Don't sleep in the subway, darling | Vino without veritas | Nike and Vietnam | Home | Current issues | Back issues |

January 25 - 29, 1999

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

Vino without veritas

San Francisco has always been known as a hard-drinking town. During the Gold Rush, gambling houses --- the Bella Union, El Dorado, Parker House --- stood elbow to elbow with the official Custom House in Portsmouth Square. Newly arrived sailors often found themselves back at sea after a night of drinking at Miss Piggott's or Shanghai Kelly's.  Nineteenth-century maps display astonishing concentrations of saloons: in 1894, for example, Howard Street managed to squeeze 21 establishments into one block, between 3rd and 4th streets. At the time of the 1906 earthquake and fire, roadways literally ran with wine, as Italian residents of Telegraph Hill rolled out their barrels and wet down the pavement. Even Prohibition only skimmed the surface: the Bank Exchange, famed as the birthplace of Pisco Punch, closed its doors, but the Little Fox Theatre became the site of a large distillery.

For better or worse, the city claimed an easy access to alcohol. Jack London spoke of "the spirit of comradeship of drinking together." But Major Alfred Wells sent out Salvation Army Lassies to save drinkers' souls, and the WCTU raged against evil "rum sellers." Still the debate continues. Recently, Rite Aid proposed (and then withdrew the suggestion) to sell liquor on the edge of the Tenderloin. Amos Brown proposed a ban on public drinking in the parks near City Hall. Leland Yee proposed a citywide moratorium on new off-sale liquor licenses.

It's an old American story, this feud between John Barleycorn and Johnny Appleseed. For some reason, it reminds me of another one, set in San Francisco.

Just off the freeway on Harrison, just before the corner of 9th Street, where the Stud Bar marks the road to the Civic Center, lies Gordon Street. This narrow alley, where a bright blue cottage interrupts the monotony of gray warehouses, is all that remains to commemorate the life of one of the city's most substantial early residents --- this alley, and a horrifying urban legend that appears in countless accounts of the Bay Area's history.

It seems that one morning in Yorkshire, in the late 1840s, an Englishman named George Gordon woke up after a drunken spree to find himself married to a local barmaid. Not only was the woman of a class unsuitable to wed a respectable merchant, but she confessed that she was an alcoholic as well. Gordon resolved to stick by his vows but, unable to bear the scandal that such a marriage would create, he emigrated to San Francisco, taking his new bride with him.

Elizabeth Gordon hated her life in the rough California settlement, far from the elegant London whirl she had hoped to join. George threw himself into his business affairs, founding the Vulcan Iron Works at First and Mellus, and the West Coast's first sugar refinery, housed where the buses now park at Harrison and 8th. His fortune made, he laid out a fine semicircle of townhouses at South Park and moved into one of them; later he bought a "country home" in Santa Clara County, which his heirs sold to Governor Leland Stanford in 1876.  But he ignored his wife, leaving her to the care of the butler. She pleaded with him to take her back to England. He refused. She vowed revenge.

In time, the couple had a baby. Little Nellie quickly won her father's heart, and he showered on her all the attention he had withheld from his wife. From the beginning, however, the child's existence was blighted. Every day, at every meal, Elizabeth added a few drops of whisky to her daughter's food, irrevocably addicting her to alcohol. Pretty and vivacious, the girl concealed her affliction for many years, but when she was 17, her father pieced together disturbing signs and realized her condition. In desperation, he sent her off to a boarding school, but once again her mother won, smuggling bottles of whisky to her in baskets of clean laundry. Nellie returned home, bravely fighting her cravings, but constantly undone by her mother's clandestine visits. Eventually, she married and gave birth to a child who lived only a few days. Her father, who disapproved of the man she chose, died soon after the wedding, reputedly of a broken heart. The husband left within two years --- the stories vary as to the reason --- and Nellie herself died a few years later, of alcoholism, at the age of 29.

Novelist Gertrude Atherton used a thinly disguised version of this story to launch her literary career in The Randolphs of Redwoods, serialized in the San Francisco Argonaut in 1883. Her memoirs relate the family gossip that underlay the tale, and she subsequently retold it several times --- most notably in A Daughter of the Vine. Its haunting theme of maternal manipulation repeatedly captured the imagination of other writers. (For starters, take a look at Robert O'Brien's This Is San Francisco, Samuel Dickson's San Francisco Kaleidoscope, or Chiang Yee's Silent Traveler in San Francisco.)

But it simply isn't true.

In 1994 the venerable chronicler of San Francisco history Albert Shumate popped the Gordon balloon when he published A San Francisco Scandal, after deputizing researchers in England and poring over U.S. documents to get at the real story. It turned out to be rather ordinary. Alcohol did play a part --- Elizabeth Gordon, whose father was an English gentleman, had a drinking problem and died of chronic hepatitis. But Nellie died of typhoid fever. And contemporary reports suggest that this was a normal family, which participated actively in the city's social events.

Too bad! The myth was much more fun, and poor Nellie Gordon's fate lent itself to wonderful metaphors of paternalistic oppression and social poisoning. No matter that it contrasted markedly with the image, found elsewhere, of George Gordon as a concerned and imaginative city father. Not only now, when semen-stained dresses stymie the nation's search for civic solutions, but throughout the country's history, scandal has trumped common sense. On the road to truth, there are demons worse than rum.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Don't sleep in the subway, darling

Recently, a friend who lives in New York wrote me a letter filled with the exploits of her grandson, an up-and-coming lawyer. What pleased her most was the fact that, despite his busy schedule, he still found time to visit her regularly. But the other day, she remarked, he hadn't arrived when he said he would.

He had started out with time to spare, he told her later, but as he sat on the padded subway seat, his lack of sleep took over and he began to doze. He awoke at the next stop to find a uniformed policeman standing in front of him, about to write out a ticket. It turns out that New York City, in its eternally vigilant monitoring of its citizens' quality of life, has enacted an ordinance against sleeping in the subway. The measure is designed to prevent the IRT and the BMT from becoming homes-away-from-home for homeless people, but my friend's decidedly homeful grandson got caught in the net. Being young and litigious, he refused to submit docilely. The next thing he knew, he was at a nearby police station, being fingerprinted and formally charged. He apparently threatened all sorts of legal action until the officers decided this particular fish was more trouble than he was worth and released him. He headed off, late but triumphant, to have dinner with his grandmother.

Another of New York's silly shenanigans, I thought as I read the letter. Thank heaven I don't have to deal with them. And then my own lack of sleep hit and I, too, began to doze. And dream.


* * *

I woke up in my own bed, the morning light streaming past the blinds. I rubbed my eyes and curled my legs over the edge, pulling on a robe as I stood up. But as I headed sleepily toward the front door to pick up the paper, I stopped. No, this robe would never do; it's frayed around the cuffs and there's a jelly spot on the lapel. Ever since my neighborhood was designated part of the park system, I knew, we were likely to be cited if we appeared in disarray in public.

I changed into clean jeans and a sweater, got my newspaper from the front steps, and turned on the radio as I sat down to breakfast. From KFOG came the happy sound of Bob Marley singing, "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights." Quickly I checked that all the windows were closed. Jimi Hendrix' rendition of ìThe Star-Spangled Bannerî the other night, when the weather was warm and I'd left the kitchen window open, brought a patrol officer to my door, asking if I had a permit for a political meeting.

Later in the morning, I headed down to the corner store. It was a beautiful day, and I considered picking up the latest issue of the Guardian and reading it while I enjoyed the sunshine in the park. Not a good idea, I decided, remembering that the closest city newsrack which carried Guardians was six blocks away. In any case, I would have had to sit on the still-damp grass, because the benches had been hauled away to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them.

I patted my fly-away hair and stood up straight as I approached Warner's Market. Ever since Joe Warner got himself declared a BID, his private security officer had been conscientiously scrutinizing the pedestrians to make sure no one corrupted the inviting atmosphere surrounding the store. We smiled at each other as I passed --- the guard prided himself on knowing the first name of everyone in the area --- and with a sense of relief, I went inside.

I'd come for milk and bread, but at the last minute I remembered that my cousin was coming for dinner. I picked up a bottle of red wine and walked toward the checkout counter. The clerk stared at me suspiciously and then turned to check the roster of photos he had posted next to the cash register, to make sure I had no record of drunk-and-disorderly conduct. Satisfied, he took my money and I started for home, carrying my purchases.

On the way, I ran into my neighbor Sarah, her round face drawn with distress. She asked if I've seen her cat, a lanky gray tabby that had the run of the yards on the block. When I said no, she sighed. "Guess I'll have to go downtown and get a permit for a flyer," she said. "But I don't know what good that'll do. Most of the telephone poles around here already have a sign announcing next week's neighborhood watch group meeting. Weíre not allowed to post more than one per pole --- I'll have to wait till they come down before I can put up mine."

After commiserating, I continued walking back to the house. As I climbed the steps, I realized that the ivy in front was beginning to trail over the ledge toward the sidewalk. I made a mental note to trim it. The wonderful thing about having no lawn was that you never had to cut the grass, but I knew that even unswept bare dirt could provoke a warning and unkempt vines were certain to earn a citation for visual blight.

Once more at home, I stowed the groceries and stretched out on the couch in the living room, looking first to see if the curtains were drawn. I was not sure, now that I lived in a park district, whether lying down in a place that was visible from the sidewalk was the same as sleeping in public. Reassured that my privacy was complete, I fluffed up a cushion under my head. How quiet it was. How civil. How happy I was that I lived in the City of Saint Francis, where everything was orderly and safe and secure and clean.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Friday, January 29, 1999

Nike and Vietnam

Recently, in a letter to the Vietnam Confederation of Labor, Nike Vice President Joseph M. Ha accused Vietnamese-American labor advocacy groups of trying to subvert Vietnam and turn it into a U.S.-style democracy. In his letter, reported by the Associated Press and BBC on January 20, 1999, Ha says that labor rights groups "target Nike because Nike is...a major creator of jobs in Vietnam...[T]heir political to create a so-called 'democratic' society, modeled after the U.S. No nation needs to copy any other nation. Each nation has it own internal political system. Nike firmly believes in this."

This is a brutally honest statement from a high-level executive of the largest shoe company, with over 500,000 employees and contracted-workers in the world. Mr. Ha is not a neophyte in the global economy, having been an assistant and an advisor to Nike's CEO, Phil Knight, on Asian affairs for many years. There is a motivation behind writing such a letter to a foreign government official. We need to examine this motivation and hopefully this will help us understand the mechanism of how globalization is carried out on a day-to-day basis.

The accusations made by Nike are patently false. There has never been any hidden agenda among anti-Nike Vietnamese-American labor groups (there is only one such group that has targeted Nike, which is Vietnam Labor Watch). To the contrary, Vietnam Labor Watch has openly and aggressively advocated for improved trade relations between the U.S. and Vietnam with the U.S. government and Congress. Our goal is to increase responsible American investment in Vietnam. Most U.S. companies are good employers; Nike is one of the exceptions. Nike's behavior has deepened Vietnam's fears that foreign companies invest with the intention of exploiting Vietnam's resources and people. Nike has earned well its shameful reputation as the premier promoter of sweatshop labor in the developing world. Vietnam Labor Watch has been working with labor organizations in Vietnam and this has helped us obtain timely and accurate information about Nike's labor practices. This cooperation is one of the motivating factors in the attempt via the Ha letter to drive a wedge between U.S.-based labor groups and labor organizations in Vietnam. Nike hopes that by accusing us as subversives and political extremists, it would be able to create fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Nike's statement, however, goes beyond an attempt to curry political favor with Vietnamese government officials by appealing to the anti-American sentiments of some Vietnamese. Many labor advocates believe that the statement gives us a clear picture of how Nike operates in this neoliberal economy. We believe that Nike simply takes advantage of an unstructured global economy to take advantage of the poor people of the developing world. By relying on repressive governments and weak unions, Nike will be able to obtain cheap labor to make expensive products for Americans. This reality is never expressed in public. Nike often announces that it is a part of a grand scheme of liberalism: bringing jobs, investment and developing a middle class in the poor countries, and that the middle class will eventually bring the ultimate day of political liberalization.

It is refreshing, however, to see such corporate honesty in public. But let's not forget that Nike did not intend to have such a statement made public. Nike preferred that the above statement remain a private correspondence between its executives and government officials of the developing world. It makes us wonder how many similar letters have been sent from Nike to other government officials of China and Indonesia. It also makes us wonder whether those uplifting Nike commercials appealing to American values for individual freedom, equal rights and civil rights were just simply to sell shoes. At least it is clear now that when push comes to shove, Nike would have no problem trading in these "so-called democratic values" for low wages and cheap labor.

What does the making of shoes have to do with U.S.--Vietnam politics and why would a shoe corporation get involved in politics in the first place? Maybe because in the global economic game of cheap labor, politics is the crux of everything. It is much easier to have low-wage manufacturing facilities in countries like China and Indonesia where workers do not have any labor rights. In a country where there is a strong labor rights framework like Vietnam, Nike would attempt to try paint its critics as subversives and political extremists by appealing to the anti-American feelings of some Vietnamese. By making the above allegations, Nike essentially has taken the Nike protest into the political arena. Nike knew quite well that politics is a dangerous game in Vietnam, and by making such a statement Nike could put workers' livelihoods and probably, lives, in danger. Yet Nike continued its ploy, ignoring all possible consequences in the hope of securing cheap labor in Vietnam.

Politics is not something most Vietnamese want to get involved in because politics is too hard to predict and sometimes can be detrimental to one's livelihood and personal safety. As long as we can keep this on the labor issue, we can find people who are willing to help us monitor these factories. People who have been helping us have been doing it out of their desire to improve the factories. But by equating monitoring Nike factories with being political extremists, Nike has made it dangerous for these people.

I received emails and phone calls from people who have been helping us in Vietnam. All were about Nike's statement. Since the news made it to BBC radio, basically most Vietnamese heard the news. These people who have been helping us with info at the factories have decided to stop. Essentially, there will not be any kind of independent monitoring of labor issues in Vietnam. All efforts from now on must go through Nike.

--- Thuyen Nguyen 1999
Thuyen Nguyen is Director of Vietnam Labor Watch
815 15th Street NW, Suite 921
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: 202.518.8461
Fax: 202.518.8462.
Internet: http:/

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