Wednesday, January 23, 2008

BMI and ASCAP are cum-sucking pigs

Right now I'm at the open mic at Inside the Bungalow in Mesa, Arizona. My fellow musicians and I have just been informed that next week will be the last open mic here. They've been paying protection money (aka licensing fees) to BMI for the last ten years but they missed this year's payment. As a result they must cease and desist and pay a $700 fine, even if they pay their bill and explicitly prohibit musicians from playing licensed cover songs from now on.

Last month I found that every live music coffeehouse in San Francisco has been similarly threatened and harrassed by BMI and/or ASCAP in the past year. They've all either shut down their open mics or banned cover songs. Now the snakes are slithering into the Phoenix area. It's likely that they'll put the chill on every open mic scene in the country within the next year or two.

I'm all for encouraging originality, but not this way. This kind of crackdown is like record companies prosecuting college students for downloading songs for free from the internet or lawyers harrassing day care centers for painting pictures of Mickey Mouse on the walls without paying off Disney. The musicians who write these songs make crumbs while weasels in suits walk away with most of the dough. It's greedy, mean, and ultimately self-destructive. No one's making money off these performances, but the performing rights organizations are getting free publicity for their songs every time some kid butchers Brown Eyed Girl in front of ten other musicians. They're not gaining anything by bullying the little guys. They're destroying an important part of our culture for a miniscule amount of cash.

BMI's corporate headquarters is at 320 West 57th Street, New York. I encourage everyone who finds themselves in or near The Big Apple to stand in front of their office and play some of the 6.5 million songs in their catalog. Open your guitar case and keep the change people throw at you. Do it in groups. Do it on an ongoing basis. Let's make it a new community tradition. I'll join you the next time I'm in town.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Japanese-American concentration camps

I used to teach Japanese at a high school in Santa Cruz. When checking out Japan-themed videos at the public library to use for class, I stumbled upon some videos about the concentration camps (or "internment camps" in the official parlance) into which all West Coast Japanese Americans were herded. I decided to show some of these to my students.
One video was about a handful of men who challenged their detention in court and lost, only to have their children revive the case forty years later and win. Other videos discussed the racial tensions at the time, the prejudice against not only Japanese Americans but all Asians living here, the hysterical propaganda films made by the government, and the obvious contradictions in our policies toward our fellow Americans who immigrated from Japan for the same reasons as those who came from anywhere else: for a better life than the one they left behind. Almost all of them were American citizens and most of them had been born here. Only the Japanese from the west coast were subject to this order, about 110,000 people. The Japanese of Hawaii, which had already been attacked, were not included in the internment even though they made up about a third of the population there. There was not one single instance of the much-feared sabotage by Japanese Americans that was used to justify their imprisonment. Many families found their houses occupied by white families when they tried to go back home after the war. One man was pulled out of his hospital bed in San Francisco while recovering from a gall bladder operation and sent to a concentration camp because his ethnicity made him threat to the United States.

A few days after I showed these videos, all sorts of info about the subject flowed into my life from many directions. The parents of a student who wasn't in my class gave me some posters ordering "all persons of Japanese ancestry" of Santa Cruz County to report to the local Veterans Hall in Watsonville for their confinement. I put the posters on the door and wall of my classroom. I found books written by people who had lived through the camps, including one by a Japanese Canadian woman who was imprisoned as a teenager along with 22,000 other people in British Columbia. One of the administrators showed me a clipping from a local paper, the Pajaro Valley Times or something like that, of a concentration camp survivor who goes around to area schools speaking about his experiences in the camps. We invited him to talk to our student body.

Mas Hashimoto was born in Watsonville to a farming family. He was as American as anyone else born here. He'd never even visited Japan until years after the war. He was sent to prison when he was SIX for the crime of being of Japanese descent. The family had one week to close up shop, get rid of most of their possessions (there wasn't much that they were allowed to take with them), and uproot themselves completely.
From his green, fertile, temperate, oceanside farm town he and his family were sent to the desert in Gila, Arizona. They lived in shacks that were still under construction upon their arrival. No heat, no privacy. He had to check his bed for scorpions before going to sleep at night. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch with no resources but their own ingenuity and a few gifts from friends on the outside, behind barbed wire and under the eyes of soldiers manning machine guns in watchtowers. They built their own schools, had no books for some time, formed a baseball league, held dances, married, had children, and buried their dead. His brother died there at the age of fourteen.
About two years into the internment the government offered its prisoners a chance to show their loyalty to their country by joining the military and fighting against the Japanese empire. Some men took the opportunity gladly while others were so disgusted by the treatment they had received that they preferred to remain in prison.
Mr. Hashimoto brought copies of the tags that the internees had to wear on their way to the camps and handed them out to the students. They had the locations of each camp printed on them for relevant authorities to mark so that they knew where to send their human cargo from the central processing facility in Oakland. He showed slides of pictures of his family before, during, and after the internment and images of the camps. While they certainly didn't compare to the Nazi death camps of the same era, they were nevertheless horrid places created out of the ignorance and xenophobia that have always been so prominent in our culture.
He told the students that one of the reasons he gives these presentations is that since 9/11 he sees something similar happening to Arab and Muslim Americans, people who are being victimized by the fears of their fellow Americans and made to suffer guilt by association. He doesn't want to see another group of people endure what he went through.
The students were deeply impressed by Mr. Hashimoto's presentation. They were full of questions for him. Afterward some of them told me that he was the best guest speaker we'd brought in all year.

I wish I'd been taught about this during my high school years. I knew that the camps existed, but that was about it. Regardless of how one feels about the necessity of imprisoning thousands of families for the sake of national security, every American should know the details of this period in our history from the point of view of those who experienced it first-hand.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Terrorists and Tourists

After the 2003 bombings in Casablanca security was amped up all over Morocco. Cops and soldiers began doing foot patrols through marketplaces and neighborhoods where they didn't usually go unless there was trouble. One cop and one soldier were stationed in front of the school where I taught. The number of police checkpoints on the nation's highways increased exponentially overnight.
Just a few weeks after the bombings I took a bus from Meknès to Beni Mellal and back one weekend. Normally it's a six-hour bus ride. This time it took over eight hours to get there because the bus had to stop at every crossroads in the country while police inspected the luggage stored underneath the bus and checked the ID of every passenger. A lot of people were asked questions about their journey, but not me. My US passport was like gold. They were interested in finding terrorists, not tourists. I noticed that they waved most of the cars through the checkpoints. I guess terrorists only use public transportation.
The ride back to Meknès took about eleven hours. Not only had more police checkpoints sprung up over the weekend, but the bus was going to Fès, which meant getting off in Azrou. I had to take another bus or a grand taxi from there. It was dark by the time I arrived in Azrou. There were no busses and not enough Meknès-bound passengers to fill a grand taxi. After waiting for an hour I bought the remaining two seats just so we could leave. After one minute on the road the driver got pulled over for running a red light. He had to talk to the cop for 15 minutes and pay a bribe before we could move again. It was a long, slow, boring night time drive. Eventually I struck up a conversation with the passengers and the driver. People got out one by one along the road in Meknès until there were two of us left at the end of the route, two blocks away from my apartment. It was 11:30 PM. We got out of the taxi and each grabbed a strap of his bag as we began walking up the street.
Immediately a police paddy wagon rolled up. Two plainclothes cops and one guy in a uniform jumped out and surrounded us closely as they demanded our IDs. They barked a bunch of questions at us, concluded we were not the droids they were looking for, and sped off into the night. As we got to the head of my street and parted ways, my companion gave me a keychain as a gift. It's an inch-thick chip of wood with an Arabic prayer for travelers inscribed on it. Four years later it's in my pocket right now.

Tales from Store 24

In my last year of college I worked at the Store 24 on Boylston across the street from the Boston Public Library. It was no better and no worse than any convenience store in the US. Being in the downtown of a big city, we got some colorful customers, from disheveled drunks to yuppies to three transvestites who usually showed up around 11:00 PM.
My favorite customer was a homeless woman named Mary. She was always very polite, even when other people were rude to her. One time another homeless woman, a mean old bag lady with a wig and a manner of dress that suggested she came from old money, attacked Mary. Mary wanted to use the microwave and opened it not realizing that the other woman already had something in there. She assumed that Mary was up to no good and hit her with her umbrella and shouted all sorts of insults at her. Made a big scene. She was incensed that I would not throw Mary out of the store, so she walked out, declaring she'd never shop there again. Throughout the encounter Mary remained calm and apologetic. She didn't seem to comprehend the woman's rage but she was nevertheless a bit shaken by it. Over the next couple months I saw the madwoman show up a few times, peek in, and leave in a tizzy if she saw me behind the counter.
Sometimes I used to sit with Mary out on the sidewalk. She was always happy to hang out and shoot the breeze, always had a smile for me. She told me about her life story, about giving birth to her son two blocks away on Comm. Ave, about how her kids wanted to put her in a mental institution, about how she didn't see herself as homeless but as someone who chose to "live outside." She disappeared that winter. I got worried when spring came and I still didn't see her. Perhaps her son had her locked up after all. I was relieved when I saw her on a visit to Boston a few years later. She was sitting on a residential street in the South End. She seemed exactly the same. We sat and talked for a while. But when I asked her if I could take her picture, she said she would ask me to leave if I did so. I put my camera down and everything was cool again.
On the day I got hired my boss warned me about TEGLY, or Tobacco-Educated Gay and Lesbian Youth. They were a group of underage kids who conducted cigarette stings on convenience stores. Any clerk who sold them smokes was slapped with a $300 fine, plus another fine for the store. I was told to check everyone's age thoroughly. One night a girl who looked like she was 17 or 18 wanted to buy a pack of Camels. I asked for her ID. She said that she left it in her dorm, but that she really was 18 and a student at Emerson College. I said that I believed her but I needed to see the ID anyway. She got mad and tried to break me down through abuse. I didn't budge and she left in a huff. She returned half an hour later and threw her driver's license at me. I saw Jessica Something-or-other, age 18. As I reached up for the Camels, she grabbed her license and stormed out.
The worst aspect of the job was selling lottery tickets. First of all, the machine was some huge, primitive monstrosity from a time when computers were as big as houses. It broke down a lot. But also it was depressing and ethically questionable. I felt like a drug dealer supplying a bunch of addicts. The same poor and elderly people would come in every day and blow their government checks on tickets. They'd get aggressive if the machine was down that day. In the event that they won a couple bucks, they'd use the money to buy more tickets.
One guy who used to come in and lose every day brought in his son on his eighteenth birthday. It was a big moment for the kid, being old enough now to play the lottery just like his dear old dad. He looked over his shoulder as the kid rubbed the silver off with a coin. As they walked out the door a moment later, he put his arm around the boy and said, "Better luck tomorrow, son."

Cool Cop

Two weeks ago I took a boat from Nador, Morocco to Almeria, Spain. It was an overnight trip, about eight hours long. I hung out at the bar with a Moroccan police inspector. He was unlike any other cop I've ever met, especially in that part of the world. For starters, he boasted proudly that he's never taken a bribe in spite of his low police salary, even when it's meant going without food for days at a time. At first I thought he was full of it because it's taken for granted in Morocco that every cop in the country is on the take. Nevertheless, after getting to know him a bit I started to believe him. And not only was he an honest cop, but an interesting guy too.
He writes poetry and has a book of poems published. He plays guitar with a band. He speaks about half a dozen languages. He's religious, but gives himself some slack for being human. He's pretty sure that God will forgive him for drinking alcohol.
His mission that night was to bring two Algerian terrorists to Spain and hand them over to the Spanish authorities. They were captured in Agadir and were wanted by Interpol for playing a role in the Madrid bombings. As we spoke they were in a holding cell down below in the belly of the ship. After delivering his human cargo he planned to go shopping in Almeria for a day and buy some gifts for his wife and kid.
He asked me to send him a postcard from my hometown so he can put it on his wall with all the other postcards travelers have sent him from all over the world. Yesterday I bought him a one of the hills of Pennsylvania in their glorious fall colors.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Country Boy in the Ghetto

In October 1997 I joined the Americorps program as a VISTA (Volunteers In Service To America). I was assigned to the Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety (CANS). Because I was the only VISTA in my batch who spoke any Spanish, I was assigned to Nobel Neighbors, a West Side community organization based in a neighborhood that was roughly half Latino and half black. Depending who you asked, the area was called West Humboldt Park, Hermosa, or K-Town.

My job was to be a community organizer for crime and safety issues. I was to identify problems in the neighborhood, help organize block clubs and events, and groom local residents for leadership roles. I also tried get people to attend local beat meetings as part of CAPS, Chicago's community policing program.

It would be hard to imagine anyone less qualified for the job. I grew up in a typical American small town: rural, quiet, almost 100% white. I had just moved to Chicago from India. I knew nothing about American urban problems, let alone how to help people solve them. And as for my Spanish skills, I had studied in high school and visited relatives in Puerto Rico when I was a kid, but I'd never been immersed in the language or used it practically.

In order to bone up on my Spanish, I listened to a Spanish talk radio station in my car every day. "Cinco seisenta AM: la radio que habla." One of my favorite programs was the Carlos Martinez show. Senor Martinez gave explicit and humorous sex advice to giggling housewives (Oh, Carlos!), often with loud moaning and lewd sound effects. For some reason, this show was on the air at four in the afternoon, when children were returning home from school. Someone must've complained because after a few months the show was moved to 11:00 PM. Another favorite was La Noche de Misterio, a late-night program featuring spooky stories.

At Nobel Neighbors there was Jane, the director, Linda, who worked with housing issues, and me. Linda was sort of a mentor for me and helped me orient myself to my strange new environment. In the afternoons we would drive around the neighborhood and note the addresses of abandoned buildings, crack houses, vacant lots, hot corners, and other trouble spots. She introduced me to potential leaders, brought to my attention a lot of things I would have missed, and gave me advice (like have a safe house on each block where I can retreat to when shooting starts).

There was a lot of shooting. Winter tended to be quiet because it was too cold to stand on a corner and sell drugs. But people dreaded the spring thaw because it usually brought more violence. My year there was no exception.

When the snow melted a new gang called The Insane Unknowns moved onto Karlov Avenue and displaced the previous gang, whose name escapes me. That April, the old gang came back hoping to wipe out their rivals in a drive-by shooting at the corner of Karlov and Hirsch, across the street from Nobel Elementary School. They had firepower, a car, the element of surprise, and lousy aim. All the Insane Unknowns escaped unscathed. However, one of the bullets happened to strike in the chest an eleven-year-old girl named Jeanette who at that moment was running out of her building to greet her father, whose car had just pulled up. She died at the hospital. I went to her wake a few days later with Linda and Jane. It was open-casket. There she lay, in her pretty white dress, while her mother and family stood in the doorway and cried quietly. It was awful.

Even though there were over 800 murders in Chicago that year, this killing drew a lot of attention. For a few days politicians made empty speeches and the newspapers wrote stories about the conditions of the neighborhood until they lost interest and moved on to something else. A spokesman for the 25th district of the police department told the Chicago Tribune that this was the first killing in the area in a year and a half. I was very upset when I read that because that had been the sixth killing in the neighborhood in about a month.

One of the killings that happened that month and on the same block was of a man who had quit his gang. He had a pregnant girlfriend and wanted to get his life together so he could be a good father. He was back in the neighborhood to visit his family when his former gangmates saw him and shot him in an alley after he begged for his life.

At the corner of Potomac and Pulaski was a liquor store called Stooges. Stooges was a constant headache for those unlucky enough to live near it. The parking lot was full of trash, rats, and crack dealers. One day two cops stumbled drunkenly out of Stooges and chased down a Jamaican immigrant named Jeremiah. He was a well-known gangbanger but at that moment he wasn't doing anything wrong, just walking down the street. The cops beat him up so bad they put him in the hospital. The neighborhood responded by marching on the 25th district police station in protest. The police responded by denying the area any meaningful police service for a year. At the end of that year was when I showed up, the idealistic white boy from the country who wanted to help foster cooperation between locals and the police. No wonder I couldn't get anyone to turn out for beat meetings except for a handful of elderly white people who stayed when their neighbors fled to the suburbs.

One complaint I heard over and over at the beat meetings by those who did come was that it was unsafe to call 911 when people saw trouble in the streets. The reason it was unsafe was because the police would usually stop in front of the house that made the call, shine their spotlight on the door for a moment, and then move on. The people would then face retaliation from the criminals on their block. In response to this, the city came up with a plan: anyone who wanted to remain anonymous when calling 911 had to tell the dispatcher so. The dispatcher in turn would forward the complaint to the officer on the beat without giving the officer any information about the caller. There was no talk about punishing police who deliberately endangered the lives of those who called on them for help.

One man who lived on an especially dangerous corner used to work as a community policing organizer. He had pretty much the same job as me except that he worked for the police department instead of a neighborhood organization. He quit after a few months because he was disgusted by the corruption he saw. He said that drugs that were confiscated were stored in a safe, but each night someone stole the drugs and put them back on the street. In general, he felt that the police hindered his work more than helped it.

One of the first projects I undertook was to establish a connection between Nobel Neighbors and Kedvale Park, the only safe place for kids to hang out. They had basketball, foosball, board games, and two adults in charge. Some kids had such a horrible home life that they were always at Kedvale. When the park director opened the gates at seven or eight in the morning, there was usually a line of kids waiting to get in, even if it was the middle of winter. I tried to teach a drum class there, but all we had to bang on were boxes. I got some of the local music stores to lend us some instruments. I got busy with other projects and didn't have time to do the music classes anymore, so I passed them onto a friend who taught them some Moroccan rhythms.

I tried to organize a block club on Hirsch, with little success. Linda introduced me to a few residents and I got them to come to Kedvale Park fieldhouse for some meetings since no one wanted to have the meetings at their house. There was Cliff and Dorothy, a kind old couple. There was a Mexican man who spoke English and a Mexican woman who didn't. One woman who came to all the meetings was known as The Candy Lady because she sold candy to kids in her living room. At the time I was naive enough to believe that that was all she sold. She usually came with her handyman, Cornbread. All we did was talk. No one was willing to commit to actually doing anything. The only thing we did successfully was organize a block party at Hirsch and Kildare in order to disrupt a crack market for an afternoon. We got the city to close down the street, grilled some hot dogs, had games for kids, and the crack dealers had to go somewhere else for a while.

On the northeast corner of Hirsch and Kildare was a run-down apartment building owned by a car dealer from the suburbs. The guy was a slumlord and did nothing to maintain the building or take responsibility for his tenants. Some tenants ran a pretty large drug business, much bigger than a couple guys standing on the street. Every so often someone pulled up in a shiny black car. Two guys stood on the roof with guns while the car unloaded its cargo. I went inside the building with Linda once and talked to tenants. Everything was falling apart in the building. People complained of constant plumbing and electrical problems. The landlord did nothing but collect rent. After Nobel Neighbors called the landlord a few times to bring the seriousness of the situation to his attention and he still did nothing, we got the city to send in building inspectors. He was cited for dozens of violations. After several months of dragging his heels and doing very little work, we took him to court. His lawyer cursed our organization and the entire neighborhood when the judge fined him a few thousand dollars. Some people in the community hailed this as a great victory, but it didn't feel like one. We wanted the guy to rehabilitate his building, not give his money to the city. Even though he had been a terrible landlord, I didn't want to just stick it to him, and I felt bad.

There was a man named Louis who owned a real estate business called EZ Life. EZ Life would buy beat-up old houses from the Federal Housing Authority, give them shoddy surface repairs, and sell them to poor people. Upon moving in they'd find all sorts of problems and spend all their money on maintenance. Being unable to pay for both repairs and loans, they'd be forced to foreclose and abandon their houses. Neighborhoods across the West Side acquired large numbers of abandoned buildings, most of which quickly became crack houses. EZ Life went out of business to elude investigators and then reopened as Ace Realty. The week of Thanksgiving we got a busload of people from West Humboldt Park and the nearby neighborhood of Lawndale to go Louis' house in the recently gentrified neighborhood of Wicker Park. All of these people had been screwed by EZ Life. The angry but polite mob showed up on his doorstep, much to his shock. Not surprisingly, he didn't want to talk, but he got the message. Someone presented him with a turkey leg and told him it was a turkey-of-the-year award. As dozens of elderly people and parents with children stood on the sidewalk and waited for the bus to come back, a well-dressed man in a convertible pulled up and asked the mostly black crowd, "Excuse me, are you gangbangers?"

Two months later an affiliated West Side group was organizing an action against EZ Life/Ace Realty. We saw in the paper that an EZ Life house was for sale in Lawndale. Jane sent me there with a disposable camera to take pictures of the house. The pictures were to be blown up and put on signs. It was the middle of the afternoon in January and Lawndale wasn't much worse than West Humboldt Park, so niether of us saw any potential problems. I arrived at the house on Central Park and Iowa. There was a group of guys standing across the street. I didn't pay much attention to them. I just walked up to the house and started taking pictures. I started to get a creepy feeling and decided to go back to my car. As I walked to my car, the gang across the street started to walk towards my car too. When I got behind the wheel and turned on the ignition, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that they were now running toward the car and that the guy in front pulled an automatic out of his jacket. I stepped on the gas and realized that I had parked on ice. My tires spun in place and I didn't move. The guy with the gun reached the back of my car at just the moment that I finally started to peel out. Instead of shooting into the car, which he could have done very easily at this point, he just hit the back of the car with the butt of his gun. As my car took off, I looked in the mirror again and saw that the guys were laughing. I ran a stop sign. An old drunken wino leaning against the stop sign waved his hands to tell me to slow down. I took the next right and realized that I was going the wrong way down a one-way street. Dodging oncoming traffic, I finally made it onto Chicago Avenue and went back to Nobel Neighbors. I tried to get back to work but couldn't concentrate, so Jane let me go home.

There was a hillbilly family from Kentucky that somehow came to live in this ghetto. They were dirt poor. Their children ran around in rags and bare feet.

The federal goverment launched an investigation into corrupt Chicago aldermen who took bribes for allowing people to illegally dump trash in their wards. It was called Operation Silver Shovel. Eight aldermen were indicted. Percy Giles was one of the aldermen in West Humboldt Park. He was indicted, convicted, and jailed for taking $80,000 in bribes, more than any of the other aldermen. Instead of holding an election for a new alderman, Mayor Daley appointed a woman who was loyal to him.

One night the fifteen-year-old grandson of Leon, one of our board members, was killed while walking his girlfriend home on Kamerling Avenue. He belonged to a gang that was at odds with whoever controlled Kamerling and was shot for being where he wasn't supposed to be. Some of the board members were callous enough to say that he got what he deserved for being a gang member. "He wasn't a gangbanger to me," Leon said. "He was my grandson."

Linda told me that on Potomac Avenue, on the same block as Stooges liquor store, was a group of women who picked up the trash every Saturday morning. This was the closest thing they had to a block club and we decided to encourage them to do more. At the opposite end of the block from Stooges was a vacant lot filled with garbage and occupied by drug dealers. The city was encouraging the rehabilitation of vacant lots as community gardens, so we got the city to deliver a truckload of woodchips one Saturday. A group of young suburban volunteers came from City Year, another Americorps program. They wore matching red T-shirts and started the day off with some embarrasing ra-ra cheers, much to the amusement of the locals. All day long we picked up trash and spread around the woodchips in the gentle spring rain. Someone donated hot dogs, sodas, and sandwiches. We had a lot of fun. In addition to the Potomac women, people from other streets, children, and even the gangbangers came to help out. Over the next few months, the Potomac women kept at it and turned the lot into a beautiful garden. Last year I met someone who still lives in Chicago and told me that the garden at Potomac and Karlov is still being maintained and has become a model for other community gardens around the city.

The women of Potomac didn't stop at the garden. They organized marches through the streets at night with people chanting, "No rocks! No blows!" They joined forces with people a few blocks away at Springfield and Division, where a bunch of neighbors took to the streets in protest every night for a month after two kids got shot. Police came out for these marches as escorts. Cops and residents talked and got to know each other. Some dealers didn't like the attention and poisoned the rottweiler of one of the Potomac women.

They also took on Stooges. They wanted to vote the address dry. This was made difficult by the fact that the line between two voting districts went down the middle of their street, putting them in two different areas and forcing them to organize twice as many people, including many who lived nowhere near Stooges. They persevered and I was told a few years later that they finally did it. Stooges was no more.

At the end of my VISTA year I felt like it had all been a waste. I felt like I had been totally ineffective. I had no idea what I was doing at all. I learned a lot but I didn't think I had contributed anything of value to the community that I was working for. It wasn't until years later that I heard about the successes of the women on Potomac. While they did all the important work on their block and exposed themselves to retribution from dangerous people, it felt good to know that I played a small role in at least one thing that went right. I guess we often have no way of really knowing how we affect others.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Herding Goats in San Francisco

Goats are big business. It started with Goats 'R' Us in San Diego in the '80s. Brilliant idea: instead of using gasoline-powered, air- and noise-polluting machines to clear fields of weeds or paying labor costs for humans to do it by hand, use herds of goats who'd like nothing better than to graze fresh pastures all day. Since then, goat herding companies have been popping up all over California to rent their flocks to those who'd like their eco-friendly and economical services. I used to work for a friend and his mother who'd been managing goats for four years. They had just gotten a contract with the San Francisco Port Authority and so I did my training in the city on Pier 96 by Hunters Point.

Pier 96 is the last of the piers going down the bay side of the city. It's an industrial zone, hardly the bucolic setting which one might normally imagine to be appropriate to the herding of goats. The inland side of the pier is a railyard with a few dozen boxcars. On the southeast corner is a parking lot for postal trucks and police cars and a course for training emergency vehicle drivers. There's a port where ships come from somewhere on the Pacific to unload their cargo. On the northeast corner is a factory that smells like rancid cat food. I was told it's a plant where animal remains are melted down for industrial purposes. On the southwest corner, next to the main entrance, four or five men spend their days packing toxic, contaminated dirt into barrels for shipment to a storage facility in Utah. In the middle of the pier was a pile of rubble from highways and bridges. Wrapping around the dusty pile was a 22-acre field of weeds. Hidden among the weeds were a few homeless encampments. There were broad views of the skyline downtown, the Twin Peaks and fog rolling over them each afternoon, the Bay Bridge, and Oakland and Berkeley across the bay.

We brought in two herds totaling 1,020 goats. They cleared about an acre a day. My job consisted mainly of setting up and taking down rolls of electric fence. I'd clear a foot-wide path of weeds with a mower, roll out the fence in 100-foot segments, hook it up to a car battery and a solar panel, and check the voltage. Otherwise, I just had to make sure the goats had sufficient water, mineral salt licks, and tubs of molasses.

We had an Australian shepherd dog named Hemp. Hemp was severely abused and traumatized by a previous owner. He ran away with his tail between his legs from every human he saw except my friend who rescued and trained him and the shepherd who worked with him. Hemp was about as phychologically disturbed as a dog could be.

A word about goat-dog relations: the goats are afraid of the dog. The dog enjoys tormenting the goats and feels a tingling from his predator roots somewhere in the back of his brain. The shepherd puts the dog behind the goats, which makes them run away from the dog and toward wherever the shepherd wants them to go.

One day Hemp quit his job. The goats were being moved from one enclosure to another. It was a hot afternoon and Hemp just didn't feel like running around. He wanted to be back in his cage where there was water, shade, and security. So he lay down and ignored all commands to stay behind the goats. The goats escaped and started wandering all over Pier 96. Three humans couldn't contain the goats the way one dog can, and after several hours of chasing the beasts, they called in someone from another company to bring another dog. When the dog finally arrived, the goats were all herded into the pen in about 10 minutes.

One day when I wasn't working the goats cleared a patch near the rubble pile and uncovered a dead body. The guy was apparently dead for a long time. All that was left was a clothed skeleton wrapped in a blanket. The cops came and took the body but we never found out what happened. On my last day at the site all that was left was the yellow police tape.

From Pier 96 the goats were moved to their next assignment: a beautiful, idyllic winery hidden in the hills near Petaluma.