Living and Dying in the City

A remarkable, densely-packed weekend of San Francisco living, starting with the latest from my illustrious neighbors, Keith Hennessy and Seth Eisen with Jules Beckman, “How to Die,” at Dance Mission on Friday night. Like the last show Keith did, this is divided into two parts, the first on homelessness and the second on gay sex-and-drugs subculture. Those simple descriptions don’t come close to capturing the minimalist complexity of the performances, nor the deeper reflection they offer on our Culture of Denial.

My first reaction to the homeless half of the show was, like many, to be disturbed. It’s not fun and actually makes the audience very uncomfortable. Keith starts out sort of stumbling into the theater with Jules behind him, both in raggedy parkas, looking pretty darn derelict. Keith starts talking in a subdued, almost apologetic tone of voice, explaining the history of the Mission a bit, handing out snapshots of old men sprawled on our street, as they do every day, trying to situate the actual people we blithely and routinely walk past without seeing (in our case, mostly older alcoholic Salvadorans). A strange tinny voice explains how many people die by train decapitation, followed by Keith giving 9 reasons to die with Jules hurtling into him again and again, tackling him to the floor. It was the most comic part of it, but given the force of the crashes, the humor kept getting sucked right out of it too. A piano wire is strung diagonally across the stage and Keith threads it through his nose (where he normally has a ring) and then began the part that most haunted me later. I’m grossed out by the nose ring to start with, but then to see him sliding right and left, forward and back on this fine line, dramatizing the impossibly fine line on which homeless folks have to survive, lubricating it with his spit so it would slide through his nose…. it was an incredible thing to see. That part summarized the whole theme for me.

Part two is a pelvic-gyrating disco scene with Keith and Jules as heavy speed freaks while Seth lipsyncs to disco hits in a series of over-the-top shimmering disco costumes. The ‘connection’ between the two speed freaks is composed of feigned anonymous sex, rough and violent and loveless. Ultimately Keith assumes a series of the most degrading poses imaginable (which he also did for part of the first half), and just forces the audience to gaze at his self-degradation. The alienation dramatized in part two parallels the despair of part one, though in the second half it’s evidently much more self-imposed. Nevertheless, the title hovers over the show as we watch people on a slow path to death, isolated from each other and from their own humanity, producing their own deepening immiseration. Then Keith breaks in with a Brechtian self-critique which actually deepened the whole show, questioning the whole gist of the show by juxtaposing it to the two million AIDS deaths projected this year, largely among non-white inhabitants of Africa and Asia, often female and young.

And that in turn, nicely overlapped with some recent reading I’ve been doing. Planet of Slums by Mike Davis is his usual numbing tour-de-force of stats and analysis that leaves one enraged and overwhelmed. Iain Boal reviews it intelligently in the latest Mute magazine, but I wanted to note a small part of its broad and deep critique here: A disgustingly large portion of the world population is living in shit! You can get a gripping portrait of how desperate life is in Lagos, Nigeria in George Packer’s long article “The Megacity” in this past week’s New Yorker. But here’s Davis:

“The subject, of course, is indelicate, but it is a fundamental problem of city life from which there is surprisingly little escape. For ten thousand years urban societies have struggled against deadly accumulations of their own waste; even the richest cities only flush their excrement downstream or dump it into a nearby ocean. Today’s poor cities–Nairobi, Lagos, Bombay, Dhaka, and so on–are stinking mountains of shit that would appall even the most hardened Victorians… Constant intimacy with other people’s waste, moreover, is one of the most profound of social divides. Like the universal prevalence of parasites in the bodies of the poor, living in shit, as the Victorians knew, truly demarcates two existential humanities.

“The global sanitation crisis defies hyperbole. Its origins, as with many Third World urban problems, are rooted in colonialism. The European empires generally refused to provide modern sanitation and water infrastructures in native neighborhoods, preferring instead to use racial zoning and cordons sanitaires to segregate garrisons and white suburbs from epidemic disease; postcolonial regimes from Accra to Hanoi thus inherited huge sanitation deficits that few regimes have been prepared to aggressively remedy.”

This book follows Davis’s excellent analysis in “Late Victorian Holocausts” and “Monster at the Door”, giving us our most unblinkered look at the real breadth and depth of humanity’s crisis on this planet. Moreover, his analysis lays blame in ways that many U.S. or European thinkers tend to avoid, showing how Structural Adjustment Programs imposed by the “Washington consensus” has destroyed even the plans that were drawn up in the 1970s to begin modernizing the desperate, exploding cities then (Packer’s piece on Lagos is good on details for this)… a generation later the populations have doubled and tripled and the utter collapse of surrounding ecosystems, while dire and nearly insurmountable, rate barely an asterisk against our growing concerns for climate change and peak oil… and yet, they are all of a piece (and no, there’s not going to be any peace)…

So Keith shows us “how to die” in a world that is evidently quite committed to that end. But dying is given its real meaning by living, and that’s something a lot of locals are just as committed to… Saturday night was the release party at the SF Art Institute for V. Vale’s latest RESearch publication “Pranks 2,” featuring a number of old friends, from the Billboard Liberation Front and Cacophony Society to Jarico and the Cyclecide posse. After a humorous tour through various video clips of memorable pranks, we rode back across the city in time to catch the latest installment of “Live at Leeds” by the incomparable Rube Waddell. Here’s my first youtoob upload, not great video but you get a sense of the music, energy and scene at 22nd and Mission late Saturday night, a truly vibrant moment:

They haven’t played the corner for a couple of years so many of their long-time fans lapped it up (including me!)…

Sunday started out sunny and beautiful and I hosted a 4-hour bicycle tour of San Francisco’s long tradition of “dissent,” an admittedly vague category that can be applied to nearly anything. In spite of that, I found it possible to talk nonstop for practically four hours as we cruised from the Civic Center (home to the White Night Riot, the HUAC hearings, the 1877 Workingmen’s Party riot, and much more) to the old Cadillac dealership where civil rights protesters marched in 1963, to Washington Square Park where Italian anarchists agitated for birth control in 1915, to the shadow of the old freeway stump at Broadway and Sansome where the freeway revolt’s success is a stone’s throw from the 1890s effort to save Telegraph Hill from further quarrying… and on through the city to Pier 38 where the owners tried to break the 1934 waterfront strike, to China Basin where the Hearsts were forced to give away millions of dollars of food to “People In Need” in response to the SLA kidnapping and ransom demands for their daughter Patty Hearst, and much more…

Finally, to properly end this entry with this weekend’s bookend, “How to Live,” an amazing benefit show last night at CounterPULSE to raise money for our friend Liza Matlack who came up with fast-moving leukemia at the end of August, is now undergoing bone marrow transplanting, and will be out of commission for the next year. The community really came through for her, raising almost $19,000 last night! We were all amazed by that, and the performances were over the top too, raising the energy and support to such a height that she could hear and nearly touch it via the on-and-off cellphone contact the show kept up with her during the night. After a number of partial and incomplete conversations with friends over the past years about mutual aid and support, and finding it quite difficult to ever commit to any particular plan or set of agreements, it was very encouraging to feel the community at its most supportive and altruistic last night, ponying up an amazing amount of money along with heaps of love and concern…

How to Die, How to Live… the most basic questions that we always face, day in and day out, until we’re dust… nice to have a weekend that threw it all into such stark relief.

1 comment to Living and Dying in the City

  • frann mann

    oh how you make me miss home, dads. i saw an ad for how to die and tried to ignore it because i knew how much i would love it. sounds incredible. Maybe i’ll bite that nose/wire idea for my own nefarious purposes…

    effing great video of rube waddell, fantastic song! send me a few tracks from that cd i loved sometime.

    a bientot papas

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