Local events and politics

Leif Johnson — 10 Dec 2003, 13:12

Well, I suppose it's been a while since I've written here. What can I say, things get busy.


I've been doing a lot of cycling recently. So far, “a lot” translates to about 6 miles a day, since I ride to and from school four days a week, and to and from aikido about three days a week. Nice !

Cycling is beautiful. I'm even learning how to enjoy it in the city. It's quite a rush riding alongside a car on a side street, racing against the gasoline engine with only my legs and some gears and ball bearings between me and the pavement. It's a bummer when it rains, though ; no biking when it's wet out ! In fact, it started raining a bit as I rode back from aikido last night, and I fishtailed trying to stop downhill for a red light at Grant and Bush (just in front of the entrance to Chinatown)... the brakes on a road bike get a bit sketchy when everything's wet out.

After arriving at home last night, I finally remembered to go downstairs to try to push my seat up a bit on the road bike—it's been about an inch too low for several weeks, and I just kept forgetting to fix it. So, with hex wrenches and lube in pocket, I headed downstairs and pulled down my bike. I then realized it was quite wet from riding in the rain, so I ran back upstairs to get my bike rag, came back downstairs, and started to wipe down the frame. At that point I found out the bike was quite greasy and dirty to boot, so I started wiping off the derailleurs and chain ... and then I remembered that the rear derailleur was a bit off kilter, and the chain needed a bit of grease ...

So, an hour or so later, I emerged back upstairs, the bike rag and my hands completely covered in dirty grease, but with a significantly cleaner and sleeker bike hanging up downstairs. Hooray ! Can't wait to go riding to school today.

Critical Mass

The day after Thanksgiving was the last friday in November : time for another Critical Mass ! I finally got off my butt and joined in the crowd. Unfortunately the road bike had a flat that night, so I took the touring bike. No worries, however ; no knee issues emerged from the event. We cycled all around the northeast part of town, including several loops around the crazily crowded Union Square (there was a Macy's tree lighting ceremony or something that evening). We rode up to North Beach, down to the Castro, up to the Haight, and back to the Mission. Our group was split in two a couple times, and both reunions were joyous and chaotic.

The ride was fun, and many of the riders, clad in their “vote for Matt Gonzalez” paraphernalia, shouted out at onlookers to “vote for Matt on December 9th !” But Critical Mass is admittedly of doubtful value. The cops at Union Square were pleasantly helpful for us bikers, holding back the SUVs to let us flood the intersections. But they justifiably referred to us as “the children,” and it's doubtful whether the riders accomplish anything except giving more fodder to the anti-bike crowd. But in this town, so many people are biker friendly that nothing seems to come of it, and the monthly tradition is more or less accepted by now.

I'll certainly do more Critical Masses in the future, but it's more of a joyride than any kind of concerted effort to create political or social change. As a fellow biker said when we were both looking at the mass doing a traffic circle at Haight and Schrader, “Now we're just a bunch of roaming thugs.”

Local politics

And, as the sun rose on the Bay Area on 10 December 2003, Matt lost the race for mayor of the great city of San Francisco. Or, rather, Gavin won the race. I'm surprisingly ambivalent about the situation, however : it seems like either candidate will serve the city well, but Newsom seems to be a bit more ruthless about it.

Our apartment is half left, a quarter nonparticipatory, and a quarter right. We've had some decent starts of conversations about the race over the past couple of days ; I hope I can reprint some paraphrases here without running into permission issues. :-)

Newsom, it seems, is a traditional posterchild of the moderate conservative : he worked his way to a position of moderate power in this society, and with his election I'm a bit worried about what's going to happen to the laborers here. Thank god Matt pushed the minimum wage increase through on the last ballot—even though $ 8.50 still isn't enough to make ends meet, it's better than $ 6.25 or whatever the minimum wage was before.

Tangent for the economy

In fact, let's do a little calculation. A typical day laborer working at, say, Green Apple Books (an excellent independent bookstore) or even Starbuck's, makes minimum wage. Most businesses today don't hire many full-time employees, since they would then have to pay benefits and retirement. So the typical laborer will be scheduled about 38 hours a week if possible. Assuming our typical laborer has no life, we'll say they can work 52 of the 52 weeks in a year. That's a total of 1976 hours a year. At the previous minimum wage, those hours translate to $ 12 350 (or about $ 1029 a month) ; at the new minimum wage, those hours will be bumped up to $ 16 796 (a hefty $ 1399 a month). Of course, these are pre-tax amounts, so our day laborer might conceivably be able to scrape by—assuming s/he can find a decent place to live in the city for $ 500 a month ; eats nothing but bean burritos ; and has no desire for cars, entertainment, or insurance.

If our day laborer has a family, this is a flat out ridiculously low amount of money. It's so little money that it's not even laughable any more—just sad. Where did America go wrong to leave its beloved citizens behind in the gutter like this ?

I find this more than unfortunate. Big thanks to Naomi Klein and No Logo for making these points more explicit for me.

Newsom and Gonzalez

So what does this economics stuff have to do with the mayoral candidates ? I've never explicitly realized this, I don't think, but I suddenly found myself discouraged that Newsom had indeed worked his way out of a single-parent family to a powerful position in city government. Don't get me wrong : it's admirable that he managed to do that, and a testimony to his personal drive. But I'm afraid for what that will do to his perspective regarding other workers, people like our day laborer above.

Gonzalez apparently comes from a wealthy family in Texas. He attended Columbia Law School and has generally been well funded, though he embraces the tenets of the Green Party here in town. What do the different backgrounds of these men say about how they will approach the problems of San Francisco ?

I'm afraid that Newsom will be like so many other conservatives who've worked their butts off and are now, somewhat justifiably, reluctant to share their prosperity with those who've got less. Newsom's own personal success might lead him to believe that all other people should be able to accomplish the same that he was able to accomplish. I used to think things should work like this myself, before I really started to think about the situation ; in an ideal society this would be a perfect approach. The problem is that ours is anything but an ideal society. Our America, with its absurdly large middle class and small economic elite, is a society that disturbs the fewest people who have voices. Those without voices—through ignorance, discrimination, or disenfranchisement—don't have enough advocates to find paths to power or even voice in our America.

In a world where hard work really did pay off with success and ladder-climbing potential, everyone could look up to Newsom and his hard work as an exemplar lifestyle. But equality is just a word here, and there are so many people who spend so much time working at minimum wage, trying to support children, who have no time or energy reserves for accomplishing such personal gains. Personal drive is not completely irrelevant here, but in the face of social oppression it takes a lot more personal drive than most people have to make it big.

I hope Newsom doesn't feel that his success as a white male with (I'll assume) good moral and social encouragement from family and friends can apply to all citizens. On the contrary, there is so much heartbreak and so little understanding—our day laborer would be screwed if s/he, for example, turned an ankle walking to work so they had to sit out a couple weeks before going back to shelving groceries again. I feel that Matt was better able to identify with struggles like these, precisely because he did not personally conquer them.

But we'll see how Gavin plays out his term.