Editorial: Pie in the Sky for the Holiday Table

By Becky O’Malley
Friday November 30, 2007

If you want a good laugh, type “sex on the sidewalk” into Google News. This will give you the opportunity to witness, firsthand, the birth of an urban legend. And where has it been born? Why, in our beloved San Francisco Chronicle, of course. Carolyn Jones reported on Tuesday that: “The new plan cracks down on yelling, littering, camping, drunkenness, smoking, urinating and sex on sidewalks and in parks.” I know she was at the City Council meeting—so was I, and I saw her. But where did she get that sentence? Never mind, it’s been picked up all over the map as the key component of whatever the City Council thinks it passed on Tuesday night.  

Fox News headline: Berkeley, Calif., Cracks Down on Sex on Sidewalks, in Parks. And from the online right-wing publication The American Thinker: No More Sidewalk Sex in Berkeley? 

Yet another chapter in the Chronicle’s on-going contribution to the Bezerkeley legend... It almost seems like their reporters use those 10-minute breaks for the caption-writer to sneak out and puff on a joint.  

And sex on the sidewalk is merely the most eye-catching part of that sentence. Almost all the rest of it is fictitious, too. In actual fact, all the council acted on was new penalties and regulations concerning where people may smoke or lie down. A councilmember who deserves protection as a confidential source quipped privately that you can still have sex on the sidewalk, you just have to do it standing up from now on.  

In fact, even though I’ve been in Berkeley off and on since 1959, I’ve never seen any sidewalk sex, though I did notice still-legal out-in-the-open sex in broad daylight in a parked car on Parker Street not too long ago. Of course, I averted my eyes immediately. 

You can find a reality-based account of what happened at the meeting elsewhere in this issue. If you don’t believe the Daily Planet, you can also find most of the facts about what happened online in the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News, or even the Daily Cal.  

The central delusion about what the council did on Tuesday was one which the councilmembers shared. Several of them, card-carrying bleeding-hearts that they are, seemed to believe that what they were passing was an even-handed combination of sticks and carrots. The sticks were real, all right, but the carrots were conceptual, virtual, faux—or as Wobbly Joe Hill used to sing, Pie in the Sky Bye and Bye. 

Joe wrote a parody of a hymn which was used by sanctimonious preachers trying to reform the street people of his day, just about a hundred years ago:  


Long-haired preachers come out every night, 

Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right; 

But when asked how ‘bout something to eat 

They will answer with voices so sweet: 



You will eat, bye and bye, 

In that glorious land above the sky; 

Work and pray, live on hay, 

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. 


These days the preachers are more likely to be short-haired, and the religious people are more likely to be on the side of the poor, but the pie in the sky tastes about the same. 

All of the remedies for the plight of the crazy and reckless folks who live on the streets which the well-intentioned consultant suggested were not enacted on Tuesday, despite reports in other media, and will probably never be. The mechanism for funding them—raising parking meter fees—won’t even be considered until the Jan. 15 council meeting, and specific budget items will follow even later, “bye and bye.”  

In the meantime, the police have been given virtual carte blanche for rousting sleeping people whenever and wherever that they want—a Merry Christmas to you, sir, and God Bless You Every One. No added shelter beds, no new toilets, no more blankets just yet, sorry about that. But you’ll be sure to get citations for sleeping in the wrong place, and if you don’t pay the fine you’ll go to jail and/or lose your disability check. 

A few councilmembers came close to figuring out that they were participating in a shell game, though ultimately they couldn’t find the hidden pea. Max Anderson pointed out that $142,000 for public toilets could and should have already been available from the general fund, that enough toilets shouldn’t have to wait for a fee increase. Betty Olds echoed the urgent need for public toilets, but made no move to have them provided promptly. Linda Maio made a valiant attempt to highlight the irrationality in the resolution which stepped up enforcement of state laws against sleeping in public, but was defeated by double-talk from Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan and of course the mayor. Spring and Worthington as usual were intelligent and articulate, but they might as well have been talking to fence posts.  

A particularly unattractive part of the program was an orchestrated parade of ex-addicts singing that hallelujah, they’d been saved. One of them, a white guy, read a long litany of past sins, with the moral of the story that he’d finally reformed when he stopped claiming his civil rights. That particular bone stuck in the throat of African-American councilmember Anderson and others of us who are proud veterans of the civil rights struggles of the past 40 years. To be fair, the testifier probably didn’t write his own speech. None of this had any connection with what was actually on the agenda. 

An elderly woman started in on a tale of how her parents used to sit on a bench on Shattuck in the ’50s, but couldn’t get to her point because there was a one-minute sound-byte time limit for comments. It seemed like she was asking for more penalties for bad behavior, though it wasn’t quite clear. As she left the mic, she said that she’d only come because she’d been asked to—by an assistant city manager. Since when has it been the job of city staff to round up allies to speak in the public comment period? 

When the consultant finished her lovely upbeat report on what might help solve the identified problems, the mayor jumped in, as he frequently does, to restate what she’d said in his own inimitable style. No vegetarian he, he promised to “put meat on the bones.” Phony baloney and conceptual carrots would be a better description of what’s likely to be the filling of the PCEI pie-in-the-sky. 

In the past few years, all sorts of goodies have been put on the public table and then snatched away. The sound wall at Aquatic Park and the warm pool are two examples that have come up in the last month alone. Just to keep everyone honest, the Planet will be publishing the list of services promised on the Public Commons menu on a periodic basis, and we’ll be keeping score.  

Smart money would bet that the parking fee raise will happen, all right, but most of the public benefits it’s supposed to fund will never materialize. The money will be spent for other things, and then perhaps the manager will ask for new taxes or bonds to fund the social services: a classic bait-and-switch transaction.