Re-Entry

I returned in a rush, feeling as if every chore needed to be dispatched with a life-saving urgency. Part of the reason I left San Francisco was the feeling that my $2000 per month junior one bedroom never felt like home. I needed that feeling. It wasn’t about ownership. Having grown up in rented apartments, I never had a great need to own a home and my one attempt to do that in SF was an emotional disaster and a financial wash. I am, perhaps, the only person in the last hundred years to manage to lose money in San Francisco real estate, so my ownership share in the Maury house was not the emotional balm I was seeking, it was simply the feeling that I could make this place my home. I needed that and I was in a hurry to make it happen.

I collected eleven boxes of books and clothes I could not live without from a postmistress happy to regain the space in her small office and amused that I would move here from San Francisco. “Trump?” She asked and I agreed that was part of it but said I was concerned about the imminent French elections as well. She shook her head, gave me a classic French shrug and “Beh. Everywhere. Who knows?” Then she smiled and said “Bienvenue à Maury”. I thanked her, said goodbye and turned to find a warm welcome from Marie-Laure and her grandson from Mas de Lavail. Noticing the boxes, she asked if I was returning to stay, smiled when I said yes and said she was happy to see me again. This scene would be repeated a number of times whenever I ran into someone I knew. It is genuinely welcoming, there is nothing false about it, but it goes only as far as the front door. An invitation to lunch or dinner is rare. It’s not personal, the French, at least the Maurynates, do not often invite people to their homes. They do not socialize over a meal the way we do. Sunday lunch is a family tradition, usually only for the family. A very acute sense of privacy allows for extended conversations in the markets and bakeries before going home to close the door and shutters.

Geneviève came by as I was unloading boxes and told me Pappi had died in February after a fall. He was 95 years old but I loved seeing him work his garden and hoped he’d go on for a while longer.

Pappi Serge ©2012 Ron Scherl

I tried to call Mary Ann and Larry to tell them the sad news but the phone wasn’t working. I don’t use the landline much but its unlimited free calls to the US are essential for Mary Ann who has to continue to run a business while visiting here. I rebooted the internet box but that had no effect on the phone and killed the WiFi. Got the WiFi back but still no phone and now no internet access, got that back long enough to find the SFR service page but the online reboot didn’t work before the connection was lost. Off to the SFR boutique in Perpignan where I managed to explain the problem to two twenty-something sales reps. They looked at the box as if it just been recovered from a pyramidal tomb and told me they would exchange it for a new, more powerful model. That is, I should exchange it, I should probably bury it, but they couldn’t do it there. I had to go to the depot in Rivesaltes where I could leave the box and in three days I could return to pick up the new one. Three days without internet, in baseball season – impossible. I begged, I pleaded, I told them I was old and internet was my lifeline. It worked. They conferred, went into a backroom and returned with a new box that I could borrow while waiting for the exchange. Why they had the new box, could loan it to me, but couldn’t make the exchange is one of those perfect French mysteries. Now that I had the loaner I didn’t have to take in the old box immediately, instead I should wait (three days) until they called, then pick up the new box at the depot and return the loaner to the boutique. Don’t be concerned if you can’t follow the logic in all this but do keep in mind this is the kind of bureaucratic nonsense the French live with and accept every day. I was so grateful I bought cellular service from them, extended many, many merci beaucoups with my au revoirs, and went to lunch.

The new box worked like a charm and I returned to unpacking, which soon revealed an immediate need for more furniture. A large armoire with drawers for socks and underwear would be ideal and Michel had one he wanted to sell.  I agreed to buy it, but we could not find a way to dismantle it enough to get it out of the warren of small rooms that was his mother’s house. The house will now be advertised for sale as partially furnished and I will return to Le Bon Coin, a kind of French Craig’s List. I filled both of the existing armoires with clothes although I’ll have to empty one to accommodate Walkers and guests, hung my tuxedo in the garage, ordered bookcases from Ikea for the five cartons still unpacked, and called Michel to tell him the upstairs toilet didn’t work. He came by, remembered he had shut off that water line because the terrace shower was leaking and promised to take care of it, later. We went to look for a shower to replace the ungainly Jacuzzi-like tub that was becoming a hazard.

The Bath

After seeing a couple of possibilities, we returned to the house to look at the plumbing under the tub and immediately fell into the rabbit hole of a Peter Mayle opus as Michel morphed into a crusty and taciturn old craftsman muttering untranslatable expressions that could only mean things were more complicated than they appeared. He decided it was necessary to bring in another plumber he knew, just to be sure it could be done. He thought it was possible, but wanted another opinion. He’d go home now to his dinner and to call the man. He’d let me know when they could come back.

Then the lights went out.

I was only trying to make dinner, turned on the oven, everything went black, but I didn’t immediately make the connection. I looked outside, it was dusk, the streetlights weren’t on yet and everything looked dark. I thought it was a widespread outage. Went in, lit some candles, looked outside and the streetlights were on. I called Michel who said yes, he had electricity and suggested I check with my neighbors but I saw no one and no lights in the houses. If people were home, they were watching their TVs behind tightly closed shutters, and I was reluctant to knock on doors that had never been open to me. Of course, many houses were empty—one friend told me there were more than one hundred houses for sale in Maury—and a funeral every week.

It finally occurred to me to check the circuit breakers—I’m a little slow on this home ownership thing—and sure enough the main breaker was tripped. I reset it went up to turn on the oven and was plunged back into darkness. Re-reset the breaker, made a sandwich, opened a bottle of wine, and watched the Giants new closer blow the opener.

It’s a long season.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Paris, 31 March

I can’t walk two blocks in this city without stumbling into someone’s photo- op.

Place des Vosges

Paris hasn’t changed very much. Armed soldiers on guard at major monuments but no one seems to be paying much attention to them. Parisians go about their daily business and populate the cafes after work as they always have. The crowds seem younger but that’s probably just my aging perspective.

Déjeuner au Seine

I’ve been looking at the ads in the windows of realty offices and while it’s hard to tell much about what’s really available, it appears that rents are just a little more than half as much as San Francisco apartments. I saw what looked like a lovely large studio on the Rue Jacob in the 6th for €1250 per month. If such places truly exist, I’ll seriously look at moving here. Always loved it, always felt at home here. Carried that a little too far yesterday when I gave some tourists very iffy directions to the Pompidou Center in my best French accent. They may have found it by now.

A few noticeable changes: there seems to be an alarming proliferation of bagel shops, and it appears Prius taxis now outnumber Mercedes. I haven’t found a connection yet, my investigation hindered by a preference for baguettes and the Metro, but I will continue independent observation and check in with David Lebovitz on the matter.

I take this picture every time I come to Paris. From the same spot on the Pont des Arts, different hours of the day, different times of the year. It always pleases me but always seems to lack a special quality of light that define the best images of Paris. Henri Cartier-Bresson has a version that’s really special. I’ll keep trying.

Ile de la Cité
Ile de la Cité

Paris, 29 March

A busy day at the Palais Royal, one of my favorite places in this lovely and still livable city.
Originally the home of Cardinal Richelieu, it housed royalty until the revolution, and many notables since, including Colette and Cocteau (not in the same apartment).
There are two distinct sections enclosed by offices, the Comedie Francaise, and apartments. The beautiful gardens, bursting with spring, bring out office workers, students, and box lunches. An art installation called Les Confidents by Michel Goulet with Francois Massut consists of linked chairs with fragments of poetry carved into their backs, adding art to lunch.


In the Cour d’Honneur is a site-specific artwork by Daniel Buren called Les Deux Plateaux which is a favorite location for tourists, fashion photo students, and me.

And of course, a place for pétanque:

©2017 Ron Scherl

Leaving…

 

I am moving back to France. Not an easy decision, but in the end, the need for change won out. It was time, as my friends at 826 Valencia put it, for a new adventure. There are other reasons, of course. The high cost of living in San Francisco becomes a greater burden as I age and my ability to make money diminishes. The result of a lifetime of decisions made for reasons that did not enhance my bank account may just be that I cannot continue to live in this city I still love. So it goes. I can live with that.

The ascendance of the abominable Trump had something to do with it, but not very much, and, after all, I may very well be faced with President Le Pen, another malignant nightmare.

I was able to overcome election despair because volunteering at 826 gave me hope. The people who run this program are doing something terribly important by helping the children learn to think independently and inspiring them to express their thoughts. Teaching a child that what he thinks and feels really matters is an important step in countering the growing racism and misogyny that threatens us all, and the cynicism that allows it to happen. If I had even the smallest hand in helping a child find her voice, I will have done something worthwhile.

The booklet in the photo is indeed a treasure chest for me but the treasure is not in the memories, it is in the future of these bright and beautiful children who can create a world better than the one they will inherit. When Barack Obama was elected I thought we had achieved a significant milestone in our achingly slow climb out of the slough of genocide and slavery in which this country was born. Certainly the last election was a major setback but it doesn’t have to be fatal. I look at these children and realize their gift to me was a belief in the cyclical nature of progress. They can take back the future and we can help.

So I leave here with very mixed emotions. I do believe it is the best thing for me but I’m saddened to leave my very good friends and the extraordinary effort of hope that is 826 Valencia. I will, I must, find another way to contribute.

Resist. Persist. Act.

©2017 Ron Scherl

Getting To Know You – Quickly

It’s quite a challenge: an 826 Valencia podcasting field trip with high school students who have written letters to the president-elect. The object is to take these letters and turn them into two minute essays the students will record and 826 will podcast. The challenge is to get to know this student in a hurry so that I can advise and encourage in a way that means something to her, and so that the words that result are hers. It can’t be about what I might want to say to the man.

So I sit down with an African-American teenage girl and try to find a few areas of experience that will support her opinions without losing her anger. I start by reading her original letter, a rambling rant against demonstrated intolerance characterized as “crazy”. This doesn’t have much to do with mental illness, it’s used as a synonym for hateful bigotry. She tells him he doesn’t know what her life is like and he’s too stupid to try to learn. He doesn’t like Latinos and because of that he shouldn’t be president. She’s not interested in being diplomatic or showing respecting the man who will soon be president. He has forfeited the right to respect by rejecting her and her friends. The challenge is how to shape this prose into a coherent statement without sanitizing it into meaninglessness, how to support the anger with examples, how to teach her a bit about writing without losing her distinctive voice. I’m not dealing with grammar and punctuation here, rather with enhancing an argument by incorporating examples and comparisons to support her position.

She talks about her Latino friends and their families with compassion, but without ever losing the hard edge that defines her relationship to the world around her. There isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in her narrative. We talk for a few minutes, I suggest a few additions, then she surprises me by beginning her rewrite with a moving mini-story about a family trying to cross the border and the hardship and violence they face. She writes of the pregnant mother using the last of her money to hire a coyote and the death of the coyote in a violent confrontation with border patrol. She goes on to write about a Latino family as if they were her own and I encourage her to dig a little deeper with details of where they live and what they served her for dinner, but she’s not interested, loses focus, and turns her attention to her phone. When she’s through, her anger returns and she finishes the essay with a statement of hopeless impotence. I ask her if she might want to end with a bit of hope for the future, a hope I do not feel but wanted to inspire. She did not. I tried to be positive, telling her that when things don’t go our way we have to take action, express our dissatisfaction and try to make things better. Action can give us hope for a better future. She didn’t buy it.

It is America’s shame that we are having this conversation in 2017, more than fifty years after the long-delayed passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is our failure that our children fear for their freedom because a man with dictatorial inclinations was elected to the highest office in our country by attacking the press and promising to exclude those he doesn’t like. This is not an ordinary election, this is the most serious threat to our democracy we have seen.

It is now 10:00 AM on January 20, 2017, the president of the electoral college is now the President of the United States.

 

 

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.