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Lost in San Francisco
No one will catch you if you fall
Finally! At long last, I joined the crew at Ruthless for a podcast about politics, media, Trump, and why bad consultants keep failing upwards. You can listen here. It was a good conversation, and despite that or perhaps because of it, I’m sure we’ll be sniping at each other again soon enough. Thin skins should avoid politics.
I hope you enjoy The Transom, and that you’ll consider upgrading your subscription to paid to never miss an edition.
The San Francisco Doom Loop
On Market, near 6th, a security guard stood in front of Blick art supply. He’d just ejected a man who had been smoking fentanyl inside the store, a man his bosses suggested he should refer to as “an unhoused guest.”
The guard, who described himself to me as “a cis white male who stands six feet tall,” had previously worked security one block east at the Anthropologie. But that, he said, was just for show. He wasn’t even supposed to try to stop shoplifters who, at other stores on Market Street, filled up bags, or sometimes even suitcases, with food they needed to feed themselves or their families or merchandise to sell on the black market on Mission Street. But here, the guard told me, his co-workers’ pay depended on sales. His job was to make it tolerable for customers to shop.
Elsewhere in San Francisco, wisteria was blooming, crazy fragrant blooms, like lilac on MDMA. At Ocean Beach, runners stopped to marvel at an osprey hovering over the surfers. In Hayes Valley, recently rebranded Cerebral Valley, 20-somethings filled the AI hacker houses, eager to have the classic SF experience: getting rich while thinking they were saving the world. But none of that beauty, none of that wealth, was the guard’s reality. This stretch of Market Street was this three-block zone, four lanes wide, where he stood, alone, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., five days a week. The job was taking a toll.
A note to my fellow San Franciscians: I’m sorry. I know. There’s always some story in the east-coast press about how our city is dying. San Franciscians hate—HATE—these pieces. You’re a stooge and a traitor for writing one. When I set out reporting, I wanted to write a debunking-the-doom piece myself. Yet to live in San Francisco right now, to watch its streets, is to realize that no one will catch you if you fall. In the first three months of 2023, 200 San Franciscans OD’ed, up 41 percent from last year.“It’s like a wasteland,” the guard said when I asked how San Francisco looked to him. “It’s like the only way to describe it. It’s like a video game — like made-up shit. Have you ever played Fallout?”
I shook my head.
“There’s this thing in the game called feral ghouls, and they’re like rotted. They’re like zombies.” There’s only so much pain a person can take before you disintegrate, grow paranoid, or turn numb. “I go home and play with my wife, and we’re like, ‘Ah, hahahaha, this is SF.’”
The city continued looping. The Whole Foods on Mid-Market closed a year after it had opened. People kept threatening employees, melting down in aisles, OD’ing in the bathroom. What could you do?
On April 19, Governor Gavin Newsom took a “surprise” walk around the Tenderloin. “Hey, Gavin, tell me what you’re going to do about the fentanyl epidemic!” a man from the neighborhood shouted. “I want to know what you’re going to do about the fentanyl epidemic.”
Newsom kept walking and said, “You tell me what we need to do.”
Two days later, he called in the National Guard.
Almost certainly it was a political stunt. But did it even matter? Something needed to change. A poll from the controller’s office found that San Franciscans felt less safe in the city than we had in 27 years. And of course we did. Everywhere you looked, you saw it billboarded: The social contract had ruptured, and we’d ceased to believe we could fix it. The city often seemed to operate like an incompetent parent, confusing compassion and permissiveness, unable to maintain boundaries, producing the exact opposite result of what it claimed to want.
“We just need to make people go back to those offices,” a silver-haired man at a cocktail party in Pacific Heights told me, as if those with power could make it 2019 again. That man, like every adult there, had a high-school student in formal attire in the garden on their way to prom. All those kids’ lives were turning as they were meant to turn: up and away. What were the rest of us doing here?
I sat downtown and talked to Simon Bertrang, executive director of SF New Deal, about his idea for Vacant to Vibrant, a new program in partnership with the mayor’s office. His group was giving grants for people to pop up bookstores and art galleries and dance clubs and restaurants downtown, and they’d be clustered “to create a boom loop,” Bertrang joked, knowing the pun was cheesy. Permanent renewal was a long way off. Nobody wanted to sign a long-term lease. But the idea of the bookstore and the pop-up restaurant and people enjoying something novel in the city I loved and ached for filled me with relief. It filled everyone with relief. Urban planners know that relief is a mirage. There’s a 30 percent vacancy rate now. That number is going to go up — up a lot. We’re going to need major work, maybe even on the scale of the commission that revitalized downtown Manhattan after 9/11. We need museums, a university, people, community. We need a shared project. We don’t have that now.
Meanwhile, the Blick security guard kept texting me videos. He needed someone to see what he was seeing out there, on his patch of Market Street, between Fifth and Sixth. Did I know how the black markets worked? Had I walked down Market Street at night? Did I know that some of the street addicts were rotting, literally: their decomposing flesh attracting flies. The Anthropologie, where he used to work, announced it would close. “What it really feels like living in San Francisco is that you’re lying to yourself,” he said. “Oh, I live in San Francisco. It’s so nice. When you walk by the junkies you’re like, They don’t exist. they don’t exist. You’re lying to yourself.”
A week later, a security guard, working at a Walgreens a block from Blick, shot and killed a 24-year-old. He would tell Jonah Owen Lamb at the San Francisco Standard, “It’s a lot to deal with. It’s a lot of pressure. A person can only take so much … When you are limited to certain options, something will happen … Who has my back? Nobody?”
RFK Jr’s Quest
RFK Jr. clearly believes he is carrying on his father’s legacy of opposing institutional wrongdoing. But there is a fundamental difference between him and the previous generation of Kennedys. Despite their individual scandals and tragedies, they were all about possibility and hope, or at least the appearance of it. This was the family of Camelot, the moonshot project, the dream that would never die. They channeled the hopes and fears of a confident, if turbulent, postwar America, that believed things were getting better.
RFK Jr.’s message is that things are getting worse. Where the previous Kennedys typified the go get ’em ethos of the television age, RFK Jr.’s message evinces the pessimism and paranoia of the digital one. Here is the Kennedy our era deserves. His vision is ultimately a negative one, of a society on the brink of total capture by nefarious actors. And it reflects the mood of an increasingly vocal number of Americans who have lost faith in institutions and hope for the future. RFK Jr. probably can’t win. But his campaign could show how much that loss of faith, especially since Covid, has changed the political landscape.
I spoke to Kennedy on the phone the week after the launch. First I had texted Kucinich, to see if he could help arrange the interview. Then I texted Kennedy, who responded almost immediately: “You can call now.” At that moment, Kucinich called me and explained that he would recommend I be given the interview. He would coordinate with the press team and make sure everyone was across this. He did not know that the candidate had already decided to grant it, but I appreciated his enthusiasm. (Then I saw that Kucinich had texted me a presumably accidental pocket-recorded audio clip of a woman saying to him “I don’t think she’s friendly.”) Kennedy was between obligations, heading to New Hampshire the next day to meet union leaders and give a talk about Covid vaccine mandates at Dartmouth, and was multitasking by eating lunch at the same time he spoke to me. His lunch was avocado salad, white bean soup and risotto with clams. I asked him about the process of writing his speech. “I never wrote it,” Kennedy said. “I just said it.” Did he sketch out the structure, at least? “I did the structure in my head,” he said. “And then I just started talking.”
It would be logical for Kennedy to base his rationale for running on the uptick in anti-vaccine sentiment during the Covid years, but he downplayed this aspect. “I think most Americans are more interested in pocketbook issues and in freedom issues, and in restoring our democracy,” he said. “People in this country are desperate. They feel this system is rigged against them. I think they’re thinking more about, you know, just how to feed their families and make ends meet than they are about vaccines.”
Soul-Searching After Jordan Neely
What should we think about—what should we do in response to—the death of Jordan Neely? The homeless man who died on May 1 while another subway passenger held him in a chokehold presents Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times with a clearcut case. “The Demonization of the Homeless Has Vile Consequences,” he titled his column.
For Bouie, those consequences include Neely’s death, but also the reaction to it: some people being more sympathetic to the man who put Neely in that chokehold than to Neely himself. The idea that the man who held Neely—later identified as Daniel Penny, a 24-year-old ex-Marine from Long Island—may have been justified in his actions is the result of “a vicious campaign of demonization and hostility toward the homeless,” writes Bouie. Fox News and other media use reports of attacks committed by homeless people to portray them as “inherently unstable, violent and dangerous.”
Had our minds not been poisoned by such propaganda, according to Bouie, then the people on Neely’s subway car, and those around the city and country making sense of the story, would not have overinterpreted and overreacted to the threat Neely posed. He was behaving in a “hostile and erratic manner,” Bouie allows. Other reports say that Neely was “screaming in an aggressive manner” before Penny (and at least one other passenger) tackled him, and that he was saying that he was tired, didn’t care if he went to jail, and was ready to die.
Such behavior, especially in a place as confined as a subway car, makes many people feel “anxious, uncomfortable and even afraid,” Bouie writes. But “fear is not a license to use force.” “There is nothing Neely did, as far as we know, that gave anyone in that car the right to restrain him.” Bouie later developed this point on Twitter. Based on video he saw and accounts he read, Bouie concedes that Neely was “acting erratic and hostile” but maintains that he was “not poised to attack anyone.” From that premise, he concludes that the prudent and decent course for passengers on Neely’s car was . . . to do nothing. In “an instance of discomfort and fear but in the absence of imminent danger,” we can “show restraint and forbearance.”
Rahnuma Tarannum, a 25-year-old data analyst who lives in Brooklyn, dissents. She told the Times that her feeling of vulnerability on the subway has led her to carry pepper spray when she travels. Quoted in a story about reactions to Neely’s death, Tarannum said, “Because police are not doing their job, that’s why the citizens of New York are taking the law into their own hands. Somebody has to do something.”
Though not responding to Bouie’s column, Tarannum was making two points that cut against his argument. First, she indicates that her apprehensions about traveling on the subway are based on experience and observation. She would, presumably, reject reassurances that things aren’t really that bad, that her concerns are the overwrought consequence of discourse about the homeless and subway violence that, instead of being serious, is “sensationalist, raving, [and] pornographic,” in the words of journalist John Ganz.
Are New York’s subways safer, its homeless population less dangerous, than is generally believed? Than Tarannum and, perhaps, Daniel Penny seemed to think? The Times pointed out in February that the rate of violent felonies on the subway system was twice as high in 2022 as it had been in 2019. The system saw ten people murdered in 2022, compared with an average of two per year from 2015 through 2019. On the other hand, the Times pointed out that even after this increase, there were 1.2 violent crimes for every 1 million subway rides, which works out to about the likelihood of being injured during a two-mile automobile trip. Readers deliberating how much reassurance to derive from such statistics may reflect on the Times’s utter lack of such restraint and sobriety following the death of George Floyd in 2020, when the paper made no attempt to caution against sweeping generalizations based on the anomalous death of an unarmed black man in police custody.
As for the danger posed by the homeless, Bouie says that although “homeless people have committed acts of violence,” they are “far more likely” to be its victims rather than its perpetrators. This formulation is consistent with a subset of the homeless population committing violent acts against other homeless people. In one 2019 tragedy, for example, one homeless man beat four others to death as they slept on the streets of Chinatown. One of the reasons many homeless people decline to stay in shelters in favor of living on the streets is to avoid exposure to violence committed by some of the other people who end up in the shelters.
It’s crucial then, for homeless New Yorkers and New Yorkers in general to differentiate homeless people who pose a danger from ones who do not. Given the difficulty of making this assessment correctly, and the grave dangers that can result from getting it wrong, Bouie’s assurances—after the fact and removed from the scene—that Jordan Neely was “not poised to attack anyone” and therefore constituted no “imminent danger,” come off as epistemologically arrogant. In a world where homeless people on the subway who act erratic and hostile while screaming about how they are ready to die were always scrupulous about giving clear, ample warning before they commit a violent act, Bouie’s conclusions might deserve respect.
Items of Interest
is like failure. It
starts to sing at 5:30
in the morning. I
have been awake all
night, not writing, and I stop
to harken to it.