29 September 2009

Portrait of an SF Street Musician

Rich Cianfrone is a 52-year-old New Jersey native who paints houses to get by. But on the weekends – and when business is slow – he performs on the sidewalks of the famous Haight Ashbury neighborhood to keep the San Francisco Sound alive.

I met Rich outside of the Richmond District home where he rents a room. He led me up a few flights of creaky stairs to his bedroom, the small space he shares with his pet cockatiel. “My bird will be excited to meet you,” the 52-year-old New Jersey native said in his thick accent. “We don’t get too many ladies coming around here.”

He opened the door to his bedroom, the small space he and his cockatiel, a male named Claire, call home. The scents of marijuana smoke and the small animal wafts from his room into the musty hallway.

It is a sparsely decorated bedroom. The walls are white, with a few posters of bands and concerts serving as the only decorations. A twin bed covered with a brown fleece blanket hugs one wall. On the opposite wall sits a large stereo with two giant speakers. Above it are a few shelves littered with CDs of his favorite bands and a framed picture of the late Jerry Garcia. An old television squats in the corner by the window. The last wall is occupied by a white dresser, which contains all of his clothing and possessions.

Atop the dresser, his main companion Claire was climbing around outside his cage, jumping from the edges of cups and bowls. Rich found Claire in his backyard over three years ago and regards him as a son now. The bird’s sunshine yellow face and rosy pink cheeks were one of the only elements brightening up the room. Rich has three grown children, but he is currently estranged from them. No photos or remnants even hint at their existence. His marriage to their mother ended seven years ago, at which point he moved out west.

Rich is a broad shouldered man, thick with muscle from his labor-intensive day job. That day he wore a white wife-beater, a pair of light denim jeans and faded gray tennis shoes. His long hair was pulled back in a curly grey ponytail, except on the top where his bald crown shone through. He is missing a few of his front teeth, which occasionally adds an endearing lisp to his speech.

He pulled out a thirty-year-old guitar and began to play along to some CDs. “I’m a real fan of the San Francisco sound,” he said. “You know, Quiksilver, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, The Stones, Moby Grape.” Rich was growing up in New Jersey when the San Francisco music scene was at its peak in the 1960s and 70s. But he said a Grateful Dead concert he saw with friends back home converted him from a heavy metal devotee. Now his heart lies with the artists that infiltrated San Francisco decades ago. He strummed along to the tunes he knows so well, Claire squawking along to the music.

After warming up sufficiently, Rich decided it was time to head out to the streets where he plays. He pulled a white cap emblazoned with the logo for Kelly Moore paint over his head, and lugged his guitar out the door and on two busses to get across town to where the San Francisco Sound originated: the Haight Ashbury neighborhood.

Walking up and down Haight Street, he chose what he considered a perfect spot to perform. There are many considerations that go into choosing that perfect stretch of sidewalk. For one, the spot must not be in front of an open business, or the business owner will usually shoo the busker away. Also, if it is a particularly warm day, it should be in the shade. Lastly, it must be a suitable distance from competing performers. That day, Rich was performing in front of a closed up storefront splattered with graffiti. On the corner, a young woman with long flowing hair played the violin, and midway down the block, some male guitarists were covering Johnny Cash songs.

He opened his guitar case, knelt on the sidewalk, and began tuning as though he were in his own home. He dropped a few dollar bills and change into the open guitar case to prompt others to leave tips. He stood up and began to play. His accent was just slightly detectable in song, and he strummed the guitar gruffly. But what he lacked in talent, he made up for in spirit. His own personal hardships came through in his covers of the famous tunes. And his eagerness to entertain came through in the smile he flashed at each person who passed.

The weekends draw hoards of tourists and locals to this historic neighborhood, and this sunny Saturday drew even more than usual. The crowd was mostly young and mostly fashionably dressed. Most seemed to gaze right past Rich as he began playing the old songs that once defined this neighborhood. Now trendy boutiques and souvenir shops selling reminders from the past give this neighborhood its identity.

Rich played for about an hour, making only two dollars in that time. He grew hungry and decided to get a slice of cheese pizza and a small Coke. On the walk to the pizza parlor, he stopped to give a fellow street musician advice on how to string his guitar. The two discovered they were both from the East Coast and chatted joyfully. After lunch, Rich stepped out on a side street to take a few puffs from a small joint, which he’d been storing in his zippered coat pocket. He has a regular cigarette lit simultaneously to thwart suspicion of passersby.

As the afternoon dragged on, “Why do you perform?” became the glaringly obvious question. It clearly wasn’t for the money, which wasn’t even enough to cover the cost of lunch. It didn’t even seem to be for the attention; most people seemed to glaze their eyes right past him.

Rich said, “You know, it’s like they say, why have music if no one hears it?” He continued, “For me, it’s not about the money. It’s worth more to me if someone says ‘thanks for keeping it alive’ than if they hand me a dollar. Besides, you can’t make a living doing this.”

For Rich, times have become hard. House painting jobs are harder to come by these days, he said. He blames the influx of inexpensive migrant laborers for this difficulty. Perhaps this hobby brings fulfillment to a man who is dissatisfied with work. Perhaps it fills a void that has been empty since he lost touch with his ex-wife and three children. Perhaps it brings a lost sense of community. Perhaps it makes a man whose best friend is a bird feel appreciated. Or perhaps it is, as he says, simply about keeping the San Francisco sound alive.

Rich settled back into his spot after his break. His guitar is worn out, weathered from many-a-day spent out in the elements. He flung the purple strap over his shoulder, which is so old it requires a shoelace to keep it attached to the guitar. He started to play a different kind of tune, the old Motown hit “My Girl.”

An older man walked by. His eye sparkled and he whistled along to the familiar tune. Smiling, he dropped a dollar into Rich’s open guitar case and simply said, “Thanks.”

23 September 2009

Decoding Twilight

The young adult novel series Twilight by Stephanie Meyer has become so wildly popular among young women (and their mothers) that it is worth examining. What makes these books so appealing, and what kinds of messages are they instilling into the minds of the next generation of females?

The romance novel is about the relationship between average-girl Bella and perfect-in-every-way Edward, who is a vampire. While both characters ultimately have little personality to speak of, the few details we do have about them set up a disturbing generalization about the genders. Some of Edward's characteristics include being physically strong, extremely fast, athletically gifted, a fast driver, an expert pianist, and with model-like good looks. In contrast, some of Bella's characteristics include being frail, delicate, unable to partake in athletics, even unable to do simple physical acts such as walking or hiking.

With so little depth to their personalities, one would ask why these two fall so passionately in love. In reality their love could only be described as lust. Edward’s passion for Bella is based on the smell of her blood, which is appetizing to him. In the real world, this could be compared to a man lusting over a woman solely for the appearance of her body. In both cases, her personality has nothing to do with the attraction; it is merely a physical longing, a biological drive.

In fact, Bella has almost no distinguishing characteristics, or interests for that matter, to fall in love with. As soon as she meets Edward in the beginning of the novel, she is hopelessly devoted to him, abandoning the few interests she had in the first place. For example, it is mentioned early in the novel that she enjoys reading, but seems to forget this once she meets Edward. Also, all outside friendships and relationships are forgotten; she snubs other kids at school to spend more time with Edward, spends as little time as possible with her father, and can barely find time to email her mother.

The fact that Edward is a vampire makes him dangerous and exciting to boring Bella. Perhaps this is why she is so willing to sacrifice everything in her own life, which prior to Edward, seemed to be spent primarily moping around the house. Edward's dangerous identity brings Bella into an exciting life, albeit one that is not her own. This seems to enforce the antiquated idea that women themselves lack identities; their identities are merely formed by the men they are associated with. Bella is a shell of a human, completely lacking personality, passions, interests, and talents. Her life seems pointless until she meets the man who defines her identity.

The dangerous secrets Edward shares with Bella about him and his family make their relationship instantaneously intimate. The quickness with which they declare their soulmate status (was it the first or second date?) is disturbing. Edward and Bella are declaring that they love each other, can't live without each other, and would die for each other at lightning speed. This is unhealthy role modeling for young women in their own relationships. Declaring a lifelong commitment in a puppy love relationship can ultimately lead to premature marriage, teenage pregnancy, and a lifetime of unhappiness.

Of course it is impossible to discuss Twilight without discussing the abstinence-only subtext. Upon meeting each other, Bella and Edward are extremely sexually attracted to each other, but this is complicated by Edward's desire to eat Bella for lunch. Thus, the couple must restrain their passions because sex is just too dangerous; Edward could lose control and kill her. Perhaps it is a positive message for young couples that sex can indeed be dangerous, and should not be rushed into. On the other hand, the abstinence-only message has long been proven ineffective. Besides, real-life sexual intimacy does not literally pose the risk of instant death, which seems to be the only thing restraining Edward and Bella. Thus, the novel provides no realistic argument against teenage sexual intimacy; if anything it merely intensifies the importance of sex, as it is always on the minds of the main characters.

Another observation I made about Bella's character is her peculiar relationship with food. In almost every scene when Bella is eating, it is forced. She usually skips her lunch at school, drinking only lemonade or picking at a small snack, which she ultimately loses interest in. She gets no enjoyment from her food. Every time she eats, it must be excused and apologized for. Bella’s diet seems to consist primarily on a quick bowl of cereal before school. On the other hand, she is vigilant about preparing intricate meals for her father. Though he never asked her, she takes it upon herself to prepare a hot meal from scratch every night. Bella however, is never shown enjoying the meal she’s prepared. This is a shockingly old fashioned view, the woman being the one responsible for preparing the meal for others, never the one to enjoy it. Perhaps if Bella ate more than a bowl of cereal a day, she wouldn’t be so helplessly frail and physically inept!

There are many disturbing messages in the Twilight series. Though I have only read the first of the novels, from outside reading it is clear that things only get worse from there. Bella marries Edward young, becomes a young mother, and literally gives up her life, becoming a vampire, to be with him. While many offer the argument that it is better for young women to be reading Twilight than nothing at all, I am not convinced. I only hope that these deeply disturbing messages are lost on the younger readers.