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Monthly Archives: February 2012
San Franciscans love their music. And despite the unpredictable weather–our fog, Karl, even tweets about it–we like to listen to it outside. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is the prime example of a free, outdoor music festival in SF. Held every year since 2001 in Golden Gate Park, HSB draws over 750,000 concertgoers over a weekend each fall. The line-up is always impressive, with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and Emmy Lou Harris (among other bluegrass royalty) performing regularly, as well as less-bluegrassy acts–hence the “hardly.” I went to HSB last October, and it was well worth the crush of people.
Outside Lands brings a mostly indie line-up to Golden Gate Park at the end of summer; last year, it hauled in an estimated $60 million in revenue for the city, with 180,000 tickets purchased. And the Treasure Island Music Festival (held, unsurprisingly, on Treasure Island), another indie-ish fest, entices a slightly younger crowd–at least, that’s what a source, who ended up on the wrong side of a puking underage spectator, told me. The free Stern Grove concert series, which has been running for 75 seasons, brings a slightly older, more staid crowd–with acts ranging from the SF Symphony to Neko Case.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Summer of Love and Sixties rock-n-roll (but only a mention because I want to write about this in depth later). The Grateful Dead performed numerous outdoor concerts in SF throughout the years, including in Golden Gate Park in 1967 and on Haight Street in 1968. If you’re ever in Magnolia Brewery on Haight and Masonic, you can see an incredible photo in the bathroom depicting the latter. Of course, the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969 (sorry, Wikipedia is the best option) owed their size to the Counterculture’s epicenter in San Francisco. And the punk scene thrived in the 1980s in an outdoor venue or two:
Which brings us to last Sunday. Financier and philanthropist Warren Hellman, the founder of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, passed away in December 2011. HSB held a free tribute concert for him out at Ocean Beach, closing down the Great Highway so that a number of incredible musicians could perform in his honor. After a decadent brunch at Magnolia, I found myself wandering the Haight aimlessly, until a quick Twitter scan reminded me of the event and sent me, rushing and scatter-brained, to Fulton Street for the number 5 Muni. I disembarked at the Pacific Ocean to a huge crowd swaying to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I stayed for the rest of their set, Boz Scaggs, and Old Crow Medicine Show before heading home (I had more bluegrass to see that evening at Cafe du Nord). It could hardly have been a better day, with a few wisps of cloud, enough sunshine to keep the wind chill bearable, and a calm, respectful crowd celebrating Mr. Hellman through the music he loved best.
Besides the music, the best part of big concerts is the people watching. I jotted down a few field notes while sitting on the double yellow line in the middle of the Great Highway. Based on these observations and others from around the city, here’s what you’ll find at a typical San Francisco music festival:
- Hippies – the old and new kind. There’s a difference, and it’s not always based on age.
- Ex-hippies. You just know when you see them.
- Homeless people.
- People who dress like they’re homeless.
- Surfers, skaters, and their ilk.
- Girls who dress like Penny Lane (guilty as charged).
- Girls who think they dress like Penny Lane (ditto).
- SWPL white people, and, goes without saying for this demographic, Patagonia apparel (guilty verdict continues).
- People from the 1990s.
- People from the 1890s.
- Bicycles and dogs and strollers and coolers (oh my!).
- Red-cheeked, blue-eyed children who are cuter than your current/future kids will ever be.
- People who are taller than me.
- Drugs and alcohol, cleverly concealed or not at all.
- Piercings, obscure tattoos, and carefully sculpted facial hair (Bonus: dreadlocks).
- Everyone else. While traveling to an outdoor music venue, you can always pick out certain concertgoers based on their attire. Upon arrival, however, you’ll find that those regular-looking people you saw on Muni, the ones who look like they’d never be caught dead in whatever scene the concert line-up represents, were headed in the same direction, and now they’re passing a joint and rocking out with the weirdos. They’re my favorite, hands down.
The place was jammed on Sunday. It wasn’t until 7×7 released photos yesterday that I could even see what the artists had looked like–after Gillian Welch kept mentioning her rhinestones, I knew I was missing something. But really, it’s about the music anyway, and I wasn’t disappointed to have skipped elbowing my way through thousands of people for a glimpse. I’d’ve had to show up at 8AM to have a good vantage point; even a few rows back at general admission shows, all I can see are shoulder blades. I opted instead to sit towards the back and let the music drift over me, where things were the calmest and least crowded. The highlight for me was Old Crow Medicine Show, who put on a hell of a set. One standout song? A beautiful cover of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
Video via SFist.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
-Allen Ginsberg, America
I was driving around the northern end of town this week, buying groceries piecemeal (each supermarket holding the key to some, never all, of the random ingredients I may need on a weekly basis), and stressing, as always, about what to write. I hadn’t done enough research on labor art in San Francisco to feel comfortable with a post, I was deeply immersed in the Beats but didn’t want to go double or nothing on that front, and Sir Francis Drake warranted, I thought, a trip out to the Marin Headlands for photos. Around two o’clock, I wandered into the Marina Safeway for that last pesky item: a lemongrass stalk. And I walked out with a story.
The Marina Safeway is known in San Francisco lore as “Singles Safeway” or “Dateway,” and it is, according to many, the best place for heterosexuals of a certain type to shop for both produce and a date. Immortalized by Armistead Maupin (just read the books already; you’ll learn so much), Dateway is where the Marina set goes to get down. When they’re not in the Triangle, of course. In Tales of the City, Maupin sends a new-to-the-city and very reluctant Mary Ann Singleton to the “Social Safeway” at the insistence of her heart-of-gold, good-time-having friend, Connie:
“Safeway, dink. As in supermarket.”
“That’s what I thought you said. You sure know how to show a girl a good time.”
“For your information, dink, Social Safeway just happens to be…well, it’s just the…big thing, that’s all.”
“For those who get off on groceries.”
“For those who get off on men, hon. It’s a local tradition. Every Wednesday night. And you don’t even have to look like you’re on the make.” (1)
Maupin’s first installment of the serialized Tales of the City (in the Chronicle) was published in 1976, so Dateway has been around since the mid 70s at least. The Marina Safeway was opened in 1959 and is the definitive design for the “Marina style” of Safeway supermarkets that were built over the next decade: an arched entrance, with full windows on the front (2). The Marina style feels a bit mega-church-y, and given Americans’ relationship with food, I’d say that’s an apt sentiment. The east side of the building features a beautiful four-panel mosaic by John Garth that depicts food cultivation and its transportation from around the world to the Marina Safeway. It’s worth a look if you happen to be around Fort Mason (if we’re putting this in Michelin Green Guide speak, it’d be one star: interesting but not worth a diversion or a trip).
Many Bay Area publications have covered the Dateway scene, with young, mostly female writers going “undercover” to glean the truth about this mythical place. Beth Spotswood from the SF Gate describes a supermarket full of good-looking young people in expensive workout clothes and a few old codgers focused on punishing express check-out rule breakers, of whom she was one (3). That sounds about right. Heather Smith of the SF Bay Guardian puts Dateway on a level with the city’s alternative cultures: “San Francisco has a reputation for bathhouses, orgies, people in latex flogging each other, and Safeway pickups […]” (4). Given the Marina’s vanilla status (in comparison with the rest of SF), I consider that high praise. After searching for dates at other local Safeways, Violet Blue theorizes:
Maybe the Marina Safeway was built over the site of an Ohlone sex cult or the former location of an exceedingly decadent Barbary Coast brothel, and the spirits of rowdy sailors, bawdy babes in breeches and corsets and hard-up fortune seeking prospectors fondle the cantaloupes and caress the canned peaches at midnight (5).
I can say from my own anthropological observations that most of this is true. On the occasions when I’ve gone in the evening, I’ve watched more than a few pick-ups (never me; I don’t linger in the produce section or own any Lululemon). It’s sort of unbelievable to hear that one of the prime date-getting spots in town is a grocery store–until you see it with your own eyes. Sometimes I want to bring popcorn. However, I do most of my grocery shopping in the late morning or early afternoon, which brings in a different demographic entirely: the much older Marina retiree holdouts, remnants of a different culture. They’re octogenarians, mostly, and I stick out. I help reach for things on shelves (this is beyond laughable; I’m 5’2) and nod politely during check-out conversations about how I must be the same age as a grandson–which, I’m thinking, brings the Dateway experience to a whole new level.
It was one of those check-out line conversations, however, that inspired this post. After drawing me into a mutual rant about those renegades who Break The Rules In The Express Line (I’m 80 years old at heart, get off my lawn, etc.), a very nice older gentleman launched into a few stories about the Marina Safeway and his experiences in the city. A former Marina resident who now lives in “the Avenues” (the Western, residential expanse of the city), he ended up in San Francisco “by accident.” After fighting in Korea, he landed in the city (along with a lot of other recent vets; I’ll write about the effect of returning soldiers on the city another time) and longed to stay for a few days. Unfortunately, the government wouldn’t pay for his return ticket unless he left for home immediately, and so SF was put on hold. Years later, he traveled to Los Angeles and rented a car to visit a relative in San Francisco. Driving off the 280 into the city, he saw a cable car coming over the hill and “that was it” (6).
He also talked about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s first visit to the United States in September 1959. The visit was the result of a diplomatic snafu, and Eisenhower could not rescind his invitation once accepted (the visit was supposed to be contingent on a deal over West Berlin that never materialized, but that part of the invitation was omitted inadvertently). San Francisco was among the places that Khrushchev selected to tour; his request to visit Disneyland, however, was denied. At almost every turn, Khrushchev asserted: “We have it better in the Soviet Union,” apart from hot dogs and the baggage lockers at Union Station in Washington, DC (7).
My check-out line acquaintance, however, told me a bit more. While in SF, Khrushchev was supposed to view the brand-new Marina Safeway–a paragon of American plenty, efficiency, and affluence. The place was dusted, scrubbed, and arranged to put capitalism in its best light: my acquaintance went there to shop a few days later, and “everything was immaculate.” Sensing a “put-up job, (and maybe it was),” Khrushchev scrapped the visit, making an unscheduled stop at an unprepared supermarket down on the Peninsula instead. The mere sight of the car-filled parking lot was enough for Khrushchev to admit that “we were ahead” of the USSR (6). True or not, when he returned to Soviet Russia a few weeks later, Khrushchev landed in Vladivostok and announced that the Eastern Russian city would be built up and developed, made into “our San Francisco” (8). Something must’ve made an impression.
(1) Maupin, Armistead. Tales of the City. New York: Harper Perennial, 1978. Print. Page 14.
(2) Unfortunately, the most legitimate source I could find for this was Wikipedia’s entry on Safeway, Inc.; however, the “Marina-style” term appears to be in use in various places on the Internet.
(3) Spotswood, Beth. “I Got in a Fight at the Marina Safeway.” SF Gate, 7 March 2007. Web. 16 February 2012. http://blog.sfgate.com/culture/2007/03/07/i-got-in-a-fight-at-the-marina-safeway/
(4) Smith, Heather. “Strangers in the Night: Bars, Cheap Sex, and Boozy Anthropology.” SF Bay Guardian, 16-22 June 2004: Vol. 38, No. 38. Web. 16 February 2012. http://www.sfbg.com/38/38/cover_strangers.html
(5) Blue, Violet. “Shopping for Sex at the Supermarket.” SF Gate 6 July 2007. Web. 16 February 2012. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/g/a/2007/06/07/violetblue.DTL&ao=all
(6) Anonymous man at Safeway. Personal interview, notes. San Francisco: 15 February 2012.
(7) Stewart, Alison. “‘K Blows Top:’ Reliving Khrushchev’s American Tour.” Weekend Edition, NPR News, 21 June 2009. Audio and Web. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105633878. More on Khrushchev’s displeasure at being barred from Disneyland here. Bonus photo: Cosmonaut Gherman Titov at the Marina Safeway in 1962.
(8) Filatova, Irina. “Vladivostok: Khrushchev’s San Francisco.” The Moscow Times, date unknown. Web. 16 February 2012. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/beyond_moscow/vladivostok.html. Although I could not find the date for this piece, I assume, based on comments below the article and on the subject, that it was published in late 2011.
“San Francisco has always been a breeding ground for bohemian countercultures; its cosmopolitan population, its tolerance of eccentricity, and its provincialism and distance from the centers of national culture and political power have long made it an ideal place for non-conformist writers, artists, and utopian dreamers” (1).
Writing about the Beats is a daunting task. It’s been done so many times before, and the definition of Beat as a philosophy, poetic movement, lifestyle, what have you, is as mutable as the list of writers and thinkers who might fall under its banner. But one cannot write about San Francisco and avoid the Beats. Their fingerprints are everywhere: when you come to your senses, bleary-eyed and tired, over a brew in a dingy North Beach dive, and just as much in the breathless tourist traps in that same neighborhood. The Haight would not exist without them, and neither, in some ways, would the Castro. They are in San Franciscans’ love for the absurd, our antiauthoritarian streak, the earnest cries for a better society. And they officially put down their mark, according to fact and fiction, at the Six Gallery Reading at 3119 Fillmore on Friday, October 7, 1955, when Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl.
I pass by what was once the Six Gallery on a weekly basis, and I’ve eaten at Tacko, which now occupies its space, more than a few times (delicious and inauthentic carnitas tacos). There’s a plaque outside commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the reading. In a 1974 interview, the artist Wally Hedrick discussed the importance of Six Gallery in the art scene: existing outside of the mainstream art school or gallery system, it allowed for self-teaching and experimentation with unaccepted techniques and forms. Hedrick remembered that before it was Six, it was the King Ubu, where the city’s first jazz poems were read. The gallery was a narrow, ramshackle place, Hedrick explained, “like a bowling alley” (2). When I visited the site last week, I noticed the address 3119 no longer exists: I guess that whoever bought up 3119 snatched up a couple of other parcels as well, knocking down the wall and destroying the last vestiges of Six Gallery. Such is city life.
The accounts of the Six Gallery Reading differ, and without photographs, film, or sound recordings, we can only sift through the stories of flaky, wine-drunk, pot-smoking, sometimes self-effacing and other times self-aggrandizing poets, writers, artists, and hangers-on. The flyers (written by Allen Ginsberg) for the “charming event” list a “remarkable collection of angels on one stage:” Philip Lamantia (reading John Hoffman’s poems), Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and, of course, Allen Ginsberg. Kenneth Rexroth emceed (3). It was Michael McClure’s first public reading, and in his 1982 collection of essays and poems Scratching the Beat Surface, the scene is of “a hundred and fifty enthusiastic people” listening as Ginsberg read in a “small and intensely lucid voice,” with Jack Kerouac chanting “GO” and jugfuls of wine floating around the room. McClure recollected the oppressive feeling of the Cold War mainstream culture and what Howl did to shatter it, for this group of poets:
In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before–we had gone beyond a point of no return–and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void–to the land without poetry–to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision (4).
In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account of his life among the Beats on the West Coast, learning the ins and outs of Zen from Gary Snyder, he writes that he “followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” He takes credit for the success of the evening:
It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience…and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem “Wail” drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling “Go! Go! Go!” (like a jam session)…
For Kerouac, the standout of the evening was not Alvah Goldbook/Allen Ginsberg but rather Gary Snyder (AKA Japhy Ryder), who made “them all howl with joy” (5) with A Berry Feast. The 2010 film Howl depicts James Franco’s Allen Ginsberg preaching to a right-on, tittering and nodding crowd, passing wine jugs but refraining from jam session whoops. The Beat literati look on, eyes shining (6). A few months later, Ginsberg read Howl and America at the Town Hall Theatre in Berkeley, in March 1956. A recording of America in the excellent In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry reveals a hooting and laughing crowd, clearly in on the joke, as Ginsberg spins out his much more irreverent (but still deadly serious) lines (7).
Regardless of what actually happened that night, the Six Gallery Reading and Howl captured the zeitgeist of a generation on the cusp. Howl uses a language known to a select underground group, which would become the Beats or the Counterculture or whatever. It pushes linguistic boundaries that remain in place today–to the point where I covered a page with my hand while reading the poem in a coffee shop (I was sitting next to an elderly woman). It was, of course, the subject of an obscenity trial that catapulted City Lights, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg to national fame. But I’ll write of that another day.
Howl’s power, its rawness, are still fresh. There are difficult, almost inaccessible moments, repetitions that dull the poem on the page but that are much more effective when spoken aloud. I used the term preach above to describe the way in which Franco read the poem intentionally: this is a sermon, McClure’s point of no return, a foundational text, a fulcrum. It’s as full of rage against a dehumanizing establishment–society at large as much as the mental health system–as it is full of joy.
Howl is unapologetic and uncompromising: a frank depiction of homosexuality, heterosexuality, pansexuality, drug use, mental illness, jazz, alienation, loss, and gain. Take a look for yourself. The footnote brings the poem to an uplifting close, where “Everything is holy,” from the “groaning saxophone,” to “the asshole,” to “Allen” himself (8). Nancy J. Peters writes: “As Allen Ginsberg often claimed, candor–the expression of authentic personal experience–was foremost, and beat work helped to bring private life into public discourse” (1). By stripping himself naked for the crowd at Six Gallery (and later, the nation), by talking about personal experiences that were previously left unsaid, Ginsberg challenged the prevailing order and announced that things could, and should, be different. That this poem was written, read, and published in the Bay Area speaks to the freedom that Ginsberg felt when he moved out to San Francisco. To me, it seems that Howl could not have been created and unveiled anywhere else.
(1) Peters, Nancy J. “The Beat Generation and San Francisco’s Culture of Dissent.” Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, and Culture. Ed. James Brook, Chris Carlsson, and Nancy J. Peters. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998. Print. Page 199 and 212. Emphasis in the second quotation is my own.
(2) Karlstrom, Paul. Oral history interview with Wally Hedrick. San Geronimo, California: Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, June 10-24, 1974. Web transcript. 9 February 2012. http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-wally-hedrick-12869
(3) Ginsberg, Allen. “6 Poets at 6 Gallery.” San Francisco: October 1955. Via the Allen Ginsberg Project. Web. 9 February 2012. http://www.allenginsberg.org/index.php?page=6-poets-at-6-gallery-fliers
(4) McClure, Michael. “The Beat Surface.” Scratching the Beat Surface. Berkeley: North Point Press, 1982. Print. Pages 11-13.
(5) Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. Print. Pages 13-14. The book was first published by Viking Press in 1958.
(6) Howl. Dir. Rob Epstein and Jerry Friedman. Oscilloscope Laboratories, 2010. Film.
(7) Ginsberg, Allen. “America.” In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Rhino/Whea, 1996. CD. Disc 2, track 33. A very short clip of Ginsberg’s reading of Howl at the same March 1956 Berkeley event can be heard here.
I live in Cow Hollow, between the posher Pacific Heights, uphill and South, and the yuppier Marina, downhill and North. Cow Hollow is bordered on its other extremities by the Presidio and Russian Hill. According to Google, Lombard and Green make up the long sides of Cow Hollow’s rectangle, Lyon and Van Ness the short. The Cow Hollow Association has a different view of things, however, and I’d rather not get in the middle of a knife fight between Googlers and a group that holds its annual meetings at the Saint Francis Yacht Club.
The neighborhood is known for its cute, mid-price boutiques and restaurants and is full of nail salons, dog bakeries, and yoga studios. It is an affluent, comparatively crime-free area with beautiful Victorians and the continuous renovation thereof. It’s also, based on my experience, very homogenous. If this were the only place one visited in San Francisco, one might assume that everyone in the city was white, made a decent salary, had a dog and/or a young child, and loved brunch. It’s a lovely, quiet, leafy place to live, a neighborhood that some San Franciscans wouldn’t know by name: most of the time, I just tell people I’m in the Marina.
Cow Hollow is also where the Marina set comes to drink. The bar scene at the crossroads of Fillmore and Greenwich is known as the “Bermuda Triangle,” a place defined by drunken hazes and long lines for a late night slice. Although some have attributed the term to Herb Caen, I learned of it when reading Armistead Maupin. In Further Tales of the City, Maupin wrote: “Nubile computer programmers and other innocents had been known to pass this mystical nexus and never be heard from again” (1). I’ve never been in the bars at the Bermuda Triangle, but I ‘ve passed by on a Saturday night or three. It makes more sense, in that context, why the Marina gets a bad name. But we’ll leave the bitter cultural wars of San Francisco for another post.
Washerwoman’s Lagoon, located near the corner of Franklin and Lombard, was one of the few bodies of fresh water in the city (2). In the 1850s, Chinese entrepreneurs and “thrifty” locals came here to do their laundry by hand: paying someone else to do one’s washing was exorbitantly expensive in the Gold Rush days. The only other option was to ship garments to Hawaii or China for cleaning (3).
Dairies popped up starting in 1861 to take advantage of the spring-fed pastures (2), with approximately 30 operations established by the early 1870s (4). The city removed the cows and banned livestock around 1891, when the area became too populated and conditions at the dairies deteriorated (2). One media account detailed the poor sanitation of the Cow Hollow area during a visit with city officials sometime before 1900. It quoted Health Officer Dr. Keeney, head of the tour: “If some one were to start out and search California from end to end, they could hardly find a more unsuitable place in which to keep cows than ‘Cow Hollow'” (5). Personally, I wonder whether the Pac Heights la-di-das wanted slightly more respectable neighbors than a bunch of farmers and their bovine friends and subsequently leaned on the local government to make some changes. They might’ve plotted it all out at the Saint Francis Yacht Club, if it’d been around then. It’s probably better, however, that we don’t have a tuberculosis outbreak or an open sewer “waterfall” hereabouts (5). Still, I know I’m not the only one wishing for more urban farming in San Francisco.
Existing in a strange in-between space, neither fully residential nor urban, not the Marina and not Pac Heights, Cow Hollow is an oasis for those of us who like our cities without a side of sirens. The neighborhood represents one facet of the contradictory, difficult elements that make San Francisco so interesting and so challenging. It’s a sheltered place, both safety-wise and in that it’s easy to be here without questioning why it is the way that it is. But it doesn’t have to be so. Furthermore, we should not forget the importance of the neighborhood in the history of the city. When San Francisco was growing too fast to sustain itself, Cow Hollow provided its residents with locally-grown, fresh food: a precursor to the locavore movement over a century before it was even a thing.
(1) Maupin, Armistead. Further Tales of the City. New York: Harper Perennial, 1982. Print. Page 98.
(2) Snyder, John. “Cow Hollow.” San Francisco Secrets. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999. Print.
(3) Unknown Author. “Washerwoman’s Lagoon.” Except from This is San Francisco. Via Found SF. Web. 1 February 2021. http://www.foundsf.org/index.php?title=WASHERWOMAN’S_LAGOON.
(4) O’Brien, Robert. “And They Called It ‘Cow Hollow.'” San Francisco Chronicle, January 1947. Via Found SF. Web. 1 February 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=AND_THEY_CALLED_IT_%22COW_HOLLOW%22.
(5) Unknown Author. “Cow Hollow Sanitation Scandal c. 1900.” Via Found SF. Web. 1 February 2012. http://foundsf.org/index.php?title=COW_HOLLOW_SANITATION_SCANDAL_c._1900.