Age of Bile

A nonprofit that's resolved our disputes for decades faces financial crisis

Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.
-- Shakespeare, Hamlet

I just checked my New Times/SF Weekly copy of Roget's Complete Columny, and it says opinion writers just returning from two-week "vacations" (as I am) automatically get one mailbag column -- on the condition they promise to work the following week. So, in the words of a famous-saying guy whose name I'll look up next week: "Genitori, Genitoque Laus et jubilatio, Salus, honor, virtus quoque."(1)

What's more, my mailbag has plumped quite nicely during the last couple of weeks. Our first epistolary acquaintance, Krissy Keefer, lives in ... well, she doesn't say where she lives. But Krissy's e-mail address is, and she begins her letter not with a greeting, but in a sporting motif:

Matt Smith Take Your Balls and Go Home
Matt actually hates the left and women because his parents (see "March Madness," Aug. 30) spent too much time at demonstrations and rallys and did not watch him go "potty" enough or perhaps his wife just left him for another woman because she actually could find her clitoris. I am speculating of course but so is he, only I am really smart and he is dumber than dog shit. His pathetic columns demands [sic] no real serious response. I'd say
Boycott the Weekly but really why bother??
Krissy Keefer

Dearest Krissy,
Gosh, that wasn't a very nice thing to say. I have a little trick I use sometimes, where I don't say anything at all, unless I'm thinking kind thoughts. Would you like to try my trick? After all, Krissy, as a saying-guy (um, saying-person?) once said: You kill more bugs with honey than with mean stuff.
Matt Smith

Our next correspondent, Brian J. Doherty, says he lives in a high-rent district. Oddly, Brian doesn't say which one. Still, he helpfully explains that he can be reached at, and launches his letter, Krissy-like, sans greeting.

As for Matt Smith and his thinly "reasoned" pro-landlord, pro-Brown, pro-RBA blowjobs to the establishment, I'm mailing him some kneepads. TheWeekly sure comes in handy lately for free toilet paper after I've paid my exorbitant rent.

Dear Brian,
You're not going to get your thinly disguised sexual insinuations past me. You're obviously not trying to offer helpful criticism. Like a frizzy-haired television-exercise guy once sort of said: "I'll bet when you had to spell "snotty' in the spelling bee, you got a perfect score."
Matt Smith

Our next correspondent ... actually, our next correspondent can go potty, for all I care. And for that matter, why does everybody seem so darned mean these days?

It seems that San Francisco, brilliant jewel poised at continent's western edge, geological and existential vanguard of all that is fresh and new, is surging toward an Age of Bile. Our political debates consist of two-year-veteran scummy yuppie newcomer types haranguing against new-arrival scummy yuppie types. Transit riders hate drivers -- Muni, taxi, or Lexus. Motorists kill and terrorize pedestrians at such a rate that the term "traffic accident" is now punctuated with a wink and a nudge. Renters hate owners. Bohemians hate geeks.

Our emerging epoch of enmity is beginning to seem so dire, so oppressive -- so downright dangerous -- that I felt compelled to abandon my mailbag, and pay a visit to Chuck Regal, program director at the Community Boards of San Francisco.

Community Boards, at Market and Van Ness, is a quarter-century-old program devoted to mediating conflicts among neighbors, roommates, family -- anyone willing to iron things out privately, rather than go to court. If Hendrick is angry because Kwan's dog shat on Hendrick's lawn, Community Boards is there to help them talk things out. If tenant Ardwelk spends his nights dreaming about the cool, crisp click his Glock .22 will make as he offs harassing landlord Emileleux,(2,2a) Community Boards is there to help ask the Roberta Flack question, "Where Is the Love?"(3)

And perhaps, find an answer.

After spending some time at the Community Boards offices talking to conflict mediators, I am pretty well convinced that San Francisco is indeed becoming an increasingly bitter Baghdad by the Bay. And when I pose the Roberta Flack question to Regal, he doesn't wax metaphysical; he offers practical warnings of an impending storm. He's witnessed, in detail, more than 400 petty disputes during the past decade and a half.

San Francisco was never a very neighborly city, explains Regal, a thin, earnest man who moves about a room gently, as if not to provoke. "San Francisco isn't like other places. Neighbors don't get to know each other," Regal says. "People live next to each other 15 years and don't speak to each other. In other places, neighbors can just talk with each other, and there's not that conflict level there."

Petty disputes here once centered largely around lawns and dog poop. But there's something new on the San Francisco disputation scene. A side effect of the dot-com boom -- the horrid distortion of San Francisco's real estate market -- has apparently spawned a whole new realm of mean. Back in the halcyon days of, say, 1997, when shared-apartment dwellers' thoughts turned to garrotes and knives, they enjoyed the option of getting a grip on themselves and moving on, which usually means moving out.

No more.

Now, Regal and his mediators are seeing an explosion in a kind of case where strangers meet, find shelter together, and then embark upon the darkest journey of their mortal lives. Now, if you're a roommate in a rent-controlled space for a few years, moving out means doubling or tripling the rent you pay. So roommates who despise one another can't separate their living conditions for months, or even years.

Just last month I received an invitation to an "exorcism" party, celebrating the long-awaited departure of a hated roommate. It seems the hated one had the annoying habit of becoming unemployed and smoking dope in the house, 17 hours a day. This had been the subject of a nearly two-year-long feud with his two involuntarily stoned roommates. They named the party celebrating the roommate's departure "The Thing That Finally Left." (The poor fellow moved to Los Angeles.)

"I believe the housemate cases are the ones with the biggest potential for violence. People want to kill each other; they hate each other's guts," Regal says. "They can't get out. Of all the disputes I deal with, I have more compassion for those guys, because they're stuck in that house. I've seen people get sick, ulcers. There's one famous case where a guy was stabbed fighting over a PG&E bill."

Well, nearly stabbed. The assailant tripped midlunge and broke his leg.(4)

And then there was the meek woman who descended into an everlasting lake of brimstone after inviting a bold woman to share her abode. The woman -- whose name I'll change to Meek -- arrived home one day to find her furniture rearranged, sans commentary. Another day, she found burning candles left about the apartment. The other woman -- whom I'll call Bold -- had been meditating, then left without snuffing the flames. Bold let Meek's cat out, and didn't let it back in. Meek tried to complain. Bold brushed her off. Conversations became confrontations.

It took three mediators nine hours to get the two women to agree to a list of household rules such as "Be polite," "Don't rearrange furniture without asking," and "If you don't feel like talking with the other person, acknowledge her and arrange for a discussion later."

And finally, "Bold will make a good-faith effort to find a new apartment."

I wish them peace.

But today, making a good-faith effort to find an affordable S.F. home is the same as making a bad-faith effort. Neither works.

If I look in a stranger's eye tomorrow and see the glint of death, I will imagine having seen the eyes of Meek, or Bold, or any of the thousands of San Franciscans bound by master leases and hate. This cancer can only metastasize into our city's public life, where already animosity toward someone is the touchstone for almost every discussion of public policy. District-by-district elections promise to factionalize the Board of Supervisors. This fall's ballot debates seem to all be centered around hatred of one group or another: dot-commies, taxi drivers, landlords, et al.

In interpreting our world through the language of enmity, we may be lighting a fire that can't be quenched.

Since 1976, Community Boards has led the world in trying to help people to just get along. The group has inspired hundreds of similar peace-through-mediation organizations around the country. Schools all over the world use conflict-resolution training lessons written by Community Boards, lessons that include advice such as: "Aggression happens ... when two people are not willing to listen to each other's side of the problem or talk about it. Instead they attack the other's ideas or values."

Talk directly, mediators are trained to tell combatants. Don't antagonize. Don't judge -- give information instead. Relax, listen, and let your listening show. Talk everything through. Come to terms, then hold up your end.

Over the years, Community Boards' hundreds of volunteers have taught thousands and thousands of San Franciscans these simple lessons, whether they were straights objecting to the habits of new gay neighbors; whites bickering with African-Americans; Russians, Irish, Asians, Latinos -- whoever had a problem with whomever. Though the antagonists didn't necessarily come to like each other, after a couple of hours face to face with their foes, with the help of three mediators, they generally learned to get along. The courts, the police, the city's rent board, and numerous other agencies refer combatants to Community Boards. Many citizens, at the end of their ropes, turn to the Boards on their own.

Now, at the dawn of San Francisco's Bilious Age, when Community Boards is needed most, the nonprofit group is in trouble.

The lease that Community Boards has for its Market and Van Ness office suite expires in April. The rent will double, and the group will have to take smaller quarters elsewhere, if it can find them. That's not even the worst of the problem. The foundations that once funded Community Boards have reduced their support in recent years, preferring to fund start-up charities, rather than standbys.

Community Boards used to fund part of its work by selling conflict-resolution guides to schools. But business has declined lately. While almost every school district wants to teach its students these skills, more and more schools seem to be buying their materials from for-profit mediation firms -- firms that have largely borrowed their strategies from Community Boards of San Francisco.

"The competitors I see are people with 15 salespeople and glossy brochures. I used to save their advertisements," muses Regal. "Things are looking so shaky right now. We don't know where we stand. We're going to move, but we don't know where."

During a year when nonprofit organizations are losing their homes en masse, I realize it's hard to muster passion for one with a mission so simple and modest as Community Boards'. But I'd like to make an appeal on self-interested grounds. As our San Francisco buckles under a crush of calumny, the mediation-session meeting rooms of Community Boards may provide a last refuge.

So, Krissy and Brian, I realize the three of us don't have much cause to come to terms; it's not like we all wash the same plates or anything. Still, how about we each send a 10-spot to Community Boards?

(1) "To the Begetter and the Begotten, be praise and jubilation." -- St. Thomas Aquinas

(2) Names have been invented to protect the identities of conflagrants.

(2a) Conflagrations have also been invented to protect the identified.

(3) "Where Is the Love?," Macdonald/Salter on Roberta Flack Featuring Donny Hathaway, 1972.

(4) This, and the conflagrations that follow, are real, as these people seem quite capable of protecting themselves.

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