Goodbyes, Last

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As a kid, I looked out the front windows of our house onto a city playground and its monkey bars, basketball courts and sandbox. Torture, when I wasn’t allowed to go outside and play, because I hadn’t finished my homework or chores, encouragement to finish when I was close. In either case, I could pretty well know at a lightning-quick glance when my friends were available for play. The front room, which we called the living room, although we never did much of anything in it, was always ready for guests (i.e., pretty much off-limits to us).

Our kitchen was the actual real-life heart and brains of the place; almost every memory I have of that house centers on cooking, or food, or eating. Every conversation of any substance whatsoever over the course of my entire young life happened there. We ate at the kitchen table, not in the dining room, where dinners with company would happen. I had my first drink of booze – not my first drink of wine, which happened pretty much routinely at dinner but real booze – mixing an insane concoction from off-remnants in my dad’s liquor cabinet in the kitchen. (A particular mistake never repeated.)

I shared a bedroom with my older brother until he went to college but, even then, the room stayed the same, double beds, matching desks and bookcases, cowboy motif. By the time I hit my teen years, I scarcely noticed the decor; I was in my room pretty much solely to sleep. At night, I kept my windows open, weather allowing, and heard the sound of the old Golden Gate foghorns, now replaced by electronic tones, as I fell asleep.

My grandmother, whom I called Kato YiaYia (Greek-speakers among you may understand), lived in an apartment downstairs. She would highjack me many afternoons when I’d come home from school or practice and feed me a full dinner of roast chicken and potatoes, pilaf or macaroni, bread and salad (and wine) before I’d go upstairs to choke down my second dinner. She kept the garden, which was out her apartment’s back door, well; she knew all the folk wisdom of planting and pruning and phases of the moon and months of the year. After she passed, the garden was turned into a faux-Japanese meditative garden; no more fresh herbs and fruit trees.

Those are my memories of this place on 27th Avenue in San Francisco’s Richmond District.

We’ve just sold the house to a new young family that will make its own history and create its own memories there.

Over the course of my 50-plus years, I must have walked in and out of that house a million times. And soon, any day now, some random exit will be my last.

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Busing Google

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As is standard operating procedure for this burg, what can at first look like small things get perceived and communicated about in epochal ways.

Latest example: luxe private buses that whisk high-tech employees from their homes in San Francisco to their Silicon (née Santa Clara) Valley corporate headquarters have incited world-class neighborhood ire. Many of the city’s most-affected residents say these companies are using public infrastructure (e.g., public bus stops, city streets, etc.) without compensating public budgets. Further, they suggest, by running their own private transit systems and simultaneously campaigning against higher taxes and public expenditure on infrastructure, they are starving the very systems ‘regular’ San Franciscans have no choice but to use in getting to their places of work, schools, shopping, entertainment and other necessities.

As a consequence, a war of words, sometimes nasty words, has ensued.

‘Techies’, as high-tech workers are sometimes derisively called, are accused of being everything from social Darwinists to fascists to elitists. Neighborhood activists are called luddites, socialists, envious of high-tech workers’ incomes and job perquisites. Some words, obviously, have more truth to them than others but the back-and-forth has done nothing to illuminate the deeper and, therefore, real issues or to resolve the conflict.

So, let me add a few hopefully helpful words here. I start with a bit of background.

San Francisco is my hometown. I say that because I was born and raised here and have spent the vast majority of my 50-plus years here. I went to San Francisco public schools from kindergarten through high school. I had a large high school graduating class (almost 1,000) and I still run into classmates around town. Today, they’re cops and actors and firefighters and bus drivers and doctors and steelworkers and lawyers and skilled craftspeople. My parents were also both born and raised here and, in fact, spent their entire lives here (excepting breaks for war and college). My grandfather Vasilios was a neighborhood grocer, going back to the 1920s. My grandmother Zafero was a seamstress. They had a flat in the Mission, where my mom and uncle were raised. My grandfather Mitchell was a merchant seaman and saw the horrible events of Bloody Thursday – a waterfront labor riot in 1934 – with his own eyes. They and people of their generations built today’s modern (post-1906 earthquake) San Francisco.

There are a great many San Franciscans who are proud of their hometown, some of whom have lived here a long time and also worked hard to build the city that exists here today. Sad fact: some of them can’t afford to live here anymore.

Back in the 1990s, during an earlier wave of tech expansion in San Francisco, highly-paid people flocked to neighborhoods like the Mission and brought with them some positive things (e.g., chic and trendy places to eat) and some negative (e.g., much higher home prices and rents). Many long-time residents had to leave because it was too expensive to stay. The place changed and then, soon after, the tech bubble burst. Many of the 90s-era ‘techies’ and their most-favored eateries simply moved elsewhere but the continuity of the neighborhood was destroyed. There was no taking that back. So, families that had loved living in the Mission for generations were gone, many for good. Many long-time residents would say, “We got kicked out for nothing.” Their Mission changed to serve no lasting or positive purpose.

Population turnover and change can be healthy for a city. And, God knows, San Francisco can be root-bound in trying to preserve tradition. But I’ve seen time and again the value of having people stay around for the long haul. You probably don’t remember how graciously and hospitably and charitably neighbors treated each other after the 1989 earthquake but I do. We made it through some tough times by leaning on each other. People who are in and out with every one of the latest fads don’t get that kind of support, and don’t tend to give it either. Our city would be immeasurably poorer as a place if the composition of our population were completely dependent on temporary vagaries of the economy. (Anybody really want to base our shared identity and welfare as San Franciscans on the probability of, for example, Zynga’s long-term success? Yeah, didn’t think so.)

Now, another wave of well-heeled tech hipsters has discovered the joys of living in San Francisco. And they’ve re-made a number of old family-oriented neighborhoods in their own images. Bernal Heights is now the ‘hottest’ neighborhood in the country according to one recent magazine poll (San Francisco is also, no coincidence, the third least-affordable city in the world.).  Who can blame them for loving life in this city? Certainly not me. You have money earned from your hard work. Good for you. Enjoy. Spend it well. Live. Eat.

But I ask my newest fellow San Franciscans to understand some measure of the anger directed at them. When you see people yelling at your luxury buses, remember that these people are taking public transit. Filthy. Crowded. Undependable. No (gasp) Wi-Fi. It’s not that they wouldn’t like to share your plush ride. It’s that they can’t, and probably never will. And it’s that they know, sooner or later, living in their hometown is likely to get too expensive for them. And they’ll have to say goodbye to a neighborhood and a city they’ve loved being a part of for a long time. And they’re angry at that. And they’re angry at you, as you blithely skip down Cortland Avenue, drip-brewed artisan coffee in hand, talking loudly about your latest plan for world conquest into your Bluetooth and step onto your private chariot for the drive to Mountain View or Redwood Shores or Cupertino or wherever you’re going.

[And when your business goes south, as it may one day do, chances are you’ll be off to the next latest hot neighborhood in Austin or Brooklyn or Raleigh-Durham or Dubai, leaving behind only sad people and empty spaces.]

Don’t worry about the neighborhood people, though; their shitty old MUNI should be along any time now.

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Farewell, My Sweet Girl

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We met her about ten years ago during an icy rainstorm in California’s Sierra. Visiting the Tuolumne County Humane Society had been pitched to me by my kids as a healthy alternative to sitting inside our dark cabin for the 3rd straight day. I was encouraged, both by their initiative (They found a listing for the shelter themselves and unprompted while reading the local newspaper.) and their interest in looking at dogs (We’d lost our beloved Buck a couple of years before and none of us showed any real interest in finding a new pet after that heartbreak.).

There were lots of dogs available for adoption when we walked back into the drafty, bunker-like, concrete room, each in their own chain-link enclosure. Most seemed to clearly understand what it meant when people, that is to say strangers, walked in, so the noise and activity level rose accordingly. Some dogs barked and jumped, many ran up to their kennel gates, tails wagging.

On the other hand, there was DeeDee, even then marching to her own beat. She moved to the front of her enclosure – I don’t remember any deliberate speed or particular noise about it – and sat at her gate.  She didn’t bark or whine. She simply leaned against the fencing and looked up at us with her big brown eyes.

That, as they say, was that. Within the hour, we were talking about the particularities of adoption with the center staff.

They told us she’d not been treated well. She’d been mostly, almost entirely, chained outside. She’d not been part of family life. She’d been hit, abused, cursed, yelled at, intimidated. She would be, we were told, a challenging pet: a good family dog, eventually, with the right family.

We took a walk outside. She seemed to like us well enough. Our kids adored her immediately. So, we took our risks, signed the papers and loaded her in our van. Thus began our journey together.

The quirks and issues surfaced more or less immediately. Since she wasn’t used to an indoor life, she urinated more or less wherever she pleased. While she chewed shoes, gloves and other handy pieces of clothing, she hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with an honest-to-God dog toy. She loathed water; she wouldn’t easily allow herself to be bathed and wouldn’t swim. Also, she barked and growled fiercely at men, especially men with facial hair. And the UPS delivery people were apparently objects of special hatred not visited upon the USPS, FedEX or representatives of other delivery enterprises.

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Why? Was it the brown uniforms? We hadn’t the foggiest notion.

Eventually, we guided her away from those unpleasant habits we could change and mostly tolerated those we couldn’t. DeeDee became our sort of in-house, daily, canine reminder of the AA prayer.

The longer we were together, of course, the more her loving and playful side came out. She loved chasing balls – could do it all day on the right day with the right partner(s). She loved walking together on the bluffs above the mighty Pacific, at Fort Funston. She loved playing in the snow. When in the right mood and with the right person, she loved being hugged and whispered to. She loved laying by the fire at our mountain cabin after a day in the great outdoors.  She would lay down with each family member in turn every night as they went to bed – Giggy first, then Ella, then Erika and I, where she would generally make herself comfortable on our bed for the duration.

And yes, she was a terrible bed hog, couch hog, chair hog.

It was only a few months ago that DeeDee’s cancer was diagnosed, so her period of visible suffering was brief; in that I can take some measure of solace. Since her early life was marked by pain, emotional and otherwise, I thought it completely unfair that she should suffer at the end of her life as well but no one assures us that life follows our particular conception of fairness. What I can say is that DeeDee spent her final day on this earth in the company of people who honestly loved her, will miss her and will keep her memory as long as they live.

We hope you rest in peace, dear friend.

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A couple of endnotes:

  • Colorado State University runs a leading center for research on animal cancer. The results are promising not only for pets but also people. When our dog Buck died, also of cancer, we contributed to support the center’s work. You can learn more here: http://www.csuanimalcancercenter.org/
  • DeeDee passed in the care of Dr. Elyse Hammer of VCA Veterinary Specialists in San Francisco. Dr. Hammer was extraordinarily humane and gentle with DeeDee (and the family) and we thank her most sincerely along with the rest of the VCA staff.

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History Is Too a Circle, Part 2

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History echoes in sometimes unexpected places.

Listen.

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About 600 years ago, in response to a devastating plague, a singularly beautiful and emotionally moving altarpiece was created in Isenheim, Germany by Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grunewald. It is about 30 feet wide and 20 feet high, not including its substantial base. The art tells one story in three different ways, or perhaps, in terms better suited to our digital era, one story in three different image arrays. Different combinations of images are revealed by physically opening doors and wings embedded in the piece.

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Watching the different frames revealed is a journey through layers of the plague’s story – from suffering to darkness to resurrection – intentionally paralleling, of course, the life of Jesus.

These photographs (above and below) barely hint at the emotional power of being in the altarpiece’s physical presence. No art is meant to be experienced in a postcard, after all. Centuries before cinema, this must have been an ecstatically transformative experience for people seeing it, of course, in person.

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Now, flash-forward to nearer our present day – another time, another place, another plague.

Starting in the 1990s, HIV/AIDS cut across sub-Saharan Africa like a scythe – literally killing off entire generations, leaving towns and villages comprised entirely of old women and children in its wake.

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And so, the surviving women on one such village, Hamburg, South Africa, told their own story through the creation of a piece of art, the Keiskamma Altarpiece. They built it to exactly the same dimensions as the Isenheim Altarpiece, and used the same system of hinged doors and wings, telling the story step by step – suffering, darkness, resurrection.

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I had the great, once-in-a-lifetime honor of meeting one of its creators, Eunice Magwane, who walked me through each symbol and layer. And I had the even greater honor of donning white protective gloves and showing the piece to visitors at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, where a part of its exhibition in North America was hosted. The meaning of this particular plague resonated deeply with our city’s own experience fighting HIV/AIDS some years before.

I touched and moved the altarpiece’s doors, spoke the creators’ messages and saw the faces – even the faces now so accustomed to movies, interactive video games and the Internet – react in absolute awe and reverence and, yes, honest-to-God emotion to the hand-made, rough-hewn depictions of horrible pain and unimaginable loss.

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One of the greatest highlights of my life – not just my professional life but my entire life – was sharing that piece of art with my son’s school classmates, helping them connect the history of their hometown and its battle with HIV/AIDS, which they knew well, to the real human history of a faraway place, and seeing their common struggles and challenges. I’ll never forget the looks on the faces of these supposedly jaded, urban kids when they realized the women of Hamburg had created beautiful art depicting the pain and death of their very own, now-departed, flesh-and-blood sons and daughters, telling the story of a plague through the experience of their own lives.

Much as, I assume, the creators of the Isenheim Altarpiece had done, continents away and centuries before.

Echo, baby.

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In a Nutshell

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My dad’s been gone over twenty years but I’ve been thinking a lot about him lately. In part, I suppose, it’s because I just heard the news that Haig’s, the Armenian/Mediterranean/Middle Eastern deli my dad used to love, is closing for good.

I knew my dad well, I thought, but there were things he never talked about, or spoke of only rarely and never in detail. His experience in World War 2 was just one example of that. I didn’t come to learn the details of his war experiences until I wrote the Department of Defense after he’d already died. He never shared much, preferring to stay in the happier and more comfortable present, I assume.

Sometimes, I’d get my best insight into him via other people.

Since he grew up in roughly the same neighborhood I did, we’d often run into his boyhood pals. The easy, back-slapping friendliness of cops, firemen, bus drivers and teachers (My high school chemistry teacher, Merton Jones, had been my dad’s classmate.) showed me a lot about both what kind of kid he was and what kind of man he’d become.

I’ll never forget going into the neighborhood dry cleaner one time to pick up a load of his dress shirts. Once my identity and familial connections were established, the Korean lady who owned the place told me my dad wasn’t like other American men. Out of the blue. Just like that. I guess my face reflected the fact that I hadn’t known exactly how to take her comment. She leaned in and told me in a half-whisper she meant my dad, unlike her other customers, had humility.

Then there was Haig’s.

As Greeks, we found the smells of Haig’s completely irresistible – as if walking into my Yia Yia’s pantry and opening all the jars of spices and herbs at one time. Big blocks of fresh halvah sat in the case, along with buckets of olives, even the black wrinkly, oil-cured kind that are impossible to find in American stores (or at least they were, before the Bay Area’s slow-food revolution). Taramosalata. Un-dyed pistachios.

My dad and I went in together one time and he started up a conversation with old-man Haig himself. It might have started with talk about food (I can’t remember now.) but it soon covered every single important thing in both their lives. Not just what they found important at that moment, but every single important event in their lives. No, that’s too limiting. They covered every important thing about their backgrounds, their families, their particular histories, world history. By the time we left, Haig and my dad might as well have been lifelong friends.

It was a quintessentially dad moment.

And every time I’ve gone by Haig’s in the intervening years, I think of that day because, really, it was my dad in a nutshell.

Bars I’ve Known

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I’m not much of a drinker anymore, but at one point in life, my social world orbited elliptically around bars. Here, a remembrance of some.

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Gil & Frank’s Mayflower (the site, above), Potrero Hill, San Francisco: This was a bar of working-class regulars who would arrive after work, mostly in and around the then-active docks, and stay until closing almost every weeknight. “Happy birthday to you” was on the jukebox. I once saw Art, the regular bartender, slap a guy for ordering a blender drink. Yeah, that kind of bar. Gone now.

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Murphy’s Tavern (site, above), Philadelphia: I lived a block away. Rolling Rocks were $1. Bring a five and have quite an evening. Bring a twenty and be a king. One of the bartenders, Murphy’s son-in-law, used his shiny steel hand/hook to open bottles. Murphy, whom everyone called Murph, used expressions like “See ya’ in church, boss,” as he slugged guys on the shoulder. He would walk all young ladies out of the bar when they left to make sure no one lurked outside intending to do them harm. A must in my West Philly neighborhood. Now a burger joint, I hear.

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The Dubliner (above), 24th Street, San Francisco: A good joint. They sponsored our softball team for many years and we more than repaid the investment by making it our post-game clubhouse. Still going strong, with a new generation of bad softball players.

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Tosca (above), Columbus Avenue, San Francisco: One of San Francisco’s most beloved institutions. There is always a great mix of people here, businesspeople, actors, musicians, politicians. I urinated next to San Francisco’s former mayor, and now California’s lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom, there. Funny man. But a highlight for me was one night when Lauren Hutton, who really is radiantly beautiful, sat between me and my friend Fish and talked with us for hours. The jukebox has a beautiful selection of arias. Still very much open, thank God.

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Lefty O’Doul’s (above), Geary Street, near Union Square, San Francisco: They used to have a guy named Al Rik playing goofy old tunes on the piano in the front. Corny and old-fashioned, even 35 years ago, when I first ventured inside. The hof brau will slice you up some fresh turkey, roast beef or ham any hour they’re open. A must-stop. Open right this minute. Go.

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The Mauna Loa (above), Fillmore Street, near Union Street, San Francisco: Owned by an old high school teacher. When some of my friends visit, it’s still a place we always stop, out of respect if nothing else.

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Satisfaction (above), Durham, North Carolina: The bar was brand new when they sponsored our summer softball team, which tells you something about its longevity. I can still remember some of the songs we’d regularly play on the jukebox after games. You don’t want to know. My hand to God, a teammate used to light potato chips with her cigarette lighter, then put them out on her tongue. Not saying it was smart but it was, you know, something to do. Smoking very much allowed in tobacco country. Open and, I hear, thriving.

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The Irish Pub (above), Philadelphia: I have very fond memories of this place. I’d invariably meet or run into wonderfully fun people there. I remember laughing all the time amidst happy and boisterous crowds. Sadly, I don’t know the fate of this place.

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Savoy Tivoli (above), North Beach, San Francisco: A classic North Beach hangout on upper Grant. Pool tables. Outdoor tables. Good bar. A great mix of people, some reading books they’ve just purchased at City Lights, couples on dates, groups of guys getting together after work to hang out and tell each other lies, some people just stopping to smell the roses. Open.

Nostalgia By Waves

I was driving home on a recent rainy Saturday night. The city’s downtown holiday lights were going up. Car and pedestrian traffic was heavy, manic and unaware; just a dress rehearsal, of course, for the nightmare weeks coming after the Thanksgiving observance, but tense and nerve-jangling nonetheless. When I popped on the car’s radio to drown out yelling people and blaring horns, I heard the strains of a Celtic song, Scottish or Irish, I did not know for certain. The sound of the fiddle, so characteristic of Celtic music, so beautiful, yet so full of sadness, washed over me with a wave of familiarity, as if I was actually at the ceilidh where the recording took place.

The ache I was feeling has a name; it’s called nostalgia.

Nostalgia comes, as so many of our words do, from the Greek – a combination of nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and algos, meaning “ache.” So, nostalgia is, literally, an ache of longing for a time or place that has sentimental weight, like home.

When I post photos of long-gone San Francisco (e.g., Playland-at-the-Beach) on this blog or to my facebook account, as I am sometimes wont to do, that’s an expression of my nostalgia for a hometown that doesn’t exist anymore in the way it did when I was a kid. Funny, then, that I would feel the same ache from Celtic music but feel it, I did.

Now, I’ve never been to Ireland, and I’ve been to Scotland only once (loved the visit, by the way) but I would never consider either place home. Nor would I consider myself Celtic. My people are from the eastern Mediterranean. Nor did I grow up listening to Celtic music as a kid. It’s something I enjoy hearing from time to time, and that’s about it. For some reason, from penny whistles to crying fiddles to skirling bagpipes, Celtic music does something to me emotionally. [A side note: for the most part, I’d still rather listen to other stuff. I’m not insane.]

My nostalgic connection to Celtic music is somewhat similar to the feelings I have for Washington, DC and North Carolina in the spring and, to a lesser extent, Philadelphia in the fall, but at least I actually lived in those places and still have actual friends and memories I closely and warmly attach to each.

No, as I think more about it, this may all be traced to the particularities and peculiarities of my family history.

It was almost a century ago that all four of my grandparents left (or were forcefully uprooted from) all the people and places they held most dear in the world. They came to a wholly unfamiliar place, amidst mostly unfamiliar people and customs. So, as American as they became over time – and they did, in fact come to be more American than Greek  by the ends of their lives – they still must have been mightily torn by the competition bewteen the pull of their old land and the push of the new.

Is this familial inheritance the reason that, even though I dearly love my hometown, I so often look over my shoulder at other places and fondly remember the people of my long-gone past? Is it the reason music that’s really not my own sometimes feels so close to the bone?

What Makes a City Livable?

Before the advent of industrial-era construction machinery and the widespread availability of automobiles, cities were, of necessity, built to human scale. Buildings were smaller because of what it took to erect them, and cities were organized around neighborhoods, because people moved either on foot or rudimentary public transit.

Look in our cities’ older neighborhoods, to the extent they still exist, and see how livable those places can look. They were made for people, for communities.

Contrast them, for example, with the new, walled-in styrofoam-faux neighborhoods along the San Francisco Bay Area’s I-580 corridor. Every component of housing stock looks identical to every other. You must do freeway driving to get anything or anywhere. There is no feeling of place and, not coincidentally, no place where neighbors meet.

There is a place in the heart of San Francisco, down the street from the financial district, a short walk from AT&T Park, where the baseball Giants play, a nice stroll from the Embarcadero and the historic Ferry Building, adjacent to the convention center.

It is the Yerba Buena Center, a place of quiet beauty, a children’s playground, hundred year-old carousel, ice rink, bowling alley, theater, children’s museum, open space where office workers come to lunch in the fresh air.

One piece of art depicts a human standing atop the earth. Sit on a nearby chair and the human sits. Stand and the human rises. No user manual, no instructional signs. You find the secret chair by exploring. (Hint: here’s a picture.)

To the extent they are, cities are livable because they’re made to be, on purpose.

A Change of Season

To Autumn
      by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Jury Duty

As you approach, you can feel it. The 1960s-era building oozes pain and discomfort. This is no place of peace. Many walk in; fewer walk out. Eyes are cast downward. Shoulders slumped forward. The pace, hesitant. No one really wants to enter San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. Not the people appearing for trial. Not the police and sheriff’s deputies. Certainly not the people, like myself, who have been ordered to report for jury duty this morning.

There is no real edifice, no welcoming lobby. You enter through swinging doors of smudged and dirty glass and enter the line for security screening. Off come belts, out comes pocket change. Bags pass through X-rays.

And into the elevators. Other potential jurors, defendants, box-toting lawyers, bailiffs with their morning coffees in paper cups. Dim and flickering fluorescent lights. Bumpy and jerky ride to the 3rd floor.

Out and left down a dark corridor. Decades of wear have grooved, rutted and marked the floor’s dingy linoleum. The walls of dark grey marble reflect oddly distorted images of the people walking by.

We line up to check in, and it’s quite a line. From the door to Room 307, down to the end of the hall, back the entire length of the opposite wall clear back to the floor’s elevator lobby. They must be expecting heavy business, I think to myself.

Enter the jury assembly room and be seated among the already packed rows of chairs all facing the door. Everyone facing the same way, with the same glazed expression, creates an odd effect. Noisy and busy with people leafing through magazines and catalogs, reading crappy paperbacks, or squeezing in a few minutes of work between obligatory moments, when such isn’t permitted. Too noisy to really concentrate but not busy enough to be fun people watching.

Quiet, please, for the orientation video. Just as on airplanes during the safety video, more than half the room’s people never look up. They’ll be the ones asking questions later, I bet.

Then, the reading of the rolls. Names mispronounced, garbled, mangled. Groans along with the calls of “here” and “present” and “yes,” just like on the first day at a new school. Scanning the room for familiar faces. I spot a few. No friends, though.

Waiting.

The names read, again, to assign us to courtrooms. Those who’ve been through the process before know this is the truly excruciating part. Maybe 100 potential jurors will go into Department 20 with me. (Why are courtrooms called departments, anyway?) We sit in the audience (not the correct name, I’m told) and wait longer.

The room is poorly lit. The walls are covered with taped-up, handwritten notes. Where not to park. Court holidays. Earthquake plans from the 1980s. Important phone numbers in 8 pt type.

After long inaudible conversations between the judge and the lawyers and, frankly, just about everybody else at the front of the courtroom, the rotund and wheezy bailiff calls us into session. Endless boilerplate about the sanctity of trial by jury, the role of jurors, the process by which a jury is selected. We are told that we cannot read, cannot be on electronic devices, cannot write.

A group of us are brought to the front to be interviewed. The general questions asked all prospective jurors – in what neighborhood do you live, what do you do for a living – at least provide a quick and not uninteresting snapshot of the city.

Then, the judge asks people who feel they cannot serve to identify themselves. A long (And when I say long, I mean looooong.) line forms to talk with the judge about lack of language ability, childcare, financial hardship, various religious exemptions. Some are excused quickly. Others interviewed at length and are sent back, sulking, to rejoin the rest of us. This seems to take forever.

But when the lawyers start to pose more specific questions, the torture begins in earnest.

The same, sometimes very detailed and convoluted questions are asked again and again, literally, hour after hour. And it is clear at once which prospective jurors are trying to make the jury (“Oh, yes, I could be fair to an accused serial murderer of children.”), and which are trying to clear out as quickly as possible (“My second cousin’s high school boyfriend was a cop, so I would be more likely to trust the testimony of a police officer.”).

The process takes forever.

And there is no escape.