Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) was a visionary artist. Since the publication of her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976, millions of people have read her words. Countless artists and activists—including Janelle Monae, Gloria Steinem, and Viola Davis—have taken inspiration from the worlds of her imagination.
But the accolades Butler received during her lifetime, her growing popularity in the aftermath of her death, and the privacy she maintained while she was alive have created a conundrum for those of us curious about the woman behind the legend. The enduring image of who Butler was as a person has blurred into a larger-than-life projection of whom we want her to be—a prophet (she wrote about a zealot elected to “make America great again” long before Trump), a sage, a poster child for feminism or Black power or nerds everywhere, an extra-human sibilant transfixed by futures only she could see.
The truth, of course, is more complicated. When I first entered the archives in Los Angeles that hold her papers, researching for what would become a musical of her life called Octavia of Earth, I joked to my co-conspirator T. that Butler seemed like the kind of person who would show up to a drum circle, play the same rhythm on a set of jingle bells for an hour, say nothing, and then leave.
Yet my first glimpse into her teenage diary placed all my preconceptions through the shredder. Here was someone deeply grounded in her experience of the world, who paid attention to the news and the writing on the wall alike and synthesized them all together to create new knowledge with layers and layers of depth.
Here was someone who had unrequited teenage crushes and felt awkward as hell, who dared to want to be something as outlandish as a writer in a working-class Black family where her mother and uncles served the wealthiest of Pasadena in plantation-style homes.
Here was someone who struggled with doubt, wage labor, barriers to accessing healthcare, the relentless cycles of oppression, making humiliating mistakes—the full catastrophe of life. Here was someone who made her way through a world built for people who were not like her and yet who persisted.
Here was someone entirely human in her magnificence.
Today, passages from Butler’s apocalyptic Parable series are indistinguishable from the morning news. In this moment of two-dimensional villains and saviors in the 30-second news cycle, we must fight to add nuance to our understanding of the world and its people, to listen for depth. We must tear down the statues of our oppressors and reimagine the pedestals beneath the feet of our heroes as mere sidewalks. We must walk arm-in-arm with our goddesses. We must listen to Black women, reflect, and act—not expect them to be superhumans who save the world for everyone else.
Fourteen years after her death, Octavia E. Butler’s best-known quotes may be those about the infinite nature of change, but the one that haunts me is about stagnation: “I think people can do better. I just don’t think we will.” May this prophecy be the one to prove Butler’s humanity once and for all. May she be wrong.
Anand Jay Kalra is the founding director of Oakland-based Uncaged Librarian Productions (ULP). From 2016 – 2018, ULP produced Octavia of Earth, Vol. 1, an original musical inspired by the life of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler. The soundtrack album is available on CD and mp3 at www.uncagedlibrarianmusic.com and was recently released to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and all major platforms. Anand lives in Oakland with his cats, Sparrow and Finch.
48 HILLSEarly in the book, you talk about how the ILWU’s nearly all-white membership embraced integration and racial justice. This flies in the face of the commonly held belief that all trade unions were shackled by racism. What shaped the ILWU’s commitments? What did they accomplish?
Peter Cole No doubt, the history of unionism in America is shot full of racism but I’d hesitate to say that all unions are racist, especially in recent decades. However, there’s no doubt that, historically, many unions excluded or segregated African American workers as well as Asians, Mexicans and other Latinx, American Indians, women, and other so-called minorities.
Due to this history of exclusion, in the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington flat out encouraged black workers to scab. But there’s also a tradition of antiracism. As early as the 1880s, the Knights of Labor made a sincere effort to organize black and female workers and, since its founding in 1905, the Industrial Workers of the World made inclusion a bedrock principle, as I explored in my first book, Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia. Building on this foundation, in the 1930s a wave of new unions emerged that challenged rejected racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Among the most radical of these was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU).
The history of the ILWU, particularly its SF Bay Area branch—called Local 10—is an incredible example of antiracism in action. When established, literally 99% of SF longshoremen were of European descent or European immigrants. By the way, only 1% of San Francisco’s population was African American and only 3% of Oakland’s. Yet, from its inception, the ILWU and Local 10, the union’s flagship branch as SF was the West Coast’s busiest port, committed itself to racial equality.
Local 10 quickly integrated work gangs, guaranteed black members equal job opportunities, and actively fought racist treatment of its black members. When WWII created a massive labor shortage that sparked another wave of the African American Great Migration, more than a thousand Southern Black men soon entered Local 10. According to Cleophas Williams, who hailed from rural Arkansas, it was the first time he had met white people who weren’t racist. In one interview, he said that many Black members of Local 10 thought they had found utopia. That may seem hard to swallow but that’s what Williams declared. By the way, he went on to become the first African American elected president of Local 10 (and I had the privilege of getting to know him in his final five years of life).
My new book explores in great detail why the ILWU, particularly Local 10, proved so committed to racial equality. First, pragmatically, they wanted to avoid a repetition of past strikes in which black workers crossed picket lines. However, that alone doesn’t explain the ILWU position because many unions refused to embrace equality despite this seeming logic. Thus, there must be additional factors, including ideology.
Many longshoremen who founded the union, later dubbed “’34 men” for participating in the legendary “Big Strike of 1934” out of which the union emerged, were socialists. Be they Communists, Trotskyists, Wobblies, or some other Left flavor, they firmly believed that racial, ethnic, and other identities were far less important than one’s class identity. Understandably, many people point to Harry Bridges, the ILWU’s first and long-time president, as the explanation for the union’s commitment to equality. Of course, he deserves credit, but he’d have been the first to say that he didn’t act alone. A great many in the ILWU believed that all workers—regardless of race, religion, or nationality—shared common interests as well as common foes, namely the capitalist bosses.
48HYou also discuss how Black dockworkers in Durban, South Africa used their power to undermine apartheid. Why has the labor story of the anti-apartheid movement been so under-documented before your book?
PC Indeed, I argue that the Durban dockworkers were pivotal to the struggle against apartheid. They started flexing their muscles, by striking, as far back as the late 19th century and continued to do so, repeatedly into the late 1970s. Since Durban was South Africa’s primary port city for both exports and imports, these dockers mattered greatly. Perhaps their most important actions, however, remain underappreciated—specifically how they sparked and shaped the Durban Strikes of 1973, the largest protests by Blacks and Indians since the repression of the early 1960s created a so-called “quiet decade,” i.e. little anti-apartheid activism.
In 1969, Durban dockers struck, they threatened to so in 1971, and struck again in late 1972—and despite mass firings, police violence, and further state repression. These were the largest strikes among black South Africans in a decade. And, less than two months after their 1972 strike, Black workers downed tools and launched what became known as the Durban Strikes in which tens of thousands joined in the largest wave of strikes, among workers of color, in South African history up to that time. From then onward, there was no further quiet though overthrowing apartheid took another twenty years.
I wouldn’t quite say that labor’s role in the struggle is under-appreciated by historians of South Africa. In fact, I use that fact to point out how far too many people in the United States fail to appreciate how important unions have been to advancing racial equality in the States. However, I do contend that the specific role of Durban’s dockworkers remains under-appreciated in launching the Durban Strikes, though I’m not the first to suggest that. I do hope that my book heightens the appreciation of how important Durban dockers were to the long struggle against apartheid, in many ways the greatest global social movement of the late 20th century.
48H: You buck an academic trend of presenting race and class issues as polar opposites. What is useful to you when thinking through these dynamics?
PC: I’ve been studying the links between struggles for worker power and racial equality for 25 years and counting. And, for 25 years I’ve been tired about the race-class debate. It’s a false dichotomy and only undermines our efforts to overcome racial capitalism. What I mean by that term is that capitalism and white supremacy arose, in tandem, in the 1600s and 1700s and have been inextricably linked ever since, along with its third ugly head, imperialism.
Socialists who ignore the reality of race and racism do so at their peril. So, too, those who think that capitalism can be anything other than racist. Simply put, the majority of the world’s population and working-class peoples aren’t white. Yet, it’s a sad fact that many (far too many) white working people continue to downplay the importance of racism and xenophobia. For me, though, I’d rather spend my time examining those workers and unions that understood that it’s not either/or but both and always.
We humans need not fixate on one single issue; we can simultaneously attack race and class oppression. But those of us who are relatively privileged, in this case white folks, must be particularly aware of the need to combat racism (sexism and xenophobia) in our ranks. The recently deceased Noel Ignatiev, who worked in Chicago steel mills for two decades before getting his PhD in History from Harvard, called such white people “race traitors.” Like many others, I find that term quite insightful.
48HWith the recent strikes and unionizing attempts, it seems like organized labor could be poised to make a comeback. Are there any lessons from your book that you would want to highlight for today’s rebel workers?
PC There sure are some lessons! I don’t only study the past because it’s so fascinating. I also do so, like Howard Zinn did, because I want to understand the present in order to build a better future. The first lesson should be obvious to those who read the book or listen to me talk about it: the greatest power ordinary people possess is when they’re organized, especially in unions, and that our greatest weapon is the strike. As the Wobbly leader Big Bill Haywood said, “If the workers are organized, all they have to do is to put their hands in their pockets and they have got the capitalist class whipped.” A century on, that hasn’t changed.
I live part of the time in Chicago and the recent Chicago Teachers Union’s strike just reminded us, once more, what is possible. In the short term, better earnings, fairer and safer workplaces, and improved conditions for students and the community since they engaged in “bargaining for the common good.” In the longer run, strikes build working class power which, I believe, is the best way to attack racism, sexism, homophobia, and nativism as well as the economic inequality that wreaks havoc on our lives and the planet.
Also, since resources are limited and certain industries more pivotal to capitalism than others, we have to be strategic. In other words, where should we prioritize? Dockworker Power makes clear that the answer is shipping because 90% of the goods we consumer still move by ship for at least part of their journey.
More broadly, we should strive to organize workers up and down the entire supply chain. However, dockworkers aren’t more important, necessarily, than railroad workers, truck drivers, and warehouse workers. They’re just far better organized so have more power (and higher incomes, better conditions, and so on). I’m not always a fan of the Teamsters but when they refused to move scab cars during the recent UAW strike and refused to make deliveries to Chicago public schools during the teachers strike, they demonstrated working class solidarity which translated into real power.
Michael “Flea” Balzary told 48 Hills that he credits three things with keeping the fiery Red Hot Chili Peppers together for almost four decades.
First, each member of the flamboyant three-time Grammy-winning funk-rock band has a “diligent work ethic,” so when they commit to performing a series of gigs the following year — they always follow through.
Second, when the quartet of singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, drummer Chad Smith, and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer get together to rehearse for the said shows, someone often says or plays something interesting that triggers a new song or album idea that the group simply can’t resist exploring.
Last but certainly not least, there’s a “mysterious alchemy” between Flea (rated the number two bassist of all time by Rolling Stone readers in 2009) and Kiedis, who first befriended each other at Los Angeles’s Fairfax High School in 1976.
It’s never been the easiest of relationships, as Flea describes in his new memoir Acid for the Children, which chronicles all the pivotal moments that shaped him as an artist, starting with the departure of his biological father and ending with the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first show in 1983, for a crowd of 27 people at Hollywood’s Grandia Room.
Not fully understanding how or why he and Kiedis work so well together makes him reticent to delve too deeply into their time in the Red Hot Chili Peppers in his new memoir, which he’s promoting in San Francisco this week (Fri/8 at JCCSF), preferring instead to focus on his formative years growing up in Australia and New York state and his teen years spent running wild on the streets of Hollywood. For Kiedis’s perspective on the band years — the addictions, infighting, and departures as well as tremendous commercial successes — read Scar Tissue.
“There are times that Anthony and I argue, fight, and hurt each other and then times when we’re incredibly supportive, loving, and understanding of each other,” said Flea. “But we always end up drawn to one another. It’s something that I wanted to understand in the book, but it’s still this raw, emotional, open thing, and I don’t know that I understand it well enough that I could look at it in a way that wouldn’t be swept up in emotion. Maybe I never will.”
I spoke to the musician and perennial actor — who is currently in the middle of co-producing the next Red Hot Chili Peppers record and next appears in the film Queen & Slim, opening in the Bay Area on Nov. 27 — about Acid for the Children, overcoming childhood traumas, and helping his book readers to feel less alone.
48 HILLSWhy is now a good time to release your first memoir?
FLEA I had been asked many times to write a memoir. I’d always declined because I felt that my life’s still going, so it doesn’t feel right to write one. To tell you the truth, when I agreed to do one, I don’t know why outside of the fact that it just seemed like a good challenge to write one and I finally felt ready to do it.
48 HILLS Did you look to Anthony Kiedis’s 2004 memoir, Scar Tissue, as a model?
FLEA I’ve never read his book, because I knew that we’re very different people with very different world views. So I was kind of scared to read his take on our shared experiences because they might be so different.
I know he worked with someone else in writing it, but it was very important for me to write mine on my own without a ghostwriter.
48 HILLS What was your process for writing the book?
FLEA I wrote it in fits and starts. But when I broke my arm in 2016, and I had a couple of months where I was immobilized and just had to sit on the couch, that was the time when I wrote most of it. Once I got off the painkillers and my mind was clear, I would write every morning.
I read about Toni Morrison’s writing process and how she would write freely in the morning without thinking about organization or grammar and would go on later in the afternoon and revisit what she wrote and then organize it into a more palatable format. So I did that.
Also, when I first wrote it, I wrote in a ranting, sprawling style. Then I decided to refine and simplify it and to only write about my childhood through the period that The Red Hot Chili Peppers started. Later, I went in with an editor and took everything out that didn’t specifically shape me and wasn’t pertinent to the story I was telling.
48 HILLS You talk about some very powerful things in your memoir — from the abandonment and abuse you experienced as a child to being a petty criminal in your teen years as well as your earliest drug experiences — in a very analytical way. At what point in your life did you begin to make sense of these traumatic events?
FLEA To be honest, I didn’t really begin to understand what I went through as a kid or begin to make peace with it till I was in my early 30s. That’s when I stopped doing drugs and drinking alcohol and became conscious of what was around me.
I went through a period of a lot of anger and frustration because I realized that I was faltering in my life a lot. I was failing in relationships, acting in ways that were embarrassing and hurtful to others, and had been kind of a mess — and I was kind of mad at my parents for it. When I started realizing, especially being a father myself, that they weren’t there when I needed them, I had this real anger at them. Then after going through that, I started realizing, “OK, how do I deal with this in the best possible way?” That’s when I started finding forgiveness.
Also, I’ve been in a shitload therapy. For a good 25 years, I’ve been seeing a therapist on and off.
48 HILLS So many people wouldn’t have overcome even half of the things you’ve experienced in your life. What helped you to persevere?
FLEA Music, literature, art, and film are a huge component. Then my connections with people who I’ve felt have seen me and whom I’ve been able to see in profound ways.
But the running thread through all of those things — even when I felt my most alienated, sad, frustrated, and disappointed with things around me or in myself — is love. I’ve always felt a deep love inside of myself and I think that that’s been the main thing that’s guided me and helped me to survive all the difficult things in my life.
48 HILLS What do you hope that readers take away from your book?
FLEA It’s my true heart as best as I’m able to express it, so if reading my stories can help anyone feel less alone in what they’re going through, then that’s my greatest hope for it. Beyond any rockstar Red Hot Chili Peppers thing, I hope that it can just be a book that can sit on someone’s shelf and be of value.
FLEA Fri/8, 7pm, $75-$95 (Includes a copy of Acid for the Children) JCCSF, SF. More info here.
Orloff was an essential player in so much of what we now consider SF’s last artistic gasp before the Internet Boom and sky-high real estate prices made tech money, not personal expression, the driving force behind Baghdad by the Bay. From young Polk Street denizen and Tenderloin stripper to co-founder of institutions like The Popstitutes band, performance collective/event Klubstitute, and outrageous Baby Judy’s party—with stops at every hot scene spot in between (Club Chaos, Club Uranus, Sick & Twisted Players, underground zines)—the Bay Area native spills it all in a compulsively readable book that will have you swimming in fabulous looks and wayward dreams of yore, and probably some tears as well.
Now the manager of Dog-Eared Books in the Castro, in the book Orloff is a questing, wide-eyed soul whose sensitive observations of the minutiae and meaning of the times come through in wonderfully twisted incidents. “I’d known most people didn’t like homosexuals,” he writes after hearing an old woman defend Harvey Milk’s murderer on a bus, “but I hadn’t realized so many wanted us dead. This was scary and annoying, yeah, but also thrilling. Being disliked is a wishy-washy experience compared to being homicidally detested.”
Throughout most of this “true story of how a bunch of pathologically flippant kids foundered through a deadly serious disaster,” Orloff’s artistic life and destiny are deeply intertwined with those of his best friend Michael, who later takes the name Diet Popstitute. The hyper-intelligent quips and deep theoretical analyses of relationships and politics, delivered with several strong substances and outlandish projects at hand, fly fast and furious—but not in that tired old bitchy queen way. Diet’s wild pronouncements often come like refreshing slaps to the reader’s face. This is the sis/bromance that defines Orloff both in the heat of friendship and in Diet’s characteristically confounding death from the disease, which wipes so many brilliant characters out of Disasterama!’s narrative.
Perfectly executed, poetically ambitious little chapter “Four Blondes 1984-1986” shows just what a whirlwind of romance, lust, death, and loss those times were, while copious photos and club flyer reproductions document the crazy purple-mohawk-and-plasti-outfit. Names like Jennifer Blowdryer, Deena Davenport, Doris Fish, Tony Vaguely, Stephen Maxxxine, Elvis Herselvis, Bambi Lake, Tyler Ingolia, and more bring back memories of SF’s neon-bright clubkid moment.
Orloff is honest, too, about the psychic toll it all took, from plainly confessing he didn’t have the will to be directly politically active during the heyday of ACT-UP and other such orgs (he reasons that maintaining creative nightlife while others took care of the die-ins was also important), to exploring in his final chapters how the simultaneous deaths of Diet and his beloved mother—plus the weird conservative turn gay culture took once medications made HIV manageable—knocked him out of underground club culture for a more quiet life. We are all still dealing with that period’s trauma, and Orloff ably illustrates how it continues to affect us in different ways. One miracle of the book is that it’s not bitter at all, when it has every right to be.
I caught up with Orloff over email (he’s written movingly for 48 Hills in the past) and asked him a few questions about sex, hair, and how the scene he memorializes lives on.
48 HILLSI had to laugh when you started to talk about your experience as a call boy in the ’80s, placing an ad in the back of the Bay Area Reporter. I remember moving here, taking one horrified look at those ads, and feeling so vanilla that I swore off sex until I could figure out what my incredibly niche fetish was! Do you remember what your ad said?
ALVIN ORLOFF I’m woefully short on fetishes, so the ad was pretty generic. I find the subplot about my sex work embarrassing, not because I think there’s anything wrong with sex work, but because I wandered into it out of laziness and psychological discombobulation. I ultimately decided to include in the book both for comic relief and because I thought it was important to let the world know that not all sex workers are vacuous bimbos with sad, dead fish eyes like Melania T.
48HI loved the detailed, often raucous descriptions of what people wore throughout the book— including updates on on your latest hairstyles. What are some of the hair creations you thought were the most ‘successful’ in terms of building your image, or that you just liked the most?
AO Oh gosh, I didn’t mention 90% of my hairstyles. I liked my leopard print hair, but it didn’t like me. Ditto with chartreuse. I tried tiny little braids in front like Adam Ant, and that was pretty cute for a minute. And I used to be fond of bleaching my hair then using red cellophane for a translucent ruby effect. My favorite product, which no longer exists, was Let’s Jam Hair Pudding. It was an electric lavender color and smelled almost like a sweet bathroom disinfectant, but somehow delicious.
48HSome of the most fascinating sections in the book for me are about your time with the Popstitutes and Klubstitute. Can you share a little bit about what that era was like in SF Clubland—and if you think that sort of confluence of talent and outrageousness can happen now in SF?
AO I actually have no idea how 21st century queer clubland differs from that of the ’80s and early ’90s because I’m now elderly and fall asleep at 11 o’clock. Friends have told me modern nightlife lacks the wild intensity of the Olden Days. If true, that makes sense because the horrifically high death rate from AIDS really fed into a strain of mania back then. So many people were trying to pack a lifetime’s worth of fun into the few short remaining years they had left. Also, we were deliberately flaunting our sexuality and gender-bendering in order to annoy the bigots who wanted us dead. Anti-LGBTQ prejudice is less intense now, so there’s not the same need to react against it quite so intensely. And finally, more people had to go out at night in the 20th century because there was so much less to do at home: no internet, no phone apps, and let’s not forget that TV back then was TERRIBLE.
48HFlipping through the middle of the book, which contains so many photos, flyers, and ephemera of famous people and parties was such a time machine. The Vegas in Space cast, Jerome Caja, Justin Vivian Bond, Jennifer Blowdryer, Diet Popstitute … What was it like to compile both the images and your memories in the book, knowing so many of these people are gone?
AO Being in my autumn years, I’m already prone to wistful nostalgia, and writing about my departed comrades and the vanished world of our youth often pushed me into full melancholy. I kept writing anyway because I felt my pals deserved someone singing their praises for refusing to play the tragic roles fate assigned them and remaining fun, funny, and vivacious right up to their untimely ends. Also, being a writer, I could see that my youth had the makings of a terrific story, what with all the life-and-death drama, unusual characters, morally ambiguous conflicts, and comical subplots. Only a fool would throw away such good material! Not to mention, I think memoirs are great for giving people an idea of what it was like to live through a particular era, adding color and texture to the historical record.
48HThe aesthetics of the ’80s and early ’90s SF queer underground really revolved around what you point out as “retro-camp,” from the Sick & Twisted Players’s outrageous musical productions to the fetishization of ’50s kitchenware, rhinestone studs, and bakelite jewelry—but with a punk sensibility, as well. I love this distinction you make in the book: “Good retro-camp is nostalgic, but in a productive way, like cleaning out your attic. Bad retro-camp asks people to laugh at the the fashions and sensibilities of yesteryear, simply because they’re outdated. What do you think happened to retro-camp, or camp at all? I’m thinking of the recent Met Ball disaster, and also just any sense of underlying appreciative humor in the styes of today …
AO Not an easy question! I suspect the retro trend faded because one can no longer find fabulous Midcentury Modern products or clothing in thrift stores, and reviving the hideous styles of the 1990s and early 21st century is an unappealing proposition. (What makes some products fab and others hideous? I’d say it’s the degree of optimism embedded in the design semiotics, but that’s a discussion for another day.) As for the camp sensibility, it’s still there—see: “Feud”—but has perhaps lost some of its zing in becoming mainstream. And although my apartment still looks like a ramshackle version of a swinging bachelor pad from 1968, I don’t lament the passing of retro camp. The culture has moved on and we have all sorts of new trends to explore. I think it’s great there are now something like 37 sexual orientations and gender identities to choose from!
48HFinally, you write so deeply of your vital, infuriating, overwhelming friendship with Diet Popstitute. How do you see his rambunctious spirit living on today?
AO Diet was was a human catalyst who could instantly alter the social chemistry of any situation using wit, flattery, needling questions, and pure blarney to nudge people out of their established roles and habits. This was part of his crusade to destroy social hierarchy and upend convention with the ultimate goal of making the world as a fairer and less boring place. Results varied, but nobody who met him ever forgot him. Does his rambunctious spirit live on? Absolutely! It’s there whenever a teenage boy decides to paint his nails green, or a secretary uses the office printer to put out her poetry chapbook, or someone with no theatrical experience decides to put on a play. It’s there whenever playfulness, glamour, and whimsy are employed against the self-serious bourgeois stodginess that can make life so very un-fun.
DISASTERAMA! Launch Party Fri/18, 7pm-10pm, free Dog-Eared Books Castro, SF. More info here.
The field of literature is often criticized for its focus on dead writers, but you can’t blame Literary Death Match for adding to the corpse pile. With Litquake, the Bay Area-wide festival of books and authors, running for 10 days starting Thur/10, LDM is poised to celebrate its 500th go-round.
Five hundred death matches is rather a lot of death, but only 69 of those have been held in San Francisco—mostly at the Elbo Room, the famed venue on Valencia Street that was seemingly fated to become condos after a slow, agonizing “Pit and the Pendulum”-like process. Luckily, that hasn’t happened, and LDM is ready to take over the Elbo Room’s successor bar, the Valencia Room, on Tuesday, October 15.
“I was really pleased that all it took was a phone call,” says producer and self-described talent scout Matthew DeCoster. “I didn’t have to do a hard sell, so I think that is commendable. It’s Literary Death Match’s spiritual home, so I’m delighted that we get to continue the tradition during Litquake’s 20th year.”
There is an additional show next week as well, but it’s at members-only club The Battery. DeCoster cast both, and while he’s too shrewd and diplomatic to say so outright, it’s clear that the more democratic show at the Valencia Room is where his heart lies. For it, he scoured the scene for local talent, paying particular attention to productions at Cliterary Salon. Quiet Lightning, Why There Are Words, and the like.
“We strive for diversity,” he says, “and I think we succeeded in that. Not just diversity of how people identify, but of performative styles, backgrounds that lead to certain observations of perhaps race or class, and where in the world you are at the moment.”
Before it was the Elbo Room, the bar used to be the famed lesbian watering hole Amelia’s. Calling it “enlightened self-interest,” DeCoster adds that Literary Death Match has always striven to make its shows queer-positive. Last year, for what everyone thought was the Elbo Room’s swan song, he found himself leaning against the bar drinking whiskey with activist Cleve Jones, and concluded that he’d done his part to keep the space as queer as possible.
Literary Death Match’s format is pretty straightforward. Over two rounds with two competitors each, authors read something they’ve written — published or unpublished, masterpiece or juvenilia—for around six minutes. They may make people laugh or cry. They can wear elaborate costumes, or shoot bolts of Force Lightning from their fingertips. Three judges, each tasked with a different element, then determine a winner — someone who may in fact be a total introvert who spends their days pecking at a keyboard, brushing a cat away from their mug of chamomile.
It’s meant to be a raucous combination of highbrow and lowbrow. That LDM and Litquake are both celebrating round-numbered anniversaries means the talent has to be top-tier, and so round one will pit writer and artist Miah Jeffra (The First Church of What’s Happening) against poet and vocalist Nazelah Jamison (Evolutionary Heart) before Lauren Markham goes head-to-head with Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
LDM creator and host Adrian Todd Zuniga, author of Collision Theory, cast Markham, whose The Far Away Brothers chronicles the struggles of unaccompanied migrant teenagers from El Salvador. But DeCoster raves about Rojas Contreras’ novel Fruit of the Drunken Tree, calling it “one of the top three books I’ve read in the last five years in terms of enjoyment.” She’ll be at several events over the course of Litquake, such that DeCoster was almost surprised that she agreed to participate.
“As with [Pulitzer Prize winner and previous LDM competitor] Jane Smiley, she’s someone you think is not going to want to come down off the pedestal they’re on, but she got back to me almost immediately.”
“I’ve been named to the board of Foglifter Press, a queer, biannual literary journal. This event is celebrating the launch of the eighth issue, which is a compendium of the most dynamic, urgent, queer writing today, based here in San Francisco. Miah Jeffra is the co-founding editor, and he’s competing [in Literary Death Match]. They always pack the house and it’s always super queer and fun.”
With Summer Farah, Amy Gong Liu, Thea Matthews, Jon Jon Moore, Jacques J. Roncourt, and Emily Shapiro. Saturday, Oct. 12, 7pm-8:30pm, at Strut, 470 Castro, SF.
“I’m as interested in seeing There There author Tommy Orange as I am in seeing No Human Being Is Illegal [with author J. J. Mulligan Sepúlveda, also on Wednesday night]. I will have numerous opportunities to see Tommy Orange in the future — but never see this panel on immigration again.”
In conversation with San Francisco poet laureate Kim Shuck. Wednesday, Oct. 16, 6pm-7pm, at Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin, SF.
Orloff is the manager of Dog Eared on Valencia and Castro, and I read an early rough draft of his novel, Disasterama!. It’s basically about what is was like to be a queer club kid in the Bay Area into the late-’80s and early-’90s. Of anyone in the festival, he’s a local person who’s not just been in the trenches of queer club culture, but he’s really been fighting for bookstores, too.
Friday, Oct. 18, 7pm-8:30pm, at Dog Eared Books Castro, 489 Castro, SF.
Ben Folds is not your average rockstar, so it’s no surprise that the genre-bending alternative, pop, and classical artist’s autobiography, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, is not your typical tell-all.
Instead of issuing yet another celebrity memoir teeming with lurid tales of sexcapades and drug abuse, the former Ben Folds Five frontman and multi-platinum-selling solo artist, best known for such cult classics as “Brick,” “The Luckiest,” and “You Don’t Know Me,” fills his 336-page bio with career lessons for artists, which he himself learned the hard way from his own successes and failures.
Folds, who serves as the first-ever Artistic Advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, scores for film and TV, and hosts the ArtsVote 2020 Podcast Series of interviews on arts policies with current 2020 presidential candidates, is particularly suited to teaching readers such things as how to find their creative voice, think like an artist, and sustain a lasting and multidisciplinary artistic career.
The singer-songwriter is excited to impart even more lessons when he appears in San Francisco, in conversation with SF Chronicle pop music critic Aidin Vaziri, on his birthday (Thu/12 at JCCSF) and ice the cake with an intimate performance of some of his standout tunes.
But first, he chatted with me about his most valuable lesson for creatives, why arts education is critical, and why every single person should write their own damn memoir.
48 HILLSThere are a lot of lessons in your book for aspiring musicians and creatives in general. Which, in your opinion, is the most important one?
BEN FOLDS I would simply drop off the suggestion that human life is essentially creative at its core and separating art from life is not always an easy, possible, or smart thing to do.
People are inherently creative. I don’t know what lesson comes out of that. It’s just something to remember as people embark upon life, whether you’re selling insurance like Charles Ives, one of the great composers, was doing, or whether you’re shaking your ass on stage like Elvis was doing.
48 HILLSReading your book, I can see why you’ve become such a huge advocate for arts education and music therapy funding in our nation’s public schools. Why have so many been quick to abandon arts education?
BEN FOLDS Because I think in order to achieve the incredible things we’ve achieved, we have all become experts in our fields. So I think the compartmentalization into various expertise has given birth to the idea that creativity is only valuable if it’s the expertise—that which puts food on the table—when creativity is actually how we live, what we’re interested in, what brings us joy, and what makes us human.
The purest environment in which we really foster creativity is in the arts. So the reason that I’m really in favor of reestablishing the value of arts education is that it’s so good for everybody’s life going forward.
48 HILLSI know you’ve spoken to many Democratic candidates for president on your podcast to get their stances on this issue.
BEN FOLDS Such a number has been done politically on the arts as a frivolous thing to invest public funds into and in the course of that, we have devalued the very idea of art, and that’s a grave mistake.
But I’ve talked to plenty of politicians that are very for arts education that will be the first to tell me that they sucked at art and music and when they were in it didn’t understand why they were doing it. But they can now see the value when they make a good public speech and the cadence, rhythm, timing, and pitch they choose are all artistic decisions.
48 HILLSIn your book you describe how your Aunt Sharon was big on investigating and recording your family history for posterity. Since you have kids, I wonder if part of the reason you wrote your memoir was to get down a Folds family history for them.
BEN FOLDS Well, it is. But they know most of that stuff anyway. I think a lot of the things about my adult life, they won’t have known until they read the book, but I can’t honestly say that they’ve read the book.
I probably wouldn’t have read my father’s book till I was in my 40’s, had he written a book. So I don’t anticipate they’ve read it. That doesn’t mean that they don’t love me, but one day they may read it and go, “Oh, he did this and this and this before I was born. I had no idea because he didn’t talk about that.” So that could come in handy.
My daughter has become pretty interested in the Ancestry.com stuff, and so I’ve actually learned quite a bit.
48 HILLSSo are you related to anyone famous?
BEN FOLDS No, I don’t think so. There’s notably veterans up in the chain and a lot of mountain people in there who didn’t know that anything was going on outside of that. My grandfather was considered big stuff and famous because he was from the big city of Martinsville, North Carolina, and he sold tractors. So he was kind of the rockstar of the family.
48 HILLSYou’ve said that you hope that in the process of writing your memoir you eliminated some “badly filed memories.” What did you mean by that?
BEN FOLDS There’s another angle to that. I nearly called the book Write Your Own Damn Memoir and the joke of that was that I think that people in their 40s should actually take a sabbatical and write their own memoir. The reason I believe that after doing it is because you sometimes have memories that are not right because they’re false, filed like bricks in your memory by the people, say the 10-year-old, that you once were. But when you reexamine your life, you can take each bad brick out, so it doesn’t inform your life or decision making for the rest of your life.
48 HILLSYou’ll be at the Jewish Community Center of SF on your birthday. How do you feel about celebrating your birthday with us?
BEN FOLDS I like that people are buying my book and showing up to talk about it. I can’t imagine anything more generous.
48 HILLSHow do you typically mark your birthday?
BEN FOLDS By not announcing it. By not having my friends or family do anything about it if they would restrain themselves. I don’t need anything. I know it’s my birthday that morning. I’ll wake up and go, “Yeah it’s my birthday,” but it’s not avoiding it. I just don’t celebrate it.
BEN FOLDS: CONVERSATION & PERFORMANCE Thu/12, 7pm, $35-$65 JCCSF, SF. More info here.
LITAya De León is a writer, activist, educator, spoken word poet and author of the award-winning Justice Hustlers series, including latest installment Side Chick Nation. The Director of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People, she teaches poetry and spoken word at UC Berkeley and is an alumna of Cave Canem, VONA and Harvard University. We caught up with her before her reading at Octopus Literary Salon, Tue/20.
48 HILLSTell us about the Justice Hustlers series of books. You describe it as “feminist heist/romance.” What do you mean?
Aya De León: As far as feminist heist, this is a Robin Hood series about a group of women who are redistributing wealth from representatives of the patriarchy to low income women of color. Sometimes they use the funds in direct reparations to specific groups of women who have been harmed. Sometimes they fund institutions that meet the needs of those communities. But I see these women engaging in direct action on behalf of their communities.
As far as feminist romance, the book would fit into the category of romantic suspense. The story follows the woman, as her choices generate the central action plot. As a secondary plot, the series uses the traditional tropes of romance to plot the trajectory of a heterosexual couple where the man really loves her, but the relationship reaches a crisis where the man needs to choose between his allegiance to patriarchy and the woman he loves. Because these are happily-ever-after romances, the man is tested and initially falters, but in the end he always chooses the woman.
48HYour latest novel, “Side Chick Nation” is set in post Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. What do you hope the reader will learn about the island?
ADL By creating a point of view character who goes through the hurricane, I wanted audiences to have a deeper level of empathy with the people of Puerto Rico and what they experienced, both in terms of the hurricane and the ongoing storm of colonization by the US. My protagonist, Dulce, is an outsider to PR, so her POV seemed a little too removed to carry the story alone.
The secondary protagonist, Marisol Rivera, is Puerto Rican. In later drafts, I added the POV of her cousins. Dulce could show us the trauma of the storm itself, but couldn’t show the devastation to a character’s home and homeland. I wanted to make sure that was part of the book, as well.
48HAs a politically engaged author, do you find that fiction can do things that non-fiction can’t?
ADL Empathy is at the core of my politics. If I only write non-fiction, I can only create narratives where people empathize with my limited personal experience. But through fiction, I can create characters who live all kinds of different lives, and create empathy for their lives among my readers.
The danger of course is that I haven’t lived those lives, and I am vulnerable to writing cliche or stereotype about identities that I don’t share. Which is why I used sensitivity readers, even when writing about communities where I do have a lot of familiarity. I find there is always something that can be changed to better reflect not only the reality of those communities, but the movements that those communities have organized for their freedom and survival.
48HYou are one of the Bay Area’s best known poets. How has the poetry scene changed here in the past few years now that the Slam scene is not as large as it used to be?
ADL: Sadly, as a working mom who has been writing a book a year for the last five years, I don’t get out that much. When I was in slam, in the early 2000s, it was HUGE. The Bay Area had the biggest slam in the nation. But artistic movements change. Venues close. Artists and producers shift their focus.
I see an incredible amount of energy continuing in the youth slam scene, Youth Speaks and Brave New Voices continue to have a lot of momentum. We’re also seeing lots of writers from slam communities come of age and branch out into longer forms.
Within the last decade, I also watched some of the slam and poetry momentum shift into storytelling: The Moth, Snap Judgment, and other storytelling slam spaces have gotten really large audiences and have been spaces of really good composition, even if the writing is more conversational, and isn’t always as dazzling at the sentence level, as is the case with poetry. But the storytelling form is that these need to be true stories. So there’s a different power. This is sort of the opposite of what I had said about the power of fiction. Fiction has the range. But non-fiction has the power of personal testimony.
Aya De León reads from Sidechick Nation Tue/20, 6:30 at the Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster Street, Oakland.
LIT Author Benjamin Heim Shepard is a Brooklyn-based activist who has published 10 books, including White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic (1997), From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (2002).
His new book, Illuminations on Market Street, is a turn to fiction. It “traces the story of a young caregiver in San Francisco in the early 1990s. Cab is on the deep end of a losing streak. After having been dumped yet again, he moves to Haight-Ashbury fresh out of college. It is the middle of a recession, before the dot-com boom, and AIDS is an immediate and untreatable reality.
“A story about AIDS and sex, acting up and praying for the dead, this is a story about living and fighting in the face of insurmountable challenges as one writer searches for his own story.”
We spoke with Shepard about his inspirations and history in advance of several Bay Area readings.
48 Hills: You are one of the most prolific scholars of social movement history and theory writing today. What inspired the switch to fiction?
BHS:I think books about social movements are about collective, zeitgeist-like sentiments, built of countless overlapping, sometimes colliding, intersecting culture tales.
The movements that have inspired me, the magic realist writings of Garcia Marquez and the Riot Grrrl Zines all suggest the blurrings between fiction and non-fiction are more interesting. “Confuse truth with fiction, attempt to de-centralize the manufacturing of the ‘truth’” notes one Riot Grrrl Zine.
Illuminations on Market Street started off as a journal I was writing when I worked in an AIDS housing program in San Francisco in the mid-1990’s, writing about sex and the people I knew, many passing from this life to the next. Those who died or disappeared from my life neverquite seemed to leave. They were always around reminding me. Memories everywhere. Reminders everywhere. So I wrote about them, especially during those 12 to 8am graveyard shifts on Market Street, in the quiet hours, in that messy space between my San Francisco history and ghosts. This was a space where we were askedto live another way.
Alexandra Mikhailovna Kollontai, the Russian revolutionary who wrote The Autobiography of a Sexually Emancipated Communist Woman, said of sexual liberation and revolution: “Nothing is more difficult than writing an autobiography. What should be emphasized? Just what is of general interest? It is advisable, above all, to write honestly and dispense with any of the conventional introductory protestations of modesty. For if one is called upon to tell about one’s life so as to make the events that made it what it became useful to the general public, it can mean only that one must have already wrought something positive in life, accomplished a task that people recognize. …”
Illuminations grapples with similar public and private sentiments.But when people sleep with you or you get to know them before they are dying, they are not giving you permission to write their story. So a few embellishments feel more fitting.
One of my college history professors wrote about living through World War II on the Western Front. I asked about a paper he wrote about it. And said of course it didn’t really happen that way. He was just embellishing a bit. In other words, he never let the truth get between him and a good story. I whole-heartedly concur.
48HillsAre you dismissing the importance of telling truths? That seems a little dangerous in today’s world.
BHS No.But I for one don’t believe in truth with a capital T.That seems more about power.Neither science nor theology are outside the influence of cultural bias or interpretation.No one has a monopoly on the truth.Instead, all we have are stories to help us interpret and create meaning within a rapidly changing world.That said, there is science and there is peer review.There is historic evidence.Climate change is real.So are the genocides dictators like deny.
I am talking about stories people tell here.In this case, we can differentiate between questions of narrative truth and historical truth. There is validity to both.With life stories, sometimes we get to a more honest story, a more compelling fiction by liberating ourselves from the restrictions of non-fiction.
48H San Francisco is depicted almost as another character in your book. Do you think that AIDS and displacement has destroyed the connection between today’s city and the 1990s one you write about?
BHS Displacement is a phenomenon taking place all over the world.Cities are always grappling with patterns of migration, community formation, and displacement.This is a story of capital.It is the story of the Brooklyn where I live now and the San Francisco where I once lived.I was trying to write about the people who arrived, the people who came after World War II and never went home, the ‘49ers, the cabaret performers, the Beats, the Hippies, the Gay Liberationists, even the people with AIDS who came from Mexico seeking treatment unavailable elsewhere, all of whom came and created a community.I was not in San Francisco for the displacement years.But that might have been my blind spot.AIDS is not over and neither is displacement.But I don’t think San Francisco is entirely over either.
I have always felt that San Francisco is a place with exquisite never-been-so-lonely beauty. But its place in which I’ve never felt more lonely. I always felt that way living here.I still feel that way decades later.
48HOne of the interesting things about your book is that it is almost a book within a book. Cab is possessed to write everything down. What does this plot device allow to say about our memories?
BHS Cab is a person observing a person observing a city, whose moved to the city, whose lost in the city, learning its ok to be lost in the city, but the only way to not be lost in the city is to excavate his Southern past, the bad relationships, the racism that the culture is built around, that is lingering inthe ways the country treats those who are sick, the poor, the outsiders. Cab is a historian of the self, writing a life story. Every life story involves a necessary degree of giving and taking details.
Think of Blanche DuBois. Studs Terkel said during an interview with Tennessee Williams in 1961 at Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. “Think of Blanche for a minute,” Terkel chimed in. “I’m asking you, the creator, to think of Blanche . . . She represented so many good things too, despite the sham that she seemed to evoke.” “Well, as she said, ‘I don’t tell truth. I tell what ought to be truth.’
She had the courage to admit that she occasionally embellished upon the real facts. And when her back was to the wall, she had courage, truth, and eloquence, I thought,” noted Williams. There is something prophetic in those “ought to be the truths.” To be that’s what San Francisco stories are all about.
Everyone reinvents themselves here. Everyone retells their story here.
48Hills:Your book joins a long and still growing lineage of work exploring San Francisco’s history and politics. Do you have any particular literary event inspirations for it?
BHS: Living in San Francisco, I was inspired by the AIDS writers, sex positive queer writers, David Feinberg, Patrick Califia. Kathy Acker.Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, which just came out when I moved to San Francisco in 1992. Pat Conroy, whose daughter was a friend of mine in town, traced a way of moving beyond the South while honestly looking at what happened.
And then the San Francisco writers, Jack London and Armistead Maupin trace ways of finding new stories out in the West. Most of all, Allen Ginsberg and Harold Norse, traced poems about leaving old stories behind, finding new narratives here. My father dropped out of college when he read Howl, moving to join the Beats here. I felt it when I got to San Francisco.
48 Hills: Does San Francisco’s activist scene of the 1990s have anything to teach us today? Or are we just being nostaligic for nothing?
It says there is always a time to fight, care, and get organized. Let’s not let what we can’t do get in the way of what we can. It’s always a good time to fight back and take care of each other. Pray for the dead but fight like hell for the living. Even with a little sartorial spender, a wink, a smile, a little camp, mixed with a bit of anger, as the queer movement has always brought to the process.
Illuminations on Market Street West Coast Tour
Tuesday, August 20, 2019 at 6:30 PM – 8:30 PM With authors: Aya De Leon, Kate Jessica Raphael, Lucy Jane Bledsoe and Liz Mariani
The Octopus Literary Salon, Oakland More info here.
Wednesday, August 21, 7pm 45 Thought Crimes and Illuminations on Market Street With author Lynee Breedlove
Green Arcade Bookstore, SF. More info here.
August 22, Castro and 18th Streets, 11am Guerrilla outdoor reading with Benjamin Shepard and Michael Petrelis
Public Reading and conversation about illuminations, AIDS activism and sex.
Spanning the month of July, this year’s incarnation of LaborFest, the 26th annual, includes history talks and walks, union gatherings, films (including Sorry to Bother You), book readings, conferences, workshops, forums and yes, a closing party. There are panels—a host of them—and there is poetry (the Revolutionary Poetry Brigade gathers on July 13).
The overarching theme of this year’s fest is “Labor On the Edge: Dystopia or a Future for Workers,” and one of the events most relevant to that pressing concern is “The Gig Economy, AI, Robotics, Workers and Dystopia San Francisco.” For a window into the subject matter, which is applicable to anyone living in the Bay Area today, I caught up with one of the event’s trio of speakers, Steven Hill, author of 2015’s influential Raw Deal: How the “Uber Economy” and Runaway Capitalism are Screwing American Workers.
48 HILLSHow would you say the symbiotic relationship between San Francisco and Silicon Valley has changed over time?
STEVEN HILL When you ask about the history between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, I go back to the 1950s. People think of Silicon Valley as Facebook, Google and Apple, but really the basis of Silicon Valley is military funding. That’s what it’s been since the 1950s. The semiconductor industry, the first big tech companies that were funded by the military here, became the basis for everything else. That’s why you can have an ecosystem in which seven out of every 10 startups fail. It’s gambling at this point. The only reason you can do that is this solid, consistent funding going back decades from military spending.
With San Francisco, despite its alternative roots in the ‘60s and ’70s, there was always an undercurrent of wealth here that was based on that spending. It’s ironic, since it was a hotbed of counterculturalism. But the wealth basis of it to a certain degree was military spending.
Within what we think of as Silicon Valley—Steve Jobs and the like—there was always an undercurrent of alternative left and right. You had the alternative left, but the alternative right was sort of a libertarian right that didn’t like government.
It sometimes has been called the California Ideology, this hybrid of left and right. Both didn’t like government for their own means. The left didn’t like government because they were against the Vietnam War and the Johnson and Nixon administrations. The right was against government because they didn’t want government intervening in their businesses. Someone like Stewart Brand was this unique, iconic figure who represented this hybrid of left and right.
When you talk about alternative San Francisco, you can kind of cherry-pick your own version. But from my point of view, it was always this odd mix. At any given time, one of them would be a little more current than the other.
The latest version is more of the politically right version—Travis Kalanick from Uber, a devotee of Ayn Rand and hyper-libertarianism that says get the government the hell out of our way. “I’m going to make a great product or service, you’re going to love it, I’m going to make a billion dollars—what could be wrong?” That’s the latest twist of this ongoing narrative that goes back many decades.
48HSo much of tech and the “sharing economy” hinges on the idea that all new developments are good. What would you say to the inverse argument that tech critiques are driven by Luddite or more precisely retrograde tendencies?
SH I’ve been hit with that all the time. When Raw Deal came out in October 2015, many organizations, such as the New York Times, media organizations in particular both locally and nationally were going through this honeymoon period [with tech]. The reaction was, “Oh, Steve, your book is too extreme. You don’t get it—the work is going to come to all these freelancers. It’s going to flow to them. They’ll have flexibility and they’ll be able to command any price that they want.” I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me – this is not going to end well.
Now, here we are, four years later. It didn’t take long for the truth to come out. Uber is a disaster in many ways, unless you’re a person who has no other way to get around. I’m sympathetic to [local] people who use Uber—you’re living in a city with a terrible public transportation system. Also, I live in the Outer Sunset, where it would take 40 minutes just to get a taxi. I understand why people want a transportation alternative, but Uber was not it.
One of my greatest fears about San Franciscans and Americans in general is they they don’t even know what a good public transportation system looks like. I spent a lot of time in Berlin, for example. From 2016 to 2018, I was there more than I was here because of two different fellowships. I never had a car. You could get anywhere you needed to in the city with public transportation—whether subway or tram or the bus, there was a stop no more than a six- or seven-minute walk away. You’d wait no more than three or four minutes for the train to show up. It works.
San Francisco and Americans in general, they can’t even conceive of what a public transportation system might look like. If you can’t conceive of it, you’re not going to spend the money to create it. So here we are with a new service that decided, well, well just flood the streets with cars. It was pretty predictable how that played out: congestion. Everyone who uses it, even if they like it, is stuck in traffic. Those who use it, they don’t want to admit that yes, you tap the app and a car shows up in a few minutes, but you’re stuck in traffic for 20 or 25 minutes longer sometimes because congestion is so much worse.
48H Ecologically it’s not sound either, putting more cars out on the streets driving aimlessly.
SH Absolutely. At a time when we’re supposed to be reducing our carbon footprint and San Francisco is supposed to be a leader in that, you can’t blame Donald Trump and the Republican Congress and Fox News for the mess that San Francisco has become. Democrats did this. We could have a long conversation about which Democrats and what they did and didn’t do, but that’s the reality.
48H When you think of 20th century industrial cities like Detroit that went through severe depression to become relative ghost towns, do you think San Francisco has put itself in grave danger as far as its future goes, because it is so besotted with tech and the gig economy?
SH Detroit became what it became because the auto industry collapsed. I don’t see that happening. I don’t see any imminent collapse. Especially when you have investors from all over the world, global capital just looking for a return. They don’t care where they get that from, so you have huge amounts of Chinese money here.
48HThere’s the Pacific Rim aspect.
SH Exactly. But at this point this iconic American city has been transformed. It has been stunning to see how quickly it happened, when you just flood it with money, a certain type of money. At this point there’s a housing crisis, there’s an ecological crisis, a transportation crisis—all these crises. I know many member on the Board of Supervisors, they’re all good people. But when I see the proposals coming out of City Hall, it doesn’t seem like they have an idea about what to do.
They’re overwhelmed, and again, I don’t think many of them know what a good public transportation system looks like. I had a meeting with a member of the Board not that long ago. I said, There’s a housing crisis. If you look at Vienna, the way they deal with housing is that 50 percent of their housing stock is what’s called social housing. About 25 percent of the whole housing stock is government-owned, and another 25 percent is all non-profit housing development. You can only do that if you use public land.
I asked if San Francisco was looking into public land and this person said, “Yes, we are.” I said, how about public golf courses? I was at Lake Merced not that long ago, taking a walk there, and there were about 150 people using that golf course, all from a very narrow demographic—basically white men. On that piece of a 163-acre plot, you could probably build housing for at least 7500 people. His eyes got big: “Oh, no.” We have six public golf courses here, why don’t we put one of them to use for housing if it’s really that’s big of a crisis?
That’s when you realize that the real challenge is that we’re in what has been called the twilight of the elites. Even when good people get elected, they’re still part of the elites. They say it’s a crisis all the time, but do they really understand the extent of the crisis, and are they willing to do truly radical things to deal with that crisis? I’m not sure they are.
48H Since Raw Deal has come out, have you dealt with blowback from Uber or Airbnb and their higher-ups? Also, a mainstream publication such as the Chronicle, I looked at their review, and there was overt investment in these businesses driving the review of the book. They basically were in agreement with your beginning and closing arguments, but when it came down to critiquing specific businesses, they didn’t want to deal with what you were saying.
SH It was an odd review, you’re right. I’m not aware of anything explicit [in terms of blowback] but there was this kind of effort to marginalize the book when it came out and say it was too extreme. I would get that in some of the interviews.
I was actually invited to Uber after the book came out, to meet with one of their mid-level executives. It was a rather strange meeting. I basically told them, You should all get your resumes ready because your business model is doomed to fail. You guys are subsidizing 50 percent of every one of these rides, and that’s why you’re losing billions of dollars. If you ever try to get to profitability, you’l have to double your fares and your user base isn’t going to use you anymore. It’s not clear how you guys are going to get to profitability, and you’re never going to get there by waiting for automated cars. That’s 15 to 20 years away, if ever. I don’t know if we’re ever going to get automated cars. That was the conversation.
With the Chronicle, certainly they are the business newspaper, that is part of their constituency. I have no information that they’ve somehow overtly or covertly campaigned to support the businesses. Carolyn Said has written some decent articles about Airbnb. Finally the problems got so bad that even the Chronicle couldn’t ignore it.
48: The LaborFest panel you’re on has “gig economy” in its title, but Raw Deal critiques the notion of the “sharing economy” as presented to people using these companies. Since Raw Deal has been published, have there been any popular newer terms that should provoke a sense of wariness?
SH They now are calling it ride hailing rather than ride sharing. A lot of the attention focuses on companies like Airbnb and Uber, but other companies like Upwork and TaskRabbit, the labor brokerages, are in some ways more potentially damaging down the road.
Upwork claims to have 10 million freelancers on their platform all over the world. It’s basically an auction in which labor is bidding on jobs, and you can watch the race to the bottom. You have people from Thailand competing against people from the United States. Someone from the US says, I’ll take 60 dollars an hour for a job and someone from Thailand or the Philippines says, I’ll take two dollars an hour. They’re skilled, they have access to technology and the Internet, they can upload the job when they’re done. you can see a whole range of occupations on this platform, from lawyers, architects and engineers to translators, graphic designers and journalists—you can hire just about anybody who doesn’t need to be working with anyone else as part of a team. They can finish the job and upload it to you through the internet or the cloud.
You’re basically competing against workers from all over the world, and more and more of these companies are using these types of platforms to access the freelance labor forces. Of course, the freelancers are not getting any kind of safety net, and they’re not paying any taxes. Those companies don’t get a lot of attention, but in some ways they’re even more potentially destructive.
48HDo you think the freelance economy is continuing to splinter more and more into a servant class since Raw Deal was published? Has the momentum been continuing?
SH Yes, I would say it’s continuing. The unemployment rate has been going down, but it’s not just the quantity of jobs, it’s the quality of jobs, and the quality of jobs has declined since the economic collapse of 2008. You have more people working part-time, temp, freelance, who don’t have access to any safety net and don’t have any job security. The companies try touting these gig workers and there’s been a bunch of different organizations trying to count them that conclude there’s not that many of them, but what they are missing is that more and more workers work a very complicated labor profile now. They may have a regularly employed part-time job for 15 or 20 hours, but then they supplement that by driving shifts for Uber or some kind of gig work.
More and more workers are having to figure out how to stitch their economic lives together. The unemployment survey isn’t well-suited for this type of complexity of a labor force.The unemployment survey, the household survey, the business survey, they just ask you, Are you employed, yes or no? Do you have a second job, yes or no?
We don’t have a portable safety net for workers, which is one of the ideas I propose in chapter 10 of my book. Other countries already have this type of thing in place. A country like the Netherlands, about 50 percent of workers work part-time at this point, and they earn enough to make a living, they have a potable safety net, they have the things they need, because they’re gearing their laws and system towards these types of work. In the US we’re just letting the workers fend for themselves. The ownership society has become the on-your-own society.
48HDoes this dovetail economically with what’s been happening under the Trump administration?
SH It’s been going on before Trump. Obama, in his 2016 State of the Union address, did endorse my idea for a portable safety net. Senator Mark Warner introduced a bill. But the Democrats have not been that much better than the Republicans. There is a bill in the state legislature, AB-5, to turn a lot of these freelance occupations into regular employees. That would be a step in the right direction. We’ll see if it actually makes it through the legislature and gets signed by [Governor] Newsom without being gutted by spineless Democrats. I suspect that’s what’s going to happen.
48HWould you say there’s any presidential candidate on the Democrat side that has a direct engagement with what we’re discussing?
SH The two are Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The rest of the candidates are pretty clueless.
48HYou were talking earlier about transportation systems, and more recently about the Netherlands. What other suggestions would you have about switching the direction we’re going in with the gig economy?
SH One is to upgrade the laws so that the law sees occupations that are employees and not contractors. The loopholes now are so big and the laws are not being enforced. The is one step, but in addition we have to have the portable safety net idea, which is just that every worker would have established for them what’s called an individual security account. Any business that hires that worker, regardless of that worker’s classification, whether they’re freelance or regularly employed, that business contributes a certain amount that is prorated to the number of hours that you work for them. If you just work 10 hours a week for that business, you get what would be like a quarter of a safety net contribution into that individual security account. A worker then uses those funds to buy their Social Security, Medicare, health care, unemployment, paid sick leave – all these sorts of things.
On top of that we need to enforce anti-trust legislation. We’ve gotten out of enforcing anti-trust in this country. Clearly these platforms are a form of monopoly. Elizabeth Warren has introduced some legislation regarding that.
When you talk about specific companies such as Uber and Airbnb, there’s a whole bunch of things that need to be done. For a lot of these companies it comes down to who controls the data. For example, everyone talks about data in terms of Facebook and Google, but with Uber, San Francisco should be getting the data about who the drivers are, and then that data should be given to the drivers so they can organize.
So many of these platform companies have been creating what is called a distributed labor force. These are workers who don’t work in any one place together, so they don’t know each other, they can’t find each other, they can’t organize. By getting the data from these companies, including Airbnb, to enforce the laws around these workers, that’s another important step.
There are other things that I propose. Digital licenses—if you think about any traditional brick and mortar business, Ford Motor Company can’t just set down in California with an auto plant and do whatever the hell they want. They have to sign up to a lot of business licenses and permits and environmental laws that say you can do this but you can’t do that. But these platform companies can exist everywhere and nowhere. They can set up servers anywhere in the world and beam into anywhere in the world. They take advantage of this to basically follow nobody’s laws or rules but their own.
The idea of a digital license is to say to Google or Facebook, If you want to operate in Spain or Europe or the United States or California, here’s our digital license for you to sign up to, here’s our rules that we want you to follow, and if you don’t follow them, you’re not going to be allowed to operate. This seems radical because we had this dream that the internet was going to be this wide open beautiful thing with information free-flowing and governments [not able to] control it.
That’s the dream that’s dying right now. At this point we have several different versions of the internet. We have the US, which is basically the Silicon Valley version. There’s the Chinese version—they’ve got their own companies and their own rules. And increasingly there’s more of a European version that is kind of a tweak of the Silicon Valley version—the general data protection regulation, the European Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, who has cracked down on Google and Apple and all these companies. That’s three different versions of the internet out there already, and we have to start making these companies act like traditional brick and mortar companies. Not all that much is different. They’re just conducting business in a different way. The idea is that the things that have worked for companies in the past we can apply to these new companies. We just have to get around our mindsets, which have been injected with Silicon Valley values. These are just companies. They have a product, they have a service, and we need to regulate them to get the good from them and leave out the bad.
48HWhether one-on-one or in critical discourse, what sorts of positive responses have you gotten to Raw Deal since the book was published?
SH The book was a mini-bestseller in China. It’s had a good run. It’s been part of a wave of critics of Silicon Valley that now at this point is dominant. Silicon Valley is backpedaling pretty fast. Raw Deal was one of the first books to say, Hey, hang on, this is not going to work out.
LABORFEST: THE GIG ECONOMY, AI, ROBOTICS, WORKERS AND DYSTOPIA SAN FRANCISCO July 10, 7pm, free ILWU Local 34 Hall 801 2nd Street, SF laborfest.net
**Due to a transcription error, the figure “75,000 people” was originally erroneously used. The correct figure is “7500 people.”
Legendary event producer Marc Huestis is famous for organizing lavish tributes to Hollywood stars including Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Jane Russell, Karen Black, Patty Duke, and John Waters, at the Castro Theatre.
But Sun/23, Huestis, who has just released his autobiography, Impresario of Castro Street (Kindle, $9.99; Deluxe Color Print Edition, $29.99; Black and White Edition, $19.99)—which details all the blood, sweat, and tinsel that went into this labor of love, and his own life—is going to get some much-deserved love in return from the community that he’s supported artistically for the past 45 years. In typical Marc Huestis fashion, he’s coordinating it, himself.
“No one else’s gonna do it,” he joked. “I feel like on one hand, it’s self-indulgent, but it’s the kind of tribute I wanted to give myself and now I’m creating this show that’s all about me and in my own words. A good circle of friends who’ve been with me over a long period of time are going to be there and I think it’s going to be very special for me.“
Huestis is an artist in his own right. Decades ago he performed with fabled theatre group the Angels of Light, co-founded the Frameline film festival, and produced the 1982 camp classic film Whatever Happened to Susan Jane? as well as some of the earliest AIDS docs including 1987’s Chuck Solomon: Coming of Age and the award-winning Sex Is… This special ‘Marc Huestis: Impresario of Castro Street tribute event (Victoria Theatre, June 23, 6:45pm), part of the Frameline Film Fest, is long overdue.
Part of the Frameline film festival, which Huestis helped launch in the mid-’70s, the showcase will include readings and performances of the filmmaker and event producer’s memoir by Poseidon Adventure star Carol Lynley, comic Bruce Vilanch, film critic Jan Wahl, and photographer Dan Nicoletta, as well as archival footage from his ’70s stage appearances and clips from his films, Castro tributes, and Lauretta Molitor’s upcoming documentary Impresario.
Huestis spoke to me about why it was finally time to write a book, his encounters with Harvey Milk and Robin Williams, how he survived the early AIDS crisis, overcoming meth addiction, and what his more low-key life is like today in his cabin in the woods.
48 HILLSWhy did you decide to write a memoir?
MARC HUESTIS I just wanted a legacy. My friend Lawrence Helman and I have this joke that if you want a good obituary, you’ve gotta write it yourself. And it’s true, I’ve seen a lot of my friends die and their obituaries are not representative of who they are. So I thought I’d write my own obituary while I’m still alive.
48 HILLSYour coming of age in the ‘60s, which you describe in depth in the book, was so different than that experienced by young gay boys today. Talk to me about the difference.
MARC HUESTIS It was like forbidden fruit, and in a way, it was more exciting because it was verboten. I’m thrilled it’s not that way anymore, and I keep thinking if I had grown up in a very different time, maybe I would get married. But in our day and age, the thought of marriage was completely foreign to us and the way we met was through sex. I kinda liked that. I met a lot of really nice people through sex.
48 HILLSYou’ve also met so many legends over the years—way too many to mention in our interview —but I want to talk about two of them. Let’s start with Harvey Milk.
MARC HUESTIS The [pervading] Harvey Milk story is the biggest cliche right now, and everybody asks, “What would Harvey do if he were here?” Nobody even knew who he was, and who knows what he would have been like had he lived? But people created this really boring saint around a real-life person. So part of the reason for the book was to break those cliches and talk about what was really going on the way I saw it.
48 HILLSIn one memorable section, you describe arguing with him about the tactic the gay community should take at Pride. He insisted on a very button-down approach and you wanted the community to be themselves—drag queens, leather daddies, power dykes, and all. It had to be intimidating to go toe to toe with Saint Harvey, right?
MARC HUESTIS Absolutely not. I was going toe to toe with somebody whom I considered an equal. I was certainly younger than him and didn’t own a camera shop, but I was also really involved with the arts and didn’t see him as somebody above me. He was very condescending, and he saw me as somebody below him, for sure. He saw himself punching down, but I didn’t see myself punching up at all.
48 HILLSThen some years later, when you worked at a local video store, you’d regularly encounter Robin Williams. What was your impression of him?
MARC HUESTIS He had the worst taste in movies. He would rent the cheesiest, stupidest Hollywood new releases. Like are you actually going to watch this? But he was very sweet. He, of course, was concerned about AIDS as well, and he watched my Chuck Solomon film after I gave him a copy.
But he did appear depressed all the time. There wasn’t a lot of lightness around him. But he was a gentleman and had an aura of integrity. When he committed suicide, I really felt for him, but it made sense to me. I saw that person that killed himself in the video store.
48 HILLSYou write about losing so many dear friends and colleagues in the early years of AIDS and becoming positive, yourself. What got you through that intensely difficult period?
MARC HUESTIS It took making the Chuck Solomon movie, basically. It made me feel alive again and gave me purpose and strength. The fact that it was able to get international recognition and that people outside my community saw it and just going on the road and talking about being HIV positive at a time when very few people did that because you could lose your job, family, and friends. But that became my purpose, mission, and goal and I was thrilled to do it.
And then after the Chuck Solomon piece, I was dedicated to doing AIDS work. Even that stupid Hawaii movie that I did [1990’s Men in Love] was AIDS-related and of course, Sex Is… was not specifically an AIDS film but was one because it was a time that people were coming back into their sexuality, realizing that “Sex is Death” did not have to be so.
48 HILLSWith the prevalence of “Meth Equals Death” campaigns since the early 2000s, I’d imagine that many younger gay men, in particular, have been fearful of exploring sex on crystal, and if they have dabbled, they’re not telling. But in the book, you’re very open about your dalliances before you finally quit both. I appreciate your honesty.
MARC HUESTIS My book is honest. I talk about how speed is the best drug for sex and it is the devil’s drug. But not a lot of people talk about why it was so attractive. I enjoyed it every three months and always looked forward to the next time, except that you can’t get a hard-on and can’t cum.
Still, the mind is an incredible thing when you’re on that drug. You don’t even have to talk. You just feel an aura and all this closeness. I loved all those semi-homeless tricks of mine. That’s what the drug did. People talk about how horrible it was, but I wanted to write about the attractive nature of it, because if you don’t write about that, then it doesn’t make sense why people were so into it at that time.
48 HILLSAs someone who was once very sexually active and now categorizes themselves as being celibate, how do you go without all that intimacy today?
MARC HUESTIS First of all, when I was having sex, it wasn’t all that intimate. It was kind of an addiction and I never got much enjoyment out of it. There were momentary enjoyments, but I was always searching and never finding. You never knew what you had because someone better was always around the corner. And it was a lot of work.
And as I write in the book, you get older and they come to your door and they say, “I don’t think it’s gonna work,” and you say, “Whatever.” And you get to the point that you don’t want that rejection anymore. I certainly do masturbate—I’m not totally unsexual—and I have my attractions when I see people, but I love not having sex.
48 HILLSYou’ve also had to go without producing shows at the Castro Theatre for the last few years. When you walk by the theatre today and don’t see your name on the marquis, does that feel like yet another loss?
MARC HUESTIS I feel very profoundly like I am no longer there. For the upcoming show, I’m putting together these clips and I do this one montage of the entrances of the stars and a couple of really fun moments, and I was like, “These shows were really fun.” You don’t realize when you’re doing it, because it happens and then it’s over. And particularly at the end, I felt so belittled, because everyone was saying how tired they were. But you always need to know when to step off the stage.
48 HILLSToday you divide your time between your cabin in the woods and San Francisco. What inspired the decision to get a home out in Kyburz, California?
MARC HUESTIS My brother died and he was worth some money, so all of a sudden, I was gifted with a nice chunk of change. It was not in my crystal ball for the future and it completely changed my life.
I was getting sick of San Francisco for all the reasons we all know, so six years ago, with the money he left me, I was able to purchase a small cabin in the woods 30 miles from Lake Tahoe, right by the American River.
When I’m at the cabin and I hear the birds chirping and the squirrels and the bears and the fish, that’s contentment to me. I’ve done so much in my life that I enjoy relaxing now.