The Letter

The good folks at 826 Valencia decided to continue a tradition of asking students to write letters to a newly elected president and publishing them in book form. It was one of the writing options this week and one of my kids chose it.

J: Will he read it?

R: I don’t know.

J: Will he answer?

R: Probably not

J: Then why should we do it?

R: When you have ideas, opinions, concerns, it’s important to express them. Writing this letter is a way to make your feelings known.

J: I don’t want to.

R: Let’s give it a try.

We began by brainstorming using an outline prepared by the staff. The first item was “Tell the President-elect something about yourself”.

J: I don’t want to.

R: Why not?

He just shook his head.

R: Why not just tell him your name and where you live?

J: I don’t want to. He’ll come and get me.

R: I don’t think that’s going to happen. I was trying like hell to be positive.

J: Yeah, but you don’t know.

R: I’m pretty sure.

He turned away.

R: Let’s move on to the next part. What do you want to tell the new president?

J: Don’t build a wall.

R: Good. Let’s tell him why you think that.

J: Because I’m Mexican and Mexicans should be free and I have cousins in Mexico.

R: That’s good. You can write that.

But he doesn’t write.

R: What’s wrong?

J: He doesn’t like Mexicans. He says bad things.

R: Do you think all people should be treated the same?

He looks at me and nods his head. My question too dumb to merit a verbal response.

R: Then you should write that. It’s important for him to hear.

But he pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head, then sinks to the table.

I so want to reach this kid.

R: J, it can really help to say what you feel and by writing it down, you let other people know and you’ll find they feel that way too. A lot of people with the same ideas getting together can change things, so being able to speak and write about how you feel is powerful. That’s why you come here to practice writing and this is important to write about.

His head stays down. I don’t know if he’s tired, not feeling well, really upset, or just lazy. I keep trying to reach him but I’m not getting through and we’re running out of time.

Is there anything else you want to tell him?

Yeah, he shouldn’t be president.

Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to help kids like this. Donate, volunteer at 826 Valencia.

©2016 Ron Scherl

The Worst Week – Ever

I’m trying, trying to escape the pit of despair. I’m not doing very well.

Went to a march in Golden Gate Park organized by the folks who run the Richmond District Blog. Lovely day. Nice people. All on the same side, happy to be together aligned against the dark side.

img_1224Didn’t help. There is no denying what this election says about America. There is no way to avoid the conclusion that racism, xenophobia, hate, misogyny, and ignorance have seeped to the surface because he made it acceptable.

I don’t want to hear about how he’ll moderate his views now that he’s faced with the reality of governing. I don’t want to hear about how he said all those things just to get elected. I don’t believe it and it doesn’t matter because by saying them he revealed what America really wants and believes. He gave the haters permission and they responded.

Take all that hatred, now socially acceptable, combine it with all the guns in this country and the growing right to wear them in public, and you have a prescription for a tsunami of violence. Hate crimes rose dramatically in Britain after the Brexit vote but their firepower pales in comparison to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

img_1232So much damage already done. So much worse to come. I’m looking, but I can’t see the light.

And then the death of Leonard Cohen. So long Leonard, no longer playing in the places where he used to ache. At least we still have the music.

©2016 Ron Scherl

The Day After

The kids are frightened. So am I. This election brought fear and despair, a violent anxiety took root in my gut and remains. It was a struggle just to summon the will to leave my apartment and when I did it seemed odd that people were going about their daily business and the sun had risen. I’m scheduled to volunteer at 826 Valencia on Wednesdays but I felt drained and hopeless, not certain I wanted to live in a country that could elect that man. But I went, not making a decision with purpose, just walking to the bus and then the Tenderloin Center on auto-pilot, propelled by a sub-conscious desire to do something. I expected to find like-minded people at 826 and, of course, I did. But I didn’t want to try to put a happy face on a cataclysmic tragedy: these kids: African-American, Muslim, Hispanic—at the beginning of their lives—were going to suffer much more than me. They will have to grow up under a government elected on a platform of ignorance, racism, and misogyny. They can look forward to a Supreme Court dedicated to limiting their freedom in order to protect wealthy white men. I am closer to the end of my life than the beginning and I can choose to leave this country. They are so young and already faced with the significant obstacles of “otherness”. Now what?

Well, 826 is a special place. Kona encouraged us to talk to the kids about the election, let them express their feelings and encourage them to write about them; help them to develop their voices, let them know someone is listening. I had been thinking of my task as helping them unlock their imaginations but this was a more important job. They need to know their feelings are valid and they must be heard.

I was working with two Hispanic kids and a young Muslim girl. They began by feeling me out. “Who did you vote for?” I told them I had voted for Clinton and they said they did too, or they would have if they could vote. They said their parents voted for Clinton and they were afraid of Trump. He doesn’t like Mexicans. He’s a racist. He’s going to build a wall so no more Mexicans can come here. One kid looked at me and asked if he could write about anything he wanted. I smiled for the first time that day. “Of course.” He wanted to know if he could just call him Trump, not President. I said that was fine and he wrote about the wall and all the Mexicans stuck on the other side. He wondered if Trump would build a wall around the whole country and what that would mean. It frightened him.

Another child said she didn’t want to talk or write about it because the election made her parents angry and she was frightened when they got angry. She just wanted it go away and wanted to finish her story about a very small banana split. The third child arrived late and began by asking me how I felt about the election. I said I was very, very unhappy and she said she was too. She said her parents were worried but they didn’t want to talk about it.

I said this was a difficult time and we were all a little scared but we were there to help and support them and that would continue. My voice broke and for a second I thought I would not be able to stop the tears that were imminent all day. I got through it, had to because I had to push my lazy problem child to start writing.

I didn’t expect to finish this piece on an optimistic note—it’s not my usual inclination—but I have to search for sanity in a world I see as dangerously unbalanced. On the ground level, programs like 826 can often feel like entering a battle naked and unarmed. It can seem impossible to do enough to make a difference. But it’s not. The ability to communicate is power and if we can help these children learn to express themselves, if we can foster their confidence and support their ambitions, their time will come and they will be equipped with the tools they need to succeed. They need to know now that their voices matter and surrounding them with adults who listen and take them seriously is a beginning.

Myron

Myron lived on the street, at the corner of Clement and Funston. Yesterday, he died there.

This morning, on my walk to the gym, there was a small memorial where Myron used to be.

Three or people were there, talking quietly, taking pictures. “He was a good man.” “A gentle soul.” “He always cared about other people.” “He’d tell you to dress warmly.” “He’d tell you that Jesus loves you.” “He’d say that he loves you.” “He’d always say it was a beautiful day, even when it wasn’t.” “He was always cheerful.”

I walked on. A block later, the driver of the 2 Clement bus honked at me from across the street.

“Did Myron die?” She asked. I nodded. “I saw an ambulance at his place yesterday, I was afraid of that.” “He was a good man,” I said. “It’s a hard world,” she said.

Should we have done more for Myron? I gave him a dollar or two many times although he never asked. He gratefully accepted and offered God’s blessing in return. It seemed like all I could do.  I don’t know if he would have gone to a shelter, or if any of the city’s homeless programs ever reached him. I never asked.

I saw him one day in his usual afternoon place at the corner of Ninth and Clement. He used to be on the Walgreen’s side, but then moved across the street to the bank. I suspect Walgreen’s complained but I don’t really know. Anyway, this day he was beside the bank, surrounded by pigeons and looking like St. Francis himself, but Myron was a little down because the pigeons were feasting on his dinner. He had spilled a container of rice from a Chinese takeout. “It was my good rice,” he said. I gave him a couple of dollars to get more and he thanked me with Jesus’ blessing.

“The Homeless Problem” is a big deal in San Francisco and it is a problem. There are far too many people on the streets and many of them are ill, addicted, or both. Fixing it requires lots of money, compassion, and the will to systematically tackle a difficult problem. People need housing combined with access to services that can help them regain a sense of purpose. It’s not impossible. We are in a time of enormous economic expansion. There is money; what we need is a renewal of the spirit of sharing that was once a hallmark of this country. We once believed that the proper role of government was to help those who needed it. We lost that in the eighties when taxes on corporations and the wealthy were cut, immediately followed by a cut in services to those who needed them most. Greed became acceptable. The path to change runs from the people to the elected leaders. It will never come from the top down.

There were days when Myron smelled so bad it was hard to be near him. There were days when he was incoherent, although I don’t think it was a result of drugs or alcohol. I was surprised that he died but I shouldn’t have been. It’s a hard world.

There were a few more people at Myron’s place when I walked home. One neighbor told me there will be a memorial service January 1 at 8AM at Star of the Sea, his church.

Myron
Myron

©2016 Ron Scherl

826 Reformatted

There was a formatting error in the post sent yesterday. This should correct it. Please let me know if there’s still a problem and you can read this and all posts at ronscherl.com. Thanks

Haven’t spent much time in the Tenderloin – maybe the occasional semi-voluntary visit to the latest funky chic Indian bistro – but then it was drive in, dive in, drive out. But now that I’m volunteering at 826 Valencia’s Tenderloin Center, I’m in by Muni, walking around, working with the kids and walking back to the bus – with eyes open, in the light of day. It’s something to see.

First impression is horrifying: a woman squatting to urinate on the sidewalk, the stream flowing downhill until it meets a sleeping man, open drug dealing, people living and presumably dying on the streets, bags of clothing stashed in doorways already crowded with people, the smells of human waste. The whole panoply of suffering is on display all day long.

But if you’re not here in the afternoons when school lets out, you don’t see the kids. And you don’t realize that families live here, strong, hard-working families who simply don’t make enough money to live anywhere else.

So when the kids get out of school in the afternoon, they walk past all the misery to King Carl’s Emporium in the Tenderloin Center. It’s a store with lots of cool things to inspire adventure and spark the imagination, all personally selected by Carl, a puffer fish who is always around though never seen.

Tenderloin Writing Lab
Tenderloin Writing Lab

But they’re not here to shop. After a day at school, they settle in to the writing lab for an hour to write stories. It’s a wonderful thing. They write about dogs and pumpkins and wanting to go to Yemen to see their cousins. They write about getting a pit bull for protection, how many pies can be made from a pumpkin big as a house, and the discomfort of sharing your bed with a horse who’s really a cat but takes up as much of the bed as a horse would.img_1132

We try to let their imaginations roam while also teaching a bit of structure. We talk about the importance of describing what they’re thinking about, how to build the arc of a story, and a little bit of sentence structure. We correct some spelling errors and throw in a few periods and capital letters. Then they get to play in the treehouse.

826 Valencia, which was founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari is all about helping under-resourced students develop creative writing skills and supporting teachers to inspire creativity in their students. The goal is to smooth the path to academic and career success for kids not born with a wealth of advantages. I hope the kids are getting as much out of it as I am.

826 Valencia

Haven’t spent much time in the Tenderloin – maybe the occasional semi-voluntary visit to the latest funky chic Indian bistro – but then it was drive in, dive in, drive out. But now that I’m volunteering at 826 Valencia’s Tenderloin Center, I’m in by Muni, walking around, working with the kids and walking back to the bus – with eyes open, in the light of day. It’s something to see.

First impression is horrifying: a woman squatting to urinate on the sidewalk, the stream flowing downhill until it meets a sleeping man, open drug dealing, people living and presumably dying on the streets, bags of clothing stashed in doorways already crowded with people, the smells of human waste. The whole panoply of suffering is on display all day long.

But if you’re not here in the afternoons when school lets out, you don’t see the kids. And you don’t realize that families live here, strong, hard-working families who simply don’t make enough money to live anywhere else.

So when the kids get out of school in the afternoon, they walk past all the misery to King Carl’s Emporium in the Tenderloin Center. It’s a store with lots of cool things to inspire adventure and spark the imagination, all personally selected by Carl, a puffer fish who is always around though never seen.

Tenderloin Writing Lab
Tenderloin Writing Lab

But they’re not here to shop. After a day at school, they settle in to the writing lab for an hour to write stories. It’s a wonderful thing. They write about dogs and pumpkins and wanting to go to Yemen to see their cousins. They write about getting a pit bull for protection, how many pies can be made from a pumpkin big as a house, and the discomfort of sharing your bed with a horse who’s really a cat but takes up as much of the bed as a horse would.img_1132

We try to let their imaginations roam while also teaching a bit of structure. We talk about the importance of describing what they’re thinking about, how to build the arc of a story, and a little bit of sentence structure. We correct some spelling errors and throw in a few periods and capital letters. Then they get to play in the treehouse.

826 Valencia, which was founded in 2002 by Dave Eggers and Ninive Calegari is all about helping under-resourced students develop creative writing skills and supporting teachers to inspire creativity in their students. The goal is to smooth the path to academic and career success for kids not born with a wealth of advantages. I hope the kids are getting as much out of it as I am.

Circus Bella!

So here I am just a few months after leaving the homewomb and I’ve already joined Circus Bella. Not that I had much choice. I mean, most kids have to run away to make this happen but I was born right into it. My whole family is circus. The Gentiles, sure, that’s us and my brothers and sisters, mom and dad they’re all part of the act, but so are all these other kids and when they’re not doing amazing stuff they take care of me like in that first picture where I’m just hanging out backstage with a few of my brothers. My name’s Giuseppina, but I’m OK with Baby G. That’s what most people call me.

These rehearsal days are tough; everyone’s moving so fast, flying around the room. I need a nap. When I wake up, they’re still at it and then they start throwing stuff like clubs, balls, hoops, and ropes. Of course sometimes they drop stuff but it’s only rehearsal and I notice they’re better when the band’s here, which makes sense because it’s all about timing. I learned that from my parents who also juggle stuff like tables, chairs, planters, and my brothers and sisters, only they do it with their feet. Of course, they also told me we’re all descended from Pickles but I’m not sure what that means.

Anyway, here’s Gianluca learning to fly. Pretty cool.

Gentile Family
Gentile Family

These people are amazing. I can’t keep my eyes open but they never stop moving. When they’re not juggling they’re doing something else. Look at Dwoira over there. Can you believe it’s possible for a human body to move like that? I saw her warming up and her cat-cow would make most yoga teachers kale green with envy.

Dwoira Galilea
Dwoira Galilea

I’m a little afraid of heights but Abigail isn’t. The way she flies around up there I think she must be part bird and some kind of magic makes her wings invisible. It’s possible you know, there’s lots of magic in the circus.

Abigail Munn, Co-Founder, Trapeze
Abigail Munn, Co-Founder, Trapeze

My sister, Giulia, told me Natasha has 416 hula-hoops and she can get them all going at once. I can’t count that high yet, and I bet my sister can’t either, so I asked Natasha and she said it’s not nearly that many: “Only 327, but I’m working on it.”

Natasha Kaluza
Natasha Kaluza

Anyway, I love all this stuff, especially the clowns who really make me laugh and it’s really exciting when they all come together at the end and there’s stuff flying all over the place. There must be a juggle traffic controller somewhere, but I’ve never seen her. Either that, or it’s magic.

Juggling Ensemble
David Hunt, Co-Founder and Juggling Ensemble

Oops. There’s my cue. I gotta go. Ciao.

Gentile Family
Gentile Family

©2016 Ron Scherl

 

Bay Area Book Festival

Writers talking about writing: sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it ain’t.

When you come across a writer who thinks clearly and speaks well, it can be a rewarding, sometimes inspiring time. So I spent an enjoyable hour with Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem, inspired to read their books, which was exactly the point of it all, but also feeling optimistic about my own work. Maybe it’s just the projection fantasy – seeing myself on that stage – but it’s enough to get me back to work on the next novel.

Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem
Dana Spiotta and Jonathan Lethem

But sometimes things run off the rails – as they did with a panel of European writers – and often it’s because writers in the audience are looking for THE ANSWER. “Who are your major influences? Do you outline or fly by the seat of your pants? Is it necessary to have an MFA? Do you? Here’s where the moderator needs to step in and limit the scope of the conversation.

Talking about the ideas in a novel, OK. Talking about the craft of writing, not so much. Because, like most creative endeavors, writing is about 10% inspiration and the rest is hard work. So there’s really not much to talk about: you’re inspired to write, or you’re not, either you sit down and do the work, or you don’t.

Bay Area Book Festival
Bay Area Book Festival

Now publishing is something altogether different and that took me to a seminar entitled the Lifecycle of a Book, featuring an agent, a small publisher, a publicist, a social media guru, and a marketing specialist. Andy Ross, the agent, found humor in the enormous odds against getting anything published in the traditional way. I didn’t.

Brooke Warner, the publisher, responded by presenting a new hybrid publishing model in which the author pays production costs and receives a larger royalty, as well as editorial, distribution, and marketing services. This is middle ground between self-publishing, where the author pays for everything then has to figure out how to get readers to find the book, and traditional publishing, where the author trades most of the income for these services, although the amount of promotion and publicity publishers do seems to be diminishing and is now seen as a shared obligation. The other speakers filled us in on how much authors will have to do for themselves and how much it’s still going to cost.

If I had left this a little earlier, I might not have been shut out of Adam Hochshild’s sold out talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War. I might have learned something useful there.

©2016 Ron Scherl

North Beach Flaneur

Walking north on Kearny from downtown, the landscape changes at Sacramento Street: building heights go down, sunlight finds the street, pedestrians are older, and noodle shops replace office towers. Portsmouth Square is the open space in this densely crowded Chinese neighborhood, a living room for multiple generations, but it sits above a parking garage, easy to miss when walking under the pedestrian bridge on Kearny.

After passing the Chinatown Campus of City College and the House of Nanking, North Beach begins at Columbus, with Coppola’s Café Zoetrope, followed by two poles of the bar culture: the Comstock Saloon and Mr. Bing’s, both closed in the morning. Up the street to Jack Kerouac Alley, the corner of Vesuvio and City Lights, and across Columbus: Spec’s and the new Tosca. This was the center of the world when I first lived in North Beach: browsing books, reading in the basement, and drinking Negronis and Americanos before making the almost sobering trek up Vallejo Street to a room in a house long since replaced by pricey condos. Vesuvio was open for the morning drinkers but not for me today. City Lights is still the welcoming, quirky bookstore it’s always been and an hour uncovered two non-traditional histories of Paris (research) and a noir titled Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette, an author new to me.

I took my books to Café Puccini for a coffee among familiar faces to which I couldn’t add names, probably never knew them. The faces were older, of course, softened by age and memory. I tried to place them here, or another café or bar, but no luck. I nodded and moved on.

Molinari’s, the last Italian deli; the unique and indispensable Mario’s; Il Pollaio; Washington Square, the neighborhood lawn; Liguria bakery, sold out as usual by 11; the line at Mama’s, an unexplainable phenomenon that has persisted for decades; the rebuilt Joe DiMaggio playground; Gino & Carlo’s.

Liguria

Mario'sPlaygroundLunch at the new Original US Restaurant. More than an exercise in nostalgia, this is food from the Italian grandmother you always wished you had. All the other old neighborhood restaurants are gone but the family somehow managed to put this back together, covered the walls with photos of the old place and the family who made it special, and brought back a small piece of the neighborhood.

USRan into Supervisor Aaron Peskin and asked him if he was enjoying being back in City Hall. “I’m having fun,” he said with a wicked smile that left no doubt. Aaron loves to stir the pot by extending the progressive agenda as far to the left as possible. He’s good at it, and it’s a useful service to our complacent, liberal city.

People complain about obscene rents, Airbnb, the lack of grocery and hardware stores, shoe repair replaced by yet another restaurant for tourists, and all the usual urban ills, but there’s still a neighborhood here if you’re willing to look for it.

664AWalked past several doors that used to mean home, then back down Columbus to the bus that would take me there.

The Boy in the Film

I’m not sure why this image haunts me. At first I thought he resembled me at that age but now I’m not sure. This picture was made at the Mémorial du Camp de Rivesaltes, from a film about camp inmates that is projected on the wall of the museum.

I’m not much of a believer in fate; the idea that I might have been drawn to this place, to this story because of some unknown personal connection doesn’t resonate. I’ve never uncovered any evidence of any member of my family having been at this camp, and I simply do not believe in reincarnation, which nixes the thought that it might in fact be me. It’s tempting but I’ve already written this book and I’m not in it.

So what’s going on here?

My best guess is that the superficial resemblance cemented an emotional connection to the camp that informs the novel. That connection began with my first visit to the site, deepened with the photos I made that day, and went further with the research that followed. It became personal with the challenge in the eyes of this boy looking directly into the camera.

I’m not sure how old he is. I would have thought about fifteen but the dark pouches under his eyes belong to an older man. He is shirtless, which would suggest summer heat on the Rivesaltes plain, and while his face is thin, we cannot see his torso and can’t know for sure if he has had enough to eat. He looks healthy and his direct gaze projects strength.

I’d like to think he survived. Perhaps he was one of the more than six hundred children who were saved from the camp by the heroic efforts led by Friedel Bohny-Reiter of Secours Suisse aux Enfants. Perhaps he made it to a home in the region and was raised by one of the many anonymous families who risked their own lives to save the children of strangers. He could have grown up to be an artist, a musician, or a writer. Or maybe he settled nearby, married, raised a family, plowed his vineyards, and sent his fruit to the coop. Maybe he still does.

I am not the boy. I am the camera.

©2016 Ron Scherl