Tracy, California: First Impressions

(Or first impressions this century: I once feared Tracy and the whole San Joaquin Valley as a hitchhiker’s no man’s land in my ride-thumbing college years, have yet to forget an eleven hour wait for a ride in North Fresno.)

Tracy is a city of about 87,000 in the agricultural flatlands east of San Francisco. I am in temporary digs here while awaiting paperwork for a move to Spain1, naively anticipated a rural whistlestop far removed from Bay Area bustle.

Tracy's Harvest of Progress statue, with Altamont Hills in background

Tracy’s Harvest of Progress statue, with Altamont Hills in background

Wrong! In the 1970s, maybe. Not anymore.

TRACY MAY SOON BE DEVOURED BY THE GREATER BAY AREA

Travel out this-a-way and you’ll see what I mean. The driver exiting the easternmost Livermore fringes of the “San Francisco Bay Area” at noon can expect all of fifteen minutes of open country on the Altamont Pass before hitting outer Tracy of “Central California” at 12:15. That’s not much of a greenbelt between regions.

I hatched an informal survey question — Has Tracy become part of the Greater Bay Area? — and posed it to about a dozen locals. Votes have leaned about 2 to 1 “no” … but not 10 to 1, as I might have expected in years past.

My favorite response came while querying two fellow congregants at the Stockton Unitarian Church. One nodded, said, “Oh, it’s getting there,” but was refuted with an emphatic “No!” from an usher.

The usher explained: Tracy has attracted many settlers who want it to be part of the Bay Area, said she. They buy in, discover that they can’t endure the marathon freeway commute, sell out a few years later.

Farmers Market in downtown Tracy, California

Farmers Market in downtown Tracy, California

Another local introduced an acronym: BAT, for Bay Area Transplant. Letters-to-the-editor writers fulminated often about BATs in years past, but gave up as more BATs moved in, became neighbors.

The BATs likely came for affordable homes. I drive past a freeway billboard hawking new construction, look it up online. 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, American Dream houses: around $200 a square foot, vs $987 in San Francisco, $475 in Walnut Creek. At a picnic in Micke Grove Park, I meet a Bay Area widow who had to short sell after her husband’s death, and chose an all-cash, debt-free buy in Central California instead of a mortgage elsewhere. A retired Santa Clara native marvels at the empty acres behind his Stockton property. The picnic host fled San Jose after a steep rent increase.

I shop at vast, concrete-acred WinCo Foods, stroll among a pleasant cultural mélange: a linebacker-shouldered blond in John Deere t-shirt, lugging six packs to a big-tired pick-up; a turbaned Sikh and clan; occasional hijabs; a likely Berkeley refugee, rummaging for credit card in a tote with Feel the Bern button; many, many families.

Tehal at Gurdwara Sahib temple in Modesto, California

Tehal at Gurdwara Sahib temple in Modesto, California

Absent, however: the overtly gay, and some extravagances of youthful fashion that are commonplace on Valencia Street. BATs may have diluted Tracy’s rural roots, but still take a low profile here.

TRACY IS CAR COUNTRY

My digs are near Naglee and Pavilion Parkway, which intersect acres for four surrealistically vast mall properties on Tracy’s northwest corner.

I’ll link a map.  Mouse around a bit.

Pavilion Parkway in Tracy, California

Pavilion Parkway in Tracy, California

Home Depot is here, as are Staples, Macy’s, many car dealerships. Target is here, too, but looks like a pint-sized mom n’ pop next to the Walmart. Fate may have decreed that I spend my last weeks on native soil amidst development most often stereotyped as American. I take a spring afternoon stroll on asphalt, across adjoining parking lots, with gas stations and big box stores on the horizon, beneath the rippling stripes of American flags.

Everyone drives here. Even the Starbucks offers a drive-thru lane for profligately idling SUVs. The nearest BART metro station is twenty-five miles west, and internet wags promise wailing and gnashing of teeth to weekday commuters who hope to park there.

West Valley Mall in Tracy, California

West Valley Mall in Tracy, California

This corner of Tracy is much more autocentric than older city neighborhoods, but I still can’t imagine any serious getting around by transit. I may have driven more in a month here than in several years in San Francisco.

TRACY IS OVERWEIGHT

Is this observation related to the first two? Who wants to cook or hit a Pilates mat after dodging SUVs and semis on the daily slog home from Hayward, or Walnut Creek, or wherever the steering-wheel-clutching BAT punches a timecard? One is T-I-R-E-D. Lane changes on the 580 were work-out enough. Quick energy comfort food is what one craves, easily obtained from stuffins’-drippin’ megaburgers with four figure calorie counts hawked by fast fooderies next to the 205. Gorge now, worry about the scale tomorrow. A BAT might get all of an hour of rec time before hitting the sack for the next day’s commute.

I want to write charitably, with sympathy. I was overweight in my teens. I have stood pat at 175 for ten years because my last real diet was so miserable that I swore afterward never to slide again, and haven’t. But those miseries were endured to lose a mere fifteen pounds! Some I see on my mall strolls are more than a hundred pounds overweight. Their bodies heartlessly conspire to hold onto every ounce, to doom them to obesity until death.

Route 205 freeway exit in Tracy, California

Route 205 freeway exit in Tracy, California

Many in Tracy may be obese because they aren’t BATs, because they are the great-grandchildren of farmers who once sweated over tractors and tills, and could expect to burn through any calories consumed. I don’t know. I imagine the ghost of Lathrop J. Tracy himself grimacing at the sight of his town’s overfed progeny, courting diabetes, atherosclerosis, osteoarthritis as they lumber with overtaxed hearts on outraged joints through pastry aisles. Their bodies are like prisons.

HAS BAY AREA INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNING FAILED?

My S.F.-to-Tracy car trips have fostered a bleaker take on the Bay Area’s transportation underpinnings. It feels like a catastrophic fait accompli: bad enough to have done real harm when I moved south for a Los Angeles teaching career in 1992, little improved since.

San Francisco included some 735,000 souls in 1992. It numbers 130,000 more today, a near 18% increase. The populations of Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo county have grown by about 24%, 34% and 16% in those twenty-four years, respectively.

Not a whole lot has been built to move the extra humans around. BART sprouted a couple of spur lines, an SFO extension and an Oakland airport connector. Caltrain grew; Alameda County picked up a couple of ACE rail stations. How much else? I have been able to ignore worsening congestion while gallivanting around San Francisco aboard Muni. (Which has either improved in recent years, or impressed me more.) I haven’t been able to ignore it while traveling between San Francisco and Tracy.

I don’t expect to drive to the East Bay from S.F.’s south side during any workday hour on a weekday without hitting a wall of traffic, usually as far south as the 101’s Vermont exit. Westbound traffic is worse; I could practically count pebbles in the asphalt while inching toward the Bay Bridge toll plaza. I usually do not hit smooth sailing in the East Bay: I cringe with saucer eyes and gritted teeth in my slot in the thundering, seventy mile an hour stampede, which may remain dense past Livermore.

I long for a transit alternative, know of no good one. I’d need two shuttle buses to get to Tracy’s ACE station, then would have to hop on another bus to bridge the route gap between ACE and BART. Maybe three hours one way travel time, and not much choice about when I’d go. Or, I could duke it out with the other drivers who lust for a parking slot at BART Dublin.

Something that was supposed to happen here didn’t happen.

Or, to be fair: not nearly enough of what was supposed to happen actually happened. I picture a fire fighter without a hose, gamely chucking pint latte cups at a raging inferno.

* * * * *

I wish more attention were paid to the economic costs of the Iraq war.

Unitarian Church in Modesto, California

Unitarian Church in Modesto, California

I admit to tangent taking here, a comparison of apples to oranges. Millions not flushed down the Baghdad donniker certainly wouldn’t have become magically available for transportation projects. But numbers are available, can be compared. Americans insensitive to the war’s hideous humanitarian costs might at least care that their pockets have been picked, and remember that pocket picking in meditations on failing infrastructure.

The war cost about 2.2 trillion dollars. Roughly twelve of every hundred Americans is a Californian. Figure, then, that twelve percent, or 264 billion of that 2.2 trillion got took from the Golden State.

Subway construction costs range all over the place: $65 million a mile in Madrid, $417 per mile in Stockholm, a whopping two billion a mile for the Second Avenue subway. I’ll pull an unabashedly unreliable number out of a hat in the air, say $500 million a mile in urban California.

California’s 264 billion on the Iraq War — an incurred debt now, a done deal, in accounts payable; a past tense disaster, like a full facial tattoo bought on a binge drunk — would have paid for 528 miles of metro. Split that with L.A., and these already committed dollars could have funded an increase in BART’s system size of … oh, gee whiz! … around 250 percent.

Here’s a map of the BART system grid:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bart-map.png

BART map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bart-map.png)

Make it grow 250 percent in that fertile imagination of yours. Remember, you’re not using new money. The Iraq War cheerleaders already spent it for you.

Do you think it might make your Bay Area commute a little easier?

* * * * *

1 Or have been; my visa came through yesterday.

Please wish me well in Spain. A related post may be premature; I ain’t there yet.

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Marrakech: First Impressions

Marrakech is two places: the walled, labyrinthine, thousand-year old Medina, and the relatively modern city that sprawls around it.

The airport, train station and plush hotels are in the outer city. The Medina has all the tourist color: mules tugging carts through open air souqs; alleys twisting between pink adobe riads; passersby in hijabs, djellaba, fezzes and other exotic-to-Western-eyes clothes; the bustling Jemma el-Fnaa central plaza.

Wood carver in Marrakech Medina

Wood carver and chess pieces in Marrakech Medina

* * * * *

“But I wanna stay right in the Medina!” say you. “I’ll bet it costs an arm and a leg!”

Au contraire, fellow tourist; it probably costs less. The Medina is chock full of traditional Moroccan homes — aka riads — that have been converted to lodging. My riad had consistent hot water, which put it a notch ahead of a riad described by fellow tourist Angela.

Here’s a pic of my room’s ready-for-the-Ritz-Carlton air conditioner:

Air conditioner in Marrakech riad

Air conditioner in Marrakech riad

Looks like an A-OK air conditioner to you? Stay in the Medina. Think it too primitive? Look for a ritzier hotel in the outer city.

* * * * *

I didn’t get lost in the Medina, which makes me an odd character. (You already knew that.) The narrow, winding, curlicue streets were designed a millenia ago to confuse invaders.

Musician in Marrakech Medina

Musician in Marrakech Medina

This post describes my high-tech Medina-roaming technique. If it fails to appeal, consider adding a safety cushion to Marrakech itineraries; you’re likely to get lost eventually. Don’t expect to buttonhole locals for navigational help, unless you speak French or Arabic.

* * * * *

The Medina’s charms are constantly despoiled by the raucous buzzing about of motor scooters. These maraud through the narrowest alleys at all hours, threatening life and limb of natives and visitors alike; pedestrians must hug the right side of alleys to avoid being clobbered.

Motorbikes and pedestrian in Marrakech Medina

Motorbikes and pedestrian in Marrakech Medina

I was brushed by a couple of motorbikes, but never decked, and am confident I would have survived a collision. The bikes are dinky, after all, can’t gain much tourist-walloping momentum in the serpentine streets.

Outside the Medina walls: different story. The pedestrian is imperiled by speeding, multi-ton cars and trucks, might be sent off to browse that big Lonely Planet book rack in the hereafter. Marrakech traffic is shepherded by lights, signage and crosswalks, but was still the worst I’ve encountered in my wanderings to date.  I suggest that travelers with little ones contemplate alternative destinations, and that those eager to visit despite my warning memorize an unspoken, irrefutable and ruthlessly enforced rule for all tourists navigating rampageous traffic, in Marrakech and elsewhere:

Don’t get hit.

* * * * *

Like Istanbul, Morocco is firmly ensconced in the Muslim world; the CIA puts the figure at 99%. I heard melodious prayer calls every morning before dawn, and occasionally passed groups of men in prayer while wandering the city, like those in these three shots on Flickr.  (But no women? Read these two articles and your knowledge will be as inadequate as mine.)

In the Marrakech Medina

In the Marrakech Medina

Moroccans treated me splendidly, in Marrakech, Casablanca and points between. I heard no grumbles from fellow tourists of slights or discourtesies. Only after my return did I discover a decade old survey indicating that many Moroccans regard America with disfavor.

* * * * *

I heartily recommend the ONCF train from Marrakech to Casablanca, despite the bottomless toilets found therein. I bought my ticket without wait or effort at Gare de Marrakech the day before I left, chose between bihourly trains for the three and a half hour ride.

First class car in train from Marrakech to Casablanca

First class car in train from Marrakech to Casablanca

Here’s the car you’ll sit in if you ride first class, as I did.

* * * * *

I felt too often that I was gawking, and may hesitate to return for that reason.

I speak no Russian or Greek, but didn’t feel so different from the Muscovites and Athenians around me while strolling their cities or riding the metro. In Marrakech, I faced a cultural chasm I couldn’t bridge. The country is poor, with a GDP of $3,250 per person and a 67% adult literacy rate, a notch below India and Angola. I struggled to relate to the natives in so-unfamiliar-to-me dress, and too often caught myself regarding them as I might regard costumed theme actors at Disneyland: two dimensional, not completely human, part of the picturesque scenery, as if dressed in fezzes and djellaba to entertain me.

Mule and cart in Marrakech Medina

Mule and cart in Marrakech Medina

Tourists bring money, often the most lucratively obtained money to be had, so many natives play to that audience: bringing snakes to the Jemaa el-Fnaa, for instance, not because anyone seriously tries to charm snakes but because a chuckling blond with a Fodor’s guide will pay a few dirham to photograph a local holding one.

But: that’s where the money is; tourism is a major national industry, brought in nearly seven billion USD in 2013. If I want to help the Moroccan on the street, I can support a charity like Amal, or simply encourage you to visit and spend money there, and keep my misgivings to myself.

* * * * *

Practical information: No visa needed by Americans for visits under ninety days. INWI will sell a prepaid SIM card for your smartphone at the airport; I think you’ll find a Maroc booth here, too.

Jemaa El-Fnna in Marrakech Medina

Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech Medina

With that prepaid sim and a GPS signal, you can dare a ride on the 19 bus into the Medina. Without GPS, you’re likely better off taking that first trip by cab. The Medina interior is a much steeper challenge for the GPS-less visitor than the more modern Marrakech outside the Medina walls.

I did all my Marrakech getting-around on foot after that first 19 ride, but still congratulated myself for bringing along a city bus route map, just in case.

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One More Linux User

Still mortified by those gnaw marks on the keyboard from a rage-making experiment with Linux last decade? Consider giving the OS another try; Linux has matured. I switched last summer, endured far less grief than expected, now rarely boot into Windows.

Virtualized Windows 7 in Linux

Windows 7 running in Linux Mint through VirtualBox

Warning: this post is geeky. If you don’t know or care what a “Linux” or “OS” is, I’ve already kept you too long.

WHY I SWITCHED

My saga began in mid-2015, when little blue pop-ups began to appear near my Windows 7 start menu. The pop-ups announced that I qualified for a free “upgrade” to Windows 10. Lucky me!

I didn’t want Win 10, irritably clicked the pop-ups closed.

Some time later, I noticed that a huge, hidden sub-directory had metastasized on my hard disk. $Windows.~BT, it called itself. Online research indicated that this gargantuan six gigabyte directory housed the never-requested Windows 10. Microsoft had downloaded it to my computer without permission.

A much younger Tim might have interpreted this stealth download more charitably. So they want to get all the computers on the same page; is that so terrible? Gee whiz, they’re giving it away free!

An older-and-homelier Tim did not interpret the stealth download charitably at all. I did some research, discovered that Win 10 includes mandatory updates, data sharing described as a privacy nightmare, and a new forty-five page service agreement that bequeaths unto Microsoft rights to, according to the EDRi: “collect everything you do, say and write with and on your devices in order to sell more targeted advertising or to sell your data to third parties.

Unh unh; deal me out. I might be wed-by-shotgun to Big Data when using the ‘net, but don’t want to start seeing ads for budget burials and casket clearance sales if I vent about a sick relative to a word processor diary file. I steeled myself for a sure-to-be-miserable transition to Linux.

LINUX? GNU/LINUX?

Linux now drives fewer than two percent of desktop computers worldwide. Its official mascot is Tux, an obese, sedentary penguin of doubtful sobriety. Promotional material often suggests an OS that is similarly dreamy and half-baked, like a Rube Goldberg unicycle pitched unseriously for a weekday commute.

This PR misleads, spectacularly. GNU/Linux — the oft-omitted GNU for the work of Richard Stallman, and Linux for Linus Torvalds — is the free, open source spawn of legendary UNIX, the Big Daddy OS that powered Bell Labs mainframes when Bill Gates was still playing tic-tac-toe on a terminal. 90+% of supercomputers run Linux. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and other big companies run Linux. Linux or UNIX lurks under the hood of your MAC OS desktop and both Android and iOS smartphones. GNU/Linux-son-of-Unix was born to multitask, to juggle multiple users, to assign file permissions and user hierarchies.

But, early “distros” of Linux for personal PCs were geeky, fit only for computing cognoscenti. I gave one a whirl over a decade ago, couldn’t make it print, chalked up personal Linux as a hobby project.

HOW’D IT GO THIS TIME?

Much better.

I downloaded the friendly-to-newbies Linux Mint distro, experimented with a rarely-used laptop, then swallowed hard and let Linux create a “dual boot” configuration on my workaday computer. (A calculated risk; had the install borked, I would have faced a messy clean-up.)

On start-up, I now see a menu similar to the one below, allowing me to boot into either Linux or my old Windows 7 set-up.

GRUB dual boot menu

GRUB dual boot menu

Linux went smoothly online, recognized my twin LCD displays and several external drives, pushed pages out of a laser printer, and scanned pixels on a flatbed photo scanner. I couldn’t get it to talk to a sheetfed document scanner.

How about software? I liked Linux’s free browsers, e-mail clients and LibreOffice word processor as well as anything I used in Windows, and configured a Windows accounting program and address database to run under Linux via the Wine and CrossOver apps. Wine is free; Crossover cost sixty bucks.

That left my photo enthusiast software. I coughed up $130 for a new Windows 7 license, and used Oracle’s free VirtualBox to configure a separate, virtualized, OS-within-an-OS under Linux. VirtualBox did not configure itself effortlessly, required some unpleasant under-the-hood settings changes, but now handles all the Windows chores I regularly need to get done. I can still boot into my original Windows 7 set-up, as I did before downloading Mint, but often don’t do so for weeks at a time.

A VERDICT?

I’m glad I changed, but wish I hadn’t had to.

Linux may be faster, safer and arguably more elegant than Win 7, but I don’t like launching a virtualized PC to run photo apps, and judge Linux printer and scanner utilities as cruder than Windows equivalents. I live with rough edges I didn’t deal with last year.

But I also no longer compute in fear of my own OS. I’ve switched to a platform I can use and augment for years to come. Linux won’t try to hang an advertising ID on my personal PC (I don’t think), or railroad me into an “update” with onerous privacy terms and compulsory updates.

Many folk sit at a computer only to use big dollar Win only or Win/Mac apps like Avid, InDesign, AutoCad, Photoshop, Illustrator or Quickbooks. These users may be joined at the hip to Redmond or Cupertino, and I wonder if Microsoft counted on their unhappy allegiance when specifying the “features” of Win 10.

Other users shrug off privacy concerns, foolishly or not. Still others will feel as I do about privacy, but balk at attempting big system changes. What if the dual boot configuration hangs, for some reason; what if you can’t get into your computer anymore? I have nuked hardware in past experiments, struggled to make things right afterward.

I can share only my own experiences. I suffered far less in the transition than expected, and encourage frustrated Linux experimenters of years past to at least give the penguin another look. (An easy method: download the free VirtualBox for your current Windows computer, then install an also-free Linux distro and dink around in it. Don’t like it? Uninstall VirtualBox.)

AN AMUSING DISCLOSURE

I own shares of MSFT. Microsoft stock.

I don’t recommend stock picking, choose my own only because I don’t want to be a fractional owner of Altria, Lorillard and other unsavory-industry companies through an index ETF. (Consider this list of excluded companies from the bank managing Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.) Surely I could own Microsoft! Didn’t I admire Bill Gates for his philanthropy? Hadn’t I relied on Microsoft software since MS-DOS days?

Companies change. I don’t think this OS bullying is kosher, wish it were illegal, now contemplate selling MSFT and swallowing a capital gains tax to stay within my own ethical parameters.

But a part of me thinks I have a right to stand pat.

I have fled in horror from the flagship product of a company I own shares in. I believe (but can’t prove) that Microsoft is hard selling their new OS mostly because they can get away with it, that they crave software-as-service wampum to plump income statements and EPS figures, and thus boost the price of my MSFT shares. MSFT is up almost 19% for 2015. New revenue streams may send it higher in 2016. Earnings conference calls must be festive.

I’ve paid for this change. I don’t feel safe booting into my legal, licensed Windows 7 installation anymore. I’ve turned off automatic updates, safely or not; I research every update that Microsoft suggests to insure it won’t try to sneak Windows 10 onto my system. I’m an OS refugee.

Maybe I’m entitled to make some money off the deal.

* * * * *

Update:  All shares of MSFT sold, 1/4/2016.

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Budapest: First Impressions

“Bad trip idea, Tim,” I thought, and grimaced as my dilapidated Soviet-style metro creaked into yet another gruesome station on the M3 line.

By Christo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Christo, license CC BY-SA 4.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

This was my first trip to Budapest, and my ride-in-from-the-airport impressions boded badly. Clunky bus to the subway, unpromising countryside, metro stations like the one above.

Resigned to a lousy visit, I disembarked downtown, climbed to street level …

Budapest Parliament

Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest

… and thereafter thought no more negative thoughts for beautiful Budapest. Never before have first travel impressions so misled.

Consider yourself forewarned. Give the city a chance before bolting back to Ferihegy International.

* * * * *

A mercifully short summary of Hungarian miseries endured in the century past:

(♦)  Allies overran Hungary after World War I, downsized the nation from twenty million to eight million.

1956 banners on graves at Kerepesi Cemetery

1956 banners on graves at Kerepesi Cemetery

(♦)  Hitler strong-armed fence-sitting Hungary into lining up with the losers in World War II, then invaded in 1944.

(♦)  The Soviet Bloc claimed Hungary after WW II, killed thirty thousand while crushing a valiant rebellion in 1956 — a date still memorialized on hand-placed gravestone banners in Kerepesi Cemetery, as in the photo — and went away quietly in 1989.

Hungary has been a calmer place since, but a tour guide agreed that a life among such rapid ideological scene changes might encourage cynicism.  Consider Memento Park, tucked off in the suburban city outskirts: a now-kitschy collection of communist-era propaganda statues, likely of far less appeal to locals than to tourists.

Statue at Memento Park in Budapest

Statue at Memento Park in Budapest

That stuff was presented seriously to John Q. Budapest, not so long ago. How might I feel as an American while chaperoning Hungarians to, say, a boutique museum recalling the Dubya years: pasting up a host’s game smile while describing that oh-so-quirky 2000 Florida ballot count, or the endlessly replayed propaganda footage we Americans saw of the toppling Saddam statue in Firdos Square?

A nice yuk for an uninvolved Budapestian, perhaps; not so funny for me. The only local I saw at Memento Park was the amiable clerk who sold me a souvenir CCCP passport. That probably doesn’t evoke many smiles in Budapest, either.

* * * * *

Budapest built the second metro on terra firma, and the first on the European continent. I now kick myself — figuratively, at least; it’s hard to get my heel that high while typing — for missing stations on the M1 line, built from 1894 – 1896.

Tram passes Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

Tram passes Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

“Excellent” is my rating for city transit services overall. Most metro cars are spiffier than the clunker that ferried me into town on the M3.

* * * * *

I’ve gotta work this in somewhere: I took a 3:30 a.m. cab from my hotel for a wee hours flight to Frankfurt, and was amazed to see so many Hungarians still strolling the city at that hour.

* * * * *

Budapest = hilly Buda, east of the Danube, and flat, urban Pesht — that’s how they say it; with an ‘h’ — to the west. The closer you get, the more the distinction matters. The two cities became one in 1873.

* * * * *

Practical information: I put my smartphone online quickly with a prepaid SIM card from a Vodafone desk at the airport, but suffered occasional connectivity issues in town. Budapest offers no transit IC card (that I know of, anyway), but I had no trouble buying a seven day travel card from the airport’s BKK desk (and soon learned to have this card ready while entering the city’s metro, no Shangri-La for fare cheats).

Overlooking Chain Bridge, Danube and Parliament

Overlooking Chain Bridge, Danube and Parliament

The frequent-running 200E bus ferries fliers from the airport to the Kőbánya–Kispest station; get on at the terminal, ride to the end of the line.  I found no use for Budapest-specific transit apps, but moovit fired up at the Kelenföld vasútállomás bus pad, gracefully shepherded me to Memento Park.

* * * * *

Yes, many posts of late, and no, not written for any particular reason. We retirees can yield to whims.  Merry Christmas!

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Unenthusiastic About Marijuana

He was about eighteen, pudgy, stoned; I wondered if he’d keel over in the BART car. But he managed to lurch upright when his Balboa Park stop came up, and that’s when I spotted the logo on his tote bag.

Cannabis Cup. The big marijuana fest at the San Francisco Cow Palace. That explained it. He’d transfer on Geneva, ride there on the 8.

I was getting off at Balboa Park, too, that afternoon last June. I queued behind him as the train droned to a stop, discreetly surveyed his peach-fuzzed cheeks, doughy limbs and glazed, TV test pattern eyes.

How did that Kurt Vonnegut lament go, about a youth spent building model airplanes and masturbating? It fit him. At least he wouldn’t be asked to pose for eventually-regretted event photos. Any savvy weed promoter worth his campaign contribution book would know enough to limelight someone else. This kid looked like a loser.

Probably not such a good joke for his parents.

* * * * *

No, you’re not reading a diatribe against marijuana legalization. Maybe weed should be legal. Maybe other drugs should be legal, too. They used to be. I haven’t done the research, defer to objective, un-bought folk who have.

You read only a public expression of my lack of enthusiasm. I feel as little enthusiasm for new casinos, and fatter ad budgets for state lotteries. A state may need lottery money, but anyone bright enough to call shots statewide must understand how cynically a lottery leeches money from the gullible poor. Such folk also must know how regularly the marijuana used harmlessly by some earns top-of-the-marquee billing in sagas of the Regretted Life: smoked every day while bombing out of college, turned to while gaining thirty pounds in post-divorce depressions, exuding fumes and ashes to stage set gradual declines, muddled capitulations, failures. Promoted as bold! daring! barrier-breaking!, and usually sized up in the long run as just another unromantic bad habit.

But oh, gosh, look at the money to be made on the stuff!

A barrier is coming down. Twenty-three states now permit medical use of what was flat out criminal only a few decades ago. California’s marijuana hauls in seven times more cash than the grape crop. Big Weed has money and motive to fund PR campaigns and bankroll pols.

How many Hummers could you buy with a legal weed monopoly in a middle-sized burg that still doesn’t have one? Remember: early cashers-in get a lock on exclusives, snap up the best seats. Corrupt the pols, corrupt the press; hire a young Artie Samish to ghost write a mayoral speech like:

Not one day passes here at Suckerville City Hall without a call from a worried mom or dad, concerned that medical marijuana intended only to alleviate the suffering of the gravely ill might somehow fall into the hands of our children. Parents, please rest assured: I have personally investigated state dispensaries, and concluded that only the professionals at Mercenary Medical will insure that their purely therapeutic products are issued …

… and so on. A monopoly franchise, moat protected; anyone who wants a legal blunt in Suckerville gets to go through you. What equity or real estate investment can offer that kind of return? All you have to do is juice the folk who need juicing and cough up an occasional donation for kids’ baseball uniforms, or maybe Suckerville’s substance abuse clinic.

Maybe some amoral would-be investors aren’t prepared to capitalize on that opening-right-now door for legal weed. Not to worry, greedy sociopaths! Other doors may open in years to come. Today public opinion would massacre anyone trying to promote legal heroin. That door might crumble eventually, and many tenders-of-big-poppy fields will watch for first signs of wobbly hinges.

* * * * *

Or have I stenciled too many DARE presentations into teacher lesson plan books, become a closet Puritan?

Many gray hairs shrug off youthful dalliances with weed (and with some other drugs, for that matter). Astronomer Carl Sagan smoked pot. So did entrepreneur Richard Branson, travel guru Rick Steves. I might be amused by straight-from-the-Physicians-Desk-Reference product names like Grand Daddy Purple, Old Mother Sativa and (my favorite) Trainwreck, but they don’t give the lie to claimed medical benefits. Consider this article about therapy for a former L.A. city councilman.

Still: I smelled weed on San Francisco’s south side more frequently than in any other place I’d visited, including Freetown Christiania and Amsterdam’s Red Light district, and those exuding the smell invariably looked as ripe for a drop through life’s cracks as this youth. The aging, prune-cheeked single on the 14 bus, with a People sticking out of a clutched-on-lap grocery sack, in sativa-stinking cardigan. The two-steps-out-of-a-homeless-shelter trash digger, wheezing on a roach next to a liquor store. Legal weed promoters want me to look at the Sagans and Bransons, but what I see on the street are the fall behinds.

I’d never met anyone on the city’s south side with a single good word for the weed dispensaries. Baggy-jeaned “patients” could walk out with legal weed, sell off dime bags on the clinic corner. Pure neighborhood nuisances, but the tax bonanza clinics kept getting approved, and local pols seemed remarkably inconsistent in opposing them.

* * * * *

He was on his way to the inbound 8 stop, all right. I caught up with him in the tunnel under Geneva, took a last, pitying glance as we approached the stairs. Perhaps younger than eighteen. A decent-enough looking kid. Maybe he hoped to Meet Someone at the festival — who wouldn’t, at that age? — but he’d be too wasted to talk to her. No, he’d sneak a smartphone picture of her instead, stare at it later in front of the bong.

Had I forgotten that long ago evening with my pothead roommate Jim? The evening that the poor bastard had finally gotten a date, cleaned up the living room, fussed over his long hair and clothes, presented a Jim I’d never seen before … only to quietly fetch his pipe after she stood him up, and toke up in front of the TV. No youtube or Netflix for a stoner to zone out with, not in the seventies! He’d probably watched a Gilligan’s Island re-run.

The boy was behind me now, walking with a deliberate, robotic gait. Attaboy, young man; concentrate on the essentials, that was how you did it when loaded; one foot in front of the other. Probably all a big laugh to him now, but eventually he’d be thirty, thirty-five (thinning hair, changing face, tougher to keep the weight off; you’ll see, kid, you’ll see) and perhaps still driving a cab or punching a cash register, thanks to all those on-the-bong hours, and maybe those long-ago weekends at the dope festivals wouldn’t be remembered so fondly anymore.

No, not such a good joke for his parents. But look at the bright side: he was probably ripe pickings for some predator-eyed entrepreneur at the festival. He’d come with the tote, hadn’t he? He had money. Someone would want it.

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Istanbul: First Impressions

(♦)  Istanbul ranks with Athens and Rome as a ‘must see’ for history buffs. King Byzas, Constantinople, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottomans: ancient humans were busy here.

I hadn’t understood this, frequently pictured myself with a dunce cap while conducting pre-trip research. ‘Course, I’m the same guy who hadn’t known that cricket is popular; you’d expect such dummy-hood to extend to other matters.

Vendor near Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

Vendor near Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

(♦)  The other-worldly splendor of some city mosques is un-ignorable. I don’t doubt that Istanbul provides temporary shelter to its share of unappreciative passers-through: business travelers interested only in post-conference highballs and fornication; grumpy teenage dragged-alongs who care only that Turkish hotel voltage won’t fry their Xboxes.

Even these philistines will be dazzled by mosque architecture. You can’t not notice those domes and minarets, can’t not be impressed.

Interior of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

Interior of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

(♦)  I spotted many tourist herds clunking along after banner-toting tour guides, and relatively few lone wolf sightseers like me.  Why?, you may wonder, in a city that struck me as safe and friendly.

Two possible reasons:

#1: English speakers are few and far between outside the Sultanahmet district, airport and big league international hotels. I had no trouble getting around with a GPS signal on RMaps and a transit map, but still communicated often in pantomime.

#2: Sultanahmet district tourist hunters. These free market champions know English all too well, and are paid in commission for steering prospects to local vendors. Others work solo as sellers of tourist bric-a-brac.

Stray dog at Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Stray dog at Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Unchaperoned pedestrians who exude even a whiff of Lonely Planet or Rick Steves can expect to be hailed aggressively and often. (e.g.: Excuse me, my friend! You look American! What is your city, my good friend?) A charitable inch given in response will be ruthlessly leveraged into soon-regretted furlongs. Predator Pete’s Used Cars might send hard sellers to Istanbul for advanced training.

I know how to say ‘no,’ can say it rudely when I have to, but dislike treating fellow humans this way, and thus suffered before the withering attention of the tourist hunters. I twice had to flee comfortable seats to escape them.

(♦)  Istanbul is full of stray dogs and cats. Authorities tag the ears of canines vaccinated for rabies, otherwise give them little heed. Turks may feel that a stray’s hungry, dangerous life in the elements is better than no life at all.

I’d be surprised if Pew Research or some other egghead-y screed couldn’t correlate strays per capita with poverty, homelessness and other undesired metrics, will stand my ground in regarding such cast-asides as a bad sign.

(♦)  Turkey is probably a good place to shop for a Turkish rug. Sorta makes sense. You may fruitfully join such shoppers, but only if you do real homework before your trip, arrive with budget and shopping plans, and are prepared to cart your new pride and joy home with you.

Rug merchant near Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Rug merchant near Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

(♦)  Ninety-eight percent of Turkey’s seventy-five millions are Muslim. I heard mosque prayer calls every morning from my hotel, and will guesstimate that between a quarter and a half of female passersby wore hijabs.

I’m always eager for a chance to make a public fool of myself, and may eventually do so here by pontificating at length on impressions of the Muslim world. In the meantime, I’ll confine myself to the following:

Before my travels began, I regarded women in hijabs with sympathetic apprehension. I pitied them for the likely miseries endured in airport security lines and rural regions, but never would have exchanged pleasantries with a woman wearing one.

At the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

At the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

Today, I don’t hesitate. The hijab means they’re Muslims. So far as I can tell, that’s all it means.

I feel differently about the less frequently seen niqāb. Not practical, not fair, too unwieldy, and arguably not Islamic.

(♦)  Some may advocate a boycott of Turkish tourism. President Erdogan has cracked down hard on Kurdish rebels, likely while expecting only wrist slaps and florid speeches from a West desperate for Turkish help on refugees and ISIS. I knew and still know next to nothing about Turkish politics, didn’t feel I had reason to skip the trip.  Feel free to think less of me; maybe you should.

Tram at Eminönü station in Istanbul, with Yeni Cami in background

Tram at Eminönü station in Istanbul, with Yeni Cami in background

(♦)  Practical information: TurkCell and Vodafone will sell a prepaid SIM card for your unlocked cell phone at Istanbul airport. The Havalimani metro station is downstairs at the airport; visitors can buy an Istanbulkart IC card from a station machine, employ it on metros and trams while in town.

Update, 12/29:  Americans will need a visa.  I grabbed one from Turkey’s easily navigated e-Visa site, suffered so little that I forgot to mention the visa before clicking ‘post.’  (Costs twenty bucks, though, and the resulting print-out will be one more piece of paper that can’t be forgotten before the trip).

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Scouting Honest Reviews Online

A quarter hour spent reading this post will inform you of my far-from-perfect approach to IDing legit reviews online.

WHY IT MATTERS

The press has finally paid some attention to bogus reviews; witness this article, describing the market for such prostituted praise on Fiverr. Such articles can persuade innocents that Something Is Being Done, that reviews will henceforth be more trustworthy.

Lo dudo, dear reader, lo dudo mucho. Try plugging ‘review’ into the Fiverr search box; you’ll see. And those offers are just from the small fry. I’d be shocked if a corporate VP can’t read between the lines of a PR agency pitch to, say, “communicate product benefits to internet users” or “enhance brand image online.”

I have no evidence to back up such cynicism, still trust wisdom gained from decades as a grown-up. A national magazine ad campaign can cost as much as a Belvedere château. How much does it cost to click ‘post?’

Bogus reviews are too cheap, too profitable, too influential, too tough to catch. That VP doesn’t have to spell out what she wants to a gig-hungry PR agency. “Never write what you can say, never say what you can wink” made Aphorism for a reason.

If in doubt, please read this former boxing manager’s description of the reading-between-the-lines phrases he once used to fix fights:

You call up or visit the gym of any trainer who represents “opponents,” and have the following exchange:

“I’ve got a middleweight who could use a little work.” [Read: His fight shouldn’t be more than a brisk sparring session.]

“I got a good kid. But he ain’t been in the gym much lately.” [He’s out of shape.]

“That’s OK. I’m not looking for my guy to go too long.” [It’s got to be a knockout win.]

“My kid can give him maybe three good rounds.”

And that’s it. Your fighter’s next bout will go into the record books as a third-round knockout victory.

MY TECHNIQUES

I presume that most fake reviews are still relatively unsophisticated. Puff your client’s stuff, occasionally slam competitors. Those fakes are low-hanging fruit. My odds of finding bonafide reviews sink as the fake-a-loo pros try harder to fool me.

I ignore the reviews on the first page, assume that the biz or PR agency will make sure these are 4s and 5s. If they aren’t, I may have found a biz that doesn’t game reviews (or that bounced a check to the agency that does).

I click ‘poor’ and ‘terrible’ reviews, look at review dates. If they’re old, I might ignore them. If they’re new, I review the reviewer. Has he written many reviews? Does he complain for a reason, or because a hotel 86d him because his smuggled-in pit bull bit the maid who touched his smoldering hookah?

I presume that the most valuable reviews may be in the middle ranges; counterfeiters can’t significantly puff or sink star ratings with 3 star posts. I weed out 3 stars that may accidentally-on-purpose work in a plug for a competitor — e.g., Oh, I guess ABC was okay, but golly gee, my pal said XYZ is way better, and it’s on sale, too! — and study the rest, with an eye for structural product or facility problems mentioned by many reviewers. Thin hotel walls cost money to fix.

The safest bets may be facilities and products that have been widely reviewed for many months without recent, believable 1 and 2 star blackballs. I rarely find them, but I look.

HOW LONG WILL MY TECHNIQUES WORK?

Not much longer, and a candid fake-a-loo reviewer might convince me that they don’t work now for some products. I can’t see through a determined fake. A PR agency might carefully groom posting histories for a herd of thousands of fake accounts.

Some consumer benefits are short-lived. I got much more from online reviews when the ‘net was relatively new.

I see an opening for ‘old school’ media that shepherded consumers in the days before URLs and email. A company could patiently build a rep as a dispenser of honest advice, and profit thereby. Alas, many will think it more fruitful to pretend to be honest advice providers, and to cash out before being unmasked.

I apologize, younger readers: you were volunteered by birth into an often difficult world.

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Tale of Three Prepaid Local SIM Cards

I fed data to my smartphone in Europe and Africa last month through prepaid local SIM cards bought at three airports: Turkcell in Istanbul, Vodafone in Budapest, Inwi in Marrakech1. I mostly camped happily with what I bought, and am encouraged to share my SIM swappin’ experiences by the blank stares beheld when yakking about such swaps with other travelers. Your continent-roaming codger may know little about this stuff, but others seem to know even less.

THE BASICS, INADEQUATELY INTRODUCED

SIM stands for subscriber identity module. SIM cards slip into a tucked-away slot on your smartphone, allow the gizmo to connect with T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, the provider of choice.

Micro SIM card photo by Brett Jordan

Micro SIM card photo by Brett Jordan

You crave a photo. Cute little bugger, isn’t it?  Kudos to Flickr user Brett Jordan for the shot.

If your phone is unlocked and can fathom communication protocols to be encountered abroad (as can my modern smartphone), nothing prevents you from swapping in a local standard, micro or nano-sized SIM to go online overseas at affordable rates.

WHAT I USED TO DO

I used Verizon global services, as explained in May.

Bucks up? First class flier? Look no further. The bandwidth might have been premium priced, but all I had to do was fire up the phone after touch down; global services Just Worked.

T-Mobile and other U.S. providers also offer global plans. I haven’t tried them, can neither praise nor pan.

WHY I EXPERIMENTED

I had a ticket to Morocco, not covered by a Verizon data bundle. If I didn’t swap SIMs, I’d pay a bank-busting $2.05 per megabyte. In contrast, I could shell out a measly $20 in Marrakech for a prepaid local SIM card providing several gigabytes.

In for a penny, in for a pound: I decided to SIM swap in Istanbul and Budapest, too.

SO HOW’D IT GO?

I referred often to a SIM wiki while researching my trip, and browsed city-specific tripadvisor travel forums to learn what cell provider kiosks I’d find in different airports.

Istanbul: I found kiosks for Turkcell and Vodafone after clearing passport control. I picked Turkcell, showed my passport, signed some forms, paid a now-forgotten price in the $20 range, and received my Turkcell card, with assurances that it would go live within an hour.

It didn’t go live in an hour, or for my remaining two hours of wakefulness that evening. I brooded about back-up plans while I hit the sack, but discovered the next morning that I wouldn’t need them: the Turkcell SIM had come magically to life. The smartphone start-up messages and settings menus looked as they always had in the U.S.. I had more cheap, prepaid bandwidth than I’d ever need, could tether the smartphone to my computer, watch all my fave Flintstones youtube channels right at the Blue Mosque. What a wonderful way to experience a great city!

Budapest: I looked for and failed to find a Magyar kiosk, followed directions to a Vodafone booth in another terminal, and there consulted an amiable clerk with time to hold a tourist’s hand, as no other customers vied for her attention.

She wasn’t surprised by the wait for Turkcell service, said that prepaid SIMs usually fire up immediatamente, but can lie dormant for — get this — as long as forty-eight hours.

I showed my passport, signed more forms, received a wad of fine-printed paperwork for the circular file, and a Vodafone SIM card. The clerk showed me how to enter a new Access Point Name in a settings menu.

Voila! A Vodafone-engined data connection, that came online instantly and ran without hiccups.

Marrakech: My moment of truth. I’d had my Verizon SIM to fall back on in Istanbul and Budapest. I was in Africa now, understood the hurt that a $2.05 per megabyte charge would put on my wallet, expected to be smartphone-less if I couldn’t succesfully swap SIMs.

I found an INWI booth, showed my passport, collected more circular file paperwork, and a SIM card. The clerk couldn’t get a local phone number to ring, but I still bade her thanks and farewell after successfully loading web sites in a browser. I had data and a GPS signal without a wait, as in Budapest.

ALSA 19 bus at Marrakech airport

ALSA 19 bus at Marrakech airport

Said GPS signal encouraged me to ride the 19 bus into town, guided me via RMaps through the winding, twisting spaghetti strand streets of the ancient Medina — intended to confuse, when plotted a thousand years ago — as easily as I might have shuffled to a Thousand Oaks strip mall. That GPS signal on RMaps helped me rescue a UK tourist, helplessly wandering the Medina maze with nearly useless Google Maps print-out .pdfs on a tablet computer. (What good are such print-outs if you can’t find street signs?) He was a bright, friendly twenty something, but had obviously never heard of a local SIM.

I contemplated a transitophile post after helping him, my inadequate knowledge notwithstanding.

DISADVANTAGES

  • Requires some technical chops, as likely was obvious while reading this post.
  • Adios, existing U.S.A. phone number. Your local SIM comes with a brand new phone number, wanted or not; you won’t be able to take calls or check messages on your U.S. line without popping in your U.S. SIM card.
  • One more chore to deal with at the airport after arrival. The local SIMs often aren’t plug and play, so you’ll cool weary heels if other customers are ahead of you. No fun after a 10+ hour red eye.
  • One more step to research before your trip. You’ll want to know in advance what cell provider kiosks to hunt for after clearing passport control.
  • That potential delay for connectivity. I depend on my smartphone, don’t want to wait two days to use it. Googling delay ‘sim card activation’ produces few leads. I have my Turkcell experience to go on, and the words from that Budapest Vodafone clerk.
  • SIM cards are tiny, easily misplaced. You won’t lose your U.S. SIM if you don’t swap and leave it in the phone.

* * * * *

1 I haven’t sold the Verizon shares mentioned in my May post, and own Vodafone shares, too.  Vodafone was the equity I purchased, incidentally; I received the VZ shares after Vodafone sold its Verizon stake in 2014.

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The God of Mission Street

San Francisco’s brightest and most vital blocks may be on Mission Street.  I include nearly every blood-throbbing centimeter between 25th and 22nd, then some of the homely and magnificent acres north and south.

These blocks are only occasionally and accidentally pretty, and not a safe bet for some tourists.  Attractive or not: San Francisco is at its most alive on them.  The felon freshly disgorged to freedom after decades behind bars, with gate money and ill-fitting clothes; the last-will-and-testament writing terminal cancer patient, told that it’s not melanoma after all; the grim, waters-of-the-Golden-Gate-contemplating would-be suicide, who decides to give the world one more try: to these blocks of Mission Street they can come to drink in raw, skin-blistering life through their pores, to count themselves among the living.

Mural at Mission and 19th Streets

Mural at Mission and 19th Streets

Walk in the sun on the east side, by Imperial Travel, Lucky Pork Market, Sun Fat Seafood, among odors of sweat, exhaust, empanadas, marijuana; sidestep workers, loungers, drifters, giggling kindergartners leaping sidewalk cracks, a leathery-cheeked Guatemalteco with crisp-molded tejano over brilliantined black widow’s peak, hawking sugary raspados from an ice cream cart.  Feel your eardrums pulse with the mad dissonant ostinato of horns, whistles, catcalls, burbling exhausts, conversation snatches (I got HER name tatted here, ‘n’ she tatted MY name; I heard those very words on Mission, just last week), smooth-droning trolleys, the newsrack-rattling subterranean roar of a passing BART metro.  Many, many San Francisco blocks are wealthier, prettier, safer, cleaner; only Market serves up life as intensely.

Who made it so?

I walked Mission shortly after my return to the Bay Area in 2011, still remember the uncomfortable wonder I felt, the disturbing sense that the whole of what surrounded me was larger than the sum of its parts.  Too much larger; who had conspired, say, to paste up this protest poster (with grim, apocalyptic, fist-upthrusting Siqueiros marchers, in last stand yellow and black) next to the meek window display of a beauty supply house, plumping dainty chrome shears and curling irons on crushed red velvet?

Clarion Alley Mural Project at Mission and Clarion

Clarion Alley Mural Project at Mission and Clarion

Too many elements worked too well together; too many details had been primped, fussed over, tucked in.  Any level-eyed rationalist would have attributed the pleasing aesthetics to happy accident, but I was skeptical.  The furniture pieces of a perfect set don’t fly on a stage by themselves. I sensed a larger hand at work, a scenographer, a silent mastermind.

Perhaps Mission Street had a god.

Yes!  That explained it!  This was the fantasy that emerged during my Mission walks in 2011.  Mission had a puppeteer, a demigod, foreman to some city acres, uninvolved with others, likely senior to deities that oversaw less demanding turf.  (How much imagination would a god really need to run mostly-all-the-same Billionaire’s Row or Sunnydale?)

I contemplated a deified, beneficent Carlos Santana type — a natural, given the Mission’s Latino heritage — but was surprised that my imaginings wouldn’t be steered that way.  Too predictable; the afterlife wouldn’t go in for such typecasting; no, the god of the Mission would be other-than-expected, a celestial Oscar Diggs, like a tweedy and apologetic Bennington MFA who offers a too gentle handshake to horrified fans of his ghostwritten Grunts on Guadal series at a book signing.

2500 block of Mission Street

2500 block of Mission Street

The character and Identi-Kit facial composite of this deity then matured so quickly and effortlessly in my mind’s eye that I took my imaginings half-seriously, admit to taking them half-seriously now.  After all, we don’t really know about these things, do we?  Didn’t Einstein meditate upon the weakness of human understanding of nature?

Maybe I just think this God-of-the-Mission bit is imaginary.

Maybe he’s a real He.

* * * * *

The God of Mission Street was a tall, slender, gay caucasian male in his last terrestrial incarnation, neither native son nor recent gentrifier.  He aspired seriously to a design career before falling to AIDS in the worst U.S. years of the epidemic.  Something Larger (about which I dare not speculate) took simple pity on him in the afterlife, requisitioned a minor divinity’s toolkit, promoted him to a Him.  He wore his hair short in his mortal years, cut a preppy-flavored variant of the then-ubiquitous Castro Clone.  The online B.A.R. obituaries include his mortal photo and bio, but He won’t reveal details of His past identity or year of death, despite our other confidences.  Click through the obits, if you wish; your guess is as good as mine.

His taste is excellent.  I picture Him in the other-worldly ether with a thoughtful fingertip poised on cheek, brooding over His dominion as an architect might study an N scale model, contemplating enhancement or replication of one scene element, elimination of another.  The surly, beer bottle-brandishing drunk in the tank top — an obvious gym rat, dressed to flaunt weight room biceps and delts, eyes watery, lips stuporous under Fu Manchu moustache — would go well near the Mega Trading Company marquee, wouldn’t he?  Let’s shoo him over there, encourage him to slouch on a parking meter.  How about those polyester-suited Filipino oldsters handing out Bible tracts: too predictable in front of Bonita Footwear, aren’t they?  Let’s move them in front of Anna’s Linens (or would that be too jarring?  Hmmm.)

3400 block of Mission Street

3400 block of Mission Street

I’m afraid He isn’t a particularly nice god.  How could He be?  Life on Mission is often cruel.  I wouldn’t waste breath entreating Him if struck down by a car; He’d only urge me to a curb where my blood and screams might juxtapose well with the newspaper racks.  Vibe and aesthetics are His thing; thank Him for Mission’s character, nothing else.  He shows no special allegiance to gay culture, and is not all-powerful; if He were, Mission Street would include only a few, specific chain stores.  He occasionally asks me for feedback, as I am one of the few mortals aware of His existence, but only about aesthetics.

His era may be ending.  I have kept quiet about the luscious vitality of these Mission blocks since 2011, for fear that even my scribbles in this modest blog might attract unproductive attention, but see no point in embargoing the news any longer.  The Mission is changing, won’t be what it was.  San Francisco is such a tech hub now; industry workers have moved into the district, transformed Valencia Street, are spilling onto Mission, too.  The God of the Mission can work an occasional stray Python programmer into His aesthetic mix (plump, blinking, twenty-five, with unsuccessful hipster beard curling over a SourceForge t-shirt, frowning at his Tinder profile on his smartphone next to La Taqueria), but so many of the pearly-toothed Mountain View shuttle bus rider types are wandering onto Mission now.  They change the mix of the cultural topsoil, as talented, hard-working and admirable as they might be; they encourage a different and less variegated flora than the Mission of old.  The God of the Mission tries to coax them back to Bi-Rite and Dandelion and the Dolores Park hill near the J-Line, where they fit in splendidly, but that’s not in His territory and they won’t all go, and He can’t integrate all that remain.  His time is ending.  He doesn’t have the same material to work with, will have to move on.

RIP Mike Grochowiak memorial mural on Mission Street

RIP Mike Grochowiak memorial mural on Mission Street

But not today, not in the summer of 2015.  Visit soon!  Mission Street still feels mostly as it did when I marveled at it in 2011.  Pretend that you just got out, or learned that it’s not malignant, or have chosen to risk one more day of life.  Walk the brilliant, teeming blocks I’ve named, and try to glimpse the mastermind that made them so exquisite: contemplating His turf from a misty hereafter, brooding over His chess pieces.

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Home Coffee Roasting: A New Hobby

No, the contraption shown below is not a toaster oven. You can even watch the inventor shudder online when told that his pride and joy resembles one. It’s a Behmor home coffee roaster, and is photographed atop my kitchen table ’cause it belongs to me. I have stunk up the garage with fumes from about fifteen roasts now, am fascinated enough by my new hobby to want to drone about it here.

Tim's Behmor 1600+ coffee roaster

Behmor 1600+ coffee roaster

This is a personal blog. I don’t have advertisers, don’t want any, write about whatever weirdsville subject catches my fancy.

Today, it’s home coffee roasting.

* * * * *

Question #1: What is it?

The occasionally smoky and always odoriferous cooking up of raw green coffee beans.

At left, below: some Ethiopia Agaro beans, fetched from a one pound bag sold by Sweet Maria’s coffee warehouse in West Oakland. Green little buggers, aren’t they? You wouldn’t try to put these guys in a coffee grinder, would you? No! They’re green. Raw. Unready.

Few markets sell green coffee beans. Home roasters buy from Sweet Maria’s or other specialty suppliers.

At right: a roast of Guatemala Finca Candeleria Bourboncito after a cruise in the Behmor.

Green and roasted coffee beans

Green and roasted coffee beans

Brown. Cooked. (If only you could smell them a day after the roast, you unlucky instant drinker, you!) Ready for the burr grinder.

Question #2: Why bother?

In coffee, freshness counts. A lot. The unroasted green beans can slumber contentedly for eons, but the browned, cooked bean retains full flavor for a matter of days.

DAYS, folks. Cognoscenti differ on how many. I have tasted a difference after only three.

The majors can angle for first dibs on crops, hire PhDs to craft roast curves, cook up beans on gazillion dollar hardware. They still can’t economically supply consumers with genuinely fresh roasted coffee beans. I don’t care how much they pay TruthStretchers Inc. to lean on a Fresh! Fresh! Fresh! theme in an ad campaign. The roast date won’t be on the package, or will be printed in an eeny-weeny-teeny coded cipher that Betty BeanBuyer won’t see or understand. That bag of whole beans that Betty sticks in her cart might be months old.

The home roaster bets that his genuinely fresh roasted beans will mop the floor with hopelessly stale commercial beans, PhDs and gazillion dollar hardware notwithstanding.

Question #3: Is there a catch?

There are several.

  • The biggest: Smoke and smell. The Behmor advertises ‘smoke suppression technology,’ but still stinks plenty, and sometimes emits smoke. I expect my garage to reek for twelve hours after a roast, and would never use a home roaster in an apartment or condo.
Green coffee beans from Sweet Maria's

Bags of green coffee beans

  • Time and trouble. I need a half hour to roast eight ounces, counting set-up, cool down, clean-up. That’s a serious investment of tickety-tock for a wage earner hankering after a drinkable shot of morning caffeine. It’s no accident that I took up this hobby in retirement.
  • Potential danger. Over-roasted beans can catch fire.

Question #4: How’s it done?

  • Acquire raw coffee beans.
  • Apply heat. A drum roaster applies heat evenly, but beans can be roasted in frying pans, in popcorn poppers, with heat guns in dog bowls, in jerry-rigged backyard barbecue add ons. (And fires can be started while doing so. I am providing an overview, not instructions.)
  • Wait. The beans shall brown, warm, remain unready for some minutes, depending on batch size.
  • Listen. Eventually the beans will emit a sharp cracking sound, a bit like popping popcorn. First there will be one, two or three cracks; soon there will be many. “First crack” is underway. The roaster is paying excruciatingly close attention now, and is ready to end the roast at any time, depending on taste.
  • Listen II: The beans may be quiet for awhile after first crack ends.
Digital scale

Digital scale

  • Listen III: Eventually the lighter, faster, quieter poppety-pop of ‘second crack’ may be heard. Most end a home roast at this point, unless after a dark Vienna or darker-still French roast.

(Roasters use the terms City, City+, Full City and Full City+ to describe roast levels before Vienna. No idea why.)

Question #5: Does it matter?

I wonder. Aficionados rate Ethiopia, Kenya, and Guatemala among the world’s best coffee growing regions. These countries are dirt poor. As a veteran of a 501(c)3, I am much smitten by the idea of voluntary wealth transfers from consumers with discretionary dollars to spend to poor providers with something desirable to sell.  Maybe I’m out to lunch. I don’t know the industry, might be barking up the wrong coffee shrub.

Gene Cafe and Hottop compete with Behmor in the home roaster market. To my knowledge, all home roasters emit smell and smoke, require careful monitoring. What if someone invents a home roasting Model T, a set-and-forget that doesn’t stink? Those superb cups of java I now take for granted would be within reach of apartment-dwelling 9-to-5ers.

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Update, 6/16:  ‘Garages’ are what most little San Francisco row houses have.  Not basements.  I fixed the mistake in the first paragraph.

And while I’m at it: this post is intended for those interested in the taste of straight black coffee.  I reach immediately for sugar and lightener when consuming stale pre-ground hotel coffee on the road, but wouldn’t dream of using either with a home roast.  If your tastes run to sweet, flavored coffees, I’d feel safe in writing off home roasting as a waste of time.

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