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DRY WEATHER and near normal temperatures are forecast to persist for the next several days across northwestern California. Coastal low clouds and patchy fog are expected each night and morning, followed afternoon clearing and sunshine. (NWS)
STEPHEN DUNLAP (Fort Bragg): 49F under clear skies this Sunday morning on the coast. Increasing clouds are forecast for tonight so we might have some fog Monday morning. Otherwise clear skies & light wind is the forecast for the week.
COUNTY EMPLOYEES UNION VOTES TO AUTHORIZE A STRIKE
According to a notice on Saturday from the Union’s negotiating committee, a surprising 92.4% of all members (not just of voting members) of the County employees union SEIU 1021 have voted to authorize a strike for at least a week starting around Labor Day if no significant progress is made in negotiations before then. According to the notice everything the employees and their representatives have done so far including letters, public comments, demonstrations, etc. “has fallen on deaf ears.” A second “strike school” is scheduled for late August for employees who did not attend the first one. The Union is planning to set up a “hardship fund” as well as a GoFundMe Strike Fund webpage to distribute strike assistance to employees who may need financial help during a strike. Reportedly, the impolitic dismissive remark Supervisor Ted Williams made recently to Mendocino Voice reporter Dave Brooksher that the public probably wouldn’t notice a strike was a major factor in the unexpectedly high percentage of the strike authorization vote.
MENDOCINO RAILWAY, the owner, and operator of the California Western Railroad / Skunk Train, a Class III common carrier, would like to extend its gratitude to the swift and coordinated efforts of CalFire’s Mendocino Unit and other responding agencies in containing the Camp Three Bridge Fire known as the Spurs Fire.
The incident was first reported early Thursday, when it came to our attention that a fire had broken out at Camp Three, affecting Bridge 15.03. At the time of the report, the extent of the fire was unknown, and it was unclear which bridge was affected. However, we can confirm that there were no trains running over this bridge, only Railbikes, and nothing since Thursday morning.
Cal Fire promptly dispatched a helicopter to assess the situation and confirmed the presence of smoke, subsequently initiating water drops to combat the flames. Fortunately, the fire’s rapid containment was achieved, and the helicopter returned to base with no other air attacks needed, indicating no further rate of spread.
We would like to emphasize that the safety of our passengers, employees, and the environment is of utmost importance to us. We have been actively collaborating with local, state, and federal authorities to address issues of illegal trespass and arson along the line. Recently, there was an incident at Camp Noyo where someone was forced off the premises, and we also experienced a couple of small fires along the Right of Way before, which were promptly investigated in coordination with CalFire and Little Lake Fire.
The Camp Three area, nestled along the picturesque Noyo River, holds a special significance for us, with its scenic S-turn through a narrow gorge and twin bridges. Unfortunately, the bridge’s location at 15.03 makes it virtually inaccessible, making firefighting efforts challenging.
As a federally regulated railroad, we are taking all necessary security precautions and have informed TSA through their TSOC command center to potentially enlist additional resources, ensuring the utmost safety and efficiency in handling such incidents.
Mendocino Railway once again expresses heartfelt appreciation to CalFire’s Mendocino Unit, the helicopter crew, and all other responding agencies for their dedication and professionalism in managing the fire in such rugged terrain.
No damage was done to the steel support structure of the bridge and new deck ties have been sourced and are enroute for a timely repair and reopening of the track.
MIKE GENIELLA: We are so glad locally owned Myers Pharmacy is there for us. I fear for owner Tim Keffeler and the Myers crew every time I come across stories about Big Pharma and the so-called drug supply chain issues in this country. Please, Ukiah Valley folks, support these honest, hard-working people.
DRIVER, TWO DOGS DIE after car drives into Yorty Creek near Cloverdale
by Colin Atagi
A Ukiah man was identified as the driver who, along with two dogs, died Thursday afternoon after possibly rolling backward into Yorty Creek near Cloverdale, a witness said.
The man’s car slipped into the inlet just before 4:30 p.m. at Lake Sonoma Yorty Creek Recreation Area, about 4 miles west of the city.
The incident is being investigated by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, which identified the driver as Dominic Joel Gallagher, 49.
Kent Porter, a Press Democrat photographer at the scene Thursday said witnesses performed CPR on the driver. The driver later died, he said.
Petaluma resident Kelly Jones, 37, said her husband pulled the man from the car and tried to save the dogs. He and his daughter were among those performing CPR.
“It’s so awful,” Jones told The Press Democrat. “We’re all wishing peace on their souls and on any family and friends they left behind.”
Jones said she saw the driver trying to get one of his dogs into the car on the boat ramp minutes before the incident occurred.
Shortly after, the car apparently went down a rocky embankment near the far side of the parking lot and into the water.
"A young woman and young man were the ones who saw it happen and ran across the parking lot to us for help. We and several other bystanders ran right over,“ Jones said.
The car was facing the embankment, a possible indicator it rolled backward.
Jones’ family and several others tried to revive the driver until paramedics arrived.
Jones said she tried to “calm and console” her 6-year-old son who was confused by the ordeal.
Multiple law enforcement units responded to the scene.
Several agencies, including the Cloverdale Police Department and Redcom dispatchers, referred questions to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office.
KIRK VODOPALS: What’s up with pg&e shutting off power a coupla times per week each morning? It’s getting pretty annoying
MIKE KALANTARIAN: I asked a PG&E crew chief about that the other day. He said during fire season they now have their lines tuned to shut off if something, like a branch, hits a line. Then they have to find whatever it was before they’ll turn the power back on.
I’d guess we’ve had three such shutoffs over the past month. In our case they often report 734 customers are without power, and these outages tend to last a few hours up to a half day.
Last week a sub-subcontractor tree outfit was in our neighborhood trimming branches and trees to clear power lines. They were kind of wild and, in fact, dropped a tree on a neighbor’s service line. The PG&E crew that came out to fix the damaged transformer are the guys I talked to. I came away with the impression that some of our recent outages could be due to these arboreal cowboys dropping limbs and trees on the lines.
ANDERSON VALLEY VILLAGE Calendar of Events
UKIAH SHELTER PET OF THE WEEK
Bullwinkle enjoyed himself in the meet and greet room during his evaluation. As new people walked in and out, he was friendly and engaging. Bullwinkle knows sit, down, and he can high-5 with both paws! We’re saying no small children in Bullwinkle's new home because he does guard his food. Bullwinkle lived with a dog in his former home. Mr. B is a German Shepherd Dog, 4 years old and 70 VERY handsome pounds. For more about Bullwinkle and all of our adoptable dogs and cats, head to mendoanimalshelter.com
If you see a dog or cat you think might be THE ONE, you can begin the adoption process on-line. For information about adoptions, please call 707-467-6453. Check out our facebook page and share our posts with your friends.
AMONG THE FLURRY of recent random comments by Supervisor Ted Williams on our website, we found one of them to be worthy of note. Williams was defending the board’s month-long upcoming “summer recess” against critics who decried the Board’s taking a month off while seemingly important County business went unaddressed. Williams denied that they were taking time off saying that “being available” or going to a few non-Board meetings was equivalent to “work.” And, when one commenter said they should meet more often to keep meetings from being extra-long, Williams claimed that “I’m available every day of the year to meet, so I don’t really have a preference, but looking at the cost of meetings, it’s better to have fewer, longer meetings. By cost, I mean staff time, in dollars and productivity.”
This is classic Williams casuistry. There is very little “dollar” cost for extra meetings, staffers and supervisors get the same pay whether they’re in a meeting or not. Former Boards of Supervisors routinely held more than two meetings a month before the days of zoom and youtube without a word about the “cost.” And if Williams is so concerned about “productivity” he 1) should look at his own Board’s lack of any actual accomplishments they can claim credit for, and 2) do more to keep staff from having to sit around on hold for hours and hours of Board unrelated meeting blather as they are unable to do whatever they might be doing otherwise. PS. In June when they were scheduled to discuss the FY2023-2024 budget they had so much trouble preparing for two days, they only spent a half a day before rubberstamping what the CEO recommended and didn’t discuss or examine any of the departmental budgets.
THE SUPERVISORS might want to invest in a copy of Miss Manners. Cutting citizens and County staff off at the stroke of the 180th second as they address their majesties is beyond rude and even more alienating of citizens and staff than citizens and staff are now. It's almost as if the supervisors are trying to create ill will. When Mo cut off long-time assessor and clerk, Katrina Bartolomei, as she tried to explain the present difficulties in her office, the supervisors reached a new low in public relations.
LINDA BAILEY summed up nut of the prob:
"I watched the first portion of Tuesday’s BOS meeting and was astounded at the contempt shown to employees, elected and appointed county officials, the public, the voters and the spirit of the Brown Act. All blamed on the very long agenda.
If the BOS met four times a month, as it traditionally did, such long agendas would not be necessary.
The stated purpose of the Brown Act is to enable the public to see and hear its officials conduct public business.
Gov. Sec. 54950. In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.
The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
N.B. “Deliberations* Cutting off officials, including a Supervisor, from participating in a policy discussion and then assigning to ad hoc committees, which aren’t open to the public, is a blatant violation of that purpose. Emailing the BOS the remainder of their comments is not an adequate substitution, particularly, as Ted Williams admits, the contents will not be available to the public for a month.
What happened to the practice of having staff, even if they are elected, sit at the table when BOS actions affecting their department are on the agenda?
Clearly, the goal of some supervisors is control. They don’t trust the voters to choose department heads. Have they forgotten they are elected by those voters. The BOS past performance does not inspire my confidence that this would result in improved service to the public.
I repeat my request that items on the Consent Calendar be written in plain and simple English, thereby enabling the public to easily determine if the issue is one they would like to discuss with their elected officials."
AS THE SUPES take the entire month of August off, and given their dismal collective performance, I expect them to kick back their August salaries to the general fund.
AND PERHAPS supervisor Williams can put his vaunted computer skills to use as a volunteer in the Assessor's office during his paid vacation.
TWO SUPERVISORS — Gjerde and McGourty are short timers. Gjerde tuned out a couple of years ago, only occasionally rousing himself to participate in County affairs. McGourty is bailing after finding himself responsible for an admin mess created by the former CEO that he and his four colleagues were too spineless to oppose as she made the decisions that undermined county functioning. Mo is simply in over her head; Haschak conscientiously tries to do the right thing but is out-voted on important matters. Williams has made himself the Board's voice and, I must admit, his wading in to argue on our comment line has provided useful insights to the Board's startling dysfunction. Which is getting worse.
INSULTING their own staffers just adds to the frustration everyone feels about the Board's functioning. I'd say it's up to Williams to get the show back on track because that capacity isn't otherwise available on this Board. He might begin by inviting smart people like Linda Bailey and Carrie Shattuck and Adam Gaska as advisors, or at least people to consult as to how to go about righting the SS Mendo. In a bad situation like this one adversarial stances just make everything worse.
FOR CONCILIATORY STARTERS, the Board ought to dip into the $20 mil-plus reserve fund for a decent raise for line employees, locking in the raises on the assumption that property assessments will soon become current. (There's a Redwood Valley guy mentioned by Gaska who's deliberately way behind on his tax bills, plural, a guy whose sub contractors demand cash up front before they'll deal with him. This guy's operating on what amounts to interest-free loans from the County. I wonder how many others like him are out there?)
THE REST OF THE STORY
Re your brief history of local environment centers, I’d like to correct and add a bit to it.
I believe I actually started the first environment center, in a water tower behind The MacCallum House in Mendocino next door to Corners of the Mouth organic for store, around 1978. Correct me if those other ones you wrote about started earlier, but I don’t believe they did.
I called it the Mendocino Environment Center and stocked it with news and research about the then over-harvesting of our forests, declining salmon populations, threat of off-shore oil development, and the need for recycling, more public coastal access, establishing wilderness areas (Sinkyone and Yolla Bolly) and protections from commercial over-development. Those of us writing and testifying about these issues, or just people dropping in and interested in them, used the resource library at this MEC as well as held meetings there.
The Mac House owner Susan Norris donated the space, volunteers staffed it and no-one was paid. Out of it came numerous articles by Ron Gunther, Gail Lucas, Eleanor Sverko and others, and possibly the nation’s first “Environment Radio Show,” also started around 1978. I felt our local environment was under attack and believed if more folks knew about it they would get involved in protecting our surroundings and communities. It was an hour-long show on Fort Bragg’s KMFB radio station each Saturday noon where co-hosts Susan Miller and I would interview experts on a broad range of topics impacting our region.
The Mendocino Environment Center and the Environment Radio Show ended in 1981 when I went to work for two years in the then newly-democratic nation of Zimbabwe. Obviously, people have started many such centers and radio shows locally and around the world since then, and we all and the planet are much better off because of such popular education efforts.
Educate, agitate and organize!
by Chris Roberts
California marijuana startup Flow Kana spent over $175 million trying to become the biggest name in legal cannabis. Instead, it left Mendocino growers holding the bag.
One of the last times I saw Mikey Steinmetz in person, the impossibly enthusiastic entrepreneur Men’s Journal and the Jewish News of Northern California dubbed the “king of weed” was dressed up like a cowboy, strutting around the 300-acre Mendocino County “cannabis complex” owned by his company, the “farm to bowl” startup Flow Kana.
This was April 2018, and legal adult-use cannabis sales had begun in California that January. Flow Kana had been around since 2015, one of a bevy of weed companies launched during the medical-marijuana era with the clear intent to cash in on future legalization. After years of other states (and Canada) creating what advocates and their allies in government promised would be a multibillion-dollar industry, it was finally California’s turn. The green rush was on, and for anyone too late or too poor to make a fortune in Silicon Valley, here was another “once in a lifetime” opportunity to get very rich very quickly. That is, if you had your money in the right place at exactly the right time.
The crowded field of startups already had an “Uber of weed” and an “Amazon of weed.” Consistent with the theme, Flow Kana declared its aspiration to be the “Whole Foods of weed.” What did that mean, exactly? It wasn’t quite clear, but it sounded good enough to be transcribed by reporters from Fast Company, Vice, and others.
From the beginning, there was an uneasy paradox at Flow Kana’s core. Steinmetz, a native of Venezuela, where he’d run a food-distribution company focusing on stevia before tech lured him to the Bay Area, and his cofounders, including Nicholas Smilgys, who’d managed inventory at a San Francisco dispensary, wanted to become very big while preaching the gospel of small.
Flow Kana proselytized something its founders called the California Way: small-batch cannabis sustainably grown outdoors, rather than mass-produced indoors with energy-intensive lights and filtration that in California suck up as much as 3 percent of the entire power grid. The business plan required marketing outdoor weed, generally considered inferior to the indoor variety, while also handling the logistics necessary to bring a rural product to urban consumers, while—somehow—also scaling up massively, reaping huge profits, and not breaking any laws.
In the company’s early days, its founders staffed tables at San Francisco farmers’ markets, handing out free organic apples and empty mason jars with instructions for how to place orders online that would be fulfilled by bicycle. In interviews, Steinmetz, whose email signature identified him as “Founder & Chief Servant Officer (CSO),” frequently channeled Uber’s Travis Kalanick, referring to Flow Kana as a “technology platform.”
In July 2018, Flow Kana announced a $22 million Series A funding round. Some of that money was from weed-specific investment fund Poseidon Asset Management; some of it was from Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor and the guitarist from Moonalice. But the biggest chunk, $15 million, came from Gotham Green Partners, a New York City–based cannabis private equity fund whose principals had made a huge pile of money on Canadian weed companies.
In early 2019, Flow Kana announced a $125 million Series B, the largest-ever private raise in weed. (In the pitch decks, the company favorably compared itself to WeWork.) In all, investors pumped more than $175 million into the company, which as of 2020 has been called Flow Cannabis Co., with Flow Kana the first in a family of Flow brands. (Throughout this story, the company will be referred to by its original name, Flow Kana.)
Even in an era of highly valued startups, $175 million is a lot of money for a weed company, particularly one that didn’t grow any weed. Rather than run massive pot plantations, Steinmetz had set to work deepening his company’s relationships with small farmers in Northern California’s unruly Emerald Triangle, where thousands of weed farms dot the isolated redwood-covered hills and verdant valleys in Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties, a few hours north of San Francisco. Many of these farms had very recently been run by “outlaws” who were deeply skeptical of outsiders as well as marijuana legalization. (In fact, voters in those three counties had rejected California’s first shot at legalization back in 2010.)
In some of those farmers’ recollections, Steinmetz presented himself as a sort of savior. If Big Weed was coming, Flow Kana was an alternative, despite the fact that it was trying to trade on the farmers’ “authenticity” to build a lifestyle brand. This was another paradox baked into the California Way: it was designed to attract values-based consumers with a taste for luxury, a contradiction not unlike selling solar-powered private jets.
Flow Kana sought to bottle this incongruity and did so quite literally, packaging its product in glass jars that communicated “artisanal” while shipping at scale.
By the spring of 2018, the plan seemed to be working. Jars of Flow Kana–branded cannabis, marketed with the names and rugged faces of hardy Mendocino farmers, were on shelves in dispensaries across the state. The company had met the first Silicon Valley test: year-over-year revenue growth. That year and the next, Flow Kana was the top-selling “flower” (loose, smokable cannabis) brand in California.
Thus Steinmetz’s swaggering cowboy getup—a chamois leather vest over a red plaid shirt, two empty holsters flapping over his hips—the perfect (and perfectly silly) outlaw look for Flow Kana’s “coming out” party.
Invitees—cannabis-industry insiders and a herd of reporters almost exclusively from the tech press—rode up from the Bay Area to Redwood Valley on a complimentary motor coach, Tombstone playing on the tiny TV screens. On arrival, guests were given a tour of the grounds, the Fetzer wine dynasty’s former headquarters, which Flow Kana had spent $3.5 million to purchase and untold millions more to renovate, calling it the Flow Cannabis Institute. Steinmetz would later compare it to Willy Wonka’s candy operation during a 60 Minutes appearance.
In between visits to massive warehouses where cannabis-oil-extraction equipment and packaging machines had replaced wine barrels, we were treated to an unending supply of free beer, wine, barbecue, and (of course) weed. The old Fetzer tasting room, the Big Dog Saloon, had been repurposed into a vision of what the Old West might have been like if weed had been gold and investors had stood in for prospectors.
There was a brief video presentation, with drone footage of the grounds set to a soaring soundtrack, a feel-good vision of a sustainable future for California that Flow Kana sold just as hard as weed. According to decks and presentations I’ve seen since, California was just the beginning: as soon as laws allowed, Flow Kana was going to become “the world’s largest cannabis supply chain,” selling weed across the country and, eventually, internationally, just like Napa Valley wine.
Craft weed grown by Emerald Triangle weirdos was about to go global.
Based equally on hype and hope, this was an audacious bet, but in the mid-to-late 2010s, framing cannabis as the next Northern California gold mine made a certain kind of sense. Cannabis, California’s most lucrative and notorious cash crop, was finally legal. Weed was on its way to becoming a legitimate commodity, a packaged good sold coast-to-coast. And looping in the heirloom farmers who’d made plenty of money but risked serious jail time during the drug-war years checked another box. It just felt right.
It also looked right on a business plan. In Canada, a country with fewer people than all of California and where national marijuana legalization took effect in 2018, publicly traded weed companies were becoming unicorns, with early-enough investors rewarded with 25x returns. The investors who laid down over $175 million on Flow Kana hoped they’d found a U.S. company ready to earn even more.
If that all sounds overly ambitious in our more sober era of high interest rates and expensive capital, Twitter-fueled bank runs, and mass layoffs, it is and it was. But caution did not pay. Steinmetz, like so many other founders in the 2010s, only thought big—and bigger. “We’re going to fill up that warehouse with a million pounds of cannabis, dried, cured, and trimmed,” he boasted in a 2020 profile.
The Flow Cannabis Institute would go on to employ 200 people, becoming the second-largest workforce in Mendocino County, after the hospital system. Steinmetz and his family moved in, occupying the white clapboard–sided farmhouse where the Fetzer family once laid their heads.
The next time I saw Steinmetz was almost four years after the cowboy party, on a freezing January morning in New York City. By then, early 2022, the outlook was very different. Flow Kana’s nascent sun-grown cannabis empire was under duress and at risk of breaking apart. The king of weed was losing his crown.
As I would find out from reading company emails and investor updates and talking to former employees, farmer partners, and management over the next year, the over $175 million Flow Kana had raised was all gone. It seemed the company had never quite figured out how to operate, let alone earn a profit.
In 2021, the company burned through its last $25 million, on only $11 million in sales—well under an already modest $14 million prediction that investor updates and pitch decks had spelled out.
At least one misstep wasn’t entirely Flow Kana’s fault. The company had run headfirst into the brick wall of federal marijuana prohibition: it’s hard to become the world’s largest cannabis supply chain when you can’t legally ship across state lines, and any bull market that assumed national marijuana legalization would follow California’s within five years was bound to be a bubble primed to burst. Then there was COVID-19, which Steinmetz claims halted all marketing: no splashy events, no in-dispensary demos.
But even before COVID, legalization’s overtaxation, burdensome regulations, and competition from a rampant illicit market meant the company simply couldn’t make money, especially in California, where weed taxes can approach 40 percent, an immense obstacle that compelled Steinmetz to make himself a public face of a growing tax revolt.
Oversupply was also a major problem. There was simply too much product grown up and down the state. There was so much weed that wholesale prices crashed. Pounds of cannabis that small farmers sold for $2,000 during the pre-legalization medical-cannabis era went for $200 or less. That meant that it was smarter and cheaper for some of Steinmetz’s onetime farmer partners to compost their crops or let them rot in the hoop house rather than harvest them and pay the state’s $10-per-ounce cultivation tax for cannabis (since repealed) they might never sell.
Hubris also played a role, according to many ex-employees and ex–farmer partners. Company leadership behaved as if they simply didn’t believe that growing and selling weed was all that hard. When these assumptions—and a business model imported from commodities like coffee or orange juice—did not pan out, there was nowhere to pivot.
Every cannabis company in California struggles with these issues, but Flow Kana’s spending spree was absolutely remarkable—and, as soon as cannabis entered a bear market, in what turned out to be a prelude to the troubles currently plaguing tech, utterly unsustainable.
The Flow Cannabis Institute was just one acquisition during a statewide land grab: the company shelled out north of $50 million on “hard assets,” including a fleet of trucks and vans, several of which were in “near-new condition,” as well as a $2.9 million “ranch house” the company used for retreats, a regenerative-farming educational complex (complete with dispensary) in Hopland called the Solar Living Center, and warehouses and distribution hubs in Laytonville, Sacramento, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
Other costs mounted, including customized Carhartt jackets for the staff. The company flew Snoop Dogg to the Flow Cannabis Institute in September 2019 for the inaugural Flow Talk, the company’s answer to a TED Talk, at some undisclosed great expense.
Finally, in 2021, the year the company reported burning its final $25 million, it invested in something it had said it never would: its own grow—12 acres in Lake County. As soon as Steinmetz broke the news, some of his farmers jumped ship.
This foray into farming ended in catastrophe, according to former employees. Heavy rains and a late harvest coated tens of thousands of pounds of pot in mold. According to Slack messages and emails I read, employees were falling sick from mold but stayed on the job. A mutiny was brewing. “I have never been through anything like this before,” one employee wrote. “My fear is we have a disaster on our hands and a very real threat to the business as a result,” Kevin Haslebacher, the interim CEO, wrote in an email to employees.
He was not far off. After a few rounds of layoffs, the last full-time employees were cut loose in April 2022.
But the real crisis, I was informed, was that Flow Kana’s investors had seized control of the company from its founder. It almost sounded as if the enterprise was intentionally being driven into the ground so that the board could strip it for parts—the real estate sold off, the expensive equipment at the ranch liquidated, even Steinmetz’s prized brand names auctioned off—leaving the founder with nothing.
Steinmetz still had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. For one, he could use a friendly story from a journalist like me to deliver him “justice.” If positive press had gotten Steinmetz this far, surely it could help him again now. Though what that story would say was never quite clear.
And despite all this, Steinmetz wasn’t done with cannabis, he insisted. “I want to do Flow Kana 2.0,” he told me, sounding like many deposed founders who dream of one more moon shot.
I reminded him that his imagined rehabilitation would be difficult in Mendocino, where the farmers felt ripped off and where to wear Flow Kana gear in public is to welcome opprobrium. In the Emerald Triangle, Flow Kana’s reputation is about as golden as Monsanto’s.
“I want to give answers to the farmers that have questions,” he said. If those answers weren’t enough, he could create his new vision for the company away from California, possibly in Thailand. He just needed a chance. And better, different investors.
“I had the illusion of control,” he admitted to me. “I was very naïve.”
Again and again, Steinmetz returned to the idea that the vision—the California Way—was solid but that the company was now in the hands of investors who had given up prematurely and wanted to dismantle it before Flow Kana could realize it.
Gotham Green representatives refused to speak to me for this article. So did Roger McNamee. But Kevin Albert, a board member and private equity veteran, told me that there was a deeper flaw: the California Way wasn’t a hit after all. Turns out, most cannabis consumers didn’t care how their weed was grown. Most cannabis buyers just wanted a product that was powerful and inexpensive.
As for Flow Kana, the company is now gone, at least as a recognizable going concern. Jars of weed bearing the Flow Kana logo have been absent from California dispensary shelves going on a year. As of this writing, the company exists mostly on paper, a shell that’s leasing the Flow Cannabis Institute to another cannabis company and has listed most of the rest of its properties for sale.
But something is stirring. According to the most recent quarterly investor update, Steinmetz has officially exited the company. About a week beforehand, on Earth Day 2023, my phone started buzzing with message after message from flabbergasted outdoor farmers: Flow Kana’s social media profiles, quiet for years, were active and posting again. Steinmetz and his wife, Flavia, had both changed their Facebook profile pictures to the Flow Kana logo.
“Going back to our roots,” a post on the @flow_kana Instagram account read. “Stronger. Humbler. Wiser.”
Was the company back? Maybe, if for now only online.
It was also around this time that Steinmetz had a change of heart. Initially deeply interested in telling me the full story, as he did during a series of regular on- and off-the-record Signal and phone interviews from early 2022 until this spring, Steinmetz had apparently recaptured his beloved brand name but at the cost of signing a nondisclosure agreement. Our long conversations were now extremely inconvenient.
After unsuccessfully trying to convince me to let him walk back much of what he’d been repeatedly telling me, Steinmetz ended his participation in this article. Friendly press was one thing; a reporter trying to dig deeper seemed to make Steinmetz uncomfortable.
Plenty had thoughts to fill the vacuum. “You were doing good being quiet!” posted legacy farmer and former Flow partner Johnny Casali under his @huckleberryhillfarms account in response to the “back to our roots” post. “People haven’t forgotten yet!”
At the end, many in Mendocino had cause to dislike Flow Kana. On its way down, the company had left literal destruction in its wake. In July 2021, a wildfire sparked by an employee running a lawn mower over bone-dry grass in violation of every fire-safety protocol burned down three families’ homes in Redwood Valley. That preceded the company’s moldy Lake County crop.
But Flow Kana’s original sin may have been ripping off the small farmers. The company had struck deal after deal with the Emerald Triangle growers that it simply could not keep. Falling wholesale prices meant Flow Kana would pay late or pay less than what was promised. If farmers didn’t like it, they could walk—there was always someone else to partner with. Not every farmer I talked to said that Flow Kana had stiffed them, but the company had clearly done something to irreparably piss off its onetime partners.
“You are not the small farm savior. Your company is a dystopian nightmare, and if you can’t see that, there is something very wrong with you,” one farmer emailed Steinmetz in late 2021. “You’re either highly delusional or just a terrible person.”
Speaking to me last fall, Casali, one of the last farmers to stand by Flow Kana, was still heated. “They got the trust of the Emerald Triangle farmers,” he said. “And then, excuse my language, they really shit all over us.”
Nicholas Smilgys, Steinmetz’s cofounder and head of operations, exited in 2016, well before the cowboy party. Steinmetz had fired him for allegedly misappropriating company resources; Smilgys told me that was the cover for a power move, cutting him out, since he’d supported the farmers’ efforts to form a co-op.
Smilgys said he’d known there was something inherently wrong with Flow Kana’s operation. “I would always be like, ‘We sell weed—why don’t we make money?’” he told me. At one point, Smilgys found that the company was losing $200 for every pound of pot it sold. Anyone raising concerns was brushed off.
“The attitude was like, ‘We don’t need to make money. We can always raise more,’” Smilgys said. “That Silicon Valley attitude brought to a business that is not Silicon Valley.” (Steinmetz disputed the $200 figure but admitted that the company had had significant overhead. And he did not claim that Flow Kana had been profitable.)
The California Way, in other words, was pure vibes: a vision always just over the horizon that never came into focus.
“That was the reason behind the Flow Cannabis Institute and all this extra shit you don’t need,” Smilgys continued. “There was no need for that other than to have a thing to show people, ‘Look, we’re doing this and it’s all amazing. Don’t you want to be a part of it?’”
“It was all just a fucking shell game,” Smilgys said.
Others were more circumspect, framing Steinmetz as a wayward dreamer, not a charlatan.
“He never had evil intent,” said Swami Chaitanya, the founder and avatar of Swami Select. A Summer of Love hippie turned holy man, Chaitanya was one of the first farmers Flow Kana got on board. On their farm, Chaitanya and his business and life partner, Nikki Lastreto, and their crew grow weed planted in the “sacred” interlocking triangles of the Sri Yantra. Pure California Way stuff, but since Flow Kana also tried to put Chaitanya’s weed in jars bearing the Flow Kana name rather than brand-savvy Chaitanya’s, he was also one of the first to leave.
Chaitanya, at least, has no hard feelings.
“He was always trying to help the small farmer,” Chaitanya said during a phone interview. “But it kind of got out of control after the $175 million—”
“There are going to be a lot of farmers who disagree with Swami completely,” Lastreto cut in to say.
Even the farmers who loathe Steinmetz agree with him on one thing: The California Way was at the mercy of investors whose vision, as one would expect, was more driven by the bottom line. When those investors didn’t see returns, they quickly moved on to greener pastures.
“Overall, I think Mikey got eaten up by bigger sharks,” one farmer told me. “But he was willing to sacrifice any part of the vision to stay the course of being the biggest. And that was the Achilles’ heel.”
CATCH OF THE DAY, Friday, July 29, 2023
BRITTANY BAZELAK, Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol.
KEVIN BECKMAN, Lucerne/Ukiah. Controlled substance, paraphernalia, parole violation.
LUIS CHAVEZ-CRUZ, Wasco/Ukiah. Assault with deadly weapon not a gun, protective order violation, false ID.
WILLIAM CRAMER, Ukiah. Parole violation.
MATAYA EAQUINTO, Ukiah. DUI.
SEBASTIAN GUEVARA-FELIX, Ukiah. DUI, refusal to test.
LAURIE HAYES, Covelo. Ammo possession by prohibited person, probation revocation.
THOMAS HIDALGO, Ukiah. Disorderly conduct-alcohol&drugs, parole violation.
FERNANDO JOAQUIN, Covelo. Controlled substance, paraphernalia, concealed dirk-dagger, county parole violation.
WESLEY KEYSER, Fort Bragg. Disorderly conduct-alcohol&drugs.
SIERRA MARTINEZ, Eureka/Ukiah. Controlled substance for sale.
JENNIFER PETERS, Ukiah. Vehicular manslaughter in commission of unlawful act without gross negligence, suspended license, controlled substance.
CHRISTOPHER SCHNABEL, Willits. Registration tampering.
BIANCA SCHOFIELD, Point Arena. Failure to appear.
RUSTI VASSAR, Willits. Controlled substance, paraphernalia, resisting, paraphernalia, failure to appear, probation revocation.
METEOR SHOWERS, peak dates:
Perseids: August 12-13
Orionids: October 20-21
Southern Taurids: November 4-5
Northern Taurids: November 11-12
Leonids: November 17-18
Geminids: December 13-14
Ursids: December 21-22
MIKE GENIELLA: I don't understand this ‘Barbie’ thing. I mean, for starters how can a pink-sloshed movie rake in $150 million in one day? So when Terese shared with me a New York Times essay on what our friend Susan Faludi thinks about Barbie, I decided to pause and read. Faludi is an author, feminist, and professor of all things cool. She sees and writes with clarity, taking complicated subjects apart for all to see. Except, of course, for all the blank pages she ended up with after researching the Judi Bari car bombing and radical environmental movement on the North Coast. Faludi regretfully tossed in the towel on that project, a testament to the baffling world we locals call ‘Mendoland.’ Maybe Barbie is among us.
Just sitting here in front of computer #2 at the Ukiah, California Public Library after reading the Saturday New York Times, with nothing at all to do in this world. Not identified with the body. Not identified with the mind. Identified with the Eternal Witness, or the Divine Absolute, or that which cannot be satisfactorily defined by language. Contact me if you wish to do anything of any importance on the planet earth. I can leave the Building Bridges Homeless Resource Center at any time. Have social security $850 monthly, Food Stamps, a Federal Housing Voucher, and am ready for spiritually sourced direct action. The plan for tomorrow is to walk around Ukiah pointlessly. Is this what I ought to be doing in postmodern America? OM OM OM
Craig Louis Stehr
“NOBODY OWES ANYBODY a living, but everyone is entitled to a chance”
— Jack Dempsey
Poignant words from a man who started his fighting career going from town to town as a young hobo hitching rides on the undercarriage of trains to challenge any and all comers just to earn a few small dollars for a meal...by the end of Dempseys career he was possibly the most famous sportsman in the world...the king of the roaring 1920s a millionaire who mixed with the upper classes of society.....in turn that helped lead to Dempseys down fall as a champion..he lived the good life while his counterpart Gene Tunney had been plotting Dempseys demise for 6 years fighting regularly...
R.D. BEACON: I would be looking at the comments on yelp about my little bar, only one discouraging bad review, and the lady was from Florida so I wasn't surprised, over the years at least when I leave town I don't pick on help either waiters and waitresses, the bartenders is bad manners, although a lot of people their family didn't care enough when raising their children to give them any manners, it is something you have to be taught when you're young, many of you customers that I've had over the years from all over the world, you can tell whether their family really cared about them as children if the respectful, to the bartender, and leave a decent tip based on good service, it's a respectful people in the room, you know they were raised right, but a lot of the new kids the ones who grew up in video games and their parents didn't care they are real, a holes, that bad they believe that the help in a business should fondle and be all over him and give them whatever they want, bad form these people should not be allowed out public, but they do come out of the woodwork, we notice more of them doing film Festival time, and the music festival, we see more of them getting onto the coast that are against about everything except their view they don't like ranchers, they don't like timber people, and they just don't like hardly anybody at all, a lot of them believe that most of our land should be a giant part and they should kick is sold to the curb, but the other side of the two headed coin is we do get, people are respectful generous and keep coming back I've had customers come back here over 50 years once a year as they come in this, their respect for human beings they bring their children and their grandchildren, the only advice I have is when you go to a business whether it's in your hometown or somewhere far away the respectful of the people that are serving you, look at the world from their point of view it's a job to them, but will make your job easier if your client indecent to them, one thing we all need to remember we all breathe the same air, and when we get cut we all bleed red, even though many of us are not directly related by virtue of the fact that we are God's children we are all related each in our own way whether we are dark in color or light, it doesn't really matter we are human beings and we need to learn how to treat each other better.
MEMO OF THE AIR: A bolt from the blue.
Here's the recording of last night's (2023-07-28) virtually-eight-hour-long Memo of the Air: Good Night Radio show on 107.7fm KNYO-LP Fort Bragg (CA) and KNYO.org: https://tinyurl.com/KNYO-MOTA-0551
This time, a bit about Sinead O'Connor and Biff Rose, who (separately) left us this week, and some of their music; an expanded local announcement/news/editorial section, poetry by Notty Bumbo, Ezekiel, John Donne, Hugh Blumenfeld, and Mazie Malone. Mitch Clogg's latest wry report on the train wreck of old age, Harper's Review, Wikipedia on The Erfurt latrine disaster of the year 1184, Giulia Poerio on the curse of daydreaming, Caitlin Johnstone on the one-two punch at us all of bipartisan politics, Louis Bedrock's translation of Manuel Vicent on Andy Warhol, petitions for this and that, jokes by Dobby Sommer, Lois by David Herstle Jones, Lost Animals by Geoff Manaugh, Part 2 of the revised Requiem for a Pasha by Eleanor Cooney, Juan Cole on slavery and what slaves knew, Philip Marks on the rights we all have under the Constitution whether we're citizens or not, masturbation for prostate health, a Brazilian musical cab trip with Erik S. McMahon; Warren Hinckle, Kent Wallace The Blind Steal Chapter 10, The Peyote Seekers by Paul Modic, how to tell if your neighbor is secretly a serial killer (this could come in handy), Ezekiel again about Flaco and Lucky and the perils and sheer staggering weight of street people's electronics, Lauren Geall on how to quit self-sabotaging (also good to know), and it all wraps up with the Deadikase project's episode of dozens of great musicians' anecdotes about their experience of Frank Zappa, and then Zappa's quirky live Stairway To Heaven.
Email your written work on any subject and I'll read it on the very next Memo of the Air.
Besides all that, at https://MemoOfTheAir.wordpress.com you'll find a fresh batch of dozens of links to worthwhile items I set aside for you while gathering the show together, such as:
Kris Kristofferson – Sister Sinead. I meant to play this on the show but misplaced it somehow. Here it is on the web. You'll find the entire story-behind-the-story by looking up Sinead O'Connor in Wikipedia.
The entire Biff Rose catalog, all in one place. Every note he noted, every quip he quipped. There's a hundred hours of material here. (The recording labeled Live at KMFB is his appearance on my show at KMFB in 2006, regarding which Late Night Liz wrote, "Marco had better luck than I did [with Biff]. As my Wild Hair Radio interviewee, Biff backed up against the shelves of LPs, made faces and totally clammed up. Cut to cued-up LP..."
Juanita and I worked for awhile in the middle-late 1980s in a Creole restaurant in the Old Coast Hotel, run by Carol Hall (of Carol Hall's Jams and Jellies) and Dick Haymes' daughter Joanne. I cooked. Juanita was a hostess/waitress. That was during the time I taught at the Albion Whale School, and we were still doing the Radio *Free Earth Teevee Show on the public access channel from the back room of the pink house, and there were sound effects jobs for local theater shows, one of which I think was what got me fired from the restaurant, when I left during dinner for twenty minutes –well, half an hour– to race across town to fix the sound system for Gloriana Opera Company's full-length Wizard of Oz. (The sound-deadening blanket on the clunky reel-to-reel tape deck had got sucked into the back and it stopped the motor right in the middle of a show, and the sound operator, Eileen, who looked a lot like, I realized years later, once I'd seen Deep Space Nine, Ezri Dax, phoned the restaurant from the payphone at the theater.) Busy time. Dick Haymes' giant piano filled the restaurant side-door lobby so you had to sidle around it to get to the bathrooms or the banquet room. He'd been dead maybe five or six years by then. His daughter Joanne looked very like his young self about the face. She was a sharp doll, about five-foot-two, with long blonde hair in a pony tail. Her husband, a wise-seeming man with bushy eyebrows, had a Harley Davidson motorcycle and spent a lot of his time sitting, dressed neatly and well, quietly talking with guests in the bar. It was a ritzy place, the fanciest restaurant I ever cooked in. Now it's a homeless-serving facility. They have some beds in the back and upstairs, and a contract with the city and county. For awhile they used the kitchen to teach homeless people to be chefs, but I don't think they're doing that anymore. Once, after closing, I was cleaning the convection oven parts with the special chemical bath you used for that and I got my face too close; the vapor from the chemicals stopped my breath, it just locked my diaphragm like slamming a door. I went outside and sat down so I wouldn't fall down and gradually could breathe again. I'd forgotten all about that. Something like that happened to me in chemistry lab in high school, too. Anyway, Dick Haymes, Harry-James-era jazz crooner, expressive baritone, handsome guy:
And Meow Meow – Ne Me Quitte Pas. The snide Eliza Doolittle accent just kills me, especially in the French parts. And the directed hands-on assistance with the act. They don't make 'em like that anymore. (via MyOneBeautifulThing)
Marco McClean, firstname.lastname@example.org, https://MemoOfTheAir.wordpress.com
by Jeffrey St. Clair
About 10 years ago, an irate Sinéad O’Connor rang up the CounterPunch office and threatened to sue us over a piece we’d run. Becky sensibly gave her my number. I was walking the dog when my iPhone buzzed.
“This is Sinead.”
“Sinead who?” I inquired, playing for time.
“Who the fuck do you think, asshole!”
“Oh, O’Conner,” I muttered. As if there could be any other.
It turns out this was the beginning of a fraught but beautiful relationship.
I let her unload on us for about 40 minutes and then said, “Why don’t you write that up for us?”
“You want me to write for you?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“Thank you, thank you! Nobody’s ever responded that way to one of my calls before,” she said. And she did.
Over the next few months we got a few pieces from her that were funny and smart and wicked. She’d call up 5 minutes after she emailed it Dublin time and say, “Jeffrey, did you get the damn piece, yet, I haven’t heard from you!”
“Uh, Sinead, it’s 4 am here.”
“Sorry, I’ll call back.”
She was beautiful, brilliant and one of the bravest people I’ve ever encountered.
And now she’s gone.
I found my notebook from the day of that first call from Sinéad. There’s a funny bit I’d forgotten. After we’d smoothed the waters & she agreed to drop her suit and write for us instead, O’Connor said: “One more thing, Jeffrey [the fierceness returning to her voice] You’ve got to promise never to run another story by that fucking c-word (she could outswear Lemmy from Motörhead) Ruth Fowler!” Fowler had written the offensive piece. I replied, a little tremulously now: “No. I promise not to banish you no matter what outrageous thing you write or what nasty shit they say about you and I won’t ban Ruth, either.” She sighed. “OK, a girl has to try. Bye lover.” Bye lover. How could I have ever forgotten?
After a couple hundred thousand cases of abuse by priests and nuns (including her own), there’s no doubt now that Sinéad O’Connor was right about the Church and the Pontiff who sanctified and covered up its crimes against children.
O’Connor: “I feel that having a No. 1 record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.”
Question: Did ripping up the photo of John Paul II define your career?
Sinéad: “Yes, in a beautiful fucking way. There was no doubt about who this bitch is. There was no more mistaking this woman for a pop star. But it was not derailing. People say, “Oh, you fucked up your career.” But they’re talking about the career they had in mind for me. I fucked up the house in Antiqua the record companies wanted me to buy. I fucked up their career, not mine. It meant I had to make my living playing live, and I am born for live performance.”
When Frank Sinatra said he wanted to slap her for disrespecting the Pope, O’Connor retorted: “It wouldn’t be the first time he’s hit a woman.”
This a capella performance of War by Sinead a few nights after all hell had broken loose from her SNL gig is one of the most courageous acts I’ve ever seen. Mercilessly booed by 24,000 Born Again Bob Dylan fans & only Kris Kristofferson would come to her aid. What a bunch of frauds.
Only Sinéad O’Connor had the guts to go to a Bob Dylan Tribute and sing a Bob Marley song, highlighting how far Dylan had left those sentiments behind, while Marley, like O’Connor herself, only got more radical until his death.
While Bob Dylan snarled out anti-Palestinian hate songs like Neighborhood Bully, Sinéad O’Connor boycotted Israel…
Before shredding the pope on live TV, O’Connor had already infuriated the guardians of American political morality by refusing to perform in venues that opened the evening with the Star-Spangled Banner. Sinead was also one of the first white artists to condemn the racism of the music establishment–from the Grammys to Rolling Stone to MTV–which ignored if not denigrated what would become the defining music of our time: hip hop. After hundreds of thousands of cases of clerical abuse (including her own), O’Connor was proved 100% right about the Catholic Church and the Pontiff who sanctified and covered up its crimes against children. But being right is often cold comfort and doesn’t lessen the pain from the wounds that have been inflicted on you. She was the real thing and paid price for being it.
I should note that this wasn’t the first time Ruth Fowler had gotten us in trouble. She’d written a piece ostensibly on Angela Jolie’s double mastectomy which had provoked the overwrought ire of the ISO (now defunct). I wish Ruth would get us into more trouble. You meet the most interesting people that way.
With O’Connor you can never escape the beauty, texture and depth of expression in her voice, here singing “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls,” the song Maria the laundress sings in James Joyce’s story “Clay” from Dubliners.
ON LINE COMMENT OF THE DAY
It’s a precarious balance to make girls leery of men who will use, hurt and discard them while not making them think all men are like that. And to try to do it while not making them angry and deaf by saying they are too young and dumb to know better when exactly saying that they are too young and dumb to know better. The public perception of a tolerant “boy will be boys” attitude gives men a pass. Especially when the only cut off age for that nonsense is when they suddenly are aged enough to be seen as dirty old men.
UKRAINE, SATURDAY, 29TH JULY
Ukraine is escalating its counteroffensive after a sluggish start, as fresh units equipped with Western armor attempt to breach Russian defenses. Kyiv's troops are on offense along the southern front lines and near the eastern city of Bakhmut, while Moscow focuses on its land route to Crimea, the Ukrainian military says.
Poland's prime minister said more than 100 Wagner Group mercenaries have moved toward the Suwałki corridor, a small stretch of NATO territory that separates the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad from ally Belarus.
A Russian missile strike on an apartment block wounded nine people in Dnipro late Friday, with images showing part of the building reduced to rubble.
Moscow vowed to retaliate after an apparent rare example of Ukraine using missiles to attack inside Russian territory, leaving at least 14 wounded in the city of Taganrog.
MARK TWAIN and his close companion, John T. Lewis, were captured standing side by side at Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York, back in 1903. Many have speculated that Lewis served as the inspiration for the character "Jim" in Twain's famous novel, "Huckleberry Finn."
John T. Lewis, born a freedman in Maryland in 1835, eventually settled in Elmira, NY. One fateful day, as he was returning from the market, his life took an unexpected turn. A carriage pulled by a runaway horse came hurtling down the road towards him, carrying three terrified women. Reacting swiftly, Lewis leaped from his wagon and managed to grasp the bridle, bringing the horse to a stop and saving the lives of the frightened passengers.
The women turned out to be the wife, daughter, and nurse of the wealthy Charles Langdon family, residents of Quarry Farm. As Charles Langdon was related to Samuel Clemens (known by his pen name, Mark Twain), the family was deeply grateful to Lewis for his heroic act. General Langdon presented Lewis with a generous check of one thousand dollars and later gifted him a gold watch engraved with a heartfelt message, commemorating the date of the brave rescue.
During this incident, Mark Twain happened to be visiting Quarry Farm and witnessed Lewis's heroism. In admiration and appreciation, Twain personally bestowed fifty dollars and a set of books with inscriptions to Lewis. With these gifts, Lewis was able to clear his entire sixty-four-acre farm. Furthermore, he became employed by the Langdons on Quarry Farm, strengthening his bond with Mark Twain.
This bond between Lewis and Twain grew into a close and enduring friendship that lasted for over three decades. The two were often photographed together, especially during Twain's visits to the Langdon residence, where he frequently engaged in his writing. Twain once expressed, "I have not known a honester man or a more respect-worthy one." when referring to his esteemed friend John T. Lewis.
LOTS OF FOLKS CONFUSE bad management with destiny.
— Kin Hubbard
THE MAN WHO KNEW HOW TO SAY GOODBYE
by Gay Talese
When I was growing up in the 1940s during World War II, an impressionable acne-speckled youth in parochial school being insulted daily by the Irish, I also knew I was on the wrong side of the war because most of my uncles and older cousins were in Mussolini's army, fighting against the Allied invasion of my immigrant father's hometown in the Southern Italian hills. While this hardly made me feel secure as an American, the reason I was not emotionally driven underground during this time was the music on the radio being sung by a skinny crooner who was the star of the Lucky Strike Hit Parade. To me in those days the only thing that did not seem so terrible about being Italian was Frank Sinatra.
What other Italian-Americans were there in the American mainstream? There was, to be sure, the ever-silent and self-centered Joe DiMaggio, who, while he also served in the American Army, never spoke out in defense of anyone, including himself. He was and has remained an interior man, ever distant, cautious, never in the forefront with a social conscience. At best, a male Garbo.
In the political arena there was, of course, the famous Little Flower, Fiorello La Guardia. But he was born in a manner that was less typically Italian, less insular, more savory; he had a Jewish mother, and he was a Protestant. And the other ethnic Italian headliners in those days were the wiseguys — Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and their confederates in the Mafia.
What I am perhaps overemphasizing here is that the Italian-American experience during the World War II years was marked by a good deal of shame and self-loathing; and for most of the next 50 years, from the 1940s to the end of the century, the only national figure of Italian origin who spoke out against prejudice and injustice, and who managed to find broad acceptance within the vast American landscape, was Francis Albert Sinatra. To those of us among the 14 million Americans of Italian origin, Sinatra more than anyone else embodied egalitarian opportunism, and was a one-man force for affirmative action, defending not only his own kind but all other minorities.
He was also the one Italian-American movie actor who in his films — wearing a sailor suit with Gene Kelly, singing his songs, having access to the women — played romantic roles in ways not done today even by such active Italian-American actors as De Niro and Pacino, to say nothing of all those antisocial Italo types who are habitually cast as overheated heavies — except for this year's newcomer aboard the Titanic, young Leonardo. Before Sinatra, to find an Italian-American matinee idol who dressed with any stylish elegance on the screen and got the girl, one had to extend back to the silent era of Rudolph Valentino.
Sinatra also had the capacity to change his life, to take risks, to say goodbye and move out, which is inherent in the nature of every true immigrant, to uproot one's self from all that is familiar and predictable. This is a nation navigated by boat people, but the Italian immigrants' offspring in America tended to be conservative, politically and socially, marrying within, identifying with a group, searching for security and a guaranteed existence. Sinatra was about stepping out and many goodbyes — leaving the plumber's daughter in Hoboken, for instance, to remarry with Ava Gardner, which in my view is not necessarily a social step up. Still, it was Frank breaking the patterns and breaking hearts, a quintessential American's quest for the kind of fantasy fulfillment that he also sang about.
America made love to his music, necked and lied to one another in parked cars in unacknowledged gratitude to his singing. But I remember talking once to Sinatra's valet in LA, back in the 1960s when I was doing a magazine article, and hearing the valet concede that he sometimes overheard Sinatra dialing one telephone number after the other, trying without luck to get a Saturday night date.
I do think that Sinatra was often very lonely, although he lived luxuriously within his loneliness. In this loneliness, in this solitude, there was a kind of narcissism where his art swelled in a most selfish and singular way. He could not appease his creative craving and his romantic relationships simultaneously for very long, for I think he was possessed by an overriding need to experience affection on a massive scale, to have one-night stands with the world.
THE STUPIDITY of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything. When Don Quixote went out into the world, that world turned into a mystery before his eyes. That is the legacy of the first European novel to the entire subsequent history of the novel. The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude. In a world built on sacrosanct certainties the novel is dead. The totalitarian world, whether founded on Marx, Islam, or anything else, is a world of answers rather than questions. There, the novel has no place.
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
DISCUSSION: BARTLEBY, THE SCRIVENER
by Matt Taibbi and Walter Kirn
Matt Taibbi: We read this week Herman Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, which I had never read before. I’m really embarrassed, but it’s an amazing story. As usual, Walter, I’ll give you the floor to introduce this.
Walter Kirn: Bartleby, the Scrivener, is a tough title for the modern audience. Bartleby is his name. And he is a Scrivener, meaning he’s basically a clerk in a law office, a Wall Street law office. The story was written in 1853, so 170 years ago, Herman Melville wrote this story about a law office on Wall Street, and it’s a story about this little group of clerks who works in it. One’s called Nipper, one’s called Ginger, Ginger Cookie or something like that. Ginger Nut.
Yeah. And then there’s Bartleby, and Bartleby is a peculiar fellow indeed. He has no discernible personality. He’s a paled, skinny, quiet clerk who works behind a screen. And the story is told by the lawyer who runs the office, whose office it is. And one day he gives Bartleby an order to ask him to copy something out. Because that’s the job of these guys, copying stuff by hand, were pre-typewriter, of course. And Bartleby answers simply, I’d prefer not to. And rebuffs the order that way. And then another order is given later, and Bartleby’s answer is, I’d prefer not to. And the boss is so taken aback by the calm, the coolness. The first adjective that’s used of Bartleby in the story is he’s described as emotionless, and he’s truly emotionless. And as the story grows on, he becomes more and emotionless. So, he starts refusing every instruction given to him with the simple rejoinder, I’d prefer not to.
It then becomes clear that Bartleby is living in the office. One day, the lawyer comes by on the weekend and sticks his key in the door. And hears Bartleby saying, not now, I’m occupied. And he realizes that Bartleby is living inside there on the couch. He finds some soap under the couch, and Bartleby is a kind of cosmic squatter. He asked him if he would leave the office, go live somewhere else, and he says, I’d prefer not to. And it is a comic story in that this normal seeming lawyer is constantly rationalizing how to deal with this completely intransigent and immune to pressure employee of his. So, now, Bartleby is living there. And clerks are wondering, will the boss crack down on Bartleby? But the boss finally just even-
Matt Taibbi: They’re the Greek chorus of the story.
Walter Kirn: The boss even starts resorting to sort of Christian religious reasoning for why he shouldn’t do anything. It’s better to love a person and accept them in their oddities, because he really has no weapon against this affectless, and I prefer not to answer. And it ends up that he abandons the office, because Bartleby has become such a fixture in it that nothing can happen there. And Bartleby has by now refused to do any work at all. So, he just moves offices and leaves him there. And the new tenants come to the lawyer and say, hey, can you do something about this guy?
Matt Taibbi: This is on you.
Walter Kirn: At one point, Melville described Bartleby as the last column standing of a temple that he’s irreducible, that immobile. And the story precedes quite logically to its ending. Bartleby starts refusing to eat. He won’t leave the office. The new tenants take him to the tombs, which is the kind of insane asylum of the time, where he just wanders around. And at one point, the lawyer, who’s now developed this perverse kind of affection for Bartleby, comes to visit him in the insane asylum. And Bartleby is sitting on a banister, and the lawyer says, what are you doing? What are you doing here? And Bartleby answers, “Sitting on a banister.” And then he dies.
Finally, a guy comes to the lawyer, a guy whose racket inside the insane asylum is to get them extra food because you’re not actually provided enough food by the institution to live and survive. So, you have to buy your own, and he comes to the lawyer and says, you want me to buy him extra food? And the lawyer says, yeah, yeah, I want him to live, but Bartleby won’t eat it. And in the very end of the story, the lawyer says, well, it will come as no surprise to you, the reader, how this all ended. He died, found him dead in the yard of the insane asylum. And they never learned where he came from or who he really was, or why he preferred not to. And then there’s a little touch at the end that’s interesting. He says, I have heard one rumor about him.
Matt Taibbi: So, I was going to bring this up, but go ahead.
Walter Kirn: Yes, I heard he had a job. Well, you go ahead. Yes, I’ve been talking.
Matt Taibbi: It’s interesting because this story reminded me a lot of The Overcoat, which is also a story about a copying clerk, the famous Gogol story, who also has a little bit of rebellion for the first time in his life, after kind of taking it forever, he decides he’s really going to put his all into getting a new overcoat, and he works and gets it and then loses it tragically in the end. But at the end of the story, Gogol, instead of wrapping things up in neat fashion, does this trick where he talks about how there are multiple endings to the story. He is not sure what happened. One rumor has it that there’s an apparition, a ghost of sorts, who walks around Petersburg and grabs people by the collar and starts demanding their overcoats. It read a lot like that line. I even marked it, here it is. “The report was that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the dead letter office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me.”
But anyway, it’s just the uncertainty of how it ended it. It’s just such a neat little trick for making the story a little bit more mysterious.
Walter Kirn: He also explicitly compares Bartleby to a dead letter, a letter that’s been misaddressed, that’s going nowhere. And he ends the story in this way that you wish all stories could end. But this story has earned its ending, unlike most stories. He goes, ah, Bartleby, ah, humanity. And you suddenly realize Melville has written a story about everything here. He’s written a story about what it is to be a person, and what has he said about being a person in this story, this very comic story of this intransigent squatter, conscientious objector, guy who just sits there and lives in the office and does his job but prefers not to do certain things until he is not doing anything. What seemed like almost a character worthy of Vonnegut or Heller. You can imagine Bartleby on the island in catch-22, who his protest against everything is just to stand in one place and not do anything.
Matt Taibbi: Well, we talked about this a little before the show, because the way Melville rolls out the characters. I’s Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut are the three other clerks, and they all have these peculiarities. It’s very Helleresque, these sorts of satirical characters who respond in a kind of predictably funny way each time. But yeah, sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, but it’s very Catch-22.
Walter Kirn: This speaks also to Melville’s characterization in general, and even in his major works. Ahab, yeah, he’s taking revenge for having been injured by a white whale, but he’s also irreducible and just a kind of an algorithm. He is going to get revenge. Ahab is vengefulness incarnate, and Bartleby is immobility incarnate. And when you get to the end, and you hear, ah, humanity, you go, wow, this is one of the first stories about the dehumanization of bureaucracy. Because remember, it takes place in a law office. It could take place in all kinds of settings. You could have a character like Bartleby, but he sets it in a law office. And the job is just copying things out, remember? And the first thing that Bartleby really says he won’t do is check his copy. He won’t go back through it again.
And the lawyer makes a comment, he said, I think a lot of people don’t want to recheck their copy. I know the poet, Lord Byron, the man of romance in action, wouldn’t want to do it either. And you go, well, Bartleby is speaking for all of us, isn’t he. We’ve all been reduced to these boring, legalistic, bureaucratic, repetitive tasks. And he’s a hero. He’s a genius. He’d prefer not to. He’s speaking out of the absolutely honest depth of the human soul when it encountered this systematized, repetitive, meaningless way of living. He’d prefer not to live that way.
Matt Taibbi: And the boss, did we ever even learn what his name is? I’m not sure. The narrator.
Walter Kirn: No, I couldn’t find it.
Matt Taibbi: So, he ends up representing society and the way things are. And while Bartleby, it’s impossible to communicate with him, divine his reasoning, figure out why he’s doing anything, Melville gives us no information at all about what’s going on inside his head. The story plays out. We do see refracted in his head the incredibly detailed monologue of this boss. It’s actually extremely funny how fast and how neurotic his thinking is. He goes from thoughts of extreme generosity… He ponders what the Christian response would be. He comes up with a practical, pragmatic solution to basically bribe him to leave the office. When that doesn’t work, he thinks about it for a second and immediately starts thinking about murder. There’s a really funny passage. It’s like five seconds after he was in sort of beatific, a holy speculation about friendship, and then having come to this great resolution.
And then he moves into this passage. Suddenly he’s like, “Men have committed murder for jealousy’s sake and anger’s sake and hatreds sake. But no man that I’ve ever heard of has ever committed a diabolical murder for sweet charity’s sake.” So, he’s talking himself into the idea that I should kill him, but for good reasons. Anyway, he moves off that very quickly. As you say, so Bartleby represents this figure who’s stuck in this new form of totally dehumanizing, horrible work. The boss represents the person who’s put him in that situation, or at least is on the other side of it. What it feels like to me, the story ends up being about a lot. Is this guy is trying to satiate his own conscience as he considers the problem. And of course, he can’t do it. The only thing he can do is to stop being what he is, and there’s no way to do that. He does end up sort of tricking God a little bit by moving out of the office and voicing it out to somebody else who becomes him, wandering the streets, demanding.
Walter Kirn: In that sense, it is a little biblical. Am I my brother’s keeper? No, I’ll move away. But the effect of the story is interesting. What Bartleby ends up doing to the boss is causing the boss to psychoanalyze himself. In other words, the intransigent and opaqueness and simplicity of Bartleby, who appears to have no ego at all. He doesn’t care how he looks. He doesn’t care how he appears. He doesn’t try to justify his decisions or his inclinations. He doesn’t, in a sense, have a self in the way we now understand it. And the challenge of inclinations causes the boss to run through all these moral philosophies and questions about himself and about society. And at the beginning of the story, the guy introduces himself as a lawyer, and he brags that his law practice was praised by John Jacob Astor.
Astor himself has praised him. And the lawyer takes pains early on to say he wasn’t a fancy lawyer. He wasn’t a lawyer who did big cases or got a lot of attention. He was a steady lawyer. He was an honest lawyer. He was rather a plotting lawyer. So, in a way, and John Jacob Astor, himself, thought he was a good, steady lawyer. So, he has an ego at the beginning, and what he’s all about is just kind of getting praise from somebody. And so he’s not equipped to understand somebody who doesn’t need that. He’s not equipped to understand somebody without an ego, somebody who is completely not susceptible to flattery, pressure, anything.
Yeah. And I can’t help but note that in the mid 19th century in America, we were starting to get little glimmers of Eastern philosophy, Thoreau and Emerson, for example, Melville’s contemporaries. They had some of the first Hindu texts and some of the first Buddhist texts, and we were starting to understand that there was something they would call an Oriental point of view on life. And American transcendentalists and New England writers were discussing it. And Bartleby does in some ways seem almost like a Buddhist monk. He’s like a proto zen master in some ways. We experience him as incredibly frustrating from the boss’s point of view, but if we imagine what’s going on in him, he may indeed be an enlightened being. He doesn’t need anything. He was without need.
Matt Taibbi: Right. He’s achieved nothingness…
Walter Kirn: Yes, he’s without ego, he’s happy to be standing there and he’s completely honest. If you ask him, would you like to copy out hundreds of pages of some meaningless legal document? “No, I’d prefer not to.”
Matt Taibbi: Well, he’s not completely honest. There are really funny lines at the end where they ask him, “Well, do you want a job in this place?” He’s like, “No, but I’m not particular. Remember that.” And they keep offering him jobs and he’s like, “Nah, I don’t want to do that. But I’m not particular.” Anyway, I’m sorry…
Walter Kirn: Yes, he’s like a Buddha. He’s like some kind of a saint. Has Bartleby achieved enlightenment? Maybe if we heard the story from his point of view, we might think he had. But he’s a reproach to the middle-class values of the boss, who just wants praise from a rich guy. The boss likes that one of the clerks dresses well and reflects good credit on the office by always showing up in nice things.
And the boss also has lines on the other employees. One of the guys is very, very agreeable until noon, and then slowly becomes ill-tempered and red-faced as the day goes on. And then his other clerk has the opposite thing where he’s not so good in the morning. And so, one challenge to the boss that Bartleby presents is he overwhelms his ability to make sense of people. The boss likes to think that he has this realism about how people operate, and he’s figured out his other guys and even how to manipulate them and anticipate their moods and so on. But this guy’s just a complete cipher and it hurts the self-image that he can’t figure out how to manipulate him.
In the end, you get the sense that he almost loves him in some ways. I mean, he’s going to an insane asylum that he doesn’t have to go to, trying to buy extra food for the guy. He just wants Bartleby to want to live. He wants Bartleby to want something, and he can’t make him.
Matt Taibbi: And he’s not in touch with his inner self enough to come around to this idea that, “I do love him, I do care for him,” but by his actions, you’re able to read that. But that was another thing that made me think of The Overcoat, because the ending about, “Oh, the humanity,” and everything. There’s a scene towards the end of The Overcoat where I guess the author is trying to read what was Akaky, who’s the Bartleby type character in that story, is thinking. And he sort of intones that what he’s saying is, “I am your brother,” even though he says nothing of the sort. So, he’s inferring a message that you can’t really read because the clerk is sort of this creature and he’s immune to normal human analysis, sort of in the same way as Bartleby. Can we talk a little about the writing style a little bit?
I grew up in Southern Massachusetts, miles from New Bedford. Melville was always around. I fought through Moby-Dick as a young person because I had to, and didn’t like it the first time at all. Then later on in my life I read a book called The Confidence-Man. Did you ever read that? Yes, and then Billy Budd. And one of the things that I never liked about Melville is, I always felt he was a little difficult to read, unnecessarily. And then later in life, I forget what happened, but I was listening to somebody do a reading of Moby-Dick. And when that happens, when you hear it read out loud, there is tremendous humor and melody to the way that Melville writes, and a lot of the lines are just hilarious, even if they’re kind of baroque on the page.
I remember a line from Moby-Dick where somebody says, “Am I a cannon-ball, Stubb, that thou wouldst wad that me that fashion?” I mean, it just sounds ridiculous, but when you say it out loud it’s kind of beautiful. This story though, I feel is very different from normal Melville. And even though, I would highly recommend if you’re going to read this story, to do the book on tape too, because it’s really fun to listen to also. But it’s much faster than his other books.
There’s a scene where he expects Bartleby to be gone after he leaves a bribe for him under the paperweight and goes to the office and Bartleby is still there, and he says, “It was Bartleby.” He tries to get in. And as you say, he says “Not yet, I’m occupied. It was Bartleby.”
“I was thunderstruck. For an instant I stood like the man who, pipe in mouth was killed one cloudless afternoon long time ago in Virginia by a summer lightning. At his own warm open window he was killed, and remained leaning out there upon the dreamy afternoon until someone touched him when he fell.”
This is such an amazing image.
Walter Kirn: And his descriptions of Bartleby’s movements. There’s one point where he calls him, and Bartleby comes out from behind his screen after refusing to. And he just said, “He slid easily out from behind the screen.” It’s a very succinct, dry, rather simple style. It doesn’t have the big biblical overtones or the rolling lyrical cadences of a lot of Moby-Dick. Though, people forget that the beginning of Moby-Dick is... Well, not the very beginning, but almost the very beginning, it’s almost a bedroom comedy where Ishmael and Queequeg have to-
Matt Taibbi: Queequeg and Ishmael?
Walter Kirn: They have to bed down together in an inn. And there’s a lot of comedy and low comedy even. But what’s amazing is not only that he can master this lethal, dry social comedy and this style that is, I think very transparent and very swift, as you say, but that he can master the situation of an office and at the same time be our poet of the high seas. No one, except maybe Conrad who came later, spells adventure and romance and action and the elements like Herman Melville. But that he wrote basically The Office? Because Bartleby is The Office in 1853, the TV show, in some ways.
And that he was also the comic of bureaucracy and emptiness and paralysis. At the same time, he could mount the greatest Shakespearean high seas adventure ever written that. That’s an amazing range for a writer.
Matt Taibbi: Was it Nabokov who I think disliked Melville? He once dismissed Moby-Dick as journalism. He says, “It’s great journalism, but not a great book.” I forget who said it. Somebody said it like that. But it is great journalism. Moby-Dick, in addition to everything else, is an unbelievably detailed story about how things worked in this very interesting industry that we’ll never see again, and also about this small community of basically Quakers and places like Nantucket, who suddenly took over the world financially by mastering this one kind of business. And he described every little aspect of it from every conceivable angle, which is really hard to do.
Most writers don’t have that experience, as you point out. A few have and they write about what they know. Obviously Hemingway saw a little bit, and so he was able to write about Paris and about the war, and Evelyn Waugh went to Abyssinia so he could write Scoop. But yeah, to write Moby-Dick at that level and then also turn around and do this, basically a classic satire of office culture and have it feel really, really natural, is amazing. It’s also two totally different types of stories. One of them is like Shakespearean, huge, epic and written with this very florid prose, and this other one is written differently, almost like a play.
Walter Kirn: It’s very modern comedy. I said it’s like The Office, or it’s like a Seinfeld episode about the guy who won’t leave the office. It’s something that George might encounter on Seinfeld.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly. It could even be him.
Walter Kirn: George Costanza. It’s shockingly modern. When we went back and saw that it was written in 1853, I think our eyes both opened. The thing about Melville as a great American writer, and there are those who quite justifiably argue that he’s the greatest of American novelists, is that his image was consumed by his work. Do you know what he looks like? Do you have a picture of him? You know what Edgar Allen Poe looks like?
Matt Taibbi: Yes, vaguely.
Walter Kirn: He’s got a beard, is all I really could tell.
Matt Taibbi: Yes, the beard is all I know about. Yeah.
Walter Kirn: But he’s not Ralph Waldo Emerson, the sort of craggy, prophetic type. He’s not Edgar Allen Poe. He’s not Ernest Hemingway. He’s not Mark Twain with the big hair and the public persona. Melville is a little recessive. And he died obscurely. The book that we think the most of wasn’t necessarily that big a hit, as I remember, Moby-Dick. And he was somebody who just kind of hid behind his work. He was a little bit like Cormac McCarthy in a way. Cormac McCarthy died recently. Was also capable of these big, epic, violent books like Blood Meridian, which is obviously influenced by Melville, but could also do very terse and not necessarily comic, but swift and lean stories. We had his photograph. We knew what Cormac McCarthy looked like. We live in the age of photographs. He was not a recluse, but he also wasn’t really out front. I think he went on an Oprah once. And Melville was like that. His greatness is in his work and we don’t have a real fix on him as a celebrity, a literary celebrity.
Matt Taibbi: I don’t even think his personality is terribly detectable in the books. He’s like a great actor who you can’t tell what he is really like, like Peter Sellers or somebody like that. He may not even know himself.
Walter Kirn: You mentioned Peter Sellers. Bartleby should have been played by Peter Sellers.
Matt Taibbi: He kind of was.
Walter Kirn: Yes, yeah. Being There is Bartleby, the Scrivener. Because remember, Being There, Chauncey won’t move out of his little garden apartment. I think they leave, the owners of the estate leave or something before he’s made homeless.
Matt Taibbi: They don’t know what to do with him and he’s sort of forced out. But it’s more or less the same kind of story. Clearly he, I think must have read this in some other things. Because Chauncey Gardner just goes into a whole bunch of scenarios and everybody just imagines their own dialogues with him, even though he is not really saying anything or he says these things that are inaccessible, like, Alan Greenspan-ian statements.
Walter Kirn: Right. Spring will bring the rain and rain will bring the flowers.
Walter Kirn: It’s as though Being There by Kosinski is the story of Bartleby walking the streets of Washington. And as I said, his effect in this story is that he causes the narrator to psychoanalyze himself. And in Being There, Chauncey causes everybody to project their own hopes and beliefs and wishes onto this cipher.
Matt Taibbi: Even their sexual desires.
Walter Kirn: Yes, and their sexual desires. Which is why it’s such a great movie, because of Shirley McLean getting turned on by Peter Sellers. And that’s something we don’t want to just read.
Matt Taibbi: She’s really turning herself on. It’s so funny.
Walter Kirn: Yes, yeah, exactly. We want to see that; we don’t want to just read about it. But yeah, I think that if great classics like this often spawn a later classic, this is definitely the precursor to Being There. And for me, it’s almost hard reading the story now not to see Peter Sellers in the role of Bartleby.
Matt Taibbi: As a closing thought, should we address something that... I’m not going to blame one or the other of us for having this enter our conversation, but the idea that Joe Biden is Bartleby is kind of funny. “I would prefer not to govern.”
Walter Kirn: Yes, “I prefer not to leave it.” It’s almost like you sometimes go, “Joe Biden isn’t going to be impeached. Joe Biden isn’t going to be removed from office. We’re just going to have to lock up the White House around him and move the presidency to another mansion and get a different president. And every few years we’ll hear that Biden’s still in there. And he’d prefer not to leave.” We’ll say, “Listen, man, we had a whole other election and we moved the capital city to Kansas City, and the White House hasn’t actually had a coat of paint on it for 10 years.”
Matt Taibbi: It’s overgrown with vines.
Walter Kirn: “It’s overgrown with vines. So, can you come on out? Can you give up that red phone and that briefcase with the button in it? That actually doesn’t work anymore.” And Biden will just say, “I’d prefer not to.” Yes, we may just have to ensconce him in his little fantasy world, lock the thing up and move the whole United States federal government over somewhere else, like to California.
Matt Taibbi: Right. Just build an alternate White House. Maybe do a new color or something like that. But he would be sleeping there. All we’d see is his feet sticking out from under the desk in the Oval Office, basically.
Walter Kirn: Joe Biden, the Scrivener. Yeah.
Matt Taibbi: Biden, the Scrivener. Somebody’s got to write that. Oh, that’s too easy. God, if I were 20 years old I would write that. That’s so funny. But yeah, no, there’s a little bit of that in there. But this is a great story for anybody who was made to read Billy Budd before. Maybe it was necessary when you were 14 years old or something like that, and you have an image of what reading Melville is like. Cast that aside. I was really surprised by the style of this story and how different it is from other reading experiences with Melville. And also, just how fun it is, and as you say, modern. It’s not inaccessible to anybody who works in a cubicle.
Walter Kirn: Well, I think the other week when I proposed it, you were on one of your investigative journalism benders and a little tired and running five stories at once, as you do. And you said, “I don’t know if my head’s up to Melville this week.” And then when you read it, you were like, “Wow, that didn’t hurt at all.” It doesn’t hurt.
Matt Taibbi: Exactly, exactly. It doesn’t. It goes down very easily. So, highly recommend it.