January 03, 2008

Mauling & Mayhem at the San Francisco Zoo

We already had the wild animals but the circus didn't come to town until Mark Geragos, Esq., made his appearance for Tatiana's victim of the Famous Christmas Day Attack at the San Francisco Zoo. It's all there now, another made-for-TV biopic with new story lines every day and every angle played to within an inch of its life.

It so happens that I have had a long, long association with this particular zoo, nearly as long as anything in my life. It was called the Fleishhacker Zoo in those days, in the mid-Fifties, and my first of many visits was occasioned by the periodic weekend marooning to which my younger brother and I were subjected by our parents, to a small, fog-swept house in the Outer Sunset, not far really from the zoo itself, where our paternal grandmother lived with her third husband. We made the most of it; we were hardy and inventive boys, and even on the most stultifying of Saturday evenings, while the old folks watched Lawrence Welk on their tiny black-and-white, we managed to entertain ourselves.

But during the day we needed to get out, so we'd be loaded into the ancient black Dodge coupe and driven to Fleishhacker Zoo. Over and over again. If we were lucky, we'd be there when the Lion House was in operation, when the big cats were brought in from the grottoes outside into small individual cages. A keeper would pass along a narrow aisle between a restraining rail and the cages with a wheel barrow full of horse meat (chosen, I realize now, because it probably tasted a little feral), and toss the lions and tigers their lunch. The bedlam in that cavernous space was unforgettable. Lions and tigers, in full-throated roar, demanding to be fed.

Seeing them outside in their paved enclosures was not much of a thrill. They didn't do much, of course, because they were bored out of their minds. Maybe somewhere deep in their limbic cortices they recognized that they were the enslaved representatives of their species, displayed to provoke sympathy for the wild cousins still out there in the real world. The SF Zoo always had a bad rap, and even after some healthy changes in the enclosures it was always cited as an example of the cruelty of zoos. I could see that even then, as an eight-year old boy. It was kind of a maximum security lock-up for African and Asian beasts.

One thing I never felt was any sense of danger. I could imagine that those magnificent Siberian and Bengal tigers, in all their sinewy and sinuous glory (so evident when you saw them up close in the Lion House) could escape the grotto if they really felt like it. But looking at them lying around in the windy cold a mile from Ocean Beach, you knew they had no interest in bothering anyone. They were there to serve their time, a life stretch with no possibility of parole. Geragos would understand that, since his most famous client is on Death Row and will leave San Quentin in a box.

The reports are now trickling in that Tatiana was taunted, teased and provoked by a group of boys standing at the rail of her grotto. Duh. Geragos claims that the eyewitness testimony of independent observers with no connection to the zoo is in some unspecified fashion part of a zoo cover-up and PR campaign to deprive his clients of the wrongful death settlement they so obviously deserve. The public, of course, is overwhelmingly on Tatiana's side. She was shot dead at the scene. The zoo was closed for nine days and then reopened with all kinds of newfangled "safety glass" between the viewers and the grotto and warnings and bullhorn announcements to "protect the public," all done on the advice of the City's lawyers, of course, since everyone is now on notice that tigers can jump and climb if provoked, and if it happens again... So that future little boys can have the immediacy of the experience of seeing a big cat diminished by these distancing contraptions, while we all titillate ourselves with the thrill of phony danger held at bay by more "security."

And all that was ever necessary was to leave Tatiana alone. Just look at her, as she looks at you, and behave your damn self. A lost art in these coarse and hooligan times.

December 30, 2007

California High Speed Rail and other Abstract Theories

Not too long ago, the California High Speed Rail Authority conducted a couple of meetings in Sacramento to make some crucial decisions about the route for the first leg between Anaheim and San Francisco. Along with various dignitaries like Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco, the consumer lobbying group, Train Riders Association of California (making for an easily remembered acronym) was there, and of course lots of chamber of commerce types who strenuously argued about whether the line should curve west at Altamont Pass, on a latitude with Oakland, or at Pacheco Pass and head north through San Jose. The latter route was chosen, perhaps reminding us that San Jose, after all, is the largest city in the Bay Area and the only metropolis with more than a million people. San Francisco and Oakland tend to forget this. The Santa Clara Valley is also where all the money is.

The HSRA is headed up by Chairman Quentin Kopp, who in other incarnations was a lawyer in San Francisco, a member of the Board of Supervisors and a Superior Court Judge. At the time of his appointment to the Authority, he was approximately 114 years old, which is a suspicious circumstance vis-a-vis the true level of government support for this project in the Golden State. It is true that the Authority has a younger and more energetic executive director, but still...Nevertheless, so much has been done. Environmental impact reports, mainly, but also acquisition of rights of way, which mostly already existed, of course, and yet - a stunning achievement. Although we also have to admit that not a single rail has been laid...

Once upon a time, the idea was that the high speed rail line, which would whoosh passengers between downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles's Union Station in 2-1/2 hours, would be in operation by 2012, certainly within my reasonably-expected lifetime, and even within Quentin Kopp's, if he stays away from the heavy sauces. Alas, there were delays, as the state fell into financial insolvency following the dot.com bust, and the new Govenator decided that this fun toy was not a priority compared to building more jails to provide more jobs for the prison guards union and trying to close the fiscal deficit. The $10 billion bond measure, scheduled for placement on the sacrificial altar of the 2008 general election, will determine whether the first installment on the estimated cost of $40 billion for the whole system will be funded. Schwarzenegger would prefer to delay the bond proposition once again, as it was the last time it came up. I don't think he has to worry much. I suppose it depends on the PR campaign that TRAC and others are able to bring to bear, but don't hold your breath, train lovers. Anyway, the costs now are multiples of the original estimate because of all the delays, and if they started immediately after a favorable vote in 2008, it would probably be 2025 before any trains rolled.

By comparison, the Japanese began operating their first bullet train on the Shinkansen line in 1963. The TGV in France between Lyon and Paris was initiated in 1981, running electrically on nuclear power. Through integration with the Thalys and Eurostar lines, you have been able, for many years, to zoom all over Western Europe on extremely comfortable, very fast (in excess of 200 mph) trains, and when you arrive, as in the Gare du Nord in Paris, you are already downtown. The same would be true of San Francisco to Los Angeles, of course; instead of finding yourself marooned on arrival in some distant outpost a long traffic jam from where you really want to go, you're there when you get there. At any distance up to 400 miles, high speed rail is actually faster than airplanes because of the elimination of all the check-in and strip search stuff, and the endless waiting in the airport and more waiting on the runway, and the vulnerability of planes to fog and heavy weather. In terms of fuel and passenger efficiency (passengers miles per hour), there is no comparison between high speed rail and automobiles, and trains are much safer and less exhausting to the rider.

Yet in California and the United States generally, high speed rail, at speeds and comfort levels comparable to the TGV and German Inter-City Express, has an abstract, theoretical feel to it. It's just something else that the United States lacks the will and the vision to accomplish. TRAC seems like an off-shoot of the Trekkie phenomenon, a group that gathers to argue about whether the transporter was or was not used in Episode 113. All the staff on the HSRA draw salaries, of course, and Mr. Kopp can supplement his five or six pensions with another stipend while he sententiously presides over these make-believe meetings. It all feels a little like string theory, an elegant and internally consistent construct with no actual direct application in the real world. Maybe when the HSRA meets in Sacramento, they roll out a model train diorama, with papier-mache mountains representing the Coastal Range, and plastic train stations, and the beautiful aerodynamic engines. Just like in France! And they huddle around (Quentin gets to run the transformer, of course) and watch the high speed train make a run up the plywood course from Anaheim to San Francisco (look at that cute Golden Gate Bridge someone made! and they put an Apple near San Jose! Get it?). The TRAC people look on; how they'd love to get their hands on that transformer handle! Still, they can cheer the high speed engine on. "Toot! Toot!" they all shout.