San Francisco builds them crazier

After living in NYC for over 10 years, I was under the impression that New York had some of the craziest people in the country. I’m not talking crazy in the let’s build a bidet out of gold in our guest penthouse or let’s do 20 grams of coke and stay out till tuesday type of crazy. Because New York definitely leads the country in those type of crazies, IMO. I’m talking about the more traditional, make a track suit out garbage bags and fishing twine and urinate in a subway car type of crazies. New York has a lot of those, don’t get me wrong. But comparing dollars for donuts, San Francisco builds them crazier.

When I first visited the fair city of San Francisco in the late nineties – a fresh faced teenager – I took the BART from the airport down to 24th and Mission where my sister was living. Walking out of the subway on to 24th street I believe was the 1st time I ever actually had to step OVER a person on the street.  In the past I’d had to navigate AROUND a bum or two, or maybe avoid the general direction of some unsavory characters, but this was definitely the first time I had to pass directly above one.  In San Francisco there seems to be a definite trend in the bumming community to choose highly trafficked areas to pass out – frequently right on their faces or lying straight on their back staring at the sky (the creepiest!).

Like water flowing through a brook, pedestrians in SF find a way to navigate around these human obstructions and on their dutiful way. Once there was a man passed out right in front of our doorstep and I found myself having to stop and see if he was OK. I was able to elicit a groan from him and could move on in good conscience. Later when the story was recounted to my sister, she replied, “You stopped and checked on him? Don’t you understand that bums just do that here!?” Now that I have lived here for a little while, I see that she is right – they do. I’ve tried to theorize why people here are prone to passing out in the middle of the sidewalk and I’ve decided that it might have something to do with all the hills. Possibly they get really fucked up, set out in some general direction and then, upon encountering the difficulty of trudging up one of the many large hills, find it easier to just plop themselves down right there on the sidewalk. Ahhh…sleepy time. It may also have something to do with the super high rents in the city. But that is all mere conjecture…

Just passing out in the street does not mean you are really crazy, though, just really tired or extremely intoxicated. So how do I justify my belief that SF builds them crazier? Well, I invite anyone interested to take the 14 bus down Mission street on a sunny saturday afternoon to get a true sampling of the crazy flavour. Why just the other day I did it and it went  kind of like this: At the outset of our trip an enormous African-American lady hobbled on to the bus and took an instant disliking to the bus driver. I missed their initial encounter, but apparently the Asian bus driver had done something to set her off (or dare I say she was just crazy). She chose to sit within the vicinity of the driver and proceeded to hurl expletives at him for 6 or 7 stops. Something along the lines of: “Uh huh… you can’t treat me like that. Nope. I live in this city! I’m from San Francisco! You can’t talk to me like that, you fucking asshole. You think just because you driving the bus you can treat me like that you dick. Uh huh, that’s what I said. I live here…” And so on and so on.

I’ve gained a lot of respect for MUNI drivers since living in San Francisco. They seem to have become sort of the general focal point for the common people’s mistrust and agression towards “The Man”. I try to imagine what it must be like to show up to work everyday and chauffeur around a bunch of loonies – some of them who just yell insults at you the entire time. I mean, come on lady! Don’t you realize he is driving your bus!? He could blow a gasket at any moment and take the bus and everyone in it straight off a bridge. Shut the fuck up!! All bus drivers deserve medals in my opinion.

Later on a group of three Nicaraguan guys got on board and sat towards the back. They were sipping on tall boys while pounding those single serve gin bottles you get at the counter of liquor stores. They actually seemed pretty normal except that they were wearing surgical gloves. So while their fiesta was heating up in the back, a group of skater punks got on a few seats in front of them. Just when it seemed like the scene couldn’t be any riper for confrontation, this relic from the heyday of 60s San Francisco psychedelia hopped on board. He was extremely white and gaunt with long grey hair and a long grey beard. He chose to sit next to the skater punks.

This is where the trip started to get a little surreal. In any normal circumstances the skater punks, with their piercings, tattoos and general menacing appearance, would be the instigators in this situation but introduce a crazy white acid-casualty in to the mix and everything goes out of whack. He starts barking gibberish at one of the punks in an extremely loud and earnest fashion. Everyone is trying to make out what this creepy dude is saying because it sounds ALMOST like words and the skater punk is looking visibly uncomfortable. He just keeps shaking his head and saying “I don’t understand what you are saying to me”. This just made the hairy skeleton angrier and angrier and he began barking even louder and more incoherently. At this point the Nicaraguans in the back chime in and start yelling at the skeleton, “Yo man! We want some of what you got. Whatever your on – we want some of that! Come on man, I’ll give you a 100 bucks right now.” They start cracking up and the hairy guy for the first time becomes quiet, almost self conscious. He responds somewhat defensively (and even coherently), “What!? What are you talking about!?” – like a high school kid accused of drinking his dads beer.

Well that troop of characters all clears out around 16th and Mission and we start getting closer to our destination. We couldn’t expect to get home, though, without getting at least one more touch of the crazies. This time it came in the form of an unassuming older north-african gentleman with a slightly glazed look and no bottom teeth. Did I forget to mention that during all this my 18 month year old son managed to fall asleep in my lap? The gentleman across the aisle remarks on how peaceful my son looks sleeping. I remark back that I’m surprised he was able to fall asleep in all the commotion. The gentleman nods weakly and responds, “I know. I know. I haven’t slept in 138 days.” Hmmmmm… I see.

Just in case you were wondering if the crazies tend just to congregate on buses in SF, let me assure you that it is not the case. As we alighted from the bus at our stop there happened to be someone kneeling in the middle of the sidewalk. They appeared to be trying to push their nose into a crack in the pavement. We chose to leave that mystery unsolved and returned home after an exciting day on public transportation. Safely back to our apartment, I began to muse on why it is that San Francisco attracts such a large number of colorful vagrants.  The weather is certainly hospitable and conducive to passing out on the sidewalk most of the year round. That is pretty much the west coast in general, though, so that wouldn’t explain it entirely. It might also have something to do with how America was settled. With the expansion westward, cities and towns were continually rounding up their loonies and shipping them further and further west until they ultimately couldn’t go any further and voila: San Francisco. Or possibly San Francisco has just always been known as a place of extreme tolerance. Hard to say, but after living in a city with an almost militant police presence for many years, this acceptance of idiosyncrasy is almost a breath of fresh air (with hints of urine and beer thrown in).


I wrote this review for Kurt Vonnegut’s book Galapagos on Goodreads back in 2007. For some reason a bunch of people started liking it recently and considering I needed some more content I decided I would throw it up here on my new Blahg. Just doing my part to save the environment by recycling content 😉

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the legacy of Kurt Vonnegut now that he is dead. Many great authors don’t receive the recognition they deserve until after they have taken the giant step to the other side, but Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five was being taught in high schools across
America while the author was still alive so I guess it can be said that he was a legend in his own time. Maybe his appeal will diminish with age, but I kind of doubt it. I consider him one of the most brilliant writers of our time and this book, along with Cat’s Cradle and The Sirens of Titan, is one of my favorites.

Vonnegut eschews flowery prose and laborious description in favor of succinct passages that manage to relay a world of meaning in as few words as possible. In fact, this book can be read in one intense afternoon sitting but there is really no other author I am familiar with that can say so much with so little. At certain times in Galapagos, Vonnegut’s ability to encapsulate profound humanist and spiritual messages in a single sentence is powerfully moving.

In many ways Galapagos is Vonnegut’s answer to Darwin’s theory of evolution laid out in Origin of Species. While not directly contradictory and by no means scientific, the story builds on Darwin’s famous theory to explain Vonnegut’s own theory of Devolution in which humans gradually turn their backs on the complexities of the universe in order to search further inside themselves to find the truth that lies within. In the process they devolve into creatures of such elemental simplicity that they are capable of connecting with the universe on a grander scale then was ever previously possible. I wish I had a copy, actually, because I could use a refresher and would read it right now.

A few years ago I told a friend that it was one of my great dreams in life to interview Kurt Vonnegut before he died. Unfortunately, partly due to laziness, but mostly due to the self-defeating belief that such a meeting would be an impossibility, I never acted upon this dream and he passed away this year. I will regret not making a greater effort to see this dream become a reality for a long time.

Permanently Out of Order

Greg Pulaski knew there was something odd going on when he awoke that morning. It wasn’t the moment he woke up either—but a little while later—which made the whole thing seem even odder. Instead of the usual bugle sounding “Reville” and digitally enhanced sunrise that played from the media unit in front of his bed every morning at  exactly 6:30 a.m., this morning the wall remained coolly silent. In fact the entire apartment was unnaturally quiet. The double-paned, reinforced windows did a terrific job of keeping out noise, and the typical blips and whirls that came from the various mechanisms of his automated living unit were all silent this morning.

What finally caused Greg to awake was a dream. In the dream he was standing in front of a vending machine and inside the machine was a beautiful, exotic looking bird. The bird had brilliant gold-and-red plumage and it was singing with full-throated ease except the song was obscured by the thick glass of the display case. Greg was besotted. He longed to hear the bird’s song. He took from his pocket a large wad of money and began feeding it into the machine. With each bill he inserted the perch on which the bird stood moved a fraction of an inch closer to the retrieval slot and then stopped.

The retrieval slot was a rectangle roughly the size of the bird, and it had a door that opened and closed for a few moments every time a bill was inserted. The door lead to a long chamber on the side of the machine that opened up to the expansive ceiling above. During the moments the door was open, Greg could hear snippets of the bird’s song. What he heard sounded incredibly beautiful to him. He longed to hear more. He continued to insert money at a more rapid pace until he was down to his final bill. The perch was practically touching the retrieval door – all the bird had to do was fly to freedom. With the insertion of his final bill, the door to the retrieval slot opened and the perch pushed through it. The door remained open this time. The magnificent bird just stood on the perch and continued to sing the same soulful melody. Greg hit the glass display case with his hand and yelled. The bird did not react. Greg started to become angry. He began to hit the glass with increasing force, yelling louder and louder, until finally the glass case shattered in front of him.

Greg awoke with a jerk. He was disoriented and perspiring. “What time is it?” he yelled at the wall. The wall remained silent. He yelled again, “What time is it!?” Again the wall remained silent. Greg got out of bed and went to the window. He pressed the switch to turn the dimmer off, but the window remained opaque. He pressed the button to open the window and it remained shut. Greg reflected for a moment. In the entire time he had lived in this unit, twenty-three years, it had never once lost power. In fact that was one of the number one selling points of these cooperative units when they first came on the market fifty years ago: Never fix a light, never replace a fuse, never lose service! All the wiring and pipes for the entire building were hooked directly in to the Central Power and Depository System of the Municipal Public Works Authority, and all the appliances, heating, cooling, water, and waste transmissions were controlled by the Central Regulation Service.

At the beginning of every month, Greg received a bill from the CRS. The amount of this bill fluctuated a few dollars now and then, but never greatly, and was rolled directly in to his fifty-year Non-Adjustable Rate Mortgage. This was auto-debited from his bank account every month on the 1st. Greg never looked at his CRS bill, as it was now automatically filtered in to another folder in his electronic mail service, and he never bothered to open it anymore. Because he had never needed to call the CRS the entire time he had lived in this unit, he had no idea who he should call in circumstances like these. He didn’t even know what number he should call. He supposed there was a number in one of his bills somewhere but with the wall being totally unresponsive he was not able to check his email.

Greg pondered matters for a moment. My phone, he thought suddenly. He went over to the bedside table where the phone was docked, hoping it had been charged sufficiently from the previous evening. It was close to dead but still working. He looked at it. “Shit! No reception. What the fuck is going on!?!?” Greg exclaimed. His heart rate began to quicken. Was this related? Or just a coincidence!? He couldn’t remember the last time he didn’t have phone reception at home. The unit came equipped with its own hotspot, and his phone had always just worked.

Greg went to the Single Unit Regulator located in the hallway. It controlled, among other things, the heating and lighting for the apartment. He pushed a button on the touchscreen panel and a message appeared: Error 438. “What the hell does that mean!?” Greg spat. He pushed another button. Error 438. He started pushing random buttons with increasing agitation. Error 438. Error 438. Error 438. Greg ran down the hallway to the bathroom and pushed the button on the auto-vac unit of the toilet. Nothing happened. He pushed the button on the water faucet to full blast. Nothing.

Greg’s mind began to swirl. He reached his arm out toward the wall to steady himself. Slowly he let go of the wall and walked down the dark hallway. From the kitchen down the hall an eerie green light emanated. The light came from the Automated Nourishment Panel, the apparatus that provided food to the unit. On a normal day the Nourishment Delivery Portal would already be open, and Greg’s morning coffee would be sitting inside—piping hot and ready to go. The ANP would display the date and time, the breakfast specials, and perhaps a motivational statement or an important reminder about the day’s events. Today, though, only a short message glowed in the dark kitchen: Error 438.

Greg turned around and strode purposefully back down the hallway and stopped at the front door. He pushed the button that called the elevator. The panel above the door that indicated what floor the elevator was on flashed the same ominous message: Error 438. Greg cursed. He pushed the button a few more times and received the same message over and over again. He turned around and walked hurriedly down the hallway to the farthest end where the “utility” closet stood. In the entire unit, this was the one room that required manual effort to open—the door had a handle and required the user to push it to the left to allow for the door to slide to the side, like a cumbersome fossil on rails. Greg had never needed to open the door since the real estate agent had shown him the closet more than twenty years ago. Inside among the empty shelves was another door which was illuminated by a red lit panel that shined above it. The panel read Emergency Exit.

The door didn’t have a handle like the one to the utility closet. Instead, in the middle of the door there was a small gray box with a cover on it that was held closed by a latch. It looked like a fuse box from the days of old. With trembling hands Greg undid the latch and opened the door. He let out a slow gasp. Inside the gray box, which he had never bothered to look at in all the time he had lived there, was a red button about the size of a half-dollar. In the red light of the sign above, he could just make out the message printed above the button: In case of emergency, press button to release the door. Greg pressed the button. Nothing happened except the message on the panel above the door changed. It read Error 438.

Greg’s breath caught in his throat. He stood absolutely still for a moment as the terror began to set in. “What the hell is going on here”, he thought. “How the hell did I never bother to check if this door even worked!?” He probed his mind for a possible solution to his predicament. He thought about yelling at the top of his lungs but realized the futility of that immediately – these units were designed to be entirely sound-proofed. The real estate agent made a point of demonstrating by banging pots and pans from the neighboring unit. Nope, no one was going to hear his cries for help. If there was even anyone still in the building.

He took his phone out of his pocket. It was flashing now which meant the battery was practically dead. Still no reception. He put it back in his pocket and stared at the button again. “YOU FUCKING MOTHERFUCKERS!!!” he yelled and began hitting the button with all his might. Over and over again he pounded the red button with his fist. Sweat began to collect on his brow and drip down the sides of his face. After a while he stopped hitting the button, his hand was raw and bleeding. He took a step back and gave the button a final exasperated kick with the heel of his foot then collapsed against the wall and slid slowly to the floor. Sitting with his back to the wall and facing the emergency exit, Greg cradled his head in his hands.While he sat there, Greg had failed to notice that the sign above the door had changed. In place of the continuous Error 438 message a new message was now glowing in red letters. It read Permanently Out of Order.