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Justice For Us

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I’ve been having some disagreements–to put it in the mildest possible terms–with Social Services. I’m semi-retired and get Social Security, Medicare, and sometimes other benefits depending on how much work I have from month to month. You freelancers out there know how it goes: work and income go up and down in our biz. The people who work for Social Services, however, don’t seem to get the concept of freelance–and they really don’t get the phrase freelance writer.

After several months of frustration, and with the level of communication at a low point, I went to Legal Aid, who, though they couldn’t help me, had tons of flyers and announcements on their walls and tables, one of which was for the East Bay Community Law Center, a Public Benefits Justice Clinic. It read, in part:

We will provide advice and representation in the following areas: CalFresh; CalWORKS; General Assistance; Medi-Cal; SSI/SSDI; and HealthPAC.

I assumed this was a new service that began due to a growing need as the so-called safety net of Alameda County, the State of California and the Nation of the 99% has become more and more frayed. Social Service programs are throwing people off the rolls left and right. While I didn’t have high hopes they’d be able to help me, considering my experience at Legal Aid, I went to the Justice Clinic yesterday.logo EBayCommLaw

You know how most services these days tell you they’ll make calls for you and get back to you in a week? Not at the Justice Clinic. I was interviewed by a legal intern–who, while not an experienced attorney, turned out to be kind, smart, and fully competent. She let me tell my story from Day One to the present, let me cry and rant without once becoming alarmed or horrified or telling me “I need for you to calm down,” the way people in her position usually do. When I was finished–and she waited to be sure I was completely finished–she went off to make copies of my voluminous file, leaving me to compose myself. She returned in a few minutes, saying she thought the situation was relatively simple. On my last visit to Social Services, the appeals officer and her supervisor  looked over my case and confessed it was too complicated for them, yet to this young, enthusiastic legal intern, it was relatively simple. She said she was going to make phone calls, and asked me to be patient and wait.

The room I waited in was furnished Early Non-Profit, crowded with desks, mismatched flea market chairs, and a large oblong table, with workers and clients scattered about, where conversations could be heard–but most people were too wrapped up in their own troubles to eavesdrop. When left to my own devices, however, I did just that, and  heard workers making calls for clients, speaking confidently and competently to people in authority about hairy situations. I couldn’t make out any cohesive stories–but the point is that these people get right to the work at hand. Think about it: who does that these days? What organizations or institutions go to work on a case immediately after it’s presented to them, without so much as a cup of coffee first?lazyofficeworker

After two hours, a long but worthwhile wait, M. came back with notes and reassurances, the upshot of which was that everything was resolved! Resolved! My benefits were being reinstated as of this very day. Awed and grateful, I asked M. how she’d gotten through to them: rarely have I called a worker at Social Services and gotten them on the phone; I usually have to leave a message that is returned maybe 50% of the time. Sometimes the phone system won’t accept messages. Or it’s broken down and does weird things like buzz or beep. M. told me she’d made many, many calls until she got someone higher up than anyone I’d spoken to lo these many months.

My next thought was that she’d been lied to, the way I’ve been repeatedly lied to all this time. So while admiring and appreciating M. and the organization, I still carried a bit of skepticism that my troubles were over. Later, however, it turned out that M. had indeed accomplished the impossible. I have nothing but praise for the East Bay Community Law Center, especially for the way they treated me and how they go about their work. Anyone out there who needs help with Social Services or other legal issues, I highly recommend them. Call first for hours and an appointment. Praise be to competent people with ethics!

East Bay Community Center
Justice Clinic
3130 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA

Two Days Later: When the people at the Center saw this blog, they emailed the following comments to me. For privacy purposes I’m omitting their signatures, but here’s what these good people had to say:

Your article brought so much joy to the entire EBCLC organization! 

“Great Story! Standing Ovation!!!!” 

“This made my day.” 

 “What an awesome story!”

“____ and I are actually crying right now.” 

This is why I LOVE EBCLC and all of ya’ll who make it what it is, including our resourceful and resilient clients! 

It is rewarding to know that our actions here at EBCLC can have such a positive affect on our clients;
stories like yours are the reason why we do this job…
we are very grateful for your kind words and appreciate your gratitude.
Your life is valuable, and you matter to us! 

What a cool way to be recognized.


Plastic Bag Legislation

Muppt judges
The time has come to speak my mind on a subject of great consequence to us all as individuals, as a nation, and as citizens of Planet Earth. The subject I refer to is plastic bags, toxic to birds, fish, and other living creatures. It seems to have reached the tipping point, what with cities and counties throughout the country passing piecemeal legislation banning them.

In California, legislation to ban plastic bag usage has been debated for several years. In 2010, a bill backed by grocers and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t make it past the legislature due to opposition from—who else?– the plastics industry. The first state to ban plastic bags was Hawaii. San Francisco was the first city, in 2007.

In Alameda County where I live a law took effect this January 1st prohibiting food stores from packaging goods in plastic bags. A good law, a sensible law; who doesn’t want to save the poor little fishies who mistake these bags for food and choke to death on them? It’s a kind law, a progressive law. Or so I thought. Like most people I didn’t pay attention to other aspects of the law. Either that or I have a more simple mind than I thought I had. It never occurred to me that banning a product would mean doing anything besides removing it. As it turns out, in addition to the plastic bag taboo—in food SaveWorldstores, that is—customers who forget their tote bags or don’t have any or for any reason don’t wish to hang their purchases  around their necks are welcome to a paper bag—for ten cents. I asked one cashier where the money goes. To the state, she said uncertainly. For what? Nobody seems to know. As I’ve so often observed, most Californians don’t care about small inconveniences; it hadn’t even occurred to them to raise the question.

But I am still a die-hard New Yorker, and I care. I would like to know the rationale behind this fee for paper! One cashier said she thought it was a way of encouraging consumers to recycle by bringing their own bags. I ask you: when did ten cents ever change anyone’s behavior? Those who’ve been recycling bags all along will continue to do so, and those who haven’t are unlikely to start doing so for the money.

Another thing: I’ve always used the plastic bags I get from stores–when I forget to bring my totes–as garbage bags. I cannot understand people who carry on about the dangers of these bags, yet go out and buy plastic garbage bags. Where’s the logic here?

And one final irony: When I bought a mug and some other chatchkalas at Pier One, they put my tissue-wrapped purchases into a plastic bag.

“I thought you can’t use plastic,” I said to the cashier.

“That’s only in food stores,” she replied.bluemeany

If this is true, then the whole thing is just plain absurd.

If it’s not, well, where are the Plastic Police when we need them? Never mind the plague of violence in Oakland—they’re pushing plastic at Pier One! For the sake of the fish, get an undercover team out to Emeryville post-haste!

Breathe Better: San Francisco

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“San Francisco is known for its cool summers and fresh air
that blows in off the water. It was the only city that ranked
average or above in all 12 categories ….”

According to a survey conducted by The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA), if you want to breathe, the best city to do it in is….ta da! Our dearly beloved San Francisco! Seattle comes in second, and Portland third. No mention, for better or worse, of Oakland, where I currently occupy a tiny dark studio apartment.

When I moved cross-country from New York in 1988, it was to San Francisco. I’d fallen in love with the city, as so many people do, while on vacation visiting a friend. Six months later I found a bright, airy, affordable studio apartment in the Richmond, and lived there more or less happily for three years. Then I met a guy, fell in love, and followed him to the grimy grubby East Bay. Emeryville, where we lived at land’s end on the water, was grand—but in a few years we broke up, SF rents went through the stratosphere, and I haven’t been able to crawl out of Oakland since. As the wise, too-young departed Amy Winehouse put it, “I should be my own best friend / not fuck myself in the head with stupid men.”

(Below: SF:)

Rents didn’t just rise in SF, but everywhere, so at this point I’m in East Oakland paying relatively low rent in a neighborhood devoid of trees, outdoor cafés, or decent supermarkets. What we do have are gangs, never-ending dust from the nearby freeway, and nasty neighbors who yell at me through the windows when I cheer the Yankees or sing a song. I’ve wanted to move back to San Francisco for at least a dozen years—but I also wanted to move, for various reasons, back to New York, or to Portland Oregon, or to Los Angeles to be near my grandkids; I got myself too confused to go anywhere. This report on the air in SF, though, is the straw that’s pushing this camel over the bridge at last. Because I really need to move, for my health if nothing else.

(Below, East Oakland):

In February 2002 I was diagnosed with COPD—Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. It began while I was in Los Angeles, and I blamed the smog for a sudden case of pneumonia that had me gasping for air in the ER of Cedars Sinai Hospital. Gasping for air sounds mild compared to the experience, which I’ve never before attempted to describe. An inability to breathe is the worst, scariest thing I have ever been through, and during the following year it happened maybe half a dozen times. I remember during one episode thinking, “Why don’t I just die?” I wished I would, it was so painful not to be able to breathe, and I couldn’t understand how I was still alive without oxygen in my system.

For the next two years I got pneumonia six times, was in and out of hospitals, on oxygen, unable to work.  I stopped smoking immediately of course, that first night, and wanted nothing to do with tobacco. And then, as soon as I was off the oxygen, having no breathing problems, I wanted to smoke again. I squelched the urge as long as I could until a crisis gave me an excuse. Even so, I continued to be all right. I didn’t believe I really had COPD, though my pulmonologist insisted I did, and that it would come back again. He was amazed that I stayed as healthy as I did, still sucking on sickarettes.

I promised the doctor and myself that if I started to feel lousy again I would quit, but it took me years to finally do it, and I found it impossible this time without the help of a hypnotherapist. I also visit QuitNet regularly, a terrific supportive tough-love website.  Apparently I did further damage to my lungs–although I quit more than 3 months ago, I still can’t take a deep breath. I hate not smoking, but I just can’t do it anymore. I’m hoping that when I move back to the city by the Bay, with its cool moist winds, I’ll be able to breathe again and will feel a lot better for a lot of reasons.

If anyone out there has a lead on a cheap place to live, please let me know. I’m finished fucking myself in the head with sickarettes and stupid men.


Baseball Miscellany (with focus on the usual team)

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A-Rod Hits 600

Three years to the day that Alex Rodriguez hit his 500th home run, he became the seventh player in Major League history to hit 600 home runs in his career. It happened at Yankee Stadium in the 3rd inning off pitcher Shaun Marcum of the Toronto Blue Jays, after a stressful two-week stretch during which A-Rod made over 40 trips to the plate, hitting nothing while the fans stood, screamed, and flashed their cameras in his eyes. I for one am vastly relieved – though I confess I was somewhat hurt that he did it during a game I wasn’t watching; before then I was convinced Alex was waiting for me to witness his delivery. Oh well…at least now he can get on with just playing the game he plays so well.

Nothing these days, however, is only what it is — not even home runs, and certainly not Major League Baseball. Alex’s record-breaking homer has raised a host of questions about legacy and Hall of Fame representation in the era of steroids, an era that is hopefully passing if not over. Mike and Mike in the Morning devoted a goodly portion of the show to these questions, possibly breaking their record for time spent on baseball as opposed to basketball and especially their beloved football. They wondered if these numbers even matter anymore, and if A-Rod’s admission of steroid use detracts from his accomplishment. An interesting aside: nobody gets as riled up over drug use in other sports the way they do when a baseball player uses. Lance Armstrong, for instance, is forgiven because of his work fighting cancer. The Mikes pointed out that it’s because Americans don’t care about Armstrong’s sport, or about any sport the way they do about baseball. It’s supposed to represent Mom, the flag, and apple pie.

Well, maybe it’s time to cut baseball’s umbilical cord and free the sport from this heavy symbolic burden. I sure wouldn’t mind. We could begin by doing away with Kate Smith singing God Bless America at the 7th inning stretch.

Not that this would entirely erase the brouhaha that ensues every time a player is caught doing drugs. In A-Rod’s case, as soon as the news leaked he called a press conference and admitted it was true. You can do a lot of sleazy shit, but if you own up to it instead of lying, the way Barry Bonds continues to do, the subject gets dropped a lot faster.

Even so, the stigma remains. Alex Rodriguez is considered by many to be the best baseball player in history – and yet, according to sports columnist Buster Olney, analyst for ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and a Hall of Fame voter, most of the other 575 voting sportswriters will never vote for any player who was involved w/ drugs. This includes Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, both of whom continue to vociferously deny drug use, and a host of other players who clearly belong in the Hall of Fame.

In some quarters, there is a presumption that time will soften the baseball writers’ attitude … It won’t happen in our lifetimes, however, unless there is a dramatic alteration to the voting procedures.

It’s a twisted situation. As many sports analysts point out, it’s not as if players in past eras were pure as the driven snow; amphetamines were once the drug of choice. Given what players physically endure in the course of a season, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that they’d take something just to get through it. Unfortunately, Hall of Fame voters are as screwed up and confused as the rest of our culture when it comes to drug use and abuse. And the games go on….

Joe Girardi, Manager

I’m not one of those people who scream, “kill the ump” every time something happens on the field that I don’t like. I’m more apt to shout to the tv screen, “Hello! Earth to Girardi! Wake up Joe, it’s time to change the pitcher!” Rarely does he listen.

I don’t know WTF he listens to, if anyone, when he’s making some of his warped decisions in the lineup or pitching. Last Sunday the Yankees lost to their chief contenders because of the lineup; it was so obvious that for once I wasn’t alone in blaming Girardi. He kept A-Rod, Brett Gardner, and Mark Texeira out of the game until the late innings.

“The New York Yankees’ 3-0 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday was one of the few that was lost at the posting of the lineup cards.” wrote ESPN’s Wallace Matthews.

“Joe Girardi… is always concerned about resting his horses and somehow — on this day, in this game, against this team at this point in the season — chose to rest three of them.”

This wasn’t the first time Gerardi screwed up. I don’t have one of those photographic baseball memories like a lot of men seem to, so I don’t have instant recall of specific games and managerial decisions, but they happen frequently, more than when Joe Torre was managing. (In my opinion, the big mistakes of this season, tho not Girardi’s fault, were  dumping Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui – but that’s a whole other blog.) I don’t even think Derek Jeter should be leading off. When he was second in the lineup and Damon preceded him, Jeter benefited from the way Damon wore out the pitcher; and if Damon got on first base, Jeter would ground out and move the runner forward. Now he just grounds out, period.

It’s extremely frustrating to watch a ball game go down the tubes and know it didn’t have to happen. If my analyses are wrong, I’m caught in  a kind of syndrome, like “Monday morning quarterbacking.”  I begin to understand George Steinbrenner‘s frustration and his maniacal treatment of his managers. I wonder what he’d say about Girardi’s management?

Good News For Oaktown

It looks like the A’s won’t be running off to San Jose any time soon: it turns out that the land they’d designated for a new stadium is owned by AT&T, and they’re not planning to give it up. Fremont was wiped off the boards as a location some time ago: seems the residents want a nearby stadium, but NIMBY. Could the A’s end up staying in Oakland? Mayor Ron Dellums has proposed building a stadium near Jack London Square, a perfect location. The A’s would end up playing in a place on a par with the Giants’, easy to get to and cooled by bay breezes. Dellums, who’s done almost nothing during his time in office, could redeem himself by masterminding a plan before he leaves office. As the billboards used to say, It wouldn’t be Oklnd without the A’s.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

I’ve almost finished the best baseball book I’ve ever read: Confessions of a She-Fan: The Course of True Love With the New York Yankees by Jane Heller. It’s funny, very personal, and totally reflects my own passion for the team. I know I should never promise to write something I might end up not having time for, but it is my intent to blog a full review of She-Fan soon.

David Zirin: Left-Wing Sports

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If the term  fan evolved from the word fanatic, then David Zirin is the ultimate personification of the sports fan. Zirin is distinguished, however, from the stereotype – and reality – of the beer-swilling, big-bellied, couch-riding passive observer by his application of left-wing analysis to all things athletic. In fact, he’s made political analysis of professional sports his life’s work, and is writing the record to prove it, with books like What’s My Name, Fool?, A People’s History of Sports in the United States, and Welcome to the Terrordome.

When I first read Dave Zirin a few years ago, I assumed he was the only person on the planet analyzing sports from a political perspective. I found out otherwise when I went to hear him speak Saturday at a four-day Socialist extravaganza held in downtown Oakland. Turns out not only are there other sports lovers with a political analysis, but they overflowed the room, and, judging from hisses, boos, and cheers at key moments, most are far better informed than I.

Wearing a bright orange “Los Suns” t-shirt, Zirin opened and closed his talk by praising that basketball team’s Cinco de Mayo demonstration against Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, when they took to the court wearing the shirt. It was, as Zirin emphasized, an extraordinary event; political statements on the part of professional athletes are about as common as edible Gulf Coast oysters. The Suns’ action was effective: it spawned demonstrations against the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team everywhere they’ve played this season – the biggest one being at their game against the Giants in San Francisco.

I hadn’t known about the SF demo – nor did I know that my beloved Joe Torre damned the protests out of his belief that sports are apolitical; or that Tony LaRussa, manager of the St. Louis Cardinals and known for major dog rescue operations in the East Bay, vociferously supports Arizona’s law. As Zirin said, “He likes animals, not people.” I can relate. Apparently, however, a lot goes on that I know nothing about; I aim to rectify the situation, beginning with visiting Zirin’s website regularly.

I’ve always thought that the sports world’s official line that they’re all apolitical fun and games is patently false, and I suspect the owners and fat cats know it. First of all, everything is political. And secondly, just because nobody talks about the beliefs underlying their behavior, policies, and actions doesn’t mean they aren’t motivated by a set of principles: Left-wing Studies 101, kids: That’s Politics!

I can, however, understand some hesitancy about protesting D’Backs’ games: after all, their state’s draconian laws aren’t the players’ fault, so why persecute them? But the goal of these protests isn’t team persecution, it’s to persuade Major League Baseball, and its namby-pamby leader, Commissioner Bud Selig, to relocate the 2011 All-Star game slated to be held in Arizona. Selig, true to form, says he won’t change it, but I suspect that if more players and managers, like White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, threaten not to attend, and if he fears demonstrations disrupting the event, Selig might be pressured to cave in.

Zirin’s talk was followed by the usual Q&A, which among socialists is taken as license to vent. Zirin seemed to anticipate no real questions coming his way: after his dynamic, frequently funny talk, he sat down and let the audience rip. After five or so indecipherable monologues from every corner of the room, Daryl and I stood – we’d taken front row seats, no less – and quietly sidled our way to the back doors.

Did I mention that Dave Zirin is not only smart, funny, and charismatic, but also adorable as hell? He may be a quarter century younger than me, but I swear we made eye contact two or three times. He must’ve seen in me a kindred spirit; I only hope he forgave my hasty escape.