Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Police State Architecture - San Francisco Federal Building

When I worked at California Pacific Medical Center, I belonged to the personable local credit union, the Embarcadero Federal Credit Union.  Later it was absorbed by some corporate entity, 1st Pacific, and the transition was a nightmare.  Evidentally all those friendly local people were replaced by temporary people who made terrible mistakes in the transition so that I had to keep watch and argue with incompetent and indifferent employees.  When that settled down, I did not really trust or want to deal with the resulting entity.  Lately I became aware that I was never receiving any statements from them, and so I decided to cash out of that organization finally.  I found that there seemed to be no offices for 1st Pacific except at 90 Seventh Street in San Francisco. When I got there, I was surprised to realize that it was the address of the new Federal Building in San Francisco -- supposedly the "greenest" building around, but also, as I discovered, the most ugly and sickest building around -- not "green" psychologically as it is the green of pond scum [See Comments] and cultural decay.
If I had known that what I considered a commericial enterprise, especially now that it is called 1st Pacific, was in a federal building (besides wondering about the corporate-government connection), I would have been prepared to deal with what I know has become the fortress-like nature of federal buildings and would not have been carrying a backpack.  As I emptied pockets, removed shoes, belt, etc., I was muttering against our modern police state.  Then my Swiss Army knife was discovered in my pack, and I was told that I could not enter the building.  "You mean, I have to go back to Oakland to leave my knife there, and then return to San Francisco?"  Like all the guards there, this guard was lifeless and void of affect, cold as stone, and suggested that I go outside and hide the knife somewhere until I could return later and retrieve it.  As I pulled together all that had landed at the end of the conveyer belt, I was part of the sickness of our times:  The State, paranoid about the hatred and violence against it, made this citizen feel violent hatred toward the State, and I loudly cursed, "This is a police state!  I hate the government!"  
An old African-American guard walked over and asked to see the knife and examined it.  It had parts that could have caused harm, I suppose, but he said it was O.K., and let me through, and I thanked him and dragged all my loose parts to where I could dress again.
The last information I had about the location of 1st Pacific indicated that it was in a suite on the 8th floor, and when I got out on the 8th floor, I found what I was to find as I later wandered about the building -- the most alien environment imaginable.  For a moment I thought, Was the 1st Pacific office in a building that was here before this building was built?  Has 1st Pacific disappeared, along with my funds?  No human was visible, no way to see into any office door, and there was no sign of anything that a human life might have left behind; this place was as cold and ugly as a prison in some science fiction horror story.  What I found most telling was that all the doors had forbidding signage, and slits in the doors that symbolized for me what we have become -- defended, paranoid, hostile -- the federal government's fear of its citizens.  If only the right that fears and hates the government (Remembering Waco, remembering Katrina, remembering...) and the left that fears and hates the government (loss of civil rights, shameful crimes against countries around the globe) realized that they are in the same boat, what a great change would be possible, but, in any case, the government knows it is despised, and this federal building is prepared for seige.  
Any who gathered for demonstrations in the 60s at the older federal building on Golden Gate Avenue may remember that there was a wide plaza in front of that building that was receptive to demonstrations, but now what a bizarre, ugly, and illogical change at that location where that open space has been turned into odd mountains and furrows of cement, impassible barriers against the masses that make no sense architecturally, are simply the architecture of defensive paranoia.
Every office on every floor of new federal building on Seventh Street looks like this:

In this case the most telling feature are the slit windows in the doors -- too small for the weapons of anyone approaching from outside; signalling a memory of arrow or rifle slits (also called loopholes) in fortresses, symbols of defensive paranoia, but on the other hand, resembling anything but freedom, resembling nothing so much as the slits in prison doors. 

You would have to wander around the building as extensively as I did, asking people where the 1st Pacific office might be, to get the full impression of the deadly impersonality of the building.  If Mussolini or Goebbels had been contemporary nerds, they would have been ecstatic about the building, and, clearly, their contemporary equivalents planned the building.  Some movie-maker has a ready-made set for a particular kind of paranoid political fantasy film.  Unfortunately, this edifice is here to stay, along with the new police state made official.
As I asked passing residents of the building about the 1st Pacific offices, I was sent to several locations on various floor; told there was no such office in that building; told it was in the federal building on Golden Gate.  Wouldn't you know it was only when I returned to that sane and kind old African-American guard at the front door that I got true directions.  (You will have guessed that no signs anywhere listed the office, and when you arrived on any floor there was television screens listing what was on those floors, all of them almost inscrutable names for government entities.)

The building is like the set from a German expressionist film, or a nightmare about toothache.  And then, appropriately, there is a stairway to nowhere.

At the top of the stairway to nowhere is a joke -- the single plant in the entire building, a pathetic and insulting gesture:  Is it even real, and do you give a damn if it is real?
The friendly guard sent me to the right double doors on the right floor, yet there was no indication of where to find the office beyond those doors.  As I got out of the elevator and faced the doors, already realizing there would be no help on the other side, I yelled out to no-one, just to the void, "This building is impossible!" and a man who had been on the elevator with me, held the door and leaned out of the elevator and, hearing my problem, gave me further clues of where I might find the office beyond the double doors, or I might have gone on searching.  Inside, there was still no sign anywhere, certainly not on the television screen listing offices (so 1984), but I went down the deadly hallway indicated, dropping into an office at one point where a friendly young African-American woman told me it was two doors further.

Finally, I found the first sign in the building for that office -- only on the door itself.  The sign, oddly enough, was Embarcadero Federal Credit Union.  It was 12:30 and a note on the door said Out to Lunch, Back at 2:10.   I certainly was not going to give up at this point, and wandered some more, complaining to various people about their building, but all were passive passengers on the ship of State; or, working close to the hated federal government, knew they might be in danger should the populace ever awaken.   How very odd that the office, according to the sign on the door, was only open on two days a week.  Was the E.F.C.U. (and/or 1st Pacific), nearly impossible to locate, soon to be obsolete?  Were they waiting indifferently to see how many would forget their old accounts, garnering funds that were never retrieved.
When the door opened at 2:10, it was apparent that the single person there had been in the office all the while, and he was alone in a suite of offices, continuing my impression of a place that would seem vast and lonely if any there were alive enough to sense it.  How cold is the federal government?  The man barely looked at me, was without facial expressions and as void of human affect as the building itself.  He barely responded to my curiousity about what 1st Pacific might be, but he let me know that he came and went easily as the F.B.I. had thoroughly investigated him, and I had the sense that he would not respond at all if I were to ask how a commercial enterprise was in the federal building, and was that why it was so secret?  It was amazingly easy to withdraw all my funds although I had lost all information on the organization except for a card I showed him that I suppose was a credit card.  I was relieved to free my funds from that hateful building.  I thanked the friendly old guard at the front door for a third or fourth time, and said, "I have survived the Federal Building, and I hope to never return here again!"

1 comment:

The Blue Elephant said...

As Martha Hubert constantly corrects my colloquial speech (full of illiteracies), I am grateful to Robert Carr for protesting, "Please do not denigrate pond scum." I am anxious to be true to science while using metaphors, and in this case I must drop the "pond scum" as I have seen algae under the microscope -- a fabulous and multi-colored world of incredible beauty.