Eye-Witnessing Downtown San Francisco

Downtown 6.19 copsI had 45 minutes before meeting a friend at the Symphony. Bored in downtown San Francisco on a brilliantly sunlit late afternoon, at the Main Library right across from City Hall. Couldn’t go for coffee, because a friend and I were catching a quick dinner in between pre-concert talk and concert. Couldn’t hang out in the library (Duh!!) because I was still drinking my mint tea. Wondering how to entertain myself, I ventured outside, surveyed the scene and found:

A gaggle of police and security types surrounding a homeless lady, patiently explaining to her that she could not be hanging out on the Library steps with a rifle. “It ain’t loaded,” she was saying; “I ain’t pointing at nobody.”Downtown 6.19 Rifle Some friends were vouching for her. Nevertheless, the rifle was confiscated and the lady admonished not to walk around downtown with an assault weapon.

Downtown 6.19 SkateboardersAround the corner, two extremely agile skateboarders were having a contest, enthusiastically applauded by a small audience.

Back on the Library plaza, the now rifle-less lady sat talking things over, with only a few bags of belongings but still some supportive friends. Several of them seemed clearly in need of mental health services.Downtown 6.19 homeless group (In my city’s defense, San Francisco continues to make heroic attempts to address homelessness and mental health issues but the need overwhelms the problem. Thanks a lot, Ronald Reagan.)Downtown 6.19 Seagull

Also on the scene was the traditional errant seagull, surveying other settling-in homeless people, passing tourists and 6:30 traffic.

Eventually I strolled past the Library/City Hall area, a few blocks west to Symphony Hall. As my friend and I were waiting for the house lights to go down and the concert to begin, someone came down the aisle to reach his seat.Downtown 6.19 Symphony guy His evening attire included strips of multi-colored blinking lights. The ladies on either side politely made way for him. Before the conductor came onstage he unplugged himself and all was calm.

Just another twilight in downtown San Francisco. But as darkness fell, calm prevailed — and the symphony was glorious.

 

Music as – – – the better alternative

The author with the Lewis' - father & daughter

The author with the Lewis’ – father & daughter

If music is balm for the soul, what else might it be?

A lot, according to Peter Lewis – musician, composer, songwriter and founding member of the 1960s rock band Moby Grape. Lewis and his daughter Arwen Lewis – also musician, composer, songwriter, and someone who holds down a day job as a waitress – explored this question at a recent event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club.

The event was officially billed as a discussion (with live music!) of Music as an Alternative to Adversity. It evolved into a rambling discourse on good love and bad, on the sixties, spirituality and freedom, and how music winds through it all. The elder Lewis did the lion’s share of talking, with daughter Arwen benevolently looking on. But Arwen, an accomplished musician who bears a resemblance to her glamorous paternal grandmother Loretta Young, repeatedly brought her father back to the song they were about to sing.

It was an hour of memorable music and musical food for thought:

Peter Lewis on music overcoming adversity: “When you get born you cry until you’re fed; later you’re singing for your supper. It’s spiritual. Spirits move through us, and through each other – but there are all kinds of different songs.”

On “Sailing,” the first song played by the duo: “I wrote this with Skip Spence of Moby Grape; its first recording will be released in February. It’s about longing. Songs are not written in a vacuum; you feel something – and the song is born.” Spence, who suffered from addiction, bad drugs and schizophrenia, died in 1999 at the age of 53.

On loneliness and the blues: Arwen – “I live with my parents near Santa Barbara and drive 65 miles a day to work as a waitress. I wrote ‘The Lompoc Blues’ when I was having a bad day.” Peter: “We live in a nice community near the Air Force base and the penitentiary. But you can go all day and never see anybody smiling.”

On being the son (and granddaughter) of a famous movie star – Peter: “I asked my mom what it was like . . . She was brought to Hollywood by her mom, who ran a boardinghouse. I went to Purdue, in the pilots program; it was my mom’s boyfriend who got me in. I wasn’t one of the seven best pilots in America. But it was a scary deal, the draft. I’m in this line, and you don’t go home from the induction center; I was crying like a baby.” (According to his Wikipedia page, Lewis served in the Air Force, and afterwards worked as a commercial pilot.) “My mom said, ‘Either cut your hair or get out of my house.’” Loretta Young, whose two sisters also began acting as children, died in 2000 after retiring from a noted career in film and television. Arwen: “She used acting as an alternative to adversity.”

On bad love – Arwen: “I sing lead in this, which is more sing-song-y. It’s about the sixties, when there was a lot of loneliness . . .” Peter: “Love’s a two-way street. We were all trying to be characters in a Jack Kerouac novel – so you write some facetious tunes. The sixties were not so much about rebellion as about freedom.” The duo then launched into a song that included the lines, “If you can’t learn from my mistakes, honey I can’t learn from yours;” and eventually, “If you can’t pay for my mistakes, honey I can’t pay for yours.”

Nearing the end of their time, Arwen reminded her talkative father that they still had several songs to go. Only one could be squeezed in: a closing number with an almost Latin/blues rhythm, “You must believe in love.”

Good love won.

 

On Jazz, Optimism and World Peace

Some of the things in short supply these days: optimism, compassion, comfort and joy and the conviction that light will always overcomes darkness.

Dave Len Scott Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Dave Len Scott
Photo by Nicholas Wilson-nwilsonphoto.com

Two San Francisco-based musicians are quietly at work to advance all of the above. Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush lead multi-pronged lives that are exhausting to consider, but they offer a strong endorsement of the energy that derives from choosing this particular line of work.

Occasionally the two get together to reinforce the notion that faith, hope and love continue to win out.

Scott, who teaches at Sonoma State University, is a trumpet player, pianist, composer, conductor and dispenser of peace and joy. His bio explains that he is “equally comfortable in improvisational/jazz and ensemble/classical idioms.” Bush, noted for his “Inspire Choirs” that are premised on the African proverb, If you can speak you can sing, is a singer, composer and performer who works closely with San Francisco’s historic Glide Memorial Church. He is also co-founder, with Marybeth Tereszkiewicz, of Tree of Life Cross-Cultural Arts Camp, a yearly two to three week summer program for children in the small school communities of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. Both Scott and Bush make a respectable living through their art, but what they do essentially for free, for the benefit of their brothers and sisters on the planet, sets them apart from many (happily by no means all!) of their fellow musical professionals.

The two get together occasionally (and will do so regularly throughout the spring of 2016) for “Live at Five” evening services at another San Francisco church, of which this writer is fortunate to be a member. Scott advertises the musical segments of the events thus: “Vernon Bush is a gentle soul and a gifted choir leader. To shine positivity and love is just Vernon’s way. Anyone who comes to sing with Vernon (first Monday of every month, 7 pm) at Calvary will come away feeling better about everything, feeling loved! I am certain!”

Certainty of goodness (and feeling loved) might be added to the things in short supply today. But a recent “Live at Five” service led, musically, by Scott and Bush, featured a chorus-with-drums rendition of this Chinese proverb:

Where there is light in the soul

There is beauty in the person

Where there is beauty in the person

There is harmony in the home

Where there is harmony in the home

There is honor in the nation

Where there is honor in the nation

There is peace in the world.

Vernon Bush

Vernon Bush

It may be an unfortunate fact that there is not a lot of peace in the world. But thankfully there are people like Dave Len Scott and Vernon Bush out there bringing light to the soul.

A Memorable MLK Day Celebration

MLK on darkness

Dr. King would, I think, have approved.

One celebration of his legacy involved a collaboration between members of a fairly mainline Presbyterian church in an affluent area of San Francisco and members of a soul-spirited Pentecostal church in the city’s Bayview community, where crime and poverty run rampant. The partnership – and friendship – between the two unlikely groups has been growing ever since its beginning in response to the mass shootings at Charleston’s Emanuel African American Methodist Episcopal Church in June of 2015.

For openers, the African American Pentecostal pastor preached (only minimally more reserved and shorter than is his custom) to the mostly white Presbyterians. His message was primarily about the Biblical admonition to welcome the alien and show hospitality to strangers. He also had a few words about justice rolling down like a river, and about Martin Luther King Jr’s assertion that love will overcome racism, materialism and militarism.

MLK Day cable car

After the service some fifty or so Presbyterians boarded motorized cable cars and sang their way across town to the Pentecostal church. There the white pastor preached to the now-multicolor congregation about the Biblical suggestion that nothing much is required of believers other than to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with the Creator. He also had a few words about some of the ads he had noticed on the trip over. Dr. King, he suggested, probably didn’t live, work and die primarily so there would be three-day mattress sales, or a 25% MLK Weekend discount on leather jackets.

During the second service, which another minister termed Presbycostal, there was a generous amount of rousing hallelujah music led by the hosts and several gospel pieces from the visitors, whose choir director and trumpet-playing musician in residence made the trip.

MLK Day Dave & choir

After the second service the hosts surprised their guests with lunch in the adjacent social hall: homemade salads, chips and dips and plates of fried chicken. A dozen or so small children, varying shades of white, brown and black, snagged their fried chicken early and set to entertaining themselves by jumping up and down a stairway below a banner that read “The Audacity to Believe.”

One of the visitors remarked to one of the hostesses, as everyone dispersed, “I think we had a lot more fun than anybody at the weekend sales.”

MLK Day lunch

 

A Poetic Happy New Year to Us All

Dawn

The dawn of a new year brings the best and the worst: promise of new beginnings, anguish over old endings.  Great new ideas to nurture, bad old ideas to quash. The new year’s plans, the old year’s mistakes. And, then of course, there are those pesky resolutions.

How about — as opposed to New Year’s resolutions — a little irresolution for 2016? The talented singer/songwriter Michelle Krell apparently turns to poetry from time to time. This rumination on life and time was enclosed with her holiday letter. It is presented below, with her permission, as a New Year’s gift to readers: the procrastinators, the disorganized, the well-intentioned, God bless us every one.

THE BACKLOG

Youth has no unfinished projects

No half-written melodies

No scribbled first lines of a musical comedy starring somebody famous

No first pencil sketch for a rolling 19th century landscape in oils

No first brushstrokes for a portrait, you know, a masterpiece like the Mona Lisa

No evenly-spaced staff lines mapped out with hundreds of tiny sixteenth-notes in pencil, some crossed out

No shoeboxes with unsorted glass beads on broken strings

No velvet bag of unrepaired, unmatched earrings, some plastic, from the 1970s

No shelves of unread books

No socks needing to be matched with mates missing for 9 years or more

No basket of mending from when your aunt was alive, you got it when you cleared out her house

No collection of spools of thread from the ‘30s from the same aunt, the thread permanently, hopelessly tangled

No boxes of unsorted photos from decades of family reunions

No garden that has had no improvements since you bought the house 20 years ago

No roses that are far past their lifetime and needed to be dug up long ago

No battered and faded curtains that would dissolve if washed; and why are they still up?

No seed of a book of poetry in which poems have been re-written until they stopped breathing

No undated lists of good intentions on wide-ruled binder paper

No itemized plans for rearranging small possessions that can now not be found

No single favorite patent leather shoe that knows the mystery of its lost mate, but will not tell

No collection of old toothbrushes that have a use which will reveal itself someday

No half-begun intricate stencil decoration across the upper wall of the baby’s room; he now has a family and lives in Toledo

No splintered and rusted garden shed that would look like Sunset Magazine, or could perhaps…

No pile of gravel overcome with weeds—the beginnings of an elaborate walkway through what are now rusted garden benches next to a ghost of a trellis for grapevines that never climbed anywhere

There are no grapes and no hint of a garden path

But—there could be…

On Being Instruments of Peace

dove of peaceWatching the families of people killed at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church repeatedly declare their forgiveness of shooter Dylann Roof was, for many including this writer, somewhat surreal. Seriously? Set aside the rage, grief, unbelief, and go straight to forgiveness?

For some faith traditions, that is indeed possible.

Also possible is the response for good coming out of Roof’s act for evil: removal of an emblem – the Confederate flag I recall seeing on some of my ancestors’ gravestones – from public spaces, and serious confrontation of the racism firmly embedded in U.S. culture. Not just the south, not just in police forces, not just in politics; in the U.S. culture.

One small part of the attempt to confront, and hopefully address, those issues in one small piece of the culture began recently when John Weems, pastor of mainline (if hardly traditional) Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, got to talking with Bishop Ernest Jackson, pastor of Grace Tabernacle Community Church across town in San Francisco’s largely African American Bayview-Hunter’s Point neighborhood. This conversation led to a group of mostly white Calvary members leaving their 10 AM Sunday service early to join the 11 AM worshippers at Grace Tabernacle. (We were saved from embarrassing Caucasian-ness by one tall African American and one third-generation Chinese American.)

Calvary’s Minister of Spiritual Care Victor Floyd was preaching before the group set out – on a day the long openly gay Floyd said he never thought he’d live to see – and admonished the group that worshipping with Pentecostals would mean staid Presbyterians (the Frozen Chosen, we are commonly called) would have to raise their arms above the level of their waists.

Well, who knew?

Grace Tabernacle dancer

Grace Tabernacle dancers

The incredibly gracious Pentecostals greeted the chosen-frozen Presbyterians with exuberance. And a forgiveness for our frozen-ness that would probably be understood only by people like the survivors of the Charleston massacre.

“Forgiving is not forgetting,” Bishop Jackson said. “We have little control over what we remember or what we forget.” But he reminded the uniquely mixed group that it is wise to remember “the wrong that harbors no malice.”

There was a great deal of praise music – hands waving, or for the more frozen, clapping, higher than the level of one’s waist. There was some extraordinary dancing by three costumed young Grace Tabernacle women. There was talk about the burden of unforgiveness. And there were parting words of the sort that will bring exactly the change and reconciliation Dylann Roof (for whose immortal soul a lot of great Americans are praying) sought to prevent.

“Thank you,” said John Weems, “for helping us thaw out.”

“We must disconnect,” said Ernest Jackson, “from hatred and racism.

“We are instruments of peace.”

One can only hope.

 

It was — 1933 — a very good year

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is too old? Perhaps she should consider stepping down from the Supreme Court?

These suggestions were floated more than once in the Q&A session after a recent Commonwealth Club talk by University of California Hastings Professor of Law Scott Dodson. Dodson is the editor of a newly released collection of essays, The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose writers suggest nothing of the kind. Contributors to the book, and Dodson himself, focus instead on the significant contributions made thus far by the 82-year-old justice, and the impact she continues to have on jurisprudence and on life in the U.S.

Dodson was drawn to write about Ginsberg because he “kept encountering her clear and consistent opinions” and wanted to create an objective view of her legacy – notably including gender discrimination, as in the case that ended Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy, and racial discrimination, as in the voting rights case Shelby County v Holder. In the latter case, Ginsberg famously wrote that throwing out an anti-discriminatory measure as no longer needed “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote several months ago: Ruth Bader Ginsberg has no interest in retiring.

Carol_Burnett_1958

Carol Burnett in 1958

Several days before the Dodson talk, David McCullough, 82, spoke at another San Francisco event in conjunction with his most recent book, The Wright Brothers. McCullough did not go into detail about his next project, but gives every indication that he is a writer with no interest in retiring.

Meanwhile in Texas, Willie Nelson, 82, has another concert coming up, and the next show planned by Carol Burnett, 82, is almost sold out.

This writer may not have anything else in common with Ruth, David, Carol and Willie, but we take what we can get. 1933 wasn’t a bad year to be born.