My San Francisco Day
This is the story of a random San Francisco day -- Tuesday, January 10th, 2006 to be exact.
On this day I traipsed about the city attending to an array of unconnected errands. Because this is the true story of a real day -- not a focused essay on a particular topic, nor a short story -- it has no coherent narrative. Unrelated incidents and observations overlap with no obvious structure. Serendipity. And the day had no political agenda, yet -- like everything in the Bay Area -- politics cropped up again and again, even in the most mundane situations.
So come with me and experience what your life would be like if you were a prototypical San Francisco bohemian.
In the morning I hopped on BART to head downtown. To my chagrin, a rather large and somewhat unkempt man wedged himself into the seat next to mine. He spent the entire train ride avidly reading pages that he pulled out of his briefcase.
After I while I got curious. I took out my little camera -- brought to take some shots for a work-related project later in the day -- and snapped a picture of his reading material.
"Lenin: On the Theory of Marxism" read the page. The more I peered over his shoulder, the more I could see that he wasn't just an academic studying Lenin as an historical figure: this guy was quite enthused over Lenin's call for class struggle and proletarian socialist revolution.
Just another San Francisco commuter.
I got off at Montgomery Street station and went over to pick up some work-related papers at a South of Market office complex.
Because I was nearby and had a few minutes to spare, I headed over to Moscone Center to take a gander at the MacWorld Expo where Steve Jobs was in the process of giving one of his trademark keynote speeches that cause the entire tech world to hold its collective breath. Me? I was strangely disinterested. I just wanted the schwag from the booths and the free lunch ticket handed out to media members.
There was a huge crush of humanity waiting to be let into Moscone as soon as the keynote ended. Satellite trucks from the global press were beaming Steve's words to an eager world.
Being a master of "social engineering," I strode right in anyway and after a couple minutes had managed to procure a coveted media all-access badge (shown here with my name safely obscured). Bay Area bohemians pride themselves on being able to scam their way into any event.
I poked my head in to catch the end of the keynote speech. Steve was unveiling the new Intel-powered "MacBook Pro" laptops (pictured here). Apparently, the stock market rose sharply as a result of this announcement. Whatever. I went off to pick up my complimentary lunch.
Soon the doors were opened and the hordes poured in. For a while I floated on the tide of human flesh like a cork.
Everyone was agog at the new Intel Macs.
The only enthusiasm-free zone was the Microsoft booth, which was comparatively ill-attended and glum. Perhaps they realized like everyone else that Windows' days are numbered now that OSX can run on Intel machines.
Shoals of bodies five-deep strained to glimpse and touch the gleaming new MacBooks.
I was satisfied with my promotional hacky-sack ball. Not that I'd ever play hacky-sack or anything.
Back out in the real world, I finally discovered why conspiracy theorists always claim that the Jews control the media: a CBS news truck parked next to the convention center appeared to say "Eyewitness Jews." A-ha!
Next on my schedule was a stroll back downtown for an advance screening of the French/Austrian film Caché. (No photos allowed in the screening room -- sorry.) Though well-acted, the film left me baffled: seemingly an understated commentary on "class privilege" and Europe's guilt over its colonial past, the plot's message was so understated that only those already steeped in postmodern self-loathing could even begin to grasp the point. (Spoiler alert -- but I want to spoil the film for you anyway, so keep reading.) Caché follows a smug French intellectual as he passively and ineffectually "deals with" a mysterious stalker. (I.e. He sits around and worries.)
Our limp hero, his unhappy wife, and some blood-soaked Palestinians on the TV in the background for atmosphere.
When he finally guesses the culprit -- an Algerian man whom our hero knew when they were both young children -- we are treated to flashbacks of a rather trivial incident 45 years earlier when the six-year-old version of our hero pulled a childish prank on the Algerian boy. Apparently the boy, now grown up, wants to wreak revenge for this prank and its unintended consequences, and in the film's denouement the Algerian literally kills himself in front of our hero as a sort of bizarre moral victory. We are led to understand that our hero is supposed to feel intensely guilty, and that this tale is a miniaturized version of how the French in general are supposed to feel about their relationship with Algeria. (The director tips his political hand halfway through the film when a TV playing in the background of one scene shows -- completely out of context -- news reports of injured Palestinians battling with the Israeli Defense Forces.) At the end, the filmmakers want us to understand that the hero should commit suicide himself, or at best be condemned for having the cowardice to keep living.
In short, Caché seems to be a psychological explanation of why Europe needs to commit continental suicide: Europeans just don't deserve to keep existing after all the wrongs they've committed throughout history. So the message of the film is: if our victims become self-destructive, then we must become self-destructive too. I guess.
Back out in the light of day, I ran across this message affixed to a pole. And, on a gut level, it made more sense to me than the film I had just seen.
I hurried off to an appointment I had across town, near Van Ness. On the way, I passed the Starbucks at which a bomb was found the day before; a pipe-bomb apparently made out of dynamite was discovered in the bathroom just 24 hours earlier. The blog of one of the Starbucks employees present when the device was discovered has a surveillance picture (re-posted here) of a suspect arrested about two hours after I dashed by.
The would-be bomber.
For all I know, I might have looked right at the suspect, Ronald Schouten, since he was loitering not far from the scene of the crime. From his appearance and clothing, he might easily have been one of the anarchist-types who are suspected of vandalizing nearby Starbucks on previous occasions; or he could just be a crazy street bum. (An update on the case casts doubt on whether the "bomb" actually contained any explosives, and supports the "crazy bum" theory.)
After my appointment, I passed a house that had a Bush "liar liar pants on fire" doll hanging in a window.
In the next window was a child's drawing of apparently the same doll (notice the pant flames), proudly displayed to passersby.
I made my way back to Chinatown to do some shopping. One of the stores I went into had this picture-perfect shrine in a corner.
Afterwards, I stopped to have a snack in Portsmouth Square, which is where many of Chinatown's senior citizens hang out and socialize. The odd part is, much of the socializing seems to revolve around gambling. Scattered around the park were clusters of men and women playing cards or mah jongg, and if you sit long enough you'll notice that money changes hands after each deal.
One game seemed particularly popular with the spectators. People were standing on their toes to get a view of the action.
I went over to see what was so interesting. A gambler was dealing out cards on the ground -- it looked like either a standard three-card monte con or a hustler's variant of pai gow. Half the people there threw bills into the playing area as bets -- an astounding amount of money was flying around with every hand.
The centerpiece of the park is a contemporary bronze statue of the "Goddess of Democracy," modeled after a styrofoam original created by protesting students in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
As the presence of the statue implies, the majority of Chinatown residents -- being Cantonese speakers descended from 19th-century immigrants -- have little sympathy for the Mandarin-speaking centralized one-party Beijing government currently controlling mainland China. It is Double Ten Day -- commemorating the October 10th, 1911 uprising that led to the founding of the Republic of China, now considered Taiwan Independence Day -- that is celebrated in Chinatown, not the independence day of the People's Republic.
So when the organizers of San Francisco's Chinese New Year Parade recently banned the Falun Gong float from the parade, the accusations started to fly. And an uncomfortable little secret was finally brought to light: the San Francisco Chinese Chamber of Commerce receives funding -- and political dictates -- from the communist government in Beijing.
Falun Gong members have been protesting vociferously ever since -- joined, surprisingly, by Supervisor Chris Daly. (I say "surprisingly" because just a couple months ago Chris Daly was publicly supporting a Maoist revolutionary group.)
But none of these political tensions are visible in the park. The statue is ignored, as the ladies gamble at its feet.
As night fell, I left the park and paused to snap this famous scene of the old and the new at the foot of Columbus Avenue. I also took a second shot of the same scene but with a different exposure: when the two images are combined to form an animated gif a remarkable 3-D effect is produced in which the photo appears to have physical depth.
Next up was a private cocktail party that was supposedly only open to the "in crowd" of intellectual hipsters who fancy themselves the Bay Area's media elite. The place was packed with reporters, radio announcers, writers, TV producers and the like, all exuding that insufferable "ironic" neo-progressive snobbery that is endemic to certain Bay Area social circles. What the hell was I doing there? After only ten minutes of pompous chit-chat I realized my mistake and bailed out for home.
So, our little slice of life has come to a close. Another San Francisco day, like any other day. And tomorrow it begins all over again.
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