Letters for the week of October 22-28, 2003

Two and a half pages of letters praising our cult story but bashing our coverage of the Berkeley Bowl, Bertolt Brecht, Berkeley's shellmounds, and more.

“Children of OM,” Feature, 9/24

The healing has begun

I am glad that Piero has made peace with Marilyn. As a former housemate of hers in the mid-1990s, I would characterize her as a compassionate and loving person. I have enormous respect for Piero, and understand that he is doing what he must do to heal. I truly hope that Cybele will be out of the woods one day soon, and will regain the will to live.
Debby Segal, Berkeley

Coming forward takes courage

Thanks for Katy St. Clair’s excellent story on surviving an abusive cult.

As Webmaster of www.scientology-lies.com, I regularly hear from people who have been hurt by a coercive group. The appalling betrayal can take years to heal — especially for those who lose family ties and longtime friendships (not to mention staggering sums of money) as a result of their involvement. As with so many forms of abuse, victims often feel stigmatized and alone. Getting the word out — especially through individual stories, and especially through the media — is tremendously helpful in replacing stigmatization with understanding.

I’m grateful to Piero and Cybele for telling their stories, to the remarkable Ms. St. Clair for a fine piece of reporting, and to the Express for bringing it to us.
Kristi Wachter, San Francisco

Tolerance has its limits

For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen the buses. I always regarded their presence as some poor bloke down on his luck fortunate enough to own a home on wheels. Now, after reading this article, I view these buses (and the person living inside them) as a potential threat to the safety of our children and the sanctity of our fair city. Yes, Berkeley is a tolerant community, but we must not be so “tolerant” as to become lax in the fight against child molestation and abuse of any form.
Noelle A. Lyons, Berkeley

Child protection should be our priority

Over the years, I’ve worked with kids all over this country who have been through similar shit. I also did time in prison and I actually got to know some of these beasts. What really fucked me up was they were always either teachers or some other profession and you wouldn’t have known what they were in for. I had a friend who worked in the warden’s office, that’s how I found out who they were. There is something really sick about a nation that spends gross amounts for wars and yet backpedals on laws to protect children.
Mark Tyme, Oakland

Dreams die hard

When I saw the front page of the Express, I immediately recognized the person I have known for about 25 years as an acquaintance in the Bay Area music scene. I haven’t really spoken with him much — the last time I saw him was at a musician’s house in Oakland in passing. I was aware of some of his past troubles although I had no idea how incredibly awful his childhood was.

Yet his story parallels much of what I saw other kids go through during that time of Me-decade-influenced “parenting” — if not in severity then in concept. At the time, it wasn’t so strange to hear of these “revolutionary spiritualists” influencing parents to let their children be left basically unprotected from whatever was out there in Berkeley in the 1970s. And boy, was there a lot out there that was “out there.” I saw so much drug use that I thought it was normal that ninth graders all smoked weed. I remember going to an eighth-grade birthday party where the host parents knowingly let the birthday boy pass around a doobie. I was thought to be abnormal because I DIDN’T smoke dope. It was also normal for parents to be divorced. I saw so many kids that lived between houses that I thought I wasn’t hip enough for many of my peers. My mother thought I was a prude for not wanting to skinny-dip at a hippie bluegrass music seminar where every adult and their kids were skinny-dipping. I wonder now how many kids there actually felt like me. For some reason, these were seen as healthy, normal things to do in the summer with a bunch of complete strangers. Their utopian idealism warped their common sense.

It’s no wonder that cults exist. Combine liberal white guilt, opportunism, sexual freedom, and a sense of Berkeley “entitlement.” No wonder dreams die hard.

I really feel for Piero. He’s an extremely talented fellow with a lot of fire. I can never know how horribly he suffered. I know I had a great set of loving, caring parents who instilled in me good values. For anyone in the 1970s growing up in this town it would have been confusing, as it is confusing for today’s youth I’m sure. I just sincerely and passionately wish Piero the best in his continual recovery from such an sorrowful ordeal.
Paul Hanson, Berkeley

“Bowling for the Bottom Line,” City of Warts, 9/24

Antiunion hype dolled up as lifestyle reporting

Thanks for an article that simultaneously manages to imply that workers who know about collective bargaining are suspect and illegal union-busting tactics are an acceptable approach to labor-management relationships, and posits that the success of local businesses depends entirely on the personality of the owner. This attitude also explains the improbable citation of an architect as an expert on the grocery business.

“Bowling for the Bottom Line” is a sorry antiunion screed masquerading as a lifestyle piece. While eulogizing the boho lifestyle of Berkeley Bowl shoppers, and pitying their death-defying waits in the checkout line, author Chris Thompson seems to have forgotten that some people are workers, too, and that the quality of their treatment as workers says as much about the Bowl as the quality of the shopping experience there.

Thompson’s piece is underlain by the pernicious ideas that good workers would not want to organize a union. This theme crops up as “introducing an industrial model of labor relations to the [Berkeley Bowl] threatens its very identity,” and the pullquote, “these kinds of businesses, because they’re so unique … tend to get destroyed when they unionize.” The second quote is especially offensive because it comes from an architect who is not only a consultant to Bowl management — hence not impartial — but who shouldn’t be expected to know anything about this issue based on his professional qualifications.

Thompson elaborates on the threat that unions pose: It’s part of the Bowl’s “labor crisis” that employees are “young, politically active college students … exactly the sort of employees who had the phone number for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in their Rolodexes.” What’s under suspicion here? Are workers not supposed to have Rolodexes– those sit on the executive desks — or just not have union contacts? And who does Thompson think should have a phone number for the United Food and Commercial Workers, if not people who are working in the food and commercial sector?

Thompson describes the union’s “hardball” tactics, painting a story where the business owner is the underdog and the union the heavy. He somehow manages to create the impression of parity while glossing over that fact only one side is actively breaking the law in this dispute — and that’s the management. If Thompson wants to see Bowl owner Glen Yasuda as sympathetic, you think he’d have a hard time reconciling that with Yasuda’s choice to hand over labor discussions to an infamous union-busting law firm that strong-arms workers in intense closed-door meetings and threatens “Big Trouble” for signing a union card. Somehow, Thompson remains uncritical while chronicling, in his terms, “the same old antiunion tactics honed by a century of labor strife.”

Feeling a need to channel the zeitgeist of “labor-friendly Berkeley” perhaps, Thompson does recognize that popular, idiosyncratic local businesses such as Cody’s Books can thrive with workers organized in a union, but then Thompson credits the success of Cody’s to the owner. Isn’t it obvious that by contributing their work that all the workers in a business, whether unionized or not, are making a huge contribution to its success? Hasn’t it taken years of hard work by Cody’s unionized employees to keep the business successful? Why does Thompson give them no credit, instead choosing to view their unionized status as an aberration?

Ultimately, Thompson says, the future of the Berkeley Bowl depends entirely on who may replace Yasuda in ownership. Yasuda’s contribution to the Bowl is certainly large, but the future rests also with the work of Bowl employees. Their recent walkout only demonstrates one concrete aspect of this; the “commodified boho lifestyle” Thompson wrings his hands over losing is created every morning as much by the workers who stock the shelves as by Yasuda who contracts for the produce. Far from Thompson’s conclusion that unions threaten Berkeley’s character as a boho shopping mecca, Berkeley cannot retain its soul if, like Thompson, it refuses dignified recognition of workers’ rights to form a union and bargain collectively for what is fair.
Raphael Sperry, San Francisco

Walk the walk, Berkeley

If Berkeley Bowl is such a friendly, family-run business, then they wouldn’t need to hire a hardcore, union-busting law firm. Their charitable “family” nature would speak for itself. But I guess maybe they wasted their money on a hefty retainer, since Chris Thompson is willing to wave the union-busting banner for them!

The fact is that Berkeley Bowl can afford to expand to another location and still neglect their current (and future) employees. They have plenty of money; they are just not willing to spend it on being fair to their labor pool. What’s sad is not the loss of a “small, family-run” business. What’s the real tragedy is yet another Bay Area employer who has become too greedy for his own good. Growth while leaving behind those that helped make it possible is not moral, even if it is (possibly) legal.

I too, talked to the management of Berkeley Bowl when I heard of the unionization efforts. “Are you planning on recognizing the union and negotiating in good faith?” I asked Larry the day manager. He spouted rhetoric about “the employees here don’t need a union” (well, it’s their right if they want one!), and “employees will have to take a pay cut” if the union is approved. (Why? Berkeley Bowl could grandfather current employees in at their current wage. This is a standard management threat.) All I heard was typical union-bashing rhetoric from both Larry and Chris Thompson. How tired! How 1980s! How … typical. Very unlike some of the better reporting Mr. Thompson has done in the past.

What’s infuriating is how full of “liberals” and “progressives” the Bowl parking lot is. I used to shop at the Bowl; I spent at least $100/week. I had to rearrange my weekly schedule (rather inconveniently) to avoid shopping at the Bowl. But my choice is to “walk my talk” and support workers, even if it means a personal sacrifice.

I now get an organic box delivery, shop at Safeway (union), 99 Ranch Market (for Asian food) & Trader Joe’s (for other organic and free-range options) instead of the Bowl. I will do so until they do the right thing by their employees. I encourage all the armchair progressives still shopping there to do the same.
dani eurynome, Oakland

The example of Cody’s is a fine one to emulate

I want to remind Chris Thompson that most shoppers really do come to the Bowl just for the tomatoes. I know this because I work there. I could be wrong, but I do not think the mother of three bagging her own groceries is there to “get laid.” Certainly, the Berkeley Bowl has created a unique culture, comprised not only by hipster foodies, but by every customer and every employee as well, most of which are not “young, politically active college students.” Most employees are people supporting families, people who live in the area, and people who could not care less about the store’s “Berkeley Ethos.” To them it’s just a job. When I am quoted in the article as saying “a lot of people had been talking about it [unionizing] for a long time,” these are the people I was referring to.

Being an opinion piece, perhaps we should not subject it the highest standard of journalism. However, I must take issue with certain points, which are represented as facts. First, Thompson states pro-union workers have few complaints, citing that “[Berkeley Bowl] pays wages on par with the industry standard.” This is simply false. I have been working as a cashier for three years and am currently making $14.50 an hour. At any union shop, I would have been at $19.00 a year ago. And I work in one of the better-paid departments. A difference of $4.50 does not seem on par, so I called Chris to ask him where he got this information. “It was in a Daily Planet article,” he replied. And so it was, but they were wrong too.

Besides, how many complaints do we need? This one issue is plenty: we are “at-will” employees. Let me just cite the employee handbook here: Employees are reminded that termination of employment can occur for any or no reason. The recent firing of Arturo Perez confirms that they aren’t kidding. A contract would guarantee progressive disciplinary action before termination. While I may be a young, politically active college student, I feel I can speak for all workers when I say that at-will employment is not exactly a desirable working condition — job security is.

While I do not agree with Tim Hammand’s statement likening the Bowl to fungus, I do agree with his underlying point: If the growth and livelihood of the Berkeley Bowl depend upon underpaying and intimidating the very workers who make it happen, we simply cannot support its expansion. Thompson is right about one thing, regarding the quality of the store depending on Glenn’s ability to find his own Andy Ross. I sincerely hope he does, for as you report, Ross successfully runs a union shop.
Kevin Meyer, Oakland

“Batman’s Last Laugh,” Down In Front, 9/3

Foldin’-chair daddy

I enjoyed Rob Harvilla’s piece on the untimely death of Wesley Willis, but I believe he is incorrect when he said he never hurt anyone, and no I’m not talking about head-butting. I refer you to the lyrics of his song “The Daddy of Rock ‘n’ Roll” (also the title of an interesting documentary about him):

This is my rock and roll music career God gave me/God gave me this rock music career to keep me busy/Back in 1991, I used to hit old people with folding chairs/Suddenly, I moved to the north side of Chicago, Illinois, in the summer of 1992/It made a rock star out of me at last/I’m the daddy of rock ‘n’ roll [repeats four times]/I’m the godfather of being a rock musician/I’m the godfather of singing/I’m the godfather of taking everyone on a music joyride/I love the rocket travel/I’m the daddy of rock ‘n’ roll.
Dan Holliman, Berkeley

“Ironic Mustache … BINGO!” Down In Front, 9/10

The future is bingo

I just read the article and laughed my Chuck Taylors right off. I was just mentioning to someone here (in Fort Lauderdale), after a woman was robbed in the parking lot of a bingo hall for $500 worth of winnings, that bingo would be “back” soon, especially amongst the hipper-than-thou. I think shuffleboard is going to see a resurgence as well.
Audra Schroeder, Fort Lauderdale

“Score a Goal and Smash the State,” Cityside, 9/17

Ticket revoked

That was the worst bit of cheap shots I have ever read. Please stay at home next game.
Keith McArthur, Sacramento

Smoking and soccer don’t mix

Hey, Tim. Guess what. I don’t smoke cigarettes, and neither do most of the other players on the Kronstadt team.
Art Noose, Oakland

EDITOR’S NOTE

Our point exactly. Which makes it likely, communists being communists, that Kronstadt’s players probably “smoked less cigarettes the previous week” than their left-wing rival.

“A Walking Tour of Berkeley’s Hysterical Landmarks,” Feature, 9/17

Would you defile an Anglo cemetery?

I object to the many mistakes and misconstruals in the article by Will Harper. Obviously he did not consult with the proponents of shellmound preservation, or he would have learned about how significant these mound sites are. True, the mounded portion is no longer there, however through subsidence, much of the very earliest parts of the mound have been found deep below the surface. Radiocarbon dating has placed the oldest portion at 3,700 BC, while the topmost portion stopped increasing in 800 AD.

Anyway, even if not one bone or artifact is currently found below the surface, it is still significant for its history, much the same way as Anglo cemeteries are significant. Native people occupied the site for 4,500 years. They lived, cooked, ate, played, brought up their children, conducted ceremonies, and buried their dead on the moundsites. The one in West Berkeley at the foot of Strawberry Creek is thought to be the oldest and one of the biggest of the 425 mound sites around the bay. In the ’50s, UC anthropology students excavated a small portion of the site and brought up 92 human burials!

Readers should seek out further information on the subject and not rely on the misinformation presented in the article. There will be a series of history lectures commemorating the 150th anniversary of Ocean View in October and November. Entrance is $12, or $45 for the whole series of eight lectures. Tix can be purchased at the door or by phoning BAHA at 510-841-2242.
Stephanie Manning, Berkeley

It’s the creek, not the creed

Your very derogatory article about BAHA has at least one inaccuracy and an incendiary one at that. It’s in the box at the bottom of page 21, concerning the old Byrne house which you call “vacant lot.” In the line “Threat,” you list “Judaism.” This is a blatant falsehood and implies a prejudice that does not, and never did, exist in the neighborhood’s problems with Beth El’s plans. Indeed, many of us opposing neighbors are Jewish. What was being opposed from the beginning include the threat to the creek’s health, the increased traffic, possible parking problems, and the huge size of the building in Beth El’s first plan. You have done a disservice to my neighborhood with this inaccuracy.

Furthermore, BAHA and landmark status had very little to do with the opposition and delay. It was (and still is) due to the neighborhood’s reaction.
Mary Ann Brewin, Berkeley

“Father Brecht and His Children,” Theater, 8/20

Brecht critic has been refuted

When I founded Epic West at the Julia Morgan Church in 1975, it was to revise the negative notions of Brecht and Epic Theatre perpetrated by Martin Esslin and Eric Bentley. The first task was to bring to Berkeley films of the original productions from the Berliner Ensemble, to see what it was that Brecht and his co-workers (women, men, composers, designers, dramaturges, directors, writers, performers, communists, and dissidents, plus scholars) did onstage. The picture books, or “Modelbuchs,” were helpful, but I thought if one had a chance to see the original productions, or at least their documentation in film, we might change views of what Epic Theatre was about. Werner Hecht, who was a dramaturge (explain that one to the Shotgun director) at the Ensemble for Helena Weigel, came with nine films (Mother Courage, The Mother, Galileo, et al.), and we showed them at the Pacific Film Archives while talks by Hecht were given at Epic West. The objective was to start from the productions rather than the bashing by Esslin (cold warrior) or the exaggerations and misinterpretations by Bentley.

Now, in addition, we have to deconstruct Fuegi’s scandalous book. I don’t have to do it myself, because there are no fewer than four scholars, a theater critic Erika Munk, and a few others who did the job eight years ago, citing the distortions, innuendoes, unsubstantiated claims, and wrong translations in the Grove press text. See Brecht Yearbook 1995 #20, Willet/Mews/Lyons/Norgaard/Munk.

When I read the Fuegi text in a bookstore (I wouldn’t buy it), I began to feel creepy. This guy from Baltimore, whom I knew, had claimed Brecht had such an aura of sexual attraction and so many relationships with men and women (dogs and horses?) to such a degree that it seemed that Fuegi wished he had done all the things he asserted Brecht did. “Prurient” came to mind, someone who distorts actions and interprets everything in a salacious manner so that after a while you can’t believe the figure he describes. It could only be a construct of the author’s polluted desire. Could it be anticommunist too?

Despite the antisocialist distortions by Fuegi accepted by Drostova, one might note there are twenty volumes of Brecht’s works in German, numerous ones in English (see John Willett and Ralph Manheim translations), plus useful theory about epic rather than melodramatic art. In the age of militarism and fascist tendencies, Brecht is read, quoted, produced, and made useful around the world: in Argentina now, in Chile then, in Indonesia, and of course in this country, where the need to think dialectically and understand the causes of exploitation, capitalism, and militarism, one necessarily turns to Brecht and the Brechtians.
Ronald G. Davis, founder of Epic West, San Francisco

No friend of the blacklist

Since I am not the Brecht scholar that Mr. Hayden seems to be, I cannot hope to challenge his remarks regarding Lisa Drostova’s review. I can, however, suggest that his “anger” kept him from understanding at least one thing that he referred to in her article. His implication that Ms. Drostova might be on the side of HUAC shows that his blinders kept him from realizing that the reviewer might have been quite pleased that Brecht stood up to the Fascists. I am personally affronted at his very false assumption, as are the rest of the family members of others who were blacklisted by that vile committee.
Pearl Lipner (Lisa Drostova’s mother), Southfield, Michigan

“It’s an Arabic World,” Billboard, 9/24

Avoiding the easy characterizations

Cheers to you for publishing such an intelligent take on the Arab Film Festival, respecting the multiplicity of views presented enough to avoid easy categorizations while offering an insightful take on what they evidence about modern Arab art. I’ve enjoyed Jonathan Kiefer’s arts coverage thoroughly. I’ll return to future issues of the Express, hoping to see more of him.
Michael Ray, San Francisco

“The Last Temptation of Cash,” Down in Front, 9/24

I still miss someone

I recently read your column on the late Johnny Cash and I could not agree more. While I’m not the biggest Johnny Cash fan in the world (in fact, I know so little about his music I can hardly consider myself a “fan”), I think he was one of the most important musicians of the last century.

The comparison to Jeff Mangum, however, hits closer to home for me. In the Aeroplane, Over the Sea is the one album I would choose to listen to continuously for the rest of my life if ever I was forced to make that decision. Not unlike my “indie” peers, the album means more to me than I will ever have the adequate vocabulary to express. I would never dream of invading Jeff Mangum’s privacy for the simple fact that it is his story, and because actually meeting him could never live up to what his music means to me. I wanted you to know that not all fans are like that author, and I wanted to thank you for an honest article.
Amira Nader, London

“Free Speech RIP,” Bottom Feeder, 9/24

Turn it Down

If anyone is stealing the East Bay Express out of the racks, it is probably some of your own writers, embarrassed at contributing to the tide of inaccuracy and sensationalism.
Carol Denney, Berkeley

Corrections

“Where the House Nerd Is King” (Cityside, 10/1) contained several problems. According to the “House Nerd,” whom the reporter regrettably did not interview, the co-op’s central server does not in fact contain any music or pirated media files; any such shared materials reside on individual computers. The article also incorrectly stated that the server has a 300-gigabyte capacity, and that it could hold 140,000 MP3s at 5 megabytes each. The math was way off regardless: A 300-gig memory would hold only 61,440 such files. Finally, the House Nerd says the article unfairly portrayed him as playing an enabling role in media piracy at the co-op. He says the sole function of his voluntary, five-hour-a-week position is to maintain the house server. We apologize for the errors.

Our October 8 article “Class-Action Warrior” repeated another publication’s error with regard to the size of the settlement in a class-action lawsuit against Toyota Motor Company. It was $120 million, not $1.2 million.

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