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August 24 - 28, 1998

Monday, August 24, 1998

That woman

Question: Do you know why Clinton doesn't play his saxophone anymore?
Answer: Because he is playing with his horeMonika.

Today's piece was going to be called "I am woman, hear me rant." It began with a frisson as I watched President Clinton address the nation last Monday and gradually took form as the week's events unfolded. But somewhere along the way, the rant became deep regret. Here's why.

In his uncharacteristically terse statement, Clinton acknowledged a relationship with Monica Lewinsky "that was not appropriate" and offered an itemized list of reasons for not 'fessing up earlier. First he spoke of "a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct." Fair enough. Next he added, very slowly, "I was also very concerned about protecting my family." By the time he was halfway through, I had leaped ahead and finished the sentence for him --- "about protecting the reputation of Ms. Lewinsky." I was wrong. It might have been the gentlemanly thing to do, but on this particular day upholding family values was more important.

The polls concurred. The New York Times/CBS elicited "favorable" or "unfavorable" opinions about a number of the key players: Our nation's leader managed to hang on to his good-guy role (48 percent favorable; 40 percent unfavorable), and his cuckolded wife did even better (50 percent favorable; 25 unfavorable). Kenneth Starr, the person whom the speech had cast as the bad guy, performed according to type (19 percent favorable; 40 percent unfavorable). But the real hisses and boos were reserved for Monica Lewinsky. Only 5 percent responded that their opinion of her was favorable, while a whopping 54 percent viewed her unfavorably. A Washington Post/ABC survey tarred her further: Two-thirds felt Clinton owes no apology to the former intern, and about three-quarters had an unfavorable impression of her.

Unfavorable impression based on what? We know almost nothing about this young woman except that Clinton was involved in an extra-marital relationship with her. And yet the entire country seems to have closed ranks against "the other woman," while letting the errant husband off with a rap on the knuckles.

Beyond the major-media polls, I wondered, what were people were saying about the recent events in Washington? What were they saying about Lewinsky? I did a quick search of Web sites. Aside from the predictable assortment of mainstream rumors and humor, it was a pretty unpleasant collection. One by one, I turned over a row of cyberrocks to find a group of grossly mutated toads, including --- in addition to snicker-snicker sites like "Monica Ate My Balls" --- a variety of astoundingly enhanced nude photographs, a number of x-rated screen savers and many decidedly raunchy jokes. (I've appended two of the less offensive ones to the beginning and end of this column.) Monica Lewinsky shouldn't take them personally, of course. People like Jennie McCarthy are equally fair game, and even our present "good woman," Hillary Rodham Clinton, has been the subject of similar sites in the past. It wasn't the sexual explicitness that struck me, but the female-bashing ugliness. Bill Clinton is also the target of some html-coded titillation, but that has the flavor of "Caught you, you devil!" In Lewinsky's case, it's more like "Caught you, you slut!"

In real life, the steamy atmosphere in Washington quickly cleared, as the president who had left for Martha's Vineyard with his tail between his legs flew back in figurative battle regalia to direct our War Against Terrorism. It reminded me of all those black-and-white movies made in the 1950s, such as All the King's Men, where the crucial scene was signaled by a phalanx of men-in-suits arriving to take charge. It was time to push aside both the whore and the angel, and let a real man do a real man's job. (Shh, Daddy's working.)

It turns out that the closed ranks of marital moralists conceal an ominous pack of wolves waiting to attack. I keep recalling another film --- Harold Pinter's Betrayal, in which a married man enters into an affair with a friend's wife and several quite decent people end up betraying the trust of those they are close to. I remember watching the closing scenes with a kind of heavy sorrow, realizing that once all the wounds had been inflicted, the two women were simply eradicated from the picture and the two men resumed their friendship as before.

But there's another Web site that's even more disturbing --- a genuinely funny column appearing in the online satire magazine The Onion ( Its point of departure is the speech Clinton might have made, in which he announces, "No, we did not have sex; we made love." A costly and nasty confrontation is averted, because there's no law against making love. The romantics among the American people are charmed, and even the injured wife must praise her great-hearted husband's loving impulses. The humor of the piece comes from the inconceivable situation it depicts. And that's what makes it disturbing. Monica Lewinsky is not a sex worker whose service route included the White House. She and the president were involved in some kind of relationship for a year and a half, talking frequently on the telephone and exchanging thoughtful little gifts. One can only assume --- only hope --- that there were indeed moments of joy and tenderness in the midst of their sexual excitement.

How sad, that this is a country where sex acts are deemed more acceptable than feelings. How sad, too, that this is a country where misogyny undermines every step that women take. The twenty- and thirtysomething self-styled Third Wave of feminists, who have long felt that they had escaped the problems of their mothers, are beginning to find that things haven't really changed very much. It's still a man's world, and we're only allowed to stick around if we don't make trouble.

Oh yes, the other "joke" ---

Question: What does Ted Kennedy have that President Clinton wishes he had?
Answer: A dead girlfriend.

 --- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Wednesday, August 26, 1998

Go figure

Herbert Muschamp, the architectural critic of the New York Times, tends to get carried away by his enthusiasms, so perhaps we should take his appraisal of San Francisco with a generous sprinkling of salt. "For most Americans," he says, this city is "the most perfectly realized urban setting on the North American continent." Given his training, he's probably referring to its physical features. But in fact, it's the people who inhabit a place and the manner of their daily existence that bring any setting to life. I suspect that "most Americans" would have a markedly different impression if they got off the "little cable cars" climbing "halfway to the stars" and stood face to face with the men and women who ride Muni through the valleys.
Let's conduct an experiment. Pretend that you have never seen the Bay Area or encountered a description of its scenic beauty. Try to imagine what kind of city this is, using the figures that follow, drawn from information provided by the Mayor's Office of Economic Development and the Department of Human Services.

First of all, the basics. As cities go, this one is fairly small: About 724,000 people live in San Francisco. (To put the figure in its proper perspective, you might recall that about 730,000 people live in Indianapolis.) It's also fairly compact: San Francisco covers less than 50 square miles. (So does the island of Jersey. And New York City.)

But the composition of its population is unlike that of any other city. A quick walk down Market Street will confirm one of the most prominent features: There is no ethnic majority. The breakdown is usually given as 47 percent Caucasian, 29 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 13 percent Hispanic, 11 percent African-American. It's also a city of adults: More than 400,000 of its residents are at least 16 years old and therefore statistically part of the workforce. And most (59 percent) of these adults are white.

This template has imposed a kind of schizophrenia on San Francisco, which is evident in almost every aspect of life within its boundaries. Take education, for example. About 40 percent of all adults aged 25 or over have received just a high school education, or perhaps even less; nearly the same number (35 percent) have gone through college or even beyond. But few jobs in San Francisco are open to people without higher education: Only 23 percent are classified as industrial. Small wonder, then, that less than three-quarters of the city's workforce is employed within the city.

Let me put that differently. As of 1990, about 489,000 people worked in the predominately white-collar jobs found in San Francisco; only 293,000 of these employees were residents of the city. Another 93,000 residents had to leave the city to work. And another 26,000 were unemployed. (Imagine the front-page headlines if everyone in the city of Burlingame, which has a population of approximately 26,000, was suddenly thrown out of work.)

Here's where San Francisco's ethnic diversity shows its true colors. Like much of the rest of the United States, its unemployment rates are not uniform across racial categories. In 1990, at a time when unemployment hovered around 6.3 percent, only 4.9 percent of the whites and 6.1 percent of the Asian/Pacific Islanders were out of work. But 8.9 percent of the Hispanics, and 13.5 percent of the African Americans were unemployed. And CalWORKs caseload figures in 1998 follow a similar pattern. But here's also where the city's skewed adult-child ratios show themselves most clearly. In San Francisco people of color, the very people who are more likely to be out of work, have larger families: Less than a third of the Caucasians are children; at the opposite end of the scale, more than half of the African Americans are under 16. And sure enough, English and Spanish are the primary languages spoken by most CalWORKs families (67 percent), and African-American and Hispanic families constitute the largest (54 percent) ethnic groups on the CalWORKs rolls.

And there's yet another monkeywrench jamming the works. A recent study by economist Heather Boushey provides evidence of a relationship between unemployment and wages that's linked to location and race. Not only does the buyer's labor market tend to lower wages in any given area with a high unemployment rate; within that area wages tend to be disproportionately lower for women and minorities than for white males. In other words, an African-American man working in a place with a high percentage of unemployed black males will not only be paid less than white males in the same area; he will be paid less than black males who live somewhere else. When the economy is going downhill, everybody's income suffers. But in a time of generally rising employment, that African-American man is on his own; there doesn't seem to be much correlation between his wages and those of his Caucasian counterparts.

Take away the hills and the cable cars, and San Francisco turns out to be a city where the rich get richer and the poorer don't seem to have much of a place at all. Not an unusual trend these days. But nevertheless, San Francisco has often been regarded as the first outpost of the future. What a pity if its main contribution is to demonstrate how diversity leads to even greater inequality.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Friday, August 28, 1998

A roof of one's own

A magical garden lies hidden high above the streets of San Francisco. It's a simple place --- a few well-used tables and chairs, a row of planter boxes filled with hardy rosemary and lavender. But a person standing on its redwood deck has the sensation of soaring in midair among the multistory buildings that rise from the surrounding hillsides. On one, a soft gray apartment house, cornices crown the edges like icing on a wedding cake. On another, a window washer dangles spread-eagled against a gleaming white wall. Up on the roof, it's very quiet, as if the noise of the traffic below cannot climb so high.

This garden is the creation of Peter Berg and his imaginative eco-comrades at the Planet Drum Foundation, and lovingly tended by a caretaker named Dan O'Connor. Like many special places, it's not easy to get to. Visitors must travel up several stories in a rickety old elevator and push open a heavy white door. But if you don't know someone who can take you there, you can't even enter the elevator unless you've been homeless for a long time --- these days, for about 18 months. The garden is on top of the Senator Hotel, which offers low-income housing in the heart of the Tenderloin.

The Senator was once a more conventional hotel, and the white embossed walls and high ceiling of the lobby offer reminders of its earlier incarnation. When I stopped by there recently, the manager, Richard Herman, a smiling man with a dark curling mustache, greeted me in front of a handsome marble-topped reception desk. He told me that the conversion process had turned out to be relatively easy. On most floors, the contractor simply left the guest rooms and baths as they had been, carving out enough space for a communal kitchen at the end of the hall. On two of the floors, rooms were combined to make family apartments. But more than just the original floor plan remains. Three of the previous tenants, who declined to leave when the building was converted, have made the hotel their home for 30 years.

A product of the Community Housing Partnership, the Senator is decidedly a by-your-own-bootstraps operation, one of the many brainstorms of the Coalition on Homelessness designed to make life easier for poor folks living in San Francisco. In 1990 this meant providing a group of homeless people with hammers and paintbrushes. They fixed up the hotel on Ellis, as well as its sister structures, the San Cristina on Market and the Iroquois on O'Farrell, and then took up residence in the newly renovated spaces. Because the buildings are Section 8 facilities, rents are subsidized so that tenants pay no more than 30 percent of their income. But this hotel supplies something besides low-income housing. Over the years a community has developed, with a food bank and an active tenants' organization, as well as a variety of training and counseling programs. What makes CHP housing unusual, though, is that tenants have a chance to acquire management and maintenance skills by working in and on the building.

Thinking that one good roof garden deserves another, I left the Senator and headed up the hill to a completely different kind of community setting. Raphael House was established on Sutter in 1971, at a time when there were no other shelters for homeless families in the city. And its focus --- beginning with the brightly colored children's paintings that line the halls --- is still emphatically on kids.

The building has the feel of an old-fashioned home, with braided rugs on the floors and flowered tablecloths in the dining rooms. The residents have agreed to spend several months in a benign, nurturing boot camp, with curfews and rules of behavior as well as counseling and practical training. Each of the 20-odd families living here has its own tiny room, but much of everyday life takes place communally, interlaced with the kinds of rituals that provide both stability and variety. Parents and children eat breakfast and dinner together, seated as families. In the evening, the little ones gather in the "Children's Garden" to listen to stories and then are led, pajama-clad, in a singing procession to their rooms. In mid-winter, Santa Claus pays a visit, bringing toys and good things to eat; so do St. Nicholas and Santa Lucia.

My guide was Veronica Cooke, a warm, down-to-earth woman from the Development Office --- Raphael House exists entirely on contributions, along with the earnings of its thrift shop and Brother Juniper's restaurant. We started in the basement of what was obviously a former hospital, winding our way past piles of donated furniture and bins of bedding, which will accompany residents when they move into places of their own. The shelter has strong ties to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I kept being introduced to bearded men in long black robes, including one tall beanpole of a priest, Executive Director Father David Lowell. We looked in at the day care center, which has just graduated four parents from its first class of licensed day care providers. The room was nearly empty --- most of the children were on a field trip --- but one tiny girl who had just awakened from her nap soberly waved a bottle of juice in our direction.

But what about the roof garden? It's a playground. The wooden deck is long enough for a six year old to get a good run across the middle, and at the sides large pots of plants wind in and out among playhouses and low climbing structures. In an area with little open space, the children of Raphael House can play in the sky.

How extraordinary that, in this city where many people have trouble getting a roof over their head, both the Senator Hotel and Raphael House have managed to fill theirs with flowers.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

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