The Atlantic subway reefs

Right now, Hurricane Sandy is battering New York City (and elsewhere). Best wishes to everybody there – not to make light of the situation, but even with a natural disaster, I’d still rather be there than in California.

The New York City Subway tunnels have flooded, which is bad news because all the salt and gunge in the water is going to mess up the system to no end. I think this piece in the Guardian is premature, a bit hysterical, and scaremongering – come on, the subway has been there over a century, and it may be shut down for a while but it is CERTAINLY not irreparably destroyed. The MTA workers know how to pump out the water and make repairs. It certainly doesn’t warrant any comparisons to 9/11. Do not underestimate the resilience of New York.

I’d just like to draw your attention to a better relationship between the subway and the sea that has grown over the past several years. Hundreds of old subway cars have been stripped and then sunk along the Atlantic coast in order to create artificial reefs. Within months, the metal surfaces become covered with algae and barnacles, and schools of fish stream through windows and doors. Mussels, sponges, sea bass, flounder, tuna, and turtles have all thrived among the old cars, which include the iconic “Redbirds” phased out of service in recent decades. In fact, these reefs have become such excellent habitats for marine life that fishermen have gotten nasty in competition with each other.

Right now New Yorkers have had quite enough of the ocean in their subway, but it can’t hurt to remember a nicer time. Here are other people’s videos. I’d love to swim there someday. It’s like Titanic for New Yorkers!


From “NW” by Zadie Smith

The view was cross-hatched. St. Paul’s in one box. The Gherkin in another. Half a tree. Half a car. Cupolas, spires. Squares, rectangles, half moons, stars. It was impossible to get any sense of the whole. From up here the bus lane was a red gash through the city. The tower blocks were the only thing she could see that made any sense, separated from each other, yet communicating. From this distance they had a logic, stone posts driven into an ancient fields, waiting for something to be laid on top of them, a statue, perhaps, or a platform. A man and a woman walked over and stood next to Natalie at the railing. Beautiful view, said the woman. She had a French accent. She didn’t sound at all convinced by what she’d said. After a minute the couple walked back down the hill.

Natalie Blake looked out and down. She tried to locate the house, somewhere back down that hill, west of here. Rows of identical red brick chimneys, stretching to the suburbs. The wind picked up, shaking the trees below.

She’s describing the view from Archway Bridge, Hornsey Lane. Also known as the suicide bridge. I never noticed the three swords and the crown, the banner of the old Middlesex County Council, on the side of it until a summer evening when I was running downhill from Highgate into Holloway so fast that I was afraid to even try slowing down because I knew I would only trip and fall. In the next chapter she talks about the market on the Kilburn High Road, and I know that when she mentions the pet shop she’s referring to the exact same one where I bought the cage and toys for my budgie Trevor. The old Woolworths and the McDonald’s and the shuttered Gaumont State Cinema are not some throwaway names just there to flesh out an idea of what a high road should look like – they are the places I used to shop, used to pass by all the time. It’s funny knowing that millions of people will read the same sentence in that book and not have the same mental image of the Kilburn High Road that I do. It all seems so clear, so salient to me. She is talking about X and I know X and if I went to X then I might walk right past one of these characters, and if I may be so bold as to inject a bit of dreamy narcissism, then maybe when X is going to Y then there’s somebody in the background who’s an awful lot like me because I used to be there. I’ve walked past stories like hers and not noticed because I was just trying to get to the bus stop. When you live someplace like London, someplace where Zadie Smith can describe that same view you used to have from your bedroom window when you hoisted yourself up onto the too-high ledge on your forearms, and you can remember it perfectly and know that she’s got it spot-on…well, you can’t just go quietly into something less, can you?

Why am I always so homesick? Because if I’m going to aim high then I’m going to aim for the very top. I call it ambition, not looking backward.

The view from Alexandra Palace, summer 2012:


My London: Science! (And snacks) (And lots of brackets (or parentheses))

I have promised Maren & Barrie a guide to all the horrible (used very loosely) things in London that I adore. I might as well put them up here. Why not? Instalment one: the weird and wonderful science of the capital encompassed in two lesser-known museums: The Wellcome Collection and the Hunterian Museum.

The Wellcome Collection occupies a huge frontage along the Euston Road – you can’t miss it, but it’s not particularly a tourist destination. This is a shame, because the curators there pull out some amazing ideas and find ways to make medical science accessible and relevant to the layperson. They say their general aim is to “explore what it means to be human,” and they definitely win all my prizes for public engagement.

A few years ago, I visited their exhibition of skeletons found underneath London, discovered during construction projects throughout the city. One of the locations was found to be a cemetery for prostitutes, who could not be buried near churches; another sat beneath a mint in the City of London proper. Pathologists were able to study these centuries-old remains and determine the most probable causes of death.  I learned that 1. untreated tuberculosis does horrible things to bones, 2. being buried beneath a mint that makes copper coins will stain teeth bright green, and 3. EVERYBODY IN 16th CENTURY LONDON HAD ANKYLOSING SPONDYLITIS (and also 4. “ankylosing spondylitis,” a type of spinal arthritis, is difficult to spell)

There’s now a Pizza Hut on the site in the southern suburbs where bodies from the old Merton Abbey were found. Welp.

Anyway, the Wellcome Trust also sponsors an annual photography award, highlighting the crossover between art and science that is so popular these days. These are not your boring high school textbook pictures – there are some truly amazing works created in the everyday work of scientists. These are caffeine crystals:

And now for something not completely different, but a bit more grisly. Tucked away behind the London School of Economics and the Royal Courts of Justice, there is a museum of unsightly pickled body parts. It’s the Hunterian Museum, part of the Royal College of Surgeons, and it’s brilliant.

(Photo from Londonist, because mere mortals are not allowed to take photos)

John Hunter, an 18th century doctor and eccentric collector of all things pathological, bequeathed his collection to the Royal College, where it is now on public display. A face with smallpox? Got it. All sorts of syphillitic tissues? Got them. Bones of an 8-week foetus? Yes. Tumors? All over the place. The skeleton of Charles Byrne, the Irish giant? Got it, though in respect of his last wishes he may be buried at sea in the future. On the non-human side, they also have an exhibition of extinct animal remains, including a woolly mammoth. In total, the museum has over 3500 specimens, fossils, and drawings.

When I see a painting made centuries ago, with astonishing technique, I’m always amazed at how a person could possibly create something that looks so flawless. The same applies to anatomy and pathology – you can’t help but be amazed that from some basic chemical elements, humans have evolved such specialized organs. The specimens are simultaneously mundane in their familiarity and shocking in their dislocation. Where once they held life and performed specific functions, they’re now suspended and out of context and useless, essentially mere scaffolding. The human has been taken out of them, and just the basic structure remains. Disease and dysfunction aren’t too surprising, when you think of it – what’s amazing that more things don’t go wrong.

One thing to appreciate is how tastefully and soberly the exhibits are put together. This is not a circus sideshow. Everything is well-lit and minimalist in presentation. John Hunter himself wasn’t the most respectful of the people behind his specimens back in the 18th century – he knew very well Byrne didn’t want to be displayed after his death – but the Royal College of Surgeons has put together a top-notch collection of things you’ve probably never seen before, meaning You Will Learn Something. You’re not allowed to take any pictures, but you’re free to draw. This is obviously not a place for anybody with a weak stomach – there are lots of foetuses and faces – but if you can deal with it, the Hunterian is a fascinating place to visit off the beaten track.

If you have an appetite after this (dammit Kite, you’re morbid) and it’s Thursday, Friday, or Saturday, wind your way down across the river to Borough Market, London’s food heaven. I used to go here on my lunch breaks when I worked nearby, and you can make a satisfying snack from samples alone. Along with food, there’s also kitchen stuff and flowers for sale. Hell, I once came back into the office with a tiny lime tree from Borough Market tucked under my arm, which I think made this guy who sat across from me and was pretty cool think I had utterly lost the plot. (Well, both that and the time he asked, “Does anybody have any food?” and I casually replied, “Yeah, I’ve got eels in the fridge,” because I did, and I’ll gladly share those slimy non-kosher bad boys.) That tree died pretty quickly, because citrus is meant to grow in Andalucia, not Archway. Anyway. Ostrich burgers? Yes. The old-school cart making bubble-and-squeak sandwiches? Bigger yes. If you’re looking for vegetables, don’t buy from the first few shops you see when you come in – the better values are likely to be found further inside. Also, there’s this one stand with a woman who makes amazing mushroom paté. Eat it. Buy a jar and eat it. Eat it all.


The Wellcome Collection

183 Euston Road  NW1 2BE

Opening: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 AM – 6 PM (open later Thursdays)

Admission: Free

Tube: Euston, Euston Square, Warren Street

Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons

35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2A 3PE

Opening: Tuesday-Saturday, 10 AM – 5 PM.

Admission: Free, but suggested donation of £3

Tube: Holborn, Temple

Borough Market

Southwark Street at Borough High Street, SE1 1TL

Opening: Thursday-Saturday, hours vary (but go early)

Prices: Kind of up there, but the food is gooooood.

Tube: London Bridge

An open letter to the Supervisors who voted to reinstate Ross Mirkarimi as Sheriff

Dear Supervisors Avalos, Campos, Kim, and Olague,

I passed Alice B. Toklas Place on my way home from rehearsing with my dance company tonight. I’ve read that she was born one block away from there, on O’Farrell Street, a stone’s throw from where I live as a single woman in the Tenderloin. She had quite a life, didn’t she?

I am mentioning this because a lot has changed since she lived here. A San Francisco LGBT Democratic club bears her name, but I think she would be just as disgusted as I am with the fact that you didn’t have the nerve to definitively fire “Sheriff” Ross Mirkarimi, and that because of your actions and your actions alone, he remains in office.

Yes, Ross Mirkarimi is still sheriff.

Ross Mirkarimi, who beat his wife last December.

Ross Mirkarimi, who pled guilty to false imprisonment in relation to that event, is sheriff.

Ross Mirkarimi, who is ON PROBATION FOR A CRIME RELATED TO DOMESTIC ABUSE, remains in the highest-ranked LAW ENFORCEMENT position we have.

I hate to use such a hackneyed phrase, but this reeks of inmates running the asylum. And it reeks of your cowardice, because you would rather defend a fellow public office-holder of appallingly poor character than to support the women of San Francisco who have been victims of domestic violence.

Thanks for the spit in the eye.

But hey, after all, it’s not like this is one of many ways women are demeaned in America nowadays, is it? We’re not like those backward Republican states, are we? Oh, no no no. We’re more enlightened than that, aren’t we? We’re better than them. We would never share their ignorant ideas and scorn women like that.

Right, and my Muni bus is really the Batmobile.

John Avalos, we almost elected you mayor. You said that you wouldn’t sack Mirkarimi because it would set a “bad precedent.” I also understand you have a daughter. If you want to talk about precedents, of the moral rather than the legal kind, what kind of example do you think this sets for her? That a man can beat her up and terrify her and still hold on to power, so she might as well not even go through the hassle (and public slating) of reporting domestic violence? You have a son, too. How can you not see that this sends him the message that, as a man, he can act like a scumbag and not face consequences? I suppose you don’t care, because your vote shows you support exactly that.

David Campos, shame on you. You are an attorney. You went to Harvard Law, so you’re clearly not stupid. It should go without saying that you should know better. As an openly gay man and former undocumented immigrant, you are probably familiar with the fear that comes from people trying to make your life hell just because of who you are. You would probably agree with me that such behavior is completely unacceptable. Too bad your actions tonight demonstrated a total lack of empathy with other vulnerable people, like women who get beaten senseless by their partners. Why not? Aren’t they just as innocent as anybody else who is the victim of violence? Because by your actions, you seem to be endorsing the idea that domestic violence is no big deal. Hey, it was just a bruise Ross Mirkarimi gave to Eliana Lopez, right? Hey, she regretted it after the case turned into a media circus, so she must have not been that upset, right? It’s not like a man has never gone from inflicting small bruises to breaking bones, right? It’s not like this sends any kind of message to the public that you can be a wife-beating idiot and keep your job in law enforcement and lots of powerful people will rally to your side, right? Rhetorical questions, sir. Surely you’ve encountered these in your legal career.

Jane Kim, I’m most ashamed of you. You represent District 6, which includes the Tenderloin, SoMa, and Mid-Market areas. Ever wonder how some of the women on the streets around here became homeless? Ever wonder what the men in their lives did to them? Maybe you don’t care about them because few of them are registered to vote, but they are woman just like you. I would like to invite you to sit down with me for coffee somewhere on Market Street and explain to me why you sold out women like this, because I sure as hell can’t figure it out myself…and I’m getting a PhD from the state’s premier public university. Actually, no. Don’t waste your time on me. I’m doing fine. I am a lucky woman who thankfully doesn’t have to be afraid of any of the men in her life. Go look a battered woman in the eye and tell her why you did this. You too, Christina Olague. I really and truly hope you never have to deal with the pain and terror victims of domestic abuse have to confront. I would not wish it on my worst enemy. But I doubt you feel likewise, because you just handed Ross Mirkarimi back his power on a plate. Hey, if you can sleep at night, then don’t let me burden you with any guilt. I’m just one woman. I’m just one San Francisco voter who expected a higher standard from the Board of Supervisors. Silly, silly me.

All four of you don’t see what he did as sufficient enough to be called “official misconduct.” Then what the hell is it?

Oh, and shame on former mayor Art Agnos for his truly egregious statement that “Anyone who knows Eliana Lopez knows she is not a woman who could be or has been abused.” Excuse me? Whether a woman gets abused is a matter of HER character? Wow, stupid me. I thought it was a matter of whether a man beat her up. Are all the women who suffer domestic violence simply weak-willed? Are you saying that if they had been the right kind of person, it wouldn’t have happened to them? That Eliana Lopez is somehow different from all those Jane Does, and if they were more like her, they would have control over their men? Wow. Just, wow. Congratulations, Mr. Agnos. You’ve rendered me temporarily speechless. That is not an easy thing to do. Only temporarily, mind you. I might even say that anyone who knows Julia Kite knows she is not a woman who could be shut up for very long…but your utter stupidity comes close.

It is a matter of character. It is a matter of what kind of behavior we think is unacceptable for a city official. You may say that because it happened in between when he was elected and when he was sworn in, it doesn’t count. I think it counted to Eliana Lopez when she was documenting it, and I think it counts to every woman who has been beaten. A punch hurts just as much regardless of the title of the person delivering it. You may say that because the domestic violence charges were eventually dropped, it’s irrelevant. Sorry, you’re flat-out wrong. First of all, we all saw the bruises. Secondly, he pled guilty to false imprisonment in relation to the event, and he is currently on probation. I can’t believe I have to spell this out for elected officials, but YOU DON’T GIVE THE TITLE OF SHERIFF TO A MAN WHO IS ON PROBATION. Every five-year-old knows you don’t give a shoplifter the keys to your store. You don’t give an arsonist a pack of matches. YOU DON’T GIVE A MAN ON PROBATION FOR A DOMESTIC VIOLENCE-RELATED OFFENSE THE OFFICE OF SHERIFF. This is behavior I would expect from the most backward old boy’s club known to man, not from a city that prides itself on being liberal. I have lived in some corrupt places, but my god, this is by far the most disgusting act I’ve witnessed from any city council. Why should women have any faith in you to act in their best interests?

Guess what? It’s not just about Eliana Lopez anymore. It’s about every woman in this city, and our right that basic standards of behavior be required for someone holding an office like Sheriff. If Lopez and her husband want to pose for the cameras as a happy couple, then that’s their business and not mine. What IS my business, as a voter in San Francisco, is that Mirkarimi holds the highest law enforcement position in the city and county.  It became my business the minute he was elected. He has displayed character unbecoming of such an official. You have all displayed character unbecoming of people who are supposed to represent your constituents.

I never really cared much about this city’s politics, but now I will make sure I do everything in my power to convince voters you shouldn’t be reelected. They deserve better.

You had a chance to send a message that domestic violence will not be tolerated. You didn’t. And maybe you can live comfortably with that, but I’m raging and I’m not going to be quiet about it. You are all educated people – surely you’ve heard the old trope about how all evil needs to thrive is for good people to do nothing.

Forgive this PhD student, this uppity pissed-off woman, for occasionally being  ineloquent in my anger, but what you have done is reprehensible. You call yourselves liberal? I call you spineless. I call you cowards, and I’m quite happy to come out and say that, because I’m one of those women who doesn’t shut up. I am appalled by your actions, and so very ashamed to live in San Francisco.

And do you think I’m the only one? Go ask Alice.


Julia Kite

Get A Life Girl

It’s time for a new superheroine.

When a generally pleasant postgraduate student gets an electric shock re-loading her Clipper card at a BART station, she becomes…GET A LIFE GIRL!

GET A LIFE GIRL is devoted to travelling through the Bay Area, delivering slaps to those who need it most. And trust me, a LOT of people around here need a good slap.

A few days ago I was standing in the McDonald’s outside Montgomery Street station, waiting for my order – Filet-o-Fish and medium fries, if you must know. YUM. I will blog about my disdain for foodies and the Californian obsession with proving your moral superiority through your shopping basket another day. Anyway, I was patiently waiting, and nerdily thinking about Katherine Newman’s book No Shame in My Game and how fast food word is a lot more complex than people think, when a man angrily approached one of the cashiers. He was upset. What had gone wrong? I’ll tell you what had gone wrong:


He had requested that his double cheeseburger not have pickles, and the minimum-wage workers just trying to earn a living and dealing with dozens of customers at once had forgotten to omit them.

Now, if you’re like most rational people in this world, this is not a big deal. It is not even the slightest blip on the Richter Scale of Things About Which to Be Upset. You’re an adult. You lift up the bun, remove the three shreds of pickle (or six, if this is a double cheeseburger), and throw them away. Then you go back to, you know, thinking of the actual problems this world has. But not this guy. This is San Francisco, remember? The vast majority of people have nothing to worry about, but they still want to feel like special snowflakes, so they make up problems.

“I’m really tired of you guys ruining my lunch,” this man told the young woman working behind the counter.

RUINING his lunch.

Ruining his lunch…because…there was some pickle on his burger.

Now, excuse me if this comes across a bit judgmental, but: GET A LIFE, YOU LOUSY WASTE OF AIR.

The next day, I was on my way to Berkeley, running slightly late for my office hours. I had to administer an exam to a student who had been absent, and I was worried about her not having enough time. Then I got caught up in what I was reading, missed my stop, and ended up on the other side of the Oakland Hills. The next train wasn’t coming for 8 minutes, so I jumped into a taxi. Said taxi, like lots of things in the Bay Area, was stuck in the past, so it didn’t accept credit cards. I didn’t have enough cash, so I asked the driver to stop at a Wells Fargo that I knew was along the way. He pulled up in front of the ATM, in the bus lane. I jumped out, and I noticed that there was already one man at the ATM. He was finishing up – I saw him take his money, take his card, take his receipt. But he didn’t move. He just kept standing there, shuffling through his wallet, deciding this was the right place to start organizing it. I figured he hadn’t seen me waiting, so I said in my nicest, sweetest voice:

“Excuse me, sir, I’ve got a taxi waiting, may I please use the machine?”

He looked at me as if I’d suggested his mother was a five-dollar Tenderloin whore.

After standing in place for spite for a while, he moved the necessary two steps to the side, then proceded to holler at me while I got my money. “YOU MUST THINK YOU’RE SO MUCH BETTER THAN EVERYBODY ELSE!” Because…I asked him politely if I could use a cash machine because my taxi driver was waiting right there. Wow. I shudder to think what’s going to happen when the next (overdue) big earthquake hits the Bay Area, because if these special snowflakes are so very, very offended and permanently scarred and wounded to the core of their being because somebody asked them to take two steps, then how the hell are they going to deal with ACTUAL disaster? I will admit I’ve had a very easy life, but these people would not last a day in my shoes. They would have massive breakdowns almost immediately. I never realized I was A Bit Of A Tough Bitch until I moved to California and found out just how soft people are. If I may be so bold, this is especially true for the men – I could go on a huge rant about why I’m single at the moment, and it probably wouldn’t be terribly convincing, but a bit part of it is that I can’t find men roughly my age who aren’t dull and soft. Of course I’m not going for thugs, but I’d like someone who has been around the block at least once, somebody who’s not going to have a conniption because there’s no organic vodka at the bar. I’ve seen men here pester the minimum-wage shelf stackers at the grocery store over the difference in taste between two types of cucumber! Actually pester, not just ask. Pester to the point where this one man asked if he could speak to a manager about sampling said cucumbers. IT’S A BLOODY CUCUMBER. IT DOESN’T TASTE OF ANYTHING. GET A LIFE!!!


I’m about to go to the post office, and I’m reminded up the time I was waiting there and some gross man was doing his yoga stretches in line, rubbing his dirty sneakers all over hand railings. I asked him to stop because, you know, there are needles and dog poo (and human poo) all over the streets here, and people have to TOUCH THAT because IT’S A PUBLIC HAND RAILING and NOT A YOGA MAT. He went absolutely ballistic and threw a strop in front of everybody. Another rant for another day is the total lack of basic hygiene people have here, but anyway, GET A LIFE!


This would not happen in New York or London. People think New Yorkers are rude, but that’s not true. We are blunt, we are efficient. Not rude. Big difference. We have things to do and places to go and you’re not special so quit whining and get on with life. In London, people don’t talk to strangers, but we don’t have to because people Get It and Move Along in the first place. We have common sense. We know you don’t bother minimum-wage workers about stupid shit because you’re making their lives harder. We know you respond to simple requests without personal attacks. We know to not literally rub shit where you eat. For some reason, this evades people in Northern California, because the attitude here is that you are perfect just the way you are and nobody has the right to criticise you, no matter what.


It’s the same attitude which states that you can bring your wild yapping rat-dog into a supermarket or restaurant, and as long as you say, “It’s a service dog,” nobody can ask you to take it out, even if it’s obvious you’re lying.

It’s the same attitude which makes my fellow grad students threaten to go “on strike” even though we’re getting paid by the broke-ass state of California to GET THE WORD “DOCTOR” IN FRONT OF OUR NAMES in exchange for a little bit of teaching. Not only do we not pay fees, WE GET PAID TO DO THIS, but apparently we are the oppressed workers of the world and we need to fight blah blah blah. For the record: I am a Democrat. I believe in the power of unions to advocate for exploited workers’ rights. Over-privileged grad students doing something 99.9% of the population can never dream of doing at a time when the state has no money for education are NOT exploited workers.


It’s the same attitude which leads to Ross Mirkarimi still being in his position as SF sheriff ten months after everybody found out he’s a wife-beating idiot because he refuses to take responsibility, do the right thing, and step down. The city council has so far been too spineless to remove him, but that may change today. I wouldn’t get your hopes up, though. Not hurting Ross Mirkarimi’s feelings is more important than the fact that he hurt his wife. Strange priorities around here.


It’s called an absolutely massive entitlement complex.

It’s embarrassing.

It’s narcissism, and California is ground zero of an epidemic of it.

So stop it, or GET A LIFE GIRL may appear in your life.