Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Witness

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Treat Street, Mission District, San Francisco

Every Saturday I walk by them, the two women who ring the bell and the single man who answers the door and greets them. For an hour or more, or for at least as long as it takes for my own standing lunch date, they huddle in the doorway, reading pages from Awake or The Watchtower. I’m incredibly moved by this scene of the same three strangers, week in, week out, and the conversation I imagine them to be having about matters of this life and after.

One afternoon, at the moment I passed, the women were waiting at the gate, with no sign of the man. I thought Ha! he’d tricked them, and decided to sit out their Saturday ritual, though that was the moment he stumbled forth, buttoning his shirt, opening the door, apologizing to them for the delay. The women weren’t troubled at all and told him to take his time.  They seemed happy to wait.

It is the tender nature of the exchange, between two people of faith and one on the fence, and the simple kindness and respect with which they relate to each other that reminds me of civility, the likes of which is rarely on display in The City where behemoth tech buses roll. I wonder what the two ladies in their simple pressed blouses and tan loafers make of those.

There were days, not long ago, happier times on these blocks, when people strolled in their Sunday best even on weekdays, acknowledging each other with a tip of the hat and by appellation — Miss, Mister, Missus. I’ve told myself so many times, this old world no longer exists, and yet here it is, unfolding for me to witness, every Saturday afternoon in the Western Addition.

 

Filed under: San Francisco News, serial, Sunnyside Up, Tales of the Gentrification City, ,

No Literary Work Here, Not a Chance

Sometimes I write.  Well, most times I write.  Daytime.  Nighttime. And often at the crack of dawn. Very rarely am I up in the middle of the night, though if I’m working on something strong, it’s been known to happen. What I write is not always for publication and it’s not always for you to know, though occasionally, I will publish work that is outside of the square boxes that keep writers locked in and gatekeepers busy doing the ticking.  That box labels me a journalist, a columnist, a music critic, an arts reporter. And yes, I know it’s so confusing but I also review books and films and write extensive profiles of people. Can you imagine that I also have dared to write about politics?  Please don’t fret, it’s usually just personal and local though occasionally it reaches out into the world. Crazy, I know! Here’s the thing and you might not be ready for it, but heck, I’m about to tell you anyway: I write writings of all kinds, occasionally sacred and other times sordid (as are most matters for hire, which means I get paid for those pieces).  Sometimes I volunteer my time (the pros call it pro bono work. I call it writing). What I’m getting at is the list of themes and assignments is long and frankly, a little unbelievable so I’ll spare you the details, partly because so many of my subjects have crossed over to the other side: They can’t testify for themselves, but among the living, I can tell you that most all the customers report satisfaction. Generally, I specialize in “difficult to categorize” “unwieldy” and “marginal” subjects, though there is one kind of writing to which I lay no claim though have been accused of lately and that’s poetry. Actually some “friends” told me the work, published here and there and most recently in a chapbook, The Rakish Tam, could be called such a thing. I disagree with them.  I am a writer, plain and simple.  Writers write.  So go ahead and call me what you like, just know that square boxes and categorization are not for me.  If you care to learn any more about what all my fussing is about, you can send a self-addressed stamped envelope the size of a notebook eight dollars — six for the book and two for postage and handling — to keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you can decide for yourself.  Or not. Though while we’re here: Limited edition reprints of my first chapbook, Awful Sweet, are also available at the same cut-rate. And with that, I thank you for leaving your preconceived ideas about writing in the 20th Century, and as ever, for reading: Because while I’m happy to give away everything on these pages for free for use in classrooms and homes throughout the world, I’m not as happy to post everything I write on the worldwide web for no compensation and a whole lotta unsolicited feedback. Which is why you won’t find anything remotely literary here. Not at all.

Filed under: anti-capitalist, anti-war, Arts and Culture, California, Editorial, Freedom Now, gentrification, income disparity, It's Personal, Poetry, police, Sunnyside Up, You Read It Here First

Song For My Father

I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner, or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.

He must’ve told me of the nights as a teenager, he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and the Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there in North Beach, San Francisco, Saturday night, 1958 or ’59: The Beats had arrived, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through, but my dad was from across town—the Sunset, Ocean Beach, a Catholic boy—and the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce worked in the area and would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a stiff-necked straight, but my father was no square: I like to imagine the neighborhood regulars welcoming him, an innocent among hipsters for the night.

As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that he favored and he had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, along with MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale – Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid –J oao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida – with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way others tell me they’ve known Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia; they were like fathers, a part of the family.

It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. Sure, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I really want, caked with his energy, accompanied by the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his approval and enthusiasm for my taste in the avant-garde and for own small, tidy, and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz. Somewhere along the way, he left behind his passion for it.

By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times changed, and the City, as we call it, had been psychedelicized.  My dad was a young suburban family man, a periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision and become a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before those things helped define leisure styles in the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— and his life between jobs just outside San Francisco. Music didn’t figure into that picture. There was no nightlife to pursue there and no trips to town to hear the jams; most all the old clubs had gone dark though North Beach was becoming home to the next generation of outsiders, the art students and punk rockers of my generation. Not yet 40 years old, a suspended driver’s license kept him unemployable and housebound, his wife at work on the swing shift. By day, he slept in the hammock or sat at the kitchen table, pouring filtered coffee through a cone. He stayed occupied, typing mysterious reports and letters on the Royal and watering the lawn, but he never reached for the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, adjacent to the patio, just on the other side of the sliding glass door, in the family room of our California ranch-style home. It was as if getting up, the simple act of putting a needle to a record, was just too much for him: He had entered a jazz-free zone.

Though occasionally he’d ignite the old flame:  He took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing at St. Francis High School. I heard he rousted my brother and took him to see Milt Jackson at the grand opening of the Mayfield Mall.  Other times, if ever he dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that jazzer’s strange custom, finger-clicking (shoulders hunched). And sometimes while driving, he’d tune into the jazz spot and bop to the radio, occasionally gesturing with an air-cymbal crash. These efforts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal for me: Jazz made life bearable, if only for a moment, as we floated off to another land, returning refreshed, after a couple of bars or beats. 

When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ’70s, my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them.  I moved back to San Francisco, and I’d heard so did my dad, after he’d done some rambling.  Eventually we got together for lunch, often at St. Francis Creamery in the Mission, and on days he was flush, at Mama’s or Vanessi’s in North Beach. We never spoke of the past — it wasn’t in our repertoire — but the memory of his LPs, their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their spiraling liner notes occupy a large space in my heart, lighting a space in the darkness of the holy here and now. I wonder, had he lived, if we’d ever get back to jazz, if he would’ve rediscovered his passion for it, or if he would share mine for Mingus and Monk. If only it had occurred to me to have played some Louis Armstrong at his funeral.  What if he’d lived to see his 50s?  Would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm or held strong?  For sure we’d agree Duke is king, and we most certainly would’ve gone to see Jamal at his most recent appearance in town.  But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he bopped down the hall, and would I still reflexively roll my eyes at him?  I will never know, though whatever his style and taste in his 70’s and whether we agreed wouldn’t matter, if only he was here, right now.  Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is why he stopped listening.

 

A version of this piece was published in my 2016 chapbook, Awful Sweet.

Filed under: It's Personal, Jazz, Sunnyside Up, , , , , ,

Tales of the (Gentrification) City: Tom Heyman and Deirdre White

I’ve been working on a new column series based on real life stories from the heart of Gentrification City. The first one concerns songwriter and recording artist Tom Heyman and visual artist and community college instructor Deirdre White, a couple of longtime Mission District residents who’ve found a way to survive in high-tech town as working artists.

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo by Deirdre White

That Cool Blue Feeling album by Tom Heyman. Cover photo of sunset in the Outer Richmond by Deirdre White

Debuting this week at Down With Tyranny, I’m seeking a permanent home for the serial (it might be here, there or elsewhere).  Until then, please find the first installment here and let me know what you think:  The story is just beginning. Turns out this 49(ish) square mile patch of scenic beauty is smaller than ever before. The lives of those of us who remain here are all very much interconnected.

I look forward to sharing the stories of 21st Century San Francisco with you and am exceedingly grateful I’ve been given the opportunity to do so.  Until the next installment, I’ll be here riding the waves and the ropes, too. Stand strong people:  They can’t take away our souls or the songs in our hearts…

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, column, serial, Sunnyside Up, Tales of the Gentrification City, , , , , ,

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