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My friend, Gavin Newsom

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I have known our Governor, Gavin Newsom, for 30 years, and am proud to call him my friend. For all that time, I have respected, admired and liked him—never more so than when, in the winter of 2004, as Mayor of San Francisco, he startled the world by marrying gay people in City Hall, one of the bravest acts of political courage in American history.

We met in 1991, when I was a neophyte wine writer at Wine Spectator and Gavin was a tall, thin, earnest young 24-year old with a dream. He’d been as in love with wine as I was, and already was quite knowledgeable about it, so his choice of a career was hardly a surprise: He was working to open his first wine shop, PlumpJack, in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow District, and he asked me to be part of a weekly tasting panel. The idea was for a small group of us (which included his late father, William, then on the California Court of Appeal) to gather every Friday afternoon (I think it was) and taste through the wines distributors had dropped off during the week for sampling. These salesmen very naturally hoped PlumpJack would carry their wares, but Gavin was insistent on one thing. “I want to be able to tell the public,” he said, “that my friends and I have personally tasted every bottle on our shelves, and can recommend each one.” No wine would be sold at PlumpJack that did not meet our very rigorous standards!

This went on for months. Finally, the Big Day came: PlumpJack opened. It was a hit from the start, and a very intense time for young Gavin, who had few employees and was buried in work. From time to time, I’d drop by. His tiny office was up a narrow flight of steps that led to a sort of attic room. It was cramped and stuffy. There I’d find Gavin, at his desk, inundated by paperwork. But he always found time to chat.

Then came a day in 1996 when I read that the city’s Mayor, Willie Brown, had appointed Gavin to San Francisco’s Parking and Traffic Commission. I don’t think I, or anyone who knew Gavin, was surprised that he was entering public service (or politics, to call it by a rougher name). Gavin’s friends understood he had bigger things in mind than wine. From there, Gavin’s trajectory was meteoric: on to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors (where he was the youngest member), and then the Mayoralty itself (2004-2011). After a brief setback during which he failed in his bid to become the Democratic nominee for Governor in the 2010 election, Gavin went on to become Lieutenant-Governor (under Jerry Brown) until his spectacular victory in 2018, when he was elected Governor of California, capturing 62% of the vote over his hapless Republican opponent.

I call him “Gavin” in this post, but ever since he became Mayor, I’ve referred to him, out of respect, by his title, whether it’s in person or through emails. I’ve watched every aspect of Gov. Newsom’s political career: he is what I would call a “moderate-liberal,” business-friendly and socially progressive, not some wild-eyed leftist as his mendacious Republican enemies would have you believe. Gay marriage was radical, I suppose, but Gov. Newsom—who inherited his Irish-American father’s starry-eyed idealism—realized that if gays weren’t permitted to marry,  the American democracy was not working. For this, Mayor Newsom came under savage fire from conservative Christian rightwingers (Jerry Falwell likened same-sex marriage to “a legalization of bestiality”), but in my eyes that merely elevated the Mayor even higher.

Newsom has been a good Governor. Of course, not long after he was sworn in, the COVID pandemic hit. As Governor he was already dealing with huge issues: California’s increasingly worse wildfires and the homelessness crisis. To throw COVID on top of all that seemed beyond anyone’s ability. But Gov. Newsom has governed adroitly, and his famous “wonkiness” has served the state well. Yes, there were ups and downs: the COVID closure rules seemed to change often, and everybody seemed to find something to complain about. But there was a reason scientists called it “the novel coronavirus.” It was new. Nothing like it had ever existed before, except, possibly, in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic (which hit the Bay Area very hard). I looked around at the other States and beyond, to the countries of the world, and saw that every leader everywhere was struggling with what to do and how to get it done. Gov. Newsom managed the crisis successfully; California now has the lowest COVID-19 case rate in the U.S.

Of course, it isn’t surprising that Gov. Newsom’s enemies—and almost every one of them is a rightwing trumper—are now seeking to recall him. Republicans have been unable to win statewide office in California for a long time, which frustrates the hell out of them. They fear Gov. Newsom as the attractive and capable politician that he is: a grave future risk to them and their party. So they’re doing what they do best: trying to take him down with lies and smears.

It won’t work. I have predicted (and I have shared this with him) that he will win the recall by double digits. When he emerges victorious from this pathetic Republican recall at the end of this year, he will be stronger than ever, with a glittering political career before him and the eyes of the nation upon him.


COVID today, AIDS 40 years ago

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I was scrolling through online movies last night, looking for something to watch, when I came across “The Normal Heart,” director Ryan Murphy’s 2014 film based on Larry Kramer’s 1985 Tony award-winning Broadway play. Murphy’s film, executive-produced by Brad Pitt, had an all-star cast (Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer) and itself won numerous awards.

I’d seen “The Normal Heart” before but, as with all fine art works, I always find new things to like about it. The film is a sensitive portrayal of the way the AIDS epidemic hit America, and in particular New York’s gay community, starting in 1981. While it’s told from Larry Kramer’s occasionally melodramatic point of view, it details the history of this historic epidemic in a way rivaled only by “And the Band Played On,” the 1993 film based on Randy Shilts’ 1987 book of the same name.

Although I lived through AIDS, I’ve also lived through the COVID-19 epidemic, and it’s hard not to make comparisons. AIDS was a direct threat to me, as a young gay man living then at Ground Zero in San Francisco. COVID has not been as much of a threat, although it was impossible to realize that in March, 2020, when it seemed anyone could get it. Now I know that I was not in one of the high-risk groups: nursing home residents, non-English-speaking LatinX, healthcare workers, prison inmates. But I didn’t know that then, and I took the precautions very seriously, wearing a mask all the time outdoors, staying at home for the better part of a year, washing my hands constantly, and social distancing on those occasions when I did dare to venture outside.

When the threat of AIDS really began to strike home for me, in 1983 as dozens of gay San Franciscans were dying every week, I thought I needed to do my part. That summer, I volunteered for The Shanti Project, which assisted AIDS sufferers. Although I was going to grad school fulltime, working fulltime, and had a very busy schedule which included trying to make my relationship with Eugene work, I felt compelled to do something for my community. My Shanti work consisted of helping bed-ridden clients with household chores such as washing dishes, doing laundry, scrubbing toilets, grocery shopping, dusting and vacuuming. Over the course of the next year, I had two clients I grew close to; both died. I have such vivid memories of Jim and Gary. Jim, my first client, said to me one day early in our relationship that it had been six months since he had held another human being in his arms, and did I mind if we just lay on his bed, embracing? He meant it in a non-sexual way. He was dying, his six-foot frame wasted away to less than 100 pounds, and he was so very sad. Shanti’s managers had told us they were convinced the virus, or whatever was causing AIDS, was not transmissible through ordinary bodily contact, but who knew? Yet I had to comply with Jim’s desire. We lay on his bed, him spooning me from behind, while I wrestled with fear, duty, compassion, love. As for Gary, he was on the board of directors of Shanti Project, and figured prominently in the book version of “And the Band Played On.”

Now, here we are, exactly 40 years after the Centers for Disease Control published the shattering article, “Pneumocystis Pneumonia-Los Angeles,” in their newsletter, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The article opened with one of the most famous sentences in medical history: “In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California.”

By contrast, the Weekly Report’s first mention of COVID-19 came on Feb. 7, 2020. It began with this true statement: “In December 2019, an outbreak of acute respiratory illness caused by a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was detected in mainland China. Cases have been reported in 26 additional locations, including the United States.” Sadly, it also included this lie: “CDC, multiple other federal agencies, state and local health departments, and other partners are implementing aggressive measures to substantially slow U.S. transmission of 2019-nCoV…”.  It was a lie, because Donald Trump was the head of government and he had no intention of “implementing aggressive measures” to prevent Americans from dying because he didn’t care. As of today, 570,000 of us have died from COVID-19. Donald Trump is still playing golf.


Memory Lane: Remembering my ancestors

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I remember meeting Grandma and Grandpa Heimoff for the first time. I must have been three years old and was lying on the little sofa that faced our old Admiral television set in the room we called “the foyer” of our four-room apartment at 760 Grand Concourse in The Bronx.

Of course, I must have met them both earlier than that, since they were my paternal grandparents and lived in the same building! But I have this memory of them knocking on our door and my mother letting them in and saying, “Steve, these are your grandparents.”

We were very close. My grandmother, Rose, used to rub my back when I lay in my crib as a little baby and she would sing lullabies to me in her native Russian. She was the only adult in my childhood who gave me nothing but love, who never got angry with me or scolded me or made me feel guilty. Grandpa Max was far less demonstrative than his wife; he died when I was only seven, so my memories of him are scant, although I do distinctly recall us walking, on a fine Spring morning, to the kosher slaughterhouse, on the other side of the railroad tracks, where he picked out a live chicken for Grandma to make into soup. She always made her chicken soup, including the matzoh balls, from scratch, and she once told me the secret of great broth was to include the chicken’s feet. I never tried that.

As I said, Max died when I was still a little boy. He’d been sick for a few weeks. I would go visit him in 2-P and read the Daily News to him. Finally, he went to the hospital (I think it was Columbia-Presbyterian, on the East Side, where his son, my Uncle Lennie, was an attending physician). My parents and I went to visit him but for some reason, the nurses wouldn’t let me into his room, so I had to wait in the hallway. A few days later, my sister (six years older than I) and I were having breakfast, getting ready for school, when my mother suddenly stood silently beside the kitchen table and then she said, “Kids, I have some bad news.” She told us Grandpa had died overnight. My first reaction—I was only six or seven—was to burst into laughter. I thought my mother’s dramatic seriousness was hysterical. Of course, I did not then have the concept of “death,” or of loss or bereavement. But then, quickly, I noticed that my sister was crying, and I thought to myself, “Oh, I guess laughter isn’t such a good idea.” So I too cried.

Grandma and Grandpa were very old-fashioned. Their English never was very good; they were far more comfortable speaking Yiddish. They’d both been born in Odessa, in southern Ukraine, which in the late 1880s was part of the Russian Empire. Grandma had apparently been a midwife. We never knew quite what Grandpa’s occupation had been, even after he’d lived in New York for decades. He would go off every morning impeccably clad in a three-piece gray pinstriped suit, with vest, derby, walking stick and gold pocket fob. Where did he go? A cousin once told me she had heard that he never did have a proper job and went off every morning pretending that he was off to work because he was embarrassed to be unemployed. But I cannot confirm this. One thing that startles me to this day is how little we kids knew about our grandparents. We asked them nothing about Russia, or why they had come to America in 1913. Of course, that was the height of Russian-Jewish emigration to America, but as to the particulars of Rose and Max Heimoff, it remains a mystery. Today, grandkids would be peppering their grandparents with questions, doing 23andMe and compiling genealogical charts.

“Heimoff” was not their real Russian name. It was given to them at Ellis Island, somewhat in the same manner as young Vito Andolini was mistakenly given the surname “Corleone” in “The Godfather Part 2.” Rose and Max lived in apartment 2-P at 760 Grand Concourse. My family lived in 6-M. In 2-O were Uncle Lennie and his family; next door to us, in 6-L, were Uncle Teddy, Aunt Ruth (Lennie’s and my father’s older sister) and their kids. On the third floor, on the other side of the building, lived Grandma’s younger sister, Raye, while on the first floor, in 1-M, my Tante Frieda lived. She was Grandma’s Aunt and was the oldest person I ever knew when I was a kid. We thought she was easily 100 years old, although she must have been in her 80s. Tante Frieda lived alone, in an antique-filled apartment with doilies and antimacassars on the chairs. A large woman with an ample breast, she always dressed in black, with a black hat, veil and stickpin. She was very kind and funny and I still see her twinkling blue eyes. I used to enjoy stopping by and eating her cookies.

Grandma died while I was an undergraduate. The last time I saw here was in her apartment. She was losing her mind, but the family, under Uncle Lennie’s guidance, allowed her to stay there on her own since so many other family members lived in the building. I had come down from university, in Massachusetts. When Grandma let me in, the apartment was dark and silent. She sat in a chair, and I sat in a chair, and we said nothing for a long time. Nor did we need to. I felt that we had a full communication in the darkness and silence and nothing needed to be said in words. Shortly after that, Grandma died. I mourn her to this day for the simple, kind woman she was.


Why did we go to war in Afghanistan?

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Well do I remember the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. I had just woken up when the phone rang. It was Marilyn. “Are you watching T.V.?”, she asked. I turned on the tube and for the next 24 hours was glued to it.

And was furious. I was then keeping a daily diary of political events; this was before I had the outlet of my blog. Reading it today, I can hardly believe my outrage. “WE MUST BOMB AFGHANISTAN NOW!” I wrote. It became clear within hours of the attacks that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda were responsible. The American people were obviously united as they had seldom been before, and united for one thing: to go to war, in order to extract revenge.

Three days after the attacks, President George Bush asked the Congress for approval “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against any “nations, organizations or persons” involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. This was a pretty broad request, and I remember comparisons being made to Lyndon Johnson’s Tonkin Gulf Resolution of August, 1964, which effectively gave him the power to go to war in Vietnam without the express approval of Congress.

Now, even in September, 2001, it was understood by almost everyone that the Vietnam War had been a hideous miscalculation by the U.S., and that giving a president a blank check to go to war was risky. However, the anger caused by Sept. 11 erased any hesitancy among most Americans. In the Congress, Bush’s “Authorization for Use of United States Armed Forces” passed unanimously, except for a single vote against: Barbara Lee, who was then, and remains, my Congressional representative.

I was so mad at Rep. Lee I dashed off a fax (!!) to her office. I don’t remember what I wrote, but it was pretty fiery. And so began America’s war in Afghanistan, which is now, at twenty years of age, our nation’s longest-ever war.

But the war is about to end. President Biden just announced he will pull all remaining U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021, at the latest. This is after 2,400 American troops have died there, and $2 trillion of the nation’s treasure has been expended there. (Ironically, that is the same amount that Biden has requested for his American Rescue Plan.)

In looking back at all this from the comfort of my desk on a lovely Spring morning in Oakland, I find my thoughts conflicted. Was the war “worth it”? What does “worth it” mean? Did America have an alternative to war? What would have happened if we had done nothing—had, in other words, allowed Al Qaeda to get off scot-free? The questions pile up, and have no easy answers.

As antipathetic to war as Americans are traditionally supposed to be, this country has certainly waged its fair share of them. We know about the more famous ones: the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World Wars 1 and 2, the Korean War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. But a quick trip to Wikipedia shows no fewer than ninety-three wars that have involved the U.S. since the Revolution. That is hardly the record of a war-hating country. As an amateur historian, I’ve wrestled with this conflict for much of my adult thinking life, and I’ve come to think of it this way: the U.S. does have an aversion to war. But we are a Great Power, and, like it or not, Great Powers, to paraphrase Voltaire, have great responsibilities. It is true that a strong isolationist streak has always run through America’s bloodstream, which is why, even as Hitler’s Nazis assumed greater and greater power in the 1930s, our own isolationists of both parties were determined to steer clear of what George Washington, in his Farewell Address, called “permanent alliance[s] with any portion of the foreign world.”

But Washington made that remark when the U.S. was still an infant nation, its treasury weakened by the recent war, and its destiny obviously in the direction of the western frontier, not across the oceans. In my reading of history, by the time Theodore Roosevelt was president, America’s vital interests lay in every corner of the globe, and sometimes it was necessary to protect those interests by force of arms.

It’s interesting to me that many of the people who are most opposed to foreign wars are usually liberals, who evince no such antipathy to violence when it comes to street demonstrations in our cities. Be that as it may, I wonder what this country would do in the event of another massive attack upon our soil. Would Democrats and Republicans come together? Would the extremes of both parties—let’s call them rightwing insurrectionists and Antifa—cooperate? This is all speculation, leading nowhere, but I do sense a new period of isolationism in our country. Exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan, people want to get out, to spend the money here, to cease supporting authoritarian theocracies. Trump and Biden have that in common: let’s not forget it was Trump who made an issue of avoiding foreign wars and getting out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Biden is simply continuing in that direction.

These things are cyclical, I suppose. Maybe a period of isolationism would be good for us. That doesn’t mean cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world, as Trump increasingly tried to do. We can rejoin the Paris Accords and the World Health Organization, we can reinvigorate NATO, we can re-engage with Iran and Russia, but at the same time, we can recognize that our most vital needs lay, not overseas, but here. This is why the American Rescue Plan is so timely. The Roman Empire increasingly let things at home fall to pieces while it bankrupted itself protecting its distant borders; Rome finally collapsed in the 4th century of the Common Era, in yet another war (this time against Germanic tribes) it could not possibly win.

The comparison game between the American Empire and the Roman Empire has encouraged many historians to write endless pages of books, but to understand how an Empire actually survives over centuries and millennia, we don’t have to look very far. China has been more or less united and strong for more than 3,000 years; and today, China stands on the threshold of the greatest strength in its long history. What has China done, and what is China doing, to achieve that? Clearly the first thing that comes to mind is that China has never bothered with democracy. Too messy for the refined Mandarin tastes of its Emperors.

We’re seeing a kind of anti-democracy movement all over the world, from Russia and Brazil to Poland, Myanmar, the Philippines and large parts of Africa. As the U.S. devolves (is there a better word?) into the chaos of political fighting approaching civil war levels, as U.S. cities deteriorate under the crushing burdens of homelessness, crime and the pandemic, as more and more Americans of both sides feel completely disenfranchised, as Congressional approval ratings approach 15-year lows, and, as we’ve seen for the last four years, as a depraved American president could virtually destroy our country single-handedly, we Americans are entitled to wonder if this “democracy” thing is really all it’s cracked up to be. Still, while I wrestle with these thoughts, one remark of Winston Churchill’s keeps haunting me: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” I know of no refutation to this insight, which means that, as futile and ugly as things seem to be right now, we have no choice but to continue our historic democracy, stumbling, getting up, and trying again and again to make it better.


After Occupy’s demise, the Left apparently has learned nothing

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Like you, I’ve been watching the demonstrations over the past year, following the death of George Floyd. But unlike you, perhaps, I experience a bit of post-traumatic stress syndrome, for I have my own, unpleasant experience.

It was ten years ago, in October, 2011. Occupy Oakland was then at its height: a people-powered movement that sought to regain political and economic power from “the 1%” and transfer it to the 99% of us who were tired of seeing America’s wealth siphoned off to billionaires, with the connivance of a corrupt Congress.

I immediately sympathized with Occupy. Ground Zero for them at that time was Frank Ogawa Plaza, the large public square outside City Hall, which is just a 15-minute walk from my home. There, Occupiers were living in hundreds of tents that had been hastily set up on the grass. Food venues, Porta-Potties and clothing donations made their lives easier. It was a peaceful, beautiful, mellow scene. People would meditate together.

Large crowds marched peacefully in downtown Oakland.

Michael Moore visited one day, to lend his support.

The signs were fun and touching; I liked this one especially.

But then came the night of October 25, 2011, when my perception of Occupy Oakland changed radically. This was the now-infamous night when the young Iraq-war veteran Scott Olsen was hit in the head by a projectile fired by an Oakland Police Department officer. Olsen was critically injured but survived; the city later paid him a settlement of $4.5 million.

I was in the crowd of several thousand that night, in the front ranks, perhaps 100 feet from Olsen. The crowd was moving closer to City Hall. There were police everywhere.

Through a loudspeaker, one of them repeatedly warned the crowd to back up and disperse, or else, he said, the police might be compelled to use force. I remember being a little frightened—not much, but telling myself to keep my wits about me. The warning was repeated at least five times. That’s when a little voice told me to remove myself from the front ranks. And then all hell broke loose.

Olsen had been hit, although I doubt that one person in 100 in the crowd knew that. All that we knew was things had turned south and it was time to scatter. The immense crowd ran in all directions. I found myself in a group of about 100, running northeast, away from downtown. We got to around 17th Street when things finally calmed down and I stopped running to get my bearings. There were many people wearing black face masks—they were called the Black Bloc. Next to me, I noticed a young kid with a mask, dressed all in black. He reached inside his pants and pulled out a crowbar and then he started smashing everything in sight: store windows, car windows, mirrors on parking garage ramps.

I was aghast. I’d had no reason at all to think that anyone in the Occupy movement was at all violent, so the kid’s actions came as a complete shock. I approached him and asked him why he was vandalizing “our town, Oakland.” His answer was to punch me in the chest.

In the following days, Occupy Oakland held mass open-air meetings to discuss their policy and practices. I’ll say this for them: they really tried to be a democratic (small “d”) group. The topic of the vandalism and associated arson and looting arose. I made my way to the microphone and said that Occupy needed to purge itself of its violent fringe if it wanted to keep the support of moderates, without whom there can be no meaningful change in America. But other speakers demanded that Occupy allow “a variety of means,” by which they meant: If some of us choose violence, we must not oppose it.

That’s when my attitude toward Occupy shifted. In recent years, after Occupy died (the victim of a self-inflicted suicide for precisely the reason I warned them about) and was replaced by BLM and other movements, my conviction has only strengthened. Peaceful protest is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But when things turn violent, the vast majority of Americans, who would otherwise love to support these movements, turns against them. Nobody wants to see their hometown burned, ravaged and pillaged, in the name of “justice.”

As I watch events unfold in Brooklyn Center and Minneapolis, these memories return to me with pain. I loved Occupy. I believed in it and in its transformative possibilities. For the first time since the 1960s, I felt part of a genuine, national movement for progress and fairness for all. When the violence broke out, and Occupy refused to repudiate it, they lost me. How many Americans are similarly being lost by the violence of the past few years in Portland, Milwaukee, Seattle and so many other cities? For that matter, it’s my firm conviction that Democrats lost so many Congressional seats last November precisely because of the violence and the disastrous “defund the police” slogan invented by what I can only describe as cop haters.

I truly hope and pray we can form another movement for civil rights and equity that will resist violence in all its ugly forms. But somehow, I doubt it.


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