All posts by Benjamin

They had it coming

CafeI rarely write a straight up bad review of a bar.  Drinking at a bar should be an active process, not a passive one.  This isn’t a play or a movie, where you’re supposed to sit quietly in your seat.  If you’re having a bad time at a bar, it’s probably at least partially your fault.

But some bars really are terrible.  And some bars are terrible and morally offensive.  It happens.

They have it coming, and God do I enjoy giving it to them.  Vicious reviews, written well, make for the best reading.

Here are a few bars that had it coming, and got it with a chaser:

Continue reading They had it coming

A few bars I have loved

The Welcome GlassI’m frequently asked by people who say they read my column “What’s your favorite bar in San Francisco?”

Come on, people:  if you read my column you’d know:  it’s the SRO room in Oddjob.  It’s the SRO room in Oddjob.  It’s the SRO room in Oddjob.

How many times to I have to say it?  It’s the only bar I’ve ever described in print as “my favorite.”  And I talk it up every chance I get.  I take friends.  I take out of town guests.

But in case there’s still any ambiguity, let me be clear:  at a time in my life when I never go to bars twice, I go back to SRO all the time.

You should go.  And you should tell the bartender “hi” for me.  Especially if it’s Joey.  You should be so lucky.

But of course SRO isn’t the only good, or even great, bar in San Francisco.  Here are a few others that are close to my heart:

Continue reading A few bars I have loved

My collaborations with Joe Eskenazi

Let it Bleed coverSome of the most fruitful long form journalism I’ve done has been in partnership with Joe.  We started out together as freelancers for the SF Weekly, and while he went on to become a staff writer and I went on to take a marketing job that actually paid my rent, the Weekly so valued our collaborations that they kept paying extra to have us work together on a periodic basis.  I was lead reporter on exactly half of our major collaborations, he was lead reporter on exactly the other half – and either way the results speak for themselves.

Our first big piece was “The Worst Run City Big City in the U.S.,” and you have no idea what a big deal that was at the time.  It was like the whole city breathed a sigh of relief because *someone* had finally said it.  Okay, not the Guardian – they argued against it to the point that they made it sound like inefficiency is a progressive value – but we were astonished by just how strong a positive response we got.

Our second was probably the least popular of our collaborations, but one of the ones we are most proud of:  “Let it Bleed,” an in-depth examination of the city’s pension fund crisis.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to describe a pension fund crisis in an entertaining way?  Go ahead, try it.

Well, we did it.  We had to invent a character named “Galaxor,” but we did it. Continue reading My collaborations with Joe Eskenazi

A little Long form Journalism

journalist hat and typewriterThe short, snappy, essay-with-a-punch is a thing of beauty, especially when it’s insightful enough to hurt someone’s feelings.  But a well written piece of long form journalism is far harder to come by, and far more valuable.

I like to think I’ve written a few of those.

Two of my best pieces are alas not available in a good format online, so I can’t really recommend looking at them, but I’m very proud of them:  an examination of how to prevent youth violence called “Healling Begins at Home”(PDF), and an analysis of New York State’s standardized testing regimen – that I am deeply proud of – called “Putting the Test to the Test.”  (PDF).  Man do I wish those were online in a nicer format.  They were beautiful in print – and both, I’m pleased to say, made a difference.

The testing piece also lead to one of the strangest experiences of my life.  After the piece came out, I went to cover an anti-testing rally in Albany, and when I got there hundreds of people were holding signs with my words, from my article, printed on them.  Every time they got in an argument with a public official, they quoted me.  I’d had no idea it was going to happen, and I wondered if this was what Chairman Mao felt like.  At least a little …

For long form journalism that is easier on the eyes, check out my collaborations with Joe Eskenazi.


Progressively Worse: The Tumultuous Rise and Fall of San Francisco’s Left

(This article first appeared in the SF Weekly)

Even last year, people were talking about the city’s “progressive machine.” The welcome mat to City Hall was crafted locally, out of hemp. Progressive supervisors held a legislative majority and controlled the agenda. At last, crowed the Bay Guardian, progressives could install a mayor espousing “San Francisco values,” now that Gavin Newsom was off to become Lieutenant Governor and look busy.

Nobody talks like that anymore.

Between lost elections and internal defections, the progressive bloc has been reduced from a reliable six-to-eight supervisors (a majority and occasional supermajority) to a solid three or four — John Avalos, David Campos, soon-departing Ross Mirkarimi, and Eric Mar. They lost control of legislative committees. Board President David Chiu is a progressive apostate who despises them only slightly less than they despise him. In this month’s mayoral election, progressives were beaten by Lee, the man they helped put into power, but they are thrilled — thrilled — to have placed a distant second. Losing by less than you thought you would is the new winning, for progressives.

Daly was right. But the progressive fall from power was more than just a fumble. The whole playbook was flawed.

Ten years is a long time to hold a coalition together. Progressives’ decade dominating the board was a hell of a run. While it’s easy to focus on their foibles, progressives pushed through major changes that altered many aspects of city life. Even their opponents concede they could be effective legislators with big ideas.

But as the city changed, progressives didn’t. Astoundingly, the city’s dominant political coalition never developed an effective fundraising apparatus, never engaged in outreach beyond catering to the supporters it already had, and never created the kind of organization needed to run an effective citywide race. For a movement stocked with community organizers, they did remarkably little organizing. Avalos is just the latest progressive mayoral hopeful who “rallied the base” — and lost. But it’s not Avalos’ fault his predecessors didn’t build a citywide organization on the way up, which would have made his run so much easier. Now, they’re all on the way down.

So, yes, progressives fumbled. But their real problem was running only their favorite plays, in front of their own cheerleaders, not realizing they wouldn’t win without moving the ball across the entire field.

Continue reading Progressively Worse: The Tumultuous Rise and Fall of San Francisco’s Left

Running the Magic Gauntlet at Sparky’s

I’d thought “Helena” was only in town for the afternoon, but she was staying in San Francisco overnight. The last time I was in Chicago she’d been too tired to hit the town, so now that she was here she committed to “last man standing” protocols. The night wouldn’t end until I said it ended.

Which was great — except that I got the news at 3 o’clock and already had plans. How the hell could I make this work?

I called E., whose new house I was supposed to visit for the first time. Arranged to make that a shorter visit. We’d just get a pizza.

I called Jimmy. “Hey, I’ve got a VIP in town and can’t be on-site for a couple of hours. Can you handle it?”

Read more at SF Weekly

It’s Okay to Be Miserable at Burning Man

Two years ago. I was walking through the desert, across the open playa in the early afternoon. It was hot, and I was very, very unhappy.

I don’t remember why, anymore, but I remember what that mood felt like. It would have been depression if I hadn’t been so angry, so resentful. I wanted to bite someone. I wanted to yell at someone. I wanted to punch you in the face. You, personally.

I think I was heading over to one of the Irish bars. I wanted to start a bar fight. Right now.

Out in the middle of the dust I saw four desks separated from a small line of people by a velvet rope. Three men were at the desks, and a fourth was behind a small podium managing the line.

Read more at Burning Man

The Future of Existential Psychology: Was Nietzsche Right?

If the future of Existential Psychology could be reduced to a bumper sticker, it might be this one: “Nietzsche Was Right.”

In 1882, Nietzsche put some stunning words in the mouth of a character: God is dead, we have killed him, and the implications are staggering. Let me quote from the passage:

“Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event—and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!”

The prophetic madman then realizes he has come too early: that the understanding of what’s happening has not dawned on mankind. But it will. It will.

A crisis was coming to the Western psyche, and Nietzsche was its most famous prophet. But he wasn’t the only one. Carl Jung saw it coming as well: in his masterpiece “Triumph of the Therapeutic,” Philip Rieff describes the entire Jungian project as pre-emptive effort to head off a collective crisis of the spirit by giving the western world a new kind of religion, one based on inner symbols that we could all put in the center of our psychological lives. To the extent that it is true it remains an ongoing project: it hasn’t saved us yet. Continue reading The Future of Existential Psychology: Was Nietzsche Right?

With Great Power Comes…Amorality?

Penn State, Goldman Sachs, Enron, University of Virginia, SuperPACS, the Catholic Church–we live in an era of institutional scandal. If you want to know why we are careening from one major institutional scandal to the next, there’s a simple answer: the psychology of power has changed.

To be sure, there’s nothing new about a scandal. The oldest human texts, from the Bible to the Bhagavad Gita, are full of them–and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the very first cave painting was an editorial cartoon exposing a hunting accident.

There’s also nothing new about a powerful institution getting embroiled in a scandal–“scandal” is practically the twin of “monarchy.”

But in the past, there’s been a sense that when powerful institutions fail to police themselves effectively, they have in fact failed. The moral codes they lived up to may have been deficient, but they were at least trying to live up to them. In the modern era, which is filled with more institutions of greater complexity than ever before, we seem to be seeing an increasing inability of powerful institutions (and the people who run them) to follow even the most cursory moral code.  Continue reading With Great Power Comes…Amorality?