Berkeley's beloved Hate Man
Approximately forty years ago, Esquire Magazine commissioned a commercial photographer in New York City to select some bums from the Bowery, take mug shtos of them, then spruce them up, put them in fashionable clothes and take their portraits a second time. The pairs of portraits made a very effective statement about the absurdity of lookism, which is the philosophy that everything, particularly people, should be judged on how attractive and stylish they look.
When we first arrived in Berkeley CA, we recalled the Esquire Magazine effort and considered doing a localized version of that approach to the controversial subject of the local homeless.
Things have changed (a bit) since the Sixties and these days people are up tight about having their photo taken and so the project was slowed down by an attempt, which had to come first, to win the confidence of some of the panhandlers.
Richard Avedon had a unique lighting style that made his portraits distinctive and eventually we figured out ("imitation is the sincerest form of flattery") how to duplicate it. It would take some expensive strobe lighting and a huge studio and, over the years, we (photo pun alert!) developed a low budget way to try to imitate the master's distinctive style. A plain white wall with Northern lighting would be a cheap way to get the flat lighting and plain background.
Francesco Scavullo came to our attention as the end of the last century drew neigh. Scavullo usually had a hair dresser, a make up artist and a wardrobe wrangler on his staff and he could make anyone look like a movie star and made movie stars look like living legends. If he selected a hippie, a panhandler, or a homeless person as a subject they would end up looking drop dead gorgeous in the finished print. The photo critics eloquently praised Scavullo's ability to see the inner human dignity of the subject.
Armstrong and Getty, who have the hottest (radio) show on the West Coast, are rather relentless in their harsh criticism of the homeless, the panhandlers, and the hippie connoisseurs of tobacco and home rolled cigarettes. Lookism reigns supreme in the ranks of the Republicans.
The radio duo will, for example, describe in lurid detail just how unsanitary some panhandlers seem to be but they will not acknowledge that often businesses in San Francisco or Berkeley will deny the homeless access to public toilets.
During the series of Occupy protests in the San Francisco Bay Area, the World's Laziest Journalist had to cope with the same challenge. If, for example, there is a hotel with public toilets in the area, and if they deny access to those facilities during a time period when a big political protest is being conducted nearby, that could be construed as stacking the deck against the activists in the hopes that they would have to soil themselves and their clothing and thus provide grist for conservative propaganda.
Could that sly attack on freedom of speech happen in a country that had thousands of men die defending the Four Freedoms (can you name all four?) in World War II?
Wouldn't such cynical manipulation of the protesters be a stealth way of contradicting the need for those men who fought and died in WWII, to give the ultimate sacrifice? Or would it reduce the Conservatives' lavish praise or patriotism to the level of being an egregious example of their addiction to hypocrisy? What's not to love about crass and callous hypocrisy? Don't Republicans want to be on the billionaires' team rather than spend additional tax dollars on the casualties of war?
What would Armstorng and Getty have to say if, hypothetically, Francesco Scavullo were able to round up a contingent of Bay Area panhandlers, get them out of their dirty clothes (there is at least one Laundromat in Berkeley that offers the homeless a free night when they can wash most of their clothes. [What's not to love about a guy in his skivvies washing all the rest of his wardrobe?]), take an impressive portrait, and turn them into matinee idols and starlets? Berkeley even offers the homeless a chance to shower and shampoo their hair, twice a week.
If Scavullo were still alive and transforming the homeless in the San Francisco Bay area into potential movie stars (there's one guy on Shattuck who reminds us of Lee van Cleef [Does anyone still make spaghetti Westerns?]) we would expect Armstrong and Getty to ignore the results and continue to demean the victims of the current class warfare.
Since radioland will soon be turned into all conservative propaganda all the time, don't expect sympathetic media coverage of the panhandlers any time soon.
Several years ago (could it have been twenty years ago?) the World's Laziest Journalist occasionally bought lunch for a fellow who "owned" the begging rights to the 405 off-ramp at National Blvd in the Mar Vista Section of Los Angeles. He had no reason to lie to us and so we take what he said at face value. We asked him why he didn't use some of his "offerings" to get a haircut and buy some nicer threads. He bluntly told us that if he did that, he wouldn't bring in half as much money. The people, he said, wanted to have a full experience of being a "have" who was giving to a "have not." In Los Angeles, which is the home of the movie industry, an elaboration of the "you have to look the part" philosophy was not necessary.
Things were much better economically back then, and we had no reason to doubt him when he said his earnings were enabling him to put his two children back East through college. He blithely told us that his annual income was $38,000. Based on what he told us, it is easy to see why a panhandler would not want, back then, to get a "makeover" from Scavullo and his team and thereby sabotage his way of earning a livelihood.