Friday, July 24, 2009

Some pictures I took last week of

W o o d s t o c k

(actually, from the archives of LIFE)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Homelessness and hobos, then and now

It's a fairly obvious elephant in the room: homelessness among working people is rising at an alarming rate in the US.

The Nation
magazine published a list of things of "Ten Things You Need to Know to Live on the Streets" the other day. Which is telling of our times, I suppose. Although you wouldn't know it due to the lack of media coverage.

I actually found an interesting story on Foxnews of all places:
"Campgrounds all over the country are seeing an alarming number of people pulling up with tents, campers and RV's with nowhere else to go. What once was a symbol of American fun in the sun has now become an affordable refuge for those with no place to live."

At any rate, FYI, brought to you by The Nation magazine, here's a fun guide to being homeless!

1 Be prepared to be blamed for your circumstances, no matter how much they may be beyond your control. Think of ways to disabuse the public of common misconceptions. Don't internalize cruelty or condescension. Let go of your pride--but hold on to your dignity.

2 There is no private space to which you may retreat. You are on display 24/7. Learn to travel light. Store valuables in a safe place, only carrying around what you really need: ID and documents for accessing services, a pen, etc. You can check e-mail and read at the library. You can get a post office box for a fee or use general delivery (free).

 3 Learn the best bathroom options, where you won't be rushed, turned away or harassed. Find restrooms where it's clean enough to put your stuff down, the stalls are big enough to change in and there's hot water so you can wash up. If you're in New York City go to Restrooms in New York.

 4 It's difficult to have much control over when, where and what you eat, so learn soup kitchen schedules and menus. Carry with you nuts, peanut butter or other foods high in protein. Click here to find a list of soup kitchens by state.

 5 Food and clothing are easier to find than a safe place to sleep--the first truth of homelessness is sleep deprivation. Always have a blanket. Whenever possible, sleep in groups with staggered schedules, so you can look out for one another, prioritizing children's needs over those of adults.

 6 Know your rights! Knowing constitutional amendments, legal precedents and human rights provisions can help you, even if they're routinely violated. In New York, for example, a 2003 court-ordered settlement strictly forbids selective enforcement of the law against the homeless. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement offers another resource, and the ACLU has cards, brochures, fact sheets and films.

 7 Learn police patterns and practices. Be polite and calm to cops, even when they don't give the same respect. Support initiatives demanding independent police accountability. Link with groups from overlapping populations of nonhomeless and homeless people (i.e., black, Latino, LGBT groups) that are fighting police brutality and building nonpolice safety projects, like the Audre Lorde Project's Safe OUTside the System in Brooklyn. Organize your own CopWatch--and photograph, videotape and publicize instances of police abuse. Consider and support models like the Los Angeles Community Action Network or the People's Self Defense Campaign of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in Brooklyn.

 8 The First Amendment protects your right to solicit aid (panhandling), especially if your pitch or sign is a statement rather than a request. To succeed, be creative, funny, engaging ("I didn't get a bailout!"). Find good, high-traffic spots where the police won't bother you.

 9 Housing is a human right! Squat. Forge coalitions with nonhomeless but potentially displaced people in this era of mass foreclosures. Support United Workers in Baltimore, the Coalition on Homelessness in San Francisco, the Nashville Homeless Power Project. Learn about campaigns against homelessness in other nations, including the Landless Workers' Movement in Brazil and the Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa.

10 Don't go it alone! Always be part of an informal network of trust and mutual aid. Start your own organization, with homeless people themselves shaping the fight for a better life and world. Check out the Picture the Homeless Blog for news, updates and reports on homelessness in NY.

Thinking about the #1 tip: "Be prepared to be blamed for your circumstances..." really made me internalize the stigmas and misconceptions that come with living on the streets. I've been giving more money to panhandlers recently, trying to put things into perspective by realizing that, while many of the homeless in San Francisco do choose to this lifestyle, several do not. And for them, I hope to build more compassion.

On a lighter note, here is a mock PBS documentary about hobo history as told by John Hodgman:

Poems about riding my bike yesterday

I was scared to ride the bike at that moment
There are just some things you're not supposed to do with a full stomach,
like swimming and jumping jacks and all things fun.
Mothers like to threaten us with promises of cramps
making us think about our stomach and its needs.
In the same way, friends now threaten me
re: my helmetless ways.
But I don't want to see the point in it.
Wearing a helmet steals my freedom.
Nothing but a death grip.

I left the grocery store with a plastic bag hanging on handlebars
In it a pint of milk, bread and strawberries.
I made my exit and the Hare Krishnas were chanting
but it only clashed against the white noise of a bustling city street.
I wanted them to stop, they made me nervous with their stares
and unsolicited public demonstration of faith.
A friend was mugged by a Hare Krishna in DC years ago.
I made my getaway, and the bag got caught in the spokes.
The carton sprung a leak, and the milk sprayed at 360 degrees.
I stopped in the street, took it out, and left it leaking next to the Krishnas.
Their stares now directed towards the milk, they went silent.
I win.

I've had a beer, at a pub, alone and with a book.
I've hopped on the bicycle, a little more confident than I should be.
The wind feels cooler through my hair, I have more strength to charge the hills.
I'll be home soon, and the journey will be more of a blur than usual.
I'm on my street, just one block away.
And a car door swings open, blocking my path.
In a flash, I am filled with terror and let out a scream.
The woman in the Honda is Asian.
She must be, because when she yells
it's like a Bruce Lee scream.
I've swerved well, and I think: boy is she lucky.
My hospital bill would've been huge.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Robert Frank: Cafe in Beaufort, South Carolina

A slice of Americana

"That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral, that’s what Robert Frank has captured in tremendous photographs taken as he traveled on the road around practically forty-eight states in an old used car (on Guggenheim Fellowship) and with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. For this he will definitely be hailed as a great artist in his field. After seeing these pictures you end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin. That’s because he’s always taking pictures of jukeboxes and coffins—and intermediary mysteries like the Negro priest swatting underneath the bright liquid belly mer of the Mississippi at Baton Rouge for some reason at dusk or early dawn with a white snowy cross and secret incantations never known outside the bayou—Or the picture of a chair in some cafĂ© with the sun coming in the window and setting on the chair in a holy halo I never thought could be caught on film much less described in its beautiful visual entirety in words."

--Jack Kerouac, from the introduction to the Robert Frank book of photographs entitled The Americans, published in 1959.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Failing celebrity pop quizzes, predicting the president

Two years ago, I was applying for a job with a blog site. The site was geared towards women: the gossipy, Cosmo-loving, Lifetime Network-watching types of women. Mainstream women, that wanted to read fluffy infotainment. But the blog was supposed to cover topical, political news (the Presidential elections were swiftly approaching). So I thought, 'Brilliant! Perhaps I can break through the apathy and boredom these types of women feel towards politics. I will make women smarter, through the brilliance of my writing!'

Alas. I was interviewed but did not get the job, as I failed a pop quiz on recent celebrity news.

Interviewer: So, do you stay up to date on celebrity news too?

Me: Yeah, you mean like Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie?

Interviewer: Yeah.

Me: Oh yeah, like, I read Britney Spears is kinda going crazy, like more so than usual. And, yeah, Brad and Angelina just adopted a kid from a third world nation. Again!

Interviewer: I didn't hear about that.

Me: Oh, yeah I
think they did. Or maybe they had one of their own, yeah, I think that was it, yeah I was just confused there for a second. Sorry.

So anyways. Before I scored and bombed the interview, I had to write a substantial writing sample based on several prompts that the blog people provided. One of which was to predict the top three presidential contenders. Mind you, this was written to be fun and goofy, and it was written in September of 2007:

1. Hillary Clinton: Ahead of high-profile challengers Barack Obama and John Edwards, Clinton is the Democrat to beat, and the GOP knows it. Even President Bush and Newt Gingrich think she’ll get her party’s nomination. Polls claiming voters don’t like her personality still haven’t stopped her from beating out the competition. Fun facts: she’s a Scorpio and her favorite color is Yellow. We could assume this is one passionate lady that looks to the sunny side of life.

2. Barack Obama: Barack Hussein Obama has arguably been attacked more than any other presidential candidate, but has still managed to trail Clinton by no more than 25 percentage points since January. Fellow candidates claim he lacks experience, conservatives question his Muslim background, and African American critics claim he isn’t “black enough”. But despite it all, his powerful speeches sometimes carry the news of the day. Fun fact: Currently a smoker, Obama claims he’ll quit when elected President since smoking is not allowed in the White House. Note to Barack: nicotine gum is sooo unpresidential.

3. Rudolph Giuliani: Although he started off in the race neck and neck with John McCain, and is now closely running against Fred Thompson, Giuliani has steadily held the lead among fellow Republican competitors since February. And even though many have criticized him for capitalizing on his 9/11 experience (the Onion’s article about the “President of 9/11” has been referenced by pundits), his favorability rating among voters is higher than any other candidate—including Democrats—at 59% according to Gallup. Fun facts: His favorite movie is the Godfather. Let’s hope the film hasn’t influenced his political career.

Two out of three ain't bad.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My new favorite song, and album

Well for the time being anyways: Cass McCombs' "You Saved My Life" from the album Catacombs, which came out a week ago. The video below was actually directed by Eric Fensler of "Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!" It's a far cry from the late night bizarro sketch comedy that is the "Awesome" show, but captures the emotional pull well, and especially proves moving at the end:

Monday, July 13, 2009

Hard Times

My new favorite way to waste time, Zefrank's "Hard Times":

On worshiping false idols

I really don't feel any sense of loss with the death of Michael Jackson. Not because I was never a fan of his music, or was never able see the cultural impact of his work. I mean, what would the world of pop music be without the sonic mastery of Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake!

You cannot convince me, however, that the man behind the star: the father, "babysitter" or general "friend of children," the man that had nicknamed his child "blanket" and nearly threw the infant off of a balcony as a cute publicity stunt, will leave his family any less off as he shuffles off the 'ole mortal coil. The same man who was tried on multiple counts of child molestation and conspicuously settled for outrageous sums of money, who readily admitted to sleeping with children and showed not one ounce of remorse or fear of judegment; the same man who even named his daughter after himself and, by all accounts, did not have a sexual relationship with his children's mother and most likely was gay and attracted to young boys. I am sorry to those who want to indulge in '80s nostalgia and listen to his songs now made bittersweet, but I will never accept the notion that an artist's place in the course of pop history could ever cancel out gross abuse of children in any way, shape or form. And it is no less than absurd that, when I bring these issues with Jackson up to any of my friends, they feel the need to point out his "loss of childhood" as a prepubescent superstar. As if it were an adequate excuse to molest children as an adult.

And the Reverend Al Sharpton, the nerve of this cretin to latch on to the sensitivity of the fans and family that seiged downtown Los Angeles by inventing a half-baked conspiracy that the media was out to tarnish his dear saint's image! What a show! What an act of pure revisionist drivel! Sharpton has a fabulous flair for the dramatic--they don't call him a reverned for nothing:

"I am here because of the disgraceful and the despicable way some elements of the media have tried to destroy the legacy and image of Michael Jackson. You have had other entertainers that have had issues in their life. But you [the media] did not degrade and denigrate them...Show the same respect for Michael and Michael's family that you showed Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. I don't think the media understand who Michael was. I don't think they have any cultural significance."

Right. Because we all know that Elvis and Sinatra also slept with children at their ranch full of roller coasters and chimpanzees.

And how does the media respond? In typical fashion, by hearing no evil and speaking no evil. They reap his childhood for accounts of child labor and exploitation, swoon over his steady rise in the world of pop music, and quickly tip toe over a few "controversies" here and there. The day MJ died, the MSM died yet another death. Here we have it, folks, CNN reduced to playing this "E! True Hollywood Story" on repeat.

NYT columnist Bob Herbert wrote a brilliant peice on how the media's treatment of MJ's death is a fair analogy or reflection of this age of denial, the one in which American prefers the reality of "reality" television--that is, fiction masquerading as reality, to that of, well, actual reality.

Reality is unforgiving. There is no escape. Behind the Jackson facade was the horror of child abuse. Court records and reams of well-documented media accounts contain a stream of serious allegations of child sex abuse and other inappropriate behavior with very young boys. Jackson, a multimillionaire megastar, was excused as an eccentric. Small children were delivered into his company, to spend the night in his bed, often by their parents.

One case of alleged pedophilia against Jackson, the details of which would make your hair stand on end, was settled for a reported $25 million. He beat another case in court.

The Michael-mania that has erupted since Jackson’s death — not just an appreciation of his music, but a giddy celebration of his life — is yet another spasm of the culture opting for fantasy over reality. We don’t want to look under the rock that was Jackson’s real life.

As with so many other things, we don’t want to know.

And if you think I'm out of line here, consider this: seven US troops died in Afghanistan on the same day that Michael Jackson overdosed on pills. Seven men went through significant pain in the line of duty, while a neurotic pop star overdosed on pills. But who cares about those guys right? None them could moonwalk, or dated Lisa Marie Presley, or hold any Guinness Book of World Records titles in cosmetic surgery.

Off into obscurity go the sacrificial lambs...

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Here's a thought: try being less of an asshole

I think I may have to add a new feature to the old blog and chain, entitled "Here's a thought: try being less of an asshole." The other day I decided I really wanted a job I had applied for, and passed on, two years ago. I don't want to name names, but this would have been a kickass publication to work for. The person who had this position left because she got hired for Wired magazine. So I very sweetly, and oh-so-cordially, decided to check in to see how the editor who almost hired me was doing, and to let him know that I would like to be kept in mind for future job positions. Here is his response:


Thanks for checking in. We don’t have any openings. In fact, we had to lay off the associate editor earlier this year because of budget cuts at Stanford. I don’t anticipate any changes to our economic condition for at least a year.

Good luck,

(name withheld)

It's not really that rude. But, if you can imagine the font size twice as large as shown here, you can see that it was toooootally unnecessary.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


Besides your standard alcohol-induced day-after illness of headache and nausea, there are so many other types that I have been pondering as of late (as I write this with aforementioned, standard hangover). There is a food hangover (which in my case typically follows another medical condition known as "burrito regret"), there is the love hangover (that is, when the unflattering lens of rationality takes hold to reveal irritating idiosyncrasies), there is a movie called "The Hangover" which I haven't heard anything good about so it's probably crappy, and then there's the economic hangover. The economic hangover can take on many forms, and, if one is looking for it, one cannot escape is especially inescapable these days.

The picture at the bottom of this post should provide the perfect symbol of an economic hangover. It is of the failing construction project of the Echelon resort in Las Vegas, an ambitious $4 billion plan to build a casino the size of two football fields, four hotels with 5,300 rooms, and 25 restaurants. Construction was postponed last August for 3 to 4 fiscal quarters (yeah, I'm sure the project will be up and running any day now), and was supposedly set to finish in 2010. The developers fancied it a grand, classy affair, with the hopes of giving the Venetian a run for its money. But before they could get to work, they had a little celebratory destruction, doing it up all-American style, they set some fireworks and decimated the historic Stardust Casino, as it was impeding on their now ill-fated vision.

I shall not shed a tear if the grand plans for the Echelon never come to fruition. Especially not after discovering the following footage of the Stardust's implosion at the hands of the Echelon developers in March of 2007. When it opened in 1958, the Stardust was the largest casino in Las Vegas history, it launched the careers Siegfried and Roy and was a major venue for Andrew Dice Clay and Wayne Newton for years. It's sign became an icon of the strip itself, and of the jazzy '50s Rat Pack-influenced era of Las Vegas itself.

First, witness the excitement of the Stardust's untimely death:

And now, the ultimate hangover, coming to the Las Vegas strip in the form of a completely abandoned construction site:

Hangovers can be a real bitch.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy Independence Day!

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Emilio Gutierrez Soto (R) meets with reporters following his release in January

Heroes of Mexico

I've been trying to read a lot about what's going on with America's neighbors to the south recently. I feel that most Americans, disturbingly, are completely unaware of just how quickly things are spiraling out of control. Tijuana is no longer a haven for frat boys on Spring Break, Swine Flu is not what's killing most citizens at an alarming rate; the chilling onslaught of disappeared women in Juarez is probably the least of the country's worries.

Quick facts:

-- In 2008, more than 6,000 Mexicans died from drug violence, a larger loss than the total number of American troops that were killed in Iraq. Some estimates are higher (by some 1,000 Mexican lives).

--Since 2000, two dozen reporters have been officially reported as murdered, and at least seven have been recorded missing. An unknown number have fled to the U.S.

--More than 150 people from Mexico, including police officers, businessmen and at least one prosecutor, have sought asylum since October 2007, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials in El Paso.

Just this month, Mother Jones magazine published--rather admirably under the circumstances--the grizzly story of Emilio Gutierrez Soto, a former reporter for El Diario in northern Chihuahua state, who's head is wanted by nearly everyone in his home country: the Mexican Government, the Army and the drug cartels (all of whose members are practically interchangeable anyhow). While he has successfully filed for political asylum and now lives in the U.S., his head is no less being hunted.

I say MoJo is admirable here, as scant news outlets have told this very symbolic, very prescient tale of Mexico and its base human rights abuses towards this poor journalist. Gutierrez Soto has kept his head down; his eyes and ears shut when it comes to the gross corruption and barbarism that he has witnessed. He isn't an insatiable muckraker, he knows the stakes, and besides, he has a young son to think about. His only misstep may have been the fact that he never accepted any bribes from anyone, and he refused to publish "corrections" to his stories when certain authorities threatened or bribed him to do so.

Stories that got him in trouble included one in which he reported that the mayor had peed in a gutter after leaving a club (intentionally leaving out the fact that the mayor was exiting the club with known drug pin leaders), and one in which he reported that a drug counselor was fired from the local school district. At that point, Gutierrez Soto was a wanted man. But what really tipped the scales, and what sent hordes of henchman after the journalist and single father, was a story involving the Army. One day, six Mexican soldiers stormed a run down boarding house, looting and stealing food and jewelry from migrant workers. The citizen reporter could not resist the urge to help in any way he could. After he broke the story, there was no turning back. Gutierrez Soto quickly went into hiding, and soon realized that his only option, should he want to live, was to get out of the country and seek asylum in the U.S.

Seven months later, Gutierrez was released from a Texas detention center run by Deco, Inc. And it is not speculative to say that if Obama was not elected into office, it never would have happened since the Bush administration's policies were such that all those from Mexico seeking political asylum be detained immediately; many indefinitely.

Gutierrez Soto's attorney, Carlos Spector, told the Washington Post:

"I think that once the Obama administration came in and laid out their policies and their vision, that we were going back to what America is all about, due process...The Bush administration was characterized by silence, non-accountability and inhumane treatment of detainees."

The story by Mother Jones is highly illuminating, and at times feels very personal. The following quote is haunting, and completely saddened me (the reporter describes Gutierrez Soto):

"He sees Mexico as genetically corrupt. A corrupt Aztec ruling class fused with the trash of Spain, the conquistadors. This thesis helps him face the reality around him.

'In Mexico,' he says, 'we operate in disguise. There is one face and under that is another mask. Nothing is up-front.'"

I feel for this man, and the many brave, honest Mexican citizens that make this journey to the north and succeed. They should be celebrated as heroes--not detained, for they know that staying in their homeland is tantamount to a death sentence; yet they move forward, and tell their stories anyhow.