a few extra bass notes here or there. Well and why not? Even if the piano had been outfitted with 88 keys from the very beginning (absolutely not the case), I see no reason why not to indulge in a little highlighting here or there, if you really think it will help. Hell, even if you’re just feeling expansive at the moment.

Item: “swing” à la Viennese waltz lilt (giving just a bit of English to the 2nd beat of 3/4) or à la Polish hesitation style (that same English applied to the 3rd beat instead). Once so common as to be almost ubiquitous, it has almost disappeared from today’s performances. I’ll allow that the “Polish” rhythm can become a dreadful mannerism, in which 3/4 almost becomes 4/4 due to the lengthening of the 3rd beat. But then again, here’s where taste and careful listening come into play. Do it for musical effectiveness, and don’t let it become an unconscious mannerism.

Item: “preluding” a bit before short pieces. Just a tiddly bit of improv to establish the key, and then you’re off. Josef Hofmann was partial to it even late in his career. How did it happen that pianists—who were once composers as well—became so averse to even the slightest hint of personal creativity? Stop making it up!! I heard from various teachers. Well, why the hell not? Somebody made that piece up originally, after all. I believe the term public domain might have some relevance here.

Now then. Sergei Rachmaninoff is often cited as being a pianist who planned everything out, played precisely, and all that. And yet: just listen to his recording of the Chopin E-flat Nocturne, and be prepared to be shocked if you’re expecting the last word in musical probity and conservatism. Hell, he rolls chords and breaks hands and drags RH behind LH and fiddles with the rhythm and takes his sweet time with the ornaments. And it works, man does it work. Listen to Moriz Rosenthal to hear constant breaking of hands (effective), or Josef Hofmann to hear the nocturne played with a clear Viennese waltz lilt, the second beat just a bit longer than the first or third.

And listen to Alfred Cortot play it—either from the 1920s or 1940s; he was pretty consistent. His performance could be cited as a litany of everything piano teachers inveigh against—breaking of hands, arpeggiating, re-writing RH rhythms, taking time for ornamentation, juicing things up here or there. But it works, and it works gorgeously. I’ll take that any day over certain more modern performances that seem to consist mainly of projecting the RH melody out to the rafters, almost as though shouting to the audience, mostly in perfect time throughout with just the slightest hint of a tapering off at a cadential point, all with brittle but well-projected sound.

No. Play it as though you wrote it, I used to hear from certain piano teachers who weren’t aware of the irony of the statement they were making: i.e., play it as if you wrote it and you’ll kill anybody who modifies so much as a millisecond of it.

Here’s a gloss on that statement: play it as though you’re writing it, right now, here in this moment that will never come again.

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Profound Logic

Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler, contemporaries and polar opposites on the surface, likely had more in common than not. They took divergent stances on symphonic composition, however. Sibelius recalled an exchange: “I said that I admired [the symphony’s] severity of style and the profound logic that created an inner connection between all the motifs … Mahler’s opinion was just the reverse. ‘No, a symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.’”

I cheerfully classify myself in the Sibelian camp, although I’m in no wise an anti-Mahler type. I find a great deal to admire in Mahler’s symphonies and other works; naturally I enjoy the glittering orchestrations and massive sonic effects—I’m as tickled by spectacle as the next guy—but many of my favorite Mahler passages are relatively restrained, such as the contemplative lyricism of the 6th symphony’s slow movement, or the grandly-conceived sonata form of the 9th’s first movement. I’ve journeyed far since my first aghast and repulsed encounter with Mahler; all I heard was narcissism and psychotic grandiosity. Both those characteristics can still unnerve me today, but with time and (some) familiarity I’ve been able to move past some of my earlier aversion. Das Lied von der Erde, a work that brings me no end of pleasure, fascination, and admiration, had a lot to do with that. Das Lied was my entry ticket to Mahlerdom.

But my heart is with Sibelius and his ilk—i.e., composers who practice profound logic, which is to say, composers who believe that the highest expressiveness comes from using the least amount of material, and not the most. That I’m not alone in this regard is witnessed by the composers who belong in this category: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and Brahms, among others, including Sibelius.

Profound logic is on my mind these days, not a surprising state of affairs considering that I have once again given a series of lectures on the Mozart G Minor Symphony (No. 40) to my classes at UC Berkeley. This time around I have three Music 27 classes, thus three times through the same lecture in the same week. You’d think after 27 years teaching this course the piece would have become old hat by now, something to teach on autopilot. Not a chance. The first movement of the G Minor serves as the general introduction to sonata-allegro form but I choose to elaborate significantly by describing, and demonstrating, the brilliance of the thematic and harmonic design. Mozart practices his own version of developing variation—usually associated with Brahms—in his deriving all his thematic materials from two simple seed elements. The first is a descending semitone (E-flat to D); the second is a simple three-note rhythm (cha-cha-CHA; i.e., two eighths and a quarter.) The skill with which Mozart carries out this task boggles the mind, but more importantly, it stirs the heart in that it creates a movement in which everything seems utterly inevitable, as though every note has to be there, as though it must be in that particular place at that particular time.

Perhaps most miraculously, Mozart’s striking economy of means isn’t necessarily audible on a first hearing, nor does it call attention to itself. It simply is, and the more you delve into the movement, the more resonances you find with those original paired seed ideas, pitch and rhythm. Even the final chords (three of them in augmentation of the original eighth-eighth-quarter pattern) refer back to the opening theme and its source materials. Everything is organized and developed from those initial ideas, but there’s nothing sterile or static about it. Surely this movement exemplifies Brahms’s admiring statement that “It is a real pleasure to see music so bright and spontaneous expressed with corresponding ease and grace.” Especially because, pace Herr Johannes, it isn’t the slightest bit spontaneous—even if it manages to seem so.

Shortly I’ll be presenting the Beethoven C Minor Symphony to the same class. I hope that the Mozart presentation will have paved the way for them to understand and appreciate Beethoven’s magnificent spinning out of those famed opening four notes into the materials of not only the first movement, but into unifying threads throughout the symphony as a whole.

Profound logic runs through so much music that I cherish. Not long ago I performed the B-flat Major Partita by Bach; as part of my study I noticed the pervasiveness of lower-neighbor motions and a frequent reference back to the opening figure of the prelude. The C Minor Partita offers numerous references to Bach’s signature 5-1-2-3 figure, heard so often in his instrumental and vocal works. (Think Ebarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion or, in a major-key dialect, the Resurrexit from the B Minor Mass.) Or the way Bach generates the fugue subject of the B Minor Mass Kyrie from a single interval (a rising step) and, by so doing, creates the entire movement. Or the countersubject of the Fugue in C Minor from Volume I of the Well-Tempered Clavier, created from the melodic outline of the subject.

Brahms and the opening four notes of the D Major Symphony (No. 2)—a lower-neighbor tone followed by a downwards leap of a fourth. That lower neighbor becomes an upper neighbor to create the last joyous outburst in the brass that brings the symphony to its conclusion. The major-minor duality of the Third Symphony.

Well. I could go on and on and on; the instances are common and numerous. Nor are they restricted to only the greatest of composers. During the Viennese Classical era such resonances and organic unities were well-nigh built into the prevailing practices of the time.

Profound logic inspires my admiration far more than an all-encompassing embrace of everything. Perhaps I am reflecting my overly rational outlook, in that profound logic is quite possible to achieve whereas embracing everything is unachievable hyperbole. Perhaps I am reflecting my many years analyzing compositions and teaching about musical form. Perhaps I am reflecting my age, inasmuch as I’m much less likely to be moved by sensation than I once was. Perhaps I’m just being snotty. Whatever the underlying causes, that’s where I am with my musical aesthetics: I’ll take profound logic over being like the world every time. I’m not interested in being like. I’m interested in being.

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A Guy and His Hobbies

Platitude of the day: everything changes. Petunias bud, wax, and wane. Ice melts and water evaporates. Even the most seemingly solid and immoveable objects—think mountains, think diamonds—change in time.

Even me. I just might change my hobbies.

Consider my most passionate and involved hobby of the past several decades: record collector to the nth degree, bonafide whack job about completions, ready to pounce on the latest box set of Leonard Bernstein or Fritz Reiner or the Southwestern Orchestra of Northeastern Saarbruckersteinerbach. I bought CDs like no tomorrow. Eventually my hobby expanded to encompass a brief but exhilarating fling with vinyl LPs, then went seriously retro with an even more brief fascination with shellac 78s.

Concurrent with that came waves of audiophilia, not a steady-state infatuation by any means but periodic. When you get right down to it, once I had achieved pleasing sound quality I stopped caring. It didn’t hurt any to eschew the pornographic audio fantasies of industry mags such as The Absolute Sound and Stereophile. Besides, I never could really afford audiophilia, and I’m far too rational ever to sign on to its many absurdities. True audiophilia requires taking leave of your senses. I mean that literally: you have to ignore what your senses are telling you, namely that you can’t hear one goddamn bit of difference between a $3000 amplifier and some audiophile-blessed $45,000 jobber. A willingness to believe that 2+2 does not equal 4 is part and parcel of the whole audiophile gig.

It all came to an end. I lost interest in having all the latest classical CDs, stopped haunting whatever few brick-and-mortal stores are left standing, and ended my daily visits to eBay, ever in search of that elusive je-ne-sais-quoi recording by some pet artist or orchestra. Desire for chic audio gear faded.

Yet the urge towards hobby remained strong. I may practice an altogether satisfying profession, but just like everybody, I need my hobbies. When you think about it, CD-collecting is only marginally a hobby for a professional musician. Anything I can take as a tax deduction isn’t really a hobby.

I acquired—by drift and not by design—two new hobbies. Neither of these has any connection to music as can be attested by their utter non-deductibility. Can’t take a sous for either of them.

Hobby No. 1: gardening. Perhaps it’s a sign of encroaching age, as musician-turned-duffer putters around in his back yard, tut-tutting over the worms in the dahlias and patiently plucking ficus-tree sprouts from between the rows of impatiens. Well, allow this duffer to putter as he will. Gardening costs a mere fraction of CD collecting—let’s not even talk about the price differential with audiophilia—and offers demonstrably greater joys. There’s something just so dang satisfying about watching some piddly sprig of green take root, take flight, and morph into a gracious congeries of flowers and leaves. I have taken a father’s prideful interest in observing a bed of begonias slowly rise to cover almost half of a garden Buddha, joined in by encircling impatiens that by now render the Buddha as looking as though he floats amidst a cloud of flowers.

Trivia: according to the suttas of the Pali Canon, at the time of Siddhatta Gotama’s enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree (itself a species of ficus, just like the trees in my garden), the tempter Mara shied rains of arrows in his direction, all meant to distract him from the magnificent achievement just about to occur. Siddhatta knew those arrows for what they were, and the power of his concentration turned them into cascades of flowers. And there sits my garden Buddha, floating amidst the begonias.

It’s a pip of a hobby.

Now for Hobby No. 2: cycling. That one might be a bit of a surprise to anyone who has known me for any length of time, because athletic stuff just isn’t my forte. Yet cycling is indubitably physical. It actually builds up muscle tone over time. Imagine that. To date cycling is the only hobby I’ve ever had that could conceivably result in weight loss.

Whether or not my current hobby of recreational cycling, a.k.a. puddling about aimlessly, will act as a gateway drug to more involved or ambitious riding remains to be seen. I do tend to go in for the pound over the penny, so it’s not beyond possibility that I might eventually drape myself over some sleek carbon-fiber contraption and zoom hither and yon in an unquenchable quest for speed and distance. But not now. For now I’m the master of the down-shift. I sit upright on my “city comfort” model, looking around and enjoying the endless charms of the great outdoors.

I never would have picked up cycling when I lived in San Francisco. There’s a reason for all that grim militancy surrounding San Francisco cycling. It’s a lousy goddamn place for cyclists: the streets are narrow and pocked, the drivers inattentive or borderline homicidal, the winds chilling, the hills troublesome.

It was the move to the Delta region that encouraged me to take up cycling. Out here the streets are wide, the traffic light, the hills almost nonexistent, the breezes soft and inviting. Riding around East County is joyful and relatively safe. All of the main streets in my home town have bicycle lanes, and even the smaller ones that don’t are wide enough to allow for easy riding. And there are miles and miles of pathways and trails to be explored, some smoothly paved, some a bit more rustic, but all enjoyable and endlessly fascinating.

So I ride. I have become less maladroit about basic cycle maintenance although I remain a bumbling neophyte nonetheless. I can carry out a few simple fixes. Anything else requires a trip over to the bike shop.

Thus I shift one pair of hobbies (CD collecting/occasional audiophilia) to another (gardening/cycling.) A moment’s thought reveals the underlying reason for the shift: I moved from city to suburbia. My old hobbies were distinctly city-dweller hobbies, dependant on having a supply chain and big-city resources such as high-end stereo stores. My new hobbies are distinctly suburban, requiring as they do the access to lawns and gardens, and an ample supply of safe bike trails and paths. Not to mention a more salubrious climate.

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A Kid’s Book with Teeth

Surely I’m not alone in my habit of re-reading books that I have loved. Somehow they get better with repetition, instead of becoming dreary and predictable. Perhaps that’s because the books I have loved tend to be the sort of books that can withstand re-reading—i.e., I don’t get all gaga about the latest Dan Brown thriller, but instead have a tendency to take more substantial items to heart.

That’s not to say that I make a yearly pilgrimmage through Madame Bovary or The Education of Henry Adams. I’m neither egghead nor litterateur. I have zero patience with “literary” novels— those jobbers that the English lit profs always seem to admire and everybody else ignores. I used to make the occasional stab at slogging through some of those, but the process was akin to my sometime forays into the music of Anton Webern or Pierre Boulez, dutiful attempts at self-improvement that offered neither reward nor enjoyment. Or improvement for that matter. So nuts to Thomas Pynchon and John Barth and Virginia Woolf. My choices are prosaic, even bourgeois, but they’re my choices and that’s all there is to it: James Michener’s Hawaii and Centennial and Chesapeake and The Source, Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny and The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, many of the big Dickens novels such as David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Dombey and Son. The occasional science fiction classic such as the original Foundation series by Isaac Asimov or the Arthur C. Clarke standbys such as Childhood’s End and The City and the Stars.

One set of books you’d really think I would have cast adrift long ago are the “juvenile” novels by Robert Heinlein, products of his early career and stalwart companions of my teen years. The first of the series, Rocket Ship Galileo, has not withstood the test of time but was good enough to become a decent early 1950s flick (George Pal’s Destination Moon), and sold well enough to kick off an entire series of science fiction novels aimed at teenagers—well, to be absolutely clear about this, teenaged boys. Nobody questioned the science gender gap in those days, so it was assumed that the only target audience for such books would be males. The books are correspondingly male-oriented with a vengeance, although female heroines began to show up later in the series, particularly Podkayne of Mars. (Starman Jones contains a vividly engaging female character who eventually reveals herself as smarter than, and as scientifically savvy as, the eponymous hero.)

But to me, and probably to any kid who was floored then elevated by these books, it’s Space Cadet that wins the gold. Second in the series, it came out in 1948, sold well enough, and wound up exerting an extraordinary influence over subsequent science fiction writing. Anybody who has read Space Cadet knows all about Star Trek’s Star Fleet and Star Fleet Academy, both clear descendants of Space Cadet’s Space Patrol and its Academy. Both are essentially the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, just tweaked a bit with nuclear- and chemical-powered rockets (or Warp and Impulse drives) in the place of sail and steam.

I’ve re-read Space Cadet a number of times, but during a recent go-through I was newly impressed by Heinlein’s careful realization of an alternate future in which World War Three actually happened, and the Patrol stands at the vanguard of humanity’s slow crawl back to civilization. Heinlein doesn’t beat the reader over the head with any of it. In fact the implications were probably lost on most of the original readers, just as they were lost on me, given Heinlein’s skill at weaving background into narrative. Consider a scene in which cadets Matt Dodson and Oscar Jensen are enjoying a shore leave on Terra Station—a city-sized space station in geosynchronous orbit, used as a docking station for interplanetary craft and shuttles up and down to the surface.

“They took the slideway half around the Station, through crowds of gorgeously dressed and hurrying people, past rich and beckoning shops. Matt enjoyed it thoroughly. ‘They say,’ said Oscar, ‘that this is what the big cities used to be like, back before the Disorders.’ ‘It certainly doesn’t look like Des Moines.’”

An ordinary city street with shops and shoppers—but a novelty to our two cadets.

Or an earlier scene, in which Matt Dodson looks out of a viewport from orbit as an older cadet directs his gaze:

“‘Over there—see?—is the crater where Denver used to be. Now look south—that brown stretch is Texas; you can see the Gulf beyond it.’”

The crater where Denver used to be. Hmmmm…..

The Patrol is anything but a bunch of Dudley Do-Right do-gooders. It has resulted from a United Nations-ish resolution to protect humanity from itself via a chain of orbiting nuclear bombs, each capable of wiping out an entire city. (Ergo Denver.) The idea here is that any nation foolish enough to start up trouble again can be eradicated should it become necessary. That’s what the Patrol is for, and its officers are charged with the authority over those orbital bombs. Heinlein even implies that the Patrol is well-nigh autonomous.

Matt Dodson goes through a spiritual crisis concerning that very autonomy. The prospect of bombing his own home town unnerves him and brings him close to resigning from the academy. But his academic advisor sets him straight:

“If the prospect of bombing your own town, your own family, didn’t worry you, I’d have you out of this ship within the hour—you’d be an utterly dangerous man. The Patrol doesn’t expect a man to have godlike perfection. Since men are imperfect, the Patrol works on the principle of calculated risk. The chance of a threat to the System coming from your hometown in your lifetime is slight; the chance that you might be called on to carry out the attack is equally slight—you might be away on Mars. Taking the two chances together you have something close to zero. But if you did hit the jackpot, your commanding officer would probably lock you up in your room rather than take a chance on you.”

Some of this should sound familiar. It’s the basic background to the entire Star Trek franchise, which postulates the idea of humanity hauling itself up out of a disastrous nuclear world war and reinventing itself, via a Federation that takes the power out of individual nations’s hands. Star Trek is a considerably more enlightened, to be sure. For example, its women are fully empowered and equal whereas Space Cadet contains precisely one female character, a scatterbrained 1950s sitcom housewife with the apparent intelligence of a marmoset. Space Cadet anticipates Star Trek by treating racial differences as trivial—white and black and brown and whatnot all commingle together without strain or stress. And of course Star Trek benefitted from advances in scientific knowledge during the 1950s. Some of Space Cadet’s science is outdated—Venus is a hot, swampy jungle planet with a breathable atmosphere. Nor does Space Cadet postulate faster-than-light travel.

Nevertheless, Space Cadet packs a lot of ideas into its breezily entertaining 200-ish pages. It’s worth reading just for the fun of it all, but underneath its gee-whiz mancave bonhomie lies a surprisingly sophisticated and all too plausible foundation. That we didn’t wind up with a “crater where Denver used to be” is one of the imponderables of the Cold War era. Of course books like Space Cadet and its spinoffs—the Tom Corbett books and TV series, Star Trek, some aspects of Star Wars—didn’t do anything to head off that grim and all-too-possible fate. But it reflected the thinking of the time, and took humanity’s worst nightmare as its starting point. Not bad for a book aimed at teens.

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Oh, Leave It Alone

We Californians live in a foodie-enhanced environment, with the Bay Area serving as ground zero for all things food-trendy. On the whole, I’m very happy to live in such a place. People here appreciate good food, and if nothing else, the emphasis on fresh ingredients has been an unmitigated blessing. Of course you can still pick up a box of Hot Pockets at the local supermarket. But you can also get some of the most marvelous produce you ever saw, and you don’t have to visit a farm stand or U-Pick, either. (Although living where I do, such delightful places can be found hither, thither, and yon.)

However: certain iconic dishes need to left alone, in my humble opinion. Even as artifacts of an earlier, tin-can and frozen-bag American non-food culture, they were and are perfect in their own way. There is no need to re-think or re-interpret them, to fuse them with some other world cuisine, or to gentrify them to near incomprehensibility. Either make them the way they were meant to be made, or make something else.

I offer the humble ice-cream sandwich as a case in point. I discovered an article in the cooking section of a major metropolitan newspaper in which the oh-so-foodie author went in search for the “perfect” ice-cream sandwich. Her verdict? Some overpriced thing with a peanut-cookie crust and ginger ice cream.

Oh, Christ, I thought. If she wants her peanut-ginger thing, bully for her. But I don’t look to an ice-cream sandwich for some special culinary experience. I don’t think I’d even like peanut and ginger together, to tell the truth. Besides, a peanut-cookie and ginger thing isn’t an ice-cream sandwich, which is by definition an uncomplicated comfort food. Which means the perfectly perfect Lucerne ones, with the plain vanilla ice cream and the thin but not sticky chocolate cake-ish outsides. They’re cheap, they’re reliable, and most importantly, they are the true ice-cream sandwich. And you can buy them in boxes of 48 if you want. (Unlike certain bastardized Atomic Age creations from certain continent-encompassing retailers, Lucerne ice-cream sandwiches will melt, and melt very quickly, when taken out of the freezer.)

With the homely but perfect ice-cream sandwich in my Number One slot, I present a few other dishes that I vastly prefer when they’ve been left in their humble and pristine state:

Grilled Cheese Sandwich

There is nothing simpler to make than a classic grilled cheese, and nothing more brutalized by overly-enthusiastic foodie types who can’t leave well enough alone. Here’s how you make a good one: butter one side each of two slices of good, but not exalted, white bread. (I think Oroweat Country Buttermilk is perfect.) I prefer a butter/Canola oil blend for its better spreadability, but margarine would be OK as well. Cover the bread thoroughly, but thinly. Heat up a skillet to medium. While you’re waiting, peel the plastic off two Lucerne American cheese slices. (I’m not the only person who thinks that the Lucerne beats the pants off any other American cheese on the market, and American cheese really is de rigueur for a proper grilled cheese.) Put one piece of bread, butter side down, in the skillet and push it down lightly with the back of a spatula. Lay the two cheese slices across the bread (don’t stack them) and the put the other slice of bread (butter side out) on top. Let the thing grill until the bread is toasty — don’t use too high of heat or the bread will brown before the cheese even gets warm — probably a few minutes max. Peek if you need to. Flip the sandwich and press it down again with the spatula. Cook until done — probably only a minute or two. The cheese will start to melt visibly along the edges. Don’t let it get too brown. Slice it diagonally with one quick knife stroke, and there it is. Serve and eat immediately since it’s only really good when crispy and melty fresh.

And for heaven’s sake, don’t get all creative, and don’t get all high-dudgeon-ish about using American singles. It’s what they’re meant for.


Another plainly perfect dish often ruined by meddling and/or grandiosity.

Here’s what to do: brown a pound of ground beef in a big skillet. Drain it. Pour in a full-sized bottle of your favorite spaghetti sauce. (Mine is Classico Tomato and Basil.) Let it simmer until fully blended. Meanwhile, boil up a batch of spaghetti. Cook it to whatever you like — some people find al dente offputting. Drain the spaghetti. Serve some on a plate with a big ladleful or two of the sauce. Sprinkle parmesan on top. (I don’t like the canned stuff, but you can get nice fresh grated Parmesan at any grocery store these days.)


I’ll allow that there are many different versions of chili out there, but to this elementalist there’s really only true chili, and all the rest are silly upstarts. How to do it: brown a pound of ground beef together with one each green pepper and onion (chopped, of course) in a nice big dutch-oven sized pot. Drain excess oil. Add one standard 16 ounce can each red kidney and black beans. Pour in about 2 standard (8 ounce) cans of tomato sauce and about the same amount of water. You can use beef stock instead of the water — it makes for a richer broth. Add one standard 16 ounce can of diced tomatoes. Add plenty of chili powder — several tablespoons at least, about the same amount of powdered cumin, some salt and pepper (don’t overdo it), some cayenne pepper (ditto), some oregano (ditto) and paprika (very ditto). Cover, bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer it for a couple of hours. Check to make sure it has enough liquid and add more if it doesn’t. Check spices about halfway through. Serve with chopped green onions, grated cheese, and sour cream if you want.


Those floppy silver-dollar sized tortillas with a tablespoon of exotica on top in trendy Bay Area restaurants can be quite nice, but I cannot bring myself to call them tacos. That’s because they aren’t tacos. They’re hors d’oeuvres with a mariachi beat. Again the elementalist speaks. This is a taco:

Brown a pound of ground beef in a skillet and drain if necessary. Add one packet of taco seasoning mix and whatever else it says to use (usually tomato paste and water). Cook as directed. Meanwhile, set out a box of crispy corn tortilla shells (nowadays they make some that are flat at the fold so they’ll stay upright more easily) into a baking dish. Put in some of the meat filling, scatter a goodly glob of Mexican-style grated cheese over the top, and pop them in the oven or microwave long enough to get the cheese good and melted. Pour over a bit of taco sauce, then stuff in plenty of shredded iceberg lettuce, and top with salsa and (maybe) a bit of sour cream.

Macaroni and Cheese

Let us have no broccoli or kale or rare wild mushrooms added, no layering with mousselines or spinach soufflées. No experiments with semi-ripened or blue veined or exotic smoked cheeses, no special finishing treatment with a blow-torched Panko top crust. Let’s just make real macaroni and cheese, simple and always fine.

Boil up elbow macaroni. Drain it and put it back in the pot. Grate plenty of mild cheddar into it — Tillamook is good — and then some milk. Stir it over medium-low heat and watch for the texture and color you want; yellow and creamy. Don’t put in so much cheese that it gets stringy. Put in more milk as you need. You’re basically done at that point (some salt is probably going to be a good idea) but, if you want, add a little more milk to make the sauce a bit thinner, put a layer of grated cheese on top, and then put it in a casserole dish and pop it in the oven for 20 minutes or so until it gets melty and crusty on top. That’s it.

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A Year’s Difference

As I turn officially 62, I consider my state of mind just one year ago. As age 61 dawned, I lived in the grip of a persistent unease, a dissatisfaction that ran as broad as it was deep. I was antsy. I was unsettled. Almost every morning upon awakening I began considering where I wanted to go that day. Anywhere was going to be acceptable, more or less, as long as it was out. I’m normally without a hint of wanderlust, but last summer I had it in spades. It wasn’t distance I sought, but difference. Mostly I was driving around the Bay Area and a bit beyond, visiting communities that I had perhaps seen on the map or passed by on the freeway, but never explored. Hayward, Union City, Fremont. Millbrae, Milpitas, Manteca. Davenport, Davis. Cotati, Capitola, Petaluma. Tracy, Concord, Livermore. I kept driving around without any clear plan in my mind but an overall sense of seeking. What precisely I was seeking hadn’t taken shape yet.

I drove here, I drove there. Once in a while I stayed for a few days in a bed and breakfast. I was making mental notes to myself about many of the places I was visiting: could I retire here? Would it be possible, in about ten years’ time, to have saved enough to buy a house for cash?

That’s where my mind was at the time. I was seeking the cure for an as-yet undiagnosed illness. I kept thinking in terms of buying later, pipe dreaming rather than acting with purpose. I was house hunting after a fashion. When I wasn’t hitting the roads I was glued to Zillow, looking at listings, at first outside California on the assumption that upon retirement I would resettle where I could buy the house I wanted for cash, no mortgage. The Fort Worth area was appealing. So was the country well to the north of Atlanta. I considered central Oregon. I considered northern Iowa.

The mental murk began clearing as I chanced upon the far-outer East Bay communities of Oakley, Brentwood, and Discovery Bay, together with the southeastern arm of Antioch that’s known as Deer Valley. Brentwood in particular grabbed me firmly: as I rounded the last curve on Highway 4 and saw that lovely small suburban city, with Mount Diablo looming to the west, I felt a jolt of recognition, of belonging. Brentwood is a stellar exemplar of the affluent modern suburb: big landscaped streets, spacious shopping malls, good schools, well-designed housing developments filled with attractive homes and sprinkled with immaculate parks. Yet it is a real place with a long history as a Delta farm town. There’s most definitely a there there. Or perhaps I should say there’s most definitely a here here.

This was what I wanted. This was the climate I wanted: sunlight, real summer, warm evenings, a dearth of clammy winds. This was the environment I wanted: clean, safe, convenient, car-friendly. This was the community I wanted: families with children, retirees, and plenty of farm folks with generations on the land. This was what I had felt was utterly out of my reach, living as I did in an insanely expensive city while practicing a profession not noted for high wages. This is what I had told myself I couldn’t have, no matter how much I actually wanted it.

I had convinced myself that I had to stay firmly within San Francisco and avoid commuting, that I was lucky to have what I had (a sizable and shockingly affordable, albeit dumpy, Victorian flat smack-dab in the center of the city), that my longed-for suburban bliss was achievable only when I retired. Until then, I kept telling myself, just suck it up and bear city living. Forget that I am not temperamentally a city dweller. Forget that I am a dyed-in-the-wool homebody for whom even San Francisco’s myriad urban attractions mean little. No. I had a great deal with my inexpensive 1200 square feet of decaying Victorian bling, my walk-to-work location. So what if I was climbing the walls in desperation?

Convergence arrived: I realized that I wanted to live in Brentwood, that I had enough for a solid down payment, that I could easily afford the extra expense, and that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about the inconvenience of a long commute. Actually I rather welcomed the long commute for its clear-cut distancing from city living. Even the undeniable trauma of moving—after twenty-eight years of continual burrowing in my Victorian flat—was welcome.

I was primed, ready, and determined. All that wandering, all that Zillow-ing, turned out to have a purpose. On August 12 I became the owner of a contemporary Mediterranean right in the heart of Brentwood.

And that was, indeed, the cure to my malaise. That persistent unease, that deep and broad dissatisfaction? Gone. One year later, an all-encompassing contentment has arisen to take its place, a rock-solid feeling of rightness, of thisness. I enter year 62 with gratitude, happiness, and fulfillment.

Not to mention two inches off my waistline and the start of a pretty decent suntan.

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Screw the Truffled Arugula

No doubt it’s just another of those getting-older things. The pastimes of youth fall by the wayside as we trek along; what once seemed chic now seems blah, what once was a must-do is now a yeah-maybe. The sage who quipped that age brings with it the acute pleasure of not going knew of what he spoke. Not going is just about the best thing there is.

Item: having to attend every new movie, no matter what. I never really signed on to that one anyway, but with time my formerly lukewarm movie-going has cooled down to absolute zero. I just don’t go. I don’t like movie theaters. I don’t like all those people and their noise. I don’t like being trapped (sort of) in that big box. I don’t like feeling like just another monkey sitting on the branch, staring agape at the screeching and twitching going on in the lit box before me, hooting and scratching if something pleases me, throwing my feces at the screen if it doesn’t. I don’t like being entertained en masse and by utter strangers. Leave me alone, you patronizing bastards: I don’t need your bread, your circus, your stupid dog-and-pony show. I’m just fine staying home with a book, or puttering in the back yard, or cleaning the stairs, or preparing lectures, or studying music, or any number of far more worthwhile pursuits. Just fine? No: let me correct that. I’m delighted to stay home with a book, to putter, etc., thrilled and honored and comforted to stay home.

Item: attending store openings, building dedications, all that public ceremonial crap. I can’t say I was ever much into that, but while I mostly lacked the gotta-see-the-dogfight mentality, most of my younger-day associates were dogfight afficionados to the core. I recall being dragged to a guided tour of the reborn SF Opera House after the Loma Prieta Earthquake had knocked it about enough to warrant its extended closure and re-do. Three hours of my life gone forever as some dweeb burbled on incessantly about the honest-Injun carpeting made by the same manufacturers as the 1930s and the PH balanced laundry. Nowadays a SWAT team couldn’t get me in there. I have grown and acquired a much better ability to say NO, with or without the thank you. Come to think of it, a discouraging snarl can settle a lot of hash.

Item: being a first-nighter who always catches the opening night of the Opera, the Symphony, whatever. Oh, please. I’ll go second night if I must, and avoid the crowds and the silliness of fashion parading. If I live to be 500 or 5000 or just soldier on until the end of it all, I’ll never understand the appeal of clothing fashion. And this coming from a guy with a professionally-trained musician’s ear and a pretty good eye for color, mind you. But putting value on the animal skins or woven plant fibers draped across one’s body seems silly to me. Always has. Personally I think the men have it the best here: we can’t get much fancier than a tuxedo, and tuxedoes are pretty much the same from Bangor to Bangladesh.

Item: and the reason for this posting’s snarky title: no more pish-posh restaurants with their oh-so-fancy food and their oh-so-astronomic prices. Let me put my cards down on the table, finally, for once, and for all: the only reason I enjoy going to restaurants is for the company, for the evening or afternoon chitchatting with my companions. I could give a rat’s ass about the relative merits or demerits of the eatery, provided they cook decent stuff decently. Not all of them pass that test, of course, but when you get right down to it, most of them do. I love good food, and by “good food” I mean wholesome and attractive and not much more. I am the least snobby, the least demanding, the least sanctimonious, diner around. Give me a halfway proper hamburger with edible fries and I’m just fine and dandy. Give me a steak cooked the way I like it—that’s medium-well with just the barest bit of pink showing, thank you very much—and I don’t care whether it came from a privileged cow that was raised by hand and met its end as a piping chorus cooed inspirational verse, or whether they just picked it up at Safeway.

Screw the truffled arugula, in other words. Screw the amuse-bouche (I am not amused) and screw the in-house charcuterie. Screw the itty-bitty portions and screw the artful patterns of sauce that were swirled on with a plastic squirt ketchup bottle that they probably swiped from a somebody’s hot dog stand. Screw the dissonant combinations of flavors and screw the egoistic refusal to leave well enough alone. Screw the trendiness and screw the month-ahead reservations and screw the noise and screw the prison-car crowding. Screw the $20 glasses of a wine that goes for $7.99 a bottle at BevMo. Screw having to ask for water. Screw paying $10 for a cup of ordinary coffee. Screw not being able to see your hand in front of your face. Screw waiting in line to pee. Just screw it all.

No. If I must go out for dinner—to socialize, to get a break from regular cooking although in fact I quite fancy cooking for myself and for company—then I’ll be just fine with a local chain restaurant that doesn’t pull any punches, that gives me enough to eat for a reasonable price, that doesn’t hurt my eardrums, and that isn’t puffed with pretention. Give me BJ’s Roadhouse instead of Gary Danko; Outback instead of Frances. There’s a long-established family-run taqueria near me here in Brentwood that serves a substantial enchilada dinner for $8.00. They’re clean, they’re quick, they’re friendly, and they do take-out.

Better yet, give me a well-managed and well-stocked Safeway and let me pick up what I want for dinner, and let me go home and prepare what I want in my own comfortable clean kitchen, using cookware that I know to be properly maintained since I’ve maintained it, served on dishes I like because I bought them, prepared precisely the way I want because I’m the one who has prepared it. I make good chili, tasty spaghetti sauce, dandy pot roast, delightful Cajun chicken with andouille sausage, yummy biscuits. Rissoto, casseroles, stir-fries, all that. Tonight I served myself a quite fetching chicken parmesan. It wasn’t much trouble to make and I’ve got three more servings chilling away in the freezer now, meal-insurance against one of those evenings. Total cost about the same as one pickled-in-house Argentine quail egg in aspic—two bites maximum if you have an itty-bitty mouth—at a posh restaurant.

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The Long-Awaited Childhood’s End

Just about anybody with an abiding interest in science fiction has wondered if Arthur C. Clarke’s seminal 1953 novel “Childhood’s End” would ever see the screen. One might have thought that the piece has become too dated by now, but Clarke was working with substantial ideas in the novel, notions that have no grounding in a particular place of time. Thus it’s just as trenchant today as it ever was.

The underlying theme of “Childhood’s End” should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That great—albeit weirdly flawed—film was a collaboration with Clarke, who brought many of the ideas that were originally presented in “Childhood’s End” to the later film, in particular the idea of humanity’s morph into a higher plane of consciousness. (The same basic idea was turned into a ham-handed platitude in the first Star Trek movie, by the way.)

Enter the SyFy Channel’s six-hour big-budget television adaptation. Wisely, the writers kept their intrusions minimal. The opening chapters needed simple updating to the present day, of course. No problems there. Very little was needed by way of internationalizing the cast of characters, since Clarke had been well ahead of his time in that aspect. The characters of the original novel were already considerably more racially diverse than the era’s norms. The screenwriters just tugged a bit more in that general direction, with perfectly fine results. In the original, the scientist Jan Rodericks was a mixed-race South African; in the new version he becomes a full-tilt black American. Not a major change, and in some ways a good one. He has an Asian girlfriend/partner.

Clarke was a scientific writer first and foremost, and his impossibly wooden characters have always posed a problem for adaptations. That is, unless you’re Stanley Kubrick, in which case you embrace that very featurelessness and use your characters as pure archetypes, as in 2001. That’s really better than the strained attempts at turning those characters into full human beings, as happened in the sadly blah sequel 2010. For better or worse, the new adaption of “Childhood’s End” goes whole-hog in trying to make Clarke’s one-dimensional characters into living, breathing people. Understandable, but that attempt is behind most of the weaknesses in the adaptation.

Rikki Stromgren, middle-aged secretary-general of the UN, becomes Ricky Stormgren, Midwestern farmer and all-American-boy archetype who wears a pair of Levis with distinction and emits oodles of charm. Unfortunately, Ricky becomes a soap opera character early on, as the authors saddle him with a dead first wife and a new girlfriend and a mind full of regretful memories. His dying scenes in Part 3 are pointless detours, fillers really as is the nonsensical plot tangent about his picking up some devastating disease from his stay in the Overlord ship. All of that should have been dispatched with a merciful stroke of the Delete key. Ditto the mayor of New Athens, who is given a vaguely unhappy backstory, but not given anywhere near enough character development to account for his King Lear-like pontificating as he prepares to blow New Athens to smithereens. Even the Jan Rodericks character (renamed Milo in the adaptation) acquires a plastered-on Asian girlfriend who mostly clings to him and sobs that he shouldn’t leave, oh he mustn’t leave, as he prepares to stow away on the Overlord’s ship.

All that An Affair to Remember bullshit is fortunately small potatoes. Consider the brutal hatchet job that could have been done on Clarke’s meditative original, and be thankful that a soupçon of Scarlett and Rhett is about the only damage done. The core of the novel came through perfectly and with minimal change from the original. The screenwriters compressed the time frame, with reason. Clarke’s long-view time frame works well in print, but in a dramatic adaptation it’s best to follow the same basic group of characters from beginning to end. So whereas Clarke’s humanity transforms to the Overmind only after numerous generations of preparation, the adaptation gets it down to just one generation plus extended coda.

Something that impressed me no end was the use of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s haunting The Lark Ascending as an underlying musical trope and the last human music to be heard before the children consume the Earth’s total energy to fuel their transformation into the Overmind. It makes for a beautifully poignant ending. Pity that the SyFy Channel just had to overlay crass, noisy advertising over the end credits.

For some reason the screenwriters chose to omit a particularly impressive moment from the original. For those who do not know the novel: the benevolent Overlords who arrive on Earth to usher in humanity’s transformation to a higher level of being are dead ringers for our universal representation of Satan—cloven hooves, horns, red scales, barbed tail, the works. They avoid showing themselves to humanity for (in the book) several generations, understanding as they do the terror their appearance will be sure to elicit from a sizeable portion of the population. Eventually humanity progresses far enough past those primitivist fears to be able to connect with the Overlords in person.

As the end of it all approaches, now last-man-on-Earth Jan Rodericks asks supervisor Karellen the fateful question: did the Overlords visit us earlier in our history? What went so horribly wrong that your physical appearance would resound down the ages as our common image for evil? Karellen answers: we were never here before. That demonic image isn’t a collective memory from humanity’s earliest times, but a collective precognition of humanity’s end.

I wonder why the writers left that out; it seems like vital information to me. Oh, well.

The plusses of this adaptation are many. The Overlord ships are beautifully realized, as are the Overlords themselves. The elegiac tone of the original is expertly captured. I love the choice of giving Karellen a beautiful British accent with a light touch of elegant irony; it’s really the perfect voice for a being with about umpty-zillion the IQ of ours. The resistance to the Overlords is well portrayed, as both political and religious groups try desperately to hang on to their privileged positions while the world around them is changing with lightning speed. Placing New Athens in a deserted big city (it looks a bit like present-day Boston or maybe Seattle) is a notable improvement on Clarke’s having put it on a distant tropical island.

To turn the child Jennifer into the trigger and leader for the transformation wasn’t part of Clarke’s original thinking, but it actually works rather well as a dramatic license taken to humanize some of those cardboard characters. It also creates an unfortunate lapse in logic: since the Overmind is a collective, it makes no sense for the transformation to involve a leader and followers.

Maybe the children’s segregation prior to their ultimate transformation is just a tad hokey: in Clarke’s original, the Overlords airlift the kids to a remote location so as to get them away from their parents—mostly to protect the parents from the kids, and not vice-versa. In this adaptation they all go wafting up into the sky, sort of like those silly evangelical Christian notions of the rapture: Come fly with me …

But on the whole, it’s one of the better science fiction adaptations I’ve seen, especially given the honored status of the original novel in the science fiction literature. Clarke may have been a colorless writer and unable (or unwilling) to create real, flesh-and-blood characters, but he thought big and he had a poet’s touch with philosophical ideas. They managed to catch some of that poetry in a 6-hour TV adaptation, and that’s no small achievement.

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Wings Stretched and Fluttering

Blips of hot bacon grease zinged my left elbow before it dawned on me: just move farther away from the cook top. Hell, move to the other counter.

Move to the other counter.

Gott in Himmel, what a concept. The other counter.

I am living in the fourth abode of my adult life. The first was a one-bedroom apartment in the Mount Vernon area of downtown Baltimore. Counter space: about 2 square feet. Length of residence: one full year.

My second: a one-bedroom apartment in the Sunset district of San Francisco. Counter space: about 2 square feet, part of which was tucked underneath a low-hanging cabinet that rendered it marginally unuseable. Length of residence: eleven years.

My third: a spacious Victorian flat in the Castro district of San Francisco. Counter space: about 3 square feet. Length of residence: twenty-eight years.

Each apartment was bigger than its predecessor but counter space remainined stubbornly minimal. And yet I am a guy who enjoys cooking and can attest to some reasonable skill in the kitchen. I have prepared quite elaborate meals in those kitchens with their next-to-no counter space. I practiced a stern spatial economy, acquired an unshakeable habit of cleaning up as I went along, and learned to think carefully about where things needed to be for maximum efficiency.

The Castro district kitchen evolved into an area in which I could reach just about everything I needed directly from that postage-stamp counter space. Well, I had to walk across the kitchen to get the cookware itself, but otherwise it was a stand-and-deliver workspace. I had all my utensils hanging on the wall behind the sink, others hanging on hooks nearby, a few in a container within easy reach. The kitchen actually looked pretty cool, but it was woefully inadequate.

Now to my fourth abode: homeownership of a spacious contemporary single-family detached house in Brentwood, California. To call this a whole different ball game is the understatement of the century. For the first time in my adult life I have a full-sized kitchen that was designed to sustain 24/7 food prep for a potentially boistering, bustling, and perpetually hungry family. Thus there’s a whole lot of counter space, and not just one counter, either. I could, and did, plop a sizeable toaster-oven on one section of one counter. I put a Keurig coffemaker on another section of the same counter. I even allowed a full set of canisters on another counter. One counter is reserved for wine bottles, my prescriptions, and cookbooks along the back. I’ve still got buckets of counter space. I’ve still got unused cabinets. (Me being me, those cabinets are utterly clean and lined with brand-new shelf paper.)

Whereas my previous kitchens either had zero drawers (numbers one and two) or just a few (number three), this kitchen has lots of drawers and cabinets in addition to a walk-in-pantry-cum-storage-room big enough to moonlight as a Tokyo studio apartment. As I was settling into the new kitchen, I realized that I could actually forget where I had put something, a situation that was downright unthinkable in my previous culinary digs. Long habit made itself felt and I wound up with an arrangement that gets the most oft-used utensils in drawers or cabinets immediately near the cook top. Other than scattering the cookware hither and yon—after all, I could dedicate one entire cabinet to serving dishes alone—Gawdamighty you gotta love suburbia—I have managed to set up another stand-and-deliver cooking space for myself even within all that spaciousness. I like it that way. Well, I guess I like it. Forty years’ worth of ingrained habit trumps all.

So there I was tonight: grease popping off the bacon in the 12” cast-iron Lodge skillet just by my left elbow, because I was standing immediately beside the cook top, grating cheese and slicing onions. I had not budged from my customary two square feet of counter space. Instinct born of long necessity was calling the shots.

It took a while and a few minor burns on my left elbow before satori arose: move farther away from the stove. Grate the cheese and slice the onions over there. Hell, make a U-turn and use the long counter on the other side of the kitchen. Spread out. Expand. Migrate. Don’t stand there with your left elbow an inch or so from the edge of a blazing-hot 12” cast-iron Lodge skillet. You can move. You should move. So move. Now.

It was kinda scary, but I proved myself the master of my own destiny. Not only did I move, but I even screwed up the fortitude to do the utterly unthinkable: after I finished grating the Gruyère cheese, I left it sitting there on the counter on its cutting board, while I moved to another place along the counter and sliced the onion on another cutting board. I used up, oh I don’t know, maybe five or six square feet of counter space.

It took courage. It took cojones. But I did it.

And I’ll do it again. Just watch me.

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The appalling situation on the sidewalks of San Francisco has always bothered me, but never more so than now when I am no longer a resident of the city. In my current incarnation in a prosperous, clean, safe, and far-outlying East Bay suburb, I am struck more than ever by the sheer magnitude of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. My thrice-weekly commutes into the city require me to walk only half a block to reach my school—but that trivial distance is typically accompanied by disgraceful offensiveness.

My inward trip: drive from Brentwood to Pittsburg/Bay Point BART, then a one-hour ride to Embarcadero Station in San Francisco. From there I switch to the Muni Metro system. (For non-San Francisco folks: the Metro is the in-town subway/streetcar system. It shares the downtown stations with BART, so you exit one system and enter the other all within the same underground space.) I take any outbound car on the Metro to Van Ness Station. An escalator wafts me up to the corner of Market and Van Ness. The return trip is similar, except that I take the inbound Metro only to the next stop at Civic Center—the closest Muni/BART portmanteau station. (That strategy increases my chances of a seat on the BART train, since the higher-traffic Powell, Montgomery, and Embarcadero stations are still to come.)

In sum, my engagement with outdoor, surface-level San Francisco is limited to a mere half-block walk. You’d think that would be uneventful. Consider the situation of the past few weeks:

Yesterday (Monday) morning I emerged at Van Ness and Market on the escalator. Made my usual U-turn so as to reach the corner, whence I turn left twice in quick succession to reach my school. I hadn’t gone fifteen paces before I had to endure the screaming profanities and angry posturing of a whack job who was howling at cars and passers-by. (This at 6:45 AM, mind you.) On the way home, a different but equally scary man was standing right next to the entrance of the Van Ness station; you had no choice but to endure passing right past him to get to the stairs going down.

Last week: On Wednesday afternoon I had a few hours off and, recognizing that I needed a few minor items such as toothpaste and Kleenex for my office, I decided to walk over to Walgreens on Gough and Hayes, about two blocks distant. I hadn’t made it ten steps out of the school’s front door before a dangerously out-of-control vagrant came careening down Oak Street, screaming imprecations and threats. I stood absolutely still and looked carefully away. He went staggering on.

Earlier that week I had crossed Market Street at Van Ness to go to a nearby sandwich shop. Over the course of that brief round trip, I was panhandled at least three times that I remember.

And yet Market and Van Ness isn’t some grisly, scummy neighborhood. It’s not Pacific Heights, mind you. Nevertheless, it’s the gateway to Civic Center. City Hall, the Asian Art Museum, main branch of the library, Bill Graham Auditorium, Davis Symphony Hall, Opera House, War Memorial, SF Jazz, Nourse Auditorium, SF Conservatory of Music, not to mention major governmental buildings such as the central Courthouse, Federal Building, and State Building—all within a few blocks. And yet it’s crawling and overrun not necessarily with just “homeless” (to use the politically-correct term) but dangerous, whacked-out druggies and feral street people. Nor is the carnage limited to that one neighborhood. Such obnoxiousness has spread throughout the city. The ultra-well-heeled residents of Presidio Terrace and the like keep the riffraff out, no doubt, but ordinary middle- to upper-middle-class people can do little, if anything, about it in their less exalted but still perfectly fine neighborhoods.

I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said ad infinitum already. Everybody is aware of the seriousness of San Francisco’s street vagrancy problem. But these days I’m seeing it through the eyes of a non-resident, re-sensitized to the pervasive offensiveness. Increasingly my reactions are those of an out-of-towner, a tourist, utterly appalled by the catastrophic condition of quotidian San Francisco. Was it really that bad when I lived there? I endured similar behavior every day, so I suppose it was. I had become adept at shoving each unpleasant encounter out of my mind, ignoring it with whatever mental fortitude I could muster. I was only too aware that it was everywhere and 24/7—meaning right outside my front door, even on my charming little street lined with picture-book Victorians.

Can it be fixed? I have no idea. But it cannot continue unchecked. Throwing money at it isn’t going to do a damn thing, that’s for sure. If anything the extra funds just make it worse. San Francisco is gradually morphing into a third-world city in which the affluent hover high above in their skyscraper aeries or behind the gates of their walled communities, while a writhing mass of addicts, criminals, and derelicts seethes below and around them. Cool Grey City of Love—finis.

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