Archive for the ‘California’ Category

Going Deeper Into The Meme

December 19th, 2013 6 Comments

Someone from the tech world wrote me back!

Last week I was caught in a false internet meme of a tech guy yelling at the protestors who body-blocked the Google bus to call attention to the housing crisis in San Francisco. He was quickly identified not as a man from Google, but a labor organizer who wanted to provoke a debate.

I was humiliated by being duped by this, as I confessed in my last blog post. I was so ready to believe this angry man was a Google employee because he said what I feared those people think as their huge flood of cash cleanses the city of natives like me. Yet, as I said when I confessed I’d been duped, I don’t know anyone from Google. I don’t know what they think or how they feel and it was wrong to make those assumptions.

Taking up that challenge is a man who rides in the Apple bus from San Francisco to Cupertino to work every day. He responded to my blog post because he has been stung in his own way by the hostility to him and his co-workers.

As he wrote:

Danelle, thank you for the honest explanation of how we can be duped by things you want to believe. I hope you’ll take the broader opportunity to reassess what you believe about tech employees that live in the city, of which I am one.

No one that I have ever met thinks that it’s just OK for long-time SF residents to be kicked out. None of us is out there evicting people. Most of us would support community efforts to improve things for everyone, even if it means higher taxes for those of us that can afford it.

At the same time, though, I can believe that you have a right to live here, but that *I have a right to live here too*, even though I was not born here. I support local shops, restaurants, the arts, and civic organizations. I vote here. I hope to live here the rest of my life, if I can. How am I not a part of this community too?

It seems ungenerous, and, well, un-San-Franciscan to demonize newcomers, in this case just because they can afford to live here. The busses are not the problem; they’ve just become a convenient symbol for other things that *are* problems. Why don’t we work together to solve those?

I agree with the writer that it is very un-San Francisco to demonize newcomers. One thing this city is known for is acceptance, but in my mind that is acceptance of artists, people who think differently, those who don’t participate in the conventional hustle for money, those who just are a little, or maybe a lot, off kilter. There were reasons the beats, the hippies, and gays came here: rent was cheap and the atmosphere was more tolerant than most places. What the writer is asking is for me to see those who have brought the on-rush of this huge amount of capital into the confined world of San Francisco real estate with the same tolerance as I see artists, free thinkers, radicals and outliers. I don’t.

There’s been an 8 percent rent increase in the last quarter alone creating a situation where the median monthly rent is $3,400. The number of evictions in the last year, according to the SF chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, was a record 1,700 and that doesn’t include the buyouts renters are taking to vacate their apartments for the wealthy. So while the writer and his friends are not posting eviction notices on the doors of my friends’ homes and tossing their belongings out into the street, the staggering increase in prices has driven landlords to use a number of unethical and even cruel tactics to chase out the rent controlled tenants who might be paying $800 for an apartment the landlord could now rent for $4000. He and his friends may be great people with empathetic souls, but their money is brutal.

San Francisco is a boom town, and those of us who grew up here have seen these cycles before. This time, though, it seems like an assault, not just a temporary spike in the economy and here’s why. My income has fallen dramatically because of the digital economy. As a writer I never made that much, but I raised two children on a pretty decent salary as a journalist and then as an author. The digital world has upended the way people pay, or don’t pay, for content. I’m at the top of my skills, but I’m making less now than I did when I was a pup journalist just hired by The New York Times. And while I am an enthusiastic consumer of tech, I am also its victim.

These dual assaults on my livelihood and on my ability to afford a place to live in my hometown is what makes it very easy for me to think my world would be better if the tech people lived some place else, like in those apartments Facebook is building next to its new Menlo Park campus.

The writer says he and many of his friends would be willing to pay more taxes, which shows a lack of understanding of how local taxes are collected. He can’t pay more taxes on his salary here as it is constitutionally illegal in California to impose an individual municipal income tax. Property tax is set at the state level by Prop. 13.
And although it’s not the writer’s fault, San Francisco tax policy favors millionaires. The city gave Twitter a break on payroll taxes that will cost the residents of San Francisco $22 million. The voters just changed that to a gross receipts tax, but mid-Market tech companies get breaks on that tax too. With the Twitter IPO creating an estimated 1600 new millionaires (who won’t have to pay much tax on their stock options) more money is about to flood into the real estate market, making my position here weaker still. He’s right that my anger about that is more properly directed at the Mayor and the griftocrat Board of Supervisors.

He says he wants to live here for the rest of his life and enjoy the shops, cafes and the arts. I hope he is able to do that. Yet if the evictions and the rent increases persist, it won’t be the same place he was attracted to originally.

He’s right the buses are a symbol that stimulates strong emotions in me as it is difficult to identify individuals with whom I can discuss my anger and frustration. I see the huge buses gliding through the narrow streets of the little village of my old neighborhood, Noe Valley, where I cannot afford to live.

Google bus stranded at 23rd and Noe in Noe Valley

There are the tech workers in their shiny cocoons already working on their laptops, oblivious to how much their presence increases the fragility of my connection to the things I hold dear. The urge to stop them at the bus stop is an urge to get them to take their eyes off their screens and look at me and those like me and acknowledge for a moment that they must do something besides have kind sentiments if they want the San Francisco they love to have the qualities that drew them here in the first place.

Anyway I am grateful to him for responding and for expressing his opinion in a reasonable fashion, as I have tried to do.  I hope others write to do the same.  It’s good to have a conversation about this and there is plenty more to say.

Passing On The Meme

December 11th, 2013 1 Comment

I got caught in an internet hoax, and I’m still stewing about how I got sucked in.

This is the clip I gleefully re-posted to Facebook: a supposed Google employee is yelling at San Franciscans who were blocking the departure of a company bus to Mountain View. They were protesting the rapid rent increases here brought on by the influx of high-paid tech employees.

In the clip the man screamed, “Why don’t you guys just move out of the way? I can pay my rent. Can you pay your rent? Then why don’t you go to a city where you can afford it? This is a city for the right people who can afford it. If you can’t afford it, it’s time for you to leave.”

As it turned out, this guy was not a Google employee but union organizer Max Bell Alper who was doing a bit of political street theater by pretending to be a Google employee.

I didn’t wait to find that out, even though his real identity was published in The Bay Guardian about an hour after I saw this. Although when I saw the clip on Facebook I had a little flutter of doubt about the truth of interaction, I ignored it. I quickly posted it to my Facebook page with the snarky precede, “Listen you pesky natives, if you can’t afford to live in the city of your birth, get a better job. The measure of your worth is your ability to pay $4000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Otherwise, you’re just in this guy’s way.”

People like him are the jerks who are shoving me out of my hometown, I thought, driving the rents beyond affordability. The clip verified for me that they really are as horrible as I believe them to be. They are cruel, dismissive, and entitled, the worst of humanity, people who have no understanding of the havoc they are causing among the residents. They are the very visible hand of the marketplace that lately has been firmly at the small of my back shoving me out of the city of my birth.

I’m a fourth generation San Franciscan. My grandfather played for the San Francisco Seals. In Noe Valley, the charming working class neighborhood of my childhood, four generations of my family lived within walking distance of each other. I went to the same elementary school and middle school as my mom and I had some of her same teachers.

If someone like me, someone with deep roots and traditions that stretch back generations, can no longer claim this city as her own, then something profoundly wrong is happening. The effect of this huge increase in millionaires in San Francisco has made me feel that that man was telling me I have no right to live here. The clip gave me a chance to hate him and what is happening around me, the world where I am no longer one of the “right people.”

Truth is that I don’t know anyone who works at Google. I have no idea how they think. It is unfair of me to assume that they are as mean spirited and dismissive as Max Alper portrayed them to be. Yet there was something that felt so right and righteous about revealing their crass materialism in public (well, among my sympathetic Facebook friends).

There’s been a lot of these fake internet memes lately, so much so that The New York Times published a story about it on the front page of the business section yesterday. There was the waitress humiliated by customers who tipped her poorly because she they thought she was gay. (Yes, bigots are cheap and mean, my friends and here is the proof.) The Thanksgiving story about the airline passenger stuck next to fellow passengers behaving badly. (Yes, holiday travel exposes you to the worst people and the worst in people.) Even my respected colleague Alicia Shepard, formerly the ombudsperson for NPR, was fooled by a Kayne West meme asserting that he had compared himself to Nelson Mandela.

I think she gets a pass on that one. Kanye West says really stupid, egomanical things all the time.

When I was thinking about how I was duped I saw it as a five-stage process.

1) Someone I trust posts this thing. In this case it was Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, someone whose work I respect very much.
2) The meme rouses in me something that I have an emotional attachment to believing to be true.
3) That meme appears to prove something I fear and justifies the feeling that the world really is as bad as I think it is, that I’m not just making this stuff up.
4) I am conscious that posting it will arouse strong feelings in my friends.
5) I need to do this quickly because it’s likely to go viral and I want to be one of the first up with this shocking piece of the truth.

The impulses behind this are emotional, status and a sense of urgency, all factors that make one less likely to verify that something is true.

But the bigger insight isn’t my jackrabbit like lack of impulse control. It’s the fact that this thing, whatever it is, says something to me that I am fully capable of articulating on my own. I’m a writer. I have a website. If something enrages me, horrifies me or even makes me feel small and discarded, I have the skill and the forum for discussing it rather than doing the cheap and easy act of repeating, re-posting. This re-posting almost as false as the meme itself. It mimics an action, or mimics an attempt to say something but repeating is reflexive, immediate and shows no judgment.

Kwame Harris And That Tenth of A Second

May 30th, 2013 No Comments

Writing this story about Kwame Harris’ life as a closeted athlete for ESPN magazine, I learned  about the intricate relationship that offensive linemen have. To succeed, they must be so attuned to each other that they can communicate without speaking, making it that much harder for a gay athlete to keep a secret from the “brothers” on the line with whom he spends most of his year. I spoke with other offensive linemen for this story to get a sense of what is at stake at that moment when the ball is snapped.

Kwame Harris on the 49er offensive line

When the huddle breaks and the offensive line jogs to the scrimmage line, most are silent and few look their opponents in the eyes. Instead they scan the other team’s bodies, comparing what they see in front of them with what they learned watching hours and hours of film. They know who is the tallest, who the strongest and who the fastest. And each player knows well the idiosyncrasies of the guy whose nose is inches from his own. He knows if he is early or late on the snap, has studied the way he cranes his neck before a blitz, and he knows his injuries. He also knows the injuries of the men on his side of the line, who is feeling strong that day and whose shoulder is bothering him, so that the whole line coordinates to cover that weakness, a weakness the defense is sure to pick up on pretty fast.

“If he speed rushed you last time, he’s going to come on the inside or bull rush you the next time,” said Bob Whitfield, an offensive tackle who played most of his career for the Atlanta Falcons. “You’ve got to push him out. You’ve got to push him. If he’s got a bad shoulder and every time I pop that shoulder he’s wincing, guess what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna whop that shoulder.”

At the snap, the offensive line punches up while running backwards as the defense presses into the pocket around the quarterback. Former Buffalo Bills left tackle Steve Hoyem called it, “a Sumo wrestling match. Whoever has the most push will win that battle. You target the numbers on his jersey. You try to get your hands inside under his pads. If the ref sees your hands holding on to his shoulder pads you’ll get called on holding. But if you get up under those pads, you can get away with a lot.”

In the screaming in the stadium before an important play, the offensive linemen can’t hear the snap. Sometimes to stay in sync, as they line up they hold hands. At the drop of the hand, they surge together. The goal is to hold that line just four seconds, enough time for the quarterback to step back and the receiver to get down field. Both teams are usually so evenly matched, the advantage one has over the other is slight. With everything on the line in those four seconds, a slightly sharper focus, or a stronger bond between the players provides that tenths of a second edge.

“Where is the game played the fastest? It’s not at the wide receivers, not at the running back. It’s at the line,” said Tyrone Willingham, former Stanford head coach. “You ask a lot and expect a lot from your offensive line.”

Despite how much is asked of them, the offensive line doesn’t get much glory. Their success is measured by their failures: how many times they draw the team off sides and how often the quarterback gets sacked. This anti-hero status is part of what binds them. They’re a band of brothers who make a stand against the onrushing forces; each movement has to be carefully choreographed for the whole unit to succeed.

They train together, eat together, recreate together on the road and during the holidays and in the summers. They are the groomsmen at each others’ weddings and godfathers of each others’ children. Knowing each other in this way builds cohesion, and the warrior mentality. “We practice, bleed, sweat and hurt together,” said Kwame Harris, former offensive tackle for the 49ers. “For defensive linemen it’s a you vs. me battle. With offensive linemen it’s us vs. him.”

Kwame Harris knows about the intense bonds of brothers in arms. Among him and his two athletically gifted brothers, Duevorn and Orien, and all of whom played professional football, Kwame was the best. A unanimous All-American selection in high school, the most sought after college recruit, winner of the Morris Trophy as the top offensive lineman in the Pac-10, and selected 26th in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft. In his third year at the 49ers, Kwame’s game started to fall apart. He allowed nine sacks and committed fifteen penalties including seven false starts in 2005, and allowed eight sacks with four holding penalties and one false start the following year. While Kwame tried a number of things to improve his game, as I described in the ESPN magazine article, this once promising player’s career sputtered to a close. He had a disappointing 2008 at the Oakland Raiders after the 49ers let him go, retiring from football at the age of 29.

What few people outside Kwame’s family knew is that he blamed this downturn on staying in the closet. As I quoted him in the ESPN magazine article about his football career, “If the world had been more comfortable with gay players on the football field, it wouldn’t have been so consuming when it came up,” he said, with an edge of fury in his voice. “Everything would not have been filtered through that, being gay. Like when I had a bad game or if we lost or if I did something awful, it was because I was gay. It was the easiest way for me to beat myself up, being gay. I know it affected my play,””

NFL players will tell you that a homosexual cannot be a warrior. Although Kwame Harris is outraged by this prejudice, his personal experience supports it. In a battle where a tenth of a second is the margin between success and failure, for Kwame that tenth of a second was the fact that he was scared that someone in football would find out he was gay. Or that tenth of a second was that his fellow linesman already knew and hated him for it.

To me, this is one of the many costs of the Don’t Ask/Don’t tell attitude of the NFL. The coaches spend a lot of time building this wordless cohesion between the players, creating this brotherly bond, but if one of them is keeping a secret despite the intense forced intimacy of the offensive line, does that hamper his ability to get that 10th of a second advantage? By making the players’ homosexuality something that cannot be discussed and therefore is not tolerated, that tenth of second becomes the moment when all of it is on the line.