Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 28, 2012

I left my heart in San Francisco

Filed under: San Francisco — louisproyect @ 8:17 pm

I just returned from a 4-day stay in San Francisco. My wife was giving a paper on Argentine banking to the Latin American Studies Association conference there and I had tagged along.

This was the first time I had been in San Francisco as a tourist and brought along a Frommer’s guide just to make sure we hit the highlights on her free days. My first time in San Francisco was in the summer of 1965, just after I had graduated from Bard College. I had driven out there with another graduate, a guy named Rick Smith who became a professional blues harmonica player. Since this was before the days of the Interstate, we took Route 66, a road that inspired the television show about two “beatniks” driving around in a Corvette looking for adventure.

Would you get hip to this kindly tip
And go take that California trip
Get your kicks on Route 66

I had plans of living the good bohemian life out in San Francisco but the war in Vietnam put a damper on my plans. After three weeks of reading daily reports in the San Francisco Chronicle about troop build-ups, I decided to walk to San Francisco State to pick up an application for the fall term and the student deferment that went along with it. On a map, there was only about 30 blocks separating the place I was staying on Russian Hill and the campus. I had no way of knowing that the steep hills made it the equivalent of 100 Manhattan blocks. The one thing that sticks with me to this day were the miniature but magnificent gardens that homeowners kept. The flowers were like none that I had ever seen before, native to places like the Pacific coast or Hawaii I suspected. It was nearly enough to get my mind off my wartime anxieties.

I returned to the Bay Area a few times in the 1980s to meet with Michael Urmann, the executive director of Tecnica, and with Peter Camejo. Peter loved California and the Bay Area in particular. He was always anxious to show off its scenery as we discussed politics. This page from my memoir (publication date, Jan. 21, 2065) captures the experience.

On Thursday we went off on a one-day tour recommended by Frommer’s, starting with Union Square. Unlike NY, the name refers to the Unionist side in the Civil War rather than trade unions. According to the guidebook, the square was the site of passionate abolitionist speeches given by Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian minister.

Thomas Starr King

New York, on the other hand, was where Irish workers rioted against being drafted on behalf of the same cause. I saw nothing in Union Square that commemorated this aspect of the city’s glorious progressive past, only a monument to Admiral Dewey’s imperialist adventures in the Spanish-American War.

“War has commenced between the United States and Spain”

Here, by way of contrast, is an abolitionist rally addressed by Reverend King not far from Union Square:

Afterwards we took the cable car on Powell up to the Fisherman’s Wharf, something equivalent to going to the observation tower on the Empire State Building. My advice to people going to San Francisco is to only take this trip very early in the morning. We got stuck with a trolley full of bawling infants, obviously traumatized by the clatter of the wheels on the tracks, the clanging bell, etc. We had to resist bolting from the car and going the rest of the way on foot. Here I am, up in the hills above Fisherman’s Wharf, probably not far from the place I crashed at nearly 50 years ago.

We went off on another tour on Saturday, taking in the Castro, the gay capital of the world where Harvey Milk lived, and the adjacent Mission District where Latinos lived.

As we strolled along Castro Street, my wife felt like exploring the inside of Worn Out West, a used clothing store featuring leather jackets, cowboy boots and the like. We were both rather surprised to see that the clerk was completely naked except for a loincloth of some sort that the tip of his penis extended beneath by a good 2 inches or so. All the while, the heavily muscled man was lifting what looked like 30-pound dumbbells.  As New Yorkers, we took it all in stride. Frankly, I was happy to see a display of sexual transgression in a period where so much of the Gay population seems so bent on being accepted.

Worn Out West

Apparently, that trend has even opened up divisions within the Castro itself as the San Francisco Weekly reported on December 1, 2010:

In Chinatown, it may be the Year of the Tiger, but in the Castro, it’s almost always the Year of the Cock. Judging from a walk down Castro Street, cocks are the unofficial mascot. You’ve got the Sausage Factory (an Italian restaurant named with a wink), Hot Cookie (a bakery that sells chocolate-covered cookie cocks), and Rock Hard (a porn shop full of gigantic, X-rated cocks). To cap it off, the Castro just elected a supervisor named Scott Wiener.

But this year, the neighborhood found out that the male anatomy can still cause a stir when the real-life cocks arrived. In broad daylight. At the plaza on the corner of Market Street, right by the F-line trolley stop. Sometimes flapping down Castro Street. Or hanging out in line for coffee at Starbucks.

The Castro is, of course, no stranger to exhibitionism. Back in the heady ’70s and ’80s when gay men claimed the neighborhood formerly known as Eureka Valley as their own, guys stood with shirts off and tight Levis sanded at the crotch on “Hibernia Beach,” the sidewalk outside the old Hibernia Bank at 18th and Castro streets.

But in 2010, those guys have grown up, settled down, and had babies. Locals have noticed more lesbians and straight couples have moved into the neighborhood with babies of their own. The Castro has gone from edgy to twee and touristy. Strollers have rolled in like an invading army.

One day this summer, Glenn Castro, a gym teacher from the nearby Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy (one of two elementary schools within two blocks of the plaza), approached the trolley stop with 30 day campers. Suddenly, a field trip to Pier 39 seemed a lot less interesting to the schoolkids than a group of naked grownups in the plaza.

One of the campers was the 7-year-old daughter of Terry Bennett, who runs Cliff’s Variety hardware shop on Castro, opened by her great-great-grandfather more than 70 years ago. Later that day, Bennett called the city’s service line to report the naked men walking down the sidewalk.

“I don’t know why they’re doing it — shock value or what?” she says from behind her counter at Cliff’s recently. “The Castro’s a place that’s supposed to be for everybody, and if you’re excluding the kids, that’s not being accepting of everyone.”

The Castro, as well as the gay community for whom it is both the literal and symbolic home, is changing. Whereas the fight used to be to come out, today’s battles are to fit in — to join the military, get married, and win benefits for your partner — in short, to make the gay community just as normal as the straight folks down the street. So when men start dangling out the bits on a Tuesday afternoon in what is essentially the Castro’s front yard, well, the neighbors start to talk.

The Mission District is home to some magnificent mural art that took up the issues of the Latino population, including the battles of the 1980s for democracy and social justice in Central America as this:

On Friday, when my wife was over at the LASA conference, I had lunch with Paul Mueller, a guy who graduated a year ahead of me from Bard College. I can make no stronger recommendation than to check out Paul’s comments on my blog. The best way to do this is to do an advanced Google search on “Paul Mueller” with the domain “louisproyect.wordpress.com”. This is the sort of thing that will turn up:

I started at Bard in ‘61, the same as you. I was a student of Heinrich Blucher–I wrote my senior paper on Heidigger. Today I would describe myself as a socialist in much the same way as you do. We are probably the only two people in the world who have given thought to Bluchers’ influence on our socialist politics. I am glad to find I am not alone.

Bard was not “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson” in the early ‘sixties. Of course my girlfriend was a Red and lots of the girls, including my sister, were whores, but our political crowd was small compared to your arty crowd. For me the Bard years were political times. I had joined the YPSL in ‘62, and I attended the first anti Vietnam March in Washington in ‘62 and the ‘63 Civil Rights March with groups from Bard. And in ‘64 when I ran the speaker program I brought up several former Trotskyists (Max Shachtman, Dwight McDonald) as well as Mark Lane from the National Guardian.

I left Bard for Madison Wisconsin in ‘64. I was a grad student in sociology, but mostly I was a activist caught up in new left politics. With my YPSL comrade, and allied with various anarchists and the SWP crowd, we battled the dominant CP nonsense such as the ”Ad Hoc Committee against Extremism” that worked to elect Lyndon Johnson. In ‘68 when several of my friends were run out of town after the Dow riots, and with the draft after me, I headed back to the Hudson to teach sociology at New Paltz. I went back to Bard hoping to talk to Blucher about my political experiences but he and everyone else was gone.

Paul recounted the same narrative over lunch at a very nice French restaurant near Union Square, but interjected some memorable new material. I especially got a kick out his dinner with Max Shachtman who was regaling his young comrades at Bard (all 3 of them?) with stories about the good old days of American Communism when he was trying to decide whether to hook up with the Communist Party or the Communist Labor Party. (Read Theodore Draper on this stuff, or even better watch Warren Beatty’s “Reds”). He said the key question was whether to support “mass action” or “action of the masses”. When the comrades asked him which line was correct, Shachtman slammed the table and said “action of the masses, of course.”

Speaking to Paul reminded me of how glad I am to have thrown in my lot with America’s radicals. While it won’t bring you fame or fortune, it certainly puts you in touch with some of the most interesting people you will find anywhere.

Back in 1962, when Paul was organizing meetings for Max Shachtman or Dwight MacDonald, I was smoking pot and trying to make sense out of Plotinus and Zen koans. I guess there was nothing wrong with that at the time, but I am glad that I worked it out of my system with the war in Vietnam helping me along.

Unfortunately I did not get a chance to meet with Hari Dillon later that day since he had come down with food poisoning. You may remember my write-up  on Hari from a while back, when I recounted his legal and political problems as executive director of the Vanguard Foundation that was forced to close shop after an Israeli con artist suckered Hari and Danny Glover into putting the foundation’s assets into a scam investment.

I did manage to speak on the phone with Hari for about a half-hour or so and learned that the conman had been sentenced. He also sent me links to a couple of recent articles on the scandal. What a sleazeball Cohen was. The Breyer referred to in this article, by the way, is the brother of the Supreme Court Justice:

A former high-tech executive convicted of defrauding investors of at least $30 million was sentenced Monday to 22 years in prison after a judge denounced him for fleecing nearly 100 victims to finance an “obscene lifestyle” of private jets, gaudy jewelry and Swiss bank accounts.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said Samuel “Mouli” Cohen was “nearly sociopathic” for refusing to show remorse for actor Danny Glover and others who suffered after he told them a company Cohen launched called Ecast that made electronic jukeboxes for bars was about to be acquired by Microsoft Corp.

Cohen rented a $50,000-a-month mansion in the wealthy enclave of Belvedere just north of San Francisco, and decorated the house with copies of famous paintings by Picasso, Miro, Matisse and other noted artists.

Prosecutors said he solicited investments during parties at his house, which he told victims he owned while showing them the artwork he claimed were originals. Prosecutors said that was all part of a ruse to portray himself as a wealthy and savvy businessman.

Prosecutors produced receipts, credit card records and other evidence at the trial that showed Cohen spent $6 million on private jets, $1.4 million on a diamond ring, $372,000 on a Rolls Royce and $260,000 on an Aston Martin.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I’ll never understand why you commit crimes to lead this kind of life-style. For that matter, why you would hurt other people through “legal” means to achieve the same ends, like closing down a factory or polluting a river with carcinogenic chemicals sanctioned by a toothless EPA.

Back in 1961, when I started Bard, I was on some kind of spiritual quest. The image of an ascetic Zen monk had the same kind of appeal that socialism had for Paul Mueller. There is something that still intrigues me about the religious mystic, even though that route is effectively closed off to me. Whatever it was in the 60s and 70s that turned people off to war and senseless materialism of the sort epitomized by Mouli Cohen never really disappeared. It just went into a state of deep hibernation. Now that a financial crisis in its 4th year is showing signs of its intractability, there is every hope that a new generation of cultural and political rebels will take their stand, connecting not only to my generation but also to the one that took its stand in San Francisco’s Union Square 150 years ago.


  1. “THREW a damper” — first sentence, third paragraph. ( i can’t let my favourite left commentator make mistakes like that!) delete this if you wish.

    Comment by uh...clem — May 28, 2012 @ 9:05 pm

  2. good story ! i can’t help wondering how so few have not come to the same political levels as we?
    anyways good views of San Francisco ~ nice place to visit…but i’m from Southern CA, and SF was like another state.

    Comment by Darwin26 — May 28, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  3. Hmmm. Not sure where that “through” came from. I didn’t mean threw actually, but put. Thanks for the head’s up and the compliment in any case.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 28, 2012 @ 9:11 pm

  4. As long as readers are throwing out corrections: “I *few* out to the west coast” in the excerpt from your memoir should of course be “I *flew* out…”

    Comment by Eddie Turr — May 29, 2012 @ 12:26 am

  5. Heh-heh. That’s Harvey Pekar’s typo, not mine. Since he is dead and Random House has no intention of publishing my memoir, it will remain “few” instead of “flew”.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 29, 2012 @ 12:51 am

  6. Indeed another great story, Lou.

    My parents (Don & Polly from the Bloomington SWP days in ’64) & I also lived in S.F. around ’63, but I was only an infant. My parents were soon divorcing but they made a pact to stay close for the sake of my upbringing. My dad told me as a kid that S.F. was “the loneliest city he ever lived in.” Even though I was an only child the word “lonely” was alien to my vocabulary since I was surrounded by a transient life full of raucous radical debates in annually changing apartments across the country, To him there was something inexplicably sad & lonely about the city of S.F, despite it being full of the radical milieu he craved & thrived in.

    I returned back to S.F. at sixteen as a tourist from Chicago with my mother and a Spanish Civil War vet named Sidney Harris — also from Chicago whose sadly since passed. (Sid Hariss – Presente!)

    I too sensed a sort of melancholy loneliness about the town — just as my dad had sensed, and like him, I couldn’t put my finger on anything except a sense of profound alienation, a very strange vibe, completely different than Chicago which we, as a family, all found our eventual groove in.

    We always though it so strange how despite our tiny family of 3, who were always so close at so many levels, were instintively so much more loyal than the profoundly hypocritical notion of the “American Family Values” crowd, full of vindictive related assholes & the internecine politics of sueing their siblings or parents and cutting off children from their wills for pathetic reasons like spiteful mendacity.

    Max Weber may have proved that Protestants have more of a work ethic than Catholics but he neglected to document what a bunch of spiteful, disloyal pricks they are, never mind being the worst hypocrites when it comes to so called “American Family Values” forcing two adult parents to work long hours while their kids are being raised by God only knows while the unbridled corporate greed American Capitalism forces on American workers the most odious, sinister & pornographic family values ever concocted by human civilization.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 29, 2012 @ 2:51 am

  7. Americans have an unhealthy fascination with innocence that often manifests itself as protecting children and especially fetuses even as they tolerate draconian cuts in the social safety net. Also, SF is becoming ever more conservative and unaffordable by the year; the East Bay is a more interesting place socially nowadays.

    Comment by purple — May 29, 2012 @ 5:55 am

  8. Glad to see that you enjoyed your time in the City. I have spent much of my time biking around the Mission and the Avenues in the last 10 years, there is much there to appreciate. About those compelling Mission murals, I actually encountered one in 2003 that foreshadowed Occupy, a poem by Daisy Zamora that accompanied a mural in Clarion Alley:


    The people who had painted the mural introduced the poem with the statement: “Occupy your streets and not other countries.”

    I had been so struck by this mural that I wrote the poem down on slip of paper in my wallet. The Mission aside, as much as I like SF, I prefer Oakland at this stage of my life, because it hasn’t been nearly as gentrified. SF politics is getting more and more conservative.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 29, 2012 @ 6:58 am

  9. I’ve always loved San Francisco. I wish I could afford to live there! On your next visit, be sure to visit Alcatraz Island. Our tour of the facilities was the highlight of our last visit.

    The see San Francisco in a whole different light, watch the 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

    Comment by David Altman — May 29, 2012 @ 8:24 am

  10. Karl loved your comment no. 6. I couldn’t agree with you more. American Family Values? Who plays God and determines what’s morally acceptable? Usually right wing neo-conservative Republicans who are still stuck in 1950 and are named Mitt Romney with his Mormon posse by his side.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — May 29, 2012 @ 11:54 pm

  11. The inexorable encroaching conservatism of SF, and thereby it’s ruin as a city enjoyable & charming to anybody outside the 1%, is the fact that modern capitalism, with all its real estate speculators, has driven up the cost of living to the point where desperate yuppies (the middle class) blame their plight on the typical scapegoats — immigrants, unions & other victims of ruling class turpitude.

    It’s not for nothing that Leon Trotsky concisely & sociologically pinpointed the roots of Fascism in “the stampeding petty bourgeoisie.”

    Young people in the quest for social justice would do well to read tract’s like “Their Morals and Ours” by Trotsky: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/morals/morals.htm

    keeping in mind to just ignore some names they don’t recognize but were popular around 1938.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — May 30, 2012 @ 3:03 am

  12. ‘The Ends justifies the Means’ is analgous to the ‘Greater Good for the Greater Populace’, however it is this same ‘common sense’ logic that enables Govmints to Torture for this ‘greater good’ …
    i went to presentation this evening by a ‘strict constitutionalist/free market fundy’ at invitation by folks who know i’m a Socialist. i can’t help but amoralize over the consentration he made of the ‘Christian God’ will lead us to Salvation to a mix of Banner worshipping Reichwingers, T-klanners and folks who never heard of Citizens United. There were some points of similar vein like a Peoples Bank (of Montana).
    To a Dominionist any means justifies the end. Thank you ObamaNationInc, Greenspan, M Friedman… all of them claim the moral high ground ‘for our own good’ to which subjugation and suppression are the means AND the end.

    Comment by Darwin26 — May 30, 2012 @ 6:45 am

  13. My husband and I also just returned from a stay in SF, after a 15 year hiatus. We too love the place… it’s incredible physical beauty, social diversity, terrific public transit system, and the bohemian freedom of (often ugly… or is it just normal?) naked people in the street.

    But Louis, when you go back, make sure never to take the cable cars during the day! They are far more magical (and much less crowded) AFTER dinner!

    I also recommend the Richmond District (south of the Presidio and north of Golden Gate Park): affordable (!) and delicious food from all over the world, and street life ripped from the pages of a Ben Katchor comic. I think we were the only tourists there!

    Thanks for the background on Union Square SF… very interesting. Also, nice journal! You might enjoy artist Paul Madonna’s work, ‘All Over Coffee.’ His long-running comic strip in the SF Examiner is stylistically very similar to the image you published in this post. And your orange Patagonia jacket is very au courant!

    Is the town ‘more conservative’ and gentrified than 15 years ago? Is there an undercurrent of melancholy in the people? Sure. But I still left my heart there on May 21st.

    Comment by Cliff — May 30, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  14. I visited SF for the 1st time in ’04. It has all the unique, almost sublime, aspects you mention. Re gentrification: I asked many service workers in the two hotels where I stayed if they lived in the city. Without exception they said, “Well nobody actually lives here! Unless you’re super rich.” Speaking of the sublime– when I walked across the Golden Gate Bridge on a sunny April afternoon I stopped midway, took in the whole panorama of the Bay, and could actually imagine taking the leap. Under “end of life” circumstances it seemed a great way to make an exit. But there’s those damn obstructions they’ve placed up there to counter the “jumping fever.” I don’t normally consider jumping off bridges— only that one.

    Comment by Bob Montgomery — May 30, 2012 @ 3:07 pm

  15. Best Zen precept, “A day without working is a day without eating.”

    Comment by Chuckie K — June 2, 2012 @ 11:42 pm

  16. Me.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 18, 2016 @ 9:54 pm

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