Category Archives: DPChallenge

Police Transit Sweep, Mission Street (Daily Prompt: We Built This City)

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Good Evening:

“…What do you like the least about (the city in which you live)? If you were mayor, what would be the most important problem you’d tackle? How would you tackle it?”

Like most wildly booming cities, San Francisco has to endure wildly booming “most important” problems. With the current population boom, our public transit system, drastically underfunded during the previous bust, has too few buses to handle the rise in riders, causing slower and slower service. To speed up the service, the City resorted to something a bit different; it legalized previously illegal behavior. Our buses have the usual system of entrances and exits; one door at the front for embarking, and another in the middle of the bus for disembarking. It used to be illegal to board from the rear even if you intended to pay for the ride. To speed up the boarding process, the SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency) installed something called the Clipper Card system (too complex to explain) and allows people to board in the rear.

So we’re working on the honor system here.

Except when we’re not.

The City also imposed transit sweeps, such at this one I encountered at the intersection of Mission Street and 11th Street on a recent Friday at dusk.

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A bunch of transit officers backed up by the SFPD sweep through the buses checking to see if everyone can prove that they paid for the ride. If not, they have to leave the bus and receive a ticket. Originally, the police did not take part, but evidently, someone saw a need.

Perhaps the need was legitimate, but I can’t tell; people stopped yelling “Fascist!” or “This is how dictatorships start!” or some such words a long time ago and learned to tolerate just another minor annoyance. Today, these sweeps have become a part of the minor annoyances that so plague San Francisco’s public transit every single day. I haven’t seen any protests in months.

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A word about the photographs. The light was very poor for my Nikon S9100 point-and-shoot using the Landscape setting. If I had the chance to hold still, maybe I could have take a decent shot or two, but in a tense situation like this, no one, I mean no one, wants someone fiddling with the controls of his camera in the middle of police, transit officers and civilians, all of whom are not in a good mood. If anyone had spotted me, life would have gotten ugly, therefore I kept moving. So most of the pictures are frankly not that great and rather blurry.

Especially after this guy shoved-rushed past me.

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He tried to sneak out of the bus and through the crowd, but one of the transit officers confronted him at once. Which led to this interesting little scene.

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I cannot say for certain, but it sure appears that he at least thought about taking the police officer’s gun–look at the man’s blurry right hand. Seems like he was reaching, doesn’t it? Perhaps a warrant for his arrest exists? But he didn’t try to grab the gun, and I’m glad I don’t have an exciting story to share.

San Francisco has so much weirdness going with transit. The much-hated (by others; I don’t hate them) “Google buses” use our bus stops as theirs. Now I appreciate and approve of private buses taking 50 cars off the highways and reducing pollution. But the City allegedly (as in, don’t take my word for this) has a law on the books stating that any driver of a non-City vehicle who even stops in a bus zone will get fined $271, even if you stopped in one to take a friend home who was too drunk to drive himself.

The bus firms and tech companies claim that they had worked out a “handshake deal” with the SFMTA allowing them to use the bus stops without getting ticketed (as reported in the San Francisco Examiner, and naturally I just misplaced my copy).  The deal, however well-intentioned, sounds pretty much like the Golden Age of San Francisco corruption in the late 19th Century. This news did not go over well with the people who live and work in San Francisco and can only afford public transit. The private bus services hired by the Silicon Valley tech firms (not just Google) caused so many people to complain that the firms and the City worked out a new deal; San Francisco gets $1 for each time a private bus uses a bus stop. Which is a $270 less than the fine the rest of us pay.

And is probably a lot less than whatever this woman will pay.

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Take a closer look at her. She’s a nurse, and she’s handcuffed. I wasn’t there when that went down, but an ordinary middle-class worker who makes about as much money as I do got arrested for whatever she might have done while the tech companies and their private bus firms avoided millions (yes, millions) of dollars in fines and now pay only 1/127th of that in fees because of a “handshake deal.”

It’s almost as if someone doesn’t want middle-class people in SF anymore and has decided to drive us out.

I realize that most other Americans who visit San Francisco think we have an amazingly good public transit system (sentiments that never fail to shock the people who live here). But the contrast between tech workers travel to work and how the rest of us get to work keeps getting greater and greater. Much like the contrast between the very rich and the rest of us.

The San Francisco bus system: microcosm of modern America. Who would have thought?

In conclusion, no mayor can do anything about the rising inequality in the United States as a whole, but San Francisco can do something about its public transit. The answer could be as crude and effective as throwing money at the system; during the Willie Brown years, Mayor Brown did just that and it worked out quite well. But the real answer lies is a total redesign of the buses, bus routes, bus stops and especially the bureaucracy; as a City employee, I know how bad the morale is over there at that agency.

These transit sweeps practically shout, “Our system is screwy!”

I will let others debate inequality in American today, but I have to ask one question: does it seem like Americans could easily adapt to life in a dictatorship? Are dictatorships just minor annoyances most of the time?

Vonn Scott Bair

PS–To give you an idea of the difficult lighting conditions for photography, here is the above picture before I edited a copy. That blue is just so wrong and the light was much darker and greyer.

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Daily Prompt, 15 February 2014: Money for Nothing

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Good Morning:

Today’s Daily Prompt for photographers is Work. I present a few recent examples from my own, uh, work.

Busker Performing in Front of Puerto Alegre, Valencia Street, San Francisco

Busker Performing in Front of Puerto Alegre, Valencia Street, San Francisco

Construction Workers, 10th & Market, San Francisco

Construction Workers, 10th & Market, San Francisco

Underground Pipe Repairs, Polk Street near Market, San Francisco

Underground Pipe Repairs, Polk Street near Market, San Francisco

Naturally, every once in a while, you need to take a break. But cigarettes during the first heavy rainstorm of the year? What kind of break is that? A new California PSA aimed at teenagers portrays cigarettes as a bully, but methinks they could have aimed it at the adults, too.

Cigarette Break in the Rain, Redwood Alley, San Francisco

Cigarette Break in the Rain, Redwood Alley, San Francisco

Vonn Scott Bair

The Bowl (Daily Prompt: Ingredients)

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Good Afternoon:

I will keep this Daily Prompt simple.

  • A bowl.
  • A bowl of soup.
  • A bowl of chicken soup.
  • A bowl of chicken noodle soup.
  • A bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup that your mother made for you when you were eight years and the flu left you bedridden for four days and thereby ruined your Christmas vacation.
White & Blue Series, 9 February 2014. The Bowls.

White & Blue Series, 9 February 2014. The Bowls.

  • A bowl.
  • A bowl of chili.
  • A bowl of red.
  • A bowl of your uncle’s homemade 5-alarm beef and pork chili that once took Honorable Mention in the state championships, each cube almost exactly three-quarters of an inch along each edge, raising blisters on the roof of your mouth but that’s OK because your uncle also makes his own California-style Pale Ale and has won gold medals at the AHA national championships and has plenty on hand to douse the fire.

Let us all now pay homage to the humble bowl.

One of humanity’s earliest kitchen utensils, the bowl has become so ubiquitous, so universal that perhaps we do not appreciate how many of our happiest memories begin with the words “a bowl.” But that’s all right. I’m here to help you appreciate.

  • A bowl of homemade popcorn.
  • A bowl of buttered homemade popcorn.
  • A bowl of lightly salted buttered homemade popcorn.
  • A bowl of lightly salted buttered homemade popcorn in your lap on the sofa as your sweetheart curls up on your shoulder and you pop a popped kernel into each other’s mouth as you watch The Princess Bride for the 10th (or is it the 11th?) time.
  • A bowl of lightly salted buttered homemade popcorn in your lap on the sofa as your sweetheart curls up on your shoulder and you pop a popped kernel into each other’s mouth as the two of you watch The Princess Bride for the 20th (or is it the 21st?) time and your two rugrats sit cross-legged on the rug in front of you engrossed in the flick.

The bowl is such a simple item, serving as nothing more than the receptacle of the daily meal and your memories.

  • A bowl of pasta.
  • A bowl of chuk or chook (“rice porridges” on most Chinese restaurant menus).
  • A bowl of pozole.
  • A bowl of cereal.
  • A bowl of oatmeal.
  • A bowl of stew.
  • A bowl of pretzels.
  • A bowl of ramen (how many of you just remembered something from your starving college student days?).
  • A bowl of peanuts.
  • A bowl of miniature candies on Hallowe’en.
  • A bowl of ice cream.
  • A bowl of your dad’s homemade chocolate ice cream.

Admit it: you just remembered something you didn’t realize you had thought you had forgotten.

Vonn Scott Bair

Daily Prompt: Generation XYZ, 30 January 2014

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Good Evening:

In response to today’s challenge for photographers, I took these pictures.

Elderly Lesbian Couple, Market Street, San Francisco

Elderly Lesbian Couple, Market Street, San Francisco

Crossing Polk Street at Fulton, San Francisco

Crossing Polk Street at Fulton, San Francisco

Vonn Scott Bair

The Toddler, The Bulldog & The Tortilla Chip (Weekly Writing Challenge: Snapshot)

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Good Evening:

Another snapshot, another memory.

During the 1990s, my parents lived in a really truly Colonial Colonial in rural Connecticut. How really truly Colonial was this Colonial? The earliest record of this house’s existence dates back to 1710, stunning old for my San Francisco friends, interestingly old for my East Coast friends, and “so what?” old for my European and Asian friends. The house had early 18th Century ceilings, which meant that you had to be very careful not to bump your head on the ceiling or in doorways as you trod upon the uneven floors, and a living room fireplace almost five feet tall, about seven feet wide, and four feet deep. In winter, the dark red wooden house with an electric candle and wreath in each window looked too perfect in the deep powder snow, like something a Hollywood film production would reject as unreally beautiful.

My parents also had two bulldogs, one of whom was an absolute beast.

Bonzer (yes, my Australian friends, his name was your word for “the absolute best”) weighed in at 80 pounds, enormous by English Bulldog standards, with an unusually large head by English Bulldog standards, and unusually muscular by English Bulldog standards. His coat was the basic white, but mottled with butterscotch-colored splotches and spots of various sizes.

Fortunately, his friendliness equalled his size. Unfortunately, he did not know his own strength. When he played, he played hard–over the past 150 breeders have bred out the viciousness of the original Bulldogge, but they have not bred out the aggressiveness. This did not prove much of a problem for the puppy growing up as he grew up among adult humans who knew how to deal with cheerful, happy and aggressively affectionate dogs.

But Bonzer had never met a human child. And my sister and her husband visited the too-perfect Colonial one Christmas week, bringing along their 18-month-old daughter.

We had to be very careful with Bonzer. Don’t get me wrong, he liked Isabel just as much as he liked us adults, but English Bulldogs are not the brightest lightbulbs on the Christmas tree, to put it mildly, and he did not seem to realize that he had to tread carefully around Her Majesty The Granddaughter. So we always kept an adult between him and her.

One night shortly before the big day, the five adults sat in the living room in front of the fireplace big enough to hold a twin-sized mattress and box spring (but we wisely piled it high with firewood and enjoyed a nice blaze), noshing away at various appetizers before dinner. Bonzer found himself a suitably close enough location to the platters and bowls of people food that we had to placate him with goodies to keep him from jumping on the cocktail table. Given his fondness for lunging at people food, we found it best to gently lob food at him. He would snatch it out of thin air at remarkable speed. Isabel watched us feeding the dog, but we thought we had kept her safely far enough away.

But toddlers are really fast.

Just like that, she stood right next to him in her pink holiday dress with people food in her tiny hand.

A Trader Joe’s Chili-Lime Tortilla Chip.

Which she offered to Bonzer, a dog almost four times heavier than herself.

We all held our breaths. We didn’t want to startle the dog into some sudden action that might hurt my niece.

Bonzer tensed himself for another lunge at his beloved people food.

But then he stopped.

Isabel held the chip vertically. Think about it; when you eat a tortilla chip, you insert it horizontally into you mouth. Not vertically.

I swear, it looked like Bonzer actually thought about the situation. Bulldogs don’t think. They are probably the dumbest breed of domestic canine out there. But Bonzer seemed to think about the situation before him; a human puppy, very small and delicate, offering people food to him, but holding it the wrong way.

Bonzer sat for a moment. Looking like he was actually thinking. Which is impossible. He was an English Bulldog.

We held our breaths. He could have easily bitten off her hand. But he didn’t.

Bonzer slowly twisted his massive skull 90 degrees. He slowly leaned forward. He slowly wrapped his huge mouth around her hand and slowly sucked the Trader Joe’s Chili-Lime Tortilla Chip away from her. Then he chewed it and swallowed. Isabel laughed because evidently his jowls tickled her hand, and offered another tortilla chip. He slowly twisted his massive skull 90 degrees. He slowly leaned forward. He slowly wrapped his huge mouth around her hand and slowly sucked the Trader Joe’s Chili-Lime Tortilla Chip away from her. Then he chewed it and swallowed.

The adults watched as she offered one tortilla chip after another, giggling, to an absolute beast of animal which twisted its head 90 degrees so he could gently suck each chip out of her hand.

Vonn Scott Bair

Homelessness in San Francisco, 20 October 2013 (Weekly Writing Challenge: Living History)

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Good Evening:

Disclaimer/Warning 1: Not one of my usual posts, and definitely not one of my cheerful ones. Disclaimer/Warning 2: this post will demonstrate my lack of qualifications as a journalist.

So last weekend, as I embarked upon a Saturday of chores and photography, I opened the front door to my apartment building–and nearly tripped over the homeless man, Caucasian, 40s-50s, sleeping on the doorstep. Fortunately I managed to avoid stepping on, kicking, hurting or even touching him, but then I might have done something foolish; I asked him to move on. I walked down to my bus stop, and two minutes later this same man reeled up to me, still reeling from the amount of alcohol he had drunk the night before.

“Hey, man, gotta quarter?”

“No.”

He did not move on.

“Hey, man, are you gay?”

This was not an insult, nor was it an accusation. From his tone, I judged (and remain convinced) that he hoped that I was gay so that he could offer to trade sex for money.

“Sorry, no.”

He did not move on.

“Hey, man, you the a****** who woke me up?”

He approached me in a threatening manner, not knowing that I had a weapon in my hand. For that matter, I didn’t know I had a weapon in my hand until I used it.

Believe it or not, my camera:

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He turned away. When I demanded that he look at me, he chose instead to stagger across the street, in the middle of traffic. But he did not get hit, and I haven’t seen him since.

I’ve used that old Nikon S9100 for crime prevention before, see here.

Thanks to my use of The 30 Shot technique, I have been able to chronicle all aspects of city life without discovery; I present some of my pictures of the city’s homeless individuals, all taken with a point-and-shoot camera, ideal for this purpose as it is so inconspicuous. I’ve chosen not to edit them for the time being, preferring instead the sheer rawness of the situations portrayed.

Harassing a Woman Who Didn't Give Him Money

Harassing a Woman Who Didn’t Give Him Money

Thursday night, after a meeting of one of my theater groups: I stand at the intersection of 5th & Market waiting for my bus home. However, the Muni buses seemed behind schedule, so I used my phone to surf the web and find out when the next bus would arrive. Another homeless person, African-American, 20s-30s, about five foot nine, very muscular build, walked to within four feet in front of me, swaying left and right, backward and forward, eyes rolling about in their sockets. I didn’t like how he looked at me, so I stepped back two steps and looked him in the eye. He took two steps toward me. I tightened my grip on my phone and kept staring him in the eye.

He tried to snatch my phone anyway.

Passed on Haight Street at the Entrance to Golden Gate Park

Passed Out on Haight Street at the Entrance to Golden Gate Park

I don’t think drug addicts realize how debilitating their addictions can become. I snatched away my hand with ease before he could even see what had happened. He stared at the space where my hand and phone used to be.

“THIEF! TRYING TO SNATCH MY PHONE, THIEF!!”

I used my booming theatrically trained voice to bellow louder than most people can for two reasons: first, any nearby police would be alerted and come arrest the guy; second, the would-be thief would flee. Unfortunately, no police happened to be near. Unfortunately, the addict’s drugs had rendered him incapable of thinking and he just stood there.

‘THIEF! THIS MAN’S A THIEF!!”

No police, and he kept standing there. After a few seconds, he put up his fists.

“YOU WANT TO STEAL MY PHONE, THIEF??”

His fists dropped to his sides, and he said, “Got any spare change?”

Still no police, and he still would not leave.

“THIEF! TRYING TO SNATCH MY PHONE, THIEF!!”

He walked into the middle of Market Street. He had no idea where he stood, that he would soon get hit by traffic. Now I had to think of something to keep him from getting hurt.

“GO AWAY! GET OUT OF HERE!!”

That did the trick. Somehow he made to safety across the street and got out of my life.

Chewing on an Unwrapped Candy Bar, Powell Street and Ellis, 19 October 2013

Chewing on an Unwrapped Candy Bar, Powell Street and Ellis, 19 October 2013

While the above represents a straightforward description of recent events without embellishment, what follows now is journalism, something I do badly, so take care before accepting the rest of this as fact.

I moved to San Francisco during the big recession of the early 80s, when Paul Volcker chose some pretty drastic measures to rid the United States of the “stagflation” that had affected us during the Seventies. A lot of people at the bottom of the economic ladder lost everything and homelessness increased in San Francisco. I noticed the same phenomenon again in the early Nineties during the recession that marred and perhaps ended the administration of President George H. W. Bush. And again during the two recessions that have occurred so far during this millennium.

Now San Francisco seems to be experiencing another increase in the homeless population, and based upon what I have seen and experienced, the hostility level seems to have increased.

Which proves nothing except that I don’t know a thing about real journalism. A real journalist would have the ability to look up facts and figures to see the actual numbers from year to year since 1982. A real journalist might examine the actual numbers and say something like, “Vonn Scott Bair knows nothing of which he speaks. The facts are that there has been no correlation between recessions and increases in the percentage of homeless in San Francisco during the years he mentions.” Or whatever the actual truth might be–my point is that I might have only noticed homelessness at some periods during my life and been completely oblivious to the phenomenon at others. I strive not to conflate my personal experience for universal truth (sadly, my favorite mistake) and encourage you not to accept my word as gospel.

But as a thought experiment, let us pretend that for once my personal experience does represent universal truth. In that (unlikely) case, something different has happened during San Francisco’s current increase in our homeless population.

For the first time, it has occurred during one of our economic booms.

If this has happened before I have failed to notice it.

Two reasons (at minimum) explain this strange turn of events. First, the District Attorney’s Office has found proof that a local urban legend called “Greyhound Therapy” is in fact a reality; other states use Greyhound buses to ship their mentally ill homeless to California in general and San Francisco in particular. Specifically, we’ve caught Nevada in the act and suspect other states as well. Our DA has begun legal action to force the state of Nevada to reimburse San Francisco for the expenses we’ve incurred caring for the patients they have shipped to us.

(Optional reading: San Francisco will also ship the mentally ill homeless to other cities and states, if and only if a) they want to go there; b) they know people there; c) those people knows they’re coming; and d) those people are willing to receive them. Well, that’s what we tell ourselves. I don’t know which is worse; the fact that comparatively speaking San Franciscans consider themselves comparatively enlightened, or the fact that comparatively speaking San Franciscans might actually be comparatively enlightened.)

The other reason for the increased homelessness is the boom itself. The latest big mass eviction in San Francisco’s Mid-Market district consists of every resident in a “live-work” apartment building that failed to meet code. Too many units have no windows, which means that too many units have no fire escapes, which means that too many units would become lethal traps if a fire broke out. The city pretty much has no choice; it’s a matter of saving lives. But it does mean that over 50 people who paid rents one-fourth to one-fifth the going rate in San Francisco will have no place to go. They will have to leave the city (and probably the entire Bay Area) to find affordable housing.

If they can’t do that, I don’t know what will become of them.

And all because the city is booming one of its historically biggest housing booms. If the perceived hostility is in fact a reality, perhaps the housing boom explains why; all these thousands of new units, and yet people are forced onto the street because they can’t afford them.

But this represents pure speculation; technically, I don’t know what I’m writing about.

It feels as if San Francisco has gone swimming in a river with an unknown waterfall ahead (I’m borrowing a metaphor Faulkner sometimes used). We don’t know it, but we can maybe just maybe sense a little stronger pull, and that maybe just maybe it’s not yet time to worry, but we feel a bit more alert to something happening but we don’t know what it is.

Vonn Scott Bair

Weekly Writing Challenge: Living History

Eye of the Beholder (Daily Prompt, 5 Oct 2013)

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Good Afternoon:

When you live within walking distance of the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers, the “Eye of the Beholder” becomes an easy and fun prompt. All photos taken with a Nikon CoolPix S9100 using the Closeup Mode. Aside from some cropping, no edits.

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Vonn Scott Bair