Season of the Witch by David Talbot

season of the witchI.

Every sunday during football season, I walk to an Irish bar to watch the game. The Blarney Stone. It’s one of many Irish bars in the neighborhood, indeed one of even more in the city. They’re all over.

This is what I think of when I think of the Irish-ness of San Francisco. It’s there. I wouldn’t call it an Irish city though. I grew up near Boston. That is an irish city. Walk around and you’re immersed in a goofy ass tribal pride. Nearly everyone claims to be part Irish. I visited Dublin for the first last year and while I had a great time, I couldn’t help feeling like but I’ve already been to Boston. San Francisco conjures none of these feelings.

So, as the first portion of Season of the Witch opens with the tale of working-class Irish-catholic San Francisco, of how the city was completely controlled by Irish immigrants and Irish-americans for the first half of the 20th century, of how the counterculture movements of the 70s and explosion of alternative lifestyles was as much a rebellion against the still-hanging-on Irish establishment as much as it was against the conservative mien of America at large, it required a confrontation with a San Francisco that barely exists anymore.

It’s not the kind of history that’s embraced. Possibly because everyone’s glad it’s gone. It stands as a stark contrast to the identity San Francisco cultivated and embraced in the past fifty years.

 

II.

I can walk to the Haight, though it’s a much further distance than the Blarney Stone and best saved for weekends. It’s a fun neighborhood. A good bookstore, a better record store. Good food, good drinks. Bad drinks at fun bars. There’s often some kind of spectacle — last time we strolled through, a woman caring for a wagon full of week old pitbulls was hanging out outside the bar we were at. A man strolled by with a goat on a leash. A street person was waving around dollar bills and asking passersby if they wanted any change. Just another day.

There’s still some hippies around, but the epicenter of a philosophic movement it is not. Partially because the appeal of the place — shopping, bars, restaurants — all cost money and despite how colorful it is, it’s very far from the sort of money-free egalitarian paradise that Talbot describes it as in the last 60s. Though the fact that it exists at all is only because of many people’s very hard work; while governor of California, Ronald Reagan made no secret of his seething hate of the Haight and would have prefered it to burn to the ground. The city itself did nothing to alleviate the pressure of thousands of youths converging on the city, fleeing the oppressive conservative climates of an America corrupted by McCarthyism and Vietnam. Instead, the establishment hoped it would turn to disaster and they could demolish it in the name of civic duty, like they had years before in the tragically racist destruction of the Fillmore. Season of the Witch details the efforts of the residents of the Haight to create free medical clinics, feed the foodless, and so on. At least for a little while before drugs and government meddling interfere and plunge the neighborhood into catastrophe.

I’ve come to distrust the counterculture movements of the late 60s, in large part due to Joan Didion’s essay Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and the sexism inextricably tied to the moment. But if there’s any question of why so many women embraced the movement, why they had to do the hard labor to support the brainchild of high and irresponsible men, it’s because what they were rebelling from was something much worse — the chief of police, a man of the Irish catholic establishment, was still publicly advocating patriarchs to discipline their children and wives with the rod while necessary. While the Summer of Love had its problems, it was favorable to an extremely rigid traditional life. Sexual freedom worked in women’s favor too of course, as famous poets of the day celebrated women’s sexual feelings and actually talked about orgasms, something woefully underrepresented in… anything, at the time.

III.

Prior to this book, all I knew of Harvey Milk was he the first openly gay elected official and he was assassinated. Of George Moscone, murdered moments before Milk, I knew even less. Just that I often passed a convention center named after him. 

I liked learning of their history, but far more fascinating and shocking was the domestic terrorism and horrors occurring during the 70s. I’ve heard of Jonestown — Jim Jones’ suicide cult in the jungles of Guyana — but I did not know just how terrible it was and all the SF politics involved that basically let it happen until I read this book. The zebra killings I had not heard of at all, playing second fiddle to the far less impactful or devastating zodiac killer. Indeed, they’re especially chilling when compared to the racial violence occurring in the US right now. The sequence of events basically went:

Ongoing systemic violence and dispossession of blacks in the city->Rise of extremist black muslim death cult and subsequent targeted murders of vulnerable white people->horrendous black profiling police practices including the shooting of innocent unarmed people.

It’s a racist construct all its own that this portion of history of so dimly known.

IV.

There’s something about the gay exodus to the city that becomes almost unremarkable when you live in the bubble that is San Francisco long enough. It feels somehow like the Castro was always here, at least for all of living history.

A few years ago, it became illegal to be naked in the city outside of private or certain designated areas, much to the chagrin of the cadre of men who were always hanging out in the buff on the corner of Market and Castro. This was not at the behest of close-minded straight prudes, but instead by the many gay folks living in the area wondering what about when my family comes to visit? Similarly, when hanging out among the friends of my wife’s uncle and his partner, I get to hear middle aged gays half-jokingly lament that there are women with children, whole families(!) walking around the Castro.

In other words, in some ways the gays have become the bourgeois. The movement succeeded. The party didn’t exactly stop, but the Castro of today is certainly not the Castro of the 70s. Even the Halloween party is no more!

Of course, the past also includes the grim specter of AIDS. There was a point in the 80s where a full fifty percent of gay men in the city had AIDS. It’s horrific to imagine, but timeline wise it basically just happened. It was a highpoint in the city’s trauma that so many people came together to care for those suffering. San Francisco raised 4x as much money as New York did, despite the much smaller population and spent more money than the entire federal government on the AIDS crisis. It’s funny/awful how the more I read about people writing about the Reagan administration, there’s apparently no ceiling on how terrible it was. Many people died, many others were persecuted due to the purposeful inaction of the president.

 

V.

Season of the Witch comes to a close with the rise of the 49ers dynasty of the 80s. Mostly by profiling the great coach Bill Walsh, author of the West Coast Offense, the modern form of football most teams play that puts an emphasis on the pass over the run. The city’s first superbowl win came at a time when the assassination-AIDS-social unrest upheavels all had run back to back to back and some relief was sorely needed.

Talbot paints Walsh as a model of San Franciscan upbring. He hired a gay trainer. He hired a controversial black mentor for his black leaders. While it’s not entirely convincing, at the very least it points out that people will get conservative about literally anything. You’ve got fools declaring the only ‘real’ way to play football is buried in the dust, grinding out three yard gains like it’s always been. They tried to feminize or gay-ify three receiver spreads even when it was winning.

The political-football crossover reached absurd heights when the 49ers, as a stand-in for San Francisco culture at large and formerly a joke and coming off a 2-14 season, blew out America’s Team/God’s Team/The Dallas Cowboys and major networks didn’t even cover the highlights of the game. Fuck the Cowboys.

 

VI.

All these highs and lows, triumphs and miseries, aren’t The City I know. Not least of all because the book wraps up before I was born. The San Francisco I know is crises of tech bubbles, housing, the homeless. And not a hotbed for revolution. 

Yet it still remains a progressive bubble of some kind. There’s a sort of baseline acceptance of people here. I’ve never met anyone personally who expressed any positive feelings about Donald Trump. Quite the opposite with pretty much everyone. As a result, it’s hard to grasp that so many people in this country will vote for him. Feelings like this follow Talbot’s notion that in San Francisco, even the right is to the left of the rest of the country. 

I would be shocked if anyone ever gave a gay friend a bad look, which certainly can’t be said for much of New England when I travel back home to family (It’s like a perennial fucking question of someone asking me “San Francisco? [pause] Are there a lot of… gay people there?). All of this was made possible through the troubles and travails of the people in this book and many others who fought through the 60s-70s-80s. And of course maintained by the people keeping it alive still.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

man in the high castleI expected a book about the aftermath of a history where the Allies lost World War 2. While that is the setting of the book, what I actually got was many pages about running an antique business in mid-century San Francisco. And many more pages of characters pondering their daily reading of the I Ching

At first, I was intrigued. People getting by in Japanese occupied SF (many of the streets mentioned surround my workplace!) It felt like a good play-on-expectations for anyone expecting a book about Nazi America. Then I realized that’s all the book is. In other contexts, this could be fine. But I didn’t care one whit about these characters. The book makes a point to paint them all as horrendous racists, Japanese or German or colonized American. Though the first and last didn’t set up murder camps. Or kill everyone in Africa. Yes, in this history the Nazis unleashed some bio-experiment that killed everyone in Africa. Also, slavery was re-instituted in America, a point that is given maybe a paragraph of recognition. While having point of view characters on every side, it’s borderline unconscionable that there is no black character with a voice in the novel. It single handedly robs the novel of the moral authority it attempts to wield.

There’s plenty of high-concept philosophical mumbling, but it’s unconvincing and comes to nothing. You have one character going on about Nazi ideology and wishing they were gods, several enmeshed in the I Ching and Yin & Yang and maybe this is supposed to tie back to the idea of history and how we fit in it. Maybe history doesn’t matter and embracing how feeble and weak we are and potentially governed by the esoteric will of a several thousand year old book is the answer. The fact of the matter is that this is less a plotted novel and more Philip K. Dick’s endorsement of eastern mysticism. You have a man yearning to be part of a harmonious cosmos, one that obviates human agency as a meaningful factor. Embrace the wu.

(so long as you’re not African)

This was one of those books that I didn’t dislike while reading, but found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for it come together; for the narrative and thematic threads to come together and form something. A tangible plot. A philosophy or politic of interest. I was disappointed. There’s hints of something better, but they’re half baked or cast off by novel’s close. 

The Conversation (1974)

conversation

— discovered on netflix, this very 70’s Francis Ford Coppola film.

At its root is Harry Caul, a bugger, a ‘surveillance man’ freelancing his time and expertise selling tapped conversations to interested buyers, typically the US government. In our modern NSA-monitored culture, it seems a bit outmoded that the government would need any help from the common man, but anyway. The movie opens with an overlay of a couple wandering around Union Square (the film takes place in San Francisco, which looks mostly the same as now except 40 years newer). Harry has deployed some fancy-ass super mics to monitor the man and the woman’s conversation from several stories up. A cameraman peers outside a window, armed with a contraption that has no small resemblance to a gun — his first person perspective puts the couple in sniper sights and we’re meant to think they will be shot.

The point of this whole exercise? Like I said, sell the proceeding tapes + pictures to the client with the bills. But wait, it turns out that in Harry’s past, he a made similar sale that led to the twisted retaliatory murder of the people he mic’d up. He’s got a sneaking suspicion that this could happen once again, with these lovers right here in Union Square. But he’s just doing his job, right? Not his responsibility. He didn’t kill anybody.

OK, sounds like a pretty cut-and-dry moral responsibility tale. Culpability. Money. Greed/guilt. And is it? Well, sort of; it starts that way. It becomes something different by virtue of several qualities The Conversation possesses.

The movie is shot in cold, empty stretches. Muted colors, haunting orchestral music, open yet constraining spaces (Harry’s office is a cavernous warehouse that feels dim and prison-like). In other words: a visual snapshot of December in SF. Cold enough to cut to the bone, feel constantly damp and difficult to ever get warm. But it’s not like arctic NYC cold, right?

Alternatively the cold palette and atmosphere is mirror to the isolation of the film’s loner protagonist. Gene Hackman’s Harry, (who looks a lot like my grandfather and the more distance that passes between me and this movie, the more in my recollection Harry resembles Roger and not Gene) is the best damn surveillance man in the business, but incapable of opening up to other human beings or forming real attachments. He is single and middle aged, his relationships a shambles. His obsession is with his true love, his work, which he guards with a pouty childlike aggression.

And indeed his work — surveillance — is the weird hook of this film. Its peak moment occurs partway through at a ‘bugger convention’. 70’s bad haircuts clustered around the newest tech for people to spy on one another. Or to con people into believing they could spy on one another. Machinery buzzes and reels spin. It’s sinister. The film asks you to believe there’s gobs of people out there just totally entranced in the latest surveillance tech. And in each room, the most celebrated and well known bugger of them all: Harry Caul. Fans gush over him and competitors with inferiority complexes beg him to enter business with them. Harry builds his own tech, and disdains all on the floor at the show, which begs the question of why he’s there in the first place. Of course the answer is a few lines back in my most celebrated man sentence, something that Harry’s false modesty would never let him acknowledge.

The Conversation is a textbook example of why the notion that technology should not play a prominent role in film or novels, because it might date them, is so wrong. It doesn’t matter that the tech is dated — the constant shots of film reels while Harry floats through space examing his moral axis are eerie regardless of the fact we haven’t used cassette tapes in 25 years. They become ghostly and ethereal, artifacts out of time, not behind it. Moreover, the privacy concerns and wanton exploitation that lurk both below and above the movie’s surface are cogent and still relevant.

Lastly, but probably not most importantly, a twist at the end reveals Harry was totally wrong — the lovers were not truly in danger. Something entirely different was afoot. The film discards its original moral center and becomes the degeneration of an isolated loner. There’s horror movie beats, a toilet overflowing with blood; final shots nothing but a portrayal of over-observed paranoia as Harry literally rips up his apartment’s floorboards in search of a bug.

We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

piratesOK, I did not like this. But what makes it rare is that, unlike most books I don’t like, this one is actually well written. Handler can write a character sketch and spin a phrase.There’s even an effective twist that I still found fun/surprising at the end of the novel when I no longer cared about anything and just wanted to finish. He just can’t write a believable plot or acknowledge the reader can only spend so much time with blandly reprehensible characters.

Pirates alternates between fourteen year old Gwen Needle and her dad, Phil. At first, this seems like it is going to be a tale of oblivious father and teen angsty daughter at odds that eventually bond/appreciate each other. But it is quickly revealed that Phil is actually a passive misogynist prick who thinks the world is owed to him and cares very little of his family beyond the happiness / convenience they can supply him*. Gwen has more than average teen angst when the reader realizes that she actually does have shitty parents. Unfortunately, the sympathy this garners Gwen morphs to baffled disbelief when it turns out she basically has the psychosis of a school shooter and she starts knifing fools with impunity.

Back to Phil: The book spends a lot of words on this asshole. As his sliminess is further revealed, as his terrible outlook on women is explored, as his martyr complex deepens whilst he remains oblivious to his privilege… it’s too much. There’s only so much undeserved self pity I can handle. Whine whine whine. He never learns and his plotline is pointless and could be excised almost entirely from this already slim book.

And back to Gwen: As punishment for shoplifting, our heroine is forced to volunteer at an old folks home. She starts hanging out with a dementia-riddled old navyman and after borrowing all his old seafaring books, starts harboring fantasies of piracy…

…and assembles a ‘crew’.

…and steals a ship.

…and launches a revenge-crusade upon all that have wronged her by pillaging the San Francisco bay.

 

This is completely ridiculous.

 

She’s fourteen, not eight. The Bay** is tiny, what are you actually going to get away with? Why did anyone, other than the old man and best friend, possibly join her? Why is she suddenly capable of remorseless, senseless murder? Note to all readers, children, writers: Having a passive, non-dad does not make it okay to kill, nor is it reason enough to maintain reader empathy with a stone-cold killer.

And here lies the crux of the book, and why it does not succeed.

*There’s a sort of murky almost-theme about people being emotional pirates — pillaging other people’s feelings for their own gain. It’s not well explored but kind of vomited up by Phil’s POV towards the end of the book.

**While it was pleasantly meta reading a book taking place on the 38 bus while riding the 38 bus, the novel does not do a good job of realizing San Francisco. Phil drives from LA to SF… and crosses the Bay Bridge (for plot convenience), which is in the east, not south. Despite living on the Embarcadero, Gwen does not know of the sea lions on Pier 39 until events in the book. Even Geary Street, the road that the 38 travels down is poorly described — Handler makes it quiet and seedy, and while it’s kind-of-maybe-slightly seedy at a few points, it’s bustling almost from beginning to end. Not quiet.