[ed note: this week, I’m back visiting my old haunts in San Francisco]

Whenever I’m back visiting, it strikes me that one way to think about the Mission is: if there’s a platonic ideal of the Person Who Lives In the Mission, that person is 28. Most everyone I see who’s younger than 28 has adopted an air of being a bit older, while my friends (all of whom are now older than 28) go to great measures– sometimes desperate– to manifest a sense of youthfulness. 28 seems to be the spiritual age that everyone’s trying to converge on.

I always remember, too, that the years when I was about 27-29 were the years when I was least conscious of being any particular age, which generally signals that you’re in a good place vis-a-vis your surroundings.

Ancestral Homeland

Programming note: this week, I’ll be flying to back to San Francisco for 10 days. The ostensible purpose is to close down my money-sucking storage space, but I’ll also be enjoying some well-needed R & R in the Mission (and a perhaps a bit of the old orientalism.)

I’m not sure whether this will mean more blogging or less over the next 10 days (probably less)… but in any case, the experience should produce some rejuvenated posts down the road from your currently-tattered host.

Clichés in action

In addition to the Belmont pit stop described below, we also made it up and down the east coast during our just-completed month of traveling, making stops in upstate New York, Vermont, Vieques (small island off of Puerto Rico) and New York City.

One of the perks of sampling so many disparate places is all the little regional and situational clichés you run into on the way. A clueless-looking dude pulling off his boot in a ski lodge to find acute frostbite covering his foot (we happened to be watching his foot and his facial expression at the exact moment of discovery). A flight to San Juan nearly postponed on account of volcanic ash. Hassidic Jews tromping around mid-town Manhattan. A flight in a tiny 10-seater plane where we taxied by an iguana sunning itself on the runway.

Things came to a head, cliche-wise, at 6am on our first morning in Vieques. Imagine: we’ve gotten up at 5am the previous morning and taken two planes with my mom and 7 month-old baby to get to the island from Boston, so we’re really, really tired and desperate to catch up on sleep. At 6am, we’re woken bolt-upright in bed by blasting, cheesy Latin pop music that seems to be coming out of the heavens. It’s so loud that you can’t even identify a directional source of the sound– it just seems to be emanating out of the air particles around our heads.

Realizing that kiddo is not going to sleep through this onslaught, and that our prospective morning of sleeping in is dashed, I decide to throw on some clothes and at least make a grumpy harrumph of it. Stomping out into the bright Carribean morning sunshine, I make a wrong turn before correctly identifying the direction of the noise and setting off across a small field towards it. At one point, I look back over my shoulder and see that I’ve been joined by an irate comrade-in-arms, a shirtless, insanely-disheveled-and-outraged-looking guy. He looks strangely like a combination of Robert Downey Jr. and Morton Downey Jr. Finally, I cross the field and near a road where I am presented with the source of The Din and the following sight: about 20 guys neatly lined up on horseback, wearing sort of festive, tricked-out ranch wear. A kind of self-appointed inspector guy is making his way up and down the line, checking out everyone. A truck sits in front of them with a couple heavy-set women bouncing up and down next to giant speakers – the kind you see used for outdoor concerts– that are playing the music.

Of course, it turns out to be impossible to communicate anything in words once you get that close to a loudspeaker truck, much less in Spanish. After lots of irate hand-gestures, I eventually turn around and huff back to our guesthouse, satisfied at least to see that a veritable lynch mob of angry villagers has started to form behind me. At breakfast (served outdoors by the pool), The Din is the hot topic, with one of the guesthouse staff commenting off-handedly that the malefactors were probably just ‘some really drunk guys’. ‘They didn’t look drunk to me,’ I find myself saying. ‘They looked really, really organized, actually.” We never were able to figure out what the whole thing was about, although it seems reasonable to guess that it had something to do with 3 Kings Day, which happened a few days later and apparently is a big deal there.

This is the point where the blog entry veers sharply into insensitive ethnic generalizations… but: I haven’t experienced such an insane, nuisance-y episode of noise-making since, oh… the 10 years that I lived in the Mission District. Once I arrived in Prague, it felt disorienting to actually experience REM sleep, as though I’d been skidding over the surface of it during a decade spent with street noisy and crappy single-ply windows in SF. One morning in particular, shortly before I left SF for Prague, I was woken up at 8am on a blazing hot Saturday by a bunch of drunken guys congregated on the sidewalk outside with a guitar, literally doing the ‘Aye, aye, aye-yi … aye yi, yi aye-yi‘ song. Fuming, I decided to retaliate by filling a garbage pail full of water and dumping it on them from the roof, in much the same way as you train a cat not to jump on a table by flicking water at it.

There’s a big difference between thinking about doing something like this and actually peeling yourself out of bed to do it, but a few minutes later I actually got to the top of the stairs lugging a several gallons of water behind me. Unfortunately, our upstairs neighbor was also there, meditating in a cross-legged position and chanting. Somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to push by him and nonchalantly hurl a trash bin full of water onto people below while he was trying to tap into his inner center. So, I made my egress, feeling thwarted (common theme in these two stories, I guess). It struck me as a specifically ‘San Francisco’ kind of quandary: trapped between drunken noisemakers on one side and chanted Ohm Shanti Shantis on the other.

(Photo: world’s dinkiest baggage carousel at Vieques airport).

El Pato Falso

This is my publicly-accessible business registry information as retrieved from the web site of the Czech Statistical Office. The line I’ve highlighted in yellow shows my previous address in U.S. Everything’s okay through street, street number, city… until you get to ‘Spojené státy mexické,’ which is ‘United States of Mexico’. ¿ Um… que ? That’s right: according to the Czech Statistical Office, I’m Mexican. I guess the person entering my info saw the ‘San Francisco’ part and felt confident completing the rest of the entry on the basis of logical association.

This is exactly the sort of situation where I ought to get busy leaping headlong into the pool of Czech bureaucratic magical realism to resolve the error this right away but instead will summarily ignore until it jumps up to bite me in the ass at some key moment (‘Señor Mayer, we cannot remove your appendix until this discrepancy about your home country is resolved‘). On the other hand, maybe it’s better that I at least wait until I’m done with the design project for the Czech Burritos– that would be a suspicious contradiction to try and explain away to the authorities. I guess one humorous silver lining to the whole situation is that my son is now officially ‘Czech-Mex’, according to the powers that be.

Czech Mex

A rejected directional sketch I did for our client who’s selling burritos in Prague:


For such an indispensable and delicious foodstuff, the burrito sure is a difficult thing to make look good. It often winds up looking like an amorphous blob when illustrated and downright repulsive when photographed. There’s a real need in this project, moreover, to show it in a way that’s both appetizing and readily identifiable, as lots of central Europeans are somewhat fuzzy on the whole concept. We discovered that my fellow designer here at the studio, a Ukranian fellow, had no idea whatsoever what they’re about.

I kinda like this pseudo-woodcut look, but we collectively resolved to go in a more diagrammatic ‘Tech Mex’ direction, which is fine with me. I would happily sign the rights to this over to anyone who would overnight FedEx me a Mission burrito in exchange. All this burrito-related design work is making me really hungry.

The Žižkov Television Tower

Inspired by JohnnyO’s sleuthing into Sutro Tower’s missing antenna, I figured I would interrupt normal programming around here (which, let’s face it, has started to resemble an inane cabaret lately, what with children wearing bacon suits and animals giving each other piggy-backs) to do a post on communist Prague’s answer to the Sutro Tower – the Ivan Drago to its Rocky Balboa, if you will – the Žižkov Television Tower:


One thing the Žižkov Television Tower (pronounced ‘zhISH-kof tel-uh-VIZ-yon TAUU-err’, hereon referred to as ZTT) has that the Sutro Tower doesn’t have is an observation deck, which allows it membership status into something adorable called The World Federation of Great Towers. In fact, if you go up to the observation deck of the ZTT, you’ll see a number of framed photos on the walls of other kindred members of the WFGT, which is pretty cute.

Another thing that differentiates the ZTT is its confounding placement smack in the middle of an old residential neighborhood (it’s hard to compare Prague and SF neighborhoods exactly, but it would be like if Sutro Tower sprung out of the ground at the corner of Folsom and 18th). This gives it a very different sense of proximity than the Sutro Tower, which is essentially marooned on a remote hilltop overlooking a Twin Peaks neighborhood that no one has ever had a single interesting thing to say about.

This jarring proximity provoked a lot of the initial resistance to the tower when construction began in 1985. Note that you can’t really say that there was ‘outcry’ of protest back then since nobody was allowed to publicly protest much of anything under communism, so it was really more of a pent-up in-cry, but there was a lot of it nonetheless. Mainly, the tower was seen an imposition of communist triumphalism on a modest, more old-fashioned neighborhood, a clumsy gesture of imperial egotism and arrogance. As if to remove any last possible hint of delicacy, moreover, the tower was built right over a very old Jewish cemetery, which now looks meekly pushed to one side (note: there’s a widespread belief that the tower planners actually moved the cemetery themselves, but a considerable dissenting voice claims that it had already been moved earlier).

Nowadays, the tower is fairly popular, as the jarring contrast between old and kitschy-new is seen as quirky and likable. I guess I can see both sides of this argument. Meaning, I really like the tower, but I can also picture myself being horrified if I’d lived in the neighborhood at the start of construction, both by the aesthetic and cultural implications of it. Which all goes to show that if you’re running a city, maybe you’re better off just doing stuff and counting on the public to acclimate to it, rather than trying to run things according to the maddening processes of consensus-building and ballot initiatives that exist in San Francisco and result in a city repeatedly voting to demolish, rebuild and repeal the same freeway in successive votes. On the other hand, Czech’s communist government was overthrown before they could see the completion of this tower, so maybe it is better to stick with the milquetoast, coalition-building approach after all.

A lot of the protest around the ZTT also had to do with health concerns, so much so that construction was actually halted for a year after the Velvet Revolution so that tests could be performed to reassure the surrounding community that the broadcast signals emanating from the tower had no adverse effects. As far as I know, there was no reason to suspect any kind of health impact from the broadcast signals other than the one quite sufficient reason that it was being built by the local communist government, who had such a poor record on environmental issues that it often seemed as though they were trying to create unhealthy living conditions on purpose. So, on the one hand, I think you can’t really blame the citizens of 1980s Czechoslovakia for instinctually doubting the safety-mindedness of their leaders in any undertaking. With that said, it often seems like communities will come up with somewhat farfetched public safety concerns when they’re faced with something they don’t like but don’t know how else to verbalize their dislike for. In the 1973 news clipping that JohnnyO liked to about the Sutro Tower, for example, there’s some guy who’s trying to claim that the tower is a threat to fall over and land on a nearby school.

Then, there are the Babies:



There’s not much to say about the Babies that hasn’t already been said. Installed by sculptor David Černy in 2000, they started out as a temporary exhibit but became a permanent part of the structure by public demand. I used to think that they were perhaps a commentary on the health concerns that originally centered around the tower, but then found out that Černy had already been creating these babies (his ‘technology babies’) for a while before he got this commission, so they in fact had nothing to do with the tower per se. Pretty much every tourist who has ever been in Žižkov has taken a photo exactly like the one above, by the way.

From the observation deck, you get a fun 360 degree view from a height of some 600 feet, at which point the city basically dissolves into a sea of orange tiled roofs with the occasional castle spire or church tower poking through in the distance. You can also clearly appreciate the way that the blocks of flats are built around entire blocks with fairly large courtyards inside:


(Note: these two photos are not taken from the tower – lame, I know, but the thick reflective glass around the observatory makes it hard to take decent pictures, so these give a better idea of what you see. These were taken on an elevated bridge about 2 miles away).

Technically, the most impressive feature of the building is the elevators, which travel 4 meters a second, and look like this:


On the other hand, the lamest aspect of the tower is the restaurant, which is decked out in iron curtain-style colors and decor, features diffident iron curtain-era service, and is probably largely responsible for the widespread misconception among visitors that the tower was built in the 70s rather than late 80s/early 90s. Nevertheless, I chose this as the place to propose to my then-girlfriend, party because I wanted us to be able to have a personal happy association with this ubiquitous spot that you can see from hundreds of kilometers away. Of course, if she had said no, then it would have become a ubiquitous reminder of heartbreaking rejection, which would have been awkward… but, fortunately, that’s not what happened. The only awkward part was trying to come up with an explanation for why I wanted to take her up to this touristy place where we would never normally go for dinner. To do so, I claimed that a phony astrological phenomenon – ‘the refraction of Saturn’-  was happening and that we should go eat in the restaurant so we would be able to see it. Worked like a charm. Heh heh.

Finally, the tower looks really cool at night:


Politically incorrect design lectures

One thing I miss living in Prague is the design lectures I used to go to routinely in San Francisco. Two highlights:

1. Victor Moscoso


Moscoso was one of the main designers behind the Haight Ashbury psychedelic poster movement. He designed classic hippie-era band posters like this one:


He also revealed himself to be the designer of the Herbie Hancock Headhunters cover, which was a surprise to me, as this was one of my favorite album cover designs in college:


I saw him lecture to a packed auditorium in 2006. He is a fascinating lecturer, and also a pleasingly unrepentant, unreconstructed hippie. At one point, during his lecture he got sidetracked and went on a pro-legalization-of-marijuana tangent, which led to this spectacular exchange:

Moscoso: [ending with a rhetorical flourish] “I mean, when has marijuana ever really been shown to cause anybody harm?”

Audience: furious applause, cheering

Moscoso: [apparently emboldened by applause] “And LSD… when has LSD ever hurt someone?”

Audience: uncomfortable shifting in seats; nervous, scattered applause

I’d never before seen an audience exhibit a collective sense of being complicit in something uncomfortable and frankly hadn’t known it was possible.

2. Paula Scher


Paula Scher is arguably the most accomplished and well-known female designer alive at present. Her famous poster for a Broadway musical in the early 90s:


She also designed the Jon Stewart book America. When I saw her, it was a joint lecture between her and the producer of the Daily Show, and they talked about how the book got made, the collaborative process, etc etc. The producer even talked at length about Stewart’s infamous appearance on Crossfire when he savaged the hosts.

The best part, though, was when they discussed ideas and jokes that were ultimately deemed too offensive to leave in the book. One omitted joke included a plan to present a diagram of the political left and right sides of the brain with a small area on the far right occupied by Ann Coulter and named… The Cuntal Lobe. Genius.


Frontier-style justice with Mayor Schmitz

killprocWith the recent talk of martial law in Tehran, my thoughts have been wandering back to the 1909 San Francisco earthquake and its insane aftermath, when the city’s mayor issued a blanket proclamation warning that any and all looters found in the streets would be shot dead on the spot. And, apparently, over 500 civilians were shot, many of whom were not in fact looting but instead trying to protect their belongings from advancing fires.

With earthquake, fire and out-of-control firing squads already accounted for, its a wonder that tornado, tidal wave and killer beers weren’t inflicted on the citizenry just to complete the natural suite of terrors. It feels like it must have been a hundred million years ago that firing squads roamed San Francisco, given that nowadays you can’t step on a bug without people drafting a ballot measure in protest. It’s a vivid reminder of the old, weird Wild West past that the city emphatically grew out of.


The alleged actual proclamation is posted above (although it clearly seems to have been photoshopped up a bit). Apocalyptic post-earthquake photos here. Many years ago, I made a weird little installation page using two of these photos on the old, defunct Mock Duck Project site.  Photo: fallen zoologist Louis Agassiz outside Stanford University.

Taqueria Dolores

I’ve added Mission Mission to the blog roll, and was pleased to see that they covered the jarring Taqueria Dolores in one of their posts.

It’s a ‘Mission-style’ taqueria in Berlin (in Alexanderplatz, no less- a really sterile, touristy square) with maps of the Mission on the walls and bottles of Anchor Steam to be had. Behold:


Basically, you can have fun locating on the walls three or four places you’ve lived while eating a really, really non-greasy burrito. All they’re missing is the unbelievably loud juke box that bursts into mariachi at unexpected intervals.

Man, I miss Berlin. Even though I’ve never lived there. The ‘Czech-Mex’ here in Prague is comparatively unimaginative and second-rate.

Topless Taco Clubs to hit the Mission

Casa_sanchez In 1970, a SF activist newspaper published a story anticipating the dystopian impact that the soon-to-be-build BART system would have on the Mission District. In classic trying-predicting-the-future fashion, some of the predictions are spot-on and others are a bit… not so spot-on:

Is Senor Taco the type of urban renewal we want? BART will bring tourists from downtown to 16th and Mission in three minutes. Our homes will become hotel rooms and restaurants and serape stores, and Topless Taco Clubs that do not serve Mexicans.

Lurid! Then again, the article continues…

The increased sales will not only come from the tourists but also from the higher income single people and childless couples that will find the Mission more desirable to live in because BART will take them to work quickly and because Blacks, Indians, Chinese, Samoans and La Raza will have been removed by an economic squeeze-out.

… so I guess they’re weren’t off-base on the key issues.