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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



April 1966

Religions Awakening
An Overall Plan for the City
The Religious Rite of Spring
SF Ballet Tries Harder
Library Week
Cultural Improvements — Easy But Unprofitable
More Saul Alinskys Needed
Copper-Hearts in the Fillmore




Religions Awakening

Palm Sunday. Holy Week begins, that time when both Jews and Christians commemorate a penetration of time by eternity. Both religions believe that there occurred in history acts and facts that transcended history altogether.

Whether you believe that Israel came out of bondage in Egypt, or that Christ arose out of the bondage of death, either belief sacramentalizes history. The natural life of the species Homo Sapiens in its million or more years, the long struggle of man with nature and of men against men, becomes “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us.”

So at this time especially we perform acts, rituals, based on very simple human deeds, needs and relationships, which sow forth the penetration of our own personal histories, of ourselves and our immediate community, by an infinite and eternal meaning.

The Passover Seder, really only a glorified family meal, is a supper on the eve of apocalypse, or trial, judgment and adventure into the unknown. So from Thursday to Easter the Christian Passover is the Mass of the Year, the signing of a cycle of nature with the mark of the supernatural.

Central to the rite is the faith in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, but the rite itself is however made splendid with music, vestments, gestures like a solemn dance, poetry, underneath the beauty added to it by men through the centuries, essentially a reenactment of one certain bygone Seder.

There was one Passover meal some workingmen and their Teacher held together in an upper room in a cheap inn. All of them were members of a subject race in a colonial country that was in a state of chronic revolt.

Catholics believe that into this act, only eating supper together in brotherhood, breaking bread and drinking wine in the bosom of the family, the creative and redeeming principle of the universe enters in essence and is present as a living person to each person who participates.

If we lose sight of how simple the means are by which we find meaning in existence, we are likely to lose sight of the reasons for, and the significance of, that aggiornamento which is sweeping over the religious world as the secular world which encompasses it sinks deeper and deeper into its time of troubles.

Aggiornamento, “making of today,” is very far from being a special invention of Pope John or of Roman Catholicism or of Christianity. Young rabbis jump into swimming pools in St. Augustine, a town named for an African bishop, to protest discrimination. Others carry on parochial work, pastoral care, in demoralized slums that were once fashionable Jewish neighborhoods, for whoever comes or can be sought out, Jew, Gentile, atheist alike.

But so is Buddhism awakening in Japan, with a renewed emphasis on the meaning of the Noble Eightfold Path of the historic Buddha, the living man, to the men and women who live today in the great faceless megalopolises of modern Japanese cities.

As the times get more apocalyptic, and all mankind grows more enslaved by circumstance and set for doom, the religions which have slept for so many centuries are awakening to the meaning of freedom.

However, if we forget that it is the greatest form of freedom we are offering, all our reforms, all our breaking out into the secular world, all our identification with a nonreligious society will have only the opposite effect we intended. As it says in the very Apocalypse of John, after time and space have rolled away, “And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely.”

I was moved to write this column reading the news while flying back and forth to Pittsburgh for a lecture recently. Bishop Wright of Pittsburgh had taken a first step towards returning the ownership of the plant and administration of the Roman Catholic parish to laymen (and laywomen), where it belongs.

Even if the vestry system were to return to the Roman Catholic Church in the next 20 years, it would not be significant unless it freed the priest for greater spiritual responsibility, for pastoral care, for neighborhood leadership, and for prayer.

That Vatican forbade a nun to take part in a play by Goldoni. On one side of the country a priest was disciplined for wanting to keep the old Mass in Latin, on the other, a priest was even more severely disciplined for suggesting a priests’ union and saying he thought the Socialist Party had some pretty good ideas.

But in Pittsburgh . . . [remainder of this last paragraph illegible].

[April 3, 1966]



An Overall Plan for the City

I think it was Belloc, rowing with the Webbs, founders of the pink tea Fabian Society and the inventors of the sociology of the obvious, who said that a survey was a very remunerative method of postponing decision on a notorious scandal.

We have been surveying right and left in San Francisco for years now, but the breakdown of our city, both as hardware and as community, proceeds apace. Still we go on, pouring gold down the bottomless gullets of the PhDs at $150,000 a crack, or gullet.

The boys who are out here now doing a job on San Francisco culture are earnest and honest and willing to recommend adventure into drastic action to bring the cultural life of the community into 1966 and provide it with the equipment to cope with the real contemporary society in which we are living.

I wonder if their recommendations will have any effect on the ancient and honorable order of the 40 families, who are still wondering whatever happened to that fascinating man, George Sterling? I doubt it.

The good gray mayor suggests a survey leading to an overall traffic plan. Nothing wrong with this, but what’s wrong with the flow of traffic in the City is obvious, and many of the remedies are more than obvious!

All streets in the inner city one way; parking on these streets on one side only; minimum parking at meters in this area, 25 cents;

No left turns below Van Ness Avenue; greatly improved bus and street car equipment and service; beginning with Powell and Grant, a mall* a year until we can finally get rid of private automobile traffic on the heavy shopping streets and turn Market Street itself into a mall;

High-speed ferry boats; new bridges; a perimeter freeway out in the water, and an esplanade along the entire north and east waterfront, with a luxurious redevelopment of the publicly owned area back of the waterfront now occupied by obsolete light industry, warehouses, and old-fashioned inefficient piers;

Planned parking facilities which match the population density of downtown offices, stores, hotels; fast 10-cent bus connections between parking facilities and places of work or shopping; greatly increased extension of BART;

Immediate and drastic solution of the crazy pattern of irregularly and diagonally intersecting gridirons of streets at Market Street;

Careful planning and zoning of new construction so that it never exceeds the density of use which we can actually handle.

So it goes — we know most all of these things already and there is more consensus than you might imagine, hearing the City’s leaders speak only as corporation personalities.

I suggest a survey to end all surveys. Why not ask the leading authorities, say Victor Gruen and three other famous men who disagree with him and with each other, to take the City completely to pieces and put it together again on their drawing boards and then come up with an overall plan, or series of related and alternative plans, and then round up the sovereign people and all of what Jack Morrison calls the power centers and PUSH.

But first, of course, we’ve got to decide what sort of city we want — another superduper Manhattan? Or a city of moderate density and gracious living, like we used to have, only better? Never that twain shall mix.

[April 4, 1966]

*He means an outdoor pedestrian street with no automobile traffic, not the indoor commercial conglomerations that are now usually referred to as malls.



The Religious Rite of Spring

Easter — Le Sacre du Printemps — the Rite of Spring — a festival that goes back to the beginning of man. Of man? Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, badgers and butterflies are making love.

In Italy, where I wish I was right now, the nightingales have come back to the flowering cherry trees all down the mountain from the convent pension of Our Lady of Monte Berico, where Eastertide is as beautiful as anywhere on earth.

Once a year we celebrate the renewal of the world and the year. We rejoice that life overcomes death, that good does not waste away in time, but at last triumphs over it, that flowers and then fruit spring from the seed that has fallen into the earth.

My friends Tom and Ariel Parkinson and their daughter Katherine are in Monte Berico for Easter and maybe next year I will get back. It is easier to believe in the miracle of rebirth there above Vicenza, with the domes of Venice and Padua minute in the hazy distance and the snowy Alps rising to the north and the air full of bird song and perfume.

That one joyous moment at the high point of the cycle of life can be very convincing, but the days come when you say, “I have no pleasure in them,” and it is much more apparent that life runs down and good wastes away and the worse replaces the better. At Easter, if we are fortunate, we can believe in miracles.

Of three billion people only a tiny minority are fortunate. Every day the world sinks deeper into chaos and despair. India is starving — monkeys grow fat in the temples and cows in the streets while humans die like vermin in the gutters. The world empire of the United States rocks and wobbles, perched on top of a house of cards of despotisms — Portugal, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Persia, South Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea. Every week one or the other shakes and rumbles, some days they are all in the papers at once with their troubles.

Immense nations, like Indonesia, cease to function as political entities at all, and millions starve in the midst of fruitfulness. In the capital of the second most powerful nation on earth Jews who want matzohs for Passover are subjected to worse indignities than criminals lined up for delousing. Shameless fraud and systematic lying have become the accepted instruments of public policy everywhere.

Never before has life been so insecure. Not for you, reader, in your affluent society, perhaps, but certainly for a billion and a half others, life is as nasty, brutish, and short as it ever has been in the jungles of the Amazon or the deserts of Australia.

Life looks good, looking out the picture window in the garden suburb, or over the lights of San Francisco from a modern apartment. But maybe what looks like healthy skin on the body is just a scab touched up with greasepaint.

Now we talk about updating our religions, about aggiornamento. We too are going to resurrect ourselves from the tomb. But who talks? Theologians, cardinals, rabbis of rich congregation, Anglican bishops and rectors of Protestant seminaries. Do the people respond?

A few radical Christians here and there echo the warnings from the summits, but the congregations mostly respond with sullen indifference. We read much about the role of the laity in the church today. Maybe religion should be made so hard that most of the present business-contact and neighborhood-status churchgoers would be forced out.

What drives most common people away from religion is not miracle, mystery, dogma, but middle-class respectability. The middle class have come to monopolize religion at the level of the parish church. The problem is not going to be solved by giving up Latin for the language of the luncheon club or setting up vast do-good programs employing the overeducated sons and daughters of the middle classes. How many rank-and-file laypeople are prepared to buckle down to the terrific task of aiding the resurrection of religion in a world of ruin?

Last week I got a desperate phone call from Lawrence Brachman, a young fellow who runs the Gateway Center for young adults, at 366 Eddy St., in the Tenderloin. They’d run out of money and were promised some eventually by the YMCA. Meanwhile, they were broke. This is a volunteer group, doing the best it can to provide counsel and comfort and maybe direction, for lost people from 18 to 28.

This is the generation that just the other day was the Revolt of Youth. Today that revolt, which looked so promising, is draining away in personal and social sickness . . . the marchers with their banners and placards had no place to go after the rally was over. I hope somebody helps out with a check.

But this is only one of dozens of efforts, dedicated people, mostly young themselves, trying to live an apostolic life, directly at grips with the misery of our society. Do they meet with understanding and help from the ushers in cutaways and the ladies in $200 hats who fill the churches today? Wouldn’t it be nice if the leading Catholic families and clergy decided to attend a simply Easter Mass at the Catholic Worker Center in the crumbling slums of West Oakland? It would be such an obviously Christian thing to do. I wonder when it will happen.

[April 10, 1966]



SF Ballet Tries Harder

The last three performances of the San Francisco Ballet are coming up April 16, 17 and 23. If you haven’t seen the company, you’d sure oughta go, because they’ve never been better.

Several things have gone to make a difference — money, show time, class discipline, opportunities for new ideas and new people in the summer season, amongst others.

“We’re the second ballet company in American, so we try harder.” That’s gradually coming true.

Years ago when the full company of the Royal Danes first came through, they were outstandingly better in almost every department than the San Francisco company and the comparison was something of a shock.

The Danes haven’t changed, they are still the second company in the world for some things, surpassed only by the Kirov or the British Royal, and for a kind of aquacade natural suppleness they’re unique.

But as a coherent show, their performances were not as good as the San Francisco company at its best. (Except for the folkloristic Moon Reindeer which the critics didn’t like at all — nobody but me. Leon Kalimos and our dancers seemed to know what was happening . . . which just goes to show.)

One of our lacks has been fresh choreography and this we are getting now. Carlos Carvajal and Robert Gladstein have both turned in new ballets this year that were amusing, sometimes exciting and always promising. They are both young men and need maturing as choreographers. What their work lacks so far is depth, scope, bite.

In years gone by Balanchine tried to give profundity to ballet with liberal doses of Freud, Marx, Martha Graham. That’s not what we want, at least not anymore. But ballet is, like opera, a mixed theatrical form, uniting music, painting, dance and drama.

The potential for magnificence and soul-stirring profundity is there, whether in dramatic ballet, like the Royal British Romeo and Juliet; romantic, like Swan Lake; pure classic dance, as Les Sylphides; topical, as some of the great Joost ballets, or “abstract,” say Balanchine at his best, to Bach.

It is interesting that although Lew Christensen is a strong believer in the purely dance values of ballet, the San Francisco company is most convincing in dramatic pieces, light or heavy — Filling Station or Beauty and the Beast or Original Sin.

I don’t want to sound like the People’s World. Heaven forbid. But couldn’t we have, in these days of ruin and riot, just one topical ballet? Maybe nothing controversial. Don’t call it “Huelga” or “Napalm” or even “Hunters Point.” How about “Selma”? Everybody’s for the Negro, especially if his problems are 2000 miles away.

I personally want to do a scenario on the children in the fiery furnace, Shadrach, Misach, and Abednego, with music by John Handy. Yes’m, it would be topical, in a sense. Don’t you think so?

[April 11, 1966]



Library Week

I’ve never been much for Weeks, like Roast Chicken or Black Negligee Week or Brush Your Teeth Week, and after years of Crispus Attucks I’ve lost faith in Negro History Week.

But this is Library Week and everybody’s for libraries and ours is a special concern. For one, Bill Holman took over a library system that was a disgrace and a joke and has made a new and effect public service out of it.

We still have terrible library problems. The Main Library is a most handsome building, in the great tradition of Early American Imperial, like the Boston, New York and Chicago libraries. It is an adornment to the Civic Center, but it is inefficient as a library building.

Bill Holman has done wonders in opening it up to the public, as well as controlling somewhat better the fantastic losses due to theft — which were in turn due to the uncontrollable circulation of customer traffic. We still need, worse than ever, a different building.

I don’t think the present structure should be torn down. It is one of the country’s best examples of a great period of American architecture, but, like the equally fine New York Pennsylvania Station, it presents an almost insoluble problem — what else can you use it for?

It has been suggested that the San Francisco Museum vacate the attic of the Veteran’s Building and take over the Main Library. There simply aren’t enough works of art to fill even one floor, and the reconstruction problems are difficult and very expensive to solve.

It would certainly be good to have a large art museum on the Civic Center, but first we’ve got to have some local patrons who are seriously interested in buying paintings.

Nevertheless, a main library building, carefully planned by a great architect in consultation with Librarian Holman and a committee of other eminent library heads, is something San Francisco needs very badly indeed.

We also need more money in the budget for branches and for expansion of the services of the existing branches. The branch library should be a neighborhood intellectual and cultural and information center that functions from 9 in the morning to 10 at night.

If this city only had the gumption to use its present facilities of parks, recreation centers, schools, libraries, with creative imagination, we’d solve a lot of problems that beset our human relationships and cripple us as a community.

The public library system is actually more flexible than the others, and on the staff are a few people who have such ideas. A little money for such activities would pay off many fold.

One thing we’ve never had that I can remember, even in the darkest days of bygone administrations, was an open censorship scandal in the San Francisco Library.

I see for the events of this Library Week they’ve got Father Dullea, S.J., rector of USF, the Mayor, a representative of one of the largest advertising agencies, and the leading advocate of total abolition of any and all censorship of books, Paul Goodman, all on the program, though not all on the same day.

Also there’s a poetry contest which may well turn up lines of free verse and free speech that somebody might think might arouse what the courts call prurient interest, or worse, political deviations.

Things look very civil libertarian, which is all to the good. A community’s collection of books should be its most free institution, in every sense, and the degree of that freedom is a measure of the public health.

Just recently some of the local dignitaries of the church had a pow-wow and once again went off in all directions inveighing against the sexual sins of the secular society, in thought, word and deed. There’s a new censorship initiative measure coming up, which will cost the taxpayers a lot of money if it goes on the ballot, and then will be declared unconstitutional.

Here’s one place Bill Buckley and I are in complete agreement. When will the church learn that it does not live in a Christian society and that it has no right to try to coerce the civil arm into enforcing its own standards on an irreligious world which considers them absurd and outmoded?

What would the rest of society do if the rabbis of the community tried to make the minor operation which marks a baby boy as a Jew a matter of law for all boys? This is exactly the attitude the rest of society takes right now towards the political pressures of the church to make its own catalog of sins the standard for civil law.

There are so many things crying out to be done if anybody wants to take up the following of the apostles of Jesus Christ that the clergy should have no time to spare to make enemies of the people who do not share their ideas on sexual relations and related questions.

[April 17, 1966]



Cultural Improvements — Easy But Unprofitable

This coming weekend they’ll be doing Chekhov’s Sea Gull again at San Francisco State College. Last week they were sold out well in advance, so I advise you to call the box office now — JU 5-7174, if you a-figuring on a-going.

Once again this excellent show of a major dramatic classic moves me to ask why we don’t have a central booking and distributing agency as part of the state college system that can tour concerts, exhibitions, and plays at least from one school to another, and possibly through junior colleges and other public facilities as well.

This is one thing the Governor’s little window-dressing exhibit — the California Arts Commission — could do right now if it wanted to. And why shouldn’t shows from the better little theaters be toured likewise? And what has the Bay Area Arts Council done to set up such a Centrex?

The reason these politicians’ and culture surveyors’ outfits do nothing is that there is “nothing in it” unless you can hand out $12,000-a-year jobs to overcome the poverty of the deserving poor, which means the deserving petty politicians. There’s no slush, no gravy, no swill in the trough in any of the really effective ways in which we could put our present facilities and people to use right now.

Therefore nothing will be done. It is the ease with which our cultural problems could be solved which prevents solution.

How easy it would be to do something immediate, concrete, and effective about Marin City. They may not have an auditorium by Frank Lloyd Wright, but they’ve got plenty of green space and summer’s coming on.

The most promising young playwrights in the Bay Area are Ed Bullins and Marvin Jackman. There are an unlimited number of music groups. There are several dance groups, Warren Potter’s and Bill Couser’s amongst others. There’s the Aldridge Players and the company doing The Blacks at the Playhouse.

How about an open air art show? There are a number of excellent painters within a couple blocks of my home in Haight-Ashbury. All these are black people.

There must be 10 acres of open space in Marin City, some of it perfect for an outdoor show. Why not forget about the War on Poverty and Headstart and all the other gravy trains and start using it?

Instead, the nice people in Marin City organize a committee and invite The Man, or The Devils, as you prefer, to come and see how really nice they are.

Folks, it’s easy enough to make Marin City healthy if you want to try, but you’ll never make it Hinctyville.

[April 18, 1966]



More Saul Alinskys Needed

What James Baldwin calls the power structure has, in our peaceful Bay Area, been thrown into so many flaps that it looks like a giant rubber pangolin. And all by the threat of the Presbyterian Church to finance a system of direct-action reform managed by the — I guess the best cliché is “redoubtable” — Saul Alinsky.

Now either all these lads who are screaming before they’re hit have something to fear or they don’t. Either all our efforts to cope with our poor and our minorities are working or they aren’t. If everything is just jim dandy, what are all these important people so scared of?

True, true, Saul Alinsky is a professional rabble-rouser. But who can deny that the rabble need rousing, even if that’s not the right word to call them? He’s a troublemaker. But the trouble he makes is good for the sick body politic and often cures far more deep-seated and dangerous illnesses.

Who is Saul Alinsky? Simply put, he is a man who has taken the methods of radical mass action of the pre-Roosevelt Depression years and systematized them and improved them and turned them into a technique for creative social reform at the grass-roots or slum-tenement level.

This technique he sells as a professional service, just like an industrial reorganization service.

The first two communities he revitalized and reformed and sent off to a new life of comparative social health were “Back-of-the-Yards” and Woodlawn in Chicago.

Hunters Point, Marin City, and half a dozen worse places in the East Bay, neighborhoods worthy of the apartheid suburbs of Johannesburg — is anybody really doing anything in these places that is going to make a permanent, wholesale, fundamental difference? No.

Western Addition No. 2 is coming up. What will happen to Western Addition No. 3 and the Haight-Ashbury, now one of the pleasantest places in town, when the slums in No. 2 are flattened and the population is crowded into the adjacent areas? The same thing that happened to No. 2 when the folks from No. 1 were jammed in. (And eight thousand Negroes were lost in the shuffle.)

And what meanwhile is being done, really effectively, in San Francisco’s own Bull Pen, as they call the blocks around 139th Street in Harlem, that is, the inner core of what’s left of the old Fillmore District? Nothing. Nothing effective. Unless you count in their small way the vastly overrated Black Muslims. They do accomplish things because, like Alinsky, they operate on a person-to-person, point-to-point basis. Family breakdown, disorder, despair are met by the Muslims “at the point of production,” as oldtime union militants used to call it.

That’s what we need. We need to start where it begins. For instance. A friend, a Catholic Sunday School teacher, was telling her children about God, the Father and the Fatherhood of God and similar concepts. They were children who had come or been brought to the church from the surrounding neighborhood because their mothers, although not Catholics, thought they would be welcome. My friend noticed that she wasn’t getting anywhere, there didn’t seem to be any emotional response to “Our Father who art in heaven . . .” She questioned the class and discovered that not a single child had a father at home, and most of them had never had, and had only the vaguest idea of what a father was.

What are you going to tell children, from a subculture where the idea of fatherhood is meaningless, that what Jim Pike calls “the ground of being” is in fact a loving person? What kind of person?

The job program is running into disaster because it has started on an accelerating process of de facto segregation. The white kids quit and leave the Negro kids in possession. Meanwhile, the Johnsonian War on Poverty and similar capers are emerging in their true colors. All these fancy boondoggles serve the purpose of drawing off the potential Negro middle class, professional and intellectual leadership, to set them quarreling with one another over jobs of $12,500 a year and up, while the poor wait, or in the vast majority, turn away in total indifference.

How long is all this stuff going to go on? The escalation of the problem, to use a Johnsonism, immeasurably outpaces the solutions. We are producing a kind of big-city Indian reservation subculture, and the brutal fact is, we are trying to cope with it by methods essentially (but highly disguised) those used for a century and found wanting, by the Indian Bureau.

Me, I think the Bay Area could use a couple hundred Saul Alinskys. (Besides, his capers sure sell papers, pretty near as good as a war or a sex murder.)

[April 24, 1966]



Copper-Hearts in the Fillmore

The cops are still trying to chase Bill Graham out of the Fillmore Auditorium. Crooks and, ironically enough, policemen themselves have a term for the peculiar malevolent self-righteousness which is an occupational hazard of the police business — copper-hearted.

There are still an appreciable number of police officers who are absolutely convinced that free association of Negroes and whites of opposite sexes is just about the most evil sin going, and that if they could just break up all social miscegenation they’d go a long way towards solving the crime and delinquency problems of the community.

Worse still are long hair, bare feet, Cost Plus ponchos, boots, miniskirts, costumes from the antique clothes rack at the Goodwill.

Our rival paper’s Miss Lonelyhearts answered a mother who said she thought her honor student son looked fine in long hair and tight pants with her own jet-set brand of a snarl of sarcastic rage.

There are more beatniks than honor students dressed that way, she said. Dear Abby, there aren’t any more beatniks and haven’t been for years. This is a new thing altogether. It’s the vast and ever-growing subculture of the people under 35 who don’t like you — or me either for that matter.

The present coiffures and strange clothes of these people are the beginning of the sartorial revolution of the automated society. Within 10 years, mark my words, style will be optional over the whole range of historical costume from Egypt to science-fiction movies. At present long hair for men is simply a current fashion and all sorts of people do it, including me, in my modest way.

It’s no more a sign of dope addiction or of a yen for bedding races of different color than is a crew cut, even though the cops may still think so.

Is the accusation really true that Rabbi Burstein is the source of the heat on Bill Graham? I think it’s false. I think the police are just trying to pass the buck.

The younger generation of rabbis, some of whom even wear longish hair or tight pants, and who are assistants in congregations in neighborhoods no longer predominately Jewish, like the Fillmore, are asserting their vocation as men of God to undertake the cure of souls in their immediate community, whether Jew or Gentile.

Another friend, a Catholic priest, was all upset because the cops raided a long hair, tight pants, mixed race party “within just a few doors of my church!”

“Do any of these people come to St. Soandso’s?” “No.” “Do you know any of them?” “No.” It seems to me a great opportunity. Why don’t you pay them a friendly call?”

Dear Elliot, why not invite Bill Graham to give a somewhat more modest community party in the social hall of Congregation Beth Israel?

[April 25, 1966]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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