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Old habits die hard

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At Waterbar Marilyn and I ordered a platter of oysters and when our Italian server looked to see who wanted the wine list, naturally I extended my hand. For nearly 40 years in my relationship with Marilyn I’ve been “the wine guy” (Marilyn has her own expertises) but I’ve never been so arrogant as to assume I should do the ordering for her. So after I decided on a Muscadet de Sevre et Maine for myself, I handed the list to Marilyn and she picked a Pouilly-Fumé—another good choice.

When the wines came I had to try them both with the oysters—that’s what I mean by “old habits die hard.” This is a little snobbish and must strike certain people (although not Marilyn, who’s used to it) as eccentric, but what can I say? It’s what I do. Wine-and-food pairing is integral to the soul of the wine lover. The Muscadet was as good with the bivalves as I’d expected. It was cold, light and bracing, steely to the point of mineral, and in the tang you could taste the wind from the Bay of Biscay that washes over the Melon de Bourgogne grapevines.

One hundred eighty miles to the east, also on the Loire, is the source of the Pouilly-Fumé. This growing region, along with neighboring Sancerre, yields what the British writer Andrew Jeffords calls “some of the very greatest incarnations of Sauvignon Blanc.” It’s a cool area, climate-wise, but not as cool as in Muscadet, and nowhere near as cool as, say, Marlborough, which is why you rarely get that methoxypyrazine smell. Instead, Pouilly-Fumés are generous in fruit, and seldom oaky. Compared to the Muscadet, the wine was rounder and softer, and I was surprised that I preferred it to the Muscadet, which was a tad too dry for the sweetness of the oysters.

It’s impossible to talk about this stuff with anyone except another wine lover. Baseball fans go on and on about ERAs and who’s on the IL. Politicos are obsessed with races in Kansas’s 2nd and Virginia’s 7th districts. Tarantino freaks argue about whether The Hateful Eight is superior to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Foodies debate who makes the best tacos in town. But leave it to winos to worry about whether Muscadet or Pouilly-Fumé goes better with oysters!

And yet this is who we are. If you recognize yourself in this scenario, don’t apologize for it. Yes, we have to keep our obsessions under control: it would not be right to pull this stuff at, say, the Thanksgiving table, when Aunt Ethel and Uncle Jerry just want to enjoy the turkey and stuffing, and not be subjected to a Talmudic debate on wine. But when we’re in the rarified company of our own kind, feel free to let loose.


Oakland sued for failure to enforce its own policies

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(Readers: this is a copy of my post this morning on the website of my political lobbying group, the Coalition for a Better Oakland. While it concerns the city in which I live, it’s relevant to cities around the country that are dealing with the scourge of encampments.)

It’s with great pleasure I share with you the news that our friend Seneca Scott, executive director of Neighbors Together Oakland (NTO), yesterday announced that NTO is suing the City of Oakland for failure to implement Oakland’s Encampment Management Policy (EMP).

The EMP, you’ll recall, was unanimously approved by the Oakland City Council last October, with the full support of Mayor Schaaf. It carefully defined “no-go” areas where tents would be prohibited, including parks, and was set to begin on Jan. 1, 2021. It was a sane, wise policy, but never implemented. The City Council, says Scott, “ignored the EMP out of fear of political blowback.” The lawsuit demands “that the courts intervene and hold the City accountable for enforcing the law in order to restore balance to city streets and neighborhoods…”.

While the Coalition for a Better Oakland is not party to the lawsuit, we fully support it, and will do whatever we can to be helpful.

NTO’s lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda County Superior Court, is similar to one filed in Los Angeles by the LA Alliance for Human Rights, which is suing Los Angeles over its failure to resolve the encampment problem. That followed a rash of other cities being sued for the same reason: their epic failure to clean up encampments by providing shelter for the unhoused.

There are several interesting things about these lawsuits. First, they denote very clearly that cities have to be compelled to take action on encampments; left to their own devices, they remain inert, paralyzed by fear of pro-encampment activists. Secondly, the lawsuits require cities to not only clean up encampments, but to offer their residents some kind of “four walls and a roof” in which to relocate. This is not just for reasons of compassion, but for legal necessity: the landmark Martin v. Boise legal decision, which was left intact by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires “that homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.” Cities have interpreted Martin v. Boise, probably correctly, as meaning they dare not roust homeless people unless they can give them someplace else to live.

It’s great that cities finally are being compelled to deal with encampments, after so many years of official denial and ineptitude. NTO has done a brave and good thing. Without their lawsuit, Oakland government, and especially its renegade City Council, will continue to drift in inaction and lassitude, pretending to be progressive but ultimately caring about nothing but campaign contributions.

Left unanswered by the lawsuit, meanwhile, are three huge questions: (1) What kind of shelter must cities provide to homeless people? (2) how do cities pay for it? and (3) What do we do with homeless people who refuse to leave their tents, even after being offered shelter?


Take me out to the ball game

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Jose and I went to see the Giants play the Dodgers yesterday at Oracle Park. This continued a tradition stretching over many years of us going to a game or two each season, although last year, for obvious reasons, that tradition was interrupted.

Going to see the Giants is a always a highpoint of my summers. Ever since I was six or seven years old, living three blocks from Yankee Stadium in the 1950s, I’ve loved going to ballgames. My father, who was an ardent Giants fan until they moved to San Francisco, used to take me to see them at the old Polo Grounds; we’d walk over the bridge crossing the Harlem River into Manhattan. Whenever the Giants played their greatest enemies, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the tension was palpable.

So yesterday’s Giants-Dodgers game was the place to be. Both teams are doing well in the National League West, the Giants in first place, the Dodgers in second. The Giants have a lot of young players; even Jose, who keeps up with these things, didn’t recognize some of them. The weather was baseball-perfect: mild, about 70 degrees, with fleecy white clouds scudding in front of a hot sun. The boats were gathered in McCovey Cove, hoping to scoop up a home run ball.

We had good seats, on the ground level, about seven rows up from the first-base line.

Jose had brought two of his grandsons, ages six and nine. This was their first-ever professional baseball game, and it had also been their first time on a ferry boat: they’d come over from Larkspur. I told the younger boy, Max, that something very special was going to happen in the seventh inning.

“Will they squirt water?” he asked. He thought the giant scoreboard had some kind of contraption.

“You’ll just have to wait and see.”

At the seventh inning everyone rose, and 35,000 people lustily sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” I’ve been singing that song at ballgames for 65 years and I still love it.

Many people weren’t masked. I had thought that, with the delta variant, they would be, but no. I was, and so were Jose and the kids.

But people were just so happy to be outside, at Oracle Park, on a beautiful day. Probably most of them had been vaccinated, and they felt that, having done their part, they didn’t have to mask. That’s the conversation going on now in America.

It’s hard to describe the happiness of being at a baseball game. People may have worries and cares, but they’re set aside for those magical hours. Everybody cheers for the same things and groans when things go south. The organist plays his silly little tunes and we all clap along. Somebody starts to chant: LET’S GO GIANTS and suddenly thousands of others join in. But “we don’t do the wave,” as one woman seated behind me explained to her friend. The camera catches up with someone in the stands—a kid wearing a Posey shirt, a young woman dancing—and their face goes up on the scoreboard, 40-feet high. People laugh, cheer, eat hot dogs and garlic fries and ice cream. (Max insisted on letting his melt to soup, and then he drank it through a straw.)

Oracle Park has completely transformed this part of eastern San Francisco, in a good way in my opinion. It made me think of our current struggle in Oakland to have a new A’s stadium built on the waterfront. A lot of people in Oakland would say that Oracle Park has destroyed the old neighborhood. Where before there was lots of cheap housing and auto body shops, now it’s multi-million dollar condos and expensive restaurants. Is that “gentrification,” or is it a healthy upgrade?

Anyhow, the Giants beat the Dodgers 5-0, and everybody was happy (except for a few Dodgers fans).


An Urban Morality Tale

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I was second in line for the register at the CVS, waiting to pay for a bottle of vitamins and a can of Ajax. The lady ahead of me clearly needed extra help. The cashier had come out from her place behind the counter to help the lady consolidate her shopping cart of stuff—mainly junk food and toilet paper—into three large bags. The lady was very short and obese, middle-aged, probably Latina. She was practically naked below the waist, her heavy thighs jiggling, but her calves were wrapped in Ace bandages. She wore a heavy, long black hoodie. Her dark hair, streaked with gray, was neatly pulled into a pony tail.

When she was finished, I stepped up to the register; my transaction was short. As I approached the store’s door, the lady was struggling: as soon as she exited the store, her shopping cart’s wheels had frozen up. She didn’t seem to realize the cart was going nowhere. I went back and told the cashier that the lady’s wheels had locked up. “I told her they would,” she replied, shaking her head. There was nothing she could do.

When I got back out to the sidewalk the lady was muttering to herself, trying to push the shopping cart. It was completely jammed, but the lady didn’t seem to realize it; she pathetically tried to push it along. Well, part of me just wanted to get on with my day, but the other part—my conscience, I suppose—wouldn’t let me.

“Can I help?” I asked. She was very sweet, with a beautiful smile. “Oh, yes,” she said. “Your cart is broken,” I explained. “Where are you going? Can I help you carry your packages?”

“Albuquerque,” she responded. Obviously I couldn’t leave her alone. She needed help. I took the heaviest bag as she started walking down Broadway, east toward the hills. I tried to make conversation. “Albuquerque is a long way from here,” I said. “Are you sure that’s where you’re going?”

“The Post Office,” she said.

“There is no Post Office this way,” I said,

“Oh yes there is,” she insisted. “On 41st Street.” Then I remembered, she was right. But we were on 30th Street. “That’s a long way from here,” I said. “And you can’t carry all your bags. Let me see if I can get someone to help.”

I asked her to put the bags on the sidewalk and wait while I turned away and dialed 9-1-1. I was on hold for maybe a minute and then the dispatcher answered. I told her the situation and described what the lady looked like. She said we were assigned a high priority and someone would be coming to help us.

We were now across the street from Sprouts. It was a beautiful, sunny day. “Let’s just wait here for a while,” I told my new friend, whose name was JoAnne. “Someone will be coming to help you.” She was exceedingly friendly, and while she didn’t have much to say, she answered all my questions; I tried to engage her. Yes, Albuquerque was a nice place. It was hot in the summer and cold in the winter and there were cacti. Yes, she had a son, 44, and a daughter, 22.

“You can’t have a 44-year old son,” I said. “You don’t look 44 yourself!” She smiled. She was leaning on her cane and didn’t look very steady. Just then a man showed up. “Would you like a chair?” He was a developer who was building the new condo building we were in front of. He went inside and got a folding chair and JoAnne sat on it. Then the man went away and said that we could just leave the chair there when we were finished with it.

If you’ve ever waited for a 9-1-1 call to show up, you’ll know what I was feeling. JoAnne kept trying to pick up her bags and walk down Broadway, but since she couldn’t carry all of them, and was unsteady on her feet, and was disoriented, how could I let her go? Why was she out on her own in the first place?

“Where do you live, JoAnne,” I asked.

“On 20th Street.” That was downtown, in the opposite direction from where she was trying to walk.

“Twentieth Street is back there.”

“Albuquerque,” she repeated. I smiled. She smiled. It was almost like a game.

The minutes ticked by. Every so often JoAnne would pick up one or two of her bags and set off up Broadway again. I realized that she was a free, sovereign being, entitled to go where she wanted; but still, was it right to let her go? And what about her third bag, the one she couldn’t carry? Why was the 9-1-1 taking so long? What was the right thing to do?

I convinced JoAnne to sit down again but she seemed fidgety. I made small talk. What was her favorite T.V. show? “Good Morning America.” What was her favorite food? “Burritos,” she smiled, with a wide grin. “And tacos.” “There’s a great taco truck just down the block,” I said. She smiled and nodded. Then I could think of no more questions and we lapsed into silence.

“Do you like music?” I asked. “Oh, yes.” “Would you like to listen to a song?” I took my iPhone from my pocket and went to my iTunes library and believe it or not the first song to play was “She Loves You.” JoAnne immediately recognized it and sang along, and she did a little dance and so did I and we must have made quite a sight on Broadway.

Just then a bus pulled up; we happened to be at a bus stop. JoAnne got very excited and tried to pick up her bags to board the bus while I asked her if that was what she really wanted to do, and wouldn’t she rather stay with me because someone was coming to help her. She didn’t answer and made for the bus but she’d taken so long that the bus driver pulled away and disappeared down Broadway. “Oh, darn it,” JoAnne said.

Maybe ten minutes went by and I was getting antsy. Was I doing the right thing or the wrong thing? Was I wrongly detaining this perfectly nice lady from going where she wanted? Was I, in fact, breaking some kind of law? But all I wanted was to help her. She wasn’t capable of being on her own, or so I thought. And where was the damned police car anyway? It had been at least 30 minutes since the dispatcher said we were high priority.

Then another bus approached. I told JoAnne. Excitedly, she picked up her two bags and hobbled over to the curb on her cane. I took her third bag. The bus pulled up and the door opened and JoAnne began to try to get up the stairs with the bags. The driver, behind his plastic shield, was not amused. The look on his face said, “Great. Another one.” As JoAnne struggled up the steps I said to the driver, “She’s a little disoriented.” He clearly didn’t want any part of it, and I couldn’t blame him. It wasn’t his problem. JoAnne trudged to the middle of the bus, found a seat and put her two bags on the floor, while I followed her with the third bag, telling the driver not to pull away because I wasn’t taking the bus, I was just helping this lady with her package. The poor driver…

“JoAnne, here’s your other bag. Keep an eye on it, okay?” “Okay,” she said. I left the bus, troubled.

Forty-five minutes later my phone rang. It was the Oakland Police. Two cops had arrived at 30th and Broadway, across from Sprouts, but there was no one there. Did I still need help? I tried to explain what had happened—I couldn’t stop JoAnne from boarding the bus. But the dispatcher plainly didn’t want to hear a story. She just wanted to know if I still needed help.

“No,” I said.

I don’t know what happened to JoAnne. I’m not blaming the cops. OPD is severely understaffed because the city won’t adequately fund them. There’s a lot of talk, in this “Reimagining Policing” era, of replacing cops with social workers in responding to situations like JoAnne’s. But nothing has been done and I don’t know what can be done; I mean, would a social worker show up faster than the cops? Is JoAnne the new normal, a nice, sweet, peaceful lady with mental impairment who thinks she’s going to Albuquerque, or maybe it’s the Post Office? Is there no one to help her? Or was I, perhaps, out of line? Maybe she was perfectly capable of getting to where she thought she was going; maybe I was a meddling old fool. Maybe she’s still out there on the streets, wandering around with her bags, naked from the waist down. What would you have done?


Welcome to the Coalition for a Better Oakland!

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The Coalition for a Better Oakland is the name of a political action group I have co-founded with a few colleagues. Our goals are twofold: to end the blight of homeless encampments that are polluting our parks, underpasses and sidewalks, and to support the Oakland Police Department, which is embattled on all sides, fighting a record surge of crime and at the same time having to deal with the insanity of the “defund the police” crowd.

For the last several years I’ve felt increasingly isolated in my city. Could I be the only one worried about these twin issues of cops and camps, which after all are interrelated? During the pandemic, I turned to social media, especially nextdoor.com, to share my thoughts. I discovered that I was not alone. Many others felt the same way I did. I then found myself being censored and blocked from nextdoor.com. My political views, apparently, were at odds with those of the anonymous censors who can throw someone off the platform with no warning, no explanation, and no right of appeal. I began to see the connections between the censors at nextdoor.com and the various radical groups who seemed to have such an outsized influence at City Hall. Both were not interested in anyone’s views except their own. Both indulged in what we now call “cancel culture.” It was all very discouraging.

I have now abandoned nextdoor.com and will not return. (Their latest salvo into cancel culture was to inform users that the term “Black Lives Matter” is acceptable, but that “White Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” will be cause for expulsion.) But before I abandoned that dreadful platform I met (in the digital sense) a group of like-minded men and women and it is with them that I have started the Coalition for a Better Oakland. The exciting news is that, after months of delay, we will launch our website this Monday; and I will certainly share it here with you. We hope to become a political force in the city. We want to endorse candidates in future elections, and we want to influence the debate in the City Council, the Police Commission and in the City Manager’s office. For too long the radicals on the extreme left have been the ones to dominate meetings, hold demonstrations and intimidate politicians, including our Mayor, Libby Schaaf, into positions they clearly are uncomfortable with, but feel compelled to accept. We believe that we—the Coalition—represent the thinking of a majority of Oaklanders, most of whom are too busy getting on with their lives to be able to spend time on the computer researching issues or showing up at City Council meetings. We want to inspire that majority, rally them to our side, and tell the current crop of Oakland leaders that their day is done.

One of the things I, in particular, have had to do is protect our young Coalition from being a Trojan horse for rightwing extremists. When you’re supportive of the cops, and when you’re saying that homeless people do not have the right to set up tents wherever they want, you tend to open yourself to the charge of being a white supremacist trumper. I am a lifelong Democrat—everyone who knows my blog knows that since September 2016, I did everything in my power to take Trump and his Republican Party down. I fail to see why a moderately-progressive liberal like me cannot at the same time be a strong cop supporter. How did Democrats allow Republicans to own the issue of crime and policing? I don’t know, but it’s time we reseized the initiative.

And by the way, I’m convinced that the reason Democrats lost so many seats in the Congress during the last election, despite Biden’s victory, is precisely because of the stupid “defund the police” movement. The American people hate it, they’re afraid of it, and they find the people arguing in favor of it distasteful and irrational. My own feeling is that the reaction against the “defund” movement has already set in. Fewer and fewer politicians are using the phrase. As a political slogan, it’s easily the dumbest I’ve heard in my life. Yet here in Oakland, ambitious politicians still insist on 50% cuts to OPD’s budget—even though the local media is telling us that the neighborhoods most impacted by crime want more cops on the beat, not fewer. It strikes me that the people who are most insistent on “defunding” are (a) politicians who don’t give a damn about anything except power and (b) well-off white suburbanites who are appeasing their own guilt.

Well, I wanted to share this news of the Coalition for a Better Oakland with you. On Monday (barring some unexpected glitch) I’ll be able to give you the link, including sign-up information.

Have a great weekend!


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