Local knowledge

The last column I wrote (and yes, I’m going to call these things columns, because everybody does, and also because “blog post” is ungainly) got a lot of readers, ten times the usual number and still climbing. I am glad it’s getting read, because that way Dunn is remembered by even more people.

And thanks to John Schwartz for the lovely mention in the New York Times. It would of course seem like log-rolling if I were to mention his very fine book “Oddly Normal,” so I will just make do with a simple wave of the hand.

It does feel weird that the death of a friend should be a good career move. It’s the sort of vampirism that’s common in my line of work (I have sunk my fangs into all variety of family joys and sorrows), but it’s particularly creepy in an obit. Nevertheless, I shall continue clawing out a career on the backs of dead people.

I realized I wouldn’t write a column that good for a while, so I decided to do something ordinary before I froze up. So this is it, ordinary as all fuck. Hey, new readers! Love ya!

You look gorgeous


You may have heard about the Millennium Tower, the tallest (at the moment) of the high-rises looming over downtown San Francisco. I hate them all, because I remember the past, and the funky down-at-the-heels charm the old neighborhood had. Now it’s just another plutocrats’ playground.  It’s happening in New York and Paris and London too, rich people turning old and valued neighborhoods into amusement parks for the jaded.

On the other hand,  don’t listen to me. I didn’t like the Transamerica Pyramid when it was built either, and now it’s an iconic symbol.

Now here’s the thing: The building, which opened in 2009, has sunk 16 inches and tilted two inches off vertical. There is no indication that it will stop there. Naturally, this concerned Mayor Ed Lee, who last week asked for a thorough examination of the foundation.

Last week! Check the foundation! What?

I am a Californian. If I lived in  coastal North Carolina, I would know a lot about houses on stilts and evacuation routes. But I live here, so I know about earthquakes. I am a homeowner, so I ask questions about foundations. I ask questions about cross-bracing.  That’s why I live in a wooden house, because wood is flexible and able to roll with the shock waves better.

The Millennium Tower is not built of wood. That’s OK, provided certain other measures are taken.

I know about liquefaction. That’s what happens to landfill during a earthquake; it turns from apparently solid dirt into oatmeal. I’ve seen geological maps, and the areas around the bay, where humans turned a lot of water into land by pouring dirt into it. And those areas are clearly marked “Danger Will Robinson.” Really, that’s what they say. I’ve seen them.

So Lee is inquiring just now about the foundation.

And what did he find out? Millennium Tower is built on piles sunk 60 to 90 feet into bay mud. No bedrock! No wonder it’s bloody sinking; it’s built on mud. I believe there’s something in the Bible that mentions the foolishness of that plan. Naturally the residents are upset, but they apparently didn’t ask the question either. In Oakland, we ask that question, right after the one about raccoon-related cat deaths.

But we really are overdue for a big earthquake; 99 per cent chance in the next 30 years, say people who know.  You’d think that people raising a very tall building in San Francisco (a city already destroyed once by an earthquake and fire) would pay attention to the issue.

But no! The folks at the Planning Commission looked at the plans and said, “Cool. You guys rock.” (They haven’t released the engineer’s report yet, but the builders went ahead and built the tower, so we assume everything was hunky-dory on their end). And why did they approve such a flawed design? We’ll never know, but let us guess. The Millennium Tower has made a lot of rich people even richer. Stopping the building until the developers agreed to go down 20o feet to bedrock would negatively impact expected cash flow. They tried to keep the sinking quiet too, but there were complaints, as in: “My possessions are all in one corner of the room and little Bobo can’t make it uphill to the front door.” I am absolutely making that up.

And finally Lee inquires about details. He doesn’t condemn the builders as sleazy quick-buck artists, because that would be rude. Meanwhile, is anyone fixing the problem? Why no. They’re blaming each other. Dueling corporate press releases! The excitement never stops!

All cities are corrupt; I understand that. All nations are corrupt. But the developers and their allies could still have made a shit-ton of money even with the added expense of reaching bedrock. But no. They’re stupid avarice junkies, and now they’ll be fighting lawsuits for the next 30 years. In fact, they be should be put in stocks in the public square and pelted with fruits and vegetables. Fruits like cantaloupe, watermelon and green papayas, the big kind.

See what happens?


The Giants’ dismal season is sputtering to an end.  I do not know at this writing whether they, against all odds, made it to the playoffs — let us hope they do not court further embarrassment by actually winning.  (If that sentence turns out to be utterly wrong, I will be the happiest lad in the universe. Nevertheless, I stand by my pessimism.)

We shall let bygones be bygones, however. We shall move on. No blame. Next up, as nicely summarized by Henry Schulman (from whom I stole many facts) in the Chronicle: Saying goodbye to old friends. The contracts of six key players are up, and it’s doubtful that any of them will return. They’re old and failing, and baseball is cruel to those who try to hang on too long.

Two of the players were responsible for most memorable moments of my Giants fandom. The first is Sergio Romo, a teeny little pitcher of great guile. I remember where I was exactly. It was in 2012. I was in Boulder, Utah (not Colorado), hiking in the badlands of Capitol Reef by day and watching the World Series by night. Deciding game, bottom of ninth, two out, Romo pitching. He had been getting people out with his slider, a wicked breaking pitch that started out over the plate and then dove down and away to right-hand hitters, causing pathetic swings from confused batters.

Up at the plate was Miguel Cabrera, at that moment the most feared hitter (44 home runs, 139 RBIs, OPS .999) in the game. Two strikes. Everyone in the park knew that Romo would throw another slider. Cabrera would try to get it, maybe even reaching out the strike zone. Who would win this epic battle?

And Romo threw a fast ball right down the center to the plate. Extremely hitable, except Cabrera was not expecting it. He stared at it. His bat didn’t move. He stood there looking like a man who’d just seen a vanishing elephant. The pitch was insanely gutsy, and Romo strutted in a fury of machismo. I had trouble breathing just for a moment. Strike three! The Giants win the series!

Romo is 34 years old. He’s had injuries. He’s been a Giant his entire career. He’s a beloved figure. Maybe they’ll keep him (says Schulman), but even then, statistics say he’s going to be forced to retire pretty soon.

Also slated for abandonment: Angel Pagan, the source of my guiltiest baseball pleasure ever. The date was April 25, 2013. I was in the ballpark that day. I usually only go to one game a year, and I enjoy myself whatever the score. The Rockies were in town, ho hum.

Again, bottom of the tenth. Giants behind by a run. Man on base. Pagan hits a screamer to the far corners of the ballpark. Runner scores easily; tie game. But what’s this? I started screaming, “he’s going to go for it! He’s going to go for it!” Pagan did not slow down. He kept churning around second, around third, hair flying, mouth clenched. The throw came in, but too late: Walk-off inside-the-park home run. How many times has that happened? (Not that often, but a guy named Tyler Naquin had one just last month).

There was an astonishing explosion of joy in the stands. We were cheering and hugging and high-fiveing each other. It’s the most fun you can have in baseball, screaming with strangers over an improbable and victorious turn of events. I talked about it for days.

Guilty part: Pagan hurt his hamstring on the miraculous play. He was never quite the same again. The joy went out of his game. We rarely saw his poker-faced pleasure at his own skills, the dugout salutes when he reached base.  He’s still playing; still hitting. He’s 35 years old. He’ll catch on somewhere, but probably not here. Damn.

Of course, it is unnatural for someone to feel personal shame because an entertainer who is making $10 million a year injures himself while seeking to be more entertaining. But being a fan requires signing on to an alternate reality, where enthusiastic young men bounce around a playing field while coping with injury, heartbreak, triumph and, of course, a bald kid with cancer who gets to throw out the first ball — all for the love of the game.

It’s the very first form of reality television, except there’s an almost unimaginable level of skill involved. I get off on it. Wait til 2017!

We shall be triumphant



Photography by Tracy Johnston

Assistance from Michelle Mizera



Big-hearted, yet petty

One afternoon last week, I came home to find a car pulled into the driveway next to my house. It’s not my driveway — amazingly, I don’t have a driveway, or a garage — but it’s eight feet from my front porch, so I have a certain proprietary interest in  what goes on there.

It was doing one of those half-in-the-driveway, half-blocking-the- sidewalk things, often employed by people who will “just be a minute,” which could be an hour. The car was a Mercedes GLS SUV which “starts” at $68,700. And the engine was running. Someone was at the wheel (hard to tell more because: tinted windows) but she (or he) was just idling, waiting for whatever.

OK, I have a problem with expensive cars. I drive a 17-year old Honda Accord, and, while I don’t expect everyone to follow my example, I think it’s useful to remember that a car is morally complicated transportation device. It seems ostentatious and excessive to own a car that costs more than the average salary of an American worker. Surely there’s a soup kitchen somewhere that could use some of that dough.  I think Americans have become too comfortable with extravagant shows of wealth, not just Trumpian excess but also the kind of low-key swagger familiar to people in my area: $20 cups of coffee and $800 dinners and $50 million houses with a separate yoga studio and full-grown tree planted because it invites contemplation of the transient nature of existence.

And I have a problem with parked cars with their engines running. Wasting gas for no reason at all, spewing earth-destroying chemicals into the air because the driver can’t be bothered to turn a key or press a button.  Makes me so mad I write incomplete sentences. I’m calmer now.

Now, friends, that is a vehicle.

 Now, anyone can tell you that the milk of human kindness flows through my veins. I try to be a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather. I am an exemplary neighbor. I ask “How are you keeping, Missy?” to a woman who might very well be named Missy. I ask “How about those Giants, Fred?” to a disgruntled Oakland A’s fan, implicitly suggesting that he may wish to abandon his long-held allegiance to the local squad.

(Really, there is nothing sadder than an Oakland A’s fan. His team has stopped trying to win. They gladly give up their best players for “prospects,” who, if they’re any good, will immediately be traded in exchange for more prospects.  Really, they have no incentive to win. They make money anyway, so why bother? The Giants bother. They may not always win, but they try. I digress.)

I do not hold grudges. I am slow to anger and quick to forgive. I am genial even in hard times. I am, in point of fact, a prince of a fellow.

Almost seems to have a personality, doesn’t it?

But, in examining my shortcomings, I do realize I have resentments, and most of them seem to be about motor  vehicles. Some days, it’s really fortunate that I do not have a firearm in my Honda. It may be that I cry out to an indifferent universe and ask it to rain fire upon the malefactors. Perhaps I pound the steering wheel. I try to remember not to pound the accelerator.

What behavior causes such a violent reaction? Oh, I’m so glad you asked.

∅ Changing lanes without signaling. It is so damn easy to flip a little lever up or down. It’s a service to people behind you. People might say, “there’s no one behind me.” First of all, you don’t know that. Blind spots, right?  Second, just get in the damn habit. Make it automatic.

∅ Refusing to let people into your lane. I may have mentioned this before. You’re accelerating on an on-ramp. The lane does not last forever, because it’s on an on-ramp. There’s a guy to your left, and he just refuses to let you merge naturally. Meantime, you’re running out of lane, so you have to brake precipitously, and if there’s a car behind you: Rear-ender! Who gets all territorial about a lane? Who wants to make the driving experience harder for other people? I ask you. I just asked you. Who?

∅ People who suddenly remember their exit and swerve over three lanes to get to it. Honest to God, pay minimal attention to your destination. Going to San Rafael? Then get in the damn lane that goes to San Rafael. Easy, right? Then you can go back to dreaming of Jennifer Lopez frolicking in the surf.

∅ Tailgaters and high-beam users. I know this is a familiar complaint, but why do people do it? Is it all testosterone poisoning? What if I hit the brakes suddenly, bro? What if I am suddenly blinded and swerve over to your lane and there’s a head-on collision that suddenly involves 12 cars in a carnival of carnage?

∅ Taking two parking places. Doesn’t everyone hate that? In a 17-year-old Honda, one can solve that problem. One scratch more or less; do I care? But the owner of that other car cares. He plunked down a cool $200,000 for his Mercedes G-class off-road (!) vehicle. Not that I would ever suggest intentionally scraping another car, because that would be wrong. Although, taking two parking places is also wrong. So complicated.

Perhaps you think I’m just a cranky old guy. I promise, I have been swearing at other drivers since my mid-20s. There are many indications that I am irritable and elderly, but this is not one of them.

I would like to add arrogant bicyclists and clueless pedestrians, but my bile is spent. It felt good, typing all that. I understand that bad drivers are people too, and I fully support their right to vote, to earn a living, to love the people or peoples of their choice. But I also appreciate that civilized living in a crowded urban environment requires enthusiastic agreement to a set of common principles, the main one of which is: Don’t be a dope.

Death Valley 00263b20160308
The transient nature of existence

Photography by Tracy Johnston

All my questions cheerfully answered by Michelle Mizera