Final Goodbyes of 2012

As the year comes to a close, it’s fitting to remember those who’ve gone but can’t, or shouldn’t be, forgotten.

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Daniel Inouye – Like many Japanese-Americans of his generation, he was reviled, discriminated against, locked away into concentration camps, looked down upon. And like many, to prove his loyalty to his country, he went to war. In Inouye’s case, he suffered, soldiered on and became an honest-to-God American, Medal-of-Honor-winning hero. The story goes that he went into a San Francisco barber shop on his way home, still wearing the uniform of an Army captain (with one sleeve pinned up because he’d lost an arm in the Italian campaign) and the barber refused to cut his hair because he was Japanese. A mark of shame on my hometown. Inouye became the first Asian-American member of the House, and first in the Senate. He died as the most senior member of Congress. He was steadfast in his principles and admired for his humanity.

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Johnny Otis – Brilliant and revolutionary bandleader, showman, musician, developer of talent. ‘Hand Jive’ anyone?

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Etta James – A singer who can get you up dancing and break your heart at the same time. Coincidentally, one of Johnny Otis’ great discoveries.

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Joe Paterno – His players practically worshiped him but his reputation will be forever linked and, therefore, sullied by his connection to a sexual abuse scandal centered around a former assistant.

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Earl Scruggs – A giant. A legend. A pioneer. A person who, defying all odds, brought soulfulness to the banjo.

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Dick Clark – Forget the new year’s eve caricature he became. He broke ground and he sincerely loved teenagers and their music.

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Levon Helm – Listen to him sing. Read his lyrics. You can’t mistake him for anybody else.

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Mike Wallace – The number-one case in point for this axiom: fearless journalists piss powerful people off.

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Maurice Sendak – He turned a very uncertain and unhappy childhood into art adored by millions of children and adults alike.

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Carlos Fuentes – Great writer of brutally honest fiction.

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Doc Watson – Changed the lives of thousands of musicians and maybe millions of fans with his clear and honest singing about the lives of real people.

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Rodney King – Beaten by LA cops, who were filmed doing it. All holy hell broke loose when they were acquitted. Then, in all sincerity, Rodney King asked his townsfolk to get along and stop killing each other. For his efforts, he was turned into a national joke. He deserved better.

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Andy Griffith – On popular TV shows for, like, 50 years but he still died an underestimated and underappreciated actor.

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Ernest Borgnine – Played honest-to-God working-class American men with gravity and honesty. They don’t make guys like him or movies like that anymore, to our great loss.

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Kitty Wells – Raw and honest voice. A trailblazer for women in music. Ran her own life and her own career her way. Also a beautiful, generous and gracious human being.

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Sally Ride – Terms like “role model” and “hero” get thrown around like nickels these days. I just wish kids knew less about people like Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan and a whole lot more about people like Sally Ride.

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Neil Armstrong – The first line of every single obituary of Neil Armstrong? He was the first man to set foot on the moon. Do you need a second sentence? Every one my age or older remembers the precise moment.

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George McGovern – A war hero who wanted to end the useless and wasteful Vietnam War. As a result, he was chewed up by the Nixon campaign machine and made to look weak, unmanly. He told the truth.

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Margaret DuPont – Graceful, smart, tough as nails. Was she the first American female sports star? Many owe her a great debt of gratitude for making the model many now trade upon.

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Marvin Miller – Created major league baseball as we now know it. Helped players stand up to the organized servitude that was baseball. Hated by many. Hated.

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Hector Camacho – Grew up tough in Spanish Harlem. Became successful, rich, famous. Never lost the chip on his shoulder or need to live wild. Ended bad, as it had to, by a bullet to the head.

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Dave Brubeck – His iconic ‘Take Five’ may be the most recognized jazz song of all time. His bands were tight. His piano was beautiful. He represented his era well.

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Ravi Shankar – Classically-trained. Spiritual. A bridge between very different cultures.

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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.

Take Back (Which) America?

[PLEASE BE ADVISED: This posting opens with an explicit photograph of racially motivated violence. Some readers may find it offensive or upsetting. Thank you.]

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Buried deep inside Tea Party conservatives’ gauzy reminiscences about those “simpler times” of greater American virtue, a smaller federal government and happier lives is a very dark reality indeed.

Segregated and unequal housing, transportation, schools, food service, retail, banking and entertainment. Violent and, sometimes, deadly racism. [The chilling photo of a lynching, above, was conveniently printed as a postcard to facilitate easier collecting and distribution by white townsfolk eager to share the moment with friends.] Restrictions to prevent the exercise of voting and other civil rights by non-whites. Prohibitions against inter-racial love and marriage.

Now, those policies of subjugation didn’t simply end of their own accord. They ended largely because people took to the streets, and did so in great numbers. And, for their efforts, they were beaten with clubs and hit with high-pressure fire hoses and attacked by dogs and arrested and sometimes killed. The federal government eventually became actively involved – sometimes through law enforcement agencies and the courts, other times at the business end of US Army bayonets.

These policies have ended, for the most part, but the struggle for equality continues, now almost 100 years since the lynching photograph (above) was taken.

And while we’re nostalgically thinking back, let’s not forget the unchecked abuse of our country’s children as laborers. Or the wholesale poisoning of our air and water and workplaces. Or the abandonment of our unemployed and destitute to prison-like workhouses. Or the purposeful impoverishment of millions of working people by the powerful and greedy. Or the isolation of wide swathes of our country by the lack of basic infrastructure, like electricity, sewerage and roads.

Laws, regulations and programs enacted and overseen by an active, substantial and progressive federal government addressed those conditions and were the only forces making life livable for many Americans.

That is the real history of America’s “simpler times.”

So, the very next time you hear someone rally their supporters with the tear-filled cry of “Take Back America,” think carefully about who they think they are and exactly what version of America they want to take us back to.

5 Things to Do on This Rainy Saturday

You planned on baseball but the weather’s not cooperating. No big deal. There are plenty of things to do on a rainy San Francisco Saturday. Here are a few suggestions (I have no personal or commercial interest in any of these places, by the way.).

Musee Mechanique

One of the world’s largest privately owned collections of (over 300) mechanically operated musical instruments, antique arcade machines, orchestrions, coin operated pianos, antique slot machines, animations. Go in. Play some. Waiting for you at Pier 45.

Morning Due Cafe

On the corner of 17th Street and Church. Wonderful coffee and great food. An absolutely beautiful family owns and runs the place. Great music (I often swing to Sinatra when I’m there.). Diverse crowd. Great vibe.

Palace of the Legion of Honor

One of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. A glorious natural setting that’s a treat in any weather but especially compelling in the rain, I think. Beautiful whether or not you’re a francophile. I highly recommend a current exhibition, The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde, 1860-1900.

Balboa Theater

Not everyone remembers neighborhood movie theaters, so let me educate you. Most comfortable theater you’ve ever been in? Nope. Greatest variety of offerings? Not even close. Latest mega-hit? Possibly. What do you get at the Balboa? It’s run by people who LOVE movies. They program with fans in mind. Today, as is typical, they’re showing a mix of current and quirky: Hunger Games, Lorax, Iron Lady and a film of the Bolshoi Ballet. And, really, what’s better than a movie on a rainy afternoon?

Gold Dust Lounge

A singular place to meet visitors and locals sitting cheek-by-jowl. Landlords have issued eviction papers to make room for yet another national-chain retail clothing store – just what Union Square needs. Go while you can.

The Best I’ve Ever Seen

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately. I have selected the one person I believe to be the best ever at their position. Why create this list? Because I’m a huge baseball fan and I’m getting excited about the start of the season. My basic rule going in: I have only picked players I have seen with my own eyes, meaning in person.

If you think other players are better, say so. There’s a comment section at the bottom of this post. So, use it.

Here we go…

Pitcher (Starting): Tom Seaver, New York Mets, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox (1967-1986)

Strength, stamina, brains. Tom Seaver was an absolute warhorse on the mound. The singularly dominant force of his era, as he would have been in any era. Still remembered and loved. And a great ambassador for the game.

Pitcher (Reliever): Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees (1995-present)

At his peak, Rivera was as close to an automatic shut-down as is possible in baseball. Total command of his pitches and any situation in which he found himself. Definition of a ‘closer.’ Call him in from the bullpen and it’s over, baby. Fierce. Close seconds? Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers (points for the ‘stache), Brian Wilson (at his best, he’s fearsome).

Catcher: Johnny Bench, Cincinnati Reds (1967-1983)

As great at the plate as he was behind it. A huge part of the storied ‘Big Red Machine.’ Better, to my mind, than Piazza, Fisk, Carter. Had I seen Berra play in person, we might have had a contest.

1st Base: Albert Pujols, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2001-present)

Pujols, still an active player, is a force to be reckoned with. He closely beats out the universally-beloved Willie McCovey.

2nd Base: Joe Morgan, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Oakland A’s (1963-1984)

Morgan earns this spot over Jeff Kent, although Kent was better at the plate, because of his brains, his fielding and his leadership.

3rd Base: George Brett, Kansas City Royals (1973-1993)

Tough competition here. Brett takes this position over Mike Schmidt mostly because I had the chance to drink with Brett once (in Chicago) and never did with Schmidt.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Jr. Baltimore Orioles (1981-2001)

Ripken’s longevity amazes still. His leadership, steadiness and abilities were something special. What’s that, Ozzie Smith was a defensive wizard? Sure. A-Rod? Jeter? Why don’t you just make your own list?

Left Field: Carl Yastrzemski, Boston Red Sox (1961-1983)

Only one generation removed from the legendary Ted Williams; had I seen Williams play in person, he’d be on this list. Playing his entire career in the shadow of the Green Monster, Yaz earned this spot. And, before anyone asks, Barry Bonds was a far distant second.

Center Field: Willie Mays, New York and San Francisco Giants, New York Mets (1951-1973)

What superlatives can you use? Which do you need? Mays was not only the greatest person I’ve ever seen play center field, not only the greatest person I’ve ever seen play baseball. Willie Mays was the greatest athlete I’ve ever seen play anything. No contest.

Right Field: Hank Aaron, Milwaukee and Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers (1954-1976)

Aaron was the first person to break Babe Ruth’s home run record (without even the hint of performance-enhancing drugs) and was an All-Star every single year between 1955 and 1975. Speedy (in his earlier years) and powerful. Class act.

Places I Like: The Orkneys

Go to the very northernmost tip of Scotland, to the town of John O’Groats. Get onto the ferry going north. Head across the North Sea. (Prepare for a rough crossing. On our trip, the rails and bathrooms were filled beyond capacity with sickened travelers.)

After losing sight of the Scottish mainland, you’ll soon be surrounded by water, the churning, freezing, foamy waters of the North Sea. Bobbing seabirds. Small, rocky, impossibly carved rock islands. This (below) is called The Old Man of Hoy; he wasn’t bathed in warm sunshine when we saw him, I can assure you.

After several hours, the ferry will turn, and sail on the protected side of a land mass. The wind will mellow and the ship will slip into a movie-set harbor of waterside pubs and little houses clinging to the land’s end. Looks just as charming in real life as this photo would suggest.

And then, you’re home.

The Orkneys, a string of islands that’s a part of Scotland, is home to a 12th century cathedral, ruins of a stone age village, Scotland’s Stonehenge, an Italian-built chapel and at least one great distillery.

St. Magnus Cathedral, begun in the year 1137, dominates the town center of Kirkwall. It shows the influence of both Celts and Scandinavians, both of whom lived in the islands over the course of their history.

It is breathtakingly beautiful but there is a deliberate feeling of darkness and death. Tombs are prominent…

…as are other reminders of visitors’ mortality. This plaque (below) says “Memento Mori,” remember that you are mortal. As if one could forget it for a moment in this setting.

The natural setting of the islands is extraordinary. You can easily get vertigo by imagining you’re at the end of the earth (which isn’t too far from the truth), at least I could.

Skara brae, a Stone Age settlement, was unearthed by storms, the first in 1850, then in 1924.

The Ring of Brodgar, constructed about 4000 years ago, has been little studied and even less well understood. The individual stones are huge, by the way.

During the Second World War, Italian prisoners of war who were kept on the islands used a quonset hut and built a Roman Catholic chapel that still draws visitors for its incongruous exterior and interior painting.

And then, there’s the whiskey. Did I mention the whiskey?

My advice? Buy several bottles, to gird your loins for the ferry trip back.

Things I Miss: Playland-at-the-Beach

At Playland, on San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, you could be a king for a dollar. You could hear the latest music. You could play ancient arcade games. You could ride a rotting old wooden roller coaster, take a ride in a diving bell, visit a creepy-wild fun house. You could eat things you couldn’t find anywhere else – It’s Its, for example, two oatmeal cookies pressed on either side of a slab of vanilla ice cream and dipped in chocolate (the ones you get these days in stores simply don’t compare). Or Mexican food at The Hot House. Later, after Playland fell, The Hot House moved to Balboa Street. Never the same.

All kinds of people went there. All kinds. Every time I went to Playland, every single time, and I must have gone there a thousand times, mind you, my mom told me to watch out for myself.

In the summer, my dad used to come home from work when it was still light out. He’d grab my brother and me, and a cigar or two, and out we’d go to Playland, just ten blocks west of our house. We’d always run into guys he’d known growing up. They’d be cops now, or bus drivers, or short-order cooks, but in the old days, they would’ve been my pop’s running buddies. Learned a lot about the old days in the city (and about who my dad had been as a kid) from listening to their stories.

In the really old days, way before I was even born, Playland had a wild nightlife, including a place called Topsy’s Roost, a sort of mash-up of chicken coop and big band club. Think you could find something like that these days? Don’t bother trying. You can’t.

People would go out to Playland as a quick escape, a hit of fresh sea air, a few laughs, a little fun, maybe forget their troubles for a little while. During the Great Depression, not the little-assed depression we’re having now, I’ve heard Playland kept a lot of people going when they were down at their lowest; I believe it.

It closed forever in 1972 to make room for condos, because that’s what our city needed, alright, was more condos. Here’s the plaque, beloved and irreplaceable Playland’s headstone.

There aren’t places like it anymore. I wish there were; we’d all be happier and better off. Damn condos are ugly as hell, by the way.