Her Charming Passion: Wendy Lesser's Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books
To be honest, I was a bit suspicious as I approached Wendy Lesser's Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 212 pages). It's not that Ms. Lesser—founder and editor of The Threepenny Review, author of nine previous books (including one novel, The Pagoda in the Garden), and a prolific literary critic herself—lacks the credentials to write a long, meditative study of the passion she has made her career. (Quite the contrary; I can imagine few more qualified than her.) Rather, I was worried that, by virtue of her position vis-a-vis books and literature and the Professional Writing Life, such a study in her hands would be rendered too cloistered, too pedantic, in a word, too unpleasurable to appeal to anyone but those lucky enough to get paid to read. A cursory flip through the contents only confirmed my fears: portentous chapter titles such as "Novelty," "Authority," and "The Space Between"; paragraphs full of pithy descriptions of often unfamiliar texts. How could any of this hope to capture, much less add to, the undefinable, the ineffable, the complex yet simple joy we all feel when we read a good book?
"It's not a question I can completely answer," Lesser writes, beginning her prologue as if in anticipation of my worries, thus inviting us into what she hopes will be a conversation between our ideas and hers: "You are my silent partner in this enterprise. As I make observations and assertions, you give your assent or withhold it, according to your own opinions. Sometimes I may persuade you, and sometimes you may resist. In either case, the conversation continues for as long as you are reading this book, and possibly after."
It is this sense of inclusion, Lesser's assent to the great and mysterious democratic pull of literature, as well as her unbridled enthusiasm for the written word, that fuels Why I Read. In seven loosely linked chapters that she describes as "something like a spiral, on which you and I are progressing upward (or perhaps downward) but also round and round," Lesser explores various issues that keep her (or, alternatively, prevent her from) turning the page. Familiar topics like tension and suspense are touched upon alongside more unexpected subjects such as the merits of innovation versus tradition in literature, or how different translators can ultimately affect the final text. Throughout, Lesser peppers her discussion (er, conversation) with a wide array of examples, pulling from a lifetime's worth of reading broad enough to include not just literature and prose, but also theatre and poetry and genre fiction, too.
The result is invigorating. Although her tastes continually bring her back to several of her favorites (Dostoyevsky and Henry James seem to find a place in nearly every chapter), Lesser never lingers on one topic or author too long, preferring instead to jump around like an impassioned lecturer stubbornly circling her central question of why. For instance, on the issue of writerly authority, that power the author wields to convince her readers of her world, Lesser moves confidently between well-known writers such as Proust and D. H. Lawrence to more obscure authors like Alexander Herzen and Shashi Bhat. The experience can sometimes be dizzying, an effect Lesser acknowledges in her prologue, but more often it is illuminating, allowing us to form connections across books and writers we otherwise might have not.
It is to Lesser's credit that she is able to do this while maintaining a critical voice that is both authoritative and friendly, unafraid to go against popular opinion in order to pinpoint what, for her, makes literature work. She writes of how she considers it a flaw that W. G. Sebald's characters are all simply versions of himself, and how "a similar flaw afflicts an even greater writer, Franz Kafka, whose strongest works are almost unbearable because of the airlessness of their self-enclosure." She calls Joyce's Ulysses "a novel that has always gotten on my nerves," and admits to having a profound affection for Norman Mailer's nonfiction writing, even while finding the voice of his fiction "crude and undeveloped."
Likewise, Lesser does not shy away from critiquing herself: "I have been making so many broad assertions that my readers may well feel their credulity exhausted," she writes in the midst of her chapter on authority. Rather than undermine her arguments, though, such statements help draw us closer to Lesser the reader, grappling with the ultimate unknowability of what makes reading so stubbornly appealing, why it continues to endure. "It is impossible," Lesser writes, "for any one person, or even a large collection of people, to make literary judgments that will last for all time, or even a lifetime. Knowing this, I have determined to practice to the full my right to be wrong." It is a difficult stance to disagree with, and one that, throughout, makes her passion, her pleasure, felt.
The Rewards (and Risks) of the Difficult: Ben Marcus's Leaving the Sea
Ben Marcus is a man who prefers not to put things too easily. Since his first book was published almost twenty years ago, The Age of Wire and String
, a collection of stories that could have also been prose poems or even guides to some other plane, Marcus has carved a career out of writing complex, formally inventive fictions that seem to confuse just as many readers as they impress. In 2005, after Harper's published an essay in which Marcus defended difficult and experimental fiction from the likes of Jonathan Franzen and the Atlantic Monthly's B. R. Myers, Marcus became an unofficial spokesperson—some might even say a symbol—for writing that was innovative, demanding, and different from the mainstream. "If you happen to be interested in the possibilities of language," Marcus wrote, "if you appreciate the artistic achievements of others but still dream for yourself, however foolishly, that new arrangements are possible, new styles, new concoctions of language that might set off a series of delicious mental explosions—if you believe any of this, and worse, if you try to practice it, you are an elitist. You hate your audience, you hate the literary industry, and you probably hate yourself. You stand not with the people, but in a quiet dark hole, shouting to no one."
After this explosion, many were surprised when, in 2012, Marcus came out with his most accessible work to date, The Flame Alphabet
. Adhering mostly to the rules of linear narrative, complete with a cast of characters and a suspenseful plot, it marked a stylistic shift away from his earlier books. Marcus's usual themes (family, language, metaphor) are still present, as is the particular strangeness of his world, but both the fierce experimental wordplay and the emphasis on an unconventional structure were tempered down. So with the release of his latest story collection, Leaving the Sea
(Knopf, 271 pages), just last month, a question lingering on the lips of many of his fans was, will Marcus continue down this path, or will he return to his more experimental roots? The answer, as it turns out, is Yes.
Astute followers of Marcus will have already known this, since a majority of the fifteen stories included in Leaving the Sea
have been showing up in magazines and literary journals, in one form or another, since at least early 2000. Two of them ("The Moors" and "The Father Costume") have even appeared as their own books. This is telling: the range Marcus exhibits throughout the collection bears direct witness to the last decade of his writing's development.
The book—divided into six sections that are ordered, loosely, into a reverse chronology—begins with a quartet of his latest, and therefore most accessible, stories. "What Have You Done?" is about Paul, a frustrated, embittered, overweight man, who comes home to Cleveland to visit a family he's so estranged from, so angry and distrustful at, that he spends his entire time second-guessing their every action, convinced that they hate him just as much as he hates them. What is the source of such animosity? Why does this dark current run through his life? Marcus prefers not to answer, instead allowing the mystery to course through the story until we, too, feel Paul's dread.
Marcus is a master at employing this kind of character—disaffected and angry, but ultimately helpless outside their own heads—toward very different ends. In what might be the collection's most amusing story, "I Can Say Many Nice Things," a man boards a cruise ship to teach a creative writing course, where his students prove to be underwhelming:
A woman named Shay started the critique. She shrugged, said she had trouble believing it, and then paused, failing to elaborate. That did rather sum things up, Fleming thought. Sort of a brave piece of thinking. Maybe true of almost everything created ever: paintings, books, houses, bridges, certain people. None of them are finally believable, when you really think about it. But, well, there they were.
One can practically feel Marcus's humor—sharp, black, barbed—bleeding through his prose.
More stories in this uncomfortable realist mode follow, and then, by the book's second section (and beyond), we begin to enter more familiar Marcus territory. There is a pair of stories framed as faux academic dialogues between leaders of bizarre cults, bringing to my mind David Foster Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men." There is another about a man watching television with his mother, the whole time obsessing over the existential, as well as the eminently practical, questions that surround her eventual death ("If I want my mother to survive, as I continue to say that I do, so she is not discovered dead in her apartment, should I not hire a companion for her?"). Then, in "The Loyalty Protocol," another iteration of the helpless, ineffectual man struggles against the indifferences of the world around him while society takes precautions against some unknown, but seemingly imminent, threat. In each of these, Marcus shrouds his narratives in states of anxiety, all the while stubbornly refusing to answer any questions of why or what. There will be some readers who will find these stories confounding, yet there will also be others who will find solace in Marcus's remarkable ability to locate stores of honesty within even the coldest corners of the page: "He thought of himself as deeply empathic—if mainly toward himself. In theory he held a strong share of empathy in reserve for a stranger he had yet to meet."
Still, Marcus does his best not to make the trip too easy. Anyone expecting a break from the dystopic or dark will be disappointed by the more experimental pieces that appear later on in the book. "The Father Costume" describes a world in which language takes the form of fabric, and sounds are barked into a "stippled leather box." This is typical Marcus, inventing phrases such as, "Sadness could be stored in an area, sealed in a small spot of water. Water could be the costume for what my brother felt." The writing here stretches into the imaginative boundaries of language, butting right up against our own incredulity, but even it starts to wither under the weight of the collection's bitter mood. By the time I had reached the title story, a deafening sentence that sprawls out over six pages of dense text, I felt too exhausted by the effort to go on.
But of course I did, and devotees of Marcus will be delighted by the strange turns and linguistic games that occur as Leaving the Sea
ends. Or maybe they won't. This is the thing with Ben Marcus, why he remains such a vital, if often divisive, figure in literature twenty years into his career: through a process of continual invention, through an uncompromising and utterly stalwart belief that writing is meant to be a statement of originality and a refutation of banality, Marcus creates a world that is his, and unmistakably his, even if (or perhaps especially if) it discomforts us until we squirm. This is what fiction is, I would argue, what good fiction is, when an author chooses to keep pushing against the envelope, against simple language, in their effort to show us whatever they see.
A Transgendered Youth's Search for Self: Kim Fu's For Today I Am a Boy
Over the past several years, the transgender perspective—once a marginal voice even within the LGBT community—has gradually emerged into the mainstream. In 2003, Jeffrey Eugenides' novel Middlesex
helped raise awareness of gender identity issues when it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Elsewhere, transgender actress Laverne Cox has found acclaim on Orange is the New Black
, and actor Jared Leto recently won an Oscar for his depiction of a transgender woman in "Dallas Buyer's Club." Recognition is not tantamount to acceptance—for this, a long road still lies ahead—but Kim Fu has chosen an auspicious time for her first novel, For Today I Am a Boy
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 242 pages).
The story, which takes place in Canada, is about Peter Huang, the only son of Chinese immigrants, and his three sisters, Adele, Helen, and Bonnie. Peter's father, an aloof and demanding man, is determined to distance his family from their Chinese past and subsume completely into their new culture. To this end, Cantonese is forbidden in the house, traditional Chinese soup, mistakenly cooked by the mother, is poured out on the lawn, and Peter, as his father's male heir, is expected to become an ideal of Western masculinity. However, even at a young age, Peter realizes he is different. Playing with his sisters, he cries when he learns he should be handsome, "like Father or Bruce Lee," and says he just wants to be pretty like them. Later, when he is caught in the cruel games of schoolyard boys, he confesses that "Boys were ugly and foreign, like another species. Like baboons. I was not one of them. The evidence was right there, all the time, tucked into my tight underwear, but I still didn't believe it. I didn't have one of those things, that little-boy tab of flesh."
Broken up into a series of short, disjointed sections (many as short as a paragraph, some as short as a sentence) that bring to mind Marguerite Duras' The Lover
, Fu snakes her way through Peter's childhood as he chafes against his father's discipline and questions his emerging desires. When he is caught wearing a frilly apron and cooking his family's meals (a chore delegated to his younger sister Bonnie, not to him), his father takes the apron outside and burns it, then tells Peter to swallow a charred piece. Although such cruel treatment leaves Peter feeling conflicted, it ultimately cannot suppress who he is. Cajoled by a high school classmate to go lift weights at his gym, Peter sees a poster of a lithe woman pasted onto the wall. "How do you look like that?" he wonders out loud.
Fu's writing throughout is delicate and measured, and she excels at showcasing the subtle interior life of Peter as he gradually discovers who he is. Upon meeting Chef, who gives him a job as a dishwasher, Peter feels his first blush of sexual attraction:
"You call me Chef." He tilted his head. "Your jacket is buttoned wrong." His fingers settled on my chest. He undid the buttons, pulled the jacket straight, and rebuttoned it on the other side. It took a long time. I could smell his hair, a sharp, cold scent, like the air before it snows. Like the walk-in freezer. He ended by patting the jacket smooth. "Men button it on the left. Women on the right."
Fu is unafraid to let her descriptive language do what other writers might have simply had their characters think or say, allowing us to see Peter emerge more naturally. His gaze often falls on clothing or on the curves and contours of someone else's skin, which feels fitting considering he's not comfortable in his own. And while his observations are meticulous, Fu is careful to keep Peter's voice quiet and insecure. Only occasionally, such as when Peter is considering Chef (saying he might love him "as zealously as a supplicant loves a god"), does the writing become overwrought.
Similarly, Fu seems aware that, while her topic is timely and (at least for now) unconventional, she risks telling yet another iteration of the coming-of-age tale. To this end, she has broadened the narrative beyond Peter by mirroring his central questions of identity and self-acceptance in other characters, too. His father's failure to disappear completely into another culture and forget his past trickles down not only to the son but to the daughters as well. Adele makes an ill-fated move to Germany, where she falls victim to her lover's abuse. Helen closes herself off from the rest of the family in pursuit of her career. Bonnie, the youngest, gets caught in a world of sex and debauchery. Even their mother, who is nearly invisible as the novel begins, emerges halfway through to reclaim the identity her husband has long kept from her. Although Fu does not sketch these narratives as completely as Peter's (at times, they feel tacked on), they nevertheless help elevate the novel's second half into a more expansive consideration of not just a person, but a family that is trying to come to terms with itself.
Peter eventually meets a group of kids a decade younger than him who have never had to confront similar questions of identity, who have been raised in inclusive environments and studied gender and queer theory as a matter of course. Peter, whose struggle has lasted, by this point, over thirty years, can't believe it, and goes on to deliver one of the book's most moving lines. "You couldn't just rename yourself," he says, "you couldn't tear down the skyline and rebuild and think there wouldn't be consequences." Fu's accomplishment isn't just making this line believable for Peter, but for everyone in the novel—indeed, anyone at all—who is somehow seeking to define themselves.
Books, Not Just the Characters, Are the Point: Rodrigo Rey Rosa's Severina
In his introduction to Rodrigo Rey Rosa's Severina (Yale University Press, 112 pages), poet and translator Chris Andrews writes that for readers expecting the "baroque exuberance" of fellow Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, Rey Rosa's fiction will come as a surprise. Not only does Rey Rosa eschew the colorful language of his predecessor for more restrained and economical prose, he allows dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations to regularly puncture his character's worlds. In this respect, Andrews observes, the writer who Rey Rosa remains the most in debt to is Jorge Luis Borges.
Reading Severina—only the fifth of Rey Rosa's many works to be translated into English thus far (a task begun by Paul Bowles)—one cannot help but also draw comparisons to more contemporary Latin American authors, such as Roberto Bolaño, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and César Aira. Like them, Rey Rosa enjoys using the forms of genre fiction (particularly mysteries) to mask stories whose real subjects aren't their tantalizing series of events, but the subtler, more inscrutable themes hidden within.
Severina follows the narration of a lovelorn owner of an eclectic bookstore, who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman who comes to his store to steal books. He looks forward to her visits, and, for a while, tacitly indulges her habit, but eventually confronts her in the act. When he chooses to let her go, a flirtation opens up between them. He soon finds himself drawn into her strange orbit, and then into delirious love.
Her name is Ana Severina Bruguera Blanco, but he is sure of little else. She speaks with an unidentifiable accent—it could be Argentinian, or perhaps Uruguayan, he thinks—although she is listed as Honduran at the hotel where she stays. She is traveling with an older man, Otto Blanco, who a fellow bookseller (and fellow victim of her thefts) claims is her husband. But Otto could also be her father, or grandfather, or just some shady character in hiding with her. And then there is the question of why she steals in the first place—is it out of some sort of compulsion, like a sickness, or does she have another hidden reason? If so, what could it be?
"I kept going over the books she had taken from me and trying to imagine the complete list of every title she had ever stolen," the narrator says. "It was as if I thought this would solve the mystery of a life that seemed bizarre and fantastic to me." Rey Rosa builds the drama—the mystery—of their story through a steady escalation of tension and suspense. Peppered throughout, like discrete pauses, are the small lists the narrator makes of each stolen book. The effect is two-fold. First, it tantalizes the reader by supplying a set of what appears to be inscrutable clues as to Ana Severina's nature and her motive to steal. More importantly, by refusing interpretation, the lists help to quietly move the narrative beyond the book's surface plot and refocus it on the story's real, underlying theme: literature.
The books, not the characters, are the point. In a passionate speech, Otto Blanco tells the narrator: "There are wars between different kinds or genres of books. And, as in real wars, the best don't always win. We use these ebbs and flows the way a sailor uses ocean currents. We exploit them as best we can, beyond literary good and evil, so to speak. We, that is, [Ana] and I, are still navigating the tides and currents of books." The narrator, perhaps blinded by his love for Ana, does not fully accept the significance of Otto's words until, in the midst of a tense moment toward the end, he and Ana stop to read Reminders of Bouselham backward, sentence by sentence, since "that's how it was written." Afterward, he realizes that she has become a pure object of pleasure for him, like books. "You're more interested in books than me, aren't you?" he asks her, then regrets it immediately.
In what could be seen as a subtle hint for the reader, instructing him how to proceed, the narrator remarks at the beginning that "Those were eventful days, or rather I heard that they'd been eventful (there was a rash of lynchings in the inland villages and a coup in a neighboring country, cocaine became the world's number one illicit substance, stagnant water was discovered on Mars, and Pluto definitely lost its status as a planet), my life having shrunk once more to the ambit of books." It is this "ambit of books" to which Severina eventually returns: a single text, intimately connected to none other than Borges himself, provides the novel with its end. It's a fitting conclusion, not just because of Rey Rosa's affinity for Borges' work, but because like so many of Borges' best stories, Severina is a nuanced but passionate homage to the act of reading, to a life lived, as the narrator finally puts it, "exclusively for and by books."
A Bag of Wheat, a Flood, a Fold-Out Couch: The Moth StorySLAM in San Francisco
In 1997, in hopes of recreating the experience of swapping stories with his friends on long summer nights in Georgia, poet and novelist George Dawes Green founded The Moth. Since its first event, held in the living room of Green's New York City apartment, The Moth has grown into an influential organization known for bringing out original and affecting stories from everyday people around the world. The stories can be funny, or sad, or dramatic, or light, but, above all else, they must be true. The rules are simple: start with the theme for the night, come up with a story drawn from your own authentic experience, hone it until the stakes are real and the consequences apparent, and keep it within the constrained time. Then, if you are picked and get to climb up on stage, no notes are allowed.
This basic, but fundamental, formula has spawned multiple iterations of The Moth. There's The Moth Mainstage, which invites well-known artists, scientists, and celebrities (Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell, and Dan Savage have all spoken), as well as anyone with anything interesting to say, to tell their story, many of which are available to watch online. There's The Moth Radio Hour and The Moth Podcast, both of which collect the best Moth stories and sometimes even dig deeper, exploring how those stories came to be. There's a book that features adaptations of stories that have previously been performed, as well as several Moth community and education programs. But on a recent Monday night at the Rickshaw Shop, an event space decorated with bicycles and drab couches in San Francisco's Hayes Valley, I had come to what was perhaps their most inclusive, interactive, and widespread program of all: the open-mic Moth StorySLAM.
The night's theme was "Escapes." The host pulled a name out of a brown cloth bag, announced it, and a short woman, her brunette hair tied up into a bun, emerged from the crowd. Each StorySLAM allows only ten storytellers to take the stage, though often many more will submit their names. This woman had the daunting task of being the first. With a slight nervous warble that slowly dissolved as she went on, she told a moving story of running away from her father and his alcoholism as a teen, only to be picked up by a series of truck drivers, who eventually, and unexpectedly, delivered her back home. She finished just before her allotted five minutes were up, and soon a petite woman in her sixties took her place. Sporting bright silver hair and a sweater that hung off her in elegant waves, she began, tantalizingly, with, "I once was exchanged for a bag of wheat." What followed over the next five minutes (plus one extra as she rushed toward her end) was a story about visiting Russia from her native Ukraine, her illicit thesis, and a stern border officer who would not let her through. When she was done, another story came. And then another. And another. In little over an hour, ten stories had been plucked from the crowd.
Although the performers displayed a range of different styles and techniques, they each unraveled a narrative that was undoubtedly and authentically theirs, fully clothed in their personal quirks. One woman told a story of the chickens she owned as a young girl, her eyes widening each time she described them, as if everything she said had just happened to her. An energetic, middle-aged man inhabited two characters at once, moving from one side of the mic to another with quick, fluid steps, as he described his relationship with a troubled student. A fireman, tall and athletic with a sharp, angled chin, had to stop himself as he described the aftermath of a gruesome accident early in his career. Tears welled up in his eyes as he remembered, then his gaze dropped. Several audience members had to look away.
The best stories of the night were able to combine elements of theatre with the intimacies of conversation, and then surprise the audience with sharp narrative turns. I was drawn into the details of one man's story as he wryly described a harrowing camping trip he took in a canyon with an old girlfriend. There was a cut finger, a flood, a race to get out, then a rescue as the water continued to rise. By the story’s conclusion, though, with a few clever, well-placed lines, he had deftly moved from the fast-paced action to a more nuanced remembrance of his failed relationship. The night's winning story belonged to Mark Voshrow, a tall, lanky man in his twenties who spoke with an excitable, intoxicant glee. He spent his five minutes recounting, with increasing urgency, the time when his friend accidentally got him stuck in a fold-up couch. His fingers lost feeling and his lungs lost air, but eventually a neighbor came and—as Voshrow illustrated with his whole body, swinging his long arms around—released him from his cage. The comedy (as well as the significance) of this action quickly became devastating as Voshrow reached the end of his story and turned it on its head. His story earned him his prize and a slot at The Moth's San Francisco GrandSLAM Championship at the Castro Theater in April.
Before the night was over, the host invited up all the storytellers who were not picked to recite what would have been their first sentences. One by one, they approached the mic: some sheepishly, some with a noticeably teasing delight. The effect was invigorating, reminding us of the emergent possibilities of stories, of the questions that lay within them, the way they somehow open up the world. With that, the audience filed out into the evening, where the air hummed with the first warmth of spring. Around me, I could already hear people sharing their stories.
Each Element Building to an Exuberant Whole: tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel
On a recent Monday evening at the Chapel, a gabled music venue built last year in San Francisco's Mission District, a crowd gathered beneath the venue's bejeweled chandeliers and curved stacks of speakers to hear the Oakland folk-indie act tUnE-yArDs. It was the band's first stage appearance in over a year and a half, as well as the debut performance of their highly anticipated third album, "Nikki Nack," and the excitement was evident. Cheers rose and fell and hands stretched out and waved as the house music blared above. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and the audience began shuffling under lights switching vigorously between green and blue and red, but nobody left. If the band was intentionally prolonging their entrance, then the crowd felt confident they were worth the wait.
Despite their typographically challenging name, tUnE-yArDs have turned into a formidable and consistently exciting presence on the independent music scene. Merrill Garbus began the project in 2009 as a solo venture when she self-released her first album, "BiRd-BrAiNs" (stylistic playfulness is a trademark) as a cassette tape, which the independent music label 4AD later put out as a limited edition LP. Consisting nearly exclusively of looped and layered vocals recorded on a dictation machine, Garbus's record drew immediate acclaim, both for its stark originality (there was no bass because, as she succinctly put it, she "literally didn't own one") and her powerful, elastic voice. In 2011, Garbus released her second album, "w h o k i l l." It was a much more fleshed out affair that continued to build upon the expansive range of her voice, while adding more sounds—Garbus got her bass, as well as a ukulele—to the mix. The result was a record populated by asynchronous, free-floating beats with influences as far flung as rock and R&B to Gypsy rhythms and modulated jazz, all of it anchored by Garbus's sonorously complex (and often political) lyrics. The Village Voice ranked it at the top of its influential Pazz and Jop critic's poll that year.
For her latest album, Garbus took a trip to Haiti, where she wrote about trying to situate herself in a "non-musical western tradition." The fruits of this labor were evident on Monday night when Garbus and the rest of her colorful bandmates finally took to the stage. Wearing a tight dress stitched together from lengths of turquoise fabric and red latex, complete with crinkled gold lamé sleeves, Garbus was flanked by her usual bassist, Nate Brenner, along with a dedicated drummer and two additional backup singers who stood and danced dutifully in the rear. A drumstick in each hand and a keyboard to her side, Garbus began beating on her toms while she sang tentatively into her mic. The room was receptive, and soon her entire band had erupted into a polyrhythmic cacophony of syncopated beats that somehow managed to remain elusively melodic, even while it twisted and turned in unpredictable ways.
At times, the performance resembled the most well-rehearsed and inventive drum circle ever put on, which speaks to how well Garbus has melded her Haitian influences with her own sound. No guitar or piano (save for a sparsely used synthesizer) was present. Instead, each song would begin with a simple beat or note sung into a mic. Garbus would then loop and layer and build upon this until her band was assaulting the audience with an infectious wall of screamed vocals and energetic thumps that could be compared to little else in contemporary music. All of this was even more amazing since, in spite of the complex starts and stops and lurid rhythms snaking through each song, they relied on the simple construction of a bass and drums. And, as in her previous efforts, Garbus's own voice—sounding sometimes soulful, sometimes abrasive and bright—brought together each element into a cohesive and organic whole.
Talking about tUnE-yArDs' music can carry the risk of precisely describing each individual part without ever doing duty to their result. Such is the fate of originality, one could argue, especially with an art that borrows as cleverly from multifarious, distant elements as tUnE-yArDs does. In his review of their second album, New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere-Jones resorted to describing it as "music that comes from a country whose name you struggle to remember." However, if there is one quality worth isolating above all else, it is the enduring energy with which tUnE-yArDs' music is written, composed, and performed. Despite their occasional abrasiveness, Garbus and her band are exuberant on stage. Watching them dance in place, pound and thrash away at their instruments, and explore the boundaries of melodic taste, it is impossible to look away. Standing at the front, Garbus would sometimes look out at her audience and widen her eyes, as if possessed, and then let out a small laugh.
Surprisingly, when engaging the audience between songs, Garbus's voice would switch to a shy, almost reticent tone. Wary of playing so much new and unfamiliar material all at once, she thanked the crowd for being willing to come out and hear it, before launching into a series of more recognizable tunes. The nearly anthemic chords of "w h o k i l l's" "Powa" bled into the newer, though previously released effervescence of "Water Fountain," then back again into older material with "Gangsta," a caustic, powerful commentary on urban violence. Simulated sirens rang through the room then faded out as the lights went dark. When they were turned back on, the entire band was lined up into a single row, hooting into a mic. Garbus pressed some buttons and began looping the sound back, creating the opening a cappella notes of "Bizness," another track from her second album. The whole room started singing the chorus along with her: "Don't take my life away / don't take my life away." The words sounded enlivened by the past hour of new music. Perhaps everyone knew that in other rooms, in other places, everyone else would soon be singing joyfully along, too.
Driving Better Marketing Results with RFM Analysis
Marketing campaigns can often be expensive, time consuming, and, worst of all, ineffective. Too many businesses waste valuable resources advertising to customers who are unlikely to respond. If it is true that 80% of sales come from 20% of customers, then how can marketing efforts be tailored to most effectively reach the right audience?
One of the most popular ways is through RFM analysis. This technique segments customers based on three factors: Recency, Frequency, and Monetary value. Ordered by their importance, recency is the most significant predictor of whether a customer will return. The more recently they have made a purchase, the more likely they will again. Frequency is also very important. Customers who purchase from you often will likely continue to do so. Finally, the amount a customer spends can predict future purchases, too. Those who spend more are more likely to return than those who spend less.
Customers are assigned a score (usually 1-5) based on each of these factors. The best customers are those who have a high RFM value, and it can be safely assumed that they will respond to future offers. Customers with low RFM values, however, are the least likely to respond to marketing promotions or to make any new purchases.
RFM scores can also reveal more nuanced data. For instance, new customers will have high scores for recency and monetary value, but will score low on frequency. Businesses should offer deals to these customers that will encourage them to return. Customers who have scored high on frequency but have low recency scores are those who used to make regular purchases but now no longer do. These customers should also be enticed back, or be analyzed further to learn what is making them leave.
Knowing how to interpret a customer’s total RFM score will give a business a good understanding of their Lifetime Sales Value. LSV is a more general technique used to predict customer value and response to marketing. It can be calculated relatively, such as how likely a customer is to respond to a certain promotion or ad campaign, or absolutely, which looks at a customer’s overall likelihood for repeat business.
Finding out a customer’s LSV will help a business make better marketing decisions, but this can often be difficult. For instance, when calculating an absolute LSV, the length of the “lifetime” will depend on many different factors. Should a customer’s lifetime begin again with each quarter or sales cycle? What if a once frequent customer is returning after several months of inactivity? What if the business depends mostly on seasonal sales?
Using RFM along with LSV will give businesses access to a greater amount of data and allow them to generate a more complete picture of their customers’ needs. Marketing campaigns can be broken down based on different RFM scores, allowing businesses to see their effectiveness across a wide segment of their customers. Additionally, different RFM factors can help businesses calculate a customer’s absolute LSV much more accurately.
OroCRM allows marketers to define and customize the different RFM metrics and use them, along with other data (such as income level, gender, or what product was purchased), to find out their customers’ LSVs and intelligently tailor their marketing campaigns. Different segments can be created based on RFM scores, such as Most Active Customers or Top Grossing Customers, to quickly identify groups with unique messaging needs. The RFM score is then clearly displayed for the sales and marketing team, and can be used to generate useful reports and identify potential opportunities. And, because no two channels are 100% identical, businesses can set up and control different RFMs per platform, marketplace, website, and more for complete flexibility.
Using RFM analytics to better understand and improve customer loyalty can have dramatic results. Research firm Deloitte reported that improving customer loyalty by only 5 percent can increase lifetime profits per customer by as much as 95 percent. Put simply, being able to personalize marketing efforts based on real and actionable data will drive more sales.
Find out how OroCRM can help your business more effectively reach your customers. Contact us today for a free demo.
7 Front-End Customer Experience Challenges for an Online B2B Store
Previously, we’ve looked at some of the prevailing trends that are taking shape in the B2B e-commerce world, most notably how the growth and development of the online B2C marketplace has redefined expectations. Increasingly, B2B customers want the convenience and flexibility that they can get from consumer-facing retailers. This means not only having a comprehensive online presence, but adopting many of the features, such as robust search, that have become standard in B2C.
However, B2B e-commerce poses a unique set of challenges on the front-end. For instance, B2B sellers must contend with large customized catalogues per customer, variable and customized prices and order sizes, the sophisticated personalization their customers require, and the complex marketing that all this involves. While the challenges are numerous, here are seven of the most important that an e-commerce B2B business should address.
1. Creating search tools that produce useful results
The eminence of Google has made the ability to quickly find relevant items a paramount concern for B2B customers. This applies not only to internal searches done on your store’s front-end, but to how easily your store’s content can be found by outside search engines.
It is essential for businesses with online B2B stores to master search marketing. While B2B customers previously relied on sales representatives to find what they want, the majority now conduct their primary research using online search. For this reason, companies that do not make their websites SEO friendly (by hiding their products behind registration pages, for instance) risk losing a substantial amount of potential customers.
Once a visitor has arrived on your site, its search tools must also be robust. Rather than relying on general or specific phrases, visitors should be able to specify a product’s parameters, such as size, weight, price, quantity, and more. The more products available, the more specific these parameters should be. In today’s online marketplace, the site that can find a product the fastest is the one most likely to make a sale.
2. Promoting multiple brands while maintaining a consistent message
Due to the array of products and services that most B2B businesses sell, it can be difficult, even impossible, to market them all using just one cohesive message. This is especially true for online stores. Trying to do so can result in confusing layouts that make it hard to find relevant content.
Instead, B2B sellers can focus their content while increasing brand recognition with microsites. These are websites that operate within the parent company, but that are targeted toward specific customers. An IT company, for example, could build a microsite that caters only to businesses with extensive security needs.
Many current e-commerce platforms can accommodate multiple microsites, making it easy for companies to market their different products and brands to the customers who need them the most. Done right, TechTarget reports that they can result in as much as a 9 percent
increase in brand recognition.
3. Designing personalized product catalogues with variable pricing schemes
Personalization should begin even before a customer places their first order. For instance, information about a visitor’s geographic location can easily be gleaned from their IP address, or their interests from the advertisement they clicked on to arrive at your site. Even more information can be gathered by inviting visitors to set up an account or fill out a short form. This data can then be used to tailor what type of products they see displayed. These practices, common on consumer-facing sites, are especially important for online B2B stores, since many of their potential customers are liable to come, via Internet research, advertising, or word of mouth, from anywhere in the world.
The convenience of personalized catalogues will not mean much if customers do not also receive discounts based on order size and history. This is an important aspect of B2B business, and it cannot be overlooked on your online store. It should be capable of offering variable prices according to multiple criteria, including volume, rate of purchase, and individual contracts. The best e-commerce platforms will be able to automatically calculate these factors for each customer.
For example, based on their order history, two different customers might see the same product displayed. However, the customer who regularly places large orders should see a receive a more significant discount than the one how places smaller orders.
4. Making online ordering quick and painless
Online B2B stores need to make it easy for their customers to quickly place orders. This can be done several ways. Repeat orders can be stored and automatically brought up whenever the customer logs in, allowing them to then use a Quick Order Form to alter it without having to visit each individual product page.
Alternatively, orders that do not change, but must nevertheless be placed on a regular basis, can be set to automatically renew. The customer can then change or cancel it if need be, but otherwise will not have to do a thing.
5. Managing lots of products, many with only slight variations
In addition to giving customers the ability to search through products using multiple parameters, as well as dividing brands up in microsites according to different customer segments, online B2B stores need to take into account how well their e-commerce platform can handle large amounts of data. It is not uncommon for a B2B business to have thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of SKUs, each of which will contain detailed product data, descriptions, and even reviews. In order to give their customers a positive experience, all this information needs to be efficiently indexed and organized so that it can be brought up at any time.
6. The ability to customize and configure products
Product customization is yet another feature offered by consumer-facing websites that has become in-demand for the B2B world. Car manufacturers, such as Dodge and Saturn, allow their customers to specify dozens of individual features, in addition to financing options, all online. Likewise, B2B companies should give their customers the ability to tailor and view customized products as they see fit.
The challenge here is adapting mass customization for the complexities of B2B. Unlike the straightforward sales process that consumers face, the B2B buying process involves a range of different factors and decision-makers, each weighing their own criteria. However, those businesses that can address these needs and deliver a customized selling process will undoubtedly gain a powerful advantage over their competitors.
7. Providing useful product information
At this point, it should go without saying that a successful B2B store will have thorough descriptions for each of their products. This is not only helpful for customers, but will increase the store’s web visibility.
However, because B2B businesses rely on repeat orders so much, they have the opportunity to take this a step further. By using what they know about their customers, such as their company position or particular field, a B2B store can alter what kind of information is displayed. For example, a mechanic might be interested in seeing the technical specifications of a product, while a field rep would not. This level of personalization can make it much easier for the customer to find what they are looking for, thereby simplifying the selling process and increasing the bottom line.
Designing a successful B2B e-commerce site involves not only borrowing some of consumer retail’s best practices and learning how to adapt them for B2B, but being able to recognize what will work for your particular customers. What features do they value? What will help their businesses the most? Considering these questions, along with these seven challenges, is how you should begin building your e-commerce store.
Are there any other challenges your online B2B store is facing? What about additional solutions that we didn’t address? Join the conversation and let us know what you think!
Buy, Build, or Customize Your CRM?
Customers today expect businesses to be able to respond to their needs immediately, offer them a wealth of personalized options, and engage with them across a variety of channels. In order to meet these challenges, businesses are increasingly implementing CRM solutions. However, as they do this, many are faced with a common problem: should they build or buy?
This question has become even more relevant in recent years. With the rise of cloud computing and the flood of new products that have come with it, businesses no longer have to rely on the likes of large corporations, like Microsoft or Oracle, to provide them with a solution. Instead, CRM software now caters to many different types and sizes of businesses. Whether a company should purchase one of these products or build a custom CRM system themselves will require a careful evaluation of their specific needs.
Buying a CRM
There are many CRMs currently being developed with certain industries in mind, such as finance, health care, or construction. These “vertical” CRMs come pre-built with processes and features that traditional, more general CRMs cannot match. For instance, Mercury Gate, a transportation-focused CRM, includes lane search capabilities that let companies locate the most desirable routes.
Vertical CRMs are great for businesses with specific, industry-based needs. Standard workflows, rules, and best practices come built-in, requiring minimal customization and allowing the business to start using it right away. Additionally, vertical CRM vendors will already speak the “language” of the industry, making their set-up even easier for businesses unfamiliar with them.
However, the specificity that these products provide often comes at a price. Not only are they usually very expensive, but their functionality can sometimes be so specialized that their other features may fall short. Additionally, because they do not command the market share of larger CRMs, they can often fail to offer a continuous level of innovation. That said, they can be great for businesses within certain industries that are looking for quick, automated solutions.
Building a CRM
For those businesses with the time and the resources, building a CRM that is customized to their specific business can be a great solution. For very little cost, open-source development tools such as PHP, MySQL, and Linux are available, as are cheap hosting services like Rackspace. All this means that creating a one-of-a-kind CRM is easier than ever, but who should do it?
If your business is not served by a vertical CRM, yet has a business model that is too specialized for anything more generic, than this solution may be perfect. For example, many hospitality businesses build their own services since, according to Brian Crockett, an associate partner at Accenture, “leading software providers are just beginning to develop [vertical applications]” for them. While this decision may require some significant investment, it gives them exactly what they need.
However, this investment might be too much for most. Building a CRM system from the ground up means finding and nurturing the right talent (a process that took Software Advice, a review and research company, through 14 different developers), then paying for the time it takes them to produce a system that works. Compounding this is also the effort that will have to go into maintaining the system once it is up, as well as making sure it adapts as the company grows. For organizations willing to invest this heavily in their CRM, the precision it gives should be worth it.
Customizing a CRM
A third option businesses should consider is purchasing a general, or “horizontal,” CRM, then customizing it further to fit their needs. Horizontal CRM products come with the widest feature sets and can be applied to virtually any type of business. This is especially true for most recent CRM systems, which are capable of advanced customization but are still simple enough for anyone to use. Businesses can easily produce specialized reports or segment customers into specific groups without having any knowledge of coding or IT infrastructure.
While horizontal CRM products may be the most broadly applicable solution for businesses, it does become more costly the more customizations are required. For this reason, it is important for businesses choosing this option to closely assess what needs they want their CRM system to address. They can then work closely with the CRM manufacturer to get exactly what they want.
With the many options now available, it can be daunting choosing which CRM route—whether to build, buy, or customize—is best for your business. Contact Oro to set up a free demo to assess your business’s needs, and to see if we’re the right one for you.
Trends in Business-to-Business E-Commerce
By the end of 2015, B2C e-commerce will reach $1.7 trillion in sales. While this number may seem impressive, B2B e-commerce sales were already $5.5 trillion three years ago. What’s more, B2B sales are growing at an annual rate of 19 percent online, compared to 17 percent for retailers. By 2020, according to the research firm Frost & Sullivan
, B2B e-commerce will account for a staggering $12 trillion worldwide.
Despite these figures, B2B CMOs are predicting that e-commerce sales will comprise only 10 percent
of their business next year. While online sales are increasingly seen as an essential component of B2C business, the B2B e-commerce marketplace remains nascent and underdeveloped. This is largely due to the fact that, unlike B2C, where prices are fixed and quantities are low, B2B must account for highly variable volumes and costs, as well as their customers’ more complex marketing needs.
All this makes it much more difficult to develop streamlined B2B e-commerce processes. However, led by prominent marketplaces such as Alibaba and AmazonSupply, more B2B retailers than ever are moving away from the costly EDI (electronic data interchange) systems they have used in the past, and are adopting affordable and decentralized solutions online. As these systems become more popular, it’s important to note what different trends and expectations are beginning to take shape.
Undoubtedly, the spread of B2C e-commerce has influenced what customers want from an online B2B store. This means that they expect websites that are well designed, easy to use, and that help them quickly find what they want. In particular, enhanced search has become a priority — 76 percent
of B2B customers have listed it as one of their top features. But even before customers visit their website, it should be easy to find. By implementing detailed product descriptions and reviews, social media, and other SEO best practices, businesses can take advantage of the fact that over three-quarters
of B2B customers use Google and other search engines for their initial research.
Personalization is also emerging as a key feature that customers desire. For B2B businesses, this goes beyond offering services like product recommendations and store locators. While those are both valuable, B2B sellers should leverage the data they already have about an organization’s particular industry and contract in order to personalize the content that they display. For instance, a car parts wholesaler could automatically display different products depending on if a customer sells engines or tires.
This level of convenience should be seen in pricing and payment, too. RFQs, or Request for Quote, are becoming standard for B2B e-commerce. They allow customers to combine multiple items in a catalog and define their attributes and specifications, then set their terms and conditions for the sale. Sellers can then respond to the RFQ, adjust prices and conditions, and make other offers as applicable. Finally, the customer can either place the order or adjust it further.
When it comes to handling payments, 40 percent
of B2B customers consider the ability to integrate their finance, accounting, and order management services through an e-commerce portal essential. After refining their order, they want to be able to automate payment and invoicing, regardless of how it is being done.
Overall, businesses should focus on making their B2B e-commerce experience as easy as possible for the customer to use. This means creating an online presence that is easy to find, detailed, highly searchable, personalized, and convenient front-to-back. However, even this is not enough. B2B customers also require a seamless experience across all devices and channels, a practice called the omnichannel.
According to Vlad Zachary, Director of Omni-Channel Commerce at Upshot Commerce, the omnichannel includes “brand messaging, promotions, pricing, customer service, etc.” He goes on to say that “85 percent of online shoppers start a purchase on one device and finish on another.” Companies that have been able to successfully implement the omnichannel in their B2B practices have seen customer loyalty increase by an impressive 66 percent
E-commerce is poised to become a huge part of the B2B world. Understanding what trends are emerging and what customers expect is essential to helping a company shape its strategy and, ultimately, position itself for success.
An Overview of B2B E-Commerce Payments
In the past few years, companies like Square and PayPal have proven adept at using our increased connectivity to revolutionize the B2C payments industry. In contrast, innovation in online B2B payments has remained relatively stagnant despite the industry’s growth — Forrester Research is predicting that the numbers for (non-EDI) B2B e-commerce will top $780 billion this year, more than twice what online retail sales were for 2014. Due in large part to this staggering potential, it should come as no surprise that B2B payments are poised for substantial change.
As we have previously documented, B2B organizations have sought to emulate many of the successful trends that have emerged out of B2C e-commerce. This is no less true for electronic payments. There have been dozens of promising B2B payment tools that have made it to the market but have nevertheless failed to gain traction. While many reasons can be found for this, most of them boil down to an incomplete understanding of how different transactions are between businesses than they are between businesses and consumers.
In B2C, the payment process is straightforward. Customers simply select which items they wish to buy, then they pay in full for those items (using either a credit card or another form of electronic payment) before they are shipped. Prices are identical for each customer and, when the purchase is complete, a receipt (usually electronic) is the only expected form of documentation that is sent. Additionally, because the payment volumes are so low, the business bears the cost of any card processing fees.
The payment process between businesses is much more complex. First, prices will vary depending on a number of factors, such as whether the buyer is placing a large order, regularly places repeat orders, or has previously negotiated special terms with the supplier. Payments are also not made at the time of purchase. Instead, weeks, even months, later, the supplier will send the buyer an invoice for the amount they owe. Often, it will take the buyer additional weeks to review the invoice and send payment, a process that might involve many different people. Meanwhile, the supplier must apply the appropriate discounts and provide credit until the payment is received.
To complicate matters further, buyers will often wait to pay multiple invoices at once and, depending on factors such as whether goods were damaged during shipment or whether they have a dispute with the price, they may not pay the full amount. When they do pay, the buyer is responsible for sending a detailed explanation so that the supplier can match the cash received with the goods sent. This process can be tedious and is one of the reasons why checks have remained the dominant form of payment in B2B — down the line, it can be difficult to match electronic payments with unpaid invoices.
The world of B2B payments is vast; we have only just scratched the surface. Despite its complexity, however, new and innovative solutions are currently being developed and deployed that are making it easier, faster, and cheaper for both buyers and suppliers to exchange goods. In the coming weeks, we will detail some of these advances, as well as the ins and outs of B2B e-commerce payments, in order to help your business build its store.
Stay tuned. There is much to discuss.
The Oro Team
Why B2B Businesses Are Slow to Adopt E-Payments
Electronic payments, once just a promising trend, are finally becoming a reality for many businesses. According to “ePayments Rising: The 2014 Market Report
,” conducted by Ardent Partners, 71 percent of B2B companies are now fully capable of paying their suppliers electronically. What’s more, 89 percent expect that they will be issuing electronic payments to the majority of their suppliers by 2016.
Despite these numbers, however, the B2B industry still has a long way to go. In a recent survey
, the Association of Finance Professionals found that only 50 percent of B2B payments were being made electronically. Furthermore, this figure represents a sharp slowdown in e-payment adoption, which went from 23 percent between 2007 and 2010, to only 7 percent since.
Why, then, has the other half of B2B businesses been so slow to adopt electronic payments? Three reasons can answer this question.
1. Philosophical challenges
One of the most daunting obstacles e-payments face is the simple ubiquity of checks. For decades, checks have been the preferred method of payment for businesses. Buyers and suppliers in every industry are familiar with him, know how to handle them, and have often become reluctant to give up this level of comfort for something else. This has made the idea, prevalent among companies that have yet to implement electronic payments, that if their current solutions work, why change them?
Compounding this further is the fact that most companies often prefer to put their time and efforts into projects that will make more money for them, rather than simply cut costs. Despite many companies
citing the long delays and subsequent costs of their current invoicing processes as a top challenge, and despite the significant potential savings of electronic payments (up to 15 dollars a transaction
), this type of thinking remains a potent obstacle.
2. Technological innovations
In the U.S., at least, checks have remained dominant for so long due in large part to technological innovations that have made them so easy to use. For instance, check truncation and remote deposit capture have made it possible to convert physical checks into digital images, which can then be put into an account. This has removed many of the burdens associated with paper checks, and has further prolonged their relevancy.
Ironically, such innovations have kept the industry from embracing other advances. Because checks require a minimal amount of information (just a name and address) and can now be deposited with such ease, companies don’t have to worry about gathering the additional data, such as bank account information, required for an electronic payment. As such, they are missing out on the early payment discounts and other advantages e-payments offer.
The largest impediment to implementing B2B e-payments exists on the supplier side, according to Ardent Partner’s report. Although 71 percent of companies are prepared to fully begin paying their suppliers electronically, almost half of suppliers (46 percent) reported that they cannot bear the cost of converting to electronic payments, while another 30 percent said that they do not have the general capabilities to do so. A further 22 percent of suppliers lack even the managerial structure to effect the change needed for electronic payments.
This challenge highlights a primary difficulty of e-payments: They cannot be implemented independently, but instead require a collaboration between buyers and sellers in order to ensure that both possess the proper technology and knowledge to send and receive payments. This process will involve companies educating suppliers about the information required for electronic payments, addressing any security issues, confronting upfront costs, and much more.
Already, there are many great solutions in place for addressing the supplier problem and helping the other 50 percent of B2B payments go electronic. UPIC codes, for instance, can make sharing bank account information as safe as issuing a check, while supply chain financing and early payment options can help with upfront costs. We’ll soon look at some of these solutions, as well as their advantages and disadvantages, to help you decide what is best for your company.
The Oro Team
Dear Imagine attendee,
Welcome to your OroCRM 30-day free trial! You are about to learn what makes OroCRM the most effective tool for customizing your marketing activities and managing your sales channels. To get you started, we’ve put together some educational resources so that you can begin implementing OroCRM for all of your business’s needs.
OroCRM User Guide
Want to learn how to integrate your data with Magento? What about how to create a marketing campaign? The User Guide is your go-to resource to discover what OroCRM has to offer.
We’ve created a series of comprehensive video tutorials that demonstrate everything about OroCRM, from its basic features to its front-end architecture, as well as all of its developer tools.
Check out our slideshow for a quick overview of what OroCRM is and how it can power your business’s customer experience solutions.
And don’t forget that one of our best resources is the Oro community! Click on the login link on the upper right corner of our website
to gain access to our blog, webinars, and forums, then join in on the discussion.
The Oro Team
Dear Imagine attendee,
We hope you are enjoying your OroCRM 30-day free trial and are discovering all the ways it can help your business manage its marketing activities and increase sales!
To get even more out of your trial and see how OroCRM can be personalized to meet your business’s needs, we invite you to schedule a demonstration with an OroCRM solution architect. This free, private demo will walk you through any questions you have and show you exactly how OroCRM can be implemented to grow your business.
to schedule your demo today.
The Oro Team
Dear Imagine attendee,
Your OroCRM 30-day free trial is almost over! Fortunately, there’s still plenty of time to find out how your business can benefit from the many tools OroCRM offers, including better data integration, targeted marketing, and multi-sales channel management.
Let one of our OroCRM solution architects show you how much more productive your business can become. Whether you want to improve customer interactions, design a unique sales workflow, or just view the data that your business needs, OroCRM can help.
to schedule a free demo and start improving the way your business runs.
The Oro Team
Dear Imagine attendee,
You only have two days until your OroCRM 30-day free trial expires! Before it ends, schedule a free demonstration of OroCRM’s features with one of our solution architects. Already, thousands have discovered how OroCRM can be customized to meet their business’s needs, streamline their marketing activities, and manage their customer campaigns.
So find out what Mitchel Geerts, CEO at Top Dieren Shop, has called “the missing link between eCommerce, Marketing, and CRM,” and schedule a free demo at http://www.orocrm.com/orocrm-editions-pricing
We are confident that OroCRM will be a powerful solution for all of your business needs.
The Oro team
Qello Concerts Delivers Targeted Content Using Yozio
The world’s largest concert streaming service partnered with Yozio in order to launch QelloCast, a program that creates personalized experiences for their users.
Qello Concerts is an OTT streaming service with over 3.2 million users in over 200 countries. Their library spans more than thirty genres and contains the world’s largest collection of live concerts and music documentaries. It is available on both big screens and mobile devices via services such as Playstation, Roku, Chromecast, Amazon Fire, iOS and more.
Qello relies on Yozio’s deep-linking support in order to run QelloCast, a program of strategic partnerships with other content providers. Qello can now track what links lead users to Qello, even if they first have to download the app, and then can use that information to display custom content. The metadata Yozio provides has also allowed Qello to better gauge the success of their partner campaigns and online promotions, and see how different markets and audiences convert.
Lack of Deep-Linking Support
Unlike other music streaming services, Qello contains a vast catalogue of music across a variety of genres. Therefore, they were looking for a way to leverage this content and help users quickly find what they wanted. This was especially important for those using mobile devices, since screen real estate is so limited. “When someone opens the app for the first time,” says Dave Woolridge, Chief Digital Officer of Qello, “you’ve got to find a way to curate and present enough content to interest them.”
To solve this problem, they developed QelloCast. This program allows brands, retailers and musicians to link directly to video content on Qello and, in some cases, perform a content “takeover” of the Qello homescreen. This would not only drive traffic to the Qello app, but would also give them the opportunity to recommend additional content based on where the user came from.
However, they first needed to find a link tracking service that could properly support their special QelloCast deep-linking parameters. “If you’re sending users directly to the app, that’s easy,” explains Woolridge. “But if someone doesn't have your app installed yet and they have to go to the app store first, then we needed to be able to send those additional parameters so that we would know they’re a QelloCast Partner, as well as what source they came from. Yozio offered the exact feature set we needed to make the QelloCast program a reality.”
Yozio Gives Qello Users a Seamless Experience
After implementing the Yozio SDK, Qello was able to pass along the parameters of the link a user clicks on, then use those parameters to determine what content to display on the Qello home screen. Even if the user first has to be redirected to the app store to download Qello, Yozio will still take the user to the specific screen afterwards. This creates a seamless transition for the user, who will go from the partner page to being immersed in the partner’s content within the Qello app. From there, Qello can easily curate more recommendations based on this content, encouraging them to stay in the app longer.
“We’ve worked with a lot of third-party SDKs (some good, some bad), and we found Yozio very easy to implement,” says Woolridge. “Integrating the Yozio SDK into the iOS and Android apps took less than an hour, and adding Yozio-compatible deep-linking support for several sections of the iOS app only required a couple more hours. Now we have a very robust and flexible system in place.”
Seeing the Early Stages of Success
Beyond successfully launching QelloCast, Qello has been able to use the additional metadata that Yozio provides to monitor the performance of individual partner campaigns, advertisements and online promotional events. They now rely heavily on these metrics, as well as Yozio’s other comprehensive features, and are learning how to use them to fine-tune their marketing efforts.
“We’re in the early stages of seeing the success that Yozio is bringing to our campaigns,” says Sara Fleisher, Director of Marketing at Qello. “We’ve found that making URLs with redirects and deeplinking is very easy with Yozio, easier than other services we’ve worked with. Also, Yozio doesn’t show a middle screen when a user gets transferred to the app store or redirected to a concert. It provides a great user experience and we look forward to leveraging some of Yozio’s other features and additions as our needs grow.”
Elder Care Following a Heart Attack
A heart attack can be a terrifying experience for you and your loved one. Fortunately, recent advances in health care have increased the likelihood of recovery and made it possible to not only survive, but thrive afterwards. However, in order to ensure that your loved one enjoys a full life for years to come, it is important to understand some basic ways in which their care will change.
Length of Recovery
To begin with, know that the length of their recovery will depend on the severity of their heart attack. Some people may be able to return to their regular activities relatively quickly, while others may require several months of rest. Additional hospital or nursing home care may also be required. In general, elders 65 years and older will take at least eight weeks to recover.
After a heart attack, it is essential for caregivers to become as familiar as possible with the medication their parent or loved one is prescribed. These may include statins, ACE inhibitors and beta blockers, as well as common drugs such as aspirin. Make sure that they are taking them regularly as recommended for them by their doctor. It is also smart to educate yourself as much as possible about their side effects, as well as how they will interact with any other drugs your loved one is taking. Don’t hesitate to contact their doctor if you have any questions.
You should also make sure that your loved one is getting a healthy amount of exercise. This will not only help make their heart stronger, but can also give them more energy and even improve their emotional well-being. However, be sure to first consult your loved one’s physician to see what a healthy and safe level of exercise is for them. They can even do a “stress test” to see what their limit is. Afterwards, you can provide encouragement by offering to exercise with them, or by inviting a friend of theirs along.
Following a healthy diet can also reduce the chances of experiencing another heart attack. Make sure your loved is eating food that is low in salt and saturated fats, and that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean meats like fish. It can be helpful to search out healthy, low-fat meals that they will want to eat. You can also encourage them to use different spices, such as cilantro or ginger, in order to give their food more flavor (and not use salt).
Finally, it is normal for elders to feel anxiety after experiencing a heart attack. Spending time in a hospital and having to rely on others more can be very stressful. Some may even resent the additional care and resist taking their medicine, exercising and following a healthy diet. Other may become depressed. For these reasons, it is important to keep a close eye on them and reassure your loved one that they will be okay. Make sure to report any severe or prolonged symptoms of depression to their doctor. They may suggest additional medication or lifestyle changes, or even a support group.
The Changing Language Surrounding Elder Care
Growing older can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be very difficult. This is especially the case as we begin to depend on others more. Giving up on certain freedoms, such as driving, or deciding to move into an elder care facility can be sad — even scary — for those involved.
It doesn’t help that much of the terminology and language we use for elder care is painfully outdated. When we send our loved ones to “institutions” or “facilities,” where they are referred to as “patients” or “diabetics,” we are further distancing them from the lives that they once led. With such an institutionalized and impersonal system, it’s no wonder why many elders are reluctant to move away, even when their health may warrant it.
Fortunately, as our ideas around what elder care should be change, the language around it is also beginning to transform. What people are finding is that this can not only alter perceptions, but behavior as well.
A Changing Population
In the past, nursing homes were overly focused on the healthcare services that they provide. A new generation of elderly, however, is beginning to demand care that also emphasizes their broader quality of life. They want to receive care when they need it, but they don’t want it to come at the expense of their comfort.
While some nursing and retirement homes have made small efforts in this direction, redecorating their rooms so that they are less clinical and giving their buildings names like “neighborhood” or “village,” this is not enough. To truly change, we need to rethink nearly every aspect of how we speak about elder care. This means being more mindful of language that focuses on an age or condition, rather than an individual.
Many of these changes can sound subtle. For instance, Carleton-Willard Village, a retirement community in Bedford, Mass., recently rewrote their marketing materials using terms such as “learning in retirement director” as opposed to “activities director,” or “bathing spa” rather than “tub room.” While this might not seem like much, doing this signifies their intentions and sets the tone for creating respectful, strong relationships with their residents.
A New Stage
By themselves, of course, words won’t be enough. What they can do, however, is change how we think about elder care, which is what this is ultimately about.
Too much of today’s language treats our elderly as if they are in a state of decline. In turn, this has produced the impersonal facilities that so many elders are fearful of. By using language that treats old age as just another stage in life, one that should be given as much consideration as any other, we can influence more positive behavior throughout elder care.
Volunteer Spotlight: Little Brothers — Friends of the Elderly
Unfortunately, isolation is a problem that plagues many of our elders. As they grow older, it can become more difficult to leave their home to visit friends and family or to take part in activities that they once enjoyed. For many, assisted living communities and short-term stays can relieve their isolation and give them the love and attention they need. However, there are also many other elders either unwilling or unable to do this, and who often suffer from loneliness as a result.
It is these people who Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly seek to serve. Through a mixture of advocacy and companionship, their mission is to reach out to the thousands of elderly living alone. Their staff of volunteers provides services to isolated elders, such as escorted medical visits, that would otherwise be unavailable to them. Most importantly, they give support and companionship to a population that needs it the most.
Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly began in France, shortly after World War II, when a nobleman named Armand Marquiset founded a group called the “Little Brothers of the Poor” in order to assist the disadvantaged and destitute. Since many elders had lost their families in the war, he soon realized that they were often the ones most in need, and he started visiting them regularly to deliver them meals and relieve their loneliness.
His model attracted followers throughout France, and eventually spread around the world. In 1959, the first American chapter opened in Chicago, which was soon followed by several more. Today, Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly exists in seven U.S. cities and nine different countries. They currently have 21,000 volunteers and serve the needs of over 52,000 elders.
Despite their long history, the work of Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly is more urgent than ever. In the U.S., individuals over the age of 65 make up one of the fastest growing demographics — they will comprise a full 20 percent of the population by 2040. Tragically, many of these people may not be able to leave their homes or apartments, or may lack a network of family or friends they can count on for support. The isolation this creates can harm them even more.
To combat this, the volunteers of Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly visit elders at their homes, sit and talk with them, take them to parks and museums and on other excursions, and form lasting relationships. In addition, they escort them to medical appointments, regularly call to check in on them and organize social functions so that they can meet others their own age.
Their programs reach elders from many different backgrounds and nationalities, and are open to everyone regardless of mental health or physical condition, financial means, sexual orientation or race. Everything they do is funded by donations and comes at no charge.
If you’re interested in supporting Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly, either through a donation or by volunteering, visit their website to see what opportunities are available.
Senior Housing in Concord
Located in the shadow of Mt. Diablo, just 15 miles from the mouth of the Sacramento River, Concord, CA, is one of the most vibrant and beautiful towns in the Bay Area. Residents here enjoy a wealth of recreational, entertainment and shopping options, as well as an excellent transportation system and a friendly community. What’s more, its ample amenities and convenient location make this town a great place for seniors to settle down.
Founded back in 1869, Concord is now home to over 14,000 people, although it still retains much of its small-town charm. Stroll through the Todos Santos Plaza downtown to take in a variety of small restaurants and shops, as well as a weekly farmers’ market and plenty of free outdoor shows. For more live music, many residents look forward to the annual Concord Jazz Festival, held since 1969. Musicians such as Art Blakey, Charlie Byrd and hometown hero Dave Brubeck have all played there.
Concord also boasts over two dozen parks, including the 18-acre John F. Baldwin park, which offers ample space to take walks, enjoy picnic and even play sports. Conveniently, the Concord Senior Center is located within the park, too. It’s a great place to go for year-round senior activities, such as the Age Strong Live Long Health Expo, as well as to find volunteer opportunities, such as the chance to teach workshops and help set up special events.
Although Concord has an extensive transportation system, including city buses and access to BART, the Senior Center also offers a get-around taxi program. This is a great way for elders to stay active and explore the wider community. For instance, those interested in shopping can head to the Sunvalley shopping center, which has over 160 shops, including large department stores like Macy’s and Sears. Alternatively, history buffs can head over to the Concord Historical Society’s museum, the Galindo Home, built in 1856.
Concord is also home to numerous religious institutions, serving the needs of the town’s diverse spiritual community. In addition, these churches, temples and mosques are great places to find even more volunteer opportunities. Many of them also team up with local nonprofits, such as Meals on Wheels and the Contra Costa Food Bank.
Of course, for many, location is key. Understandably, many elders may not want to move far away from their family or friends. Luckily, Concord sits nearly equidistant between Northern California’s three main metropolises: San Francisco, San Jose and Sacramento. Depending on traffic, all of them are only about an hour away. However, with such a mild climate year-round (80s in the summer, 50s in the winter), it shouldn’t be too surprising if their friends and family end up coming to them.
Interested in making Concord your home? Seniorly has 64 community matches within a 20-mile radius of Concord. And, if those don’t quite fit your needs, there are plenty more potential communities in surrounding towns like Antioch and Walnut Creek. This time next year, you may just enjoying a new and refreshing view.
New from City Lights Publishers: Nochita by Dia Felix
In her debut novel, Nochita
, Dia Felix tells the fierce story of a girl who runs away from an alcoholic father and an uncaring life, then takes to the streets with only her own desperation guiding her on. Written in visceral prose in a singular, surreal inner voice, Nochita
casts an eye on the world that C.A. Conrad claims will melt "clothes off bodies with a crème brûlée touch."
The novel is the story of the title character's journey from childhood through young adulthood and her relationships with a cast of characters from the weird underbellies of California. Its form is a series of short chapters that are all grounded in Felix's irresistible voice. Mary Gaitskill said, "Nochita
shimmers with humor and delight, she burns with stark raving intelligence."
Here is an early chapter from Nochita
titled "In the Pines":
The sun is a blazing orange fist hovering, magnetized over the ocean. A circle of women is moving inside another circle of women, a slow dance where each woman looks into the other woman's face and says, yes I see you, yes I love you, then steps over and says it to the next woman in the line until everyone has said it to everyone. One woman has braces even though she is old.
I don't want to do it and I don't have to, I can say no.
I walk into the woods instead, it's instantly darker and cooler under the old tall pines. I don't know anything about trees like the name of a tree but these are obviously pines. Dirt gets inside my jelly shoes, slowing me down. (When something is not going well, say Hello, and then ask, What are you trying to teach me? Soften to everything.) The dirt feels good in my shoes, actually.
I find a big smooth rock and sit on it like a million other people have. The ocean is softly crashing. Over and over it falls. The forest is sweet, perfumed, dusty. Dry doves collect and scatter peacefully in the sky, the scene relaxes my skeleton.
Recently I found his old driver's license. My dad's. He did not look particularly handsome or ugly to me, just a macho guy with a thick crown of black hair and a cop-like mustache. But Kaia tells me that he was breathtaking, like a hush fell over a room when he entered. Kaia understood the thing tall dark and handsome when she saw my father.
That's where you get your height, says Kaia.
I picture him in an orchard, on a ladder, picking oranges. I want to see his face. I move in, but all I can conjure is the hovering cutout of his thick inky black hair and moustache, paper cutouts composited onto an empty brown face. He offers an orange out to me, wobbly.
I see her before she sees me, her silky sleeves swimming around her knobby wrists as she appears between the trees, wearing the universe's ugliest sandals. She sits beside me.
Found you, she says.
You give me such a full heart, she says. She squeezes my head into her neck, a clumsy hug. Don't you? she says.
This is the latest novel from the City Lights / Sister Spit imprint, which spotlights radical literature that is queer-centric, feminist, and irreverent from writers and artists across the U.S. The series is edited by Michelle Tea.
New from City Lights Publishers: The Tranquilized Tongue by Eric Baus
In his newest and third collection of poems, The Tranquilized Tongue
, Eric Baus meditates on the prosody of language through a series of enigmatic and surrealist sentences. With titles such as "The Panoramic Murmur" and "The Corporeal Cliff" and a form that is both repetitive and conceptually allowed to transform, Baus delights in creating new meanings through a steady stream of declarative sentences—sometimes bordering on the mystical, sometimes on the impossible—that create a kind of roiling landscape of images.
Here are several selections from throughout The Tranquilized Tongue
"The Microphone's Moan"
The Tranquilized Tongue
The frequency for speaking through feathers decoded the owls in the distance. The projector posed as the skin of a parchment devoted to datura leaves. The codex spliced a photo of hives with the names of newborn stars. The references bred. The curtains corroded. The foam pools painted over a locust.
"The Cadaver Moth"
The clinging wings.
The tiny skull.
The embedded boy.
"The Suspended Pulse"
The doubled brother appeared inside the corner of an enclosed eye. The fluid fastened to the sleeping boy's head. The troubled lid steamed open. The reflections compared exhaust. The others brushed. The abandoned rows of scales revived the fuses in the twin's brain. The remains of the destroyed address entered a perfect circuit. The post-humous moan replaced the alias another voice once answered.
"The Cobra's Pollen"
The profane flora infused the sonar suspended in a single drop of ibis saliva.
is the latest installment of the City Lights Spotlight Series, dedicated to shedding light on innovative poetry from both established poets and emerging voices.
New from City Lights Publishers: Haiti Glass by Lenelle Moïse
City Lights Publishers is proud to present Haiti Glass
, the debut collection of poetry and prose by Lenelle Moïse. Displaying a range of subjects, from her experiences growing up in Boston as a Haitian immigrant to searing meditations on family, religion, and love, Moïse passionately captures the subtle complexities, as well as the painful truths, of living in this world.
Below is an excerpted prose piece from Haiti Glass
in which Moïse recounts a meeting with a skinhead on a New York subway.
Last summer, I had an encounter with a skinhead on the #1 train in New York City.
My partner and I were headed uptown—back to the little, lightless, roach-infiltrated Upper West Side studio we had creatively spun into a mildly cozy, albeit temporary, home. I was in the middle of two demanding and exhilarating months, making challenging off-Broadway theater. I was also having the worst period cycle of my entire existence, complete with the kind of violent, seizing megacramps that remind me that soldiers are exploding, children are starving, salmon is an endangered species, and the earth is burning and melting all at once. I should have been thrashing in bed all night, but I had no understudy. As they say, the show must go on.
On the humid night I met the skinhead, I had been on stage for hours playing a haunted, brooding, sexy, defiant rock star. My voice was hoarse from singing my guts out. My muscles ached from the fast-paced dance moves. Knowing that I was in a state that demanded tender escort, my partner picked me up after the show.
The train we boarded was packed and rancid. We sat across from a rangy white man with a grumpy disposition. He wore dirty, baggy camouflage pants, a military cap and unlaced combat boots. After a couple of uneventful stops, he began to softly pitch the word "waste" in my direction.
"You're a waste," he said over and over. It sounded like spit. "You're a waste."
My cramping uterus caught fire. Flames rose in me like pending volcanic vomit. I had visions of myself hurling fire through him like some sort of antiracist dragon. Bursting into mortal combat. Reaching past his chapped lips into his big mouth to yank out the hate, to squish his wicked, filthy tongue in my hands like a frenzied chef shaping ground beef.
Instead I took a deep breath. I channeled my outrage into a form of meditation. I reminded myself that I am a writer. My job is to observe and to remember. When push comes to shove, memory is my greatest self-defense. I can be a warrior but I would rather be a poet. Poets live longer.
I challenged myself to make direct eye contact with my loud-mouthed opponent. At first he seemed delighted by my gall. He raised his eyebrows, managed a smirk and dared to insult me louder. "You're a waste of the human genome," he shouted. The other train passengers froze.
I wasn't sure if his comment was about race, gender, or my apparent intimacy with another woman, but he was clearly picking a fight. He pulled off his cap to reveal and rub his bold, bald head. I scanned this wannabe monster for clues—proof of a broken inner child, a cracked mind, a shard of humanity. I told myself if I could find his humanity, I wouldn't have to kick his ass. He started chanting "waste" again. Like a baby who had learned a new word. Like it was the only word he knew.
Stops came and went. The car was mostly quiet. My partner asked me if I wanted to move, but I slowly shook my head no. By now, I was totally consumed. And as I assessed him, something in me unexpectedly softened. I noticed his poor posture, his fidgeting hands. The tiny–almost timid–swastika tattoo on his right inner wrist. His dirty, chewed and bleeding fingernails. His intimidated, wandering eyes.
When I finally registered his countless missing teeth, I thought, Surely this skinhead has verbally assaulted strangers before. Surely some of those strangers have instinctively pounced on him. Surely those strangers had cracked his bones and called him "cracker" and perhaps felt justified, righteous and brave in doing so. Surely they had taken it upon themselves to teach him a severe lesson. And maybe—as he fought or squirmed or pleaded or cursed beneath them—the skinhead secretly rejoiced in their rage because it was attention, after all. Maybe the skinhead felt most alive and strong and worthy and meaningful when he was fighting someone—anyone. Maybe he wasn't in it for the lesson, but for sucking energy. Maybe he was trying to use me to feel alive again.
I refused to be used. I simply didn't have the energy to spare.
I stared at him.
I stared at him and eventually his volume grew weaker. He seemed to realize that he could call me "waste" all he wanted and all he would get was a witness. A witness to the hunger, neediness, madness, cowardice, loneliness and fear he pretended was hate.
And do you know what happened next? The racist skinhead said, "Thank you." He thanked me! Then he looked away and stopped speaking altogether.
My partner and I got off at 96th Street. We emerged from the bowels of the Big Apple hand in hand—unscathed, if a bit shaken. Later she told me that she and the other train passengers had quietly stared him down too. We had been an army of witnesses.
We live to tell the tale.
Watch Lenelle Moïse read from Haiti Glass
here, or watch the official book trailer here. You can purchase Haiti Glass
from our website, where you can also check out other books published from the Sister Spit series, which spotlights radical queer-centric and feminist literature from artists all over the country. The series is edited by Michelle Tea.
New from City Lights Publishers: Stray Poems by Alejandro Murguía
In the early '70s, Alejandro Murguía moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco. When he was nineteen, he published his first book of poems, then took a job as a MUNI driver. Forty years later, Murguía no longer drives buses, but is thankfully still writing poems. Made the first Latino poet laureate of San Francisco in 2013 and recently named the "Best Local Author" by SF Weekly, City Lights Publishing is pleased to present Murguía's latest book, Stray Poems
. Drawing from work written over the past twelve years, Stray Poems
opens with Murguía's impassioned poetic account of San Francisco's Native and Latino history, originally given as his inaugural address. From there, Murguía offers poems written in both English and Spanish, mixed with anger and subversion and hip urban chic, that give voice to his city, his culture, his Latino heritage, and to life itself.
Below is an excerpt from Stray Poems
, entitled "Another Voice Speaking."
Somewhere between night's chaos
And dawn's bitter glow
Your fingertips fold hours into minutes
And a man waits at the end of a street
For something, someone
Somewhere a voice calls
An echo of another time—a land
Cupped in a sound that lingers
At the edge of consciousness,
—a name without a name—
something in the air
a clock ticking backwards
towards the sea
a moment when life sleeps
and death opens a door through the wall
we never suspect is waiting for us
Alejandro Murguía will be reading at Mrs. Dalloway's Literary and Garden Arts on May 22nd. Purchase Stray Poems
at City Lights, or learn more about Murguía on his official website
New from City Lights Publishers: An Army of Lovers by Juliana Spahr & David Buuck
For their first ever collaboration in prose, An Army of Lovers
, Bay Area poets Juliana Spahr and David Buuck take on the alter egos of Demented Panda and Koki, two frustrated poets attempting to write something meaningful and important at a time when poetry "had lost most, if not all, of its reasons for being." The result—a lake of raw sewage spilled over a park—is either a colossal failure or a magnificent success, depending on your perspective. And that is just the beginning. Through its successive chapters, all fantastical and lyrical, beautiful and strange, An Army of Lovers
explores what it means to write and create art in today's excessive and cynical world.
Read an excerpt below from the chapter "What We Talk About When We Talk About Poetry," Spahr and Buuck's wry and radical take on Carver's famous story.
My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a poet, and sometimes that gives him the right.
An Army of Lovers
The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There were Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa—Terri, we called her—and my wife, Laura. We were all writers and we lived in the Bay Area, then. But we were all from somewhere else.
There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of poetry. Mel thought real poetry had nothing to do with politics. He said he'd spent years union-organizing before quitting to go to graduate school. He said he still looked back on those years in union as the most important in his life.
Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel was a poet. Then Terri said, "He was really political and he talked about poetry all the time. He would not stop talking about A, you know, Zukofsky's poem. He kept saying it was the greatest poem ever written. He would quote it when we were in bed. 'An impulse to action sings of resemblances,' or whatever it was." Terri looked around the table. "What do you do with a man like that?"
She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked poetry, but she liked poets more. She liked the parties.
"My God, don't be silly. That stuff he was quoting made you hot and that was that, and you know it," Mel said. "I don't know what you'd call it, but I sure know you wouldn't call it political. It was poetry, that's all."
is available now from City Lights Publishers. Juliana Spahr is the author of the afterward to Tender Buttons: The Corrected Centennial Edition
, as well as many other books. David Buuck is the co-founder of Tripwire and former editor of Artweek. He will be appearing at the Studio One Arts Center on June 6th.
New from City Lights Publishers: Woman With Guitar: Memphis Minnie's Blues by Paul and Beth Garon
She is an icon of the blues. Her songs have been covered and recorded by Bob Wills, Muddy Waters, Mance Lipscomb, and Clifton Chenier. Musicians such as Eddie Boyd, Calvin Frazier, J. B. Hutto, and Chuck Berry have listed her as an influence. She became one of the first twenty performers to be inducted into the W. C. Handy Award's Hall of Fame, and during her three-decade career, recorded over 100 albums, including dozens of hits. She is one of the most important and influential blues musicians to have ever lived, and yet, despite her prestige, very few today are aware of Memphis Minnie's importance. Worst still, many do not even know who she is.
When Woman with Guitar
was first published in 1992, Memphis Minnie and her music were even more obscure. In the twenty years since, a revival has occurred. The meticulous research that Paul and Beth Garon poured into their book gained Memphis Minnie a new following amongst blues scholars, revivalist, and fans. Now, using newly acquired information uncovered since their rediscovery of her, the Garons have released a revised and expanded version of their landmark book with City Lights Publishers. This new text faithfully encompasses Minnie's enigmatic life and returns Minnie to her rightful place in the blues canon. The book also focuses on the poetics of her lyrics: their innovation and contribution to the American poetic lexicon as well as rare and previously unpublished photographs, record contracts, and archives of Minnie's life. The Garon's have also included a completely updated and exhaustive discography and index: a true treasure for any collector.
The book features endorsements from Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams, lifelong fans and preservers of Minnie's legacy.
The following is an excerpt from the beginning of Woman with Guitar
Along with Willie Brown and Willie Moore, Minnie often played for white parties, either when W. C. Handy couldn't make it down from Memphis, or when the party was too small to warrant his august presence. Minnie, like Brown, played popular material when she played for whites, and one of her favorite pieces was What Makes You Do Me Like You Do Do Do [sic], a piece also prized by Leadbelly. Minnie, Brown and Moore also played for local storekeepers who used their talents to attract black customers. Minnie always played lead when playing with Willie Brown, or with the three-guitar trio of Brown, Moore and herself. She also handled the vocal chores, although occasionally Brown sang too. Minnie was clearly Brown's superior when it came to guitar skill, and Moore commented, "Wasn't nothing he could teach her. . . . Everything Willie Brown could play, she could play, and then she could play some things he couldn't play." Minnie played with Brown around five or six years, during the time she lived in Bedford, but even in those days she was well known as a traveler—"she'd skip around every which a-way," and by the late twenties, she had left the Bedford area to make her fortune elsewhere.
Woman with Guitar
This is our first view of Minnie as an exceptional performer, and it won't be our last. Critics agree that her guitar skills were remarkable, and her guitar playing on the early When the Levee Breaks has been called the most rhythmically varied accompaniment in "Spanish" tuning. "Through fingerpicking, she plays with the speed and finesse of a flatpicker. The variety of her performance is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that it is basically confined to the first three frets." Her recorded performances reveal the same sort of verbal creativity and agility as well. For example, for a Bumble Bee Slim song which became a blues standard, Sail On, Little Girl, Sail On, Minnie took the word "sailor" and made it a sexual figure in an innovative way, not used by other purveyors of the song, or, indeed, by any other blues artist at all. The first and last verse were present in the original:
KEEP ON SAILING
Sail on, sail on, aww baby, sail on. (2x)
I don't mind you sailing, but please don't sail so long.
Ooh boy(s), now don't you want to ride with me. (2x)
I'm got the best sailor in the world you ever seen.
Going away, going away but I ain't gonna stay. (2x)
'Cause that sailor you got, I sees it each and every day.
Sail on, sail on, aww baby, sail on. (2x)
You gonna keep a-sailing till you find your mama gone.
is available now from City Lights Publishers.
New from City Lights Publishers: The Violence of Organized Forgetting
The French philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman coined the term "disimagination machine" in order to describe the ruthless manipulation and obfuscation of art, evidence, and images by regimes wishing to oppress the public's views, as well as experiences, of the past. The atrocities committed by the Nazis represent, for Didi-Huberman, the ultimate example of how the "disimagination machine" has been used in an attempt to alter and erase an entire culture from view.
In his new book, The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine
, scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux, a founding theorist of critical pedagogy in the United States, believes that this term could easily be applied to the current state of American cultural and political affairs:
We live in a time of deep foreboding, one that haunts any discourse about justice, democracy and the future. The 'disimagination machine' is both a set of cultural apparatuses extending from schools and mainstream media to the new sites of screen culture, and a public pedagogy that functions primarily to undermine the ability of individuals to think critically, imagine the unimaginable, and engage in thoughtful and critical dialogue: put simply, to become critically informed citizens of the world.
Working in the intellectual traditions of Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky, Giroux argues that the United States has become a society almost entirely disengaged from the political and cultural activism in which it was founded. Rather, America now views public intellectual discourse and critical thought with suspicion, even disdain, while actively encouraging forms of historical and moral amnesia. The banalities of celebrity culture are now our primary concern and the voices of anti-intellectuals, such as the politicians Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum and the pundits Bill O'Reilly and Anne Coulter, are now the most prominent of all. It is evidence of a "disturbing assault on critical thinking, if not rationale thought itself," says Giroux. "Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis and social costs."
The "disimagination machine" stems from the neoliberal mode of thinking, which is now stronger than ever. Giroux defines neoliberalism as an economic and political policy and/or project that believes there is no such thing as the common good, that market value provides a template for governing social life, that consumerism is the only obligation of citizenship, and that the welfare state is the enemy of freedom. Its reach can be seen in the pervasive influence of well-funded conservative think tanks, the pseudo-intellectuals and religious fundamentalists they support, and the rafts of misinformation they have helped to create, such as the controversies surrounding vaccine administration, the campaigns against the environmental movement, and the proclaimed war on women's reproductive rights.
Neoliberalist forces have worked hard to create a culture that collectively forgets historical struggles against racist modes of thought, the militarization of society, and the implementation of a surveillance state. They have achieved this by elevating institutions that produce a vocabulary of isolation and civic disengagement. News and journalism is more concerned with entertaining than educating, while rampart consumerism is breaking traditional communal bonds, encouraging predatory financial practices, and making it difficult for individuals to see themselves as part of any public realm. "Under such circumstances, there is little room for thinking critically and acting collectively in ways that are imaginative and courageous," writes Giroux.
The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America's Disimagination Machine
is both an indictment of America's current state of affairs and a wake-up call for anyone who has felt the restrictions of contemporary U.S. society as it increasingly trades in freedom for a new and frightening paradigm. As one of North America's most exciting and engaged intellectuals, Henry Giroux has written a thorough, passionate, and convincing call to arms.
Celebrate SF Pride with 20 Years of Sister Spit
With SF Pride just around the corner, we thought this would be a good time to take a look back at Sister Spit, which for the past twenty years has been entertaining, educating, and enlightening audiences through their live performances, recordings, and books.
Begun by Michelle Tea as a female-only reading series, Sister Spit went on to become a wildly popular weekly event, then a successful road show, then a series of albums, and then a new generation of successful shows. Since 2012, Sister Spit has been collaborating with City Lights to publish a series of original and radical feminist writing. So far, City Lights/Sister Spit has released six critically acclaimed titles, featuring a range of work from Ali Liebegott, Beth Lisick, Dia Felix, Lenelle Moïse, and Sister Spit co-founder Michelle Tea. (A seventh book, Man Alive
by Thomas Page McBee, is due out later this year.)
We are proud of each and every one of these books, but the heart of Sister Spit will always remain in the performances that, twenty years ago, first started them off. In her introduction to the inaugural book of the Sister Spit series, the anthology Sister Spit: Writings, Rants and Reminiscence from the Road
, Michelle Tea talks about how it all began:
Sister Spit was born in 1994, to fill a void. Spoken word cresting in popularity in cities and college towns across the United States, with Lollapalooza recruiting performance poets to open up for the Beastie Boys in stadium shows and Poetry Slam about to demonstrate that literature can have the energy of a sporting event. In San Francisco there was no lack of poetry open mics for aspiring writers to show their stuff at, but the majority of writers hitting those stages were men. And not just men — dudes. Bros. Guys who set their beer cans at the altar of Charles Bukowski. Guys who ripped off their shirts and hollered their poems in homage to Henry Rollins. The events, be them in coffee shops or dive bars, had the vibes of a wild west saloon, and to get respect (or even get heard) you had to be bold enough to climb onto the stage and tell the ruffians sucking down suds to Shut the fuck up. They would startle quiet at your language, and then you had about twenty seconds to make them laugh or make them mad, to gross them out or piss them off. If you pulled this off you got a round of applause and/or some guy wanting to get in a shout fight with you at the end of the bar. Other poets would walk up to you and shake you hand, give you their chapbook; in another month you'd have one to give to them. The host would invite you to "feature" and you'd be paid in drink tickets. I loved this world, and the few females who figured out how to work the circuit were for sure the crazy bitches you wanted to be hanging out with — girls who'd gone to jail for stabbing their boyfriends, hookers, butch girls with cut-marks on their arms, junkie bike messengers, spastic fantastic jabber-mouths, brave, brave females and the best writers in the scene.
But what about the rest of the girls? In San Francisco, a city known for both its literary and queer scenes, why weren't there more females at these readings? Well, duh. Not everyone wants to have to tango with a bunch of drunkards to read their work. And work that's being honest about female experience in America can be hard and vulnerable; quiet and fragile. These bars were no place for work like that. Not to mention all the offensive poetry you had to endure waiting for your shot at the mic, poems where guys talked about women in ways were astoundingly retro and disgusting. I got in fights with male poets all the time at these open mics; I was into it. But not everyone has such a hobby. And so with Chicago poet Sini Anderson, Sister Spit was born. A girls-only open mic that ran every Sunday night, for free, for two solid years. By girls we meant past, present, and future females, and men were allowed to perform if they were part of a female's act. Once a year, on Easter Sunday, we'd have a marathon event called Sissy Spit, where all the guys we really liked would read.
The night of the very first Sister Spit, fifty females signed up to perform. We were unable to fit them all into the program. Our audience pushed back through the bar and spilled out onto Valencia Street. We had poets and writers and a puppeteer who crawled under the stage and performed a play with Nun finger-puppets. And off it went from there: a performance artist covered the stage in trash bags in anticipation of the mess she would make chain-sawing a pig's head, but then an animal rights activist stole the pig's head right off the stage and ran down the street with it. Girls danced naked with fire. A woman came every week and spoke to the Goddess through a telephone-shaped rock she'd found in the desert. Girls sang songs on acoustic guitars. Eileen Myles read with us, and Mary Gaitskill. Strippers took glitter baths in inflatable bath-tubs, and drag kings masturbated dildos. A punk poet safety-pinned her lips shut, and we all dreamed of David Wojnarowicz. We had our canon — David, and Dorothy Allison, Jean Genet and Violette Le Duc, Mayakovsky and Cookie Mueller, Divine and Karen Finley, Diamanda Galas and Richard Hell, Emily Dickinson and Patti Smith, Kathy Acker and Sapphire, Kathleen Hannah and Aaron Cometbus, Ginsberg and yeah, Bukowski.
The full introduction, plus the first two pieces from this amazing collection, can be found here.
Todd Miller's Border Patrol Nation and the Emerging Immigration Crisis
For the last fifteen years, Todd Miller has researched, written about, and worked on immigration and border issues as both an acclaimed journalist and as an activist with organizations such as BorderLinks, Witness for Peace, and the NACLA. You can read his latest essay on the border crisis here
This past March, City Lights Publishers released Miller's Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security
, a culmination of his efforts to raise awareness of the increasingly militaristic and anti-humanitarian tactics of the U.S. Border Patrol.
"The Border Patrol can do a warrentless search on anyone who is within one hundred miles of U.S. coastlines and land borders." Miller writes. "These Homeland Security officers have federal, extra-constitutional powers that are well above and beyond those of local law enforcement." The excoriating and revealing report that Miller delivers has earned him acclaim and sparked discussion across the world.
Recent news stories prove the relevance of Miller's argument and highlight the enduring challenge that immigration poses today. The Obama administration is requesting 3.7 billion dollars in order to confront the emerging crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where tens of thousands of undocumented children, many of them unaccompanied, have arrived in the past several months. Meanwhile, amid mounting criticism of his immigration policies, President Obama just visited Texas to discuss the issue with Governor Rick Perry and other officials, but did not visit the border to inspect any of the holding cells.
Currently, there is much debate in Congress over how that nearly four billion dollars would best be spent. The questions become even more daunting as the statistics continue to add up. In 2014 alone, 57,000 unaccompanied children have so far been apprehended at the border, while only between 1,300 and 1,500 have been repatriated. To top all this off, the ACLU has announced that they have filed a lawsuit challenging "the federal government's failure to provide [children] with legal representation as it carries out deportation hearings against them." Their plaintiffs include several young boys and girls, ages ten to seventeen.
There is still much discussion that needs to be done before this crisis can be solved. In a recent statement, though, pulling directly from what he has witnessed for the past decade and a half, Todd Miller reminds us how we got here in the first place and why we should not be so quick to spend:
The border enforcement regime that is in place on the U.S. border with Mexico is anything but lax. It is the most massive concentration of agents and resources that we have ever seen in the history of the United States. Never before have there been so many walls, high-powered cameras and radar, implanted motion sensors, and drones. And never before has there been an incarceration and deportation apparatus attached to this that can imprison up to 34,000 people every day, and forcibly expel an average of 400,000 people a year from the country. This does not need another cent dedicated to it. The crisis of 52,000 unaccompanied Central American children arriving to our border is correctly a 'humanitarian' one, and they need to be treated like refugees, not criminals. A more long-term answer to this crisis requires a much more holistic debate—which includes an honest discussion of free trade and neoliberal economic policies in Central America, and the impacts of the U.S. sponsored drug war in the region.
For much more on this complicated, diverse, and important topic, CSPAN Book TV will be broadcasting on July 19th and 20th the talk Todd Miller gave at Changing Hands Bookstore last May in Arizona. And for the most thorough coverage that you can get, check out what the Los Angeles Times has called "the right book at the right time." Border Patrol Nation
is available now.
Linguists Outside Academia Survey Results
A while ago (seven months, to be honest), we asked our members a few questions so that we could learn a little about the community we’ve built up, as well as how we could improve as we move forward. Well, we finally got around to crunching the numbers and compiling the results, and we’ve come to some interesting conclusions!
First, about the questionnaire. In case you don’t remember, we decided to keep it short and simple, and only asked 14 questions. These ranged from the basic, such as when you joined, to the insightful, such as whether you find the list helpful, to the constructive, such as what activities you would like to see organized or facilitated. We even asked the hard questions, like why none of you joined the Resume Workshop. (Spoiler: It wasn’t because you all have great resumes.)
In the end, we received 26 helpful responses. Before we go any further, we’d like to thank everyone who took the time to participate and write us a response. We love all of you and think you’re just fantastic. Now, onto the results!
Not surprisingly, we learned that quite a few of you are academics. We had four doctoral students and four professors respond, as well as two Master’s students and two who work in university administration. The rest of you hold jobs in fields as diverse as translation (three responses), technical writing, health care technology, and data analysis. However, all but one of the respondents held at least a bachelor in Linguistics, while nine (34 percent) had earned a Master’s and 13 (exactly 50 percent) held a doctorate.
Perhaps so many of you are focused on your Linguistics work that you can’t be bothered to remember trivial details, such as how you heard about us. While three respondents each used either Twitter or Google, most of you (30 percent) simply said that you could not recall. Thankfully, our co-founder, Anna Trester, was responsible for finding at least three more of the respondents. What would we do without her?
The majority of respondents, we learned, are from North America (53 percent), while 34 percent hail from Europe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we have fewer members from farther afield. One said they were from Africa and one from Asia. If there are anymore of you out there, raise your hand!
In terms of how all of you use LOA, we found out that over half of our respondents had yet to send out an email (53 percent said they have not, while 47 percent said they had), although this did not necessarily mean that they haven’t found the group helpful. Eight (or 30 percent) told us that they “love hearing what other people are up to” and that LOA “helps give visibility to the low number of Ling PhDs who get tenure track jobs.” Others were more hesitant in their responses to how helpful LOA has been. They ranged from a simple “moderately” to an optimistic “not yet, but nice idea.” Our favorite response, however, was the respondent who said that LOA gave them “an enormous sense of self-importance.” Well, we do what we can.
In terms of how we can improve, a good number of you (a healthy 69 percent) expressed interest in an LOA LinkedIn group. We also got some great responses from those of you who are interested in organizing an activity with LOA. Ideas ranged from a “design thinking workshop” to a PhD Career Advisor who could help with “professional readiness” to facilitating a talk with someone working outside of academia for PhD Linguistics students. If anyone would like to take the initiative on any of this, let us know!
Finally, we got some excellent feedback regarding what sort of resources and activities you would like to see LOA offer. Several of you expressed interest in having more opportunities to connect, whether that be through brainstorming sessions for people “searching for their niche outside of academia” or just low-key socializing events. Interestingly, several other responses also reflected the desire to find jobs or connect with people outside of academia: one wanted “job postings and advice for linguists who want to leave academia” while another asked for a webinar that covered “stats on where linguists outside academia end up.” Perhaps the most succinct response, then, was the person who simply wished for “more discussion.” Amen.
Again, a big thank you goes out to all of you who participated in this questionnaire! Your responses shed light on who you are, what you want, and what we still need to work on. For instance, if you’re still wondering why no one showed up to that Resume Workshop, it’s because 42 percent of respondents said they did not know about it (although we’re sure all of you have stellar resumes, too).
See you on the list!
Borges, Borges, and Us: The Creation of the Narrator and the Role of Irony in Jorge Luis Borges' “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”
To the uninitiated, there is little reason why the information in Borges' "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" should not be taken as fact. Rather than present a cast of characters couched in a traditional narrative format, "Pierre Menard" is written as if it were an actual piece of literary criticism. The narrator, who remains unnamed but whom the reader may easily be compelled to assume is the erudite Borges himself, begins by immediately establishing the basis by which his account should be believed. Not only is his text an attempt to correct a "fallacious catalogue," he also boasts of the support two distinguished individuals (a baroness and a countess, no less) have given it. This is then followed by an impressive catalogue of works the author attributes to Menard, complete with specific dates, locations, and publication titles. Nevertheless, "Pierre Menard" is a work of fiction originally published alongside other works of fiction. What, then, does this story gain by creating such a realistic pretense for it to exist within?
The argument made in "Pierre Menard" is for the importance of literary context. Specifically, Menard, though he recreated the text of two chapters of Cervantes' Don Quixote word for word, was still successful in producing a text that was "almost infinitely richer" simply through the virtue of writing it three hundred years later. Rather than choose the coarse reality of his surroundings as Cervantes did, Menard locates his setting at the beginning of the seventeenth century and even goes so far as omitting certain subjects, such as conquistadors and mystics, that his contemporaries would have been eager to include. His text is anachronistic in both content and style, and therefore represents "a new approach to the historical novel."
This account is amazing and its claims are no less extravagant, but it is, however, still a fiction created by Borges. This fact calls into question the ingenuousness of Borges' argument: if the story of Pierre Menard is not sincere, despite the troubles he takes to establish its veracity, then how sincere can the ideas he takes from it be?
At the end of "Pierre Menard," Borges writes that "Menard (perhaps without wishing to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the hesitant and rudimentary art of reading: the technique is one of deliberate anachronism and erroneous attributions." This line, appearing after the previous ten pages of Borges's expository prose, comes closest to establishing his true intentions with this piece. By using tone, references, and the factual representation of information to construct a realistic framework in which to locate his piece, Borges tempts us to erroneously attribute the narrator of "Pierre Menard" to Borges himself. In fact, the narrator is as much a construct as the fictional Pierre Menard. Therefore, Borges the author is using Borges the narrator to make a fallacious argument that calls into question our ideas of literary context. While Borges the author's stance regarding Pierre Menard's supposed accomplishment might be ironic, the purpose to which he employs his satire is wholly sincere. The importance of context in literary works—an awareness of the stance of their authors; of the political, cultural, and religious climates they are writing within; and of the prevailing aesthetics that surround them—are all essential to fully appreciating their subtleties. If this is not heeded, then we are all apt to mistake characters, narrators, and even whole ideas for the true authors hiding behind them.
The Stage is the Story: The Centrality of Setting in the Characterizations and Themes of J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello
It is very likely, even before the reader has moved beyond the table of contents in J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello, that she may already know it is a novel composed primarily of ideas. This is to say that it does not depend on the drama of plotted action or the slow tension of withheld information. Rather, like the lessons Coetzee calls his chapters, the novel will be concerned with the exposition of a variety of topics: realism, the humanities, animals, philosophy, evil. The character Elizabeth Costello will move through the text, gesture, sigh, occasionally turn her head, and eat, but her primary function will be as a vessel, a means by which Coetzee may posit ideas and put forth opinions. In the very first chapter, Coetzee comes close to admitting just this when he writes, "Realism has never been comfortable with ideas [. . .] When it needs to debate ideas, as here, realism is driven to invent situations [. . .] in which characters give voice to contending ideas and thereby in a certain sense embody them" (p. 9).
Indeed, ideas are eminent throughout Elizabeth Costello, especially in the first few chapters as Coetzee has his protagonist stand before various crowds and sit at different tables, lecturing and talking and stubbornly defending her stances. The only information not directly relevant to her arguments, such as the antagonism of her son's wife or the feelings brought on by a long ago love, seem to merely be one of the "individual interests," Coetzee writes, "out of which [. . .] speakers act in the world" (p. 9). Yet, as the novel progresses, these interests and concerns that drive Costello, the situations and places she puts herself in, gain more prominence than the ideas to which she speaks. Through subtle shifts in setting, Coetzee is able to broaden his focus from the embodied ideas of the novel's first half to the portrait of a writer facing her enduring legacy at the end of her life.
In chapter five, the novel's longest "lesson," the transition from Costello's role as a public, oratorical figure espousing her thoughts to a more private, introspective character can clearly be seen. Coetzee divides this chapter into nine narrative sections, although, for the sake of the book's thematic concerns, it could also be split into just three separate parts. In the first (pp. 116-133), Costello arrives in South Africa to attend a ceremony in honor of her sister and to hear her give a speech. This is the oration the reader has become accustomed to for each chapter (as well as the meal she attends afterwards that provides a further chance for more philosophical speech). However, it is significant that, for the first time, Coetzee places Costello in the audience without once letting her stand on her own platform. Even her brief pronouncements at the luncheon (p. 127), which the table turns to hear, become a means by which her sister, rather than Costello herself, makes a point. Gradually, Coetzee is using this new setting—Costello in her sister's ceremony, in the position of a supporter—to redefine his character's role.
This is burnished in the next two sections, which take us away from academia and into more private spheres. The second part (pp. 133-145) moves Costello to her sister's hospital. Here, ideas, such as the proper depiction of Christ, are discussed, but the forum has shifted from the lecture hall to the intimacies of family. Costello continues to try to assert herself and defend what she believes is right, but among the foreignness of her sister's work, Coetzee does not allow her to have the last word. Her resolve is draining and she shows signs of how physically weak she has become (p. 136: "She has no appetite."), until, in the midst of communion at her sister's church, Costello faints (p. 143). When she recovers, she concludes that she is not disposed toward these new experiences. Rather, she would "like to be back in [her] old surroundings, in a life [she] is familiar with" (p. 143). As the section ends and Costello is finally leaving, her sister, referencing their older conversation, remarks that she "went for the wrong Greeks" (p. 145). This new place has weakened Costello, exposed her vulnerabilities, and caused her sister to doubt the writing (and the legacy) that Costello has made her life.
In the chapter's final section (pp. 145-155), Costello has returned home and is sitting by herself, writing a letter to her sister that she does not intend to send. This is one of the first sustained points of the novel in which Costello is left alone, a significant fact that characterizes her increasing isolation. The letter she composes begins as a defense from her sister's last remark, but by page 151 Costello turns introspective as she reflects on a distant memory between her and her mother's convalescent friend. The events of this chapter with her sister and in the uncomfortable (both physically and mentally) places she's been make her question what she will make of it all "in the car on the way home, or when she wakes up tomorrow morning, or in a year's time" (pp. 154-155). She has turned from the assured public presence of the first chapters into a more doubtful, inward character looking back, not on ideas, but on her own life.
This sets up the next chapter where Coetzee returns to the familiar lecture hall but, instead of focusing on her public performance (from 172-174, barely two pages are given over to it), Costello is shown, most often, alone. Whether she is in her hotel room, frantically editing and doubting her own arguments, or, as in the final scene, locked in a bathroom stall after her speech (pp. 176-182), Coetzee shows Costello as a writer no longer swayed by her own ideas, no longer sure of their reason or of what she even believes. As her life draws to its finish, the opinions she once traded in are called into question and, despite her best efforts, the stage that surrounds her has begun to turn small.
Apples and Oranges: The Effects of Setting the Different and the Disparate Against Each Other in Mary Burger's Sonny
Anyone more familiar with the historical narratives of Stephen Ambrose or Doris Kearns Goodwin might not immediately classify Mary Burger's prose-poem novella Sonny as a work of history as well. In 95 pages laden with white space, Burger intersperses observations, recollections, and facts culled from the Manhattan Project and the first atomic bomb tests along with more parochial portraits of families, neighbors, and friends. The sentences are simple and terse and the paragraphs are often no longer than a single line or two, and the details they reveal about the history and the personal lives they contain are said without explanation or elaboration. In fact, Burger chooses not only to forgo any sense of narrative linearity in her work, but also goes so far as pairing her narrative fragments alongside others with completely different content. The result is a disjointed and often sketchy account of the people and time period of her focus, but one that could still arguably be called an historical work.
Although there is very little characterization and no arc for the reader to trace in her story, Burger is still able to use her format to create a narrative tension most often associated with more traditional formats. As singular statements, the passages in Sonny appear cryptic and the characters come across as mere figures with indistinct traits. As a larger whole, however, clues emerge from them as details, motifs, and individual lines are repeated and expanded upon in new contexts. In an early example, Burger writes of an unidentified "he" saying that "These affairs are hard on the heart" (p. 16), a remark that returns several pages later as "Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart" (p. 22), although this time the speaker has been identified as Oppenheimer. Other clues come together less completely, but still pull the reader through the text by creating and maintaining a sense of mystery and promise that more will be revealed. For instance, the boy with the rabbits who appears on the first page returns again on page 23 as "I watched the rabbit watch me kill it," then again on page 68 as "Raising rabbits because they reproduced so fast." Each time Burger pairs this reference with different descriptions and ideas in order to create new meaning and to complicate the reader's experience.
The complexity that is derived from the multiple associations Burger creates is itself a clue to the type of historical account she is trying to write. References to the nature and process of memory repeat throughout Sonny, either as direct narrative statements or as descriptions of action, that can be seen as a thematic link between the novella's content and its structure. In a passage that is suggestive of the whole piece, Burger writes, "The girl who played with photographs collected dust like it was her experience. It was important to preserve dust in the same arrangement it was found" (p. 49). Just as photographs signify the past and dust symbolizes the passing of time, preserving this dust exactly as it has fallen refers to the task Burger has set for herself. Rather than writing a history to fit a preconceived narrative as traditional historians might, she is more interested in creating a piece that is mimetic of how our memory, full of various associations, actually recalls the past.
It is in this way that Sonny becomes an historical work. By choosing a non traditional format in which to look at her subject and then further upending expectations by juxtaposing disparate elements together, Burger questions the belief that history can be reconstructed in a linear and cohesive fashion. Instead, Sonny becomes a document directly associated with the act of remembering and recreating, in a more nuanced and complete way, the multiple ways we interpret and derive meaning from the past.
Laughing Just to Keep from Crying: The Use of Humor and the Absurd in Clarice Lispector's “The Smallest Woman in the World”
The greatest risk a humorist takes is to not be taken seriously. However skillfully and with whatever consideration themes and allusions are woven into the fabric of their prose, if the reader gains little else from their work but fodder for a new joke then much of their accomplishment is lost. Despite this danger, humor and the absurd remain potent tools for the writer. Used shrewdly, they can draw the reader into a close relationship with the piece that exposes subtleties of meaning not otherwise possible. Precisely because the strength of humor and the laughter that it elicits is inherently emotional, as opposed to the more intellectual or cerebral impact of other strategies, the resonance with which it can communicate ideas and concepts is increased. With one hand an author can appeal to their reader's sense of humor and of the absurd, making them complicit, and with the other they can impart a message made more powerful by the response they have already created.
In "The Smallest Woman in the World," Clarice Lispector writes of the absurdity of an explorer discovering something so valuable that "the greed of the most exquisite dream could never have imagined [it]": a woman standing only seventeen and three-quarter inches high. The revelation of her existence quickly expands beyond the lone explorer to include families all over receiving and reacting to the news as they read it in their local paper. With subtle humor, Lispector explores the scope of their responses before returning to how the woman herself responds to her discovery. However, hidden within the comedy with which these events are told is a scathing critique of how "civilized" society perceives the world around it. By initially presenting her subject in satirical terms, Lispector undermines any efforts the reader may make to disassociate themselves from how her cast of families view the tiny woman. In various ways, each of them sees her as a source of entertainment — whether to scare a little brother with, an object of their own stultifying love, or as a simple curiosity — just as we see her as humorous. The absurdity of her subject and the humor of her tone lull the reader into committing the very crimes she attributes to Western culture.
Lispector begins by immediately subverting her reader's expectations and setting the strategy for the rest of the story. In the first paragraph, the explorer, Marcel Pretre, is introduced as he plunges into the depths of Equatorial Africa. Rather than give an adventurous account, in the mode of Conrad or Kipling, of his travels through the jungle, Lispector instead has him encounter a tribe of pygmies who, in turn, direct him to a still smaller tribe where he makes his amazing find,
And — like a box within a box within a box — obedient, perhaps, to the necessity nature sometimes feels of outdoing herself — among the smallest pygmies in the world there was the smallest of the smallest pygmies in the world.
Had Lispector simply described her explorer meeting a tribe of pygmies, or had she even started the story with him finding the smallest of the smallest pygmy, then the surprising effect of this opening would be lost. By quickly diverting the explorer's course and increasing the importance of his discovery incrementally, from the smallest race of humans to the smallest of the smallest race and so on, Lispector creates a humorous repetition that moves the story from the plausible to the absurd. The reader no longer expects a portrayal of events as they might actually occur, but a comedic exaggeration that continues to build.
In order to do this, Lispector contrasts the fawning reaction the explorer has to his discovery with the unaffected behavior of the pygmy woman. After describing the dangers within which she lives, the rhapsodic feelings of the explorer are revealed,
His heart beat, because no emerald in the world is so rare. The teachings of the wise men of India are not so rare. The richest man in the world has never set eyes on such strange grace. Right there was a woman that the greed of the most exquisite dream could never have imagined.
Then, "with a delicacy of feeling of which his wife would never have thought him capable," the explorer is compelled to name her Little Flower. The humor with which the explorer is moved by the sight of the woman distracts from the fact that he has given her a diminutive much as one would an animal. Lispector exploits the humor of this idea when, in the next scene, Little Flower scratches herself "where no one scratches." Not only does she not seem to share his feelings, but she makes a vulgar gesture as well. The contrast of the two moments is comedic and further characterizes Little Flower as an object of amusement, except that beneath this humor, Lispector has already placed elements of her criticism. The pygmy woman scratched where, at some point, every one scratches, even the explorer. She is no less human than he, though he looks away "as if receiving the highest prize for chastity." His prudish perceptions, and possibly the reader's, are disguised by the parodic exaggeration of the moment.
When the narrative shifts and the reader is given access to how the world outside of Little Flower's jungle reacts to her existence, Lispector has prepared her reader to accept their judgments with humor rather than disgust. In the first paragraph of this section, Lispector even remarks that Little Flower looks "like a dog" in the newspaper photograph reporting her discovery. This description allows the world, including her reader, to objectify the pygmy woman, but it does not justify it. Like the explorer turning his head, Lispector could simply be parodying Western perceptions. Little Flower may not, in fact, look like a dog, but it is what others perceive. This is confirmed when the first woman who sees her picture doesn't "want to look a second time because 'It gives me the creeps.'" The humor of the comparison intentionally masks the prejudice with which it is taken as fact.
In the households that follow, Lispector elaborates on how the West interprets the image of Little Flower for their own means. One woman feels such obsessive affection for her that Little Flower "could never be left alone to the tenderness of that lady." As if denied the object that she covets, the lady becomes upset for the rest of the day. Another woman, this time a little girl, is insightful enough to understand the desire to possess and hold what is weak. Since she had previously thought herself the smallest person in the world, an entitlement that "was the source of all caresses," Little Flower represents a threat to her. This point is expanded upon in yet another house when a little boy, satirically described as "clever," suggests to his mother that Little Flower would make an excellent toy. The mother is then reminded of an orphanage with no dolls where the children, with "terrible maternity already throbbing in their hearts," used the dead body of another child as a plaything. In response to this unrefined act of love, she immediately resolves to buy her child a new suit as if to "emphasize a soothing superficiality." Unaware of the irony, she is acting just as the orphans had by seeking to control and refine something else. The polite smile she then gives her mirror becomes humorous in light of how different her perceptions are versus her actions. The absurdity of each situation and of how Lispector has previously portrayed Little Flower invites the reader to laugh at and understand each household, despite their desire to own the pygmy woman.
In the final house, Lispector takes the idea of how the "civilized" world sees Little Flower as an object to possess and draws a distinct allusion to slavery. After making a game of measuring her height against their wall, each member of the family has,
the desire to have that tiny and indomitable thing for itself, that thing spared having been eaten, that permanent source of charity. The avid family soul wanted to devote itself. To tell the truth, who hasn't wanted to own a human being just for himself? Which, it is true, wouldn't always be convenient; there are times when one doesn't want to have feelings.
The casual tone Lispector adopts to justify the family's wish to own an actual human being is in stark contrast to the content of that wish. It becomes a joke that the reader is tempted to agree with, especially since Lispector hides its meaning in understatement. Broadly speaking, there are times when one would not want to have feelings, but it would be absurd to try to justify slavery with this argument. But rather than provoke outrage, Lispector's statement is accepted through its humor. The reader understands the impulse to own Little Flower because she is not only entertaining, but the reactions she inspires in others are entertaining as well.
When Lispector returns to the jungle in the final scene, it is not only to emphasize the purity with which Little Flower perceives the world (she laughs from the simple joy of not being eaten), but also to show how corrupt the influence of our world can be. Echoing the "tyranny of love" felt by the previous households, Little Flower falls in love with the explorer's boots, ring, and appearance. Her eyes become dark, as if to say it is "good to own, good to own, good to own," and the explorer winks at her several times in commiseration. This could be interpreted as Lispector herself winking at her reader, showing how she has corrupted and coerced them, through the gleam of her absurd humor, into perceiving the world exactly as she says they do. Like the explorer, Marcel Pretre, who "had some difficult moments with himself," all the reader can do now is keep busy taking notes and manage the best they can.
“The Godfather Of Comedy” Discusses The City’s Longest-Running Open-Mic
On a recent Thursday evening, Tony Sparks stood inside BrainWash
, a cafe-cum-laundromat in SoMa, holding a sign-up sheet and watching people walk in. Occasionally, someone would come up, slap him on the shoulder, and shake his hand. “In about half an hour,” Sparks said, “this place is going to be packed
Every Thursday night, for the past 16 years, this has been the case. Through the efforts of Tony Sparks, BrainWash has become the unlikely host of San Francisco’s longest-running open-mic comedy night. While locals fold their laundry in the adjacent room, seasoned and aspiring comics alike flock here from all over the Bay Area to tell jokes, try out new material, and hope for a laugh. In the process, Tony Sparks has become a revered figure who has earned the moniker, “The Godfather of San Francisco Comedy.”
But it wasn’t always this way.
“It was awful, it was terrible,” Sparks said about his first years here. “They sucked ass!”
Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, Sparks moved to San Francisco over twenty years ago after noticing that all the comedy trade papers came from here. Although he had worked as a comic in New York City, and had even made a living of it on the road, he did not find the San Francisco comedy scene to be as welcoming as he had thought.
“I thought this was the place to be,” he said, “but there was this one group of people at the Holy City Zoo
and they fucking dominated everything. So I got tired of fighting with them and went and started my own stuff.”
The first open-mic night he organized took place at the Luggage Store
, an art gallery on Market Street. He initially kept the format open and let anyone take the stage.
“We had all these crazy fucking homeless people who would come perform. It was fucking brilliant,” he said. “It was packed all the time. Then, when we switched over to [just] comedy, it really got packed. Soon, everyone began asking me to host a room. I had a monopoly every night except Sunday, since I didn’t want to compete with the Punchline.”
“It was incredible,” he added. “I went from being the outcast, to being the big guy almost overnight.”
Eventually, Jeff Zalles, the owner of BrainWash, approached Sparks with an idea: Wouldn’t it be funny if they did a show at his cafe/laundromat on April Fools’ Day? It turned out to be a hit. Soon after, it became a regular event, and has only grown more popular each year.
Sparks attributes this success to the culture of inclusion and encouragement that he has worked hard to foster. After the negative experience he had when he first arrived in the city, he wanted BrainWash to be a positive place.
“This is the thing with comedy,” he said. “You see a lot of people doing it, but you don’t see a lot of people continue to do it. It’s a lot tougher than people think. So that’s why I really want to make this place nice and wonderful and supportive. Because it’s the one place you can come to and know that it’s going to be okay.”
Due to these efforts, comedians beyond the Bay Area have taken note. Sparks recounted how celebrities such as Paul Mooney, Hannibal Buress, and Faizon Love, who played Big Worm in Friday, have dropped by in the past. However, his eyes lit up most when talking about comics who got their start at BrainWash and have since made it big.
“We’ve had about eight people that have gone on to Comedy Central,” he said proudly. These include Louis Katz
, Mo Mandel
, Jasper Redd
, Sheng Wang
, Brent Weinbach
, and Al Madrigal
, who became the “senior Latino correspondent” on The Daily Show.
This mainstream success aside, the open-mic shows at BrainWash remain an indelibly local affair. They are open to everyone, and can sometimes be unpredictable as a result.
“We’ve had some things that are really funny or weird, like a guy who climbed into a box and did his act from there,” Sparks remarked. “[Another] guy wore a green suit, all green, face covered up and everything. We had a guy who did it naked. We had a girl who pulled her top off. Sometimes some of these people just need someone to look at them and talk to them, you know?”
For anyone who has not yet been to BrainWash, though, Sparks did have this to say:
“If you are a person that just wants to watch comedy, and you’ve only seen people that are quote-unquote ‘successful,’ the best thing to do is come here and watch the people in their beginnings. As an audience member, this is probably going to be one of the best experiences you’ll ever have, especially if you come on a Thursday night. You’re going to be blown away at how funny undiscovered talent can be.”
New MoAD Series Spotlights Community Contributors
When visitors walk into the Museum of the African Diaspora’s
(MoAD) latest exhibition, Portraits and Other Likenesses From SFMOMA
, they might find something a bit odd: a living room. Created by artist Mickalene Thomas
, whose colorful photographic portraits of women hang nearby, the room is lined with wood paneling and filled with furniture upholstered in a dozen different clashing patterns and designs. In the back, an old TV blares classic episodes of “Soul Train,” while on the shelf below it, books by Alice Walker, Alex Haley, and John Howard Griffin are displayed.
“It’s a recreation of a ‘70s living room, or an imagined ‘70s living room,” explained Elizabeth Gessel, MoAD’s Program Director. “It was originally conceived as a way to activate Mickalene Thomas’s installation. We didn’t want it to just be static and not have anything happen with it.”
This impulse led MoAD’s staff to discuss other ways in which they could inspire the public to interact with and respond to the piece, as well as the larger exhibition. Eventually, they came up with the “Community Voices: A Public Dialogue
” series, in which a member of the Bay Area’s cultural community chooses one (or several) pieces in the exhibition to respond to. The idea is to feature a variety of speakers who might think about art differently, as opposed to a standard art historian or curator.
“It’s been really successful,” said Gessel. “It’s been really nice getting different types of creative thinkers into the museum to talk about the works. Everybody has a different take on what they’re responding to. Sometimes it’s the same work, but they’ll have a completely different interpretation of it, or it will inspire them in a totally different way than the previous person who talked about it.”
Past speakers have included writers, activists, and artists with pieces in the show. Several models featured in Thomas' photographs have even come in to talk about their experiences working with the artist, and what it did for their careers. Speakers still to come include artists Rodney Young, Kristine Mays, and William Rhodes, and writer/performing artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph.
“People have talked a lot about how much they’ve learned from it,” Gessel said. “I feel like it’s been a very community-oriented program, which was what we were looking for.”
Ramekon O’Arwisters, a curator of photography at the SFO Museum and a member of the 3.9 Art Collective
, recently spoke as part of the Community Voices series. He believes that MoAD has helped him better understand his own cultural references.
“When it comes to the whole idea of what art is and how it unites people and their cultures, I think MoAD is very good at that,” he said. “We can unite in the fact that human societies are constantly in a diaspora in some ways. It’s important to see how that is reflected in our artwork and our stories. That isn’t the focus of other museums, not in the same way.”
During his talk, he drew connections between the textiles on display in pieces such as Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit” with his own upbringing in North Carolina. “Soundsuit” features a mannequin wrapped in an afghan adorned with metallic tchotchkes and other found objects; O’Arwisters grew up crocheting and working with fabric and folk art, despite those not being seen as typical male activities.
“The art at MoAD lets people know that what unites us goes beyond our financial means,” he said. “What unites us has more to do with how we are able to express ourselves and our communities than what kind of art we create.”
MoAD was founded in 2005 to educate people about the art, history, and culture of the African diaspora and of those of African descent, and community has always been a central aspect of its mission. In a city whose African-American population has been steadily declining for over 40 years, this is especially important.
The museum is also active in contemporary discussions of race and politics, with several recent programs related to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“When people come here,” Gessel explained, “there’s a sense of coming home for the first time. There’s also a lot of ‘I never knew that!’ — this wonderment that there’s all these different artistic movements and things going on in the world.” However, she emphasized that MoAD does not serve just a black audience, and wants to cater to visitors from all over the world.
Although no plans are currently in place to continue the Community Voices series beyond the current exhibition, Gessel said that a second edition of the series is still possible.
“It’s been a really nice, new program that we haven’t done before here,” she said. “We’re definitely thinking about it.”
Portraits and Other Likenesses From SFMOMA will be on display at MoAD until October 11th.
The Community Voices: A Public Dialogue series takes place every Thursday afternoon at 5pm through October 8th. MoAD’s next major exhibition will be
Alison Saar: Bearing, on display from November 11th, 2015 to April 3rd, 2016.
The Prelinger Library’s Community of Ephemera
On the corner of Eighth and Folsom, after bending down to press a call box and speaking to a crackly voice on the other side, and after riding up a freight elevator with a mirrored ceiling hovering disconcertingly above, and after passing several nondescript offices, as well as a dance studio, where lithe young men and women stand around chatting amiably just outside, you will find, at the end of the hall, what might arguably be called the most unique library in San Francisco.
“When we started this, I didn’t know how many other people would be interested,” said Megan Prelinger, who, along with her husband, Rick, founded the Prelinger Library
eleven years ago. “My initial assessment of the number of people who might be interested was like five to ten to 25 people a year
. By year three we were at 700 visitors a year, and by year four we were at a thousand visitors. It was a bit of a shock to the system.”
By the standards of most other libraries, the Prelinger Library is small. Consisting of just three aisles of books, plus a stack of boxes for odds and ends in the back, what the library lacks in comprehensiveness it makes up for with its content.
On its website, the library is billed as a collection of “historical ephemera, periodicals, maps, and books,” which is to say that it is an attempt to collect and catalogue items not meant for posterity, that were created only for a particular month or week. A quick browse through the shelves will reveal the astonishing artifacts of this quest: vintage TV Guides
, old trade periodicals with names like Retail Lumberman
and Missiles and Rockets
, forgotten books like Milton Wend’s How to Live in the Country Without Farming
, various maps and monographs, government studies of different stripes. All of this, the Prelingers claim, was inspired by wondering what kind of historical picture you would get from simply looking at the evidence that nobody else was.
“We’re both document-driven people,” said Rick Prelinger. “We do a lot of work based on what we find and uncover, so a lot of the books and the films and public projects that we’ve done have their genesis in material and evidence that grabs our attention.”
“It’s been 25 years since I first started thinking about what would you get if you looked at evidence in this way and what kinds of patterns are there to be found,” added Megan. “And really there are so many that there’s a lifetime of projects, not just for me, but for the rest of the world.”
Rick and Megan met each other in 1998. At the time, Megan was a self-described “zinester with a day job and big ideas.” Rick, meanwhile, was living in New York and was working as a moving-image archivist and filmmaker. When he came across an article Megan had written one day, he was enamored enough to send her a fan letter, which blossomed into a correspondence, which in turn grew into a courtship that eventually resulted in Rick moving out west. Soon, they began taking road trips together, leaving their home for days at a time to explore the landscapes around them and to visit small towns. It was during these excursions, Megan explained, that they would stumble across “book barns and reading corners of rural gas stations” and wonder about the value that this literature contained.
Equally as important were their youthful encounters with what they described as San Francisco’s and New York’s “punk rock culture” — the independent businesses and meeting spots that were as much about exchanging ideas as they were about anything else. “I had a lot of experience in places like book stores, record stores, and punk rock hang out zones, like Epicenter Zone
, that used to be on Valencia Street,” said Megan. “You could just go and spend time around a common interest, and there would be piles of stuff lying around. You could look at the stuff, talk to other people who shared your interests, and you could have any of a million kinds of transactions, from intellectual to musical to poetic, that were not based on a commercial transaction.”
At the same time, both were collectors who had independently amassed substantial amounts of material. To supplement the Prelinger Archives
, a collection of “ephemeral” films that he had helmed since 1982, Rick had been gathering books and periodicals and other printed texts that would help contextualize his thousands of amateur movies and reels. Megan, who had studied anthropology, had herself put together a collection of ephemera in order to “apply anthropology to modern 20th-century American cultural history and try to map out patterns of relationships between people through looking at overlooked evidence.” The result was nine storage rooms full of books.
Fueled by the idea of creating a community center, a place where people could meet to work on projects and inspire each other, as well as answering the question they had posed to themselves while on their road trips — what could all this overlooked evidence teach us about both our history and ourselves? — they decided to start their library. By 2004, thanks to the dot-com bust, they had found a cheap spot. And, after sixty friends came into town to help with an informal “barn raising,” the Prelinger Library had begun.
A taxonomy of serendipity
The front door of the library is on the left side of the room. This means that when you walk inside, you will immediately be facing the first of the three aisles, with its tall shelves and carefully arranged rows. Snake your way through the first, around through the middle, and finish off in the third, and you will not only discover the uniqueness of the collection, but the originality of its arrangement. The library is not alphabetized, nor does it adhere to the Dewey decimal or any other traditional scheme. Instead, it uses a “geospatial taxonomy.”
“The leading idea was that this collection should be organized according to an internal logic that was internally consistent,” explained Megan Prelinger, who thought up the design. “We’re not trying to make a picture of the world, but there are throughlines that connect the different things that we’re interested in, and so I felt that a taxonomy should express those throughlines. It seemed best to start where the feet meet the ground.”
Appropriately, then, it begins in San Francisco, before moving onto books about California and the other Pacific states, then through the plains toward the eastern coast, particularly New York. Then it broadens, expanding outward to materials more generally about the physical environment, such as geography and geology, then onto natural history, land use, and rural life.
It continues, abstracting itself further to texts about transportation, crafts, and culture, before shifting to urban planning, which segues to architecture, which leads to all the topics that can be contained within art. Media follows and includes subjects such as radio, telephone, and film. Next, you’ll find books about science and gender, then family, state, and politics. Before you know it, the shift has been made, finally, to outer space.
“It made sense to extend this idea of a library as a space for exploration, as a landscape to be explored, and to reformulate the whole practice of browsing as a physical process,” Megan said. “That harmonized with our interest in offering a counterpoint to query-based modes of access.”
Even more, this arrangement aligned with their desire to create a space where serendipitous encounters happen at a rate not possible, or at least not likely, anywhere else. “These shelves are a really great forum for discovery of things people didn’t know existed,” Megan went on. “We have scholars who come in here, and they’ll browse for a day, a week, and then they’ll make a pull list and go back to their closed-stack institution and request things that they never could have discovered, because query-based access doesn’t facilitate random discovery, or semi-random discovery, which is what we specialize in here.”
This approach, fittingly, has led to some surprising results. Although the library has become a predictable haven for likeminded scholars of ephemera, as well as librarians and library tourists, by far its most frequent and active guests have been artists themselves. “We discovered in the first few years that it wasn’t just a repository, it was a workshop,” said Rick. “People come here to make things. And on top of that, it’s also become a place where projects are conceived, discussed, traded, where people come to talk.”
Although they did not initially anticipate this reaction, Rick and Megan have embraced the artistic community and incorporated them into the library’s design. For instance, they now have an artist-in-residence program, in which someone can come in for an entire week, rather than the one day the library is typically open, to work on a project. Their current artist, Nicole Lavelle, is hosting a monthly performance series called “Place Talks,” which invites half a dozen other artists to present landscape-based interpretive new works. They have also begun offering expanded hours on Fridays and Saturdays through the efforts of guest hosts, such as Charlie Macquerie of the Greenhorns
, and Carolee Gilligan Wheeler of the Elsewhere Philatelic Society
Unexpected and unanticipated, all of this nevertheless aligns with what Rick and Megan envision for their library — the sense, as Rick likened it, that it is a type of “salon.”
However, ultimately, it doesn’t matter to them why you come in, as long as you do. “There are some people for whom a visit to a library is absolutely essential, and there are some people for whom a visit to a library is something that happens when they need it,” Rick said. “We’re agnostic. We don’t care why anybody comes. We just love people.”
The Prelinger Library is open from 1pm to 8pm every Wednesday, as well as 11am to 4pm on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. “Place Talks” will next take place on Thursday, October 22nd, from 5pm to 9pm.
Megan Prelinger’s new book, Inside the Machine: Art and Invention in the Electronic Age, is available from W. W. Norton & Company.
SoMa Filipino Community Divided On Costs, Benefits Of 5M Development
Last September, the scene at the San Francisco Parks and Recreation office was getting out of hand. Hundreds of people, many wearing matching t-shirts emblazoned with slogans and call-to-arms, crowded in front of the Planning Commission as they decided whether or not to approve the 5M Project
, a multi-building development at Fifth and Mission. At one point, a group of protesters interrupted proceedings and began chanting, impassionately, “Who are you building for?” while the room looked on. Eventually, though, after sheriffs were called in, the Commission voted in favor of the project, ending a nine-hour long session and clearing the way for the Board of Supervisors’ own vote of approval two months later.
For many, this represented the end of a process that began over eight years ago, when the 5M Project was first proposed, and that has since spurred a debate about how the City should handle development and gentrification, while protecting the groups and communities most vulnerable to both. In particular, the Filipino community, which comprises a large segment of SoMa’s population, has been very vocal about their approval — or disapproval — of 5M. Leaders and representatives have shown up to public hearings and meetings en masse to either voice their support for the project’s benefits or to appeal against what they see as yet another nail in the coffin for a community that has been threatened for years.
Now, two months after the Board of Supervisors’ vote, when many Filipinos on both sides of the fence were beginning to look beyond 5M, a coalition of nonprofits has breathed new life into the debate with a lawsuit
claiming that the project’s environmental review was inadequate and flawed. In so doing, they have once again revealed stark differences in how both sides perceive the future of development in San Francisco, as well as how they think their community should respond to interests, both public and private, that will affect them.
Empty Parking Lots
The 5M Project will be built on a four-acre plot of land that is currently home to office buildings and surface parking lots. Much of it can only be accessed by narrow alleyways, which is why it is not uncommon to find discarded needles and other evidence of drug use on the ground. This level of underutilization, and the problems that it can cause, is one of the more obvious reasons why supporters are backing 5M.
However, opponents of the project insist that they are not against development per se. In fact, many of them would be happy to see something built on this land, they just do not want to see it come at the expense of the surrounding community. This is where differences of opinion begin to emerge.
“When the wealthy residents and workers of the 5M residences and offices move in, naturally the neighborhood will change to suit them,” Vivian Araullo, the Executive Director of the Westbay Pilipino Center
wrote in an email. “Businesses will sprout up to cater to the residents who can afford at least $1,784/month for a studio (the price of 5M affordable housing), not to the working-class Filipino family of five trying to cram themselves into a one-bedroom, $950/month rent-controlled apartment.”
Araullo and her organization were one of the most vocal, and visible, critics of 5M. (During the Board of Supervisors hearing in November, which ultimately gave the project its final green light, she spoke against it while surrounded by a crowd of Filipino youth.) She sees this issue as not only a failure of development that will push out her community, but as a systemic problem rooted in city governance.
“The whole process is skewed against vulnerable communities,” she said. “Just look at the reactiveness of legislation and even the affordable housing bond that was just passed. It will make you believe that the matter of development’s and new money’s impact on vulnerable communities was not really well thought out, or was barely considered.” She added: “Where is the voice of the underserved and communities of color in the envisioning of San Francisco’s future?”
Misha Olivas, the Director of Programs of United Playaz
, a youth development organization in SoMa, sees things differently. She described how her and her organization came to support 5M after attending meetings with Forest City, the development corporation behind the project, and realizing how much of it would help the immediate neighborhood.
“The fact that a lot of the benefits are hyper-localized, that doesn’t always happen,” she said. “And the City isn’t always happy with that because they like to use that money city-wide, but a lot of these benefits — when it comes to the youth services, when it comes to the employment services — they’re going to be for SoMa residents.”
Olivas also cited these meetings as further proof that 5M and Forest City was a cause worth fighting for. Unlike the scores of smaller developers that are converging in SoMa and are purchasing properties and are forcing residents out, she explained, Forest City was actually taking the time to listen to the concerns of the neighborhood and get feedback. For her, gentrification and displacement was happening not because of large, special-use developments like 5M, but because of “piecemeal, one-plot projects that do their minimum 12 percent affordable housing and obey the code.”
In contrast, Forest City and 5M was offering her and her organization a chance to sit at the table and play an active role in the development of their neighborhood. This is why, she explained, she did not understand why people still campaigned against them, even after they offered 40 percent affordable housing. “To me, that’s symbolic,” she said, sounding exasperated. “It has nothing to do with logic.”
The Question of Benefits
Perhaps the most contentious, as well as confusing, aspect of the 5M debate centers around what the development actually offers the community in return. The answer often depends on who you ask.
“The 5M project has zero affordable housing” is the title of an op-ed piece
published last November in the Examiner
. Its author, Dyan Ruiz, a community organizer for the South of Market Action Committee
, argues that Forest City’s claim of 40 percent affordable housing is “misleading and false.” Instead, the only on-site below-market-rate (BMR) housing consists of 87 units (out of 600) that are priced for people making 100 to 150 percent area median income, which translates to roughly $2,300 to $3,400 a month.
In order to arrive at the 40 percent figure, Ruiz explains, Forest City broke with San Francisco’s Inclusionary Housing Program
by including the 71 BMR units that the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation
will build at Taylor and Eddy using $18 million in funds from 5M. Furthermore, Forest City is also including 83 units that will be built on a plot of land located at 967 Mission Street, which they are donating to the City. All of this, says Ruiz, violates the law because inclusionary fees should go toward actual BMR units built by the developer, and Forest City is building none.
“The point is,” Ruiz said when contacted, “is that [Forest City is] supposed to mitigate different impacts. The office towers have a particular impact, the market-rate condo towers have a particular impact, and that’s why the City has different programs for each, and they’re basically confusing those programs and making it seem like they’re providing affordable housing, when really they’re just paying fees that they have to pay anyway.”
Ruiz is part of the coalition — which includes the South of Market Community Action Network (SOMCAN), Save Our SoMa (SOS), and Friends of Boeddeker Park — that is filing a lawsuit against the City over 5M. They are claiming that the environmental review the Planning Commission approved last September contained numerous flaws, such as out-of-date information regarding the project’s impact on traffic and a failure to show how the shadows cast by 5M’s buildings would affect surrounding areas, and are seeking to restart the approval process, which they think was rushed and inconsistent.
As an example, Ruiz mentioned the same community meetings that Olivas, of United Playaz, lauded: “Part of the issue that we saw with their community meetings is that they would meet with groups individually, so it was really hard to decipher what their project plans were, or what they were telling one group, or if they were telling another group something else,” she said. “That’s why we really were shocked when we saw what the project actually looked like.”
Even after they requested more inclusive community meetings, Ruiz said that Forest City presented information that was difficult to interpret, such as pictures of buildings that looked ten stories tall, rather than 47. Because of this, it was impossible for the public to fairly evaluate and comment on the project as it actually is, and so it deserves a reconsideration.
“We hope the judge sees that this was a rush job,” Ruiz said, “and that the city failed to do what was best for SoMa and the Tenderloin.”
However, for those that received benefits, such as the Mint Mall, a residential building that borders the 5M development along Fifth Street, Forest City remains an engaging organization that listened to their needs.
Lorenzo Listana, a community organizer, as well as a resident and employee of the TNDC, worked with the Mint Mall Resident Assembly in order to have a dialogue with Forest City and mitigate some of the negative aspects that the 5M Project might incur. Over the course of several meetings, they were able to agree on a number of measures, including limiting “disruptive activities,” such as pile driving, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and relocating residents who would be adversely affected. Forest City also agreed to donate $150,000 toward Mint Mall’s Health and Wellness program.
Listana attributes this success to the Mint Mall Resident Assembly’s willingness to work with 5M: “My position is that we should engage with these developers and have a dialogue. Whatever we need to do in order for us to stay in this neighborhood,” he said. “The other side who opposed it, they didn’t want to have a dialogue with those developers. We should be proactive. If you want the Filipinos to stay, and that is what I want, for the Filipinos to stay in SoMa, we should be proactive.”
Meanwhile, Araullo, of the Westbay Pilipino Center, sees such stories as a evidence of a “divide-and-conquer strategy and the power of agenda-setting fueled by corporate money.”
“It's easiest to prey on the vulnerabilities of underserved communities, and that's what's happening here,” she said. “It takes the form of possible donations. The help they want to give is tied to our support for their projects. But how can we continue to critically assess the impact of their projects on our Filipino families if their donation is tied to our support?”
Cracks and Connections
From its inception, 5M has been a massive and complex project, both in its developmental and architectural goals, as well as the ways in which it will change SoMa and the community that calls this neighborhood home. Olivas, for example, was quick to point out that, while the Filipino community is a large and significant presence, it is not the only community that will feel the effects of 5M: “United Playaz, we serve everybody, we don’t just serve Filipinos,” she said. “We had to look at this project as what does it bring to SoMa overall, and how does it help SoMa overall.”
Such complexity, and so many personal stakes, has not served the debate well. Supporters like Olivas admonish the misinformation that has come out of this, referring to people who have attended meetings “in tears” because they have heard 5M will consist of 100 percent luxury condos. On the other side, critics like Araullo lament those organizations that have “fallen victim” to corporate money and interests.
Still, no one thinks the divisions and disagreements that have emerged during the 5M debate will be lasting, or are even that significant now. Araullo emphasized that, while the two sides have parted ways when it comes to the inevitability of gentrification, “no community would willingly say yes to being displaced and disempowered” or that “gentrification is right or just.”
Likewise, both Listana and Olivas spoke to their continuing efforts to reach across the aisle and create a dialogue so that the Filipino community can preserve their place here and move forward. “5M is just one project,” Listana said.
Perhaps most optimistically, however, especially as she and her coalition of organizations prepare to present their lawsuit against the City, was Ruiz, who said she believes 5M has actually helped unite the Filipino community in a way it has not seen in years. “It has helped give people something to fight for,” she said. “It also put to question why the establishment of the Filipino Cultural Heritage District has been on the backburner for several years.”
“I think that it has been a wake up call for everyone to get involved in whatever way that they could,” she added. “So in that way it’s actually strengthened the community a lot.”
Meet the Community from the Mosque and Islamic Center on Crescent
The Mosque and Islamic Center of San Francisco Waqf
on Crescent and Andover has long been a fixture in South Bernal, but we seldom hear much about it. In fact, it’s the oldest mosque in the Bay Area, as well as the second-oldest mosque in all of Northern California. Plus, four stars on Yelp
! Who knew?
David Young, Bernalwood’s newest correspondent, recently reached out to Zishan Safdar, a Bernal native and lifelong attendee of the mosque, to learn more about this unassuming neighborhood institution:
Bernalwood: How long has the mosque been around?
Zishan: The Islamic Center of San Francisco (ICSF) was founded in 1959. It was founded when many brothers of the community decided that they, as Muslims, needed a place to pray and establish a foundation for the future generations. It’s the first mosque in the City of San Francisco, the first mosque in the Bay Area, and the second mosque in the entire Northern California. (The first is in Sacramento.)
The Islamic Center is a waqf. What does that mean?
Taken from Google, Waqf is defined as, “an endowment made by a Muslim to a religious, educational, or charitable cause.” Waqf in the Arabic language means to stop, contain, or preserve. So when this word is attached to the mosque or any religious institution, it also means that specific building can never be donated as a gift, inherited, or sold.
What about the community of Muslims who make up the mosque? Where are they from?
The community members who attend the mosque are from various backgrounds — including myself. I was born and raised in Bernal Heights on Cortland and Nebraska!
We have other members from India, Pakistan, Palestine, Yemen, and even Saudi Arabia. A majority of the members are San Francisco residents, including a good handful from Bernal Heights; a lot of commuters also drop by throughout the day to offer their prayers. There are a lot of converts who attend the mosque as well, including a few African-American converts and a Latino convert.
Besides daily prayers, what sort of events are held at the mosque?
Other than daily prayers, the mosque also hosts weddings, classes for both adults and children, Taraweeh prayers (prayers offered only during the month of Ramadan, the month Muslims fast in), the two Eid prayers, Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha, and also funeral services.
The mosque is also a hangout spot, especially for commuters who choose to come in and relax while waiting for the traffic to die-down, or who simply want to hang out between the prayers to enjoy some tea. There are also many youth programs, including monthly trips, dinners, and sporting events.
How would you describe the mosque’s place in the local Islamic community?
ICSF plays a major role in the Muslim community. Not only is it a place of worship, it’s also a community center for its attendees. Along with religious classes, which are offered to adults and children, we also have people from different professions who act as guidance counselors for anyone seeking advice. The mosque is a means for people to stay in touch as well; knowing you’ll have a shoulder to lean on when you’re in need is one of the most beautiful things we have to offer.
We focus a lot on the youth, too, and do our best to guide them to get the best of educations, be the best person they can be, and help them out if they’re facing any problems, whether it be family trouble, drugs, etc. We recently added a basketball court in the back of the mosque, too. There have also been tutoring sessions for students who need help with homework and we, as the elders in the community, try our best to guide the upcoming generation, both in terms of secular studies and religious studies.
What about the mosque’s role in Bernal?
The mosque plays a major role in the Bernal community as well. One of things I love most about San Francisco is how diverse it is, and, aside from all the awesome cultural food you’ll find in the city, you have people from many religious backgrounds here.
There are many churches in the Bernal Heights community and, as part of cultural diversification, it’s crucial to have a mosque to show the rest of the world how welcoming we are, regardless of one’s background.
ICSF — or any mosque for that matter — isn’t only limited to the people who follow the Islamic faith. Mosques are open to everyone, regardless of their background or religion, and at ICSF we always welcome everyone with open hearts.
I’d like to stress: We’d love to have more people from the Bernal community drop by the mosque to learn more; we’re always open to visitors! We’d love to have a “community night” at ICSF if the Bernal Height community is interested. I think it would be an amazing event where everyone could get to know each other and just have a good time.
Get ‘Trapped in a Room with a Zombie’ This Halloween
On a recent Thursday evening, in a small room tucked inside a building on Bryant street, beside an automotive parts store, a dozen people stood listening warily to the warnings of a man clad in an unbuttoned lab coat. Blood was spattered on the walls, alongside the scrawlings of strange and arcane formulas. The man, his hair disheveled and his glasses askew, paced back and forth, staring menacingly into the eyes of his crowd.
“The rules are simple,” he said. “Listen to them, and you might survive. Don’t, and well …”
He smiled. The lights shut off and, in one corner, a door flew open. The crowd hesitated, looked around nervously, then slowly shuffled in. This is how Trapped in a Room with a Zombie
The man in the lab coat, who speaks in a vague and unruly Eastern European accent, and goes by the nom de guerre
Professor von Guttenberg, is not a real professor, nor is the blood on the wall actual blood (at least, one hopes). The zombie, however, once you are trapped in the room with no means of escape, might as well be the real thing. It is bound to the wall with a thick chain that, inconveniently, increases in length every five minutes.
Meanwhile, you and your group must rely on your intellect, as well as your ability to work as a team, to solve a series of riddles, puzzles, and clues scattered throughout the room. If you cannot, after one hour the zombie will be released, and well …
“It acts as a constant distraction,” said Ted Zoldan, who plays the professor. “The zombie is constantly interrupting your thought processes, making sure you can’t go from point A to point B without it screaming at you and trying to eat your ankles. Your adrenaline is up and you can’t think quite clearly. It’s a lot more challenging than you would think, although it’s not impossible.”
The Trapped in a Room concept originally began, sans zombie, as video games in the early 2000s, explained Keith Rajala, who manages the room on Bryant and Fifth. “Around 2007 or 2008,” he went on, “they turned them into actual physical escape rooms in Japan, before making the jump across the Pacific.”
Marty Parker, Rajala’s business partner, introduced zombies into this concept in Chicago in 2014. Since then, his company, Room Escape Adventures
, has licensed the performance across the United States, as well as in Europe. Apart from its appeal as one of the more unique Halloween-themed events, it has gained considerable attraction among corporations looking for new ways to bring together their teams.
“The adventure itself is a perfect analogue to what someone goes through in a corporate day,” Rajala said. “You’re sitting there trying to do your job, all of a sudden someone comes and asks if you can do this, you get diverted from your task, but you still have to go back and solve the same problem. That’s what the show is: a very similar, realistic recreation of a work day, with the exception of the zombie being the important Excel spreadsheet that you have to do.”
He hastened to add: “But it also works great on a Friday night date night!”
Evidence of the shows popularity is plastered throughout the entrance room, where hundreds of name tags, many of them tongue-in-cheek, are stuck to the wall. Also evident is the amount of victims that have fallen to the zombie: at last count, about 55 teams had successfully completed the challenge, while over 230 had not.
“Only 29 percent of teams escape the room,” said Rajala. “But for those that do, many of them will escape with less than five minutes left on the clock. It often takes that whole hour before they can find the key.”
As for Thursday night’s team, they proved to be yet another victim to the zombie’s appetite. Despite this, reactions were positive as the group walked out:
“I feel like those puzzles were well within our reach,” one participant remarked enthusiastically, “but we were too distracted by the zombie! And everything around us! All those clues! It’s like, dammit!”
Trapped in a Room with a Zombie is located at 660 B Bryant Street. Tickets are 28 dollars and can be purchased on their website.
First Amendment Gallery Celebrates an Often Unappreciated Art Form
One recent Thursday afternoon, a group of about a dozen people stood outside First Amendment Gallery
, on the corner of Howard and Sixth, for its Art of Graffiti class. In front of them, stretched between two palm trees, was a taut piece of black canvas. Their instructor, a bald man wearing gloves and a loose-fitting shirt, stepped up to it and, with a few quick flicks of his hand, sprayed out several ornate letters, their forms swooping elegantly up and down. He turned and issued a short lecture on wrist movements, then invited the group to come try. Within moments, the canvas was covered with thick, vibrant streaks.
One might argue that this is an odd time to be learning how to write graffiti. All over the city, shop owners regularly complain about the fresh tags that greet them each morning. Meanwhile, graffiti on Muni buses and other public property is reportedly costing the city 20 million dollars a year. Recently, in an effort to deter this, the city attorney’s office announced
that they will begin filing civil suits, rather than criminal charges, against repeat offenders. One prolific tagger, who goes by the name “Coze,” is now facing a lawsuit totaling $88,000.
However, despite all of this, First Amendment is thriving. Since they were founded in 2008, they have become a central space for the Bay Area’s street art community. Their gallery showcases a diverse range of art from an international roster of artists — everything from traditional spray-painted images to intricate stencils, wood carvings, and even works that utilize yarn. They also offer tours of local street art projects and the underground graffiti culture, private workshops, mural services, and, of course, classes on graffiti, street art, and stenciling.
“Graffiti culture is not just this completely wild, anarchist thing,” said Daniel Pan, the founder of First Amendment. “Seeing real people behind it and touching the tactile things that are behind it helps people become more understanding. I used to get angry cleaning graffiti off of buildings, but since I started this, my perception has changed. When I buff tags now, I’m like, ‘Oh it’s that guy! I need to talk to that guy.’”
When Pan began First Amendment seven years ago, he had never had any experience running a gallery. In fact, besides a passing interest in street art and the culture that surrounds it, he had never even been directly involved with the scene. Instead, he was managing a portfolio of commercial real estate, leasing office space and signs to companies like Clear Channel and Viacom, an experience he found less than fulfilling.
“For me, at that point in time, 100% of me was serving the haves,” he said. “People were paying lots of money to say something. It was just this thing that was very formulaic.”
Fortunately, as he was showing some prospective tenants around the space that would later become his gallery, a couple of guys came in from across the street. They were members of ICP
, or Inner City Phame, a graffiti crew that managed the rotating murals that surrounded Brian Goggin’s iconic “Defenestration
” building, also on Howard and Sixth.
“These guys came in and we started talking about making this happen,” Pan described. “The gallery aspect of it, the educational experience aspect of it, providing the tools of the trade, creating artwork or murals for anyone who wants it. That’s how we started, and it’s essentially still the same. We still have those four elements.”
Since then, Pan has become immersed in the world of graffiti and street art, including the stark distinctions, stylistically and culturally, that exist between the two.
“It was difficult to start this. People were not thrilled,” he said, speaking about the resistance he met to a gallery that celebrated a controversial art. “The spray paint thing, obviously it has a really negative connotation, but no one can really stop you from saying what you want to say.”
So what is the difference between graffiti and street art? Put simply, graffiti involves an act of vandalism, while street art does not. Graffiti, according to Pan, is “done with letters and without permission,” while murals and street art are more pictorial and require a greater variety of tools.
Although they definitely crossover, graffiti and street art exist in different worlds. In graffiti, for instance, a culture of retaliation, of domination, exists: if someone puts their tag over yours, you strike back. In contrast, if someone tags your mural, you simply fix the image, sometimes again and again.
Pan was quick to acknowledge the negative aspects of graffiti. “Some people are out to destroy,” he said. “It’s a release, perhaps. Maybe they feel angry at a certain something and this is their outlet.”
But he also emphasized that there can be beauty within it as well. “I’m amazed at the calligraphy of the letters in all those tags and slaps. For me, that’s something beautiful. The way it’s balanced out, the shape of the letters and the accentuation of certain parts, I think that’s really awesome.”
None of this means that Pan, or his gallery, condones acts of vandalism in the name of art. In fact, many of First Amendment’s educational programs began as efforts to encourage vulnerable youth from breaking the law. However, more than most galleries, they do go out of their way to recognize the art inherent in the spaces around us, whether anyone else likes it or not.
First Amendment’s next exhibition is titled “Catch Me If You Can,” and features the work of Arthur and Oscar Maslard, A.K.A. Ratur and Sckaro. The opening reception is 6:30-9:30pm Nov. 5, and the show will be on view through Jan. 7.
Tickets for their classes and tours are available on their website.
The Luggage Store Gallery Reopens, with Plan to Stay Put
The other day, Darryl Smith, co-owner of the Luggage Store
, stood on the corner of Sixth and Market. He was wearing a pair of Chuck Taylors and a brown biker’s cap rakishly angled over his head. Above him, a row of green plants — ferns, moss — was growing out of his gallery’s wall. They filled the narrow space between the second and third floors.
“Before we put that up, there wasn’t anything there,” he said, by way of explanation. “It was just a blank space. It was too small for a mural, so we decided on that.” He took a moment to look at it, then added, “I think it’s beautiful, but it’s probably not something we could get away with now.”
Smith, along with his partner, Laurie Lazer, have operated their Luggage Store art gallery from the top floor of the Walker Building, at 1007 Market Street, since 1991. From this vantage point, they have been witness to some remarkable change. Most recently, the gritty blocks of their Central Market corridor have been transformed by the ever-expanding wave of tech money, as well as the markers of the new economy that have quickly followed in its wake. Among the panhandlers and soft-drug peddlers that regularly surround the gallery, companies like Zendesk and Spotify have moved less than a block away. Further down the road, Twitter and the glossy towers of the NEMA luxury condos (now 96 percent occupied
) loom large.
Unfortunately, this also means that they have seen many organizations like them (nonprofits, art institutions, etc.) leave. Office rent prices are now averaging north of $50 a square foot, with some predicting
that it might soon reach closer to $75. All this makes it more interesting that, on the day Smith was admiring his building’s unique flora, workers inside were finishing up the last of the past six month’s worth of renovations. Electricity and plumbing have been updated, a building-wide sprinkler system has been added, and the gallery has been expanded into the second floor. The Luggage Store is not only surviving, it’s growing. Amazingly, it might soon even own the building itself.
This improbable success story is the result of a novel collaboration between the Luggage Store and the California Arts Stabilization Trust, or CAST
. Using funding from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation
, a nonprofit whose mission is to “champion and sustain the arts,” CAST purchased the Walker Building in January for $1 million, then undertook the renovations necessary to bring the building up to code. Over the next seven to 10 years, in partnership with the Northern California Committee Loan Fund (NCCLF
), CAST will provide operational support while the Luggage Store raises the money to pay them back. Until then, CAST will act as a holding company, effectively securing the gallery from rising rents.
The beauty of this model, Smith explained, is that the Luggage Store is only required to return the initial investment. “By July,” he said, “before we started any work on the building, it was already valued at two million. Now, as we complete this scope of work, who knows, it could be well over three at the end. We will only be charged with paying back that million dollars.”
What’s more, a deed restriction has been placed on the building so that, in the event it does have to sell, it can only go to another arts nonprofit. “They’ve secured it for perpetuity,” Smith said. “It’s kind of a legacy piece. I think that’s rad.”
“CAST began as a result of the beginning of the economic surge in the Central Market neighborhood,” explained Moy Eng, the Executive Director of CAST. “A number of public and private-sector leaders were watching the elements unfold, and they saw an opportunity to address both short-term and long-term questions of stability and permanent space for arts and cultural organizations.”
By the time CAST was put together, in 2013, the Luggage Store had already been exploring multiple avenues of ownership for over a decade. In 2000, after their first landlord had died, they received a reasonable offer — $500,000 — from his sister to buy the building. Working with a real estate attorney, they formed a limited liability corporation and raised nearly half of the funds needed, but fell short when they realized how many renovations the building required to be brought up to code.
Luckily, Shelley Trott
, an artist and former performer who had been very active in the street theatre festivals the Luggage Store had put on in the late ‘90s and early aughts, had since gone on to become the Director of Arts, Strategy & Ventures at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. She, along with Joshua Simon and Leiasa Beckham of the NCCLF, came up with the strategy to acquire and steward real estate for nonprofit arts institutions. With a $5 million initial investment from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, CAST was formed. In addition to the Luggage Store, they have also purchased the Dollhouse, a former adult theater on 80 Turk Street, for CounterPulse
Already, CAST is looking ahead to even larger projects. With the city’s recent approval of the 5M Project
, Eng said, CAST will assume responsibility of the Dempster building, at 447 Minna, and turn it into a permanent space for SoMa artists.
“We’ll be working with a number of neighborhood groups and artists in order to collaborate smartly and respectfully with art, cultural, and community groups already in the neighborhood in order to steward this building into being a vibrant hub,” said Eng. “This is our modest way of seeing if we can claim some affordable places and stem the erosion of artists and arts organizations from leaving San Francisco.”
Will CAST and its strategy serve as the model for other nonprofit arts institutions faced with eviction? Smith looked up at the plants growing out of his gallery, which date before CAST’s intervention, and pondered the question.
“It’s one model, but it’s not the only one,” he said. “I feel very grateful to be a part of this deal, because it’s taking our building to another level of what we can offer artists, unknown and emerging and mid-career artists. That’s our whole scope of who and what we pay attention to.”
However, he went on, he also acknowledged the difficulties of it, especially for an organization such as the Luggage Store. Traditionally, he has seen his gallery as a renegade institution, one that “did things and asked forgiveness later.” Now, for the time being, they must focus their energies elsewhere in order to become a more viable, sustainable organization. They need more staff, for instance, as well as a managing director. They need a development plan in place in order to raise the funds needed over the next several years. Future shows, he said, will try to strike a balance between selling art and using the additional space they have to continue taking risks.
Smith worries that this focus on money might distract them from their core values, but he is also realistic about what has to be done. “That’s mainly our challenge as an arts nonprofit,” he said. “We have to find our own independent ingenuity and make revenue in alternative ways. We’re there for artists who are working alternative to established traditions and methodologies. Now I think we have to do it, too, in our way.”
The Luggage Store is located at 1007 Market Street. Their current shows include "Candy Paint II" by Michelle Guintu, Rye Purvis, Yarrow Slaps, Justin Hager and Kristen LiuWong, and "In" by Alex Bradley Cohen and Marissa Neuman.
Photagrapher Janet Delaney Returns to SoMa for a Fresh Look
The other day, Janet Delaney
was in her studio, looking up at a wall covered with large photographs. In one, a man stands on a street corner next to a shopping cart, a phone peeking out of his pocket, a sly smile under his beard. In another, a woman sits in a minimalist condo, her windows facing more windows, the small patch of sky outside a stark gray. Buildings are prominent in many of them, often rising up from within thick tangles of cranes. Occasionally, a photo depicts the view from the roof of one, the city stretching out all around.
“I'm not a photographer who can just land someplace and make pictures and go onto the next thing. Everything looks interesting when you do that,” she said, gesturing at the wall. “It's a lot harder to stay home, but I'm hoping I'll make better pictures.”
The photographs are part of Delaney’s latest effort to capture the SoMa neighborhood as it undergoes yet another period of transformation. In her first South of Market project, which she worked on from the late-1970s through the mid-1980s, Delaney documented the dramatic changes that surrounded the construction of the Moscone Center. She was living nearby at the time, and many of her photographs depict her own neighbors, as well as the other artists and local businesses threatened by the area’s rapid growth.
Delaney now finds herself confronting some of the same issues — gentrification, rising rents — as she did back then, although many other aspects of the landscape have since changed. Tech firms and high-rise condos, for instance, are the new threats, while the vibrant working-class communities she once knew are long gone. However, with several large development projects for SoMa now on the horizon, as well as the increasing belief that San Francisco as a whole is reaching a new tipping point, Delaney considers this the perfect time for her to return to her old neighborhood once again.
For Delaney, the path back to SoMa has been long. She began her initial South of Market project when she was just a 26-year-old graduate student, too new to the city to know what the massive, multi-block construction pit near her home was. Nevertheless, she would sometimes sneak through the chain-link fences to photograph workers dangling from towers of rebar, downtown’s bright concrete buildings rising up from behind. After learning that the convention center they were building had displaced some 5,000 people and 700 businesses, she began to wonder about the community around it as well.
Over a period of eight years, Delaney tried to give a voice to her neighborhood. Using a large-format camera, complete with a tripod, she would go into restaurants and offices and other people’s homes, set it up, then sit down.
“I realized that when I walked into a place with a view camera, I got people's attention,” said Delaney. “I was working where they were working. If I come in with a little camera and I'm just kind of sneaking pictures it's not nearly the same conversation as when I come in with something that's much more substantial and slow.”
Looking at these photographs now, it is hard not to notice the urgent parallels to today: the evictions, the angry graffiti scrawled over walls and windows, the hopeful billboards promising change. However, a large part of their appeal also lies in what is no longer there. Before they were priced out, Delaney created portraits of shop owners crouched over lunch counters and artists sitting in their lofts. In one shot, a leather-clad man sneers at the camera from his motorcycle. In another, a young black mother sits in her apartment with her daughter, both looking pensively away.
In 1986, though, when she was finished, few recognized what Delaney had done. The future that she had expected hadn’t happened yet. The neighborhood still looked too similar to when she had started, and only a handful of galleries were willing to show her work.
So she moved on. She left San Francisco and travelled to places like Beijing and Delhi and Mexico City, photographing the ways that communities grow out and evolve. She settled in Berkeley and married and raised a family, teaching photography and occasionally taking on new projects as they arrived. She put her South of Market photos away and mostly forgot about them. More than two decades passed.
“I was not aware of how one makes a career in fine art,” said Delaney, reflecting on her choices. “Other people my age did it, so I think it was naive on my part or I just didn't pay attention or care enough about it. I’m just very pragmatic, I think.”
In 2009, however, Erin O’Toole, a curator at the SFMOMA, helped Delaney publish a book
of her South of Market photographs after discovering a few at a group show. Preparing for the book, and then for the full exhibition
the de Young Museum put on last year, Delaney decided to look anew at the South of Market neighborhood.
Although her work is still in progress, Delaney is adamant that this new SoMa series can be seen both with her older one, as well as independently. “I think I'm building on the knowledge, but not specifically extending that original project,” she said. “I have all this background, so why not use it? I don't feel quite as specific. I think when I was younger there was more of a ‘them’ and an ‘us.’ At this point, I'm just assuming a more generous position.”
Rather than come down on one side of gentrification or the other, Delaney said she is trying to use these new photographs to look at “how the city has been impacted by new technology and what the new fabric is of life on the street.” She wants to know who lives and works here now.
In this new era, though, even this can be hard. Delaney lamented how many places now require appointments to get in. Many more people also get easily aggravated at the sight of someone taking pictures, too. Guards will immediately ask her to leave. Some companies will only grant permission after sending her sheafs of legal documents first.
Delaney also faces the challenge of now being an outsider. “I'm not part of the culture, in the sense that I'm not a 25-year-old tech worker or a 27-year-old artist trying to make it in the city,” she said. She has to drive into the city now, and no longer has a reliable network of neighbors that she can rely on. But she is determined to see this as both a blessing and a curse.
“I think it's very difficult to see things when you're in it,” she said. “I'm trying to maintain a sensitivity to that. I think that, in some ways, being an outsider helps because when I go to the city I'm still in awe. And I know when you live there everyday you stop seeing it. I'm hopeful that that helps me keep my eyes open.”
Delaney is also hopeful that her experiences of the past 30 years will help her build on her original South of Market project and create something relevant and powerful for today.
“I want this new layer of work to have more,” she said. “Will it resonate in the moment or do I have to wait 30 years? That would be my biggest question. Can I make new work, or is it really just the fact that the work is old?”
In conjunction with PhotoAlliance, Janet Delaney will be giving a presentation at the San Francisco Art Institute Lecture at 800 Chestnut Street on April 8 at 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased in advance online.
ThirstyBear At 20: Reflecting On The Growth Of Bay Area Craft Beer
The other day, Ron Silberstein, the founder of ThirstyBear Brewing Company
, sat around with his head brewmaster, Brenden Dobel, sampling their newest beers. The breadth of flavors was impressive. One used whole vanilla beans and cocoa nibs, while another had been aged for over a year in bourbon barrels, giving it a sharp, sherry-like taste. A particularly unique one didn’t even use hops — a style called “gruit” — and instead had been made with local herbs such as yerba buena, yarrow and manzanita berries. It was their attempt to create what beer might have tasted like in the Bay Area during the Middle Ages, had there been any breweries back then.
“When we first started, we were most interested in creating traditional-style beers,” Silberstein said between sips. “We wanted to make a pale ale or an English-style bitter or a stout. Now, though, people know enough about ingredients to distinguish between something that is hop-forward or malt-forward, sour or barrel-aged. We can truly experiment now.”
This is a good time for ThirstyBear, as well as other independent breweries and brewpubs like them. According to the Brewers Association
, craft beer sales grew by over 12 percent last year, even as overall beer sales fell. The market now takes in $22 billion annually. What’s more, the number of craft breweries in the U.S. has swelled to an historic high of over four thousand. The last time there were this many was in 1873.
Evidence of this success can be seen all over the Bay Area, which boasts one of the highest concentrations of breweries in the nation, including such stalwarts as Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam. However, it is the increasingly arcane mixture of brewpubs, microbreweries and even homebrewing associations that are generating the most excitement. Events such as SF Beer Week, for instance, attract thousands of people eager to sample the region’s diverse range of beers. Elsewhere, organizations like the San Francisco Brewers Guild
take people on tours
and put out maps of the different breweries, just like the wineries of Napa and Sonoma have for years.
At the center of much of this success stands ThirstyBear. Established in 1996, when the craft beer movement was still in its infancy, it is now the oldest brewery-restaurant in the city. This distinction has let Silberstein and Dobel watch as beer drinkers have become more discerning, and has turned them into something like mentors for the current crop of brewers. Through their efforts, they have helped establish the Brewers Guild, popularized the use of organic ingredients, and have trained and supported a succession of aspiring brewers, many of whom have gone on to found their own breweries, such as Regan Long of Local Brewing Co.
Now, they are celebrating their 20th anniversary by throwing out their flagship beers and introducing a new rotating menu that, in its way, pays tribute to how far the craft beer scene has come.
During the seventies and eighties, the number of breweries in America was at a record low. In 1978, there were as few as 88 breweries, making it one of the worst years for the industry outside of Prohibition. In addition, the beers they were producing were largely limited to pale lagers, with little variety beyond that. The American public’s taste had been conditioned to enjoy what many brewers agree were mostly bland and flavorless beers.
However, a few bright spots did exist. Fritz Maytag, who had bought Anchor Brewing
(and saved it from bankruptcy) in 1965, was continuing to produce unique styles of beers, such as porters and ales, that would go on to inspire a whole new generation of brewers. Equally as important, Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, which made it legal to produce a small amount of beer and wine for personal consumption. Homebrewing had begun.
At the time, Silberstein had just started college in Massachusetts. Within a few years, though, information about homebrewing had begun to trickle down. “I remember being in the store one day where they had a beer kit, and talking with a friend about how cool it would be to brew beer,” recalled Silberstein. “I was interested after trying a Bass Ale, after trying an Anchor Steam that made its way across the country. That was the beginning of it all.”
Eventually, by 1986, Silberstein made his way out to San Francisco, but not to become part of the nascent brewing scene — he was studying law. However, he continued homebrewing, producing roasted malts and stouts and various pale ales, sometimes bottling them in old Coca-Cola bottles when he wanted to transport them around town. He described sharing them with friends and at the occasional party, where many people had never had anything like it before.
A turning point came in 1994, when Silberstein decided to forgo a promising career in immigration law — he had just won asylum for a gay Mexican man in what many considered a landmark case — and turn his hobby into a career. “People thought I was stupid. My parents were so disappointed,” Silberstein said, laughing. “People thought I was insane.”
But he was determined. In the previous years, he had begun refining his brewing techniques, making beers with only one grain and one hop in order to understand how each ingredient contributed. After quitting law, he furthered his education even more with brewing courses at U.C. Davis and the American Brewers Guild, as well as an internship at Marin Brewing Co. From there, he got a job at SF Brewing Co., where he put together a business plan and found investors, including a man whose uncle, Silberstein said, was the king of Norway. ThirstyBear finally opened for business in February of 1996.
In the subsequent years, Silberstein, along with Brenden Dobel, whom he has been working with since 2002, have watched the beer culture blossom. At first, maybe 10 percent of their customers really understood what they were doing, Silberstein said. Now, people can name different hops and explain what they add to different beers.
“There's a maturation of pallets,” Dobel said. “It still blows my mind that people like sour beer. There liked bitter at one point, but now they're really embracing lactic acid. That shows an evolution of the pallet, and an exploration, too.”
Along with this exploration, the number of breweries has also increased. (The current estimate for those in the Bay Area currently sits at around 120.) Around 2002, in an effort to unite this growing community, Silberstein and Dobel organized the first meeting of the San Francisco Brewers Guild, a trade collective that now includes over 30 different breweries. In addition to their many events
, they regularly help each other out by exchanging recipes and lending out product and supplies. They will also occasionally let ambitious homebrewers use their equipment to start their own batches, which is how ThirstyBear helped Local Brewing Co. get their start.
“We're not a closed society,” Dobel said. “If you wanna learn how to brew, you're looking to open a brewery, come to us. We'll train you, we'll teach you. We have no secrets.”
The San Francisco guild has become a model for others throughout California, as well as the U.S., and has helped foster a tangible sense of community among the breweries here in the city. Silberstein, though, along with Dave McLean of Magnolia
, is planning something even more far reaching: he is working on establishing a local malting facility in Alameda that will further remove big conglomerates from the picture and allow craft breweries to develop relationships with individual farmers.
“The goal of the [craft beer] movement is to create more neighborhood, vertically integrated sources of beer,” explained Silberstein. “We’ll have more farmers growing the barley, more malt houses making the malt, and more brewers making it in the neighborhood.”
For now, though, Silberstein and Dobel are happy that they’re able to do things like experiment and create a rotating menu of new beers.
“I think we've finally achieved what we set out to do,” Dobel said, speaking of craft brewers everywhere. “We wanted to change the beer culture of America. It's become so accessible and normal now. The new normal is to have good craft beer.”
Meet Jeremiah Jeffries: 1st Grade Teacher and Education Activist
In October of 1999, Jeremiah Jeffries stood on the median strip of Van Ness Avenue, in front of City Hall, with a dozen other teachers. Each of them held signs scrawled with messages like, “Got pencils? We don’t.” “Got paper? We don’t.” “Got computers? We don’t.” Around them, drivers were honking their horns in support. Occasionally, one would lower their window, and a teacher would weave through traffic to collect the pencil or piece of paper they were offering, before quickly scurrying back.
News of it went national. In the midst of San Francisco’s first tech boom, when money was suddenly pouring into the city at an unprecedented rate, teachers were panhandling for school supplies. Each year, teachers were spending hundreds of dollars of their own money for basic items in their classroom. In response, Jeffries, along with Mark Sanchez and other educators of Teachers 4 Change, an activist group that they founded a year prior, went to the streets. “As a result,” Jeffries recalled, “the district decided to increase the school supply budget for the first time in decades.”
Jeffries is a short, soft-spoken man with an easy smile that often hides his intensity. He has been teaching first grade for 16 years now, and is currently at Redding Elementary School in the Tenderloin. In many ways, he seems like a typical educator. His classroom is bright and cheerful, decorated with books and art projects and carefully spelled out words. On one wall, a framed picture of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X is hung above an inspirational quote.
At the time of the protest, however, he had only been in San Francisco for three years, and had barely been teaching for one, but had already begun to assert himself into the conversations surrounding San Francisco education policy. Since then, he has helped push for systemic change on the school board, become an advocate for multilingual and multicultural curriculums, crafted vital education policy, and fought tirelessly against the ongoing privatization of schools. By way of all this, he has sat on the board of the SFUSD teachers’ union
, the Center for Critical Environmental Global Literacy
(CCEGL), and co-founded Teachers 4 Social Justice
, another advocacy group.
Perhaps most significantly, however, at least four school board members, past and current, have relied on his influence to get elected, while many more hopeful candidates have regularly sought out his endorsement. And, although he has been asked numerous times and would likely find a host of willing supporters, he refuses to run for a seat himself. He prefers his place in the classroom, behind the scenes. As such, he may be the most important teacher in San Francisco that you don’t know.
Jeffries was born in Germantown, Philadelphia, in the mid-70s, to a large family — he was the seventh of 10 children. He describes his family as poor and Philadelphia as a rough place to grow up. Crack was reaching epidemic proportions and, with it, violence and institutional racism were eroding the city away. Despite this, his parents, who were prominent in the Nation of Islam and had established the Sister Clara Mohammed School, emphasized the value of community building and service. “There’s nothing mysterious about progression,” Jeffries remembered his mother saying. “It’s working instead of wishing.”
This lesson became especially important when Jeffries’ oldest sister was shot and killed. The tragedy refocused his family and forced them into new roles. Everyone suddenly had to take on more responsibility and, aged 12, Jeffries began work as a janitor at a child-care center. Later, he credited this job as inspiring his initial interest in education. (“I’d love to be a teacher here,” he remembered thinking.) He kept working throughout his youth, often through Philadelphia’s Fill a Job program, an experience he says kept him out of trouble.
Eventually, he went to the University of Virginia, where he encountered an even more turbulent form of racism, embedded not only within fellow students, but within the faculty and staff. “The culture there was bad to even talk about,” he said. “You could never get your needs met. And, when it was talked about, it was your fault for bringing it up.”
Regardless, Jeffries applied the principles his parents had taught him, and began working for change. With the Black Student Alliance, he exposed how the university was using janitorial staff to increase their diversity numbers. They got the first black female voted into student office. They challenged the honor system, which unfairly penalized students of color, and established a multicultural “Mosaic House.” Still, after graduating, Jeffries was eager to escape the South. Looking for someplace with no winter and good public transportation, he moved to San Francisco.
is integral to Jeffries’ success. A fellow activist and elementary teacher, Sanchez was central to the founding of Teachers 4 Change and, later, Teachers 4 Social Justice. In 2000, shortly after the panhandling protest, Sanchez, with Jeffries’ and his organization’s backing, decided to run for a seat on the Board of Education. Jeffries counts his win as a defining moment: “It dramatically shifted everything,” he said. “We could actually start make significant changes to schools in meaningful ways.”
Their antagonists were board members like Dr. Dan Kelly
and Jill Wynns
, who has been serving continuously on the board since 1992, despite having no experience as an educator. “Most of the people on the school board aren’t actually that knowledgeable of schools,” Jeffries described, exasperated. “They haven’t taught at all. All their information comes from the high-salaried people in the district. Because of this, their decisions end up being very one-sided towards that group.”
Jeffries began focusing on filling up the board with more teachers and educators. In 2002, he helped Sarah Lipson, another teacher, get elected. Then, in 2006, Jane Kim, a youth and community organizer, was elected. In 2008, then again in 2012, Sandra Lee Fewer, the former Director of Parent Organizing and Education Policy at Coleman Advocates, became a board member, too. The three of them, along with Eric Mar (also elected in 2000), helped push the progressive policies of Sanchez and Jeffries.
However, all of them found themselves continuously clashing not only with the elements of Dan Kelly and Jill Wynns, but with the (as often described) autocratic and contentious leadership of SFUSD superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Hired in mid-2000 to replace the scandal-plagued tenure of Waldemar “Bill” Rojas (whose exploits eventually brought in the FBI
), Ackerman was a polarizing figure for many. Lauded in some circles
for reigning in spending and increasing test scores, she drew heavy criticism for closing down schools, decreasing student enrollment, and increasing privatization.
In 2006, responding to Ackerman’s closure of John Swett Elementary, Jeffries organized what he still believes to be San Francisco’s largest school boycott
. “Over 200 families did not bring their children to school,” Jeffries said. “Instead, we went across the street to the school board and rallied and protested and turned it into a day-long civics lesson for the kids.”
Despite these efforts, the school board voted 4-3 to close John Swett. Soon after, however, Sanchez and the progressives on the board were able to force Ackerman’s resignation, but not before the other board members voted to give her a $300,000 severance package
. Jefferies sued Ackerman over this, claiming this was public money, but since the decision was made by board members in a public forum, the courts sided against him.
Ackerman went on to become the superintendent of Philadelphia, where she was let go in 2011, but with a much meatier $905,000 severance package this time. To widespread outrage, she applied for unemployment compensation
shortly after that.
These sorts of fights can take their toll. Before the school boycott and the Ackerman broil had even gotten off the ground, Jeffries was already repositioning much of his energy and capacity toward an organization that he and Sanchez had spun out of Teachers 4 Change.
Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) was formed in order to “help teachers build their practice and become better teachers,” in Jeffries words. Unlike its predecessor, which focused more on union accountability, T4SJ is centered less around local political activism and more on larger policy work. This includes giving teachers the tools to attack thorny cultural topics (race, class, etc.) while creating a curriculum that engages students and families with their communities. To this end, they hold an annual conference
(completely free, including lunches) that regularly attracts 1,500 or so attendees, and that has dozens of workshops with titles like “#Tweet4Change: Students Challenge Status Quo via Social Media.” In addition, they organize a series of smaller “social justice salons,” in which people (teachers, students, parents, anyone) are encouraged to talk openly about issues surrounding education. Most recently, they discussed Black Lives Matter and put together a library guide
T4SJ’s efforts have garnered the attention of likeminded groups across the country, and led to the formation of the catch-all Teacher Activist Groups
, or TAG. Its members include the Association of Radical Educators in Los Angeles, the New York Collective of Radical Educators in New York, and the Metro Atlantans for Public Schools, among many others. Their most prominent work, by far, has been the “No History is Illegal”
campaign, a national response to Arizona House Bill 2281, which banned Mexican-American studies. Due to their efforts, the curriculum is now taught across the U.S.
Jeffries is also the acting president of the board for the Center for Critical Environmental Global Literacy
(CCEGL). Formed from an international Master’s program at his shuttered alma mater, New College, the CCEGL is a nonprofit that sends 10 teachers twice a year to communities in El Salvador and Oaxaca to teach students and other educators about the impacts of globalization and promote indigenous culture reclamation.
In addition, Jeffries teaches education postgrads at the University of San Francisco, as well as first graders, five times a week, in Lower Nob Hill.
Teaching can be a difficult profession, Jeffries admits. “You have to be good to yourself,” he said. “You have to eat. You have to sleep well. You have to be patient, both with yourself and with your students and their families. You have to know when it’s not meant for you.”
This sort of blunt, rational assessment is in line with much of Jeffries’ work. Talking with him, it’s very clear he loves teaching — words like “joy” and “inspiring” are peppered throughout his conversation — yet he is still pragmatic about what needs to be done.
For instance, he remains concerned about finding more competent and experienced educators to put on the board. (Currently, only one, Sandra Lee Fewer, has had any professional experience as an educator.) San Francisco and its schools, he believes, exists in a bubble, one that is anchored by the authority of a democratically-elected school board, which in itself draws its legitimacy from its members’ priorities. Were too many of them to begin listening to the needs of administrators, or even corporations, instead of the students themselves, the closures and charters sweeping across other cities could easily come here.
“San Francisco has been very lucky, in that we’ve been able to fight off a lot of privatization efforts because we’ve had a locally elected school board,” he said. “When there was talk of Leland Yee, Gavin Newsom, and they began to even speak of mayoral control, we jumped right on it and shut it down.”
“However,” Jeffries warned, “the spectre of privatization and trying to take local control away is always around the corner. Right now, all across the country, people who know very little about what it takes to educate a child are making decisions about schools. They are making huge decisions — huge decisions
— that will have decades of effect.”
He smiled, then said, “I still have a lot of work to do.”
Steve Pollard and the Tragedy of Homeless Deaths
In April of 2015, Janet Delaney
was driving around SoMa, looking for subjects to photograph for her ongoing “SoMa Now” series. When she saw a man reclined on the corner of Eighth and Folsom streets, a shiny walker by his side, she immediately pulled over.
“It was the same kind of walker I had been using when I got my hip replaced about a year or two before,” Delaney recalled. “And I thought, 'That’s a high-quality walker for someone just lying on the street.' For some reason, I felt compelled to talk to him. So I sat down on the curb next to him and we had a great conversation.”
Delaney learned that the man had been released from the hospital only three days earlier after breaking his femur. Having gone through a similar recovery herself, she marveled at the idea of him sleeping on the street. Nevertheless, he was cheerful and happy to talk with her, and even let her take his photograph.
Over the next couple of months, Delaney would stop by whenever she was in the area. She found him in the same spot every time, sometimes holding forth with friends, sometimes alone, but always eager to talk. Although he was missing most of his teeth and was difficult to understand, he was very forthcoming. He told Delaney he used to live in Texas. He mentioned having an ex-wife and children, but said he couldn’t go back to them because he was bisexual and they just wouldn’t understand. He also admitted that he had broken his femur because he had been drinking, something for which he felt ashamed.
The last time Delaney saw him, in December, he had a small dog with him. He was taking care of it for a friend of his who had recently gone to jail. Besides a blanket, a jacket, and a couple of cigarettes, the dog was one of his only possessions. Though he would occasionally accept a few dollars or a bite to eat, Delaney never remembered him asking for anything. He wouldn’t even hold out his hand.
The following March, the man admitted himself to the general hospital, complaining of stomach pains. Cancer was eating its way through his body. He died on Saturday, March 26th, 2016. The next day was Easter Sunday.
His name was Steve Pollard, and he was one of the several dozen homeless men and women in San Francisco who will die this year. According to data compiled by the Medical Examiner’s Office and the Department of Public Health, 41 homeless people died between the Decembers of 2014 and 2015. In the decade since the city has been keeping track, this was an average year: a low of 15 people died in 2009, while 2006 brought a high of 83.
It should come as no surprise that homelessness is deadly. In fact, a recent study
by UC Berkeley that focused on homeless youths in San Francisco found that they are 10 times more likely to die than their peers. The most likely causes are suicide or substance abuse, although the general homeless population suffers from a whole host of additional ailments, including untreated medical and mental health conditions, high rates of assault and violent crime, and the constant stress and pressure of extreme poverty.
The result of this has been the creation of countless programs designed to help serve the homelessness, alleviate their challenges, and reduce their numbers. In San Francisco alone, the San Francisco Chronicle found
, the city spends over $241 million a year on homeless services, spread across 400 contracts and 76 private organizations — a number that doesn’t even include the sums spent on the emergency responders that regularly help homeless people in need. There are also the hundreds of SROs spread throughout the city, which give many homeless temporary relief, as well as the numerous nonprofits, clinics, religious organizations, and individuals whose mission it is to help the homeless.
Yet they remain — 6,600 or so according to last year’s Point-in-Time Count and Survey
— filling shelters and sitting on streets and (most recently) pitching tents, all the while fanning the flames of debate amongst San Francisco residents about what to do.
Some, like Sup. David Campos
, want even more spending, as well as the construction of more shelters like the Navigation Center on Mission and 16th. Others want to see a consolidation of the city’s various homeless programs in order to streamline their services. Many have simply responded to the mayor’s plan to sweep away the encampments
that have been growing along Division and other streets for the past few months.
Often lost in all this discussion, however, is the human element of homelessness, a grim irony that can be most poignant when a homeless person dies, and the procedures of government protocol suddenly converge with the families and loved ones whom they leave behind.
“I wish I would have known,” said Tricia Mittman. “If I’d had known, I would have flown my butt out there and brought him back.”
Mittman is Steve Pollard’s niece. She and her family, all of whom live in Ohio, received a call from the UCSF Medical Center the day before he died, informing them that he had slipped into a coma and was on life support. They needed permission to take him off. Mittman, who was one of the family members closest to Steve, hadn’t heard from him for over five years. Some in the family, like his daughter, hadn’t seen or spoken with him in decades. Before that phone call, in fact, no one was even sure where he was. Now they learned he had a brain hemorrhage, multiple tumors, and little chance of recovery. They decided they had little choice but to authorize taking her uncle off life support.
Afterwards, Mittman couldn’t stop thinking about Steve. About six or seven years ago, she explained, she had decided to track him down. As long as she had known him, he had been a drifter, loathe to spend too much time in one place before moving on, but she had fond memories of her uncle from when she was a child (Mittman is now 36), and wanted to reconnect.
She began searching for him online, typing his name into Google and signing up for sites like Ancestry.com. When that didn’t work, she took the suggestion of her father (Steve’s brother) and began contacting prisons. Eventually, she located a Steve Pollard who was serving a stint at San Quentin.
“I took the leap and decided to write him,” Mittman recalled. “I didn’t even know if it was Steve. I had this inmate number, and I addressed [my letter] to San Quentin State Prison, care of Steve Pollard, and waited to see if I ever heard anything. Lo and behold, I was soon getting letters almost every single day from Steve. It was him.”
This went on for about six months. Mittman filled him in on family news, such as the death of Steve’s father, while Steve shared small details of his life, like the stroke that had left him walking with a cane. Once or twice, Mittman tried delicately to find out why Steve was in prison, but he was reluctant to tell her too much, a silence she attributed to his shame. Instead, he would decorate his envelopes with intricate drawings, recalling a time when he had aspired to make a living off his art.
In the last letter she received from him, Steve told Mittman that he would soon be released. When several months passed with no word, though, she tried contacting San Quentin to see if he had been sent to a group home or a rehab facility, but they wouldn’t give her any information. She kept searching for him, here and there, but it was in vain. He had vanished once again—at least until the day they received that call.
What happens when a homeless person, long estranged from his family, dies? The answer will often vary.
In San Francisco, when an individual dies with no next-of-kin listed, it is up to the Office of the Medical Examiner to locate his or her family. After identifying the body, which may involve fingerprinting if no ID is found, their investigative division begins looking for clues.
“We use a variety of resources,” said Christopher Wirowek, the deputy director of the Medical Examiner’s Office. These include cross-checking the deceased's identity on different electronic databases and with veteran’s affairs, as well as looking through any items found within personal property, such as any old holiday cards, mail, and contact lists on cell phones. “Facebook has even proven useful,” Wirowek mentioned, “although it’s not something we do routinely.”
If the family is found, Wirowek emphasized that his office will do whatever it can to fulfill the family's wishes so that the entire process is as painless as possible. They will transport the body to the family if requested, or cremate it and send the family the remains. If the family consents to it, and the body is in a good enough condition (i.e., it is discovered shortly after death, before the process of decomposition has begun), the Medical Examiner's Office will even donate it for medical and research purposes. However, due to the large number of solitary and/or traumatic deaths, Wirowek conceded that this is rare.
In the event that next-of-kin cannot be found, the Medical Examiner’s Office becomes the body’s “family” itself. Due to space limitations, the body will be cremated, with the ashes then stored for up to a year. If no one has come forward after that, their ashes will be taken out to the Pacific Ocean with the remains of other unclaimed persons, and scattered at sea.
In some sense, Steve Pollard’s family was lucky. He not only died in a hospital, where he could be safely monitored in the moments before his death, but he had had the foresight to list his daughter — whom he had never had a relationship with — as his next-of-kin. Mittman admitted that news of Steve's grave condition came as a surprise to the family, but they considered themselves fortunate to have received that news before his death.
However, they were less fortunate in another sense, mainly that they suddenly had to come to terms with the life and death of a family member whom they barely knew. “Why?” Mittman said over the phone. “Why didn’t he reach out? Is this really how we have to remember him? On the street as a homeless man?”
So, shortly after the phone call, unable to sleep, Mittman began looking for him again. The little that she knew of his life was tragic — alcoholic parents, a series of neglectful foster homes, a childhood marred by mental and physical abuse — but she also remembered him as her uncle, hanging out with her dad, working on automobiles all day in the garage. She wanted to fill in some of the blanks and learn something about who he was.
Like before, she put his name into Google and began searching for him, except this time she found something new. “I’m scrolling through the images,” Mittman recalled, “and I come past this picture that is so tiny and unbelievable, you could barely even make it out what it was. I click on it and my heart sunk. I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s Uncle Steve!’”
She had found the photograph Janet Delaney took in April of 2015. He looked like he had aged 50 years, but it was definitely him. Mittman decided to write to Delaney.
“The ground moves a little,” Delaney said, describing what it was like to learn from Mittman that Steve had died. “I felt like I had to do some sort of ritual to acknowledge this.”
She wrote back to Mittman, telling her what little she knew, then returned to the corner he often sat at, on Eighth and Folsom, to post a sign with a picture of Steve, along with his story. With it, she included a note inviting anyone who wanted to send a message to the family to leave a note or email her. She did the same at a couple of cafes she knew he frequented.
Soon after, the letters began pouring in.
“He was always respectful and polite. Never caused any harm and would always say hi whenever he passed by,” said one. “I’ll miss seeing him around.”
“Just wanted to say that I was quite sad to hear the news about Steve,” said another. “He was very kind and courteous, always saying hello or good night. I never would have guessed he was so sick.”
They shared memories of Steve walking with them down the street, or of the gratefulness with which he accepted a few dollars so he could give himself a shave. They described how happy he was with his broom and vest when he got a job sweeping the street. They spoke of his smile, of how he would always be there as they came and went.
Taken individually, they are small, almost incidental — just glimpses into his life. For Mittman and her family, though, all these responses helped answer, if only a tiny bit, the question of who Steve was.
Despite the vitriol and intense emotions that can often define the homeless debate, there is actually a great deal of consensus about just what should be done. The solution is so obvious it is nearly banal: to eliminate homelessness, simply give these people homes.
Of course, in reality, it is not so simple. This is especially true in a city like San Francisco, where the argument over affordable housing and what gets built in our backyard may rival even that of homelessness (although the two are inextricably linked). For example, although the Navigation Center has been one of the most potent success stories in the fight against homelessness in recent years, David Campos has been unable to find
any neighborhood willing to hold another one. The prospect of permanent housing within the Bay Area for those currently homeless seems even more bleak.
However, the story of Steve Pollard should contain an interesting lesson. The homeless masses may be ignored or forgotten in the minds of many of the city’s residents, but there are likely a sizable number who have families, friends, or loved ones who are wondering about them, who would very much like to know where they are. And if they knew, maybe they would be willing to give them a home.
As it happens, this is not a new idea. Since 2005, Homeward Bound
has been helping homeless individuals in San Francisco leave their current situation and relocate to a place where they will have a home. From when they launched their services through December of last year, they have helped 9,560 people escape homelessness in San Francisco, at an average cost of $186 per person.
Although the program has previously received criticism for doing little more than exporting the homeless problem elsewhere, they insist this is not what they are about. “We do not send anyone anywhere unless we can confirm that there’s someone who will take them in on the other end,” emphasized Scott Walton, Adult Services Manager of the Housing and Homeless Division, which oversees Homeward Bound. “We are not relocating people to be homeless somewhere else.”
The success of the program has recently led to its expansion from two employees to nine. This includes a staff of outreach workers whose job it is to meet with the homeless in order to explain the program and hopefully convince them to join. However, it remains entirely up to the individual whether or not they want to take advantage of this service. Even if a friend or family member who is trying to locate someone reaches out to Homeward Bound, all they can do is pass on the information. Ultimately, it is not their decision to make.
This, finally, gets at one of the most enduring tragedies of Steve Pollard and the dozens like him who will die, lonely but perhaps not yet forgotten, in hospital beds and shelters and out on the street: there is no one solution. Put another way, the burden of change does not fall on a single program or department or well-imagined law, but on society as a whole. A problem like homelessness does not plant its roots in the minds of damaged individuals, but in the shortcomings of our communities.
After all, what would have prevented Steve Pollard’s homelessness and his subsequent death? Perhaps if he had received a more supportive upbringing, or had access to better rehabilitation services while in jail. Or maybe if he had been given more options afterwards than simply wandering the streets. Or maybe some secret combination of these, or maybe none of them at all.
“Why?” Mittman repeated, her voice plaintive, as she pondered this question aloud. Mittman and her family are currently waiting for Steve’s ashes to be delivered to their home.
“We don’t care if he was bisexual. We don’t have anything against the homeless. I just don’t know. Honestly, I wish I had an answer. I wish he was alive to tell me, but he’s not. Because I would have helped him in a heartbeat.”
Excerpt from “Calliope”
She appears like a gust, Lucian thinks, like a wave of warm air. He meets her the summer before his senior year, shaking hands in a brightly lit room, surrounded by framed paintings, standing on stone tiles patterned with a kaleidoscope of colorful, curved lines. It is the first day of his new job and he is wearing a tie. She walks up to him, hips gliding beneath a long and loose skirt, eyes bright and brown, her arm outstretched and her smile drawn wide. Her name is Mila, she says, and Lucian breathes in.—
He is twenty-two, a good student, bookish and tall, his eagerness knitted over his face. A week ago, Lucian arrived here in New Orleans on an offer and a whim: a job as a docent at their museum of art. He is a mere handful of credits from completing his art history degree, so few he had considered staying through the summer to finish it, but he was bored. When his professor had happened to suggest the job—a favor through a friend—Lucian had jumped, excited by the adventure, the change. Only later, standing in line at the airport, pushing his overpacked bag along the floor, did he consider how unsafe he had heard the city still was.
He watches her move around the room, her skirt billowing, her legs youthful and lean. Mila starts their orientation, stepping in front of their little group, leaning forward smiling and clasping her hands. She introduces herself again and explains she will take them on their first tour, then turns and walks down a near hall. Besides Lucian, there are two men and three women, each much older than him, listening and nodding as Mila leads them around the museum. Her voice is light and cheerful, fluttering from fact to fact, speaking intimately of details he and the rest lean in squinting to see. They pass old portraits of frowning generals, of rose-cheeked ladies wearing stiff, ornate clothes. They wander into a room filled with long landscapes painted with thick brushstrokes, each color bleeding into the next. Mila takes them outside, then, into a garden, where white muscled statues sprout on pedestals, shadowed under the twisting arms of live oaks. By the end, they are all excited, impatient for their own tours to begin.
After lunch, they are passed on to a beaked older woman with a shock of white hair. As she hands out binders, pencils, and sheets, taking a breath to begin her long repertory of rules, Lucian looks up, searching for Mila, but she has gone.
It has been two years since the levees broke and brought the water in. His memories of that are confined to images, bursts of static, short news clips full of strange, discordant scenes. He had watched it all idly, flipping through channels, pausing briefly to gawk at the frantic crowds, the floating bodies, the highways like snakes swimming in black murk. He had felt a distant pity then, a pang of frustration, but little else. Now, somehow, he's here.
The city at night makes strange sounds. Lucian lies in his bed listening, his suitcase and clothes stuffed underneath. For the time, he is staying in a hostel: an old house converted and crammed full of beds. From outside, he hears the cluck of the neighbor's chickens and the low growls of their chained up dogs. Occasionally, drunken conversations pass by his window and then stumble away. Farther off, he hears a loud pop that could be a tire, he thinks, or maybe a gun. Lucian waits, wondering, listening for the yells, the wail of the sirens, for the sudden silence to be pierced once again.
Training continues early the next day. Lucian arrives slightly dazed, disheveled, his hair and his shirt already limp from the heat. Immediately, he looks for Mila, running thin fingers through his muss of wet hair, but sees only the same older woman from yesterday afternoon. Disappointed, he takes a seat with the others, fanning out his shirt, and watches the woman look at them while she rubs her large nose. In front of each of them, she places a slip of white paper, a schedule written on one side, and tells them they have all been assigned guides to shadow, to learn from, this week. Lucian glances down, expectant, and searches for his name, running his finger along the dark printed lines. When he finds it, he smiles, but then catches himself quickly and stops.
Later, the museum lets them out early. Lucian walks to a nearby cafe to sit, poring over the reams of photos and fact sheets he has been given, studying the long lists of paintings, their titles and dates. He stays there for hours, smoking cigarettes and sipping iced tea, determined to know, by tomorrow's tour, as much as he can. So focused is he that, by the time he leaves, the sun melting above in a burnt honey haze, he does not notice the line of homeless milling in front, waiting for the cafe to take out their trash.
At ten the next morning, he runs up the museum's stairs and meets Mila, chatting amiably with a security guard, at the front entrance. It is hot again, the humid air pulling and clinging to his bare skin, and Lucian had decided today he would not wear his tie. For all his preparation, he is still worried about this, is still afraid he will fail to impress. When Mila sees him, though, he is relieved when she just smiles and turns and waves him inside.
In the lobby, they stand quietly waiting for their first tour group to arrive. His hands are clammy and bunched into his pockets. His mind races for something to say. He glances around him, at the marbled floor, the split staircase, the rotund columns and brightly hung banners, at the square skylights glowing above. His thoughts circle and he can think of nothing. His throat turns dry and he wishes for a drink.
Mila must sense something, for she looks over and tells him not to worry, she will do the talking. "Just watch for now and remember what you can." He nods quickly. Yes, he thinks, yes he will.
Through the double front doors, chattering and laughing, clutching large cameras and purses, a dozen older women flow in. They are dressed comfortably—loose trousers with thin matching blouses, some in large tee shirts with their sleeves rolled up. Several wear visors wrapped around their thin hair. They take them off, panting wildly and waving them like fans, as soon as they're inside.
Mila greets them and they gather around. Lucian stands behind her, listening as she talks about the museum's long history, its collection of nineteenth-century French art, looking on as the ladies all smile politely, as if they are holding their breath. When she is finished, Mila asks if there are any questions before they go on.
"Yes," a woman near the front says, slowly raising her hand. "We were wondering, was there much damage here? Did you have to move anything? How did you all manage?"
Mila explains that the museum actually sits higher than much of the rest of the city, and so was spared. Only the basement flooded, she says. The woman looks to her friend beside her, relieved. "Oh, well thank God for that."
"Yes." Mila stares at the woman until she looks back. "Though many in this city could not claim the same luck." Then she turns, pointing, talking, and their tour begins.
She is a fount overflowing, a wealth of trivia, tidbits, and facts. Her hands trace the edges of frames, slender fingers wriggling, waving over the brushed paint and statues made from stone and steel and brass. In front of her, eyes follow, ears listen. Several women stand near taking notes. They wind their way through rooms lined with elaborate battle scenes, with pictures of red-tinted Indians standing in swamps. They look, pausing then walking then pausing again, as Lucian learns each thing he must do. One, project a clear voice and smile, make eye contact with everyone in the group. Two, allow time to ask questions, but never too much. Three, tell a story, something funny, that will make everyone laugh. Lucian writes all this down, looking up to watch her words shape and form and spill forth from her lips, suddenly admiring Mila even more. By the time they have reached the last room, he is rapt, and does not notice that he has not written anything for the past hour.
Afterwards, Lucian waits for the ladies to finish talking with her, and then compliments Mila on another good tour. She laughs. "No, it was bad, I know. You shouldn't have seen that on your first time."
Confused, Lucian asks, "What, because of what that woman said? About Katrina?"
But she just waves her hand and says she'll see him tomorrow, then she turns and walks quickly away.
Four, do not talk to her about the storm, ever again.
In his hostel that night, wary of the street noises and unable to sleep, Lucian logs into the guest computer to search for somewhere to stay. Although he has money saved for a summer room and has grown tired of living from his suitcase, his curiosity soon takes him away from the listings, to newspaper articles written nearly two years back. Their words are stark, damning. He knew it then, but now that he's here it seems suddenly worse. He reads, imagines: a freight train of water, screaming, bursting through and over solid cement, picking up then tossing whatever it touches, like so many old toys. The terror of watching where you've lived, cleaned, slept in and loved, disappearing beneath a violent blackness moving faster than anything you've ever seen. Then running up the stairs, and then up to the attic, locking the door behind you as the water rises and rises and you look and pray for something, anything, you can use to cut through to your roof. . .
Later, as he is dreaming, Lucian will wake up suddenly, gasping for breath.
The tour the next day is a group of children, whispering and laughing at each nude painting they see. Mila steers them through the galleries, her voice even louder and bouncier than usual as she tries to keep their attention, while Lucian guides them from behind, helping their teachers corral them from room to room. They walk with them, the children lined up in a long chain holding hands, past wooden sculptures and through the tall lobby, and then out into the fresh air. Two little girls hold onto Lucian, describing everything that they saw, until they are both finally called back to their bus.
"Much better," Mila says. Lucian looks over. She is smiling, nodding at him. She flips out her keys and twirls them around. "Can I give you a ride home?"
Her car is an old Buick, rust brown and dented with sharp angled sides. Its floors are covered in papers and notebooks, dirt covered tools and trash. A chipped mug is wedged into the cup holder, cold coffee splashing around. When Lucian picks up a pile of newspaper in order to sit, Mila laughs, apologizes for the mess. "It’s a work in progress," she says.
The hostel is near the museum, close enough for Lucian to walk to every day, but he does not tell Mila. Instead, he feigns ignorance, says right when he should say left, and quickly acts lost. Mila drives slowly around the neighborhood, a cigarette in her mouth, as Lucian leans forward pretending to study each bright shack and cottage curling by.
"Sorry about yesterday," Mila says finally. "I'm not like that, usually."
Lucian sits up, shrugs. He tells her he understands, though he’s not sure he does.
"Those women though," she goes on. "They don't know. Besides the Quarter and the paintings, and maybe some shops, they could care less." She flicks her cigarette out the window, a quick arc of ash. "Where you from?" she turns.
"Maryland," he tells her. "Baltimore. But I've read about it," he adds, nervously, sheepishly. "I can remember watching it all on TV."
Mila just glances at him, as if maybe she's heard this before. They turn a corner and Lucian's hostel appears. He's said enough, he thinks. He tells her to stop.
"You live here?" she asks, surprised.
"Just for now, I'm still searching."
Mila nods, looking at the hostel, then at him, her face a shade softer than before.
Excerpt from “This Is Our Town”
The moment before the wind arrives, the world is silent. Everyone knows this here. We will turn and look up and sniff at the air. We will check the time and nod, yes, yes, and then leave for our homes. Our doors will shut, despite the heat, and our windows will close. The roads will empty and we will not say a word. No, we will wait.—
The dust gathers high above us and then rains down hard. The air turns yellow then brown and then a deep hued red. The storm rattles our shutters and pushes over our carts. It knocks against our mud walls and slips its dirt through each crack. Tied to their stumps and unable to move, our animals scream. I stand on the road and watch as the sand scrapes at my skin. Then, when it becomes too much, I hide as well. I slide the bolt on my shop's metal door and lie on the ground. Outside, the wind picks up and the sun fades away. In the darkness of my store, I wait.
I do not own this shop, but it is mine. My father bought it thirty years ago, just before I was born. It is nothing more than a hole, a worn out crevice carved into a wall, but its location is good. We have filled it with lentils, chickpeas, and rice, and kept our counter stocked with chocolates and candies and cheap cigarettes. In the harvest, we tape together old boxes and pack them with the dates and olives my brothers and I have picked from our farm. For celebrations, we keep cold Coca-Cola and buttermilk in our cooler, and always have tea boiling in a pot, ready to pour. When the power goes out, which is often, the people come to us to buy candles. Sometimes, they will ask me where my father has gone. He is sick, I tell them, but they know this is not true.
My town is small and its secrets are not easily kept. From my counter, I have learned many. Karima, Abdulwahyd's wife, is pregnant again. I know this because she has bought milk twice in the past three days. Each time, she has paid me quickly, and always with exact change. Like before, she's afraid she will lose her child. This cannot happen to her again.
Ahadi, the Berber, has found some money, but I do not know how. Every day, he knocks on my door, although it is open, and asks for a mille-fueille. Then, as if it were nothing, as if we have always been good friends, he smiles and offers to buy me one too. There's something about how he does this, something vague and strange. I suspect he is stealing, but I do not know yet if it's true.
The gendarme, a large man not accustomed to our weather, is afraid he will lose his job. His walk has become quick and he no longer lingers from shop to shop. When I offer him tea, as I always do, he refuses it and moves on. His questions have turned urgent, more frequent and distinct. Our answers no longer satisfy him, they only disturb. His sweat stains circles into his jacket and his smile seems strained. He sometimes laughs, but it sounds too loud.
I have learned who to trust here and who not to look in the eye. The soldiers who come from souk, still bound in their boots and carrying black bags of vegetables and herbs twisted up with torn paper; the old men without teeth, their long khaffiyas tangled and wrapped tight atop their spotted bald heads; the students, mostly young, buying bread for their next morning meal—yes, they are why I sit here, they are why I remain. It is the others I cannot stand: the pasha and his worn government clerks, each of whom speaks French badly and Arabic even worse; the teachers they hire and bring in from the north, barely more literate than the children they teach; the hashish smokers and their dirty black hands, pocked and blistered from the habit they are too weak to give up. These people all come to me often. I know each of them well.
From this counter, I sell flour and couscous and bars of brown soap. I measure amounts with the weights of my scale and keep diligent track of my customers' tabs. My doors open at sunrise and only close with the afternoon wind. It is a simple job, but I am not dumb. No, my town is small and the world is large. Of this and more, I am fully aware.
I've taught myself English in the free time that I've found. I have long since completed the grammar books I stole from the school and have grown bored with the homework the students bring me, begging for help. I read now, whatever I can. Sidi Hasan looks after my needs and lets me print, at a moderate rate, from his Internet cafe. In the past year I have read The Scarlet Letter and half of Tom Sawyer, though I have understood little of what they have said. I bend over my counter daily and sound out the words, trying to pronounce them as best as I can.
My friends will sometimes visit my shop and see all of this work. I spread it around me and make endless notes. I underline phrases and circle words. I squeeze in reminders between the small, printed text. My friends look at this and laugh, but they are confused. What is this? What are you doing? they ask. You are not leaving here, so what is the point? But maybe I am, I say. Maybe that day is soon. No, Si Mohammed, they say. No it is not. You were born in this desert and you will die in this town. Then they smile and walk off and I return to my work.
A man arrived the other day. When he did not leave, people began to talk. I heard the rumors from my store. He was white, they said, with short, blond hair. He wore a beard and a taqiyah, but he did not wear a robe. Strangest of all, confirmed by two women who had quickly passed by, was that he spoke Arabic. Ah, well, then he is Egyptian, offered the barber, Soufiane Zahrir. Or maybe even a Turk. Ismail Haroubi, a shop owner down the street, said he had seen him leave the gendarmerie, and we all shook our heads yes. An Egyptian, we thought, or maybe even a Turk.
The people left and I read and the wind picked up and blew, but the matter had been settled. Hours later, as I was closing my shop's heavy doors, my cousin Naima ran up to me and tapped on my arm. She had heard him speak too, but had followed, listening at length. He did speak Arabic, just as they had said, but he did so badly and with an accent she had not heard before. He is an American, she whispered, and he has come here to stay. I shooed her off quickly and told her to go home.
Rumors like these catch in our wind and do not go away. There were soon many more. He has come here to find a wife, some said. He will make her very rich. No, no, he is buying our land, said others. First, he will find a house, then another, and another. After a year, it will be the whole town! And what of us then? The cafes boiled over with this chatter well into each night. The town's men were eager for a new topic to discuss. With every theory their imaginations grew, but the most compelling argument of all belonged to the beggar, Hussain. For three days, he took to dragging himself across the town center, yelling out to anyone who would listen: A spy! A spy! I tell you, that man is a spy!
I remained in my shop during all of this and tried to work, but the questions soon came. Si Mohammed, Si Mohammed, they asked, have you heard? He left on the bus this morning, but is already back. He was with the pasha when he returned. What do you think this means? Si Mohammed, what do you know of Americans? You read so much. What have you read? Even poor Karima, pausing a moment with her milk in her hand, could not resist. Sidi Mohammed, she asked, have you spoken with him yet? Have you asked him why he is here? Can you tell me, are any of the stories true? Or could this be good for our town? Finally, something good?
I, too, was eager to know, but I was not optimistic. This town does not change easily, it merely endures. It would take more than a foreigner to rouse us from our sleep. Were he able to, I am certain, my father would agree. Still, my curiosity grew. They say I will die here and be buried beneath our sand, but I will do what I can before that day.
The next afternoon, he came. The sun was high and the streets were empty from its dry heat. I was studying and underlining my words. I did not notice him when he approached. His greeting was proper, if a little slow, and I looked up. I immediately stood and thrust out my hand. Hello and welcome, I said in my English, we are glad you are here. My name is Mohammed, and what is yours?
Excerpt from “Steps”
We purchased our plane tickets, took a trip to the local bookstore, visited our doctor to get our shots, and then waited, calling our daughter to tell her the news. Weeks later, we were in New York City, in a long conference room tucked into a Hilton, attending an orientation with everyone else. They showed us slides of mud huts; of dirty babies with distended stomachs; of dead, sand-strewn fields and whole streets buried beneath piles of trash. When it was over, all of us stood up, excited, and clapped.
The next day we boarded a bus and rode to the airport, then found the far terminal for international flights. There were nearly twenty of us in total, so we sat spread out in the gate before we began boarding, clumped into packs of three or four. My husband and I chose some seats beside the tall windows from where we could look out on the rest of the room. Our group all wore the yellow tee shirts we had been given that morning, our bellies emblazoned with the dark splotch of Africa, an American flag floating delicately above. Amidst the other travelers—the box-suited businessmen, the dour-faced Hasidic Jews—we stuck sorely out. Besides my husband and me, everyone else on the tour was young—still in their twenties, their early thirties at most. We could be their parents, I thought to myself. I stared at them for a while, watching them talk excitedly, waving their hands, before my gaze drifted out the windows, to the tarmac, to the runway and where it ended abruptly beyond. I felt cold and fished in my purse for a sweater, then quickly pulled it on.
The plane's aisles were covered in brown carpet and, although it was nearly noon, each window shade was pulled closed. We wandered inside, following the dim lights flickering on the ceiling and floor, dragging our bags behind us while we looked for our seats. Here and there, coal-black men sat clothed in white robes or loose, colorful shirts, sifting through newspapers and mumbling to themselves. A cloud of gray smoke curled up suddenly into the air and we turned to see an old man smiling, a thin cigarette perched between his cracked lips. When we were seated, buckled into our hard cushions in the back of the plane, we watched as the cabin filled up with young couples and parents with small children in tow. One woman arrived, veiled and hunched over, carrying a sleeping baby tied to her back. Another came in with two boys tightly clinging to her skirt. They sat across from us, crouching down into their seats while their mother broke open an orange and fed them, piece by piece. When I caught them staring, I waved, but they did not react. Instead, their mother looked over and eyed me cautiously, then put away her fruit. Moments later, the floor shuddered, the lights went dark, and I felt the plane begin to move.
The air in the cabin was dry and stuffy and difficult to breathe. For a long time, I waited in vain for someone to offer us a drink. With effort, then, I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but could only fall into a listless, unsatisfying state. At one point, my head nodding, my mind stuck halfway in a dream, I heard two girls in front of us, both a part of our group, talking about the trip. "I think," one said to the other, "that we might be making a mistake."
I lifted my head and looked at my husband, wondering what he would say, but he was slumped over, sleeping peacefully, just as if he were home.
We woke up to clapping, cheering, and great, violent shakes, then streams of bright light, like pillars, as each shade was pushed up. All at once, then, everyone rose, ignoring the attendants' warnings as the plane wheeled down the runway and turned. They began gathering their bags, tearing them from their cramped compartments and out from under their seats, so they could crowd forward, ready, eager to be free. Our group stood up afterwards, cheerful in our bright yellow but still weary from the long flight, and filed out slowly, down the stairs, to the tarmac, to the small airport burnt with brown hues. Inside, a wiry man dressed in denim and a starched dress shirt, a limp mustache hanging loosely over his lip, shook our hands, then ushered us through customs, past a carved fountain with clumps of people crouching on its walls, as if they were waiting for the water to turn on, and led us back outside, to the heat and the angry orange sun. There, we found our tour bus, which we all dutifully, and quickly, climbed on.
We drove along a narrow, paved road dappled with thin palms and dry, thorny bushes. Beyond these, there was a long ditch, then a row of squat homes, crumbling with decay, strung with lines of laundry that flapped in the wind. Protruding from each house, sometimes two or three at a time, were tiny satellite dishes strapped onto poles and small piles of rocks, all pointing, I noticed, in different directions.
The man was an American named Douglas. He introduced himself, sitting down beside us, smiling, his gray mustache rising slightly and swinging as he glanced from my husband to me. He would be one of our tour coordinators, he explained, making sure we got safely from town to town. Not that there was any real danger, he assured us quickly, placing his palm briefly on my arm. Africa is not what it once was. There was still plenty of progress to be made though, he told us, but change was coming, you could see it all over, especially right here. He gestured toward the group and looked at us firmly, his forehead wrinkled into three tight waves. Others in the bus were turning, listening to us, so I nodded and smiled as if I understood. Once, he said, the regime would imprison foreigners for simply wandering into the wrong place. Now, we're welcomed and our help is appreciated, and the results are beginning to show. He pointed out the window, toward the highway and the city spreading out ahead. In the distance, rising up inexplicably, looking out of place among all the palms, was a billboard painted with bright reds, whites, and blues. In English, below, it said: WE WELCOME YOU TO OUR HOME!
I picked my way along the table, a plastic plate in my hand, and considered the thoughtful, still glittering displays of fruit. Around me, the rest of the group was mingling, sipping on cups of coffee while they remarked on the flight, the warm weather, the city we were in, the sinuous path we had woven toward this hotel. I lingered a moment, listening, then chose a slice of white melon and turned around. Across the room, I saw a group of waiters, hunched over and talking, occasionally glancing over at us. I nibbled on my melon, watching, trying to guess what was being said, but my thoughts drifted off, jet-lagged and wayward, while a line of juice spat out and slowly dribbled down my chin.
Excerpt from “Comatose”
My father once told my sister and me about a man who woke up from a coma, who just sat straight up after a dozen years. It’s not a very original story, I know—we’ve all heard it before—except this man, when they asked him that inevitable question, the one about whether he remembered anything, or if he’d just skipped over those worrisome years, described a whole other life as if he’d led it himself. His name had been Thomas, he said, or maybe Travis, and he’d grown up on a farm. He’d had a gap-toothed smile and a new pair of glasses. He’d had brown-blonde hair his mom would clip short each spring. Eventually, though, all these details became fuzzy. He didn’t remember anything after a couple of weeks. Still, it’s enough to make you pause for a minute and wonder: What else is possible out there? How much more do we not know?—
Not so long ago, I began having a dream. It’s a strange dream and nothing much happens. It’s more of a feeling than anything else.
It starts with just whiteness, but a blank, brilliant whiteness like I have never seen. I’m standing in a field, you could call it, a plane stretching endlessly, monotonously, everywhere. Eventually, a woman—far off, but unmistakably there—appears on the horizon. I watch her walk toward me, until she stops barely one arm’s length away. I make no effort to move. Instead, we just look at each other, without speaking, for minutes, for hours, for much longer, for days. We look at each other and—how can I explain it?—I know her. In that moment, I know.
I have never put too much stock in my dreams. As a child, I can recall being tucked into my bed, my father’s large hands holding my blanket, a collage of cartoon dinosaurs brought up under my chin. He sits down, the side of my bed sagging, while he smooths out each wrinkle, poking at the extra material until I am tight and secure, safe under my sheets. Satisfied, I look up. Behind my father’s face, beside the blue shadows hovering around in my room, something is moving outside my window, floating there, awful and alive. I open my mouth—I am terrified—but my father just smiles, pats my head, and whispers, “Goodnight.”
This memory is real. So is the one of me waking up, moments later, and realizing that I am alone.
Monsters. Nightmares. Pointless, childish dreams. Why should I remember them? What worth do any of them have to me?
But the woman—why can’t I forget her? Why can’t I let her image go?
The night the first dream came, I had been drinking steadily for seven hours, trying hard for an eighth. I was sprawled out on my carpet, my head rubbing against its rough curls, memorizing my ceiling’s collection of stains, its patched paint jobs, its neat, hairline cracks. I had heard about whole floors falling, from top to bottom, in old buildings like mine. So I decided, if fate wanted its way, I was going to look it straight in the eye. Instead, I woke up, blood-red morning seeping through my blinds, to a drumbeat headache, a tipped bottle of Bulleit, and a stubborn dream-image still flickering strangely around.
The second time, several days later, I couldn’t blame on the booze. I had gone to bed early, but just for the change—I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. When I blinked my eyes open, startled awake, I didn’t even bother looking at my clock. The way the light angled in, as if it was unsure; the way everything was reduced to subtle shades of itself; the way sounds did not rise out from the city, so much as explode, before vanishing back suddenly into their void: all these things conspire against you when you should not be up. But I was, lying wrapped up in my bed, thinking of the woman, how she approached and just stood there, silent, staring at me, while I looked back as if it was all I could do. And how I knew, without a good reason, with only a feeling deep down somewhere in the pit of my gut, that I know this woman. I know her although I don’t know who she is.
Then she began coming back every night.
I have read that all of us, whenever we sleep, without exception, dream. Within hours, it might happen dozens, even hundreds of times, but what do we remember? A fading image? A vague feeling of something experienced? Maybe, if you’re lucky, a few plot points you’ll try not to forget—whatever it is, they say, ninety-five percent of it will be gone. And if that’s all we get back for one-third of our lives, one might wonder if we’re missing out.
I wish I could say that they were profound, that when I opened my eyes I realized I had learned something, that my life was revealed. In truth, the dreams were mundane. I would see nothing at first, just the pure whiteness, as blank as a page. Then, out from this aether, she would appear, always coming toward me in the same way. I would watch her, mystified, ignorant, enthralled, nearly intoxicated until she stopped. And when she did, we would just stare, awareness passing between us like sharp, lapping waves.
I am not a lonely man. I would say I am many things—unmotivated, for instance, overeducated, marginally employed—but lonely is not one. Three nights a week, I pick up empty pint glasses and tap out plastic ashtrays at my friend Sammy’s bar. He doesn’t own it, but since he’s probably spent more money there than the real owner, he might as well. I met him a year ago, the day after I had been fired for absolutely no good reason at all. (“Do you enjoy coming into work?” my manager had asked me. “That depends,” I said, “is that part of the job?”) Sammy spotted me in the midst of my celebration; I was crouched over, he informed me, in his corner of the bar. By the end of the night, though, he was pulling the bartender aside, insisting he hire me on the spot. He would stake his reputation on me, he told him, which made us all laugh. Drunks like him have a way of getting respected for simply remaining as long as they have.
It’s a good job: Nine dollars an hour, plus a percentage of tips, plus the occasional shot when business gets slow. But my favorite part, what keeps me coming back, are the conversations, the interactions, the gestures I get to witness each night. You wouldn’t think it, but for this, Thursdays are the best. This is when the most desperate drinkers drop in, those guys who want to wait until five o’clock Friday, but here they are hating themselves instead. From them, I have learned the meaning of friendship, the strength of solidarity when a man would otherwise have none. From them, I have learned the power of a nod and a tip of a pint glass, those things we say without saying them at all.
But Sammy—he and I talk. The days I don’t work, I spend sitting beside him, reviewing the affairs of this world. He is sixty years old, nearly twice my age, and has told me things I should not believe. Things like how he has swum in every ocean, but never set foot on foreign land; or how he does not go to the doctor because he’s never learned how to get sick; or how, after his third wife had left him, he burned down their house with a match and a gallon of unleaded gas. Afterwards, he says, he phoned the local news just so she would see.
I do believe him, though. At least, I’ve decided I do. Somehow, the man’s become something of a father to me. Which is why, after he asked me what my woman looks like, I told him the truth. She looks like a secret, I said, a glint of silver caught in a pond. She looks like a language I never bothered to learn. She looks like my life, I told him, altered and played back at a different speed. She looks like a question, I told him, the second before it is posed.
But, really, I guess I didn’t tell him anything. I told him I didn’t know.
I wanted to get married at a young age. This is funny, since this is exactly what my father had said I should not do. He’d married right after college, to a woman he’d met in his first year, to my mother, three years his senior, who’d waited around until he got his degree. Then he became a husband, then a father, then a father again, and he realized his life had taken its turn. He’d meant to travel some, he’d told me, to see this world, but sometimes—and I remember his smile when he’d said this, the secret way it had emerged—but sometimes this life will not be what you expect.
He was happy, though. I never doubted this fact. Tell me: Why shouldn’t I have tried for something that had been so good to him?
I had intended to get married at a young age, but then that hadn’t worked out. So I moved into the city—this was three years ago—from the suburbs an hour outside, ready to finally take my father’s advice. The day I arrived, I tapped strangers on shoulders until I found the tallest building downtown. On its top, like a sign, like an omen of my good fortune and grace, was a wide, gilded, window-wrapped bar. It wasn’t cheap, but I sat and ordered a celebratory drink, then another, and another, before the bartender learned not to ask. I drank facing westward, toward the direction of my old house, toasting my mother and sister, even my father, too. I said, Thank you for everything, but now I am here. I said, I’ll be happy enough on my own.
That bar, that beautiful bar—they kicked me out that night. Since then, I’ve never gone back. Sometimes, though, lately, I’ve thought that I should. It’s not the view I miss—the city’s sparkling grid spread out before me, night’s thick blackness rising above—it’s the sleep I had, stretched over a bus bench, after they shoved me out into the street. I remember it being dark and deep and peaceful. I remember that I did not dream.
The next time I woke up, my woman-dream still dancing somewhere within, I did what I could. I called Sammy to see what he thought.
He told me he thought women were a nightmare, not a dream. He told me the only two things worse were religion and gin. He told me that when he met his first wife, he was just sixteen, but the sight of her alone had made him want to drink. He told me his second wife had been the happiest person he’d known, and that when she left she’d told him a joke. To this day, he told me, he’s never laughed so hard.
“But what,” I asked, “does any of that mean?”
He told me, “What makes you think it’s all about you?”
He told me, “What I really wish is that I still remembered that joke.”
When I hung up, I started looking around for a pen. Sammy was drunk, which was normal, but he’d somehow hit on a nerve. I found a crayon and an old piece of paper and tried to write as much as I could. I wanted to remember before it was gone.
Excerpt from “Five Fictions”
A lump, the girl thinks, has no set size nor set shape. Function here will create form, forming out wide, smooth, round curves, curving through the fat of her flesh, then her fingers finding it, this new, tender squish. She stands there bare in her shower, warm water dripping down in warm drops, but she is still shivering then squinting. She's afraid now, all these thoughts, and can barely now see. She stops.
Her bright towel wrapped up around her and another twisted atop her wet hair, not dripping like her but drooping, its pink cloth somewhat like her pale skin. She's showered now so she sits, wishing, not wanting to untuck her pink towel, so soft, covering up the spot. She does then, being brave for herself sitting alone in her small room inside her single, small flat, using courage she sees, feels, she even might taste, her courage one that no one outside or elsewhere now knows. A lump, the girl thinks then decides to not, her fingers cupping up all around her small chest, feeling for that thing to squeeze, push, and touch, that swollen, sick squish. There, she thinks. There it is.
Later now with a shirt crisply ironed covering up the small spot, her standing in the store watching all them shop, the curly-haired smiling women, all very happy and even some holding hands with men, maybe husbands, each with their happy young wife. Her name tag feels heavy, she thinks, and the spot feels like a spot, so she goes to hang up some and straighten the shirts, the jackets, the dresses and pants.
A happy young woman says excuse me and the girl turns. Hair falling healthy around her healthy round face, the woman asks her where could she find what she very much wants. The girl looks at this woman who wants help and then at the man standing near, his arm reaching up to touch her far shoulder, and the woman happy, leaning right in. She directs the couple to the top the woman wants, some top the girl thinks she could now not ever, she shakes some thinking, not ever wear. The girl then works, hanging and folding, hoping the day passes fast, telling no one about her small, squishy spot.
Six weeks come and go and the girl gets better, she tries to convince herself, she's getting much better or at least not much worse. She cleans her place, down now on her knees, scrubbing in the corners and the grout and going over again and again, her scrubbing then sighing when she can't get it clean. Finally, the floors gleaming white and shining spotless, she smiles, then remembers no one else will come here or care. Her hand reaches up to touch her chest, breathing hard, her hand stopping and her bending to scrub out the dirt some more.
At work another worker comes flipping out her ring finger, a new, sharp rock wrapped around. She loves it, the girl says looking closely along with the others, this girl not really a girl, but feeling just like one, she thinks now frowning, alone and near all of this.
Love is special, life is precious, and having both would be best. The girl waits in the waiting room, kept warm by this, these happy thoughts the girl keeps safe inside. She presses her purse close to her chest, the girl protecting, her praying they won't tell her they must cut this part of her loose. An incision, the doctor might say. Just one small slice. Either that or that lump will grow large and you'll never, not ever, love anyone.
The nurse calls the girl's name and she goes. Wait right here, says the nurse pointing to the table with the thin white paper placed up on its top. The girl doing this, her legs dangling over some then swinging, her thinking thoughts then not, still waiting when the doctor comes right in. The doctor, the girl looks, with his happy, kind face, asking what's the problem and her telling, him smiling so handsome even as he hears all about her spot. Let's see then, he says and she unbuttons her blouse. His hands then feeling and searching, the handsome doctor, for that stubborn, small squish, him searching then her eyes closing, until he finishes and she looks back up at him. The girl is lost, the girl is angry, the girl takes the doctor's right hand, wishing, just this once, for this small silent moment to stretch on, for this touch to never, not ever, end.
Excerpt from “The Storm”
Louise wakes up in a bad mood. It had been hot and so she'd slept with her fan on and all night the poster above her desk had rustled back and forth and made a strange scraping sound that had snuck into her dreams. The poster is affixed to the wall with binder clips hung from bent nails and either side curls slightly where it will never completely unroll. An old map of San Francisco is printed on it, copyright 1909, and the parks and lakes and the corners of ocean are all painted in pale shades of green. Louise looks up at it now. She loves to read the old street names and follow them around and imagine what the old city had been like. It is a beautiful object, she thinks, and it upsets her that it could have disturbed her so much. But already it is twenty after six and she is late and so she gets up and gets dressed and tries to just think about her day.
She walks the block and a half to the Twenty-fourth Street coffee shop where she works. The road is still dark and empty except for a man sleeping face down and snoring between two broken clay pots. He smells as if he's recently urinated. The air smells as if it recently has rained. Louise opens the coffee shop's door and walks around flicking on the yellow halogen lights. She enjoys this job but sometimes she doesn't and today she does not at all. If she could do anything in the world, Louise thinks, she would like to teach children how to sing. She would show them how to sit properly and breathe in and how to hold up their heads. She has so far told this wish to exactly no one. She has short hair and small shoulders. She is twenty-six years old.
She makes three pots of fresh coffee plus one decaf that will last her the whole rest of her shift. The scent is acidic, warm, and ripe. It fills the store and stains the rugs strewn crookedly around the wood floor. It is uplifting, it is always uplifting, but today it does nothing for her. The newspaper man arrives and sells her two San Francisco Chronicles and one New York Times. He stands around sniffing the air while he goes on about a plane that flew up and vanished in the sky somewhere last night. "Hell of a trick! Hell of a trick!" he says and smiles. Louise stares at his scarred and pink gums.
Customers come in, languid and broken, to order coffees and stir in lavish amounts of white sugar and cream. Many of them look either lost or confused. Louise pretends she is pouring them black poison that they all snatch at greedily and gulp down. They want and welcome their death, she thinks. The coffee pots are long and silver and look like large bullets with buttons on top. She presses one and watches the warm liquid spill out.
It is eight thirty-eight in the morning and outside the sun is burning a neat hole through the gray morning clouds. It is a heatwave; it is already hot. A man enters the shop wearing a baseball cap and holding a briefcase containing a small computer, a yellow stack of recycled paper, a handwritten recipe for pecan pie, an engraved forty dollar fountain pen given to him as a gift, and not one sliver or even pinprick of light. The man's name is Jim. Beneath his cap he's begun to go bald. It is a long walk from the front door to the coffee-stained counter, which for some reason is placed perpendicularly from the entrance so he cannot see who is working, and whoever is working cannot see him. This is all of great concern to Jim as he is in love with the pretty girl who works there. He knows this because for him love is easy. His counselor has told him that he is "painfully self-aware."
A line of sweat drips down his long forehead as he approaches her. She is turned away from him and is looking furiously into a pitcher of milk in which she has submerged a thick steaming wand. The milk swirls up in hot, white bubbles and overflows. "What do you want?" she asks the man without turning around. Jim briefly imagines a very intense sexual encounter between him and her. He can see their thrashing limbs clearly, their contorted faces, their engorged mouths. His arousal is often accompanied by a pervasive and deeply seated shame, his counselor said to him once. "I'll have one coffee," Jim tells the girl politely. "Please."
Jim exits the shop and walks into the daily migration of people shuffling off to their work. It is Monday. Everywhere are the signs of our ruin and defeat, he thinks. Ordinarily, he would be making his commute to work by foot, but today he has decided that he would take the bus. Whether this is because of the disappointing interaction he had at the coffee shop earlier, or the dark clouds that are now huddling ominously along one corner of the sky, or the as-of-yet undiagnosed but almost certain depression he suspects he is suffering from, or perhaps some combination of each of these elements, or perhaps again none of them at all, he cannot say. He breathes out, then in, then out. He feels suddenly and very astonishingly alive.
The bus is filled with people who stare glumly out of the windows and sit stooped over in the bright and curved plastic chairs. The floor beneath them moves with a benign shudder. There could be nothing more normal to them. Jim chooses a seat and sips at his coffee while different sets of eyes flit back and forth. There is an atmosphere of want, of desiring something that no one here has, Jim thinks. He takes out his cellphone and moves his fingers nervously across its smooth, translucent screen.
Behind him, Travis watches. He is not a man yet, but almost. His face is taut with introspection and worry. He is still just a boy. The bus turns and he nearly loses his footing but he does not and so he remains. It is seven after nine in the morning. He is impatient all of the time. He stands by the door where he always stands and where he now watches the man sit, one leg crossed over the other neatly, and brood. Is Travis attracted to the man? He is afraid that, in fact, he is. "Attraction is a natural and inescapable aspect of life, one that few understand and even fewer can control," his neighbor, Daniel, once said. Daniel is two years older than Travis and is an authority in a variety of fields. For instance, he is the only person Travis knows who has ever been hunting. And with a bow and arrow, too! He showed the bow one time to Travis, who was not the least bit disappointed it did not look like he'd imagined, but was instead a complex array of taut cables and wheels. Daniel once also showed him his flags. They were hung along the walls of a small room that had been a closet but was now rechristened by the colorful lengths of thin cloth. A curved skylight glared down from its ceiling. Beneath it was where Daniel bent down and kissed Travis twice.
A silly memory, Travis admonishes himself. His lips had tasted like cherry lemonade and salt.
Across from him, the man coughs and stands up to leave the bus. Travis finds himself following him outside and onto the sidewalk, although his own stop is still a considerable distance away. This is all unexpected. He's never done anything like this before! He threads his way past a line of furniture stores all peddling couches with suspiciously placed pillows, with bright signs ensuring their deliriously cheap price. What a depressing neighborhood, Travis thinks. He wishes the man would walk faster, if only to make all of this more fun, but instead he stops entirely and stares stupidly up at the sky. Travis feels his attraction wane. He follows the man's gaze and spots a wall of dark clouds spreading silently out over the city, expanding incrementally by virtue of mysterious mathematical laws. Surely, Daniel would know these laws, or would at least be able to enumerate upon them in some sort of effortlessly pleasing way, Travis thinks not for the first time. It is nine forty-six in the morning. The man is now looking right at him, he realizes. The man grins.
"What this day needs," he proclaims to Travis, "is a good thunderstorm." Travis cannot tell if the man truly wants this or if he does not want it at all. The man laughs and looks back up at the sky casually, as if expecting the thunder to suddenly clap on cue.
Nothing is going as planned, least of all this morning, Travis reflects with deep dissatisfaction and disdain. A wave of self-pity engulfs him as he staggers past the man and the drab furniture stores and continues onward to a life marked by delicate abuse. That was Daniel's phrase, "delicate abuse," though he could not recall exactly why he had said it or even what it had meant. That Daniel! Enigmatic and airy, yet also sometimes so wretchedly oblique. What would he have said to that man, Travis wonders idly, relishing the idea. It would have been something very obvious, he decides, and also very charming and perhaps even very painful, too. Travis imagines several different versions of this scenario and laughs to himself lightly with each one. He steps off the curb to wave down a taxi, for around him rain had begun to fall.
He slides inside still giggling and for all the world looks like he's just been told a perverse and unrepeatable joke. Stu immediately hates him, his hate a hot cauldron churning creamily at the pocked pit of his stomach, easily accessible to him at most any time. He looks at his passenger—he's just a boy!—reflected in his rear mirror. He is preening himself, flecking bits of dirt and dampness onto the slate gray back seat. Stu bristles. His neck burns.
The boy directs him to an address in the Castro twelve blocks up a steeply sloping hill. Stu flicks his meter on with the deep satisfaction he always feels when he hears its sharp click and its whir. The rain is falling out of the sky determinedly but Stu senses it is still building up steam. Nothing is better in this life than driving in a storm! he thinks and to his surprise he says out loud. The boy in the back takes this as an unwelcome invitation to interject with his own opinion and wastes no time doing just so. "I can think of plenty of things in life much better than that," he says. Stu twists his fingers tightly around his steering wheel. He owns this taxi. This has been the case now for fourteen years.
They travel upwards, hurtling past shops that grow smaller and more expensive the further they go. Stu cannot imagine what lays within each. He can still remember when this neighborhood offered practical options, places where one could shop without the burden of decadence and pedigree and taste. It seems like something dreadful has happened since then. It seems like something dreadful is always about to happen in this city, but here it has happened and nobody cares. Stu has a sudden, dark vision of burning buildings, of swaddled babies tumbling from broken windows, of bystanders standing and doing nothing at all. He glances in his mirror back at the boy, who is watching beads of water string silent and silver down the dark window glass.
It is now ten twenty-seven in the morning. Stu brakes and pulls over exactly one block before the address the boy gave. The meter whirrs satisfactorily and clicks. Behind him, no dummy, the boy objects. Stu decides at first to say nothing, then begins a roaming and ponderous explanation in which he touches upon the bad weather, the sleek and steep road, the poor tread of his tires, the black puddles beckoning ahead. Stu wonders what makes him say these things. They are not true but he says them with a learned conviction, like a grace. The boy grumbles and gives him his dollars and then makes a big show of getting out.
Stu feels cruel. He feels stubborn and remorseful and unwise and cruel. He is unsure if his action was meant to teach the boy or to punish him, or to possibly do both. The rain outside is a potent reminder of forces elemental and indifferent to human concern, he observes. Stu watches the boy stumble through the downpour, the water blooming darkly on his shirt.
A woman-man crawls silently into the back seat. She sits there unwatched. She is sopping, wilted, solemn. It is obvious that she has been crying for some time. Stu very calmly does an illegal U-turn and drives for two blocks before he realizes that he is in fact not alone. He is breathless, relieved. Redemption often comes in forms you may or may not recognize, but you will not expect. Stu briefly considers this and finds it to be both thoughtful and unusually inspired. He has a small notebook he keeps in his front console and he will write it down later in that. "Hullo!" he says to the woman-man behind him. He feels better. The rain outside falls faster. The meter whirrs but he reaches over to shut it off.
Marco is in a state. The world is wet with her worry. Her skirt is too short and it's torn. She has taken a tumble somewhere and now a small flap of skin dangles lightly from her leg. She blows on it and it flutters. Her legs are long and muscular and shiny. They float in front of her. There is no blood. Marco closes her eyes and concentrates on the pain that should be there but there is nothing. She is an empty vessel, drifting. She can see for miles and miles around. She can see the gun pressed suddenly into her back, the man behind her making clear and inflexible demands. She can see the long shaft of sun skimming the dark, brooding clouds. She can see him take her purse and push her and the sky thunder down and burst. She can see him running. She can see the water puddling blackly around her. She opens her mouth. She opens her eyes.
I remember the very moment I wanted to be a writer. Not just a writer, a short story writer, that resourceful economizer of words, that lover of ephemera, of the painstakingly crafted mood. I was sitting outside a cafe in Tiznit, Morocco, a coastal town in the south of the country, and I was reading a book. This was sometime in 2008, I believe, a year or so into my Peace Corps service, during a summer with remarkable heat. Looking for relief, I had traveled from my home in the far eastern deserts all the way to the Atlantic to visit a friend. There, on one of her shelves, I found a book of short stories, which I took to a cafe in some snaking alley of the old medina, where donkeys would pass by releasing peptic moans, and read. And in that peaceful moment, after finishing a story and arriving on that last, perfectly placed word, I had decided. Short stories, that's what I'll do.
This is a convenient origin story, replete with colorful, exotic elements that make it unique. Morocco is far from many people's purview, as I suspect the Peace Corps is, too. That said, it leaves out too many details for me to find it at all satisfying. For one, I can't even remember the name of that book.
A more expansive explanation might begin like this: I was twenty-four, in a foreign country, and was feeling very unsure of myself. By this I mean that I had, whether I would admit it or not, only the most feeble idea of what I was doing there. I was a suburban kid with all the tropes that label entails (little league baseball, pool parties, a part-time job delivering pizza) who had just graduated from college and settled into a comfortable desk job. It was a fine existence and I was more or less happy with it, except that I was bored. The restlessness of living in your twenties, the feeling that the world is beckoning from afar: had I been a different person, or maybe born in a different time or place, perhaps I would have gone gloriously, flags waving, off to war. Instead, I ended up in the Saharan desert, living on my own.
I was placed in a tiny town about an hour from the Algerian border, where they had not sent a volunteer before. It was a quiet place, populated mostly by farmers and sheep herders, with a sleepy army base set on one side. The nearest city was about seventy miles away, which we would reach by piling in a taxi (four in the back, three in the front) and speeding along a flat, two-lane road. On these trips, I entertained myself by peering out the windows, searching for the camels the nomads herded lazily, back and forth.
My job, well, I didn't have one—I was told to find my own work. In the beginning, this was hard. Quite literally, I walked around town, knocking on doors, asking if anyone could use my help. (Often, I have tried to imagine the inverse of this: a young Moroccan, wandering through an American town, equipped only with the most limited of English, offering strangers a hand.) Eventually, I found an eager charity run by ambitious women who were patient enough, somehow, to tolerate me.
I had set out to find more, and I had. I was speaking another language and forming unlikely friendships. I was holding English classes for curious students, even some adults. In a way, I was developing a certain standing for myself in this town, and yet, and yet. . . I had a suspicion, maybe even just a feeling, that it was all for naught. Perhaps I lacked the stubborn optimism required of foreign aid workers, that quality that lets them see beyond the persistent poverty, the corruption, the ingrained resistance to progress of any kind, and focus instead on what could be. I only saw how slow my work was going, or how it was not going at all. Days would fill up with nothing, sometimes I would not even leave my home. Soon I had to ask myself that difficult question: What I was doing there at all?
It was easy to find consolation, though, in the foreignness, the strangeness, of the place. I remember the mournful tones of an old woman who sang each night as I lay on my roof, listening, wondering where she was. I remember the blistering heat, the sand, the harsh, swooping wind. I remember how, after a brief burst of rain, a carpet of tiny yellow-green flowers would sprout across the desert, covering the dunes, then be gone the next day. And the people, their stories, their faces, their personalities, all too numerous to mention here—I remember every one.
This was what I focused on when friends and family asked me how I was. And in letters, this was what I wrote about, trying earnestly to describe. I wanted desperately to capture some essence of this world I was living in, especially since I was failing, in my own mind, to do my real job. Perhaps if I could just bring all this back home somehow, I thought, then I would have done something, however small.
So maybe it wasn't such a surprising realization, later, when I picked up that book. I wanted to be a writer. I had been trying all along.
The decision made, I returned to my desert house and began in a small cement room I had designated "the office," but which was really just a bare space furnished with a flimsy desk I had paid a local carpenter to build. Above it, the room's only window—a square hole cut through the cement—opened onto a dusty alley where children would run around, screaming strange taunts to each other, while I listened and wrote. I recall all of this fondly, not for anything I created or for the rate at which I worked, but for that feeling of having reached into my own life and, for the first time, felt for its pulse.
When I returned to America, in 2009, I had begun sketching out the themes I would explore later, in much greater detail, in such stories as "This Is Our Town" and "Steps." At the time, though, they were fumbling attempts, awkwardly shaped and poorly told, more anecdote than anything else. I was still figuring out how to translate my experiences and turn them into something larger than myself. I hadn't yet learned how to look at the world as a writer, that is, both very closely and at a great remove.
In January of 2010, at the invitation of a friend, I moved to New Orleans. Immediately, I was amazed. How could one not write about such a city? The clapboard houses tilting into each other, the buildings painted up in bright candy hues, the constant thrum of music hovering in the distance and down each street, the plants curling out of every crack and crevice as if to remind you that this once was, and will again one day be, a swamp—I drank all of it up and fell in love, even as it eluded me on the page. I felt the power of the setting, the stories that I wanted to tell, but it was too much to take in at once. I would walk through the streets, I remember, wondering where to begin.
I began scouring the library and local bookstores, trying to educate myself on what the short story could do. I had always been a reader and belonged to a literary family (a dictionary was kept by the dinner table to settle disputes), but besides the story I'd encountered in the medina, as well as a handful of others I'd seen in The New Yorker through the years, I was, admittedly, not that familiar with the short form. So with no discernable order, other than what I happened to see on the shelf, I rushed through authors, looking for their secrets, absorbing what lessons I could.
It was a poor beginning. Chekhov bored me. As did Mansfield. Carver I simply did not understand. Even Bowles, whose Moroccan stories should have been fodder for me, I found either too enigmatic or, occasionally, too grotesque. Gradually, though, as I read wider and worked on my own writing, struggling to depict the life around me and put it on the page, I developed new appreciations, larger sensibilities, for what a story was. I remember discovering the sixties experimentalists—Gass and Barthelme and Coover and Barth—and being stunned by their firm dismissal of conventional technique, or how fabulists such as Calvino and Millhauser could seemingly breathe life into any narrative, no matter how strange. I began paying attention to how different writers constructed their voices, whether the stern matter-of-factness of DeLillo or the provincial colloquialisms of Proulx. I sought out stories so they could teach me about structure, or style, or tension, or plot, all the while still trying to write my own.
And sometime during all of this, I heard about a group of kids (young adults really, all about my age) who had been squatting in a hovel by the railroad tracks. Their story eventually made its way into "The Facts," my first about New Orleans and the earliest included here. I suppose then, in a sense, this was when this collection began.
All art is autobiographical, some say, and I would have to agree. These stories are the result of many different motives—stylistic experimentation, the influence of other writers, the desire to document a certain time or place—but now that I am forced to consider them for this preface, I realize there is no other way to talk about them without first emphasizing their truth.
I lived each one. The events are all imagined, the characters made up, the settings embellished and fabricated, the plots outright lies, but, as sure as the thumbprints I've left in my many homes, they are all markers of where I have been. I began each out of an inability to understand something about the world, the life around me, myself, then I created a place, composed according to my specifications, that might be able to provide some answer, or, even better, pose a more thoughtful question than I ever could. And now, looking over them, I cannot help but see the jagged lines of my inquiries as I wrote these stories, stubbornly, throughout the years. They are like my life, reflected back in fragments, rearranged.
So what more can be said? This collection emerged from me slowly, often painfully, and its very existence was doubtful most days. It was begun out of a necessity to tell, was nurtured through the different directions (some good, some very bad) I tried to take while in the writing workshops at USF, and was completed with the encouragement of my professors as my will ebbed. I tried to write everything as honestly, as sincerely, as I possibly could. I have entwined these stories with so many stolen details and rumors and snippets of dialogue overheard in cafes or while crossing the street, that I couldn't tell you what I've made up and what is real. I did this until what I had was no longer just me, narrowly sketched out in so many words, but a world as recognizable, I hope, as the one outside of your window, shaped by my life, my experiences, and now given to you.