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Office politics? Count me out!


I generally enjoyed my four years at Jackson Family Wines, but there was one incident that left a really bad taste in my mouth. It concerned a rather bitchy salesman down in Southern California who worked for JFW’s distribution company.

A large group of us had been invited to lunch at a fancy restaurant. It’s fair to say that I was the “star guest.” The restaurant owner seemed particularly interested in meeting me; in fact, we were seated next to each other. I soon learned why.

He had a wine list, of course. For years, he’d been submitting it to Wine Spectator Magazine, in the hopes of obtaining one of their coveted Restaurant Wine List Awards, but alas, it never happened, which was enormously frustrating to him. He knew that I’d once worked for Wine Spectator, so he figured I had some insider knowledge of how to get an award.

I explained to the guy that it had been 25 years since I’d worked at Wine Spectator, and that I had no special knowledge to give him. But he wouldn’t listen. You have to know something, he insisted. He was being really pathetic, and to make matters worse, here were all these salesmen listening in. Well, I had to say something. So I told him that I could offer certain opinions I had, for whatever they were worth. The poor guy started taking notes.

I said it seemed to me that Wine Spectator generally gave Wine List Awards to two kinds of lists. One is what I call the “Manhattan Phone Book” type of list, as exemplified by Bern’s Steak House, whose cellar (which they claim is “one of the largest in the world”) contains half-a-million bottles. This kind of list, I explained, impressed Wine Spectator’s editors due to the sheer breadth and depth of its inventory.

I sense the restaurateur’s disappointment. He certainly couldn’t match Bern’s. “But there’s another kind of list that, I think, Wine Spectator likes,” I said. That kind was much smaller; it boasted quality rather than quantity. I call it a “curated list” because, while it might contain fewer than 60 different wines, each had been carefully and lovingly selected, based on the owner’s (or sommelier’s) tastes, and on the wine’s affinity for chef’s foods.

Now, this analysis seems fair to me, even at this remove in time (it all happened around 5 years ago). I felt really sorry for the guy. He was just so sad; he wanted that Award more than anything, and he’d never be happy until he got it. He wanted to go on talking, and I felt the need to console him, the way a parent might if her child got a bruise. “The important thing,” I told him, “is to create a list that you love. It’s not to try to figure out a gimmick that might get you a Wine Spectator Award. That should be a by-product of your effort, not its motivation. Work with your cooks and servers and maybe some of your top customers. Study other successful wine lists from your restaurant peers. Come up with something you love and can be proud of, that will show off your food. If you do, that’s when you might catch the attention of Wine Spectator.”

Well, the rest of that luncheon went fine, it seemed to me. A week later, my trip to Southern California had ended, and I was back at home in Oakland, when the phone rang. It was my direct supervisor at Jackson Family Wines. He’d received a letter from one of their salesmen in L.A. who complained about my treatment of the restaurateur. This restaurant, the salesman explained, was a very important client to him, and he—the salesman—felt I had thrown cold water on the restaurateur’s dreams. I should have encouraged him in the belief that he would get a Wine Spectator Award, instead of telling him how hard it was. My supervisor said this was a very serious complaint about me, and it would go into my personnel file.

I was very affronted by that. It annoyed me to no end that this salesman (and I didn’t know who he was) had gone behind my back and complained about me to my boss. Surely, if he’d felt I’d handled the situation poorly, he could have taken me aside and told me directly. But it also pissed me off, because in reviewing what I’d told the restaurateur, I thought I was being honest in conveying my views (which he’d asked for), and because I felt I really had encouraged him. My message had been, “Do the very best you can do. Make your list personal, a work of art.” What’s wrong with that?

I explained this to my boss, but he was pretty close-minded. He said, “That’s how you saw yourself. But obviously, others saw something very different.” At that point in my life, I was closing in on 70 years of age, which is when I’d always promised myself I’d retire. That incident made me decide to call it quits. I was getting sucked into some ugly office politics and backstabbing. I was in the position of the guy who’s asked, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Nothing I could say would make the slightest difference. I’ve always refused to play that game; it’s a game for losers, for bureaucrats, like that salesman, whose careers have dead-ended. They have nothing better to do than to stir up trouble, usually anonymously.

A few weeks later, I told JFW’s CEO, Rick Tigner (a man for whom I had, and still have, enormous respect) I was quitting. It’s a move I haven’t regretted for a second.

Remembering my mother


I had a complicated relationship with my mother, Gertrude. She and my father had not expected to have another baby after my older sister was born. But I came along in 1946 and quickly became my mother’s favorite. She adored me and I adored her, in the classic Oedipal way. I can remember being very young, maybe no more than two years old, and just thinking about my mother made me warm all over. She was perfection, heaven-sent.

Of course, that didn’t last. She was emotionally distant, to say the least. This was not a woman who expressed her thoughts or feelings, except in the most superficial way. Nor did she encourage me to express mine to her. She was deeply unhappy, on some level that was inaccessible to me. She was stuck in a tenement in the South Bronx, with a husband, Jack, who had never had ambition and was trapped in a clerical job that paid very little money. Meanwhile, her peers—Jack’s two siblings and her own three brothers—had moved to big houses in the suburbs, with swimming pools and gardens and nice cars. Whatever youthful dreams she’d had (and she must have had them, even though she never talked about them) were crushed by a dreary, middle-class reality and the embarrassment of being “the poor Heimoffs.”

We drifted apart as I reached adulthood. I moved far away from her, first to New England, then to California, while she and Jack moved to South Florida after they both retired. I wrote her frequently, and she wrote me, and we talked on the phone, but these exchanges were never honest or meaningful. I longed to develop a deeper relationship with her, but somehow it just didn’t seem possible.

When I came out of the closet, shortly after Jack died in 1982, Gertrude couldn’t handle it. She wasn’t hostile or aggressive. She was a very polite woman who never forget the Southern etiquette she’d been taught growing up in Oklahoma. Gertrude was never rude. But my oh my, she could shut down and be cold as ice. She let me know, without saying anything, that the topic of my sexual preference was off-limits. It was not to be discussed or even alluded to—not if I wished to maintain whatever fragile relationship we had.

Looking back, I can see how carefully negotiated that relationship was. It teeter-tottered on a delicate balancing point: one was expected to perform the rudiments of a loving relationship, but without any kind of depth of feeling or actual communication. By the time Gertrude moved to California, to live in a luxury retirement community in San Mateo (across the Bay from me), we were as polished as Astaire and Rogers in the choreography of our pas de deux.

Still, I never lost that longing to reach out to her, to connect, to really share our souls before she died. One day, I decided to go for it. She was 87. I invited her to lunch at Brothers, a Jewish deli in Burlingame, where I intended to have “the talk.” I deliberately chose a restaurant so that Gertrude couldn’t freak out. We sat, studied the menu and ordered. She knew something was up; she was a sharp cookie. I began by saying, simply, that I wanted for us to have a little talk about my childhood, about her relationship with Jack (which, in my mind, had been a total fiasco), about my gayness, and why my memories of my childhood were so awful. As Gertrude listened, her eyes welled with tears.

“I don’t know why you’ve convinced yourself you had an unhappy childhood,” she said, dabbing her eyes with the napkin. “We had a very happy household.”

Memories rushed through my mind: Jack’s furious anger, the result of frustration and self-loathing. Gertrude’s silences, the way she cut herself off from her own family every night and got lost in a novel. My own fear and confusion, the horrible feeling of being a monster because of my sexual desires, yet not being able to say anything about it, having no one to confide in or trust. The physical separation I sensed between Gertrude and Jack, with no words of affection, no physical signs of love, just a wary, defensive circling of perimeters. It was a household of nightmares and horror, yet here was Gertrude telling me that it had been Ozzie and Harriet.

It was too much. I couldn’t wrap my head around this cognitive dissonance. How could my memories of childhood be so utterly different from hers? There were only two plausible explanations. One was that I was wrong: in my fever dream I had conjured up a Grimm’s fairy tale about wicked parents, when in reality Gertrude and Jack were just two ordinary people, struggling through a rather ordinary marriage. The other possible explanation was that Gertrude had simply blocked out the truth. That’s the explanation I decided to accept. It was impossible for her to jettison her happy-family fantasy because, were she to do so, the entire infrastructure of the way she explained her life to herself would have been swept away.

She’s 87 years old, I thought. Leave her alone. You’re asking her to do something she’s completely incapable of doing. And so I dropped it. We had lunch, I drove her back to her apartment, kissed her on the cheek, and drove back home to Oakland.

It was an unhappy, unresolved ending to the day I’d planned. But a few years later, Gertrude developed inoperable cancer, and died in the hospital. I was with her almost every day of her final month. We had some very tender moments. As she passed into coma, I brushed her hair. I held her hand, and she gave it a squeeze. The night she went into the death spiral, the nurse called and said I’d better come quickly. I sped across the Bay and arrived in her room well after midnight. Her breathing was labored: the death rattle. I sat by her side until 3 a.m., when, cold and exhausted, I crept into bed with her. She died at 6:03 a.m. that morning, and I swear that she touched my face as she fled this world, like the brush of a feather.

I trust leaders who earn my trust


When I moved to San Francisco in the winter of 1979-1980 to go to grad school, it was with the highest of high hopes. I was 33 years old, and in the process of putting the Sixties and Seventies behind me. The drugs and partying, the alternative hippie lifestyle no longer seemed suitable as I approached middle age. Put aside childish things, Heimoff, I told myself, and grow up.

With Reagan’s election, the mood of the country changed overnight. Now it was all about moving up the career ladder. Making money was suddenly “in,” after the idealism of the previous years. Everybody I met seemed to be an M.B.A., or to want to be one. I enrolled in the Educational Technology Department at San Francisco State University, got myself a job on campus, cut my hair and brought myself some decent clothes. It was no longer fashionable to be broke; it was a drag. Besides, living in San Francisco was expensive. I needed to make more money just to stay even.

I was also very naïve, as you’ll see in a moment. My on-campus jobs were clerical: I worked for a while in the School of Education checking transcripts, then as secretary of the Film Department. From there, it was a step up to secretary of the Career Center. That was a big, busy place, always bustling with students looking for jobs or counseling. It was located in the administration building, the locus of power on campus. On a functional level, I ran the place: controlled access to the Director and handled the budget and the computers. I was very ambitious. In my mind, this was America, the land of opportunity. If you worked hard and played by the rules, you moved up the ladder, to increasing wealth and status. I worked very, very hard, and was very good at what I did.

One day, the Dean of Student Services—my boss’s boss—called me to his office. I was nervous as heck: what could he possibly want? He said that his chief assistant, Tony, would shortly be leaving. He, the Dean, had been watching me, and was impressed. He wanted me to take Tony’s place when the time came.

That was awesome. It meant a significant rise in salary. Things were working out just as I’d assumed they would. The American Dream was alive and well! Soon, I’d be chief assistant to one of the most powerful men on campus. From there, who knew? Maybe someday I’d take the Dean’s job. (That’s what I meant by saying how naïve I was.)

But I never heard back from the Dean. Months went by; I remained secretary of the Career Center. I asked for a meeting with the Dean. What happened, I asked. He acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about, like it had never happened. Stunned and resentful, I began to realize I’d been a sucker. Just because you work hard doesn’t mean jack shit. Even powerful men, like the Dean, lie. That’s when a big dose of cynicism hit me.  This American Dream is pure crap. There is no moving up. It’s the law of the jungle out there.

In a way, my experience with the Dean reinforced an attitude I’d had since childhood: distrust of authority. I believe I was born with a certain devotional strain, by which I mean if I had ever found a leader who didn’t let me down, I would have been the most ardent disciple. I always sought such leaders; but they always let me down. The gods I devoted myself to turned out to have feet of clay. There’s nothing more disconcerting than discovering that someone you’d truly admired was in actuality deeply flawed.

After my run-in with the Dean, I never again fully trusted an authority figure. Of course, since I had to work for a living, I always had “bosses.” But while I was a very competent worker on a professional basis, on a personal basis I didn’t respect my bosses (except for one: Rick Tigner, at Jackson Family Wines). Always I saw in them the same sad traits: bullying, lying, double standards, favoritism, hypocrisy, greed, meanness, stupidity. In a word, Injustice. I suppose, as a Jew, inculcated into my DNA was the notion of justice. Justice, justice you shall pursue…Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Surely it wasn’t too much to expect men in whom power over others had been vested to treat those under them with respect and fairness. But somehow, this seldom proved to be the case.

Still, in my dotage, I’m not entirely cynical. I believe in the ideals of the Democratic Party (which doesn’t mean I think all Democratic politicians are brilliant!). I believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are trying to save the country from collapse. I trust my doctors. I trust my banker, and I trust the climate scientists who warn us about global warming. In fact, there are plenty of people I trust–as long as I don’t have to work for them!

Remembering the 2000 election battle


In November of 2001, I went on vacation to Costa Rica, arriving on Nov. 18. The battle over the contested 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was at its height and mounting in tension. Although I did a lot of touristy stuff during my week there (lots of museums, volcanoes, food and ticos), I also managed to keep up with election developments, thanks to the presence of CNN and other American news channels in my hotel room. I kept a diary; it makes for interesting reading, now that we’re in the midst of another election controversy. If you read on, you’ll see the references to “civil war” between Republicans and Democrats. It’s a pretty good and accurate accounting of the 2000 election brouhaha, and captures the ongoing chaos and confusion, with developments changing by the minute as the outcome remained in doubt and rumors–sometimes true, sometimes not–swirled.

The following are excerpts of my reporting on the election developments. (I have eliminated all references to my personal experiences, which were also quite interesting!)

Nov. 18, Dallas Airport, 5 p.m. I’ve missed developments all day. I look at the T.V. monitor, which is tuned to CNN. Bush leads by 930 votes (in Florida)! Damn. Not good. That 930-vote lead comes after 67 of 67 counties counted their foreign ballots—which means Bush picked up only 630 votes! This doesn’t seem like as many as had been anticipated, although of course it would be enough for him to win.

San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica). 11 p.m. After a fast taxi ride to my hotel I turn on CNN. Bush still ahead by 930. Obviously nothing happened today. Lots of overseas ballots including military being rejected—about 40%. Republicans complaining. Some very early returns (unofficial) from the (Florida]) recounting. Indications are that Gore will not get enough to offset the 930.

Nov. 19, Sunday. 7:40 a.m. CNN says Bush still up by 930, but one reporter says Bush gained 12 votes in Palm Beach.

3:30 p.m. CNN. Democratic and Republican congressmen debating the constitutionality of manual recounts. The spin is to influence tomorrow’s Florida Supreme Court hearing. But what does it matter if Gore can’t take the lead anyway? Beyond tomorrow, will the U.S. Supreme Court get involved? Also, will “dimpled chads”* be allowed? CNN’s Chris Black says “hundreds” have been discovered so far for Gore in Palm Beach and Broward counties, although it’s not clear if they are reflected in the current tallies. As for Dade County, apparently they stopped, or postponed, counting again, but for now, it is said Dade will resume counting tomorrow—before anyone knows what the Florida Supreme Court will say.

(* Also known as “hanging chads”)

4:30 p.m. Republican hack Marc Racicot says Democratic strategists realize Gore cannot win on a recount without dimpled ballots. He thus launches the next phase of this war. This is the Battle of Dimpled Ballots. The Republicans are terrified of them! Racicot accuses Democrats of “changing the rules” by wanting to count dimpled ballots. This is untrue! Gore has always said, Let’s count the vote of everyone who intended to vote, dimpled or not.

Meanwhile, John King interviews President Clinton from Ho Chi Minh City. What a great president he is. I would vote for him again.

Nov. 20, Monday. 1:05 p.m. I return to the hotel literally in time for the live coverage of the Florida Supreme Court hearing. “The Court is certainly aware of the historic nature of this session,” begins the Chief Justice, warning the room to remain “in order” and outlining the logistics of the process. Interesting that this is being cast as a fight between the Florida Secretary of State (Republican Katherine Harris) and the Florida Attorney-General (Democrat Robert Butterworth).

3:45. CNN says the most contentious question was between one Justice and a Bush lawyer. They add that Bush worked out at a gym today—same as me! BULLETIN: HUGE BUSH VICTORY! Florida Attorney-General rules all military ballots must be counted. That’s another 500-800 for Bush.

3:55. Florida Supreme Court announces no decision today. They do not say when they will decide. But what is the count? Bill Schneider (CNN analyst) points out the Republican Florida Legislature may eventually appoint their own electors. That of course could mean Civil War. But I don’t think it will come to that. One way or another, I believe Bush will remain ahead in the vote, and win.

Dick Armey (arch-conservative Republican House Majority Leader) says it would be “distasteful” to go to a Gore inaugural; he will attend “but not stand.” David Broder, the dean of the Washington press corps, says we are on “a very, very perilous slope.”

They even have CBS News down here. Dan Rather is apocalyptic on the Florida Supreme Court “battle” in his words. Bulletin: CBS quotes an analyst as saying the Democrat’s “best case scenario” from the recount is 740. This is nowhere near enough, especially if previously invalidated military ballots are counted. My prediction: Gore concedes, perhaps by this weekend. He vows to fight on for 2004.

11 p.m. Nothing new.

Nov. 21. A new dynamic. If, say, Florida is not allowed to recount—or can recount but dimpled chads don’t count—and Bush is declared the winner—and if it turns out those ballots are unofficially counted anyway (as they probably will be, unless they’re destroyed)—then Democrats will cry “Stolen election!” and convincingly. And that will fuel the impending split.

5:30 p.m. It’s disturbing that this overseas ballot thing is being represented by some people (mainly Republicans) as Democrats not wanting the military to vote. Even as I write this, CNN says they are “receiving word that a ruling may be forthcoming this evening” from the Florida Supreme Court. Today is the end of the second week of this undecided election. The Bush campaign today filed suit challenging the Florida Supreme Court’s authority to rule on the validity of hand counting. CNN does not say where they filed—in some Federal court? This is a hint the Bush campaign fears the Florida Supreme Court’s decision. CNN says Gore has a net gain in the recounting so far only of 230 votes. CNN’s ratings said to be the highest in their history. And so we wait, not only on the question of recounts, but on the all-important dimpled chads.

11:05 p.m. Breaking news! Jim Baker press conference. The Supreme Court must have ruled; Baker seems pissed. They must have lost. Yes! The court unanimously ruled the recount will count! Baker vows to bring this to the Florida (Republican-led) Legislature. Frank Sesno (CNN commentator): “Talk about uncharted territory! We’re in deep water now.” Florida threatening to call Special Session to undo what its own Supreme Court has done!

Bill Schneider: “This is a nightmare, the nuclear scenario.” Jeff Greenfield (CNN commentator): “We are so much closer to the possibility of a Constitutional train wreck.”

* * *

I’ll finish up tomorrow. Have a good day. Let’s vow to resist the Republican coup Trump is trying to pull off.

Once a poet: memories of old San Francisco


I moved to San Francisco in 1979 with great hope in my heart. Finally, at last, my expedition across America had ended at the furthest point from where it started, New York City. San Francisco represented aspiration. I didn’t quite know what I was looking for (aside from sex) but whatever it was, I knew I would find it in the cool, grey city of love.

There was a free little periodical they used to give away in bookstores. I forget the name, but it was for poets and fans of poetry. People could submit poems for publication, and it also listed all the open-mike poetry readings, which were very popular back then. Every neighborhood had a bar or restaurant that held weekly or sometimes bi-weekly poetry readings. I’d always dabbled in poetry. It seemed a very romantic thing to do. San Francisco was still famous for the Beats; the city fostered creativity. I began writing. One day, I did my first reading, at a restaurant in the Haight. I felt very sophisticated.

I took a nom de plume: John Stuart Solvay. I thought it sounded more glamorous and literary than “Steve Heimoff.” The “Solvay” came from the Solvay Conferences on Physics, a series of international symposia that started in 1911 and are still held to this day (or were, before the pandemic). I was a huge, amateur fan of modern physics: quantum mechanics, relativity, cosmology. Physicists such as Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg were my heroes. I decided to honor them.

Solvay Conference, 1915

Memories of my short-lived poetry career returned to me yesterday as I was clearing my house of stuff I’d accumulated for the last 40 years, in preparation for the big remodeling that commences Feb. 1. In a moldy cardboard box on the top shelf of a closet I still had spiral-bound notebooks of my poems. I sat in my big chair and perused them. Mostly bad stuff: derivative, pretentious. I was at my worst when I wrote bad T.S. Eliot and Whitman. But some of it wasn’t too bad, especially those poems, or parts of poems, when I described my street life in San Francisco in those days when the Gay Liberation Movement was flexing its muscles (through muscle T-shirts) and half the population of the city, it seemed, was young, gay and handsome. Those were the pre-AIDS days, when having sex was revolutionary and fun, with no consequences to be paid except, possibly, a dose of the clap; and even if you got gonorrhea, a simple injection would send it packing.

There was and still is a part of San Francisco called The Tenderloin. It’s always been low-rent, gritty, dangerous. It was a gathering place for young hustlers, down-and-outers, drug addicts, alcoholics and people like me, who were none of those things but enjoyed the company of those who were. It was San Francisco’s version of O. Henry’s New York, which he called “Baghdad-on-the-subway”; San Francisco was Baghdad-by-the-Bay. I was fascinated by the young Black, White, Latino and Asian kids in The Tenderloin, grifters most of them, menacing and usually high, but sweet once you got to know them. Sex for them was not complicated. It was something they did with guys they liked, no strings attached, no followup, just the joy of the moment. From a poem called “Turk Street”:

…Now it is still light—

“Hey man, Columbian?” – “No thanks man,

But thanks” – we are brothers too.

Maybe later ceremonies will confirm that.

I liked the diversity of the men I met in The Tenderloin, who were so different from the friends I’d had all my life.

Later, longhair w/ backpack asking for bread—

“Where you from man?” – “Reno, man,

Just got in” – no name – instead, just company,

Relaxed against a car,

Telling tales of things near & far.

After a while many of the faces were familiar. I was not really part of the scene, dropping in from my more orderly life of university and work on an occasional basis, but many of the boy/men of the streets never left The Tenderloin. I liked recognizing and greeting them:

Fate now wears T-shirt and rumpled jeans.

That face—yes—“Fuckface!” “Huh?”

“It’s me! Remember?” Yes—last month

he ripped me off, but I strip-searched him

and as his friend, the cook from Sisters of Mercy, said,

“He is not evil.”

I think, also, I was rather proud of myself for being able and willing to “slum” among the rejected and downtrodden, me, the middle class Jewish boy whose relatives would never think of going to The Tenderloin, who would sneer and tsk-tsk on seeing such riff-raff. A part of me would rather have hung out with Fuckface and Reno than with the clean, proper representatives of the straight world, with its artifice and games. I could not tell my family or my friends from university of my unusual attraction for this demimonde—they would have thought it weird, and I enjoyed keeping it my own little secret.

Drugged, spinning wildly, I find the street,

The lights now brighter.

Reno offers me a beer,

And I buy another, give Reno a buck

When he runs into the market – “Hey man, good luck!”

Nothing ever came of my poetry interlude; John Stuart Solvay faded into the old orange-covered notebook I now have in front of me for the last time. Shortly I will place it in the recycling bin, along with the other poems, short stories, reminiscences. It will hurt, like sacrificing a limb. The hurt is good.

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