I moved to San Francisco from Santa Rosa in Sonoma County on May 15, and for the first two weeks I sat in my one-bedroom apartment and listened to the screeching sounds from the N-Judah Streetcar which passes half a block from the building where I live. The neighborhood is called Ocean Beach. It’s part of the Outer Sunset. The inhabitants are largely older Chinese women who are widows.
A banker at Wells Fargo, a young Chinese woman named Alice Kunag, explained that older Chinese men usually remarry after their wives die because they don’t know how to take care of themselves, don’t know how to cook or do the laundry. Alice also told me that her favorite aunt “hates, hates, hates Mao Zetung,” but that the aunt’s husband says “Mao did good things for China, now nobody starves to death. Mao made China respected around the world.” I don’t know if Alice has any opinions about Mao. I asked her a couple of times what she thought of the chairman, but each time she changed the subject to the interest rate and the stock market.
After my first two weeks in San Francisco when I quarantine myself against city life itself, not the pandemic, I began to wander in ever widening circles to the north, the east and the south, though not to the West where waves from the Pacific Ocean batter the shore, where surfers surf, fisherman fish and walkers walk. On the last Thursday in September, I rode the N-Judah Streetcar past Other Avenues, the worker owned foodstore, past Arizmendis, the worker owned and operated bakery, all the way to Civic Center Plaza, where hundreds of homeless men and women gather, talk, use drugs, sleep, eye the police, and more or less keep to themselves.
From the Civic Center I walked two blocks to the Marriott on Market where the San Francisco Labor Council was holding its annual banquet, the first since the pandemic hit the city and disrupted urban life. Unlike the members of the teachers’ union, who sat at the table that I picked out for myself because it was close to the stage, I didn’t pay $500 to attend, to eat and drink, listen to a mariachi band and hear talk from union leaders and politicians. Kim Tavaglione, the executive director of The San Francisco Labor Council, was kind enough to give me a press pass.
For at least a hundred years, San Francisco has been known as a strong union town. At the start of the 20thcentury, the film industry settled in L.A. because unlike S.F., L.A. didn’t have powerful unions. Film producers could hire carpenters, electricians and plumbers and not have to pay union wages. In 1934 came the General Strike on the waterfront and throughout the city and the heyday of the longshoreman’s union and Harry Bridges, the Australian-born labor leader. Judging by the size and the enthusiasm of the crowd, and by the passion of the speakers, S.F. is still a strong union town.
Of the several hundred people who attended the banquet, I knew only two: Ken Tray, a union organizer who has a one-two punch. First, picket and march in the streets and provide a show of force and then go inside the building, sit down with management and negotiate from a position of strength. I also recognized S.F.’s D.A. Chesa Boudin, who has abolished cash bail because it has favored people with money. Boudin now wants to go after “ghost guns,” the unregistered, illegal firearms that haunt the city. Meanwhile, he’s raising money everyday to fight the cops who want to unseat him.
I shook hands and talked with an old friend who belongs to the union for the sheet metal workers. I met for the first time a person named Honey Mahogany who recently co-founded the first transgendered cultural district in the Tenderlion in San Francisco and maybe in the world. Honey Mahogany is also the co-owner of the The Stud, a queer bar which is currently shuttered but has plans to reopen. She offered me an open invitation to join her and friends for the gala celebration.
The carpenters were well represented at the banquet and so were the teamsters, the fire fighters, the nurses, the teachers and the janitors who were singled out for special recognition. The cops seemed to be the only workers, if you can call them that, who weren’t represented. Many of the union members are women who stood on the stage and called for affordable childcare and an end to harassment by men on the job. Many union members are also Latinos. In San Francisco the day of the white working class man appears to be coming rapidly to a close.
Asa Kalra, the first person of East Indian heritage to serve in the California State Legislature, and the chair of the committee on labor and employment, delivered a rousing keynote speech that reminded me of Vito Marcantonio, the New York politician who always stood with labor and who was the only member of the U.S. Congress who opposed the Korean War. “We’re living in the Gilded Age 2.0,” Kalra said. “The greed that we saw during the pandemic was disgusting. The only thing that will save us is the labor movement.” He added, “This system of corrupt capitalism has no conscience. Don’t lock up brown and black people because they’re poor. The ones who are closest to the pain are closest to the solution.”
Two days later, I joined a march and an outdoor gathering of bohemians and hipsters to commemorate the life and the work of Jack Hirschman, a poet, an activist, a San Francisco poet laureate, lover of literature and self-proclaimed communist who translated Stalin’s verse from Russian to English. Jack died on August 22 at the age of 87. A few hundred people clustered outside Specs’ Bar on Columbus Avenue, across from City Lights, which published Hirschman’s work, then followed a brass band to the Trieste on Grant and from there to Washington Square Park for a formal program. A friend of Hirschman’s remembered that as a young man Jack sent a story to Ernest Hemingway and that Hemingway replied in a letter that was later made public: “You write better than I did when I was 19. But the hell of it is, you write like me. That is no sin. But you won’t get anywhere with it.”
In the bright sunshine I walked from North Beach to the Montgomery Street Muni station, rode the N-Judah to Arizmendis on 9th Avenue, bought pizza, returned home and ate the still warm slices under the fog that swept in from the Pacific.
(Jonah Raskin is the author of For The Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Making of the Beat Generation.)