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February 17, 2003


Norating… and Waiting

By Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

Almost an Item. — While “norating around” among the wharves yesterday, keeping the Fast, by reason of the last dime having been put into the collection-bag in the morning “for the benefit of the poor of the congregation,” (of which we were one,) we discovered a speck of fire among broken up straw, which had communicated with the wharf timbers and promised fairly for an item.
— San Francisco Call, August 5, 1864
Sunday, February 9, 2003

U.S. Demands Iraq Show Cooperation by This Weekend. Powell Issues Warning. Arms Inspectors Report Some Gains but No Breakthrough in Talks With Baghdad.

“Code Orange,” federalese for what Smokey the Bear calls High Fire Danger. People begin to make jittery jokes about duct tape and plastic sheeting. “Brinksmanship” ­– the watchword of 40 years ago, during the Kennedy/Khrushchev Cuban Missile Crisis – reappears everywhere, applied to North Korea, India and Pakistan, and of course Iraq. “The end of the world” has acquired a new meaning since Columbus made his daring voyage in 1492.

These days, the threat of war is palpable. Like an oil slick, it spreads over the surface of everyday events, smothering life underneath. Recording the quotidian seems patriotic, even subversive.

Monday, February 10, 2003

3 Members of NATO and Russia Resist U.S. on Iraq Plans. Serious Rift in Alliance. Allies Block Effort to Aid Turks – Moscow Concurs in Call for Deeper Inspections.

At 8:00 pm La Taqueria is nearly empty. Only a few lone diners huddle in the corners; a few other customers pick up food to go and hurry out the door. As I wait for my burritos, the cooks conduct an inaudible but animated conversation behind the counter, hands flying, heads tossing with laughter.

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

Top U.S. Officials Press Case Linking Iraq to Al Qaeda. C.I.A. Chief Closes Ranks. Powell Cites New Tape Said to Be of Bin Laden as Sign of Baghdad “Partnership.”

I drive my son to SFO, expecting to find evidence of increased security everywhere. KCBS reports that officials in San Jose have begun to inspect all cars entering the airport’s parking lots. In San Francisco, nothing. At least, nothing that greets a casual visitor. 

In the afternoon – shades of Peter Zenger – I help a friend lay out an in-your-face antiwar pamphlet to be distributed at Sunday’s demonstration. Recalling Peter Zenger, I delete the files from my computer when we’re finished.

In the evening Moose’s is busy, every table filled. Ed Moose says business has been off; last night the restaurant was empty. Tonight, for some reason, everyone decided to go out. He works the room and heads out the door, to Marietta and a home-cooked dinner.

At Butter, Carlton Solle is checking IDs at the door. Steady traffic flows in and out of the bar, where a private birthday party is under way. Recalling complaints by new SOMA residents who blame their insomnia on the din from nearby clubs, I’m surprised at how quiet it is on the sidewalk. The result of four layers of sheetrock, Solle explains. Even my Bernal neighborhood is noisier than this.

Wednesday, February 12, 2003

Experts Confirm New Iraqi Missile Exceeds U.S. Limit. A Range Beyond 90 Miles. Hussein Said to Be Positioning Explosives in the Country for Sabotage Campaign.

On CNN Ted Kennedy questions CIA director George Tenet, reading from a recent security alert: “In the event of a U.S. attack on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction may be used… they might… Saddam Hussein might…” Ever so slightly, the senator emphasizes each conditional verb. In response, Tenet sneers – I’ve never seen Tenet in action before; maybe the left side of his mouth always curls – “Let me put that into context for you, Senator. In the past month, the Europeans have picked up 116 suspected terrorists…”

Late in the afternoon, Poets on Parnassus hold a poetry reading, part of a nationwide convocation of “Poets Against the War.” It’s a tiny group, about 20 people, arranged haphazardly on the tiered chairs of Toland Hall. One refers to her collection “Plutonium Series,” reminding me of the last time I visited this amphitheatre, to hear Mayumi Oda, printmaker and founder of Plutonium Free Future, discuss her most resent work. Today’s gathering is smaller, but it trembles with an urgency that the world lacked six years ago.

I leave UCSF and drive across town. At Sacramento, I watch with pleasure as a bus filled with passengers rumbles by, a well-lit room of ordinary people.

At the London Wine Bar Michael Krasny is preaching to the converted Society of Professional Journalists. Rick Knee, who has been nominated for SPJ’s James Madison Freedom of Information Award, fills me in on the advent of Sunshine in the city of San Francisco. After Attorney Terry Francke and publisher Bruce Brugmann – he nods in Brugmann’s direction – convinced then Board president Angela Alioto that openness in government was a good thing, she worked with them to bring the other supes around. All of them. Despite opposition by the Chamber of Commerce, SPUR, and then mayor Frank Jordan. It was an amazing feat even though, he adds, it was an incomplete one, because a number of civic actors – nonprofits, for example, and the School Board – may still operate under umbrellas of secrecy. An amazing feat nonetheless, I agree, noting my astonishment at how much more goes on behind closed doors in other cities.

A right proper fog encases the city as I head for home. My car labors up Nob Hill, past the Big Four, where waiter Ron Henggeler regales diners with stories of San Francisco history. I drive down Polk, past City Hall. Warning lights illuminate the crosswalk, like beacons on an airfield landing strip.

Later in the evening I take Sparky for a walk. Our progress is slow: the little black dog must sniff each bush, where the moist air has raised a host of new smells. On Mullen, a rural lane on the edge of Hammett-town, fading plum blossoms glow in the streetlight.

Thursday, February 13, 2003

U.S. Will Ask U.N. to State Hussein Has Not Disarmed. Draft of a Resolution. Move With Britain Is Intended to Counter Inspection Plan by French and Germans.

In the Haight, Jerry Threet hosts a houseparty for Tom Ammiano. Jim Reid is there, looking like a candidate in a dark suit instead of his usual sweatshirt. Rather than campaign door to door, he’s been riding the buses, shaking hands with as many as 500 potential voters in a day. Yes, they all do shake his hand, he says.

Ammiano has shed his sport jacket. This is family – in addition to Threet, Robert Haaland is there, Debra Walker and Eileen Hansen, and a host of other long-time supporters – and he’s obviously at ease. Someone asks about the prospects for instant runoff voting, which Matier & Ross recently cast doubt on. Fresh from a meeting with Matt Gonzalez and acting director of elections John Arntz, Ammiano suggests that reports of the measure’s demise have been exaggerated. Yes, there may be lawsuits – one possibly from Gavin Newsom – and yes, it will be necessary to get the approval of state Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, but so far, everything is progressing as planned and (pace the Chronicle of February 17), Arntz is fully behind the effort.

As for his own effort, Ammiano says, “The rose is off the bloom”: the rising progressive tide of 1999 has ebbed.  But playing David to well-funded Goliaths like Newsom and Alioto, Ammiano promises to attend every debate, take advantage of every opportunity to present his case. In case you were wondering, that includes the Call's forum on Friday.

Friday, February 14, 2003

Powell Calls for U.N. to Act on Iraq and Meets Deep Resistance. Clash Comes as Inspectors Tell of Progress.

I lose a day, wake up thinking it’s Thursday, with one more day of grace before the U.N. meets. I wonder why CNN is showing Hans Blix’s face. And remember.

The morning is filled with speakers, their impassioned words rendered neutral by the flat American accents of the simultaneous interpreters. I recall a statement by John Maynard Keynes that Ed Moose quoted on Tuesday: "Words ought to be a little wild for they are the assaults of thought on the unthinking." For the moment, the measured voices of reason prevail. The caution of the United Nations outweighs the grandiloquence of the United States. The unthinkable decision is postponed for yet another couple of weeks.

Near the empty Bank of American building on Bryant, the sidewalk has been transformed into an impromptu Valentine’s Day market. Bunches of red heart-shaped balloons strain at their strings. Flower vendors sit, surrounded by cone-shaped arrangements of roses. I watch one man walk carefully across the street, juggling two bouquets, a balloon, and a package that obviously contains a box of chocolates.

Saturday, February 15, 2003

U.S. to Seek Tests to Show That Iraq Resists Disarming. Bid to Sway the Skeptics. Washington Is Also Preparing U.N. Measure That Paves Way for Use of Force.

In the shower, the steam raises questions. What if…?

What if the president went on TV and announced to the American people that he had never really contemplated war against Iraq, that they had all been parties to a dangerous bluff to force Saddam Hussein to disarm? Would the American people, nerves strained by an apparently unending series of terrorist alerts, storm the White House to vent their frustration at the cruel jerking around they had received?

What if, instead of mass public demonstrations against war, everyone stayed home? What if every TV camera in the nation showed only empty streets, such as the periscope of the submarine in On the Beach revealed when it surfaced at San Francisco?

I think of other wars – of World War II, which formed my own consciousness, just as World War I formed that of my parents, and Vietnam did for my children. I remember stories of the underground, of heroism in the face of torture, of starvation – Japanese friends, for example, recall their mothers foraging for grass along the side of the road to make into soup. I think of the Vietnam War, and the domestic disruption of countless demonstrations. I recall young women innocently decorating National Guard rifles with flowers… and I recall National Guard tear gas and rifle fire turned on civilian protestors as the government subsequently lost patience with their opposition.

Reports pour in all day, from all over the world – a million protestors in London, two million in Rome, more than 20 city blocks filled in Manhattan. Rain dampens the Chinese New Year parade in San Francisco but promises to travel on before tomorrow’s antiwar march.

At 10:00 pm, I Fratelli is crowded with diners, while a beaded curtain of rain falls from the awning outside. Couples walk quickly past, huddled together under bright umbrellas. They walk on wet pavements turned gold by the streetlight, turned silver by the headlights of passing cable cars. At the bar a heavy-set man is eating alone. He finishes, orders a beer, keeps looking out the window. He must have left home without an umbrella because a waitress brings him a black plastic trash bag. He slips it over his head, slides it down to cover his entire body, and tramps resolutely toward the door.

On the way home I stop at Cala, on a friend’s recommendation, to look at the latest issue of Architectural Digest, featuring Ann and Gordon Getty’s house in Pacific Heights. Each room is crammed full of antiques, larded with gilt carved molding, and soften with silk drapes to the point that it’s hard to imagine where the guests at their famed parties could find room to stand. Or how many maids it must take to keep the dust away.

The rain comes down harder. An inch-thick sheet of water slides down the streets in Bernal; the wind rises, sending wet bullets against the northern windows. The radio says this storm, or a series of similar storms, stretch all the way across the country. Columbia weeps.

Sunday, February 16, 2003

NATO Settles Rift Over Aid to Turks in Case of a War. Wide Relief in Alliance. Accord Ends a Bitter Dispute, and U.S. Hopes It will Pave Way for U.N. Measure.

The storm passes during the night, leaving the city clean and refreshed. On CNN Wolf Blitzer asks Tom Ridge if yesterday’s worldwide antiwar demonstrations will have any effect on the administration’s thinking. Ridge, hair slick, make-up uncracked, delivers a sermonette on the glories of a country where free speech is allowed. And where, I think, after the public comment period has ended, the administration does exactly as it pleases.

Tens – hundreds – of thousands of demonstrators fill downtown San Francisco. I don’t. The week has beaten me down. I flee to Half Moon Bay, where the small black dog does his civic duty by harvesting every stick on the beach.

It’s all over by the time I head back on Route 1. Above the dark winding road that runs along the cliffs, a full moon shines through the mist. Through a glass darkly.