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May 3 - 7, 1999

Tuesday, May 4, 1999

A city story

The little gray newsracks collect many things besides the latest issue of the Flier --- empty coffee cups, ads for cleaners or rape support groups, food stamps. "One of these days," I joked a while ago, "I'll find a baby stashed inside." Not yet. But recently I discovered a woman's life, carefully deposited in the box outside City Lights Bookstore.

I found a black wallet, a soft leather rectangle with a heavy silver clasp. It bulged with credit cards and assorted pieces of paper, the phone numbers and little memos that people accumulate for their eyes only. Yes, I read them. I had to, you know, to locate the owner. But I also read them to see what kind of person was inhabiting my newsrack. And then I made a long-distance phone call. In contrast to the melodramatic course of my initial speculations, the actual incident I uncovered turned out to be almost ordinary --- a good story to tell the folks back home, with little harm done. But it's worth recounting. A look at San Francisco through the eyes of a visitor can be enlightening, even humbling, as it fails to tally with the image of the city that we have created for ourselves.

Carole D. Hillier is Supervisor of Special Education in St. Tammany Parish, just north of Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain. It's a pretty place, she says, with rolling hills and lots of trees --- pines and hardwoods --- very different from the city of New Orleans to the south of the lake. Hillier was born in Louisiana; so were her mother and father. For that matter, so were her husband, Howard Allan Hillier, and his mother and father. Carole Hillier's appearance and manner attest to her Southern roots. The face that gazes out of an ID photo is soft with an easy smile, and the voice on the telephone is warm with hospitality. But this card-carrying member of the American Association of University Women doesn't fit the picture of vague feminine frailty that naive Yankees like to ascribe to women in the South. Hillier's bailiwick is a school district comprising 50 schools and 33,000 students. And her recollections of her stay in San Francisco are precisely detailed.

The Hilliers came to the city about ten days ago, intending to spend some time sightseeing in a city they enjoy before Carole attended a conference here. Seasoned travelers, they hopped on a bus --- the No. 38 Muni? ---  and headed out Geary. Near Union Square, a man whom she remembers as dark-skinned and wearing a turban engaged them in polite conversation as they stood in the aisle. What happened next was so skillfully performed that Hillier didn't even notice it until two hours later. But as she replayed the day in her mind, the sequence of events was unmistakable. The man on the bus managed to rearrange their positions --- "manipulated" them, she puts it --- so that her husband moved toward the front and the stranger stood behind her. Near her purse. As the bus lurched along and the passengers jostled one another, he surreptitiously reached inside and palmed her wallet, which must have presented a nice fat target. It was a simple matter to exit shortly afterward, with no one the wiser. How and why he made his way to North Beach is a mystery, but after rummaging through the wallet's rows of carefully packed pockets and extracting what he wanted, he considerately chose the Flier newsrack over a nearby trash container, where the discarded loot would have been lost forever.

Anyone who has ever been robbed knows that the sense of violation hurts far more than any material loss. When Carole Hillier realized that her wallet was gone, it deflated the beginning of a pleasant trip like a hatpin colliding with a big red balloon. She says she wanted to go home. She could do nothing but return to her hotel in misery. But then her innate common sense took over. "It really wasn't so bad. I didn't get mugged or anything. I didn't even lose that much." Unbeknownst to the man who accosted her, Hillier carried two wallets, the stolen one stuffed full of cards, the other containing her driver's license, about $500 in cash and much more in traveler's checks. Imagine the chagrin of the hapless thief when he discovered he'd helped himself to a stack of plastic, all quickly cancelable.

Hillier told the concierge at the Hilton what had happened. He called the police. What was in the wallet, she was asked. In the heat of the moment, she couldn't remember --- Was there a Macy's card? Maybe. She knew there was one from Mervyn's. But how to cancel it on a weekend? The policeman and the concierge both got on the phone and tried to reach someone who could help. As she filled out the report, Hillier says, the police officer not only listened sympathetically but even apologized for the behavior of the city he represented. When she told me her story, I wondered if anyone had noted the irony of it: Here was a woman, staying in the heart of the "dangerous" Tenderloin, who got robbed on a bus downtown by a professional pickpocket. Although special police details assiduously patrol tourist areas for crooks, their activity rarely appears in the press. Tenderloin residents complain that their part of town serves as a convenient dumping ground for people with problems. Perhaps it also serves as a convenient smoke screen, obscuring unsolved problems that remain elsewhere.

Carole Hillier refused to let her run-in with a bad guy in San Francisco ruin her trip. But she did leave a piece of her heart here that she would have preferred to retain. Earlier, when her emerald and diamond wedding-ring set began to irritate her finger --- "probably from soap" --- she had tucked the jewelry into a zippered pocket in her wallet. The rings were not terribly valuable on the resale market and they were covered by insurance.

But still...

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, May 5, 1999

Twisters and shouts

In the wake of the astonishing destruction left by the swarm of tornadoes in Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas, Michelle McRuiz --- still unsettled in Tulsa --- surmises, "It could be God giving the 'thumbs-down' to the mini-series, 'Noah's Ark.'" And speaking of natural calamities, Monica Lewinksy canceled her American book tour after a testy exchange on the "Today" show. She's off to Britain, where she's apparently treated more respectfully. Oh, well. Here today, thong tomorrow. If I were Mrs. Tony Blair, I'd keep on eye on her... A huge throng --- that's "throng," not "thong" --- gathered in St. Peter's Square as Pope John Paul II beatified a 20th-century monk named Padre Pio. It is said the good padre bore the marks of stigmata, the wounds of Christ. Padre Pio is credited with one miracle. Two miracles are required for sainthood... By the way, Bill Cosby observes, "That married couples can live together day after day is a miracle that the Vatican has overlooked."

In the Bay Area, there remains a controversy over whether to name Father Junipero Serra a saint. Not only can the Serramonte Shopping Center not really be considered a miracle, some say Father Serra and his zealous missionaries tortured and murdered the indigenous population of heathen Indians during the Spanish conquest of California. Worse, they abused animals. One critic of the church exclaims, "They should be honoring the victims of Serra, human or non-human --- not him!" Of course, that's beatifying a dead horse.


* * *

Overheard at The Grove, a bistro/cafe that caters to the Gen-Xers who have recently traded their roller blades for baby strollers --- a young woman, with infant on knee: "You just can't find any good Chinese restaurants in Chinatown anymore." Presumably there are good Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, as long as they are in good neighborhoods --- and not frequented by too many Chinese... And the music business isn't quite the same these days, either. In the Wherehouse, I noticed a CD by popera-superstar Andrea Bocelli with a label affixed: "As heard in the Belagio Resort TV commercial!" Well, gee, that should give it a little patina of legitimacy.

Some stores in Massachusetts will no longer take cash --- credit cards only. Reminds me of a recent story from a saloonkeeper who told me a young gal ordered a drink, slapping a credit card down on the bar. "Sorry," he said. "We don't take credit cards." "But you have to," she cried. "This is the Marina !" Meanwhile, this innovative city is offering free shopping carts to the homeless. God help the poor if they're caught pushing their carriages at a high rate of speed against the light --- then double-parking outside the soup kitchen.


* * *

San Francisco Examiner on-line columnist Harley Sorensen has had a few sleepless nights: "I keep thinking of the news reader on Serbian television who says, at that fateful moment, 'This just in.'" "Pity, that Serb TV was bombed," observes Reid Collins: "It will be sorely missed because it was the one reliable source Western journalists had. They are now reduced to using NATO public relations." There is outrage in the broadcast community. Serb TV was a "public station" and was hit during pledge drive. For a $100 membership, how about an unexploded cruise missile?

Reid also reminds us of the old expression, "A chicken in every pot, a car in every garage." Now, he avers, it's "An Albanian in every tent." He was also amused when NATO put on hold its plans to issue a 50th-anniversary postage stamp featuring a dove with an olive branch in its mouth: "The Albanians ate the goddam pigeons before the artist got his palette out." As for the NATO bombing of the factory in Belgrade that manufactures Yugo cars: The funny thing is they are coming off the assembly line looking better than before.


* * *

How could anyone resist an event billed as "The Common Sense Convention"?

But there it was --- at Ft. Mason's arts complex a couple of weeks ago --- sponsored by KSFO, the right-wing radio station, nestled on the left side of the dial.

Aside from the on-air luminaries, courageously facing long lines of admirers and signing hundreds of autographs --- the interior of the spacious Herbst Pavilion was filled with booths commandeered by groups such as the Libertarian Party, a fellow proffering survival rations in anticipation of the Y2K meltdown that will, no doubt, destroy civilization, and someone inexplicably selling storm windows --- perhaps to prepare us for the apocalyptic turbulence that's appearing in so many forecasts. Also in attendance, the PAX television network, which nightly airs reruns of "Touched by an Angel" and "Animals Are People, Too."

The theme of the convention was both a deep mistrust of the American government and the demonization of the Clintons. Not exactly what you'd call a profound political philosophy. A banner read, "Don't Let California Become Another Kosovo!" --- a message that defies explanation. One booth featured placards and posters describing the President of the United States as a "pervert," a "liar," a "child molester," a "traitor," and likened him to the Viet Cong and Hitler.

Those were the nice words. A pleasant-looking woman was selling "brothel tokens from Bill Clinton's personal collection." A poster depicted the head of the First Lady superimposed on the body of a leather-clad dominatrix. This was all in the name of bolstering America's moral fiber.


* * *

And since we're speaking of the confused, David Duke took advantage of the airwaves this weekend. He appeared on C-SPAN to push his book, "My Awakening," a screed oddly close to the translation to English of "Mein Kampf." Duke bashed the obsessively secular media: "They're taking away our life style and our life forms." Life forms? General Jack D. Ripper said it much better in "Dr. Strangelove": "...a conspiracy to deprive us of our precious bodily fluids."


* * *

The inimitable Dave Burgin, formerly the editor of the San Francisco Examiner and the Oakland Tribune, has reemerged as editor/publisher at Woodford Publications, a SF-based house that's handling Barnaby Conrad's excellently grand art book on John Register and Hank Greenwald's autobiography, "This Copyrighted Broadcast." The Giants organization has taken umbrage over some of Hank's disparaging comments about the team.

Burgin says he just doesn't understand why the club would ban the book from their Dugout stores. "Can you imagine?" Dave writes, "Killing 500 copies of Hank's book in the Dugout stores, then accusing us of 'just trying to sell books.' Unclear on the concept."

All in all, it spells hefty publicity for the book, which is now ranked first in sales for nonfiction on three Bay Area newspaper lists.

--- Copyright Bruce Bellingham 1999

Friday, May 7, 1999

A living wager

Ah, the dear money, the dear money. I love you so! All mine, every penny of it. No one shall ever, ever get you.

 Frank Norris, "McTeague: A Story of San Francisco"

A friend from out of town was eavesdropping on Bay Area conversations recently. "In Washington," he observed, "people talk about politics; in New York, they talk about the arts. The Number One topic for San Franciscans is money  --- and especially real estate prices."

At Tuesday's meeting of the Health Commission, Public Health director Mitchell Katz remarked that several organizations in the low-income health care business had considered setting up shop in San Francisco to provide services to supplement Laguna Honda. "They were interested, but they couldn't afford it because the cost of living is so high here, particularly residential costs."

Last year, Senior Editor Janet Colwell noted in the San Francisco Business Times, "The tremendous wealth among the privileged classes working in and around the high-tech industry has created grand expectations that engender warped conceptions of what's 'normal'"  --- most of all, she added, in housing.

Even more than the rest of the country, San Francisco is  --- to restate the obvious  --- a city of financial extremes. It's difficult for the affluent to live here, but for the indigent it's nigh impossible. According to the latest Coalition on Homelessness fact sheet, a family of three on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) receives $611 a month to live in a place where the market-rate monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment is $2,000. And a health service worker earning $7 an hour is equally hard pressed to pay for that apartment.

The result is a crisis mentality on both sides of the fence. The Have Nots are understandably perturbed. But it's the Haves who have worked themselves into a frenzy, as the mob scenes at Sunday open houses attest. There's an ugly touch of panic in the air, surely reflecting fears that extend beyond the housing market. How else to explain the attraction of former Human Services commissioner Earl Rynerson's plan to bestow welfare in the form of services rather than money. One supporter, David Heller of the Greater Geary Merchants Association, lambastes the city's homeless support system: "You still have to shelter them, you have hospital costs. It's costing us more money. No city in the United States gives out the kind of cash we do." Or listen to Ken Garcia's sarcastic whining in Thursday's Chronicle: "Give us your hospitals, your children, your busboys, your poor. Let us be munificent instruments of your need."

Your hospitals, yourchildren, your busboys, your poor. Did I miss something? Have Garcia and San Francisco's other home owners seceded from the city? (Forgive me if I've committed a mischaracterization, but any protest of possible property tax hikes suggests that the offended party does indeed possess property.) There are other ways besides creating road kill to "thin the breed as a way to ease the housing crunch," as Garcia puts it, and one of the best is ignoring the needs of the poor, the sick and the elderly.

I'm not talking about compassion, the admirable attribute that causes Garcia so much soul- and pocket-searching. Compassion, in Americans' hands, has a habit of misfiring. I'm talking about level-headed common sense, which frequently turns out to make financial sense as well. I'm talking about taking a clear-eyed look at the problems around us and, yes, finding real solutions instead of a Band-Aid.

Let's start with "your hospitals," which are reeling from federal cuts in aid and a massive increase in uninsured patients. Laguna Honda is seismically unsafe. San Francisco General  --- especially its pharmacy  --- is already in grievous financial trouble, as William Brady eloquently described in Thursday's Chronicle. Under state law, SFGH will have to come up with a retrofitting plan by the year 2001 or shut up shop. We could hang tough, close both facilities and let the patients fend for themselves. But the ill and the frail are not likely to move elsewhere. Because Medi-Cal only partially covers medical services and MediCare does not cover outpatient prescriptions or long-term care at all, many of these people will still be in our midst, unable to pay for medical attention and unable to find help.

As an alternative, we the voters can approve the funds to rebuild Laguna Honda and to restore SFGH to an adequate level of functioning, with the knowledge that these are necessary stopgaps. It's not a matter of compassion. We really have no choice. But at the same time we can insist, for our own sakes as well as the patients', that the city institute programs which will allow it to gradually phase out the present functions of the two facilities. In this, the cradle of creative financing for ballparks and highrises, there is no reason why the mayor's citywide health insurance plan should be so long aborning.

And what of "your busboys"? Although the city's working poor might find the label offensive, I assume it's a reference to the living wage proposal introduced this week by Supervisor Tom Ammiano. Eleven dollars an hour, plus health insurance, paid vacation and sick leave. Comes to less than $2,000 a month, or the rent on one of those market-priced two-bedroom apartments. But if two people combined forces, they could at least compete for the one-percent-vacant apartments we cite to astound Aunt Susie in Des Moines. And higher wages might relieve the burden on SF General: the Health Commission, in a resolution passed on April 20, asserts that "safe and clean housing is critical to the well-being of all individuals, families and communities, as unhealthy housing conditions can lead to serious medical conditions."

No, we don't know how much it'll cost. But even a commentary in the San Francisco Business Times recognizes that living-wage legislation in cities like New York and Los Angeles has brought "few if any of the job casualties that opponents feared." Imagine Aunt Susie's reaction when you tell her we pay the highest minimum wage in the country.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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