Homeless in San Francisco

We are on a tight budget, Mon insists.

$25 a day. We have been doing free things, such as wandering around the streets.

We chatted to a homeless guy the other day. His name was Darryl. He served in both Iraq wars. He said that they were awful. He now lives on the street with his wife.

I asked him what he would do if he was president and he said “America should stop sticking its nose in other people’s business and start caring for it’s own.”

San Fransisco is full of homeless people, over 10,000 apparently. They trundle about with carts, picking up rubbish, which they can get money for at recycling plants.

Lots of the homeless are black of course, seeing as so many black people are so poor here.

Darryl said that life at the bottom is so hard that it is very easy fall off the last rung and end up on the streets. Once you are there it is easy to give up and start getting high/drunk whenever possible.

Many housed people seem to believe this sequence happens in reverse: people get addicted drugs/drink then they slide to the bottom rung and onto the streets.

A recent report on homelessness on the west Coast urges a change in thinking. Solutions to homelessness are often built on the assumption that homelessness comes about due to biographical factors, but really, this report argues, the problem is not about individual failure, rather it is due to ”systemic and broad structural causes” and that the omission of these from public discussion and policy responses is ”nothing short of a collective deception”

The report analysed the available data, and found that homelessness sky-rocketed after the huge cuts to subsidies encouraging affordable housing made in the 1980’s and thus advises that spending on homes for the poor be dramatically increased.

Darryl’s solutions were more short term. He said that there should be more facilities for homeless people, for lack of drinking water and access to toilets was a real problem. He also said that there should be shelters and half-way houses. We asked him what him and his wife receive in benefits and he replied that they get $67 a month between them.

We told him about our dear old NHS (at least what is left of her), and encouraged, he added that access to health-care would be nice too. Well we had ourselves a regular little Party meeting, I was just about to suggest that we start singing ‘The International’ when Darryl surprised us both by saying that he would vote for Romney.

You see, he is so very disappointed that ‘Obamacare’ is not producing what was promised that he was prepared to give Romney “a chance”. But wasn’t it Republican senators who tied the scheme’s shoelaces together anyway?

It struck me that voting is much less ideological and much more personal over here.

‘Ideological’ has become a bad word in recent years (not that I am aware of any years before the recent, as my good friend Stephen once said of me, “Wilf is so young that when he exposes himself to people in parks, THEY get arrested.” N.B. I don’t expose myself to people in parks).

But if we make our democratic decisions based on someone’s personality, aren’t we bound to be disappointed when their personality fails to alter the mighty flow of the socio-economic river of everything?

One person, however strong or good, and I do believe that Obama is a good person, cannot make such a difference.

Even truly exceptional leaders don’t so much turn the tide as ride the crest of a wave.

We saw an elderly Chinese woman out with her cart, all the different kinds of rubbish organised neatly inside. I watched her for a while. She seemed so sober, so ordinary. Just a normal grandma, selling rubbish to survive.

Like me and my imaginary wife, Darryl and his wife aren’t addicts who have given up on life, rather, they dream of having a farm.

Other homeless people here are less sane. They babble to dustbins, scream at passer’s by. Many of the old crazy black guys do one particular thing. They stand at the side of the street and wave on the traffic. As the headlights stream by they churn their arms, as if they are controlling the flow somehow.

They have given up trying to stop things happening you see. Once, like Obama, they tried, but now they have given up. Tragically, wisely, they have given up. Now, they tell it to pass, and they laugh at it’s passing. They don’t go with the flow, but, unable to change it’s direction, they show the flow they know where it is going.

Every night, short of a miracle, they are homeless. Every night, the traffic grinds by.

See www.cohsf.org/ for more info.


Long waits in stations, truck-stops, borders and so on make up great swathes of the actual flesh of adventures.

Waiting for hours while a customs official turns your anus inside out, or insists on a telephone interview with your grandmother, or keeps asking you to explain how you got a light dusting of meth-amphetamine on your visa, you feel bored, scared, tired and wired, all at the same time.

Tales of such hiccups are easily as mundane as the original experiences. I’m still going to share mine and everything, I just want to make sure you know that I know they make boring stories.

We sold our car to a man called Hugo. Like almost everyone we have befriended in Texas, Hugo is Mexican. Hugo’s dad came over here as an illegal. He worked hard, spent all his money on buying desert, and is now a fairly wealthy man. He is old now, but the police still stop him because he is a Mexican driving a nice car.

Mexico has been ravaged by the USA sponsored War On Drugs, and as big business is increasingly cautious to invest and small business is increasingly threatened by crime, for most people there is no money to be made except through the drug cartels.

The violence has now reached a level where victims are hung from the bridges on the freeway. Every Mexican we met is saddened by the horrific decline of their country over the last decade or so.

As an old joke puts it “Why does Mexico not have an Olympic Team? Because any Mexican who can swim, run or ride is American already.”

I can understand the tension in Texas. The white community is on the front line of where poor Mexican’s try to gain entry to the United States. If you are poor and white, the last thing you want is people undercutting your wages.

However, it is important to remember that not only does the USA have enough space and wealth to take on these refugees of the Mexican drug wars, and not only is it directly funding BOTH sides of the war in the first place, but America only functions like it does BECAUSE of Mexican illegals working for under minimum wage.

We all stood around Hugo’s truck, drinking beers and chatting away.

Hugo let us stay in his house, then in the morning his mum made us lovely, hot, sticky, spicy Tamales.

We hitched to El Paso, catching a ride from a Mexican cowboy. He didn’t speak any English at all. In an effort to reach out to us he flipped the radio from the Mexican station he had been listening to, to a pop one; probably thinking that because we were white than that is what we liked.

Trying to explain otherwise only resulted in him thinking I wanted it turned up. So we listened to pop for four hours or so. Mon said he felt like he was having brightly coloured plastic mashed into his ears with a toy hammer. I actually quite liked some of it.

We had a place to stay in El Paso, but we were dropped off on the wrong side of the city. Turns out it is a big place, and that it’s bus service closes down by 7. We were guided across the city by our host, a miraculously brilliant individual named Debarko, who is an Indian man studying something complicated at the University of Texas.

Debarko was so calm as we struggled across El Paso, hitching lifts or dragging our immense bags down the side of six lane freeways. I felt like I was in one of those spy movies where they have a boffin in an office guiding the hero. Man, did Debarko have some luckless, bedraggled, hopeless heroes on his hands that day.

Eventually we got to him, he came to meet us in the street, bringing a flask of tea. He cooked us a meal and gave us some magic-Indian-get-better-paste. We owe him everything.

The next day we found a really cheap bus to LA. All of our contacts fell through, so we called a friend of a friend of an eccentric lady we had met in New Orleans. Tipsy on cocktails, she had insisted that we MUST call Lynn if we were in Southern California.

Lynn lives in Laguna beach which is a holiday town south of LA. We meant to stay with her only for a night but it turned into three. She is interesting and kind and well travelled. Retired now, Lynn was an art teacher, a sculptor, and a stained glasserer.

We snorkeled in the great kelp forests – spying starfish, leopard sharks, bright orange Garibaldi fish, and their young whose purple spots seem to be lit from within. The “winter” sun shined passionately above, and the few rays that managed to penetrate the swaying kelp danced in the water like transcendental eels.

In my head when I think of England I picture service stations and clouds of teenagers clogging up the foyer of Boots, but looking through pictures Lynn took when she sojourned in my native land, I realised that England is a beautiful, quirky, friendly, exotic, facinating, FOREIGN COUNTRY. Wow.

And homeward we are going. Weighed down with home baked cookies we set off again, up the gorgeous gorgeous gorgeous Californian coast.

We are now back in the Bay Area, where we began. Perhaps the hardcore among you remember me gushing that Oakland was some kind of paradise. Well, we got here late last night, were picked up from the station, and spent the night eating chicken soup and arguing about philosophy (so I was right).

Soon we will go back to San Francisco and see all those friends we met at the beginning. Because we have been travelling it feels like eons have past since we saw them in September. Because they have been everydaying it will probably feel like only minutes ago that we were last taxing their hospitality.

Those of you in the old country, watch out, because come Thursday we will be taxing yours once more. If you could bake us some cookies (soft biscuits), that would be great. We will have one day together before the world ends.

Stay powerful.

Alone in the Redwoods

We finally left San Francisco. We drive for a full day. We go through vineyards, then into the redwoods. The redwoods are trees so big that they make you exclaim.

Our dear friend Ben Krupp has given us an iphone, packed with hours of amazing music. We listen to it, occasionally exclaiming at trees.

We are in the hills now. This is gold rush country. Rivers cut stony gorges between the heavily forested peaks. The sun drops.

We park a little off the road, behind some trees and by a river. We hastily take the seats out of the car and make our bed, pilling all our stuff in the front. We need to work out a good system for this, but this will do for now.

We go sit my the water and make camp. The stars put on a show above our heads that we are both too terrified to appreciate.

We have three things to be afraid of.

1. Bears.

2. Locals who want to steal our stuff, or make our skin into masks etc.

3. The law, or rangers, because we are not meant to camp in these hills.

There is a dim light on the other side of the river. We can hear a voice sometimes, above the whispering of the trees. They are doing something over there, something industrial, something crunchy.

Why would someone do crunching, at night?

People use this bank too, there is the remains of a fire and a litter of empty beet cans.

Every time a car goes past the headlights peer accusingly through the trees. Light licks the trees on the opposite side of the bank.

We have over spent in SF, and petrol is more expensive than we hoped. We must live like gypsies now. We heat up a tin of beans.

There is something in the nearest bush. Something at least a big as a cat, and hopefully smaller than a person.

The night-cruncher continues. Mosquito’s whine and dine.

To prove we survived, and to appreciate the beauty we woke up to, please look at the following images:

Let’s Go Oakland!

Oakland is a city right next to San Francisco.

I have only been there twice so I know it may be premature to say this, but I think it might be THE BEST PLACE.

Time One was when me and Mon went to baseball game where we watched the Oakland Athletics (the A’s) beat the Seattle Mariners. Baseball is a sport I am rapidly learning to love. You don’t get any violence or agro at a baseball game. There is loads of singing and plenty of snack breaks. People LAUGH there.

The A’s and their fans are a riot. The most popular players have their own dance routines, and the whole crowd does them when they step up to the plate. There is a big screen and it films the people who are doing the dance in the most hilarious way.

Everyone goes, from young children to retired couples.

I felt weird, but still moved, when they sang “O Say can you see…”; everyone standing with their hands on their hearts.

But the ‘9th Inning Stretch’ where everyone dances and sings “Take me out to the ball game” almost made me cry.

Basically what happens is lots of people go to a concrete Colosseum in an industrial district and have a really good time. It is a ritual of unspeakable brilliance.

Oakland is a poorer place than SF and the team struggles financially. The tickets are cheap and they give you a free hotdog.

Time Two was a street party. They have one once a month in the town centre.

We arrived late, but were there long enough to recognise a truly majestic street party.

The first thing we saw was this chubby black kid playing drums, with a nerdy white guy sporting a scruffy beard playing base. Both of them were talking to people while they were playing, and they were both strikingly brilliant at doing what they were doing.

A crowd formed. People stood and nodded and tapped their feet. The music was generating an inescapable atmosphere of relaxed ecstasy. Everyone listening was absolutely brilliant. We shone like bulbs in a microwave.

If they had kept playing, all the worlds problems would have been solved, one by one, just like that.

Next we saw some kids on push bikes and one of the bikes had a massive speaker wedged in it and it was blaring out music. The sound quality was abysmal, but they were having SUCH a good time. It is difficult for me to convey what a good time they were having.

What they were doing was sexy, rhythmic, empowering, and also hilarious. Everyone was on bmx’s and push bikes and they were putting their wheels in the air and spinning them and grinding and laughing and laughing.

What on earth have we been doing, if not this?

And we saw dancing cars! They bounced around, shaking their chassis’ in joy.

Also, and you are not going to believe this, NEW ORDER played. I
couldn’t believe it.

It isn’t the kind of music they like there but they are a great band so everyone had a whale of a time.

I asked one guy if it was THE New Order so many times that he almost had to attack me.

It turns out that it is some kind of coincidence. Only in Oakland folks, only in Oakland.

There was a Time Three also, but I don’t have time to write about it now. I just wish to thank everyone involved, gratuitously.

Stay Powerful.

Put the tent in the bank! Put the tent in the bank!

San Francisco’s Occupy camp was broken up the other night. It had been running for over a year.

Darryl, a homeless veteran we spoke to, had told us that the place had degenerated from a protest to a den of iniquity: drugs, violence etc.

Me and Mon hurried over to check it out. Sure enough, most of the people there either looked like teen runaways or older people who had been homeless for a long time.

They were smoking weed that smelt like a deadly but rather floral poison, possibly one made from the sweat of a mythical creature. We politely declined to sample their peace pipe, but we did sit with them a while.

A lady who calls herself ‘Anona Moma’ was doing most of the talking. She was a committed activist, having been in Occupy since the beginning, given up her flat and possessions, and lost a few ribs to a debate with the police.

She had also been elected ‘Queen of San Francisco Occupy’. As they practice ‘complete democracy’, where decisions must be agreed upon by everybody, her role was constitutional.

However she admitted that since receiving the title she had a lot more interest in Monarchy as a system of rule.

Among Anona Moma’s various creative actions, she had once broken into a bank and set up a tent in there. This one caught my attention, because I happen to have personal experience of this daring and perplexing manoeuvre.

At the G20 in London a number of years ago Me and Mon had been unfortunately kettled in the financial district. People milled around for a bit, and gradually everyone realised we were trapped in there.

To this day I wonder, why?

At the time I asked a police person. They ignored me, wouldn’t even look at me. I moved my head until I was looking in their eyes, they changed the direction of their gaze. I asked another one. They told me it was ‘captain’s orders’, and looked at me semi-apologetically.

After a few hours people were really cross. There was pushing and shouting where the protest met the lines of riot police.

Back from the front, where we were, the throng was more jolly. People were commenting sardonically on the situation. We all tittered to each other. We were like a flock of caged birds. There was a huge feeling of camaraderie. We all felt like one big Oscar Wilde.

Items were being passed around over peoples heads – a traffic cone, a bucket – it was surreal.

Some other folks were smashing up the big windows of one of the banks. One pane was almost all broken in. No-one really knew what to do next.

Then a fully erected tent came crowd-surfing by.

It approached the broken window. Perhaps the whole crowd was thinking it, but it was one person who shouted the words: “Put the tent in the bank! PUT THE TENT IN THE BANK!”

People started chanting. There was something compelling, symbolic, hilarious about it all. We desperately wanted the tent to go in the bank. It moved deliberately through the crowd. We were one seething muscle.

I don’t know what it is about tents in banks.

I am glad Anona Moma exists. She is a patient fighter, a sensitive soul, and tough as old boots. She is also an Aztec.

I’m not sure about what Darryl said regarding drugs and violence at Occupy SF, but it seemed very possible. There is no denying that the place basically is a homeless shelter now.

On this basis the SF Chronicle ran a story celebrating the end of the camp. “Occupy’s Point Eclipsed”, ran a header, shaming the little row of tents and information stands as a poor front for the movement: “just a homeless camp that the city has let exist for too long.”

Reading this, Mon pointed out something very profound: a homeless encampment nestled among the skyscrapers of the financial district is perhaps an even more visceral statement than the original protests, with their dust storm of visiting intellectuals and newspaper inches.

Protest is a ritual with agreed rules. Protests are part of the identity of democracies. I’m sure the elite who work in that district agree that protest is a healthy part of life in a free society.

But the actual fact of extreme inequality is sick, and people do not like to be reminded of sick.

What To Do When Customers Are Wearing Ass-Less Pants

Apparently we have just missed San Francisco’s ‘Leather-Fest’ where thousands of fetishists take over a couple of blocks of the trendy Mission district and subject each other to acts of public humiliation and torture in the streets.

Our friend manages a swanky but very friendly cocktail bar in Mission and he says that Leather-Fest throws up some problems for them.

For instance, they have found that their plastic seating is very uncomfortable for customers wearing ass-less pants (meaning trousers, but they don’t wear any pants either). The staff make sure they whisk down a napkin on the chair just before such customers sit down.

A naked bum sticking to a plastic seat in a hot climate is a feeling so bad that even sadomasochists can’t handle it.

You’ve got to be quick with the napkin because a lot of these folks are being ordered to sit down by people with whips.

The bar has a rule concerning the level of nudity that is unacceptable to their establishment. I was actually surprised they even had such a threshold, seeing to the trouble they go to in aiding those customers who have their butts out.

California doesn’t have any public decency laws, so if you are not hurting anyone else or anyone else’s stuff, then go ahead.

It is a very fine place to be.