From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And friends, let's begin. Open your bibles, please, to the Book of Exodus, chapter 32. God has just brought the Israelites out of Egypt. He's heard their prayers. They are not slaves anymore. They are in the desert. Moses is now up on Mt. Sinai, where God is giving him the ten commandments, and it is taking a while.
And although evidence of God's existence couldn't have been clearer just days and weeks before-- he split the Red Sea for them, and they marched across. He drowned Pharaoh's army for them. He punished the Egyptians with boils and locusts and frogs. Even though God had done all that, now they're in the desert, Moses is gone, and it's been a while. And in a certain way, in this moment, the Israelites are just like us, hapless idiots wandering around, wondering what their future will be, where their God is, if God even cares.
So they go to Moses's brother, Aaron, and ask him to make some gods. He collects some gold, makes the golden calf. God learns about it, and he is not happy. Biblical scholar Pauline Viviano picks up the story from there. God is going to kill everyone.
He tells Moses that he's going to wipe them out, and Moses intercedes. It's one of the greatest dialogs of the Bible because Moses pretty much convinces God not to destroy the people because if he does so, he'll ruin his reputation as a God. People will say this Yahweh God, he just brings people out in the desert to destroy them. So that if he wants to maintain his reputation, he better not wipe them out.
God apparently decides that he wants to protect his reputation. Or of course, being God, he has reasons for the whole thing that we will never understand. Whatever, in any case, God has mercy. Only 3,000 people are killed. The golden calf is destroyed. And this turns out to be a lesson that happens again and again in the Bible.
It's made over and over and over and over again throughout the biblical text. As soon as you get into the historical books of the Bible, the pervasive or the continuous sin of the people is that they worship other gods. And so constantly, every catastrophe is understood in terms of Yahweh punishing his people for their failure to worship him alone.
The idea that you would have a God who does not want you to worship other gods, which seems completely normal to us, as best as anybody can tell, at the time of the Bible, that is a brand new idea. The people in that part of the world at that time mostly seemed to worship lots of gods, gods who did not care who else you worshipped. And it turns out that it is not an accident that it's a golden calf in this story that's being worshipped in this key moment in the desert. Here's professor John Spencer, who wrote the passage on the golden calf in the Anchor Dictonary of Theology.
There were many traditions in the ancient Near East where people did indeed worship a calf or a golden calf or a bull. There sometimes were calves that were made out of bronze. There were sometimes calves that had either a silver or a gold alloy put over the outside of them. And probably the story was intended to set the traditions of the Israelite people, the ancient Israelite peoples, apart from those who did indeed worship the golden calf.
Indeed, at one point in the ancient Near East and ancient Israel, there was a division between the Israelites, between the northerners and southerners. And the northerners went off and continued to worship the golden calf.
But the Bible that we have is actually the sacred text of the southerners, who hadn't gotten along so great with the northerners. In the southerner's version of the story, the calf was clearly offensive to God. But imagine, for a moment, the story told from the perspective of the northerners.
At that period of time, the most normal thing would seem to be, well you worship a god who's in charge of fertility, and a god who's in charge of architecture and a god who's in charge of something else. So you have these multiple deities. From their perspective, you need all the help you can get. And worshipping a golden calf, that would be a fertility image, and fertility is what's going to be the most important thing settled in a land that is not very fertile.
Part of what the story of the golden calf is about is how, by and large, we want to worship false idols. It is a deep impulse within us. Pauline Viviano says that there are hundreds of years of religious icons and paintings and saints and all sorts of things that of course are not intended as idolatry, but that come perhaps from the same impulse, to see a representation of God right here in the world. All the way till today.
Now my family never did this, but I do know that some Italian families, they will bury a statue of St. Joseph upside down in the backyard if they want to sell their home. And the point is that if St. Joseph wants to get out of the ground, he will help in the selling of the home. It's that kind of use of an image that is actually being forbidden in the Old Testament. You're not supposed to control and manipulate the divine realm by the use of these images. But people need tangible things. We have medals. We have scapulars. We have all kinds of things because we are people enfleshed, and we like tangible signs. And many people have sold their house very quickly after burying the statue in the backyard.
Well, today on our radio program. people worshipping the golden calf today, bowing before worldly things when they should not. Our program today in three acts. Act One, Bowing Before the Famous, the story about an accidental exchange of phone messages, one of the most famous singers in America and hundreds of people looking to be healed.
Act Two, Thou Shalt Worship No Other Trousers Before Me. If you're enthralled to a pair of pants, is that necessarily such a bad thing? Is that so wrong?
Act Three, Don't Have a Golden Cow. A couple tries to get in on the San Francisco real estate boom, cash in, move up, with the sort of results you might expect even now, given the theme of today's program. Stay with us.
Act One: Bowing Before The Famous
Act One, Bowing Before the Famous. One way to measure the faith, the pure, old-fashioned faith that we put in celebrities, is to examine what we ask of them. This next story is a vivid and rare glimpse of that, which comes to us only through a kind of accident and a series of phone messages. Ann Hepperman tells the story.
I've known Josh since I was 16. We met at a wedding when my sister married his brother. Josh has been a Willie Nelson fan since he was seven. His mother loved the Redheaded Stranger album, and played it all the time. Josh remembers listening to it while he waxed the living room furniture for a dime. He's been to dozens of Willie Nelson concerts, and 20 years after he first heard his music, Josh decided to pay tribute to his idol in a rather unusual way.
I had a roommate that was moving out, and the phone was under his name. And so when we settled up the final phone bill and he moved away, we called the phone company to get the name changed and make sure the bill got to the right address. And the telephone service person asked me, "What name do you want your caller ID listed under?" And I thought to myself, hey, this is an opportunity to make that name say whatever I want. And so I said, "Let's have it say Willie Nelson." And she chuckled, and she said, "No really, what name do you want on your caller ID?" And I said, "Willie Nelson, that's one of my roomate's names." And so she did it. I never fathomed that it would create inbound calls.
Oh my gosh, your answering machine voice doesn't sound a bit like your singing voice. This is Melissa. Boy, I can't believe I found you. Really, I love every one of your songs. I have every album, every album. I cannot believe it. Melissa, that's my name.
I think that I wanted to do it not so people would think I was Willie Nelson, but so when I called out to other people, that on their caller ID it would show up and say, "Call from Willie Nelson." With the thought that I could somebody up and say, "Hey, I'm at Willie's house" and play a joke on my friends.
I'm calling this number again until I get you. Willie, I love you. I love you, Willie. I'm calling back. I am. Since I was 16, you've been the only man. I can't believe I found your number. I cannot believe it. You're probably singing somewhere right now. You're probably touring. I can't believe it. I'm going to find out where you are. Oh my God. Are you with Roland and the boys? I bet you are. If you get a call in the middle of the night, answer it. It's me. I can't wait to talk to you. I'm going to call back again till I get you. Love you, talk to you soon. Bye.
Hi, I'm not for sure, and I know this is just way on out there.
I was wondering if this was Willie Nelson. Willie Q. Nelson, country singer.
He's received some mail here, and it seems to be from an attorney.
My name is Lincoln Stamper, and I live in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Saskatchewan, in Big Valley.
Formerly known as Montana.
You rang me in 1991, and I want to return your call. I'm sorry I'm a little bit late.
If you're the singer, the blessed songwriter and singer, please call me.
If you pack your dinner bucket, you can walk up here and stay all night.
You don't probably remember me but I'm from a long time back. OK, here's your number.
And if you would like to call my number collect--
I was trying to get hold of Mr. Willie. Wasn't a big deal or anything. I just wanted to talk to him a few minutes if I could.
I got a little song called "Deep Ellum Blues." And I'm going to blow the furniture off on it while you sing it. We're wasting time. Call me back Willie if you hear. I love you since 1976, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
I'll talk to you later, bye.
Hello, this is a collect call from--
An inmate at the county jail. To accept charges, press 0. To refuse charges, press 1. To prevent calls from this facility, press 6.
Josh saved the messages because he didn't know what to do with them. He didn't know how to get them to Willie Nelson. He didn't have Willie Nelson's phone number. He tried to get it. He just coulnd't. Sometimes he was home when people called looking for the real Willie Nelson.
At first, I just said, no, this isn't the Willie Nelson. And I would tell them, hey, maybe you should look on the back of your latest album and send a letter to the address on the album cover. But then, once in a while, I would take the call as if, yeah, you've reached the house of the Willie Nelson. I would say, he's on the road right now, but is there anything I can help you with? And so we would get into a dialogue, and they would say, I can't believe that this is really the house of Willie Nelson. And they would ask, who are you? And I would say, I'm just a friend hanging out at the house.
Josh told me that over the three years he listed himself as Willie Nelson, he probably got some 500 calls. Peak times were around Willie Nelson's birthday, April 29, the Fourth of July, which is the time of Willie's annual picnic in Luckenbach, Texas, and Christmas. People called from nursing homes and mental hospitals. They called sober, and they called drunk. They called needing something they thought Willie Nelson could give them. A lot of people called needing something from Willie Nelson.
Hey, hi You don't know me but--
I'd like to talk to you a little bit about Thunder Child and if you have a couple of minutes to visit.
And I'm planning a music festival.
I could really use some help.
I need to find out about booking Willie for a big benefit.
It's going to be at the Grenderry High School.
Can you help us?
I have something amazing to show you.
See what you might charge us to come up here and put on a little show for us.
I need to talk big time, baby.
Please call. I keep trying.
I'm trying to book Willie Nelson as the headliner.
It's very important. I had some things that I wanted to talk to him about.
And also, I'm a songwriter, and if you're looking for any new material.
Please return the call. This is very, very important.
A few people just wanted Willie Nelson to remember the time they'd met.
I'm not sure I have the right number, and I don't want to seem like a groupie. But if this is Willie, this is Nonie, N-O-N-I-E. And I worked at a farm with Bobby, and you came in and then we went to my apartment. And I cooked you eggs and bacon, you and some of your band members. And I just haven't had the guts to call you because I didn't want to seem like a nut, but I would really like to say Hi to you and Bobby. Thank you.
Then there were the calls that went beyond general requests.
Hi, this is [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I just want to talk to you. I just want to talk to you. I want to hear Georgia Goin' Down. I just want to hear those songs. Please call me back.
My name is Karen, and I live in Abilene, Texas. And I have words for a song, and I don't want anything. I just want to hear it before I die. And I work. I have to work. I have written words for a song, and I know that people will listen if you sing it. I don't want anything because I'm dying. I just want you to sing, or fix it to where it can be sung.
I think that people connect him with kindness and gentleness, and they want to be soothed by him. And my feeling is that Willie probably gets more of these calls than your average celebrity because he is so kind and gentle and has that aura. But I don't know what to do when I hear a call like that. Those are the calls that make me glad that I am not myself a celebrity.
On three occasions, Josh tried to forward important sounding messages to Willie. He'd go to a concert, work his way backstage, and give the information to a security person. He never knew if the messages got through.
Willie, this is Kenny Morris. I live up in Gainseville, Texas. And I've been thinking a lot about you lately. And my mother is in the hospital and she has liver disease. My wife died three years ago of liver disease. And I've got some new ideas about how to help some people. And you probably have been feeling something pulling at you lately. So let's just talk about what this liver transplant program is about, and how we can administer to some of the patients that aren't as lucky as some of the other ones. And I feel something here. I feel like it's a new age. We need to figure out something to do. Thanks very much.
I was able to contact Kenny Morris, the man from this message. He was surprised and embarrassed to get the call. He hadn't told anyone about how he tried to reach Willie Nelson. When I told him Josh's phone listing was fake, he wasn't angry. He said it just seemed like a prank, although in his case, a rather cruel one. I asked him what he expected Willie Nelson to do when he received his call.
I expected a call back. I checked my answering machine. It wasn't that I was going to be crushed if he didn't call back, but I wouldn't want-- that was my only choice. And I thought that it might hit some kind of a heart chord when he heard that message.
I had this fantasy that he would come to the hospital and meet my mother. And that I knew that she didn't have long to live, and I thought that's probably the best thing I could give to her if Willie Nelson would have come in there and sang her a song. So it's jumping out in faith, trying to reach for something that's unattainable. But I still believe that you have to try.
Kenny says that looking back, he realizes just how crazy it was to think that Willie Nelson might come to his mother's bedside. But he says that back we called, that was a state of mind. He was grieving, and it made sense to him. Even though he didn't reach Willie Nelson, even though he never heard back, even though he actually had the wrong guy, he says the call might have done him some good.
It helped me. I mean that probably took up a bad evening from me. I was probably in a pretty lousy state. I had just left the hospital. I was just realizing that my mother's fixing to die of the same thing that my wife just died of. And finding that telephone number and being able to leave that message, it probably helped me. It probably gave me a little time for my mind to cool off that night and probably allowed me to get a night's sleep. Yeah, I think it helped.
I don't think Josh would ever admit this, but I think that he liked getting Willie Nelson's calls. But as Willie Nelson sings in the song, "My heroes have always been cowboys, who don't hold onto nothing too long."
I came home from work one day to find my answering machine light blinking like it frequently is. And hit play, and the first message that came out, immediately I recognized the voice.
Hi, yeah, this is Willie Nelson. And I was just, out of curiosity, wondering what your real name is, if it really is Willie Nelson, since there's not many of us left. Maybe you could give me a call. Thanks a lot. Have a nice day.
In a way, this is a fan's best and worst case scenario, both at the same time. Your idol wants to meet you, but he's mad at you. The nicest guy in North America hates one person, and it's you. I caught up with Willie Nelson after a concert in Baltimore for a very rushed interview in his tour bus. He just wanted to make one thing clear.
It's just none of this guy's business about what these people are telling me. Turn it around. How would you like for people to be picking up your messages? It's personal. It's just not anything I would like to see happen again.
When the two men eventually spoke on the phone, Josh apologized. Willie was polite and invited Josh to meet him after a show in Austin. Josh met him backstage. Willie was gracious and forgiving. He asked Josh to stop. And so he did. But for Josh, things were different.
I guess I preferred the relationship we had prior to that where it was more of fan and icon. I could still look up to him, and it was still an untouchable. I have tried to listen to the albums and not think about the phone number. And I've been somewhat successful. Certainly I got to meet him face to face. We got to talk and connect, but would I give that all up for a return to the fantasy? Maybe I would.
Unlike a lot of fans who called Josh's phone number, Josh never wanted anything from Willie Nelson. But by listing himself as Willie Nelson in the Austin phone book, he unwittingly put himself in a situation where he eventually was forced to see Willie Nelson as a man, not as a celebrity. And the fact is, Josh liked it better when he could just see Willie as a legend.
Ann Hepperman lives in Flagstaff.
[MUSIC - "HAND ON THE WHEEL" BY WILLIE NELSON]
Act Two: Thou Shalt Worship No Other Trousers Before Me
Act Two, Thou Shalt Have No Other Pants Before Me. How much power can a pair of trousers have over us? Kate met Joel in 1990. They were both working in a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. From the moment they met, Joel liked Kate, Kate liked Joel. But as things happen, it took awhile for each of them to figure this out, the mutual liking. and Kate spent a certain amount of time figuring out how to get in good with Joel.
I mean, the embarrassing thing is that basically I would check the schedule at the hospital each week, and look ahead to the seven days and find shifts when I was working with Joel. And then plan my outfits accordingly because I really wanted to look cute. And one of the things that I always relied on was that I had this pair of jeans that I thought looked really good on me. And I would purposely save the jeans, after laundry, to the day when I knew I was going to be working with Joel so that I would look real fine in front of Joel.
She did have this one pair of pants that I wasn't totally crazy about. The pants seemed not in fitting with the rest of her, and so it always threw me for a moment.
Describe the pants, please.
Well, they were acid washed.
They were awesome. I loved them. They were acid-washed denim, speckly white, tapered at the bottom at the ankle. And a little bit, not balloonish but a little puffy.
And they ballooned out in the thighs in a sort of jaud Paris way. And the really crazy part was what happened up near the top. They had this fold over front area.
The feature of the pants that I thought made them really amazing is that they had at the top-- you have to try to picture this. They came up pretty high on your waist, like a good, gosh, four inches above your belly button. But at the very top of them in the front, they rolled over into this flap, this big flap. And they were very cool. There was a lot going on in these jeans.
I don't want to pretend like I'm some incredible fashion maven. I'm not. But these were not a good-looking pair of pants.
What was the original context of these pants? I'm picturing a Boy George concert, maybe The Cure?
Exactly, yeah, you got the timing right. I bought them at this store. I remember now, I bought them at a store in Boston. I bought them probably late '80s or '87, something like that, in this store that was very just '80s Boston clothes, which is just a certain look. I mean it's definitely got a little of the Bananarama thing going on, a little but of Boy George. But I'm still dragging them out at this point because I'm thinking they look so good on me, and I like them so much.
So one of my strategies was I'd see if we were working evening shift together because an evening shift meant we were more likely, as a group of people, to go out for a beer after. And that would be a golden opportunity to wear the pants because you'd wear them, and then you're going to be out afterwards in a bar. And it's just like, I've got a whole evening of these pants at that point, and I know I'm going to be just golden.
Do you remember any key dates where you wore the pants?
A key date? The first night when it became apparent that Joel was interested in me was a night we had an evening shift. And then a bunch of us went to this bar, and the group started dwindling and dwindling and dwindling until it was left with just me and Joel. And I was wearing the pants that night. And it was a very successful night because that was the night when he was making eyes at me, and I could tell this is going to go somewhere. He's going to ask me out.
Really, so the actual night that you turned the corner with your husband and the father of your child, you were wearing the pants?
Yes I was. That's right.
That was the pivotal night on which your life turned from what it was to what it is.
That's right, that's right. Well said. Joel and I began dating, and I'm just very, very happy at this point because he's just a wonderful person. And I can't believe it's worked out, and we start dating.
So we're going along, and we're working together and dating. And it's reached-- I'd say we're at about four months at this point. So we've been dating for about four months, but it's at that point where relationships get where I think it's not super serious yet, but you know that this is going to keep going and this has a lot of potential. You're both clearly very into each other. So we're at that point, about four months, and Joel was actually over at my apartment.
Kate's in her bedroom at her apartment, going through her clothes and figuring out which ones she should keep and which ones she should give to Salvation Army.
And I opened up my drawer where I keep my pants and lifted the denim, the stonewashed pants out of the drawer, not at all because I was considering sending them to Salvation Army, but only because I had to move them to find the pants on the bottom of the drawer that of course I might send to Salvation Army. And as I pulled the pants out the drawer, Joel, sitting on the bed, sat there a minute and cleared his throat and said--
"You sure you want to keep those pants?" And she stops and looks at me and says, "Well, yeah. Of course, I mean I think I do, why? And so I say, "Well, you know, I just think those pants are maybe a little bit out of style now."
He said, "Well, do you think maybe they're just not in so much style anymore?"
And as the words are coming out, I see Kate's face flushing, becoming pinker and then red.
And I was like, what?
She's holding them in her hand, and looking at them, and looking at me, and looking back down at them. And I realize these aren't just another pair of pants. These were the special pants. And then i mean it's a very uncomfortable situation for me because a, again, I'm not a particularly fashionable guy myself so I probably don't have any right saying this to anybody. But then b, this is the woman who I've really fallen in love with. And this is one of the first moments when I've had to say to her, there's something about you, or something connected to you that I don't like.
I couldn't believe it that these pants that I'd been purposely wearing in front of him for so many times and I thought had done such a good job for me-- and he was now saying I should put them in a bag and put them on the curb, basically.
You thought that the pants had actually done a job on him. You thought the pants were part of your arsenal and part of your power over him.
I knew that they were part of what made me look foxy. And there he was basically-- four months into it where it had worked, we were together, and he was saying the pants are awful.
You know we're doing our show this week on the idea of the golden calf, the story of the golden calf from the Bible. And I feel like that story raises this question of, is the act of worshiping something, does that have value in and of itself even if you're worshipping the wrong thing?
Right, well, I think when I talk about it with you, it makes me think yes, because by worshipping the pants, they gave me confidence, which gave me, I think, some degree maybe of attractiveness to this person who ultimately I was trying to attract. Because clearly when I was walking around in those pants, I feeling pretty confident. I thought I looked great.
And you felt that way because of the pants?
At times, yeah. Haven't you ever worn something and just thought, I look good right now?
Do you think you could have gotten Joel without the pants?
Wow, gosh. I hate to even have to think about it Ira. I don't know.
You think the pants were that big of a factor?
I don't know. I don't know. I mean it's been 11 years, but maybe those pants had something to do with it. I'd have to ask him. I'd have to ask him.
I would have fallen for her if she were showing up in Garanimals everyday, say, or leisure suits or something. I mean as anybody knows who's ever fallen in love, you idolize the person you're falling in love with. And in those early days particularly, they feel perfect to you. And then you start asking yourself all sorts of questions. All sorts of insecurities come up. Why would this perfect person necessarily fall for me and accept me and want to be with me? But then when you discover a chink in that person's perfection, when you find a flaw, in this case Kate had bad taste at least in this one pair of pants, then it somehow makes you feel a little bit more comfortable. You feel like, maybe I do have a chance here because God, those pants had a chance with her.
Let me read to you from the book of Exodus. Moses' reaction when he sees the calf, and the dancing actually. There's the calf and there's dancing. He gets rid of the new ten commandments, the brand new, freshly written ten commandments, breaks them at the foot of the mountain. And then in verse 32 of Exodus, says "And he took the calf that they had made and burnt it with fire and ground into powder and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it."
If I have to think of that happening to those jeans, I'm going to be really depressed. They didn't deserve that. And I really wouldn't want to drink them. And of course, you know what I did, right?
I threw them away. I gave them to the Salvation Army.
Did you regret it?
I kind of did because I thought, I shouldn't have done that. I shouldn't have-- if we had been going out for a year and he said it, I probably wouldn't have done it. It was that four-month thing when you're still probably going to do the thing to please the person.
Whereas a year, you just are like, you're on your own here.
It's like, ah, I'll still wear these pants. I would probably still be wearing them today.
How lucky for him that he got you during that brief window.
He was in the window. He didn't even know it.
When you would actually do what he wanted.
Exactly, exactly. I'd be sitting in them right now.
You miss the jeans.
You're darn right I do. Those were a great pair of jeans, and they're gone. 1990, I threw them away. Someone maybe has them, though. I recycled them to the Salvation Army so hopefully-- you know what I hope? That they brought some power to somebody else.
I don't know. I'm just trying to picture who would have bought them from the Salvation Army.
Somebody might have picked them up.
Like maybe some local theater company was doing an '80s version of Godspell.
They're doing The Breakfast Club at a dinner theater, and someone needed to wear them for the Ally Sheedy role. Look, all I'm saying is, if I still had them, you might still see me walking around in them today. They're going to come back, by the way.
Kate and Joel live in New York City with their now 12-week-old daughter, who they named Adeline after some debate.
Can you imagine the conversations with Joel when we were picking names? Think of it, the taste issues.
Were there other strong contenders or was Adeline a sweep?
Yeah, there was one I wanted that he didn't want. He thought it was tacky.
Let's hear it.
Now I'm embarrassed, but I like the name Tatum. I'm stuck in the '80s movies. Is that an '80s thing?
I would say that.
Coming up, the eternal question, money versus pee, which is more powerful? In a minute. I know all of our three year old listeners are going to stay around for that-- from Public Radio International-- when our program continues.
Act Three: Don't Have A Golden Cow
It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course we bring you some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, The Golden Calf, stories of people worshipping false gods, and whether that is always such a bad thing. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Don't Have a Golden Calf. What show about worshiping false gods could be complete without a story about money, or real estate, or hipness? Fortunately for us, this next story is about all three. Iggy Scam tells the tale.
When I first moved to the city, The Chronicle had run a story about the donut shop in the corner, the one with the huge sign that proudly proclaimed, "Open 25 Hours." The story in the paper called the corner where the donut shop was the epicenter of crime, and they meant for all of San Francisco. It was a staggering idea. I would sit in the donut shop and try to imagine crime, disturbance, discontent radiating outward across the entire city from that very spot 25 hours a day. Years later, I moved into my friend Jimmy's house on the alley behind the donut shop and got to sit back and watch it all.
On San Carlos Street, there was a daily sweet sad procession, a never ending back and forth that we could watch from our steps. There was the sound of man fruit bar carts up the alley, clanging their bells. And there was that tense, menacing no sound of cops cruising slowly the wrong way down the alley. The girl down the street that I had a crush on would walk, short sleeves in the Mission sun, smiling sweetly on her way to morning coffee at 1:00 PM. And Tony the drug dealer would walk the other way looking exhausted, sagging against a palm tree with gang tags carved into its weathered trunk.
My favorite time on San Carlos was 6:00 AM, just before the street woke up. Staring down the alley past the tired old Victorians and shoes dangling from telephone wires, I could imagine 10, 20, 100 of 6:00 AM's all exactly like this one, yawning and stretching into the past. It was a working class street, a ghetto alley, a place with problems that money wouldn't solve, but for now, asleep and dreaming.
But the Mission was changing. Streets that had been called down and out were now called green, and the Mission's turd and graffiti motif is now fashionable. Termite-ridden, drafty old Victorians were bought at exorbitant prices, not to live in but to immediately resell like internet stocks. Everyone in San Francisco had a dream that somehow hinged on real estate. The stock market was pumping so much easy cash into the neighborhood, the good times were so good, that the dream even had a name, Cleaning Up the Mission.
Developers and slamming histories congratulated themselves, believing that the ordinary greed was actually a moral force, a rising tide to lift all boats. Our landlord up on the hill had bought into that dream too. Our landlord, who I'll call Maurice, was a dour-looking, henpecked little guy, a self-employed electrician who happened to own a couple houses. When I think of Maurice, I always think of him with his sad, black mustache and his tools, standing in the driveway as my roommate Jimmy came home from the flea market with his huge, green, grafitti-covered van.
Maurice always seem to be thinking, how did this happen to me? He had bought our house eight years before and inherited Jimmy as his tenant. San Francisco's rent control laws are a stronger "'til death do us part" legal bind than marriage. And by law, Jimmy and Maurice would go to their graves with Jim still paying a sweet 1988 rent.
In the 12 years Jim had lived in San Carlos, he'd become as much a part of the street as the street sign itself. Everybody knew Jimmy. Even the gang kids dressed in blue shook their heads and laughed when the green van drove by. Jim was a self-employed scavenger who sold trash at flea markets, gave away more of it to anyone who asked. Homeless guys came by for clothes and blankets. Jim's friends came by looking for baseball gloves, or Super 8 projectors, or a PA for a protest at Civic Center, and he usually hooked everybody up.
He was also a long-time neighborhood bartender and had a band. Just about everybody in the Mission had either bought a beer from Jimmy or played drums in his band.
Even though the Mission district real estate goldmine was becoming national news, Maurice never seemed ambitious enough to try to evict Jimmy and cash in. But he was married to Claire, a sour, always sneering woman with upwardly mobile aspirations of her own. Claire hated Jimmy. It was easy to imagine her up there on the hill working on Maurice, telling him if he was any kind of a real man, he'd get rid of that wing-nut trash salesman tenet of his, and they could sell the house and be rich. Or maybe she wanted to evict us and move into our house in the trendy, up and coming Mission that now had valet parking. We knew that Maurice's first wife had left him several years ago for another woman. Maybe Maurice thought that if he got left behind in the get rich quick housing market that Claire would leave him too.
Whatever he thought, our house was now something else to him, a symbol of some brighter, well-heeled future. It was a chance, a chance for a henpecked electrician to finally hit it big, to be where the action was, to not be a small-time landlord anymore. And all they would have to do would be to get rid of us.
We always paid our rent on time and had no problems with Maurice. It would be nearly impossible for him to legally evict us. So Maurice hired a notoriously ruthless and shark-like eviction trial lawyer, a man so stereotypically vile that when tenants' rights protesters staged demonstrations on his lawn, he would come out and greet them, waving and yelling smile as he videotaped them in action. Maurice's hotshot lawyer had never lost a case. He had a secret weapon, a little known law called the Ellis Act that allows landlords to evict their tenants if the landlord takes their property off the rental market forever.
After they evict the tenants, the landlords can sell the property, move into it or turn it into a condo, but there is one catch. If the property is re-rented any time in the next 10 years, it has to be offered first at the old rent to the evicted tenants. This was not a big deal for Maurice's lawyer though because most people evicted under the Ellis Act didn't speak English and didn't know their rights. And the rest would move away and not fight it.
The lawyer served eviction notices to us and our downstairs neighbors. Within a month, the neighbors had taken a settlement and left the city. But Jimmy decided to hire a lawyer and fight it in court. As long as the lawsuit went on, we would continue to live in the house and Maurice could not collect rent. Maurice and Claire were confident though. They sold their house on the hill and moved to the Mission. In fact, they moved in right downstairs.
The first month was awful. Jim said he could hear them through his walls giggling and having sex in the bathtub, something I did not want to have to imagine. They were clearly enjoying their new lifestyle in the resurgent Mission, playing the part of wealthy real estate movers and shakers. Claire had taken to smoking cigars, and she would stand on the porch and sneer with great satisfaction at us, arms folded, saying things like, "Have any luck finding a new place yet, Jim? Better start looking."
They would have their one friend over and talk with him loudly in front of the house about how they would soon be rid of us. But I actually felt sorry for Maurice. The Mission was no place for this kind of hubris, and I think he knew it. The electrician was in over his head, and he was about to meet George.
George was the homeless guy who slept under our stairs. But to say George was just some homeless guy would be to say Shakespeare was just some writer. George had reinvented the role. With his trench coat and thick, greasy beard and wild mass of jet black hair, George was more of an ominous presence, a force, not so much a harbinger of doom, but a reminder that you were doomed. a feeling like a hangover that had always been part of San Carlos Street and always would be.
While everyone else in town was worried about eviction, George wandered the streets unconcerned because he was, in fact, in charge. He slept anywhere he wanted at any time of day. He would go to the pizza place on the corner, put his feet up on the sidewalk table and throw his head back, surveying his domain through always squinting eyes. He would not buy a thing. Instead, he had the power to assess taxes on passersby. If you had a six pack, George would always get a cold one off of you. If you gave him a cigarette, George would stroke his beard and yell, "Give me two."
George also left massive turds in front of our garage door every morning. There was nothing you could really do about it, but he was pretty good about going in a bucket if you put one out for him. Since Maurice was new downstairs, we decided to see if he could figure this out. Maurice had lived on Bernal Hill, a nice neighborhood full of kindly older lesbians where everyone always seemed to be out walking their dogs. It was a pretty part of town with trees and views. Nothing there could have prepared him for George.
We would sit and drink beer on the steps and watch Maurice clean up after George. After a week or so of this, he installed one of those annoying security floodlights that turn on if anyone walks within, say, 100 yards if it. We were blinded anytime we walked up our steps at night. I found that if you just unscrewed the bulb a little bit, it wouldn't work. But one day George came by, and Jimmy asked him what he thought of the new light. George said, "Oh, I love those things. I can make sure I have all my things together before the light goes out and I go to sleep." After that, we quit unscrewing it.
The case dragged on, and weeks with George stretched into months. Maurice and Claire's friend came over less and less, and then not at all. The bill from the hotshot attorney was mounting, and the flood of money into the neighborhood wasn't exactly cleaning up the Mission. No, if a rising tide was going to lift all boats in the Mission, that tide would not be money, but urine. The most visible nightly example of this so called economic revitalization was that the people pissing in our garden at night had on more expensive clothes. I'd come home to find giggling drunk girls in those huge shoes with their pants down peeing away in their driveway while their boyfriends drunkenly tried to pick all of Jim's flowers to give to them.
I saw people mastering the art of pissing with one hand and talking on a cellphone with the other. The Latino working class bars in the Mission had all been systematically closed by the police because the patrons sold crack and got in fights with each other. They'd been replaced by hipster bars where the patrons all did coke and then went out to try to fight us. I'd see leather-coated, side burn-wearing guys scoring heroin at 16th and Mission and think, damn, it's like these people couldn't wait to move to the ghetto and lose their minds.
Maurice, apparently frustrated, next turned against the very thing that might make him rich, the property itself. Possibly inspired by the high-ceilinged, white-walled lofts that all the kids were into these days, Maurice started gutting the downstairs interior, ripping out the solid redwood cabinets and the counter tops that had been constructed over 100 years ago out of trees brought over on ships from New Zealand. The craftsmanship had stood up through three major earthquakes, but it would not survive a Mission real estate craze.
The legal case had by this time dragged on so long that it was no longer clear what winning might mean. Maurice and Claire were always locked inside now, their security alarm evilly protecting them from the epicenter of crime of a mere 24 hours a day. A bunker-like paranoia emanated from the downstairs unit. One day, our phone wasn't working so we had a guy from the phone company come look at it. "Well, here's your problem," he yelled in disbelief as he lifted our grey box. Maurice and Claire were tapping our phone.
Later, a small dispute over parking in the driveway ended with Claire punching Jimmy's girlfriend in the head. Soon after that, Claire apparently moved away, curiously being escorted by a younger man who carried her bags and opened the car door for her while she gazed longingly up at him. No more sex in the bathtub for Maurice. After that, we almost never saw Maurice, except when he came home from work and slammed his door.
And as for Jimmy, the block he had lived on for 12 years had changed considerably in a short time. Three Latino families down the block had been evicted under the Ellis Act, and now their former houses stood empty because they were more valuable that way. One was surrounded by rubble where the owner had tried to turn the Victorian into a loft but had run out of money.
Some of our friends had just given up and moved away, including the girl I had a crush on, who took her sleepy smile back to Louisiana. There were no weekend garage sales anymore at Jim's, and no one really came by to hang out on the steps. No one had anything good to talk about anyway, just more eviction news.
After nearly a year, the judge ruled against Jimmy, and we had to move out. Maurice's winning deposition was a monumental, four-page list of over 70 complaints against us, a staggering document of an almost Kurtz-like collapse that Mission life had caused in Maurice. He accused us of having our house open at all hours day and night so that homeless people could just come in and wash their clothes. One innocent time when Claire found Jim and two male friends working on the car in the garage was described as an orgy.
In another complaint, Maurice accused us of, quote, "dragging heavy items across the floor all night in order to tape record the sounds." Well, it was easy to see why the judge had ruled against us. Maurice was just trying to do what he wished with his own property when he had suddenly found himself at the center of a sordid and vast avant-garde homosexual conspiracy, a Mission netherworld where the unclean and unhoused traded sex for laundry at twisted, 4:00 AM art shows. I said, "Man, I only wished we were that cool."
The day we moved out was the only time that I ever actually saw Maurice's famous hotshot attorney. Everyone was there, waiting for the sheriff to come serve the final papers. Maurice came out to the top of his steps to wait. Claire finally pulled up, chauffeured by the younger man. And the lawyer pulled up in his SUV. He was the only one smiling. He strode confidently to the top of the stairs looking out into the alley, grinning as if he were about to address a crowded plaza full of supporters. After all, he'd still never lost a case, and he'd built a personal fortune on the one tried and true San Francisco idea that went all the way back to the first gold rush, the principle that the town was founded on. You don't get rich panning for gold. You get rich selling Levi's to all the fools who show up here every day to pan for gold.
The Sheriff finally came, papers in hand, and the lawyer led him up into our old house. But a moment later, they came out confused. They couldn't find Jimmy to serve him the papers. For the first time, the lawyer was irritated. He turned to us and growled, "Where the hell did he go?" Just then, Jimmy came out of the house next door and casually said, "Oh, I'll take those. Thanks."
See, a couple days before, Jimmy had worked out a deal with the landlord next door. And now, Jimmy was moving into a room in the very next house. Jim said, "Hey Ig, can you give me a hand with these plants?" And Maurice and Claire watched in stunned disbelief as we dragged the planter boxes across the driveway to Jim's new home, a mere 10 feet away. They knew they wouldn't be able to rent the house to anyone but Jimmy for 10 years, and he would be right next door watching.
Maurice stood at the top of the steps looking out across San Carlos Street, a street with problems that money couldn't fix. How could he have known what would happen next? That within a year, the real estate boom would bust, that the stock market would flounder, lofts would stand vacant all over town. How could he have known that in a few months, he would move out of the house that was his dream, and that the house would soon be covered in graffiti and trash, that the driveway would be full of homeless guys sleeping on couches, and that George would move to the top of the stairs? How could he know that the get rich quick scheme would fail, and that he would be unable to even sell the house because no buyer would want to rent it to Jimmy at a 1988 rent.
I don't know, but from the look on his face that day at the top of the steps, I could tell that Maurice did know. He'd figured it out all at once as his high-paid lawyer got in his SUV and sped away, as the younger man opened the car door for Claire and they drove off too. The house was all his. Somewhere George was stirring for his morning rounds.
Iggy Scam lives in San Francisco.
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The center of a sordid and vast avant-garde homosexual conspiracy.
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