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 “Rome”

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).

Why We Read Fantasy 2

Last weekend, I shared some comments from adults who we asked why they read fantasy. A friend sent me this article by Lev Grossman, author of “The Magicians” and the recently released “The Magician King.”

In the article, Grossman talks about the excitement generated by the release of George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons.”

“The book has brought with it, along with the feverish excitement of fans like myself, a whiff of burning insulation. There’s a cultural short circuit happening somewhere in the system.”

What I believe is creating the stir is the fact that while Mr. Martin’s work is clearly fantasy, it does not adhere to the formulaes of such leaders as  J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Martin includes a fair helping of blood and sex in his continent of Westeros than the Pevensie children ever saw in Narnia. Something has changed.

Grossman shares his frustration at the perception that fantasy is for children and adults who are in denial that they are adults and seeking some escapism. “I see it all the time. I’ll be at a dinner party, and the person next to me asks me what I do. I’m a novelist, I’ll say, and a little light of hopeful interest kindles in their eyes. What kind of novels do you write? the dinner guest asks. And I reply: fantasy novels. And just like that, the little light of hopeful interest dies away.”This story really resonates with me. Every week at the Berkeley Writers Group, I meet new people and introduce myself as an author of political fiction. Then when I prepare to read my weekly offering, I apologetically explain that I wrote a fantasy novel with my eldest son. All true of course, but I am conscious that I am using it as justification.

Why? Grossman goes on to say: “It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when adults read fantasy with impunity. The classical literature of Greece and Rome is so fantastical that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a god or a witch or a centaur, and chances are the cat will turn out to be somebody’s long-lost son-in-law in transfigured form.”

Right on! Stephen Wenster backs him up by asking where “would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts and the witches three of Macbeth?”

Apparently fantasy, without being labeled as a genre was prominent throughout literature history: “Where would Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” be without fairies? Where would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts, and his proto-Orc Caliban, the misshapen villain of “The Tempest”? You can’t have Macbeth without the witches three. Apart from everything else, who would have handled all that crucial exposition of the play’s plot?”
Absolutely!

Lev Grossman

Grossman, who holds a Ph.D in Comparative Literature,  acknowledges that around the time of Samuel Johnson. Perhaps they actually began to believe that ghosts and magic really didn’t exist.

Again, Lev Grossman: “A fascination with the here and the now and the real set in. This was the moment when the novel arose in the West, and it was an ideal medium to satisfy that fascination. Novels were about the way we live now. There was no Caliban on Robinson Crusoe’s island, just the eminently human Friday.
“In 1750, Samuel Johnson wrote an influential essay in praise of fiction that was about “life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world.” As far as he was concerned, a good novel “can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.” Thus admonished, ghosts and witches went off to live in fairy tales and allegories and gothic novels and other disreputable places.”
So history is against us, perhaps because people really did believe in magic and ghosts.  But I do believe that the fact that we all accept that there is nothing factual in elves, dwarfs etc. allows us to focus on allowing values to play a prominent role because, as Grossman say: “If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real. Fantasy doesn’t pretend.”

Fantasy is one of the few literary genres left where it is still considered okay to explore questions of moral judgment. But that’s not a bad thing. When the powerless and good become empowered and are able to change the destiny of their world, there is something that resonates in a world where so many feel alienated and disenfranchised. When coming-of-age can happen at any age, why would an adult still hoping to leave his/her mark on the world not be attracted to such novels?

As Grossman says: “It’s one of the great human stories” and I suspect this is why fantasy novels will continue to draw a big crowd of adults who want to still believe that we can make a difference in our world.

 

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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).

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