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Life Is Change 

Even a headstrong columnist can meet his match -- and have to move on

Wednesday, Nov 6 2002
I've got to admit, it's been a good run; San Francisco's been kinder to me than I really deserved. But there comes a time when life's path must change, when one grasps for new experiences, for a new type of life.

Readers opening next Wednesday's edition of SF Weekly will find no Matt Smith column. There won't be one the following week, either.

After months and years of trying to pick away at what I felt was a confused, misused, misled, and ill-bred San Francisco political ideology that used leftism to defeat causes the left holds dear, I thought I'd give it a rest. If I couldn't transform my favorite city's life, perhaps it was time, I reasoned, to transform my own.

Over my years as SF Weekly's news columnist and fashion editor, I've earnestly reached out to the community. My advice has, in almost all cases, been spurned:

- A year ago February, I attempted to foster a healthy, reasoned civic discussion about the character deficiencies of pot smokers.(1) The public offered me contempt as a reward,(2) and voters, ignoring my entreaties, this week consider Proposition S, which directs S.F. city officials to explore entering the pot business.

- Repeatedly, helpfully, concernedly I've criticized both taxi drivers and taxicab company owners, explaining how they contravene the interests of good, honest San Franciscans. Last month I watched a Board of Supervisors committee reward them by considering a proposal that would increase the amount taxicab permit holders can charge taxi drivers and raise taxicab fares another 25 cents per mile.

- I've railed against San Francisco airport officials' scammy scheme to lead the privatization of the airports of Honduras. After months of exhaustive research, much of it in Honduras, my story about this boondoggle appeared on, of all days, Sept. 12, 2001, when it was, deservedly, buried by terrorism coverage. Follow-up stories were also ignored, and just a few months ago, the Board of Supervisors agreed to provide funds to keep the sleazy Honduras operation alive an additional three months.

A couple of weeks ago I spoke with Adolfo Sacusse, president of Honduras' National Association of Manufacturers. He said the San Francisco-led consortium that now has a monopoly on airports there is damaging the impoverished Honduran economy with exorbitant cargo and landing fees. Worse, Sacusse said, the consortium has abandoned stated plans to invest in an extension of the unusually short Tegucigalpa runway.

"They cannot even load the planes to capacity because of the short runways here. Extending it 300 meters would lessen the possibilities of an accident," he said. Running Honduras' airports "is not only bad business for the city of San Francisco, it's a horrible liability risk. The danger for you people is that a plane might take off from Tegucigalpa and crash into the city."

Airport Director John Martin, for his part, appears to be desperate to keep this dubious Honduras operation going. He recently sent Supervisor Aaron Peskin a letter saying he would end-run the supervisors' decision not to fund this operation beyond three months by diverting money from elsewhere.

- In column after column, I've tried to drive home the idea that a shortage of effective transport alternatives to autos is one of the Bay Area's gravest political, economic, and social problems. Dependence on cars precludes the construction of dense housing. The inability to build dense housing drives up housing prices. High housing prices spur homelessness. And this automobile-driven housing shortage discourages companies from locating here, because their workers have no place to live.

This is a difficult case to make to suburbanites wishing to preserve their automobile-oriented lifestyle. But I always thought I had the transport wonks on my side -- until I discovered a recent edition of TransActions, a newsletter put out by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which is the transportation planning, coordinating, and financing agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. The September newsletter is devoted to denouncing two recent federal court rulings requiring the Bay Area to do a better job encouraging public transit ridership.

A group of environmental organizations had sued Bay Area transit agencies because, way back in 1982, the MTC committed to shifting people out of cars by increasing the number of Bay Area transit riders by 15 percent. Today, despite a 30 percent increase in population, total transit ridership remains close to 1982 levels. Rather than settling out of the lawsuit, as Muni and AC Transit have done, the MTC is now arguing that improved traffic flow is far more important than transit in cleaning up the air.

With the Bay Area's primary transport agency now hostile to the very idea of public transit, I fear nobody will ever listen to my cries. And Northern California is doomed to becoming a solid mass of economically depressed, gridlocked sprawl.

- I've repeatedly called Pacific Bell an abusive, monopolistic scourge, only to watch the state Public Utilities Commission grant the company lucrative entry into the long-distance telephone market. In apparent prologue to my future in Hades, I had to hear the company's name repeated endlessly as the stadium to which it had purchased naming rights hosted baseball's World Series.

- I've fought at the side of native plant enthusiasts, who defend San Francisco's remaining indigenous flora and fauna against invasive eucalyptus, Himalayan blackberry, and defecating dogs. Then, just last week I was running on Mount Davidson and a blackberry vine scratched me in the face.

- I got this whole ball rolling -- the one where I complain about things and nobody heeds my earnestly proffered advice -- just over two years ago, when I denounced a group of protesters who objected to some Mission building owners raising the rent on a dance troupe. This sort of street protest, I wrote, symbolized "everything that's wrong with the gestural, rather than practical, way San Franciscans prefer to approach the city's social problems." So, there!

Then, 25 months later, whom should I discover, on the front page of the Marin Independent, in an above-the-fold, full-color image, but ... my father, in his protest cassock, participating in a Golden Gate Bridge protest march of clergy opposed to war in Iraq. "Eloi," I nearly found myself saying, "Eloi, lama sabachthani?"(3)

After an entire one-twentieth of a century spent whining and criticizing and admonishing, with no civic transformation to show for it, I've decided it's time for me to embark upon a new phase of my life. I believe this will be better for all concerned. So readers, when you open SF Weekly next week, or the week after that, and find no Matt Smith column, I urge you to take pleasure in the work of my colleagues instead.

I'll be off for two weeks, because I'm getting married to a beautiful local named Fiona Gow. Come January, we're going to have a native San Franciscan baby girl (whom I plan to consult when political debates turn to the issue of who is the most authentically San Franciscan of them all). After honeymooning for two weeks, I'll be back to columnizing, having changed life's path -- but personally, not professionally.

I mean, really: Would you quit a job where you got paid for doing what I've just done to you?


2 "Simply put, Matt, you are one dumb, arrogant, prejudiced, misinformed m-f when it comes to medical marijuana." -- Van E. Estes III, Hendersonville, N.C.

3 Aramaic for "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 15:34)

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Matt Smith


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