That time I met a ghost or possibly just an old drunk in Georgetown, California

A few years ago I did a live storytelling open mic in Washington DC for a group that’s now called Story District. It’s a story about the time my friend and I got lost in the woods, nearly drove off a cliff, and then were aided by a mysterious, whimsical, and ultimately super depressing old man. Enjoy!

What I did in 2014

I had a lot of old friends asking after me in 2014 — it was a pretty tumultuous year that started with an epic trip across the country to make a documentary (coming soon!), saw me doing wacky stuff like running the Street Sheet and building an off-grid shipping container house in the middle of empty lot in West Oakland, and ended with a wave of riots that rolled like thunder through the entire Bay Area.

Since there are a lot of stories to tell, I made this video as a short catch-up. Hope you enjoy it.

Oakland’s new legal pot ordinance and what it means to give up white privilege

Oakland’s city council passed landmark legislation on Tuesday that, despite plenty of problems, is a solid first attempt at reparations for the War on Drugs.

Oaklanders who’ve been jailed for pot in the last ten years will go to the front of the line for legal weed permits under a revolutionary new program enacted by the City Council Tuesday night.

The first-in-the-nation idea promises to make international headlines, and redefine the terms of reparations in post-Drug War America.

Bringer of death, destroyer of worlds
Bringer of death, destroyer of worlds
It’s a bit much to talk about “post-Drug War America” while pot is still a schedule 1 drug (and really, take a moment to revel in how fact-free some statements on that linked DEA.gov page are) and dumb, violent, botched drug raids are still going on pretty regularly. But I digress.

The basic idea is to reserve some of the permits for legal pot businesses in Oakland for the people most heavily impacted by the war on drugs, especially black people. This is partly in response to lots of great reporting on how black people have been excluded from the booming legal pot indsutry.

The problem, as always, is capitalism. It takes capital to start a business, so absent any legislation, all the permits will end up going to people who already have access to it, e.g. white people. And the people who currently stand to benefit the most from the legal pot boom are Very Concerned about giving up the privilege that access to capital affords them:

Critics say handing out every other new permit to a tiny group of people will create a licensing bottleneck that will cripple Oakland’s vast expansion in licensed medical pot nurseries, farms, kitchens, stores, and testing labs. The Program was opposed by the majority of the city’s own Cannabis Regulatory Commission, who worked on the expansion for 18 months.

Critics of this program are right — this will slow down the expansion of legal pot in Oakland and create a really tight bottleneck. And that’s great, because the bottleneck is being created in exactly the right place. If there’s a big pool of capital trying to get a piece of the pot market, that capital is now going to have to find its way into the hands of people who suffered the most during prohibition. That’s a good thing. That’s not a real problem or a reason not to do this.

In the same way that medical marijuana is best understood as a back door to legalizing recreational pot, one way to think of this is a backdoor to cash reparations for institutional racism. Oakland’s city council probably can’t authorize cash payouts to black victims of the war on drugs, and in any case the city couldn’t afford it. But this is possibly even better than that. In this case, Oakland city council is staring down a bunch of wealthy people with piles of cash ready to invest in legal pot, and saying that at a bare minimum, they’re going to have to find someone who was recently incarcerated for pot and bribe them for their permit rights.

This is one small example of what it would look like to have an economic system that took history into account. It means some people lose out, and might not get to make as much money as they would have otherwise been able to. It means some people who are individually innocent, but who are recipients of unearned privilege, are going to have roadblocks placed in their way. And that’s a good thing — left unchecked, the legal pot industry will reproduce (in fact, is already reproducing) the same original sin of racism at the heart of all American capitalism. And this program obviously isn’t enough, but it’s a peek at a more just possible future, and that’s something to celebrate.

Eternal War On All Bike Thieves

Last Saturday I got my trusty Bridgestone MB5 back from the toothless scumbag who stole it.

My poor, beautiful baby
My poor, beautiful baby

My baby, that I rebuilt with my own hands, using parts and shop time I earned with my San Francisco Bike Kitchen digging rights. Rights that I earned with 12 hours of volunteer labor, that included three hours of fixing a bike for an old drunk who, laughing in my face, his breath smelling like stale beer and hot garbage, told me I was using the tools wrong, which he couldn’t use himself because he couldn’t get his hands to stop shaking long enough.

I labored for four months to rebuild this bike. I literally spilled blood for this bike, when I pricked my finger with a just-cut brake cable, injecting myself with a nice mix of steel and bearing grease. Once it was finished, I took it on a 300-plus mile trek down the coast on Highway 1, and it performed beautifully. I’ve never been more proud of something I created with my own hands. I rode it hard, and I was very happy with it.

And then one morning, I woke up to find my front gate wide open, swinging in the breeze, my bike missing from its regular parking spot. Just like that, it was gone. And I didn’t get a drop of sympathy from anyone I complained about it to — everyone said it was my fault for keeping it in the front yard.

I spent the next two months running through the scenario in my head of just how much of a badass motherfucker I would turn in to if I ever tracked down the son of a bitch who stole it. How I would make them cower in fear, or worse, just how damaged I would leave them, physically and psychologically, if they didn’t part with the bike willingly.

This fantasy would come to me, unbidden, at the strangest times. I would just be walking down the street on a clear, beautiful morning, fantasizing about beating the living shit out of a bike thief. More than a few times I had to stop myself just to take a breath and calm down, because I realized I was being one of those people, walking around in public making angry faces at nothing and talking to myself.

And then it happened — a few days ago I was driving home from the grocery store, rehearsing the scenario again like Robert De Niro in that famous scene from Taxi Driver, when I saw my bike being wheeled into a yard not two blocks from my house.

I stopped my car to pause, take a breath and gather myself, and then walked over to the yard. There it was, just leaning against the staircase of a house that looked about ready to collapse.

And after all those fantasies of ultraviolence, here comes the thief — a helpless old man, shuffling slowly down the sidewalk, eating a popsicle.

When he finally reached his gate, I confronted him. I told him it was my bike, and I wanted it back. He told me he “bought it three months ago from some guy named Gimli, or Gemini”, stuttering as he either made up or tried to remember the name, and then offered to sell it to me for $50.

In the version of this story that played so many times in my head, this was the part where I take my bike, tell the dude to go fuck himself, and tell him to go get his $50 from Gimli, or Gemini, or whoever. But in the moment, I couldn’t do it.

Another important detail of this story is that I live in the Lower Bottoms, a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Oakland, California, and I’m a young, able-bodied white guy who moved here about a year ago. The guy with my bike was black, and was the owner of just about the only house on my block that hasn’t been completely remodeled in the last few years.

So when it came down to it, my actual options looked a lot worse than they did in my head. Calling the cops was out. So was any kind of violence against someone with a crooked back and two teeth. That left, basically, yelling at this guy to give me my bike back, “or else”.

Imagine for a moment the optics of me losing my shit at this poor old man, over a bike I already replaced. And besides, this is the Bay Area — there could easily be a guy named Gimli, or Gemini, or whatever. Stranger things have happened.

I inspected the damage. He (or Gimli, or Gemini) had obviously tried to remove the stickers, but couldn’t get any of them all the way off, and only even tried to remove half before they gave up, scraping off the decals and the paint in the process. In only 2 months, he managed to scuff and rip my saddle more than I did by putting thousands of miles on it. He tore apart my brakes, ripped the hoods on my brake levers, and for some reason, removed the leather straps on the toe clips.

There’s a version of this story where the thief is like Robin Hood, and I’m just a naive dilletante, who basically got what was coming to him. In this story, the thief needed my bike more than I did, or it was a crime of survival. There’s some amount of nobility in the theft. And it’s the story I was telling myself, because it somehow made the loss easier to deal with.

Instead, it was just some asshole who felt like taking my bike, who already had two other bikes. He brought them out to show me, to demonstrate that he “buys” bikes. “See?” he said, “I buy bikes!”, like that gave his story more credibility. And instead of trying to make some money out of my bike, he just rode it around, poorly, treating it like trash.

I took a hard look at the guy, at his guard dog that didn’t even bark at me when I came up to the fence, at the steps of his porch that were splintered and missing in some places, and then at the sign on his chain link fence that says “WORK HARD”, among other encouragements.

Here was someone who managed to deserve both sympathy and a punch in the dick. And because I’m a sucker, I chose sympathy. I offered him $40 for the bike, and he agreed.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying — I have an extra bike for sale. Lovingly restored vintage Bridgestone. Brooks saddle. Make me an offer.