Hanging with the lefties

I went to a great party over the weekend. It was a memorial service. The guest of honor, so to speak, was Harvey Robb, a saxophone player with the Pickle Family Circus and many other aggregations of musicians. He also taught at the San Francisco Community Music Center for more than 20 years, giving away for free what he had been given — everything except talent, which is, alas, not transferable.

He taught there, I assume, because it fit his principles. He was a red diaper baby from Detroit, and he still believed that a workers’ revolution was the only hope for this country. The table at the service had lots of photos of Harvey through the years, and also revolutionary tracts of various sorts. Someone from the stage said that Harvey was a member of the very exclusive organization, The Anti-Imperialist Tenor Bebop Players Club.

Hell yes

It was said that Harvey’s grandfather moved to Detroit because he’d been told that that’s where the revolution would start. A revolution did indeed come to Detroit, but it involved downsizing, outsourcing and abandonment.

In other words, the place was filled with old lefties, people who’d seen the hopes of the revolution dashed rather frequently in the past 50 years. Some of them were still dressed like old Marxists, in Army surplus jackets and besloganed T-shirts and pants so old it was hard to tell what color they were. Others were dressed in San Francisco casual, but I knew some of them, and I knew that they had worked to raise consciousness and help underdogs and, well, teach poor kids how to play the saxophone. They were all veterans of a thousand marches and sit-ins and protest concerts.

I love old lefties, I really do. The flip side of not believing in false values like materialism is that you do, just as fiercely, believe in true values like community.  The true spirituality comes with acknowledging the people you live among, helping your neighbor, cooking mass communal meals and feeding whoever stops by. And it comes from welcoming the human being in an imperfect body, honoring that humanity, believing in it when the evidence is against you.

So it was a really friendly gathering, lots of people from all aspects of Harvey’s life, musicians and neighborhood activists and old Mime Troupe people and students and relatives. The crowd overflowed the auditorium. It was hot inside, but no one seemed to mind. In my view, there wasn’t an asshole in the place. I know that must be wrong, still.

I am not an old leftie, but I believe in them, sort of the way I believe in Tinkerbell (I’m hardened ) but also the way I believe in justice. God bless them all and their incredibly funky protest songs.


Media scrums, hordes and crowds of reporters,  photographers, producers, fixers, hangers-on, all rolling and bucking like a gigantic marine animal, surrounding each alleged or actual news source, shouting questions (always the most salacious and trending topics), looking for the definitive quote, the sidelong glance, the stoic refusal to speak and march grim-faced through the throng.

And then the source disappears into safe room, and the masses disperse, convinced that they have done their journalism.

Journalists are doing a lot of navel gazing just now. They’re concerned about plagiarism; they’re concerned about biased news coverage; they’re concerned about sponsored content. And that’s a good thing; they should be concerned about those things.

But no one says a word about the worst and most visible journalistic sin, the mass pile-on of pointless questions and invasive photography. It’s bad enough when Hillary has to deal with it; it’s a lot worse when some young celebrity has to cope with 24-hour scrutiny that can and does ruin lives. Where is the talk of self-policing? Where is the talk about sanctioning the worst offenders?

Oh, the press sages say, that’s just the sleazy tabloid reporters. That’s not us. Oh no, we maintain…oh, put a sock in it. You may not stake out beach cabanas and late-night clubs, but if you can get a picture of Johnny Depp slugging someone, hell yes. Although we will put a civilized and ironic caption underneath.

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Civilized and ironic caption

People talk about the portrayal of the media in movies. There was “Spotlight,” with its courageous band of shoe-leather reporters going against the Roman Catholic hierarchy in child abuse cases. So that’s one good one. But look at the hundreds of other movies that show the other media: bloodsucking pigs chasing the scandal of the moment. People hate that shit.

And from the captains of the media industry: Not a peep.

Journalists are dying in record numbers these years,  being murdered by stateless terrorists and government functionaries alike. Surely, as our response to their sacrifice, the rest of us could be at least a little less dickish.


I’ve been thinking about urinals. I had even, several years ago, sketched out a column about them. But bathrooms are a touchy subject in the mainstream media. Mass murders, complete with tastefully grisly details: Sure. Urinals: You want to get us in trouble?

Fifty percent of my readers can, I hope, relate. For the other 50 per cent: Discover the folkways of the American male!

First rule: You must never pee next to anyone if you can avoid it. It’s sort of creepy; you worry that they’ll try to start a conversation and I don’t want to talk to a stranger when I’m peeing — and neither, apparently, does anyone else. But I bet you could develop a math formula to predict male urinal behavior.

Second rule: In modern public bathrooms, there’s  always one what I think of as a tiny urinal, although it’s actually the same size as the other ones — only set lower. It’s for kids, I think (and apparently not for disabled people — see this). Anyway, guys avoid the tiny urinal as much as they avoid peeing next to each other. It’s something about masculinity, I think — although, logically the tiny urinal would be preferable because it would better accommodate your enormous schlong.


The Harvey Robb memorial was in the afternoon; in the evening, I went to see Lila Downs. I had never seen her before, and all I knew was what YouTube told me (like this or this)— really good singer, frequently accompanied by really good musicians. But that’s all I knew.

Her full name is Ana Lila Downs Sánchez. She’s from Oaxaca, way down south there, just a chiapas away from Guatemala. She learned the indigenous language of her city, then learned other indigenous languages. She listened to the culture, the costumes, the whole deal. And part of her mission is to make sure that the music stays alive, that the language stays alive.

So she’s a singer and an ethnomusicologist. Not bad.

The show was great; the backup band was intense. A lot of people in the room spoke Spanish, and she sang some comic songs that made everyone laugh. Not me, of course; the Spanish speakers. (I’m from the old school of American men; why would I learn a language when everyone speaks English?)

El Contrabajo

There were projections above her. They were sort confusing; an oversaturated and tinted (I’m guessing) picture of a housefly. Then we had some clouds floating slowly by — that worked well with the song. Then the tone turned disputatious; history was invoked. The screen showed cartoonish conquistadors killing overmatched Aztecs. And then it showed modern day police beating up peaceful protestors. Many skulls were involved, flying in formation or dancing manically. Some of the skulls were Day of the Dead skulls, but others of them were plainly skull skulls.

The being beaten-up protestors were carrying signs. I could not read them, because Spanish, but I recognized the style. These were hand-made protest signs, done by someone with two sharpies and a piece of cardboard, putting it down on the kitchen table, trying to get the lettering right, putting more and more ink on the words for maximum impact.

In other words: Old leftie heaven.

Right now, there are revolutionary movements in almost every country. Young people often lead them, or form the majority of foot soldiers. They are often wrong about stuff, and their movements are often co-opted by more sinister operatives. Part of being a leftie is being willfully naive about politics. There’s beauty in that; beauty in believing in perfectability of people and institutions. Hope is often crushed; hope is always an obligation.

But radical idealistic movements are not always failures. I give you labor unions, women’s suffrage, the 40-hour work week, minimum wage, Medicare and the Civil Rights act of 1964. Yes, gains are being rolled back, but gains are always being rolled back. They’re still gains; there’s still a net profit — and old lefties will kill me for using that metaphor.

The lust for justice is unquenchable. Old lefties keep feeling the same old urges, time after time, decade after decade, and it’s nice to share the planet with them.



Photography by Tracy Johnston

SEO wonderfulness by Michelle Mizera




18 thoughts on “Hanging with the lefties

  1. About urinal etiquette… I once had this fantasy about a spy movie where the main character is standing at a urinal and he knows the other guy is a bad guy. As the tension mounts the bad guy makes a sudden move for his gun but our hero turns and shoots him from the open fly in his pants. Symbolism run amuck, I know, but it would be worth two seconds of movie time.


    1. Urinal etiquette is very old news. But the concept that low urinals are not designed to be ADA complaint is new to me. As a grandfather whose oldest is a boy I well understand they are desiigned for little boys like him. But I always thought they were also designed to accommodate men in wheelchairs. Surely a design exists to accommodate both?

      As for leftists, George Orwell cured me of any love for them. I am one of those very rare people who loves to read all the letters and speeches and articles of those whom I admire. Macaulay (my hero), Henry Adams (a hero except he developed a shocking but (of course) quixotic strain of antisemitism — not only were some of his best friends were Jews, but his best Jewish friend in later life (Bermard Berenson) seems to have tolerated him all the same.

      But more to the point, a lot of my political thinking was formed by George Orwell. Not just 1984 but his collected letters and essays. I read them start to finish many times. It is hard to read him and support any old leftists.Except, you know, they were so damned good at making anti-war demonstrations run right, and run peacefully, back during what our Vietnamese friends call the “American War”. Only thing I admired about American Communists but I had to respect it.


  2. Damn you’re good. Can’t wait for Myerson’s reaction to this. I know deep down he’s gonna be delighted… maybe he’ll have something to say about the wrap up… can’t wait.

    And Tracy’s work! JOY! it’s so loose and open. Inspires me.

    xo ra


    Liked by 1 person

  3. About clueless media persons: Many years ago I was watching a news program and the reporter stuck a mike in front of a woman who had just lost her husband a kids in a fire. He asked “How does it feel to know that……………….”
    I never watched a TV news program again. It wasn’t too long before my little (18 inch?) TV died and I never bought a new one.
    Haven’t owned a TV in at least 25 years.


  4. Windthorst, Texas, January, 1998. Standing at a vintage sheet metal trough urinal under a rusted metal sash window that opened outward at the bottom. Snow flurries outside, icy air coming through the open window. The chrome on the old plumbing fixtures losing out to stinking green corrosion. Down in the urinal, a huge cockroach was trying to climb up out of the trough. It would make some progress, then lose its footing and fall back down into the cold piss water. Repeatedly. The observant man standing next to me at the urinal shook his head and drawled “I’ve had days like that.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There’s a story that John Steinbeck once said communism would never catch on in America because the downtrodden don’t see themselves as an oppressed proletariat, but rather as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. *Now* you tell me. Years and years, and not (by now) an old Leftie? – of sorts, at least? The Bernie Babies want a revolution, which is normal, but the system sucks and is going to suck worse. But they are going to have to do their work under Pres. Hillary…


  7. Jon Carroll –

    I wish I’d known about this. I knew Harvey Robb in Detroit, we were in much the same soup, culturally and academically, for a number of years there, important ones. Even though we both moved to California at about the same time, we landed in different circles and never really connected again. I used to take my kids to the Pickle Family Circus and marvel that that was my old pal Harvey from Detroit up there, playing the great sax and wrapped up with an overall terrific bunch of people.

    So my fondness is rekindled, and I thank you for you for that, and for the columns that arrive in my email.

    All the best,


    ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ ❖ Paul Hostetter, luthier Bonny Doon, California http://www.lutherie.net 831.427.1143


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