The arts


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For Valentine’s Day my wife Lynn gave me a book with an intriguing title. It’s Lust on Trial by Amy Werbel (Columbia University Press, 2018).

Dr. Werbel is associate professor of  the history of art at New York State University’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Her book explains how 40 years of misguided attempts to maintain New England Calvinism as America’s culture made it possible for almost any works showing a naked body — from fine art, to erotica, to medical texts — to be prosecuted as obscene. Unfortunately, some laws shaped by that era still haunt parts of our country today.

           Professor Amy Werbel 

At the center of her account is a Puritanical, anti-vice crusader from New Canaan, Connecticut, Anthony Comstock (1844-1915). He for 40 years wielded so much clout that the 1873 federal anti-obscenity law was named the Comstock Act.                                                  

Comstock helped found the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. Working with police in the state, the NYSSV seized tons of supposed obscenities, which even included pictures from Paris that were regarded as fine art in France. 

“The leaders of the NYSSV all presumed the existence of a ‘racio-cultural hierarchy,’ with ‘Teutonic/Anglo Saxons at the top,'” Werbel writes. “Given their belief that Anglo-Americans already possessed the greatest culture on earth, it seemed natural to view French influences generally as a form of pollution.”

French Catholicism, in NYSSV eyes, failed to condemn all public exhibition of nude art whereas American Protestantism recognized a social need for enforcing Calvinistic standards of morality.

 

Anthony Comstock in his New York office around 1900. (All photos in posting from ‘Lust on Trial’)

For 40 years as an inspector in the post office department, Comstock “vigorously asserted his power to serve as a Christian censor of morals within a supposedly secular government position,” Werbel writes. Among the “obscenities” Comstock also sought to suppress as supposed threats to morality were condoms, dildos, and birth-control information. He also fought in court to prohibit abortion. Ironically, his opposition to birth control and abortion was largely to insure that couples indulging in illicit sex would pay the penalty of having a baby.

‘Nymphs and Satyr’ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1873.

In Bouguereau’s “playful” painting, Werbel explains, “the satyr had been caught spying on a group of nymphs who are now taking their vengeance by dragging him into a nearby pond. Satyrs can’t swim, and so his lust has been swiftly transferred into mortal terror.”

The Grand Saloon in the Hoffman House.

Although photos of the painting were ruled obscene in New York in 1883, they continued to circulate. The original painting of Nymphs and Satyr meanwhile hung on the wall of “the Grand Saloon” in the Hoffman House Hotel. The large painting had remained in place despite Comstock telling the hotel’s owner in 1885 to remove it. This was an expensive establishment geared to the wealthy upper class, and Comstock would soon learn that such people could not be successfully prosecuted.

An 1896 cigar label was considered an example of yet another medium being used for disseminating “obscenity.”

Comstock’s primary goal in suppressing all erotic images seems odd today. In his mind, the greatest danger they posed was to inspire lust which, in the case of boys, could lead to masturbation, and he considered self-gratification the worst of sins. We know his thoughts on this because Comstock at the age of 19 made an apparent reference in his diary to masturbating: “I debased myself in my own eyes today by my own weakness and sinfulness, was strongly tempted today, and oh! I yielded…. What suffering I have undergone since, no one knows.”

A year later having joined Connecticut’s Company H in the Union Army, Comstock saw the pornography that other soldiers had ordered through the mail, and he “again recorded giving into the same vices that plagued him in New Canaan.” His diary, two other biographers have noted, was “filled with confessions of guilt and outbursts of bitter remorse during these years.” Nor did “Comstock’s obsession with lust and masturbation” ever change, the book notes.

In the case of girls, as he saw it, the main danger of any lust resulting from obscenities was not that it would lead to masturbation but that it tended to make the girls indecent. When a short-lived American Student of Art magazine published nude pictures of both men and women, Comstock put it on trial for influencing girls to “turn to lives of shame,” insinuating that the arousal of girls “might lead them to prostitution.”

Although Comstock seized hundreds of dildos, they confused him. He believed respectable women were “passionless” and that for any female, arousal depended on “male impetus.” When his investigations turned up a dildo which was somewhat expensive by standards of the times, he wondered who the customers were? “Prostitutes don’t use them,” he reasoned. “The married do not. Their cost being about $6 would seem to preclude their use by the poor and the low.” Werbel writes that Comstock was “entirely unable to fathom that an unmarried woman of means might want to take pleasure from masturbation using an artificial penis.”

Ironically, as the author notes, “one of the most common diseases serious doctors diagnosed among women in the mid-nineteenth century was ‘female hysteria’…. Many recommended curing the problem with induced orgasms, either produced by physicians who massaged the vulva by hand, often on a weekly basis, or hydrotherapy that directed a strong stream of water onto the clitoris.” This was time-consuming, Werbel adds, and ultimately led to doctors inventing the electric vibrator.

 

Figure in Motion by Robert Henri.

Since the reason displays of nude bodies were obscene, as Comstock saw it, was that they inspired lust, arousal was his personal test for obscenity; if something turned him on, it was obscene. When it came time for his defendants to go on trial, juries for their own protection were for years not allowed to see the “vile” evidence that had been seized, and even when defendants were acquitted, they often didn’t get their goods back.

By 1900, however, Comstock’s judgment was being increasingly challenged. After he led a string of raids on “vendors of improper photographs” in Philadelphia in 1886, the vendors argued in court that the photos were high art or were pictures to be used by artists who couldn’t afford a live model.

Even though Comstock argued that the New York Court of Errors and Appeals had found the same pictures to be obscene, the Philadelphia judge quickly threw out the cases. “It seems absurd for New York detectives to come over here and try to demonstrate that recognized works of art are obscene,” he remarked.

When the American Society of Artists publicly protested seizures of art, it declared, “We believe that the study of the nude in art is not only innocent, but is refining and ennobling.”

After Comstock seized art from the Knoedler gallery in New York, The Evening Telegram responded by printing on Page 1 the pictures that he didn’t want the public to see. Comstock then tried to get the district attorney to indict The Telegram but was abruptly turned down.

Other newspapers were also beginning to mock Comstock’s censorship.  Commenting on all this, The New York Times wrote that Comstock exemplified “persons of a low grade of intelligence and a prurient turn of mind.” The Springfield Republican called him “the most preposterous ass that walks on two legs.”

‘Anthony Comstock: The Village Nuisance’ by Louis Glackens was published as a cartoon in a humor magazine called Puck. “While he holds up his hands in protest, Comstock at the same time fixes his gaze firmly at his enticement,” Werbel points out. “The scene is a clear reference to his ineffective campaign to rid shop windows of such suggestive displays.

“At the upper left, Comstock leads clothed horses down a park path, and below that he attempts to serve a warrant on ‘a shameless French poodle.’  On the right… we see Comstock bathing fully clothed and, finally, in the last scene he ‘gets what is coming to him,’ tormented by winged devils in the fiery abyss of hell — in which he wears only a peek-a-boo carnival mask across his ample posterior.”

In his prosecutions, Comstock typically cited England’s Hicklin test for obscenity. If something erotic could disturb even the most vulnerable people, such as small children, it was considered obscene. Not until 1957 did the U.S. Supreme Court finally stop the use of the Hicklin test for determining obscenity. From now on, it ruled, Congress could ban only material “utterly without redeeming social importance.” What mattered was “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest.”

It seems significant that when Comstock died in 1915, there was far more sexual material in the country than when he began his anti-vice campaign. Indeed, he “had helped to make figure painters, sculptors, and nude models extremely sexy,” the author observes. Moreover, his prosecutions frequently proved to be valuable publicity for whatever was on trial.

By our standards, some of Comstock’s own standards would be considered immoral. For example, “he viewed child sex trafficking as largely the fault of the victims,” according to the author. He “placed the blame for ‘White Slavers’ squarely on the girls who had ‘already been dragged down to perdition by the perverted imagination.'”

Over several weeks in 1899 alone, a series of girls, who were caught in the nets of traffickers, out of desperation committed suicide (using poison) in one particular tavern, McGurk’s saloon in the Bowery. “Comstock,” the book says, “ascribed their deaths to ‘reading light novels.'”

Werbel quotes Christine Stansell, who also writes about art, as saying one of Comstock’s great unintended accomplishments was to make the opposition coalesce: “The battle to protect free speech linked artists, writers, and professionals of  progressive bent to working-class militants.” These factions Werbel adds, “disagreed on many subjects, but they all wanted the opportunity to be heard, to be read.

“In the following decades, that right waxed and waned both in law and custom, but it has never again been as diminished as during the reign of Anthony Comstock.”

Caveat lectorem: When readers submit comments, they are asked if they want to receive an email alert with a link to new postings on this blog. A number of people have said they do. Thank you. The link is created the moment a posting goes online. Readers who find their way here through that link can see an updated version by simply clicking on the headline above the posting.

For the fourth time in eight months a friend got me to read a book that turned out to be worth writing about. This time it was Linda Sturdivant of Inverness Park, who gave me the book Haunted Salem Oregon by Tim King. It was published last year by Haunted America, a Division of the History Press, Charleston, South Carolina. I don’t believe in the paranormal, so I wasn’t sure the book would interest me, but it did.

 

Tim King in his days as a motorcycle journalist.  (Photo by Tom King)

The publisher describes the author as: “a former marine [who] spent more than 20 years working for a variety of local TV news stations in Oregon, Arizona and Nevada, including ABC, NBC and FOX affiliates. Tim founded Salem-News.com in 2004.

“Later in 2006, he took an assignment with Oregon Guard’s 41st Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan, reporting for Portland, Oregon ABC affiliate, KATU. During the summer of 2008, Tim went to Iraq, where he covered the war. In addition to motorcycle journalism, Tim coauthored the book Betrayal in 2013. In 2015, Tim launched Salem Ghost Tours.”

Despite being an experienced reporter, King writes about “paranormal investigators” as if they need no explanation: “Experts explain that there are several different types of ghosts. Among the different categories are intelligent ghosts, residual spirits, poltergeists, demonic ghosts, and shadow people… Paranormal investigation [can become] highly addictive.”

Underground passageways found when an old building was demolished.

Salem is the capitol of Oregon, and along with tales of its ghosts, readers learn about the odd way the city was originally constructed. “A labyinth of tunnels snakes its way under Salem’s old downtown section,” King writes. “These underground passageways were used by the public to navigate between buildings in the late 19th century. There was a main tunnel system and numerous catacombs, many of which still exist…

“I would not be surprised if Salem qualified as a record holder for the largest number of underground tunnels in a US city.” Indeed, “the state hospital tunnels are notorious and long known for their ghostly presence…. Stories about ghosts in the old tunnels are rife. Employees of the state hospital still talk about tormented, lifeless spirits clinging to our world and roaming the grounds.”

A safe found under a demolished building.

“Today, quite sadly, much of Salem’s underground has been filled in,” King laments. “Long passageways that had access to spacious rooms only accessible through underground tunnels are now blocked off and filled in…. All efforts to preserve the tunnels failed.”

 

The Fairview Home for the Feeble Minded

“The Fairview Home for the Feeble Minded, as it was originally called, easily competes as one of Salem’s most haunted places,” according to King. That comes about because of the “tragic abuse people suffered…. In the beginning, Fairview’s patients were called ‘inmates.’ That word set the tone for a zero-tolerance environment.

“Over time more than 2,500 forced sterilizations took place…. Forced hysterectomies, tubal ligations, vasectomies and even castrations were requirements for discharge from Fairview through the late 1970s…. The place seems to hold or possess the spirit that loomed over people here, making them alone and fearful and often in pain over their own physical and mental shortcomings.”

Salem’s Reed Opera House which opened in 1870.

“The man who built this immense brick structure,  a former Civil War general, Cyrus Reed, has reportedly been seen for decades in his military uniform, greeting people and welcoming them into the building before disappearing,” King writes. “Similar stories tell of a striking woman in a red dress. Like the general, she welcomes guests and then disappears. Like the general, she is noted for her armless and legless appearance,” King reports.

“The stories about ghosts on the second floor, the site of the old theater, abound. People talk about a pair of poltergeists that cause endless mischief. They are believed to be the spirits of two teenage boys who, in the early years of the theater, learned to draw a reaction from the audience with their vaudevillian antics. They enjoy hiding items that the maintenance crews are searching for.

“Today the second floor of the three-story building is probably the most active. A shadow figure of a man who reportedly wears a top hat is the topic of regular discussion among the councilors who primarily occupy the floor. The shadow man is disturbing, though the figure does not approach people.”

Of course, there are no photographs of any of these ghosts, although King writes that several people have recorded the sounds they make. And that is the essence of Haunted Salem Oregon. If readers are willing to momentarily suspend disbelief, they’ll read some fascinating tales.

Tim King in a recent photo.

Caveat lectorem: When readers submit comments, they are asked if they want to receive an email alert with a link to new postings on this blog. A number of people have said they do. Thank you. The link is created the moment a posting goes online. Readers who find their way here through that link can see an updated version by simply clicking on the headline above the posting.

A friend I met in Sausalito’s No Name Bar where I go Friday evenings to listen to jazz, poet Paul LeClerc, has again recommended a fascinating book I would not know about otherwise. It’s Cain’s Book by Alexander Trocchi. As The New Yorker once commented, “Mr. Trocchi’s ideas…are set down in prose that is always clean and sharp and often ferociously alive with poetry.”

Poet Paul LeClerc in Sausalito’s No Name Bar.

This is the third book LeClerc has recommended that is set in a low-rent, mostly industrial area along the docks of Manhattan Island. The first two were Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell and Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore, which I wrote about in the postings linked above. Much of LeClerc’s interest in that setting stems from his having driven taxis in New York City, where he also worked in bookstores. (He later did the same in San Francisco.)

Alexander Trocchi as a young man with his typewriter .

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1925, Alexander Trocchi in his 20s moved to Paris where he became a life-long heroin addict. He wrote six pornographic novels and edited an avant-garde literary magazine, Merlin. The magazine lasted from 1952 to 1954 when the US State Department canceled its many subscriptions because, according to Trocchi, of an article by Jean Paul Sartre that praised the homoeroticism of writer Jean Genet.

Trocchi then moved to the US, first to Taos and later settling in New York City, where he became a bargeman on a Hudson River scow. The character Joe Necchi in Cain’s Book is a stand-in for Trocchi. Often Joe spends days alone moored on a scow, at night sleeping in a shack atop the deck. Inside the shack he fixes himself with heroin, smokes marijuana and cigarettes, and types manuscripts by the light of kerosene lamps.

On the scow, “I became fascinated by the minute-to-minute sensations, and when I reflected, I did so repetitively and exhaustingly (often under marijuana) on the meaninglessness of the texture of the moment, the cries of gulls, a floating spar, a shaft of sunlight, and it wasn’t long before the sense of being alone overtook me and drained me of all hope of ever entering the city with its complicated relations.”

Alexander Trocchi with his wife Lyn Hicks.

Trocchi neither condemns nor romanticizes heroin addition. He simply shows what it is like. His character Joe lives in an unmoral world where junkies rip off their friends. Joe seduces men and other men’s wives. Women resort to prostitution to pay for their drugs.

And it was all real. When Cain’s Book was published in 1960, notes Wikipedia, “Trocchi was deep in the throes of heroin addiction; he even failed to attend his own launch party for [the book]. His wife prostituted herself on the streets of the Lower East Side.”

Trocchi playing chess with pieces made from used heroin syringes.

“To be a junkie is to live in a madhouse,” Joe muses. “Laws, police forces, armies, mobs of indignant citizenry crying mad dog. We are perhaps the weakest minority which ever existed; forced into poverty, filth, squalor, without even the protection of a legitimate ghetto.”

Growing up, Joe had also been in poverty — but not because of drugs. His mother took care of the house, but his father became a total shirker and stopped contributing anything, he recalls. “Whenever I contemplated our poverty and how it situated me at the edge of an uncrossable gulf at whose far side strolled those fortunate few who had lived their lives in well-mannered leisure, I felt like a tent pegged down in a high wind.”

Yet for all this, Cain’s Book is not a downer. Rather it’s enlightening, making it understandable how some people get hooked on heroin and what then happens to them. Norman Mailer called the book “different from other books: it is true, it has art, it is brave.” In a time when this country is in what’s called “an opiod crisis,” Cain’s Book makes clear that it is possible to become addicted and yet examine oneself through art.

Trocchi died of pneumonia in 1984 at the age of 59.

This week’s  journey started out when Sausalito poet Paul LeClerc and I got to talking during a break in the jazz one Friday evening at the No Name Bar. As noted in my July 8 posting, he recommended I read Joseph Mitchell’s 1938 book Joe Gould’s Secret, so I did. Not surprisingly, the author’s style turned out to be extremely engaging, for Mitchell was a longtime writer for The New Yorker. Much of the book had already appeared in that magazine. Whenever that had happened, Gould received some much-desired publicity.

— Poet Paul LeClerc (in white hat) at the No Name Bar

As I wrote last time, Gould was an unemployable eccentric who frequented the dive bars of New York City. Sometimes he called himself Professor Seagull. He claimed he’d learned the language of seagulls and had translated various poems into “seagull language.” He survived on donations of money, food, and clothing.

To justify his having no job and no money, Gould told people he was busy writing “the longest book in the history of the world.” He called it An Oral History of Our Time and was constantly recording in composition books conversations he was overhearing. The “secret” was that there was no such book, only a bunch of his notebooks, as Mitchell (below right) would discover. Gould was eventually hospitalized with a variety of physical and mental problems and died with people still looking for a copy of his Oral History.

— Los Angeles Times illustration

The story fascinated a college student named Jill Lepore (left), and one semester she joined the hunt for Gould’s missing Oral History as part of a thesis. Her paper became the genesis of her 2015 book titled Joe Gould’s Teeth. With its 77 pages of footnotes, it’s probably better researched then any other book I’ve read. Appropriately, Lepore, now 52, has become a professor of American History at Harvard as well as a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Lepore depicts Gould in far less flattering terms than Mitchell did. “Joe Gould was a toothless mad man who slept in the street,” Lepore writes, also noting that he sometimes “bunked in flophouses.” She also describes Gould’s obsession with sculptor Augusta Savage and his behavior toward her after she rejected his marriage proposal. Gould became so distraught he had to be hospitalized, and upon his release, he began stalking her.

This gets us to a stunning revelation that explains the title Joe Gould’s Teeth. Gould over time was admitted to several psychiatric hospitals, and “it was likely at Central Islip [hospital in New York] that Gould (above) lost his teeth,” Lepore concludes. “‘The first thing they did with all patients was take out all their teeth,’ wrote the psychiatrist Muriel Gardiner recalling her residency at a mental hospital in New Jersey at the time. This was on the theory, she explained, ‘that mental illness of any sort was always the result of a physical infection.'”

Lepore subsequently notes: “In New Jersey, Gardiner found the care of patients in the state mental hospital appalling. What most distressed her was the removal of their teeth. ‘I read their charts,’ she later said, ‘and some of them literally had had teeth, tonsils, appendix, uterus, every organ that you can live without removed for no apparent reason except they were schizophrenic…. None of them had ever got better.'”

That medical quackery explains the title Joe Gould’s Teeth. Oddly enough, Lepore merely refers to it only twice briefly and well before the conclusion. It’s almost as if that cruelty were incidental to her account and not the focus of the book’s title. But since Lepore writes for The New Yorker, I won’t second-guess her style.

Inverness Park’s Richard Blair and his wife Kathleen Goodwin have a new book, which consists of top-notch photography documenting life in San Francisco from the 1960s to the present. Although a couple of Richard’s subjects are well known, the quality of his photography makes each come alive in new ways.

Much of what makes Richard’s photography great is his combination of timing and perspective. Here’s the Transamerica Pyramid as seen through a tower of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge as seen looking up from Fort Point on the San Francisco shore.

A variety of artists painted the murals inside Coit Tower during 1934 as part of a public work project.

Most of Coit Tower’s murals can be seen on the main floor, but, as Richard notes, “A rarely seen section on the second floor, where space is tight, can be viewed as part of a tour.”

An exotic, jungle-like elevated walkway at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

A highlight of a drive through Golden Gate Park is the elegant San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers on John F. Kennedy Drive.

Hippie days recalled — A pyrotechnic display last year illuminated the conservatory during a 50th anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love. During that summer back in 1967, “music was in the park with the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane providing the soundtrack,” Richard writes. “We were stoned on pot or acid, and life was good (if the Vietnam War didn’t get you).”

Party time in Mission Dolores Park — “The largest concentration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LBGTQ) people in the world lives in San Francisco,” Richard notes. “Their freedom is a wonderful thing that everyone can enjoy, whether they are gay or straight.

“LGBTQ people are a major contributor to the city’s economy. Because of San Francisco’s tolerance we are getting a lot of the world’s talent!”

A dancer at Carnaval San Francisco. Photo by Kathleen Goodwin.

As it happens, all the other photos in this posting are by Richard Blair although his wife Kathleen Goodwin also shot some of the notable images in San Francisco, City of Love, including this one.

Marian and Vivian Brown were identical twins born in 1927 who grew up to be frequently pictured in the press and on television sporting identical snappy outfits and coiffed hair. They accompanied each other everywhere and would often eat dinner at one of the front tables in Uncle Vito’s restaurant near the top of Nob Hill. Marian died in January 2013, and Vivian died 22 months later.

An old man heads across the street in Chinatown.

San Francisco, City of Love does an impressive job of documenting the city’s fascinating people and special places. The book is starting to be available in bookstores, and at Toby’s Feed Barn, and can also be ordered from <http://blairgoodwin.com/BlairGoodwin/SF__City of__Lovehtml/>. 96 pages, $9.95

 

A bohemian resident of Sausalito, poet Paul LeClerc, 71, is a regular customer of the town’s No Name Bar, which I visit every Friday night with Lynn or a friend to listen to the Michael Aragon Quartet perform stunningly good jazz.

After I got to know LeClerc (above), he began encouraging me to read Joseph Mitchell’s 716-page book Up in the Old Hotel, a combination of factual stories and fiction (each identified as such). I rather suspected the coincidence of our names is what inspired him to recommend the book, but in any case, I took his advice and read it.

For almost 60 years, Mitchell (at left) wrote for The New Yorker, and several sections of the book first appeared in that magazine. All are set in the 1930s and 40s. Here Mitchell chats with restaurateur Louis Morino outside Marino’s Sloppy Louie’s restaurant near the Fulton Fish docks in New York City. (Photo by Therese Mitchell)

In ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,’ the opening section of the book, habitués of this saloon and other joints in lower Manhattan, provide characters for Mitchell’s story. In Shannon’s Irish Saloon, for example, he encounters Arthur Samuel Colborne, who describes himself as “the founder and head of the Anti-Profanity League.” A street preacher, he claims his league has passed out six million cards urging people not to swear.

Colborne chastises people on streets and in bars for using not only obscenities but also words such as hell. “It might not be one-hundred-percent profanity, but it’s a leader-on,” he tells Mitchell. “You start out with ‘hell,’ ‘devil take it,’ ‘Dad burn it,’ ‘Gee whiz,’ and the like of that, and by and by you won’t be able to open your trap without letting loose an awful, awful blasphemous oath.”

When Mitchell offers to buy Colborne another beer, the old man declines, saying, “I seldom have more than two, and I’ve had that. Nothing wrong in beer. Good for your nerves. I’d have another but I want to get home in time for a radio program.” Colborne later acknowledges having drunk beer heavily on at least one occasion, and Mitchell writes, “He was the first beer-drinking reformer I had ever encountered.”

‘Joe Gould’s Secret’ is probably the best-known section of Up in the Old Hotel. Gould (above) was an unemployable eccentric who sometimes called himself Professor Seagull. He claimed he’d learned the language of seagulls and had translated various poems into “seagull language.”

He survived on donations of money, food, and clothing. To justify his having no job and no money, Gould told people he was busy writing “the longest book in the history of the world.” He called it An Oral History of Our Time and was constantly recording in composition books conversations he was overhearing.

In reality, there was no such book, only a bunch of his notebooks, as Mitchell would discover. Gould was eventually hospitalized with a variety of physical and mental problems and died with people still looking for a copy of his Oral History.

Paul LeClerc, who brought Mitchell’s remarkable book to my attention, lived and worked in and around New York City for about four years, driving taxicabs and working in bookstores. He’s familiar with McSorley’s Saloon and the Fulton Fish Docks area where most of the book’s tales take place. When he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, he continued to work in bookstores.

In this 2015 photo by Peter Fimrite of The San Francisco Chronicle, LeClerc is filling his tank at Bridgeway Gas in Sausalito, the most expensive station in Marin County. “I live in town and I don’t drive that much so the price isn’t as big of a deal,” LeClerc explained.

At the time, the station had temporarily raised its prices to almost $8 per gallon. David Mann, the owner, “provided an unusual reason for the surge,” The Chronicle reported. “He doesn’t like complainers.” The newspaper quoted Mann as saying, “Yesterday, some guy asked me, ‘How high are you going to go?’ I said, ‘As high as I need to go to get you to stop complaining.’”

Mann, like LeClerc, is a bit eccentric (as am I), but certainly not on the scale of the Up in the Old Hotel’s eccentrics.

The book is available through Point Reyes Books and, of course, via Amazon: Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, Vintage Books, 2008

It’s not common, but every so once in a while I’ll spot in my bookshelves some intriguing volume I had forgotten ever buying. Last month I made one of those happy discoveries when I ran across The Secret Paris of the 30’s. It’s by the great French photographer Brassaï (1899-1984).

Brassaï’s photographs are engaging in a variety of ways, including the text he wrote to go with them. This photo circa 1932 is one of many shot in late-night settings. Titled “A Happy Group at the Quatre Saisons,” half the scene is in the mirror.

Other photos in the book include prostitutes and madams in brothels, dancers behind the scenes at the Folies-Bergère, police on the street, bums living under a bridge, an opium den.

He also documented gay and lesbian nightlife. In describing a lesbian bar called Le Monocle, Brassaï writes, “I was introduced to this capital of Gomorrah one evening by Fat Claude, who was a habituée of such places.  From the owner, known as Lulu de Montparnasse, to the barmaid, from the waitresses to the hat-check girl, all women were dressed as men, and so totally masculine in appearance that at first glance one thought they were men….

“Once in awhile one would see butchers from the neighborhood — rather common in appearance, but with hearts full of feminine longings — surprising couples. They would waltz solemnly together, their eyes downcast, blushing wildly.”

Photography closer to home: As I’ve often noted, raccoons are nightly visitors on our deck.

The raccoons have been showing up in search of food for so long they have worn two  paths to our steps, as was evident on a frosty morning last weekend.

Other critters have begun to use the raccoon trails during the day. Here’s a bobcat on one of them. Photo by Lynn Axelrod

To round out this set, here is the Michael Aragon Quartet playing jazz last Friday evening, as they always do, in Sausalito’s No Name Bar. Aragon is the drummer. Predictably the performance was excellent as it’s been for three decades, but the surprise for barkeep J.J. Miller came when I told him about a street in Rohnert Park which is also named “No Name.” I just discovered it myself a week ago. One possible reason the street isn’t better known is that it’s only one block long.

From bobcats to cathouses, from byways in Rohnert Park to jazz in Sausalito, this blog covers the waterfront. Be sure to stay tuned for more.

 

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik on Monday wrote about designer Christina Kim interviewing famed restaurateur, author, and sustainable-farming-advocate Alice Waters. The interview took a somewhat surprising turn, Garchik noted, when “at one point, the conversation turned to tablecloths in Switzerland.” Now there’s one hell of an obscure digression.

But the culinary world is full of surprises. On Tuesday when I dropped by Toby’s Coffee Bar for my daily mocha, the blind Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli could be heard on the bar’s radio singing Time to Say Goodbye (click). It was a haunting duet with Sarah Brightman, but what impressed me was how skillfully barista Diciderio “DC” Hernandez could whistle along with it. Wow! I can’t even carry a tune whistling.

Rounded stingrays, the most common rays on California’s coast. National Geographic photo by Norbert Wu.

Odder but grimmer: Did you read where 156 people in Orange County were attacked by stingrays in just three days last month, 73 of them on Dec. 29 at Huntington Beach? Stings from the rays’ tails are painful and can get infected but are seldom fatal. Lifeguards said there are far more stingrays around than usual, apparently because of low tides and because unusually warm water this winter is drawing them back to shore .

Victims are usually stung while wading in shallow water, and the easiest way to avoid them, lifeguards note, is to shuffle one’s feet, which stirs up muck and scares them away.

Another odd story: Chronicle columnist Willie Brown, former mayor of San Francisco and speaker of the California Assembly, is well remembered for championing civil rights, economic reform and other liberal causes. However, his brief nod to burlesque and porno filmmaking seems to be mostly forgotten.

So let me remind you that Brown (center) as mayor deemed July 13, 1999, the official day of Tempest Storm, the “queen of burlesque,” (at left). He then went on to deem July 28, 1999, the official day of porno actress Marilyn Chambers (at right). Chambers starred in Behind the Green Door and other pornographic movies while Storm was known as a striptease dancer.

Perhaps President Trump will someday name a holiday after his former porno inamorata Stormy Daniels.

Three months ago, I resumed updating this blog weekly after a 14-month hiatus caused by eye problems. My renewed blogging seemed to be going well when almost a month ago, I suddenly found myself unable to post new material. Thanks to diligent work by webmasters Janine Warner, who used to be a reporter at The Point Reyes Light, and her husband, Dave LaFontaine, an online-journalism prof at USC, the problem has now been corrected.

What had gone wrong? In trying to figure out what had sabotaged this blog, I took note of what else was getting hacked and who appeared to be doing the hacking. When I looked at what the news media were reporting, the likely culprit became clear. Based on timing alone, I’d have to say this blog had been targeted by the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin (upper left) was no doubt miffed by the coverage he’s been receiving in SparselySageAndTimely.com. You may be skeptical because you think Putin is unlikely to be reading this blog, but bear in mind Kremlin computer systems scan the entire Internet for him.

And that’s the whole post-truth explanation for why much of this posting is a week or two late.


Our fact checker nose.


This year’s yuletide in Point Reyes Station has been colorful, cold and wet. The annual Lights of Life celebration was held Dec. 2 and was highlighted by the lighting of the town Christmas tree, which is located between the Wells Fargo Bank and Palace Market parking lots.

As always it was a festive event, but this year it also had a somewhat sad cast, for the old tree will be cut down next month.

The tree is on Wells Fargo property, and people at the bank told me it is dying and that they’re worried about dead limbs falling on the public. The pine looks basically sound to me, but I’m no arborist.

Harmony Grisman, played a guitar as usual, and led a crowd beneath the tree in singing Christmas carols.


A few blocks away, the Dance Palace Community Center  held its annual Holiday Crafts Fair from Dec. 2 to 4. Dozens of craftsmen showed off their work. Women at two tables sold holiday-themed treats to raise money for Tomales High student scholarships.

Fairgoers inspected bowls and vases by Inverness ceramicist Molly Prier (right).

At a nearby booth, Point Reyes Station jeweler Kathy Hunting offered an array of pins, necklaces, and other jewelry.


Elsewhere in West Marin, a Holiday Art Fair and silent auction was held in the San Geronimo Valley Community Center on Saturday on Dec. 2.

The Bolinas Winter Faire was held Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Dec. 2 to 4.


 

 

 

Plutocracy, a new musical show by Bolinas composer Dale Polissar, will premiere this month with two performances in West Marin: in the Bolinas Community Center  at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, and at 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, in the Dance Palace in Point Reyes Station.

v3 Plutocracy with info

Debuting as a “semi-staged concert performance” with five singers and a narrator, Plutocracy imagines what happens when the head of a global oil corporation dies and, to everyone’s surprise, leaves control of the company to his young hippie poet son — with a powerful CEO uncle determined to stop the boy.

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Polissar’s previous musical satirizing the George Bush administration, By George, It’s War!, got standing ovations at the Throckmorton and other Marin and Berkeley venues. Popular Marin choreographer and dance teacher Doree Clark, who choreographed By George, is also choreographer for the new musical, which is produced and directed by the composer.

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Polissar studied composing at Stanford University, has had choral works performed by major choruses, and plays clarinet professionally with such artists as pianist Si Perkoff and guitarist Bart Hopkin. He has written and produced three political musicals, and he proudly states that “in addition to musical honors, my resume includes three arrests for civil disobedience.”

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About Plutocracy Polissar says, “It touches on many contemporary issues, but above all I hope it is engaging and entertaining — in the great tradition of American musicals — with songs that are sometimes fun, sometimes very moving.”

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The cast includes several Marin singers and actors — Beth Carusillo, Madeline London, Daniel Patrick, and Bob Scott — as well as, from the larger Bay Area, Tim Mayer and Peter Webb. “Plutocracy will play at two other Bay Area venues in November: at La Peña in Berkeley on Nov. 6, and at the Noe Valley Ministry in San Francisco on Nov. 18.