My City Was Gone 

I have a quick story to tell.

On September 10, 2001, a group of far-flung friends and I were gathering ideas for the third issue of our self-published magazine In Formation (tag line: "Every Day, Computers Are Making People Easier to Use").The first two issues had cost our fearless leader a lot of money, most of which he "earned" through selling his @Home stock. Perhaps it was Excite@Home by then. Either way, the name of that company should make veterans of the dot-com era either sigh fondly or snicker.

Armed with dot-com funny money, a lot of inside expertise and sass, and a design that looked professional if you weren't paying close attention, we had convinced a major distributor to handle our first two issues. Soon after they hit Tower, Borders, other chains and indies, we started getting fan mail from all over the States. Also from people in Germany, Buenos Aires and sundry other parts who found the mag at their local bookstores.

People liked it. The press liked it, especially since most of us writing or editing it, all completely volunteer, were part of the Internet bubble: reporters, graphic designers, programmers, anonymous executives, biz-dev guys, etc. Biting the hand that feeds you always makes good copy.

I was on deadline one day at my day job (I covered Microsoft for a now-defunct business magazine) when the Wall Street Journal reporter who also covered Microsoft -- a.k.a. my competitor -- called me to interview about In Formation. The first issue was floating around, and he was writing a story about it. That was weird. I talked to him but said don't quote me. He quoted me. (Serves me right for trusting the press.)

We sold more copies than we had any right to do, although not nearly enough to break even. We had a good thing going.

Then September 11 came, and several airplanes crashed into the homeland: We couldn't adjust. We were paralyzed, our satiric and funny and critical bones numbed. We couldn't do what the Onion did: take two weeks, draw a big breath, and come up with perhaps their best issue ever. We couldn't bake an American flag cake, and we couldn't overcome the shock and awe enough to crank back into gear. In Formation faded away; we don't even have archives on line.

I relate this breathtaking saga because the past week in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the same paralysis has gripped me. The images and accounts have overwhelmed my sense of voice, making it feel petty, tinny, shrill. I sit down to write blogposts about the Giants, and nothing comes to mind. A separate voice in my head says it's not my voice that's needed now except to exhort others to give as much as they can.

Give more than you think is necessary for one person to give. Be generous. Make a sacrifice. And if you live within striking distance of The Big One, be prepared.

But that other, separate voice is only half-right.

The world doesn't need my pseudo-insights about the Giants right now, but it didn't need them before last week, either.

Writing about baseball is a hobby for me, but writing isn't. In one form or another, this is what I do. Unless national (or natural) disasters force me to make a career turn toward, say, one-eyed post-nuclear scrap metal scavenger, I've learned a lesson: Don't let anything still your voice. Humor, whimsy, satire, rumination, introspection, criticism: there is always room.

The current film The Aristocrats features a clip from a Friar's Club roast of Hugh Hefner, which took place soon after 9/11. As the clip starts, Rob Schneider has just plied a few lame jokes on the audience, and host Gilbert Gottfried has given Schneider the hook. "This city has suffered from enough bombing already," Gottfried says (or something like that), but the audience takes offense. It murmurs, it shifts uneasily, one guy shouts out, "Too soon! Too soon!"

Gottfried waves his hands, and in the best moment of the film, basically says all right, we're all puckered up tighter than a mosquito's asshole; it's time to get down and dirty. He launches into the eponymous joke -- the best version of several told during the course of the film. It's filthy, it's disgusting, it's inappropriate, it's utterly liberating.

I'm not saying the best minds of our generation should come up with some good hurricane jokes to let off steam.

But I'm ready to get back to my petty obsessions and write about them. Doing so doesn't diminish my sense of tragedy and heartbreak. I am deeply affected; I am a native son of a city that sprang once from the ashes and that, any day, could be reduced to them once more.

In the toxic floodwaters of Katrina, in the drowned houses and lives of St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward I see my own city pulverized, in flames; in the desperate suicides and defections of New Orleans cops I see S.F. emergency workers unable to climb steep hills to reach people under debris; in the stranded refugees on the Superdome concourse I see people sleeping in the San Francisco streets, wondering when the next aftershock will send damaged buildings tumbling down.

I won't vent my political views right now except to say that I wish Trent Lott was forced to stay a few days in the Superdome with so many others who lost homes. He could tell everyone there about his role model Strom Thurmond and how important it is for the federal government to stay out of local and state matters, which apparently was the policy this week. Why count on FEMA when the Lord will provide?

If I were a religious man, my only prayer would be that the Giants win a World Series before the Big One comes. Then I'll die happy.


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