Wednesday, September 26, 2007

What City Do You People Live In?

I like dcblogs new little brain tickler at the top of the page each day. Nice addition!

So I’ll devote this posting to a response to DC’s not quite an urban paradise yet, but we’re getting there.

My response is to the original post(s) at American Prospect by Ezra Klein and the comments specific to DC.

My first response: what city do you people live in? Cause it ain’t MY city.

The amount of mis-information floating around in the original posts and the comments is astounding, such as:

"...a plurality of [DC's] population is well educated and in many ways upper middle class, while far more of its population is poor and not well educated..."


(First, I think the word “plurality” is misused: you’re either well educated, or you’re not.)

Some facts: DC Poverty Rate: 18.3%; Percentage of DC residents with a BA or higher: 39.1%
(From the U.S. Census) Please don’t comment that 18.3% is high. It is, but it is not a majority. And 39.1% is also high. Extremely.

DC has a bad rap as being a poor, crime-ridden place. There, of course, is a racial overtone to that bad rap, since DC is 57% black. But the statistics don’t back up the rap.

The black middle class in DC is HUGE, but they live in places few white people have ever heard of, because nothing ever happens there to make it onto the evening news and they don’t have any trendy night spots: Riggs Park, Michigan Park, Brightwood, Hillcrest, Fort Dupont, Fort Totten, etc. (Also in places you’ve heard of, like Capitol Hill and Anacostia and Bloomingdale and Ladroit Park and Shaw.) These people may or may not have college degrees (although many do), but they all have good, stable jobs (either blue or white collar), or own businesses. It’s true that some of these neighborhoods don’t have many “coffee shops,” but neither did McLean, Bethesda, Silver Spring, or Arlington until a decade ago.

The symbolic "coffee shop" comes down to culture: 20 years ago, a coffee shop was a diner. You went there for breakfast and a cup of coffee and sat at the counter. The United States has never had a tradition of cafes, or tea houses, or tea rooms, or hookah bars, or Hamams, or bath houses, or any other kind of "third place" (save neighborhood bars), except in ethnic enclaves, where people brought their old world traditions with them. (And by “old world”, I’m including Asia, the Middle East, and Africa: check out the coffee ceremony at Dukem some time.) To claim coffee shops are white is silly. They are a new phenomenon in most of the U.S., and are slowly spreading everywhere. At most, they are bell-weathers of new prosperity, which says little about race. By the way, Mocha Hut, Love Cafe, and Jolt-n-Bolt are all minority owned businesses. To add to the confusion, many of the new places on U Street (that cater to “Yuppies”) are owned by immigrants, minorities, or, brace yourself, partnerships consisting of whites and minorities together! How does this fit into the rich/poor/race/class/new-comer/old-resident/owner/renter/working class/yuppie calculus that so frustratingly dominates such discussions?

Ezra Klein seems to think that a city government conjures up things like coffee shops (and other amenities that make a city “livable”). While a city government can encourage local businesses in a variety of ways (something I think DC does a poor job of), the “free market” plays the largest role in how a city develops.

Moving on: the idea that DC doesn't have any University ties is also absurd. The city is full of Howard lawyers, doctors, and dentists who stuck around, as well as lawyers, doctors, and dentists (and every other profession you can name) from Georgetown, GW, American, CUA, Trinity, even UDC.

The assertion that DC doesn’t have bookstores or an arts culture is also ignorant. Within walking distance of my place, there are the following bookstores, some new, some old (you know, before all the hated yuppies moved in):
Red Onion Books, Second Story Books, Idle Time Books, Candidas, Books-a-Million, G Books, Kramer Books, Busboys and Poets, Lambda Rising, Howard University Bookstore, and I'm sure I'm forgetting some.

There is a large and dynamic arts scene is DC. It’s just that it’s filled with people who actually spend their time painting, writing, sculpting, acting, and dancing, and not a bunch of highly visible posers who hang out at cafes NOT painting, writing, sculpting, acting, or dancing, like in other cities. Because to be able to afford to live in this city, you better get off your ass and do some work. Here are some fine examples:

Washington Writer’s Publishing House
Capitol Hill Arts Workshop
Mid City Artists
Brett Busang
Anna Demovidova
Solas Nua
Lines and Stars
Burlesque Poetry Hour

And these are just the ones I know about.

Finally, I came to DC to go to grad school, and discovered that it is awesome, and so I found a job here so I could stay. It’s awesome because, unlike Portland and Seattle (overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly boring, overwhelmingly easy to live in (or "livable")), DC is diverse and challenging and stimulating. You’ll find a lot of people like me in DC, at least the DC in which I live.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Ducks of Jena, Louisiana

Seeing so many of my fellow Washingtonians wearing black today, I can’t help but feel a little neglectful at not having shown, somehow, my feelings about the Jena 6.

I like to think of myself as open-minded, never leaping to conclusions without knowing all the facts. So in a case like this, I usually would reserve judgment, especially on a whole town, that everyone else is calling racist.

But sometimes, I have to admit, one can simply know things without the benefit of all the facts.

I’m sure the African American kids did some provoking, as teenagers, especially boys, do, and it is obvious that the white teens did some of there own, in no uncertain racist terms. I suppose one could say that everyone in the situation was at fault, that no one had more blame than anyone else. Except, that’s exactly what the local authorities are NOT saying. Why were the African American kids the only ones arrested? I know I don’t have all the facts, but if it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck...

I used to coach youth lacrosse in Northern Virginia. One day, we had Gary Gait (the Michael Jordan of the Lacrosse world) come out to give a clinic to our league. There were probably fifty or sixty kids huddled around him, all of them white, except for one black kid. He was probably 12 or 13, standing towards the back, joking around with his (white) friends. They were making noise, which was inappropriate, and maybe the black kid was making more noise than the others, but he wasn’t the only one. One of the fathers, another volunteer coach, came over and pulled this lone black kid, and only this kid, out of the group, and proceeded to yell at him with that seething, closed-teeth, bulging-eyed style of restrained-yet-not yelling that belied something deeper and more menacing than a simple reprimand for inappropriate adolescent behavior. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but they weren’t racist or off color in any way. But it didn’t matter. Even though I didn’t know a thing about this man, I still knew a duck quacking when I heard one.

A small town in Louisiana, far from the cosmopolitan excesses of places like DC? You’d have to be naive if you didn’t think there were some ducks down there, even some ducks in power.

I was going to write a post about how my neighborhood, from Dupont Circle to U Street to Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, and Mt. Pleasant, was like a snap shot of the American promise: one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country, and one of the most densely populated. African, Middle Eastern, Latino, and Asian immigrants live and work side by side with established African American and white families and new comers of all colors (like me), young and old, gay and straight, well educated and not, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and unaffiliated, and it all works. There are problems, just like anywhere else, but nothing like Jena, Louisiana. Now I don’t know how to write that post, because it seems we are still a long way from that American promise.

I’m just glad I live where I live.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Woodley Park, Whistle-men, and the Revolt of the Street Furniture

Update: I found two of the wayward mail boxes huddled on the sidewalk on 16th Street near Q, trying to appear inconspicuous. But I knew.

What’s more, I’m pretty certain they were wearing disguises. They seemed to be lower and fatter than your standard variety mail box. They were still blue, but just barely.

I also found another one up near U Street: it thought it could simply camouflage itself with green paint, but it wasn’t fooling anyone.

They may be trying to get away from the guy with the whistle. I’ve seen him in one place so far: outside the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan metro (which isn’t in Adams Morgan, if you haven't noticed). He was sitting on a box, next to a garbage can, mixed in with the other street furniture (you know, Louie Canz lamp posts, pie crust newspaper boxes, drop leaf police call boxes) blowing a whistle. A regular, referee-type whistle. As loud as he could. As long as he could. I could hear him at the bottom of the escalator, and as far away as the middle of the Calvert Street bridge. No one seemed to notice. Perhaps the trauma of the absent mail boxes has numbed the populace.

If he keeps this up, this whistle-man, I’m afraid the garbage cans may decide they’ve had enough as well. And perhaps the lamp posts will stage a Tolkienian Ent-inspired rampage.

That’s all we need.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Great Mailbox Conspiracy on U Street

Now that I’m back from my travels, I suddenly realized that something terrible has happened in DC while I was gone: someone has stolen all the mail boxes. Or they all got sick of standing around being blue and just took off.

I had a very important letter to mail (or “screed”, as editors and the judiciary all across the land have called them in their “restraining orders”), and I walked all around the neighborhood, down New Hampshire and up 17th, and down 18th and around U Street, and not a mail box was to be found!

I suspect they are congregating somewhere near the river, perhaps in one of the Potomac Parks, maybe near where The Awakening will soon be torn from the ground, saying their good-byes.

Or maybe they are tired of being Borfed, and are staging a mail-in (or squat-in, or sit-there-in, or whatever mail boxes do) at the USPS headquarters building (it’s that big blue rounded-top building in Southwest that always makes me think of grandma - you know the one).

In any case, there are no mail boxes near Coladams Circle, and my screeds are piling up, and we are in danger of suffocation by screed, necessitating more writing of screeds, with no way of emancipating said screeds. Thus the provenance of this blog entry.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Las Vegas – End of Days

The apocalyptic title of this entry expresses my feelings about my time in Las Vegas. The problem is, people shouldn’t live there. It’s a desert! It was 106 degrees every day we were there. You can’t live without air conditioning. You can’t go any where unless you drive a car. The city is in a constant state of drought because, well, it’s in a desert!

The town of Las Vegas was originally built at a spring, or maybe a couple of springs. There was enough water for a few people. But they have long since outgrown that meager water supply. So they’ve damned up the Colorado River and created Lake Meade. Every time I’m in Las Vegas, my colleagues always express surprise at how low the water is in Lake Meade. How could they possibly be surprised? Most of the southwestern U.S. uses the Colorado river as their water supply. And more people keep moving in, creating an ever-increasing demand on the same water supply. This isn’t rocket science. It’s not even hydrology or ecology. It’s math!

On the plus side, most of the electricity in Las Vegas comes from Hoover Damn, so at least they aren’t pumping coal emissions into the air. There’s enough smog as it is, as this picture shows.

My wife felt sick when we were on the Strip: head aches, sneezing, common allergy symptoms. She spent her days in Red Rock Canyon while I was at meetings, and felt great there. It had to be the smog. Vegas’s smog problems are simple as well: since people are obliged to drive everywhere, they, well, do. The problem is exacerbated by geography: Vegas is surrounded by mountains, so the smog never blows away. It just sits there like soup in a bowl.

There was one good discovery in Vegas itself: Bouchon, at The Venetian, a bistro owned by Chef Thomas Keller of French Laundry. We didn’t have reservations, but we decided to take a chance. We ate at the bar. The food was fabulous, and the restaurant itself was very nice. A bit kitchy, perhaps, decorated in the “Parisian Bistro” style, but not over the top. It was the best food I’ve had in all my trips to Vegas, except perhaps for a little Mexican place in a suburban strip mall, which I’ll never find again.

After two days of meetings and an early morning visit to Red Rock Canyon, we headed back home. I was sad to leave San Francisco, but thrilled to be out of Vegas and happy to once again be in DC. I always seem to forget just how much I like living here, everything about it: the people, the neighborhoods, our apartment, even the buildings themselves, and the weather. I love to travel, but I’m always glad to get back to DC.

Monday, September 10, 2007

San Francisco Day 4 - Las Vegas

Our last morning in San Francisco we ate breakfast at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. It was little pricey, but quite good. And the Fairmont is a grand old hotel, full of pretension and columns and molding and mirrors and marble, just terrific! We visited Grace Cathedral, built after the 1906 earth quake.

The church is built out of reinforced concrete. The impressions the forms left, along with the color of the concrete, make it look as if it were built of stone. We found the same thing at the San Francisco Art Institute on Russian Hill, built to look like a Franciscan monastery complete with a (concrete) campinile! It is truly amazing what they did with concrete in the early part of the 20th century, a far cry from the horrible brutal uses of concrete in Washington (such as the HUD building, L’enfant Plaza, and the Third Church of Christ Scientist on 16th Street).

We had one last espresso in North Beach (Cafe Greco) and one last stroll through China Town, and got back on BART.

A short flight back to Vegas and we ended up at the dreaded CONFERENCE HOTEL, one of those newer places on the western outskirts of Las Vegas, in Summerlin, actually. These places (Something Something Station or Somethingelse Coast, etc.) are springing up in residential areas around the valley, with huge parking lots, and are popular with locals and retirees. In fact, they were having some sort of Senior Miss Nevada contest or show that week.

But since I was one of the meeting organizers they upgraded me to a suite, and even with my cynical attitude and disgust at all things fake-glitzy-gambling related, I have to say, it was pretty damn cool! I think it was bigger than our apartment, with great views of the mountains and the Strip, about 10 miles away.

We found a Home Depot so my wife could buy some turpentine, and then bought way too much food at a supermarket (the suite had a kitchen, of course), ate some chicken and Boudin bread we had brought from San Francisco, and then enjoyed the high-roller life style! Actually, that is how we enjoyed the high roller lifestyle.

Friday, September 7, 2007

San Francisco – Day 3

The day started off overcast and chilly, a perfect day for a museum. A 15 dollar cab ride to Golden Gate Park, through sleepy Sunday morning neighborhoods, and we’re at the de Young Museum just as it opens.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I’m not much impressed nor interested in modern architecture. Not because I so love old architecture, but because so much of new architecture simply doesn’t work. A building should have an entrance that you can find, it should have a form that doesn’t make you feel creeped out or brutalized, it should have windows to let in light, its interior should be laid out to function well for what it is meant for. And it shouldn’t look like a giant piece of feces. Which are essentially all the problems of the de Young.

Our docent spent quite a bit of time defending the new building, always a tip-off that maybe it ain’t so great. They torn down the old museum, a classically inspired stone structure, because it was “the most seismically unsound building in San Francisco.” After spending however much money it costs to tear down a huge building and cart it all away, they then spend 200 million dollars to build the new museum designed by the “renowned Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects in San Francisco.” I bet they could have spent all that money on Mel’s Concrete Contracting and Seismic Engineering Services, LLC, and made the old museum seismically sound, but how can you brag about that? The new building, for some reason, is covered in copper. Right now, the copper is (feces) brown. Eventually, it will be green, which, the docent assured us, will be better.

As we approached the de Young from the drive, we couldn’t find the entrance. It is tucked back in a triangular court yard reminiscent of a prison exercise yard, although without the symmetry or romance. There are some glass doors back in there that might have been for the cleaning staff. The entrance was not prominent, and there were no signs telling you where the entrance was or when you had actually found it. I suppose that’s part of the experience of the building, a hallmark of “renowned” architecture.

Inside, the building is confusing, and seems to use space extremely inefficiently. The lobby area is vast and empty, but, we were told, the large windows that look out on narrow triangular interior courtyards filled with vegetation (or “weeds”) helped bring the outside inside. (Personally, if I wanted to be outside, I’d go outside. I came inside to be outside of the outside, not inside the outside, and so on.)

The American art collection housed at the de Young is quite nice, and Golden Gate Park that surrounds the museum is very nice. And, actually, the cafeteria serves good food at reasonable prices and is quite pleasant. So I thoroughly enjoyed my half day there, trashing the architecture and looking at the art.

We walked back down towards our hotel through Haight Ashbury. It’s very hard for me not to sound like a crotchety old man when I say things like “why would perfectly healthy young suburban teens and twenty-somethings choose to sit around in dirty clothing begging for money on Haight Street?” Not just one of them. Scores of them, amid the head shops and touristy bars and cafes. I suppose the only plausible explanation is that I’m old and I have a job and I’m a “square.”

A trip back along the edge of the Tenderloin on Market Street, a quick visit to SOMA, and a wonderful dinner at Trattoria Contadina, another Michelin recommendation, rounded out a fun day. Contadina is at Union and Mason Streets, over the hill from our hotel, on the cable car line.

All through dinner, I watched the cable cars go by, timing them, enabling us to dash out just as one came up the hill and hop on. The ride was a bit chilly, but the views were spectacular, especially at night, and we actually used the cable car for real transportation, not just as an amusement ride. It beat the heck out of walking back up Nob Hill. The cable car got stuck at the top of a hill on a flat spot where it makes a left turn. The driver just didn’t time it right and it ran out of mojo (I think that’s what they run on), so he radioed for help. In about a minute, a pickup truck with a big plow on the front showed up and gave us a shove, and gravity did the rest.

Not a bad way to end our last night in San Francisco.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

San Francisco, Day 2: Borders Surfing and Sushi

In our travels, we’ve learned that the cheapest way to find a good meal is to go to a bookstore and peruse their Michelin Red guide. Not buy it, mind you, just borrow it for a few minutes, all the while saying things like “hmmmm, should we buy this? Is this book any good? Hmmmm…”

So when we ventured out again after our nap, we went to the Borders on Union Square and found a Michelin rated Japanese place right across the street from the hotel. At that point, we had probably looked at it 10 times already, but never guessed it was any good.

I didn’t find anything in the red guide for Fisherman’s Warf, so naturally, that’s where we headed, via a circuitous route up Russian Hill and down Lombard Street, where we got to watch a you couple skate board down between the flowers to the amusement of all. We also walked up the “street” that Armistead Maupin used as a model for Barbary Lane in his Tales of the City series. It wasn’t so much a street or even lane, as a pathway up a hill through a jungle. Pretty darn cool.

My wife wanted Dungeness crab, but Fisherman’s Wharf was so crowded we couldn’t even get near the out door fish vendors. Plus, we couldn’t figure out the logistics of eating whole crabs while standing up. The wharf was about what we expected, kind of a more gritty version of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. So we walked back up the long hill to Sutter Street and went to our newly discovered Japanese place.

It was the best Japanese food I’ve ever had. They had sake that actually tasted good, unlike what you might get at Benihana or even Blue Fin. We got a sampler, served cold. I’m sure they were serving those bottles you see in the liquor store that cost like $30 for a half liter. But it’s worth buying even at that price!

The sushi and sashimi were excellent. Back at the hotel, we stopped in the pub, decorated in old English pub style with lots of bright work paneling and molding. There were a good many locals there who said it was their neighborhood hang-out. And it wasn’t a neighborhood hang-out a-la The Tune Inn, where men go to get drunk fast. It was more of a Jane Jacob’s style “third place.” We split a Guinness and headed for bed.

The Klan in Manassas

This morning’s Post ran an article about the KKK distributing leaflets in Manassas.

As a blogger, obviously I’d be a hypocrite if I wanted to curtail the Klan’s right to free speech. They can spew any kind of hate they want to. If no one listens to them, they have no influence. But the problem is that there is a receptive climate to the Klan’s message in places like Manassas and Herndon and all those outer suburbs.

This country does have an immigration problem, if that’s the way you want to phrase it. But we have always had an immigration problem. In San Francisco, I learned that in the 1870s, congress passed laws specifically restricting Chinese immigration. Local jurisdiction, feeling that the Federal government wasn’t going far enough to address all those Chinese people destroying their communities, passed repressive laws stripping them of basic rights, such as property ownership and business licenses, and restricting them from working. Sound familiar?

My mother grew up in Homestead, PA, a mill town just outside of Pittsburgh. She tells me that as late as the 40s and 50s, there were still many different ethnic communities in her town, speaking different languages, who only socialized with themselves. There was the Italian church, the “Hunky” church, the Irish church, the Russian church, the Polish church. Language barriers kept them separated, and the Americans who lived in Homestead (who had only been Americans for a generation or two) didn’t like any of them: the Italians were greasy, the Irish were drunks, the Polish were stupid, and the Hunkys were all those things, plus filthy on top of it all. (Hunkys, for those who don’t know, was a catch-all term for Eastern European: Slovaks, Czechs, Romanian, Ukranian, Hungarian. Not only was it a demeaning term, it wasn’t even accurate!) It’s amazing how similar the language used to describe today’s Latino immigrants is to the language used 50 or 100 years ago to describe other sets of immigrants.

Of course, the children of all these immigrants and Americans intermarried and created, guess what, the white America that now has such a problem with Latino immigrants.

When someone says they don’t have a problem with Latino immigrants, only illegal Latino immigrants, they are making a circular argument bordering on the absurd. Illegal immigrants are illegal because we say they are. We create laws that determine who is illegal and who isn’t. Tomorrow, Congress could pass a law changing the status of all illegal immigrants, and granting work visas to anyone who wanted one. Suddenly, there is no illegal immigration problem. But I doubt that would end the debate. People who the Klan appeals to don’t like Latinos, not illegal Latinos.

Their status as “illegal” has nothing to do with free market economics or the right-wing’s worship of the idea of a free labor market. People come to this country to get jobs. If there were no jobs, they wouldn’t come. Manassas is overwhelmed with Latinos because there are lots of jobs for them in Northern Virginia. Otherwise, why would they be there? Just to annoy Americans?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I know the Klan has nothing constructive to add to it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

San Francisco, Day 2

The Hotel Beresford is situated on Sutter Street in a burgeoning district of galleries, an art school, art stores, theaters, small restaurants and bars, and other small hotels. The Beresford is an oddity in the United States. It’s a small hotel with small rooms, a tiny lobby, and a pub. The pub serves double duty as the breakfast room each morning, where they serve cereal, pastries, croissants, and fruit, all included in the price of the room. At $99.00, it’s also one of the best values smack dab in the middle of San Francisco.

Apparently, there are a good many of these kinds of hotels in San Francisco: small, comparatively affordable, including breakfast. Very few other American cities have places like this anymore. New York and Boston perhaps. But the small hotels in DC are obscenely expensive “boutique” hotels. Or they are rather seedy places, more flop houses that rent rooms by the hour than tourist hotels. I suspect this phenomenon has something to do with the decline of American cities over the past half century. As the car culture became more prevalent, and the middle class fled cities, people saw fewer and fewer reasons to stay in the city, unless they stayed at a mega-conference hotel. Better to stay at a cheap motel on the out skirts and drive into the city to visit any sites worth seeing. But San Francisco, like New York and Boston, didn’t empty out like other American cities. (For instance, between 1950 and today, DC has lost 250,000 residents, or nearly ¼ of it’s population. Pittsburgh has lost 500,000, or nearly 2/3 of it’s population. San Francisco and Boston have basically held steady, and New York has actually gotten bigger.) The small, affordable city hotels still worked in San Francisco, and so remained.

The second day, we went to Chinatown early in the morning and experienced the crowds of older Chinese women, and some men, doing their shopping. I love Chinatowns and Asian markets. Everything seems so fresh, so natural: live frogs and fish, unknown fruits and vegetables, animated conversations. Blocks and blocks of activity. We had a coffee and what turned out to be pork buns (although I thought they were butter buns, which would have been much better for dunking in coffee) in a little place on Broadway that was filled only with old Chinese people. Our waitress didn’t speak English, which partly accounts for the pork buns.

From there we went on to the Ferry Terminal Market, which was a bit of a let-down after the frenetic activity of Chinatown. The Ferry Market is a larger and Disneyfied version of Eastern Market. It was very nice, and had great views of the bay and the Oakland Bay Bridge, but everything was a bit too upscale and polished to be of any real interest.

So we headed back to Chinatown for a late lunch at another restaurant filled with only Chinese people. The place was loud and chaotic, the way it should be. The food wasn’t great, but it was good, and it was authentic. The tea was wonderful, served in plastic water glasses. After that, my wife had an acupressure foot massage while I wondered over to City Lights, which must have every work of fiction ever published. They only stock paperbacks, which is an interesting (and affordable) concept. (A side note: check out Red Onion Records and Books at 18th and T Streets, just south of Adams Morgan here in DC. It’s small, but they have great used books and records.)

After my wife’s feet were back in working order, we went to the Chinese Historical Society of America museum in what used to be the YWCA. I was amazed at how much discrimination the Chinese faced in the United States, right up through the 20th century. I felt ignorant and uneducated there, and I’m eager to learn more. After that, we headed back to the hotel for a rest, before going out for the evening.

Next: Fisherman’s Warf and sushi.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

San Francisco, Day One

We arrived at SFO about 8:30 in the morning and took BART to Powell Street near Union Square. After some philosophical ponderings on BART’s choice of filth-gathering upholstery and carpeting, and amazement at how the landscape really did look like Italy, we emerged into the crowd of tourist and pan handlers around the cable car turn-around. It was over-cast (which we soon learned was really just fog), we were tired, we had a lot of luggage (which we usually don’t have, except that I had my work attire and my wife had her painting rig), and we had a 4 block climb up Powell Street to our hotel. I had planned on taking the cable car up the hill, but the line was probably an hour long. How silly.

The Hotel Beresford was small and quaint, everything that the Monte Carlo wasn’t. The room was tiny with a view of a brick wall and a square of now blue sky (hurray!) above. But it was perfect, with a fridge stocked with good beer at cheap prices.

We left the hotel just before lunch time and headed straight to the Asian Art Museum. Well worth the visit. The walk to the museum, however, was even more worth it. We took Market Street from Union Square along the edge of the “Tenderloin,” and let me tell you, I thought I knew what homeless drug users were, but I had NO IDEA. DC doesn’t have a homelessness problem compared to San Francisco. Maybe they all just congregate near the sex shops and liquor stores and cheap hotels along Market, and maybe if you pulled all of DCs homeless together in one place, there’d be just as many, but I’ve never seen anything like this, not in Europe, not in New York, not anywhere. People of all ages and races, both sexes, talking to themselves or yelling at each other, scabby and dirty and skinny, sprawled on the sidewalk or stumbling out of alleys, scores of them. There were also scores of people like us walking along as well, so I never really felt unsafe, more uncomfortable, as if I had surprised someone (or a lot of someones) in an intimate and embarrassing moment. We didn’t notice the drug-addled homeless masses anywhere else, not even in Haight-Ashbury, at least not to the same extent.

As the shock of the Tenderloin wore off, we explored China Town, Northbeach, Telegraph Hill, and Union Square.
San Francisco is a deceptively small city. We walked everywhere and I was always surprised by how short a time it took. The hills are, of course, daunting, and make things seem farther apart, and aside from some huffing and puffing and a little sweating (only on my part), we had no problem negotiating those hills.

We had terrific food at Nanking Palace on Kearney, recommended by Frommers. It was full of tourists, so we were a little skeptical at first. But we let the waitress order for us, and it was unbelievably good. We didn’t even eat dinner that night, save a glass of wine at a vinoteca close to the hotel. More to come.

Ultra-Amazing Sophisticated Fantastic Fabulous Las Vegas!

As previously reported, the wireless modem was not warmed up and it worked no where I tried it. Hence, no “live blogging” from the road as I had planned.

But I’ve got lots to say about our travels.

We arrived in Las Vegas on a Thursday evening and stayed at the Monte Carlo, one of the nicer hotels, in our opinion. The food was so-so, but the pool is nice.

Neither my wife nor I gamble. We’ve talked about this a lot, and formulated lots of reasons to not gamble.

My aversion to gambling has little to do with any system of ethics. While the idea of getting something for nothing, which is essentially the attitude one has when one places a bet on a game of chance, is counter to my philosophy of life, that’s not really why I don’t like to gamble. I don’t gamble because I don’t find it interesting.

This is the counter point to people who make the argument that the money they spend gambling is simply money spent on entertainment. They could spend it on football tickets, or admission to a museum, or at Six Flags, but they choose to spend their entertainment budget at the gaming tables or slot machines. These people enjoy it, and the drinks are free. I accept that.

I choose to spend my entertainment money differently. I’d rather have a nice meal, or go to the Louvre, or see a play. I get about as much enjoyment from gambling as I do from playing Shoots and Ladders. But to each his own.

Gambling, in itself, just isn’t that interesting. So why do people keep going to Vegas? What Las Vegas is really about, and I think the real reason that people enjoy it, is the allure of sophistication and excitement. You can get drunk in Vegas, play at being a “high roller” (at least as long as your cash holds out), see “sophisticated” shows, eat food from around the world all at the same buffet, see naked or nearly naked people, all within the strictly controlled and safe confines of a casino. It’s a fantasy world, where people can pretend they are experienced men (or women) of the world without ever having to actually engage the world.

The reality of Las Vegas is much more mundane. Las Vegas is cram packed with retirees dragging oxygen tanks and urinating on themselves so as not to leave “their” slot machines (which will soon get hot!), living out their twilight years in the twilight of the casinos surrounded by bleeps and bloops they probably can’t even hear. Las Vegas is full of mediocre food and absurd stage shows and water features that pander to the lowest common denominator. Regular people from all walks of life crowd Las Vegas Boulevard, people who have come to rub shoulders with the sophisticates they’ve seen in “Oceans Eleven” or even “Viva Las Vegas,” but end up struggling through throngs of people they see all the time at their home-town malls.

But the magic of Las Vegas is that, despite all this, people keep coming back. People still believe the fantasy.

Often, when I express this opinion of Las Vegas, people are offended. They accuse me of being a snob, but I don’t really care. I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. If people like Las Vegas, for whatever reason, good for them. They should stand up proudly and say that they, too, know what they like and what they don’t like. Why should my measly opinion bother them so much? I suspect it’s because they don’t actually know what they like or don’t like. Pity. Life’s too short to go to Vegas simply because everyone else does and you can’t make up your own mind.

We only spent the night at the Monte Carlo, and left early the next morning for San Francisco, which was, unsurprisingly, much more to our taste.