Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “casual car pool”

New Orleans and San Francisco – Soul Mates

I am currently concluding a week of volunteering in New Orleans with students from our San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center. A lot has changed since my first time here in ’06 when we gutted as many houses as we could to allow the residents to received their insurance and begin the long rebuilding process.

In my second and third years, we helped build drywall and roofs for those who could only afford the materials but not the labor. In the last few years we have been helping with sustainability programs such as establishing a community garden in the Lower 9th Ward, the hardest hit area, or helping create a community center. While the work changes, the need of the residents to tell their stories remains. New Orleans, and particularly the low lying parishes, remain a traumatized community.

One surprising aspect is that we keep meeting people living in New Orleans who were linked to the San Francisco Bay Area. I feel there is an indefinable link between two cities that just don’t comply with the American norm.

The piece below is from my next novel, Unwanted Heroes. I wrote it after my first trip here.

Chapter 2: The Fog Rolls In

Yeah, I grew up in London with fog rolling off the Thames, but I do not recall locals stopping to admire it. Other cities share similar traits to San Francisco: Rome has hills, London has immigrants and culture, and Paris the artistic mystique. But San Francisco has all of this and it is not thrown in your face. It just is.

I lean over the rails on the Embarcadero and stare out at the looming Bay Bridge, gray and partially veiled by early morning mist. Next to me stands a metal woman, eighteen feet high, a creation welded from hundreds of recycled pieces of junk. She holds hands with a child about eight feet tall, and together they stare out to sea.

The metal woman lacks the elegance of the Statue of Liberty. That is what makes San Francisco special. It works without pretentiousness. I am told that the metal mother and child stand at the annual Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert. Fire courses through her body and out of her hand into the child.

We could do with a fire right now. I shiver as I watch wisps of cloud hover above the water. It is very early and I must open the coffee shop. Despite the cold, I love this hour of the day when the city slumbers, but is not asleep. It is simply preparing for the onslaught.  In two hours, tens of thousands of people will spew out of the BART and MUNI public transport tunnels. Others will stubbornly drive in, searching for elusive and pricey parking spaces. The more enlightened drivers have recruited passengers from the casual car pool pickup points scattered around the bay, thereby paying less for the bridge tolls and utilizing the carpool lanes. The passengers, for their part, get a free ride into town.

Walking down Mission Street, I see Clarence, a huge African-American, dressed in a shiny black suit. I cannot tell if he is awake behind those big black sunglasses until he raises his saxophone to salute me. The shiny instrument gleams, even in our fog-filled streets, and Clarence lets rip a short riff to announce: The barista has arrived!

Clarence customarily stakes his position in the early morning. There are more street musicians than ever these days and, with only a limited number of prime spots, Clarence must claim his territory. But at this time of day, he plays only for me and I feel like a king. Clarence knows I do not have spare change to throw in his open sax case—perhaps he would feel insulted if I did.

Later, around 9.30, when the herd is safely corralled into their office cubicles and Clarence’s muscles are aching, he will come and rest in The Daily Grind. When I think Mr. Tzu, the owner, is not looking, I leave a cup of coffee on Clarence’s table. I used to mutter under my breath that some jerk had changed his order after I had already poured his cup and there is no point wasting it. After about the fortieth time, I figured Clarence had picked up on my ruse so I just place the steaming cup on his table without a word.

No thanks, but I know the gesture is appreciated, just as I appreciate Clarence playing for me as I pass him in the early morning. He will sit for an hour or so and then slowly move off. I know little of Clarence, but he is part of my life—another strand that weaves this urban tapestry called San Francisco.

Two weeks ago, a bunch of students entered The Daily Grind, their clothes covered with ‘New Orleans’ insignia. They were excited and boisterous as they passed Clarence at his regular table. From the way Clarence eyed them, I thought that their intrusion annoyed him, but I was wrong.

“Hey! What’s with th’ shirts? What y’all doing with New Orleans?”

A young woman, blond, thin and tanned, excitedly explained how they’d just come back from a week helping to rebuild houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina. “You should’ve seen the damage that hurricane did,” she said.

“Ain’t no hurricane did that, gal,” Clarence replied with a growl. “Weren’t no nat’ral disaster. Don’t let ’em bull ya’. The hurricane would’a done some damage, but if those levees had held, if those bastards had built ’em like they should, well, ain’t no one have died there. My grandma’s house waz swept away. Broke her, it did. Such a proud w’man.”

Clarence rose and moved heavily to the door, but then turned. We all watched. He spoke now in a softer tone. “But I thank y’all for going down there t’help. It’s import’nt y’all show ya’ care, that some’n shows they care.”

We saw his tears as he left, leaving behind a heavy wake of silence. I could not stop myself. I nodded to Tabitha to cover for me and followed him out of the café.

He stood on the corner of Mission and Spear, caressing his saxophone, and let rip the most beautiful, soulful jazz I have ever heard. He was not playing for me that time; he was not even playing for San Francisco. I could almost see his tune rolling out of the bay along with the fog and making its way to the Gulf Coast.

When he finished, I approached, unsure what to say. We stared at each other.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”

I had spoken with Mr. Tzu, that day. I had an idea and from that week, every Friday at lunchtime, Clarence would play in The Daily Grind to a packed audience. Big jars were scattered around the tables with labels: All Proceeds to New Orleans Relief Projects, and as the music touched our customer’s souls, the jars filled, because San Francisco has a heart, and that heart was bleeding for a sister on the Gulf Coast.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Medcaid 2

Following on from yesterday’s post, I am struggling to understand how individuals have been denied the right to sue the state that they pay taxes to. It seems a gross obstruction to personal freedom.However, the Justice Department has backed the State of California agreeing that the individual cannot sue, while also admitting that Federal law clearly states that Medicaid rates be “sufficient to enlist enough providers.” In other words, there should be no discrimination of resources or access to treatment between the beneficiaries of Medicaid and everyone else in their state. Only what happens when that is precisely what is happening?


“California has been accepting more than $20 billion in federal Medicaid funds per year in exchange for its promise, among other things, to ensure that needy patients had access to health care,” Democratic chiefs wrote in their brief, “California has failed to adhere to its obligations.”

What they are fighting for is the right of the patient or the medical providers to challenge in court any violation of federal law. The response of the Justice Department is that federal health officials have “exclusive responsibility” to enforce the standards set and can punish a state by withholding Medicaid resources from any state found wanting.

The question is whether they would. One former federal health official told the Supreme Court that the DHHS was not able to enforce this stating it was “logistically, practically, legally and politically unfeasible.” The reason being that the DHHS does not have either the staff, money or political clout to do this.

The supporters of the right to sue have all been endorsed and supported by the AARP, the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association, civil rights groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“Judicial enforcement is the only viable means to remedy states’ noncompliance with the Medicaid Act,” the A.M.A. said.

True protection can only come in the courts

In the true story behind my novel, The Accidental Activist, the British Government was ultimately found guilty of not protecting the citizen from a multinational corporation. In the US, the struggle is similar, except we are seeking protection from our own elected government and its agencies. The President, I feel, should understand this better than most.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Misguided Medicaid Law 1

My daily commute involves picking up people from the Casual Car Pool and driving from the East Bay to San Francisco, enabling them to get a free ride (though many offer me $1 towards the toll) and for me to use the car pool lane and pay a lower toll.

Most times we sit in silence and listen to NPR, but occasionally I strike gold. When the gentleman in the passenger seat tutted at a report about President Obama and Medicaid, I discovered that he is a lawyer and actually preparing a case to go before the Supreme Court. He sent me a New York Times article on the topic.

Medicaid - helping those who need it most

I find it hard to believe that President Obama could possibly be an obstacle to low-income people receiving health care. But when it is the Democratic leaders of Congress told the Supreme Court on Monday that President Obama was pursuing a misguided interpretation of federal Medicaid law, it raises an eyebrow.

The case  focuses around the right of Medicaid beneficiaries to file suit and challenge cuts being made to Medicaid around the country on a state level when such cuts hurt their right to care.The Obama administration does not accept this right to sue claiming it “would undermine the effectiveness of Medicaid.” There is also a myriad of court precedents that allow people to sue to block state actions that are inconsistent with federal law.

The politicians behind the brief include many of our top West Coast Democrats, including Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, an architect of Medicaid; Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader; Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader; and Senator Max Baucus of Montana, the chairman of the Finance Committee.

“The issue, of immense importance to poor people and states, comes to the Supreme Court in a set of cases consolidated under the name Douglas v. Independent Living Center of Southern California, No. 09-958. The court plans to hear oral arguments in October, with a decision expected by the spring. The original plaintiffs in the case, Medicaid beneficiaries and providers, say they were harmed by California’s decision to cut payment rates that were already among the lowest in the country.

Children are one of the largest recipients of Medicaid.

The federal Medicaid law does not explicitly allow such suits. But the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, said beneficiaries and providers could sue under the Constitution’s supremacy clause, which makes federal law “the supreme law of the land.”

More than 55 million people use Medicaid, which is often the fastest-growing item in many state budgets. It provides health  coverage to the most vulnerable groups in our society including children, people with disabilities and nursing home residents.

The problem is exacerbated because many states, desperate to make cuts, have reduced the payment rates to doctors who take in Medicaid patients. This has led to the doctors, dentists, hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and other providers often refusing to take these patients and Medicaid patients are finding it increasingly difficult to find the medical services that they need. The government is involved because they reimburse the state for between 50%-75% of the costs.

The question is: what accountability is there for the citizen (other than the ballot box, I suppose) if we are denied legal recourse? In fact, is there a place in a democracy for the government to tell its citizens who they can and cannot sue? And what does this say about our President?

Please Vote Today. Click Here

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Assault on the Casual Carpool: Day 2

A New Strategy.
An assertive, well-dressed woman sat herself down in the passenger seat of my car and immediately asked if she was required to pay the dollar. I replied that it was not mandatory, but welcomed. I recounted the mixed results of yesterday.

For 10 minutes we politely discussed the pros and cons of who should pay. She was extremely pleasant and non-confrontational. I was convinced that she was so concerned that she would ultimately offer the $1.

She didn’t. This left me even more confused. Had we not discussed it beyond her initial request and focused instead on other topics (NPR was anticipating the fallout of the verdict form the Oscar Grant trial), it would have felt okay. But she kept me in suspense for half the trip by discussing the issue.

Oh well. The other passenger said nothing and gazed out of the window the whole way.

And so it continues … On this 4th July weekend: God bless America and the Casual Car Pool.

Happy 4th,
Alon

ALON SHALEV
Oilspill dotcom – in paperback & currently on Amazon’s Kindle for $3.19.
More info at http://www.alonshalev.com/

July 1st – Assault on the Casual Carpool: Day 1

And so it began.

The first day where the casual carpool, three strangers thrown randomly together with a joint aim of commuting into San Francisco in the cheapest, most comfortable and quickest way, must deal with the toll booth dilemma.

As of July 1st, the casual carpool must pay $2.50 to go onto the Bay Bridge. Who pays? The online discussion board has been contentious. Some passengers are willing to contribute a dollar. Others won’t. Some will volunteer, others want to be asked. Some object to being asked as it creates a tense feeling in the car.

I have conducted my own informal survey over the last month, and my findings reflect the discussion board. One discussion got heated between my two passengers, a couple of people refused to comment.

So today was the test. Magically as we passed under the tollbooth and my Fast Track beeped, National Public Radio talked about the new rule. Perfect timing. The woman next to me offered her dollar, which I gratefully accepted. The man behind her buried himself deeper in his smart phone.

And so the assault on the last bastion of radical America has begun. Political singer, Billy Bragg, called the carpool lane, the only example of the far left (physically as well as politically). The British Empire (where the sun never set) was based upon the strategy of Divide and Conquer. I believe mainstream America has gone colonist ¬¬… right here in the Bay Area.

It is ultimately a question of values, a question of relationships, but above all, a question of how we fuse our values with money. Talk around the BBQ pit is cheap. Everyone knows what needs to be done to save the world. It is easy until you ask them to foot the bill.

I solicit people everyday for donations to the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, where I work. I tell the story, share the vision, the excitement, the inspiring results, and then when we get to the ask, I taint it by reminding them that their gift is tax-deductible. These generous donors know that. They are likely to be very savvy money managers and business people. This is what has put them in a position to donate in the first place. Do they really need the extra reminder of something altruistic?

As I sat in my car this morning, chatting with the pleasant woman who had offered her dollar, I glanced at the man in the back. He was doing a great job of being oblivious to our conversation, hunched intensely over his little screen.

I wonder what was going through his mind. Was it worth $1? For him? For me?

Have a good day,
Alon

Read Oilspill dotcom on Kindle, currently priced at $3.19

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