High atop the masthead of San Francisco Focus resides the name of one Mark K. Powelson, a former Berkeley Barb radical who now occupies the starched-shirt-and-suspenders world of corporate publishing. (Well, neocorporate. SF Focus is published by nonprofit KQED Inc.)
At SF Focus, Powelson boasts a title that is too preening by half — “Vice President for Publishing and New Ventures” — but it's consistent with the magazine's puffer fish motto: “Smart Reading for the Bay Area.”
To his official title, Powelson should consider adding “Director of Bow and Scrape,” “Executive Ingratiator,” or “Chief Bootlicker” if the truckling letter he wrote to Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin is any indication.
As VP of publishing, Powelson oversees KQED Books, publisher of two of Palin's books — Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole. In an obsequious letter written in early March of this year, Powelson genuflects and grovels in attempts to persuade Palin to fly to the U.S. — “this awesomely rich, culturally deprived, bastard child of the English-speaking world” — to promote his books.
Aping the humor of the Pythons (“And we certainly were not expecting the Spanish Inquisition!”) and affecting a British accent (“Well, stiff upper lip”), he writes:
“We so dearly want to promote our two beautiful books with a living author. A living author is such a marvelous advantage in promoting a book. … An author still drawing a breath is a wonderful thing to prop up in front of a podium at a noisy luncheon filled with admiring and sexually adventurous society ladies who so treasure BBC programming, and who are so lulled into bliss at the sound of a British accent.
“On the other hand, writers who are three thousand miles away are no more useful to us than dead writers. Think of Dickens. Think of Thackeray. Think of Chaucer. My lord, geniuses though they be, I have no way of booking them on the Today Show! No propping dead authors up before a luncheon of matrons. Too unseemly.”
He continues: “[L]et me throw in British Air first class and the Ritz Carlton. I am most confident that sales here would quickly exceed the sheep population of several western states, and certainly the sheep population of our own Congress.”
Powelson defends his over-the-top epistolary gambit, saying, “The man's a comedian and I had not gotten the man's attention with normal correspondence.” The 1,400-word letter did succeed in winning a friendly response from Palin, who declined the press tour invitation.
Powelson also notes that in his 25 years of journalism, his correspondence had never been the subject of a press item.
There's a first time for everything
Nobody believes city government has to be compassionate. But after a Muni bus slammed into his grocery last Monday, Sami Yaser, co-owner of Fell Quality Market, expected some reassurance that amends would be made.
He was wrong. “I did not see anybody from the city who offered help,” Yaser laments from the rubble of what was once his busy market. The first bureaucrat to visit, Yaser says, “was a health inspector who told me not to do business.” Then, he continues, the irony in his voice rising, “Muni came to move the bus and take pictures” — offering no aid, not even a contact who could answer questions. The last straw, Yaser says, came when a parking agent rolled up and ordered him to remove the dumpster in which he was disposing of the remains of his business. “She said I was blocking traffic,” he huffs. So far, the only one to return his calls, Yaser notes, is his insurance company.
By Jack Shafer, John Sullivan