The evening before I was due to fly to San Francisco, with car rental a priority, my wife discovered that my driver's license had expired. Brilliant. I flew out from Dulles the next day thinking I might have to cope in California without a car. But you can get a temporary license, it turns out. Jumping through the DMV hoops on Fell Street was an experience in itself. When I arrived at 9:30 there must have been 150 people ahead of me. Take a number, find a chair, wait. You pay a fee, take a written (multiple choice) test with 50 questions, and study the booklet. I did so for two hours. I nearly failed the eye test but emerged with the needed paper at 4 p.m.
I had plenty of time to observe my fellow citizens -- or aliens, perhaps. It never ceases to amaze me that in one of the most expensive cities in the country, so many ruffians, ragamuffins, and street people are out and about. Why so many?
Turns out local taxpayers were making a cash payment of about $400 a month to anyone who qualified. Tramps and ne'er-do-wells were heading to the City by the Bay from all over the state. My wife suggested perhaps I should go and apply for some cash assistance myself. Good idea, but it entailed too many bus rides, and probably another take-a-number-and-wait situation.
I did go to the St. Anthony Dining Room on Jones Street, next to St. Boniface Church -- a center of Catholic Charities activity. I went down an incline into a subterranean hall full of tramps, 95 percent male, who were partaking of a free lunch. I should have interviewed one or two but I wasn't up to imitating George Orwell (in Down and Out in Paris and London). I will say this. The volunteers who work in these places -- mostly they seemed to be women -- deserve a medal because street people are not the easiest people to deal with.
A few years ago, a city supervisor named Gavin Newsom proposed a welfare reform called "Care, not Cash," and it became law. Now the city still gives cash, but much less, and other benefits such as housing and food are thrown in.
Newsom used the publicity to run for mayor and won. Today he is running for lieutenant governor.
San Francisco is basically run by rich liberals and for them giving away other people's money to the "needy" is a good idea. They can admire their own "generosity" without having to deplete their own bank accounts. But it turned out the street people were spending the money on drugs and alcohol (duh). That may have hastened their demise -- a good example of an unintended consequence. But it also turned out to be bad for business. Too many tourists found drunks sprawled in their path, urinating (and worse) on the sidewalks. So the "business community" supported the change in the law and the number of street people has gone down.
I had to do some research in the San Francisco Public Library, quite an impressive structure near City Hall. On Fridays it doesn't open till noon, and by the time I arrived a small mob was already waiting to enter. Street people? Hard to say, because almost everyone these days, male or female, seems to dress in the same nondescript outfit; mostly black or near black. Business suits are rare. An article in the Examiner -- not the Hearst paper of old but the free paper also published in other cities -- had a front-page story: "Ugly Chapter in Library Violence: Outreach efforts for homeless patrons have yielded successes, but assaults and thefts increase in the last year." They've hired a social worker to "reach out" to the homeless, mentally ill, or drug addicted. I was working in Special Collections up on the sixth floor, where peace and quiet reigned.
I wouldn't be surprised if the (free) Examiner wipes out the ($1) San Francisco Chronicle. Local news is what's needed, but the issues of the Chronicle I saw mostly had the usual dull liberal slant on national and foreign news, already copious on the Internet.
I went to see my lawyer friend David, who works downtown in one of those skyscrapers at the foot of California Street where the incline seems to go straight up. (With snow and ice in the winter, San Francisco would have been impossible.)
"What's up in San Francisco?" I asked.
"It's mellow," he said. "The men are poorly dressed, the gays are in charge, and the women are on Prozac."
At a major law firm, he was wearing an open-necked shirt himself.
"Friday," he explained. The dress code reflected "the general sloppiness pervading the modern era."
The gays? "They have immense political power. But a lot of the teeth grinding has gone." Don't take your kids to the Gay Pride Parade, but on juries they are "not particularly liberal. They have to pay insurance like everyone else. They are not out to redistribute wealth."
Prozac? "Kind of a substitute for cigarettes," he said. "Cigarettes are out, coffee is in."
THE NEXT DAY I had coffee at Starbucks with my old friend Hermann the German, who has lived in San Francisco since 1961. He worked for the Barry Goldwater campaign and once ran a messenger business.
"What are the big changes since you came?"
In his mind he surveyed almost 50 years of continuous change and came up with this:
"Takeover of the city by the gays -- that has been a major thing." That we know. What's second?
"Reduction in the black population. Whole neighborhoods have disappeared."
Published statistics: San Francisco was 13.5 percent black in 1970 and it's 6.5 percent today. Maybe lower. If San Francisco has bad government -- and it is the home base of Nancy Pelosi -- then African Americans are not responsible.
What happened to the blacks? "The middle-class homeowners sold up and moved out," said Hermann. "The poor are being aborted."
While in the city, I stayed with some pro-life friends. They showed me a video called "Maafa 21." Probably not a good name, but it was interesting. Subtitle: "Black Genocide in the 21st century." It was made by black and white Christians, and pointed out that the abortion rate among poor blacks is several times higher than it is among whites. Here's a racial disparity the libs won't mention. When anti-abortion demonstrators showed up at the annual NAACP meeting, the organization put up shields to stop the delegates from seeing the protests. The Black Caucus ignores abortion.
In a recent column the New York Times's Bob Herbert deplored the "orgy of self-destructive behavior" that has placed "an extraordinary portion of the black male population in an ever deepening pit" of degradation. "Education" was his familiar cure-all. No mention of abortion.
The Chinese make for an interesting comparison. There is no longer a Chinatown. It's becoming one big China city. The western region known as Richmond is a huge Chinese enclave.
They could run the whole city if they wanted to but they don't. They constitute a "merchant class," said David, the lawyer. They skirt politics. Liberal initiatives like gay marriage they don't even notice. More Chinese keep on coming, and they buy property with cash. They have the ability to fly under the bureaucratic radar. Family structure is strong, their kids study, and if the taxman shows up and wants to look at the books at one of their interlocking enterprises on Clement Street or a dozen other locations no one on the premises speaks a word of English.
What will the next 50 years bring? There's no saying. This is the city where "little old ladies in tennis shoes" made news at the Goldwater convention in 1964.